Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Happen to Like Rice

So I just found out that my son does not like rice. He's been in my home for 19 years and I just find out. Makes you wonder what other minor things around you have slipped your notice. Or other people's notice.

I happen to like rice. White rice. Sticky white rice. The kind where if you had chop sticks you could pick up a whole glob if you grasp the hunk tenderly and chuck it in quickly. It's a simple flavor, best eaten warm and steaming. It falls apart into grains in your mouth, and the gumminess is satisfyingly chewy. I could eat rice all day. I could also eat popcorn all day. Same thing only more chewy, and the butter and salt is addictive. I could eat popcorn until my lips shrivel up from the salt. I could eat strawberries a lot, too, but not the big meaty Californian ones that have little flavor or juice. Homegrown and handpicked are best. You want them firm but not mushy, and those little yellow specks of seeds are lovely to crunch. Raspberry seeds are nice to crunch, too, but too often they end up stuck in your teeth. They are about as hard to get out as some popcorn kernels--but I still love them. Of all these things I like, people who think they really know me would probably only know about the popcorn.

There are so many small details about ourselves, we can surprise someone who knows us well with any number of preferences, dislikes or opinions at any moment. We could even surprise the heck out of ourselves, by suddenly realizing that we've said out loud something about ourselves that we intuitively but non-verbally have known forever. And until my son spoke up and said he hated rice, I had never really realized how much I happen to like rice.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dry Husks

Straight ahead, outside my window, hang the dry husks of bean pods that I never harvested during the growing season. Withered and yellowed, they hang like forgotten corpses, tangled in the vines which have shed their leafy cover. Long, lumpy, pale cocoons, they await for they know not what. They should have been ripped down and added to the compost heap, but it never got done. Neither did the autumn rototilling, nor the gathering in of tomato cages. I'll look at them all winter long now, like missed opportunities, and regret the time wasted doing things that will never be remembered. But those dry husks hanging there contain new life with potential. Like rain clouds ready to burst and shower the earth with water, they may pop come spring and shower the earth with seed. Volunteer beans could spring up and begin the ascent up the poles, where they, too, will produce. But those husks out there now, they are done for. Just shells, jewel boxes, treasure troves, exposed and vulnerable, and only good for what they hold within. When my body becomes a dry husk, withered and done for, what I do today will nurture the growth of treasure within that will only be discovered when the covering falls away and turns to dust.

Friday, December 5, 2008

There's a Meditation Anywhere

In a hectic schedule it's nice to find little opportunities to stop and reflect. My faith, being important to me, is the first thing I turn to. Finding time to meditate on a mystery of the faith is challenging, but there are little moment of reflection that can be inserted in a routine all the time. Three times a week I go to Curves to exercise. But even there I have found a reminder to remember. After working on the machines, there is a corner you can go to to do some stretching exercises to cool down. A chart on the wall pictures all of the exercises. The first three are for the legs, but the next five are for the arms. I've always had wimpy arms. Combine that with low blood pressure and raising your arms over your head for different stretches, and I find the simplest of all the arm exercises particularly excruciating. It is the last one, and my limbs are screaming to be lowered to my sides. All I have to do is stretch them out wide for thirty little seconds, but it is agony... until I remember that Christ's arms were stretched out on the cross for hours. Nails held him there and the full weight of his body pressed down on those wounds. He didn't complain or cry out. He endured. For my thirty seconds of puny agony I think about his pain. It's not much, but it is worth every second. I can't do those stretches now without remembering the cross and all that was done for me on it. Who would have thought that Curves, of all places, would be a place of meditation--but when our hearts are always seeking him, he finds us even on the treadmill.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Now we are less than whores

Thank you feminism, for insisting on abortion. It has taught men to demand sex from us with the threat of moving on if we object. It has taught them to be utterly irresponsible. It has taught our friends, family and boyfriends to pressure us into unwanted abortions. It has filled our lives with disease, depression, and desolation. It has brought on unanticipated attrocities: date rape drugs, partial-birth abortion, infanticide.

It has taught women that the highest compliment is to be sexy. Second to that is young, or at least looking that way. Forget about our minds, our character, our aspirations--just be eye candy! Actresses flaunt their bodies across the silver screen, women dress immodestly, commercials are full of sexual innuendo, to keep the men hot and bothered and wanting only our flesh.

Marriage is tantamount to surrender for a man. They are warned, "Don't do it. You'll get less sex once they have a commitment from you."

Go on a date. The man spends some money on you. Doesn't matter that it's the first date--he wants to be compensated. Yes, now we are less than whores. Even they get a contract.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

make it go away

numbed and without thought
dull ache between the eyes
all vision a blank blot
all effort the body denies

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Warm, Clean Me

At mass today while bowing my head after communion, I glimpsed a little child going by holding her precious blanket. Her father was holding another corner of the blanket, as if it were an informal leash connecting him to his progeny. That one little fleeting vision transported me back a quarter of a century to when I had two little boys with precious blankets, simply called "bee"s, and I smiled at the recollection of the importance of a bee.

John's blanket was a thermal one in pastel stripes. He liked to finger the satin binding on the edges, and when he was distressed he would chew it. Once he fell and bit his tongue quite badly, and after that the chewed binding was so stained with blood and disgusting, that no washing would make it better. So, thinking that he was in need of a little nudge toward less dependence on the bee, I made a tactical and possibly traumatic error. I cut off the binding, which meant that the blanket became a little smaller by the width of the binding on all four edges. Then I added new binding to the shrunken comforter. The idea was to begin replacing the binding regularly, shrinking it each time, until... it was gone! John was upset and horrified with the first binding replacement and he never chewed the binding again. But he didn't reject it entirely. And his mother didn't shrink the bee out of existence either.

All of our children had a bee, and we encouraged it. When mom or dad couldn't be there to help, a bee was a consolation, and probably a relief to a babysitter who just wasn't what the child needed. It was always there when we snuggled up at bedtime or for story time. It was the first aid applied for any bump, scrape or disappointment. Often after a tumble, the child's first cry on catching his breath would be "BEEE!" and we would run to find it. And when laundry day came, I could count on the pattering of running feet when I called out "warm, clean bee!" Nothing compares to a freshly washed bee straight out of the dryer, all warm and fuzzy and soft and all-encompassing.

When our children got older they graduated from a bee to a real, handmade quilt. We still call them bees when they come out of the dryer. I love to pull them out and deliver them to their owners, calling "warm, clean bee" as I toss the quilt at them or over them. These quilts were not meant to be bedspreads. They get dragged around the house and usually left at the latest spot the owner was reading, watching a movie or playing a game. When one gets raggedy and too patched to repair, a new one is usually requested for Christmas or a birthday. One young lady just received one for Christmas--her first one--since she is marrying my son next summer. For me, it was the best way I could think of to say, "You're part of the family now." Whether or not this couple creates a family that includes bees is yet to be determined, but it was a landmark moment for me when I decided to make one for my son's beloved.

Bees are like receiving absolution in confession. You are distressed and unhappy, and you need to be comforted. You sob it all out with your bee, and it engulfs you and consoles you. Of course, there is more to confession than just getting something that makes you feel better. You have to acknowledge that you have sinned and want to amend your ways. God, like a bee, is merciful and enfolds you in his arms. Someone once told me that when he left the confessional he always wanted to call back to those still waiting in line, "See ya later, sinners!" I laughed at the jeering tone in his voice, but my temptation is to call out, "Warm, clean me!"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Campaign Post Mortem

We campaigned. We lost. Today I went all around our congressional district, picking up any yard signs that hadn't already gotten picked off. Of more than 900 signs out there, probably less than 100 are still in existence. I only found about a dozen this morning, but the three plus hours driving gave me plenty of time to pray, think, and even sing. It was tempting to just pop on the radio and let my mind be lazy--but wouldn't you know it--someone messed with my radio and I couldn't get the station I wanted. Wish I could say that not turning it on was my first choice of options. But even so--my second, third and fourth options turned out to be best.

Our lives are so full of noise. Voices clamouring, like fish mongers at market, trying to get us to buy their ideas. And a lot of those ideas are smelly, old, or would be unhealthy for us.

I love silence. I'd rather turn off the music than turn it on. I don't have anything against music--it's just that there is music in my head that will get drowned out. OK. So maybe it's not music. Maybe it's poetry though. But too often it isn't even that. It's an argument! And because my opponent can't answer back, I'm winning! And I'm brilliant, invincible, and totally opinionated. Oh, the things I could say, if I could just get in a word. If I could just control my opponent's arguments by anticipating what they will say and having just the right repartee with which to annihilate their paltry points. I would be so condescending, patronizing their pitiable efforts of debate with the great me. This silence isn't golden! It's bloated, and oozing green pus. Ego has totally taken over, belching out ridiculous claims to demonstrate it's superior intelligence and benevolence and justice.

And that's why today I didn't start with my thoughts, but with someone else's. The great me's locomotive got derailed, to let a handcar silently pump its way through my brain. I got some mental exercise, some quiet, and a restoration of hope.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

So if you want to feel like a real wuss, take this book in. He blasts every excuse in the universe for not doing what you love, and you feel this stirring of nausea in your gut for being duped--mostly by yourself. And you can wonder how you ever managed to get anything accomplished when all the resistance out there (and in there) is stacked against you. The danger of reading it is that you will be inspired to make a lot of resolutions, even if it is not January first, and then utterly and in a most humiliating fashion... fail. But hardly anyone succeeds without failing a little bit, and my guess is those who succeed without failure have still not challenged their deepest skills and desires.

The anguish of my life is that there is so much to do and I will have to make choices, eliminating some things I love to nourish other things that I might love more. How to make the choice when you want it all? Right now, I love teaching. I feel most alive teaching. And I dread the possibility that hearing impairment may force me to abandon the classroom for a new challenge that must be begun at the beginning.

I cringe at that raw nakedness felt as a novice making mistakes that ace players snicker at beyond your supposed notice before offering a benign piece of trite advice with a straight face. Or the kindly meant but debilitating encouragement from a self-titled "genius" of the trade who suggests you just don't have it and to give it up. Or the fear that you are called into a vocation of failure because there is a need and you are the only one to hear the call to stand fast as a nobody for the sake of everybody--like the guy who takes the bullet and sinks into oblivion so that the hero can save the day.

And an even worse self-revelation than finding out you might be called to be a nobody is the realization that you are one and like it, because you are too cowardly to be otherwise. That you chose to not succeed, to not try too hard, to hide in the safeness of mediocrity because the bullets aren't flying there. You curl up into self-imposed hibernation and hope that when you are inconveniently awakened from your stupor the war will be over, but all the heroes will be dead.

Awake, my soul, and sing. Be not afraid. Be not cautious. Be heedless of the danger. Be free to be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sodom and Gomorrah

Living in Washtenaw County and being a faithful Catholic who is inclined to vote Republican is like being Lot living in Sodom and Gomorrah. It feels so overwhelming, sometimes, realizing so many people are determined to live in opposition to clearly spoken truths about life and morality. A visiting angel would have a hard time getting any ears to listen from people who are set on this treacherous path. And yet I feel that my place is here. We who stand here, defending truth and morality are those few that Abraham interceded for to God. We are the ones who, through prayer and action, can stay the hand of God's judgment. For the sake of the ten, he will not destroy the city. But we must do our part: speak up, act, and intercede in prayer as well. If we obey, we will be safe--and perhaps a few may flee the city with us when we receive those marching orders. Until then, stand fast with the whole armor of God.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This Is the Day the Lord Has Made

The most prominent and enduring family tradition that we celebrate happens every Saturday night. As Christians we take the third commandment seriously and set aside Saturday night to Sunday night as a day for rest, recreation, worship, and occasionally a work of mercy. To begin this special time period, we come together for a ceremony performed before the evening meal on Saturday night. It resembles the same ceremony that our Jewish brethren perform for their Sabbath—candle lighting, songs, prayers, wine and Hallah bread with cheese. The bread is a special recipe that has eggs in it, and is braided and baked with an egg wash on it to give it a special shine. I made it for years, before my daughter got interested in baking. Now she has taken over making it, about six loaves at a time, so that we don’t have to bake as often. We freeze the extra loaves for upcoming weeks.

We try to make a point not to do work during this twenty-four hour period, although homework sometimes still needs to be taken care of. Even with schoolwork, we encourage the kids to hold off till Sunday evening if possible. We also don’t shop on Sundays unless some unforeseen circumstance, like unexpected company, requires it. Any shopping is usually limited to medicine or essential grocery items, like milk.

The central event of our family life happens on Saturday evening. Having celebrated the Lord’s Day ceremony together, we have the finest meal of the week, followed with the best dessert we can come up with. Then comes family time. What do we do, and how do we decide what to do?

In the beginning, when the children were younger, my husband and I would just decide what the activity would be. We try to avoid just watching a movie together, but we don’t entirely eliminate that option. For one thing, we love certain movies, and have the lines memorized from our favorite scenes. Our family will throw a movie quote into a conversation on a frequent basis, and we all yuck it up when someone gets just the right intonation and voice quality to mimic a favorite character: Inspector Clouseau, Rambo or Rocky, Steve Martin or John Candy roles. We choose the video option from time to time, but not back-to-back weeks in a row.

We play many board games, but some of the games are ones that we invented ourselves. For instance, when the kids were very little they liked to play “Shepherd and the Sheep.” It was a simple role-playing game. Dad was the shepherd. Mom was the wolf. We traded off on these roles. The kids were the sheep that the shepherd had to protect. The wolf went off and hid in a mostly dark house, and the shepherd would lead the sheep around and protect them when needed. Very simple, short and sweet, and bedtimes were early back then.

By the time the kids were in their teens the invented games got more sophisticated. We have played most often a homemade version of Jeopardy. Everyone goes off and thinks up a category and writes five answers with questions for it. Our oldest son has always played the role of Alec Trebek. Then we come back together and divide into teams. There are no fancy buzzers. When you know the answer you yell “beep”, and Alex discerns who yelled first. You can’t give the questions to your own answers, so each team is equally handicapped. The category writing is one of the more enjoyable parts of the game. We can personalize the categories into things like: Favorite Family Vacations, Favorite Movie Quotes, and Desserts We’d Like to Have Again. The first time our youngest played, he picked for his category “Jams”, and he wrote out all the answers and questions. The first answer was “It is red and has strawberries in it.” That was probably one of our favorite games, because the youngest clearly got a kick out of making an important contribution.

Another invented game was “Tabloid Headlines.” We all secretly wrote down three or four made-up tabloid headlines. As each was read off, we had to guess who wrote it. The headlines were very creative, and got some of us laughing uncontrollably. Example: Woman Gives Birth to Frank Sinatra’s Head: He sings beautifully proud mother exclaims. Another version of this would be to throw in some real tabloid headlines collected in advance, and figure out which were real and which were fakes. I’m in the process of collecting some real doozies now.

We have also made an evening out of listening to music. Everyone is allotted ten minutes of music time and they select something they enjoy listening to. We all take turns sharing our favorite selections. Dad plays the Beatles, Mom brings out the classics (by request opera sopranos are not allowed—sorry opera fans), there’s rock and roll, some country and folk tunes, and Final Fantasy orchestral pieces. Even some movie sound tracks make it into the line-up. Ten minutes times seven people make for a nice evening’s entertainment, and an appreciation for what other folks like to hear. It also helps some of us get better at Encore, a commercial boxed game of singing song lyrics.

Once we had a conflict to solve. A few members wanted to watch an important post season baseball game for family time, and the younger children definitely did not. So we decided to create a sports bar. The television could be on, but refreshments and some “casino” type games would be available in different parts of the room. You played the games to win refreshments. Everyone was happy. The baseball fans were willing to play a little game to get some popcorn and pop, and the younger ones had a chance to have fun setting up the room and planning the games. Once the casino games were all played, with the television on the whole time for the fans to stay in touch with the game, the younger ones were happy to eat their popcorn till bedtime and watch the game too. It was one of our better compromise situations.

There are lots of ideas of what to do for a fun Saturday evening together. Some of the ideas will flop, but if Saturday night is established early as a non-negotiable family time together, even the flopped ideas will be forgivable. Whatever is decided on, it should play into the strengths and interests of the family, and maybe even stretch those interests into new areas. It should also be something that bonds the family instead of bringing out areas of tension or weakness. That is not to say that tempers are never lost on Saturday night, or that no one ever has to play something that bores them. But if everyone knows that every Saturday the family will be together, and that the goal is fun, closeness, and a celebration of family life, eventually even the foot-draggers will be won over. Figure that the commandment to keep the day holy unto the Lord has been kept.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Christmas letter dilemma

That perennial family tradition of writing a Christmas letter to be inserted in cards to folks we only hear from once a year was also a hallmark of our family life. As vulnerable people, we often dread the writing of one, and maybe more often abhor the reading of other’s, especially if we have a tendency to compare achievements. But in our fast-paced modern lifestyle, the Christmas letter seems to be one last vestige of trying to stay connected with people from all points in our walk through life. I like to hear from people and I read every single word of every newsletter that comes our way from acquaintances that cared enough to keep us informed.

However, determined not to be overwhelmed with an overly-active schedule and too many committees, appointments, sporting events, extra-curriculars, and so forth, our family has made a concerted effort to not be described as over-achievers. Many people admire this choice, and we are a closer and happier family because of it—until it comes time to write that Christmas letter. What is one to say?

For the first fifteen or so years of our marriage we had the perfect solution. Instead of writing a dull list of things we’ve not done, places we’ve not gone, and awards we’ve not won, we instead collected and wrote down all the funny things our kids said over the course of that year and let their insights be the content of our newsletter. People began telling us how much they looked forward to our Christmas card. Some folks even asked to promise never to drop them from our mailing list. Another friend said she wanted to do the same thing, but was embarrassed about copying. I said, “Just do it. You will be thanked.” What I didn’t say is the thanks will come from friends, but also from your own family later on. And you will thank yourself.

The following is a short compilation of some of the best entries in our newsletter. I’ve changed the names to ages, and of course, as the kids got older their ages changed. The four-year-old in this first entry is the ten-year-old later on.

Three-year-old: I’m going to be a cow when I get big.

Four-year-old: You can’t be a cow. A cow has 1, 2, 3, 4 legs and you only have two.

Papa: How did this cassette get in here?

Four-year-old: Papa, I was going to bring it back and then my schedule changed.

Four-year-old: I took a prayer time, mama. I sang “Christ is Risen” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Five-year-old: (at K-Mart, drumming fingers thoughtfully) Papa, I’ve been doing a little thinking here. Let’s get some nails and build a skyscraper in the backyard.

Four-year-old: (While eating an ice-cream bar) There’s another ice-cream bar in my mind.

Four-year-old: (saying his bedtime prayers) Dear God, I pray that papa wouldn’t have any problems at work, that mama wouldn’t have any temper tantrums, that my brother would stop picking his nose and teasing me, and that I would be a good brother to him. Amen.

Five-year-old: Before any people were made the dinosaurs were on the earth, but nobody knew it ‘til they got the book and record.

Ten-year-old: Mom, did you ever think that if Adam and Eve didn’t sin, would there still be Legos?

Nine-year-old: (hearing that a friend bit someone) I can’t believe anyone would do that? You might bite someone’s poison ivy!

Four-year-old: (saying dinner prayers) Thank you, Lord, that my brother barfs olives.

Nine-year-old: Mom, you’re the greatest mom in the whole world.

Four-year-old: Yeah, our mom’s never mean.

Nine-year-old: Oh yeah. Well, you haven’t lived as long as I have!

Three-year-old: Mom, can I wake up from my nap now?

Five-year-old: (worried) Mom, I just don’t know how my life is going.

Mom: Do any of you need to go to the bathroom? I don’t want to have to stop at the grocery store to take you to the bathroom.

Five-year-old: Mom, that’s just the way life works.

So that’s the idea. Sadly kids grow up. They are still funny, but it takes whole paragraphs to describe the personality quirks of the individual, all the circumstances surrounding the event, and why they said what they said, before you even get to the punch line. We chose not to explain it all. Plus some individuals knew our ears were cocked for funny stuff, and it isn’t funny when someone is just trying to make it into the Christmas news. Our letters have gotten dull again, but the past letters have been saved and brought out for a laugh over and over again. Besides, no one-page blurb about our family could possibly sum up the fun we have had, the eagerness with which we come together, and the affection we hold for one another. My oldest son, when he was about twenty-six, said, “My friends will ask me to do something with them on Saturday night. I tell them I can’t because it’s our family time together. They say ‘Can’t you get out of it?’ and I say ‘I don’t want to.’ They just don’t get it. I don’t want to miss Saturday night with the family.”

No Christmas letter can quite capture the essence of our life together—but that short explanation of my son’s tells me that maybe our under-achieving dullness was OK after all.