Friday, August 31, 2007

Why I Love Homeschooling

Danielle Bean, always an interesting writer to read, has this post up on her love/hate relationship with homeschooling.

I respect her honesty and cheerfully admit that with a few less children at the moment I can't at all speak to the realities of her situation. But I've got to be honest, too.

I love homeschooling.

It's not a crush, it's not an infatuation, it's not a temporary attraction. It's not the kind of giddy feeling that wears off when reality hits, or when I see homeschooling sitting in my living room in a grungy tee-shirt. And we have grungy-tee shirt days, like everyone else (which is why I can write the "Creatures that Haunt Homeschooling Moms" posts). But that just doesn't change the fact that I love being able to teach my children at home, and would consider it a painful tragedy if I ever had to put them in school.

Part of the reason for the strength of my love for homeschooling is that I went to schools, parochial ones, for the first ten and a half years of my education. I always, but always, hated school. I can still remember the faint dull misery that accompanied the beginning of each new school day, the smell of chalk and pencil dust, the grim attempts to make cheerful rooms that were more like this than like places that should house young bright spirits. I hated listening to the teacher drone on, giving the fifteenth example, when I had understood back at the second or third, if not sooner; I hated being scolded for attempting to do my homework while the teacher talked, as it seemed hideously unfair to make me wait until I got home to do it when I no longer needed any instruction.

I hated the isolation, the rules about not talking, the constant and wearying boredom that to this day is what I chiefly associate with my years in the parochial schools. In one sense, and one only, I owe them a debt: if I hadn't been so persistently and fiercely bored I never would have learned the art of escaping into my imagination and creating a rich and vivid life there, which might have made becoming a literature major and a dabbler in the writing of fiction a bit more challenging.

But sending my own children to school so that they can be bored enough to need to escape enough to become creative enough to discover their life's passions seems an unnecessarily circuitous route to take, since what plenty of people before me have discovered about homeschooling is that it never robs these little souls of their God-given brimful measures of creativity to begin with.

It is the institutional school that thwarts, retards, and reigns in creativity, whether this is intentional or not. In one sense, I can understand it: thirty children in a small room each discovering their own educational drives and paths isn't school, it's chaos. A much smaller student-teacher ratio is required for this to be practicable, and the teacher should know her students very, very well so she can guide and direct them in the best possible way.

Which is what homeschooling is.

And I love it. I enjoy getting to explain transitive and intransitive verbs. I look forward to reading the writing assignments in various subjects. I like giving spelling quizzes, and coming up with mnemonic devices to help with the spelling of a difficult word. I loved it when my daughter, reading a great Catholic American History book last year, got passionate enough about the evils of slavery to write a lengthy discussion of it instead of the short essay question that was assigned. I had as much fun as the girls did, today, making paper drinking straws that actually worked, and I loved combining literature and grammar when one of them was supposed to lead a group discussion this morning which allowed me to pull a literary term from this website along with its definition as the subject of the discussion.

I love teaching them when they don't even realize they're being taught, such as asking someone who is learning about fractions to help me double a recipe. I love slipping into "stealth teacher mode" at the grocery store by asking one of the girls to round up the prices of the items we're putting in our cart to the nearest whole dollar, and having another keep track of the total.

I love being with them, enjoying their company, watching them grow, seeing them gain accomplishments, knowledge, wisdom, and, most of all, grace.

What's not to love?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Contraception's Big Lies

Some conversations are more surreal than others, and this is no less true for "conversations" that take place online, in a blog's comment boxes, than in real life.

I've been participating today in a conversation about contraception. You want the definition of "surreal"--just try telling people who have rejected just about every aspect of sexual morality in toto that there's something wrong with inhibiting conception using artificial means.

Rather than attempt in any way to reproduce these conversations, I'd like to focus on the big lies of contraception, and some ways to answer them. I'm open to suggestions, here, too--if you've ever successfully reached someone regarding the immorality of artificial contraception and can share your wisdom, please do!

Big Lie # 1: Contraception helps women control their reproductive health.

Response: Contraception has nothing to do with health in general or reproductive health in particular. A woman's fertility is a natural part of her; in a woman of normal health, the fact that a particular activity will lead to pregnancy and then childbirth is the very definition of reproductive health. Every form of artificial contraception interferes with this healthy, natural function of the human female body, and some forms can cause serious, even permanent damage. Some forms have been believed to cause death. Contraception is not about the health of women, but about making sure that they won't become pregnant. It is pregnancy that is seen as "disease" by those who see contraception as "health;" neither of these views are based in the reality of human female biology.

Big Lie # 2: Contraception is necessary to prevent, or decrease, abortions.

Response: Contraception does not reduce the number of abortions; in fact, it creates a market for them. People who engage in contraceptive sex believe that they will not conceive a child; depending on the method used, they could be wrong anywhere from 2% to 50% of the time. A married couple using NFP who experiences a "surprise" pregnancy knows that this might happen and is usually well-prepared to accept the child; an unmarried woman, perhaps in her teens or early twenties, who becomes pregnant due to a contraceptive failure is much more likely to seek abortion as the solution to this "problem." Contraception creates an unfounded belief that pregnancy will not occur, facilitating the "sex without consequences" mindset of the sexual revolution. When contraception is widely available the abortion rates tend to rise, not fall.

Big Lie # 3: Without contraception, women will be forced to reproduce more or less constantly.

Response: Sex should be reserved for marriage, and married couples should welcome children. Within marriage, though, it is not true that women will have ten, twenty, or thirty children each in their married lives unless they have access to contraception. The average family size in 1900 was four children, for instance. Some people who use no contraception whatsoever may indeed have large families, but others, for no particular reason, may never be able to give birth to more than one or two. Many things contribute to family size, but it's simply not the case that every woman will give birth "constantly" if contraception is seen as the evil it really is.

Big Lie # 4: Men oppose contraception, because they want to control women.

Response: Are you kidding? Men love contraception! (Some men, anyway--I know the good guys don't.) Contraception has created a world where it's possible for a man to demand a woman's "availability" without any consequences to him. Not only that, but if she does become pregnant, he can walk away and insist that it's her problem, not his. Even in a marriage, if contraception is used, an important bond between the husband and wife is shattered; he can, if he chooses, selfishly see children not as the natural and desired result of the marriage, but as his wife's frivolous and unnecessary luxuries, her choice, not his. The subject of when to have children, how many to "choose" to have, and so on becomes one fraught with tension that may further erode the marriage bond.

These four "big lies" don't even get in to the biggest one of all, the lie that contraception doesn't cause abortions--but that's probably an issue for a separate post, another time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Potluck Wednesday, Volume Two

Welcome to the second edition of the Potluck Wednesday post! I've got some wonderful things to share from hither and yon, so please enjoy!

From my Dear Little Sister who works at EWTN's bookstore comes the following recommendation:

"Questions for God is a wonderful series of books geared especially for little ones ages 3-6 (or 2-7 depending on comprehension levels etc.). It comes as a set of ten books explaining the basic tenets of the Catholic faith in a simple yet thorough way. The books are beautifully illustrated and are completely printed in the USA. The Diocese of Chicago (under Cardinal George) issued a Nihil Obstat and an Imprimatur and the books have the approval of the USCCB. Books 1 through 7 focus on Salvation History and books 8 through 10 teach the richness of the Catholic Faith and its Heritage. The cost of the set is $54.95 (less than six dollars per book!) and it is available from This is a great resource for Home-schooling or for religious education." Thanks for the recommendation, D.L.S.! It can be hard to find good religious resources for the preschoolers, or so I recall--and the website for these books is very inspiring.

While we're on the subject of preschoolers, Karen Edmisten's Ramona sounds like a wonderful little girl! Ramona, I'm with you on that "cocoa starter" thing--the perfect name for milk, isn't it?

And another little five-year-old, snuggled up in a Cajun Cottage, illustrates rather vividly the whole "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" saying. I don't think I'll ever look at those framed "Mother" sentiments exactly the same way again...

What's a child to do when the radishes in her garden are still small? Why, create an artistic and lovely small salad. For some of us, that size salad is the perfect size: big enough to hold your favorite dressing, but small enough not to get in the way of the rest of the meal. Well done!

And one final "out of the mouths of babes" moment, this time from a young lady concerned about whether her future husband would in any way resemble the frigate bird. I'm reminded of that day a few years ago, when the only thing my youngest dd knew for sure about her future prince charming was that he had to wear a light blue (!) tuxedo...

I should have called this post "The Loveliness of the Little Ones," shouldn't I?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Liturgical Pet Peeves

In my excursions online, I've sometimes stumbled across blogs written by priests. Many of these are orthodox, dedicated men, who post their homilies, talk about issues affecting the Catholic world, and offer sound theological opinions on many topics.

One thing that has surprised me as I've read these blogs, though, is that though these priests are orthodox themselves several of them have downplayed the various liturgical anomalies which lay Catholics are prone to encounter. I've heard the opinion expressed more than once by more than one Father that we Catholics in America are a bit too inclined to grumble about everything, and that real abuses--serious abuses--of the liturgy are actually quite rare. I tend to smile when I read these sincere and well-meant statements; it's rather like reading the opinion of one honest, careful, diligent bus driver that the other bus drivers aren't often late, and don't really drive recklessly--because his only experience of these other bus drivers is either what they say about themselves, or what he experiences when he rides their buses in his uniform! If that honest bus driver were to ride from one end of town to the other incognito, he might be surprised; and if Father were to sneak anonymously into the Masses that some of his lay Catholic friends complain about, he might see that things happen which can't be dismissed with the excuse that some malcontents will grumble about anything.

That said, it's true that at least three of the biggest "liturgical pet peeves" out there aren't really abuses. Not technically, that is. They're allowed (though maybe that permission was gained in a deplorably underhanded manner, but there it is). They are as follows:

1. The Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (EMHC) Parade. We all know that EMHC's were meant to be occasional helpers, especially in areas where there might be only one priest assigned to a particular church, and where having only Father distribute Holy Communion would seriously impede the progress of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We also all know that this isn't, by and large, how they are used. The advent of Communion under both species at each and every Sunday Mass (and quite a few daily ones too, apparently) and the agitation by the usual suspects bent on blurring the lines between the ordained priesthood and the laity has made EMHC's proliferate like some kind of weapon; they are the norm more often than the exception, and there are a lot of reasons to be displeased with this. Yet, technically, they are allowed. Like many things, their use is at the discretion of the local ordinary as far as I know. Now, I personally think the local ordinary, if he were somewhat unsympathetic to the idea but wished to be diplomatic, could create a few rules governing their use: I'd start by insisting that men who are EMHC's must wear dress slacks, a long-sleeved shirt, and a tie, and that women must either wear the same (minus the tie, of course) or a long skirt with a long-sleeved shirt, or a long-sleeved dress, and that further she must cover her head regardless of which of these options she chooses. In a very short time we'd see the "parade" dwindle down to a manageable number of people, I think. As Shakespeare would say, "Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

2. Female altar boys. Again, technically allowed. Wrong on so many levels I can't even begin to delve into them all, though. The worst effect girl altar boys have is that they tend to discourage the actual boys from showing up to serve Mass; I can't blame the boys for that. But so many of our young priests first discovered their vocations while serving at the altar, that it seems cruel to turn this manly and noble tradition of allowing only boys to serve into a bunch of giggling girls playing the liturgical equivalent of "tea party" on the altar. I don't wish to denigrate any girl who has served by saying this, but let's face it, ladies--we do have this effect. Altar boys are like squires, studying the movements and words of the knight they someday hope to be; altar girls are like--well, like girls--making sure Father wiped his hands properly and bossing everyone around because that's what we do.

3. Modern music. As a member of the parish choir I was rather vocal on Sunday about our new assistant pastor's decision to substitute a David Haas (!) "tune" for the song we were supposed to sing at the Preparation of the Gifts. I apologize for my cooperation in the infliction of this caterwauling nonsense on the parish family, and can only say in my defense that as I didn't know the song at all, I had no choice but to sing it badly (which, sadly, would be true even if I did know the song, because there is only one way to sing this garbage, and that is badly). Unfortunately, yet again, this ridiculously silly marshmallow fluff for the ears isn't, technically, forbidden. It's just rampant proof that the vast majority of priests and bishops in America have no sacred musical sense whatsoever, and actually believe that these theologically weak, musically inept, horridly insipid paeans to How Special We All Are bear any resemblance at all to the sort of thing Pope Benedict XVI thinks about when he thinks and talks about sacred music. These screeching, fingernail-on-a-blackboard, seriously misbegotten and tortured "arrangements" are the musical equivalent of this, and until a rebirth of the idea of Sacred Art in general occurs, we're just going to suffer (though not in silence, as the poor confused choir member next to me Sunday can verify).

Though all of these can't be said to be abuses (penances, perhaps, grave inflictions of painful things onto the souls and sensibilities of serious Catholics, but not abuses) there is one abuse so rampant that I find it hard to imagine the blogging Fathers haven't encountered it. This is an actual abuse--it's not permitted, ever, but it happens so often we scarcely encounter a Mass that is completely free from it. I refer here to the pet peeve I find personally most annoying of all: a priest's tendency to "ad-lib" his way through the Mass, to embellish the prayers in the books with extemporaneous remarks of his own, to "interrupt" the sacred ritual whenever he feels like "sharing" with us.

It should be noted, good blogging Fathers, that I'm not referring here to a mere slip of the tongue, a fumble or two because Father has lost his place and is trying to find it again, or the honest and accidental addition of an article or a pronoun, which could happen to anybody. I'm talking about the priest who will embellish each and every prayer of the Mass (sometimes not excluding the Canon) with his own words, from some misguided desire to "keep it real" or some such hippie nonsense.

This is liturgical terrorism, plain and simple. As the people in the pews stare back in bewildered silence wondering if they're supposed to say "Amen," "And also with you" or "We lift them up to the Lord" because they've completely lost track of where Father is, Father prattles on, rewriting the Mass as he does, making it up one silly phrase at a time.

Sadly, our new assistant pastor is of this bent. I'm trying to be patient, to give our pastor time to be our pastor, and straighten Father Extempore out on his own terms. But if nothing positive happens after a reasonable amount of time, I plan to approach the pastor with my deep, sincere concerns about how terribly important active participation is, and how terribly difficult it is to continue this active participation (demanded by Vatican II, don't you know!) when we have no idea which prayer Father is trying to say.

And if that doesn't work, well, one of these fine Sundays when Father adds a whole lot of unnecessary phrases to something like "The Lord be with you," one of the microphones pointed at the choir will pick up the sound of an angry woman muttering, "And also...well, it is a nice day, isn't it? How wonderful of God to give us this nice day so we can listen to Father make up another Mass as he goes along!...with you."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Back to School Reflections

Today was our first day back to school! I've got a few thoughts to share, in no particular order:

1. The first day of school never takes as long as you think it will. This is due to the fact that the children's enthusiasm level is directly proportional to the novelty of the school experience and the relative simplicity of the first few days' work, which is composed mainly of reviews and foundational reading. As the work gets harder and the school day becomes more routine, there is a corresponding drop in the enthusiasm/motivation levels which combined with the increase in time needed to complete the more challenging assignments will lengthen the school day so that it takes as long as I've planned for it to. I expect this process to take between five and eight school days.

2. If you finish early, and discover another gecko in the bathroom, and call the girls in to catch it again, and in the process of being caught the gecko obligingly crawls on the clear plastic washcloth holder in the bathtub in such a way that his underside is magnified and several of his arteries become clearly and interestingly visible, you should all enjoy this scientific experience as the pure gift it is.

3. If after the gecko has been caught and relocated outdoors the girls ask to bathe their baby dolls, and you remember that the oldest one will be reading later this week about Archimedes' Principle, and you use the opportunity to discuss that idea as a preface to the lesson that will come up in a few days, you're on a roll.

4. If the discussion of buoyancy leads to questions about the weight of liquids vs. gases, and you can remember anything at all from what you learned years ago about the relative density of different forms of matter, you're really, really on a roll.

5. And if, when all is said and done, you can evaluate the day and say that things went well and that everyone, Mom included, is looking forward to tomorrow, then you had a great first day back at school.

Did everything go exactly as I planned it to? Was the day completely free from glitches and setbacks? No, and no. But I banished the Phantom of Perfection from our schoolroom a long time ago, and that shrieking wretch knows better than to show up and spoil what I can say in all honesty was a perfectly lovely first day back at school.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Few Million Stars From Now

The Night Will Never Stay

(Eleanor Farjeon)

The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky;
Though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.

When I was a child I loved Eleanor Farjeon's poem about the night. I would whisper it quietly to myself, savoring the rhythm of the words and the sonorous sounds of "moon" and "tune." I wasn't completely sure what it meant, but I thought the words were beautiful and oddly comforting, though there was a hint of sadness in them too.

When I look at it now I realize that what the poet was saying about the night is something about time itself. Days don't remain "pinned" to the sky either, though the sun would seem to be a more powerful push-pin than all those million stars. Hours run madly through our fingers as if we were scattering priceless gems into the street; minutes murmur past us while we watch them vanish, and seconds like scattered and restless insects flit by in a dim gray blur.

Monday I will begin my eighth year of teaching my children at home. I can't really wrap my brain around that thought, since like every other mother in the world I can at any instant see in my children's faces the toddlers that were running wildly around here just the other day, or maybe sometime last week. It doesn't seem possible that my oldest DD will be starting seventh grade after one final weekend of gearing up, both for Mom and for her.

Yet though I feel as though whole years, and not a single night, have slipped away all but unnoticed since this enterprise began, I have to admit that there have been many changes. The somewhat sulky five-year-old whose attitude about learning letters and numbers wasn't too different from one of her uncle's has become a fairly diligent student, whose ability to focus on the subject at hand is no longer completely dependent on her interest level (I'm sometimes tempted to think that if there hadn't been all those animal stories in the early readers, we'd still be sounding out words). Okay, not really, but if you'd told me that that scowling kindergartener would one day breeze through The Fellowship of the Ring and beg for more, while still on summer vacation, I'd have thought you were not a benign visitor from my actual future but a traveler from an alternative universe accidentally lost in the wrong time line. And if you'd told me that both of her sisters also weathered the early storms of early education and were well on their way to the capacity for mature and independent study, I'd have suspected you of planning to replace my whole family with pod people--yet all of these things have come to pass, and I'm standing on the brink of what will probably be an amazing and productive school year.

It can be hard to see such a bright future when things look somewhat dark. Some moms out there are experiencing burnout, and have returned from summer vacation just to discover that the burnout is still with them. Some moms are juggling a new baby with the task of teaching older children; some are facing the reality that the toddler who distracts his siblings five or six times an hour is more difficult to manage now than he was two years ago when he was the new baby. There are stresses inside and out; there are negative attitudes on the part of both the children and, sometimes, the homeschooling mom, and there are changes in our lives that end up impacting our schooling no matter how carefully we plan, or how much we think we have covered.

When those times come--and yes, they will come, and I know they will--I hope I can remember that not even a million stars could pin the darkness of the night to the sky. Morning will come, daylight will flood the landscape, and even when we see the approach of yet another twilight we will know that it doesn't herald the arrival of a never-ending blackness, but only a time of rest, a time to take stock of things, to step back peacefully and reevaluate what we've done so far and what we plan to do, and maybe even to change a few things around or to rediscover the joy of teaching our children and watching them learn and grow.

Because a few million stars from now, I'll be watching some poised and eager young women take their first steps out into the world, as they discover their vocations and find God's will for their lives. And in their faces I'll see the frowning concentration of the first-graders who struggled to make a letter "B" that wasn't too "bendy;" I'll recognize the focus and direction of the girls who were determined to understand long division; I'll see the joyful spirits of the young ladies who acted out the lessons on proper introduction from the grammar books; I'll see the thoughtful introspection of the daughters who read, a chapter at a time, the story of their salvation from the religion texts. And I'll see other things, too, things I can't even imagine yet (algebra, anyone?), things that will give my girls a chance to grow in grace and wisdom toward the lives to which God will call them.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dealing With Miss Clack

Wilkie Collins, a nineteenth century British author, wrote The Moonstone, which some consider to be one of the earliest examples of the English detective novel. I consider it to be excellent reading, myself, particularly because of Collins' skill in using first person narration throughout the novel in such a way that we learn far more about the character/narrator than these narrators realize they are telling us.

One such narrator is Miss Clack. A member of a tiny, very strict Protestant sect, of a sort which dotted the Victorian landscape, Miss Clack is as sure of her own virtues as she is of everyone else's vices; she is equally sure that her tendency to interfere in the lives of her friends and neighbors is motivated only by her deep and loving concern for their eternal destiny, as she knows for a fact that most of the so-called Christians around her are on a one-way trip to hell. If they are not condemned to eternal fire for the vanity to be found lurking among the brushes and combs on their dressing tables, they will find themselves there for reading books other than the volumes of sermons on Miss Clack's list of improving reading; such amusements as parties or other frivolity is certainly a sign of one's predestination for perdition (except, of course, for those parties Miss Clack chooses to attend in the hopes of being able to scatter her tracts around the house for the inhabitants to find whenever the danger of the cigar-box or candy dish threatens to cause their immortal souls to perish). Miss Clack even hands out pamphlets to other people's servants (she is too poor to have any of her own, of course) which instruct them that placing a ribbon on their caps, or a flounce of lace at the ends of their aprons, is a clear indication to all the world that they are loose, abandoned women, on the verge of finding themselves ruined both for this life and the next.

When we read what Miss Clack writes, though, we see between the lines and find ourselves reading her true character. Her "concern" for her wealthier relatives is based significantly on her dissatisfaction with her lesser financial status; she has a habit of dropping by with her religious materials and advice right at mealtimes, and of feeling slighted if she isn't asked to stay. She sees the villain of the story as good even when his perfidy is made clear, because his own religious hypocrisy coincides so well with hers, and because he is somewhat more likely to flatter her than anyone else is, though it is clear to everyone but Miss Clack that he is using her. She is jealous, spiteful, pushy, gossiping, greedy and vain, though she spends most of her time accusing everyone else around her of being those things, and seeing herself as a persecuted Christian martyr.

Though Miss Clack is an extremely enjoyable character in fiction, she's a rather difficult sort to encounter in real life. Fortunately, most of us never will run across someone like this--Miss Clack is, perhaps, more caricature than character. Still, we may, every now and then, find ourselves in the position of being "ministered to" by someone who, like Miss Clack, thinks they have a duty to be "Christian" to us.

The "Christian" is in quotes because obviously we should all seek to be Christlike to each other in our daily encounters. But there's a difference between trying to act like true Christians, and making it obvious to someone else that we are "offering up" our dealings with them. Pinning a smile firmly to our faces, going out of our way to make contact with them, pretending to seek their advice in order to flatter them and give ourselves an opening to become a "missionary" friend--all of these are more Clacklike than Christlike, I'm afraid. Beneath this approach are two things: pride in ourselves, that we know so much better than this other person does, and an objectification of the other, turning them from a real human being with thoughts and feelings of their own into a prize to be won.

It's one thing if we're called upon to be truthful witnesses to relatives or friends who actually are living outside the realm of Christian morality. But what characterizes a Miss Clack, besides the hugely disingenuous approach, is that they are the sort of person who thinks that we're sinning if we don't use the same sort of oven cleaner they do, or equally trivial, nonessential things; and they combine their capacity to care deeply about trivia with their equally large capacity to endure whatever variations of "No, thanks, I'm not interested," you may employ as if they were the blows of martyrdom.

What do you do if a Miss Clack shows up in your life? How do you handle the sort of person who won't be happy until you agree to do everything he or she does, to the point of dressing in matching outfits? How do you put up with being "offered up" by a person who sees himself or herself as brave and noble for putting up with you?

Whatever you do, don't fall for the temptation to let the Miss Clacks in your life see that you are the one offering up your encounters with them. This will lead to the sort of escalation that can only end in tears.

I recommend keeping your eyes wide open to what's really going on under the surface, so you won't naively agree to things you'd rather not do. Be firm in saying "no," but be as patient and prepared to repeat the message as you would be with a small child. Try to avoid too much contact, if you can, but be as charitable as you can be when you can't avoid seeing the other person.

And whatever you do, don't sign anything.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Welcome to Potluck Wednesday!

Today I'd like to "test drive" a new feature of And Sometimes Tea.

Wednesdays haven't been all that difficult for me over the summer, because choir practice hasn't been every week, and also because one thing to do relatively late in the day hasn't really interfered with my ability to write and post something every weekday.

But next week we will be back at school again, and I remember when I began blogging that if Wednesday's posts weren't written before Wednesday actually began, or thrown together on Wednesday nights, they sometimes weren't written at all.

Which is fine, in a manner of speaking. I don't have to post daily, or even every weekday.

However, one of the things I'm enjoying about blogging is the discipline of sitting down for about a half an hour each day and just writing something. This discipline is starting to carry over into other projects, writing and non-writing, and I'd hate to give it up now.

Still, coming up with a unique post every Wednesday during the school year may not be possible, either, and I'm trying to be realistic about that.

So starting today, Wednesday will be my day to share things I've read on other blogs, with perhaps a brief comment.

First up is MommaLlama at My Three Sons, with last weekend's discussion of Questions Infertiles Hear. MommaLlama has raised my awareness of how often people can suffer from foot-in-mouth disease when talking to adoptive parents!

Then there's Nutmeg, who's suffering from what she's calling Writer's Block. I'd call it "Sellers backing out of their contract and then more sellers coming along and possibly wanting you to move out eight days from now Block" myself, but that's because I'm too verbose. Who among us can't relate to real estate woes?

Daniel Bean opened up comments on this thread about Kids at Mass. My sympathies are all for those moms and dads heroically trying to attend Mass as a family all the way through the toddler's Holy Terror stage--the family that prays together, etc. But I was wondering whether some innovative pastor might create a new "ministry" for altar girls--instead of standing at the altar, they could stand in the back and offer to hold antsy toddlers and colicky infants as an aid to young and growing Catholic families. (I know, I'm dreaming, but it might work!)

Finally, Margaret in Minnesota has a beautiful post relating to today's feast of the Queenship of Mary. What an amazing, lovely story of our Heavenly Mother's smiles for her poor children on earth!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Kind of Homeschooler Are You, Anyway?

One of the things I love about homeschooling is that there are just so many different ways to homeschool. Meeting a new homeschooling family for the first time is often a time to compare notes on programs and curricula, books and methods, and to learn how a completely different family is putting things together and making them work for their own unique situations and needs.

The homeschool spectrum, at least as it appears to me, seems to fluctuate between fully prepackaged curricula homeschoolers on one end, and total unschoolers on the other, with lots of interesting stops in between. In addition to the method chosen, there are endless varieties of style, too, and it's always fascinating to encounter some of these variations. For example, I might once have thought that the prepackaged curricula folks would be most likely to be recreating the "school classroom at home" experience, but that's simply not true--there are unschoolers who meet in a classroom in their homes, complete with blackboard, globe, and other school paraphernalia, while on the other hand you might find people who order and stick to a homeschool program's complete curriculum but who do their schoolwork wherever life happens to take them.

At some future day, some insightful homeschooler will probably create the homeschooling equivalent of the Myers-Briggs personality test, designed to help aspiring homeschoolers to determine ahead of time which methods/styles/curriculum types will probably work best for them based on personality, temperament, educational goals, family structure, numbers and ages of children, perceptions of children's learning styles etc. Until that happens, though, moms will keep learning the best way we can: by doing, evaluating, changing, re-committing, and slowly becoming aware of what works for us and what doesn't.

If that test I envision above ever does become a reality, I'm pretty sure I'd come out an ETDCAH homeschooler. The acronym translates "Eclectic Textbook Do-it-yourself Curricula All over the House," which pretty much describes what I use, how I use it, and where we do most of our teaching/learning.

I choose the "eclectic textbook" approach because I see it as being a good fit both for my strengths as a homeschooling teacher, and my weaknesses. I love to discuss the things my children are learning and studying with them, but as I told my DH the other day, if I had to answer the question "What are we doing for science class today?" in any other way than "The next ten pages of your textbook, dear," I'd break out in a cold sweat. This doesn't mean that we never float away from the books for a bit to encounter something of interest that the books don't specifically cover, of course. But for most of the subjects I teach, I need the backing of some educator somewhere who already figured out what the average fourth or sixth or seventh grader should be studying. Trying to "wing it" with lesson plans and other materials is something that some homeschoolers find exhilarating, but as someone whose exterior organizational skills fall far short of her interior ones I like the security of knowing that lessons will proceed in an orderly manner.

That said, I also choose the D-I-Y curricula approach for flexibility. In our eight years as homeschoolers, we've sometimes tried a book or workbook that just hasn't worked out. Though the prepackaged curricula would offer an even higher level of the security I just talked about, for me the big negative there is not being able to swap out books in certain subjects if the materials the school chooses aren't a good fit. Some prepackaged curricula programs will allow you a certain amount of swapping anyway, but since you've already paid for the materials the school provides you're taking on an added expense, and I'm not sure I'd be motivated enough to look around for different materials if I were buying a neat and tidy set of schoolbooks. In addition, I choose the D-I-Y approach because here in the great state of Texas I have complete freedom to measure our educational accomplishments any way I like, and so I don't need a school to keep records for me or administer tests. In a different state I might have to weigh the "pros" of having a school involved in those things against the "cons" of my flexibility and relative freedom.

And the "All over the House" part?

In an ideal world, I'd love to have a real classroom, a spacious, airy, window-laden room with a chalkboard at one end and a wall of bookshelves opposite to it. I would have a real teacher's desk, the girls would each have a good-sized desk as well, and back by the bookshelves would be a love seat and a couple of really good reading chairs, for group study. The walls would have religious art, a holy water font, and a beautiful crucifix; a small cart would hold a small t.v. for educational videos and a c.d. player for classical music during quiet reading time, and a craft table would provide the remaining furniture. The only phone in the room would be purchased at a used office-supply store and wouldn't ring; it would just show a blinking light when someone was calling, so I could listen to whatever message the caller left and return emergency calls right away.

To a certain extent, my living room slightly resembles this vision. There are a few desks, there are couches, there are bookshelves, and the religious art is pretty much how I described it. Unfortunately, it remains a living room in an open-concept house, which means that it has to double as a place where people can gather for purposes other than education, so the "craft table" is a small art cabinet, and the "teacher's desk" is the flap of my secretary desk. We don't have a chalkboard (not yet, anyway!), our sole television is in another room altogether, and group study is easier to conduct at the kitchen table than on the living room couches for the most part. Quiet individual study usually has to take place in a bedroom, and any research involving the computer means we all troop off to the master bedroom (though again, that may change soon!).

In the comment box below, please tell me what kind of homeschooler you are! Do you use real learning methods? Charlotte Mason? Montessori? Do you unschool? Where do you do your school work? Have you ever changed radically from one style to another?

What kind of homeschooler are you?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Non Semper Erit Aestas

The last week of summer vacation is here for the Cardigan family. I know, lots of you other homeschooling mamas have already cracked the books (but not yet, hopefully, the whip!) and have settled down to serious business; but I decided several years ago to base our schedule loosely on the schedule of the nearest public school system, and while I've been known to deviate egregiously when it comes to substituting religious holidays for silly secular ones, I can't fault this year's starting date of August 27.

I'm actually a proponent of "Labor Day till End of May" schooling, and in an ideal world would always choose to do things that way. But given reasonable vacation days, a schedule like that would only allow thirty-four to thirty-five weeks of school (at a pretty brisk pace, too) and many of the materials I choose to use presume at least a thirty-six week school calendar; some of them tacitly assume a few more weeks, up to about forty. So, since I'd rather be able to take a decent amount of time off at Christmas and a few random days or parts of weeks elsewhere, we'll start next Monday.

My children will be enjoying one last week of summer vacation, or "Quick! Think of something lazy to do!" as I heard one of them say to another. As for me, most of this week will be spent making final preparations for our approaching school year. This is the week for me to look through the new books and decide how much we need to cover each week in each subject, to make sure we haven't forgotten to buy any of the basic supplies we'll need, to complete a few more organizational projects I'd like to get out of the way before school starts, and to tweak my daily school-day routine to allow for the most efficient chore accomplishment and meal preparation possible so that our school time will be focused on learning.

It will not always be summer, indeed. But I've enjoyed the time I've had this summer to recharge my teaching batteries and gear up for the coming year. I may find, as time wears on, that a few of these creatures will try to descend on our little homeschool again this year, but having a few months' break from teaching makes it easier to fend them off.

And even though my girls have voiced the obligatory end-of-summer laments, they're beginning to admit that they do want school to start. There have been surreptitious peeks into tempting new schoolbooks, and open admiration of new pencils and clean, new folders and notebooks. There's been voluntary discussion of the need to clean out the art cabinet in the school room before the first day of school. The amusements of summer, such as they can be in Texas, have begun to pall a little.

Here on earth, we find that to be true. There is nothing we can be doing, however enjoyable, that won't eventually seem dull and no longer worthwhile. In our fallen state, even minor annoyances can be magnified until they seem like insurmountable obstacles, and what begin as pleasant, lazy, happy days can become shrouded with ennui, formless and gray.

Bright summer suns, joyful family gatherings, peaceful happiness, though good, can't compare to the reality that they foreshadow: the bright magnificence of the Beatific Vision, the joy of the eternal saintly company, and the peace and happiness of the life that lies beyond this vale of tears. It won't always be summer in Heaven, either. It will be better.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Criticism and Self-Boasting

A Protestant church we pass on our way to Mass always has a new message on its sign. I suppose the messages have to do with the weekly sermon, but unlike similar signs I've seen this church's sign doesn't usually have a Scripture quote on it; instead, the messages seem more general, such as words of hope or encouragement, words about faith and trust, or words designed to cause reflection or to promote conversation.

Recently, the sign's message was "Criticism is just another form of self-boasting." I have to admit it; that one caught my attention.

My first impulse was to reject it altogether. Criticism, like judgment, gets a bad rap some of the time. I can't even count the times the quote "Judge not, lest ye be judged," has been used as a weapon to end all discussion of the world's ills, or to stifle the truth about the quoter's own moral situation or desire for liturgical experimentation, or, in some cases, to disguise the quoter's unabashed hostility toward ancient and traditional understandings of these sorts of things.

The kind of judgment which is forbidden to Christians is rash judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about rash judgment this way:

"He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor... (CCC 2477)

"To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.279 (CCC 2478)

While the Catechism makes it clear that we are not to jump to conclusions about the morality of our neighbors' deeds, actions, words, living situations and the like, it is equally clear that it is not being judgmental to speak the truth in charity, especially when we actually know the situation. Thus, if a close friend or relative were to be living with another person without the benefit of marriage, but clearly living as a married couple and being quite open about this, it is not "judgment," rash or otherwise, to speak of our concern for their souls in this state. What would be rash judgment would be to assume that a single man whom we don't know well is living in sin simply because we've seen a woman enter his home or apartment; it is our positive duty to think the best unless we know otherwise (and how embarrassing for us would it be if we were to speak ill of him only to discover that the woman in question is his sister?).

So in thinking about the words on the sign, my first impulse was to consider whether all criticism is self-boasting, or whether only some is. It seems clear that there are forms of criticism which are perfectly legitimate and which have little to do with the self; I like to write, for instance, but it would be silly to say that any of the literary criticism I did as part of my college coursework was marked by an underlying desire to do better than the great authors whose works were being analyzed by the class. Similarly, an art critic who can't paint a simple triangle isn't forbidden from studying the great works of art and criticizing them according to the criteria he has learned for the proper judging of artistic merit. And even outside the realm of scholarly criticism, people may quite legitimately be critical of any number of things. Sending one's plate back at a restaurant is at least an implied criticism, but only very rarely, I suspect, is the customer insinuating that his or her cooking is superior to the restaurants'; he or she merely wishes the food to be prepared according to some minimal standard of acceptability, which may include actually cooking the food so that it has reached the proper temperature to achieve food safety.

Another area where legitimate criticism comes up quite frequently these days among Catholics is criticism of the Mass--not the Holy Sacrifice itself, of course, which is beyond our criticism, but the way in which the liturgy is conducted, the level of reverence shown by the priest and others, the attention to the details of the rubrics, the care with which things are done, and the strict adherence to the words of the prayers as they are written. I think that many of these things may properly be criticized, if the focus is on improving things in order that Our Lord will be better pleased with the worship we offer to Him, and for the good of the souls of those who attend the Mass. It's important to be careful, here, though. I once became annoyed with what I thought was an abuse, but research soon showed me that the "new innovation" was actually the correct way of doing things, and what I'd thought was correct has always been wrong!

In addition, sometimes a criticism isn't invalid, just impatient. When I wrote this post criticizing the way Confession was being done at my parish, I thought that our new pastor had had plenty of time to address the problem and solve it, so I was impatient that such a short time for Confession still remained the norm. In the past month, though, quietly and with no fanfare, Father changed the time of Confession to allow for a full hour of Confession before he has to leave to prepare for the 5 pm Saturday evening vigil Mass. A little more patience and understanding on my part was in order then, instead of my rush to criticism.

So what kind of criticism was the sign talking about, then?

I think we're all familiar with it. It's the kind that, if you're really trying to avoid it, will cause you to clamp a mental hand over your mouth before you can say, "Well, that's not the way I do things..."

It's the reflexive attitude we can develop that makes us believe that the way we live our daily lives is the absolute best way that anyone can. It's the desire to impose our non-essential standards on everyone around us, and to insist that only this way, and no other, is Christian living really possible. It's the tendency we all have to play spiritual oneupmanship with other Catholic families, an attitude I once heard spoken of as, "I'll see you that daily Mass, and raise you one decade of the Rosary!" "I'll see you that decade, and raise you four more!" "Ha! I'll match the daily Mass and Rosary, and raise you a Divine Mercy Chaplet and an hour of Perpetual Adoration!" "I'll see all of that, and raise you evening prayers sung in the chapel addition we just finished building on to our house!" etc.

That kind of criticism, the kind that sets ourselves up as a kind of private Magisterium and looks down on the sincere efforts toward holy Christian living as practiced by others really is a kind of self-boasting. While there is nothing wrong with offering kind advice and suggestions to those who ask for them, there is danger in believing that we, and only we, know the right path to Heaven as that applies to daily living. The person who humbly and gratefully prays a single decade of the rosary each day may be closer to holiness than the person who prides himself on saying all twenty decades daily, the operative words, of course, being "prides himself."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today, my sister and brother-in-law began their vocation to the married life. Memory is a funny thing; there are details about that day which stand out in my mind in more vivid clarity than the events of this past Monday do. It's hard to believe that two whole decades have passed since that day, but there it is.

In those two decades my sister and brother-in-law have had much joy and many blessings, chief of which are their seven wonderful sons. There have been sorrows, too, of course. But I think they'd both agree that the times of happiness have far outweighed the times of sadness, and that even sad times are easier to handle when your best friend is right there by your side.

We live in a culture where people lavish each other with diamonds and other expensive trinkets for staying married to each other for a mere ten years. Statistically, few couples who marry will ever reach that twentieth anniversary, and there's a spirit in our modern culture which suggests that so long a time is unnatural, somehow. People grow and change, after all. If the clothes in your closet don't fit too well after twenty years, how do you expect a "relationship" to be a good fit for such a long time?

Leaving aside the unflattering objectification of the human person this attitude represents, there's also the sad misunderstanding of what marriage really is. Marriage is not like a career, which can be switched if it's not fulfilling. Marriage is not like a hobby, which can be dropped if it no longer interests you. Marriage is a vocation, a calling, that begins not with romantic feelings (though those are important) but with an act of the will. The feelings, the close connection two people feel for each other, and the desire to be always with the other are the precursor to marriage, but marriage itself is the public choice of this one person to be permanently and exclusively united with you, husband choosing wife, wife choosing husband. And the bond of marriage is meant to be permanent, lasting until death, and exclusive, forsaking all others. For Catholics who have this understanding it is simply not possible to believe that a valid sacramental marriage can end as long as the spouses are both alive.

So my sister and brother-in-law are living witnesses to this important truth. Their life together, their generous response to God's call to welcome children, their deep faith and involvement in the life of the Church, and their presence to the community around them sends out a welcome beacon of hope in a secular world that has largely abandoned the values they live by. As a homeschooling family, too, they've probably been an inspiration to others without even knowing it. The twenty years of their marriage have been the source of the best of good fruit.

I am proud to know them and to be a part of their life.

Happy anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. S. May God continue to shower your life together with rich blessings, and may the next twenty years be even more wonderful than the first have been!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Shining Faith, A Martyr's Crown

Not long ago, I wrote this, describing six beautiful new statues of saints which were placed in my parish church. All of these saints were extraordinary witnesses to the Faith, but one statue in particular seemed especially beautiful and moving to me.

It is a statue of a man who looks at the world through round glasses with a kind but serious expression; his robes identify him as a Franciscan priest, and speak of a life of evangelization and service. Over his left shoulder is draped a black and white striped prison jacket, in commemoration of his suffering and death at Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis.

In another time and place, St. Maximilian Kolbe might still have risen to sainthood by virtue of his tireless efforts to propagate the faith. His magazine, Knight of the Immaculate, was widely circulated; he worked to oppose religious indifference and Freemasonry, and founded three monasteries. But these efforts, in retrospect, become shadowed by the looming threat of the Second World War; the second monastery, which he founded in 1931, was located in Nagasaki, Japan, and it would survive the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki fourteen years later. Returning to Poland because of his ill health, St. Maximilian was arrested by the Nazis for the first time in 1939; released a few months later, he continued to work until February of 1941, at which time he was arrested again, and eventually transferred to Auschwitz.

Less than a year later he would take the place of a prisoner condemned to death with nine others, and would accept the crown of martyrdom which, along with the crown of purity, he had seen and accepted from Our Lady in a vision he had had as a young boy.

In our modern day and age, people seem to lose their faith in God, in the Catholic Church, in religion altogether, so terribly easily. If we can't have what we want when we want it, if we are asked to suffer or if we experience failure, if we find ourselves in the wrong or if we witness scandal, how tempting it is to turn away from the narrow path that leads to salvation. We become like Esau in the Bible, willing to sell away our bright inheritance for creature comforts and earthly pleasures.

St. Maximilian Kolbe's faith was of the order that when tested in the crucible does not melt into nothing, but becomes a shining crown of gold. It is easy to have faith when we are untouched by evil; it is beyond the ability of man unaided to continue to have it when confronted with the bitter dark reality of pain, and sin, and horror, and death. At such moments we, alone, would fail; but we are not alone. The sufferings of the One who truly did take the weight of the world's evil on His shoulders makes it more than unnecessary for us to think we carry it on our own: in fact, it makes such thoughts temptations to pride, to think that God doesn't know what we endure or has abandoned us to endure it.

In the last issue of "Knights of the Immaculate," St. Maximilian wrote:

"No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?"

St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Advertising and the Seven Deadly Sins

Not long ago, I read an interesting news article in which a man who has worked for a long time in the advertising world analyzed television ads, and came up with seven different ad categories, seven different ways the ad designer wanted to feature the product or service and convince the viewer to buy it. I wanted to find the article to link to it for this post, but my searches have come up empty; if I find it later I'll add an update at the bottom.

I found the article interesting because in some ways it was like listening to a conjurer show how he works each remarkable feat of prestidigitation. The ad style that seemed most honest to me of the seven was the one which simply showed the features of the product; saying, in effect, "This is what I do. Do you want to buy me, or not?"

This caused me to begin pondering the whole concept of honesty and advertising--hardly an original train of thought, as people have been thinking about it since advertising began, and writing laws to keep people from making blatantly untrue claims about what they have to sell.

And that's probably a good thing. Many people have a tendency to believe that in a truly free market, such governmental oversight wouldn't be necessary; but given our fallen human nature I'd rather not trust huge companies to be honest with me about their products and services when they're hoping to make a profit.

Of course, all this thinking about advertising--something that permeates our lives, and yet something which we're scarcely even aware of most of the time--led me to a different sort of reflection. The article I read divided ads into seven categories; I remembered the scriptwriting class I took in college, and the discussion we had about the tendency of advertisers to incorporate images and thoughts which violate purity and modesty into their ads because these ads are proven to rivet attention, especially among the highly-coveted 18 to 35 year old male demographic. Since the school I attended was a very conservative Catholic school, we deplored this effect, pledged to avoid it completely in our own scriptwriting efforts, and moved on. But the thought of advertising which specifically appeals to lust made me wonder whether or not it would be possible to see all of the seven deadly sins show their ugly heads in the advertising that surrounds us.

Lust, of course, is everywhere in television advertising, so much so that the fathers of young children I know have to become adept at channel surfing when the commercials come on during the "game" (football, baseball, hockey--you name it). As my scriptwriting teacher pointed out to us, advertisers use these images on purpose, knowing they remain with the viewer whether the viewer wants them to or not, which makes the creation of such commercials even more morally problematic than viewing them.

What about gluttony? Not all food or restaurant advertisements can be said to be guilty of this, but I think some of them are--the ones that show close up pictures of inhumanly perfect burgers, or focus in on overfilled plates brimming with steaming fresh food. And considering that gluttony is the vice opposed to the virtue of temperance or abstinence, it's also true that some alcoholic beverage advertisements may cross this line.

And then there's greed. Some people would point to banking or credit card commercials, but I can't think of one that encourages consumers to become misers--it would be easier to accuse these commercials of encouraging people to add imprudently to their debt loads. But we've all seen commercials that suggest that you should "get your own" item, and imply that everyone will have "item X" and that no one will--or should--share it. So I don't think the advertising industry avoids appealing to greed, either.

Sloth? Easy. How about the millions of commercials for the latest, greatest household chemical or cleaning gadget that will save you impossibly large amounts of time? Now, there's nothing wrong with improving on the design of the broom, for instance, and making cleaning that much easier--drudgery isn't required in order for us to avoid sloth. But some of these ads try to appeal to the sense that we shouldn't really have to work in order to clean or cook or maintain our homes, and that's where the appeal to sloth comes in; because no matter how much time the latest gizmo can save you, there will always be plenty of work to be done. As God told Adam, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return." (Genesis 3:19) So if we are led to hoping that some widget or other really will end our toils, we're being led into sloth.

Now wrath is one deadly sin that doesn't seem to come up in an advertising context, at least not very often. Unfortunately, the next sin, envy, seems to be the underlying basis of quite a lot of advertising, doesn't it? Ads which subtly or even overtly hint that all your friends, neighbors, relatives etc. have Product Y and that they're all looking down on you for not having Product Y appeal to this sad tendency we have to be jealous of each other, to covet our neighbors' goods for our own, and to be willing to set aside reason and prudence in order to rush right out and restore our amore propre by purchasing Y immediately.

And finally, there is pride, the deadliest of deadly sins. Pride is appealed to by those ads that flatter us, that use words and phrases like, "The discriminating buyer...people with good taste...someone with style...someone like you." Ads that speak to our vanity, that tell us how wonderful we are, that hint that unlike all those low common people out there we will recognize the inherent value of the thing they are selling--these ads want us to have an inflated sense of ourselves, because the people who write them know how easily we can be flattered, how ready we are to hear good of ourselves, how much we long for recognition and respect, and how much we can be manipulated by the semblance of these things in a thirty-second television commercial.

It is possible for an ad to do none of these things, of course. It is possible for ad writers to present the product or service they are selling in a relatively honest and straightforward manner, without any attempt to appeal to our lesser natures. I think some of the best ads written do this; but it can't be denied that in a relatively short time of television watching, several of the ads we might see will try to become an occasion of sin to us.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Taming the Paper Tiger

Oh, don't worry; this isn't going to be a lengthy and thoughtful post about the strained relationship between the U.S. and China over the past half-century or so. It's Friday and it's way too hot for serious contemplation of thorny international diplomatic issues.

The paper tiger I refer to here is literally made out of paper. Lots and lots of paper.

Most people call it "mail." I call it "a menace to peaceful civilization."

Some people I know have a system of handling their mail. As soon as the mail is brought into the house, it is sorted and filed: bills here, personal mail here, catalogs we want to keep here. Then the remaining mail, the junk mail, is either shredded on the spot or merely tossed in the trash if it contains no identity-theft prone personal information.

My DH and I have been trying for years to implement a system like that for dealing with the mail. So far, we've managed the "bringing the mail into the house" part. At which point it ends up on various surfaces, is eventually relocated into the black hole junk pit called the computer desk which is located in our bedroom, where it fruitfully multiplies until the point where I can't stand it any more, dump all of it on the bed, and spend most of an afternoon or evening sorting, shredding, filing and tossing.

You'd think I'd be better at this. I was an executive secretary, once upon a time long ago. But despite what should have been excellent training, I'm helpless to deal with the mail clutter in any kind of rational or civilized manner.

And it has been this way since DH and I were first married, when any attempt to eat dinner while seated at our dining room table would have required roughly three hours of mail sorting beforehand.

I have a filing cabinet (small, and in desperate need of cleaning out, but still). I have a nice shredder, though there's no rational place to put it where I can leave it plugged in all the time, something that would be necessary for daily use. The trash can by the desk is of an adequate size. So what is the problem?

I think there's more than one. I think there are five, actually:

Denial: I didn't just get that many bills and flyers. These aren't all mine. Some of them must belong to the neighbors.

Anger: We signed up for e-bills! Why are we still getting paper bills! I told this company to quit sending me their catalogs! Just because I keep ordering stuff from them is no reason for them to keep cluttering up my mailbox!

Bargaining: If I can fit just one more stack on top of the printer, I'll clean all of it up tomorrow. I promise.

Depression: I'm never going to be able to sort all of this mail. I need ice cream.

Acceptance: All right. I'll do it. But this is the last time I'm spending a Friday evening this way!

A clean, empty desk should be its own reward, but I know better than that. I know that the desk, like our dining room table once upon a time, is the Designated Mail Magnet in this house, and that no matter what I do to try to change that, there'll still come a day when I have to clean it all over again.

But that's okay. It's still better than that other as-yet unresolved clutter mine field:

Denial: I can buy this kitchen gadget. There's still room in the kitchen somewhere...

Thursday, August 9, 2007

“Hiroshima is Anger, Nagasaki is Prayer.”

I will warn you right now, that you will most likely not be able to keep yourself from crying if you read this.

It is the story of Dr. Takashi Nagai, a man who survived the dropping of the atom bomb at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Dr. Nagai's wisdom, charity, humility, patience and peace glow like a bright ember embedded in a dark gray mushroom cloud of infamy. The hardest thing about confronting the reality of that infamy is admitting that our nation, which calls itself "one Nation, under God," was responsible for this act of unspeakable evil.

Is "evil" too strong a word, when we talk about the use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima or Nagasaki? After all, the war had to end somehow. An invasion or blockade of Japan might have killed just as many people, and lots of our own troops would have perished as well. There were at least some military targets in both cities, as there were in most industrial cities. And before Hiroshima we might not have realized fully just how many innocent civilians would die in that moment of horror.

But those arguments don't hold water, when measured against clear Catholic teachings. It is morally evil to target civilians, even in wartime. It is morally evil to kill a disproportionate number of civilians even when we have legitimate military targets, something which made our earlier conventional bombing runs morally problematic as well. And whatever we claim our leaders did or didn't know before Hiroshima, they knew perfectly well what they were doing when they destroyed Nagasaki.

A little more than one-fourth of the nearly three hundred thousand people who lived in the city died at our hands, 45,000 of those in the instant the bomb was dropped. Some of them were nearly vaporized by the blast itself, but others died from the heat; go here to see the bones of a human hand fused to a clump of melted glass, for a graphic illustration of what that sort of death was like.

An additional fourth, another 75,000, suffered severe and lasting injuries from the Bock's Car's cargo. I'm not going to post a link to pictures of radiation injuries; they're too heartbreaking and too graphic.

I will show you the ruins of Nagasaki's Cathedral--Nagasaki had a large population of Catholics and Christians, about 8,000 of whom died on August 9, 1945. One of the worst effects of war, sometimes, is the propaganda both sides spread about each other; many Americans, by 1945, believed that the Japanese were all brutal pagan savages who would never surrender without the use of such a devastating weapon as the atom bomb. I wonder if there were even eight thousand Americans who had any idea that there were eight thousand Christians in all of Japan, let alone in Nagasaki itself?

This damage, this destruction, this devastation, these deaths--they were our doing. War is always ugly, but it is not always evil; yet no just war permits the targeted death and destruction of the innocent.

Dr. Takashi Nagai could have become a bitter, broken, angry man. Not one of us would have blamed him for it. Yet the words he spoke at the ruined cathedral transcend the horror around him, and reach for the eternal. For the remainder of his life of suffering he wrote and spoke about his experiences, and always wove words of peace, and his deep Christian faith, into everything he did.

His final words on earth were, "Pray! Please pray!"

In his memory, in his honor, please say a prayer today that human beings will never again unleash the destructive force of weapons like these against each other.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

We Are The Real Catholic Schools

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Unless you're a redhead, in which case sometimes you don't know whether to storm around angrily, or...storm around angrily.

Which was my reaction to this article, generally speaking. (Hat tip to Creative Minority Report.)

Oh, I have no real problem with Father John Yockey's decision to crack down on the scofflaws in his parish and make sure that people who try to claim that they are parishioners at St. Jerome Parish in order to get a tuition discount at the parish school actually attend Sunday Mass at least 70% of the time (though the very legalistic part of me asks the following question: if he's the pastor, and is allowed to dispense his parishioners from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass under some circumstances, isn't he giving at least implied permission for his parishioners to miss Mass 15.6 Sundays of the year? Hmmm.)

No, my problems start to surface with some of the article's other details. School at St. Jerome's Parish School can begin as early as age three if you're tired of the hassle of dropping little Johnny off at daycare before driving his big sis to school! And for the K3 and K4 years, the registration fee's only $50.00, though it jumps to $100 for K5-8th grade. But the article doesn't mention whether the littlest kiddies pay the same $4500 per year per child tuition to go to St. J's, though the school website is pleased to mention their after-school daycare program!

God has, so far, blessed the Cardigans with only three children--but that tuition would cost us $13,500 per year, not including the registration fee and all the little extras that crop up. Which would make tuition cost more than our mortgage payments, assuming St. J's will let you pay the monthly sum of $1125 instead of demanding the whole wad of cash up front.

But wait! If the Cardigans could prove to Father Yockey's satisfaction that we were willing to show up for Mass on Sundays, we could shave off $1400 per child, dropping our tuition costs to a mere $9,300 a year, or $775 a month--which is what our mortgage would cost us in any other state than Texas, since we pay an extra $300+ per month on top of that amount to cover the property tax.

The tone of the article makes it seem almost as though Fr. Yockey was disappointed that people didn't openly complain about the new policy, or refuse to show up for Mass and pay the extra tuition:

"Celebrating the Eucharist at Mass is a core part of being Catholic, Yockey said. The new policy also addresses a matter of truth and fairness. It's "a grave injustice" to the parish - which dedicated a new school at a new location in Oconomowoc in 2004 and is now building a new $12 million church and parish center there - to subsidize families that are not part of parish faith life, he said. Most of the school's 200 families could afford full tuition, he estimated. Only five, including some non-Catholics, pay it. About 30 families get financial help beyond the subsidy."

Poor Fr. Yockey. Most of the school's families could afford to pay full tuition, and that $900,000 a year would go a long way toward paying for that new twelve million dollar church and parish center. I suppose it's nice that they let those thirty families who need financial help go to school at St. Jerome's, though if I met any of their parents I'd love to talk to them about how the scholarship kids and their families get treated, a subject which was very manifest to me in my formative years.

Of course, as the article puts it, "Many Catholic priests complain at priests' gatherings about the abuse of the tuition subsidies and how money could be used for pressing needs and ministries, he (Fr. Yockey) said." It's bad enough that they have to help out poorer families from time to time, but all those rich people taking advantage of tuition subsidies! It's as bad as pouring a costly jar of oil over Jesus' feet, instead of selling the jar and the perfume and giving the money to the poor, isn't it?

But the most ironic detail of all isn't present in the main article. Fr. wants people to attend Mass, right? He wants them to know how important Mass is, right? What was that quote again, about how celebrating the Eucharist at Mass did you put it, Father?...a "core part of being Catholic..."

Check out this page of the Parish website, my friends. Tell me how you teach people the importance of Mass by scheduling daily Masses twice a week at the parish church, once at a hospice, once in the school gym--and substituting a communion service on Mondays and Saturdays--at a parish that has a pastor, an assistant, and a retired priest in residence.

My point here isn't to rail at the parish itself; I'm sure there's plenty of good at St. Jerome's. But it disturbs me to see a pastor apparently more concerned about people "cheating" to get a tuition discount than endangering their souls by a casual attitude toward Mass attendance; and it bothers me even more to find further evidence to support my theory that Catholic schools encourage dual-income families with few children by their high tuitions and conformity with secular education ideals and goals (Kindergarten for 3-year-olds? State testing statistics touted with pride on the school's website? etc).

The glory days of Catholic education are long over. In our little family schools at home, we have become like the monks of St. Benedict's day, keeping the flame of faith alive for the generations to come after us. Because in the face of evidence like this as well as the story of St. Jerome's, I honestly believe that although diocesan Catholic schools may produce students who take their faith seriously and remain committed Catholics all their lives, it happens in spite of, not because of, the Catholic school.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Of Rice and Then

Way back when I first started blogging, I wrote about a slight concern I had about replacing my crockpot the minute it broke. Was this materialistic of me? I remember pondering the question.

No such question has arisen tonight, when the rice cooker decided that seven and a half years of preparing rice on a weekly basis for our family was justification enough for dying in a sputter of its two front lights and a decided crackle as it shorted out and began smoking threateningly. The crockpot I could make do without, if I had to. The rice cooker is a totally different story.

To begin with, it's not technically mine. My mother gave it to my DH as a birthday gift, since he had spent several years in Japan in the military and definitely prefers his rice to be cooked nearly dry and very fluffy, Asian style. My method of cooking rice, sans rice cooker, is to spread it at the bottom of a casserole dish, add minced onions and some water, place chicken breasts on top of that, and pour some Italian salad dressing over the whole thing, which then bakes for about an hour at 350, with tinfoil on it for the first half hour or so. The rice is very flavorful, but no one would call it dry.

So my mom bought DH the rice cooker so I would be able to cook rice his favorite way. And over the years, with our various health-conscious cooking efforts, we've found it to be invaluable for cooking such time-consuming rices as brown rice and wild rice. At this point I can't imagine doing without a cooker like this one, especially since everyone in our family likes rice and I consider it a fairly healthy starch food.

Oh, just like the crockpot, I know it's not really necessary. I could probably learn to cook rice the way my DH likes it, and I bet I wouldn't scorch more than a handful of pans trying to do so. But in addition to my need to master this sort of rice cookery, there's also the question of time and convenience.

It's pretty easy to scoop a couple of cups of rice and water into the cooker, place the lid on, plug it in, and come back half an hour later to a nice side dish. It frees up some of my dinner preparation time so I can focus on other things, which is especially nice during the school year. Even if other things I'm making require my attention or some last minute checking and adjusting, the rice never does; it just burbles away merrily, sending out clouds of warm inviting steam. And it's nice to have something I can count on, especially at the dinner hour.

School days can run long. Chores and errands can pile up. Sometimes by the time I head into the kitchen to start thinking about dinner I'm long on ideas but short on time. So until someone decides to write "5000 Easy Healthy Dinners You Can Make in Thirty Minutes or Less With Ingredients Normal Human Beings Actually Have in their Kitchens" I'll take all the help I can get.

The rice cooker will definitely be replaced. How many other things do you know of that will give you this much cheerful service for twenty dollars?

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Million Little Pieces (of Miscellaneous Pink Plastic)

As I ventured out into the Catholic Mommy Blogging world earlier today during a short break I was taking, I sighed. How ironic. There's actually a Loveliness of Clearing the Clutter Fair today.

Ordinarily, that wouldn't have struck me as a particularly ironic thought. But today it did, due to the fact that the ant invasion of last week led to a series of events that led to my taking that short break from what had become the Great Toy Organization Project of 2007 (which should not be confused with the Half-Hearted Toy Shuffle of 2006, the All-Out Attack on Toy Clutter of 2005, and, of course, that event in 2004 which can only be referred to as The Time Mom Really Lost It With the Toy Situation).

We didn't start out this way. My DH and I were going to be the kind of careful toy purchasers who bought quality playthings instead of quantities of toys. We even tried to buy nothing made in China before that was popular. (What killed us on that initiative was not toys, but children's shoes--just try finding kids' shoes that aren't made in China.) We read parents' reviews and consulted with friends before buying birthday gifts. We suggested non-toy items to our parents when they asked what the children needed for Christmas.

And yet, by the time DD#3 was born, we were already starting to drown in a sea of silky stuffed animals with waves of pink plastic breaking over the already-stuffed living room.

So we did what any two parents committed to a simpler, non-materialistic lifestyle for our children would do: we moved. To another state.

I should probably clarify that this is what always seemed to work for my parents. We moved rather frequently when I was a child, and every time we went from point a to point b there were significant toy casualties. Some were not intentional, such as the bag of toys lost when my dad unthinkingly threw a partially-used--and partly open--container of turpentine in with them before they were loaded onto the moving van. Some probably were, but after my various attempts to get my girls' toys under control I'm more inclined to admire my parents' restraint in the matter than blame them for a ruthless weeding-out of toys that simply weren't worth paying to move a thousand miles or so.

Unfortunately, when you spend several months in temporary housing following a move, and celebrate Christmas and two children's birthdays before you move into your new home, there's a good chance you'll be adding to, rather than subtracting from, the toys the moving van at long last delivers--almost none of which my children actually remembered, as young as they were. I recall thinking ruefully that I'd missed my chance.

Since then, I've often gone on a toy rampage. When we discovered a few more ants in the two younger girls' bedroom Friday night, I had them empty the room so we could deal with the situation--and what they dragged out from their "toy corners" and from under the bunk bed appalled me. It was clearly time to clean out and reorganize again. So Saturday we bought a tall metal shelf for the corner next to the bunk bed; I found plastic bins on sale at a local "cheaper than BigMart!" store ($17.50 for 21 bins--yes, twenty-one!) and late Sunday afternoon we set to work, though given that it was Sunday I didn't plan for us to work for long.

And we didn't, really. My illusions of sitting around happily organizing toys by bin and getting everything all neat and orderly were shattered pretty quickly this time around.

In the first place, I hadn't realized that my youngest DD had turned permission to save a few of her favorite drawings into eleven shoe boxes crammed with random scraps of paper, everything from birthday cards to scribbles done several years ago, all of which had been stuffed under her bed. (Clearly, this is the kid who should be loading the dishwasher. I don't even know how she'd managed to fit all those boxes back there!) Eventually the job of sorting through and discarding most of the paper became mine, as DD#3 is the tenderhearted sort, who hates to throw anything away. I'm easily more ruthless--at least, if I wasn't before, years of motherhood have made me that way.

The other two girls had begun organizing things, so when I was able to, I tried to help them.

"Here, put these in the Polly bin," I would say, holding impossibly small pink plastic shoes.

"Mom, those are for Kelly dolls," one of the girls would say.

"Hand me the Ello bag," I'd say, a minute later, my hands dripping with glittery plastic strips.

"Uh, Mom? Those are Clickits," someone would volunteer.

A little more of this, and I'd given up. We stopped to enjoy the rest of our Sunday evening, and I looked around at what was left, realizing that we'd have to forget the vision of perfect, labeled bins, each containing only their own kind of toy. When the toys consist of indistinguishable bits of pink plastic it's hard for a mere grownup to sort it all out, and it's even harder for a child to see the necessity of such a torturous endeavor.

So today we took a more simple approach: we organized the remaining toys by size. It's not a perfect world, but their room certainly looks much more organized than it did a few short days ago.

Which is fine. After all, in the long run that's what lots of clutter containment boils down to: you clean out, you clear out, you throw away what's worthless, you arrange what's left, and more than anything, you try to maintain the illusion that this particular job will never need to be done again.

But all the while, you know that it will. As long as there are children at home there will be toy clutter; you might even miss it when it's all gone, in the far, far distant future.

In the meantime, each time we do this job, I learn some things.

This time, I learned that a tall shelf and individual bins makes everything seem incredibly tidy, even if the individual bins are still a bit short of the ideal of orderliness.

I learned that the girls have gotten better and more talented at figuring out some of the order on their own, and that some of their ideas were better than my original ones.

I learned that I was the one who violated the "no stuffed animals for Christmas" rule last year--but seriously, how do you tell your youngest child that she can't ask St. Nicholas for a stuffed camel?

And speaking of my youngest DD, the most important lesson I learned this time around came from her: next time the little artist asks for a shoe box, I'd better ask why!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Time and the Hour

Did you ever have one of those days when time just seemed to slip away from you?

Of course you did. You're human. It's a fairly universal experience, and even people who are way more organized and disciplined than I am have had days like this.

Or at least that's what I tell myself when I look around at the piles of mail-clutter I meant to deal with earlier, the towels that still need to be washed, the chores from yesterday that barely got done today, and wouldn't have gotten done at all without the children's help.

Even this blog post was going to be done earlier in the day, when I had a different idea about what to write, and plenty of leisure--or so I thought--to reflect and compose it.

I don't really know what happened, either. A handful of phone calls, those chores I mentioned earlier, a post or two on someone else's blog, two loaves of pumpkin bread to go along with the very easy pasta dish I served for dinner, and I'm staring in disbelief at the clock, wondering what the heck happened to yet another summer day.

I'm supposed to be doing things, after all. There's a page or so of notes and names for the new fiction manuscript I want to write waiting on my cluttered desk, and I'm feeling more and more called to write a work of Catholic non-fiction, too. But all of that requires time, real time, the kind of time that can be pinned to your bulletin board and counted on, not the kind of time that dissolves so fast into empty humid air.

It's a conundrum I've noticed before: it's when I'm really busy, teaching the girls and planning trips out of town and making major home improvements and so on, that I'll actually start getting a lot of creative work done as well (I once wrote a short story right before leaving on a trip). But in the summer, when I've got all this leisure...well, I've got all this leisure, see?

And leisure, regardless of what Mr. Josef Pieper said in that book I had to read years and years ago, isn't always the basis of culture. Sometimes it's the basis for sipping slowly a glass of cold lemonade and re-reading a silly comic book that despite being rather dated still manages to speak to you. Sometimes leisure demands that you squander it a little, or else it isn't really leisure; it's just a different kind of busy.

Of course, some slightly better time management would be beneficial. Some cutting back on the visits I make to the Really Interesting Blogs I Have To Visit More Than Once Daily would help, too. Making myself get my chores done before I settle in for a nice chat on the phone wouldn't hurt, either. And I do well with lists, so coming up with a list of things I want to accomplish on any given day would probably contribute to my productivity.

But then again, if I live long enough, there will come a time when all my days are leisure, when being up, dressed, seated in a chair, and sipping a glass of lemonade will feel like major accomplishments, when I will live for the chats with friends or family who can stop by or call, when all those busy things of everyday life have receded into the distant past, and I don't remember them, or even what it was like to fill a summer day with cleaning chores and the baking of some aromatic bread. I suppose in some corner of a very elderly mind, if I live to be so elderly, there will be a bit of thankfulness that I was able to practice the still, silent leisure that will envelope me then, back when I still had a choice in the matter.