Thursday, May 31, 2007

We Interrupt This Blog...

...for a brief announcement.

Today is the birthday of one of my readers/commenters, who is a really great person, a wonderful mom, and a dear friend.

Please join me in wishing "Freddy" a very happy birthday! :)

We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

To Sleeve, Or Not To Sleeve?

I've been reading a forum discussion on modesty of dress, particularly dressing modestly for Mass. As we all know, this is a huge problem, especially in summer months, when so many men show up for Mass dressed in shorts and sandals, wearing tank tops, 'muscle' shirts, or tee shirts with obscene messages on them. Clearly, we must all do our parts to speak to our sons and nephews about the serious need to dress appropriately for Mass, so that our girls won't constantly have to avert their eyes and guard their minds against improper thoughts.

I wish.

No, the discussion as usual has centered around that perennially favorite hot topic, "What Women Should/Shouldn't Wear to Mass."

I don't mean to trivialize anyone's sincere concerns about modesty. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, after all, and it is possible to make the choice to dress in such a way as to be committing the sin of immodesty. If we desire to use our bodies and our clothing to inflame or incite someone else to commit sin, then we are being immodest.

I think most people would agree with what I said just above. Unfortunately, most discussions of modesty I've participated in have had a tendency to disregard the question of intent, and instead have focused on three separate issues: 1) What is appropriate to wear to Mass; 2) What articles of clothing are always and everywhere immodest, and 3) What reason do we have to violate the clear guidelines and standards of the Church?

Let's tackle these in reverse order.

What reason do we have to violate the clear guidelines and standards of the Church?

People who take this approach point to various times and places where various guidelines concerning dress have been given. One oft-quoted phrase was that of Pope Pius XII who, in the 1940s, was asked his opinion of what women teaching in Italian schools should wear to preserve their modesty. He replied "Below the knee, halfway down the arm, and two finger widths below the collarbone." Since this is considerably less 'coverage' than that afforded by the habits of the nuns teaching in Italian Catholic schools, one could speculate that the Holy Father was making it clear that the lay teachers could be dressed quite modestly and appropriately without needing to wear a habit-like garment; yet this quote is pulled out of context and used as a kind of "always and everywhere" statement of what Catholic women should wear.

Another example given is that of Padre Pio, who refused to hear the confession of any woman whose skirt wasn't at least eight inches below her knee. Setting aside the silly image of the good saint holding up a tape measure and frowning at some poor woman whose skirt only dropped 7.75 inches below the knee, we have to admit that it is no longer customary for a woman to wear skirts this long all the time; and as hemlines have risen and fallen considerably since Padre Pio's day, it's doubtful that he'd take issue with Pope Pius XII's less detailed "below the knee" idea.

Still others point to the guidelines required at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome: no miniskirts, no shorts, and covered shoulders. While these minimal guidelines seem quite sensible to me and to many others, the fact of the matter is that they have never been universally imposed; and that is the crux of the matter.

You see, there are no "clear guidelines and standards of the Church." I think most people would agree that it's a good idea to dress modestly for Mass, both for men and for women, but specific guidelines about appropriate and inappropriate dress are properly the decision of the local church authority: the bishop, and the pastors of the churches under his guidance. What will constitute modest dress may vary widely by geographic locality and local culture and custom; there simply isn't one definitive, enforced standard, no matter how hard we may try to create one.

Which brings us to the second question.

What articles of clothing are always and everywhere immodest?

If you've begun to suspect that this might be a trick question, you catch on fast. The fact of the matter is that, as I defined above, modesty is more a matter of intentions than of specific articles of clothing. Few people place an infant in a tiny shirt and diaper with the idea that allowing her to show so much skin might be immodest; many moms of girls find cute dressy one-piece pantsuits for baby's first Christmas, because baby's at that age where she thinks it's hysterically funny to pull her skirt up over her head. But baby isn't being immodest; she's not capable of immodesty.

Are there pieces of clothing out there that reasonable people might find immodest? Sure. But what is immodest on one person won't always be immodest on every person, making it hard to define what exactly constitutes immodest clothing.

A spaghetti-strap sundress may be cute on a five-year-old; it's less cute on an eighteen-year-old, and unless the eighteen-year-old actually looks about twelve, chances are this dress won't be her best choice for Sunday Mass. But is the dress, itself, actually immodest? Possibly, but only if it has been designed to be revealing and arousing no matter who wears it; and few pieces of clothing actually match that description.

Are sleeveless tops immodest? Again, not necessarily. They may be, if you're wearing one amidst a group of people who never bare their arms in public; the sight of 'arm flesh' may seem like a forbidden pleasure to them, and if you know that, and wear it anyway, you may be crossing the line. However, it would be hard to argue that the average American is going to be inflamed with passion at the sight of a bare arm; partly because sleeveless tops are quite a common article of clothing, but also since so many of the women who will wear sleeveless tops look positively dreadful in them. There is nothing particularly titillating about the sight of a pale, flabby, fleshy middle-aged arm hanging out of a sleeveless top; but that brings us to the third question.

What is appropriate to wear to Mass?

Previous generations had this whole question so much easier, didn't they? Clothes were relatively expensive, so most people had two separate and distinct categories of clothing: everyday clothes, and Sunday Best.

Even after World War II, when synthetic fabrics made more clothing options available, the average woman had three or four categories of clothing: 'house' clothes, 'street' clothes, 'evening' clothes...and Sunday Best.

There was some overlap, of course. A 'street' suit, which was often a nice skirt and jacket, hat and gloves optional, could be worn to Church as well. And a tea-length evening dress might look nice at Easter or Christmas, for that extra-special touch. Or, one's Sunday Best dresses might be pressed into service for an afternoon out, or for dinner with one's husband at a nice restaurant. But one's everyday, around the house clothes were clearly too casual to wear to Church, or indeed, even to the grocery store.

Sigh.

We live in a casual age, in a casual society. "Business Casual" has almost become the new "dress code;" one is seldom required, at least in the societal echelon to which I belong, to dress much more nicely than that. The kind of dress I buy to wear to a wedding was once the kind of dress women wore every Sunday, complete with stockings, closed-toe shoes, gloves, and a hat. The kind of dress a woman might wear just out to dinner might be seen at a formal occasion, if then; people go out to eat dressed in the same everyday clothes they wear for everything else.

I think many of the people who bristle about "modesty" at Mass are really upset about the declining standards of dress in general, and about the trend to push the envelope toward more and more casual clothing. Are sleeveless tops really 'immodest' in the sense of being likely to inflame passions or cause impure thoughts? Or are they, generally speaking, just representative of our falling standards of dress, of the trend toward more and more casual clothing for every event of our lives?

I really do think it comes down to a concern about dressing appropriately for Sunday Mass, not dressing immodestly. After all, the people who raise 'modesty' concerns about a sleeveless top or a nice pair of slacks might find it hard to raise these same concerns if the woman wearing these articles of clothing is sitting beside them at daily Mass; we tend to accept that people will come to daily Mass wearing what they need to wear that day. It's only on Sunday, when we gather as a community of the faithful for our chief act of worship of the week, that some people find the casual, even sloppy nature of some of the clothing to be deplorable; but let's be honest, here: that's not about modesty, for the most part. Because if it were about modesty, if it were about offending our Lord, then it would be equally offensive to show up for daily Mass dressed that way, wouldn't it?

Is it right to expect that people will make some special effort in their manner of dressing for Sunday Mass? I think it is. We are gathering as a community, as a family, to participate in the act of worship which our Lord instituted. Our attendance isn't optional on Sunday as it is every other day of the week; we make a special effort with the flowers and the music and even, in many places, the incense on Sunday. Why not dress up a little, too? It's not a bad idea.

But it's not mandatory, either. We don't know whether the jeans-clad man beside us is wearing the best thing he owns, do we? We don't know whether the woman in the sleeveless top is clueless about how her arms look, or if she's suffering terribly from hot flashes, and thinks it's better to go sleeveless than to drip with perspiration. It's pretty hard to judge the hearts and motivations of those who sit around us at Mass, and it's pretty petty of us to try.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to see people dress nicely at Mass, either. But we can only really make those decisions on our own behalf, or on that of our family. If we are motivated by respect for God and love for our fellow man, then we may certainly make the effort to see to it that we, and our spouses and children, make a little more effort in our dress on Sunday morning than we do on Saturday night. But we may not judge others for not doing so. This is one of those times when we may lead by example, or not at all. It would be uncharitable of us to place a heavier burden in this area on our fellow Catholics than the Church herself chooses to place.

Please Stand By

I meant to post today (yesterday?); really, I did.

But our cable modem died.

It was weird, not having the computer on, not checking in on blogs and news sites, and the weather (on behalf of my youngest DD, who combines an interest in meteorology with a dread of thunderstorms).

It was even weirder to realize just how dependent on this square beige time-sponge I've become.

My DH picked up a replacement modem from the cable company and installed it this evening. (He has to have the ability to connect to the Internet from home, for his job. Is it wrong of me to be grateful for that fact?)

Expect posts tomorrow (or later today, technically).

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est

"Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

One of the gravest responsibilities of any President of the United States is his responsibility to act as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. No decision of policy, no attempt to set the course of the nation's domestic affairs can compare in sheer gravity to the duty of the President to preserve and protect the nation; no decision he can make in these realms shares the import of that which places the men and women in our military in harm's way.

It is clear that this is a decision that should never be made without the most serious of purposes, to avert the gravest of harms, and in the face of the most terrible of necessities. The writings of past wartime Presidents shows us how weighty the decision to go to war always was, how much they struggled with it, how sincerely they prayed and wept over it, how they were either vindicated or indited by history because of it.

At present, America continues to fight a war in Iraq. This war has already lasted slightly longer than the American Civil War; and though we may in some sense be thankful that the casualties of this war are much less than they were of that former one, it is small comfort. In the Civil War, it may be argued that President Lincoln had little choice but to engage the South in battle to preserve the Union; at the very least, it must be recognized that the war began on our own soil and clearly involved American interests. The same cannot be said of the Iraq war; Iraq was not directly responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on America, and if it was truly justified for us to go to war with any nation that might have been giving aid and comfort to terrorist organizations, then why did we not expand our efforts, and go to war with other putative terror-sponsoring states, such as Saudi Arabia and Syria?

Even if America was justified in seeking to remove Saddam Hussein from power, it seems clear that little planning was made for the chaos that would result from the power vacuum we were about to create. As the Lincoln quote above says, we didn't expect that the cause of the conflict would cease before the conflict itself would cease--but Saddam Hussein is dead, and we are still in Baghdad. Moreover, it looks increasingly as though we will either remain there for the foreseeable future, or leave, and let the fledgling democracy we've tried to create falter and drown in the bloody waters of internecine conflict that are pretty much the status quo of that region of the world.

It would seem that unlike other (though not necessarily all) wartime Presidents, our current President allowed himself to be persuaded to a course of action by people who would directly benefit from that action. Wars may be fought for many good or noble reasons, but the protection of mere economic interests doesn't make the list. I would rather see an America forced to cut its dependence on foreign oil with whatever sacrifices that would require, right down to the personal level, than an America willing to shed a single drop of a soldier's blood in exchange for an ocean of that oil.

As U.S. military deaths in Iraq approach 3,500, it is time to reflect. Is the war in Iraq worth the cost it is exacting? Will the grieving family of a single one of those departed soldiers whom we remember today in company with the heroes of the past truly be able to whisper to themselves, for comfort, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country,"?

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Rainy Day in May

A rainy day in May does not at all
Remind me of wet winter mornings past
All gray and cold; nor does it much recall
In tone or temper autumn's drizzled blast.
New seems the rain, which falls in speckled shrouds
Yielding its essence to the softened earth
Dancing toward death, from purple spattered clouds
And ending life in sacrificial mirth--
Yet May's raindrops, reborn, arise anew
In flower's hearts; or soft green tree-buds gain
New life in late spring, nourished, rising true
Mothered by the life and death of rain.
And seeing this, I must, reflected, see
You, dearest Lord, who did the same for me.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

We Need a New Law, Stat!

Last Saturday, a little boy named Emilio Gonzalez lost his fight with Leigh's disease, dying at the age of nineteen months.

Losing a child at any age is always a tragedy, but in the case of baby Emilio the tragedy was compounded by Texas' futile care law. This disgraceful law gives patients and their families a mere ten days to transfer to another medical facility if the hospital treating them decides that the care being given them is "futile;" otherwise, the hospital may legally discontinue life-sustaining treatment against the wishes of the patient or the person responsible for making the patient's medical decisions.

Baby Emilio's mother had to go to court to stop the Austin hospital where he was a patient from removing his ventilator. Having declared his care to be futile, the hospital was entitled by the current law to do this. Since his mother took the fight to the courts, however, the hospital didn't remove the ventilator, and Emilio died just short of two months after the date the hospital originally intended to end his life.

In a nineteen month lifespan, two months is a lot of time.

It should be pointed out that the removal of a ventilator is not the same as the removal of food and water; this case is not a parallel to the Terri Schiavo case. One may licitly refuse a ventilator, even on behalf of someone else in one's care. Whether one can remove a ventilator after it has begun to be used, if it is known that the person will not be able to breathe and will die within minutes is a subject of debate; some moral theologians appear to believe that this may only be done if some effort is made to wean the person off of the ventilator, if necessary operating and giving the person a tracheotomy or other procedure that would allow the patient to breath despite any obstruction; others do not appear to believe that this must be done, particularly in cases where death is truly imminent and the ventilator itself is causing severe pain and discomfort to the patient, as sometimes happens. I am not an expert in this area, but I do think that a ventilator presents a different level of care than the ordinary care of food and water, which are normative even if they must be delivered through a feeding tube.

Having said all that, though, what is troublesome about Baby Emilio's case was the fact that the hospital, and not the patient's mother, was allowed to make the decision to remove the ventilator; further, though they gave Emilio's mother ten days to find another facility that would take Emilio, they knew quite well that nursing care and hospice facilities would refuse to take him precisely because he was on a ventilator! There was no good-faith effort to help find another solution for this patient and his family, in other words.

The reality here is that while doctors and hospitals may be good judges of someone's medical condition or the benefits or lack thereof of treating that person, only a patient and his family should be able to make the decisions about what treatment options will be accepted or rejected. I have no problem with a caring doctor attempting to persuade a family that further care of their loved one will do no good, and may even cause unnecessary pain; but I have lots of problems with the idea that the doctor can then take this information to the hospital's ethics board, which will then decide to order the discontinuation of the treatment.

The Texas futile care law creates an untenable situation fraught with hostility between doctor and patient. Indeed, the relationship between doctor and patient is completely fractured by this law, which forces doctors to be more answerable to their employer then they are to their patients, and which further requires the doctors to deem some patients unworthy of even palliative care at the end of their lives. There is talk, at present, of giving patients twenty-one days to make new care arrangements instead of the current ten; though this may seem like a step in the right direction it doesn't even begin to address the underlying, and very wrong, assumption that decisions like these should be made by people other than the ones being treated, or their loving family members on their behalf.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Twenty Minutes on Wednesday

I have to go start making dinner in approximately twenty minutes. At that time it will be four p.m. where I am, no matter what time Blogger says it is. (Which reminds me--I need to check my settings page to see if I've actually got the time zone set up correctly.)

I don't usually start dinner that early, but Wednesdays have become a bit more hectic since we joined the choir--practice is around the time we normally eat. So my long, leisurely afternoons of putting off thinking about dinner until the last possible moment, which works so well in the Texas heat, have to go by the wayside on Wednesdays.

So in the ten minutes I now have left, since I answered the phone (hi, sister from out of state to whom I'm talking as I type this!) I thought I'd check in, because I know that I won't have time when we get home tonight.

When I was a child, twenty minutes seemed like such a long time. I remember in early elementary school, when I realized that if I watched a total of four five-minute cartoons, twenty minutes would go by--and I was horrified! That was time that could be better spent doing almost anything else! And off I went to play, before it was too late.

Sadly, both my time-management ethics and my math brain disappeared shortly after that point. In the five remaining minutes I'd like to talk a little about how our sense of time changes so dramatically, and what that says about us as eternal beings.

When we are small, a few minutes seem like a long time. There's twenty whole minutes until the end of the school day? we'd think, scowling at the clock. And if I wore a watch to Mass--heavens! Still twenty minutes to go? You'd think we'd been here for hours by now!

But the older I get, the faster time passes. Twenty minutes is barely enough time to pound out an incoherent blog entry before I start making dinner; twenty minutes left of Mass means Mass is almost over.

And I know from people older than I am that that whole sensation increases. The elderly woman in the nursing home smiles when the Christmas decorations appear; Christmas was yesterday, or sometime last week, it seems. Memories from nearly a century of Christmases past mingle in her mind, becoming one, becoming now.

I think we will experience eternity something like that--the longer we are in the presence of God, the less we will be aware of the passing of time, the less we will know anything of time at all.

Unfortunately, it's time for me to go make dinner.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Rod Dreher has several different posts regarding the illegal immigration situation. I think they're worth reading.

My views on illegal immigration, like those of most Catholics, are somewhat complex. On the one hand, as one commenter on the Crunchy Con blog said, no one seriously expects that twelve million people are going to be deported. The logistics alone necessary to make that happen would be staggering.

Moreover, it's hard not to feel compassion for families, many of them fellow Catholics, who came to America because they simply couldn't survive in Mexico or Latin America. It's hard not to want to overlook, at least a little, the crime they committed to enter our country illegally, when we can see that they've also been here for years, paying taxes, educating their children, and dreaming of becoming Americans. And some who are here illegally do fit that description.

Of course, there are others who don't, who commit crimes in this country, who don't want to see themselves as Americans, who insist that American land really belongs to Mexico and should be reconquered. I have less sympathy for them.

And we can't forget that there are those who come here legally, for whom it is a great injustice that we let people stay here who've broken all the laws and rules. What possible incentive can we give to those who want to come here legally, when we punish them with restrictive laws but then turn around and extend a welcoming hand to the lawbreakers?

In then end, some form of amnesty will probably prevail politically. But I think we're making a great mistake if we forget the old maxim I've used to title this post: Good fences make good neighbors.

Without getting serious about protecting our southern border, any program of amnesty is not only not going to fix the problem of illegal immigration; it's going to increase it exponentially, as new waves of would-be citizens flood into the country. Any mother knows that winking at bad behavior only encourages a child to repeat it; the government is apparently slow to learn this lesson, as the last time amnesty was granted to illegal immigrants there were roughly one-fourth of the number that are here now.

A border fence, combined with strict enforcement of our current laws and the automatic deportation of any illegal immigrant with a criminal record, or one caught committing a felony, would be a start toward restoring sanity. I think we should consider some creative options, too, like changing the law that guarantees United States citizenship to any person born on U.S. soil. I think it would be wise to amend this to mean that those born to U.S. citizens are automatically U.S. citizens, but that anyone born here whose parents are merely visiting our country, or here illegally, is not granted automatic citizenship. That law may have made sense when America was a young country with few citizens and lots of space, but now it's insane, given the "anchor baby" problem.

We also need to take steps to create actual disincentives for companies to hire illegal immigrants. As things stand now, many companies are willing to risk the rather trivial consequences of being caught violating laws against hiring illegals, but that could change, if the federal government was willing to create new punitive measures to use against companies found employing illegal immigrants. I'd suggest, as a starting point, fines triple the annual wages that would have had to be paid to each illegal immigrant if he were a citizen; in addition, the company should have to pay the cost of deportation for each employee and every member of his family who is also present in the U.S. illegally. (I'd add insult to injury and make them pay for first class airfare, but that's probably just my mean streak coming out.)

The truth in the matter is, we have to balance any compassion we might feel for illegal immigrants with the sad reality that as long as this situation continues unresolved, the social contract we have with our federal government is strained to the breaking point.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sigh.

So I was cutting up a ham steak for dinner, and I asked my daughters, "Would you like one-fourth, one-sixth, or one-eighth of the ham steak to start with?" and I showed them that I could cut the ham steak into each of these fractions.

And the youngest sighed loudly, and said, "Oh, great. An educational dinner."

A Bleg from a Dinosaur Mom

I have a love-hate relationship with the last two weeks of school, especially as a homeschooling mom.

On the one hand, summer and all the freedom it promises looms closer and closer. Each day another set of dashes appears in the lesson plan books, until only two or three subjects remain to be finished up before June 1, our official 'last day of school.' And every day I have a little more time free to think about what the twelve clear weeks ahead will bring.

On the other hand, the children finish earlier each day, and the problem with the children finishing their schoolwork early is simply that they finish their schoolwork early. When they were younger, an early finish meant some art projects, or some early afternoon playtime outdoors; but as they've gotten older things have gotten a little more complicated--I no longer feel comfortable letting them play outside too early on a school day, for instance.

Today I solved the early finish problem by bringing out an educational video they haven't watched in a really long time. It's about the desert, and desert animals, and is done in a child-friendly yet informative manner that I appreciate. My youngest has been drawing desert animals using this book, which she recently finished, and I thought it might be fun for her to see some of the creatures she's been drawing.

As the girls watched the video, I began to realize that we really don't have many educational videos or DVDs. I remember watching movies like this in the classroom when I was young, and though sometimes the teachers were motivated by the same thing that motivated me today, that is, the need to keep the students busy for a while, there were other times when the educational materials really did enrich the lesson, provide an in-depth look at some unit of study, or round out some information about a difficult topic in math or science.

Why, I wondered, have I never taken greater advantage of the wealth of educational programs available today? Why haven't I looked for some videos or DVDs on topics we've learned, or on electives (such as Spanish) that I'd like to teach in the future?

Then it hit me.

I didn't grow up with educational videos or DVDs. I grew up with the large, clunky audio/visual projectors, the ones that would hum so loudly you sometimes couldn't hear the voices on the audio track. I grew up with slide projector presentations, the ones where the audio, played on a tape recorder, would beep loudly when it was time for the teacher to flip to the next slide.

Compared to the video/DVD/CD-ROM/interactive Internet age, I grew up in the dinosaur years of educational enrichment.

And so, despite the fact that we do incorporate some computer resources into our homeschool, we really haven't taken advantage of the resources available today.

Which brings me to my bleg.

You younger, more tech-savvy moms out there, especially those of you young enough to have had TVs with VCRs wheeled into your classrooms instead of those garish, lumpy audio/visual projectors (why were they so often green??): can you give a DinoMom some hints? Or you moms my age and older, who've already figured this out, what would you suggest? What educational videos/DVDs would you recommend, particularly for middle-school students? Are there any you've tried but haven't liked? I'm open to suggestions for all subject areas, as I don't really have very much of anything right now.

With your help, I hope to build up our video/DVD collection somewhat, so that next year when the children start to finish early before a major holiday or at the end of the year, or when someone's struggling a bit with some particular subject, or even when someone's down with a nasty cold and can't concentrate on regular work, I'll have some resources available.

This DinoMom thanks you.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Importance of Dreams

I don't usually post on Saturday, but I had an interesting experience earlier today that I'd like to share.

My family and I were out running some usual Saturday errands, when we stopped in at a local bookstore. A lady named Barbara Kreger Washburn was singing copies of this, her first book. I couldn't help buying a copy; she described it as a "Christian murder mystery," and while I love to read murder mysteries I rarely read any modern ones--too full of bad language, gratuitous sex, and other problematic elements on the part of the "good guys" for me to be able to enjoy them. I think it will be interesting to read a modern Christian murder mystery, which should neatly avoid the issues of having to follow the exploits of a detective who seems little better than the killer from a moral standpoint. I'll try to post a review when I've read the book.

That said, what was interesting to me was getting to admit to a published author that my dream is to be published. As I may have mentioned before, I currently have two unpublished manuscripts for young adult science fiction books, and plans for at least two more (which I hope to get started on once summer vacation begins). There was a time when all I had were ideas, and it was very easy to keep putting off the actual work of writing them down; but having crossed that particular Rubicon I can only wonder why I waited so long. Of course, now my kids shudder when I say I'm working on a book, because they know how dreamy, unfocused, and forgetful I get when I'm writing; but there was a time when they were my excuse for not writing, until I realized that if I let them be my excuse, and waited until they were grown up, moved out, and living a vocation before I got started I'd probably never get started at all.

Of course, now that I know that I really do enjoy writing, the next dream to be fulfilled is finding someone who will publish something I've written (aside from the newspaper which published the essay which constitutes my sole published work). And, from reading the accounts that published writers relate about their experiences, I know that even getting published is just the beginning.

Dreams have a way of growing and spreading, but at each step of the journey toward fulfillment we find something precious and new, some experience we would never have imagined, some joy we wouldn't have expected, some insight we're surprised to discover.

As summer approaches, I hope you'll take the time to pull a dream or two out of the closet or attic, or off the back burner, and see about getting it measured or fitted or spruced up to become a reality.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Things that Last

Earlier this week, I wrote about an aspect of crunchy conservatism I tend to admire: the concern with safe, healthy food, and the opposition to potentially dangerous factory farming practices.

Today, though, I'm going to focus on an aspect of crunchy conservatism that's beginning to trouble me.

It is the emphasis on owning "good" things, on buying homes and furnishings and even shoes of "good" quality; an emphasis on not purchasing any "junk," but only buying the Things that Last.

This attitude has begun to crop up in many places, including a few Catholic Mommy Blogs I visit. I was going to link to them, but I've decided not to. The point of this post isn't to be critical of any one person specifically, but only of an attitude that's beginning to seep into the zeitgeist, so to speak.

There was a discussion, for instance, on a blog I won't name, about buying furniture. Someone commented, rather mildly I thought, on the need to be sensitive to those moms out there for whom this type of furniture remains a distant dream; this comment was answered rather dismissively by the blog's owner, who said that some people did bring up the idea of used furniture, and anyway, it's not wrong to want to have a nice home and to prioritize and buy some nice things for it.

I could only imagine how that answer must have felt to the commenter. Where did we Catholics get the idea that the only reason some people don't have "nice things" is that they don't prioritize their spending properly? When did we decide that creating a nice home for our families automatically means purchasing things that are not only expensive, but that have some kind of prestige about them?

Once I took part in an online conversation that centered around the buying of bookcases. The 'crunchy' view was that it was not only important, but necessary, to have solid wood bookcases and to avoid the 'cheap' put-together cases. When it was objected that some people can barely afford the put-together ones, several people began to suggest, perfectly seriously, that it was more virtuous in that case to stack your books against your walls and save up a few dollars at a time for solid wood bookcases than it would be to buy the cheap ones you could afford.

I realize that many people are frustrated with our disposable world, with our crassly consumerist, materialistic lifestyles. But I don't think that people whose focus and emphasis is on the quality and permanence of the things they buy are aware that they are caught in a different, but no less materialist, trap. Christians are supposed to be detached from the things of this world; it is hard to see detachment among people who are focused on having the right kinds of furniture, the right kinds of toys for their children, the right sort of homes and bookcases and shoes and dishes and purses and watches and on and on.

Take toys, for instance. Is the hundred-dollar handcrafted rag doll really better than the twenty dollar kind? Oh, sure, in one sense it's nice to get away from mass produced items. But I would argue that the hundred-dollar doll is only good if the child is really allowed to play with it. Can she drag it around by the feet? Can she chew on its hands, when she's teething? Can she cuddle up with it at night, take it outside for tea parties and tree-climbing adventures, let it ride beside her in the car on the way to grandma's house? Can she share it with her friends?

Or does the doll 'live' on top of the highest shelf in the room, and get taken down only occasionally? Are there strict rules about how the doll may and may not be played with? Is it forbidden to take the doll outdoors, and does the doll get hidden away when grubby-fingered little friends come to call? Is the doll, in other words, an idol?

What about that nice leather purse from the good brand-name company? Sure, it's expensive, you rationalize, but just think--it could be the last purse you ever buy! You can get rid of the cheap ones that wear out too soon! You'll really be saving money, in the long run, and just think of the quality!

Except you buy a cheap purse when you go on vacation, because you don't want the 'good' one to attract thieves. And you buy another cheap purse for the pool, because the one you bought to go on vacation isn't big enough for the bottle of sunscreen--and you're not about to carry sunscreen in your 'good' purse. But still, you're thrilled every time someone comments on your nice purse, at church or at the mom's group or at a restaurant--until the purse starts to look worn, and broken in, and no one comments anymore. You keep telling yourself, it's your 'good' purse, and you'll never buy another one--until your carsick daughter unwittingly ends up being sick on the Thing that Lasts. And you're really, really angry with her, because in a way you've been worshiping that purse, and there's no money for another one.

These are just a couple of examples, but there are plenty of things that can end up being the focus of our lives, eclipsing the One Who should always be our focus. Creating a clean, comfortable home is part of the task of a mother, but 'clean and comfortable' doesn't have to mean 'solid wood, handcrafted, and expensive.' Creating those expectations in our minds can lead to dissatisfaction with the things we do have; it can lead us to replace things that are perfectly good and useful, because they're only plastic or press board, and thus don't satisfy some aesthetic sense we want to project in our lives; it can cause us to reject mass produced materialistic values, but then replace them with a 'crunchy' value that is, sadly, no less materialistic in the long run.

Because, in the long run, there are only three Things that Last; they are, according to St. Paul, faith, and hope, and love. Whether we're buried in a simple pine box or laid to rest in a gorgeous hand-carved mahogany coffin will make little difference to our ultimate destination. And how nice or crunchy or aesthetically pleasing the things we owned on earth were will only matter to the people who line up to shop at our estate sale; God will be asking us what we did with the treasure He gave us, and the most beautiful silver receptacle we could possibly buy to put it in won't satisfy Him, because He expects us to have spent it on our brothers.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Keeping Bishops Safe: A Review of a Diocesan Safe Environment Program

I want to preface this post with a disclaimer.

I am a faithful Catholic who appreciates the hierarchical structure of our Church. I'm thankful for our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, and also for my current bishop, who has inherited several problems from his predecessor and has been working diligently and thoughtfully to solve these issues. Further, though I lean towards a somewhat traditional Catholicism, I generally attend the Novus Ordo Mass, and tend to prefer it, provided it is not being used as a platform for liturgical experimentation.

In addition, I realize that the priest abuse scandal has done grave damage to the Church. The Scandal has cost some people their faith; it has weakened the trust of others, who, while still Catholic, distance themselves in some way or other from the institutional church. The cost to victims and their families can hardly be overstated, and in many places the steps necessary to allow deep and lasting healing have scarcely even begun to be taken.

All of that said, much of the rest of this post will be somewhat critical of current church policy regarding the Scandal, and its aftermath.

Last night, my husband and I had to attend our diocese's "Keeping Children, Youth, and Vulnerable Adults Safe" program, which is required for all volunteers. In fact, the class must be taken once every three years by all employees, volunteers, and "anyone wishing to serve the diocese in any capacity." The reality is that lots of people end up taking the classes, even if their sole contact with children is to give them Communion as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (EMHC), or, in our case, to sing alongside a handful of children in an adult choir. (There are only six children in the choir; three of them are ours!) But even if your ministry doesn't include children at all, you have to take the class, and allow the diocese to run a background check on you before you can volunteer to do anything at all.

I fail to see how that strategy won't eventually backfire. Even at the session we attended last night, some of our fellow attendees were grumbling about the fact that it wasn't, by and large, lay volunteers who were offending against children in the first place. It smacks a little too much of ingratitude to tell people who are willingly, cheerfully devoting themselves to the ministries of the church, unpaid, under appreciated, and often overwhelmed, that they must submit to a criminal background check and attend a two to three hour training session before they will be considered to be safe around children; and when the people involved are parents, it smacks not only of ingratitude, but also of a level of unjust and defaming suspicion that many people will find intolerable. (I can't help but overhear in my imagination some mom of six or so, being told she 'must' do these things before she can deliver brownies to her daughter's religious ed. class, saying, "Fine! Make your own d*** brownies, then.")

The session we attended last night consisted principally of a video presentation prepared by this organization, which advertises itself as "The National Leader in Abuse Risk Management." How much the diocese has paid for this program I can only guess; it was a slick corporate presentation which seemed to be divided between training people to watch for the signs of abuse, and training volunteers to protect themselves from false accusation when around children by always making sure that there are at least two adults in the room any time children are around. (The levels to which this latter part was stressed during the group discussion sometimes seemed absurd, such as the EMHC who was told to lock the sacristy door rather than run the risk that an altar server might enter while he was the only adult present.)

The presentation was a good hour longer than it needed to be, as the second half was redundant, covering pretty much the same material as the first. For anyone who's ever watched an Oprah special about child molesters, the information presented by this video program was weak in the extreme. For example, the video mentioned that most abusers are known to the family, but failed to mention that most abusers look for families that are not intact, are dysfunctional, or otherwise contain parents who aren't watching out for their children. It did not mention that coming from a single-parent family doubles the risk that a child will be abused, or that most victims of child molestation come from single-parent households. There's a reason for this; the 'grooming' process molesters engage in makes them actively seek such households, where the stressed single parent is grateful for the help of another adult who wants to drive Johnny to soccer practice or who will help Jill with her math homework, and who doesn't notice the dangerous level of attachment between the child and this 'helpful' adult until it's too late. Unfortunately, the video presentation left potential volunteers with the impression that family members and even biological parents are equally a threat to children; the facts, though, are that someone "known to but unrelated to" the child is most likely to offend, while family members are about as much a risk as total strangers, and biological parents the least likely of all to offend against their children.

Which brings me to another complaint about the video. Much time was spent on the question of "appropriate vs. inappropriate" physical contact, with 'full-body hugs' and 'child on lap' being considered inappropriate. Further, attendees were warned repeatedly that while we won't see molestation taking place, we will see inappropriate contact. Not might; you understand--will. But there was never any point within the video, the discussions, the paperwork sent home, or anywhere at all, where the difference between acceptable contact between parents and their children was exempted from the "inappropriate contact" label! In other words, volunteers left with the impression that a 'full-body hug' between any adult and any child was inappropriate, even if the child was hugging his own mother or father!

This is simply unacceptable. Parents have enough problems these days with having to worry that any public discipline we must administer to our children may be misinterpreted as physical abuse; now we must also be concerned that any affection we show our children in public may be misinterpreted as sexual abuse! There is no reason for parents to have to deal with such unfounded and uncharitable suspicions on the part of members of our own parish communities, and any evidence that such situations are arising must be taken as a sign that the "Safe Environment" programs are seriously flawed.

Will such problems arise? I fail to see how they won't, considering how much time the presenter spent stressing the notion that even if something just 'feels' wrong, we should report it, to the Church and to Child Protective Services. In fact, the presenter went out of her way to explain that under Texas law, anyone making a 'good faith' report of physical or sexual abuse of a child is exempt from liability if they turn out to be wrong. That they will have put an innocent family through hell in this case was not mentioned at all, nor was any notion that Christians should not engage in slander, calumny, or detraction about each other, even if it's 'for the children.' While I have no problem at all with the idea that serious suspicions of abuse, or evidence of such, should be reported right away, I do have a problem with turning random Church volunteers into a kind of 'hug patrol' that will make people paranoid about interacting with children.

In the end, what frustrates me most about this is that everyone knows that the Scandal didn't happen because some mom on "cookie duty" was giving shoulder massages to random girls in the class. The Scandal didn't even happen solely because some priests violated their vows, disgraced their offices and betrayed the innocent children in their care. The Scandal happened because when good and faithful Catholics found out that Father was sexually assaulting their son or their daughter (but mainly their sons), and went to their bishops expecting the problem to be dealt with appropriately, the bishops became collaborators in the abuse by silencing the victims, allowing the predator-priests to continue to victimize others, and attempting to sweep the whole problem under the rectory rug. They wanted to avoid scandal, but the Scandal they caused was much worse than anything that would have resulted from swift decisive action and honesty.

And nothing in the Safe Environment program has changed any of that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In Life, As At a Feast

Those readers who've been with me for a while will know that I have an interest in the issue of crunchy conservatism--or, rather, the issues, because crunchy conservatism covers many different areas of concern.

One of the issues I've gone back and forth about is the issue of food and food production. On the one hand, like most people, I'd prefer to buy food that isn't contaminated with artificial growth hormones and pesticides, and I don't really condone the practice of treating animals cruelly, even if their ultimate destination is my dinner plate. On the other hand, though, I'm aware of the higher cost of 'crunchy' food, and the fact that it's not available to all people, all the time.

To put it more simply, neither cavalier condoning of mistreatment of the natural world, nor snobby, egocentric food elitism, strikes me as being the proper Christian response here.

If you've never thought about factory farming and the dangers it poses to food safety and health, you might look here. This series of animated films provides a good overview of the kinds of concerns people are raising about factory farms, food production, worker safety, animal cruelty, and the like.

For an example of a non-factory farm, read this (HT: Rod Dreher's "Crunchy Con" blog). I found myself admiring the farmer, Paul Atkinson, for so many things: his appreciation of the natural world, his work ethic, his devotion to Catholic principles, his amazing skill in coming up with the name "Laughing Stock Farm" (no, seriously! I love the name!). I firmly believe that we'd be better off in many ways if more farms were independently owned and operated; I don't trust big agribusiness to be the guardians of food health and safety.

But wait! you might say. Isn't that what the FDA is for?

This FDA? The one that says we shouldn't worry about eating pork or chicken contaminated with the same melamine that ended up in pet food, killing the pets? The same FDA that hasn't admitted, as far as I know, that the melamine contamination of the feed in question wasn't actually an accident, but was done on purpose?

The truth is, we don't really know how safe our food is. What we do know disturbs me greatly.

But what do we do about it?

One of the things some people do is make an effort to change their food buying habits, and my family and I have attempted to do this at times. In fact, we haven't eaten beef for several years now. This is partly due to the research my husband has done into the issue; for me, the notion that calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth and then fed a "milk replacement" substance that is made from cow's blood was one I couldn't get past, as it seems as dangerous as it is nauseating. But I don't believe the power of the market is the only way to solve our problem with inhumane and dangerous factory farming practices--and I don't think it's really very crunchy to put all our eggs, so to speak, in the "intelligent consumer" basket. At the very best, this approach is blindly optimistic that more intelligent, thoughtful consumption on the part of those who can afford it will somehow trickle down to those people in our society who are economically unable to choose, say, between two chickens, one of which is double or triple the cost of the other.

But if we can't make enough of a difference at the grocery store, where can we make a difference?

I'm not the kind of person who believes that government can solve every problem. I don't expect the government to raise my children for me (or even to educate them) and I fervently hope I'll have more than Social Security going for me when the time comes for retirement.

But this kind of problem is only possible when government adopts a policy of protecting big agribusiness, and of looking the other way when even the most egregious violations of health and safety regulations are going on right under their noses.

It's time we held the federal government accountable for food safety. It's time we stopped allowing our congressmen and women to pass regulation after regulation which helps the big agribusinesses and punishes the small farmer (heard of the National Animal Identification System, anyone?). It's time we insisted that big corporate farms and meat production facilities receive more than a slap on the wrist when it can be proved that they've knowingly hired illegal immigrants in violation of U.S. labor laws. It's time we increased the FDA's inspection rate exponentially, so more food will be safe.

Ignoring this problem is only going to make it worse.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Caution: Summer Congestion Is Bad for Your Health

From my adorable big sis comes the suggestion for this post. She's been homeschooling for a lot more years than I have, so when she talks about something that can put a strain on homeschooling moms, I tend to listen.

Imagine that you're talking to a fellow homeschooling mom. It's a bright spring afternoon in mid-May; the baby, two-year-old and the twins are all napping at the same time for the first time since the baby was born; your four older children are playing in the backyard. Giddy with all the freedom, you call that nice lady from the homeschool group, the one you're just getting to know. She has eight children, too, but she's only been homeschooling for a year. Though she's taken to it like a duck to water, she still likes to talk to you from time to time, and you enjoy getting to share your experiences with homeschooling (and also, let's face it, you like being able to talk to someone who understands when she hears you say, in the background, "No, I'm not buying more band-aids until you've used up all the ones we have!").

You have it on your list of things to do to call her, as she said something to you after Mass the other day about summer activities, but you were too busy keeping the twins out of the bee-filled holly bushes to answer her. So now, you dial her number, and spend a pleasant few minutes just catching up (and talking in polysyllabic words!).

"I just can't wait for summer vacation to start," the woman, whom we'll call Mrs. Cheever, says a little breathlessly. "I'm going to get so much done this summer!"

"Oh, me too," you answer as you finish chopping the vegetables for the casserole you're making. "I really need to clean out, and there's some painting we need to do, too..."

"Wow! You're going to do home improvement projects? Do you call that an elective?"

Wondering if you heard incorrectly over the whirr of the mixer as you start the biscuits, you say, "Not really. It's just routine maintenance, but I haven't had enough time to catch up on things."

"Same here," she agrees. "But I don't know when I'll get to stuff like that over the summer. We're going to be so busy!"

"Are you taking a trip?" you ask as you pop the casserole into the oven.

"We have to visit relatives in early August, but the VBS will be over by then, and the hands-on day camp sessions for the early readers..."

"VBS?"

"Vacation Bible School. There's a Catholic group doing one this year at St. Quieta's. It's a two week program, and it's just like the ones the Protestants across the street are doing, but of course it's all Catholic, which makes it so nice, doesn't it?"

"I suppose so," you reply a little hesitantly, shredding lettuce for the salad. "We've never done one before."

"I'll send you the link to the info," Mrs. Cheever says enthusiastically. "The only bad thing about it is that I think we'll be late for the Early Readers' Day Camp at the library the first few days; it starts the second Wednesday of the VBS, and since it's clear across town we're going to have to jump into the car after VBS, pick up something for lunch, and hope we get to the library in time to drop off Isidore and Martinian for the camp. If they're more than half an hour late they won't let them join the rest of the group. But after the first three days we should be fine."

"Once VBS is over, you mean?" you ask, sitting down with a glass of iced tea and preparing to focus a bit more closely on the conversation.

"Right, because the Little Seamstress class the girls are taking the next week is early in the morning, so it won't be such a rush to get the younger boys to the Readers' Camp on time. Of course, picking up the boys in time to get them home and changed for swim lessons will be a challenge, but thankfully that's only on Thursdays. And that reminds me--are you one of the mothers signed up to help plan the Altar Server's Picnic at St. Q's?"

"I think so," you say, checking your calendar. "Yes, I'm signed up. Are you? I've got to find out what day we're meeting for that..."

"What day?" Mrs. Cheever laughs. "We're having eight meetings, starting the last week of June."

"Oh," you remark, startled. "We've always had just the one meeting before, and then the picnic the next week."

"Well, the mothers took a vote--it was that week you couldn't make it, when the twins were sick, I think. Anyway, a lot of us wanted to do something a little more exciting than a picnic, so we're having a fund raiser to raise enough money for the servers to go to the Giant Fun Carnival of Expensive Rides. We're thinking either a bingo night, or maybe a dance--plus the candy sales, of course. As long as I've got you on the phone, how do Tuesday nights work for you? Thursdays we've got swimming lessons, as I said, and between Sallustia's violin lessons on Monday and Ultan's painting tutorial at the Museum on Wednesday afternoons, I've only got Tuesdays left open..."

"You certainly are going to be busy this summer," you comment. "Tuesdays are fine."

"Good!" Mrs. Cheever says happily. "Busy? To tell you the truth, the only thing that's really worrying me is the baby aerobics class some of the moms asked me to organize. I'll be teaching babies from fourteen months to three years some simple aerobics, and of course Almedha and Ebrulf will come with me, and the other children will be fine with Theonus and Tecla in charge (it's so nice to have teenagers, isn't it? Oh, wait; you don't have teenagers yet!)...where was I?"

"Baby aerobics," you remind her.

"Oh, yes. The class itself is no problem--Friday mornings at the community center, if you're interested--but I'm having a lot of trouble with the homeschooling music approval committee."

"H.A.M.S.?"

"Yes, that's the group. 'Homeschoolers Approving Music and Song,' and would you believe it? Not only is 'Barney' off the list--well, I expected that--but any children's nursery rhyme tapes that contain rhymes or songs "suspected to have pagan origins" are automatically out. So far all they've approved are some church songs, and I've got to tell you, it's a little hard to do aerobics to The Glory of these Forty Days. But we've got three more meetings set up, so I'm sure we'll reach some compromise--it's just that the aerobics classes are supposed to start the first week of June, so I can get a few weeks of class instruction in before the VBS comes along. I've told the younger children that I'm going to have to finish baby aerobics and drop the toddlers off at home before I take them to VBS on the two Fridays, so they're prepared for that, but it's going to be a little hectic for those two weeks. Other than that, everything should be calm, until we drive to the Other Coast for the family reunion which I'm in charge of planning this year..."

"Is that the trip to visit relatives?" you ask blankly.

"Yep! All three hundred and fifty of them! And boy, the number of dietary restrictions the older generation has is making the meal planning a tad difficult, especially since the caterer I thought I had lined up had all these unreasonable restrictions about not driving more than an hour...but I'll find someone else."

"Look, Wulfhilda, I can understand why you wanted to talk about summer activities!" you say. "I think it's really important for homeschooling moms to remember that summer is a time to recharge our batteries, to look forward in a leisurely way to the approach of the next school year. It's so easy to burn out, and while I think it's wonderful that you want to do all of these things over the summer, maybe you're taking on a bit much, here! It's only twelve weeks, after all. Why not take things a little slower? I know lots of moms who get caught up in the possibilities of summer vacation, and plan every iota of their time. Usually, though, they're so tired by the time school starts back up that things get off to a bad start. Believe me, I sympathize with your desire to do so much, but maybe you've over scheduled your time a bit?"

There's a long silence on the other end of the line.

"Wulfhilda?" you say.

"I think you've answered my question," she says, a light breezy tone in her voice letting you know you've offended her.

"I'm sorry if I..."

"Forget it. We're just different, you know. I'll mark you as 'not interested' in the soccer league I'm starting June 15, then, shall I?"

The baby monitor begins to squawk behind you, so you let it go for now. But as you get the baby up from his nap, and peek in on the still-snoozing twins, you wonder how long it will be before the Cheever children are back in St. Quieta's School.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On Christian Motherhood

God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary's child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May he bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him (her) in thanking him for ever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord. (from the Rite of Baptism.)

Parents are among the only people I know of whose job consists in putting themselves out of a job.

While this is true for fathers and for mothers, I sometimes think that mothers are the ones who are really aware of it. Generally speaking, mothers are the ones who spend so much time teaching their little ones, bringing them from a state of helpless, soggy wiggliness to a state that's pretty darned near civilized in a matter of five short years.

Walking. Talking. Basic hygiene. Dressing themselves--hilariously at first, and then quite soberly. Potty training. Putting on socks, and then shoes, and then learning to fasten or tie the shoes. Remembering to ask if they need a coat. Learning to pick up their toys (even if the grand adventure called Life that's occupying all of their attention makes them a bit surly when asked to do this). Remembering, on their own, to say "please" or "thank you."

Till the day dawns when you offer to help with any of these things, and the response you get back is a quick, confident, "No, thanks, Mom; I can do it." And as they proceed to do whatever it is, competent without you, you draw a quick breath.

You feel like celebrating. And you feel like crying.

Celebrating, because you've been waiting so long for this emergent self-sufficiency. And crying, because pretty soon they won't need you very much at all.

True, you can say to yourself, as your mother said to herself, and her mother to herself, that you will always be his/her mother; that he/she will always be your baby. On one level that's quite true. But unless you're prepared to distort the beauty of motherhood into something smothering and twisted, to take steps to stunt the little one's growth so that he/she will remain dependent on you, emotionally if not physically, for far longer than a child should, then you are going to have to let go.

In one sense, you've been letting go since the little one emerged from your womb. But in another sense, it can be frightening to contemplate the future, when your children are grown, when they call you from what seems like a million miles away to wish you a happy Mother's Day.

But the alternative is wrong, plain and simple. For as the Rite of Baptism says, above, our children are a gift, not a right, not a possession, not a 'mini-me.' And like us, they are ordered not to this world, but to eternity.

The greatest joy a Christian mother can experience will be akin to the joy that Our Lady experienced when she was assumed into Heaven. There, joyfully greeting her Son and taking her place in the court of Heaven, the Queen of all Mothers knew the joy that we are promised in the Rite of Baptism, the joy of thanking God for the gift of our children. The hope and goal of our lives as mothers is not to cling to our children here on earth, but to be with them for all eternity. There is no greater fulfillment of our vocation to Christian motherhood than this, no greater happiness than being reunited in Heaven with the ones we were privileged to bear on earth.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Eat Like a Rabbit...

I'm in the critical third week of my latest diet. My goal is to lose approximately 30 pounds. That sounds good, till you consider that I've been carrying around most of these pounds since the birth of my youngest daughter--who's about to finish third grade.

Sigh.

I can sugar-coat things all I want to (maybe not the best of metaphors) but the sad reality is that the reason I'm having such a hard time losing weight and, more importantly, making it stay lost, is that I tend to eat, and exercise, like a hobbit.

I love English muffins dripping with melted butter; I adore the scent of freshly baked pumpkin bread, sending little curls of tantalizing steam up in mesmerizing spirals of goodness; I never met a cookie I didn't like. My idea of a really good vegetable is Eggplant Parmesan, burbling with hot mozzarella. Give me all of that, a day just rainy enough to make it a good idea to stay indoors, and a library of my favorite books, and I'm in heaven--or at least as close as I'll get to it in this life.

I exercise like a hobbit, too--which is a nice way of saying that unless twelve dwarves show up unexpectedly on my doorstep and drag me off on a wild adventure wherein I'll steal a ring, help slay a dragon and lose weight inadvertently along the way, then chances are it's not going to happen.

I've tried many different types of diet, and I've come to the conclusion that all of them work equally well (or equally badly, depending on your perspective). You can lose weight on any of them, provided you do two things: Eat like a rabbit, and exercise as if you enjoy it.

Why eat like a rabbit? Why are the foods in Mr. McGregor's garden featured in such prominence on every legitimate diet plan out there? What strange magic lurks in a bowl of salad greens, preferably presented without highly-caloric dressings or toppings like croutons or cheese?

Actually, it's not magic; it's math.

For every pound you lose, you must consume 3500 calories less than your body actually needs. Or, to put it another way, every time you eat 3500 calories more than you burn off, you will gain one pound. There may be a few little quirks of metabolism that interfere with this process, but for average, healthy people, this equation will hold true nearly all of the time.

So suppose that you've been consuming 2200 calories a day, but your body only really burns 1700 a day. Those extra five hundred calories a day will add up to a pound of weight gain by the end of the week.

So to lose weight, you cut your daily food intake by five hundred calories a day, right?

Wrong! That will only return you to your 1700 calorie/day maintenance level. If you've only gained a little weight, you might lose it all, or most of it, by doing this. But most people are going to have to do more.

The best way, here, would be to cut an additional 250 calories a day while increasing your exercise to burn an additional 250 calories a day. But this means that your diet will be 750 calories a day less than you've become used to. How can you do that?

Some small cuts, like avoiding sugar or making an open-faced, no cheese or butter sandwich at lunchtime will help. But what will really help is to eat foods which are naturally low in calories but which will help you to fill up.

In other words, nix the pumpkin bread, and eat the bounty of Mr. McG's garden until your jaws ache from all the raw veggies. (Which would be fine if I actually liked raw veggies.)

What about the second part? Why exercise like you enjoy it?

Remember those 250 calories a day you need to burn? If you're like me, you dread exercise anyway, and no matter how hard you try to find one that's 'fun,' you know you don't really enjoy any of it.

But avoiding exercise means slowing down that weight loss process to the point where the sacrifices you're making on the diet front may come to seem fruitless; the only thing you're exercising is that sense of futility that makes you quit the whole process.

If you don't burn 250 calories a day more than you already do, though, you won't lose any weight; and that 250 number is the magic number needed to lose a single pound a week.

Here are some activities that will burn 250 calories, from this website:

  • 35 minutes on a bicycle
  • 90 minutes of weight training
  • 35 minutes of running
  • one hour of brisk walking
  • 45 minutes of dancing
Unfortunately, it doesn't say how many calories you burn running wildly off with a dozen dwarves without so much as a pocket-handkerchief.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Leprechaun of Laziness

I'm being visited by a Creature.

No, not a particularly unpleasant one, this time. Not a Siren, a Gargoyle, or a Goblin. Just a Leprechaun.

The Leprechaun of Laziness, to be precise.

I'm sure he's come back because the promise of summer vacation is looming large. Each day feels more and more like it ought to be a vacation day; each task feels more and more as though it can safely be put off until later. The last time he made an appearance, we were within a few days of our Christmas break, and he employed some of the same strategies then as he is employing now. You'd think I'd know better than to fall for them--but I don't.

I first notice him when my alarm rings. Now, this is not my husband's alarm; this one is mine, and it's supposed to be set for sometime between "A Decent Hour" and "Almost Too Ridiculously Late for a Woman With Children at Home." But when the alarm begins to sound at the Decent Hour, and my bleary eyes focus on the bookshelf that serves as a nightstand, I notice a spry little figure, all green and mischevious, sitting cross-legged next to the clock, his hand poised over the "snooze" button. "Shall I?" he murmurs in that persuasive Irish lilt of his.

"Please!" I murmur, pulling the pillow over my head. "Just once," I add, my sleepy voice muffled.

"What was that, me darlin?" he whispers, pretending not to hear me. I don't hear him; I'm asleep again already.

When I wake with a start at twenty minutes past Ridiculously Late, he's nowhere to be seen.

Grumbling, I get on with my day, getting the children started on school work and attempting to make up for lost time. This seems to be happening, and I'm starting to feel like everything is under control, when I run into the bedroom to get some printer paper for someone's art project, only to see that the computer has been turned on and is humming quietly to itself in that startled-yet-pleased manner it gets when it realizes we haven't yet replaced it with a Mac.

"Who turned on the computer?" I ask, wondering.

"I did, me dear," says the Leprechaun, dwarfed by the swivel chair in front of the computer in which he's sitting. "I hope you don't mind. I got it all started up while you were having that wee bit of a shower of yours." The gleam in his eye tells me how aware he is that there's nothing "wee bit" about my overlong showers.

"Well, what are you doing?" I stammer, wanting to drop the 'shower' subject.

"Oh, nothing. Just getting things set up for you. Lots of good things posted at all your favorite blogs, I see!" he beams.

"It's half an hour till lunchtime!" I say, indignantly. "I'll come back then."

"Whisht, now," he says, shaking his head. "It's twenty-four minutes till. How much work can you really get done in that time? Why not let the little ones have an early break today?"

A few minutes later, the girls are eating lunch, I'm hanging ten with the mommy bloggers, and the Leprechaun has vanished again.

When lunch is completely over, I get up from the computer, feeling a bit guilty. My attention has been rather distracted today, I think. I go back to the living room, fully intending to teach until quiet reading time (which used to be nap time, once upon a time). And for a while I do. We are covering ground, there are only a few workbooks left to cover, and I start to feel like we're back on track.

And then I see the Leprechaun standing by the phone, the cordless headset in his tiny hands. His eyes meet mine. "You did promise to call her back, you know," he says softly. He hands me the phone; he's already dialed the number; the workbooks fall by the wayside.

When the children are doing their quiet reading I go into the kitchen to start dinner. I have in mind one of my healthiest and most complicated recipes. But the Leprechaun is standing next to the kitchen table, a totally different cookbook open before him: One Hundred Casseroles You Can Throw In the Oven In Five Minutes. "Do you really want to spend the rest of the day cookin' and cleanin' up?" he asks, tilting his head to one side.

I snap. "Yes! Yes I do! You've been interfering with my work all day long, and I've had enough!" I yell.

He draws himself up to his full height, and placing his hands on his hips, he looks sternly through his triangular glasses. "There, now! That's what I get for trying to help! And me thinking that a quick casserole would give you time to clear all this clutter out of the kitchen!"

His change in tactics catches me off guard. Maybe he's right! I think, looking at the stacks of miscellaneous junk on the counters. I throw the casserole together, stick it in the oven, and prepare to clean.

"In a minute," the Leprechaun says, pointing to a cup of tea he's made me, and mumbling around the crumbs of one of the cookies on the plate in front of him. "Where are those fancy catalogs that came yesterday? Why not take a minute before you get started?"

I succumb weakly to the temptation. Before I know it, the casserole is ready, the children are hungry, my husband is arriving home, and the kitchen is just as cluttered as it was before.

I sigh, vowing to myself that this time the pest isn't going to linger all the way through until we really do hit vacation time. This time, I'll deal with him the right way. This time, I'll get rid of him the only way that works, the only way I know how.

Tomorrow morning. I'll head him off at the snooze button.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Salt and Light Option

On his "Crunchy Con" blog Rod Dreher has been talking a lot lately about what he calls the "Benedict Option," which is going to form the central idea of his next book. Though I believe Mr. Dreher has yet to offer an official definition of what the "Benedict Option" actually is, from what he has written so far one can see that he is talking about a withdrawal of faith-filled families from the prevailing culture, and the forming of intentional communities of people who share similar values centered, preferably, around a place of worship which becomes the focus and unifying point of the community.

For what I tend to think, generally speaking, of the idea, please see here.

Don't get me wrong. I do sympathize with the desire to return to a simpler way of life. The idea of rural tranquility has been calling to people for many generations; the rural life has been praised in poetry and prose, and even on television. There is a temptation, I think, to confuse substance with accidents, to believe that cleaner air will inspire cleaner thoughts, to dream that a purer and simpler way of life will automatically restore the soul to purity and simplicity.

Unfortunately, that's not true. And no one knows this better than the people who do live according to the "Benedict Option," the cloistered monks and nuns of the world.

Any novice in either of these institutions who expresses such unfounded hopes will be subject to gentle correction by the wiser and more experienced voice of the novice master or mistress. One does not join a convent or monastery to escape the world, for the world is everywhere. All the vices and temptations that batter the hearts of men in the city lurk within the quietest cloister; and the humblest cell is as likely as the busiest boardroom to shelter the heart of a Judas.

Does this mean that there's no hope, that we have no options at all in our quest to be in, but not of, this world that is not our home?

No. We have a perfectly good option: the Salt and Light Option.

Hundreds of Christian people all over the world live this option daily. They raise their families to be faithful and hopeful people; they keep out the poisonous influences of our culture not by walling themselves off from it, but by teaching their children how to discern the difference between good and evil.

They become involved with their churches to the extent that they can, and volunteer their time and efforts in good works for their fellow men.

They follow and live their vocations, wherever God calls, wherever He leads them.

They found and staff crisis pregnancy centers, and pray outside of abortion clinics. They collect food and clothing for the poor. They teach inner city children to read, or set up scholarship funds. They work without pay or recognition in these and thousands of areas.

They pray, daily. They offer their prayers for others, people they know, people they've met, people they've never met. They pray for those who suffer, for those who mourn, for those who are sick, for those who are approaching death, for the souls of the departed.

They sit and talk for hours with someone who is curious about the faith, or with someone who feels as though he is on the verge of losing his. They answer questions, offer hope and encouragement, go out of their way to be available even when it's not convenient.

They live the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, in other words. And when they fail to do so, they turn to God in sorrow and ask His forgiveness for their failings.

Can an intentional community live these works of mercy? Yes; but if at the end of the day they withdraw to what they see as a safe enclave, a shelter from the world and its demands on their charity, then no matter how shining a city they create on no matter how magnificent a hill, they are busily engaged each day in lowering the large (probably handmade) bushel basket of their isolation over it.

A handmade bushel basket may not be a hand basket, but it's no less likely to lead inexorably to the wrong destination in regards to our eternal salvation, isn't it?

Monday, May 7, 2007

When You Care Enough...To Lie the Very Most

My husband and I picked up some Mother's Day cards to send to our moms this weekend. (If I ever had a coat of arms, the motto would be "Better Late than Never" over a recumbent sloth.)

I like to send Mass cards for Mother's Day, but I this year I didn't get my act together in time to send the donation off. So while we were running errands this weekend, my DH and I stopped in front of a pastel display of Mother's Day greeting cards in a local department store.

Now, I'll admit that I have things very easy when it comes to sending cards to my mom. She's never really liked what she calls "sappy" cards, the ones with lovely sentiments often expressed in rhyming verse. Funny cards are more her thing (and mine, truth be told).

But my mother-in-law has always been more fond of the "lovely sentiment" cards. To her, a good card is one that makes you cry. Since I come from a family where a hug is really only acceptable if you're actively performing the Heimlich maneuver, this open display of emotion took a bit of getting used to; but I realize that it's very much a part of my mother-in-law's personality.

Usually, my husband is able to find a thoughtful card that expresses filial appreciation within a relatively short time period; but this weekend he frowned as he rejected card after card. I had read some of them myself, and had found them to be oddly "over the top" when it came to expressing sentiment, but as I mentioned above I'm not really a good judge; so I was surprised to find out that my husband agreed with me.

The cards designed for men to send their mothers said things like, "Mom, You're my Best Friend," "Mom, You're the Only One in the World who Really Understands/Supports/Encourages Me," "Mom, I Never Appreciated You Until Now," and so on. The underlying message of all these cards, of course, is "Mom, You Were Right; I Should Never Have Married Whatshername; We'd Be so Happy If She Were Out of the Picture and the Grandkids and I Could Move In With You." Now, granted, an awful lot of moms out there would secretly love to hear this, but does the greeting card industry have to pander so blatantly to such an unworthy sentiment?

The cards designed for women to send to their mothers weren't any better. The underlying message of all of those cards was "Mom, Even When You Were Really Busy Running the Mayo Clinic or Arguing Cases Before the Supreme Court, You Always Knew When I Needed a Hug and a Plate of Cookies, and Even Now that You're Leading Rescue Missions in the Himalayas, I Know that When the Stress of Running My Fortune 500 Company Gets to Me, You and those Cookies (So Glad Martha Gave You the Recipe when You Were Both Jailed for Securities Fraud!) are Only a Phone Call and an Intercontinental Plane Trip Away!"

All of which goes to show one thing. The greeting card companies think we're all a bunch of liars.

They think we'll gladly lie to make our moms happy. They think we'll cheerfully lie to make them think we're the good kids they always wanted. They think we'll happily lie to tell them that things are exactly the same as they were when we were five years old and couldn't function without them.

Now, in a way, greeting cards have always sugar coated things. I mean, no one's going to send the card that says, "Mom, You and my Therapist have Made Me What I Am Today," right?

But the depth of cynicism required to manufacture the kind of outrageous mendacity found in today's Mother's Day cards could only be the result of a culture that is based more on advertising than on reality. We are surrounded by examples of the most egregious falsehood, all designed to sell something, from cars to cosmetics to condos by the sea. Even when we pride ourselves on being savvy consumers who don't fall for advertising, some marketing study out there somewhere is designing the perfect ad to appeal to our sense of superiority.

And on Mother's Day, we end up sending cards that say more about us than they do about our moms. They say how far we're willing to go to tell our moms whatever we think they want to hear, no matter how far removed from the truth this may be.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S. Club--Join Now!

Thanks to the incomparable Nutmeg and this post of hers, I've decided that it is high time we uncrafty moms had a place of our own among the mommy bloggers.

Who are we? We are M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S. In other words, we are Moms Incapable of Sewing, Crafts, Rug hooking, Embroidery, Art, Needlepoint, Tatting and Scrapbooking. We shudder at craft projects more difficult than kindergarten-level cut-and-paste. We have never made anything useful out of an ice cream carton, an empty paper towel roll, or leftover Popsicle sticks. Many of us don't even own a glue gun (and those of us who do are probably missing some skin on our hands). We have never made a last-minute birthday gift, and if we've ever made our own greeting cards it was probably just the once (reactions of friends and family being enough to discourage us from ever attempting it again).

We sometimes feel a bit lost amid other stay-at-home, homeschooling moms. There's the one who has a scrapbook for each of her children, beginning with their ultrasound photos, and containing pages at the end already set aside to hold wedding/first profession/ordination photos. As someone who moved across the country with three toddlers and twelve rolls of undeveloped film, I just can't relate to such photographic and organizational excellence--but I do admire it.

And here's another mom who makes all of her children's clothing lovingly by hand, outfitting each of them in clothes that suit their personalities and taste. Her kids are the ones who come to All Saint's Day parties dressed in handmade costumes that look like they came from a museum--at the Vatican. Again, I definitely admire such talent, but my experience around sewing machines has been less than inspiring (except inspiring me to avoid the temptation to swear like a sailor by avoiding the *** machine in the first place).

There's my friend the baker whose cakes are the delight of all who behold--and taste--them. I have a feeling that if she ever decided to host a Columbus Day party we'd be eating a globe with perfectly outlined continents (and tiny frosting symbols of each country's principle exports). You know I love you, baker friend, and admire your skill--particularly when my cakes are charitably described as being in the Dr. Seuss family of confection.

There are many more out there, whose works of art grace their websites with visible evidence of their tremendous abilities: rosary-makers, decoupage artists, dabblers in watercolors whose designs end up on magazines, designers of lace, candle makers, artisans in every imaginable field: stay-at-home moms who make their own and other people's lives incredibly rich by their talents and achievements in these areas.

And we M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S. are, to a certain extent, on the outside looking in.

But if we didn't exist, if everyone had these talents, there would be something missing from the lives of our more artistic sisters.

An audience.

We do provide something, after all. We provide the gasps of astonishment, the humble appreciation, the wistful sighs, the looks of wonder. We are the ones who exclaim, "How on earth did you do that? How on earth did you even think of that??"

M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.S., take heart!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dot Dot Dot....Dash, Dash, Dash

One of the many reasons I love the month of May is that I start to see dashes in my daily lesson plan books.

I have a lesson plan book for each of my children, and in them I write the page numbers and assignments for each day's work. I do this not because I'm organized, but because I'm both unorganized and chronically lazy; I'd much rather know at the beginning of the week what lies ahead for each child in each subject than have to figure all of that out on the fly.

But as we enter May (and sometimes for the youngest, even a little before) some of my boxes on the lesson plan books will look a little like this:

Reading: -------------

And that means that we don't have reading that day, or the next, or the next. Because we've finished our reading work for the year!

Oh, sure, sometimes a dash or two appears in every month. Some of them show half-days when we had a dentist appointment, or something; some of them show up just before a vacation, because the subjects that somehow believe you will always have a five-day work week, every day, no exceptions, are easier to skip for those last two days before Christmas break than to schedule piecemeal and then hope we will remember what we were doing when January arrives. And there's sure to be a dash or two next to the cryptic words "Sick. Reschedule." from the really drippy cold that made workbook activities both frustrating and a little gross, truth be told.

But May's dashes are the good ones, the little broken lines of emerging freedom. I start noticing the house again, and making plans that far exceed budget or reality for making things better before the next school year rolls around. I begin to think of summer days, summer activities, summer recipes (preferably ones that don't involve the oven, as my fellow Texans know). I plan a massive clean-out of broken toys--and I've already got a storage bucket in the garage for this year's used workbooks and notebooks (my way of being ready to prove, should I ever have to, that I homeschool in a 'bona fide' manner; I dare anyone either to discount or to decipher those workbooks!). I think about starting another young adult science fiction novel writing project while creating hopeful plans to get one of the two I've written so far published.

It won't all happen, of course. But those dashes are like the highway markings along the road to summer vacation. Right now, it all seems possible, and those twelve precious weeks of unfettered bliss glisten like the most convincing heat mirage on the smoothest asphalt pavement.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mary and the Feminists

I've been participating in an online discussion recently about such topics as women's studies and feminism.

I'll spare you the details.

What really amazed me, though, is the power of faith in feminism its practitioners have. They repeat incessantly, with the zeal of a fanatic, several items of doctrine to which they adhere as firmly as if they were Scientologists discussing the power of dead aliens to sap our strength. As firmly, and about as rationally.

These items are, in no particular order:
  • Women have always been oppressed
  • Women are still being oppressed
  • The granting of the suffrage to women was the first time anybody saw them as actual human beings
  • Whatever men suffered in the past, women suffered it worse, because the men would come home and beat up their wives for fun
  • Contraception and abortion are necessary to prevent all those forced pregnancies women throughout the ages have had to endure
  • Women are really, really oppressed
  • Patriarch is a dirty word
  • Until they could vote, women were excluded from full participation in society
  • Just because some men are decent human beings doesn't change the fact that most of them are scum who will oppress women at the drop of a hat
  • Christianity encourages men to oppress their wives
  • Just because women in the past didn't see themselves as oppressed, and, in fact, actually enjoyed their lives, doesn't change the fact that they were all oppressed
  • Women don't get paid as much as men, and the fact that they may take more time off from work here and there shouldn't change the fact that they deserve equal pay
  • Men are automatically privileged
  • Did I mention that women are oppressed?
and on and on ad nauseum.

Which got me to thinking about the women of the past, and wondering how they would react to this notion that all of them, all, were just oppressed little weak vessels living on sufferance and at the mercy of the men in their lives. There's really no chauvinist like a feminist, is there?

I think of the women who came to this country, for instance. I think of the long and dangerous voyage they endured, their strength as they cared for their children, their endurance as they struggled to stay alive, for the sake of the dream of liberty. I think of Susanna White, who gave birth to the first English child born to the Pilgrims in the New World; her son Peregrine was born while the Mayflower lay anchored in Providence Harbor. Imagine her giving birth aboard a creaking ship, her older son Resolved being looked after, possibly, by her husband William. Susanna lost William the next winter; she went on to marry another Mayflower passenger, Edward Winslow, and to have two more children in America. Oppressed? Or incredibly strong?

I look back even further, to St. Joan of Arc. How do we explain St. Joan, if we can only see through the lens of feminism? How do we explain the fact that grown men willingly followed this slip of a girl into battle? How do we explain that the men who followed her both loved and respected her?

And then I look back to the strongest and freest woman of all history. I look to Mary.

I don't think that typical feminists like Mary very much. Born free from sin, born in the state of preternatural grace, her intellect unclouded, her memory never failing, her will as strong as steel, Mary of Nazareth could have been anyone or anything she wished to be. But what she wished was for her own will, her own strength, her very life, to be united fully and completely with God's; for because her intellect was unclouded she saw better than anyone how great God is; because her memory never failed she constantly recalled His goodness; because her will was as strong as steel she wished to adhere it to One Whose Divine will was adamantine. And the power which drew her to wish for these things was not oppression or social conditioning or some kind of squeamishness or inaction which is wrongly labeled feminine.

It was love.

There is no real room for love in the feminist view of things. Men are always to be battled against, even when we choose to marry them. We are always to keep one suspicious eye out for any signs of dominance or any hint that they're trying to deprive us of our rights. How is love possible in such a poisoned atmosphere?

Love is real. The sacrifices women choose to make for love are drawn out from them by love's own willingness to sacrifice. Human beings may fall far short of perfection in these matters, but until recent times the very model of unselfish and self-sacrificing love was that of a mother--and not, generally speaking, a mother hurriedly buckling her kids into the daycare van.

In the relationship between that Mother and that Son, we see the perfect sacrificial nature of love. The Mother sacrificed all for her Son, knowing her heart would be pierced by a sword; the Son's Sacrifice made possible the Mother's freedom from sin which made her the perfect vessel, the pure Ark of the new Covenant. There is neither oppression nor competition in perfect love.