Thursday, November 17, 2016

An incredibly kind and wonderful review of Ordinary Sam

I haven't blogged in quite a while; I could blame it on the election, but it's probably just laziness.

But I have to share this incredible, amazing, and wonderful post Rod Dreher put on his blog today. His daughter Nora read my most recent book, and this is her review:
Nora just handed me back my iPad; she had been reading it on my Kindle app. Here’s the actual dialogue we had:
“I love fantasy books, and that is probably the best one I’ve ever read. It was sowell-written!”
“How do you mean, the ‘best’ you’ve ever read?” I asked.
“Better than Harry Potter.”
“No, really?”
“I’m serious. It was that good.”
This is a little girl who comes home from the library with ten or more books in her bag. If she says the book was that good, I take it seriously. You can also get it in a paperback version.
I am overwhelmed by Nora's and Rod's generosity here, and so grateful I can't find the words to express my gratitude. This really means the world to me!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Wrong Sort of Catholic and the Democrats

So, today we learn that on Hillary Clinton's staff there are people plotting to undermine the Church by creating dissident Catholic organizations to drive a wedge between Catholics and Church authority. My first thought was that there were probably some bishops in America quietly supporting these dissident groups; my second thought was that there probably still are. Hopefully none of the episcopal supporters of "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good" or "Catholics United" are about to head to Rome to become cardinals, though one can't help but wondering if at least one of the new American cardinals might have friends in these groups.

That said, the truth here is that though it is sort of shocking to see the Democrats being so brazen about this, it's not surprising at all. As I've written here before, since before the days of JFK an idea has taken place firmly on the left concerning Catholics, and it is this: there is a Right Sort of Catholic, and a Wrong Sort.

The Right Sort of Catholic is sophisticated and nuanced. He or she (or any other made-up gender pronoun the person finds comforting) knows better than to think that what the Catholic Church teaches about various issues is important. What is important is discarding those issues where the Church is still embarrassingly hidebound and medieval (such as in her concern for the unborn and her denunciation of the form of unjust killing known as abortion, her belief in sexual morality, her prohibitions against remarriage after divorce, and her frustratingly homophobic teaching that men can't marry men and women can't marry women) while twisting those issues where the Church at least seems progressive and using them for one's own purposes--such as, for instance, turning the Church's rightful teachings about stewardship into an anti-human environmentalism that calls for population control, or bending the Church's rightful concern for the immigrant into a call for open borders and the erasure of national sovereignty. The Right Sort also knows the importance of insisting that it is "really Catholic" in some vague sense to demand condoms for the poor or to insist that other people have a duty to ignore a would-be immigrant's criminal misdeeds when renting him an apartment (though, of course, that sort of thing doesn't happen in the Right Sort's backyard, so he doesn't have to deal with any of the unpleasant realities that come from that kind of negligence). The Right Sort of Catholic is all about putting burdens on people who are not as wealthy or as educated as he is, while gently chiding those superstitious ignorant types who actually follow Church teaching, attend Mass every Sunday (and not just when it's a good photo-op), and teach their children the whole Catechism for not being as enlightened and progressive as he is.

The Wrong Sort of Catholic, on the other hand, has never much trusted progressivism. He practices the faith with Sunday Mass every Sunday and he goes to Confession on a fairly regular basis (he would probably go more often, but his local parish has progressive priests who generously schedule Confession for half an hour a week to accommodate the entire community). Unlike the Right Sort of Catholic, the Wrong Sort believes that sins against the Sixth Commandment are gravely wrong and that one's personal sins that one has actually, personally committed are more of a problem than nebulous corporate sins committed by entire groups of which he may or may not be a member. This means that when he is told he is a racist because in the past some of his ancestors may have been racists he is more puzzled than anything--surely it is more important to avoid racism in one's own thoughts and deeds than to worry about what his great-great-great grandfather may have thought about people of different races or creeds? He can't understand why the Right Sort of Catholic is so dismissive of ancient Catholic ways of thinking and praying, why the Right Sort dislikes the rosary, laughs at the practice of lighting candles or making the Sign of the Cross when passing a Catholic Church, or is terribly amused by talk about the Four Last Things (or downright annoyed by funerals in which the presider-priest does not immediately canonize the deceased simply because the deceased was baptized a Catholic and attended the Right Sort of University and knew the Right Sort of people, etc.). The Wrong Sort of Catholic believes in an actual Heaven and an actual Hell, and while he would never speculate on whether any particular person is in Hell he does not think it is impossible to choose eternal death and end up there.

To the Wrong Sort of Catholic there are way more important considerations than mere politics or grubbing for power. He is not going to vote for people who think it's a good idea to kill unborn babies, no matter what else they promise to do or not do. The Right Sort of Catholic is pro-choice (which he usually phrases as "...personally opposed, but...") and can't understand the Wrong Sort's Neanderthal thinking about the abortion issue. But then again, the Right Sort thinks contraception is wonderful and necessary instead of being a damnable mortal sin (under the usual conditions), so it's not surprising that he wouldn't balk at baby-killing either, so long as it is politically expedient.

Democrats have made it clear for a long time that the Wrong Sort of Catholics simply do not belong in their party. They have no use for them, and the Wrong Sort usually aren't rich or politically well-connected or anything either. The Podesta emails reveal, though, that Democrats also don't think the Wrong Sort of Catholics belong in the Church, and illustrate the lengths they'd like to go to push us out. Unfortunately they have the collusion of too many people in the Church here in America, who would also like the Wrong Sort of Catholic to disappear quietly--and there are priests and bishops who share that view as well, which would be discouraging if we failed to remember that, after all, God is in charge, and what the world thinks of as the Wrong Sort of followers of His Son may not be God's idea of the Wrong Sort at all.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My new book is available!

Just wanted to share the good news: my newest book is now available!

It's called The Adventures of Ordinary Sam: Book One: The Sand Stone, and it's the first book in a new series about an ordinary seventh-grade boy who has had some rather extraordinary experiences. This is the description on the back cover:

Sam Oldfield is an ordinary kid with an ordinary life. Or is he? When he wakes up in a hospital he is told he's been missing for three days—so why does he remember nearly a year's worth of adventures in a magical kingdom in another world?

Was all of it a dream? Did Sam really imagine a wise old magician, a cranky but loyal bird, a beautiful bossy princess, and the Sand Stone itself, whose power Sam alone could wield? That can't be true. But if the magical world of Ebdyrza and all of Sam's memories are real, then there really is an Enchanter's War, too. And the Enchanters may end up in Sam's world seeking to destroy the Sand Stone, and Sam with it.

If you'd like to learn more or purchase a copy, please visit the links below:

My Amazon Author page, with a list of all my available books and links to purchase

My new fiction-writing website, with more information about my books

As always, a tremendous thanks to all of you who have been so supportive and encouraging of my writing!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Not up for debate

I haven't blogged in over a month, and while I know life in general and fiction writing/editing in particular make perfectly good excuses, the main reason I haven't been blogging is because I am in the process of moving this blog to a new platform in order to change and update and so forth.

One of the changes is that the new blog won't allow comments. Blog comments have really gone by the wayside in most places, and the few exceptions are for big, popular blogs with lots of regular commenters and a blog host or hosts who are willing to moderate the heck out of everything people write and share.  There's a good reason for that: unmoderated comments on busy sites tend to look like this:

First commenter: First!

Second commenter: I thought this blog post about canning peaches was interesting, but I don't think you fully explored the way that global warming, the industrialization of food, and Obama's foreign policies regarding country-of-origin labeling impact this important issue.

Third commenter: Here we go. Another right-wing idiot who thinks everything is Obama's fault.

Fourth commenter: Everything IS Obama's fault, because he's a secret Muslim from Kenya and the illuminati picked him at the Bildabear meeting to ruin the world economy.

Fifth commenter: Don't you mean "Bilderberg?" And didn't you mean "run" the economy, not ruin it?

Sixth commenter: Grammar nazi.

Fifth commenter: Did you just call me a Nazi, you expletive expletive offspring of a vulgar expletive scatological expletive?

Sixth commenter: Expletives squared and plotted on a graph that goes on for paragraphs.

Second commenter: Um, was somebody responding to me? I've been running errands.

Seventh commenter: Make $$$ caning (sic) peaches!! wwwdotreallyiffylinkdotdon'tgoheredotcom

Eighth commenter: My friend Peaches learned this one weird trick to make thousands of dollars a month from home while perfecting her skills as a psychic lingerie model! wwwdotyetanotherlinkthatwillprobablyputRussianspamonyourcomputerdotcom

Comments nine through twelve hundred: repeat the above endlessly.

Now, small blogs like mine don't have to worry about this; I rarely even get comments anymore. What I do get is spam in my comments folder, which you never see, but which is annoying to have to delete all the time. I figure on the rare occasion when somebody really wants to weigh in he or she will email me or else discuss the post on Facebook.

I have to be honest, though: while my main reason for not blogging has been this whole blog move/no comments thing, my secondary reason is that this political season is just too depressing to say much about. Granted, I've been a DQ3/pox-double-houser since McCain (soon after which I pretty much vowed not to vote for Republicans anymore, and since Democrats are already impossible for me to vote for because of their utter contempt for the lives of unborn children there's nowhere to go but those Doomed Quixotic 3rd parties while uttering plagues on both the Republican and Democrat houses and wishing that I could still pretend that party politics actually matters in spite of all the mounting evidence that the same corporations are buying and paying for our presidents and congresscritters and everybody else we elect, and that those corporations don't care about the letter R or the letter D so long as the person on the other side has his or her hands out for corporate $ and will do whatever their masters tell them to keep getting piles of it).

So, tonight's debate which will start in a few minutes is only this: something I find rather interesting and curious from a historical perspective because my hypothetical future grandchildren may ask me some day, "Grandma, were you there when the end of America got started?" and I will be able to tell them that the two people running for president in the year of Our Lord 2016 were a lying opportunistic self-promoting cash-grabbing glitterati-chasing untrustworthy scoundrel--and Donald Trump, who is, of course, equally bad.

Yes, you heard me. I said "equally bad." I did not say, "A catastrophic nightmare from which America may well never recover" because that happened on January 22, 1973.  I did not say, "America's savior destined to end abortion and preserve religious liberty" because I wasn't born yesterday and I'm not a rube. I did not say, "A bad choice, but obviously better than Hillary who is evil personified" because that's not true. I did not say, "So much worse than Hillary that no matter how much she increases abortion spending and uses the cudgel of LGBTEIEIO rights to grind religious liberty into the dust she's still better than he is by so much that it should be obvious" because that also is not true.

They are, it seems to me, equally bad. They are both liars. Neither one is trustworthy. One is a serial cheater and adulterer; the other has spent a lifetime covering up for her husband who is a serial cheater and adulterer. One is claiming at the eleventh hour to be pro-life; the other has never met an abortion she didn't like or couldn't justify paying for with taxpayer dollars. Either one is poised to be a foreign policy disaster; both claim to be able to fix our economy, but both are good at filling their own coffers and ignoring the poor. Donald Trump seems to be xenophobic and to attract racists; Hillary Clinton seems to fear the religions and to attract people who want to crush the Church.

Even if you disagree with me--and I know a lot of you do--aren't your arguments in favor of your candidate really coming down to "Yes, my candidate is awful, but yours is worse!" How did we get to this moment? Are there really no more admirable men or women seeking to serve in public office? Is it really okay for us to have turned politics into the equivalent of that old light beer ad that despite the chanting groups shouting "Tastes great!" or "Less filling!" there wasn't anyone willing to say that in point of fact the stuff was probably less pleasant to drink than rodent urine?

It remains to be seen who will prevail in tonight's debate, and (naturally) in the election, but I can't help but echo those others who have said that no matter who wins the presidency in 2016, America is the biggest loser. We used to be a nation that expected and even demanded more from our candidates, and who dreamed of more than building walls, dismembering and eviscerating human fetuses, and championing the right of 12-year-old boys to wear dresses and get naked in the girls' locker room. We have these candidates tonight because like it or not they are a reflection of what America has become, and if she is a nightmarish zombie corpse caricature of herself it is because we have made her that way. And that much isn't up for debate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Women of faith and the martyr complex

Some time ago a Mormon friend shared something interesting on Facebook, a story that women of her faith were supposed to be contemplating that particular month. Without getting too much into the details of the story, I will say that one very plausible interpretation of this story was that a woman was being praised, at least in part, for suffering in silence and hiding her pain.

This led to a fascinating discussion: why are women of faith so often given the kind of message that implies that it is a virtue, and a particularly feminine one, to suffer silently without asking for help? Better yet, why is it considered brave and noble to push ourselves to the limits of our endurance instead of admitting that we are sick or exhausted or overwhelmed (or whatever the case might be) and that we actually could use a bit of help?

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, so naturally I'm blogging about it.

Within the Catholic faith tradition we sometimes hear stories of female saints that seem to imply the same sort of thing, the idea that the holy woman who suffers must efface her suffering and present at all times a cheerful, calm demeanor and display a trusting disposition. Granted, many of these stories are merely pious legends, while others are sometimes told with the emphasis in the wrong place--that is, that while it is virtuous for both men and women to practice Christian resignation in the face of trials, there's nothing that says you can't admit you are hurting, ask for help, or request prayers. In fact, the saints did all of those things on a frequent basis.

Yet still the idea persists that a woman is being particularly holy if her sweet smile and cheerful attitude conceal anything from a slight headache to a major illness to an abusive spouse to a disintegrating marriage or even to the kinds of loss and pain we can barely imagine. She is supposed to have a mental drawer full of pious platitudes with which to respond to anyone who expresses concern, ranging from "The Lord will provide," to "So many people in the world are hurting far more than I am, and I am so blessed. Who am I to complain?" She's not supposed to ask for or accept help except in the most dire circumstances, and even then she's supposed to feel guilty because that other woman she's heard of whose house also burned down while she was dealing with a broken leg and nursing twins did just fine without any help at all, even though in addition to these woes the other woman reportedly had a wringer washer and a slowly deteriorating clothesline instead of a nice functional laundry room...

Of course, the reality is that women are people and people sometimes need help. It's not a moral fault or failure of faith to admit that and even to ask for it. Tales that reinforce the idea that a holy woman never admits that she can't just keep on going tend to strengthen the unfortunate tendency women sometimes have to play the martyr on purpose.

Playing the martyr is asking for help without actually asking--at least, not until one has tried everything else. If sighing, eye-rolling, caustic comments about self-folding laundry, lavish and well-decorated pity parties and similar tactics don't do the trick, then the woman can rest assured that her nearest and dearest have totally failed this test of loyalty and actually ask for assistance. This, too, has rules: she can't simply say, "Can someone help me empty the dishwasher?" There has to be a snide comment or two about interrupting someone's busy life, about wishing she, too, had time to plop in front of the TV, or about how sorry she is that she doesn't actually have a second set of hands.

I think many of us women, if we're really being honest with ourselves, will admit to having used these tactics on occasion. But our reasons for doing so are sort of complicated, and what complicates them is this whole "martyr complex" scenario. If a woman gets told again and again that she isn't really holy if she's not willing to do all her chores and tasks and suffer anything and everything in silence, alone, enduring all and complaining about nothing, then she's probably going to feel a bit conflicted when she realizes that she can't simultaneously cook dinner, walk the dog, rock the baby and tend to her own bout with a raging flu virus. Something is going to have to give, and apart from the shreds of her temper the most likely "something" is this illusion she has built up for herself of the holy and gracious woman who hides all her struggles from her husband and children, cheerfully attending to all of their needs, even if she has to fight to remain conscious and vertical.

As tempting as it may be, though, to blame a certain type of man for this problem, the truth is that both men and women share responsibility for the myth of the holy female living martyr. Some men of faith certainly like to tell the story of this or that female relative who never allowed her own mental or physical health to stand in the way of her daily and exhausting routine of worship, chores, and community service because without realizing it they have made an idol of strength, and wish to see this idol's image reflected in any woman who is part of their lives. But some women also make a competition out of endurance and stamina, and will insist until the moment they are forcibly restrained and placed in an ICU (or a padded cell) that they are fine, no, really, and would someone please get that IV out of their arms so they can get on with peeling the potatoes; such women have, sadly, a tendency to judge lesser mortals quite openly if sometimes with the appearance of politeness. (In the American South the phrase "bless her heart" was practically invented as a way of signaling that the woman being spoken about just doesn't have what it takes, for instance.)

Frankly, we who are women of faith need to stop both of these things: we need to stop playing the martyr by never being honest about our struggles or asking openly and directly for help, and we need to stop judging the women who are honest and open enough to admit that they can't do it all. Taking up our crosses, dying to ourselves, and following Christ is the only martyrdom we need, and it doesn't center around some sort of heroic level of physical stamina; it centers around Christ, who gives us the only kind of strength that is really worth having.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On civility and temperance in speech

I am still working on moving this blog to a new site, but in the meantime, I wanted to comment on a current matter. Recently two Catholic writers were let go from a Catholic publication, with the reason given that some of their writing online in social media and other forums was not acceptable. I don't plan to discuss the specifics of the situation since I don't actually know the specifics of the situation, and engaging in speculation about those specifics wouldn't be right. The people involved can, and have, commented, and I sort of think they're the only ones who ought to.

No, my reason for writing has to do with general principles involving civility in written speech, and in particular as a response to some people who, with a sincere and, I think, charitable impulse to defend the two writers, are saying some awfully silly things. Without pointing fingers at any particular commenters, these are the sorts of things I've been seeing:

—The insistence that any "salty" language, vulgarity, coarseness, swearing, name-calling/belittling or other similar uses of words are perfectly fine because Jesus called the Pharisees whitened sepulchers, and St. Paul could get pretty earthy, and there's tons of stuff in the Old Testament too, so clearly writers who use any of these tactics are just following Christ.

—The comparison between cussing someone out on the Internet and the fabled crankiness of St. Jerome or other saints, with the obvious message that crabbiness is sort of a virtue, really, if we just understood it properly.

—The claim that nobody before the Victorians ever thought that immoderate or intemperate language was in any way a moral fault, and that because of the Victorians (or the Puritans or the Jansenists or all three) we have lost that manly, forthright language and become a tribe of "Dash it all, Aunt Agatha!" wimps incapable of expressing the full range of human emotions in our writings.

—The cry that "Keeping it real!" absolutely requires the flinging of F-bombs in Facebook comment threads, and that people who complain about such things are either hopeless fainting-couch addicts or else lying hypocrites who don't really mind the swearing so much as they oppose the steely-eyed soul-reading and calls to repentance which the F-bomb tosser is issuing forth like a prophet of old.

—The somewhat head-scratching notion that employers (even contract employers) don't actually have the right to hold someone accountable for their social media behavior or to end their relationship with an employee who is, however inadvertently, tarnishing their image.

Now, I have a feeling that the two people who were let go from their writing jobs would probably find all of this rather embarrassing, because they're not the ones saying any of this (at least, not as far as I know). Most of us know that just our Lord speaking rather directly to the Pharisees was because He is God, and saw their hearts; we, even the best of us, are just guessing and making assumptions and drawing conclusions, and we're not always right. The same thing is true with comparisons to the saints: sure, we might be a modern-day St. Jerome, but it's always at least equally possible that we're just being a jerk. Many Christian pastors throughout the ages have warned their flocks about the duty to be temperate in speech and modest in expression, and they were not Victorians by any means; it is no more "real" to throw F-bombs than to refrain from doing so (and, when you think about what the F-word actually means, it is often quite nonsensical to employ it in a conversational context where violent carnal knowledge of the item or idea in question is at the very least a physical impossibility and at the most an offense against God and man). As for employers, most of us remember the man who was fired for bullying a fast-food employee and posting a rather pathetic, boasting video of the event on the Internet; one could argue that he was fired as much for extreme cluelessness as anything, but he was fired, and for something that took place far from the context of his job.

The fact of the matter is that civility in speech, temperance in conversation, modesty in one's use of language, all are and all have been areas of concern to Christians throughout the ages. And while most reasonable pastors and confessors would agree that the occasional slip of the tongue is not likely to be a huge fault, especially under extreme provocation, they would also point out that one's written communications ought, quite properly, to be held to a higher standard. We are capable of thinking before we write; we are capable of editing after we write; and we are capable of reconsidering long before we hit the "publish" or "post" buttons. In the heat of an online discussion we may be inclined to forget these things (myself as well as anybody), but that doesn't change the reality that written communication is not intended to be immediate and thoughtless.

I myself have been called to account before for written expressions that failed to see the person on the other side of the screen as a precious child of God made in His image and likeness, and I have been, on the whole, grateful for those reminders. One blogger I know set up the precedent long ago of the "beer and pizza" rule for his comment boxes: you should conduct yourself as if you are sitting at a table with the other commenters sharing some pizza and beer and having a real conversation. His blog continues to be known as a place of unusual civility, where people who disagree about nearly everything can talk to each other with real kindness and compassion, and I have learned a lot from my interactions with commenters there.

Whatever the specifics of this present situation are, I think any Catholic writer would hate to see himself or herself used as the excuse made for a decrease in civility and charity online. Temperance in speech is as much of a virtue as temperance in eating or drinking, and we shouldn't get in the habit of claiming otherwise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A new website, and some pondering

I have a new website for my books! Please visit it here, and let me know what you think.

I'm also pondering the idea of changing this blog's home. In the past, when I've gotten frustrated with Blogger, I've contemplated moving to a different platform, but I haven't found a platform I've liked as well. So far, I'm pretty impressed with Wix, and have wondered whether it wouldn't be easier all around to move my writing there.

Frankly, blogging isn't what it used to be. I remember how much fun it used to be to visit people's blogs and read a little bit about their lives, their hobbies or projects, and their thoughts on various issues of the day. For a long time now, though, blogs have been getting quieter, and all the discussion that happens seems to take place on Facebook or other social media platforms. (The more visual people have moved to Instagram and I never see them anymore. I'm thinking about setting up an account just so I can see people I sort of miss from the blog world.)

If I do move this blog, I'll let you know, those of you who are still checking in from time to time.

Monday, July 25, 2016

"A Smijj of Strife" is now available!!!

I know I haven't posted on this blog in something like six weeks. And some of that is due just to life in general, but quite a lot of it has been due to my fiction writing habit. Up to now, no matter how many books I wrote in a year, I was not getting that many ready for publication; I only had three books for sale by the end of last year. As of this writing, I have five, and two more books are "in the pipeline" so to speak. I will definitely have six published books by the end of this year, and if the good Lord is willing I may even have seven. I need to give a shout-out to my wonderful volunteer members of my Advance Reader Team; without their unfailing help in proofreading I'd be way behind my goals right now. They are terrific, and I am blessed to have them in my life.

Today I'm happy to tell you that book five in the Tales of Telmaja series, A Smijj of Strife, is now available for sale. For those of you who don't already know this, I have created an Amazon Author page, and that's the quickest and easiest way to purchase any (or all) of my books:

Erin Manning's Amazon Author Page

For those of you who would like a quick link to the specific version of A Smijj of Strife you've been waiting to buy, they are below:

Purchase a print copy of A Smijj of Strife here.

Purchase a Kindle copy of A Smijj of Strife here.

Do you have children or grandchildren ages 8 and up who like to read adventure stories set in imaginative worlds? Do you occasionally cringe at the crude or obscene language, toilet humor, or inappropriate sexual content found in YA or even some intermediate children's fiction books? Do you dislike books that pander to young readers, books that insult their intelligence and talk down to them, books that gloss over moral questions, or books that make adult characters (especially parents) seem stupid or bumbling all the time? Do you want your children or grandchildren to enjoy exciting adventure books that do not contain any sex scenes or swear words but that are still fun, engaging, and not at all preachy?

If you've answered "yes" to any of those questions, then my books may be a good fit for your family. I would be very grateful if you would consider buying and reading them. If your child or grandchild has a Kindle reader or can use a Kindle app on a phone or computer, the Kindle copies of my books are an excellent value at $2.99 each.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I do plan to resume regular blogging here at And Sometimes Tea in the near future (there's plenty to talk about, isn't there?), but I appreciate your patience with my fiction writing, and the occasional posts about it, as well.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A few million stars, revisited

I pride myself on being the kind of person who doesn't get too sentimental about things. But I have to admit that I got a little teary-eyed just now.

You see, I was reading an old blog post of mine, and I got to a part of it that made me tear up a bit.

The post was about homeschooling, and the last paragraph of it is as follows:
Because a few million stars from now, I'll be watching some poised and eager young women take their first steps out into the world, as they discover their vocations and find God's will for their lives. And in their faces I'll see the frowning concentration of the first-graders who struggled to make a letter "B" that wasn't too "bendy;" I'll recognize the focus and direction of the girls who were determined to understand long division; I'll see the joyful spirits of the young ladies who acted out the lessons on proper introduction from the grammar books; I'll see the thoughtful introspection of the daughters who read, a chapter at a time, the story of their salvation from the religion texts. And I'll see other things, too, things I can't even imagine yet (algebra, anyone?), things that will give my girls a chance to grow in grace and wisdom toward the lives to which God will call them.
And I teared up just a bit (not too much! I'm still a redhead!) because those few million stars slipped past almost too fast for me to notice.

Which is a fancy way of saying that my youngest girl, "Hatchick" on this blog, has now joined her sisters as a homeschool high school graduate.

And I am now a retired homeschooling mom.

It was almost sixteen years ago when I started teaching our oldest (we started kindergarten early, and given her determination and drive which are still huge features of her personality it was definitely a good thing), and I am finding it a little hard to believe that we are actually finished. It really is bittersweet, because I'm so proud of all our girls and eager for Hatchick to follow her sisters into this great adventure called "college" and also a little curious and excited about what I'm going to do with myself come fall (though you know writing will be a huge part of my daily life)-yet, at the same time, there's a wistfulness that comes over me when I remember our adventures in education together and realize that life is going to be different now. Of course, one of the first things you learn as a homeschooling mom is that life isn't what you think it will be anyway; maybe there are homeschooling families whose uniformed children gather happily around the kitchen table at six a.m. and begin making up mnemonic devices to help them remember the names of all the counties in the United States while flawlessly filling in college-level math workbooks and cracking jokes in this year's foreign language (Gaelic) that are only funny if you remember the atomic mass of every element in the periodic table, but I have yet to meet that family. 

I have met (both in real life and online) actual homeschooling families who have all sorts of amazing skills and talented children, but the real-world picture often includes those afternoon temper bursts that send the least-favorite textbook flying across the living room floor (and it's bad enough when it's the child doing the throwing...I'm kidding! Really!), not to mention some very real academic struggles that are--guess what?--just like the academic struggles children might have in different school environments. If there's a difference (and I believe there is), it is that Mom can easily look for a different grammar book or math book, or seek help or tutoring online or in real life, or do whatever it takes to make sure that the child in question gets to an appropriate level of understanding in the subject in question. I think most of the really dedicated school teachers out there would like to be able to do the same for the children in their charge, but one of the sad ironies of our age is that we create educational slogans like "No child left behind!" but then impose realities on teachers that force them to decide between leaving a child or two behind, or slowing down the whole class to the point that the ubiquitous and looming standardized test may reveal that slow pace to angry administrators. My sympathy for classroom teachers has grown over the years, and I think the next catchy educational slogan ought to be "No teacher left behind." (Okay, there's the one about no male body parts in girls' locker rooms, too, but that's a topic for another day.)

The truth is that this business of teaching and raising children isn't easy. No matter how you go about it there will be triumphs and setbacks, joys and sorrows, because we are fallen human beings temporarily occupying the vale of tears. But for me, homeschooling has really been not just joyful, but a privilege. It was a privilege for me to stay at home with my daughters and be their first teacher through the early years, and having taught them how to walk and how to talk and how to use the bathroom and how to eat with utensils and how to be nice and take turns and share and so on, it just seemed natural to keep going and teach them how to make letters and numbers and then how to combine those letters and numbers in new and fascinating ways to unlock the mysteries of the universe--or, at least, those mysteries that come up in the first eighteen years of life. Natural; but still a privilege and a gift, to get to know these three amazing young women and to be so proud of them and so delighted in their company on a daily basis.

The great thing about being a retired homeschooling mom is that it's only the homeschooling part that comes to an end. The "mom" part is a life-long joy, and I'm ready to be here for all of my daughters as they head out into the vast world. They all want to find out God's will for them and to live whatever life He calls them to live, and it's an honor for me to be present as they begin these new journeys just as it has been an honor to be both mother and teacher to them all these years.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Honoring mothers

Over at a blog I'm not going to link to today, a blogger whose name I'd rather leave out of the discussion (but who is personally a mother) has decided to take aim at Mother's Day.

Specifically, she has decided that parish celebrations of Mother's Day pretty much need to go away. If priests want, they can sort of mumble a vague prayer for "all women regardless of their state in life" which she has written for the good Fathers to use.

The reason? Mother's Day is hurtful. Some women really want to be mothers but can't be, because they never married or are infertile. Some women have lost children. And some women have bad relationships with their own mothers, so all this over-the-top celebration (which usually involves a prayer out of the Book of Blessings and, perhaps, a carnation and prayer card for the moms present at Mass) is just excruciatingly painful for the women who didn't receive from God the blessing of motherhood.

Now, the reason I'm leaving the blogger's name and site out of this is that I'm not trying to hold one person up as a target. I respect that this is this person's sincere opinion.

But I also reserve the right to say that this is wrong.

Some priests choose not to acknowledge any non-religious holidays, events, or occasions before, during, or after Mass on Sundays, and this is their prerogative. They can skip mentioning Mother's Day even in a single line during this Sunday's homily; they can avoid letting the prayer intentions include even a whisper of the mention of mothers, and they can skip the blessing--and, if this is their invariable practice for Father's Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, World Marriage Day, Scout Sunday, Catholic Schools Week/Religious Teachers' or Catechists Sunday, and so on, then I have no problem with that. It is perfectly proper for priests to choose to exclude everything but the actual liturgical day, should they so choose.

However, if priests choose to acknowledge these sorts of occasions, then there has to be balance. Using the prayer from the Book of Blessings for mothers, which is here, seems to me to be just fine, and the prayer for fathers on Father's Day is appropriate too.

What is not appropriate is to decide that mothers, and mothers alone, can't be recognized, acknowledged, celebrated, praised or encouraged without inflicting such emotional damage and harm on women who are not mothers that it's better to scrap the whole thing--or, at least, to create a vague prayer honoring all women that doesn't ever mention the vocation of motherhood.

We don't treat fathers that way. We don't pretend that honoring fathers on Father's Day hurts men who can't or don't have children so deeply that it's better to create a prayer that honors all men, regardless of their state in life, and leaves it at that. We don't seem to think we have to apologize for honoring fathers and the gift and cross of fatherhood, do we?

So why do we have to apologize for honoring mothers? Why do we have to act as though women, and women alone, can't handle the idea that not all of us are given the same gifts and crosses? Why, when it comes right down to it, do we focus on how hurtful it is to women who aren't mothers to celebrate the ones who are, as if motherhood is only gift and never cross--when, like all vocations, it is always both?

When I've written about Mother's Day before on this blog there are invariably women who say that nobody celebrates them at all. Their husbands pull the old, "You're not my mother, and besides it's a greeting card holiday," in order to do nothing; their children are too young or too indifferent to recognize their mother's gifts and sacrifices; these women may celebrate other mothers, including their own, but are left alone themselves. If it wasn't for that little prayer card or blessing or carnation at Mass, they would get no recognition at all on Mother's Day, and it seems to me to be a form of churlishness to insist that in order not to hurt the unmarried or the infertile we should take even this much away from the forgotten mothers.

I think that we women are stronger and better than this. I think that we can agree that motherhood is, indeed, both a great blessing and, at times, especially in our age, a significant cross. I think we can pray at Mass for the mothers and grandmothers and godmothers, and give them tokens of our love and appreciation as a parish community, without having to become all stifled or apologetic about it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The rise of the New Catholic Pharisees

First, some good news: I did manage to finish the entire manuscript of the second book in the Adventures of Ordinary Sam series (which, right now, looks as though it will be a trilogy, but one never knows).

I love writing fiction, but I also sort of miss blogging. So I want to make an attempt to get back to it.

Fortunately, the Catholic Blogosphere is always full of reasons for me to want to blog. The latest thing I've been noticing is a phenomenon I can only call the rise of the New Catholic Pharisees.

The New Catholic Pharisees, like the Pharisees of old, are Catholics who want to place burdens upon their fellow believers--burdens that the Church herself does not place.  And the New Catholic Pharisees come in all sorts--this isn't a "liberal Catholic" problem or an "orthodox Catholic" problem--it's just a Catholic problem.

Take, for instance, the growing push in some quarters to insist that it is pretty much immoral for a Catholic to own firearms. Now, I think all reasonable people could agree that it's not exactly moral for a Catholic to stockpile illegally-purchased assault weapons while publishing anti-government manifestos and listening out the window for the sound of helicopters; it is also not exactly sane. But once you admit that the Church has never, in fact, forbidden Catholics to own various types of personal-use weapons provided they comply with local laws, secure those weapons properly to make sure children or other unauthorized users can't get at them, and carry the proper permits, you pretty much can't turn around and accuse Catholics who do own personal firearms of colluding in mass murder, or anything of the sort. The people who would give a sort of grudging permission for a Catholic who lives out in the country to own a shotgun or rifle in order to protect his livestock from coyotes but bristle in anger at the idea that a Catholic who lives in a dodgy apartment in a bad part of the city might want a pistol to protect herself from violent intruders need to consider whether they're placing a heavier burden on their fellow Catholics than the Church does.

Or consider the rumblings--as yet subdued--about whether a Catholic's duty regarding civic participation means that a Catholic absolutely must vote for one or the other of the major political parties' candidates running for the presidency. The Church doesn't say this. The Church doesn't generally want people to become totally apathetic about the political process (outside of certain times and places in which participation was a sham meant to prop up dictators and fool outside observers, and tempting though it may be to say we are there it isn't true yet), but she does not demand that her American children must vote for a person with either an "R" or a "D" next to that person's name. Insisting that she does teach that is, again, to place a burden on the faithful which the Church herself doesn't place.

Just today I found another example. Sam Guzman at The Catholic Gentleman wrote a lovely post (no, really, I'm serious) about the way NFP has benefitted him in his marriage. But sure enough, a New Catholic Pharisee turned up in the comment box below the post to write the following:
I don’t consider it (Note: NFP) moral. I have given it a good deal of thought, I’ve read the documents, I’ve asked others, I’ve even jumped headlong into arguments to try to “test” the point but up to this point I (genuinely) haven’t been able to think of, nor been given some reason or even happened upon one that can solidly defend it’s morality. Right now I am absolutely certain that the method of “partial abstinence during cycles” is morally wrong. I’m not one to be contrary for the sake of it, if I would be given some information or taught some distinction that I’m missing up to now I would admit I got it wrong and change my mind, that’s not an issue at all. Until that happens though, I’m at liberty to say it is wrong.
So there you have it, ladies and gentleman: in spite of Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II and Church tradition stretching back into the mists of history regarding the moral liceity of married couples abstaining from marital relations during the fertile period for a just reason, a random Internet combox New Catholic Pharisee has decided that NFP isn't moral. Further comments from this person indicate that he seems to agree with the opinion that if a really serious, life-threatening reason exists to avoid pregnancy the couple must abstain completely until the woman reaches menopause. I was tempted to jump into the conversation and ask whether in that case the woman wouldn't still have a duty to risk death in childbirth so that her husband wouldn't fall into serious sexual sin, since grave sin is worse than death, but the better angels restrained me from such obvious baiting.

I find it interesting that there are, apparently, New Catholic Pharisees in every Catholic population. You will see them at E.F. Masses and O.F. Masses; they make an appearance on the left, right, and middle side of every debate. The temptation to place burdens upon our fellow men that are heavier than anything that God, through His Church, ever places upon them is, I fear, a universal one.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A very brief post on the ongoing transgender bathroom debate

This week, a major retailer bravely faced the applause of the elite for declaring that any person is free to use any bathroom or changing area he or she feels like using while in that retailer's stores.

These "transgender bathroom policies," so they tell us, are all about diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, that's not the whole story. They are also about opening up private spaces, especially private spaces used by women, to full access by any man who chooses to enter those spaces for any reason whatsoever.

As many as one in six women will be the victim of a significant sex crime, including rape, in her lifetime. Men who prey on vulnerable women are probably thrilled that it's now seen as impolite—or even illegal—to challenge them when they follow women or girls into a women's bathroom, locker room, or changing area. This will give them greater access to victims, without helping people who really identify as transgender much at all. 

Should fifty percent of the US population be put at constant risk so that a fraction of a percent (transgenders reportedly number about 0.2% of the population) can have their feelings validated? This isn't a diversity issue; it's a safety issue, and it's disappointing that in all the self-congratulatory posing of the elite there is no acknowledgement of that reality at all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Zen of living in harmony with the stuff you already own...

On Facebook the other day, I went into a mini-rant about those clickbait articles you see about how to fix all the storage problems in your house, get organized, and feel the waves of energy that come with decluttering. After pointing out that those articles expect you to have all sorts of things you don't have--not little, unimportant things like time and money, but big things like empty closets and spare bookshelves, spaces under nonexistent (in our house, anyway) staircases, empty wine crates, really tall ceilings (in order to hang all those DIY hooks, shelves, and physical dimension alteration devices), a collection of power tools that would make Bob Vila jealous, and a degree in structural engineering (well, maybe some of my readers have that last, but I certainly don't), I tossed off a suggestion: maybe somebody should write a series of articles along the lines of, "The Zen of living in harmony with the crap you already own and can't get rid of because you can't afford to replace it and you're sort of still using it on a daily basis, with bonus lessons on how not to swear when you trip over stuff."

Somebody suggested I do it. Since I'm very open to writing suggestions, and since I have been struggling to blog mainly because I can't think of ways to comment on the Big Important Issues of the Day that will be a) helpful, b) charitable, and c) devoid of substantial cursing, I thought it might be fun.

This, then, is the first of these posts.

Take a look, dear reader, at the main living areas of your house. Do you have more than four or five such areas, including the kitchen, and not including the space near the front door that you try to pretend is an actual room instead of part of a hallway? Are all of them spotlessly clean, beautifully decorated, harmoniously arranged, well-organized, with just a hint of vanilla spice and pixie dust in the atmosphere? Congratulations! This post is not for you.

If you have fewer than five living areas (we have three, here at the Manning house, including the kitchen), if you can't pretend your front entryway is a separate room even if you squint and try really, really hard to see it that way, if the living areas are what might be charitably described as "clean-ish," if the decoration style is best described as, "Well, bless your heart," if the furniture is arranged according to the ancient principle of "You can't take a step without falling," if "well-organized" means "I stuffed everything into that desk with the lid that closes, sort of, on a good day," and if the atmosphere of the home reminds visitors more of Vincent Price than Martha Stewart, then keep reading.

I'm not going to tell you how to fix any of it--not today, anyway. Truth is, I don't know. I tend to fluctuate between .pdf files of fiction writing and a different kind of PDF, one that stands for "Periodic Decluttering Frenzies." These PDFs are well-intentioned efforts to remove clutter by cleaning out closets and drawers, donating old books and media, and then, in theory, moving on to things like the kitchen cabinets and the garage and so on. I usually get through the clothing clean-out and my husband does the books and media thing, and then life starts happening (often before we've really finished), and the kitchen and garage get put off until next time. If there ever is one.

No, I'm not going to pretend to tell you how to organize your life (especially if it involves somehow finding vintage tin tubs that you can turn into storage ottomans, or similar nonsense). But I will tell you that it is possible to take a deep breath, look around at the place where you live, and come to terms with the stuff in it.

Let's say that it's possible to give one's housekeeping efforts a score or grade (it isn't, really, but for the sake of argument, let's pretend). Now, let's say that a score of 100 points is awarded to those houses in magazines that nobody ever lives in and that have no experience whatsoever of dust, let alone of toy clutter or baby spit-up or teenage baking efforts or any of those other joys of living.

"Well," you may be thinking to yourself, "if those houses get 100 points, then my score has to be in the fifties somewhere, if I'm lucky." But wait--it's more complicated than that.

Start with zero points. Now, give yourself five points for each person (including yourself) who lives in the home, if you are the person who is mainly in charge of cleaning and organizing things. Yes, often this will be mom, but there are some stay-at-home dads out there who have taken on these tasks and we don't want to leave them out. If you don't think you should give yourself five points for each person, ask yourself this question: do you pick up at least one item each day that each person has left out, dropped in a hamper, failed to put in the dishwasher, etc.? I'm probably being conservative with the "five point per person" rule.

Next, give yourself an additional five points for each child between the ages of three and ten. For babies younger than three, you get an extra ten points per child, with a bonus of ten more points if you have more than one child under age three right now. If you have had a baby in the past six months you get twenty-five additional points automatically.

Now, this one might be controversial, but here it is: if you are homeschooling, give yourself an additional five points per homeschooled child. Why? Because if you are homeschooling, then your children are home with you all day (unless you are all out together). This means that you can't clean while they are sitting in brightly-lit classrooms creating messes for other people to clean up; they are sitting at your kitchen table (or their desks, etc.) and the science projects and finger-painting are happening right there. It is significantly harder to clean around people than to clean when the people are gone, which is why corporations have whole cleaning crews that come in after hours, with maybe a handful of custodial workers to keep the bathrooms from becoming unfit for human use during the workday.

If you have any sort of issues that make cleaning difficult (physical handicaps, mental heath matters, chronic health conditions, etc.) add between ten and twenty points depending on how serious the impediment is.

Add on five more points for each daily task you usually complete (dinner? bath times for youngest children? lunches for working people or school kids? laundry? and so on).

Now, add up your score.

I bet it's higher than you thought it would be. I bet some of you have more than 100 points.

Look at your living areas again. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if the baby's board book section of the bookshelf is starting to look like some cardboard-eating zombies have gotten to it? Is it really worth lamenting over your inability to replace the kitchen floor again this year, even though the old vinyl flooring has some pretty deep grooves in it? Is it a problem that your refrigerator is cleverly hidden under mounds of printed recipes and children's artwork? Does your house actually look like a public health menace, or does it just look like people actually live in it--people, moreover, who are really dear to you and who matter more than a thousand Pinterest ideas and a million decluttering techniques?

Someday, when your children are grown up, your house will probably be the spotless and organized oasis of your dreams. But it will also be really quiet--at least, until the grandkids come over. Until then, unless you could be featured on an episode of "Hoarders," chances are that things really aren't as bad as you fear they are, and it will all get sorted out in the wash (so long as somebody puts those baskets of unfolded laundry away one of these days).

Of course, you may be tempted to jump on the "minimalism" bandwagon despite these positive thoughts...but that's a post for next time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A brief note

I do hope to resume some more regular--if sporadic--blogging soon.

But at the present time I am editing three different manuscripts with a view to self-publishing them; I am writing a new book during April's Camp NaNoWriMo; and I am approaching the finish line with our youngest daughter, who is about to graduate from homeschooling and go on to college (which means a lot of paperwork for both of us).

Your patience, as always, is treasured.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Speechless at the sight of Catholics uniting over Trump

I didn't actually intend to give up blogging for Lent; it just sort of turned out that way.

Some of it was just real life stuff--bronchitis, tomorrow's root canal (gulp), spring in Texas...although we have, luckily, missed the local storm damage so far and I've also learned NOT to put the winter clothes away and pack up the heavy comforters just because we have a misleading, teasing week or four of temperatures in the 80s. That doesn't mean it's really spring yet, as our 37 degree low outdoor temperature a night or two ago pointed out quite emphatically.

But some of it was being in just a bit of a dry spell. I've been focusing on my fiction writing, but I've never really had trouble before switching from a day of writing or editing fiction to composing a blog post about real things. I think the problem is that right now the real things are, well, kind of depressing.

Take religion, for instance. On the one hand you have Catholics whose idea of good liturgy involves liturgical dance and whose main complaint with Pope Francis is that he's too conservative (e.g., he hasn't ordained women or anything). On the other hand you have Catholics who are melting down over the change in the rubrics for Holy Thursday (some of them claiming, apparently seriously, that from "time immemorial" the Church has only allowed male feet to be washed at Holy Thursday Mass--not realizing that the foot-washing was only incorporated into the Mass in the 1950s--and others insisting that the Holy Spirit created the custom of male-only foot washing because this act of Our Lord's can only refer to the ordained priesthood, and that what the Holy Spirit inspired not even the pope can change...). Even a simple thing like Pope Francis deciding to make use of Instagram becomes a cultural flash point, with Catholics on one side applauding his apparent coolness, and at least one Catholic on the other responding to His Holiness' first photo (with the pope's message: "Pray for me,") by declaring that "pray for me" wasn't a request (?) and that he personally would be praying for Pope Emeritus Benedict instead.

Or take politics, if you'd rather (I'm increasingly of the opinion that in America today taking politics seriously, or at all, can only be safely done by those already insane, but you may have a different opinion). On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton's cakewalk to the nomination might have turned into a pie-throwing contest, except that her super-delegates have the superpower to protect her from any actual challenges emanating from Bernie Sanders' campaign; and on the Republican side--well, what is there to say, except that Donald Trump has the ability to make past candidates look almost good by comparison, because while several recent Republicans could have tied for the title of the "More Hair than Wit" candidate, Trump is all hair and...well, I won't say it, but you know I'm thinking it.

And then you add in the odd spectacle of dittohead CAPE Catholics who wouldn't know a Latin motet if it assaulted them in a church parking lot, weekly O.F. Catholics who think a biretta is something that requires ammunition and a gun license, and serious E.F. Catholics who sweetly and modestly display their liturgical superiority in comment boxes all over the Internet, all joining hands in a grand "Kumbaya" of support for a thrice-married millionaire who wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, ban Muslims from entering the US, who supports capital punishment and torture, and who has a rather unpleasant tendency to speak slightingly of women and vulgarly of everything. On the one hand, I suppose it's slightly comforting to realize that there are, apparently, points of unity among such dissimilar groups of Catholics; on the other, one could wish that Catholics in America could agree to lay aside their liturgical differences and work together without needing to unite behind the kind of person who says that he'd be his own foreign policy adviser, and that sort of thing.

So I suspect that though I may think of my recent inactivity as a dry spell or "blogger's block," I really think I've just been rather speechless at the sight of Catholics uniting over Trump. It's one of those moments when you can't even imagine what to say.

But at least we haven't reached the point in the election when not only Catholics of all sorts, but serious Christians and other people of faith, will start to argue that we have a moral duty to vote for Trump because failing to do so is the exact same thing as voting for Hillary. Hopefully I'll be over my "blogger's block" by then, because that's the sort of thing one can't let go without challenging it.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Smijj of Conflict--now available!

I'm hoping to get back to blogging more regularly soon, now that I'm (finally) getting over the winter bug I've been dealing with for three weeks now.

Before that, though, I wanted to finish up a different project, one that I've been promising for a while now. That's right: the fourth book in my Tales of Telmaja series, A Smijj of Conflict, is finally available for sale!

I don't think I've done this before, but I'd like to ask a favor of my blog readers. Two favors, actually--first, can you help me spread the word about this book and the Tales of Telmaja series? I write with children ages 8 to 13 in mind (though I have adult readers who enjoy the books as well), and I take seriously the idea that children's fiction should be suitable for children. My books don't contain inappropriate sexual content, and while a certain amount of violence is going to be inevitable in a series that deals with a galactic war to end slavery I try very hard to maintain a level of restraint instead of being too graphic. But what motivates me most of all is the desire to write good, imaginative adventure stories for a part of the children's fiction market that I honestly think is underserved these days, those middle-school readers who aren't terribly amused by booger jokes, toilet humor and endless tales of the classroom, but who aren't yet ready to read most of the books on the Young Adult shelf (especially the ones in the Teen Paranormal Romance section).

And the other favor I'm asking is directed at those wonderful people who have bought and read Books 1-3 in the Tales of Telmaja series: would you consider leaving a review at Amazon of one or more of the books? I've had lots of positive feedback from readers directly, but I'd love it if some of you who enjoy these stories would take a minute to post something on Amazon (and it goes without saying that if you have negative or critical thoughts those are fine, too--any honest review is welcome!).

Many thanks!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Giving the pope the benefit of the doubt

First off: I'm still here! I didn't intentionally give up blogging for Lent. I've just been sick and sort of missed the first two weeks of Lent this year.

Now that I'm on the mend, though, I wanted to comment on some recent events, such as that time when a pope made an off-the-cuff comment that seemed to apply that he was in favor of something that the Church strongly opposes, and the Catholic blogosphere rushed to his defense and cleared up the controversy...oh, my mistake. That wasn't recent; that was when an off-the-cuff quote from Pope Benedict XVI got taken out of context by the media who spun it as the pope's approval of condom use in some circumstances, when it was, of course, (as Fr. Z said in the link above) nothing of the sort.

Funnily enough, nobody called it "popesplaining" or whatever the term of the day is back then; it was obvious that Pope Benedict XVI had been taken out of context and misunderstood, and the Catholic blogosphere didn't go nuts trying to prove that, no, really, BXVI was trying to approve of condoms in a sneaky or stealthy way because he was really a modernist or something. Instead, as I recall, the whole incident was taken as yet more proof that the media really does not get anything about religion right, and is always breathlessly reporting "news" which turns out to be nothing of the sort, especially when it comes to traditional faiths that still hold the line against the approved and trendy modern forms of sin.

When I read the transcript of Pope Francis' recent plane interview I noticed a few things right away. First, despite the news articles, the reporter never said the word "contraception." Instead, the reporter asked whether the Church would condone avoiding pregnancies as a "lesser evil" than abortion. One can almost sense a kind of frustration in the pope's answer as he explains, as popes have been deliberately and carefully explaining for decades now, that abortion can't ever be put into a "lesser evil" sort of construct in the first place--for what could be more evil than depriving an innocent human being of his or her life? What I see when I read that answer is a pope doing his best--for the umpteen millionth time--to make it absolutely, positively, abundantly clear that abortion isn't some sort of "Catholic sin," like eating meat on purpose on a Lenten Friday or failing to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation without a valid reason to miss it. Rather, abortion is a crime against humanity that can never be condoned regardless of the circumstances.

True, His Holiness goes on to say that avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. I wish he had taken the opportunity to speak about how the means used are what is important, and to remind those worried about Zika or anything else that the Church permits NFP or other natural methods of spacing births to married couples; I also wish that he'd left the sort of off-topic example of what nuns might or might not theoretically have been permitted in cases where rape was a grave risk alone--but I think that was more of a "theoretical moral theology misfire" than any deliberate or intentional message, especially when you consider that Pope Francis, like every other recent pope, has made it quite clear that the Church's teachings against contraception are here to stay.

The thing is that it is not hard at all to put the pope's answer in the most charitable light possible, just like most of us did with Benedict XVI when the media was screaming in all caps the totally improbable news that "Pope gives Church's blessing to condoms for gay sex workers!!" and similarly ludicrous spins on what he actually did say. The question then becomes: why are so many Catholics apparently so willing to see every off-the-cuff remark of Pope Francis' as proof positive that he's a secret stealth modernist heretic anti-Pope out to undermine the True Church and usher in the New World Order, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse?

There are several answers to this, ranging from our American fondness for conspiracy theories to the scars inflicted during forty years of unremitting liturgical war (and as much as I appreciate good liturgy, we have reached the point where yelling, "But they started it!" is no longer an effective strategy) that have left us unwilling to trust anyone who sort of reminds us of Father Nicefellow who was nice to everybody except people who wanted to pray the rosary in public or actually liked statues, and that sort of thing (though I hasten to point out that Pope Francis has a deep devotion to the rosary himself, and I wouldn't think he minds statues particularly either--he just sort of talks like Father Nicefellow on occasion).  And all of that is part of it.

But I think there's something else at work here, and it shows up when Pope Francis says other things, such as this:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to taking a pro-immigrant stance, Pope Francis' words here are really mild. He says that someone who is only interested in building walls and not bridges isn't acting like a Christian. But from that mild statement I have heard Catholics and other Christians insisting that the pope opposes border security and wants America to allow every illegal immigrant who can make it across our borders to move in and take our hard-earned stuff and import terrorists and take away our jobs and our Social Security and our money and our things that we've earned all by ourselves by our hard work and we shouldn't have to hand our money and goods over to lazy no-good immigrants or homeless people or welfare recipients or...

Nobody thinks that illegal immigration is the same thing as legal immigration, and nobody I know of thinks we have to have completely open borders with no laws whatsoever--not even the Church, who in asking for greater compassion for those already here is not demanding a repeal of all laws governing lawful immigration. But there's a troubling attitude behind much of the outrage against Pope Francis' words regarding a border wall, an attitude that is part pride, part greed and part fear--and the main aspect of the fear is that illegal immigrants are all out to take away our material goods, coupled with a prideful belief that we earned those goods totally by the sweat of our brows and not, perhaps, because we were born into a prosperous nation at a time in history when it was possible to earn a decent living and "get ahead," so to speak, none of which is really our own doing at all.

A sad thing, to me, is that this attitude of pride and greed and fear often comes from some of the same Catholics who fully accept the Church's teaching against contraception and who would never dream of using artificial birth control. They can't seem to see that the same combination of pride mixed with greed and fear is often responsible for other Catholics rejecting Church teaching against birth control and using it. For those Catholic couples, the unplanned child is like the illegal immigrant: a hostile stranger who is coming among them to take away not only their material goods but also that prideful belief that we have full control over our own earthly lives. Fear of that stranger/child causes contracepting Catholics to put up their own walls, built of latex or chemicals; and fear of that child can even lead to abortion when despite the wall of "protection" the child is discovered living in the womb.

Catholics can, and should, debate the best ways to go forward when it comes to illegal immigration (and bearing in mind that some people are injured or killed just trying to get here, which is something we ought not to take lightly). But we ought to go forward in light of Christian principles, and to remember that the Lord we follow said that we ought to love our neighbor (and He didn't restrict that love based on geography). If our objection to illegal immigrants is based on a prideful sense that we have earned everything we have plus a greed to keep all of our blessings for ourselves and a fear that the immigrant will join the widow and the orphan and the poor and the homeless as people we ought to be concerned about and be willing to help even with our material blessings, then we aren't, as the pope said, being Christian about them at all.

I honestly think that at least part of the reason so many don't want to give Pope Francis the same benefit of the doubt that many did automatically give to Pope Benedict XVI is because it would be a lot easier on us if we could believe that Pope Francis was a modernist or a heretic or an anti-Pope or some such thing--because if he were any of those, we could ignore him when he reminds us that it's not Catholic to see our brothers and sisters as leeches or bloodsuckers or threats to our (material) security just because they happen to be in need, or in this country illegally, or out of work, or living on the street. We Americans are awfully inclined to forget that God alone gives us what we have, and that seeing ourselves as the authors of our own destinies and the absolute rulers of our own tiny material kingdoms is a form of idolatry, of a kind that the pope's namesake especially rejected when St. Francis threw off his material goods for the sake of the true kingdom.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

About that Doritos commercial...

Yes, I'm late talking about this one. But it didn't seem appropriate to be writing about chips on Ash Wednesday, and I have a feeling this may get a bit snarky...

So, you all know by now about that Doritos (tm) commercial, the one showing an about-to-be born baby in utero being all fascinated by the snack his dad is holding. The ad was one of a few finalists in Doritos' annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which ordinary people, fans of the product, submit ad ideas and then get a chance to make the actual commercial. (This year's grand prize winner was actually the "Doritos Dogs" commercial, not the "Ultrasound" one.)

The ultrasound commercial ended up being at the center of controversy. On the one hand, the reality-challenged folks at NARAL decried the commercial for "humanizing" the "fetus" (who is in fact a real human and who is presently a nine-month-old boy named Freddy); on the other, pro-life Americans decided that for the moment Doritos (tm) are the official chip of the pro-life movement, at least until the corporate giant does something that angers us again.

Teapots and tempests, certainly, but here's the shocking part: I actually liked that ad.

The cool kids at Aleteia and on Facebook and elsewhere can snicker into their sleeves at my naiveté, if they want. But it was sort of nice to see an ad where a human fetus is not only not a disposable blob of tissue, but is actually a person, capable of needs and desires. Sure, it's exaggeration--the humorous kind, also called hyperbole--to imagine an unborn child wanting a mass-produced snack item. But having had the experience myself of holding a sweet little baby only five months older than that unborn child in the ad on my lap at a party, and having said five-month-old suddenly dive-bomb a mini-eclair I was holding, and then perform the acrobatic feat of consuming as much of it as possible before I could remove it while simultaneously shooting me a dirty look that said, plain as day, "You've been hiding the Good Stuff!"--well, it's not all that far off the mark.

What's even nicer is that enough people in America voted for this fan-produced (note: not cynical corporate giant-produced) commercial for it to end up one of the three finalists in the contest. NARAL and their ilk would like to believe that most of America shares their shuddering horror at the mere thought of an unborn child in utero, but clearly that's not the case. Quite a lot of us actually like human children, even the unborn ones, and are ready to chuckle at a humorous ad like this one without worrying that someone, somewhere, might humanize a fetus and then next thing you know she might decide against offing her unborn offspring via abortion (horrors!).

So, no, this was not some watershed moment in the pro-life movement--except that I can't really imagine a similar commercial being made by a fan and then actually making it to the finals in a contest like this one back twenty years ago, when people like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright had more than mere delusions of relevance. But it was, at least to me, a bit of good fun, and probably the first time in history that an adorable baby boy had his acting debut while still in utero. What's not to like about that?

Monday, February 8, 2016

The ten commandments of Lent for moms

Hard as it is to believe, Lent is nearly upon us. Ash Wednesday is the day after tomorrow.  For those of you who just put away the last of your Christmas decorations on Candlemas it may seem particularly weird when Lent comes so early.

I've seen a few "Lenten preparation" posts out there, and many of them are full of good resources, food for reflection, and so forth. They are also (many of them) written by Catholics who have actual qualifications to write such things: clergy, religious, scholars, catechists, theologians, apologists, canon lawyers, etc. Compared to those people I'm not qualified at all to write about Lent, and I admit honestly that even as a lifelong Catholic I am still trying to figure Lent out. If I live to be a hundred I may eventually get it, but for now I just do my best, which is all any of us can do anyway.

Despite my lack of overall qualifications I still wanted to write a Lenten post, because I think that many of the posts I read out there are for everybody and are sort of general, and I wanted to write a post that is more specifically for those people out there who share my vocation--that is, for moms. I think that having spent the last twenty Lents as a mom, I may have a couple of insights here or there that I didn't have back when I was a younger mom, so in a spirit of solidarity and encouragement I share the following "ten commandments of Lent" just for moms:

1. Thou shalt not feel guilty when you can't do Stations of the Cross (etc.) with a baby. One of the weird things about becoming a mom is that those early Lents just sort of fly by just like every other season with a baby: up during the night, up again absurdly early, spending your days on that endless merry-go-round of feeding and burping and changing and bathing and feeding and laundry and changing and speed-cleaning the important stuff when the baby actually naps for twenty whole minutes at once and so on. If you were the sort of person who used to do All the Lenten Things (or at least all of them that you could fit into your workday), it can seem really weird to have a Lent where you pretty much stay home doing Baby Stuff just like you did over Christmas and during Thanksgiving and, well, every day since the baby was born. But one of the things we learn during Lent is that God wants us to live our vocations, and if that means we're the one staying home with the baby, that's okay!

2. Thou shalt not fret about Ash Wednesday Mass. This has been a big one for me, especially the last few years as my older daughters have joined the "mandatory fasting brigade." I have always known that Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation, but I sort of treated it as if it were, up until the point where it became logistically impossible for us to get to Mass that day and actually feed all of the fasting people who were also at work and/or school during the day and could not eat their main meal at midday. I finally made peace with it all by remembering that on Ash Wednesday fasting is mandatory but Mass is not. Just like when my children were babies, though, I know that this time in my life is a season, not a permanency; there will come a time when Ash Wednesday Mass will be possible for me again, and I will probably appreciate it more the next time I can go.

3. Thou shalt not confuse Lent with a weight-loss program. I know this isn't universal to moms; you naturally skinny moms out there can skip this one. But I know I'm not alone in sometimes thinking, "Hey, Lent is coming! I can lose those unwanted pounds if I just plan my Lenten sacrifices craftily enough!" There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to tackle such things as gluttony or laziness during Lent--in fact, the Church encourages us to work on our faults. But seeing Lent primarily as a way to get in shape and lose a few pounds isn't quite right, and it usually backfires rather badly, too, at least in my experience.

4. Honor your husband's Lent. This one mostly applies to those of us who are married to Catholic men, though some who are married to serious Christians may also relate. It can be hard for a wife, though, to strike the right note of being supportive and encouraging about her husband's Lent plans on the one hand, and to avoid being critical or nagging on the other. Whether your husband is the kind of man who wants to sign up for all the Lenten things going on at the parish, or whether his idea of Lent is giving up one hour of TV sports-watching per week, it is not a wife's job to micromanage her husband's Lent, to treat him like a child, or to insist that he has to tailor his own Lenten plans to suit hers. I do think it's a great idea for married couples to plan some sort of Lenten activity together (and the "almsgiving" portion of Lent is particularly suited for joint planning, as most couples share finances). But there's a difference between planning some Lenten activities together, and thinking that it's your job to tell your husband what he should be doing for Lent.

5. Direct and encourage your children, but don't take over their Lent plans, either. Obviously some things that the family will be doing together will involve your children, such as a special evening prayer, an extra daily Mass, parish Stations of the Cross, etc. And equally obviously the youngest children among those old enough to observe Lent will need the most help coming up with a meaningful but age-appropriate Lenten sacrifice. But try to avoid the habit of running the whole family's Lent for them. I learned that when I backed off and let my children make suggestions, they came up with some really good ideas on their own, and were able to offer their own prayers and sacrifices in a more generous and loving spirit than I would have thought possible.

6. Thou Shalt Avoid Catholic Lenten Peer Pressure. This is especially hard to do in this Internet age, when you may have friends posting on Facebook about some thing or other they have done for Lent, and instead of thinking, "Hey, that's neat! Maybe we could try something like that next year?" you think, "What's wrong with my family that we're not doing All The Things like that, and how can I cram this New Thing into my already overdrawn and overwrought Lenten schedule so we can be just as stressed out and miserable as everybody else?"

7. Remember the purpose of Lent. Speaking of "stressed out and miserable," I know there are moms out there who, like my younger self, actually think that "stressed out and miserable" is how you are supposed to be during Lent. I'm not sure how this sort of thing gets started, but I know that for me it always seemed as though the whole purpose of Lent was to be as hungry, cranky, cold, irritable, joyless, depressed, unhappy and guilty-feeling as possible, so that when Easter came we would really appreciate that bleeping candy-basket (oh, and Easter Sunday Mass, of course). Newsflash: the purpose of Lent is to become closer to God, to love Him more, to follow Christ more closely, and to deepen the virtues, especially those of faith, hope, and charity. It is not to mutter curse words when you pass the candy aisle in the grocery store or to spend hours convincing yourself that a Pop-Tart (tm) isn't really dessert in the hopes that a bit of sugar will make you start actually liking your family again.

8. Follow the laws of the Church on fasting/abstinence with a cheerful and obedient spirit. Granted, I'm talking to those moms who aren't currently pregnant or nursing, or who don't have a medical reason they can't fast. But the fasting is only required for two days of the year, and those of us who can do it shouldn't stress too much over the details (and I say this as a veteran of fasting stress who still spends too much time worrying about it all, but I'm trying to improve). As far as the law of abstinence goes, though, I think pretty much everybody can avoid meat for one day out of seven, and I also want to speak to those who think that Friday meals must not only be meatless, but must also be sparse, tasteless, and as unpleasant as possible: that is not what the Church requires. It is okay to have cheese pizza on Lenten Fridays. It might violate the spirit of the fast to indulge on lobster every Friday, but even lobster isn't actually forbidden (unless, like me, you have a fish/shellfish allergy). If you personally want to go farther than what the Church requires out of devotion (not out of pride), then you should do so--but we moms (plus any stay-at-home dads out there), who have a whole family to feed, do have to consider the Church's requirement of meatless Friday meals in light of our obligation to feed our families.

9. Be realistic about Lenten prayer and spiritual reading. I always, always, always want to say more daily prayers and read more books than I possibly can in six weeks, and that's with young adult daughters and more time now than I ever used to have. My advice to moms of all ages/stages of life is simple: start small. Pick one thing you want to read and one prayer/devotion you want to add to your daily prayer schedule. If life cooperates, you can always add more, but you'll be at less risk of burnout (and the accompanying feelings of failure) if you don't start out Lent with a list of eighteen books and prayer plans that include the Liturgy of the Hours plus a daily twenty-decade rosary plus six specific novenas for friends and family.

10. Thou shalt--indeed, thou MUST--relax. We moms have this terrible tendency to think that the reason we must do All The Lenten Things is because it is our job to get our husbands and our children to Heaven as well as our wretched selves, and more than one of us has probably had terrible daydreams of being sentenced to ten million years in Purgatory because, owing to our failure to Do Lent Right, someone under our watch actually stumbled into sin and it's all our fault. If you are anywhere near that particular place, you should remember, again, that the purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God, and that He is the one who is in charge, not only of us, but of our husbands and children and extended families and neighbors and friends as well. We should do our best with Lent just as we should do our best with life, but if we think of God as this sort of vindictive Person who is just waiting to smite us because we didn't make the parish mission this year, then we're not doing very well with that Lenten purpose of getting closer to Him.

So: pray, don't worry, and have a good Lent!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Random thoughts about the Church and volunteers

The other day, I found myself thinking about the movie Lilies of the Field. Many people know the story of Homer Smith, a handyman and a Baptist who (greatly to his own surprise) finds himself building a chapel for a convent of East German nuns who have settled in Arizona.

I'm not entirely sure why I was thinking about that movie, except that it probably has something to do with some random thoughts I've had lately about the Church and volunteers.

Let me give a few examples, some that I heard about myself directly, and others that I only know about:
  1. A deacon stood up after Mass and announced that the church was looking for a skilled computer person to create and maintain the parish social media presence as well as take care of other computer-related tasks. Both a high level of knowledge and a commitment to a significant number of weekly hours was needed, but (the deacon paused) they wanted a volunteer...
  2. A message circulated from a local young adult ministry leader: someone with graphic design and art skills was needed to help with an important project. The group was looking for a volunteer...
  3. An announcement was made: the parish wanted someone with calligraphy skills to help with some lettering efforts (probably for sacramental certificates and things of that nature). The parish was looking for a volunteer...
  4. A school carefully spells out its policy: parents are required to volunteer a certain number of hours per enrolled student to help keep tuition costs low. They may be "billed" if they don't deliver the required number of hours of volunteer assistance...
These are just a few of the sorts of things I've seen that have made me think about this topic. I'm still thinking about it all, actually; this is one of those posts where I'm really just thinking out loud. I hope you'll bear with me.

To begin with, I know that there is a long and venerable history of volunteers, especially lay people, being active in their parishes and schools and other Catholic ministries. Despite what some of her detractors sometimes say, the Church is not made of money, and there are many times and situations where volunteers make all the difference. The Catholic laity are supposed to contribute to the support of the Church--it is one of the precepts of the Church, and despite a common misunderstanding that precept has never been solely about giving money. In many ages, the laity could only "help provide for the needs of the Church" by giving their time, their skills, and the work of their hands, whether in the form of food or of handmade material goods or whatever the case might be.

And the work that volunteers do for the Church is valuable and important, a true gift of the heart in many instances. Neither is there anything wrong with Church leaders, clergy or lay, asking for specific kinds of help. So nothing that follows should be construed as attacking the principle of volunteering.

Having said that, I think the reason I'm somewhat uncomfortable with some of these random examples is that they do seem to be pushing the envelope a bit in terms of what volunteering actually means. Asking someone to work the equivalent of a part-time or even full-time job, and a job that requires education, training, certification and so on, while emphasizing that there will be no pay whatsoever seems to be a bit much. Well-meaning people do sometimes respond generously to these kinds of appeals, only to learn that the person in charge (the pastor, the deacon, a lay leader, etc.) has every intention of treating them like an employee in terms of the kinds of demands made, the amount of work that is expected to be done, the unreasonable deadlines, and so on--except that unlike an employee they aren't being paid or compensated in any way. I have known people who have taken on a volunteer assignment like this in their home parish, who have then had to step down when the demands of the "voluntary job" started to take over their lives. Some volunteers who have been through this sort of thing meet with understanding and compassion from those in charge, but others are treated as though they were unsatisfactory and disloyal "employees" who "quit" when the going got tough, which can certainly create tension in a parish community.

Perhaps the reason I was thinking of Lilies of the Field was because in the movie there was a bit of conflict between two ideas: the idea that those who belong to God (like a convent of nuns, or a pastor of a parish) are a bit like the lilies in the scripture passage, whose needs are met by God Himself on the one hand, and the idea on the other hand that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Nobody thinks that the Church ought to pay those who volunteer for certain roles, such as usher or lector or acolyte; nobody who offers to help set up tables and make pancakes for a breakfast fundraiser expects to be paid. But I can't imagine a parish asking a professional chef to make a weekly voluntary commitment to cook and serve food for an ongoing fundraiser; I can't imagine a pastor putting out a call for a certified public accountant to handle the Church's finances on a purely voluntary basis (though perhaps it happens!); I can't imagine a parish finance committee asking a parishioner who owns a heating and air conditioning business to volunteer to install a new heating system. As for the parents who are told they will be billed for uncompleted "volunteer" hours--well, when something becomes mandatory, it's pretty hard to argue that it is still voluntary, isn't it?

I know that parishes these days are in difficult situations. Only one in five Catholics even bothers to attend Mass on Sundays anyway. Donations continue to dwindle. Pastors can be in a tough spot in many ways when it comes to paying for things, and volunteers may seem like the ideal solution.

But I keep thinking of the end of Lilies of the Field, when Homer Smith, having completed the nuns' chapel, hears them planning to have him build a school next...and so he slips quietly away, disappearing into the night.