Sunday, November 26, 2017

In Honor of My Mom

I was only technically an adult when my mom died. I was 22 and had only just begun “adulting” as they say today. Still such a child, and at the time, tight in someone’s clutches, but that is a story for another time. Today I write in honor of my mother.

I haven’t sentimental memories to call upon on this 41st anniversary of her passing. My mom had a hard life, made harder by her choices. She was only 11 when her mom died, so she, too, had to wing it on this journey. It was clear that I was too much for her- too much will, too much exuberance, too much a challenge. I grew up vowing never to make the mistakes my mom had made, but I plunged in just the same. And she, exemplifying “tough love” before it had a name, said, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” 

So when I feel melancholy at this time of year, it isn’t a longing for a return to good ol’ days, or from missing a mom who could always make everything better. It is, perhaps, the sorrow at what never was, and for what might have been, had she not left this earth so early in my life. Despite hers and my precarious relationship, I know that my mom would have loved my children, would have beamed in pride at having 11 grandchildren between my brother and me. Maybe, if she’d had the chance in later life, she’d have been healed of the wounds of her childhood. Regardless, it would have been a blessing to my children to have known her.

Despite the lack of cherished memories or warm fuzzies, my mom did give me the greatest gift in life, after life itself. She imparted the Faith to me, and for that I will be eternally grateful. We believers in Jesus, and in the Catholic Church He founded, know too well that what Mother Church teaches is true and that the world knows not its Savior. There but for the grace of God… My mom did not receive Holy Communion for most of her adult life (having not been married in the Catholic Church), but she still went to Mass every Sunday. She reinforced at home what I was taught at Catholic school, that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist. She believed in miracles and that the saints were her friends, who interceded for her at especially critical times. She prayed her rosary so much that its beads were worn down.

She also did her best to help those less fortunate than she. Thus we took in a young single woman in need of a home, the daughter of one of my late father’s former associates. She regularly passed things on to those in need. She sold our house to a nearby family, actually loaning them the down payment from proceeds of my father’s life insurance. A widow who made a meager income as a bank teller, she also loaned (actually gave) money she could have used to her step-sister’s daughter who was in dire straits at the time. She reasoned that one of her aunts had loaned her money one time, so she should, too. She was generous, and it was a natural outflowing of her faith in God, of her belief in the teachings of the Church.

So I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend. Not for a mom who taught me to cook, nor gave me self-confidence. Not for an easy life, unmarred by tragedy. Not for a big extended family who are my roots. No, even my only brother has departed this earthly life, as have my mom’s two siblings. What I have is a love of God Who I know loves me. That is the most important thing of all. And I credit my long gone parents - especially my mom - for making sure that in the midst of our poverty, I had that treasure.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mare's War

I came by my copy of Mare's War through winning a blog giveaway by its author, Tanita S. Davis. I have always wanted to write a review, but it was such an exquisite portrayal of life in the African-American Battalion of the Women's Army Corps, I knew I couldn't do it justice. A poor excuse, I know, for not giving the acclaim this historical novel is due.

Imagine you are a teenage girl with plans of your own for the summer when you find out you're going on a road trip - a very long road trip - with both your sister and your grandmother, who is anything but a "normal" grandmother. Marey Lee Boylen drives a "sporty red car" and "wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes, and padded push-up bras." Oh, and she smokes. Even though she knows she isn't supposed to. She might seem a tad far-fetched, until, through the course of the road trip to a family reunion, she tells the girls her fascinating story of leaving her less-than-ideal home in Alabama to join the Women's Army Corps and of the adventures she had during World War II. It was a harsh life, but Mare shows her indomitable spirit and Tali and Octavia aren't the only ones who will gain an appreciation for the contribution of African-American women to the war effort. Readers can't help but appreciate the sacrifice and amazing story of those women who served so nobly in an age when prejudice was normative. This is history with which we should all become acquainted, and Davis has packaged it in a vehicle (pun intended!) which entices the reader to hop in and hang on!

Tali, 17, and Octavia, 15, are typical suburban California teens and Marey Lee's story of war time ("then") is interspersed between chapters devoted to the "now" of the threesome's cross-country travels, told from the vantage point of Octavia. Adding to Octavia's amusing recount of their journey are replications of postcards that Tali sends to friends and family back home. Their journey proves to be more than just a road trip, but I'll let you discover that when you read the book.

And you really must read the book! February is Black History Month, for all of us, not just African-Americans. Because Blacks have shaped our shared history. You can't help but admire these women who gave so much to serve a country that denied them equality. Tanita S. Davis has gifted us with this story that celebrates what is good about that history without glossing over what was bad. What's even more remarkable is that she gives us this story without making helpless victims of those who suffered horrendous injustices. In doing so, she empowers all of us to move forward from that time, not in unhealthy denial, but with truth and strength.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Lesson in Love

Here's a little morning inspiration from Fr. Rob Jack, which he posted on his fb page:

When Thomas Aquinas was a student in Cologne, his classmates called him the Dumb Ox. Albert the great, his teacher, remarked to them that "one day, the bellow of that Ox will shake the world." While St. Thomas is known for his theological teaching, the source of that teaching is his great love for Jesus Christ. Love for God always produces great things in the life of the one who loves. That is St. Thomas' lesson for everyone. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, pray for us.
Notice it doesn't say being the top of your class, or mastering a zillion different subjects makes one be able to produce great things. It isn't about choosing the best math program or doing math at all. It is love of God that produces great things in our lives. And that love is the aim of our homeschooling. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?" They aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but I'm sure glad that when it comes to homeschooling my kids, my most important job is to impart the love of God to them, and help them develop love for the Trinity. I can get a tutor for the math if need be. ;)

 Picture Credit:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

I thought I'd chime in on these books since I have now read them all. This post is response to criticisms of The Hunger Games made on a local homeschool list. Please keep in mind my analysis is by no means complete or all-inclusive. The books are too complex for me to take in everything in one reading. Of course, each parent needs to decide for themselves what they will and won't read in their families. And I think we should all have our choices respected and not have our faith or intelligence questioned if we happen to allow a book that someone else doesn't. :) So here are my two cents:

I do not think the books are at all as I've heard first person shooter video games described. (Note: I have no experience with those games!) Nor do I think the reader is meant to be entertained by the killing. (I agree, I would find that sick!) The violence in the trilogy is found to be despicable. The idea of teens killing other teens is loathsome, and those characters in the story who find it entertaining are variously portrayed as evil-minded or dehumanized, out of touch with the dignity of the individual. Parallels are drawn between the story and the Ancient Romans. Sacrificing one or two people for the supposed good and punishment of all is also criticized and its short-sightedness is pointed out. There is a difference between freely giving up one’s life for another--making that choice oneself--and being forced to do so.

I’m puzzled by the commentary on my homeschool list that found no Christian themes in the book(s) because I was reminded of the Jews talking about letting Jesus be killed for the good of all, but that Jesus said no one takes His life, but that He lays it down freely. One of the things that makes Katniss the heroine is that she freely offers to go to the Hunger Games in her sister’s place, to spare her sister. There are other examples of characters showing such compassion and/or love for others.

Something that really surprised me in the books is that procreation is linked with marriage! How often do we see that in popular culture?! A character expresses not wanting to get married because she doesn’t want to have kids subject to the Hunger Games. In today’s post-Christian society (our present day society) wouldn’t people just contracept? That isn’t an option in the Hunger Games. Elsewhere marriage is recognized as something very special, and is celebrated by all, even under very adverse conditions. And pregnancy is viewed with respect, albeit such as can be given in such a world as the Hunger Games. That even those most hardened can be touched at the thought of carrying one’s dearly loved husband’s child is a testimony to truth, no matter how messed up a society is.  

My take on the books is that they are meant to be disturbing, because the author is asking us to think about what it might be like to live in a totalitarian society. She is also asking us to think about whether a select few, independent of the people they govern, can make wise decisions. She shows a connection between the decision to treat people like animals on a large scale, and disordered appetites on a personal level. She takes a stand against those who would want an eye for an eye. She asks the reader to look at what motivates rescuers. (I don’t want to be more specific because I don’t want to have spoilers.)

Back to the heroine-- Catholic author (and Steubenville grad) Regina Doman gives talks across the country to aspiring Catholic writers (at homeschool conferences and writers’ workshops) and she says the challenge they face is to create protagonists, “good guys”, who are appealing, with whom we can identify, who are exciting, etc.. She points out that much of modern literature makes the bad guys far more exciting and interesting than the good guys. (I heard her speak a couple of years ago at the Dayton Catholic Homeschool Conference.) Anyway, I think the author of the HG trilogy succeeds--for the most part--in achieving this in her Katniss character. (And no, I don’t know what faith, if any, that Suzanne Collins has. Truth has universality.) Katniss is wounded, but not defeated. She doesn’t subscribe to societal norms of beauty and popularity, but is none-the-less, attractive. She is strong and independent and yet still able to acknowledge her need for others. She is compassionate and respects the dignity of others. She is appalled and sickened at what she is asked/forced to do in the Games. She has experienced great hardship and loss, but she still has an innocence in the ways of the commercialized world in which she is thrust. She is tough but not hardened.

I think these books have *very mature* themes and are not for children, as they present ideas that I think are beyond the intellectual capabilities of most children. And the third book has a mention in it of forced prostitution. Very sensitive readers of any age might find them too intense. IMHO, teens are going to vary a lot in their ability to digest and understand these books. So my recommendation is to read them yourselves to decide; you know your child/teen best. And yes, I agree with a previous poster that we can learn about the ideas presented in the trilogy in other ways, and through studying history. I also agree with the poster who pointed out that literary devices are also used to convey truths and there is a need for both. But just as someone cautioned me that Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline might not be appropriate for children because it discusses the more mature Bible stories, so, too, a parent must choose when and if to introduce literature with such violence and mature themes.

And now for a very important caveat: Mercy killing and suicide come up without consideration of their moral implications. The topics are not treated lightly but as an ultimate resort. Never-the-less, the characters, in considering suicide and mercy killing, don’t discuss the moral implications of such actions. That was very disappointing to me. I think suicide/mercy killing is presented as a viable action only in the most dire circumstances (which don’t include the appalling virtual slavery that most of the citizens live under,) but the lack of a Catholic worldview is evident in this aspect of the trilogy. Given the books popularity, I think it’s important to challenge this sort of thinking (so prevalent in our modern day culture) that preventing suffering can be a reason to end a life. It isn’t.

Also, the morality of Katniss wanting to kill someone for revenge isn’t addressed. And I’m not sure that it really is revenge per se. But she expects someone to be executed for their crimes and she wants to be the one to do it because of the harm that this person has caused to so many, including her and her family. Whereas Katniss expresses distaste/disgust with the Hunger Games tributes having to kill each other, and feels anguish about so many people’s deaths that she feels were because of her, I don’t remember her questioning the taking of this one life of a “bad guy”. I think she feels justified in wanting that person’s death. It reminds me of today, when not infrequently the loved ones of murder victims express not feeling closure or satisfaction or whatever until the perpetrator has been executed.

I don’t know about you, but we’ve encountered quite a number of people who have read these books. I hope to be able to engage them on the above observations I’ve made. Since they are being widely read, I think it is important that these books be discussed, especially with a Catholic worldview in mind. And, of course, I will be interested to learn what others take away from their reading of them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Price of Loving

I've never handled mourning very well. You'd think I'd have learned given the opportunities I've had, beginning when I was 7 with the death of my father from a fire in his apartment. I remember my friend down the street, a couple of years older than me, reading to me on the phone the description of his charred and blackened body from the front page of the paper. "What does 'suffocate' mean?" I asked my mom. That day a friend of my mother drove me to the eye doctor where I was fitted for my first pair of glasses. I remember my mom discussing with her friend whether to cancel the appointment, but they decided that I should still go, to keep the day "as normal as possible." That evening, when it began to sink in that I would never see my father again, I became hysterical in my protestations. It was March 1 in Wisconsin where winter still had a firm grasp of the situation, snow and ice claiming victory over sorrow and loss. In desperation my mom phoned a doctor for medicine to quiet me and my uncle was sent to get it. Later as I still cried for my daddy, Uncle Eldon admonished me that I shouldn't cry as he'd nearly caught his "death of cold" for having gone out in the sub-freezing weather to fetch the tranquilizer. Now I had guilt inexplicably mixed with grief, and never mind that I didn't feel I could survive the pain. Somehow I did. The stoic German in me rose to the occasion, or maybe it was the actress, preserving the "normal" facade so prized in my family. For several years following, I would save my tears and cries until I was alone, until one day I could no longer remember my daddy's voice and I gave up the fantasy that he hadn't really died and would come back to me.

Fifteen years later, the day after Thanksgiving, cancer would steal my mother from this life. At least this time I knew death was coming. For that, I was advised to be grateful, and indeed, I tried to be. This time there were no policemen knocking at the door at 4 in the morning to announce death's invasion. I was "grown up" supposedly; certainly I had the responsibilities of an adult thrust upon me. I remember being incredulous when my aunt, my mother's sister, said I must plan to have everyone back to the house after the memorial service, to prepare food and drink for them, that they might reminisce and console one another. I did as I was told. I must be strong, I was told, and that meant not to cry, not to mourn. So instead of later in the day, it would be many months before the totality of my loss assaulted me, the agony of it overwhelming me long after my aunt and my brother had returned to their homes, to their normal routines. And this time worry intermingled with my tears, as I was pregnant and feared what such profound sorrow might do to my unborn child. Thanksgiving the following year I spent with my best friend from high school, at her parents' house, she with a new baby, and mine a month from arriving. Bittersweet. Such has Thanksgiving been ever since.

Today is the first day of Autumn, and the early morning announced itself with torrents of rain pounding my bedroom windowpanes and the light covers proving not quite warm enough for the chill. Two years ago today, dear Vivian Marie, my granddaughter, was born. And today I think I feel the pain even more acutely than I did then, for you see, she was born with anencephaly, with the top of her skull and brain missing. We knew that she was thus afflicted and we hurried to Texas to be with her and my son and daughter-in-law when she arrived. Our gratitude was abundant that she survived her birth, and that we were able to share her precious few hours of life, keeping vigil at the hospital. True to my bringing up, I kept strong as I held Vivian, and as I listened to her breathing slowly change to death's erratic rhythm, and witnessed the sword of sorrow pierce my son's and his wife's hearts when Vivian was gone. She was so beautiful, so perfect in spite of her "boo-boo" as my 3 year old grandson called his sister's wound. Back then I couldn't yield fully to the anguish as I had (for an evening) when I was 7; I'm not sure why. But today I am stalked by sorrow and sadness. I want Vivian back! I want to hold her and listen to her coos. I tell my kids that I need a nap and I cry and sob into my pillow in the privacy of my bedroom, and wonder once again if I can survive the loss, knowing that I will, and that this is the price of loving.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Flannery O'Connor & The School of the Holy Ghost

For the last few months I've been on a Flannery O'Connor kick. Years ago my eldest son gave me her Complete Stories, but I never got very far with them. Then a friend mentioned enjoying O'Connor's letters even more than her stories, and I promptly got The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor from the library. I love that book, and I hope to own it someday so I can highlight all of my favorites of O'Connor's profound and pithy comments. O'Connor was born in 1925, two years after my now deceased mother, and there is a certain attitude I recognized in Flannery's letters which seemed reminiscent of my mother. Or maybe it is just that they were two Catholic women who grew up in the same time period, but whatever, I felt I closer to my mom reading O'Connor's correspondence. And my own mother was living in the Quad cities in Iowa when Flannery was some 50 miles away at the Writer's Workshop at the U of I in Iowa City. I wonder if their paths ever crossed?

Reading the author's commentary in The Habit of Being on several of her stories sent me back to the book from my son, and I read most of them with newfound understanding and appreciation. Then I picked up her novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter; Wise Blood will need another reading before I give my opinion.

But the reason for this blog post is the book I am now enjoying: Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From the inside cover of the jacket: It is the story of four American Catholics in the mid-twentieth century who, "working independently of one another, came to believe that the best way to explore the quandaries of religious faith was in writing...a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us." Who were these writers? Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Percy Walker, and Dorothy Day. I don't know what Flannery O'Connor would think of such a summation; Elie paints at times a different picture of O'Connor than the impression given in her letters. His is an intentional telling of the stories of these writers' lives whereas Flannery's letters were not necessarily written with a mind to a larger reading audience. Nevertheless, Elie is skillful in describing his subjects' parallel lives and drawing the reader's attention to their commonalities and differences.

Flannery carried on a correspondence with Walker Percy--which I will now want to re-read. Percy went to medical school and specialized in pathology before pursuing writing in earnest. He, like O'Connor, was from the South. Thomas Merton was quite taken with O'Connor's work and she was pleased that he "got it." It is Merton who is quoted on the front flap of the jacket of The Violent Bear It Away, likening her to Sophocles. In her letters, O'Connor makes only passing references to Dorothy Day, about whom one of Flannery's friends, Caroline Gordon, writes a biography. Day's name does not immediately call to mind "writer" as I associate her with social justice issues and have not read her books nor her articles, so Elie's portrayal is a revelation to me, in more ways than one. Merton, Percy, and Day are converts to Catholicism, while Flannery was "born Catholic."

I'm less than half-way through Paul Elie's book, yet I'm finding it fascinating enough to propel me back into the blogosphere to encourage others to read it, others who also recognize "the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience," and "the power of literature to change--to save--our lives." (from the front jacket flap)