service is a strength, love

Thank my littlest love for this story that came to me during my rainy commute.  I was sitting in the traffic thinking about our dinner conversation the night before, and I knew I had something to write about.  Understand the context behind this conversation was the fact that littlest, a skeptical naysayer who never signs up for anything and wants to chase dandelion clocks all day, spoke up and told us how she had volunteered to be the 5th grade class representative for student council because, she said, she wanted to be someone important.  I almost fell over because I’ve been trying to find something for her, some thing she could do to step up and take part in.  Leadership and service are family values we often talk about around the dinner table, and this was so out of character for her!  Imagine a kid who’s got that look perfected every time you make a suggestion, tucked chin knitted eyebrows crossed arms — a look that screams NO! WAY!  Well, she seemed to have slipped a finger under a new leaf and I thought, maybe I could take this opportunity to help her turn it over.  Here’s the conversation we had a few minutes later:

ME: You know, Blythe, Deacon Patrick says if you’re nervous about becoming an altar server we could do it together.  We could both be up there, and I could help you until you got more comfortable.

B: No thanks.

M: But, it looks sort of fun.  You get to wear an alb and use all those special things.  You’re really important.  You get to serve the priest on the altar and help wash his hands and . . .

B: I do not want to serve the priest.  He can get his own things and wash his own hands.  I’m too rebellious for that.

Oh, I just love her.  The quirky attitude and quick wit–how she makes me laugh and smile all the time.  And she’s got it all figured out, doesn’t she.  I mean, doesn’t she have a point?  So many working mothers spend much of our married lives resisting domestic stereotypes and encouraging our daughters to be independent, equal contributors to their community.  I vividly recall telling the man I keep the first week we were married that I would not be ironing his shirts like his mother dutifully does each week for his father. Let’s just get these expectations squared away from day one shall we: there’ll be no freshly pressed shirts hanging from the doorway in the laundry room; oh, and I don’t do dishes.

This is who I am.  This is how I was raised by my father, who encouraged me to keep up with my brothers and never once gave me the idea that because I was a girl, I was confined to any rigid roles.  And I’m still her.  I believe in feminist ideals and know that there’s little in this world I could not do by myself, maybe better, but I know I also have a choice.  Certainly it’s my hope my daughters will be able to change a tire, bait a hook or chase down any bully in a pencil skirt and heels, too.  But there’s another side to me that’s hard to reconcile with this hitch-up-your-skirts and hit-the-road girl sometimes and that I seem to be having an equally hard time cultivating in my sweet sassy thing.  I’m kind of loving, and I love being kind because it makes me happy.  And for me kindness means making sacrifices and being vulnerable and yes, littlest love, sometimes it even means doing the dishes.

 We are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

~ W.H. Auden


It’s complicated!  But I’m grateful for many who offer wonderful commentary on the status of women in the Catholic Church, like this article via Another Voice.

Pair this thought with a reading of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

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“Toss Roxane Gay’s collection of witty, thoughtful essays, Bad Feminist into your tote bag. With musings on everything from Sweet Valley High to the color pink, Gay explores the idea of being a feminist, even when you’re full of contradictions.” (Self, “Smart beach-read alert”)

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holding hands


Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been traveling.  By car.  Many miles of open road and wide sky.  And of all the images flooding my mind as I try to conjure up stories to tell, I keep coming back to this man I met on a passenger train between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Not that kind of man, silly.  I know it’s summer, but perhaps you’ve been reading too many romance novels — or not enough.  This particular man could have been my father and he was traveling with a fidgety middle-aged man bearing the distinct characteristics of Down’s Syndrome.  I had taken an open seat a few rows ahead of them and when I initially glanced down the center aisle of the train I couldn’t help noticing the Down’s man tossing his head back and breaking open in laughter with the man beside him and another man in a well-worn cowboy hat who sat facing him across from a table.  Sometimes a story presents itself in unexpected ways.

My traveling companions had selected the four seats opposite this motley posse, and with a sigh of relief my brother and I took our seats a few rows away from our children.  As luck would have it, just as my little nephew began to make mischief the two aisle seats across from them became available and my brother was suddenly sitting next to the Down’s man.  I’d like to say I remained where I was because I fancy myself a practical person who makes moves only when absolutely necessary, but we all know that’s not true.  The truth is I didn’t want to find myself in such intimate space, on a train, facing a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome with only a flimsy formica tray table between us.  What an awkward situation to find myself in.  The insincere effort to not look away.  The patronizing conversation I’d force upon all of us.  Then the silence sure to follow.  Then the looking away.  I’ll just stay put and make it easy on all of us thank you.

My brother motioned me over soon enough, though, and I quickly surmised it would be more awkward to remain rooted where I was than to take that empty seat with my family.  And so it was that I found myself on a train sitting next to this man wrinkled by time and the desert sun no dusty cowboy hat could shade him from and across from his giggly companion.

I have been told that God’s grace takes us by surprise when we’re least expecting it, but when you listen to people talk about their encounters with the divine, their stories always seem to involve emergency vehicles, hospital rooms or sensations of light.  They’re swept up by a swoosh of wind, a clash of thunder, or a dramatic hush after hours of moaning misery.  They feel God’s presence in a community’s outpouring of support in times of tragedy — in candles, casseroles, a comforting hug through tears.  If you’re waiting for those big moments, though, I think you’re missing so much.

I took my seat and the man next to me gradually began a conversation typical while traveling.  Most people have some connection to where I’m from, and he was no different.  We talked about my recent sprint through the Mojave Desert, where he had lived once when his son — the Down’s man sitting across from me — was born at a Kaiser Hospital.  They were so advanced back then, that Kaiser there in California.  Look at him . . . most doctors told us he would never live this long.  Tell them how old you are.  The Down’s man turned to look at us quickly and said he was 45, the same age as my adopted brother and me, each of us born the same year, 1969, in different parts of California.  While we agreed there wasn’t much else out there in the Mojave but tumbling weeds, abandoned single-wide trailers and State prisons, his son returned his gaze toward the window and resumed his fidgeted smiling in his seat.  But at one moment during his conversation with me, the man took his son’s pale hand in his and held it gently, patting him softly with his other hand.  Their fingers seemed worn smooth with familiarity and they playfully intertwined as the man continued in his quiet way to tell me about visiting his brother one time in the prison I had passed just outside Bakersfield.  It was a seamless gesture of affection, but I noticed it, and I can’t seem to get the image out of my mind.  The way his son rested peacefully with his touch.  The love between this elderly father and his adult son traveling together on a train to spend the day in Santa Fe.


Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other until that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marveled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I would go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

~ Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories

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i prefer people who leap

But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence. The least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.

~ Lord Byron, letter to Thomas Moore, 28 October 1815

Barrett Meeks wandering around Brooklyn like Leopold Bloom, but instead of a kidney in his pocket, he’s got a memory on his mind, a vision of a light in the evening sky.  A celestial light revealed only to him, a beacon of some hazy hope he never quite grasps.  This is why I was so frustrated with Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen.  I haven’t been able to pen my frustrations for myriad reasons for the characters in the book seem so pathetic and the story so unsatisfying.  Creative, witty, thoughtful, urbane, and each ingloriously cresting their youth.  Ah, the middle age narrative.  The stifled yawn at life and the tepid look around, is there nothing more than this?  It’s so depressing, but so real.  Who wants to trudge through that cold snow?!

I think I would have liked this book better if the promised transcendence were resolved or at least hinted at, but the story wanders toward an unsatisfactory conclusion.  Any hope the characters reach for is compromised.  Like the shabby Bushwick apartment they live in, they only manage cheap attempts to feel more at home in the world.  Barrett can only bring himself to creep into the back of a dimly lit church.  His brother Tyler wants to go out into the storm; he wants a certain clarity that comes from feeling naked in the snow, but he can only bring himself to the window ledge.  It’s all a flirtation with jumping.  No one leaps.  And I just love people who leap is all.  Cunningham’s story is about searching for authentic, transcendent experiences, but his characters are self-absorbed, indecisive, and utterly hopeless — and they wonder why they aren’t successful.  They struggle to retain any optimism they have left and hope for them becomes “a cheap jester’s cap.”  Who has time to wear it anymore?  Cunningham is fond of these despairing characters clutching breathlessly after beauty and truth, but at least Peter from Cunningham’s previous novel By Nightfall actually dares go after them.  Yeah, it’s all an illusory quest and sure, his hope is dashed in that novel, too, but that narrative ends with a sense that he’s learned something profound in the process.

It’s hard to read a story like this, characters like these, because while I most certainly identify with their cosmic pain and carry similar questions in all my pockets, yawning and looking around just the same as they do, I can’t imagine living one day without hope.  Even when I find myself in deep holes, I’m always looking up for the light and clawing my way back into its grace and comfort.  Perhaps my ready rope is gratitude and faith and an awareness of our interconnectedness, of an eternal loving divine presence . . . the colors, dear Byron, that never rub off.

Hope knows no fear. Hope dares to blossom even inside the abysmal abyss. Hope secretly feeds and strengthens promise.

~ Sri Chinmoy


If you liked this post, you might also like these: On Gravity and What Grounds You | Happiness, It’s Only a Day Away | Thinking About Michael Cunningham’s New Book?


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