Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Recap

Since Tom and I headed to his parents' for Thanksgiving, I was sans internet and blogging for a week. Which was fine, except I kept getting great ideas that I didn't write down and which therefore, were lost lost to the wind.

Thanksgiving with someone else's family is always interesting, but for me it is a real struggle. Growing up an atheist, we didn't have a lot of religious traditions associated with holidays, but what we did have was food. My family is big on certain foods for certain occasions. These traditions can be augmented, but never replaced. And since Thanksgiving has basically turned into a holiday of gluttony with very little thought to the gift of the food, it's really the only thing I associate with Thanksgiving.

That means that spending this holiday without my food staples is very difficult; it feels like I'm celebrating Thanksgiving in a dimension where there is no good food (not that other people's food isn't good, just that I'm attached to my traditions!). Last Thanksgiving, I actually wanted to make food to contribute to the Orams feast, but my offers were summarily rebuffed. Perhaps since I was "just" the girlfriend, my food was not deemed worthy enough to contribute. But this year, as the wife (how much changes in a year!), my offering was accepted and I got to make my cornbread dressing. Success! A few pictures of the process:
Probably one of the best parts is that it includes cranberries...I love them!

Leeks, salt, pepper, and plenty of butter gives it an unexpectedly rich taste.

Everything has to be sauteed for forever, but it's worth it! There's me with my apron in my mother-in-law's enviable kitchen, and sporting an awesome snood made by Cammie! I wish I had a picture of the finished product, but alas, it disappeared shortly after it was finished! It includes: cornbread, cranberry, sausage, leeks, pecans and walnuts, and chicken broth! Love that stuff. If you're interested in the recipe, which I have also used at Christmas time, please see Epicurious!

I hope everyone enjoyed their own traditions, and didn't face the TSA line that we did on our way home. I'll post about Advent soon, but I am definitely indebted to Cammie for posting the following video which gets me in the Spirit every time I watch it!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Opportunity for Virtue

Now, everyone has great theories about kids until they get married, and as someone who does not have children, I am probably not allowed to have opinions. I understand this. Yet my reflections on my own youth, my work as a nanny, and my work with youth groups makes me think I have some good insight, mostly because I've watched amazing family units and how the parents act, and some pretty horrible ones. Jumping off from there, I had a  conversation today with a parent (whom I love) that went like this:

Me: I see your teen son has a girlfriend now. How do you feel about that?
Parent: She's a great girl. It's nerve-wracking because they're getting serious, but a while ago I talked to him. He said they're not having sex.
Me: Well heck that's a start! Good.
Parent: Yea, well, she's over a lot and they spend a lot of time in his room, so...
Me: Door closed?
Parent: It has to be cracked, but our other kids are always around, so I hope that's a deterrant. I mean, she hangs out at our house till 1am sometimes. I'd rather they be at our house than at a party, but I don't know what happens after I go to bed. I mean, if they want to do it, I can't stop them.

WARNING: from here on out I talk about sex a good bit. I'm not shy and I hope you aren't either.

Lets pause for a teachable moment. As the product of a liberal secular household, I heard this all the time. My parents philosophy was that since they couldn't stop us from having sex, they would give us the tools to have it "safely": condoms, the pill, and a bed that wasn't infested with bed bugs. Yet this parent isn't secular - their family is Catholic! So should the secular parent and the Catholic parent be overlapping on sex education? Definitely not.

The reason is of course because sex is not just a biological itch being scratched. Sex is the way that married persons consummate the Sacrament of marriage; it is a sign of the goodness of God, and a very real vehicle for understanding God. As John Paul II masterfully explained, there is a theology of the body: our very bodies and the way they are made and interact reveals to us something about God. Sex isn't coincidence and it's not just about reproduction or pleasure; it's about ourselves as beings created in the image of our Creator! This also means that "sex" doesn't just refer to intercourse; being sexual isn't just about putting Part A into Part B. Since one loves with the whole person, making love also includes the entire person, not just a person's nether regions.

Within the context, we still know that being abstinent before marriage is difficult. It's always been difficult, but maybe it's a bit more difficult now, when a lot of the stigma is gone and it feels like "everyone is doing it." Also, it's just harder as a teenager, because one is new to romantic feelings, sexual feelings, and the opposite sex. Because having sex is something adults do and children do not, there is an innate attraction to having sex as a way to become "free" or to "grow up" and this is especially attractive to teenagers, who are eager for their misunderstood independence. Yet, as parents or adult persons in positions of authority, we know that sex is actually a very intense experience of giving ones whole self to another person. This experience is so intense that God designed it to be contained within marriage, because only a permanent indestructible earthly union could withstand the emotions and depth of true sexual union. That means that any unmarried teen is by definition not ready for sex; their choice to engage is sex is usually attended by half-truths and confusion. They must be guided, gently but firmly, away from a path that could hurt them.

Yet a lot of teens think that if they're not actually "doing it," they're okay. But oral sex and other versions of "fooling around" also involve the human person in activity that is essentially degrading outside the context of marriage. Besides breaking down a person's resistance to premarital sex, it also teaches them that their body is just bits and pieces that can be broken off for pleasure: "if I can't access your pants, your mouth or hand will do just fine. What matters is the pleasure I'm getting out of this." Leaving aside the risk of STDs, STIs, cancer, and pregnancy that can still occur from all of this, this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the gift of our sexuality and the sacredness of our bodies. Our sexuality isn't "just" for pleasure; it's a finite sign of an infinite God, meant to point us, prepare us! to and for an eternity of bliss in Heaven - a bliss that will consist in constantly giving all we are, and receiving all of the Other, without holding back, forever! That truth and reality is so much greater than the desperate graspings at intimacy that so often occur in a person's teens years; that is what we want to preserve them for, and the vast wasteland of sin is what we want to protect them from.

That is why the adults have to give their children the opportunity to be virtuous. Sidebar: I took a great dog training course one time that taught me that I cannot get angry at my dog when I give him opportunities to misbehave and he takes them; that is foolish. I don't get mad at my dog for eating a steak I put on the floor, for instance. Back to teens: in this small way, raising children is similar. If we are ask our teens to be abstinent and tell them what not to do, but then give them alone time in a dimly lit room in the middle of the night with no place to sit but the bed and nothing to do but "watch  movies," we are not giving them to opportunity to be virtuous. We are setting them up to fail. As much as children and teens rail against limitations, they need them and it is a parents duty to set them up. It is a parents duty to say, "I am helping you to be the best version of yourself."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

This Just In: Marriage is Hard

The truth is, I believed in my heart when I married Tom that marriage would not be difficult. For all you married people out there, you're probably laughing hysterically and crying "oh the arrogance of youth!" Yet isn't it such a beautiful thing? That I, like William Morris so far before me, "determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty." I thought that because of the depth of my love for my darling boy, I would be able to be all the things he believed me to be, almost effortlessly - because when does one count the cost, when one labors for the lover?

Unfortunately, even with the graces attendant to the sacrament, I am still rather sinful and have mostly failed miserably in being a good wife. As much as I hate to admit it to myself, I can be something of a bully when I believe I have the superior position. It is a trait that I identified in my husband back when we were at CUA together, but he only uses it in academic settings. I can use it anywhere. When I think I am right and I believe the other person to be slow in understanding, I just want to push past their doubts and frustrations: I want them to believe me because I'm saying it (y'know me, the smart girl!), and I want them to understand what I'm saying as quickly as I say it.    I don't process concepts, conversations, or implications slowly, and I don't want anyone else to either. This is a blatant example of self-centeredness and selfishness, impatience and unkindness. It is one of the worst sides of myself.

Although previously this side of myself was largely controlled and only came out to poor unsuspecting friends or, far more often, unfriendly adjunct professors, now I'm married. Unlike most newlyweds, Tom and I are around each a lot; he works a nontraditional job, and I don't have a job at all, plus his work is 2.5 miles away from our house and the only place with free wi-fi. Since we share a bed, we are around each other probably 20 hours a day. I'm not an easy person to be around for 4 hours at a time, to say nothing of 20, and yet I expect my brand new husband to know how to deal with me. I expect him to know when I want this or that, how to talk to me when I'm sad or angry, and how I perceive his tone when it's one way or another. I expect him to know me as well as my best girl friends, who lived with me for years and had a big learning curve that I've forgotten about now because it was ten years ago.

Into this mix we add isolation. Naples is a new town for me, and I am hundreds of miles away from the nearest good friend. My law school friends are off being all lawyerly (read: they have day jobs) and my new friends here, even the ones I adore, have kids and/or jobs - I cannot just call them whenever I feel like it, and convince them to go grab a beer with me. There's a general feeling of confinement: I don't have a car, I don't have close friends nearby, and I don't have copious amounts of money to use to redecorate my house and/or the world. Oh also? Naples is boring (compared to Tuscaloosa and DC).

So the person I am suddenly most dependent on: my husband. It all falls on him, and I expect him to meet every need I have. All of my emotional needs, physical needs, friendship needs, everything - he's the one constant physical person in my life right now, and I expect him to be all things to me. On top of his job and the other relationships in his life, this is beyond an unreasonable demand. It is untenable, and it is starting to break me. The more he cannot meet when I want, the more I demand and become impatient, exacting, unmerciless in my desire for him to understand what I feel I am clearly communicating (when in fact, I am not communicating at all).

To a degree, I think this amount of stress would have been lessened if I had gotten pregnant right away. Getting pregnant immediately brings a woman into a club: suddenly she has a group of friends and advisers that she never had before, she's invited to events she would previously have not been invited to, friends and family stay closer in touch. I would have been busier too and productive, full of books to read and nesting to be done. Yet pregnancy would have masked a problem that might have arisen later, after all our kids left the house: I don't know how to be married. I don't know how to argue fair, how to express what I'm thinking without being really mean or else completely deadpan, I have a really hard time telling my husband what I really think in the inner most reaches of my heart. I don't know how to do what I have committed for life to doing.

Being married is hard, and since God has left me no other options, I just have to get better at it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The D-Word and Old Motivational Men

So yesterday day was one of those days, and honestly, it just kept getting worse until it culminated in me stress eating a seriously unhealthy amount of McDonalds (I am not a binge eater...until I have a meltdown, which is about once every six months). My incredibly supportive husband was, thankfully, incredibly supportive and I ended up drifting off to sleep fine, albeit with a rather uncomfortable belly full of plastic and toxins and whatever else McDonalds "food" really is.

When I have really, really bad days, I usually say I'm "in a funk." It's become my code phase for a day where I am severely...well, uh, depressed. I don't leave the house, nor do I do anything productive in the house; no one and nothing can cheer me, I do not pray or shower or talk or even cry. I just sit and stare and feel horrible about myself. It doesn't happen very often and it hasn't happened since I've gotten married, but it frightens me horribly. Whenever a day starts out that way, it's like I can't stop it and no one can help me. I have never called it by the D-word before; even writing it feels like I am somehow out of control and should grab it back. Since I am a choleric/melancholic (for a very detailed explanation, see here), I know I am prone to the d-word, but my choleric side hates that and finds it a sign of weakness. Those days are very dark for me, full of thoughts that I know are straight from the pit of hell, and I am grateful I have not had one in a while.

Yesterday was not one of those days; I was emotional, which negates my haze of self-loathing. But it was still rough, and I was looking forward to going to sleep and hitting the "reset" button. Not coincidentally, I have found that days after bad or funky days are usually the best, where God showers me with blessings and love that I can see and touch in a very real way, in ways I do not deserve but so greatly need since I am so weak. And today I woke up early; I heard God nudging me around 5:45am, and instead of ignoring it, I got up. I got up and I prayed a bit, watched the fog sit still over the marshes and pine forests. Mostly I just enjoyed the quiet, with the dog sweetly padding behind me wherever I went. Then I perused the newest issues of Runner's World (which I always read, whether my last run was the day before or six months before), and was inspired to run. I had a fabulous run - out and back on my street, watching the fog and feeling a wet breeze on my legs. As I ran, I passed an old man who was walking the same direction. He was old even by Naples standards and walking steadily, but slowly. I said hello and kept going; in fact, I ran further than I have in a long time. As I passed him coming back, I was walking and he said to me "did you run that whole way, just for me?" Really, the whole time I was running I was praying for my older sister because she's such an inspiration to me, but as he asked me that question, I thought - I should run for you. I should run because I have the time, the inclination, and the ability - and someday I won't anymore. I told him, "Yes I did! And I ran further than I've ever ran before!" He got a huge smile on his deeply lined face and called over his shoulder, "Good for you! God bless!" What a motivation that was for me - what a meditation for the rest of my run. I kept thinking that Jesus had empowered people to walk when they couldn't even stand; surely, surely my Lord could help me run! Surely my God can help me do anything.

That is what affirms to me that God is real: when I am at peace, when I am happy, when I am still and quiet and watchful, I see Him everywhere. Not that I don't see Him when I'm upset, but tons of people cry out only when they are in trouble and then they have an experience of God. I count myself blessed; God is present to me when I am the best version of myself; I can never tell myself that He is a crutch in troubled times or a fable to make me feel better. He is my joy, He himself is that for which I seek - possessing Him, I can always have deep abiding peace. And it's that knowledge that assures me that the darkness will never overpower me - I have tasted and seen the Living God, and I cannot forget Him. If I, who am so fickle and poor, cannot forget Him, then He who values me more than His own life, cannot forget me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What To Do, and Who Will Pay Me to Do It

My bar application is due tomorrow and I'll let you in on a little secret: it is not going to get done.

Now this doesn't mean I won't turn in a bar application in time to take the Florida bar, but it does mean that I'll be turning it in late (I can actually turn it in any time before January 15). I had a minor breakdown today trying to figure out whether I could get it in on time and whether I wanted it to get in at all.

My apathy and general confusion about what to do with my law degree has been with me for quite some time, but it has always been easy to ignore. My last semester in law school, I focused on the wedding and graduation. Then the tornado hit and I focused on getting up in the morning. Life has moved at a fairly hectic pace and now that it has somewhat slowed down, I feel trapped in a post-law school haze: a no-man's land of failed expectations and fluctuating pressures. Here I am, married but not pregnant, with a law degree but no bar passage, and without any particular inclination towards any one type of job or even a job in any certain area.

This probably wouldn't distress me so much, except that asking me about my life plans is the only topic acquaintances can bring up these days.  Every day I get asked a number of questions: if I've found a job, if I am studying for the bar, what my plans are, am I pregnant, are we going to start a family. Questions that terrify and paralyze me, make me feel resentful and shameful all at once. The idea has begun to germinate in my brain that if I do not work and do not have children, if I am not producing something people can touch, that my life begins to confuse people. I admit, I resent having to justify my life on the basis of what I "do" - my occupation. I keep hearing that great line from the Judd and Maggie song, He's Not Out for Blood, saying that to have worth, "you don't need to prove/ you don't need control/ you don't need to win or to sell or to own." Work is a great good and healthy too, but it isn't the source of our worth, and I think that's the subtle pressure I am responding to when my rebellious side screams "Screw you guys, I'm going to do nothing forever!"

Taking the bar is a $4000 venture in Florida, no small chunk of change for us, and today I began to feel resentful that everyone assumed that was what I had to do - despite the fact that I have not identified a legal job that I want to even apply for, or even an area to work in. I'll admit it: I feel directionless. And it's a horrible feeling when you're married and have a husband with a very demanding job, such that you get sucked into the role of support personnel or political wife. I made the horrible mistake of talking to my mom today to hear her say "God gave you a brain and staying at home cleaning and taking care of your husband isn't what you're supposed to be doing with your life!" Ouch.

I do not do well with being yelled at when I am trying to figure things out. Tough love is great for me when there's something I need to do and I'm just being lazy, but using my husband's name like a slur is only going to make me discount everything you say for the foreseeable future. But there it is: do I, an educated woman, allow myself to "just" take care of my  husband? Do I satisfy myself with my home and my volunteering, my friends and philanthropy, or do I find a "real job"?

I am as puzzled as anyone else as to why God asked me to go to law school when I fell in love half way through with a man perfectly capable of supporting me. All I have ever wanted to be was a stay-at-home mom and yet here I am, facing the reality that my dream might be a little longer in coming than I anticipated. In retrospect, I feel that I made a lot of decisions in my life because I felt pressured to make them. It was drilled into me that as a woman with brains, I had a duty to use them - to get as much education as possible and get a really good job. Yet for all my supposed brains,  I'm remarkably unambitious in my professional life. I adore mindless clerical work (mostly because those jobs entail tasks with a definitive end that I can control), I enjoy being someone that assists others in their work - being the one that people depend upon to keep them organized, I like being a big fish in a little pond. I like being proficient at whatever is asked of me, and I think I can serve God in any job from retail to legal work.

I know that I don't want to take a job just to prove to others that I can, and I want to stop having my next steps be dictated by others' expectations. I do want to live productively and truly, but what I want more than anything is to God's will. If only I knew what that was, or if anyone knew what it was and could tell me - anybody out there have any ideas? Somebody...anybody??

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christmas Cards

I went on a search for a Christmas card. Among the many things that I stress about that should not actually be stressful, Christmas cards have joined the list this year. I have never sent out Christmas cards as a single young woman, believing myself to be still covered under my parents card, but now that I am a big girl, married and all, I figured I ought to join an American social tradition (actually, it was started by the Brits, but hey we make everything they do better - except for beer).

I thought, oooh we'll order some of those cute little holiday photo cards where we all look like models and the photography is black and white and stirring! Y'know, like this. But then I realized that most of these cards don't say anything about Christmas, let alone have any images about it: real, beautiful Christmas. Christmas images showing the Blessed Virgin, a hushed manger, sweet plump baby Jesus smiling his holy smile to the world. They'll have snowflakes, Christmas trees, or big words like MERRY JOY and LAUGHTER, but nothing about Christ. And really, that's the best part of Christmas - that's the reason we're merry, joyful, laughing - that's why we're celebrating!

So then I went on a search for a photo Christmas card with something about Jesus on it.  It wasn't that hard; I found several that were quite pretty. Then I realized that they were all "flat" - they were not in fact cards, but just pictures with writing on them that you shoot into the mail like uppity postcards that suddenly demand envelopes. Since I endeavor to cultivate my inner snob, I realized quickly that I could not possibly send out a flat card, no matter how chic modernity deemed it.

So then I went on a search for a folded photo Christmas card with something about Jesus on it. I searched, and searched, and searched - for three days. I had a couple of breakdowns and freakouts. Then I found it. Then we had to pick the picture to go on it, and get the uploading thingy to work - and that took a few more freakouts and breakdowns. Then I got it perfect AND found a coupon code that saved me 35% plus got me free shipping. Can we see cha-ching? Yes I think we can.

And yet it occurred to me: it's three weeks before Advent even starts, and I'm searching for a Christmas card.   But will I search this diligently for Christ when Christmas comes? Will I prepare for his coming as much as for the parties, or the greetings, or the merriment? Will I be as scrupulous about the condition of my heart, as I would the appearance of a Christmas card?

I wish I could say yes or no definitively, but I am fickle. Perhaps my Christmas card debacle will bring greater mindfulness to the season, not just more mindless commercialism. And if they don't do that for me, well, maybe'll they do it for one of my lucky recipients...I mean, at least they have Jesus on them!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

My Attempts at Sainthood are Constantly Thwarted

I had an entire post by this name written out and I like to think it was pretty good. Unfortunately, my mother's computer lost the whole thing, resulting in howls of fury and anger.

Instead, I will report to you all how I have seen 3+ posts from friends about getting their Christmas cards in order. I am not kidding. These are people who have not only had pictures taken, but then also ordered Christmas cards, had them arrive, and are now addressing them. Am I really so far behind? As a single woman, I  never really did Christmas cards. Heck I barely do Christmas presents as most of my friends can attest! But now that I'm married, I feel I should do Christmas cards and now all of my friends are (as usual) showing me up. And since I even care that they are showing me up, it shows just how far to holiness I have to go.

The fact is, I have noticed in myself lately a not-so-latent selfishness that pervades far too many thoughts for my comfort. I can no longer say I am at the point where I do not feel the promptings of the Holy Spirit or where I do not notice my sins; now I feel and see, but I am not responding. There is a spiritual laziness that, when combined with my idealistic aspirations, often results in outright misery when I realize how far away from being holy I am and how desperately much I want to be closer.

So as the season of thanks is coming on, and Advent is approaching, please pray for me my friends - that I will renounce my spiritual laziness and allow myself to be consumed with the spirit of the Living God.