Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm good at things. And you can be, too!

I have always done things that I'm good at. Basically, I avoid anything that requires work, perseverance, patience, or any other virtue that I have zero interest in cultivating. So, that's how I manage to be good at things. I just steer clear of things I'm bad at. Feel free to use this trick in your own life.

The downside of this habit is that I do it too often. Even things I'm good at and could be really good at I don't devote the time needed to make that jump from good to really good to, maybe, even great. The strange thing is that, as a writing teacher, a big part of my job is judging the work of people who are doing something that they might not be good at and then telling them that they should work harder to be better at it. Life is full of little hypocrisies, isn't it?

I might be diligent at very little, aside from avoiding work, but even that diligence doesn't keep me from falling into situations in which I'm doing things I'm not good at. A few weeks ago I read a book that was set in Russia--not a Russian novel, just a novel that happened to take place there. I've never, ever finished a Russian novel. I've tried, but they're hard, and you know how I feel about things that are hard. But for whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to give it a go again. I would try to read a Russian novel.  I've been slogging through The Master and Margarita. I like it; I hate it; I'm utterly confused and intrigued by it.  I'm bad at understanding it.

I was thinking about that on my walk tonight. By reading this book, I'm doing that thing I don't do. I'm sticking to something that I'm uncomfortable with and something that makes me work harder than  I have to. I don't like it, but it helps me to understand where my students are when they're reading short stories, poems, and plays that I've read dozens of times. They hopefully like it; they definitely hate it; they're utterly confused and maybe slightly intrigued by it. And even though it uncomfortable,  this crazy Russian novel is where I need to be to get me to the place where my students need me to be.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What I like...

Lately I've been on a detective novel kick.  As I've always been a book snob, this new-found obsession embarrasses me no small amount.  And, it is an obsession.  Seriously, I've read ten detective novels in less than three weeks.  I'm practically freebasing detective novels and am in need of a twelve step program.

Back to the embarrassment factor.  I've always put a lot of stock in appearances.  I'm not saying that like it's a good thing because it's clearly not.  It's shallow, really.  But, in the case of something like "the kind of books I read," it's shallowness masquerading as something deep.  You know, the old "I couldn't possibly waste my time reading anything but the classics or histories or really depressing stuff because I'm deep like that."

But, maybe it's even a little deeper to try reading something I wouldn't normally read because, hey, maybe I'll like it.  Maybe I'll end up loving some hard-boiled detective novels, and maybe I'll tell people about it.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

"By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again."

Summer is upon us.

Okay, so that's a little optimistic.  I'm counting my chickens before they're hatched.  I'm jumping the gun.  I'm lapsing into all those clich├ęs that I warn my students about.

But, I am looking forward to summer and its restorative powers.  I need a little time when there are no more papers to grade, no more lessons to plan, no more offices to hour.  That last part didn't work, perhaps because "hour" just isn't a verb.

And, while it's true that simply doing nothing has its own restorative power, I don't want to do nothing the whole time.  For the record, that's not an invitation to ask me to clean your house, sit your dog, or do any other task that you'd rather not, though I am a pushover, so do with that what you will.

To avoid falling into "The Great Time Suck of Summer 2013," I've started making a list of things I want to accomplish.  Some are goals I'd like to achieve; others are things that I want to make a habit of doing.  As for the second, I began thinking over which kinds of spiritual practices I'd like to work on making more habitual. 

A confession: I'm terrible about reading my Bible.  I mean, I don't do it nearly enough.  Sometimes I (gasp!) don't want to.  For real, people, I'm lousy at keeping up with Bible reading.  So, I thought I'd make a goal of reading my Bible _________ number of times per week.  I'm leaving that blank for now, but, as I read, I'll check it off so that I have a record.

A moment after I've schemed this out, something inside me recoils.  This feels so forced, so inorganic, and I wonder if this plan is all wrong.   It feels as if a desire to read my Bible should develop naturally and as if forcing the point isn't being honest.

But, then I think a bit longer.  I think this plan is actually a good plan.  I don't always feel like doing the things I should do.  To be more honest, I rarely feel like doing the things I should do.  I feel like doing their exact opposite.  The only thing that changes that is to make (however unnaturally) those things a part of my life. By doing the things I should do, they become the things I want to do, and, even if the beginning feels forced, what I'm doing is, in and of itself, good.

This little internal debate reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from a film, the "Bastille" scene from Paris, j'Taime.  The film is made of little vignettes, each taking place in a different arrondissement of Paris.  I highly recommend you watch this.  I also highly recommend you keep a tissue nearby while you do so. :)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Responsorial Prayer and the Hot Sting of Tears

On Sunday, I had a baptism to go to.  It followed the 11 o'clock mass, which is the same time my church starts, so I decided to just go to mass at my friend's church.

I arrived, as usual, a bit late, and, though it looked like the only option would be to stand throughout the mass, a kind older man came up and told me that there were seats in the choir area and that he'd show me the way.

Sitting, standing, kneeling.  All in my odd little perch near the front of the church but, thankfully, enough removed that I was inconspicuous.  

Then came the responsorial prayers--the prayers for community, country, causes both large and small--with our united response of "Lord, hear our prayer."

I recognized the prayers because, even though I'm not Catholic, I've been to mass enough to remember which petitions are usually made.

But, one seemed different.  Maybe I'd heard it before, or maybe I hadn't.  Maybe I was really hearing it for the first time.

It was a prayer for those who had fallen away from their faith.  

Then I felt it.  The hot sting of tears and the lump in my throat as I tried to get out the words, "Lord, hear our prayer."

There's something about praying for someone.  There's something about being in a position in which you can pray for someone.  It's a gift to be able to pray for someone.  It's a heavy weight to be the one who needs prayer.

In hearing the prayer for those who had fallen from their faith, I heard the prayers that must have been prayed for me for so very long.  I felt humbled--both the shame of my falling but also the immense gratefulness of knowing that, at my worst, people had prayed for me.  Those who knew and loved me prayed for me, though it must have felt useless at times.  And, somewhere, maybe in the same church I sat in Sunday, people I didn't know prayed for me too.  

During that short, simple prayer, I was hit with the understanding of how much I had needed each and every prayer offered on my behalf, though, while those patient petitioners offered up their pleas, I never would have known the depth of my need.

I understand now, and I will always be grateful and overwhelmingly humbled that the Lord hears our prayers.

On being more


It's not a word I like so much. It's not a feeling I enjoy. But, today I was reminded that it is the last who shall be first, that it is the least of these who are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It's a different kind of currency. It's a different way of looking at everything. 

I always hoped I would do something great, be something great, be known for something impressive. I always hoped to have a stockpile of the coin of this realm, in whatever form it might take--for my taste, most probably the form of intellect or some such thing, really any thing that would make me better, stronger, more than what I feel like I am. 

 But, it's an exhausting thing, trying to amass an earthly fortune, and there is always the knowledge looking overhead, reminding me that earthly fortune lasts only as long as I do. In some cases, earthly fortune is even more fleeting, gone in an instant, worthless in less time than it took to gain. 

So, as I sat in church today, hearing that dreaded word "humble," I thought of my desire to be more, how impossible it feels. And,then I realized that there is a way to be more. That way is to become less. Even if I spend all my time trying to be more, it will never be enough. But what if I focused on being more in the Kingdom of Heaven? Might I then have a reward that is eternal? And, might my striving to be more in Heaven result in my focusing more on doing God's will here on earth? 

So, now I am (surely with many falls and missteps) trying to be more and trying to be less. It's a paradox, but it's something that actually, finally makes sense.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Courage of our Convictions?

One of my favorite authors, Peter Kreeft, has taken a very different but very good turn in writing a recent essay. I recommend this essay to anyone who is interested in pro-life issues,and, basically, I'd recommend this to anyone looking to better understand the intersection of faith and the pro-life movement (and what that means to the individual).

Kreeft, who has a talent for making complex moral debates comprehensible (often through the use of a dialectic method, sometimes in the form of a play), has written an essay entitled, "Pro-life or Pro-happytalk?" Stylistically, this essay is nothing like his previous work, a point he remarks on. But, in this essay, I felt like I got a better understanding of Kreeft's own struggles to "do the right thing" in response to his deeply-held beliefs in the sanctity of life and his feelings of conviction as a committed Christian who took a look at what he had sacrificed for his beliefs and found his sacrifices paltry in comparison to what he could do.

It's a position that most everyone has been in, regardless of belief structure or religious creed. We look at what we believe and what we do to further those beliefs, and (when we're really honest with ourselves) we're embarrassed by the dearth of action we've displayed in response to our convictions.

Kreeft encourages us to look at how bold we've been and how bold we can be, how we can use our God-given talents in support of the cause of life. It's an amazingly revealing and compelling essay. So, go read it!

Just in case you're not convinced, I'll give you a little bit of Kreeft's essay. This is the part that was my moment of "a sword will pierce through your own soul also." Or, in plainer language, this part really got me:

"But we do know what will happen in the next world if we do respond, because God has clearly told us that. He has told us that when we die and meet Him, the Judge that no one can ever escape, we will hear these words: 'I was hungry and you did not feed Me, I was thirsty and you did not give Me to drink, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.' That is not my opinion, that is His clear, literal, word for word divine revelation and warning. Do you honestly think He will not add: 'I was slaughtered in abortion clinics and you did nothing to rescue Me'?"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I Still Wanna Dance With Somebody

It was a day toward the end of the 1980's, and I was a young girl, standing in a Kmart, trying to fend off boredom as my mom and I waited for a prescription to be filled. Over the store's loudspeakers played "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." I barely knew what this music was because we only really listened to oldies and Christian music. Whitney Houston wasn't someone I listened to much as a kid.

But, somehow I remember her. I think of that song, and I immediately picture Whitney in that pretty pastel dress (was it lavender, or was it pink?), shaking her blonde curls as she danced. I'm not sure I'd seen anyone light up like she did while singing or have such a brightness and joy--all while maintaining perfect tone and pitch. She was one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen in my life, and she had that voice.

Whitney wasn't just a singer. She was a standard, a benchmark of what a voice should be. The beauty of her voice was in its strength. A classic mezzo soprano, Whitney could belt out the higher notes, but she rarely gave them too much vibrato. She owned those notes, took hold of them and didn't let them go until she was finished.

Sadly, the last few years of her life were mined for tabloid fodder, and unscrupulous paparazzi kept the public supplied with embarrassing pictures, video, and anecdotes of a woman struggling with substance dependence. I, like many others, find it all too easy to click on those little "news" stories while reading up on the day's events, and I, even though I should know better, overlook the fact that I'm engaging in gossip when I do that.

Lately, I've started to feel really conflicted about those habits. It's easy to separate a news story from the actual human being who's written about in that story. Celebrities begin to look less like real people and more like things that can be discussed (dissected, probed, exploited) for our amusement because, well, they knew that's what they were signing up for when they aspired to this fame. It's the sort of excuse for bad behavior that rests on the idea that "they were asking for it."

When I say it like that--the way it actually is--I can't really justify my urge to click on those stories. The first couple of verses from Psalm One come to my mind.
"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night." And, I don't want to be one of the "scoffers." I don't want to allow the personal troubles of another person to be my entertainment. Mainly, I don't want to think that I spent (or, actually, wasted) my time doing something that didn't honor the dignity of another person's life.

So, this is how I want to remember Whitney. I want to remember that light, that beauty, that voice. I want to think of her with the same grace and love that Christ had for her and has for all of us, even in those times when we feel the least deserving.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On Patience (or a lack thereof)

When I was young, I wasn’t much of a reader. Now I read all the time. Perhaps I even read a little too much now, but when I was a kid I didn’t have much use for books, didn’t see any real point to reading.

Part of that not reading was due to my suspicion that the really good books would come later, when I was older, abler, whatever it was that I needed to be to read those big books with small print and no pictures. Those, I thought, were what reading really was.

It’s a familiar story, a kid wanting to be a grown up, not content to be just a kid.

I think part of what makes that story so familiar is that so many of us struggle with the patience it takes to live right now without thought to the future or without the expectation that the future holds something better. Or, maybe that’s just me.

The other day in church the sermon was about the Prodigal Son. Actually, it was about several parables, but, as always, it was the Prodigal Son who stood out to me. He is a little bit me, as I am a little bit him, as we all are a little bit prodigal.

When I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son, I’m usually moved by the grace that his father shows; that’s what I focus on most. But, this time I was thinking about something different. I was thinking about patience. As one who has no patience, I think about patience a lot, as one who has lost something valuable remains fixated on that object until it is found. Fixated on the how and why and where that object has gone.

However, I’ve never had patience. My patience is not lost. It is simply nonexistent. And yet, I know it should be there. And so I think about it.

Patience stood out to me precisely because of the Prodigal Son’s lack of patience. He wanted his inheritance. Now. Not later. The son had plans for now, and those plans could not wait for later.

His request for the inheritance obviously goes against tradition. However, inheritance, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is what the son would have been entitled to and his father’s heir. In that way, the inheritance itself is a financial benefit for the son and is also more or less morally neutral. It did not cause the moral decay of the Prodigal Son any more than it could edify him.

To me, the problem is not the inheritance. It’s the timing of the inheritance. The Prodigal Son received his inheritance before he was ready for it. Though money alone could not corrupt him, it could give him the means to pursue his baser desires, to move away from the safety of his family to a place where he would be free to do as he chose. He was not ready for such freedom because his heart and soul and mind were focused on his own whims and needs, not on those things that would provide a firm foundation for a life.

In thinking of the story in this way, I’m reminded all the more of the importance of the virtue of patience. There are so many times when I wish for something—perhaps an actual thing or more likely for something to happen in my life. I wonder why those things don’t come immediately, why there has to be waiting. So, now I’m trying (with gritted teeth) to remember that waiting has a purpose. Sometimes God makes us wait, knowing that we don’t yet have the capacity or strength to handle what He has for us, knowing that receiving all of our gifts at once—before our own hearts and souls and minds are focused on what is good and right and true—will lead to a squandering of fortune.

And so, I wait to read the story He has written for me, the one with the words I don't yet understand.