Monday, March 2, 2015

What's so wrong with trashy books (or movies)?

Our weekend was filled with runny noses, pink eyes (I die. The second worst of childhood ailments, dethroned only by vomit), and lots and lots of reading.

The kids and I and even daddy all had books in piles around the house, freshly liberated from the library down the street and competing with Netflix for our winter-bound attention.

I must confess I spent the better part of Saturday reading a book I probably should not have finished...and I'm going to tell you why.

But first, a little background. Last week I asked my lovely readers who follow along on Facebook for some literary recommendations. And boy did I get some. You guys are so awesome, you flooded my newsfeed with more than 100 titles.

One evening later that week, after bedtime, I snuggled down with my laptop and my library account and went on a little hold binge, filling my e-cart with close to 50 titles. It was addictive, like shopping without money. Well, maybe like shopping with taxpayer money...but less of a sting than Amazon, for sure. (50 titles was a bit enthusiastic though, I will admit. Especially since 20 of them popped up in my email the next day as "ready for pickup." Oops.)

I trudged through the snow with one small boy in tow and we retrieved about a dozen titles, probably more than I could read in 2 weeks, but hey, a girl can dream. 

Sure enough, the powers of illness and weekend frigidity combined and was stayed inside reading plenty. Enough for me to finish one entire novel and crack into another one, only to be discarded and replaced by a 3rd option.

Here's where things get weird though. You see, the first book I read, while engaging, was ... questionable in terms of content. It was little things here and there at first, offhand references to casual sex. Details about make out sessions. Backstories involving (thankfully) derailed trips to the abortion clinic. And things kind of escalated from there.

The problem was though, I was so engaged in the story line and the characters by the time things got really steamy (read: super trashy) it was hard to shut the book and walk away. So I didn't. I read the whole dang thing and pretty much enjoyed it but definitely squirmed through increasingly larger sections of it. 

And afterwards, I felt acutely that I had betrayed an essential part of myself: my conscience.

For someone who can write confidently about skipping 50 Shades of S&M and has no problem flipping over the top copy of Cosmo in the checkout line, when it came to a book that was already in hand and being enjoyed, I had a more difficult time stepping away, even though I was fully aware that it was bad for me.

And no, I don't think that I committed any mortal sin by finishing a smutty novel, because I was skimming through the squirmy parts and was definitely repelled by - not attracted to - the sins being committed on the pages. But still. I didn't look away.

And I should have. I should have shut the book and played with my kids. Or picked up another title and tried again. Or, hell, painted my toenails or jumped on the elliptical or taken a nice long bath. There are plenty of things a tired mom can do with her limited leisure time that don't involve torrid affairs and steamy sex scenes in the back of cars.

Because here's the thing: every time I expose myself to the glamorization and normalization of evil - be it promiscuous teens losing their virginity, extramarital affairs, premarital sex, period - I lose a little bit of my natural (and supernatural) sensitivity to these sins.

It matters little that I will probably never personally commit them, (and I'm more than aware that there but for the grace of God go I); but when I am granting them entrance into my imagination - and my heart, because it dwells there, too - then I am throwing open an opportunity to grow not in virtue, but in vice. To do one thing with my "real" life, but to play by different standards inside the equally-real world of the mind.

And why invite those imaginary characters to come and live inside of me, occupying space in my brain and my heart where I'm desperately trying to cultivate virtue to impart to my kids, and to overcome the smallness and the very real fallenness of my own interior world?

We all struggle with sin, and thanks to the grace of God, we all have access to the grace to overcome them. Again. And again.

But that is by no means a license to roll around in the mud in our minds, rationalizing away the imaginary teflon divider between body and mind, spirit and flesh.

What we put into our bodies - our minds, our selves - matters. It matters because it becomes a part of us, just as much as the food we eat and the water we drink. It is incorporated into us in a permanent way. And as much as I have the authority over what will become irrevocably a part of me, it is my duty to exhort quality control over the raw material.

That's why it's not okay to go see a porno movie, even if it's mass-produced and wildly popular.

That's why I should probably delete that raunchy rom-com from my Amazon playlist, even though "it's a cultural classic" and "a little smut never hurt anybody." Because actually, all sins start small, and they have to start somewhere.

It's hard enough to cultivate virtue is a culture that is anti-virtuous, the enshrines and celebrates the very things we are commanded to avoid: murder, adultery, gossip, slander. 

Why compound the difficulty by filling our brains with the crap we're trying so hard not to step in ourselves?

Why read stories about characters succumbing to temptations we're striving mightily to overcome ourselves, entertaining plot lines that, if played out in vivo, would land us right in the confessional (and maybe divorce court, or prison)?

The past 6 years of living without cable has made me much, much more sensitive to televised smut than college Jenny ever dreamed of being. So yeah, my standards there are fairly high, but its' because I'm not regularly exposed to it. The boiling frog effect hasn't set in, and I'm instantly repulsed  when I see something graphic on tv that I know is wrong, in part because it's so shocking and so out of the ordinary.

I need to be more careful about what that looks like in terms of reading material too, though. Because just like you can never unsee something once it's flashed across your vision field, it's very, very difficult to divest yourself of the written word, too.

And I'm having an epic enough struggle swimming upstream in this culture. God knows I need all the help I can get.

I'm not going to undercut myself with friendly fire by reading "harmless" chick lit filled with innuendos and sex scenes between imaginary characters. Because they might not be real, but I am.

I'm a real flesh and blood woman with real struggles and real proclivities to sin. And I've also been entrusted with a husband to care for, and 4 little souls to guide back to Him.

My God, I need all the help I can get. 

And when I do need to escape (and I do, very much, very often in these exhausting early years) it ought not be to a place I have no business visiting, even if only in my imagination.

There's plenty of other stuff I could be doing with my free time, anyway. I could paint my daughter's toenails, watch a make up application tutorial on Youtube, write my husband a love letter, curl my hair, shop online for some cute unmentionables, go for a run (or a walk, as this widening load would have it), call my best friend, stare at maternity style posts on Pinterest...etc.

(I'm intentionally leaving out the titles of the books in question, partly because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or embarrass them if they did make the recommendation, and partly because I do believe that different people have different thresholds for what makes them squirm.)

 But I do want to challenge myself - all of us - to be conscious of that threshold, and how we can deaden or attune our own consciences with the choices we make and the company we keep, even in our own imaginations.

Maybe especially there.

Oh, and for the the record, I'm currently reading O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, at someone's excellent recommendation. And loving it. There's plenty of grit, there too. 

Because I'm not looking for an impossibly squeaky clean "unrealistic" universe, but for one that plays by natural law. Think "Les Miserables" ... plenty of sex, plenty of sin...and plenty of realistic consequences for what happens when we fail to choose the good. That's the kind of steamy I can handle.

Or a bath. I can always handle a nice hot bath. If only the kids would all nap at the same time.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The annual Lenten crash and burn

Well, well, well.

We all saw this one coming. At least I presume most of you fine people did, along with my husband and my entire extended family (we're close knit like that).

Bottom line: committing to a radical total-life overhaul is the number one recommended way to screw up New Years... and Lent. And to do it while pregnant? Even better! That way there's plenty of hormonal support for those lofty goals, fueled by prenatal appointments and late-night Pinterest binge sessions on Paleo meal planning and having "the best pregnancy ever."

I lack self knowledge. Let no one question that.

I also lack humility, apparently, and what better way to remedy that than to admit crushing defeat 9 days into 47?

So the Lenten Whole 40. Um, no. It's not going ... well. We're eating decent, low carb dinners and staying away from sugars and dessert, but other than that, I have utterly failed. First it was the occasional spoonful of crunchy peanut butter to supplement that morning banana. Then it was the occasional glass of whole milk "for the baby." And the only thing less impressive than no finishing this stupid endeavor would be to fail to cop to it here. So, my name's Jenny, and I failed my Lenten sacrifices.

At least, I failed at the ones I picked for myself.

Oh my gosh, it's so predictable and it's so stupid, but it's kind of the same way I feel when I go back to Confession time and time again for the same exact sins, the same exact issues.

I can't do it on my own. 

And when I fail to take His plans into account, I fail. Every time.

Oddly enough, the little penances He chose on my behalf, the sleepless nights with sick kids (again! Again with the ear infections! A pox on this winter!), the teeth-gritting Mommy and Me decade of the Rosary in the mornings, the endlessly pleasant soundtrack of an almost-three-year-old's chronic whining...well those sacrifices are going great.

Seriously, I haven't missed a day yet.

And yesterday I even had the opportunity to re-mop a delicately steam-cleaned kitchen floor when a sweet little somebody barfed up her antibiotics over the side of her high chair.

I'm so lucky.

I mean that. Because look, if I had been relying entirely on my great ideas and lofty goals for self improvement, this Lenten season would already be DOA. And it is. My Lent is dead in the water.

But the one He had in mind for me? It's in full swing.

More time spent in prayer, because I'm drowning and I need His grace to make it till bedtime.

Healthier meals and wiser choices in the grocery store. Because my sane and stable husband is doing marvelously well in his efforts to eat clean. And I'm in charge of the meal planning round here.

Growth in the virtue of patience. Because 4, 3, 1, and 16 weeks in utero. And all very needy. (Though all the small one wants is Cool Ranch Doritos, truth be told. Bad baby.)

Tons of opportunity to grow in humility. Literally, tons. Because my pants don't fit now that, once again, the beautiful soul-stretching work of bringing a new body into the world is destroying mine in the process.

Hello, Lent which was meant for me. It's nice to make your acquaintance. Sorry I'm a week and a half late, it's just that I haven't bothered to look up from my plans until now. But I'm chastened and deflated and feeling much more teachable.

And I promise I'm going to try really, really hard and take my own advice in future years and just accept the Lent that has been handily laid before me, custom crafted for my own particular vices and weaknesses, and not try to concoct one on my own that is so lofty, so fantastically challenging that I've literally no hope of seeing it through.

I'm listening now. And, yeah, I'm eating cheese.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is it really about the children?

There has been much discussed about immigration in the news cycle of late. 5 million granted amnesty, amnesty revoked, bills vetoed, legislative vs. executive branch's a hot mess.

There are millions of young people who want to be living here in the US of A. Whatever your politics, that fact stands. And both sides of the debate seem to have settled on the youth narrative as a good place to start from. Because 45 year old drug runners or convicted felons make less compelling subjects, and old people are boring, I guess? I think that's the line of reasoning, anyway.

So the children. Both pro amnesty and anti amnesty groups point to the kids as the reason we need to fix the system/open the borders/streamline the process, and they're right. The kids are the reason. They have as much dignity as the little people you have tucked up under your own roof each night, slumbering peacefully and securely.

Now, forgive me if I'm wrong, but this piece casts a rather disingenuous pall over the motives of some of those within the Department of Health and Human Services working so earnestly to secure residence for young illegal immigrants. And it smacks of the worst kind of eugenic elitism.

Sure, send us your poor, your huddled masses ... and we'll welcome them and abort their children.

Is there not rather an abrupt break in the narrative, at that point, if it is indeed supposed to appear as though the primary concern in the forefront of everybody's generous heart is the children?

I guess, then, it still boils down to a prejudice of geography. Children running across deserts and fording rivers are welcome, but the stowaways within their wombs will be executed upon arrival, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

And yes, sure, it specifies that the abortion services will be extended to those children who were sexually assaulted during their crossing, but with the amount of trafficking occurring on our borders right now, that casts a wide net indeed. I wonder who decides whether a pregnant 14 year old girl has been assaulted and is therefore "entitled to" (read: has it forced upon her) abortion. Perhaps even against her will.

But then, it's for the good of the children. 

Violence upon violence.

This is the fruit of the assault on religious freedom, on purging goodness and truth from the public square. When we lose our voices and our rights to exercise our consciences, everybody suffers. And government bureaucracy is no replacement for the human heart for determining good from evil.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sometimes it looks like this

Today was one of the best days we've had at home in a while, for me and the kids. The long-awaited pajama day at preschool was trumped by a snow day, and all three little people spiked fevers sometime after breakfast. No fewer than 7 (seven. SE-VEN) hours of cartoons were consumed by a certain someone with a 103 temperature and an abiding love for the Octonauts, and I was only dressed in real clothes for about an hour, during a brief foray to the doctor's office and the grocery store.

And it was, truly, one of the best days in recent memory.

I didn't yell, I didn't cry, and I didn't stress over what I was or wasn't getting done. The kids were so needy, and I, for once, was so acutely aware of their littleness and their neediness that I just threw up my hands and settled onto the floor in my yoga pants to soothe, cuddle, and read aloud.

Sure, a few loads of laundry got washed, but nothing notable was checked off my endless to-do list. For once I could clearly see their needs, and somehow, there was the grace to meet them.

I wonder if it's always there?

I suspect it is.

I read a piece on a better blog than this one a while back, and one bit of wisdom in particular stuck with me: when your kids are sick, stop what you're doing and take care of them. Don't ask me why that's rocket science to me (seriously, please don't), but it hit me right in the gut.

I do so much in spite of my kids, stepping around them and over them and looking past them - or at least looking past whatever trying developmental stage we might be stagnating in currently - that I've lost countless opportunities to train flabby mommy muscles and hone parental prowess by meeting reality head on. I grit my teeth and get through it, whatever "it" happens to be: pink eye, potty training disasters, sleeplessness, etc.

And I drag them with me.

Today felt different, though. Today, maybe because it's Lent, or because I prayed first thing like I always should but never actually do, or because school was cancelled and my agenda was derailed, I just met them where they needed me, extending my arms and letting them climb all over my slowly shrinking lap and reading Little House on the Prairie until my voice got scratchy. (And yes, hours and hours of Netflix, too.)

I didn't try to escape it, not in the virtual sense or the literal sense. I didn't load them up and force the planned Costco run. And, miracle of miracles, I didn't send a single electronic smoke signal to my homebound husband on the evening commute. I just accepted the day as it unfolded, and for once I played the role of competent, caring adult for a solid 10 hours.

Maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit, but it certainly didn't feel very familiar. I think I spend more time than is polite to admit attempting to escape from this particular season in life, whether it be through exercise or constant, low-grade panic-cleaning or the endless busyness of saying yes to yet another little project or another small commitment, giving away little pieces of myself bit by bit until there's nothing but scraps left for the children.

For my children.

This isn't some kind of self castigating tell all about the terrible state of my motherhood. I'm not a bad mom, and I know that. But I am a highly distracted mom, most of the time. And an overworked mom, exhausted by my own free will more often than not.

My choices and my standards are what keep me there, though. It's not really the kids, most of the time. It's me. My expectations, my plans, my agenda...and my failure to put first things first, vocationally speaking.

I'm not saying mom shouldn't make it to the gym every other night. God knows I need that precious time on the Stairmaster with HGTV blasting through my earbuds. And there's nothing wrong with keeping a clean, clutter-free house that brings peace and life to your family. But there is something wrong, something out of place, when the kids and the marriage and the vocation you chose, of your own free will, become not the means to your sanctification but the burden that tugs at the edges of your sanity.

I am there too often, and I can see where a long string of days and months and years in such a place could lead.

Thank God, then, for little graces wrapped in feverish bunches of damp pajama bottoms and snot-streaked faces. For the bloodless surrender to a day spent reading stories and filling juice cups and vacuuming around clumps of kleenex. He knew just what I needed today - what we all needed.

For mommy to be around, in the fullest sense.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why everybody loses when we sugarcoat NFP

There's a common thread that runs through so many of the conversations I've had about NFP lately (and, as this belly pops out more and more, I'm guessing those opportunities are just going to start rolling in gangbusters at Costco and the like) and it's the very simple and very often understated reality that it's difficult.

Did you catch that?

There is nothing easy about it, whichever method you practice and however charismatic your instructor and however earnest the smiling couple with 5 mewling children careening about their feet who run you through your introductory session as an idealistic (or perhaps incredibly bored) newly engaged may be.

It's not easy.

It's not easy to choose this alternative lifestyle, to live the practical nitty gritty of the Church's strange and beautiful and salvific teaching on sex and love and human life.

It just isn't.

I doubt it was easy 200 years ago when less was understood about the female reproductive system, and more was left up to a prayer and a chance.

And it's not easy today, for we who are often steeped in and strangled by technology, terrified at turns by our ability to procreate and our inability to control, ultimately, this mysterious force at the center of human existence.

It's heavy stuff we're dealing with, and it deserves a more serious and frank conversation, at every level of engagement.

On the one hand, yes, we ought to be encouraging and enthusiastic in our presentation of the Church's beautiful teachings on sex and marriage, but we ought not do so at the expense of reality.

Nobody has ever pointed to a crucifix and said "look how pretty, look how effortless."

Is it beautiful? Peerlessly.

Is it staggeringly difficult? An incomprehensible level of suffering?

Yes, also that.

There is nothing to be gained from hiding the beauty and the difficulty of living this countercultural reality from those who come to us with questions, comments, or even ridicule.

And there is surely nothing to be gained in failing to advise young engaged and newly married couples, enthusiastic in their love and devotion and early in experience, that the road they are going to walk down is not paved entirely in roses, or rather, that there are thorns, too.

Spouses who practice NFP are less vulnerable to divorce, yes, but not because of NFP alone. There is room in their marriages for charity, for generosity, for communication...but it's an opportunity that must be actualized by hard work and hard choices and constant death to self. It's not a guarantee.

And please, for the love, pastors, well-meaning friends, family members...if a couple is drowning in plain sight, overwhelmed by their present circumstances, or just plain exhausted by the physical and emotional strain of parenthood, do the truly loving thing and lift them up. Offer them babysitting help. Take a meal over. Drop off a gift card. Pray for a multiplication of sleep and energy. But don't lean in in a conspiratorial tone and ask them if they've thought about doing something about all those bouncing babies that keep coming their way.

Yes, they've thought about it. 

And they've either discerned that now was indeed a good time for another new life to come on the scene or they're struggling with understanding their fertility or they just plain made a miscalculation, or God one-up'd them.

Whatever the case may be, they're not morons who've never watched tv, and your suggestions are less than helpful; they're deadly destructive.

I can't tell you how many women I've talked to who have been counseled by pastors/friends/in-laws, well-intentioned Catholics and less-than-well-intentioned Catholics, that contraception was the obvious and only answer to their problems.

When somebody is drowning in plain sight, you don't chastise them for getting in the water in the first place. You throw them a life preserver and wrap them in a warm blanket and hold them until the shivering subsides.

To suggest that living the fullness of the truth of the Catholic Church's teachings on family life is only beneficial up to a point, up to the part where it gets really hard and excruciatingly challenging, empties the authority of those teachings to nothing.

Either it's life giving and soul saving, or to hell with it.

Tell me that from the pulpit and I'll sit up and give you my full attention. Anything less is a waste of my time and an insult to my intellect.

Let's do a better job of talking about NFP. Let's be bold in our conversations with our Catholic friends who are unconvinced. Let's be transparent with our curious (bemused?) family members. And let's be charitable with our incredulous neighbors.

Because there are a whole lot of people searching for real love, and for the meaning of life, and for answers to lots of big questions. Shame on us if we're not willing to offer some answers, or at least start the conversation with an explanation.

Finally, let's encourage our priests and our seminarians to dig deep in their study of these difficult, beautiful truths. There is vast room for improvement, on both sides of the altar.

We live in a society steeped in sexuality and yet utterly illiterate in matters of the heart. People are breaking their bodies and their hearts for want of a little love, and we hardly hear a word about it from the pulpit.

I live in a city populated by some of the finest clergy in the world, and I am richly blessed. Our seminary is peerless, and our parishes are full.

But many are not so fortunate. And even in familiar territory, we cannot assume that everyone is on the same page, that everyone is in agreement and has had the same level of catechesis and instruction.

There is so much room for improvement. And, thankfully, so many opportunities to let Him in, to extend grace and mercy and His beautiful, difficult, life-giving truth.

Let's get to work.

Image source.