Friday, February 26, 2010

A healthy dose of illness

I had strep throat this week for the first time in many a year. Although that may sound miserable, it turned out to be, in some respects, a sort of mini vacation (or staycation).  Being sick is certainly no hobby of mine, but with my sweet husband looking after the kids and bringing me chicken soup and herbal tea, I had a rather pleasant time of it, while it lasted. I also enjoyed, in between naps, the luxury of reading in its entirety George MacDonald's Phantastes—a dreamlike book well suited to a slightly fevered brain.

My oddly comfortable illness brought to mind a C.S. Lewis quote I heard  from Alan Jacobs not long ago: "Ideal to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read [the Italian epic] eight hours of each happy day."

Two failed attempts at reading Dante being my only encounter with Italian epic, I can't say much either for or against Lewis's choice of literature. (I must have taken too much to heart the admonition to "abandon hope, all ye who enter here," since I never did get past the Inferno.) Neither would I call this sort of convalescence my "ideal happiness,"  although a view of the sea might have brought it closer to that. However, I must admit that the extreme introvert in me sympathizes a great deal with Lewis's idea of the good life; I chose to spend much of my childhood and adolescence hidden in my room with my nose in a book. There was a time, I'm sorry to say, when I knew Anne of Green Gables better than most of my own classmates.

Although I have no desire (O.K., not much desire) to return to my life as a junior high recluse, a few days of confinement to my room did provide a not unwelcome excuse for rest and quiet and an opportunity to pray, meditate and, yes, read without interruption. For that I am very thankful. A little down time does help to recharge my batteries, and I confess that I was just the tiniest bit disappointed to have gotten so entirely well so quickly.

Today I'm on my feet once again, coffee in hand, and standing victoriously atop a colorful mountain of freshly washed, dried and folded laundry, while my kids run boisterous laps around the yet-to-be-vacuumed floor. To be restored to health and to my busy daily work is truly a delight—even to an introvert like me. I'm glad to be back. Much as I appreciated the time to myself, I've come to find that here—surrounded by noise and hugs, and amidst the Lego castles and the interrupted thoughts—is a happiness deeper than I think even Lewis could have found in his literary seaside retreat.

With all due respect to that distinguished Oxford don, life is richer—and happier—when passing chianti and spaghetti around a vivacious and crowded table than silently digesting "the Italian epic" in a solitary window seat.

Here's to your good health.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A photographic memory

Here was a rare moment of quiet calm and perfect lighting. Soft sunlight from a grey, February sky shone through the window onto my youngest son's face as he drove Matchbox cars across the hardwood, making spluttery motoring sounds with his wet lips. Absorbed in his own imagination, he did not seem to notice that I was watching him. How could a mom with a camera resist the urge to freeze time? I couldn't. Pressing the shutter, I thought to myself, "Years from now we'll ooh and ahh over these sweet photographs of childhood, these preserved glimpses of real life."

Real life. Yes, sir. Later, as I reviewed those charming photos on my computer, real life showed itself, glowing in all its full-color ridiculousness, on my screen. There, smeared across my toddler's cherubic face, was a crusty streak of snot. And this snot created a sort of ethical dilemma.

I admit that I am rarely bothered by the work of digitally improving upon reality. Having spent the last 13 years using Photoshop to remove everything from horse manure and acne to birthday cake and entire backgrounds, I knew that a little smear of shiny mucus could be removed in a few quick clicks of the mouse. That would be the easy part. The hard part was deciding if I really ought to take that bit of "reality" out of the picture. This photo was supposed to preserve a true-to-life image of my son's childhood. He had looked so sweet at the time. Or so I thought. How could I have failed to notice the boogers smeared across his otherwise flawless skin? But there they were, blown up to more than full size on my computer monitor, reminding me once again that this is, indeed, a fallen world.

So what to do now? It struck me that I had to decide what story I was trying to tell here, and whether the story was true. I could make his skin look perfectly clean, but my child, had not, in fact, looked like this. Was I willing to make people believe that he had? When "reality" is the very thing I was trying to capture, then shouldn't I leave "reality" alone? Doesn't the booger on the baby represent the truth of the matter? Isn't cloning it out—or whitening teeth or replacing the ugly family photo background with a snowy wonderland—a kind of lie? And isn't lying, under normal circumstances, a sin? I frequently tell my children that it is.

Oh, the hypocrisy! Oh, the deception! Maybe photo editing should keep more people awake at night.

Yes, it's a fallen world all right. Even the everyday realities of head colds and dirty laundry can serve as small reminders of this sad truth. Ugliness and suffering truly do exist. That's the reality. And if you want to win a Pulitzer, that's the reality you've got to depict before the public. We've got to keep our feet on the rocky ground, right? Don't try to hide all the foulness, the cruelty, the sickness, the death; let's keep it real. Stock up on black eyeliner and come to grips with the truth: life is pain. Leave the snot on the baby. The snot is real.

Sure. These sophisticated cynics do have a point: Snot is real. Unfortunately for them, the snot is apparently more real than the baby. But here's the thing: the baby was there before the booger. The beauty was there before ugliness marred it. And the beauty will remain when the ugliness has been wiped away, which seems to say that the beauty is the more enduring reality—the more real reality.

I recently watched a short video that's been floating around the internet—one that shows how an average-looking woman is transformed by an army of stylists and at least one digital wizard into an idealized image of marketable beauty. "See?" the ad implies, "Beautiful women are fake. Cover girls don't really exist." That's probably true to some degree. Perhaps we're right to think that these fashionistas have gone too far in their pursuit of beauty at the expense of truth. And, I suppose, for all of us average-looking women, there's comfort in the thought that at least we're not fake.

But the truth is, whether or not we have personal stylists and professional photo manipulators at our disposal, most of us do what we can to hide our imperfections and draw attention to our strengths. Girls with nice legs and bad teeth will swing their hips in skinny jeans but smile with their lips closed. We prefer not to have our ugly side put on display. We would rather not have our errors and sins repeated by the people we've wronged. None of us wants to be the one stuffing a fork full of mashed potatoes into her mouth when the family photographer captures the moment at Thanksgiving Dinner.

It may be true that we wake up with bed head, that we get the flu, that we sometimes yell at our kids. But that doesn't mean we should want posterity to forever remember us that way.  Of course there's a kind of selfish pride that cannot admit to any faults, but that's not what I'm talking about. We—all of us—want to be shown to advantage. And it's not necessarily because we want the world to believe a lie. Often it's because we want the world to see the more attractive side of the truth. It's because we love ourselves. I know I do.

In fact, we love ourselves so much, that the golden rule is built upon that basic assumption: You know how much you love yourself? Well, that's how much you ought to love your neighbor. Whoa. That's not easy. But I think we must conclude that the stories we tell about our neighbors—including our littlest neighbors—should be the kind of stories we would want told about us.

I'm no sentimentalist. Dark moments are found in everyone's story—in the world's story. Earthquakes, ear infections, cancer, crucifixion, snot—they're all real. I don't deny it. But does that mean the essence of the story is ugliness and evil? Is Sleeping Beauty a tale of darkness and despair because it involves the witch and the thorns and a battle to the death?  If the essence of life is pain, then (in all seriousness) how do we explain chocolate? How do we account for orange blossoms and the Caribbean Sea and goose down and Tetris and Easter? How do we make sense of the sweet baby-the one who also happens to have snot on his face? What about that reality? To say that life is pain is to ignore the coexistent—and the far more persistent—realities of beauty and love and forgiveness and joy.

Yes, the history of the world is a story with some truly gut-wrenching scenes. But I've read the spoilers, and I know the ending. This story ends with a wedding. The knight in shining armor slays the dragon, claims his bride‚ declaring her flawless (yes, flawless). The wedding feast  is incomparably glorious, and every sorrow, every tear—and every runny nose—is wiped away. Heaven is brought to earth, and Love, in perfect fairy tale fashion, conquers all. That's the end. Roll the credit.

So what does that have to do with Photoshopping the snot off the toddler?

Only this: that the child is a more important—a more real—part of this story than the bit of ugliness marring his face. Sure, I want to remember reality. But I also want to remember the beauty that underlies reality. I don't want to forget that sin exists. But I also do not want to forget that love covers a multitude of sins. Sometimes, of course, the dirt and the messes and the runny noses will be part of the fun of remembering. And even the most painful challenges, when they have been overcome, can become the stories we like best to tell. But at the same time, when I do tell stories about (or take pictures of) my children, I hope I will edit out the flaws and remember them in the best possible light. Not because I am lying about them, and not because they are perfect, but because I love them. I would want them to do the same for me. And in this case, I've decided that if love can cover sin, it can surely cover snot. In some small way, Photoshop looks a lot like forgiveness.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Memento mori, memento vivere

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.   

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?   
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.   
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

My ninety-year-old grandmother (who, incidentally, is enjoying a sunny, week-long Palm Springs vacation with her older sister as I write this) has already been living with my parents for nearly a decade. When she moved in with them, she was forced to part with much that she called her own. Furniture had to go. Excess clothes and duplicate housewares were set out for sale in the front yard. She pared down a lifetime of goods to fit into a two-bedroom basement apartment (and a couple of storage closets), keeping only the most necessary and the most precious of her things.

Gradually, over the last few years, she has also begun dispersing even some of the most precious belongings as well. For birthdays, Christmases, and days in between she has given me, among other things, a collection of glass dishes she received as a wedding gift, hand-cut with floral motifs by the father of a high school friend; an assortment of Christmas ornaments she carefully painted during one of her "crafty" phases; a set of black metal trivets from the days when she kept her own table and served family dinners on dishes warmed in the oven—the same dishes that are now stacked in my kitchen cupboard; and her engagement ring, now set with a souvenir opal from a trip my parents took to Australia.

Knowing something of the memories tied to each of these gifts, I cannot help but feel honored—almost speechless—to be the recipient of these keepsakes, these earthly treasures. So valuable. And so valueless. There's a kind of bitter joy attached to each of them, and a collection of stories, of pain and of pleasure, hidden beneath their varied surfaces. Many have stories that I will never hear. But they are stories that my grandmother knows by heart.

Some of what she's given to me has been merely practical. Some of it has been utterly and beautifully impractical. All of it has been a reminder of the swift passage of life.

Both she and I find ourselves wondering, "Where have the years gone?" My babies are in grade school. But her babies are grandparents to the ones in grade school. She talks to me of "the kids" doing this or that, and I know that her mind's eye does not see them as the gray-haired 50- and 60-year-old adults they have become; she sees, instead, the dark-haired youths whose lifetimes once lay ahead of them, stretched out as far as the distant horizon. It's not that she has forgotten that her sons and daughter are grown; it's that she cannot forget the children they once were. Those childhood days, as even I know, were not so very long ago.

The grass withers, the flower fades 
when the breath of the Lord blows on it; 
surely the people are grass. 

One day last week, my three-year-old son, Paul (who is certainly a flower of the grass still in the bud), was staring at my face with a look of deep concentration. He seemed to be examining all the newly formed lines around my mouth and eyes, or searching for flashes of silver among my eyelashes. "Mom," he finally said, "Will you change your face when you get old?" He paused for a moment as I considered what he meant. "Like G.G.?" he resumed, "She changed her face from when she was young.... How did she turn her hair white?"

Paul had seen, framed along her hallway, the glamorous hand-tinted photos of G.G., my grandmother, with smooth skin, and plump red lips, and not a strand of her thick auburn hair out of place. Paul, for whom a five-minute wait is an eternity, could not imagine a change such as this. What strange magic could have worked upon that strong and slender body, on that flawless and radiant face? I laugh at the childish misunderstanding implied by the question: "Will you change your face?" But as I laugh, I find that I, too, must see the wonder and the peculiarity of such an alteration—that my laughter will turn to laugh lines, and that invisible crows are leaving visible footprints in my skin. I will, in fact, change my face when I am old.

My grandmother has changed her face. She has turned her hair white. But she is still very much alive. It is, I suppose, because she has lived so long that she can see all the more clearly how short life is. From her long-lived vantage, she has glimpsed the futility of laying up treasure where moth and rust destroy. And so she has begun to pass the job of earthly hoarding on to me.

For her 30-something granddaughter, this stuff, these memories, these pieces of a life gone by, are certainly treasures. But they are also, simultaneously, "memento mori" and "memento vivere." These mementos set before me the inescapable truth that I must die, and, consequently, that I must live.

At ninety, my grandmother, who has outlived so many of her friends and relatives, has realized that "you can't take it with you." And I, holding her memories in my hands, am forced to realize that neither can I. As quickly as I am able to focus my eyes on the present moment, it has already fallen behind; the years slip by like roadside trees seen from a speeding car.

She is old, and I am almost young. But what is that to us? A breath and a sigh. Grass and flowers. When at last, whether soon or late, my grandmother passes from things temporal to things eternal, I think we all may feel the urge to say, "What—gone so soon? We hoped you might stay and rest your feet...and linger here awhile."

I accept her gifts, and the stories—told and untold—contained within them. And as I do, I think ahead to the day that will come, sooner than I can imagine, when I will be clearing out my own basement, and selling off my own furniture, and putting into my own granddaughter's hands the treasures I have laid up on earth.

I made a posy, while the day ran by:
“Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
                           My life within this band.”
But Time did beckon to the flowers, and they
By noon most cunningly did steal away,
                           And withered in my hand.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hello, Starling

March may still be a month away, but last month came in like a lamb and went out like a lamb, with nary a lion to be seen. While news of northeastern snowstorms and midwestern blizzards arrives on my doorstep, my doorstep is a balmy 43 degrees and basking in unseasonable sunshine.

My yard seems to think that spring is here already. The maple trees and the lilac bush are pregnant with leaves; early buds are growing round and plump all along their wintry stems. I saw the timid green tip of a tulip peeking from the wet earth like a periscope, as if to verify whether the war with winter has truly been won after so brief a battle. Cornflower seedlings have pushed their way through a blanket of soggy fall leaves, expecting to find daffodils and starlings in their midst.

Starlings did, in fact, arrive.

Last Sunday, as my family stepped out the front door on our way to the car, a flock (or a murmuration, I'm told) of hundreds, maybe thousands, was rollicking in the maple branches and among the spruce needles and along the power lines and in the blue air. They were chirping and hopping and flying in sudden bursts, pursued by unseen squirrels.

The sound of birdsong and rustling wings fluttered down on every side of us—snowed us under—and made us all freeze in our tracks (the only freezing to be found on that January day). The bare trees were unexpectedly alive—not with green leaves but with brown and black wings. It was like a scene from Hitchcock. Or, maybe, heaven. The baby, in my husband's arms, lifted both hands toward the sky and called out, "Daddy! Bird!"

Just as it seemed that spring was truly here to stay, and that life was overcoming death wherever we turned to look, a gust of wind—or the bark of a dog or a stifled sneeze or a rumor—startled those birds from their perches into scattered flight. They fled like an ill-prepared army abruptly set upon by hostile forces; their panicked company dispersed across the sky—all wings and beaks and furious flapping.

But then, a pattern began to emerge from the squawking chaos. Called to order by the quiet authority of some avian general (who?), they just as suddenly spun their tangled mass into a black sphere, and then unravelled again to be knit into neat rows and regiments—rank upon orderly rank of starling hosts. They looped in perfect formation—now east, now west, now dipping, now rising in synchronized flight. Then, as if satisfied by the success of their impromptu military exercise, their general at last gave a command that sent them speeding across the clouds to the Western horizon.

My sons' wide eyes followed them until they dropped from sight below the housetops, to settle in someone else's leafless trees and to interrupt the Sabbath quiet on someone else's street.

Maybe they stopped here merely to rest, on their way to perform great deeds. Perhaps we seemed to be fearsome giants, deterring them from the conquest of our front yard Canaan, and they are now cursed to roam the blue wilderness for another forty days. Maybe they were surveying the land from their power-line Pizgah. I don't know what Jordans they will have to cross before they can finally settle here. Perhaps they have Jerichos to topple before they can call our street "home." I do know that a week has passed, and the starlings have not returned. Not yet. But the tulip and cornflower, the maple and lilac, the lamb and the sleeping lion all whisper that they will.

They will.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Chesterton on Domesticity

I've been reading What's Wrong With the World (published in 1910) by G.K. Chesterton this week, and it's been positively delightful. At one point, I was tempted to pull out a highlighter and start marking all the quotable lines, but then, I would have more fluorescent yellow on most pages than white. The question is what not to highlight. Chesterton can always be counted on to point out the absurdities of modern assumptions and to turn the "wisdom" of the age right on its head. This is no exception. I'm enjoying it immensely. At a century old this year, the book is hardly less relevant than it must have been in his own day. It may, in fact, be more relevant now. Not that I'm in perfect agreement with everything he says (his critique of Calvinism, for example,) but I, so far, recommend reading the entire book if you get the chance. However, for those of you stay-at-home moms who are short on time (That's redundant, isn't it?), this chapter was especially fun to read and is worth quoting at length. Please take a minute to read it. I've put my favorite bits in bold:

Selections from Chapter 8: The Wildness of Domesticity

It is the special psychology of leisure and luxury that falsifies life. Some experience of modern movements of the sort called "advanced" has led me to the conviction that they generally repose upon some experience peculiar to the rich. It is so with that fallacy of free love of which I have already spoken; the idea of sexuality as a string of episodes. That implies a long holiday in which to get tired of one woman, and a motor car in which to wander looking for others; it also implies money for maintenances. An omnibus conductor has hardly time to love his own wife, let alone other people's. And the success with which nuptial estrangements are depicted in modern "problem plays" is due to the fact that there is only one thing that a drama cannot depict—that is a hard day's work....

But of all the modern notions generated by mere wealth the worst is this: the notion that domesticity is dull and tame. Inside the home (they say) is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. This is indeed a rich man's opinion. The rich man knows that his own house moves on vast and soundless wheels of wealth, is run by regiments of servants, by a swift and silent ritual. On the other hand, every sort of vagabondage of romance is open to him in the streets outside. He has plenty of money and can afford to be a tramp. His wildest adventure will end in a restaurant, while the yokel's tamest adventure may end in a police-court. If he smashes a window he can pay for it; if he smashes a man he can pension him. He can (like the millionaire in the story) buy an hotel to get a glass of gin. And because he, the luxurious man, dictates the tone of nearly all "advanced" and "progressive" thought, we have almost forgotten what a home really means to the overwhelming millions of mankind.

For the truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter. He can eat his meals on the floor in his own house if he likes. I often do it myself; it gives a curious, childish, poetic, picnic feeling. There would be considerable trouble if I tried to do it in an A.B.C. tea-shop. A man can wear a dressing gown and slippers in his house; while I am sure that this would not be permitted at the Savoy, though I never actually tested the point. If you go to a restaurant you must drink some of the wines on the wine list, all of them if you insist, but certainly some of them. But if you have a house and garden you can try to make hollyhock tea or convolvulus wine if you like. For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure. It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks. The home is the one place where he can put the carpet on the ceiling or the slates on the floor if he wants to. When a man spends every night staggering from bar to bar or from music-hall to music-hall, we say that he is living an irregular life. But he is not; he is living a highly regular life, under the dull, and often oppressive, laws of such places. Some times he is not allowed even to sit down in the bars; and frequently he is not allowed to sing in the music-halls. Hotels may be defined as places where you are forced to dress; and theaters may be defined as places where you are forbidden to smoke. A man can only picnic at home.

And this chapter, I thought, was even more encouraging to those of us women who might have given up a career or other big ambitions in order to stay home with the kiddos:

Selections from Chapter 18: The Emancipation of Domesticity

...[T]here must be in every center of humanity one human being upon a larger plan; one who does not "give her best," but gives her all.

Our old analogy of the fire remains the most workable one. The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light. The wife is like the fire, or to put things in their proper proportion, the fire is like the wife. Like the fire, the woman is expected to cook: not to excel in cooking, but to cook; to cook better than her husband who is earning the coke by lecturing on botany or breaking stones. Like the fire, the woman is expected to tell tales to the children, not original and artistic tales, but tales-- better tales than would probably be told by a first-class cook.

Like the fire, the woman is expected to illuminate and ventilate, not by the most startling revelations or the wildest winds of thought, but better than a man can do it after breaking stones or lecturing. But she cannot be expected to endure anything like this universal duty if she is also to endure the direct cruelty of competitive or bureaucratic toil. Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school mistress, but not a competitive schoolmistress; a house-decorator but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she...may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the "seclusion," or even the "oppression," of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad.

The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman's professions, unlike the child's, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful; so tragically real that nothing but her universality and balance prevented them being merely morbid. This is the substance of the contention I offer about the historic female position.

I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time. I do not deny that even under the old tradition women had a harder time than men; that is why we take off our hats. I do not deny that all these various female functions were exasperating; but I say that there was some aim and meaning in keeping them various....

The shortest way of summarizing the position is to say that woman stands for the idea of Sanity....

Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist.

Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view.... But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

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