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The Economy of Emotion

* Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Soul Gardening Journal*

Some years ago, a friend told me that she had given up her opinion for Lent. That’s it: her opinion. I laughed at the simple absurdity of it at the time, but it didn’t take but a few minutes for it to really hit me how profoundly difficult that must’ve been. To refrain from offering one’s thoughts on Facebook articles. To not chime in with one’s two cents at dinner parties. To defer to another’s preference on whether to get take-out Chinese or Mexican food. And on. I don’t know about all of you, but opinions buzz around in my mind like fruit flies on a spotty banana. I used to think that not offering my opinion (solicited or not) would make me a terribly boring person.

But life has a way of broadening my perspective and enough stupid things have come out of my mouth by now that I realize more and more how much wisdom and solace there is in simply remaining silent. Secondly, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve also realized that I don’t need to jump into every conversation that I know a fair bit about. Unless directly asked, I no longer go on and on to people about which baby carrier is The Best one or which homeschooling curriculum I liked the most. Or even about liturgical discussions or faith debates I see happening. Do I have things to say? Sure. Ought I say them? Usually…? No.

However, just as I begin to appreciate the value of keeping quiet on things more often than not, humbling myself enough to recognize that I don’t have all the answers for all the people at all the time (Sheesh, what a burden that would be!), I spent a lot of time with someone who simply had no opinion. And that changed me. 

I know this sounds strange, because I was suspicious at first too. “What do you mean you don’t care if people come over or not? If we grill chicken or have soup for dinner? Whether you go to this party or not?” As someone whose natural temperament has strong opinions on nearly everything, I didn’t understand. Was this her pious way of deferring to others just to be agreeable? Of being a martyr by dying to her own preferences? I tried to fish around a lot, asking if she was SURE, if she really meant that she didn’t have an opinion. And more often than not, she was. It wasn’t just a holy gimmick! This was unreal to me. After reflecting for some time on this and when I pressed to understand, she explained that she has trained herself to deliberately not have an opinion on things deemed to be smaller matters in her mind. The goal wasn’t to be a floppy, thin doormat. The goal was to save up her emotional energy for the things that were really important to her: “It’s just too much work to care about everything.”

Living an authentic Christian life requires fighting a lot of battles. It requires men and women to stand their ground in forming strong convictions on deciding what kind of spiritual, educational, medical and social lives they want for their children. In general, what kind of lifestyle they want in their family. By not investing her thoughts and energy into trivial things, my friend’s moral compass was made of cast iron. She’s as easy going and accommodating as can be on what’s for lunch or where to go on vacation. But she turns into a mother bear you don’t want to meet if you cross her on something important. Adding wonder to all this, my friend also happens to have a heart for ministering to others that is practically unparalleled. 

From her and my friend of Lenten silence (even if not giving an opinion comes with a wry, Cheshire cat smile), I’ve learned something about economizing emotions. One of the beautiful side effects of this came unexpected to me. Not only does being selective about where to put your energy and attention have extraordinary mental health benefits, but it offers something essential to others in our lives as well. By virtue of our baptism, we are mandated to respond to the call to evangelize others. Evangelization is not optional. For most of us, this is accomplished by simply living an authentic lifestyle rich in the works of mercy, rather than serving foreign missions. And do you know what the primary thing is that people in today’s post-Christian world are starving for, after genuine love?! Peace. We are a culture drowning in anxiety and chaos and arguments and noise. God can not be heard, seen or encountered in this climate. So few people anymore have the requisite calm, collected mental state that is necessary to minister to the emotional needs of others. Increasingly, so many of us are busy investing our emotional energy in everything else under the sun. By practicing a healthy economy of emotion… by surrendering large parts of our opinion, we free up space in our minds for others. If we are so busy putting our energy into little things, trivial things, we have no room at the inn of our hearts for others.  We don’t have to care about everything. We can fulfill our essential duties of evangelization by caring primarily for others, and freeing up some space in our hearts to make a resting place for them. Then, in that still, small space, Jesus Christ can be found. 

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Everything Does NOT Happen for a Reason

One of the really common lies that gets told over and over by well meaning people is this: “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually this is the response offered to people who’ve gone through or are going through very difficult times. It is said to offer hope and encouragement to sufferers everywhere. The only problem is… it’s not true. Additionally,  I think that deep down, there is something in the emotional response of humans that senses that this isn’t true. Who has ever drawn great comfort from this platitude? At best, suffering people think that they ought to feel better upon hearing that “everything happens for a reason,” but even the heart knows what the head refuses to acknowledge: things sometimes happen for no reason at all. And I wish people would grow a lot more comfortable acknowledging this.

Evil needs no reason. In fact, since God is a god of order and love, disordered things simply can’t make sense! Psychology and pathology aside, the devil is behind disorder, disunity, bitterness, hatred, and sin. Without reason. Try telling a child who has been sexually abused that it happened for a reason. Try telling someone who watched their loved one commit suicide that it happened for a reason. Try telling anyone who is enduring the scalding fires of sin, broken promises, fear, shame and abandonment that it’s happening for a reason. It’s not true. What’s more is that saying this invalidates the pain a survivor has experienced. The brain will then try to sell this awful distortion: “If terrible things happen for a reason, I have no right to be upset about this. Something is wrong with me.” 

This (ineffective) comforting line reminds me of a couple other truisms that often get told to people who are going through hard times. One being the “Everything is going to be okay.”  And that’s not true either! Somethings things just aren’t going to be okay!  (… and that’s okay) Finally, in efforts to console others we also like to say “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  False. Patently so. People are just very unsure of what to say to people in pain… and sometimes these well-meant phrases can do more harm than good. Here are a sprinkling of more affirming alternatives to say to suffering people; the internet provides more with a simple search, I’m sure.

  • That wasn’t fair.
  • That should never have happened to you.
  • You won’t always feel this way.
  • God will see you through this.
  • I’m sorry you went through that/are going through this.
  • It’s okay to feel weak.
  • What can I do to support you?
  • Life is really hard sometimes. I’m with you.

At the end of the day, we don’t need to feel like our entire faith system has crumbled if we realize that everything doesn’t happen for a reason. This is very compatible with Christianity. God has a master plan, sure. But that includes true freedom that is born of Love. We are not predetermined to choose evil or to suffer evil “for a reason.” Indeed, we must suffer the consequences of our own poor choices and the poor choices of others and the incomprehensible, natural tragedies that no one can make sense of. God doesn’t promise us that there is a reason for these things. In truth… we should expect to not understand everything (Do you really want to be an expert in evil anyway?!). He only promises that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  He is a master, artisan weaver. And our lives will present to Him both beautiful, vibrant threads and the ratty old, ugly threads. He doesn’t just use the good in our lives. He also uses the evil to bring about His glory, and He will weave a stunning masterpiece if only we let Him.

 

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Hard Books Challenge

In the last Soul Gardening Journal issue, I wrote an article about something I think fairly important:  reading hard books.  I will copy and paste the full article below. But I thought it’d be interesting to see if the handful of readers here would be interested in doing a Summer Reading Challenge.  The goal is simple: read a hard book. If you are a super-biblio-zealot, read one of each three types of hard books I defined! My personal goal is to hit each of these categories every year and I’m exactly halfway there.  For the wildly curious, my “hard” reads for 2019 are:

The Long Book: The Lord of the Rings. I’m counting this as one book, as it should be counted. 1008 pages, not including appendixes. (I’ve linked to my aesthetically favorite edition of the first volume.) I read this in high school but it was about time for a revisit, and I am a better person because of it.

The Intellectual Book: Basic Economics. I’m actually listening to this book on Audible, which makes it more difficult for me since I’m not an auditory learner; I prefer ink on paper. But, bits here and there in the car or while folding laundry has been so incredibly eye-opening. I can’t emphasize the importance of this book enough. Sowell is an unparalleled thinker/writer in his calm, dispassionate nature. Now, while this book is written for the lay person and is pretty darn reader friendly, things like the stock exchange and regulatory bodies and rates of employment are just slightly beyond my intellectual comfort zone, which is what makes this book perfect for a bit of brain stretching. If I was still a homeschooler, this would be mandatory reading for my high-schoolers.

The Unwelcome Book: This isn’t set in stone, but I’m thinking I’ll be reading Harry Potter this year. Now, my aversion to this book isn’t entirely due to classic-literature-snobbery. It’s simply that my “to-do” list of books to read has so many other wonderful books on it that I don’t feel compelled in any way whatsoever to prioritize this contemporary piece of fiction. This, and morally ambivalent feelings aside, I feel like I have to read this book in order to at least have some sort of cultural literacy. Like it or not, Potterisms are everywhere and I really ought to have some context for things like Dumbledore and Hogwarts and Quidditch that I hear in the average American lexicon nowadays. So there’s that. Notice that I’m not linking it… because I don’t necessarily recommend it!

Here is the original Soul Gardening Article. Read something hard this summer! I’d absolutely be thrilled to see your choices!

Hashtag it #hardbookschallenge on Facebook, Instagram and whatever other e-life you live!

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On Reading Hard Books

Early into motherhood, I ran to books for diversion and interest. Any bibliophile reading this knows what I’m talking about: laundry piles and temper tantrums can be handled with grace so long as you have the salve of Pride and Prejudice or an inspirational Brené Brown book waiting for you offstage. In those initial, isolating years of limited adult contact, books become a woman’s best friend. This is good.

The past few years though, have forced me to reconsider my reading habits. When I began keeping a reading journal (and this is as fancy as a $2 spiral notebook where I write down the title of what I read and 2-3 sentences of my impressions of the book), I noticed the uneven distribution of types of books I read. So often, I was a consumer for the sake of consuming and binged on mind candy. And while I fully support the idea that motherhood is an important, sacrificial, all-consuming gift-of-self… I rather resented that my mind seemed to be increasingly unable to focus on anything more dense than memes and HuffPo articles. There were diapers to change, homeschooling lessons to write, and food sensitivities to research; who in the world has time for metaphysics?! But my reading journal has now developed into a personal challenge for myself in that it inspires (taunts) me to be more proactive in using my brain, developing my whole self. Because if any one of us thinks we’ve mastered the art of being educated—or even fully human— once we get a college degree or successfully raise a child to age 18, we are sorely mistaken.

So I seek now to graze from a more diverse literary palate and hard books is part of this. To me, there are three kinds of “hard.” My personal goal is to read one of each kind each year, along with liberal quantities of fun or purely interest-driven books.

    1. A hard book is a long book. With such technology-centered lives, our brains are literally rewiring themselves to skim and sort and turn away after 30 seconds of interest. We are Generation Click Bait. I once read somewhere about a study which predicted that the next generation of college graduates will be unable to read/comprehend something like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Their brains just won’t have the processing power. I hope this is a dire, false prophecy, of course, but it does give me pause. This year I finally began and completed The Brothers Karamazov which has been on my list for over a decade. I faltered in and out of interest as I was knee deep in mandatory textbook reading at the time, but finally completed it as an audiobook on a long road trip— hearing the Russian pronunciations was quite helpful. What is considered a long book? Maybe something north of 500 pages…?
    1. A hard book is an unwelcome book. Sometimes, I think it is a good practice to read things that we don’t want to read. Yes! We risk living in a closed-off world of self if we only read things that confirm our own religious biases or lifestyle choices. Not interested in changing up your diet? No problem. But consider reading Michael Pollan’s books anyway. This year I read Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, even though I already have firm convictions on the devastation of divorce. It’s a book I didn’t want to read, but did so anyway, just to be familiar with the experiences of this demographic (I recommend it for all people by the way, in troubled marriages or not). In a totally different vein, I think my next unwelcome book will be Harry Potter. I have zero interest in this series, but Potter-isms have become such a part of our cultural fabric now (what with rides at Disneyland, references to Hogwarts…  even my college professor quotes somebody named Dumbledore!) that I honestly feel a resigned sort of obligation to get a basic understanding of what the heck people are talking about.
  1. A hard book is an intellectual book. This is the type of book where you have to read the same paragraph three times just to understand what’s being said… when passages have your mind wandering to grocery lists or Facebook updates. Not everyone needs to read the Summa Theologica, but everyone should be challenging their own intellect wherever it happens to be, by reading something that requires discipline and focus. It can be theology, philosophy, history, foreign affairs. Whatever. The point is to push yourself to learn something from someone smarter than you and create new pathways in your brain to think. The book I wrestled with and conquered this year in this category was A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.  I think it may have been the most difficult book I’ve ever read. Thomas Sowell’s language in this one is extremely academic. However, this book may also have been one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read because it made me understand why there is such a gaping chasm between people’s political values. I feel far more understanding toward people  who have differing views from mine because of this book and am so grateful for this.

I love excellent fiction as much as any booklover. And I have read some works of enjoyable fiction that have taught me more about my faith than the catechism did (thank you, Elizabeth Goudge)! Similarly, I love reading little bits from Malcolm Gladwell and regularly dip into the self-help genre. So don’t get the idea that I’m trying to take away all the wonderful parts of reading. I’m just here to suggest that hard books are important. They challenge us. They inspire us. They sharpen our intellects. And they remind us that God gave each of us a beautiful brain to nourish and stimulate insofar as we’re able. So that after you read Plato’s Republic… you can cozy up to watching The Office reruns without any guilt.

-Ellie

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The Benefits of a Public Scandal

In a voice that carried all the way across the vestibule after Mass, the woman confronted me: “Did you go back to your husband yet?” And I had a brief storm of shame-filled fight, flight or freeze where my vision threatened to go black and my heart rate went up.  But I found myself just smiling and saying with what I hope was enough grace to mask the interior tempest: “That’s not a choice for me to make.”  This invited the upbeat suggestion to “Keep on praying!” (Me politely: “Yes, I won’t stop doing that.”)

Then I bolted.

My mind raced with anger and indignation for another 90 seconds while I got in my car. She has no idea … I rehearsed at least 3 other responses in my head that I wished I could go back and say: Things like “You know, unsolicited solutions are really unhelpful when you’ve never bothered to understand the problem.”  And well… ahem, other responses.

But at the end of it, I see this encounter as a blessing. It’s a reminder of the freedom I have. See, because my marriage fallout was so… public, there is much that I can’t control, including others’ perceptions. So, people are left to form their own conclusions. Despite claiming frequently that “It’s none of my business what other people think of me…” my heart isn’t always as quick as my reason. My pride took some painful blows in its early quest for exoneration. I wanted people to just know The Truth,™ and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstood and that everyone knew I fought as hard as I possibly could to keep my marriage together and never aimed for its end. But when the fire alarms of life are going off left and right and everything around you is crumbling, there’s simply not enough time or energy to set up a full-blown PR campaign for justice. 

I have to surrender my image; thankfully, I do so willingly now. I have had to surrender many things along with my children, homeschooling, my home, my financial security and my social place. Interestingly, while some of these are griefs beyond words, the combined sum of these losses results in a positive. Flannery O’Connor said in a letter to a friend once: “We are all rather blessed in our deprivations if we let ourselves be, I suppose.”

One gift that has been given to me in this box of darkness is the freedom I have in knowing who I am and what I’m about. And when so much of your life gets stripped away, it’s like extracting a diamond from rocks: nothing is more precious and life-giving than knowing the origin of your dignity. It’s not from strangers making insensitive comments. It’s not from those who might say that you’re an irresponsible, cruel or unstable woman. Nor is it from those who might think you’re just a pious, veiled saint who can do no wrong. I reject all these. My dignity is from God alone, who knows every square inch of this blessed and flawed body and soul and loves me profoundly anyway. When you let go of allowing other people to define you (whether you’ve been forced to or can master yourself enough to), you are free to be little and to love your foolishness and to smile at the well-meaning but audacious voice that embarrassed you for a brief minute. Public scandals can be powerful teachers. And I am grateful to be an eager, imperfect, B- student.

 

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On Love and Things

I knew the vase was going to be a problem right away. I liked it too much. My friend had given it to me near the beginning of my marital fallout and I was incredibly touched. Someone was thinking of me?! Someone sees me?! Someone wanted to do something nice for me?! In a way it was actually quite pitiable just how amazed I was at this gesture of thoughtfulness. It was all in the timing. I was in the process of being devalued and discarded, see. And when one is in the throes of questioning their entire self worth, any small token counts. Like bones being tossed to a starving dog. Already, it feels like a lifetime ago…

My appreciation and love for the vase should’ve tipped me off. And at the risk of sounding too prophetic or sagacious… it did. My household seems incapable of keeping nice things… nice. Or even intact. We have been known to break cast iron pans and kill cacti. Nice things… in a household with five choleric-sanguine boys? They don’t live here. At least not for long.

So I was simply waiting for it to happen. For some careless child to break the vase. I had the choice to lock it up high and out of sight… but I liked it too much. So I placed it strategically at one end of my mantle, in full view and designated it the bearer of all seasons. It held tall grass in spring and summer, cattails and wheat stalks in autumn, silvery bare branches in winter.

Then it happened. An exuberant 7 year old was tossing the throw blanket basket into the living room air (because this is what makes sense when one is 7) and the vase plummeted to the brick hearth and broke. Terra cotta and hand painted designs in pieces. The children stopped. Silence. Everyone knew I loved that vase. Odd, because it is a rare few “things” that I love at all… preferring utility and minimalism to clutter. But beauty trumps both utility and minimalism.  I put my hand over my mouth and closed my eyes, distrusting myself to speak until I processed what just happened.  An older child began the shaming of the younger one. A couple minutes later, I calmly said, “Please go brush your teeth and get in bed.”  Rare, prompt compliance.

My emotions?  I observe them as a scientist with curiosity. My initial instinct was one of compassion for the child. Shockingly… and honestly.  I felt bad for him. Not anger, not irritation, not frustration… as has been my historic norm. But compassion. It’s true! I AM growing a heart!! His eyes had met mine. He knew. He knew that he’d made a mistake and broke something precious to me. What an awful feeling! The poor kid! He was just being a happy, little scallywag and the vase happened to be in a place that—in this family— is the High Risk Zone (read, anything between ground-level up to 6.5 feet high). What a burden to bear!

So I swallowed my disappointment about the vase. Those reading this are the only ones who know, now, just how much I loved it. Just how much it meant to me. Just what a shaft of light it was for me in a very dark time. But in the end…. it’s just a thing.

I went to my son’s room that night at bed-time and beckoned him with my finger. He couldn’t make eye contact and moved towards me in silent shame. I hugged him. I told him I loved him. I reminded him to say his prayers that night. I kissed the top of his head.

And that was it. No need to lecture the poor kid about rough-housing in the living room. He already knew. I just wanted to make him feel loved. To make him know that he was worth more to me than the vase. To show him what mattered in life: bed-time hugs and prayers.

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Adulting Wins of 2017-2018

When I’m aching for a shot of encouragement, I try to pause and begin counting the things that are going right, rather than the things going wrong. This was extraordinarily effective as a homeschooler. And I’m finding it useful as a… “denizen” of Life in Plan B: the unforeseen divorced-mother-of-seven life I now live. Rather than tallying all the things that have been taken from me, or things gone wrong, I am counting up my wins. I started this list off in mild jest before it ended in sort of a “Wow” realization, even for me. It was all a blur when I was going through this. But, through the grace of God alone, I came through. There’s still a long way to go— many things yet to learn. Major transitions still to conquer and difficulties every day. Yet here I am, looking upward and sometimes even laughing in spite of it all… fully alive in spite of it all.

Feel free to snicker at some of these things: “How is this woman 36 years old and just now learning this stuff?!” But, I’m not really embarrassed by that. Happy to count my littleness. Even happier to count the ticks on my growth chart. I highly recommend you creating your own list of  “wins” just to give yourself a change of perspective: 

  1. Learned how to change a drill bit.
  2. Learned how to drill.
  3. Learned what to look for in a breaker box.
  4. Drove 900 miles in one day, solo.
  5. Spider sprayed the perimeter of my home, solo.
  6. Assembled IKEA furniture.
  7. ^Learned to ask for help.
  8. Learned how to operate a weed whacker.
  9. Took apart and repaired a freezer.
  10. Discovered Jameson.
  11. Learned how to grill (not exactly well, yet).
  12. Navigated Craigslist transactions without getting killed.
  13. Navigated the lightbulb aisle of the store without killing myself.
  14. Grew plants without killing them.
  15. Learned to kayak. 😀

… and 16 is sort of the “blur”:

Recovered from a minor surgery, got a job, found childcare, learned how to pump breastmilk, balanced having five children in four different schools, hired and fired lawyers, represented myself in court, paid a mortgage, slept on a hospital couch for a few days with a hospitalized child, survived significant, interpersonal trauma… all while being partially homeless for six months, ended 2017 watching my father die and enduring an awful, expensive trial, and opened 2018 with a horrific parenting plan and my mother’s heart attack.

But there’s even a 17 that’s emerged from the fog of 16:

Applied to grad schools, got accepted, worked hard through the busy days with too many demands and not enough hours while several other imperfect circumstances drizzle all around me, began 2019 with a 4.0 GPA, managed to happily read a large number of books, keep coffee and cheese stocked in the house, retain a passionate curiosity for the living world and those who travel with me here, and have allowed myself the tiniest—oh so fragile!— beginnings of long term dreams once again.

So there’s that. See the good. Count the growth. All will be well. And the lessons learned, extraordinary.

 

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Truth Telling and Being Human

I woke up at 5 am, riddled with a sense of shame for my last post. I got online and deleted my Facebook link to it (hoping the few people who saw it before I did that wouldn’t notice). Then I went to my Instagram page to delete there too… but there was already too much interaction there; I didn’t want to “gaslight” those people and deny that it ever existed. The article will stay active on my site. So I forced myself to just let it be a lesson to me and move on.  Still working on that… which led to this.

What am I getting at here? Why was I embarrassed of a post called “Christian Music That Doesn’t Make Me Vomit”?  Because it wasn’t honest. It was a little bit loose and the tiniest bit incendiary (I went in and edited some of my more raw statements… ugh). I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to use this platform to generate anything remotely inauthentic. The article content wasn’t so much the problem… but there are 100 other titles I could’ve used to be more considerate and thoughtful. Not just given way to my brash hyperbole that I know sounds more interesting.

I blame it partially on the wine. Drinking opens up thought channels and there’s often an thinner-than-gossamer thread I’m able to pick up that leads to some really productive writing. However, drinking also leads to the unfiltered side of people too (in vino veritas, after all) . And I think culturally, we like to celebrate that: “Be Yourself!” “Tell it Like it Is” “You Only Live Once,” etc. Society praises writers, artists, performers for being raw or uneditedas if we are trying so hard to get back to our liberated, primal selves. Virtue and Restraint get the finger and Crass and Vulgar get the red carpet and 5,000 “likes.” I reject this. There have been a number of writers I used to follow pretty closely that I can’t follow anymore. They sold out. They started using their voice to produce cheap, intelligent-sounding material that was more bitter-snark than gift-honoring. (To be clear, I love good snark! There absolutely is a time and place for it, but this is not what I’m referring to with these writers.)

While I’ve fallen prey to my ‘lower self’ a few times by publishing something I later regret, (usually, it’s fears of over-sharing that cause me to backpedal and delete… but occasionally, it’s because I’ve been more flippant or raw than I’d like to be), I only sometimes delete these things. I have left things up as a sort of “Badge of Shame” to myself on social media because I want to be reminded of my frailty in this regard. I can scroll through my social media feeds and think once or twice “Eesh… I probably shouldn’t have posted that.”

Why not? What’s wrong with being “real”? Well, in my opinion, being “real” isn’t about cultivating an artificial perception of yourself to people, but it is about putting forth your better side and not entertaining your lower side. There is no glory in being publicly unfiltered. The glory is in mastering ourselves, our inclinations and egos. Being authentic isn’t waving around your list of music that “doesn’t make you vomit”… or “10 fashion trends I’d like to violently kill.” (it’s not written but sits in the corner of my head…) Authenticity is about plunging the depths of who we are called to be. It is not about splashing in the shallow mud puddles of unfiltered thoughts and expressions.

Hemingway was spot-on when he said what he did about writing… only people can be drunk on more than just wine. They can be be drunk on anger, despair, lust, greed, pride… and the like. I normally have a 24 hour waiting period after I write something before I click “Publish” (there is a folder on my computer of unedited scraps that won’t see the light of public day until I have a chance to go through them) just so I can fine tune it and question my motives. By I bulldozed past that in my cheeky zeal with that last article.

We should all want to be fully and authentically human. Left to our own unfiltered devices, humans muck it all up with bravado or eccentricity and call it ‘being real’. But even if it’s “real”, it’s not necessarily true.  But by pausing, reflecting on our motivations for speaking, writing, sharing, etc… by making sure our hearts are ordered properly, we can access the most real and most true part of ourselves that were created in the image of the Father. That’s the authenticity I long for…

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Christian Music that Doesn’t Make Me Vomit

You can tell a lot about a person by the books they read, the shoes they wear, the laugh they have and the music they listen to.  That’s just the truth.  I am always giddy to foist my booklists upon people because of a misplaced zeal—my books are elements of my person; books are relational beings almost!  And naturally, in the same way that we want to introduce our family to our meaningful lovers or friends, bibliophiles want to introduce loved ones to their important books. All good books should be good to all good people.

Music… now there is something entirely different. The unique tastes of people get a lot more leeway with me. I mean, if you don’t appreciate Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, I don’t know how to have a conversation with you; those things exist outside of time and space almost.  But outside of that, you’re free to jam to Adele or Johnny Cash or Pearl Jam. No matter to me.

But Christian music is something else… a sort of contrived category of the same five chords, hook, and emotional exploitation that seems to sound all the same.

I mean… I love Jesus too. But there’s something very saccharine about creating an entire radio channel of good looking, pearly white people singing His glory. Art is art. And the truest artists aren’t categorical to one subject alone (I mean… the classic composers could do Catholic Mass settings and also rage about lost pennies too without feeling like they deviated from their musical identity).

In my opinion… the best ‘praise and worship’ music should strive to be excellent art first. If musicians happen to be Christian and that is reflected in their lyrics… awesome!  But if they strive to be a “Christian musician” primarily… I feel like this is a disordered expression of gifts. That’s not to say I ‘judge’ all Christian musicians as frauds or cheapskates— truly, they’re probably doing the best they know how with what they’ve got! But the sound? That unmistakable contemporary Christian sound?  It’s just not my thing…

Truth be told. I can barely stand most contemporary Christian music. I know that sounds awful, but categorically, maybe it’s the way people feel about country music. As a whole, some people loathe it, as it is usually so single-minded in its sound and theme… but occasionally, there’s a standout.

We all have our standouts in most genres.

I wanted to share my favorite “Christian music” here. Because the list is pretty limited compared to my wonderful other curated playlists of folk, fiddle, rock and classical music etc…

I made this playlist when I was at the height of my marital trauma. I needed someone to have words for me, when I had no words and when nothing made sense. These musicians did that for me. I have since added to it here and there. Some of these songs are definitely of the ‘typical contemporary Christian’ sound that you are free to dismiss. Others are the plight of the human spirit in verse… so listen up! It is still music I turn on when my heart hurts or when I need to jam while making supper and not worry about my children overhearing the lyrics.

… So, entirely subjective and a million other disclaimers, I call this list “Healing” and I love it. I organized them into sections for you to laugh at or love. (As a general rule, I usually hate music videos, and I’ve not SEEN most of these but YouTube links are convenient.)

When Nothing Makes Sense:
“Where I Belong” by  Building 429
“Sweet Simplicity” by Brother Isaiah
“Rest” by Matt Maher
“Carry Me” by Jenny and Tyler
“Trust in You” by Lauren Daigle
“Your Grace is Enough” Matt Maher

To Raise the Volume All the Way Up and Scream into the Void Like a Crazy Person:
“Taste and See” by Shane and Shane
“Psalm 46” by Shane and Shane
“Jacob’s Song” by Brother Isaiah

To Fight Fear
“No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music
“Mighty Fortress” by Matt Maher
“Safe” by Phil Wickham
“Back Home” JJ Heller

I Just Love Him and Desperately Need Him
“Tender Remedy” by Brother Isaiah
“How He Loves” by David Crowder Band
“Champion” by Alanna Boudreau
“Lord, I Need You” by Matt Maher
“Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad
“Jesus Lover of my Soul” by Fernando Ortega
“Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns
“I’ll Keep On” by NF (featuring Jeremiah Carlson— love his voice— who incidentally, I went to school with… used to play the game RISK at his house with him, some friends and his savvy father— good times…)
“Praise You in this Storm” by Casting Crowns

Claim Me, Jesus
“Love Song for the Bride” by Brother Isaiah
“Spoken For” by Mercy Me
“You Say” by Lauren Daigle
“Remind Me Who I Am” by Jason Gray (*nota bene: I actually love this video)

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God Will Probably Give You More Than You Can Handle.

They say “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

And not only do I think this is untrue, but I think it can be incredibly damaging. Very often God DOES give you more than you can handle. Telling someone that He won’t, will only cause them to feel inadequate or confused since they wonder why everyone is shouting out encouraging platitudes from a boat while they are drowning in the ocean: “Don’t worry! At least you can handle it!”

So… what if you can’t?

Oh you can’t handle it? Well, God certainly wouldn’t allow that so the problem must be that you aren’t faithful enough, not strong enough, not virtuous enough… etc. etc. etc.

What is left for an overwhelmed person to feel but utter discouragement?!

There is so much I have yet to learn. Each day I feel like I know less and less. Today the stars hide in the night sky. The wind chills to the bone. The very ground beneath me is uncertain. I have been given more than I can handle. Far more. On so many levels. And I rather resent hearing “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” because so very many of my days prove otherwise. What then, is my conclusion?! That God is a cruel and overbearing taskmaster throwing wrenches left and right at me just for fun?! That I’m not ‘good enough’ or ‘strong enough’ or ‘holy enough’ to handle it? None of these is a satisfactory answer. I know my power is in my weakness. My freedom is in my littleness. And my peace is in my surrender.

The only satisfactory answer left is that sometimes God DOES allow far more than you can handle!

But this is okay. We aren’t asked to ‘handle it.’ We are asked to be faithful. Plans might crumble. Hopes might be dashed to the ground. People might fail you. You might get sick. Life may be hard. And suffering may pitch a rather sturdy tent in your soul for a while…

Let it be done unto me.

Let it be done unto us. He never asked us to be strong enough. To carry the cross, perfectly, without faltering. He asked us to be faithful, even when—especially when— He gives us more than we can handle. His grace is sufficient.

“Jesus offers you the cross, a very heavy cross, and you are afraid of not being able to carry it without giving way. Why? Our Beloved Himself fell three times on the way to Calvary, and why should we not imitate Him?”

—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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Notes from a Divorced Catholic

This could have just as easily been titled “Notes from a Mid-30s Mother” or “Notes from a Melancholic-Choleric Grad Student”. Or any other combination of personality ticks that could be labeled and hyper-linked on a social media profile. The difference and danger of identifying myself as a divorced Catholic is that somehow, the impression is given that I am the self-nominated voice of this particular demographic. And I reject that. Emphatically and with fervor. Every person on the face of this planet has his or her own story. We each have to put a signature at the end of our own life and despite trends and statistics, none of us are interchangeable with any other in whatever minorities or groups or demographics we happen to belong. Are you a homeschooling mother of four? You’re not like any other. Are you a faithful, stay-at-home father of two children? You’re not like any other. Are you a single, early twenties, same-sex attracted woman? You’re not like any other. Each of us is unrepeatable. Each of us is not the sum of society’s definitions about our character…

With that disclaimer, I offer some simple notes on a life that is a bit… different. It is my own random bits, in no particular order, from my own scattershot brain and not meant to speak for any others.

According the the NY Times there were about 5,000 households like mine in 2011: a single woman with seven biological children. That is 5,000 out of about 122 million households. Catholics make up about 22% of Americans. Less than 1/10 of Catholic households have more than three children in it. If I calculate my rough numbers correctly, this means there are about 100 households like mine across the United States. If we are generous— given population breakdowns— there might be two in my entire state?

-^ That?! That… is an incredibly sobering and isolating statistic. I’m a demographic unicorn. And I never wanted to be one.

-I have learned so much about my own judgemental attitudes. Because of how the social aftershocks have continued to play upon my life, I can see echoes of who I used to be in many of my friends… and in the social distancing that has happened in my life. Here’s the thing about the word “judgemental” though. Most people don’t know any better. We’re the product of our upbringing and our catechesis, which is so often lacking in any comprehensive “how to” lessons on integrating separated and divorced families into the normal, healthy parish life. Good, practicing Catholics simply don’t know how to “do” this. And I don’t hold this against anyone. I was the same. I can think of some single mother families I used to know and I was kind and charitable and “let me know if you need anything” just like everyone else. But I simply didn’t know *how* to integrate these women or their kids into my wholesome, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother life. So I kept them at an arm’s length. Just to be safe. Being on the other side of the arm now, I feel that pain and that isolation. But I understand it… and try not to take it personally.  The Church Militant has some hard, serious work to do on coexisting in this hospital of sinners.

-Yes, I’ve heard of Retrouvaille. Yes, I’ve read (and would recommend)  Primal Loss. Yes, I’ve seen that one Fulton Sheen video about how marriage is hard work. Yes, I know the Church’s teachings about separation and divorce. Yes I know about annulments. Thank you for the prayers for my family. That’s all. Some very well meant comments can sting… partially because folks can be insensitive. And partially because my heart is still defensive.

-It is a difficult thing to balance authenticity and discretion. Airing out the truth and protecting my family. I am doing the best I can. And this is my discernment to do. Not anyone else’s.

-The hard thing is that my world has to become, by necessity, very small anyway. I don’t usually have *time* for mommy’s groups or nature outings or Rosary Makers or whathaveyou. I barely have time for the small handful of friends I somehow have retained. When I am with my children— 63.3% of the the time— I am with them. And it is hard. Grueling. There are seven of them. There is one of me. There are three different schools. And two toddlers. And extra-curriculars. And doctor appointments. And potty training. And driving lessons. And teeth to brush and breakfast to make and stories to read and laundry to fold and bills to pay. And, and, and… all the demands of large family life with the exception of there being only one adult at the helm. Very little time or breath to answer phone calls or make room for the social life I need.

-What about the other 36.7% of my life? When I am not with the children? Do I get to live it up, wild and free in a sick sort of quasi-bachelorette way? No. The first thing I do is drink. Silence, that is. I drink the silence deep into this parched soul. (Maybe followed by a good, red wine…) The noise of large family life is utterly overwhelming for my introverted, abstract thinking brain. And so, when I wave goodbye and blow kisses to my babies when they go to their dad’s house… I return to my home and shut the door and pause. And listen. And begin the act of self-restoration. Books. Poetry. Music (I live somewhere between Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and Brother Isaiah’s “Jacob’s Song”). Saltwater. Fresh air. Meandering in my mind and neighborhood.

-But it can’t be too long-lived. I have to have a future for these children after all. And there are seven of them. Being out of the workforce for 15 years means that I have very few options. As such, I study for a professional career in counseling. The 36.7% of my life is my book time. Reading. Writing papers. Studying. Being willfully distracted by anything other than studying. Then drinking more silence. This time neat. Running to the waterside if I feel overly emotional. Running to a friend if I feel isolated. Guarding and cultivating my need for laughter. A reminder that life is short and Calvary is actually lined with fragrant roses if only we stop to smell them along the way. Trying to not take myself too seriously… but to take myself measurably.

-The glorious thing the past two years have taught me is gratitude. Is a man ever able to appreciate a piece of bread more than when he is starving? Have ever the simple joys in life meant so much as when that is all there is in which to delight? There is something about being utterly crushed and weighed down by the monstrosity that is your life at the moment… that gives you such an acute awareness of and appreciation for the most primitive or nondescript sensations. A child’s smile. Hot water. The smell after a fresh rain. A pillow. Suddenly, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And what a gift it is to be enlivened by the ordinary. Not everyone has that.

-Last year I woke up one day on a murphy bed at a friend’s house and had no idea where I was for a solid three minutes. I cried out in a half-awake state, as if crucified: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me!” I had been in and out of temporary, residential schedules, bouncing around friends’ homes, sitting on the floor pumping breastmilk and storing in friends’ freezers, working at a restaurant, begging for free childcare, writing court declarations, and being sucker punched by the horror of what I read in return. I wept whenever I had to leave my baby. I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t make a decision. I was skittish and dissociated from what I was experiencing. I was in the throes of trauma. And I was held up by my community and by my family at a distance and by strangers and by those very dear to me who became forever grafted to my heart.

-^That was about 14 months ago. It feels like 14 years ago.

-Answering the question “How are you?” has never been more challenging. Are we grading on a relative curve to how I *have been*?  Then, fabulous!  But are we prepared to hear how I really am sometimes?  Because folks generally tire of hearing about the same “Busy. Overwhelmed. Guarded. Dealing with nonsense you’d rather not hear about. Busy.” hamster wheel that is my answer more often than not. However: in a brilliant sort of irony… when the complexities are SO overwhelming in my world… I actually am able to access a tiny bit of interior freedom that is imperturbable.  There is so much that I can’t control that I very often just live 15 minutes at a time and can marvel at the quivering birch leaves behind my house or savor my cup of coffee or check out to a lengthy scroll through Pinterest… and I’m fine.  Very often full of joy. Happiness is from without. Joy is from within. I turn within a lot to be able to say “Fine” and mean it, when others ask.

-The grace of the sacraments is real.

-The experience of having my entire life utterly ripped out from underneath me has been a gift.  A most painful, beyond-the-pale gift that I would never wish on anyone. But I am grateful. So grateful for the ways I have grown to know myself. I’ve never really gotten to know this woman in depth… she has been a shell for a long time. And I am able now to see me for who I am, weak and flawed and desperately in need of grace… but also a beloved, chosen-before-all-time daughter of an incredible Father. He had to hit me pretty hard in order for me to wake up to all the goodness and beauty He has in store for me. And I am grateful.

-I live on quotes. And books. And poetry. And beauty. And delightful pockets of random joy.

-Being an adult is hard! I don’t know anything! I am 36 years old and still don’t know some very basic life skills! I just learned how to change a drill bit and identify a breaker box last year. This year, my goal is to figure out how to check my oil and try to understand what the stock market means. Thank the good Lord for YouTube tutorials.

-I don’t like attention. And I don’t want to be a poster-child for “divorced, Catholic, veiling, INTJ  mothers of seven who’d rather be homeschooling”. I don’t see myself as one. If I had my way, I’d be living happily under a rock somewhere in the woods, reading books and listening to birds and marveling at the moon. Yet, I am here. In this world. On Facebook. And Instagram. And responding to the call to use the gifts He has given me. I don’t know what God is asking of me yet. I only hope to always be obedient to the promptings He puts on my heart. And those promptings nearly always whisper: Write! I am a poor co-author of this story that He is weaving in me and through me. But I still have an obligation to tell it.  

-Having some very nearly libertarian leanings… I am thankful for public assistance. And I think shame is fascinating. And I am thankful for feeling genuine, accurate empathy for so many people in this world now that I never felt before. And I think the human heart is fascinating. And I’m thankful to be growing one.

That’s all I really have to say tonight… peace to you and yours.

 

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