No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

living with Down Syndrome

It happened again this morning: someone referred to folks considered ‘odd’ as perhaps being able to benefit from ‘treatment.’ I don’t know how parents of kids diagnosed with autism take the use of ‘on the spectrum’ to describe someone whose personality or behavior seems persistently at odds with some social conventions. (I’d be interested to hear.) But as a parent of a teenage girl with Down Syndrome, I find the comments worrying. Not because I  oppose the treatment; early intervention really helped Anna. My worry is that we’re narrowing the range of what counts as human and increasingly expecting that whatever goes wrong can be set to rights with the help of such interventions. It can’t. Not everything has a cure.

At the other end of today, I tuned in to a BBC 2 programme, ‘A world without Down’s Syndrome?’ Sally Phillips’ documentary highlights the wonderful possibilities for people with Down Syndrome. Articulate and accomplished people have overcome so much to get so far, and it is amazing. Eighty percent can learn to read; very many will hold jobs and live independently. We meet an actor, an advocate (Karen Gaffney; check out her TED talk), and an Icelandic woman who became famous after writing an article defending her right to life in a context where 100% of pre-natal diagnoses of Down Syndrome lead to terminations. Not every story is like theirs, but the message is clear: having Down Syndrome does not necessarily stop someone from having a fulfilling life. And it certainly doesn’t stop someone bringing joy to others.

The most awkward moment of the documentary, though, comes when a researcher in London asks Sally about what she wants for Olly, her son, should he outlive her. It wasn’t really a fair question. For the parent of a child (of any age) with a serious developmental delay, it can be an utterly terrifying question. Because we stand between our children and the world that would rather they not exist. Because not all of our children will achieve independence. Because we know that, however difficult it may sometimes be to care for children (including grown children) with special needs, they are not simply a ‘burden’. The unpredictable magic that our children bring to our lives happens because of the relationship we have with them. Without a relationship of love, commitment and understanding, the needs cease to be special: needs are simply a drain on the limited resources of our society. The implication of the question is clear: it’s all well and good for you to have this lovely time with your child now, but who will take care of him when you’re not around?

As long as that is the basic attitude, it’s not surprising that the two possibilities, when faced with a diagnosis are cure or elimination. If we can’t cure it, then we ought to get rid of it. But that all depends, I think, on what it is. What does it mean to be human? As long as the answer to that question consists chiefly of capacities and achievements, we will not be able to find a place for people with developmental disabilities in the world. But if we realise that being human means living with what comes our way, we might just find that they have a lot to teach us about our common humanity. Not everything we encounter in life will submit to our will, whether accident, illness, disaster or loss. For so much that ails us, there is no cure, no solution. Life’s for walking through, not for getting around. Let’s do it together.


Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

A blessing and a curse

When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.

Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And  little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.

Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.

This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.

So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!

Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.

glad to hear it

I don’t do politics. My British husband knows far more about American politics in the last 50 years than I do. (Before that, I have a slight advantage, having done far more American history, and having studied American religious history. But still.) But today I read a couple of articles about Mrs Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine.

Now I know that there’s much I don’t know. And I know that I don’t even know what I don’t know. And I am sure that the New York Times is likely to paint him in a good light. Still, I am finally less despondent about the presidential race. Maybe Mr Kaine is just as ambitious as Mrs Clinton (though I can’t imagine ‘more ambitious’ than Hillary). Certainly he’s flawed.  Of course he’s not perfect.

But usually I complete those online questionnaires during election seasons and find that only the crazies (you know, the people who still believe in the Marxist revolution or want to settle on Mars) fit my particular constellation of what matters. Years ago, my father lamented that I was a bleeding-heart liberal. I thought I might have a T-shirt made with that emblazoned on it, along with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So I am happy about  a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion (yes, I know he isn’t overturning Roe v. Wade; neither am I–not because I think abortion is ok for other people, but because I think we are stuck with Roe v. Wade and the battle needs to be fought elsewhere) and the death penalty (yes, I know about his record in VA). I don’t know much, but I know enough to know that he’s not crazy, and we’re on the same side.

Maybe I will send away for my absentee ballot after all.

What Anna taught me this week

Earlier in the week, I attended a celebration at Anna’s school, a school for children with special educational needs. There were music performances and awards given, smiling children and proud parents. Anna sat in the front row and watched it all go on.

I was a bit disappointed, myself. Why doesn’t my child get any awards? Before I could get myself too worked up, though, I realised that Anna doesn’t mind. She can enjoy the success of another without envy. Some people might say this is to do with having an intellectual disability. Maybe so. But I think also that it is a gift. Would that I had it, too.

Why I write

Bracketing out all the violence and tragedy in the world just now–of which there is too, too much–I’ve been remembering why I started writing in the first place.  I was thirteen, and didn’t have a ‘best friend’. So I picked up a pen and a pad of paper (I think it may have been pink; I still have it somewhere), and began.

Throughout the long trial that is the teenage years, I wrote. I wrote out of anguish and confusion. I wrote to figure things out, hoping that understanding would make me feel better. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I just became more frustrated. Once I threw the three-ring binder full of all my musings and very bad poetry. It hit the wall and opened up, scattering paper all over the room. Why I collected it all and put it back, I have no idea. It was nothing, just the produce of a troubled head, including some pretty exquisite examples of terrible teenage poetry.

Over the last 30-odd years, I have continued to write. Mostly out of anguish, still. Sometimes because I wanted to reflect on the days speeding past, as they do with young children. I never wrote enough of that: I wish I had written more about their first words and first steps, and the silly things they did. I rely on my faulty memory for all that, and it is no good–a source of maternal guilt (read: anguish). And so I write. It doesn’t always help. But the pen has become my trusted friend over the years, and a blank page can sometimes feel like an open door to a familiar place. After all, I have made myself at home and poured out heart and soul on college-ruled (yes, never wide-ruled) sheets, and books (preferably blank, not lined), for more than two-thirds of my life.

After all that time, I might expect to have above-average self-knowledge. At least. Maybe even excellent self-knowledge. But no: I still pick up a pen to find out what I think, what’s really bothering me. Usually, my soul yields up its secrets to the paper. None of it is earth-shattering: I discover that I am feeling guilty about something I have done or failed to do, or I am worried about something that I ought to do. Occasionally, I am surprised to find that ideas are bouncing around in my head, desperate to make their way to the pen and out onto the page.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. So I became a writer. Nobody pays me to do this writing. Only very occasionally do the ideas that escape the confines of my brain make it to publication. Heck, they hardly ever make it onto the blog, even. But that isn’t what defines me as a writer. When I was 17, I went to a writers’ conference held (I think) at Loyola Marymount University. B. Kliban was there, talking about his cats and his surfing. John Irving was there, reading from A Prayer for Owen Meany. (I admit I have still never read the book.) But it wasn’t those that stayed with me. It was the lecture by Richard Mitchell, on the topic, ‘Write for your life’. I bought the cassette tapes. I can still remember the last words clearly, though I can’t explain perfectly how he arrived at them. He must have been telling us something about originality, I suppose, because as he drew to a close, he was comparing the moon and the sun. He finished with, ‘Do not shine. Do not seek to shine. Burn.’ I don’t know whether I burn or not, but I still want to.

I’m still a writer, not by profession so much as temperament and habit. I’m not even really sure why I am writing this on my blog and not in a journal to be shelved and never to see the light of day. Perhaps it is because I hope that someone else will say (even if not aloud), ‘Yes, I know what you mean’. Maybe it’s because somehow, when I write (even if I am writing on a page nobody else will ever see), I find out the most important thing of all: that I am not alone.