All set for Christmas?

A few people have asked me whether I’m ‘all set for Christmas’. This is one of those questions that makes up autumnal small talk around here, beginning very early in November.

It may be an unintended rebellion against the idea that ‘all set for Christmas’ has to do with buying presents and not with the orientation of the heart, but I have yet to purchase a single Christmas gift.

Advent starts tomorrow. I can’t say at the moment that my heart is in the right place, the place of expectation and longing for the kingdom of peace, where all tears will be wiped away, and creation will be released into the joy for which it was made. Being all set for Christmas, for me, is about the preparation of the heart.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the tree-trimming, the present-wrapping, and all the yummy things that are a part of the external preparation for the feast. But these do not make me ‘all set’ for Christmas.

Come to think of it, only God can do that. All I can do is keep looking in the right direction and wait for it.

Death among strangers

It’s a funny thing. Talking to relative strangers about the deaths of loved ones. Hardly a light topic for an early Friday afternoon, but there we were. I’m not sure how we got on to the topic, really. We’d started out talking about window cleaners (the folks who do ours aren’t very good, and apparently are a lot more expensive than the guys who do theirs).

Then, suddenly, we’re talking about Terry, who died at 54 of a massive heart attack—me, with his widow and his daughter. It was a shock. It was the middle of the night. He’d been watching the football and didn’t come up to bed. And it hurt my heart to hear it, of course. I thought about the shock of my grandmother’s sudden death, and the upside-down-ness of the world after my mother died unexpectedly.

The funny thing isn’t death, of course. The funny thing is how much less alone in the world I felt afterward. Nothing funny about a man dying at 54 and leaving a widow, grown children and adoring grandchildren. But in the talking about it, with the crazy things the relatives did and the way the then-25-year-old daughter managed everything, there were the funny bits and the shocking bits, and the poignant bits. How the then 7-year-old grandson was devastated and still hasn’t fully recovered. How the siblings who weren’t speaking to the deceased wanted to elbow their way in to everything. How his widow struggled and couldn’t get out of the car at the funeral home.

We laughed and gasped. We didn’t cry. (We don’t know each other that well, I guess.) And I thought about those I loved who have died, and those I dearly love who someday will.

I can’t say the conversation ‘cheered me up’ exactly. How could it? But in a strange way, a way I can’t quite understand, I know I’m better for it. My feet are on the ground, and my heart feels full of life.

It’s a funny thing.

 

Dandelions and cow parsley

Today is the feast of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus. I didn’t appreciate her ‘Little Way’ very much, until I realised that the hidden, everyday works of love were the way for me as well. Big ascetic or evangelical dreams (self-saving and world-saving) yielded to practical realities: caring for babies, tying children’s shoes, marking essays. Yet I resisted the little way for a long time.

And then I read John Swinton‘s book, Becoming Friends of Time. Not because I thought it would do me good, but because I was asked to review it. (I would have read it anyway, but maybe not yet…) Finally, after being the mother of a girl with Down Syndrome for fifteen years, it dawned on me that maybe I didn’t have to convince Anna to go faster. Maybe I needed to slow down.

Easier said than done. A good starting place (I’ve not got beyond the starting place, really) has been walking Anna to school or home from school. Hurrying is not an option. The conversation often flags, and other times consists mostly of free association—Anna talking about movie after movie as each character reminds her of another. It’s not really about conveying information as much as it is about being together.

Along the way, however, I’ve learned some things about my daughter I might not ever have known. Like, she really likes ‘cow parsley’ (which I think is the same as Queen Anne’s Lace, but I wouldn’t swear to that). She looks forward to seeing it every spring. Her other favourite flower is a dandelion. She also knows about violets and lemon thyme. We don’t see those often, but she points hopefully to likely suspects and asks.

Walking slowly, talking about not much, noticing the change of seasons. That’s what we do. I have begun to notice how Anna’s ‘Little Way’ is like the way mapped out by St Thérèse: she forgives all, loves without reserve, never complains. She may not always understand, but she always listens. She points out the cow parsley and is thrilled to see dandelions. She dances like nobody’s watching. There is a freedom in her that is rare and precious, and a love that never fails.

So on this feast of the ‘Little Flower’, I thank God for my own little flower, who blooms in and out of season and brings light to my often troubled soul.

Deo gratias.

On motherhood and loss

There’s a country song I used to hear on the radio—back when I lived in the South. I remember two snatches of the chorus and the general plot of the song, which was about moving away from a best friend as a child, going through divorce as an adult, and anticipating the loss of her mother (a true country song!), who told her ‘time will ease your pain’ and ‘life’s about changin’— nothin’ ever stays the same’.

Somewhere along life’s way, I have begun to understand the truth of both of those things more deeply. While I am not sure that time heals, I have experienced the weakening grip of grief as the loss drops further into the past. That’s not to say that it doesn’t trip me up when I am not expecting it, but that it doesn’t squeeze me so hard that I struggle to draw breath. And life is about changing. Everything changes. Nowhere do I see this more clearly than in my own children. Infants become toddlers and toddlers go off to school, where they advance year by year, becoming teenagers in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Of course kids grow up, and that’s good, right? I suppose so. But I don’t always experience it in that way—and not just when my older teenager is yelling at me. There is a sense of deep sadness I experience when I look at photos of my babies. I looked forward to being a mother of babies and toddlers more than I looked forward to anything else in my adult life. And now that time is over. Gone. It’s not coming back. As much as I long to go back, just for an hour, and hold that baby whose photo sits on my desk, I can’t. ‘Life’s about changin”, and it isn’t easy.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of loss that time doesn’t ease as well as one might hope. Because it recurs every day, or nearly every day. I miss the baby I nursed and the toddler learning to talk and the preschooler full of wonder and curiosity. In a few years, I’ll miss the child and then the teenager. One loss recedes, and another takes its place. It has to be this way: ‘nothin’ ever stays the same’.

I don’t expect that every parent, or even every mother, experiences the growing-up of children as loss; neither do I believe that I am unique in this respect. Of course there are joys as well—seeing the children learn to do new things and become more mature is a delight, too. Yet the delight is never unalloyed. The difficulty is compounded by the feeling I often have that I didn’t know what I was doing and so I made mistakes—and that those mistakes have shaped my kids in unhealthy ways. The loss I experience is tinged with regret, the loss of an opportunity to help my child develop strength, courage, compassion, or gentleness.

Sometimes it feels pretty dark. I remember sitting in front of a statue of Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms and feeling unbearably sad. Doubly so, because the chapel in which I was sitting had been one of my ‘thin places’—I was used to feeling consolation and peace in that place.

Two things have comforted me in this continual loss that is motherhood. The first is the pietà—the statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. She must have endured in-between losses just as I have, and then faced the ultimate loss in the death of her son. I can’t say that contemplating the pietà brings joy. Not exactly. But there is a sense of peace and consolation in being in Mary’s company.

The other thing that has comforted me is the prayer attributed to St Ambrose, sometimes called the penitential prayer. Midway through the prayer, I find words I can say with my whole self: ‘I repent my sins, and I long to put right what I have done.’ Nowhere is this more true than in my parenting. I can’t even begin to name all the mistakes I have made, and—here’s the kicker—there is absolutely nothing I can do to ‘put right what I have done.’ I can do better now, but I can’t fix the past.

I wonder whether Mary worried like that. Did she blame herself for leaving Jesus behind in the temple? Did she wonder whether she had raised him properly as he carried his cross? Did she think maybe it didn’t have to be this way? St Luke tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ after the shepherds came to see her newborn baby. I don’t imagine she stopped pondering things in her heart. But I don’t think she fretted, at least not in the way I do—a fringe benefit of being ‘full of grace’ may be that there isn’t room for niggling anxiety.

Mary lost her son on that day in Jerusalem. Her grief as she held his body must have been acute. On that day, she had to do what we all have to do—what I, as a mother, have to do: trust. Because I cannot put right what I have done, but there is One who can. Rowan Williams has said that ‘grace can remake, but will not undo’. Even God doesn’t undo those things I wish I hadn’t done. In the redemption of all things, the loss I have felt and the mistakes I have made will all be woven into the re-making. The One who ‘orders all things delightfully’ (Wisdom 8.1) has taken all these things and is putting them in their proper places.

I can’t say that takes away the sadness. It does give me hope, though, not only for the end of all things, but for here and now, in the not-yet. It’s not just time that will ease the pain: God isn’t waiting to put right what I have done wrong; God is doing it even now, though I may not be able to see it. I pray that I will have the grace to co-coperate with the work of redemption and not keep throwing spanners in the works.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

Children and the future

Back in the 1980’s, Whitney Houston released one of the sappiest songs of the decade. Do you remember it? It began, ‘I believe the children are our future—teach them well and let them lead the way…’ Banal platitudes, of course. But the thing about banal platitudes, as David Foster Wallace pointed out in 2005, is that they’re very often true. So it is in this case. The trouble is that we seem to be unable to take it seriously.

I don’t mean that we don’t educate them. They’re pushed relentlessly to achieve in mathematics, science and English. And they are taught what is expected of them in the world of work. Recently, I attended an event at a primary school in the next town, and found a poster in the school hall identifying the traits and skills that would make them employable. Four- to eleven-year-olds need to learn arithmetic and reading and science, of course. But I am not convinced that they need to worry about getting a job. They have a job: childhood. One of the key principles of Maria Montessori‘s educational philosophy is that the child makes the man or woman. Children are fashioning their future selves through all their learning, play-based and otherwise. And it’s hard work.

It’s hard work that’s made all the more difficult by that message I found proclaimed in the school hall: what you’re doing now is about your future. That may be true, but it isn’t what kids between the ages of four and eleven need to be concerned about. Our job as adults is to worry about their future. It’s not fair for us to transfer that worry on to them. They need to be supported in their learning by having their curiosity stimulated and then having the materials in place so that they can satisfy that curiosity. I teach university students, many of whom have managed to get there without having any intellectual curiosity left. Very few of them are there because they had a thirst for knowledge. They’re there because their degree is a qualification they need to be employable.

It’s hard work, too, because there is more to forming one’s future self than learning math and English. We were fortunate that our children’s primary school did a good job teaching them about justice and mercy. But here, too, I think we fail children, even when we have the best of intentions. The kids’ primary school was recently ranked ‘gold’ for promoting children’s rights. While all the things listed are things every child should have—an education, freedom of expression and association, freedom to practice their religion, and so on—teaching children about their rights changes their vision of who they are. No longer are the duties of parents, schools, communities, and governments the responsibility of the adults: children need to know their rights and have the courage to demand that they be respected. If that’s really the case, then we have failed them, and failed them very badly. If it is true (and I think it is) that a society is judged on how it treats the most vulnerable, the fact that we as a society think children need to look after their own rights is disgraceful.

The freedom that children most need is the freedom to be children: to learn through play as much as possible, to be curious and to have their curiosity nurtured, to be free to express themselves in a community—that is, in a place where they naturally bump up against each other and have to learn how to get along with each other, preferably with a minimum of adult intervention. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy concentrated not on the learning of academic subjects, but on becoming people of peace. We hear a lot about how Montessori-educated kids are self-starters, imaginative folks, entrepreneurs. But Montessori wasn’t nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times for forming entrepreneurs. The true cornerstone of her educational method was forming children for peace through education.

Recently, I came across a meme designed to get us to wake up: ‘If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the civil rights movement, you’re doing it right now.’ I wondered how what I do on a daily basis would measure up. Then I thought about Maria Montessori. She was nominated for a Nobel peace prize for resisting fascism. But what she is chiefly remembered for is the path she charted to peace: giving children the space to become people who embodied it. The only way to make the world a more peaceful place is to raise children who know what it looks like and how to maintain it.

The thing is, saving the world, and all the vulnerable people in it is not something we adults can do on our own. It is an intergenerational project, and our most important part in it is to raise that generation who will be the change we hope for. Montessori believed that ‘if help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children’. All the band-aids we adults can put on the world are nice. But without raising a generation of kids who know how to heal its wounds, the sores are just going to get worse. Whitney Houston was right: the children are our future. Now we have to work on that next bit: teaching them well, so that they can lead the way to peace.

Getting through it

Life seems to be going haywire. No, not life, exactly, but the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just getting older. Maybe the world seems to be going off the rails to me just as it has done to every previous generation as they get older, and the next generation rises. Still, it seems very unhealthy to me, unsustainably so. There cannot be such extensive, almost limitless, uncertainty, so much speed and pressure. Who can live like this?

I asked my students, a few weeks ago, how many of them knew someone (or had themselves) suffered from mental illness. Nearly everyone. That’s worrying. If mental illness is so prevalent, maybe we ought to be spending as much time seeking causes and preventing it as we do devising new therapies–especially drug therapies. And I say this as someone who has taken medication for depression for nearly two decades. Maybe, just maybe, something out there is making us sick.

Having said that, though, I worry about the medicalisation of everything. So little deviation from the norm of health and well-being is allowed now, very little suffering is permitted. Not that suffering is a good thing–it’s just that it is an essential and inescapable feature of human life. We have begun to regard suffering as unnatural, an unwelcome intrusion into our life of health and happiness.

The trouble is that health and happiness are never guaranteed. in the world there is beauty and joy and wonder. At the same time, there is poverty, pain, disaster and loss, and sickness and blight. And sometimes the only way out of suffering is through it. In such situations, patience, it seems to me, is the only way forward. Patience and humility seem to be the central lost traits in our human life. Where do we learn patience and humility, and grow in them, in a world that is driven by efficiency and achievement?

We have forgotten how the world changes: little by little, one small act of kindness at a time. Very few are the big acts that do obvious good. And the people to whom the tasks of Big Change fall are not necessarily to be envied. Frodo Baggins did manage–with lots of help–to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, and by luck it ended up in the fire. But the achievement broke Frodo, changed him, so that he no longer ‘fit’ in his world. ‘We saved the Shire,’ said Sam. ‘But not for me,’ said Frodo. Not for me. And so it is, sometimes, that people to whom the world-saving falls do somehow find themselves no longer fit for the world made different.

samfrodo

 

Maybe I am wrong. But I think that more and more people are being taught to desire the Big Things, when what we need, and what the world really needs are people who faithfully do the small things. That’s really the way forward: patience and humility. And Frodo Baggins is not, in the final analysis, the hero of the tale. The hero of the story is the patient and humble Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo when he could go no farther. Sam carried on, when Frodo could not. And so the world was saved, not by the wise elves or the powerful wizard, or even the servant-healer-king, though these each had their part to play. the world was saved by the smallest and least of all, and the burden borne in large part by the lowliest of all, who received it as a privilege and a gift.

The world seems very short of Samwise Gamgees today. Everyone wants to be Aragon, or Gandalf, or perhaps Elrond or Galadriel. Maybe even Frodo Baggins. But Sam Gamgee? The servant? Less so, it seems to me, less so. Patience and humility look so small and dull in the world of bright, shining achievements. ‘Nice guys,’ so the saying goes, ‘finish last.’ Maybe so, maybe so. But it has also been said that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. Let it be so.

Deo gratias.

NB This post is dedicated to Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Amigo de Frodo.

the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?