Another birthday. Another reflection.

20140104-220150.jpg There is something about birthdays. We have fun. We eat cake. We drink wine. We sing 80s songs on Singstar (well, that may be a peculiarity of our family).

And mothers reflect.

When our children, our young adult children, grow and mature, we as mothers mature. A passing birthday causes us to catch our breath, in surprise. Another year? Is he really 18…or 24 …or whatever the current birthday heralds.

Today is such a day for me. A birthday for another son and a little pause of reflection during my lunch break at work.

Edith Stein (St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), philosopher, convert, saint, wrote of women and of women’s vocations: A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be […] Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfils itself. However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us insofar as we put it in light of eternitySpirituality of the Christian Woman.

Motherhood forces us, as women, to extend ourselves. We are pushed beyond our own confines, to try something more, be something more, give something more. And, finally, in extending ourselves as mothers we see our role in the light of eternity. This moment, this child, this day, all have significance for our souls, the souls of mothers and of their children. Even in our casting down and making mistakes, and especially in our asking for forgiveness, we are producing a mark on eternal souls.

Judith Lynch, a contemporary writer in theology, describes this passing-on as ‘traditioning’ She believes that this traditioning is a form of spiritual midwifery, that women, in particular, are the conduits of spiritual traditions. We mothers share our faith and the traditions entangled with our faith in our lives, and this becomes enveloped in the child’s soul and memory. A memory of love and faith, even when it appears to lie dormant in a questioning or troubling experience, in family discord, in tragedy, in less-than-perfect lives.

This is humbling.

It is also amazing. For, whatever else we do with our lives as mothers, we know the supreme importance of our first vocation: to love. To love God, and to see God in the face of our children.

So, as I prepare to drink wine and sing Blondie after work, in honour of another birthday, I also take time to reflect on the importance of motherhood. As a vocation. As a life.

The roar of Holy Week

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As Holy Week roars in, shifting our perspective, forcefully nudging us out of the everyday and into a religious experience, we yank our mental gears and shift. What seems simple becomes difficult. And yet, too, what seems difficult becomes simple.

Even the simple act of attending the Holy Thursday Mass becomes less than simple. There is work to be done,  work to carve the time from employment, move schedules, rush family to get ready, drag everyone along, to sit, exhausted, trying to catch a breath.

The baby stirs. The toddler needs distraction, the teen shares a commiserating glance, the young adult sits, once a child and now a companion.

And the liturgy?  It requires a shift from our life of commitments to a sense of other-worldliness. Come here, the liturgy whispers, come here and contemplate what it means to be Christian. Servanthood, accompanied by the Cross.

I know, you silently cry. In my servanthood as a mother and woman I have known, in some small portion, the suffering of the Cross. Christ has suffered with me.

For He has been there, in the busyness and in the emptiness. In the hope and also in the despair.

Holy Week boldly proclaims His love and presence and ushers in the rejoicing of Easter. Even when we don’t feel His presence, Holy Week reminds us that he has been there all along. He will be there all along. There is that sense of suffering-with, and that glorious recognition, in our noisy lives, of the joy of the Resurrection.

The shift pushed on us in the Easter Triduum is a shift for recollection and reflection. It aligns itself with those far-removed, long forgotten New Year resolutions and ponderings. How is life for you, for me, the shift asks. Do we make time for Christ? To be Christ-like?

Ah. The soul stirs. It sighs. Time here to take stock while stepping ahead. For we recognize Christ in our rushing lives and in our peaceable discernment. We see Him in our family and friends. In those we have trouble knowing. Yes, even there, in that ugliness. Theirs and ours.

And so as Holy Week strides forward, our lives are turned askew again by His love and the Cross.

This is the importance of the liturgy in our lives. Helping us even when we don’t want the help.

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St John Bosco

leonieaw:

A look at St John Bosco, through the lens of an old blog post.

Originally posted on livingwithoutschool:

Today is the feast day of St John Bosco.

Of all the saints, St John Bosco has been my role model, my saintlymentor, as both a parent and an educator.

I have shared these links elsewhere but thought I’d keep them here for reference.

Tired of the policing aspect of parenting? Read St John Bosco for a big, gasping breath of fresh air and for hints of another way.

Saint John Bosco

“Enjoy yourself as much as you like — if only you keep from sin. “

“My sons, in my long experience very often I had to be convinced of this great truth. It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind…

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A happiness project?

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Hector_and_the_Search_for_Happiness_poster (1)

‘He took comfort in the rich random patterns of his life.’

So Says Christopher Plummer, in the movie Hector and the Search for Happiness.

Hector, a psychiatrist perturbed by his life and its rhythms and routines, takes off for an adventure. He travels the world, he reconnects with old friends, and he asks people if they are happy and what makes them so. He scribbles their answers in his notebook, amongst sketches and quotes and dreams.

Hector asks, really, what is the nature of happiness.

I was reminded of this film by two things. An excellent blogpost by my friend on The Happiness Advantage, and a discussion with students at work yesterday, on what it means to be happy.

We, the students and I, pondered questions along these lines…..Is it enough to be happy or do we want meaning or flourishing or achievement in our lives? What about the role of pleasure? We compared Epicurus and Aristotle on happiness and eudaemonia. Thus, we discussed the nature of happiness…is it pleasure? Can a truly altruistic life be happy, or do we need some pleasures as well in our lives? Enjoying a cup of coffee, the smile of another, stretching out after a hard day. The ecstasy of prayer.

Ultimately, the students wondered about universal principles of happiness. Aristotle thought there were these principles, principles that lead to eudaemonia or flourishing. These build on what it means to be human and the idea of virtue.

Surprisingly, much of what Hector notes mirrors that of Aristotle. Aristotle points out, for example, that ‘Man is a political creature’, so that ‘man is a rational creature who lives in poleis (societies)’. Hector also notes the role of societies in happiness, writing that ‘It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people’.

This leads me to ponder happiness and human flourishing. Part of this is purpose and that corresponding P word, passion.

It helps to be aware of our purpose. To lead a life on purpose implies intention. For this, it seems to me, we need some time for prayer and reflection, as an ongoing thing and not just once-a-year. We also need to look at what it is that makes us smile, interests us, breeds enthusiasm (our passions).

And some of that is, simply, self-care. It’s hard to be purposive if we are generally tired or unwell or so busy that we don’t have time to just sit and be and pray. That’s the bone-tired that many mothers of young children feel. And yet it is doubly important that they, too, have time for self-care, for reflection, for enjoying nature and the world and their children and life, to help with burnout.

For parents, too, understanding flourishing means we can promote this flourishing in our children. It is a holistic approach.

No-one is always happy, or flourishing, or being intentional and purposive. That’s okay. We know that.

Overall, however, our life should have meaning and growth and pleasure, caring for others and caring for ourselves. Yes, I am talking here of loving God and neighbour.

To quote Cheryl, a character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, yet-another-movie-about-life-and-happiness: ‘I love mysteries. There’s parts you think can’t connect and then in the end they do.’

I think she is talking about life. And meaning. And purpose. And happiness.

Woman vs Woman

Gaudy_night

A colleague of mine was due for her yearly student review, at the university where she works. In student reviews, students in your classes complete a questionnaire about your lecturing and teaching, with space for additional comments concerning performance, if required. My colleague was upset, however. Why? A young female student came to her after completing the review, to let her know that she was the one who criticised the lecturer’s dress in additional comments

Now, let me say one thing. Many male lecturers dress casually and no student ever comments on their clothing. Yet, when asked to review a woman lecturer’s lecturing and teaching performance, another woman feels she must comment on dress. And fashion.

Why do women do this to each other? Why are we our own worst enemies?

Recently, researchers in North Carolina in the U.S. ran online courses for students. The lecturers ran one course under their actual names and gender and, simultaneously, the same course under a different name, changing their gender. The results? When students were told the lecturer was male, they rated their lecturer higher in performance rankings. When students were told their lecturers were female, well, the lecturer performance ratings took a dive.

And female students rated female lecturers more harshly.

Now, some have posited that this animosity among women is a natural thing….boys will be boys and women will be haters…to other women. However, it seems to me that it is more learned behaviour than natural behaviour. And thus, if it can be learned, it can also be unlearned.

Unfortunately, as Juliette Frette writes, much of the tension between women, much of the general meanness, concerns looks, weight, beauty. You know, you attend a class and afterwards, over coffee, your female friends around the table start criticising another woman’s body, or fashion choices, or makeup, or…

As though looks define our femininity.

On the other hand, in some circles, it is not our looks that are considered suitable fodder for dissecting and discussing and just general dissing.

No, in other circles, it’s our qualifications, our intellect…we are seen as too smart for our own good, in completing our PhD, or not quite making the grade because our thesis is on women and family related issues.

In still other arenas, it is our mothering style. Having been labelled as unattractive, a poor housekeeper and a poor mother by a woman I admired, I know the hurt that such tensions creates. These are the so-called mommy wars – debates over breastfeeding, working, homeschooling, ways to homeschool (unschooling? School at home? Should her kid start university courses so early?), parenting styles, wifely duties (“Did you hear they split up? He left her. I bet it’s because she was too busy for him/spent too much time on the kids/works/homeschools/you name it”…ignoring the fact that this is private information and, just perhaps, it wasn’t that the husband left her…).

Seriously, this has to stop. Frette lists ways we can change the tensions among women. My stance is to become pro-woman, pro other women. To take the other’s side. To change the topic of conversation. To have a meta-discussion about discussing other women.

To remember, in the words of Harriet Vane, in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that we are ‘cursed with both hearts and brains’, with the responsibility of using both wisely; especially in resolving the women vs women debates.

Promiscuous reading

Imperfect

Author (Paradise Lost) John Milton argued for promiscuous reading.

Now, the word promiscuous has certain connotations in our culture. Yet, promiscuous, removed from sexual connotations, initially implied random, casual, indiscriminate behaviour.

It is the idea of random reading that I am exploring here, under the banner of promiscuous reading. That kind of reading that just happens, casually, because books are strewn around the house. Or on your bedside table. Or on the higgledy-piggledy bookshelves, so that when you go to search for one book, you become lost in a book-savouring haze, and come away with another six books that you want to read and re-read, in addition to the original book for which you were searching.

This is promiscuous reading at I'd like to see you have a little direction.its best. Reading from a variety of books, different genres, unrelated authors, prose, poetry, non-fiction, biography, classics, graphic novels,  apologetics. Whatever it is that strikes your fancy, rather than working through a prescribed booklist.

In some ways, the prescribed booklist limits the experience of reading. It limits the reader’s exploration, and blocks mental conversation with a number of contradicting  ideas. When we read promiscuously, however, we explore a number of ideas, we stretch ourselves mentally, we enter into dialogue with authors, ideas, writing styles; and with others, our colleagues, friends, family. Is Dumbledore right, for example, in asking Snape to kill him, to protect Draco? Does the act of killing affect us, as explored in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? We make connections with Nietzsche’s discussion of man as a ‘sick animal’ and contrast this with the hope of St John Paul II’s ‘theological anthropology’, viewing humanity as a complex whole, body, soul, heart and conscience, mind and will, with a vocation to love.

These kinds of links are made with promiscuous reading. Indeed, promiscuous reading often manifests itself in ‘having more than one book on the go”. It has been likened to being a ‘book-adulterer’ but I think it has more worth than that.

In my case right now, that means Woman by Edith Stein, The Brokers by John Grisham, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Trials of Theology by Brian Rosner and some Advent/Christmas reading – Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Pope John Paul II and The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read. An eclectic bunch, a promiscuous bunch, with books picked up to read at disparate times, according to mental agility and/or tiredness in the moment. It’s those reading rhythms of life.

Promiscuous reading was something I encouraged in our homeschooling. Strewing books on the table, in baskets, near the computer. Sharing books avidly. Reading picture books and contemporary fiction alongside classics and  books like Supertrucks and The Way Things Work. Coming to realise, as Donnalyn Miller describes in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,  ‘that every lesson, conference, response, and assignment I taught must lead students away from me and toward their autonomy as literate people.

Promiscuous strewing and sharing of books can lead to promiscuous readers, whose lives will be made richer through their contact with a range of topics, genres, authors. And I agree with Ms Miller (hers is a great book, by the way, on encouraging reading in children): ‘the purpose of school (I would say education) should not be to prepare students for more school (or only for possible future needs). We should be seeking to have fully engaged students now.’

Getting past the ‘downs’

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That phrase ‘down in the dumps’ is apt. You feel  down, deep down, that life is paralysing. You feel the darkness of Frodo, carrying the weight of the one ring.

“No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”  The Return of the King.

I have been there.

How is it that we move past this ‘down’?

In my case, it was the keeping on. Keeping on doing. Keeping on being. Keeping up with exercise. Keeping up with prayer. And the sacraments. And sacramentals. Especially sacramentals, those misunderstood things. Clutching a blessed rosary. Holding a medal. Remembering what and Who it is they signify.

The keeping on eventually lit a teeny tiny glow of light in the darkness of downs.

The glow gave warmth and light and a sliver of hope. Maybe the downs are not forever? Maybe all else does not fade.

Making little changes helped to pierce the veil of downs. Reading more fiction forced memories. Reading spiritual works and even self-help books removed some of the nakedness of the darkness.

The twinge of fear about enjoying any positive times was removed. You know that fear, that life has taught you well. That whenever things go well and are good, be aware. The good cannot last but will be punctured by the bad. Yet again.

That fear was lifted. By getting past the downs and a surprising notion that came after months of down-ness. The notion that maybe it is not that good times will be punctured by bad times, so don’t enjoy the good, just-in-case. The notion that instead, maybe it is the good times that illuminate the bad, and the bad , the downs, are the small interludes and not the main fare of life.

Ah. Getting past the downs to enjoy the good is not life. Enjoying the good, alongside some downs, is the stuff.

wollongong                No fear. The good is good. And the downs don’t have to last.