Thursday, February 28, 2013

Goodbye

So today, the Pope steps down.

I'm completely in favor.  The Papacy isn't the cushy job it once was in the Middle Ages, where the Church did just fine if the Holy Father decided to just nap for five years.  Now it requires transatlantic flights, frequent public appearances, managing schismatics, investigating scandals, keeping up with the Vatican Bank (or trying to), and keeping a constant finger on the pulse of the entire world.  The Pope is tired.  He has earned this.

But I am sad.  I feel Pope Benedict was my Pope.

When every Catholic I knew was saying "How dare anyone criticize a holy man like Fr. Maciel?" he had the courage to discipline him.  Some say he didn't go far enough.  All I know is he went far enough to convince me that there might be something to it ... which got me out of Regnum Christi.  I'll never forget that.  He personally changed my life just with that one little thing.

And when every Catholic I know keeps going on about small points of doctrine, about punishment, about Jerk-God, Benedict really seems to know the real God.  He knows the doctrine, sure, but he keeps bringing it back to simple things like faith and love.  Everyone expected deep theology from him, or maybe a new social encyclical.  He wrote one called "God Is Love."  It wasn't because he was vague on theology, or because he was scared of being controversial.  He wrote it because people honestly still don't know, after all this time, that this is what God's about.  That every point of doctrine stems from the love God has for us.  The Holy Father never talked about Christianity as an unpleasant duty.  He talked about it as an incomparable joy, to have the privilege of knowing Jesus.

And he was right.  When I'm all fed up to here with Catholics-in-general, he still seems real to me.  He reminds me again and again that despite all the messed-up human beings, the bad decisions, the scandals, the false doctrine preached by this or that Catholic, that God is here.  That He is the only thing we're doing it for.

The name Benedict means "blessing."  He has been a blessing to me, and I thank him for it all.

I do wonder what comes after this.  Will we get yet another holy Pope with a servant's heart?  It's no guarantee.  We are guaranteed one that will preserve the true Catholic doctrine.  If we got one who drove the Church to worldly ruin because of bad decisions, he would be by far from the first.  I won't lie and say I'm not a little worried.

But good pope or bad pope, God is here.  Benedict taught me that, and I won't forget it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Walking

A lot of people claim to love traveling.  But when you ask a few questions it quickly becomes clear that they actually hate traveling.  What they like is getting there.  They take the quickest route possible and complain intensely about five minutes of delay.  Sometimes they even shut the airplane window and sleep the whole way.

I like going places.  But what I really like is traveling.  I like being in transit between one place and another place.  The slower and more scenic the route, the better I like it.

For instance, I like flying.  But given the choice, I prefer a small plane to a big one so we can fly low and look at the scenery.  Or a train--trains are wonderful.  While we were in the middle of a twelve-hour drive from our house to Chicago the other week, I commented that I am so glad we always drive instead of flying.  John looked at me like I'd grown a third eye.  We drive because it's hard to wrangle the kids on a plane and because if we had to buy three, soon four, tickets every time we wanted to visit his family, we would never be able to do it.

You see, flying, especially on a commercial jet, gives you the surreal sense that you've just walked into a metal tube, rumbled for a few hours, and walked back out to find the airport rearranged.  The whole thing could be an illusion.  But when you drive, you see every mile between here and Chicago.  There are a lot of miles between here and Chicago, it turns out.  And in that space there are so many people, and fields, and cows, and water towers, and silos.  You can see the scenery changing; you see the real difference between Virginia and Illinois.  Each is its own unique place, you see.  We're not yet to a homogenous America, and I hope it never becomes that way.

My favorite method of transportation, where practical (and it hardly ever is) ... is walking.  There's no better way to get a real sense of the distance between things.  And you can actually take in the stuff in between -- the cars with no wheels and dozen bumper stickers and the toys sitting out in people's yards and the historical markers and the old guys sitting out on the porch.  It's nothing exciting.  People would be annoyed if you promised them a chance to "travel" and then showed them a succession of these suburban delights.  But these are the bricks and mortar of our lives, and of other people's lives.

It's not just about the scenery.  I also love the way walking makes me feel independent.  Some people get that feeling from a car, but I've never owned a car.  We own one now, but John is the primary driver and the one listed on the title.  What has always made me feel independent is knowing that if I need to go somewhere, I don't need to rely on anything outside myself.  The trip doesn't cost a cent, and it can't be canceled because of a flat tire.  If I lived a thousand years ago or a thousand years from now, I could still get around the same way.

I mean, imagine if you were transported back to the Middle Ages.  (Something I keep wishing would happen to me.  Not really ... but ... maybe?  I hear they had cows back then!  But no tomatoes, so maybe not.)  We think of the challenges of getting by without a flushing toilet, drawing water, having to start a fire before you could cook anything.  But perhaps the real challenge for a modern person would be having to walk everywhere you wanted to go.

This really came to mind as I was researching my book.  Did I mention it's a historical fantasy?  It is, and sometimes my characters need to get around.  You know how in the Middle Ages everyone just galloped around on horses every time they needed to get somewhere?  About that.  Turns out horses are expensive to keep and there were large segments of the population who didn't have one sitting in their garage, er, stable.  Shank's pony was the way to go for most people.  So I ended up having to do a lot of research on how long it might take to walk from Liverpool to Cardiff, or Bath to Gloucester, or, you know, all over the place.  Google Maps is a start, but it tells you just how long it would take, in hours, if you kept up a constant speed of 3 mph.  Turns out you can't actually walk for 96 hours at a constant speed of 3 mph.  That speed is going to vary a heck of a lot based on who you are, how fit you are, how long you've been walking, what terrain you're walking on, what you're carrying, and what sort of weather you're walking in.  So I read up on walking.  What is it like to run 100 miles in a supermarathon?  (Hellish, apparently, but they do it in 24 hours or so.)  How many days would it take you to hike 100 miles?  That would be on rough terrain, having to carry a tent and your entire food and water supply for however long you thought it might take.  Experienced hikers said to budget a week for it.  What if you were a member of the United States infantry, or a Roman legionnaire?  In that case you could do it in four days, or if you were really pushing it, three.  But what if you were just walking through the suburbs, not carrying anything, and no particular hurry?

The answer here gave me pause.  Someone on yahoo answers said that he didn't think your average American could do it at all.  They just wouldn't make it.

Personally, I think that's hogwash.  I don't care how out of shape you are.  (I don't mean disabled, but out of shape.)  If you start somewhere and start walking, sooner or later you'll get where you're going.  You may find yourself wanting to die at some point along the way.   You may also find yourself thinner and stronger when you get there.  But the human body has never been tested against distance and found lacking.  Humans spread from Africa all the way to the tip of South America on foot.  It just took awhile.

This of course made me resolve not to let myself get stranded at home for days in the future, but to use the two legs God gave me to get where I want to go.  Grocery store?  It's 1.3 miles.  That's nothing.  I might not want to lug all the stuff home, but I can go buy a jar of peanut butter, no problem.  The library is a mile even; the church is less.  I do the church one every Holy Day of Obligation.  (This is, incidentally, the reason I switched from "yay, more feast days!" to "can't we have this one dispensed with too, please!")

But before I was married I really did walk everywhere I wanted to go, and it was awesome.  I remember exploring every street in our neighborhood when I was 14, feeling like an explorer and drawing a map.  I remember the awesome feeling of walking 45 minutes to the grocery store at the age of 16 or so to buy a candy bar.  I felt like there was nothing I couldn't do.  I remember how it jolted me out of my blue mood every Sunday when I walked to church when I was 22, and how I got to see the weather slowly change and the cherry blossoms come out.  Why can't I get back to that?

I tried it today and now I remember.  Two things hold me up: hills, and kids.  The hills around here are really something.  And it's not like you can go up a hill on the way there, and down on the way back.  No, it's UP-DOWN-up-DOWN-down-UP the whole way.  To get to church, I have to go down maybe 30 total feet of elevation.  But there's simply no way to get there without going up and down, each by quite a bit more than 30 feet.  Most of the options are very steep.

And kids throw in a whole monkey wrench.  By myself, I don't mind hills much.  The ups are harder than flat, and the downs are easier, so it comes out even.  With a stroller, the ups are torturous and the downs are scary.  You have to lean back against the stroller the whole time too, so it's as exhausting as the ups, or almost.  Right now I have an umbrella stroller and a carrier, and we tend to mix it up -- Marko riding and Michael in the carrier, or Michael riding and Marko walking.  I can't really ask Marko to walk as far as I do, but together the two kids weigh over 50 pounds, so it's no insignificant weight to haul no matter how I slice it.  Then of course there's questions like working around their naps (never go when it's not naptime, or they'll nap in the stroller; never go when it is naptime, because they will invariably be kept awake), planning ahead (bring a sandwich that no one wants, or don't bring it and have them whine the whole way that they wanted it?), and weather (I don't mind most weather if I'm sufficiently bundled, but how extreme should my kids be expected to endure?).

My mother managed with me, and manages now.  I have vivid memories of being dragged along on walks that felt interminable.  If I whined that I was cold, she would tell me to imagine I was sitting by a hot fire, drinking hot cocoa.  I seem to remember that this worked really well.  And in more recent memory I have seen her with my own eyes pushing a loaded double stroller up an incline that (to me) looked almost vertical ... while carrying a third baby in a front pack.  Apparently all she made me endure, walking-wise, has not put me off walks forever; rather the opposite.  And the main whining I have to endure on walks is, "No, not home again already!" so maybe I should stop worrying about what I'm subjecting my kids to.  They like it.

Building up the serious muscle it's going to take to truck them all the places I want to go, though ... that's the challenge.  I was tired just going about a mile today.  (Ooh, actually it was 1.6 miles!  I feel so much better about life!)  But perhaps tomorrow ... or later this week ... I can try for two, and actually brave that steep hill between us and everything else.  In case of exhaustion or emergency, I can carry 50 cents for the bus.

I can do this.

P.S.  Guess why I'm blogging today instead of writing?  I finished the first draft of my novel!  (That is to say, the first draft of this version.  Since it's a totally new thing compared to what I started with, I count it as a first draft.)  It's 99,000 words.  Pretty sure that's too long.  It might be 99,000 words too long.  I finished it too recently to be able to tell you whether or not it's complete drivel.

I have some edits I already know I need to make, and when I'm done with that phase maybe I'll be brave enough to have someone read it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Those boys of mine

Us on Christmas morning

It's been a long time since I've posted anything about the kids.  I guess it's because there are two of them.  When there was just one, I used to put him down for a nap and immediately want to think about him, write about him, or look at pictures of him because I missed him.  Now that there are two and one of them doesn't nap, if I am lucky enough to get a minute to myself, I don't really want to be too absorbed in kid stuff.

And there's a certain sense in which I feel I've passed through that stage of motherhood where you can't think of or do anything non-kid-related.  (I expect this stage recurs with each new baby.)  I find myself more and more wanting to branch out, try new things -- even completely non-baby-related things.  And I'm happy about that.  The kids are content, I don't feel I'm failing in my duty, and it's healthy for me to have lots of interests.  I hope that's a comfort to anyone looking down the deep hole that is motherhood, wondering if they will EVER be able to do anything they like again.  The answer is yes.  It just takes time.  How much time depends on you and on your kids, but it's not like you have to wait for them to be in college before you're allowed to write poetry, plant a garden, participate in politics, or read Greek.  You can fit that stuff in, provided you can be realistic about how much you will accomplish on the side of your real job.

Anyway.  The kids.

Marko is two years ten months, Michael ten months.  Their birthdays are coming up in April!

Marko is such a joy.  I love two, love love love it.  Every day our conversations get more and more like conversations and less a simple matter of communicating needs.  A year ago, he could say "You want blue shirt."  Now he can say, "What is that man doing, Mama?  Maybe he's working."  Or, "That's a triceratops.  I can tell because he has three horns."  Or, "Is Daddy coming home at dinnertime today?"  He can tell me a story he remembers from a book, and include all the important details.  And yes, he is almost always using pronouns correctly!  He's gone from parroting the things we say to actually communicating his own thoughts.

Is it just me or does he look like a rock star?

He does parrot a bit when he's trying to learn something new.  I've found he has an easier time in social situations if I give him the words to say: "You can wave at that man and say hello if you want to."  I used to think prompting kids to say the polite thing was pushy, but for Marko, it's something that makes him a lot more comfortable, so that he's not put on the spot wondering what to say.  Teaching him to shake hands was also really helpful for overcoming shyness when meeting new people.  I never force him to do it, but we practiced it at home and now I suggest that he might like to shake someone's hand.  He's always eager to do it (though he uses his wrong hand half the time).

Being polite to him has paid off in him being very polite himself.  For instance, today he cleaned up a pile of rags that he had dumped out.  I said, "Thank you for cleaning up those rags, Marko!"  Not ten minutes later he came into the kitchen where I was finishing up sweeping and said, "Thank you for sweeping up all those crumbs, Mama!"  It might seem like a small thing, but I had tears in my eyes.  I've been sweeping up his crumbs for almost three years now, and it never occurred to me he would one day start thanking me.

At home he is always busy, always full of life and energy and ideas.  Outside the home, as always, he becomes a lot quieter.  I think he is too busy taking things in to do much.  For awhile he had a very anxious phase that worried me a little.  He would cry if strangers talked to him, and at home he would keep obsessing over strange fears.  He kept repeating "You don't want Mama to fall off the toilet" -- my guess is this is something he dreamed, because it never happened and no one ever said anything to that effect -- for WEEKS.  He was so incredibly literal that he would freak out at every idiom we used.  I happened to say in his presence one evening, "I would fall apart if someone said that," and for the rest of the night he kept bursting into tears, saying he didn't WANT Mama to fall apart.  Words like "kill," "hit," "fall," "break," or "die," no matter how casually said in his presence, made him cry.  Bad things couldn't happen in books ... I learned to skip the page in Hop on Pop that says "Dad is sad.  He had a bad day" because he would howl so frantically he couldn't breathe.

This phase worried me a lot -- to say nothing of how much work it was trying to explain to him that "diet" doesn't have anything to do with dying and that no actual looking glasses were harmed in "Hush Little Baby."  It started around when we went to visit family for Christmas, so maybe the stress of the trip was coming out in that way.  In any event, it's mostly passed, though he's still kind of particular and I do still skip the scary parts of The Best Nest.

Have I mentioned that he is completely potty-trained now?  I think I haven't because I didn't want to jinx it.  But yes, since Christmas he hasn't worn diapers except at night.  Sadly, he is still too short to use the big toilet by himself, so I do still have to go in with him and help him out.  But it sure beats changing diapers.  He isn't quite perfect.  If he's really absorbed in playing he sometimes gets caught short.  That's when he gives me an alarmed look and says, "I need to go potty!" while hobbling in that direction in wet pants.  Ah well.

He sleeps through the night more often than not.  I wish it were always.  Generally he sleeps through the night UNLESS he's worried about something or the day was super stressful or it's too cold at night or I forget to put his nighttime lotion on him.  (More on this lotion in another post; it is MAGIC I tell you.)  He finally does go to sleep in his own bed.  We just have to stay in there until he's asleep, or else he follows us out of the room.  I don't mind spending ten minutes listening to him yawn and drift off, so it's not a big deal.

He is remarkably well-behaved for a kid who isn't spanked... well-behaved enough to put the lie to the idea that spanking is necessary, I think.  I think a lot of it is his personality, though; he's very eager to please and very upset if we are unhappy with him, so punishing doesn't even seem necessary most of the time.  It's funny, because originally we stopped punishing because it did no good, and now it is not needed at all.  However, there are some things he just can't or won't do: be quiet in the car, be quiet while Michael is napping, and NOT touch everything in sight.  If he's specifically told "don't touch that," it's one thing, but if he's let loose in a random room, he'll touch everything.  He's getting very interested in helping do grown-up things like cooking and cutting.  (I give him a butter knife and some bread or cheese and let him have at it -- though I have to repeat almost daily that no, he is still not old enough to touch Mama's sharp knives.)

He loves Michael.  Sometimes you wouldn't know it, because he freaks out if Michael touches something he was playing with or grabs at his food.  I've had to teach him to say "Please come get Michael" instead of just shoving.  He does okay at this, but there is still some pushing sometimes.  Considering Michael tries to climb up his pants, grab his toys, break his buildings, and bite his face, I can hardly blame Marko for getting a bit frustrated.  So I sometimes try to separate them, or encourage Marko to be quiet with the notion that maybe we will get Michael down for a nap and have some special time just for us -- but that always backfires because Marko doesn't want to spend a minute of his life without Michael.  Sure, he wants the lap all to himself, but Michael should at least be in the room.  I console him with "special reading time" during naps, but it's exhausting trying to keep him entertained during naps.  It's only when the nap is over and they get back to playing together that I can get anything done.

To those who wonder "how I do it all" -- it's amazing how much time opens up when you redefine "clean"

Michael is growing so fast.  No sooner does he master one milestone than he's on to the next.  He can walk now, though he still crawls for actual locomotion.  Walking is for fun, not to get anywhere in a hurry.  He just teeters around like a drunk.  He never falls, because long before he took his first step, he learned to lower himself carefully to the ground and to stand up again.  That's quite different from Marko, who had to climb the couch to get to a stand and could only get down by face-planting.  Michael is also the earlier walker, at about nine and a half months rather than eleven.  I think the lack of diapers has made moving around easier for him.

He likes to eat -- like Marko, he likes meat best.  I've introduced pretty much every food but gluten.  He'll happily eat sardines or cranberries or smoked oysters; he's a pretty adventurous eater.  But since he still spits up a LOT, I tend to avoid giving him sardines anymore.  I still haven't gotten the smell out of my favorite sweater.

He is FINALLY beginning to take real, hour-plus naps.  I think the secret is burps.  He's always been pretty impossible to burp, and since I have an oversupply he's always pretty gassy.  I think that he sleeps for half an hour or so, and then the burp wakes him up.  So the trick for naps is to nurse him, have him NOT fall asleep (Marko is great for this), and then, once he's been playing for a bit longer and had a chance to work out those burps, nurse him again on the same side so he doesn't take in enough to get gassy.  If he gets one really good hour-and-a-half or two-hour nap, he doesn't need another one.  If Marko wakes him up halfway through ... you get a day like today, where he's tired and crabby and decides to take a second nap at four or five p.m.  Not fun.

He uses the potty pretty well.  I have started just keeping him in pants with no diaper underneath.  He does have accidents, but keeping pants on him helps him remember that he doesn't want to go on himself and get wet.  We were doing really well a week or two ago, when he was going about every hour and rarely missing, but then we took a trip last weekend and he seems to have forgotten all about it.  Maybe in a few days we'll be back on track.

This was where we were on our trip.  All of John's family in one place for the first time since our wedding!


I love watching them play together.  Of course they're twice the trouble.  Together, they get into trouble neither of them could do on their own.  For instance, Marko can open the toothpaste, but knows not to eat it.  Michael can't open it, but would love to eat it if given the chance.  Once I found them in the bathroom closet, Marko cheerily feeding Michael a container of cocoa butter.  Marko often leaves the toilet open after going potty, and Michael loves to splash.

Michael had it first

But as long as they're together, neither of them is ever bored.  My role has switched from entertainer to referee, and I like it.  In the morning when Michael wakes up before Marko, or in the afternoon when Michael's napping, I realize how much more work one child is than two.  All the demands!  All the clinginess!  All the need for you to be everything for them!  (Of course it was different when Marko was used to being an only child.)  But together, they're content.

I can't believe they're about to be one and three.  Time flies when you're having fun, and my boys and I are having SO. MUCH. FUN.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What I do know

Yesterday's post was very hard to write.  I've been going over these thoughts and feelings for months, but it's hard to come right out and say publicly, "I've been praying all this time and I still don't really know who God is."  I was afraid my Catholic friends would judge me.

Instead, I have had quite a few people contact me saying, "Me too!  I feel just the same!"  There is nothing that could be more comforting to me than that.  Having a relationship with an infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful being who doesn't talk back is really, really hard.

This post is to summarize those things I do know about God.  Some of them are things I know by instinct; others I have to remind myself over and over again, because there's a part of me that can't quite wrap my head around them.  I find myself just defaulting to Jerk-God because the real God is just too puzzling to understand.

What do I know about God?

First, I know his definition.  He is the creator of all things.  That is what most people mean when they say "God."  I tend to explain by saying that all things we know of in this world have a temporal beginning and a cause.  But we know, because the universe is here at all, that something had to come behind all these causes -- something different, something that didn't have a temporal beginning or a cause.  Atheists or agnostics will sometimes agree with me this far, but say this mysterious something isn't a person.

It seems clear enough to me -- though I know there are counterarguments -- that God IS a person with intelligence, because the universe is so very rational.  And I don't just mean, "Oh, how convenient that I have bacteria perfectly adapted to my gut to digest beans for me" (which, don't get me wrong, could be a proof of God too), but the unchanging laws of physics and thermodynamics.  The universe is a place that makes sense.

And when I look at the created world, really look at it, I feel like the person who made all these things is someone I would very much like.  I mean, think about it.  He could have created us like the plants, just needing some sunshine but never having to eat.  But he made us able to bite into a juicy steak or crunchy apple.  We could have reproduced by budding, but he gave us sex, pregnancy, birth -- things so weird and wonderful I sometimes imagine the trouble I would have explaining them to aliens.  He didn't paint everything with a broad brush; every detail of creation is worked out perfectly, so that no microscope can see the infinitesimally small but absolutely organized structure of everything.

This comforts me more than anything.  I know that Jerk-God could never create this wonder.  Jerk-God would have had the world be so much less fun.  Real God gave us a place we could really delight in, because he wanted us to be happy.

Someone who would go to the trouble of all that creating wasn't going to be happy just setting us on our way and letting us go.  He wanted to have an actual relationship with us.  Now I think we all know that it's impossible to have a real relationship that's forced in any way.  God made us able to say no to him, and of course our first parents did.  But he didn't want us all to suffer for their bad choice -- he felt we should all get a chance to know him too -- so he came himself to die on a cross so we could all be with him.  He knew perfectly well that we were having a really hard time understanding him, considering he's invisible and inaudible and all, so he actually became a person so that we wouldn't have that problem so much.

This God is someone who is awfully eager to get to know us.  And, like I said in the previous post, he didn't die on a cross just so he could have something to hang over our heads every time he needed emotional blackmail.  He really did do it just because he loved us, because it was something that we needed, and because he wanted us to know just how bad he wanted to be close to us.

I was struggling internally a few weeks ago with all this when Marko started singing to himself.  He sang a song from Mr. Rogers: "It's you I like, the way you are right now, way down deep inside you."  I couldn't help but think, "If Mr. Rogers can love me just the way I am, what kind of person is God if he can't manage the same?"

It's hard to believe in this.  It is so, so hard to believe that at the same moment a person could know everything about you, and I mean everything ... and at the same time love you.  It's hard to believe that there could be a person who couldn't deceive or be deceived, who is pure unchanging truth ... and at the same time love you.

We tend to pick one or the other, love OR truth.  Either God lies and says everything I do is a-okay and I never do anything wrong, in which case he can love me, or he sees the reality of what I am and the people I've hurt and the lies I've told, in which case he can't possibly love me.  I think this is one of the mysteries of God that we'll never fully understand, how he can see us and our faults and still smile at us, the way I smile at my boys, and say, "I love you just the way you are, not later when you've earned it, but right now."

All of my spiritual life since boarding school has been a process of trying to be worthy, to be good enough.  I feel that God has made a terrible mistake by loving me, and the only way to make it right is to try to be good enough so it won't be such a mistake.  The whole thing has been one long, miserable self-improvement project, which I mainly avoid because it's so unpleasant.  I don't dare pray without a resolution, because wouldn't that be implying that I thought I was perfect, and isn't that pride?

But God isn't like that.  He hasn't asked me to run my life like a self-improvement project.  He's asked me to draw close to him, and that's what I'm going to do.  Sure, there are commandments.  But I'm already trying to follow those.  I follow them because I see the point in them, and because when I don't understand, I assume God knows something I don't and there really is a point to them.  I don't think a single commandment is arbitrary.  But I'm trying to separate out the self-improvement and the spiritual.  I want to be a better person because everyone wants to be a better person, this is a good thing to do.  But God isn't my personal trainer.  Sometimes he might want to talk about other stuff besides how awful I am.

In fact, I think that, if he's anything like all the other people who love me, he doesn't like hearing about how awful I am.  Think how you feel, if a person you love starts bashing themselves.  You want to run in and yell, "Don't talk that way about the person I love!"  Why wouldn't God be the same?

To understand God, I have to redefine my terms.

God loves me.
Old definition: God tolerates me and gives me things for no apparent reason, considering how much I suck.
New definition: God actually likes me, enjoys being with me, and sees all the good in me.

God wants me to be happy.
Old definition: I'd better do what God wants, even if it makes me miserable, because if I don't things are going to be even worse.
New definition: God wants me to be happy, and if I'm not, it isn't his doing.  He hates seeing me suffer, and though he can't always rush in to fix everything, he really does care about my struggles.

God doesn't want me to sin.
Old definition: God is so allergic to sin that if I do anything the slightest bit wrong he runs away like I'm on fire.
New definition: God realizes that when I sin, it's as if I actually am on fire.  I'm hurting myself.  Of course he doesn't want me to do that.  He hangs around as close as I will let him, in the hopes of showing me the way back.

If God is like this, I really do want to know him.  Not because I feel guilty that he loves me so much and I've loved him so little in return.  God can handle that.  He wouldn't have created mankind if he couldn't take a little rejection, and anyway I actually do love God at least to some extent, so it's not like he's actually getting rejected by me.  The reason I want to get to know God is because he seems like the sort of person I would like to know.

I don't have all the answers.  I don't have even half of the answers.  But here are a few answers that seem clear to me so far.  It's enough for a start.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Seeking God

(Novel note: I have been writing for 31 days and written 53,864 words.  Personal NoWriMo: success!  But my guess is that there's still at least 25,000 to go.  Thanks for your patience everybody.)

First I talked about how I don't know anything.  Then I talked about seeking.  This is kind of what I've been driving at: I don't feel I know God, and I want to seek him.

This has been a very humbling realization to come to.  I've been Catholic almost my whole life, obviously.  At the age of twelve I decided I had a vocation.  I left home at fourteen in the hopes of getting close to God.  I spent hours of every day for years trying to talk to him.  There were many moments when I could have sworn I heard his voice.  How could I be asking the question, "What is God like anyway?"

And yet here I am, asking it.

Since I got out of boarding school, my spiritual life has been kind of a slog.  The "highs" I used to get there, I now realize were just a drug to keep me hooked, so it's no wonder I don't get those anymore.  The problem is that I'm a little religion-shy now.  Anything that looks like a wonderful, spiritual experience makes me cagey.  As a result, the dark night is really the only place where I feel safe.

Prayer is so, so hard.  I mean, what is it even supposed to be?  What it is it supposed to look like?  Everyone gives me the same answer: "Just talk to God."  So I try.  It sounds like this:

"Lord, I want to talk to you about my day.  It sucked.  That was probably my fault.  Yeah, definitely my fault.  If I were more patient, more kind, more understanding, more hardworking, this kind of thing wouldn't happen to me.  You're probably really disappointed in me.  I want to do better, but honestly I'm not feeling a heck of a lot of confidence about that.  You know what?  Forget it.  I'm going to go play Words With Friends.  Amen."

Not exactly ... a recipe for success.

Here's the thing.  In boarding school, we did have a recipe for prayer.  In fact, our morning meditation consisted of kneeling down in the chapel while a consecrated sat in the back with a portable microphone and "directed the meditation," i.e. said the things they thought we should be praying.  It went something like this:

"Lord, I'm in your presence right now.  I know that you're right here beside me.  I know you see me, that you love me.  I'm overwhelmed by your love for me.  You died on the cross for me.  You would do it again, just for me.  I don't deserve that.  What's worse, I don't return that.  I let you bleed on the cross for me, and I give you so little in return.  I sin so much.  And every time I sin, I jab those nails a little further into your hands."

And on and on, for half an hour.  There would be "points" to reflect on, and at the end of every prayer, EVERY prayer, there was a resolution.  I have trouble praying without a resolution.  I feel like I must not be doing it right if I can't think of some way to change my life in response to the prayer time I just had.  But that makes prayer really scary, because if I have to think of something to change EVERY time I pray, I end up overwhelmed with all the stuff about me that's wrong.

Which brings it back to guilt.  I know Catholics are famous for guilt, but I never had any of this growing up, nor did I ever hear about it in church.  I DID hear it at boarding school.  Not the hellfire guilt stuff, but more the emotional manipulation kind.  God has done so much for you, and what have YOU ever done for him?  Oh, you think you did something for him?  Did you die on the cross?  Didn't think so.

Obviously this isn't right.  God is not trying to have a one-up "who loves more" contest with me.  But I do not need more answers about what God is not.  Every time I start to try to pray, I think of another thing I have been told God is not or does not do.

God does not just want to be asked for things.  He's not Santa Claus.
God does not just want to be talked at all the time.  You have to listen too.
God doesn't talk so you can be sure you heard him.
God doesn't say what you would want him to say.

So, what exactly IS God like?  So many people claim to know.  Usually it's people who I think probably know better than I do.  People who spend hours in prayer instead of truncated five-minuteses.  But some of what they say ... just seems wrong.

God is pleased with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and my favorite current military action.
God wants you to donate to X cause.
God hates gays.
God would totally be okay with this slur I just dropped because that person deserved it.
God punishes the wicked.
God loves you, BUT he is disgusted by all your sins.

Someone is probably reading and saying, "But God does punish the wicked!"  And they're running to my combox to tell me so.  Please don't.  First off, I am not trying to debate so much as reflect, and I admit to feeling kind of fragile about this whole thing.  And second, you know how God punishes the wicked?  By respecting them enough to give them what they ask for, which is to have nothing to do with him.  Imagine you've just divorced your husband in the most insulting way you can think of.  And in response he says, "I'm very sad that you don't want to be with me.  So sad I'm going to punish you by moving out of your house.  But here's my number and if you call me back I'll move back in with you before you've hung up the phone."

I mean, you can call that punishment, but it's not really very punishy.  Sure, eternity without God really is the worst thing imaginable.  But if you don't want God, what else can he reasonably give you but eternity without him?  And I do think that, being so very merciful, he finds ways to reach those people who WOULD want to spend eternity with God if only they really knew what God was going to be like.

Anyway, I found myself in a bind.  To know who God is, I would have to spend time with him, i.e. pray.  But I couldn't very well pray with no idea who God was.  First off, that's very unpleasant, trying to spend time every day with someone you don't know and are kind of afraid you might not like.  And second, I think prayers like the one I wrote down above prove that maybe I haven't been praying to God at all.  I've been praying to someone I call "God" who actually is kind of a jerk.

It's a test I'm trying to apply, when I ask myself a question about God.  Is this something a jerk would be or do?  If so, that's not God.  That's a creation of my own mind, whom I've named "Jerk-God."  (My apologies if that sounds irreverent.  Since it's a made-up being in my head, I don't feel the need to be polite.)

My brain finds workarounds for all the explanations of God.  Take this one: God loves me.  Simple, right?  But then I add in some other bit of information which I find myself believing: When God sees me, he is unhappy and disappointed.  Conclusion: Love is something that involves unhappiness and disappointment.

The worst thing about this is that you become like the one you love and spend time with.  During the many years I've spent worshiping Jerk-God (part time, I do believe I have prayed to the real God too), I've become like Jerk-God.  When I was in boarding school and immediately after, I was a judgmental jerk.  No one was good enough for me.  I had some reason to dislike everyone.  And yet I convinced myself I "loved" them, in the same way God "loved" me.  You see, new definitions for words can bring you a lot of grief.

It was only when I stopped praying so dang much, with my printed Regnum Christi meditation and my journal of self-hatred and resolutions, that I stopped being such a jerk.  I'm beginning to realize that the years I've spent doing more or less the bare minimum have actually been absolutely necessary.  I had to stop listening to Jerk-God if ever I wanted to know the real God.

The one thing I have kept, in which I have total confidence, is the Mass.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I listen to the words and I realize, "This is true.  This is real.  This I can be sure is the real God."  Sometimes I have to cover my ears for the homily though.  Last Sunday it seemed to be on the topic of, "Why aren't you giving up more for Lent you shameless heathen?!  You're only giving up ONE thing?  Jesus died for you!  Also, give to the Bishop's Lenten Appeal please."  Sometimes I find that talking to atheists leaves me feeling firm in my faith and listening to other Catholics makes me want to run off and join Hare Krishna.  It isn't always that they're wrong (though sometimes they totally are).  Sometimes it's just that I have heard the "God did so much for you, what more can you do for God" spiel so many times I've developed an allergy.

So here I am, seeking God.  Finding the way has been difficult.  It involves no journalling, no rosary, and a minimum of spiritual reading, because all of these have issues for me.  I try to pray, but only sentences at a time, not minutes and certainly not hours.  When I do, I try to run things past a "decent person" test.  If I said to John, "I had a bad day," he would not reply, "It's your fault."  If I said to my mother, "Here's a present for you," she wouldn't say, "Is that ALL?  I gave birth to you with NO DRUGS, I'll have you know!"  So I try not to assume God would say things like that to me.  I'm also on the lookout for the kind of spiritual reading that ISN'T just trying to get me to do more, mortify myself more, examine myself more deeply and find more that's bad.  Those things might be useful in some seasons, but right now they are only hurting me.  I want something that's straight up "All About God," or something like that.

I've had a lot of good things happen already on this search, but it's going to have to wait until another post.
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