Posted in book lists

Kristin and Antonia: learning from my literary sisters

Over the past month I read both Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.

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Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and without resentment.

The book is written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive through towering heights and plummeting lows.

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My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.

And yet, Antonia is a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry her with them. She is by no means a weak or mild individual; she is strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.

Posted in family life

fighting the terrible Jiboo

“And what would you do
If you met a Jiboo?”

I’m reading Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Thinks You Can Think for our bedtime story, at Rondel’s request, and because the baby’s already sleeping instead of tiredly fussing in my lap, I’m letting the boys’ comments and questions slow the story down. I pause here to let them answer the question posed by the book, a dark shadowy creature standing on a moonlit street on the pages before us.

“I would knock it over!” Rondel proclaims.

“What if it is friendly?” I ask. “Do you think Jiboos are friendly or scary?”

Rondel looks at me uncertainly, pondering.

“Maybe if they are friendly they like playing games, so you can knock them over in a fun way,” I suggest.

“No, they don’t like games. They don’t like anything.” Rondel declares.

“What do they do?” I ask. “Do they chase people and gobble them up?”

He nods, solemnly (this isn’t our first time through the book… he’s decided Jiboos are man-eaters long before now).

“That’s scary!” I say. “I would run away and hide, then, if I saw a Jiboo.”

“I would take its head off so it couldn’t eat anyone!”

“Wow, you are so brave! You would be the hero, then – you would rescue everyone from being eaten by the Jiboo!”

“I am brave!” His shoulders lift a little – I can see the idea of being the brave hero, the defender of the weak, taking root in his mind; he is thinking about the goodness of force when used for justice and protection, though of course not in so many words.

I used to be uneasy discussing violence and physical force with the boys. Well, to be honest, I still am uncomfortable with it. I don’t want them to rely on violence to solve their problems or settle their disputes, and I definitely don’t want them glorifying brute force. But I do want them to grow up into men who intervene when a woman is harassed or objectified, who protect the weak, who stand up for the oppressed, who would be willing to lay down their lives for the innocent. So when they express courage in the service of others, even if it’s in very physical ways or just in their hypothetical imaginary worlds, I want to encourage that. We can dive into the nuances of non-violence as they get older and see that power comes in many forms. For now, they can fight the Jiboos to protect those who can’t fight for themselves.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – what I learned from Lent

I’m linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum today for Seven Quick Takes! I couldn’t come up with an SQT topic at all this week so I’m thankful to her for suggesting this one… it turned out to be a good way for me to wrap up the season for myself and prepare for the upcoming long stretch of ordinary time.

  1. Lent is for us – it is something we need, as sinful people, not something God needs for some obscure reason. In Lent we willingly give up something good as a sacrifice to God, a way to tell Him, remind ourselves, and train our bodies to remember that He is more important than even the good things He has made and given us. So there is beauty in the intentional, thought-out abstinence from something meaningful during Lent. However, I did not do that this year, being caught in the throes of PPD for the months between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. So, all of that being said…
  2. God can still use Lent for your spiritual growth even if you don’t plan anything, or just attempt the bare minimum. The point of Lent is to grow closer to God by separating ourselves a bit from the pleasures and conveniences of the world. So if life is beating you over the head to the point where it takes all your energy just to get out of bed and pray, you don’t need to pile on more self-inflicted hardships. Just seek God in your suffering.
  3. As a corollary, God knows the Lent we need, and He’ll make it happen if we are seeking Him. An unplanned Lent, catching me in the midst of an illness that made it hard to do more than the Friday abstinence, was probably far better for the condition of my soul than one where I chose all these difficult fasts and followed my self-imposed sacrifice to the letter: because my deepest temptation is to pride, and the success of a “good” Lent (at least in outward appearance) would have fed that pride and self-righteousness. This Lent didn’t really look very devoted or disciplined at all, and that was hard for me to accept for a while.
  4. Speaking of pride, Lent is (ideally) a humbling time. We impose our fasts and determine our sacrifices, and usually fall short of our goals, and in so doing realize once again how very much we need God’s grace to actually follow Him in any real way! Our inability to hold fast to even a small sacrifice for the sake of drawing closer to Christ gives us the opportunity to confess our weaknesses and stretch our roots deeply into His strength as we try again to live for Him in holiness. When I realized early in the season that my Lenten sacrifice was going to be admitting my inadequacies and seeking help for my mental health, that was a seriously humbling challenge. That’s not the kind of Lent I had wanted; it seemed so small and pathetic, and it forced me to face my weakness head-on and leap blindly into the unknown, trusting that God’s hands would catch me.
  5. Another thing I learned this Lent was the intensity of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. To be honest, I had never before prayed through the Sorrowful Mysteries, and never even attempted a serious meditation on the Passion of our Lord. To think about His suffering, for our sake, for the joy of our redemption, was so uncomfortable for me that I avoided it as much as possible. But for Lent this year, I decided to pray only those mysteries in an attempt to prepare my heart for the seriousness of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. And it was unbelievably hard. To look long and hard at the suffering of another, when that person has entered into that suffering willingly and on your behalf, for your healing or life or freedom, is not easy. But it honors them and their sacrifice to take the time to remember it in its fullness, with reverence and gratitude.
  6. In the combination of these two main aspects of Lent (suffering in some way ourselves and meditating on the suffering of Christ) I found myself falling deeper in love with God and drawing closer to Him in dependence and prayer than I have been for a while. In the depths of my depression I remembered how Jesus faced the agony of fear and emotional pain in the garden, and was comforted to know that He could understand my emotional distress and stand by my side through it. When I wished that I could fight the depression on my own and overcome it without help, I remembered how Jesus Himself was unable to carry His cross, but needed the help of another man’s strength, and realized that needing the help and support of others is part of being human, not a sin or a cause for shame.
  7. Finally, I learned that the spirit of Lent – the desire to draw closer to God, and the willingness to sacrifice certain good things towards that end – shouldn’t end when the season of Lent and its specific sacrifices end. It just takes on other forms. If in Lent I learned how to draw near to God in my suffering, through Christ’s suffering for me, in Easter and beyond I can learn how to draw near to God in my joys and in my boring, everyday routines. He is there also, inviting us to walk with Him through suffering into endless joy and eternal glory.
Posted in musings

coping with chronic depression

I’ve been listening to some podcast archives from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and in one heard a man tell the interviewing doctor, about depression, “I don’t think you’re ever cured – it’s like alcoholism, it will always be there.” (I paraphrased).

That’s a reality I’m coming to terms with, as I have a new and more normal mood thanks to the medicine and therapy, but still feel the old out-of-sync emotions and unhelpful habits of thought there in my mind, popping up at tiny triggers or for no apparent reason at all. When the Zoloft started working – when I felt that first incredible lightening of the burden of depression on my mind and body – I suddenly had these amazing hopes and even expectations for my continuing treatment: that I would be completely cured, completely rid of the shaming voices, the heavy dragging slowness of thought, the spirals into despair, the frantic panic of seeing and fearing the darkness and irrationality closing in. I knew I would be sad, frustrated, and angry, of course, but those are normal emotions, a healthy part of life; I felt sad a few weeks back when the bikes were stolen and was surprised that I was able to feel simply sad without all the depressive corollaries. It was a clean and cleansing feeling. So sadness is beautiful, and even frustration and anger can be helpful and are certainly normal! But I thought the depression would be completely, utterly, totally, eradicated.

But there I was at work, feeling down. There were some triggers (a failed experiment, though no one was at fault), but nothing major, and still I felt the old familiar emotions, the whispers that I wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough; still I was weighed down with the weariness of continuing on when everything is pointless; still the voices tempted me with suggestions of sleep or drink or death to blot out the world and the pain of inadequacy and shame, to finally find peace from the tormenting emotions. Depression and anxiety have this irritating tendency to build on themselves; one begins to feel down about feeling down, or anxious about feeling anxious; and that’s what happened here as well. And then on the podcast came the line from a fellow sufferer: “I don’t think you’re ever cured.”

Suddenly it all made sense. It wasn’t a happy revelation, but it was a fortifying one. Just as it might never be safe for a recovered alcoholic to have a drink, so it might never be safe for this recovered depressive to let down her mental guard, to relax her mental vigilance. Into the breach, when the sentry is sleeping, the depression can attack or silently infiltrate. Oddly enough the thought tasted hopeful on my tongue: if the unhelpful thoughts and destructive emotions return, it doesn’t mean I’ve relapsed and can never hope to be cured – it just means I need to repair the walls and increase the guard. But what is the most hopeful thought of all is that now I have experienced genuine happiness, abundance of joy, and everyday normal emotions. I know what they feel like, and I know I am capable of them: so when I do feel depressed, I can remind myself that the depression need not last forever. I have overcome before, and I can overcome again.

Posted in family life

a review of Falcon Hill Park

While the weather was still fairly cool, I tried to take the boys hiking a couple times as a different way of challenging them physically and getting them out in nature. On the first occasion I was rather too ambitious and took all three of them to Papago West on my own. While the hike up was enjoyable for everyone, I ended up carrying both Aubade (obviously) and a screaming Limerick all the way back down to the car… he had fallen and hurt his leg, and was crying because he wanted to hike back but was too hurt and too scared of falling again to actually do so. Poor kid. Rondel surprised me with his independence and bravery, though! It was quite slippery coming back down with all the loose gravel, and although he was afraid and also fell, he summoned up his courage and managed to hike all the way back down on his own (it helped that he was willing to scoot on his bottom over the steepest parts… Limerick refused to try that).

Anyway, for our next hike I took full advantage of the adults in our life and convinced both my parents and my husband to try out Falcon Hill Park with us – because, as challenging as it can be to hike with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, I believe it is worthwhile to accustom them to hiking and hopefully help instill in them a love for getting out into the wild outdoors (at the very least, it is worthwhile for me with my children because hiking is one of my favorite activities! So there may be some ulterior motives here… 😉 )

This is really a neat little park – there is a playground with three different playscapes, large grassy fields, and this small mountain tucked away in the back, still in its native desert form. We played at the playground for a while, waiting for my parents:

This time, Limerick decided to be the intrepid hiker while Rondel was intimidated by the steepness of the trailhead, and ended up playing at the playground with my mom the whole time instead. And honestly, while the mountain is low enough that the hike isn’t too taxing for a small child, the trail is not well-marked, is often steep and gravelly, and often involves climbing over boulders and around bushes. It was doable because we had at least one adult for each kid, so that my husband could carry Limerick down while my dad carried everyone’s water. (Never hike without water in the desert!) I wouldn’t attempt it on my own for another few years though!

In short, we had a great time at the park but I’d advise other moms with young kids to be prepared with extra helping hands if attempting the hike, and make sure your kids (and you) are wearing good shoes.

Posted in family life

how we celebrated palm sunday

We started with leftover pancakes and stories from the Jesus Storybook Bible. The boys got so excited by the stories that we built Jericho from couch cushions, marched around it seven times, yelled as loud as we could, and watched the walls fall down! We all took turns being inside Jericho and being the Israelites marching outside. (The Jesus Storybook Bible, oddly enough, omits the story of Palm Sunday, as does the Children of God Storybook Bible, so we read other stories this morning instead – most of Holy Week and several from the OT).

I really wanted to take the kids to church but we were all exhausted and slightly sick so that didn’t happen. We did sing together though! From somewhere in the far reaches of my brain I recalled some simple, happy praise songs and in the spirit of the day we sang Ho-ho-ho-hosanna and Praise Ye the Lord several times each.

For the same reasons that church didn’t happen, I knew that naps had to happen, so I told the boys that if they stayed in bed for quiet time until their lullaby CD was finished, we would make Palm Sunday cookies together (the CD is long enough that they usually fall asleep before it’s over). Rondel is extremely bribable these days, especially by sugar… I don’t want to make it part of our regular routine, but I needed them to rest so I could help the sick baby be comfortable and rest as well.

And then we made the promised cookies!

I’m not sure if the boys had used cookie cutters before, but they got the hang of it fairly quickly and only had a few mishaps even with the crumbly shortbread dough! Rondel helped me roll it out once also, and did a pretty good job considering how young he is and how infrequently he’s used a rolling pin. And whenever something didn’t work perfectly I just said, we can fix it! or, we can roll it out another time and try again! So we were able to get all the cookies made with minimal stress on anyone’s part, although I did have to strictly enforce access to the unrolled dough to prevent them from eating it all as fast as humanly possible.

During dinner I found our Bible Animal Stories book and read the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of a donkey (we have a lot of kids’ Bibles floating around our house…). It captured the excitement of the event really well, how everyone would have been so caught up in the enthusiasm and carried away in the emotion. It always amazes me how just a few days later those same people would be caught up in the storm of accusation against him.

I hope you all had a wonderful Palm Sunday! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

Posted in family life, sqt

{SQT} – seven stories about my mom, for her birthday

Today is my mom’s birthday and I didn’t get to see her. We’ll be celebrating tomorrow though! My mom has always been one of those people who makes special days (like birthdays and holidays) really feel special and significant, so for her birthday I wanted to write a little bit about her, and some of the memories I have of her through the past twenty-odd years. Because it’s also a Friday I’ll give you seven snippets and link up with {SQT} at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

  1. I don’t have an earliest memory of my mom. She just always was, and always was making life good, in unseen, taken-for-granted sorts of ways, all through my early childhood. So nothing specific stands out in my memory, unfortunately.
  2. I do, however, remember how much she loved to garden in our home in Pennsylvania – how she had strawberries and peas along the fence, and tiger lilies all along the back so she could see them from the back porch or the kitchen window, with soft mossy patches around them. I remember how excited she was the year she planted blueberry bushes, and how we hoed the ground together to make it ready for their tender new roots. My love for gardening largely comes from those early memories of her making our small yard beautiful and fruitful with life.
  3. Hmm, there was also the time when I stepped on a bee as a toddler and couldn’t explain what had happened, my mom thought I had broken my toe and took me to the ER, and was rather frustrated with me after the X-rays when the whole situation was finally explained. I remember feeling rather confused and small, just caught up in the whole event without really understanding what was going on. She was just being a caring and slightly over-anxious mom 🙂 Have I struggled with her worry? Of course. Has it helped me in countless unexpected ways? Also of course.
  4. Many of my best memories of my mom take place in the kitchen, either cooking or cleaning together. She taught me how to bake bread, crack eggs, and prep a raw chicken; she taught me fractions with measuring cups; she showed me how fulfilling and meaningful it can be to do everyday things well for the benefit of the people we love. We also had a lot of fun – for instance, one day for lunch we made pancakes and stacked them up with brown sugar and butter like they did in the Laura Ingalls books, assembly-line style, and then devoured them joyously. I still remember our excitement, as kids, about getting to do that!
  5. My mom is not a sensitive person, and that served me well growing up. I could argue, complain, protest, debate, attack, be moody, speak sharply, and know that she would be able to let it go, not take it personally, and keep loving me. It wasn’t that she made me think my bad attitudes and unkind words were ok – but she always made sure I knew that I was ok and loved, even when my actions weren’t acceptable. She often said that she wasn’t empathetic or compassionate, as if those were her weaknesses, but I think that her thick skin and realistic attitude were great strengths in her parenting and allowed her to love her thin-skinned, sensitive children well. She neither gave in to our emotions nor allowed them to hurt her. Or rather, as I see now that I am older, she didn’t allow that hurt to change how she loved and cared for us, and she didn’t let us see the hurt because that is usually too great of a burden for a young child to carry.
  6. My mom filled our lives with books. She would read to us, she would read the same books as us and talk about them with us, she would leave books scattered around the house for us to find and read, she would give us books for every holiday, she would take us to the library every week – books of information, books of stories, books of poetry, picture books and chapter books and classics, all had a place in our home because of her efforts. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those books, and I will always be grateful for that.
  7. Now that I’m a mom as well, I see my mom with new eyes. I see the love and pride and fear in her eyes when she talks about my brother’s illness and future. I see the boldness it takes to be proud of her children even when their accomplishments are invisible to a world that sees only their struggles. I see glimpses of the vulnerability that she has always hidden so well, the tears that come equally from seeing her children create something beautiful or from watching them suffer in the fight with their internal demons. If having a child means having part of your heart live forever outside of yourself, as the quote has it, then part of my mom’s heart is with me, and my sister, and my brother, and I suddenly feel as if I ought to treat it gently, and with great reverence. It was this heart that showed me how to love, and taught me how to live, and which still treasures me in its embrace.

I love you mom, on your birthday and every other day. You were and are an amazing mother to me, and now you’re an amazing grandmother to my kids as well. I could never thank you enough for everything you have done and are doing for me.