Taking — Not Giving — Old Stuff Is Charity

In the wake of all the fire hurricane devastation in recent weeks, a friend posted a piece called, “Best Intentions: When Disaster Relief Brings Anything But Relief” and it got me thinking about the nature of American generosity to the less fortunate.

The piece reports on the tremendous waste of disaster response, often costing the donors fruitlessly, and sometimes even costing disaster responders who must then deal with the sheer volume of inappropriate stuff flooding in, on top of everything else in the crisis. It’s well meant, no doubt, but ultimately ends up falling somewhere between useless and destructive.

We are not wrong, of course, especially as Christians but also as decent humans, to want to aid people near and far who are hurting, or even just lacking, as we live in such prosperity. Many Catholics have heard and heeded the words of St. Basil — a distinctly Gospel message that when we hoard things others could use, we are essentially stealing.

But there’s a more helpful way to look at this issue, now that material goods are often very cheap in comparison to previous eras. I ran across it first in a book called Money, Possessions and Eternity (which was pretty long and mostly not especially interesting, but read it if you want). Author Randy Alcorn suggested seeing the work of thrift shops and charity shops and rummage sales as a service provided to you, not a work of charity you’re performing by donating — regardless of how their slogans make you feel generous and virtuous. There will be exceptions to this, of course — when you give away the peacoat you really love because you just can’t justify two; when you loan beloved baby things you know you might not get back — but on the whole, we are a culture burdened with stuff, and this concept crystallized for me something I had been thinking about for awhile.

See, while we were in Uganda almost a decade ago (!), we saw all the weirdo donations of Americans right there in the field, in all their ludicrous glory: a woman carrying an empty laptop bag on her head; big stacks of American textbooks that cost a fortune to ship and can’t be used in the nationally mandated curriculum; stacks of second-hand Western clothes for sale in markets, edging out traditional dressmakers. A lot of money and well-meaning “thoughts and prayers” went into these donations, but nothing really helps. We were only in Uganda six months, and certainly don’t have all the answers, but these were the things we observed East Africans really needed from us: medical equipment and training; assistance in establishing robust computer systems; money for their own initiatives. In the meantime, local charity shops can take and resell our used, unwanted stuff, or we can do the extra legwork of matching our surplus with local need through Facebook, Craigslist, and our neighborhood and church communities.

These questions will continue to become more relevant as we face downsizing baby boomers with houses full of unwanted junk, a projected new fad of Swedish death cleaning, and a world of hurt we feel powerless to remedy. But we have a responsibility to the unsexy work of researching reputable organizations and causes and giving where we can, even if it’s just boring cash donations.

TQbN6OP5xjsb4gbuojHuJNJao1_500.jpg
Part of my Ugandan wardrobe

 

Advertisements

Hurricane Thoughts

I’m a native Floridian. I’m also a professional worrier, so my mind last week was on Irma a lot, praying for friends and family in its path.

And coming after Hurricane Harvey, which probably elicited a Hail Mary or two from me, or the fires out West, which pretty much flew under my radar, I’m feeling some guilt about my completely arbitrary distribution of compassion.

I was talking about this with a friend recently, who at the time was fretting about what Hurricane Irma might do to her Outer Banks vacation, and of course feeling guilty about that, when so much greater suffering is occurring as a result. After all, while a hurricane might obligingly spin out to sea and leave everyone untouched, generally, if you’re praying for the safety of one set of people, you’re sort of sacrificing other sets who will end up in the storm’s path instead.

While we were talking, though, over breakfast in our church’s basement, she pointed to a poster with the photos of current seminarians in our diocese. She admitted that each year, as she comforted unruly babies during Mass, she’d pick, at random, one of the seminarians and pray for him over the course of the year. (I love this idea, don’t you?)

And suddenly, the arbitrary allotment of prayer didn’t seem so selfish. We are human; we are finite. (News fatigue is a thing, after all.) We form a connection, as deep as the third-generation Florida blood that runs in my veins or as serendipitous as a face chosen at random off a poster, and we devote our efforts deeply, if not broadly.

It’s the same reason, after all, that since returning from Uganda in 2009, J and I have devoted much of our (admittedly often limited) philanthropy and prayers to Uganda. We only spent six months there, almost ten years ago, but I have a bit of a better context to focus my prayers and guide my financial giving: I know the towns where the people we fund through Kiva live; I know bits of the Lhukonzo our Compassion International child speaks.

I can’t care as deeply for everyone affected by natural disaster as those living in the landscapes in which I’m mostly deeply rooted; I cannot grieve the losses of every child the way I pray for my Compassion child in the loss of his father. That’s not to say I can’t care more, pray more, give more — I have a very long way to go! It’s only to say that you have causes, and I have causes, and if each of us in the world take up a few causes of our own, dear to our hearts, and nourish them well, that might be a good starting place. Breaking the world into small, meaningful chunks and loving those around us as best we can — that seems like a plan we can just about manage.

 

Fumbling Toward a Family Rosary

The beautiful double kneeler John’s brother made for us as a wedding present in our first grad school apartment
Through a confluence of factors, this summer has been our rosary summer. We’ve had friends experience births and losses — something that always brings me back to the slow rhythm of the rosary — and in starting Police Preschool, it’s something I wanted to make a part of our family life.

In addition, some families from our church have been working to get a small group rosary going one Friday evening a month. I love those moments of praying in community: it feels a little like a quilting bee on the frontier, where together we cheerfully make something big and beautiful in no time.

On the other hand, praying the rosary myself — even a decade at a time with a two- and four-year-old — feels as if I were trying to make a quilt by hand, all by myself: snarled and interrupted, often redone, painstakingly slow.

But those corporate Friday rosaries point toward what I might have, someday, if we stretch our spiritual muscles and build up the discipline as a family. There are glimmers even now, a few weeks in: Scout asking for the silicone “rosie” my dad made her; Pippin asking me to explain the mystery we are tackling that day; the old familiarity of my chipped, beautiful cloisonne rosary, given to me by a friend for my 21st birthday, blessed by the sweet monsignor of our college church — or the battered wooden rosary J bought me in Seoul before he was even Catholic — or the sparkly crystal rosary my godmother gave me for my First Communion present. (Rosaries get misplaced with alarming frequency at our house, if you can’t tell.)

The truth is, I don’t think I’ve consistently prayed the rosary since college, when I’d pray every night in that anxious, homesick season to help me fall asleep, more often than not waking when I dropped the rosary mid-prayer. Trying to instate a family rosary now seems crazy, as Pippin swipes through pictures on my phone of today’s mystery, or Scout shouts, as usual, that our decade should be offered for “ME!!!,” and it’s totally unclear if anyone is getting anything out of this practice. But it starts my mornings of Police Preschool right, even when it leaves me flustered: remembering my reliance on God, praying desperately that good intentions and earnest modeling are enough, in the end.

7 Quick Takes: Catholic Minutiae Edition

I’m doing something a bit different this week for Friday and linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum, who I had the pleasure of meeting last Saturday. Also, there’s been virtually no cooking this week because THERE IS STILL NO KITCHEN SINK.

  1. Last weekend I got to attend the Catholic Women Blogger Network conference a couple hours away, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I have so much trouble remembering the acronym that I spent the day trying not to say it. It was like two-thirds professional conference and one-third retreat, and had a pregnancy-approved number of snacks. Highly recommend.
  2. I’ve been veiling since Ash Wednesday and the best thing, overwhelmingly, is that the Eucharistic minister always has a strong suspicion based on correlation that I’m going to receive on the tongue. So in my awkwardness I somehow get to feel less awkward?
  3. The worst thing is how the veil likes to slither off my head, like all the really cool big Scunchis of the ’90s. Any fellow baby-haired women have tips for making it stay put?
  4. Last weekend we attended the back to school Mass at the college Catholic student union and it was packed to the gills and I could have cried for all these sweet baby college students trying to do the right thing and start their college lives off right. Could have cried, but I was too busy trying to keep the kids from imploding. (What is it about folding chairs that are so tempting for kids in church?!)
  5. Number one piece of advice if you don’t want to hold a wriggling toddler in Mass: Marry the captain of the high school wrestling team. Plan ahead, ladies.
  6. I love our home parish, but a couple weeks ago we attended a different Mass time and there was actually organ and Pip whispered, “Why is there Christmas music?!” So I guess you could say the weekly music isn’t quite to our family’s taste. 
  7. What do you do if one of your kids says he doesn’t like church? When he first lodges a complaint, I calmly acknowledge it, say I didn’t love all the parts of Mass when I was little, talk about how it’s something Jesus asks us to do and we do it because we love him, etc. If he brings it up again on the same day I just don’t acknowledge it and soldier through. Anyone have tips?
21122280_10102585585028695_534967724007584364_o.jpg
Writer types at the blogging conference, photo credit Rosie Hill

Dear Control Freak Pregnant Lady

You find yourself queasy, or actively vomiting, or sleeping at every opportunity. If you’re like me my first pregnancy, this was not part of the plan. Pregnancy, sure! Sleeping every moment outside of work that you’re not huddled over the toilet? NOT ON PLAN.

Baby doesn’t care. Welcome to motherhood.

It is so, so hard to surrender to this season of comparative powerlessness while you wait for hormones to shift and wellness to return. By now, I imagine your puppeteer hand is twitching pretty severely. Surely, from the sickbed you’ve taken to like a Victorian damsel, you can still exert some influence.

For you, through three first trimesters’ bitter experience, a list of things you cannot control right now:

  • You cannot make your loving supportive husband do all your chores exactly as you would and on your timeline. Believe me, I’ve tried, and wound up crying on the couch that not only I couldn’t mop the floor before guests came over, but that I couldn’t be the kind of person who didn’t care I hadn’t mopped the floor, either.
  • You cannot control how much TV your sister (or friend or mother in law) lets your kids watch while you are resting. In fact, you may even end up letting them watch more on your shift than you feel great about. They may also eat a lot more Goldfish so that they stop bothering you about your constant nausea snacks. It’s fine. It’s a season.
  • You cannot control how your crappy coworker completes your responsibilities, or who you hand your job over to if you’re leaving. This is hard. You care about your work, but things change when you’re pregnant and suddenly all your obligations center around this little person you don’t know and kind of resent. It’s ok to be sad and frustrated.
  • You probably can’t keep all your social commitments. It’s fine. Pregnancy is a get out of jail free card and because I’m so wretchedly sick from six weeks on, I’m pretty open about telling people so they don’t think I just suck. Sometimes I still feel like I suck anyway as I’m backing out of book club and road trips and everything else, but trust me: you don’t. This isn’t you. It’s a season.
  • You probably can’t even engineer a ritual of a certain food at a certain time that will get you through the day consistently feeling great. You will try lots of stuff, and most of it won’t work, and then more of it will, and then you’ll realize that was probably just the morning sickness dissipating. Whatever. Take it.

The good news: THINGS YOU CAN CONTROL IN FIRST TRIMESTER:

  • What exciting plot-driven fluff you  read waiting for the hours to pass.
  • How much you wallow on Facebook looking at people who don’t throw up every day
  • You can practice relaxing your body! Even now, with labor a million years off and this baby hardly feeling real to you. While you lie in bed, you can practice finding tension in your muscles and releasing it. This will definitely help if unmedicated childbirth is a possibility on down the road, but I think it would help even if you were just dealing with aches and sleeplessness in later trimesters, too. (The Bradley Method has some awesome exercises if you need more information.)
  • Tinkering with treatments. Only do this with a doctor’s or midwife’s guidance, obviously, but once you’ve shooed away those awful “Have you tried Saltines?” people (seriously, you don’t need them in your life), veterans will have all kinds of advice worth trying. Vitamins at night! High protein snacks! Hydration when you can manage it! In three pregnancies I haven’t found anything that fixed my morning sickness, but I’ve found lots of little things that helped. You can lose yourself in a lot of online research on first trimester treatments, and honestly losing yourself for awhile in these long early weeks is kind of the goal.
  • How you use your misery. Try, when you can, to offer up your aggravations for the people you know who would so love to have a baby. You don’t have to feel guilty that you’re getting what they want and you’re miserable, but you can try to use this as an opportunity for prayer.

How you handle surrendering control during first trimester is up to you, and takes practice. It’s ok to find it hard and to tell people you are finding it hard. I threw up my lunch in the trash at work once and the janitor came up and started gushing about how pregnancy was the best thing that ever happened to him and his wife and…I was not so psyched myself. But I thought I would be eventually, and when I felt better, I was.

Three pregnancies in, I’m a bit better now at not resenting my husband for his ability to get by on fewer than 12 hours of sleep, but the honest truth is I have to be pretty sick before accepting my reliance on other people comes easily. When I’m at the hobbling point, I can peacefully accept all the help that comes my way, but give me a few hours nausea free and I’ll be back to my old tricks of trying to do all the laundry and crying.

Hang in there, and let me know if I can pray for you, or listen to you vent.

Experiments in Naps

So I’ve been napping at naptime. I’m not pregnant. I’m not (always) sick. I don’t have a newborn.

At first I felt kind of guilty about this. I could prep dinner! I could write! I could finish one of the zillion books I’m currently alternating.

But the house grows quiet and I know, now that Pippin is finally taking quiet time instead of naptime (RIP NAP), that I’ve got exactly one hour free.

I ask myself, as I have ever since mastering the simultaneous nap, what would be most sustaining for myself, and often, I lie down. Sometimes I read or write a bit from the horizontal. Usually I transfer a load of laundry or turn on the slow cooker before I lie down. But I generally end up in the same place.

I felt embarrassed, until I confessed my new habit to my husband. He pointed out that stillness often leads to breakthroughs and refreshment. He reminded me that he generally doesn’t listen to anything on his walk to work, and I recalled how he’d often solve difficult problems in his thesis by taking a break and doing something entirely different.

This season has been my season of monastic reading, mostly unintentional. First there was A Canticle for Leibowitzthen In This House of BredeIn the latter, particularly, there’s a tension between the old order nuns and the new, young nuns, who, even in their cloistered order, long for productivity, efficiency.

For several years, I’ve mostly used the St. Benedict Prayer Book. The night prayer includes the psalm: “Ponder on your bed and be still.”

I’m not a good ponderer. Or, I mean, I suppose I’m a person who likes to think (hence this here blog), but I also have a deep commitment to proving my right to take up space through efficiency, output, motion. And the next line, lest we forget, is “Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.” It is not enough to spend my days lazing, neglecting house and home and justice all in one, but it is valuable, perhaps, for just a beat, to ponder on my bed and be still.

P1012268.jpg
May we all nap as thoroughly.

A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”

1923357_508652913764_4665_n.jpg