Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Suffering, it has been said, is meant for our conversion.  Wherever you encounter it, whether your own or that of others, suffering ought to help return our hearts and minds to God.

'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California'

photo: D. Lange

Some pain is hidden; other hardships are obvious and in plain view.  The man who can barely pedal his bicycle-rickshaw because it could never earn him enough to replace the calories he expends to do it--that man cannot conceal what a lifetime of material deprivation has meant to his body.   The women who are eighteen but look to me like they are in their mid-thirties, and the ones who are hauling bricks long after they should be home and tucking their children into bed, can't hide it, either.  Neither can the workers at the Fukushima plant or the people in the surrounding areas of tsunami-devasted Japan. 
This kind of thing is what leads so many of us to (very ironically) classify sufferings based on severity or, worse, to dismiss one person's pain on the basis of our knowledge of a greater and more legitimate hardship "out there somewhere."  How dare she complain about the broken dishwasher when there are millions who do not have running water in their homes!   When you stop to think about it, this is a very clever diversionary tactic if it succeeds in preventing a person from considering the messy state of their own inner life.  It is much easier to maintain the belief that it is "those others out there" who are really bad off.  

With our attention focused on another, we are much less less likely to notice how the sufferings of others mirror our own.  "Who me?  No, I'm fine, I am not the one with real problems..."
My daughter's Catechism book gives two reasons for the Passion and the Crucifixion.  Jesus suffered and died, it says, so that we would know the depth of the Father's love for us and the evil of sin.  The book is aimed at first graders, so the language is straightforward.  The authors, understandably, chose to dodge the theological arguments (and violence) that have raged over the past couple millenia about why Jesus had to die and how exactly one is saved.  The book leaves the conversation about the mechanics of the salvific process alone and, rather, it says very simply that there are two things to contemplate when considering the sufferings and ultimate death that Jesus endured: love, and just how bad sin is. 
Christianity teaches that all life reveals God, but most especially human life because God became a human person.  The Church tells us that all of human experience is a manifestation of the Life that was lived by God-on-earth, but most especially the experience of suffering.  Because Jesus suffered for our sake.  More accurately, His sufferings are our sufferings. 

In other words, the suffering Jesus, the One whose body is tired from trying to stay alive though overworked and underfed, is at once a metaphor and the reality of sin in the world.  Out of the Father's great love, the Son took on all of the sin of the world, and it killed him.  Suffering, then, is sin made visible.
Carryll H. and I have been spending lots of time together here in India.  The first book of hers that I discovered was not one of her well-known works but actually an out-of-print collection of letters to close friends or acquaintances.  There are echoes of her published pieces in the letters; it seems she was never tired of repeating what the saints have always said: Christ lives in the littlest and lowliest.  This is where He usually chooses to manifest Himself.  She must have feeling a bit catty one day because in one letter she was almost ridiculing the folks who celebrated St. Therese's canonization.  It shouldn't be so surprising that someone like this little French girl could become a saint and live with God in heaven, said Carryll.  The more surprising thing is that Jesus would actually live in someone like Therese, quintessential bourgeoise that she was!

Young Migratory Mother in Edison, Kern County, California, Originally from Texas
from D. Lange's "Migrant Mothers" Depression-era series

Every person, said Mother Teresa, has been created for great things: to love and to be loved.  Rich and poor alike.  And yet both Mother and Carryll agreed that those who are poorest and sickest and suffering most acutely have the most to teach the world about love.  We need them and we owe the poor a great debt, Mother said, because they show us how much we need God.  
Suffering, wherever we encounter it, is for our conversion.  It is not useless; it can make us holy.  The marks on those who suffer show us the wounds of our not-always-visible sin.  We may try to conceal them, but the obvious neediness of the poor, the sick and the neglected aren't going to let us get away with it. 

To you, O Lord, I make my prayer for mercy.  Heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.  - from Evening Prayer, Lenten Season

Thursday, March 24, 2011

about complaints and the preservation of happy memories

Life is very tough on my eldest daughter.  As a newborn, she screamed for three straight hours one night because of a bit of gas.  Three long hours and three little toots, and then she was quiet.  By then it was midnight so I was just happy to get to bed, finally.  You can imagine how relieved I was when I noticed, after my second was born, that she had learned to fart while still in her hospital bassinet.  (Oh, the prayers of thanks we mamas pray...)
Now the oldest is six, and still very theatrical.  I filmed a recent meltdown over a sliver of cucumber she was supposed to be eating.  For evidence.  Or as a way to preserve my sanity in the moment, maybe.  Also, I wanted to be able to show it to her later and (hopefully) have a laugh about it.  "Don't put that on YouTube!" she screamed when she saw the camera.  

And then, a day or so later, she changed her mind.  She couldn't deny it; it was ridiculously entertaining. (I put in on YouTube and the family blog.)

See, she doesn't exactly hold grudges, but she certainly wants me to know when something has not gone her way.  At the end of the day, as I tuck her in bed, we say our "thank you" prayers.  We list some of the good events of the day, or the names of people we are thankful for, and you know what L. always does?  She lets me know exactly which part of the day was not to her liking.  "Yes, we went to an amusement park, but we were there for only a short time and sometimes I didn't get to choose which ride to go on and I didn't get the snack I wanted."  Or: "Well, part of it was fun, but other parts weren't good like when I had to do chores."
For L., almost every day is like Alexander's very bad day.  And yes, I am the mom in the background with her head down and one hand on her hip.  Between the two of us, I'll bet my husband has often wished we would both move far away to Australia...
Then there is my second daughter.  Not only did she get off to a great start in the bassinet, but she is still, on the whole, quite happy and content no matter where she is.  She is secure in our affection, that's for sure.  "Mommy, why do you love me so much?  Why am I so awesome?"   During the thank-you prayers, she'll thank God for "the whole universe," or—a favorite of mine from last week: "Thank you that I was born so creative."   Now that's a happy and grateful kid.
For both girls, it all seems to have a lot to do with their level of satisfaction regarding the amount of attention they have received.  Lately, though, I have been skeptical that there is anything at all I can do to help; L. might just be a bottomless pit that can never be filled. 

So what makes this difference between my two girls—or any two people?  For some folks, it's enough to know that they are loved.  Then there are those of us who seem always to be looking for more validation and more attention.  Complaining seems as good a way as any to get it, I guess.  Do we need to know that we have been heard?  Or is it more simple than that--do we just wish everything was a bit more fun? 
I remember reading somewhere that people inclined to brood and have negative thoughts are the same people who tend to complain a lot.  I didn't like to read that and I resent all the time I have spent thinking about it since.  Flarg.*

Besides the obvious--that negativity has the power to ruin the present--I have also had to admit that complaining can also ruin our memories of the past.  Chances are good that if you tell and retell the stories of unpleasant happenings enough times, those are the only things you will remember.  My bedtime conversations with my daughter seem to support this theory, as does my experience during my first week back in India after a five year absence.  All of a sudden I remembered all of the things I had enjoyed during my first visit!  Lovely plants, exotic birds and food, and yes, even certain smells, all of which had been overshadowed in my memory by the somewhat unpleasant (and the other truly terrible) events from that first visit. 

Anyway, I would like to try to remember this little lesson as well as to get some perspectives from others on the matter.  I want to try to remember to shut up more often, and to speak the full, happy truth, whenever I get the chance.  So that's why I have written this down. You know, to preserve it before it got buried under my complaining about all of L.'s complaining.  Ha. 

*We make up cuss words at my home.  Little first-grader eyes peeking over my shoulder as I type, etc.  It's more fun to make them up anyway, try it sometime.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

sheep and goats

An excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin.  The dialogue takes place after the death of St. Clare's daughter, and (though he doesn't realize it) only a few hours before his own.  I read this particular portion of the book a few weeks ago, while lying on my couch (ahem), during commercial breaks while watching The Counterfeiters about courage and resistance in a WWII concentration camp so I guess that made it extra super poignant. 

"What a sublime conception is that of a last judgment!" said he, --"a righting of all the wrongs of ages!—a solving of all moral problems, by an unanswerable wisdom!  It is, indeed, a wonderful image."
"It is a fearful one to us," said Miss Ophelia.
"It ought to be to me, I suppose," said St. Clare stopping, thoughtfully.  "I was reading to Tom, this afternoon, that chapter in Matthew that gives an account of it, and I have been quite struck with it.  One should have expected some terrible enormities charged to those who are excluded from Heaven, as the reason; but no—they are condemned for not doing positive good, as if that included every possible harm."
"Perhaps," said Miss Ophelia, "it is impossible for a person who does no good not to do harm."
"And what," said St. Clare, speaking abstractedly, but with deep feeling, "what shall be said of one whose own heart, whose education, and the wants of society, have called in vain to some noble purpose; who has floated on, a dreamy, neutral spectator of the struggles, agonies, and wrongs of man, when he should have been a worker?"
"I should say," said Miss Ophelia, "that he ought to repent, and begin now."
"Always practical and to the point!" said St. Clare, his face breaking out into a smile.   "You never leave me any time for general reflections, Cousin; you always bring me short up against the actual present; you have a kind of eternal now, always in your mind."
"Now is all the time I have anything to do with," said Miss Ophelia.
"My view of Christianity is such," he added, "that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against this monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society; and, if need be, sacrificing himself in the battle.  That is, I mean that I could not be a Christian otherwise, though I have certainly had intercourse with a great many enlightened and Christian people who did no such thing; and I confess that the apathy of religious people on this subject, their want of perception of wrongs that filled me with horror, have engendered in me more scepticism than any other thing."
"If you knew all this," said Miss Ophelia, "why didn't you do it?"
"O, because I have had only that kind of benevolence which consists in lying on a sofa, and cursing the church and clergy for not being martyrs and confessors.  One can see, you know, very easily, how others ought to be martyrs."
"Well, are you going to do differently now?" said Miss Ophelia.
"God only knows the future," said St. Clare.  "I am braver than I was, because I have lost all; and he who has nothing to lose can afford all risks."
"And what are you going to do?"
"My duty, I hope, to the poor and lowly, as fast as I find it out," said St. Clare, "beginning with my own servants, for whom I have yet done nothing; and, perhaps, at some future day, it may appear that I can do something for a whole class; something to save my country from the disgrace of that false position in which she now stands before all civilized nations."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

ugly self-portraits: Holi edition

 I hear it can take a few weeks for this stuff to come off. 

It was worth it.  Pink beard nothwithstanding.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

repeat after me: "this is supposed to be happening"

She is screaming and going limp on the floor, again.  She skipped her nap and she is teething and tonight she probably won't sleep straight through the night, either.

He just pulled all the books off every shelf of every bookcase of every room.

The toddler just pitched all of my earrings and some necklaces out a window.

The last roll of toilet paper just got dunked into the toilet "by accident, Mommy" while, simultaneously in two other corners of the house, the washing machine flooded the basement and the gallon bottle of milk was tipped over by someone's (awfully cute and dimpled) elbow.


You know what I wish someone had told me about parenting from the very beginning?  That kids are supposed to do that kind of thing, and will often do it on a daily basis.  It's just normal

I was basically told the opposite--that as a parent, it was my job to intervene and to prevent these things from happening, and to teach the child who did it never to do it again (however in the world a two or three year old could learn that lesson, I have no idea)"Kids learn through spanking," I have been told more than once, but I have learned that kids do not and in fact, they will do the same irritating, inconvenient, disobedient thing over and over and over again.  It is almost (gasp) as if they have not learned self-control.  

But Claire, you say, for years you have kept a family blog of all the insane and funny stuff your kids do.  Do you really mean that in the background you were taking it all very seriously? 

Well, not always.  And knowing that the events will be good blog material later definitely helps me remember to keep my sense of humor.  But I blame Dobson for all the other times I have spent fretting over what better method of correction I should adopt that will help my child move beyond his/her fallen-sinful-nature-defiance and into Proper Christian Behavior.  It always sounded off, but it took me years to articulate why.  Any philosophy that preaches that a parent should seek to increase their control over their child, by force if necessary, is mistaken from the very start, period.  It's kind of pathetic that I had to wrestle so hard against indoctrination of that kind in order to finally reach the not-so-very-profound-at-all conclusion that I would like to be the kind of parent who just calmly and quietly mops up the milk (or hands a rag to the child for them to help).  No lecturing.  No ranting or raving.  No mama tantrum required. 

So, to any new parents out there who might stop by this way, here is some advice for the Terribly Trying Toddler years: don't worry and try to laugh as much as possible.  There may be an odd 30-yr-old out there who likes to decorate the livingroom floor with toothpaste, but in all likelihood, with minimal intervention on your part, your child will not be one of them.  Kids grow up and out of these phases pretty quickly.  In the meantime, and depending on the child's temperament, being "consistent" by cracking down on each and every offense is probably only going to make you mad, and it won't have much of an effect on them for a long time (because they aren't reasonable at this age).  Just say No very firmly, grab the mop, and move on with your day.

It might also help to expect your kids to act like they have lost their minds at least twice a day,  which has the added benefit of making you happy any time they don't.  Consider trying to budget in advance for those unfortuante occasions when you need to replace Great Aunt Emily's china plate or candlestick (or whatever).  That way, it won't be a surprise nor a huge drain on the purse, either.  My friend Mary says she keeps some gum handy so she can pop a stick, or two, or ten in her mouth to keep from launching into an unncessary lecture.

Kids break stuff and they are noisy.  It's normal.  It is what they are supposed to do.  Think of it as their job.

Even the part when you get angry and need to go to the other room to breathe deeply for oh, like an hour (or five) is normal.  And btw: I don't buy the Love and Logic shtick of trying to trick your kid out of the pleasure of driving their mama up the wall.  It's all part of normal and fun development (and a healthy childhood) to see what Mom will do when you really make a mess of things, or just howl for thirty minutes straight.  That's why kids put on the show for Mom and not for someone else--because she's safe.  Be happy the kids are safe with you, but don't worry if you get mad or rant and rave once in awhile.  I'm not saying that it is wrong for a parent to feel frustrated, but I am saying: don't think there is something you need to change about your kid.  They're just being a kid.

I will try to remember all of this when mine are teens.  (Someone promise to remind me, ok?)  In the meantime, if anyone out there wants to share lessons learned from the Land of Obvious, please spread the wealth.  Some of us need all the help we can get.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

creative thinking and true fasting

This week I have been down with strep.  Everything has been moving very, very slowly and we put in only a half day of homeschool.  I spent all of Wednesday flat on my back and did not make it downtown for ashes.  But a bit of illness and pain seems a fine way to start off a season of penance, anyway.

While I was sick, I finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin (for the first time--Camus and Sartre are deemed more suitable as moral-existential Lit. in French high school).  In the final chapter, the author lectures Northerners on their duties in the face of racial injustice on their own national soil.  She prescribes two main courses of action and, to tell the truth, it took me a little by surprise:

Northern men, northern mothers, northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves.  But what can an individual do?  Of that, every individual can judge.  There is one thing that every individual can do, they can see to it that they feel right.  An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race.  See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! 

Right thinking and right feeling are central themes of the book, but in her conclusion it was put in such plain language that I had to stop reading and sit with it for a few minutes.   It made me wonder, what if we could all bring ourselves to name the wrongs we commit or allow? and I had to agree that things might be different if everyone agreed to foster that kind of self honesty.

Photograph of Couple Protesting Desegregation Filed in the Case of R. W. Kelley v. City of Nashville, 1957

The second appeal Harriet Beecher Stowe makes is to ask Christians everywhere to pray.  Last week Katherine from Evlogia said that there's nothing more creative than prayer, and ever since I read that the way I think about prayer--the way I pray--is new.  For a mother, homeschooler and a writer like Katherine to say such a thing is stunning, but then again, a lot of what she and Molly have to say is stop-and-think-about-it-for-a-full-week stunning.  These two Orthodox women and mothers make me wonder if there is something in Orthodox Christianity which particularly fosters simplicity in thinking.  The tradition seems to unabashedly embrace the principle that Truth is Mystery, along with insights that are so direct and clear and yet so universal as to be relevant to any number of people in any number of life circumstances. 

Ms. Stowe's concluding thoughts are equally simple and direct: when people are robbed of their rights, peace and hope are destroyed.  And whether they are small or big, all offenses against persons inflict harm on the life of the mind.  The minds of oppressed and oppressor.

It is Lent, and during Lent we remember in a particular way that God forgivesWe ask for forgiveness and we forgive.  We pray for renewal and for more intimate communion with God and our neighbors.  We pray, we give, and we fast during Lent.  Fasting, the famous passage in Isaiah says, is not a solemn occasion of dreariness but instead a way to practice justice.  Free the captives, release prisoners, give bread to the hungry.  The true fast of Isaiah 58 is about freedom and abundance, not deprivation. 

Truths for the whole year and not just these forty days, but the rhythms are still good for a soul that easily forgets.

Religion Plays an Important Part in the Lives of Residents...

Have a peaceful and creative Lenten fast, everybody.  I pray it renews us all and that that we will celebrate and give thanks for an abundance of grace.  Who knows, maybe it will even help to get us on the path to some good even right thinking!

Monday, March 7, 2011

opposite world

If I bothered with tags for my posts, this one might fall under "learning to live with culture shock" or "culture shock that just won't go away."  The truth is, I've been in shock long before I reached India.  It began last June, as soon as I left Colorado, and it goes on and on and on.  That has been a surprise because I was expecting moments of shock, not one long continuous season.  I could have written a similar post about my (non) adjustment to NYC. 

Anyway, this very long ailment seems to have taught me a few survival skills and maybe I'll write about that sometime if anyone wants to hear about it.  But right now, I am just going to try to itemize a few of the things that happen in India that would happen in the exact opposite way in the US.  These are not meant to be judgments, just listing of the facts, as one girl sees them.  Turns out, different people do things differently.  (I learned that in Anthro 101, thanks Dr.B.!)

Here goes:

- If you invite someone to lunch, instead of engaging in small talk and chitchat, you should respect their privacy and speak as little as possible. 

- saying "Please" or "Thank you" is not important. 

-If someone asks for directions, you might wave vaguely and say something like "left, left, right then go a bit further then left."  No street names, no landmarks, no further information required.  Definitely don't use a map.  (Jeremy ran into an Indian who had briefly visited Chicago and the man told him the story of how shocked he was that folks would immediately pull out a map when he asked them for directions.)

- If you run into an acquaintance unexpectedly, you might greet them but you will not smile.  In fact, when in doubt, frown or look generally serious.  (speculative note by the author: grinning might be seen as undignified or something.  maybe?)

-If you are meeting someone for the first time in a professional setting, you might want to list all of your achievements to date including schools you went to, universities you graduated from and their rankings, books you published, medals you've been awarded, etc.  Tell them all of it and leave nothing out.

- Openly stare at strangers.  It is not rude.  Once, fifteen people gathered around me and the kids as we waited on J. to do an errand.  They just stood there, in a half circle and not saying anything, for about a quarter of an hour. 

- Relationship and status are most important, not one-size-fits-all-rules.  VIPs and not-so-VI-Ps get whisked through lines while others wait their turn.  Children of good and respectable people are allowed to play where they want; other kids are not.

-In public restrooms, just walk up to a sink and use it even if someone was there first.

-Get on the elevator before letting people off it first.

- Put your hand on a stranger's shoulder and gently move them out of your way if you need to squeeze by.

- If someone asks you something and you don't want to answer, just ignore it.  If someone is talking to you and you don't want to answer, just ignore them.  If, halfway through a conversation, you don't want to talk anymore, just stop talking and ignore them. 

- Be composed and quiet in public.  If you're a woman, try to be dainty.  Do not attract attention.

- Wear you best clothes and jewelry to amusement parks.

- If you have put your lips to a cup or bottle, no one else can use it anymore and it must be discarded (smashed is more appropriate, even) immediately.

-Besides cups, never throw anything in the trash that might still be able to serve some purpose. 

- Frowning and head-shaking can mean "yes, you're very welcome" or "right away, sir" or "I would be happy to do that for you."  A click of the tongue (which to my ears communicates irritation or exasperation---is that an American thing or a remnant of my days in Morocco? I don't know) actually means "no problem whatsoever."  Cheerfulness or agreeableness has very little to do with facial expression.

- Ease your way into the pew at church and slide the children onto their mama's lap so you can sit down.  Empty seats in the row in front are irrelevant.

- Do not greet random people when you walk into a store, a room, an office.  If you are a shopowner, do not greet customers and don't smile at them.

- Never complain about being inconvenienced.  Expect it and then deal patiently with it.

- Do not wait in line at a cashier, just walk up and hand the money and wait for change.  Pretend that no one else is standing there.  (Again, this is not considered rude; it is simply the way things are done.  On some occasions, we've done it ourselves or we'd have stood there for hours.)

- Traffic usually moves on the left side.  Not just road traffic, but also pedestrian traffic.  (I always mess that one up)  Also: pedestrians never have right-of-way over any vehicle, ever.

My upbringing in North Africa and a few Anthropology courses have taught me enough where I know, intellectually at least, that in most of these scenarios, it is not empty space, but there is actually something else going on.  I am aware that I am ignorant of many codes and rules of verbal and non-verbal communication and so I miss a lot of what's being "said" by not knowing how to properly interpret gestures.  Still, when there are so much that happens that goes directly against what we Americans do, it makes me wonder what it must be like to be Indian and step off a plane in the US.  I guess if there is a moral to this story it would be in the form of a note to self: be gracious to rude foreigners, cause you never know.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I so chicken

Give, give, give, I have said to others.  Don't be afraid to share.  Even if it seems small or worthless, even if it is a humble or even a poor gift.  Give and don't worry.  

Obedience through sacrifice.  Generosity through self-forgetfulness.  And all that.

Someone I know has a regular online column called "Confessions" in which she will publicly number some small failing or another.  "I haven't cooked for my family for a full week."  "My kids sometimes go to bed with unbrushed teeth."  "Today I wore the clothes I slept in."  (No, I made that last one up; she would never do that.)

Should I start a "Confessions" column, too? I briefly wondered, and then I laughed.  Isn't mine self-deprecatory enough, already what with all the ridiculous photos of my bad hair and all?  I don't take myself too seriously...  If I did, I might be tempted to compare myself to someone like Heather King and conclude that we wannabes should probably just give up.  It would occur to me that I might as well stop before I start because what's the use of not doing it well. 

Really, why bother?  Because, after all the sweat and tears, it might just be wasted.  Because: it might take me somewhere I am not ready to go.  Because: it might be too hard or something could come along to undo all of my hard work, like a toddler's crayonning on a newly-painted wall. 

Because anyway, there are plenty who do it better.

Hi there, it's me!  Chicken me.

I am not the first mother ever to worry that she could never give enough or love enough, or the only first-worlder to fret over whether the gifts might be mis-appropriated.  The lack of originality just another excuse to retreat.  That widow and her mite?  I am the lady in line behind her who overheard the whole thing and who looks down at the coins in her own hand and they are not copper or gold but something in between.  And because it is neither extravagant nor nobly poor, she pretends that she was near the treasury box for some other reason.  Not to bring an offering, but to, um, pray or think or observe or...something.   

Buk buk, and all that.

But I am going to keep showing up and drop in whatever coins may come my way. 

I will keep offering
and all the other not-good-enough things of every day.

I can give
and love
and fears that it's not enough.
the desire, and the desire to desire to give (even when I don't)
guilt about guilt (about guilt)
uncertainty as well as those ever-so-brief moments of clarity.

Finally: gratitude that, when you think that we are to offer from both poverty and abundance, there is so much in the spaces between.  And that means there is no way we could ever run out of things to give.

Offer up, chicken me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"and this is grace..."

While you are listening, take a scroll through these photos of beautiful India...(you'll notice that Kolkata did not make the list)