Sunday, May 29, 2011


Earlier this week, I realized something: I missed a momentous anniversary.  Not the wedding one, I never forget that one.  No, I remembered that this past April marked ten years since I left the Cult.  Ten good long years to put between me and then.

There are a lot of things that have happened since that time, and most of them good.  Top of the list is probably this one, and although that anniversary (the 8th, not the 10th) is not until July, here's a photo, since I am celebrating happiness and all that good stuff:

(note that I am in my winter coat, in May. brr.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I found something that I am worse at, and is more publicly humiliating for me, than mountain biking: zumba.

The above video shows what my class was like, more or less.  My MIL took me along and we looked nothing like the folks in this video.  You'd better believe I would never have agreed to do it in front of an audience (or in that "shirt"). 

 I only wish I had Mike Perlman's guts, or his moves.  If you have ever seen me dance, you know I have the rhythm and coordination of the Perry Mastodon.

However: at least with zumba I am not risking my life:


Friday, May 20, 2011

Culture shock, intense emotions, and close encounters with death and life. An Easter season post.

I have been trying to figure out what to tell family and friends now that I am home again after months abroad.  I wrote several different posts and what follows is kind of a combination of a few.  (Btw: if you think this post is long, try living in Calcutta for four months.)

 I like jogging.  I never knew this until after my youngest was born.  To get in shape, I started out slow and then, before I knew it, I was training for my first (and only) long race.  I made Jeremy run with me for 13.1 miles in San Diego's August heat and we actually finished.  I was proud of what my body was capable of, but I wondered if this was pushing too hard.  By the end, every step was excruciating, I almost fainted at the finish line and my knees don't handle hills too well.  Maybe six miles is more reasonable, and healthier?  I wondered.  Yes, my body was ready and able to finish, my lungs and muscles were conditioned, but 10K races are probably going to be the most intense ones I will want to tackle in the future.  
There was no jogging for me while in India for a lot of reasons (what's a sidewalk?) and so, during our European stopover, at the first chance I got out on a trail.  Not only are there sidewalks in Austria, but bike and jogging paths alongside creeks and rivers!  And then, instead of happily huffing along in company of Bono and Kyra Dawson, I broke down crying.
In part, it was out of relief.  Relieved to be out of Asia, out of stinky, steamy Calcutta-in-April and the feeling of trying to keep moving, the feeling of being under that summer morning sun again and trying to pull myself uphill at the 10th mile, with 3.1 more to go.  I was sick of wondering if it broke me down or made me stronger (whatever that means).  All those moments when I didn't know if was going to make it (and worse, the fear that it wouldn't be worth it after all the tears and snot and sweaty sweat) had left me exhausted.   There were plenty of tears while in Calcutta.  Homesickness, fury at injustice, my dear friend PMS (she follows me everywhere, that b*$#!), and later, contrition.  The whole range of human emotion, only magnified because it's all new and because it's hard to be away from home.  But in Austria I cried because even though so much had changed since the last time I had heard these songs or pounded along a jogging path in running shoes, it still all felt so familiar.
Yesterday I came across this post by a friend who has been in India one year and is staying on a few months longer:  

There is so much about India that I don't know and never will.  Expats here either love it or hate it.  People pay tons of money to come to this spiritual land to 'find themselves'.  And I'm here.  Living it.  Doing it.  But I don't feel the least bit enlightened.  Grown, sure but not enlightened.  I am in awe.  I am in disgust.  I am ambivalent.  I am inspired.  I am pissed.  I don't care.  I want more.  There was life before India, which was easy and I knew how to do it.  Then there is life in India and instead of resisting it I am learning to let go and be a part of it.  No matter how you look at it, India changes you.  She breaks you down and makes you learn another way and I'm just trusting the experience....however hellish it might feel sometimes. [...] You discover who you are when you're real far from home.  Love it or hate it.  
Our time in India was different from what I thought it would be.  It was much worse. I expected regular bouts of diarrhea and battles with nasty critters.  I expected adventure—you know, the exciting kind.  But in the end it was fairly uneventful and that was the killer.  My husband got to do the "fun" stuff—working in a hospital and being on the so-called front lines.  I did…nothing much.  It was hard enough to care for and homeschool the kids, to get to and from a shopping center, a bookstore, to a friend's home or to church.  One outing a day was already too much so we stayed home a lot.  Remember that post where I mentioned my trip downtown to register to volunteer with the MCs?  Yeah, well, I didn't know the way to their site and I wandered the streets for awhile after the cabbie dropped me off in the wrong spot, and it was about a gazillion degrees and when I got there they had cancelled registration for the day because of a funeral. 
Speaking of funerals.  Calcutta definitely lives up to her reputation—brutal, inhospitable and, if you are in denial about your mortality, only too willing to help you get in touch with it.  Narayan (the friend I told you about in this post) told me this was the reason for publicly processing the bodies of the dead—so that people would become comfortable with the idea of death.  "We must embrace both life and death," he said.  But I am not at all comfortable with death and so I was completely at a loss what to do when, one winter’s evening during rush hour, our taxicab ended up wedged up against a hearse with an all-glass cover.  There was a cloth draped over the body, but they made sure to keep the face uncovered and magnificently well illuminated so that everyone could clearly see in without having to strain their eyes. 
My son: “Uh, is that man dead, Mom? I think he is.  Yup, he looks dead alright.”  He was three and completely undisturbed by the scene; just a little curious.
Me: “Oh yeah?  You think so?  Hmm…” which is what I usually say when I don’t want to give a direct answer or when I don’t know what to say.  This isn’t normal.  This is so not normal!  
In the ER, my husband sees death regularly.  Sometimes he is shocked by it, and sometimes he is not.  Sometimes he helps relatives with difficult decisions to remove life support from elderly patients who will never recover their natural ability to breathe unassisted and other times he fights desperately for lives that threaten to end too early or abruptly.  I like to think that I help him do his work and that I am equally helpful those nights (or mornings) when he comes home and needs to sit and think and talk and sort it all out.  Usually, though, I end up blurting out that it's a good thing he does the job because not all of us can, nor do we even want to.  Which is basically the equivalent of a pat on the back and a "Hey, good luck with that."

 I feel the same way Churchill did about the suffering masses of Calcutta, and usually about the suffering masses in any place.  I can't handle it.  Nothing in my life has prepared me for this, I think, for the ten thousandth time since my plane touched down.  So can I leave soon, please?  

One morning, during our first week in Calcutta, I went to the early Mass at the Mother House.  Well, for the nuns it probably seemed early, but I had been up since 2am with jetlagged children, so that makes me pretty hardcore, don’t you think?  Truth is, I never feel as useless and frail as I do when I go to India.  Whatever the opposite of hardcore is, that’s what I feel like.  There must be a word for that…hmm…what is that word?  Oh yeah: wimpy.  India makes me feel like the world’s premier wimp.  Wimp-o Numero Uno.  Le Plus Grand Wimp du Monde, as the French say.  (No they don't.) 

What’s even worse: I don't have the strength to care because I am too busy trying to figure out how to keep the kids and myself safe and alive.  Also, I keep busy wondering why I am the only one who seems worried because there is Jeremy, acting like everything is normal!  He has spent more time in India than I have and he is more familiar with human disease and decay.  It could also be that he is just plain tougher and he can handle more, and in higher doses.  Or maybe because he is a dude.  I have no idea.  Other American moms in Calcutta often had the same deer-in-the-headlights look that I did, so maybe it's a guy thing. 

In the days before we left India, as a mental exercise, I tried to anticipate how it would feel to be home and how I would look back on the time in Asia.  In my journal, there is an entry from just before our departure in which I lamented the absence of any feeling of satisfaction for a job well done.  Instead, I was disgusted with myself for feeling relieved that I get to leave and return to a better, more comfortable and safer place, even if others do not and even though I hadn't accomplished anything.  "Maybe it is appropriate," I wrote, "that I won't end my time here on a note of triumph—this city rarely allows those.  If you escape, or survive, with your health and property mostly unharmed, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones."  (Calcutta brings out the Serious in me.)
This year my Lent began in Calcutta, which I guess was also appropriate.  Suffering and death, life and redemption—all up in my face, all at once, as soon as the plane reached the gate.  Like it or not.  That Easter arrived the day before we landed on U.S. soil could have been a metaphor for something (a new season, at the very least), but instead I seem to be stuck in Lent.  Apparently, the period of sorrowful penance is not over for me yet.  My sacrificial gift an especially ugly and humiliating one: fragility, incompetence, guilt and regret for what I did not do and for what I cannot do. 
My grief is partly intentional.  This way I can nobly go on mourning with those who mourn and deliciously wallow in the self-reproach of past personal failings and present inadequacies.  (“See?  I am such an especially bad person!  Poor me!”)  And I become one of Those Others Out There I used to ridicule who come home from their few weeks in the developing world convinced that they have encountered True Suffering and now understand What The World is Really Like.  (“Oh no, now I am just like everyone else!  Poor me!”)
Culture shock, at least in my experience, plays similar mind games. It is a battle of confronting, and then trying to contend, with perceived extremes. It is tempting to label everything and start to rank them into two distinct columns of "foreign" or "familiar."  We travelers to Calcutta insist that the scale of human suffering there is worse than in other places, and certainly, it may be more concentrated than in most other places in the world.  India does hold one sixth of the planet’s population, after all.  The causes are less clear, and the boundaries between structural, systemic injustice and individual wrongdoing are as gray as in any other place.  Do desperate and degenerate people go to any length to survive?  Or does the System keep people down and ensure that they will become lawbreakers?  Same diff?   The borders between inner or exterior poverty are just as unclear to me now. 
Honestly, despite all the anxiety and guilt it has provoked, I am thankful that I have been in one of the poorest places in the world as a visitor from one of the wealthiest.  The intensities of “foreign” and “familiar” are less overwhelming after awhile.  What I thought was so strange and unique in Calcutta is, I suspect, a state of being so closely shared by us all that it was unrecognizable.  Unfamiliar and strange to me because I couldn’t ever step back far enough to be able to see, in myself, the same ugliness and destitution. 
Over and over again, during those four months, I found myself questioning Mother Teresa’s view that it was Jesus Himself who was clothed in rags and walking these filthy, sewage littered streets—that it was Jesus in disguise, uniting himself with people who would do anything, anything to stay alive or profit off of those more vulnerable than themselves.  How?  How could He bear to go so low?

A question only someone so out-of-touch with her own spiritual poverty could ask. 
Yesterday I had lunch with an old friend.  We lost touch about a dozen years ago a continent and an ocean away, and right now she lives only twelve miles from me.  She asked me, as I knew she would, what it was really like for us in India (the reports I'd sent back were obviously edited for concerned grandparents and for the sake of my own survival).  I was worried about how to answer because being truthful and preserving happy memories is tricky sometimes. "It was really good," I said, "and hard." 
Yup, that about sums it up.
The lighted hearse, and my revulsion to it, might end up being more powerful than I first understood.  Four months in India, like the half marathon, kicked my butt.  With both, the feeling is more of defeat than victorious elation.  It just doesn't seem healthy or normal to embrace death as much as life and it even seems wrong.  Because death is a distortion of the natural order and things are not as they were originally intended to be, right?   This is not normal!  I want to keep screaming. 
Aren't suffering and even death, as tragic and terrible as they are, supposed to be only temporary realities of the human condition?  There's something about that somewhere in the Catechism, probably.   Can't we skip over them, get to the good part a bit faster, sooner?  Then again, death turned into life, penitence transformed into love, and suffering into sanctification—these also are realities.  The real way to Christ is a share, however small, in that Passion that was so very real.  And the final reality?  That's the big one: Christ is Risen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Your dress is illegal (part II)

The "Part I" post from a few days ago got one single comment and now it has mysteriously disappeared.  Blogger has been acting up all week and now the only opinion offered about my previous post is gone.  Phooey.  The good news is, I can offer a very concise summary: he stated, very strongly, that J. Cumming's article was wrong.  He said that full-body coverings for women are degrading to them and to men, since it implies that men are incapable of controlling themselves if they catch sight of even a square inch of skin of a woman's body.

I happen to agree, so let's start there, then.

#1: Full body coverings objectify women. 

There are at least two meanings here.  First, that women's bodies are sexualized and therefore become, exclusively, objects of sexual attraction.  It is as if to say that her legs are not intended primarily for walking nor her hands for working, for carrying or writing or any number of other tasks.  No: the sight of skin is primarily sexually appealing.  Or perhaps more correctly, skin itself is, primarily, sexual.  Body=Sex.  If anything, I would think that concealing her figure might heighten the "mystique" of the feminine, and statistics have confirmed that completely hidden women are unfortunately not safer from sexual predators than women who don't. 

Secondly, that women's bodies become a source of socio-religious capital for their families is distressing to me.  According to this model, full covering = increased honor quotient for herself and family, while no covering = less honor. 

Third, a woman's body becomes a single man's possession: only a spouse will have the right to look at her body (her face, her skin, her everything).  Everyone else gets to see the general outline.  But wait, you say, not everyone else, right?  Surely she still has rights to at least look at her own body and other women will also be able to be in her company without her needing to cover up.  And that brings me to #2:

#2: Full body coverings sexualize all male-female relationships.

It is my understanding that in communities where women choose to (or are forced to) cover themselves up completely, they will do so in the presence of any male relative or stranger (if they are even permitted to be in the presence of a man who is not a relation).  This means: sisters in front of brothers and father, and mothers and grandmothers with their own sons and grandsons, nephews or great-grandsons.
But even when this is not the case, for a woman of any age to cover up anytime she walks outside her home means that any man (of any age) that she encounters could be tempted by her body.  And frankly, that is disturbing.

Let me pause here and say once again that I am not writing about the general issue of women's dress as compared to men's and whether or not women have a responsibility or duty to present their bodies modestly when in public.  That is a different topic and to me it seems much more complex.  In this series, I am only interested in whether or not it is harmful to society (not just to women, not just to men, but to everyone) to encourage or compel (post-pubescent) women of any age or state in life to completely cover themselves when in public--or in private, for that matter.  I believe it is.

It is especially degrading to married couples, so I will make that it's own bullet-point:

#3: Full-body coverings for-women-only devalues men's sexuality.

Not only does covering up a woman head to toe imply that men cannot, or should not have to, exercise self-control when attracted by a woman, but, worse, it over-values a woman's sexuality as opposed to a man's.  I mean: if the [sexual] purity of a woman's body is worth protecting and if their [sexual] honor is so valuable for a father, a brother, or her husband, why isn't a man's?  Is it because fidelity is less important for a man than a woman?  Another way to say it: if a man's honor rests so precariously on his wife's good name, why isn't his body considered just as precious to her reputation?  Or in other words, it points to that inequality the French brought up.  Is it really marriage between a man and a woman, where a couple is formed?  Or is it that a man is "taking a woman as his wife" (language that makes me shudder whenever I hear it)? 

#4: Full-body coverings contribute to alienation between the sexes.

The material cloth that drapes a woman's body serves as a physical barrier between an individual woman and any male onlooker.  It is not only her distinctly feminine parts which are covered with special care, but every single part of her.  This is not a practice that encourages public exchange, dialogue or communion between men and women, but one designed to shield women from men and men from women.  As a material barrier, it is only reasonable to assume that it will likely only increase isolation between men and women rather than serve to foster intimacy or mutual understanding between the sexes, and especially within a marriage.  Should we conclude that honor is valued more highly than marital communion?

I realize that some will disagree with this point perhaps more than others.  There are people who oppose France's law for this very reason: to wear a covering is a woman's only chance to have any kind of public existence.  It is the only way that she can, in good conscience (or according to the rule of her religion, as she interprets it), appear outside the safety of the home.  Without the freedom to cover up, she would have no public life whatsoever and less liberty to interact with others outside her family unit.

And I just want to ask, Why?  Which brings me to my final objection:

#5. Full-body coverings are just plain unncessary (and in certain climates they might even be cruel!)

There is just something inherently unnatural about covering oneself up entirely.  It is impractical to walk in, it is unnecessarily zealous, it does not ensure a woman's safety, and outside of an ice or sand storm, the outfit makes no sense at all.  Why not wear a headscarf, or a long skirt, or whatever else you want if modesty is your greatest concern? 

The truth is, I believe that it coverings are actually harmful, and not neutral.  I think we can all agree that clothing can be a reflection of the inherent dignity and value of a woman's body and person.  That's what fashion and personal style are all about, right?--showing off your individual creativity (for men, and women).  But clothing does not confer dignity.  I have a big problem with women's bodies being the main point of focus for dignity or honor.   Doesn't a woman's (and man's, for that matter) entire person have inherent and sufficient dignity?  And if we believe in the unity of person and body, then why cover up?  I simply object to the implicit or explicit notion that a woman who does not cover up is somehow lacking in self-respect. 

A woman is precious not just because of what she thinks or does or believes, and not only because of her relationship to certain others (such as parents or spouse or inlaws).  A woman is not just a wife or mother or sister.  She is all those things even though she is first of all an individual person with her own rights, inherent dignity, talents and gifts.  Clothing neither adds to nor dimishes any of these elements of her personality or uniqueness, though it might reflect them.  I simply have a hard time believing that a woman requires an extreme and impractical mode of dress such as a burka to be modest.  I disagree that men need their wives or sisters or mothers or aunts to distinguish themselves by being "extra" modest, let alone the notion that full-covering be a minimum requirement for minimum modesty. 

None of this is, to me, a question of cultural relativity because it is simply so very extreme and because it singles one half of the population and not the other.


Standing next to women while in Malaysia who were covered from head-to-toe, a feeling of revulsion for the clothing (not the women!) came over me more than once.  To me, no style of dress symbolized the alienation of men from women that we currently struggle with in today's world more than this cloth. 

But it wasn't all bad. As I spent time thinking about women robed in black and for all intents, concealed from society's intrusive view, I couldn't help but appreciate how these coverings point to the very public dimensions of sexual behavior.  The act of sex is private in one sense, and yet also very public.  Ideally, in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to wear anything at all; we wouldn't have to conceal anything.  Ideally, we could all, men and women alike, truthfully say, "I've got nothing to hide!"

[I just re-read this post and realized something.  I was going to add a note mentioning that, besides ultra-conservative Muslim ones, I don't know of any other communities where women shield themselves almost completely from view, but then I thought: hey, some Catholic religious do!  So let me point out a few differences.  First of all, I don't know any nuns who wear netting over their faces; usually you can see the entire face.  Secondly, nuns are not married and they are not going about "life as usual."  Their clothing is a designation of a life set apart from that of others.  Third: this rule often applies to men and some male orders also wear long and impractical-to-walk-in robes.  Some of them even do their gardening in these robes, which I guess is for extra penance or something.  But again, I can't think of any religious who cover up entirely.  Anyone have thoughts on this?]

Monday, May 9, 2011

Your dress is illegal (part I)

While in Malaysia, where many women do wear headcoverings of various kinds and some even cover themselves head to toe (with only their eyes showing) I came across this article.  It is not a long read, so if you are curious, go ahead and read through it.  Here's a brief summary: in some places it is now illegal for a woman to be so completely covered that her face would not show.  The author of the article argues that, although not all Muslims feel very strongly about this issue, we Christians ought to consider supporting those who do simply because we believe in religious freedom.

Egypt: Woman, Veiled, Cairo

What do you think?  I mean, what do you think about the issue of state involving itself in this matter?  Secondly: what thoughts do you have about his argument?

Specifically, I am interested in hearing what you have to say about full-body coverings.  Whether or not a woman wants to cover her head and whether or not it is modest according to some objective standard is a different subject, in my opinion. 

Women become skilled shop technicians after careful training in the school at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, Long Beach, Calif. Most important of the many types of aircraft made at this plant are the B-17F ("Flying Fortress") heavy bomber, the A-20 (

In France, it is illegal to wear headcoverings in various public settings (like school), but not always.  Two of France's arguments I heard against covering up a woman's entire face and body were:
1. that it was an issue of security because women could not easily be identified (in fact, who is to say it is even a woman?), and
2. that it contradicts the nations ideals of equality.

I intend to write more of my own thoughts soon, and the issue was very interesting to me while visiting Malaysia, which seems to be a popular tourist destination for conservative Muslims.  Because of their work, my parents have been there many times and have told me all about burqinis, but it was still startling to see them up close. 

For now, I will just say that although a lot of the logic in the early part of the article is flawed, I do agree that people (and not just Christians) ought to work for and support the freedoms of others, especially minorities.  Even still, the question of whether full body coverings are "inherently oppressive to women" needs to be addressed first.  Whether or not some women choose it freely is kind of beside the point. 

Also, I should mention that Joseph C. is my dad's colleague, so be nice, ok?

Discuss amongst yourselves.