Monday, September 5, 2011

on the Memorial of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Yesterday evening, Jeremy came home from his 12-hour shift to rest of us, midway through dinner and in our underpants.  Well, I was fully clothed, but the kids were only in underwear and shoes.  Undies because they were each taking turns being ‘Captain Underpants’, and shoes because someone’s cape had whipped around, accidentally shattering a glass, and there hadn’t been any time to vacuum up the pieces.  Come to think of it, the vacuum spews rather than sucks these days and that reminds me of another floor I will have to clean tomorrow: the mop never made it out in honor of the breakfast time orange juice spill and the stickiness attracted all manner of other nasty grossness.  (sigh)
Online, I encounter all kinds of people who aren’t like me and some of them call themselves “perfectionists,” a word that continues to mystify me (now “lazy,” that I understand all too well).  One of my blog-crushes is a woman cooks from scratch, homeschools, knits, blogs, sews—you name it.   For years I have tried to figure out her secret and partially it is because she had cancer years ago and so she is really, really grateful for and invested in the Now, and partially she’s just made this way, with a drive I don’t have.  She just wants to do all these things, and usually she has the resources to do them.  She is who she is, unapologetically.  I like that.
There is another reason I like to read her: she believes in spoiling her family.  In an I-won’t-sleep-tonight-because-I-want-tomorrow-to-be-the-best-Christmas-ever kind of way, except not just on holidays.  She believes in giving her family her best.  Being chronically tired and overworked, being limited, being only one person to split 9 different ways for the kids and one more for her husband—that’s a given and she accepts it.  So she says: Given that the job is an impossible one, what can I still do?  That’s good stuff.
The concept of spoiling* other people has been on my mind a lot.  Last Saturday, at a soup kitchen that feeds anywhere between 40 and 80 people six nights a week, a young man took charge of the cooking.  He was from Mexico, maybe about 25 years old and he struggled to translate into English and into cups-and-gallon measurements as he delegated the chopping and blending duties.  He was trained to cook in kilos because he learned from French monks while in Europe for a few months and we have him here only temporarily, as a postulant to the Franciscan Order.  The meal he made last Saturday, when finished off with the pumpkin pies someone dropped off that morning, would be a gourmet feast.  
I kind of chuckled at his disapproval when the fresh tomatoes ran out and we had to substitute canned diced ones.  The flavor was lacking, he moaned, and the rest of us smiled because that kind of perfectionism is rare in donations-only soup kitchens.  Later, though, when I thought back to my few other experiences with chefs for the poor, I remembered others I have known like him.  In Brooklyn, at a crisis pregnancy shelter, there is a volunteer who arrives early in the morning, five days a week, to serve a homemade breakfast to each of those ever-hungry women.  She takes a pad and pen and goes door-to-door, taking orders.  Each one can choose from a varied menu: oatmeal, pancakes, eggs cooked any way, cereal or toast.  Then, the volunteer custom-makes twelve breakfasts, ready by 8am. 
In Colorado, at the homeless shelter around the corner from our old house, Monday night was the night a professional chef would come in.  It was always a three-course meal on Mondays and when it was my Tuesday of the month, I would bring in my pasta-and-a-salad and the guests would drool as they recalled and described the previous night’s menu.** The Sisters always made sure that there was dessert, and extra treats on holidays and feast days and they deep-clean once a week.
Mother Teresa was once criticized publicly for giving too much to the Poor*** without requiring anything in return and she answered that there are enough societies out there that spoil the rich, but few to spoil the poor and that’s what she and her sisters were about.  I guess she had her share of romantic notions about serving the Poor, too.  I like that.
I haven’t come across a whole of posts about spoiling the Poor in my corner of Blog World, but I would like to read more.  I would love to read a post about how important it is for foster parents and unwed mothers to have occasional vacations, or how important it is for the elderly poor to live in beautiful surroundings.  How about a list of practical ways to spoil other people, a la Ann Voskamp’s gratitude list?  I would dig that.
Recently, though, I did come across a post about the importance for homemakers to maintain a tidy and lovely home.  The author used, as a counter-example, a woman who volunteers outside her home and allows the interior to suffer.  Unmade beds, clutter, peeling wallpaper…the horror.  The point of the post was, if I understood it correctly, that this woman was not only neglecting her house, but her vocation to create a pleasant place of retreat for her family.  It set up (falsely, I think) two choices: to serve others OR to serve our families, and it kind of bummed me out.
I'd like to think we can do it all: spoil our kids, our spouses and the occasional lonely neighbor or needy stranger.  We can't do it full-time, of course, because our families need us to feed and clothe them.  But maybe we can do a bit of gardening, or go to grad school, or make a phonecall to someone who is lonely, and kick back once in awhile to sip iced tea out on the porch in the evenings—a season for everything and time for a little bit of all of it.  Is the work at home really ever done, anyway?  So why wait to have any fun until after the dishes are done?  Shouldn't service cost us something anyway?
I'd like to think that there is a way for me to get out more often so I can share my now-well-practiced cooking or tidying skills with others (even if I can't exactly produce meals that are works of art).  And I'd even like for my kids to come with me, too. 
The truth is, that article did more than bum me out.  It went even further and implied that people with the means to do so should invest in their home. Really, I am disgusted by the idea that we or our families would be right to be disappointed with anything less than beautiful and orderly material surroundings and I question that our money should be spent, primarily, on ourselves.  I reject that narrow understanding of the nature of beauty and I refuse to rob my family of the opportunity to sacrifice their own comfort in small ways.  It’s good for them, and it’s good for me.  We need the Poor, and our souls need to catch glimpses of how God spoils them because we need to understand how spoiled we are, and how poor. 
My kids will probably grow up moaning and groaning about the maddening things I made them do when they were younger.  We don’t get to shelters or soup kitchens very often, but you wouldn’t know that to hear them complain.  Soon enough, it will be their turn to institute annoying family traditions with their own children.
I overheard the young wannabe-Franciscan mention that he would be cooking dinner for the friars later in the day.  I doubt he made a gourmet meal for them and I doubt they cared.  But on the other hand, maybe he did?  Maybe he cooked two fabulous meals in a single day and if so, good for him.  
I'll take the peeling wallpaper and dirt if I have to choose, but I don't think I do.  A little bit of extra mess and clutter and a few extra wrinkles in the unfolded-laundry is probably all the difference it ends up making in my household and I am okay with a little more chaos.  Besides, in my family we have a tendency to show up for dinner half-naked and in capes so we're clearly not real picky. (By the way, my son’s outfit was the best: Thomas the Tank Engine undies and his sister’s Uggs!  No photos for obvious reasons, but you should’ve seen it.)
In the end, I am glad I read that post, however disparaging toward the Woman-of-the-Neglected-Home.  In fact, I’d like to hear more about her because it is so refreshing to hear about someone who isn't obsessed with home improvement and decorating.  Who knows what kind of volunteer work she is doing or her reasons for doing it, but it's always great to hear about people who are so free from the love of Things.  I like that.

Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

* in this post, “spoiling” is devoid of any negative connotation.
** darn you, Mr. Professional Chef!  Couldn’t you switch to Wednesdays or something?!
***I have been known to refer to parenting as a service to the “poor” given that without us, our children have no means to satisfy their own needs, and I stand by that.  In this post, however, the Poor means also those who are suffering depravations and/or injustices of more serious kinds and with no one to care for them.


  1. Keep writing. Comments following after a good night's sleep.

  2. see comments under penitence. also, i think that you and j have been watching some recent snl episodes. right? do you... love it?

  3. I am coming to you via Kris. Thank you for this. Peace and goodness to you.