Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Liturgical Lifestyle: What to do about Father Christmas?

I grew up acquainted with Santa Claus.  Christmas Eve was better by far than even Christmas Day because the expectation and the ideal of the luxurious presents in colorful disarray beneath evergreen boughs was by far better than the reality--though that was pretty good, too!  And what could have incarnated and represented this sweet expectation better than Santa Claus?  That mysterious resident of Faerie, good-natured but not permissive, who defied all science (though not the logic of the human heart) and visited every single house in the world in one breathless night, bestowing gifts to good children in homage to the Christ Child?

I knew Santa was sometimes called Saint Nick, but I learned of the historical saint much later.  As I fell deeper in love with the Faith, I was tickled and proud that our own dear bishop should be the source and inspiration for my beloved childhood friend.  Interest in foreign cultures and anthropology introduced me to many delightful traditions regarding Nicholas and Christmas--including the medieval liturgical celebration of his feast on December 6th, still observed in some European countries.

Meanwhile, Father Christmas, understood to be more or less Santa Claus's British counterpart, endeared me to him in the sacred stories of my adolescence.  To this day, the phrase "always winter, never Christmas" gives me delicious chills, causes me to crave Turkish delight, and attracts me to wardrobes.

Now my own son is coming of age, that holy age of unbridled imagination.

Last year, Father Christmas left him candy and presents in an over-sized stocking; last week, Saint Nicholas tucked sugared oranges and miniature candy canes into his little shoes.  I want to submerge him in the alternative lifestyle that is the Church calendar and teach him the mysteries of human story; for for me, the realm of Faerie and the Truth of the Faith are not mutually exclusive.  On the contrary, I don't believe I could even approach one without the other.

an illustration of Father Christmas at the North Pole by JRR Tolkien

So I was a little dismayed to read this article on CatholicCulture.org, one of my favorite resources for liturgical living:

Many people think that Santa Claus is St. Nicholas "in disguise." Actually the two figures have nothing in common except the name.

That threw a wrench in my dewy-eyed, fanciful plans for integrating the magic of my childhood with the magic of the Incarnation.  If Santa Claus is merely a sanitized, Protestant-scrubbed, secular shell of the real Saint Nicholas, how can I justify continuing the tradition that weakens the life-giving and salvific richness of the Catholic Faith?  Yet I wouldn't deprive my own son of that poignant joy of Christmas that nurtured my imagination and cultivated my soul in preparation for greater mysteries.  Who, indeed, says it better than Chesterton:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends.  Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it.  It happened in this way.  As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation.  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking.  I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it.  I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them.  I had not even been good–far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . .  What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing.  And, as I say, I believe it still.  I have merely extended the idea.  Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.  Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea.  Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.  Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

I think Chesterton would also agree that what the article on Catholic Culture finds distasteful is that which makes Santa endearing and recognizable in a profound way.

Behind the name Santa Claus no longer stands the traditional figure of St. Nicholas but the pagan Germanic god Thor (after whom Thursday is named).  To show the origin of the modern Santa Claus tale let us give some details about the god Thor from ancient Germanic mythology. 
Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people.  He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard.  His element was the fire, his color red.  The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher).  He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god.  He was said to live in the "Northland" where he had his palace among icebergs.  By our pagan forefathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming the humans but rather helping and protecting them.  The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire. (See H. A. Guerber, Myths of Northern Lands, vol. I, p. 61 ff., New York, 1895). 
Here, then, is the true origin of our "Santa Claus."  It certainly was a stroke of genius that produced such a charming and attractive figure for our children from the withered pages of pagan mythology.  With the Christian saint, however, whose name he still bears, this Santa Claus has really nothing to do.  To be historically correct we would rather have to call him "Father Thor" or some such name.

The article dismisses the modern American Santa Claus as drawing his identity from "the withered pages of pagan mythology," which, I must admit, stupefies me.  Are we talking about the same powerful mythic tradition that taught Tolkien to glorify God Almighty in Middle Earth; that gave C.S. Lewis cause to pause and consider the existence of Truth and the Fall in the soul-shattering phrase, Baldur the beautiful is dead, is dead--?

But surely if Santa Claus has his origins in Thor, he can be found earlier than the 1800's poem and capitalist propaganda.  What about Father Christmas?  He has a totally different name.  Could he have been adapted from Santa Claus, or Santa's predecessor, Saint Nicholas?  And who was that guy in Dickens who appeared with long beard in laurels and robes, with rosy cheeks, calling himself the Ghost (read "spirit") of Christmas Present?

the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol

References to a spirit of Christmas go back to the early renaissance.  Ben Johnson has a character appear in a masque reminiscent of medieval mystery plays, in which abstract ideas and attitudes were personified.  He wasn't a giver of gifts--that element belongs to Saint Nick--but a merry-making lord of sorts, a mysterious emissary from an Otherworld that occasionally overlaps with our own during a liminal time (an acceptable time)**, the threshold of winter.  In this guise, he is reminiscent of an enchanted Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight*--which would put his origins back even further, overlapping him with the likes of the Green Man, who is interpreted to be a symbol of the cycling back of life to rebirth in spring.  And what a fitting role for Father Christmas, who heralds the crowning glory of Advent--Advent meaning "coming," and a sometimes synonym for "beginning."  What is the coming of Christ if not the new beginning?

What I found is that the article was right, after a fashion.  Santa Claus, e.g. Father Christmas, and Saint Nicholas are not the same.  Nor does either benefit from the mistaken identity of Macy's famous fat man.  Each is significant, and each has his role to play in Christendom.  Before Advent of this year, I had a sketchy but certain idea that Saint Claus would be our family tradition.  Now I feel differently.

Both are important to the kind of formation in Faith I want for my son: Saint Nicholas, the friend in Heaven and model of Christian charity and steadfastness; Father Christmas, the amalgamation of that most accurately and truly expressed in a benevolent and sometimes dangerous man who, like nature, God's own creation, points to mysteries beyond himself and a reality not yet fully grasped.

We'll have both visitors in my home this year--and, I hope, many, many years to come.  Now all I have to do is figure out the Easter Bunny.

*  Also, Harry Potter's Hagrid, anybody?
**  Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio.  "It is time for the Lord to act."  When time touches eternity; eternity reaches down into and pierces time.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Liturgical Lifestyle: Saint Nick's Day

illustration by Elisabeth Ivanovsky // source
Happy Saint Nicholas Day!  We found candy in our shoes this morning, and picture book adaptation of the story of the three poor sisters and the saint.  We made Christmas cards for wounded heroes with friends, and topped the evening by walking downtown to watch the Christmas parade.

I've a myriad of thoughts about Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Father Christmas . . . but it will have to wait until tomorrow because we. are. tired.  So please come back around then.  Our family is still young and our holiday traditions still malleable, and I'd like to hear your thoughts and feedback.

Hope your feast day celebrations and observations were fruitful and jolly!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Liturgical Lifestyle: Hallowmas

We had a good Hallowmas.  On Thursday, we feasted and went in disguise in the dark, meeting other strange but friendly folk along the way.  We knocked on doors, said magic words, and were greeted with warm smiles (as well as pumpkin grins) and plenty of sweets.  We visited with dear ones, then came home late to set up an altar for the dead--not to worship or fear, but to pray for and offer penance--with a carved pumpkin to light and welcome them, much as they had for us earlier that night; food and drink to show hospitality; and the saints to guide them home.  We lit the candle for our icons and slept safe and sound, and God let pass over us all the evil things, as we knew He would.

Oh, what did we disguise ourselves as, you ask?  I'm glad you did!

Pointy hat not pictured.
Yes, yes.  Get it out of your system.

Seriously, though?  It never gets old.
Very appropriate for the Harry Potter book club, especially Jenna's introductory post this week.

Anyway, to get the full effect of our night out and about, see the group pics:

Despite the late night, we rose again early next morning for Mass and the Feast of All Saints.  I just love this holy day.  It's only fitting that it surpass the night of old danger--the jovial mockery of mortality and the reverence for death preceding resurrection, followed by their joyful glory!  I got to finish the night off with a young friend of mine at a Michael Buble concert, so there is that.

The following Sunday, our parish youth group held a little saints' festival, with a procession, a pot-luck, saints' booths, and some games.

Can you guess which saint is which?
I sneaked in and drew Little Nellie when no one was looking because she is my son's favorite saint.  (And by favorite, I mean, she's my favorite, and am always talking to him about her.)  At the end, the older kids were admiring it and asking who drew it.  But I said nothing, and no one thought to ask me.  I sort of hope they think she came down and did it herself.  Child saints are mischievous like that!

All Souls' Day dawned wet and dreary.  We heard Mass said and prayed for the dead.  I intended to visit the cemetery but the night drew on early, and time sped away.  Later, I discovered that there are many plenary indulgences available for the souls in Purgatory during this week.  (Also see the Today section of any day between November 1st and 8th at CatholicCulture.org, at the very bottom, to get detailed information on the plenary indulgences.)  So, we've got to find our way out there before All Souls' Week ends.  We wrote the names of loved ones passed (and the passed of our loved ones) on the envelope to lie before the tabernacle all month and baked a soul cake to welcome ghosts.  But we mostly just ate it ourselves!

I didn't get to unravel my profuse and tangled thoughts on Catholic Hallowe'en . . . it may still be forthcoming, especially since it has so much to do with wonder, holy superstition, and the world of Faerie working in the Christian cosmos.  So we're rapping up Halloween Week a little bit late here on Everything to Someone, but as November is the month of the Holy Souls, it seems fitting that the macabre themes of All Hallows' Eve should follow into the last month of autumn.  November is, after all, a bare month, distilled and pensive.

The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The loss of her
Departed leaves. 
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown. 
And yet the world,
Displays a certain
The beauty of
The bone.  Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod. 
(From the poem "November" by John Updike)

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Theme Thursday: Scary

Here is a trivia question for you: which picture is scary, and which one is sweet?

A happy, holy All Hallows' Even to you!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Liturgical Lifestyle: Haunting Your Home on a Budget

If I do nothing else for my seasons, at the very least, I decorate accordingly.  There's something about a home that reflects its environment and of a family that is mindful of the turning of the earth and the phases of the moon, who, with Saint Francis, calls them brothers.

In the Letter to Diogenetus, written around the 2nd or 3rd century AD, it is written "Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life."  It is a peculiar paradox of the Christians that we simultaneously live in the world but are not of it.

This doesn't have to take form in spooky, commercialized Halloween decorations.  It could be something as simple and elegant as bringing in seasonal foliage and flowers.  Children in particular will enjoy scouring their backyards and parks and forest paths for treasures.  The changing of linens, especially in the north at this time of year, is appropriate.  Cool cotton is exchanged for heavier wool and quilts.  The smells of wood fires, baking apples, and savory soups are better than expensive candles.  I keep pine cones year-round, but they are especially nice accents this time of year.

But if I want to get into the "spirit" of All Hallows' Eve (and I do), I aim to go heavy on the creativity and easy on the pocket.

First, I try to decorate with steals from the dollar store that don't scream--or howl, or screech--"mass manufactured."  The key is to be picky.  I buy what catches my eye and what will integrate well with my decor.
  1. Paper jack-o-lantern cutouts.  I put one in each panel of the widest window in the sunroom.  It's neat that you can see them from outside as well as in.  (Also the damage from where it was taped up from last year!)
  2. It looks and hangs like a fancy cloth banner from a craft store, but it costs dimes.  You could probably even make your own--find a template or throw a collage of patterns together and save as an image on your computer (I love Picmonkey), and print, cut, glue, hang.  The orange lights are about three dollars at dollar stores, but if you don't want to waste it, Christmas lights work just as well.
  3. I've actually found the template for this square banner in the template options of my computer at work, even though I bought this banner on clearance out of season last year.  Imagine that!  Someone had the same idea I had (see #2).  Meanwhile, I replaced my usual post cards on the clothesline with vintage-style greeting cards.  They look like something ordered off of the oh-so-pricey Victorian Trading Company, but they're Hallmark.  I use one of each type and mail the rest to friends!
They're made out of cheap materials and paper, but you don't have to feel like a pollution bug.  Pack them up at the end of the month and save them for next year!  If they look a little shabby, all the spookier!

Now my personal favorite: pillows.  I've long proclaimed that changing pillow covers (along with other linens) is the easiest, fastest, and most effective way to decorate for the seasons.  If you have a fairly neutral color palate to work from, you'll have full reign of all kinds of colors and patterns.  What fun!  I change the pillow cases on the pillows that are practical additions to my bed, sofa, and chairs, and you wouldn't believe how instantaneous the transformation is.
  1. I purchased clearance fabric from JoAnne's.  I don't sew, but I understand that it's fairly easy if you have a machine.  I had my sister whip together these pillow covers from the fabric in under two hours (that's six sewn cloth items in an episode of Sherlock!).
  2. I chose this burlap fabric because it's sturdy and will stand up to my toddler.  But let's be honest.  I wouldn't have even looked at it if not for the pattern . . . do I have to use the word chic?  I think I will.  Well, if there are any fashion-minded fiends out there.
  3. The pumpkin-shaped pillow was a splurge buy from JoAnne Fabrics.  It originally came with two glittery black bats, popping out on curling wires.  But my son made a speedy end of them.  Once again, pillows folks.  Fairly durable.

Seasonal items include found things from the natural world that I mentioned above.  Some are things that I can incorporate into my themed decorating but which I can use year-round.
  1. A bright berry wreath teetering on the edge between dark orange and light red can transition into winter.
  2. Autumn-colored flowers, either purchased at the store or picked in the field.
  3. Candy corn is excellent for decorating.  Place it in clear jars, cups, candle holders, and lanterns for instant color and interest.  [not pictured] Acorns and pine cones gathered outside and arrange in similar ways are add variety and texture to your "vase fillers."
  4. I love the Chinese lanterns that are blooming this time of year.  Living as we do in central Florida, it's the only color change we get.
  5. The dried eucalyptus wreath fills our whole home with a sweet smell and puts the finishing touch on our sitting room/dining room/sun room.  I've wrapped purple lights around it.  (Warning: be careful of fire hazards!  We do not leave this unattended!)  The dreary fabric was bought at the dollar store in the Halloween section--but it's just black cheesecloth!  You can buy cheesecloth in tons of stores year-round, and you might already have some.  It serves well for creepy draped fabric.  If it's old, musty, and torn with holes, that's prefect.  I keep the same cheesecloth and break it out every year.  Cheap as free!
  6. [not pictured]  Some places sell dried turning leaves this time of year.  Hit up the produce section of your grocery store for Indian corn, husks of wheat, gourds, pumpkins, and affordable, easy, table-to-tummy decorations.

Okay, so we've been good with our Halloween decorating tricks--now it's time to treat ourselves!  The extra stuff doesn't have to be Pottery Barn priced.  If you keep your eyes peeled for year-round deals, especially post-season clearances, you can snatch up some nice stuff for next year.  (Also, since we're Catholic, we get two days of festive extension after the secular holiday.  So there!)

  1. This perfectly useless but perfectly handsome vintage jack-o-lantern hanging wall-thing was purchased at Target.
  2. The bat decals were last year's unsold Martha Stewart wall decorations.  Nice!  (There's a huge witch silhouette that came with these, but I don't have a window or wall space big enough for her yet.)
  3. Stripey straws can be used for all kinds of things: in caramel apples, candy melts, or just stuck in a class of chilled cider for instant festivity.  My son likes drinking out of straws, so I buy them anyway.  And they make such a picture sitting there on the cupboard in their cylindrical containers!  (Now imagine if you had potions bottles to go with them!  Next year, next year. . .)  I got these either at Target or JoAnne's.  I've seen black-and-white skull ones at Michael's that could do triple duty for Dia de los Muertos and Mardi Gras.

Whatever you do or don't do for the season, make sure you do it with your family.  I say this for my own sake.  It's easy to get wrapped up in the hype and get tied down to perfection and neglect to have fun, or get frustrated at my little boy for re-arranging my pine cone display (Every. Single. Morning).

Last, though while we may go through the movements the way other people do, we are mindful that they are not as other people do them.  On the contrary, they are suffused with purpose; and all or daily, mundane doings elevated and made as prayers.  "Pick up a pin for the love of God, and count your day well spent."  As the writer of the Letter to Diogenetus continues,
Yet, although they [the Christians] live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.  They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.  They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.  They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.   It is true that they are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh."  They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Liturgical Lifestyle: Hallowe'en Week

It's the opposite of a secret: Halloween is my favorite holiday.

Holiday--from the combination of the words "holy" and "day," meaning a holy day.  If you're Catholic, you know what that is.

(No!  It's not just an extra day to go to Mass in the middle of the week.)

But seriously, I've always been aware of the American Protestant tendency to shun Halloween as "of the devil" and shoplifted from Paganism.  In middle school, I eagerly read and enjoyed the book Save Halloween!, which gave me much insight into the super-conservative Protestant way of thinking.  I also had one or two friends who thought it on par with Satanism.

At the same time, I don't think I've ever seriously given much credence to these claims.  Even before my family enriched their lives by deepening their knowledge and practice of the Faith, Halloween was a precious time for me: a time for gathering in the warmth of home with family; for harvest and good things to eat; for running in the cold until fire burned deep in your belly, warming you from the inside out; for leaping into a kaleidoscope of crisp fallen leaves and the lacework of bare branches; for remembering, through cats and calaveras, that we are more than what we appear; for lighting candles against the growing dark and looking forward to Christmas.  In short, all the good things of childhood; and also a symbol, though one my young mind was yet to fully comprehend, of the temporariness of this world, and the looking forward to the World to come.

Cute, glow-in-the-dark, Halloween themed skeleton pajamas?  We are not amused. 

Well, more and more I've come across, not only Protestant, but Catholic opposition to the celebration of Hallowe'en--that is, All Hallows' Eve--and its liturgical pocket called Hallowmas.

The capable faithful, I am glad to say, have spoken out in disagreement against this Puritain-adopted tendency to repel anything that has remote connections or similarities with non-Christian sources.  Such opposition is a paradox: as we know that the Creator, in a sense, permeates His creation--and that one cannot look around the world and not see the Father reflected in it.

Similarly, the attempts of some of these Catholics and Protestants to reclaim Hallowe'en as a holy day of the Christian Church do so, perhaps unwittingly, at the expense of the reclamation itself--denouncing all ties to pre-Christian symbolism, either real or fabricated.

But more on that later.  This is but the introduction.  As part of my project on incorporating the medieval liturgical year into our everyday living, I intend to designate this entire week of blogging to Hallowtide and Hallowmas: Halloween, All Saints', and All Souls--the autumn triduum, if you will--with tips on how to decorate, favorites, and why I think being scared is sometimes good (hint: it's tied into fairy tales).  And of course lots of photographs!

Making a break with black-and-white motiff and doing a complete 180--lots of orange!

At least, that's my noble intention.  I'm a terrible one for commitments, so we'll see how it all unfolds.  In the meantime, check out what these worthy Papists have to say:

If anyone has any other relevant links, I'd love to know about them!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Liturgical Living: an Alternative Lifestyle

This was {originally posted here} on Oct. 1, 2013.

Hope you've noticed--I've been making note of the feast days for each blog entry these past weeks.  It's a habit I first encountered in a young adult book (highly recommended), Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Kushman.  In this journal of an English adolescent and daughter of a poor country knight, Birdy conveys her society's saturation with the liturgical seasons.  The book made a lasting impression on me: first, as a novel worth emulating, if I ever wanted to write and publish a story of my own one day; and second, as witness to the beauty and rhythm of the seasons observed by the medieval Church.

In my desire and resolutions to live a more liturgically-focused lifestyle, I've found an excuse to take up Birdy's practice.  And though we've been extremely busy these past few weeks, what with new jobs, colds, fundraisers, and speech therapy appointments, I'm not unhappy with my novice's attempt to live liturgically this Ordinary Time.

Making hot cross buns for Holy Cross Day.  I substituted maple syrup and almond milk, and left out the currants.

They came out delicious!  Even though the crosses made them look more like fortune cookies.

So how does one incorporate the feasts of the Church into everyday life?  In this, I've found two main sources helpful: CatholicCulture.org is an excellent online resource to the liturgical year, with brief introductions of saints and feast days and links to recipes, activities, crafts, and prayers; The Year and Our Children is also helpful to have on hand.

This September, there were hot cross buns for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14).  I cooked up a huge pot of farfalle with peppers and Italian sausage in memorial of Saint Padre Pio (Sept. 23).  We sang "Good King Wenceslaus" on St. Wenceslaus's day (Sept. 28) and baked tea cookies to honor the English tradition of free tea shop treats on this old saint's feast.  And though I would have liked a devil pinata for Michaelmas (Sept. 29), we made do with Saint Michael's the Archangel's prayers for attacking our colds and defending our good health.

While the secular world moves through its cycles, we are aware of the deeper meanings behind berries and bonfires.

The Harvest Moon is always the full moon nearest to the autumn equinox--this month, Sept. 19, Feast of Saint Januarius.

My son is still young, so we've set aside the crafts for next year.  And while the recipes have been hit or miss, depending on the amount of time they take to prepare and my wellness that day, merely being aware of the liturgical season has placed a peace on me--as one who inhabits a country or climate is more secure, more aware of the lively world around her, assured of her place and role in Creation.

I still read Catherine, Called Birdy about once a year, incidentally, completely by accident.

Thursday, 6 June 2013


On Tuesday I turned 28 years old.

I'll take a moment to be honest here and say that I haven't had the easiest time in the past couple of weeks.  Living with depression is like keeping a bear in the closet.  Most days, he's contained and quiet, if you keep him well fed, but sometimes he gets anxious and ornery, and it's all you can do to keep him from getting out and smashing everything to bits.

You'd think it'd take a bold resolution to slay the dragon, but no, during these phases, it's the little things that help reclaim yourself again.  It may seem silly, but when you're trapped in the circular cage of negative thinking, a little positive words of kindness or communication can loosen the chains: affirmative words about a poem (I've felt impotent in my writing lately), an invitation to be a part of someone's photo project (I'm frustrated my pictures aren't good enough . . . according to who?), or the affirmation that you don't have to apologize for your happiness.

People are doing this "30 things to do before turning 30" thing, but I don't want to.  I've done plenty already that I've wanted to do, including live abroad, get a Master's degree, publish in a book, learn how to spin, climb a mountain.  Why do I need to focus on the things I haven't done yet?  I mean, I could make a list, yeah.  It'd look something like this:
  • lose 80 pounds
  • bake
  • make regular and healthful meals
  • get and stay organized (wouldn't even know where to begin!)
  • finish the baby blanket I've been crocheting since pregnancy
  • finish the First Story
  • get a full-time job with benefits that I enjoy and makes use of my special skills and talents
  • improve my poetry
  • develop a tasteful, unique, and fashionable wardrobe and wear it well
  • be a crafty, hipster mom to my son
  • pursue a doctorate, or other degree in Creative Writing
  • take a digital photography class
  • attend daily Mass
  • get a teaching certificate
  • read more classics
  • play more with my son and take him on outings
  • be an active (and popular) blogger
  • develop a personal Catholic superstition
  • exercise
But then, when I don't do those things, or don't do them to my satisfaction, I'll be disappointed in myself and unhappy.  There's always the risk on birthdays that the "I thought by now I'd be. . ." threat will creep up and climb on.  The truth is, I'm my harshest critic, and I'll probably never live up to my own superhuman expectations.

Two scraps of wisdom seem most important right now, offered by two geniuses:
"There are two ways to get enough.  One is to continue to accumulate more and more.  The other is to desire less."--G.K. Chesterton 
"There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is though everything is a miracle."--Albert Einstein
I know life is a miracle.  Maybe if I try to dull the instinct for more-more-more, I'll really start to feel it again.

So my resolution for this next year is to remember and apply those two pieces of advice.  It won't be easy.  It'll come and go; some days I'll want to make concrete goals and feel good about them, then fall into depression again because I haven't achieved them.  On those days it's good to remember that my worth doesn't rest on my virtues or how I perceive myself.  That Someone regards me as priceless and wants me enormously, and that there's nothing I can do or not do that will change that.

Monday, 22 April 2013


It dawned on me the other night, after a series of firm no's at my son's instance to breastfeed, that I've started the weaning process; in fact, that it has been going on for a while now, without any conscious effort on my part.

So much for planning.  It's never been my strong suit.  All the better that they say, "If you want to make God laugh, make plans."  Last summer, relatives hinted around asking if I had a plan for weaning him.  My mom thought I would be offended because they might be suggesting that it was time to taper off nursing.  But I wasn't annoyed, and if I was going to be, it would have been at the suggestion of forcing something as intimate and fundamental as my nursing relationship into a formal Plan of Execution.

And I was absolutely right on this one.  It's happened, and it happened without me having to think about it, without me having to artificially fit the precious ritual into a rigid deadline.  Nature takes its course.  I was ready to stop feeding him when he woke to ask me in the middle of the night, and he was ready to hear the word "no," understand it, and accept.

Other things have limited our nursing.  A new medication I'm taking means that I won't nurse him if it's in my system, so that limits the times of day he can nurse.  So we've come down to two times: in the morning when he first wakes and at bedtime.  That worked itself out without me intentionally scheduling him.

Other mothers who work full time or have health concerns may have to steer the nursing relationship more than I did.  But I'm glad that I didn't waste a second on thinking about it.

Just as every child is different and every mother is different, every nursing relationship is different.  It doesn't make sense to apply a systematic, textbook approach to this very personal thing.  It's so like our modern mindset to want to control everything, down to the last detail.  I reject that, and we're doing just fine.  I don't know if he will give up nursing next month, or two years from now.  And I'm not going to worry about it.  It will happen when and how it's supposed to happen, and I'll have no regrets for that.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

GKC and Me

I guess you could call me a Chestertonian.  One of my most prized possessions is the (so far) Complete Works of G.K. Chesterton published by Ignatius.  I was a regular subscriber to Gilbert Magazine before finances got tight.  So much of my thought on faith and fairy tales is informed by Chesterton's childlike wonder, intelligence, and simplicity.  I'm a bit of a Chesterton quote spammer.
This post is about GKC and me; how I learned of him; what book of his I first picked up; what about his life, writing, and philosophy resonated with me; how I've come to call him a my patron saint and spiritual father.  This post was inevitable, but a few expressed reservations from kindred spirits makes the time ripe for an introduction.

Before we go any further, the caveats:

1 // Chesterton is a polemicist.  

He's not an apologist of the breed of Dinesh D'Souza, C.S. Lewis, and Scott Hahn.  He's certainly not a theologian like Saint Thomas Aquinas or Peter Kreeft.  He's a debater, both verbal and literary; and debate is a unique school.  It requires pithiness; it assumes an ideal listener/reader, and includes an appeal to pathos as well as logos.  There are certain truths, whether timeless or circumstantial, that must be kept in mind when reading Chesterton, and often there are obscure references to current events that would not have been at all obscure at the time of publication.

Chesterton is timeless in the sense that our repeated failures are timeless.  Otherwise, he is very much a man of his time and culture.  That's very important to keep in mind when reading any author, but even more so with GKC because a lot of what he says assumes pre-established facts.  As a debater, he just wouldn't have had time to go into them, and rightly leaves those metaphysical arguments to the experts.  His one-liners are almost never meant to be taken super-literally and, out of context, can appear downright absurd.

2 //  Chesterton is not antisemitic.  

This ridiculous and unfounded rumor has been proliferated and preserved by figures as weighty as T.S. Eliot.  The slander of antisemitism is lifted from quotes taken out of context, a modern day backwards application of political correctness, and super sensitivity that sacrifices necessary honest but respectful dialogue for "not hurting anyone's feelings."  Gilbert Magazine devoted a whole issue to address this claim, which can be downloaded for free.  There's no longer an excuse to accept the malicious accusation.

I hope that wasn't too unpleasant.

I consider Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton to be My Big 3.  My love for Tolkien led me to Lewis.  My love for Lewis led me to Chesterton.  Each one shaped who I am today, each person tapped into a part of my personality and soul and nourished it; and, if all did it using different techniques and strengths  from different perspectives and at different angles, that part of me that they shaped is the same and oriented toward the same ultimate good.

Toward the end of my first year of college, I had devoured 19 books by C.S. Lewis, a staggering accomplishment for the world's slowest-reading bibliophile.  Still I wanted more.  Much like I did with Tolkien when I "discovered" Lewis, I frequented articles and forums online, gleaned little bits of information and anecdotes.  I had read Surprised by Joy, of course, and once again saw the name Chesterton popping up with reference to Lewis.  Somehow, I ascertained that this guy was a Catholic.  Naturally, my interest piqued.

I read Orthodoxy and was not disappointed.  Now I'll attempt to describe something that is very hard to communicate in prose.  It's more naturally expressed by art and poetry.
A sentence of Chesterton's is a microcosm of any book; a book, of his entire body of work.  When I read Chesterton, his sentences slapped me in the face, like getting a cold shock of water first thing in the morning.  They literally struck me as truth.  This isn't because his thought is so original that I'd never heard of it before and was astounded to realize him right about it.  Rather, he presents what-is in clarity, distilled in purity, like snow melted mountain water.  Here was a man who unlocked all the tightly raveled God-knowledge of my nascent soul and presented it to me: not as a bride, like Tolkien, in beauty and mystery; not as a mother, like Lewis had, in comforting familiarity and profound love and awe and devotion; but as my own child, an impish joyful thing, astoundingly complete in itself, innocent yet immortal, infinitely familiar to me, utterly surprising and unpredictable.

So, in a parodox (of which Chesteroton is a great advocate), I was knocked off of my feet by this unflinching sense, what we call common sense; only it's not so common anymore.  Since the Fall there's been this dichotomy between good human instinct and an idolatry of human thought.  Some people reason themselves into madness; some into a sanitized, inoffensive creed (Luther, for instance, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment).  Since the Catholic Church lost her queenship in the west, sense has dwindled to a rumor, dismissed as prosaic, found altogether inconvenient.  So there's this strange effect of hearing from Chesterton something both new and familiar.

I've heard people more or less chalk up the popularity of Chesterton to bias confirmation.  And to that I would answer: yes, absolutely.  In the sense that siding with the truth, the kind of truth that can't be tested with the scientific method, is bias confirmation.  Chesterton affirms our instincts.

I can see how someone wouldn't like Chesterton.  His word-play and hyperbole is only one taste out of many.  He's easy to mistake for cocky because of his confidence, though his confidence is like that of a saint: completely unfocused on himself but rather on truth, indeed the Truth, out of pure love and devotion to it.  As he says in The Catholic Church and Conversion, "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong," and he demonstrates that true humility to a T.  Still others consider him chauvinistic.  To that, I point insistently to caveat #1.  As to the rest of it, I can only say: even Tolstoy didn't like Shakespeare.  There's no accounting for taste!
One final thing.  Chesterton is also my teacher in poetry.  Although that wasn't his thing (Tolkien put his perfectionist frown on The Ballad of the White Horse), his worldview is that of the poet.  He said something profound and simple and alarmingly obvious when he said, "The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say.  The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say."  He gets it.

Much of Chesterton's revelations come to him because he sees the wide world the way a poet does.  Not as something familiar and taken for granted, but as an astounding and strange thing, like a fairy tale.  Why, he asks in Orthodoxy, do we assume that because a tree grows apples that it couldn't very well have grown tigers hanging by their tails?  And what will it take for us to notice, gooseflesh and tiny hairs rising, that apples grow on trees?  That the sun rises every day, without having to be wound up?  That breathing is a miracle, and babies laugh, and wine is so, so warm and good?  How can we make ourselves smell and hear and taste, and be shocked out of complacency?

What is the job of a poet if not to bring forth those delightful shivers?  To dare to inspire a soul to prayer or a call to action?  To look at things-that-are in a way that makes us tremble with fear and wonder and walk away changed; either like the man who went away sadly when Jesus told him what he must do to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven, or like the healed one who went out and proclaimed, "I was blind, but now I see."

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Why I Loved "The Great Gatsby"

Warning: minor spoilers.

Chesterton talks about the "awful authority of the mob."  I think he was onto something.  There's a reason why Twilight is so popular to females who are looking for Christ-like love in a man.  There's a reason why Rome, Italy, is still the cultural center of transcendence in the western world.  And there's a reason why The Great Gatsby is called a great American novel.  Sometimes people just know what they are talking about.

The film was exquisite, in every manner and method I can think.  The cinematography was stunning, lovingly shot, the costuming and setting well-researched but not stuffy.  It could have been so easily outdated, pushing the setting into the first half of last century, beyond our reach, but it was near and intimate.  Even the soundtrack, which was a mix of period-era music and artistic interpretations of the themes found throughout the novel, was so well done--and that could have gone down the path of no return, with one slip, one bad choice of artist, one poorly placed song, one wrong note.

The acting was marvelous.  My sister and I have a mantra: if Leo is in it, it's good, because he knows how to choose great movies (same with Will Smith, actually):  What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Titanic, Shutter Island, The Departed, Inception. . .  He successfully took on the character of Gatsby, that enigmatic figure, and made me believe in him in such a way that is so hard to do when reading about him as words on the page--he is just that transient.  But DiCaprio got him, from the over-fake snobby accent to the dangerous mystery bubbling beneath the surface of personality, only twice breaking through and drowning the screen in its potency, like a mighty wave in a hurricane.

Carey Mulligan was appropriately delicate, flighty, flirty, a wisp of air, with snatches of wholesomeness and substance desperately trying to tread water and survive the corrupt shallowness of her class and era.  They made her blonde, which is delightful because in the book, there is one mention of her hair color, and it is called "dark."  But everyone I've ever talked to, including myself, imagines Daisy blonde.  Even the way she speaks is daisy-like.  Sunny and dainty, nuanced and frail.  When she flicked her eyelashes, she was my Daisy.  When she cried, in that high, airy voice, "Oh, it's just so hot, what will we do with ourselves!"

The others stood out, each in their own way: Tom Buchanan was sporty, good-looking, and drenched in masculinity like a strong cologne.  He played the hypocritical dichotomy well, and holds that delicate balance in your bosom when he weeps, shaking, for the loss of his mistress.  Jordan was cool, sharp, with the broad shoulders and steeliness of her character, probably the only way I will be able to imagine Jordan ever again.  Even Toby Maguire worked well as the flaky cousin and narrator, Nick Carraway.  Isla Fisher was the one person I hadn't thought of for the part: Myrtle is described as full and sensuous.  Ms. Fisher was more floozy.

The added lines and scenes were always done for the good of the story.  There was absolutely nothing I found unnecessary, over-the-top, or lacking.  The choice to frame the movie with Nick's recovery and writing would have been cliche Hollywood if it wasn't so well worked into the plot and true to the novel.  It gives the audience a premise for listening to Nick's story, Nick a reason to tell it, and drives home the impact the whole experience had on him.  It ties in the disorder of events.  And it ties it off so nicely, the way "The End" twists that heavy satisfaction in one's gut at the end of a masterpiece.

The symbols were kept intact and played well.  They weren't shoved down the throat of the viewer, but it was impossible not to notice them and feel the weight of them tickling the back of your mind.

But the story, oh the story!  It was this tender, intricate, painstaking lifting of the heart of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and its translation into visual art that made it probably the best movie I've ever seen before in my life.  I was enthralled, hopelessly tangled with the characters, my happiness tied to their own.  The friendship between Nick and Gatsby is itself a character, their affection and regard for each other is that tangible.  The parties are glamorous, full of light and noise, beautiful and arresting and devoid of all that is wholesome, like bad champagne.

There is a moment when Nick and Gatsby have been talking, after a breath-taking, rushing chase through the dizzying, crowded party, with snatches of conversation caught in-between waiters baring crystal goblets.  At last they stop, steady.  Nick seems to gain his ground once more, and Gatsby turns around and introduces himself to his next-door neighbor for the first time.  "I'm Gatsby."  And multitudes of fireworks explode behind him in the background.  It's not ridiculous.  It should be, but it's not.  Something about the build-up, the stylized storytelling, the fast-paced character of the era and the answers refused to audience, the warm, sincere smile on DiCaprio's face, makes it utterly appropriate.

In this film, we are allowed to enter into the mystery of Gatsby, the way a stargazer who, lying long in the evening grass, falls, drowning, into galaxies.  We feel his hope, his limitless potential.  We feel the sacrifice and loss of it when he chooses to love Daisy.  We taste his naivety in bitterness all the while, but do not fault him.  Because he is so, so good.  And because he is, after all, ourselves.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...