Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Saint Who Looked Like She Was Failing At Life

As the love child of a French aristocrat and his girlfriend, it seems St. Louise de Marillac’s failure to blend into mainstream Catholic culture started from conception.

From there, each time Louise’s life veered toward any kind of social normalcy, something would happen to block her, once again, from the comfort of fitting in. Unlike the focused life trajectories of her successful Catholic peers, Louise was all over the place.

In many ways — an unstable home life, failure to complete a Catholic education, absence of extended family support, roadblocks and confusion in her vocation — Louise’s early life lacked the basic hallmarks commonly ascribed to Catholic success. In the 1600s, it must have seemed like she was on the loser track for women.

And yet, the Lord assured Louise that despite all the difficulties and confusion, she was right where she was supposed to be.

Some well-intentioned biographers splice out Louise’s dysfunctional family problems, rejections and predicated social failures in an attempt to construct a sweeter, simpler saint story. But these revisions eliminate the integral details that testify to God’s personal providence in Louise’s life: We can trace each disappointment in her formative years to a strength in the ministry of her later years.

Perhaps, like St. Louise de Marillac, the places in our lives where we most feel like failures will be the tools that God uses to accomplish prolific good in the world.

Please read more about Louise's life and legacy in my latest over at FemCatholic!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Tooth Fairy Story

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

I don't recall whether it disappointed my older kids to learn their pillows weren't magical portals to a generous fairy realm. My husband was working the overnight shift, which left me caring solo for a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, two 1-year-olds, and a newborn through the Tooth Fairy's working hours, and I just couldn't. So I dispelled all Tooth Fairy magic from our house.

Santa is another disappointingly inconsistent stranger. He only ever fills stockings at Mommom and Poppop's house, never at ours. Don't get me started on the Easter bunny.

Our pretty little corner house was a near vacuum of magic for years.

They say the best gift you can give a kid is a sibling. "Built-in friends-for-life!" they say. And if that's the case, we've more than blessed our kids with the best of gifts.

But what they don't tell you is that siblings are the kind of gift that improves with time. A savings bond. A 529 Education Plan. An unaged barrel of wine. A sibling.

Unfortunately, the collateral damage in our family of overwhelmed parents prioritizing younger siblings' needs for food and hygiene over older siblings' need for wonder wasn't limited to only the secular. We hadn't made it through the Advent calendar to Christmas until this past year when my oldest son took charge and made it happen. He was eight. I don't remember the baptismal anniversaries of my children. I certainly don't light a candle and make a cake. Where even are their baptismal candles? Probably still packed from our move across state three years ago. Possibly melted in a box in the attic.

I love the Lord. I love His Church. I love my children. But a woman can only create so much magic out of the day she's been given, and for many years, the lioness share of our household wonder revolved around diaper cycles and breasts that make milk.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

It's strange, the coping mechanisms we adopt as parents, the ideals we're forced to let go, either voluntarily or with a losing fight, but gone all the same. The tooth fairy's become a taunting mascot of my parenthood journey. It represents the magic I want my children to enjoy congruent with my failure to make it happen.

Not that prioritization only affects kids with many siblings. Every parent has limits of time, money, emotional and mental capacity. Somewhere between our ideals and our humanity, we reckon with the parental reality of "just doing our best."

When kids uncover this mystery -- that parents aren't omnipotent demigods, just exhaustible mortals "doing our best" -- it's a melancholy comfort. We lose some of their sweet childhood idealism, but we gain a small ally in our goals to accomplish what is good and necessary over what is everything.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

How quickly my 4-year-old's eyes lost their glow when I broke the news to him last week, the excitement of losing two teeth in one day suddenly quelled by an uncertainty over what to do with the tiny tooth treasure box he'd been rattling relentlessly since arriving home from school.

I didn't expect such discouragement. I don't remember my oldest son responding like this. To be fair, I don't remember much of anything the year my oldest son lost his first tooth.

Oh how I wanted to rekindle that ember of wonder that I'd just stomped out with my declaration against the tooth fairy. My brain sputtered through complicated parental thoughts of whether it's OK to play Tooth Fairy with the younger children if I hadn't with the older ones, and how I can retract what I just put out as truth without losing credibility, and what am I going to make for dinner tonight…

And then, sweetly and cunningly, with an independent confidence inevitable to older siblings, my oldest son pulled his younger brother aside and whispered that the magic is real, that he'd better make sure that tooth box gets tucked under his pillow.

For a time, my 4-year-old delighted in the absurdity of the Tooth Fairy created by his oldest brother.

Unfortunately, the work of creating magic -- an effort muddled by miscommunicated intentions, the accidental theft of another brother's penny, some intense shoving, and slammed doors -- so overwhelmed my oldest son that he loudly declared the Tooth Fairy would never return for another tooth in our house ever. Sometimes, I see myself in my children.

How I wish I could save him from these small reckonings with our angry, reasonable, magic-less adult world.

Still, I'm proud of him for seeing a situation that made him uncomfortable despite being the norm, recognizing in himself the power to help, and desiring for others what wasn't done for him.

It's the classic story arc of the best older siblings. And a reminder to the rest of us that a mission of mercy is always at hand.

The next morning, I tried to set things right by encouraging my oldest son to write a conciliatory note from the Tooth Fairy to his younger brother. I'd woken up early to set up his art supplies after stirring all night with my own extravagant guilt. If only I'd done it all and a little more when they were younger, my children would be perfect and perfectly happy today.

As it turns out, my fail-proof plan to fix everything only proved irrelevant and perplexing to everyone. Why start an art project when there were pillow forts to build and blanket rivers to forge? Dissipated by the matchless magic of sibling friendship, their rivalry from the day before had long since been forgiven and forgotten. Even the Tooth Fairy was dismissed as an old and uninteresting game.

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours."

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Life Lessons With Josh Harris

About 20 years ago, I attemptedwith about a million other single teens and young adults, through many documented failuresto find a Christian soulmate by following the strict formula outlined in Joshua Harris' 1997 bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Like the author of this ill-fated book, I also held strong ideas about God, religion, and relationships when I was 20. Unlike Josh, I didn't write a cult classic that influenced two generations of young Christians. Thank God.

Maybe I didn't officially publish my stupid, untried opinions on life at age 20, but I sure did run my mouth about them.

And for that, mea maxima culpa in excelsis. (That's, like, all the Catholic street Latin that I knowsacred liturgy with a side of Christmas carolcrammed together into an apology. I hope it is a salve both to those who want to know that I'm sorry for speaking out of ignorance and also to those who would feel validated by a grating public example of my self-realized ignorance.)

While Joshua Harris' marriage method worked for some, many others experienced disappointment, marginalization, and even abuse as unintended side effects of the purity culture movementThe National Review describes his approach as a prosperity gospel for sex. Josh himself has apologized extensively for years, founded a support group for survivors on his website, and is currently going through a divorce and questioning his faith.

Given all of that, it seems that Josh and I have at least one more thing in common than just unfortunate relationship experiences sourced from the advice of his book: the Lord teaches us both through immersive experiential lessons in empathy.

(I'll pause here to clarify: no, I'm not going through a divorce or leaving the Church.)

But many of the hardline beliefs I held at age 20poverty is the result of laziness, NFP is a super-effective form of birth control, the public behavior of young children is a direct reflection of the effort put forth by their parentshave only softened through personal experiences of poverty, unplanned pregnancy, and public humiliation by my children.

And it's not like the untried stupid opinions stopped when I was 21. Even recently, I've deleted past blog posts that I once preached strongly and now renounce: victim-blaming those affected by domestic abuse, undermining President Obama's healthcare initiatives, sharing exaggerated statements against President Trump, presuming women who choose abortion don't seriously and conscientiously consider their available options, insisting that the best way to pursue a Catholic marriage vocation is to just marry someone who presents themselves as a good Catholic... I have said and shared some stupid stuff, and I am sorry.

In a 2017 TED talk, Josh talks about the difficulty of owning up to dumb things we've said or done in the past: "A lot of times I just want to run away from the whole process. And the reason I don't is because I believe that this is a pathway of growth for me, that I'm going to learn things in facing up to what I got wrong that I won't be able to learn any other way."

Unfortunately, apologies don't clear Internet archives or heal all of those affected or turn back time for a do-over. If only I could have learned my truisms through listening better to the true experiences of others. If only I had been slower to speak. 

Just as an aside, Ben Shapirowith whom I disagree more often than I agreehas earned my respect through his willingness to publicly acknowledge past stupidity.

Alas. As it stands, me and Josh Harrisand anyone else who sometimes runs their mouth ahead of their soul and wants to jump on this bandwagonare committed to change.

What does that look like?

It means choosing not to just "find someone on the Internet that agrees with you," an attractive option that Josh described while discerning the negative effects of I Kissed Dating Goodbye: "It would have been so easy to just write the critics off as haters… and then find people who liked my book and hide behind them… No matter who you are or what you think, you can find someone on the Internet that agrees with you." 

["No matter who you are or what you think, you can find someone on the Internet that agrees with you." - Josh Harris]

It means honest, respectful, vulnerable dialogue with those around us, especially those with whom we disagree. If we're talking with friends, it makes it harder to just write them off as angry trolls behind a computer screen. "I want connection and relationships and dialogue with real people," Josh explains in a recent Instagram post about his plans going forward.

It means quality over quantity. It's tempting to share every coherent thought that crosses my mind. It's tempting to run with what's popular or trending or easily-received by those whose opinions matter most to me. It's challenging to sit still and listen intentionally for a hot minute.

Our news cycle is currently churning up a 44-year-old man whose naive idealism is catching up to him two decades late. Rather than run and hide behind a willing-and-waiting fan club, Josh Harris has chosen to pause, dialogue, reflect, apologize, and dialogue some more.

Would that we could all be a little more like Josh. 

TEDx Harrisburg 2017