This year, as part of the jubilee year of mercy, I’m writing a series of posts to explore the challenge of living mercy in everyday life. I’ve created a landing page where all those posts will be archived in one location. I hope you’ll join me there for Mercy on a Monday.
For weeks, I’ve been debating stepping into the online political fray. I have a lot of opinions, and I’ve been driving around town distilling them into a collection of pithy one-liners that, as a Catholic rather than a Democrat or a Republican, would be certain to offend virtually every single person I know.
Conventional wisdom for writers says “If your professional thing isn’t politics, then shut up about politics. You’ll only shoot yourself in the foot.”
But if we don’t talk about the most important subjects, how can the world ever become a better place?
I began planning my post, and simultaneously praying whether or not I should go forward with it.
On the first day the Spirit reminded me of the importance of quiet.
On the second day, a fiction writing friend told us she was going offline until after the election.
On the third day I read a post, titled “I’m Pro-Life, and I Don’t Care About The Supreme Court“, and made the mistake of continuing on into the comments, where I found multiple examples like this:
“You just want an excuse to continue the racist and genocidal America Holocaust to include partial birth and full birth infanticide and the sale of lucrative murdered baby parts. Give Mrs. Clinton her money back.”
This man signed off with, “God bless, (name),” as if he hadn’t just spewed a mouthful of anything BUT blessing. Worse, he didn’t even seem to recognize the inherent contradiction, or the fact that he was giving the entire prolife movement a bad name.
At the end of Day Three, I got involved in a Facebook conversation preceded by the instructions “be polite and reasonable, please,” in which a particular individual lit into me for what I was saying without even stopping to read it carefully enough to hear what I was, yanno…saying.
And I realized:
It’s time to bow out of this crap.
Since the primary season, I’ve been following, reading, listening, and interacting, and it has done nothing except impoverish my spirit. I am far more anxious; I am constantly grieving the state of humanity. This political season has made it very difficult to cling to my belief in the ability of humanity to approach the world with reason, honesty, good intentions, and empathy.
I still believe that at heart, human beings are good. But we are not showing ourselves to be so this year. Actually, any time politics comes up, the worst parts of ourselves come out to play. But it’s so much worse this year. And it helps nothing, all this vitriol, all this angry, half-thought-out, buy-into-and-regurgitate-whatever-half-truth-mostly-lie-suits-your-political-color. It only hurts our ability to be what we were called to be. It doesn’t just damage the human dignity of the people we’re ripping to shreds. It damages ours, too.
I will vote, of course, although there’s little satisfaction in it this year. But I’m done being a political consumer. Nor will I be adding my collection of pithy one-liners to the fray. It’s bad for me as a human being, and being a good human being is what I am supposed to be doing.
Care to join me? #Boycottpolitics2016
There are 553 books on my Goodreads “to read” list.
I have at least three more flute pieces to write, and I have four novel ideas, one awaiting another major revision, and one that is 3/4 drafted.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, we have two kids out of the house at 6:45 a.m. to get to band; every Wednesday it’s three of them at 7 a.m. for choir; and on Fridays, it’s 6:45 a.m. again for Julianna’s physical therapy. Michael goes to school for three hours in the afternoon, but too many of those hours are chiseled away by appointments and busy work.
All this to say I don’t have time anymore: to scrapbook, to garden, to practice my flute. Sometimes my kids are raiding the clean clothes pile for socks and underwear for almost two weeks before I have time to fold it.
My heart feels frantic. If I opt out of the nasty election news (and there’s plenty of that, isn’t there?), I feel remiss in my duty to be an educated voter and an informed citizen of Planet Earth.. But listening to it undermines my hope in the possibility of a better world. I turn on the radio in the car and I listen and listen and listen as my insides wind tighter and tighter.
And into this smoldering, writhing mass of not-peace drops a headline:
I don’t even click through, because I remember reading it before. We need to be still. It’s not just for introverts and aspiring contemplatives. It makes our brains grow, it makes us better people, more cognizant of ourselves and our place in the world. Seeing the headline pop up on my Facebook feed is the road sign from God I didn’t know I was waiting for.
How long has it been since I took time to “come away”? Weeks? Months? I’ve been oh so productive, but I’m feeling disconnected from my life, scrabbling at its messy edges instead of living gut deep.
But the longer I wait to shut down my brain, the harder it is to do so. I get antsy with the quiet in the car. I long to fill it. Nervous with the silence. I play games: I can turn the radio on at the next stoplight. When I turn it on, my addiction to stimulus kicks in and go, “ooh, that’s niiiiice…” for about three seconds, until I realize they’re arguing about something they have no control over at all. I think, “How is this enriching their lives or mine?”
And so, finally, I grit my teeth and summon the courage to enter the stillness for real.
It takes a full day to relax into the silence in the van. A full day for my brain to figure out what to talk about with my ride-along little man, whose last year of small childhood I’ve been so recklessly squandering with all that productivity and serenity-shredding noise.
And today, I sit at the edge of a creek, watching the leaves fall: twirling like helicopters, tumbling end over end, dive-bombing the limestone or landing noiselessly on the surface of the water, where they embark on an unhurried journey downstream. Watching them drift out of the shadows and into the sunlight and back again, until they catch on a submerged log or get waterlogged and sink to the bottom to become next year’s silt. Watching the play of sunlight on golden trees and the red-brown carpet of fallen leaves on the steep slope across the way. Pausing to write, and then, again, to summon the courage to be still.
We are made for more than this, but we are also made for this.
I know I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, but the world is really screwed up.
I’m also aware that this is nothing unique to this particular era, this particular election cycle. The world has always been a screwed up place.
Maybe this is maturity—spiritual or otherwise—finally allowing me to reserve a piece of my mental and emotional energy for the suffering of someone besides myself. (We can hope, anyway.) One way or the other, I’m finally beginning to understand where the term “bleeding heart” came from, and although it’s been a term of derision my entire life (almost always followed by the dreaded “L” word—”liberal”), I finally recognize it and embrace it, because I see it in the mirror.
As I laid awake tonight, tossing and turning, all too aware of the headache and the sting in my scratched eye, a song kept going round and round my head. It’s a song I heard a concert at a pastoral music conference a number of years ago. It goes, “Please break my heart, O God, with what breaks your heart, O God.”
This is the top of the list of things breaking my heart these days.
My good friend Kelley is doing something amazing in a couple of weeks. She’s going to Greece with an organization called Carry the Future. They provide “baby boxes” that help refugee mothers take care of their children. Mosquito nets, diapers, clothing, blankets, baby carrier, cleaning supplies for Mom, to help her stay healthy so she can safely carry her piece of the future.
And then there’s this telling line on the “baby boxes” page:
Just imagine trying to raise your children in those circumstances. It puts all our fears about kidnappings and head injuries into perspective, doesn’t it?
I’m envious of Kelley for the opportunity to put the works of mercy into action—and I stand in awe of her family’s willingness to shoulder the logistical difficulties associated with the extended absence of its primary caregiver.
My family and I are not that bold, but I can support her efforts, and I can urge those who read this page to donate to Carry The Future, as I am doing today. It should be obvious by now that holing up on our side of the Atlantic cannot protect us from the violence taking place elsewhere. For better and for worse (and it really is both), we are an interconnected world now, and we need to recognize that and start participating in finding solutions. War probably isn’t the answer. Diplomacy might not work, either. But mercy? Mercy just might put a dent in the carnage.
The world is screwed up; our $10 or $20 isn’t going to change that. But as St. Mother Teresa put it: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
**Note: if you do decide to donate, will you comment here, so we can see if a little blog post from one of the least influential bloggers out there can make a difference?
I had a strangely vivid dream last night. I was a ghost, but apparently a very strong one. I was snuggling with my kids, and I could carry a phone, although when I tried to wander too far, I lost my grip on it. And there was something about guys getting ready to load hay bales into the back of a pickup.
Vivid dreams are pretty common for me—they tend to happen whenever I sleep on my back, even for a few minutes—and I really value them, because they give me story ideas. Two of my published short stories originated as dreams, and so did the novel I’m drafting now. And two nights ago I had another. (I have three novels in my “awaiting development” folder now, which is really exciting.)
The circumstances of these dreams never make any sense, of course—the one time I scribbled the entire thing down furiously, sure I could use it for a story, I came back and reread it with my forehead puckered, going, “Why did THAT evoke such a strong emotion? I don’t even see what those five lines have to do with each other!” It’s the emotion that tells me why this dream matters.
I’m sure there are deep psychological implications for dreaming that one is a ghost. Something about being a ghost in one’s life, needing to live in the moment, yada yada. But I don’t really want to chase that particular rabbit down its hole. I’m doing the best I can. I’ve done copious amounts of soul searching on the topics of balance and discernment of motherhood/marriage versus self-fulfillment, and I certainly don’t feel a need to throw the whole works out and start over, just because I dreamed I was a ghost.
Besides, a strange thing happened to me yesterday morning. There was an adorable toddler plastered to the window of the babysitting room at Jazzercise, and I felt no heart-wrench, no longing for another baby. None.
Which is not to say that I don’t like babies anymore. We had a baby at choir practice last night and it was all I could do to focus on, y’know, leading the choir. But I’m not feeling that deep, visceral longing for another of my own. I kind of like having both hands free to conduct. Or play flute. Or type. Or cook.
No doubt it’s cyclic; that gut-wrenching longing will come around again in a couple weeks. But it seems significant that this thing that has defined me so long is relaxing its grip. I’m transitioning into a work-from-home mother of school-aged kids, and feeling tremendously fulfilled by that role.
This is not a well-unified blog post. It’s more a free-form journal entry. For the past several days I’ve been intending to journal if I couldn’t get to sleep, but I’ve always managed to get to sleep. Apparently I just couldn’t take it anymore, and decided to spew the contents of my brain here instead. I’d better stop, before I start typing
a missive opinions about presidential politics…
I’m in the midst of writing a road trip book right now, and it was ridiculously fun to plan my main character’s route across the country. So I thought today I’d share a few of the gems I discovered—places I hadn’t heard of before, but which have been given a place on my “someday” list. (Although only one of these made my book. Want to guess which one?)
There are quite a few “soul food” places, of course. I was surprised at how many I hadn’t heard of, given that I’ve taken multiple trips to these areas of the country:
Antelope Canyon (Arizona):
And The Wave, also in Arizona. Who knew there was more awe-inspiring beauty in this state than the Grand Canyon? (Probably everyone except me, but there you go.)
Oneonta Gorge, Oregon:
And there’s Hamilton Pool, in Texas:
There are historical locations like Taos Pueblo, in New Mexico, where residents still live a traditional Native American life. (But Fodors had me at “fry bread”):
Then there are the quirkier locations, which were a whole lot of fun to explore. There’s a great site and app called “Roadside America,” which has done the work for you. Check it out, but do it when you have some time to kill, because this site is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes.
The “Enchanted Highway,” North Dakota.
Because sometimes cheesy looks kind of fun: the Gunfighters Wax Museum (Dodge City, KS)
It also seems like it might be a fun thing to take a spin through Casey, Illinois, which seems to boast an inordinate number of the “world’s largest,” to wit: wind chime, golf tee, knitting needles, crochet hook, rocking chair, mailbox, and pitchfork.
But this one is my favorite: the UFO Watchtower, in Hooper, CO
In Gold Field, Nevada, there’s an art car parking lot:
And finally, closer to home is this: the Billion Gallon Lake, formed in the defunct Bonne Terre mine in south Missouri: (You can scuba dive here, too, and see the mining equipment abandoned there. How cool is that?)
So what other beautiful, quirky, or just plain fun places should I add to my list?
This might come as a shock to many people. (Brace yourselves, sisters!) Occasionally…very occasionally…I do fleetingly think, “Gee, if I had a smart phone right now I could…”
I always decide that for me, the benefit would be far outweighed by the nuisance, the expectation of being always available. But I’ve realized in the past few days that my reasoning is faulty. I’m absolutely right to stay disconnected, but the real issue in having a smart phone wouldn’t be the technology. It would be me.
It seemed like for a week, I kept hearing stories about people who had found their family relationships strained—in some cases broken—by addiction to screen time. Then I read a striking reflection, provocatively titled “I used to be human,” by Andrew Sullivan, who embraced life online until he realized his physical health was failing and so was his ability to have meaningful relationships. Yesterday, I heard him on NPR’s program Here and Now (a great interview, btw).
And when Christian and I talked these things over, we found ourselves stumped by the lack of self-regulation that seems ubiquitous to modern life. I scolded him for how often he feels compelled to check his work email day, night, morning, weekends. And he pointed out how much time I spend on the computer.
That was when I realized that I am not immune. I, too, am driven by a need for distraction. If I get stuck while I’m working, I’ll click over to email, and when there’s nothing there, I’ll hop on Facebook or (less frequently) Twitter. (There’s always something to distract me there.)
I value going out to the Pinnacles or Gans Creek to write because it takes me completely off the grid. It’s just me and my muse and the Spirit. I go out there, first, to be still and meditate, but despite devoting half my nature time to stillness and not doing, I generally get more writing done than I would if I stayed home.
I haven’t been going out much lately. We invested in a set of patio furniture that has made my back yard like a retreat—at least, when the wind is out of the north, as it has been the past week or so, and I can’t hear the interstate roaring. But there’s wireless down there, and any time I ran into a speed bump in my manuscript, my brain went, “SQUIRREL!” and I ran off to check Facebook.
Late last week, I decided to safeguard my writing time by unplugging the wireless router before I went downstairs to write. See, theoretically you could just turn off the wireless on the computer (or turn off the phone). But I’ve tried that. When all it takes is a flip of the switch to reconnect, there’s not a whole lot standing between me and distraction. It’s been illuminating to see how often I’ve said to myself, “Oh, I’ll just go look up…oh, wait.”
I’ve accomplished a ton in the past week.
Then, early this week, I imposed a Facebook cap on myself. I’m now only allowed to get on Facebook three times a day. (Only! There’s your first clue, Sherlock.)
The sense of withdrawal engendered by all this clarified for me that the only way I can do everything I do is by staying disconnected, by opting into the digital realm on my terms instead of being in by default and having to consciously opt out. I might be able to control myself, because self-discipline and self-regulation are key to my world view. But I would spend so much mental bandwidth policing myself, I would be taking away from the energy required to do the things that are more important to me.
So for me, not having a smart phone, not texting, not doing All The Things Everybody Else Does, are what allow me to be the woman I want to be. But I’m glad that now I recognize the problem isn’t the technology—it’s me.
A lot of days, I feel like I live in a war zone. And a lot of days, I just want to throw in the towel. Like yesterday, for instance. We let the kids sleep in, let them wake up slowly, gave them no responsibility whatsoever. Just a nice, relaxing morning, in advance of a once-a-year treat: a baseball game.
By nine-thirty a.m., there had been three major fights, at least one of them taking place outside for the edification of the entire world.
Every so often I ask adults how they got along with their siblings when they were kids, and how they get along now. Christian likes to say that his brothers beat each other up, but then it was done—and nobody, but nobody, outside the family had better mess with them. And now, generally, they get along great.
A lot of other people tell me, “Sure, we fought some, but mostly we were really close. We were best friends.”
When I hear things like that, I can’t help feeling like a complete failure as a parent. Because surely it’s our fault—and really, mine, because I’m the primary caregiver—that my kids haven’t learned how to deal with each other with some slight measure of tolerance. That they get in each other’s business to the point where the fighting sometimes seems nonstop. I get so tired of being asked to arbitrate “he hit/kicked/pinched me” or “he won’t give me the fill-in-the-blank.” Because a hit was almost always provoked by the victim at the end of a long escalation, and you can never tell who actually fired the first shot. And there’s virtually no way to get a straight answer about which kid actually had dibs on the toy (or book, or article of clothing) in question. Sometimes I just take it away from them both, because it’s easier.
Not that long ago, I told them I refused to arbitrate, because they were asking me to play favorites, and that wasn’t fair to me.
We try to teach conflict resolution in love. We require apologies—often from both parties, because so few conflicts are one-sided—and we require the words “I forgive you” (NOT “It’s okay,” because that’s flatly untrue; it’s NOT okay; if it was, there wouldn’t be a need for an apology in the first place) and a hug. Which is the hardest part, by the way. Words are easy. Actions make it real. We talk about Jesus, we talk about love and kindness and the importance of family–that someday, when we’re gone, all they’ll have is each other.
I don’t use the word “mercy” with the kids, because it’s taking me so long to wrap my head and heart around it. But mercy is what I’m trying to teach. They’re very aware when I’m having to take deep breaths and self-regulate my own reactions. I don’t try to hide it. And I’m pretty open about apologizing when I don’t succeed.
Some days I think this is all part and parcel of the learning process. I can take it philosophically.
Other days, I just feel frustrated.
(Can you guess which is true today?)
Recently I wrote an essay for Columbia Magazine called “Mercy Begins in the Home.”. My kids opened my eyes to that reality, but there’s a vast chasm between recognizing something to be true and teaching them to choose mercy themselves.
Of course, choosing mercy is a tall order for children at ages almost-5, 7, 9, and 11. But if we don’t expect it now, how can we expect it from them ever?
Empathy and “here’s what works for us” would be welcome.