Wonderful things that happened after my crisis

Long story short: after my fourth baby, I went into a tailspin. I tried a couple different medications, and Wellbutrin made me suicidal, so I checked into the hospital. I spent ten very good days in the psychiatric ward and had electroconvulsive therapy. (See my article about the spiritual effects of it here). After that I was supposed to remove stress and responsibility from my life for a while, so that my brain would have time to build on the changes from the shock therapy and establish a more positive thought pattern. So we attempted to free me up from some of the stress of living with a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn, in my parents’ house, with my mother who has Alzheimer’s. Ha ha! That didn’t work. Instead my brother and sister-in-law took the three big kids into their home, and I moved into my sister’s house with my husband and newborn to recover.

What a mess! Except it wasn’t. Here are some wonderful things that God did in my family’s life as a result of this crisis.

  1. My family came together. They have always been loving and supportive, but my breakdown provided an opportunity for them to get even closer. There were several family meetings, in which my parents and all 7 of my siblings got together to help us figure out what to do, and how they could help. Everyone gave what they could: babysitting, money, shelter, driving, prayer, and help figuring out logistics and planning. And afterwards, when things were a bit more stable, they kept up the group conversation, to keep us all in touch and within reach for mutual help.
  2. I got wonderful one-on-one time with the baby. Instead of being the littlest of four, always set down so I could feed the big kids, or carried like a football while I did the laundry, she got to have that only-child experience of being the center of my universe. I think she’d be fine either way,  but it was nice for me! I had similar experiences with the other kids; my family’s help made it possible for me to spend a glorious hour outside with my two year old,  enjoying the wind and the shadows and the trees and the mud, and give my other kids their heart’s desires: my undivided attention to their very favorite Legos and ponies, respectively.
  3. We experienced life with my sister’s family, who are called to a special charism of poverty and generosity. We learned to live with less stuff, waste less, and pay special attention to the liturgical seasons. We learned to live in a sort of community, everyone contributing to the household and accepting anyone who showed up.
  4. We lived out of our suitcases for three months. It actually helped me appreciate what I had, and appreciate what it would be like to be dirt poor–using both sides of every paper, saving boxes to keep my clothes in, piecing together my sewing scraps to make a wall hanging because I had no pictures. And I missed very little of the massive pile of stuff I left at my parents’ house. We’ll see how quickly I can keep this new-found minimalism, but so far in our new apartment we’ve managed to get rid of a lot of junk and live with less than we’ve ever done.
  5. My family’s generous actions had good results for them, too. My sister, whose kids are almost all grown, got to have a baby around the house again; my other sister, who did a heroic amount of babysitting for me, told me that she’d been helped out a lot at another stage in her life, and it was nice to have the opportunity to pay it forward and help someone else. Driving us and our kids back and forth for visits and moving gave my siblings opportunities for long-awaited visits with each other. Siblings got to catch up, aunts and uncles got to know nieces and nephews, cousins got to play together. Yup, one big long crisis-fueled family reunion!
  6. My children had the experience of living at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. They came back home with all sorts of wonderful habits, like brushing their teeth and following along at Mass and clearing their plates after dinner, and all sorts of other things that I totally would have taught them, any day now. They learned to play with kids of different ages and how to adjust to a different family’s schedule.
  7.  _I_ learned how resilient and grounded they are. My kids’ maturity and patience in dealing with all the changes (along with my sister-in-law’s kind updates on their little triumphs and achievements) was really encouraging to me as a parent.

There was no avoiding this huge disruption, and I thought my family and I would barely survive it. God had plans to bring a lot of unexpected good out of it. Thank you, God.

Find the rest of the 7 Quick Takes here.

Renoir onions

“Onions” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881

 

How is a love marriage like an arranged marriage?

Boy, that sounds like the beginning to a stupid pun. But actually, it’s my new article at Aleteia!

The ways we’ve changed have strained our marriage, but they haven’t broken it — because, as it turns out, our marriage wasn’t built on our original compatibility; it was built, like my Pakistani friend’s [arranged marriage], on our basic good will and love for each other, and on our commitment to marriage for life.

Our marriage really isn’t that different from hers after all.

Read the rest here!

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Last week I was glancing through a book of Norse Mythology and remembered the sad story of Baldur, the beloved light-bearing god. When Baldur’s mother Frigg hears a prophecy of his death, she makes every object in the universe promise not to harm him. “She took an oath from fire and from water, from iron and from all metals, from earths and stones and great trees, from birds and beasts and creeping things, from poisons and diseases.” The evil god Loki, however, finds out that she has neglected one thing: the harmless-seeming mistletoe. While the gods are enjoying Baldur’s new invincibility, throwing every weapon they can find at him and watching it bounce off, Loki tricks one of them into throwing the mistletoe at Baldur, and he dies. The guardian of the underworld agrees to let him back into the land of the living if the gods can really prove that he is as beloved and universally mourned as they say; so Frigg again visits every creature, and every creature sheds a tear for Baldur. (Every creature but one. You can read the full story here.)

This time around I was struck by the anthropomorphization of inanimate things: fire, water, metal, stone, and so on. This seemed different to me than the kind of sentimental worldview that treats pets like people. The elements are only alive in relation to the gods; Baldur’s goodness and beauty is so powerful that even inanimate things respond to it. The implication is not that earthly creatures are as worthy as humans in themselves, but that they are raised to a higher level by contact with the gods.

Then on Sunday, we sang a hymn based on St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, which refers to creatures like fire, water, and wind as our brothers and sisters. Suddenly I realized that Christians also have a tradition of anthropomorphizing creatures. The Canticle of Daniel (Daniel 3:52-57) doesn’t just bless God through or for his creatures, as St. Francis’ canticle does; it actually tells the creatures themselves to bless the Lord.

Sun and moon, bless the Lord…
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.

We don’t believe, like pagans, that the sun and the moon really have consciousness and will; but in some mysterious way we believe that the presence of the Lord is enough to give life even to inanimate things. The prophet Isaiah says that “the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), and Psalm 114 says that when Israel left Egypt “the mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs.” Obviously, there’s some poetic license here; but I think it’s more than that. The presence of God doesn’t just metaphorically bring life; it actually animates the inanimate, as it animates the dead. The difference between this and an animist or pagan worldview is that animals and inanimate objects don’t have life in themselves; they only have life in relation to God. The life is all God’s, and it is so powerful and superabundant that it animates everything around it. And just as the presence of God evokes joy and praise from all creation, the death of God on the cross evoked sorrow: the curtain of the temple ripped, and the sky was darkened. Just as the material world wept for Baldur, it wept for Jesus.

What do you think? Am I way off the mark? I love this vision of creation. I feel like it takes all the beauty of pagan mythology and gives it deeper meaning through the truth of Christianity.

picture from The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, found here 

7QT: The Joy of Reading

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The house I grew up in

My father is a college librarian, my mother’s a writer, and we ran an internet bookstore out of our house. We also lived right down the street from the library, so I was a book-a-day kid until I hit about 12. At that point I was reading so fast that I realized I was skimming, so I slowed down to make sure I was getting everything. In fact, I was so worried about skipping things that I got neurotic about it. I started reading and re-reading so slowly that pretty soon I would get burnt out, give up, and skim ahead to the end. I started to worry that I would only be able to read a very small amount of books in my lifetime, so I better pick them carefully. What a depressing thought!

The good news is that my mental health is so good these days that even my reading is healing! Not only can I focus and stay calm long enough to read at a normal pace, but I’m enjoying it like I haven’t since I was a kid. I’m re-discovering the joys of diving into a good book, getting lost in it, not being able to put it down. I’m so happy.

What are you reading these days? Here’s a fun little list to get you started. Let me know in the comments, or link to your post!

1. What book are you reading now?

With God in Russia by Father Walter Ciszek. What an astonishing read. I’m surprised that he doesn’t talk more about the spiritual battles he went through, trying to discern God’s will and providence in all his sufferings in prison and Siberia, but it’s thrilling and inspiring anyway. (I guess the sequel,He Leadeth Me, is more of a spiritual testament–that’s on my to-read list!) This is just a basic account of what his years in Russia were like, and you can get a good picture of his character and his faith by reading between the lines. He seems like a very observant person–the entertaining and infinitely varied descriptions of the priests, prisoners, interrogators, and guards keep the simple narrative interesting. I’m especially intrigued by his description of the difference between the political prisoners and the actual criminals, and the various ways the Russians dealt with the discrepancy between the ideal of the communist state and the reality.

I’m also working my way through A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, a really fantastic book which my husband got me for Christmas. Very simple and unpretentious, lavishly illustrated with quilts and other fiber arts, and covers everything from basic color and design theory to skills specific to quilting. There are several specific “assignments” at the end to put what you’ve learned into practice. I love designing quilts, but I don’t have a great eye for color, and this book has been wonderful so far.

2. What book did you just finish?

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. This book was extremely helpful for me. It’s about how to stop being driven by fear and shame: how to live up to your potential and your ideals without worrying about what others think of you, or what you think you’re supposed to be like. There’s a really good section on the pressures that men and women face to live up to cultural stereotypes, but she also addresses parenting, teaching, and leadership styles that depend on fear and shame. There’s a certain amount of self help-y buzzwords and repetition, but for the most part Brown’s style is refreshing, direct, and practical. I especially appreciate her use of swear words. You can watch a quick TedTalk here to get an idea of Brown’s style and thesis.

I also just devoured Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. This is a light romantic comedy, based on The Taming of the Shrew, full of Tyler’s wit and incisive understanding of how people work. I loved Kate’s absentminded scientist father, who runs the household in a nice efficient, clueless way: they eat “meat mash” every day for supper, and he can’t understand why everyone doesn’t eat that way–a perfect balance of nutrition, and it takes all the decision-making out of cooking! Kate herself is lovingly drawn as an awkward, practical woman who doesn’t know what to do with her half-realized longings for more purpose and normality. Just a fun, quick read, but Tyler’s characters are so real and her writing is so unobtrusively effective, she’s a pleasure to read. She always make me feel like writing. (I wrote about another of her novels, A Patchwork Planet, in this post.)

3. What do you plan to read next?

Mindfulness for Dummies, which has been languishing on my Kindle for a while, and A Stitch in Time, by the actor who played Garak in Deep Space Nine–another present from my awesome husband. (I wrote a bit about the fascinating character of Garak here.) I also want to get my hands on He Leadeth Me, and I’ve heard great things about The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, which my brother gave me for Christmas.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. I read a big chunk of it in college and loved it, and I think I finally feel emotionally healthy enough to pick up politics and history again.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I loved Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles so much.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Mental health and politics. I keep meaning to try various science fiction and fantasy novels, but I guess I’m just not into them any more.

7. What book did you recently give up on? [I added this question.]

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. This was helpful to me in the past, but gosh, it sure wasn’t this time around. I found all his arguments easy to answer, and I didn’t get any comfort from it. Sorry, C.S. Lewis! I still love you!

Hop over to Kelly’s to see the rest of the Seven Quick Takes!

Always There

Eucharist, Body Of Christ, Church, Mass, Religion

I made it to daily Mass today! It’s been a while. Actually, I was almost late because of checking Facebook. I feel like that should be an illustration of original sin in a catechism or something.

Anyway, I’m now living down the street from a church with a 9 am daily Mass, and my sister watches the baby for me in the mornings, but this is still the first time I’ve actually gone. It struck me on the way that every morning, if I remember about Mass and wake up in time, I have a little debate in my head: am I awake enough to go? Am I too tired to walk there? Can I hold off on breakfast until afterwards, or am I too hungry? Or should I just have breakfast and skip Communion, or is there not much point to that?

But guess what? the priest doesn’t have a debate. He’s there every morning, whether anyone shows up or not. He’s there, every day, just in case someone decides they need him. He’s there every week, in case you remember to go to confession. He’s a phone call away. A priest I know used to be there for every knock on the door in the middle of the night, until his fellow pastor made him stop out of fear for his safety.

We’re so lucky to have the luxury of a priest who’s always available! God allows us to be lazy and forgetful and disorganized; He lets us decide when we can fit Him into our schedule; but He’s there waiting for us whenever we manage to come.

Make your own happiness

There were a lot of inspiring plaques in the behavioral health wing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital, most of them the usual vague “live, laugh, love” type of thing. But one of them really spoke to me. It was actually in the scheduling office, and it said “the time to be happy is now.”

The first part that struck me was the “now.” I often get stuck in the trap of depending on the future and my specific plans for it: when we get a house, then I’ll be happy. When the kids are older, then I’ll be happy. When my husband gets a good job, then I’ll be happy. And guess what happens? I get what I was hoping for, and I still find something to be unhappy about. Or worse, I don’t get what I wanted, and I feel justified in remaining unhappy. The sign reminded me not to pin my happiness on something that might happen in the future.

But here’s something I’m just realizing recently: if you want to find happiness now, rather than in the future, you need to be able to make your own happiness. Is it possible that happiness is a choice? I’m not sure if this is true for someone in the midst of true clinical depression, and I hope I’m not sounding like those clueless people who tell you to just snap out of it and cheer up. But for those of us struggling with mild depression, or maybe just the ups and downs of everyday life, I think it’s possible to choose happiness. When I’m feeling down, I have two choices: I can do the thing that feels good initially, like holing up in my room and watching reality TV, and dwelling on everything that’s bothering me at the moment; or I can do the thing that will make me feel better in the long run, like taking a walk, or putting down the book I’m trying to read and giving the kids my full attention, or putting on some cheerful music and dancing around.

This isn’t easy! It takes so much effort. But each day I’m learning more and more that I have control over my mood, and I don’t have to be a slave to my emotions. Try to be happy! It doesn’t work every time, but I never regret trying.