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Hammock prayer: What holds me up

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There is something perilous about a hammock.  Getting in requires dexterity, balance, and good sense of timing.  Staying in requires the same; one false move and you could end up tush over head, as I have learned on more than one occasion.  (Last month, my husband did a dramatic, unintentional flip of his own, but somehow managed to right himself without spilling any of his beer.  I aspire to such greatness.)

When I was in New York a few weeks ago, I spent some time in the hammock by the lake.  Once I got safely settled, it was enormously relaxing.  I put my hands behind my head and looked up at the canopy of trees above me and enjoyed the gentle swaying movement, side to side.  I could hear boats on the lake and my kids playing and the little gentle rustle of the leaves above me.  It was a good place to pray.

And I thought about how strange a sensation a hammock is. You are suspended, but you are not holding yourself up.  Something else is.  Something else is keeping you there, mid-air, with open space between you and the ground.  All you have to do is relax.

I’m used to holding myself up, keeping myself going.  Like many moms, I’m used to keeping a few other people going,  too:  I balance schedules, pick up and drop off, plan the week’s meals, fold laundry,  remember to buy birthday gifts for the kids to take to parties, fill out the obligatory forms for fieldtrips, soothe after nightmares, plan doctor’s appointments.   I am the primary support for a few other people, not just myself.  And though that is a richly rewarding vocation, it often makes me very tired.

Lying in the hammock, looking up at the blue sky, I thought about what a treat it was to have something other than myself hold me up.   And then I thought about how God actually does that, all the time.  It may not be a physical support in the way the hammock is, but God’s divine love sustains me and supports me every day, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Sometimes I recognize that support in real time, as it’s happening.   I often recognize it in the people God sends into my path when I’m in a vulnerable place, or when I come away consciously sustained by weekly Mass.

Sometimes that support takes a less visible, less obvious form. The air I breathe and the water I drink, the sunlight that makes my garden grow and brings me such joy: I don’t always think of these things, but they are ways that I am supported day after day.  They are all evidence of God’s goodness, the goodness  that brought this world and every one of us into being.

Because even though there are days when I feel like I’m only able to stay upright through my own strenuous efforts, the truth is that I have a support system all around me, a system of people and nature and love and no small amount of grace.  Those things hold me,  and don’t let me fall.

Sometimes I just need to pause, put my hands behind my head, look up at the sky, and remember that.

What I want my sons to know about periods

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Not a paid endorsement, by the way.

I blame Michael Keaton for this particular awkward family conversation.  It was the evening of the Oscars,and Scott and I were reminiscing about past movie roles.  We were laughing about his role in Mr. Mom, and that great scene where he goes to the grocery store to buy tampons for his wife, when my son — whom I did not know was listening — broke into the conversation.

“What’s a tampon?”

You take this one, Scott’s eyes seemed to say.

“Well,” I said cautiously, “it’s something ladies use.”

“But what is it for?”

“They use it once a month.:

“But why do they need it?”

“Well, once a month, ladies bleed.”  He looked disturbed.  “They bleed from their private areas.  It’s part of the reproductive cycle.”  I waited for his response.

“That’s really creepy,” he said.

Yes.  Yes, in a way, I guess it is.

 

As the mother of two boys and no girls, I have realized that there are some kinds of conversations I will have in my parenting life, and some I will not have.  I am not at all looking forward to shepherding boys through puberty ; I actually intend to divert many of the accompanying questions to my husband, just as I do with all queries about computers and space travel.

And, without a daughter in my life, I will not be faced with explaining the practical  aspects of periods, and how to insert a tampon, and what to do when your period comes for the first time ever in the middle of the school day (I have some personal insight into that one).

But I am realizing that, even though my boy will never know the experience of “the monthlies,” odds are good that at some point in their life, they will be living closely with a woman who does (someone other than myself, I mean).  And at some point — not now, but when they are older – I feel that I need to give them a little bit of insight into what this all means to a woman.

Which means, first of all, that I need to figure it out myself.

I guess I can say this: Having a period is a study in wild extremes.  Nothing is worse than being the first girl in your group of friends to get it, unless it’s being the last girl in your group of friends to get it.  It comes a few days early and you curse; it comes a few days late and you are in agony.  There are months when its arrival is met with profound disappointment, and then there are the months where its arrival is met with weak-kneed relief.   And, in my early forties, I’m getting to that stage where I’ve spent three decades complaining about the pain and mess and expense of it all, but when that day comes where Aunt Flo says goodbye for good, I kind of think I just might miss her.

How do you explain all this to a man, though?  I am not sure any guy can really grasp it, just as there are things about being a guy that I will never ever be able to understand.  That said, I think maybe we can teach our sons to have a certain kind of awe in the face of this phenomenon that was in part responsible for their very existence.  At the very least, we can tell them not to make dismissive comments about Woman X being crabby because it’s her time of the month.  (As any woman will tell you, only one person in the room actually knows whether her moods are due to PMS or some other reason.  She gets to be the one to say whether or not there’s a connection.)

I am fearfully and wonderfully made says the psalm.  I will be honest that, when it comes to periods, I tend to lean more towards “fearful” as being the appropriate adjective.    If I were in charge, I sure as heck would not design the female reproductive cycle this way, if for no other reason than that I don’t like carnage in my bathroom (or anywhere else).

But maybe I’m getting a little older and wiser,  or at least a bit more philosophical.  Having had a few rounds of the conception/pregnancy game, I can’t deny that I have a respect for the reality of female menstruation.   Two pregnancy losses and two births have led to an appreciation that, like it or not, I did depend upon that system to bring my two little boys into the world … boys who enrich my life in so many ways, including asking me questions that get me thinking about the role that my periods play in my life, in all their messy mystery.  I may not like the experience of a monthly period, but I am grateful for what it has brought to my life.  In that way, I guess it’s like most good things in this world: some sort of pain or sacrifice inevitably goes into the creation.

So in the end, I’d say that my son is right — menstruation is somewhat creepy.  It is fearful and, I guess, also wonderful, at least  in some sense of the word.  But whatever else my boys learn about this phenomenon that is so intimately a part of most women’s lives, I hope they at least learn this: It’s part of what got them here, so it’s something that they — and all of us, really —  should treat with a certain amount of respect.

Period.

Remembering what I have: A poem from my great-grandmother

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

A thought popped into my mind yesterday morning: What if I go throughout the day focusing on what I have instead of what I don’t have?

I’m not sure where this thought came from, exactly;   I guess “the Holy Spirit” is as good an answer as any.  I’m glad it appeared,  though, because although I strive for an attitude of gratitude, dissatisfaction can creep in, in rather insidious ways.

But with this new attitude in the forefront of my mind, yesterday was better than it would have been.  Instead of wishing for more time to work on my next writing project, I was grateful for the hour I did have while my kids were playing with their cousins.  Instead of wishing for a bigger house, I was grateful for a cozy one that fits our family’s needs.  And on, and on.

I wrote a week or so ago about my great-grandmother Helen Cary Keyt Wolf, and the “Button Box” of poems that she wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s.  She was certainly someone who lacked much of what we would consider essential for happiness.  Raising five children during the Depression years, with a husband who would leave and come back at various times without warning, she lived  with no small amount of financial and relational uncertainty.  I am sure she had plenty of moments where despair and envy were close to the surface.

And yet even then, there are things to be grateful for.   Her writings show that she knew this, and tried to live by it.  I am sure that there were times when her resolve wavered and such optimism was hard to maintain.  But we have evidence, written in her own hand, that she knew the value of focusing on the positive, and that she made the choice to recognize the blessings in her life – her children above all.

Here is one of her poems, written sometime in the thirties.  It captures this philosophy well.  .

My Shopping List
by Helen Cary Keyt Wolf

What would I do if I had
A dollar or two today?
For son number one,
I’d buy a new shirt.
For son number two, new shoes.
For son number three, a pair of pants
And a bonnet for baby.
For my young miss
I’d get some cloth
For her to make a new dress.
Then perhaps some curtains I’d buy
For windows in our sunroom.
Some new pots and pans
Some tea glasses, too -
Oh, I have lots of plans.
But since I haven’t that dollar
I’ll put a patch on a shirt,
About shoes, well, I can’t do much
But give them an extra shine.
I’ll lengthen and press a pair of pants
And make a bonnet for baby
And look through the chest
Perhaps I can find
Something to make a “new dress”.
The windows? Well, I’ll just leave plain
For it would be a pity to
Shut out the view
Of roses and bushes and vines.
The pans will have to do for now.
We can use cups for glasses.
Oh, it’s not hard to substitute
If one goes singing about it.

What are the blessings YOU can focus on today?

Poldark, Episode Five: A baby changes everything

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Unlike most period dramas (or most TV shows, period), “Poldark” got the hero married off very early.  By the end of the third episode, Ross and Demelza were already at the altar.  This flies right in the face of the classic will-they-or-won’t-they tension that usually keeps viewers tuning in week after week.  Think of how long it took Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley to end up together, or Elizabeth and Darcy, or Sam Malone and Diane Chambers (I guess that last one shows my age).

So it says something that the story of Poldark ends up being so gripping even though the romantic leads have already gotten hitched.  Part of this is due to the little hints that maybe Ross still sees Elizabeth in a fond light, which makes me wonder where, if anywhere, these not-quite-buried feelings will go (I’ve read the first three novels in the series but I have no idea what happens after that).  I will say that if he does ANYthing to disrespect Demelza, he will suffer a swiftly dramatic fall from grace in my eyes that will make Francis’ steep downward plunge look like kids’ stuff.   Not even your great hair will save you, Ross!  You have been warned.

More thoughts:

*Aww, little baby fingers and toes!  I love seeing Demelza slip into a new mom-role and I adored the conversation she and Ross had at the end, where he talks about how everything bad that happens around them seems even worse now that he has a child.  Parenthood does that.

Also, how adorable was it when he had baby Julia in a sling and was walking along the cliffs with her? Forget the scything scene,  it’s moments like these that make  women melt.  Throw in a golden retriever and no woman on earth would be immune.

*It cracked me up when Demelza’s dad, who has apparently Found Religion, comes in and starts dissing Mean Girl Ruth for having such a low-cut neckline.  What a very satisfying taste of her own rude medicine.  And I love how she had to poke her husband to make him say, “Sir, I’m offended!”, which he did in a most unconvincing fashion.  Ha ha ha!

*Francis, Francis: did anyone ever tell you that gambling is a really  bad idea?  Giving jewelry to prostitutes is not such a good move either.   Alienating your wife won’t end well.  At least you got to show off your Latin by writing a classy epitaph on your mine.  And I love how Demelza asked Ross what “Resurgam” meant, because while I was pretty sure I knew, it was good to get confirmation.  (True confession: I don’t actually know Latin.  I am Catholic, which means I am good at faking it.)

*Can I get girly  for a moment and say that I really love all the curls these ladies have?

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I always wanted hair that curls like this.  And I guess Demelza’s lice never returned after Episode One.  That’s a good thing, because with Poldark’s flowing locks, he would be very vulnerable.

He's just asking for crawlers.

He’s just asking for crawlers.

*Speaking of hair: if we know George is bad because of his ugly ‘do, this new Matthew Sansome guy (the one who played Francis at cards and cleaned his clock) must be Satan in a waistcoat.  I have never seen such weirdly unattractive hair on a man.  Let’s all keep him on our radar.

*So Demelza manages to get Verity and her guy back together!  (or so it seems). I think the moral of the story is that if a girl does not want to get together with you, hire some rioting miners to thunder towards her, and then pull her dramatically  out of harm’s way.  You will a) look like a totally awesome manly hero and b) be able to say your piece without her running off.  A few minutes should do it.

Do you think Demelza was right to try to get them back together?  Would you have done the same, or left it alone?  And aren’t you excited for next week?

My great-grandmother’s poems

My great-grandmother, far right, with her children, 1944.  Left to right: Baxter (my grandfather); Walt; Bob; Helen; Carol Ann.

My great-grandmother (far right)  with her children, 1944. Left to right: Baxter (my grandfather); Walt; Bob; Helen; Carol Ann.

In her 1929 essay “Women and Fiction,” author Virginia Woolf observed that   “Often nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day.  The food that has been cooked is  eaten; the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world … [A woman's] life has an anonymous character which is baffling and puzzling in the extreme.”

It is certainly true that history tends to be written by and about men.  They have traditionally done the kinds of things that get written down for the ages … and the same, alas, has not always been true of women.

But some women leave behind written records of themselves.  I suppose blogging is that, for many of us; anyone trying to figure out the life of a modern woman needs only to visit her website or read her blog posts to have a glimpse into her interior life.  Many women keep diaries or journals that serve as a record of their inner lives.

And some women – like my great-grandmother — write poems.

My great-grandmother, Helen Cary Keyt Wolf, is someone I never had the pleasure to meet; she died in 1963.  But she was a prolific poet, and throughout her adult life she wrote poems by hand, all of which are collected in a little box she called her “Button Box” of poems.  Some are undated; the earliest dated ones are from the 1930s, the latest from the 1960s.

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My great-aunt Carol has transcribed them all, and my uncle Ken,  the family geneaologist, has compiled them on the family website.  They are a window into Great-Grandma Helen’s life: they focus on her five children, her struggles with money during the Great Depression, her optimism and the spirituality that guided her throughout her life.

This is one that really struck me:

Where God Is

by Helen Cary Keyt Wolf

Across the country far and wide
I see God on every side.
In mountain tops and cloudless skies
Or in another traveler’s eyes
In deserts vast and lovely place
Or cities’ myriads of faces.
I see God and feel Him near,
While winging high upon the land
Or on the beaches clean, white sand.
In deep blue lakes of mammoth size
And in a laughing baby’s eyes,
In forest green and peaks snow bound
Where e’er I look, he can be found.

Dated 8/15/53

God can be found in all things, said St. Ignatius hundreds of years ago, and that idea is echoed here.   I love this poem.  And though I never knew my great-grandmother, reading this makes her feel that much more real to me.

I’ll share more of the poems in future posts.  I’m glad we have them.  There is a big something to be said for recording ourselves in writing for our great-grandchildren and beyond, so they can know something of who we are, and of where they came from.