Thursday, May 28, 2020

How "Joker" can call us to live out Catholic Social Teaching

"Don't expect a happy ending," the librarian warned me. I reassured him that I was in no way expecting anything happy in the movie I had just checked out, then I cheerfully walked home, a copy of  Joker (Warner Bros. 2019) tucked in my bag. When this movie first came out, I was unsure if I wanted to see it. It was highly controversial and extremely dark, I knew. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle it. After hearing about the movie from some friends, I decided that I'd watch it....when it came out on DVD. Finally, after all these months, it was time. 

I hunkered down in front of the screen as the movie began, and soon was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. I had expected a dark movie, but I had not been expecting a movie that would grip my heart. As I watched the tragedy of aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (spectacularly portrayed by Phoenix Joaquin), I was struck by how human he was. Other renditions of the Clown Prince of Crime portray him as the physical manifestation of sheer evil and insanity, or as some kind of caricature. However, as Arthur struggles to work, devotedly care for his mother, and simply live in the face of poverty, mental illness, and discrimination, he becomes someone we can recognize. Someone that, perhaps, we've passed on the street or seen in the library. 

As the credits began rolling at the conclusion of this film, I found myself thinking about how this movie doesn't have a "happy ending"--so we, the viewers, should work to bring about a happy ending in our communities. A fiction movie, Joker follows the decline of the man who becomes an infamous villain. Yet, this movie tells a true story, one that plays out in countless cities across America. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Permission to Fail: Granted

I fail to recall what the article was even about, but I still remember the way I inwardly cringed. As I read about one young adult's professional accomplishments, and about the definitive way that we can all achieve these goals, I was struck by how familiar the tone was. This looks a lot like something I would write, I thought. Not the same content, necessarily, but the polished, overly-confident, "I'm not even thirty yet but I've figured everything out and I'm succeeding at life" voice struck too close to home for my comfort. It's good to present ourselves well, to be professional, and to be coherent. Yet, there's this trend I've been noticing in myself and in other young adults: an inclination to avoid any semblance of failure--until we've hit the stride of professional success. 

Those "I graduated from college a year ago and TRUST ME, my life was a mess for a month, but then, my Tweet went viral and now I have a huge social media following and a hit podcast and a forthcoming book" stories have grown wearisome for me. I value and appreciate these people (often fellow Millennials) and I think it is wonderful that they are creating and sharing exciting work in the world. However, the tendency to always polish up our lives and stories, and to immediately put a rosy glow of success on anything that slightly resembles a failure, is creating a rather unfortunate cultural climate. 

There's the pressure--both external and internal--to constantly create and market content. There's also the habit of using words and phrases to make ourselves appear in the very best light possible all the time. The inundation of rosy images and "success stories" splashed all over social media can be nice and inspiring, but-combined with all the pressures to succeed-it can create an atmosphere that does not allow for failure. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Why I read secular nonfiction

I read a tremendous amount of books a year. I love diving into the written word and letting my mind and heart be captured by the stories that have been told. I have a deep love for fiction, and I enjoy curling up on the couch and letting myself be swept into another world or culture as carefully crafted characters are thrust into unexpected events. Fiction kindles my imagination and warms my heart, and novels ranging from cozy stories about small-town life to creepy vampire novels have entertained me for hours on end. Yet, as much as I enjoy fiction, there is a special place in my heart for nonfiction. Some people, like me, read a mix of both fiction and nonfiction books, but I have encountered many people who hold tightly to their novels and refuse to glance at any shelves organized by the Dewey Decimal System. Some of these people will make an exception for religious nonfiction, because they can see a direct spiritual benefit from exploring books about prayer, Scripture, and God. But secular nonfiction? What good could ever come from reading that

Actually, quite a bit. 

I used to avoid the nonfiction section of the library like it was my worst nightmare. Nonfiction was, I assumed, boring: a bunch of how-to books or dreary tomes about scientific discoveries. However, at some point in my teenage years, I grew exasperated at the selection of fiction books in my library. In the "teen" area, most of the books appeared to be about high school romance or sparkly vampires. I mainly combed through the shelf of Brian Jacques Redwall novels, but after a while, I felt a little frustrated by the same formula being used over and over again; I wanted something different. I found myself drifting over to the adult fiction area and began reading through Christian inspirational romance novels, but after a while, even these began to grow stale for me. So, one day, I took a step towards those Dewey Decimal-labeled shelves. And another...and another. This was a mysterious realm for me, so I reached for something rather familiar: Shakespeare's plays (which, yes, are often shelved in the "nonfiction" area, close to works of Shakespearean analysis and criticism). For a while, I mainly stayed in that aisle, while still moving back into the fiction area to grab novels to read or reread. Over the years, I began to let nonfiction books sprinkle into my reading stack occasionally, but I still mostly stayed in the familiar territory of fiction. However, at some point, I found myself moving into the nonfiction section frequently. I haven't calculated the totals, but I know that I read at least as much nonfiction as I read fiction, if not more.

Why do I keep coming back to secular nonfiction books over and over again? I suppose there are many reasons that contribute to the way I inhale these books, but overall, I've noticed that reading secular nonfiction has been good for my soul. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Trials and Joys of Building a Homeschooling Network

My three-year-old's voice rang out from the stacks of library books we had recently acquired, thanks to the availability of curbside pickup: 

"Do you know what a is for?" he asked-posing the question to no one in particular-as he enunciated the short vowel sound clearly. "It's for apple and spat." 

I grinned, a feeling of sense of delight. Well, despite my failure to do any kind of structured letter work lately, he seems to be learning just fine, I thought. 

Deep in my heart, I believe that most kids have a natural love for learning that we need to nourish and encourage. My firstborn is no exception; he loves learning, and frequently asks me to present the stack of letter flashcards to him. However, in the past several weeks-as I've fought to cope with this worldwide pandemic-I've responded to his request with "maybe later," or "we'll have to see"--and we never seem to get around to the flashcards. I keep reminding myself that there will be plenty of time for our more formal work in the weeks and months ahead, so instead of getting worked up about not being in a good "school routine" where he regularly has "preschool time" like some of his peers, I'm filling the days with books and nature walks, prayer and playtime. And, as this recent incident showed me, he is learning a tremendous amount right now. 

At this time last year, I was in a bit of a panic. I was hearing about some amazing homeschooling opportunities that friends were involved in, and I felt exasperated when I was informed that my kids were "too young" for some of these opportunities. I was struggling to find our place and path in this whole crazy journey of homeschooling. During this time, I had the unexpected and wonderful blessing of being able to speak with the fabulous Lisa Mladinich on her new homeschooling podcast. Inspired by my conversation with her, I jumped into the coming school year feeling excited and empowered. 

As I look over the past several months, I am amazed at how God has worked. Yes, we've had some fantastic experiences with other families, but even before any of that took place, God helped me through a mindset shift. My change in perspective as I look to a specific guiding principle in our homeschooling journey has been monumental. I had the great gift of getting to share my "aha!" moment, and much of my journey, on a recent podcast episode with Lisa. Here's part II of "Building a Network When Your Children are Small"

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

An Open Book: April 2020 Reads (Hoopla Edition)

A new month has rolled around, which means it's time to join in Carolyn Astfalk's An Open Book link-up! Towards the end of March, I faced a dilemma: I heartily dislike e-books, and I still had a couple physical books laying around I hadn't read-but I wanted some completely new material. Something fresh and exciting, and with all the libraries closed down, I needed to find a solution. After seeing yet another e-mail from the library advertising Hoopla, I decided to take a breath and try out an e-book. And another...and another. 

Guys, I now love Hoopla. 

Not only is it a very convenient resource, but the site includes some books that I have wanted to read for YEARS, but have been unable to find print copies of in libraries or local stores. There are some fantastic books on there, and now my Hoopla TBR list has at least a couple more books on it. E-books still are not my favorite method of reading, but especially in those long weeks of the library being closed, they were a huge blessing. Our library just began curbside pick-up a couple days ago (!!!!), so I have been reading ALL the books that I put on hold months ago, but I still have a huge list on Hoopla that I will gradually work through.  

So, let's get to the books! All of the titles on this list (except for one, which is noted) are available on Hoopla (if your library is connected with Hoopla, check it out!) or are free kindle downloads on Amazon (I think one was part of the Prime Reading library). 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

7 Stages of Life in a Pandemic

In a nutshell, here's how the last six weeks have gone for me: 

1. Denial
Everyone is overreacting! Who cares about a virus? Hang out with like-minded friends and commiserate about how the country has gone insane. Visit the library and check out a ridiculous amount of books, "just in case" the unthinkable happens and the system closes down. 

2. Shock
Maybe I should look into this whole virus-pandemic issue, at the very least so I can know what's closed and what's still open to the public. As the reports, articles, and Angry Facebook Posts start splashing across the screen, things suddenly become very real. When the public library closes and the archbishop announces the suspension of public Masses, you know that Something is Very Wrong. 

3. Sadness
Overwhelmed by everything, you plunge into a deep sadness. You may even break down into tears as you try to comprehend life in the foreseeable future. You decide that, since the most important things are closed or cancelled, there's no reason to even check the internet any more for updates (plus, the internet is making you too depressed). 

4. Numbness
The state has closed down, it's pouring rain outside, and you have two young children to occupy. So, you fall apart. The stress of the world is just too much, and you get a pretty bad cold and even though it's not a terrible sickness, you can't function. You sit on the couch or lie in bed while your children run and throw toys and do who-knows-what-else, but you don't even care. 

5. Escapism
Everyone is talking about Living Your Best Quarantine Life, so you decide that instead of doing nothing, you should do something, too. You decide to escape into the glamorous world of 1920s Australia by binge-watching a murder mystery as you ignore the problems of the current situation and cope with not having any more library books to read. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

O Truly Blessed Night

This is the night
that even now, throughout the world, 
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones...

It wasn't the night any of us had foreseen when Lent began. Dressed in our Easter finery, excitement building from the quiet expectation of Holy Saturday, we stood in front of the screen, watching. The priest onscreen stood in the cavernous space of the almost-empty church. By the flickering light of the Easter candle, he sang the Easter Proclamation.

This is the night, 
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld... 

Instead of solemnly standing in a packed church, our faces glowing by the light of the candles that the congregation held, we now stood by a couch, our gazes shifting from our spinning, scampering children to the livestream that played on the computer. In the early days of Lent, when I thought longingly of the Easter Vigil-my favorite liturgy of the entire year-this is not what I imagined. And yet--

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Miss Phryne Fisher can be awful-but I can, too: A Lenten Reflection

A mystery show following a free-spirited feminist detective in 1920s Australia may not a likely avenue for spiritual reflection, yet there I sat. My eyes were riveted to the screen, and my soul ached with the realization that aspects of the show's heroine reminded me of the worst parts of myself.

I recently stumbled across Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and I was hooked from the start. Colorful characters, gorgeous costumes, and intriguing murders drew me in-not to mention the sassy, spunky, carefree Miss Phryne Fisher. Yet, what really captured my attention is the relationship between Phryne and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Throughout the course of the show's three seasons (I am trying to ignore the unfortunate debacle that is Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears), layers upon layers of complexity build as these two characters investigate murders together.

Amused, I giggled at Jack's frustration every time Phryne shows up at his murder investigations. Delighted, I watched Jack and Phryne develop a deep respect for each other and their work. Happily, I observed the sparkling onscreen chemistry that dances between Jack (played by Nathan Page) and Phryne (played by Essie Davis) in countless glances, gazes, and the very occasional touch. Frustrated, I wondered when these two were going to enter an exclusive relationship--and if that would be even possible with Phryne's attitude towards love and sexuality.  

Jack, though he is no saint, is a good and decent man. He strives to do the noble thing, even when it is difficult. He is loyal and committed, convicted and fairly morally upstanding. In sharp contrast, Phryne is averse to romantic commitment and-contraception close at hand-she entertains a long parade of men who pass through her bedroom door. Yet, her friendship with Jack deepens. There are scenes when they share a beautiful, deeply intimate moment of friendship, and you can easily see how much Jack cares for her--but just a few scenes or an episode later, Phryne will slide in bed with yet another man. Hence, my feelings of exasperation. After sharing such vulnerable moments and deep camaraderie with Jack, how could she run off for brief flings with other men?  

As I grimaced at Phryne (and, admittedly, at Jack a couple of times-he has his own moments of weakness), I realized how much of myself I see in Phryne's cavalier attitude. Whenever she turned from the steadfast Jack to whatever other man had caught her eye, it was painful to see her act in such a horrible manner. Unfortunately, I've done something similar: Time after time, I have turned my back on a deeply passionate, constantly faithful, and loving God. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

An Open Book: March 2020 Reads

It's a new month, so that means it's time to look back on the books I read in the past few weeks. Going through my list, I noticed that the books I tackled in March are, in general, on the lighter side in contrast to many of the books that I began 2020 with. I guess after John Steinbeck and Walker Percy, I needed a little bit of a break! I also noticed that I didn't read quite as many books as I thought I would, and I blame this on our libraries being closed but mostly on the fact that I recently got hooked on the Australian show, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. 

But, I shall talk about Phryne Fisher another day (and I WILL, don't you worry)-for now, let's talk about books! Make sure to check out Carolyn Astfalk's link-up for even more literary discussions!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

With Gratitude for this Beautiful Life

Last week began on a really hard note. Our city's whole area began gradually closing down, little by little. The zoo closed. The science museum closed. The entire library system closed. Then, we received news that all public Masses for the foreseeable future (including Easter) were suspended. On top of all of this, rain poured down, hour after hour. A bad cold raged through my body, and sniffling and exhausted, I slumped on the couch as my children ran circles in the living room, tossing toys this way and that. I was having a difficult time.

I will note that homemade pizza makes a crazy/overwhelming/miserable start to
a week much, much better. We recently purchased a pizza screen,
and I can't believe I waited this long to start making pizza this way!
On Wednesday, the sun pushed aside the rain for a little while, so we managed to escape to a park and explore, but within a couple of hours, the downpours returned. The next morning dawned, the Solemnity of St. Joseph. I was excited to celebrate the great feast, but was disheartened when my body continued to be wracked with coughing. My husband took our oldest to church to pray, while I stayed home. I opened my worn breviary to pray the Liturgy of the Hours-a practice that I sadly have neglected for many weeks now. As the familiar words slipped through  my lips, rain pounded on the ground outside, dragging my spirits low. And then, I prayed:

Every shower and dew, bless the Lord. 
All you winds, bless the Lord. 
Fire and heat, bless the Lord. 
Cold and chill, bless the Lord. 
Dew and rain, bless the Lord.
(Daniel 3:64-68)

Monday, March 16, 2020

While Everyone Else Stockpiled Toilet Paper, I Stockpiled Library Books

Last Thursday, I stood at a park downtown with a friend of mine, talking about all of the hysteria surrounding COVID-19. As the sun shone and our kids scrambled up and down the hills, we discussed the response of so many people in other parts of the country. The nation was going crazy, but at least Oklahoma wasn't panicking. 

The next morning, my kids and I strolled through the doors of the library, eager for the "parachute play" program. A sign came into view, announcing the cancellation of all library programs. Well, I guess that makes sense-but at least the library is still open! We spent a lovely hour at the library looking at books, playing on the colorful rugs (since all of the toys were taken out) and chatting with the librarians. The whole environment felt like a ghost town, but it was still our beloved library and felt like another home. One of the librarians mentioned to me that she doubted that the system would close, but just in case I decided to grab an extra (thick) novel. My children grabbed book after book after book, and we hauled a huge stack home. On Sunday evening, once the kids were in bed, I sat down at my computer. I'm going to request a bunch more books, just to ensure that I have enough books in case the system closes down, I thought.