Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Detachment Parenthood

On October 4 we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, who is well-known for his love of poverty. Many of us associate poverty with those of meager possession, such as the homeless. Yet, a homeless man may still cling to his few “riches.” In contrast, a rich man—though very affluent—may not place his trust in his possessions and, if he lost that great wealth, he, like Job, would not become despondent.


So, to live the spirit of poverty, it’s not just about how little someone owns. It’s more about living a spirit of detachment. I have found that being a mother has afforded me many opportunities to grow in this important Christian virtue.



Physical Detachment


When I was pregnant with our first baby, I realized for the first time that my body is not really my own. As a pregnant mother, that literally meant physically sharing my body with another body: nourishing, growing, and supporting a whole new life, even if it meant feeling nauseous, achy, and exhausted. Then, after birth, physical detachment meant something else: breastfeeding that hungry newborn, morning and night, on demand. 


Sometimes physical detachment has meant making more space in my crowded bed for the toddler who needs some extra cuddles or offering a peacemaking hug to a child who is having a disagreement with me. It entails cleaning up messy diapers, mud-caked jeans, or the aftermath of a stomach bug. 


Physical detachment can look like letting go of always having a perfectly clean home or pristine furniture. I still try to keep an orderly home, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I will likely find crumbs under the couch or a pile of dishes next to the sink. Similarly, sometimes (often) in the morning I run out of time to do my hair and makeup in the mad rush to get kids to school on time. And that’s okay.


God gave me my body so I could use it for others. 


Emotional Detachment


Before motherhood, I considered myself entitled to certain things—personal space, yes, but also personal time and dreams. I don’t suggest that, now as a mother, I should have no free time or aspirations. Instead, these other things that bring me happiness are subservient to the happiness of my family. It’s not primarily about me and my enjoyment. “Me time” is not some inalienable right or good for its own sake, but a gift. It’s an opportunity for me to rest and recharge, in order that I can better serve my family.


Emotional detachment means that it’s not about what I feel like doing or what makes me happy. Some days, I have to sacrifice my free time to help a child study for a spelling test or read a book to a sick toddler. It’s a sacrifice, but one that frequently brings joy. I find a different kind of happiness in knowing that I’ve put clean sheets on their beds, laundered their clothing, and prepared them wholesome food to eat. 


My children bring me deep joy, but they cannot be my ultimate source of joy; I cannot become emotionally dependent on them. In that sense, while loving them with a fierce and ardent love, I have to lovingly detach.


My children are not my all. I find my joy first and foremost in God. With my love centered on Him, I can love my children better: I can be fully present, anchored in my faith, when my children experience turbulent emotions. That’s the goal at least … It's not always easy.


Spiritual Detachment


Every mom has hopes and dreams for her children—maybe to find their special someone or take over the family business. Ultimately though, my children are not really my children; they belong to God. God has a plan for my children … wondrous plans, better than any I could ever design or fashion. So spiritual detachment means stepping back and allowing God to show them His Will. I don’t want to block the path God wishes them to take, the path, therefore, that will lead them toward salvation.


Maybe this means my children will end up moving away or choosing a celibate vocation or marrying someone I didn’t envision for him or her. Am I willing to support my child, even if it’s not the personal plan I wished or desired?


Let Go, Let God


This desire to foster a spirit of detachment has grown within me as our family has grown. With each successive child I sense more and more that so much is outside of my control. I can’t determine if the stomach bug will spread to every child. I can’t control if my kids wake up in a good mood or bad. I can’t arrange a marriage for them with a spouse I pre-selected. 


But there is still much I can do. I can center my soul on God, the anchor that holds me still through the whirlwind that sometimes is life. I can trust that God will take care of and shepherd my children: He loves them even more than I. I can remember that I am also a child of the Father, bumbling around sometimes and making mistakes … I can offer forgiveness and mercy because I need those in return too. 


Most of all, I can detach because detachment is about faith. It’s detaching in a sense from everything so I can be attached ultimately to only one thing: God. With detachment, the storm can rage around me, but I can sleep beside Jesus on that boat in the middle of the sea. Jesus will be the one to rebuke the wind and waves; all I need to do is close my eyes and feel Him right here beside me. He will bring our boat, our little domestic church, to shore.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Lessons from East of Eden

 “Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel said. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. And I don’t understand either of them. I don’t understand them at all but I feel them.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about the decisions my husband and I make as parents. Then I reflect back on my own childhood and the various choices my parents made. I love my parents, I am grateful for everything they have done for me, and I admire their many virtues. At the same time, however, when I take a broad view of my childhood, I see the times they’ve made choices that had negative effects on me or my siblings. I think, given the opportunity to go back in time, my parents would have chosen quite differently. I don’t hold a grudge against them for these choices; they are, after all, only trying to do their best. I have made mistakes in my parenting. We’re not perfect. We’re only human, right?


There’s the statement that begs consideration: “we’re only human.” What does that mean … we’re only human. As humans, are we destined to fall? Despite my awareness of my parents’ shortcomings, regardless of my efforts not to make the same mistakes … will I repeat those same bad decisions anyway? Are we destined to repeat the sins of the past?


In a way, that’s what has happened since the beginning of creation. It’s part of our family history to fall: it’s written in our nature. Original sin very quickly manifested itself in actual sin: the fratricide of Abel, man’s first purposeful shedding of another man’s blood. The first sin of Adam and Eve and the fallen nature that came as consequence led to the first murder. And ever since, we’ve repeated these sins of our first parents. 


Even those who aren’t familiar with the actual story of Cain and Abel still understand and feel its message. Even the holiest and most devout of us is capable of great evil. Is there any way out? Are we destined to repeat the sins of our parents?


That is one of the main themes explored in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which he published in 1952. He considered it his greatest work, describing it to a friend as, “ … the longest and surely the most difficult work I have ever done... I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is 'the book.' … Always I had this book waiting to be written."



East of Eden follows three generations of the Trask family. That history demonstrates the generational sins of the family members, starting with lies. The devil was the first liar and it’s only fitting that, in a book loosely following the opening chapters of Genesis, lying should feature prominently. The father of the Trask family is named Cyrus and he builds his entire life on a life. Though he only fought in the Civil War for less than thirty minutes—receiving an injury shortly after his first battle began—Cyrus fabricates an entire other war history, spinning a tale that becomes true even in his own mind. Cyrus receives recognition, a position of power, and financial gain through the lies he creates about his war experiences. 


No one could call him a liar. And this was mainly because the lie was in his head, and any truth coming from his mouth carried the color of the lie.


Cyrus has two sons, Charles and Adam (the first set of brothers who represent Cain and Abel—notice, for example, how their names both start with the letters C and A). Adam, though quite different from his father due to his kind-hearted, gentle demeanor, struggles with truth as well. His wife abandons him and their newborn twin boys (the second set of brothers, Cal and Aron). Adam struggles with what he should tell his sons about their mother. His wise servant, Lee, encourages him to tell the twins the truth:


“It’s the lie I’m thinking of. It might infect everything. If they ever found out you’d lied to them about this, the true things would suffer. They wouldn’t believe anything then.”


Despite Lee’s advice, Adam decides to tell his sons that their mother died in childbirth … a falsehood that later has disastrous consequences. Adam’s son, Aron, can’t conceive of a world where his father would lie to him, and the idea that his mother may be alive threatens the stability of his existence.


Aron felt that something had to die—his mother or his world.

 

Another parental error that continues through the generations is the tendency to create and pursue an idealized version of reality. Adam fell in love with Cathy when she appeared on his porch step, brutally injured and barely alive. Adam created a vision in his mind of who Cathy was, a vision so far from the truth of her character: he saw an angel where there was only a devil. Adam married Cathy and then traveled to the Salinas Valley in northern California, determined to build himself an Eden. He wanted to create a perfect family in a perfect home: an idealized reality. Adam couldn’t see the great danger of this ambition, even when his neighbor—-prophetic Samuel Hamilton—tried to make it clear to him.


“I’m going to make a garden so good, so beautiful, that it will be a proper place for her to live and a fitting place for her light to shine on.”


Samuel said satirically, “It’s my duty to take this thing of yours and kick it in the face, then raise it up and spread slime on it thick enough to blot out its dangerous light.”


Adam’s son, Aron, falls into the same error. As a young boy, he meets Abra and immediately falls in love with her, determined to make her his wife one day. When Aron becomes a teenager he yearns for purity and goodness, virtues he pours on Abra, desiring them in her so much that he begins to lose sight of her true nature–her fallen nature. He is more in love with an idea than with a person. Abra, who is keenly aware of her own transgressions, can’t reciprocate a love based on such an unreality.


“He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t even want to know me. He wants that—white—ghost.”


The fathers in East of Eden also fail in forcing their children to fit a certain mold. Cyrus, a veteran, insists on Adam enlisting in the army despite Adam’s repulsion of violence.


He tested me and hurt me and punished me and finally he sent me out like a sacrifice, maybe to make up for something.


Even after his own negative experience of needing to follow his father’s career aspirations for him, Adam repeats the same dynamic with his own son, Aron. Adam wants his son to attend college. Aron gives college a try, but is disappointed and finds the experience not what he expected. Aron would like to quit and return to working on the family farm, but Adam won’t hear of it.


He felt let down and helpless, packed like a bird’s egg in the cotton of his father’s ambition for him.


Part of the reason these fathers insist on a certain path for their sons is due to the fact that they don’t truly know their sons: their hopes, dreams, and personalities. As a boy, Adam yearned for warmth, affection, attention, and understanding—things he never received from his stearn, imposing father. Yet, as a father, Adam repeats this style of parenting. For a long period of time he barely looks at his twin boys or even names them. As they grow, he wonders to himself that he barely knows them. His son, Cal, hungers for his father’s love, which feels distant and unretrievable:


When he was quite small Cal had discovered a secret. If he moved very quietly to where his father was sitting and if he leaned very lightly against his father’s knee, Adam’s hand would rise automatically and his fingers would caress Cal’s shoulder. It is probable that Adam did not even know he did it, but the caress brought such a raging flood of emotion to the boy that he saved this special joy and used it only when he needed it. 


Mirroring the book of Genesis most closely is the way these fathers seem to favor one child over another. It is Adam who Cyrus chooses for military life, not Adam’s brother Charles. Charles seethes with jealousy, desperate for the crumbs of Cyrus’s affection. Then, as a father, Adam boasts of Aron’s ambition and academic success in going to college–never acknowledging Cal’s ingenuity and hardwork. 


There are parallel gift-giving scenes too. Adam gave his father a puppy for his birthday, which he had found in the woods. Meanwhile Charles labored hard to earn enough money to buy Cyrus a new knife. Cyrus loved the puppy, training him and allowing him to sleep in the bedroom. The knife from Charles, however, remained discarded in a dresser drawer. In the next generation, Cal works to earn money for his father, a gift that is similarly unappreciated:


“I don’t want the money, Cal. … I would have been so happy if you could have given me—well, what your brother has—pride in the thing he’s doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn’t stack up with that.”


Adam doesn’t seem to learn from the experiences of his childhood, but instead repeats the same mistakes his father made while raising him. Adam’s son, Cal, struggles with doing the right thing, praying to be good but feeling an inner battle to choose evil. 


“Dear Lord,” he said, “let me be like Aron. Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be. If you will let everybody like me, why, I’ll give you anything in the world, and if I haven’t got it, why, I’ll go for to get it. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.”


Is Cal, like Cain before him, always going to choose what is evil? Can he—and we—ever become good or will we repeat the sins of before?


Cain slaying Abel, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600


Steinbeck seems to offer his readers hope. He suggests that those who are aware of their evil—precisely because of that awareness—can try to become good. Those who only see their goodness are blind to their fallen nature and, therefore, can never actually work at overcoming their shortcomings. True, we are all capable of great evil … yet, the other side of that coin is that we are also all capable of great good. We have a fallen nature; we are also free .. free to choose the good. 


Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil.


In one critical scene, Adam, his servant Lee, and Samuel talk about the story of Cain and Abel. Lee points to something God says to Cain: “Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Lee explains that the Hebrew translation of the verse uses the word timshel, which means “thou mayest.” It means God gives Cain a choice, the way is open for Cain to choose what is good. 


But “Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.


So will I repeat the mistakes of my parents as I raise my children? I have a fallen nature. I am going to make bad choices—maybe the same as my parents, but perhaps other ones. I will fail at times. But those errors don’t have to stand as the prominent moments of my parenthood. Through God’s grace, I can choose to keep trying. Then maybe my children will remember me most for my love, not my faults … as I remember my parents.


Monday, August 8, 2022

Not 'Goodbye' but 'See You Later'

 This summer I have spent time contemplating God’s call to Abraham: 

"Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

Instead of lazy days by the poolside or weekends camping, our family has spent these summer weeks packing. Like Abraham, my husband and I discerned a call from God to move our family, leave this place we’ve called home for twelve years (the area where I grew up), and venture to an unknown place. 

Moving a whole family is no small task. The stakes are high: a new school, new community, and new neighborhood. Like Abraham, I feel that we are walking by faith in this matter. My husband and I have spent the past two years discerning whether we should move and, now that the time has come, it feels almost unreal that we are actually doing it. We aren’t adventurous people by nature, but faith has emboldened us to take the leap and begin again anew. 

I’m comforted by the example of Abraham, who had to abandon the familiar and comfortable, setting out to a foreign place with his massive household. I also reflect on the Holy Family who had to move as well–under duress, no less. 

Still, the transition challenges us, both emotionally and pragmatically. As the piles of boxes around our house grow, I wonder to myself how we ever accumulated so much stuff, much of which we rarely use or even realized that we own! It creates a longing inside of me to live with less. Why not pass these items onto someone who could actually use and enjoy them? Combing through our belongings has challenged our family to grow in a spirit of detachment. “Do we really need this? We can’t take it all with us.” We can’t take it all on our move; we can’t take it onward to heaven either. 

 

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We’ve decided to sell many items instead of paying to move them. Our house grows emptier by the day: the patch of faded grass where the swing set once stood, the open space in our kitchen where we once had our table. We feel a sadness to part with the swings our children happily swung on and the table that was the site of many family dinners. Yet, there is freedom in it as well. I think of St. Francis of Assisi, clad in his simple robe and sandals, venturing forth with nothing, but filled with the abundant grace of God and the power of the Gospel. 

I walk around this building we have called home for the past few years. It has served us well: sheltered us and fostered our family’s growth. Two baby boys have come home here. I can become sentimental and then I must remind myself: home is wherever we are together. We made this building into our home; we can make a new home too. Our domestic church isn’t crumbling, but in making this move—a move that we hope will benefit our family in many ways, especially spiritually—our domestic church will strengthen. 

 

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 Plus, we always have a home, wherever we may journey. That is the beauty of the catholicity of the Catholic Church. The Church is our family. Where there is a tabernacle, there is our true home. Where there is a priest, we have a spiritual father. Even if we travel or move hundreds of miles, the parish we enter will celebrate the same sacrifice of the Mass as every parish in every country throughout the world. What comfort and familiarity that gives to each one of us! We have brothers and sisters wherever we go.

 As we make our rounds visiting friends we have known for many years, our hearts feel sad saying goodbye. We know many other families who are relocating at this time, some of whom belong to our current parish. As we assisted at Mass this Sunday, I gazed at the empty pews where those families once sat, now moved to other locations. 

I prayed for them and I prayed about our own upcoming move. I reflected on all the various goodbyes I’ve made throughout my life: goodbye to my brother who died, goodbye to my fiancĂ© who at that time lived states away, goodbye to teachers at the end of a school year. After Holy Communion, I continued my prayer and felt God reminding me that there are no “goodbyes” in heaven. In heaven, the saints are always together, with no parting, forever united in the perfect love of God. 

But even while here on earth, we have a taste of that togetherness, precisely at Mass, where the Communion of Saints are united in the perfect sacrifice of Christ. I felt it at that moment: the friends who have moved already … they were still there, in a different way, but there with us in spirit and prayer. My brother who died three years ago? Yes, he was there too, celebrating at the Wedding Feast in heaven. And when we move to a new place … we will still be here in prayer. 

 

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Maybe you aren’t moving this summer, but perhaps you face your own “goodbyes”: a college student leaving home for the first time, a family member on hospice care, children leaving a summer camp where they’ve formed close friendships, an employee leaving a job he or she has worked at for many years. Whatever the circumstance, the unifying thread of God’s unending presence and perfect love that transcends all time and space removes the permanence of any “goodbye.” 

And if you are moving, God will show your family a new land–just as He did with Abraham. We will go forth, in trust and faith, knowing that God will provide in His goodness and we will find family wherever we journey. To those we leave behind … “See you later” if not in this world, then in the next.


Monday, July 11, 2022

Are We There Yet?

 Do the words “family vacation” strike fear into your heart like they do mine? 

I enjoy the idea of a family vacation. Yet when the hypothetical becomes tangible, reality is far from my imaginings. Vacationing with little ones becomes exhausting and stressful for me. People don’t sleep as well in unfamiliar beds; long rides become risky business for a potty-training toddler; new environments challenge anxious kids, leading to meltdowns—automatic flush toilets, for example, became a potent nemesis a few years ago. Hotels or rental rooms are rarely baby-proofed, adding to the difficulty. 

Often I spend my vacation counting down the days until we can pull back into the driveway of our home! 

A friend once suggested using the term “family trip” instead of “family vacation” for this exact reason: vacationing with young kids is not relaxing! That doesn’t mean, of course, we shouldn’t vacation as a family. But maybe I need to adjust my mindset.

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If I enter the vacation expecting ease, constant smiles and laughter, and well-planned itineraries going off without a hitch … I’m going to meet with disappointment. However, if I view our trip supernaturally, the stresses can become sanctifying. I reflect on the Holy Family and their “family trips” from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then from Egypt to Nazareth. I’m sure they faced obstacles, but met them with joy, patience, and courage. 

This became my goal on a recent day trip our family took. Our toddler fittingly chose to wear a t-shirt that read: “Live for adventure”—certainly not a motto I naturally live by! But for the day, I would try. I gave a pep talk to the kids (as much as to myself) explaining that today was indeed an “adventure.” Maybe we would encounter annoyances or a change of plans, but we would meet them together as a family and work through them with the grace of God. We pulled out of the driveway, praying for safe travels and God’s blessing, especially for the virtue of patience! 

Prudent planning beforehand can remove some of the stress of traveling with little ones. This involves good scheduling: avoiding times of high traffic, for example, or taking advantage of nap times to drive. It helps to break up long drives with rest stops. Packing healthy snacks keeps little ones from getting hungry (sugar highs are not advisable within the confines of a vehicle!). We also have a bag of special “travel” toys we only use on family trips. Some of our favorites are Crayola’s travel easel, Melissa and Doug’s Water Wow books, a mini Lite Brite (for older kids), and maze books.


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So practical considerations help to facilitate an enjoyable family trip, but a supernatural mindset is likewise critical. As the day progressed, I worked to see God’s hand in our interactions. During the drive, the children barraged me with a steady request for books, markers, snacks, and quiet toys. My irritation grew: are they ever content? Then I reflected: am I ever content? How often am I the child, incessantly pouring out requests to my Father? Am I ever quiet enough to stop asking and just enjoy His presence? 

At one point, our 7-month-old began a steady wail from his car seat. We had recently stopped so I could nurse him and change his diaper; I knew he didn’t cry for those reasons. No, he had another need: he wanted me to hold him. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it … the agonized infant who can’t understand why Mom can’t just pick him up, the little cries increasing in a heart-wrenching crescendo. From his car seat in the middle row of the van, our baby couldn’t even see me. I felt helpless knowing we couldn’t stop on the highway.


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I prayed for him. As I prayed, I called to him, “Joseph, I’m right here!” 

I also thought: maybe God is saying that to us, too. Sometimes we’re upset and crying. We look and can’t see God—it feels like He has abandoned us. But the truth is that God is right here, driving and directing our life to its best possible course, even if it’s one we don’t understand or see. God wants to pick me up, kiss and comfort me, even more than I desired to cuddle and console Joseph.

Of course, my husband and I heard the predictable, “Are we there yet?” multiple times throughout our travels. A family trip has a goal of reaching a destination. Traveling is part of the experience, but it’s a means to an end. We are going somewhere. Children have a natural impatience to reach the destination. 

I wonder if God put that desire in our hearts for a reason. On a family trip or not, we all constantly journey, passing through this life to our real homeland in heaven. We should enkindle that fire of desire for heaven. 

At the end of each day, as you close your eyes to go to sleep, think of your heavenly home. “Are we there yet?” No, not yet. But are we getting ready? Are we headed in the right direction? And how many people are we helping along on the journey? 

I struggle with the unpredictability of family trips. However, life itself is unpredictable! I have to always remind myself: our plans are not our own. We all experience delays, detours, and roadblocks sometimes on the journey. We work through them together as a family, with God guiding us. Press on! “Live for adventure”—God’s adventure.


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Friday, June 3, 2022

Lessons from I Am Margaret

 Do I believe this enough to die for it?


In the future world of I Am Margaret by Corinna Turner, every citizen is Sorted at the age of eighteen. All young men and women must take a series of standardized tests. Those who pass are labeled New Adults; those who do not achieve a high enough score are “reAssigned.”



Margaret Verrall’s fate seems sealed: with numeric dyslexia, she can’t expect to score high enough on the math exam, despite her excellent results in the other subjects. As suspected, Margo is sent as a reAssignee to the Facility where she will spend the rest of her days exercising and getting her body into peak form. After that, those in charge will march her into the Lab where she will be dismantled, her organs harvested for use for someone more worthy of them. This world of the future takes our current society’s disrespect for life and carries it to its natural end.


​​To know there is nothing more to it. That a dead body is made up of only two things—useful parts and useless parts. That the human race is made up of the same—useful people and useless people.


Margo summons her Catholic faith to comfort and sustain her. She and her family belong to the Underground, the secret community of believers; in this dystopian world, Christianity and religious practice are forbidden, since their moral tenets obviously oppose the culture of death around them. Margo prays her rosary and her fiance, Bane, even manages to catapult a consecrated Host over the Facility’s wall so she can receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday (a nice gesture, but troubling as it seems disrespectful to handle the Eucharist in that way).


Still, after being forced to watch a family friend, Father Peter, undergo the cruelest punishment of all (Conscious Dismantlement), Margo struggles with one of her daily prayers. She has a hard time telling God that she will accept death, in whatever form He Wills it.


O Lord, I now, at this moment, accept whatever kind of death it may please You to send me, with all its pains and sorrows.


This is Margo’s internal conflict throughout the novel while the outer conflict involves forming a plan to escape the Facility. Escape becomes especially critical when Margo secretly enters the government’s annual contest: this year, a creative writing challenge. Margo sees this as an opportunity to tell the truth of her story, to help the people of her world understand that she has value and worth beyond her physical organs. 


And this is the simple truth. I am Margaret. I am just like you. If I were not, you would not be going to kill me.


But when she wins the contest and the truth is in print, her life hangs in the balance. Can her fiance help her and the others escape before Margo faces Dismantlement herself? And if she finds herself strapped down to a bed, the Doctor at hand to cut her open and remove her organs, does she have the moral courage to stay true to her faith or will she deny her beliefs in order to preserve her earthly life?


I Am Margaret is a heart-pounding read, especially the final third of the book, which I found particularly gripping and suspenseful. I admired Margo’s fortitude, selflessness, and leadership. I also appreciate how Turner aptly and poignantly incorporates other-abled characters, especially Jonathan, a blind young man, and Sarah, who has a mental disability. Turner does a good job pacing the narrative, too, placing dramatic events right where they are needed to jolt the reader’s sense of security.


That said, I found aspects of the book disagreeable—both on a pragmatic as well as moral level. The book would have profited from professional editing because the grammatical and punctuation errors distracted from the story (strange sentence structures, incorrect use of semicolons and commas, words missing, fragments functioning as sentences). I also felt annoyed by the overuse of character names (when you are having a conversation with someone, you don’t usually use their name to their face repeatedly) and the abundant italicizations. 


On a more serious note, parts of the plot puzzled me. Why would the government not actually read Margo’s book before it went to publication? Additionally, Margo’s fiance is not Catholic; he doesn’t belong to any religion actually and even aggressively tried to persuade Margo not to be Confirmed. Here is just one exchange between the two:


“You know, sometimes I get very jealous of those bits of crisp bread,” Bane would say, if I lamented too strenuously the missing of a Sunday Mass due to lack of priest. “It’s not bread, Bane, it’s Our Lord, you know that.” 


Yet, Margo never addresses this throughout the novel. Wouldn’t she express concern about the salvation of his soul? Or wouldn’t this create more conflict between the two?


The narrative bordered on gory at parts—perhaps it has too vivid imagery and description for some more sensitive readers. Other times the writing was downright crass. Consider this sentence just as one example:


And to give the fear the finger, I decided I would say the Act of Acceptance.


To me, this reads like a kind of desecration. How can a person pray while simultaneously profaning?


Also troubling are the many times that Margo places herself in situations of near occasion of sin. Jonathan, the blind boy, is moved to the girl’s room since the boys are too violent (which seems to be another plot hole—why are all the boys like this?). In order to disguise the fact that he is Catholic (and thus, avoid explaining why he won’t fornicate with any of the girls), Jonathan and Margo share the same bed at night. Although nothing seriously wrong happens between them, things are not entirely chaste either and the farce becomes more than just pretend as attraction between them escalates.


My body felt oddly hot as his bulk hovered over me in the dark. “I would have you safe…” he murmured, and his fingers moved to caress my tingling lips…


Margo’s thoughts are not chaste either:


What’d it said in that latest EuroGov pamphlet on spotting dangerous Underground members? ‘A freakish disinterest in sexual intercourse’? Hah, in their dreams! If I got out of here, Bane and a bed were pretty high on my list of priorities. Via a priest, of course. 


When my children are teenagers, this is not the kind of thing I would like them to read.


So, while I appreciated and enjoyed the premise of I Am Margaret, I found serious problems with several aspects of the writing and the plot. 


I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on martyrdom. I’ve often wondered if I would have the fortitude to stand firm in my faith, even if doing so meant a gruesome death. I find comfort in Our Lord’s words that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid in such an instance. 


I’ve also thought about the kinds of martyrdom. Not many of us are called to capital “M” Martyrdom: the actual sacrificing of our life for the faith. Yet all of us are called to lower case “m” martyrdom: the daily witness of denying ourselves, resisting temptation, and choosing the right (often harder) path … the picking up of our cross. The truth is that we should die to self every day, in all the small inconveniences, pinpricks, and annoyances. It’s this little martyrdom that trains the soul for the greatest Martyrdom to which any of us might be called. 




Monday, May 23, 2022

Lessons from White as Silence, Red as Song

 In White as Silence, Red as Song by Alessandro D’Avenia, Leo sees his world in color. Every emotion is a color in the mind of this sixteen year old boy. Red is passion and life. Red is the color of Beatrice’s hair, the girl in his grade with whom he’s desperately in love—though he hasn’t summoned the courage to speak with her just yet. Blue is the sea, the calming eyes of Silvia: his best friend and confidant. But worst of all is white: nothingness, silence, solitude. 




As the book begins, Leo seems like a normal teenage guy. He blasts his music, dares his soccer buddy, and races his scooter. His life is busy, fast, and noisy. Then a substitute teacher comes in—a “loser to nth degree,” according to Leo. Leo nicknames the substitute “the Dreamer,” for indeed, that is what the mentor challenges the young people to do:


 “Only when people have faith in what is beyond their reach—a dream—does humanity take steps forward that help it to believe in itself.”


Leo already has his dream: Beatrice. Dreams are red because they are “the blood of life.”


… you know that those things pass. But love doesn’t. Your red star always shines. Beatrice is there, love is in your heart, and it is amazing. It makes you dream, and nobody can take the dream from you because it is somewhere nobody can reach. I don’t know how to describe it: I hope it never goes away.


But Leo’s dream crumbles to pieces when Beatrice doesn’t show up for school for a few days and Leo learns the terrible news that Beatrice has leukemia. Leo’s life suddenly crashes, both literally and figuratively. Racing through life unaware of what the events around him really mean, Leo needs to put on the brakes … but his scooter’s brakes are broken so he crashes and lands in the hospital, immobile with his arm in a cast.


As Beatrice’s health declines, Leo sees his dream evaporating before his eyes. He struggles to understand Beatrice’s suffering and how God can allow it. But dreams almost always involve obstacles and often manifest and develop in ways we don’t expect at first.


White as Silence, Red as Song is a departure from my usual book of choice and at first, it took some adjusting for me to be in the mind of a high school boy. The short chapters are a running train of thought from Leo, varying from the sometimes menial (and humorous) details like taking Terminator—his oversized dachshund with an incontinent bladder—out for a walk to much deeper, philosophical reflections. 


I’ve never been a high school boy, so I can’t verify if this is indeed true, but I did question some aspects of the plot. Do teenage boys really fall in love with someone with whom they’ve had no previous communication? Are they also so unperceptive that they can’t read the obvious clues that their female bestie harbors romantic feelings for them?


Other parts of the plot felt dead-on accurate. Leo’s first recourse when he has a question is to look it up on Wikipedia. (I can empathize, as I’m prone to do this myself!) His insecurity as an adolescent rings so true as well: “I feel so ugly I just want to hide in my room, never looking at myself in the mirror. White.” Yet, at other points, Leo feels like a lion, ready to take on anything. Such are the dramatic highs and lows of the teenage years.


My favorite aspect of the book is the symbolism of the colors, particularly when they take on a theological tone. Leo despises white, a sentiment that becomes stronger when he learns that white blood cells are killing Beatrice. So he donates his blood to help her. The priest who teaches at his school then explains that blood cures people, just as Christ cured people from sin by shedding His blood on the cross. The crucifix is “a letter written to mankind, signed with the blood of God, who saves us all with that blood.” What a powerful and moving imagery, juxtaposing the healing nature of Leo’s donated blood—freely given out of love—and the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross.



I also reflected while reading this book about the importance of a good education in the life of a teen. Leo attends a classical high school, which he complains about due to the rigorous nature of his classes and needing to learn Latin and ancient Greek. Regarding his school, Leo writes that it “breaks your balls from dawn till dusk.”


Yet, it’s through ancient Greek he learns the words leukos (white) and aima (blood), thus forming the word leukemia. Piercing through the noise of video games and rock music is the elevating influence of the books and history Leo learns at school: Dante’s The New Life and the siege of Rome, for example. You can see these ideas and thoughts infiltrating his own thoughts: Leo makes connections between his life experiences and what he is learning in school. 


As Leo struggles trying to understand what is happening to Beatrice, the staff at his school provides counsel and wisdom. The Dreamer, who began as a “loser” substitute teacher, becomes someone Leo can confide in and become vulnerable with, crying about his broken dream and heartache for Beatrice. Meanwhile, the priest at the school challenges Leo to rethink his perception. In a powerful exchange, Leo asks the priest how someone can love God when no one can even touch Him. The priest replies that we touch Christ’s body in the Eucharist, to which Leo counters that the Eucharist is just symbolic. “You think I’ve put my life at stake for a symbol?” the priest counters. 


The people at this classical school become critical presences in Leo’s life, discipling him alongside his parents in helping him understand, process, and influence his world for good. They form his mind and prompt him to question some of his assumptions. I had to wonder to myself: what if Leo didn’t attend this school? What if he didn’t have the presence of the Dreamer or the priest in his life? What if he attended a school that taught the Common Core? Would his character arc have differed? 


One of the biggest factors for parents when looking to buy a home is the available schools nearby … and for good reason. A child’s education is one of the strongest influences in his or her life. Our family relocated for the purposes of schooling: we wanted our children to attend a classical school. The more I understand classical education, the more I esteem and appreciate it. A Christian classical education seeks to form disciples, to imbue wisdom, to treasure what is true, good, and beautiful. It is not just about passing certain standards in order to get into a prestigious college, though classical education does hold the students to a high level of excellence; that excellence, however, is for God. 


I wish all teenagers were as blessed as Leo to find themselves surrounded by such holy, enriching mentors, of past and present. In a world of so much noise, we all need guidance and support to remain still in the silence of white: white space that we can fill with dreams that run red as blood.