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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Marriage Lies and Mrs. Mike

One of the most common misunderstandings of marriage, and romantic relationships in general, is that you should never have to change yourself for the one you're with. Be yourself. Don't compromise who you are. Don't let him change you. If you have to change to be happy with him, he's not worth it and he doesn't deserve you.

The thing is, to a certain degree, all of those things are true. But it all depends on how you go about it. Yes, you should be yourself. Yes, you shouldn't allow someone else to forcibly compromise who you are. You shouldn't let him change you. But what it the best version of being yourself? Being someone who chooses to change for someone else. Being someone who sacrifices their own will for the sake of another. Being the you that changes for him.

(Pronouns - I'm a woman, so I'm writing from a woman's perspective. Guys, in case you're wondering, you have to choose to change for her, too. It's a two-way street.)

A few years ago, on one of my visits to see my Sister sister in the convent, I was having tea in the kitchen with one or two of the older Sisters. One of them asked me, "So, sweetie, do you think you might have a religious vocation, too?" "Well, no, not really, Sister." "So, then, tell me about the men in your life!" And suddenly there were five or six bright-eyed cheery little old Sisters gathered around me, giving me dating advice from their walkers. What a situation. One piece of advice has stuck with me, though, not because I necessarily have any control over it, but because of the wisdom nugget in there: "Well, dear, just make sure you don't wait too long. If you do, you'll be too set in your own ways and you'll never be able to change enough for each other. You have to grow up together, you know."

Have you ever read Mrs. Mike? It's one of those books that my sisters and I read a million times over in high school. I picked it up again recently because I don't have to give it much thought. Is it "high literature"? Well, no. But it's an easy read, and a really really good read. The heroine is Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a young woman from a Boston-Irish family who goes to live with her uncle in the Canadian wilderness. She ends up marrying Sergeant Mike Flannigan, leaving her family in Boston, and travelling far out into the frozen tundra to live with her new husband. As you might imagine, it is not an easy adjustment, and at one point she has a bit of a nervous breakdown. Mike is worried for her, and tells her that night that he's taking her back east in the morning; they'll work something else out together. But here's what happens:
Mike and I lay awake with our own thoughts. And in the morning he took me on, not back. It was that night that I really became his wife, for I knew that this white land and its loneliness were a part of Mike. It was a part I feared, that I didn't know or understand. But I knew that I had to know it and understand it, and even love it as Mike did. Because I wanted to be like Mike and then, after our lives had been lived, maybe I'd be Mike.
When he held me, we were crushed into one, one body with one heart beating through us. And that's the way it had to be with our minds and our feelings. It was much harder because they get tangled in thoughts and caught in emotions. But in the end that's the way it had to be.
So I lay there, my second night in Taylor's Flat, and told myself, "If you love Mike, you'll love the things that go with him. And if you can't love them, you'll understand them -- and until you do you'll keep the fight to understand them in yourself, and not be carrying on and worrying him like you did tonight." I was cold and trembling under my covers for fear I'd talked to myself too late, that Mike would really send me back.
But Mike must have been talking to himself as hard as I was to myself, and he must have decided that I was still worth the trouble I caused, because in the morning he said nothing about sending me home. 
One night cannot dispose of a feeling or settle an attitude, and many a night on the way up to Hudson's Hope I had to fight back the thoughts of my home and my mother and the tears that came with them. Yet, it was a happy time and an exciting one, full of love and adventure and a new life opening up. The fears grew smaller, and all they could do was peck at my happiness.
Mike told me I was stronger. I knew I was. "And you've adjusted quickly in a country that is usually too hard for women." He was proud of me, and he acted proud in front of the men because where were their wives?
It's easy to crush bodies together. Melding minds and feelings into a unified one is a little trickier. But that's what's got to happen. Time for a platitude that we all keep forgetting: Love is sacrifice. It means cutting bits of yourself off because something else is more important than those bits. So get to it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Wiseblood Books

Confession: I don't get short stories. Poems, by and large, are short snippets, a steady, heavy look at one big thought, saying one thing concisely. Novels create a whole world, an extended universe. However, as I've said to some of my friends, when I think of short stories, I see teenage chickens.

Yes. Teenage chickens. Newly hatched chicks are one of the sweetest things in the whole wide world. Grown up chickens, while they might be rivaled only by sheep in their level of stupidity, and by pigs in their stench, nonetheless have a certain dignity. But no one ever talks about the in-between-chicken. He is an ungainly creature. And that is my frustration with short stories.

I am, of course, frustrated by my frustration, because there are authors whom I adore, such as Flannery O'Connor, who wrote lots and lots of short stories. I've tried. Really I have. And if bourbon and good company and reading them out loud together can only muster feelings of mild appreciation rather than a delighted insatiable desire for more, well, then I guess I'm stuck. So I decided years ago to increase my acquaintance with O'Connor by reading Wiseblood, one of her two novels.

Like Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, she'll make your head spin as you attempt to decipher simple plot lines. Like Graham Greene and Robert Penn Warren, she'll make you feel sticky and dirty in the heat and the dust. And like Walker Percy, she'll put you at your ease and discomfit you all at the same time by how unfortunately true her writing is:

"That's the trouble with you preachers," he said. "You've all got too good to believe in anything," and he drove off with a look of disgust and righteousness.

Like I said, it was several years ago that I read Wiseblood, but she's been on my mind lately because, have you heard? Farrar, Straus and Giroux are publishing one of her journals! There is an article in the The New Yorker that has some long excerpts from it; I recommend whetting your appetite. Is it outrageous for me to say that part of the reason I'm so excited about this is that I identify with her? Let me explain; she's a young woman trying to figure out how and why and what to write, and wants desperately to do well at it and do it for the right reasons:

"Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. . . Don't let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story."

In all my searching and excitement for this book release, I came across another publisher who seems to be on the right track. Look into Wiseblood Publishing; they're doing a good thing.

I'm afraid that's all I've got for you today. I started my midwifery training three weeks ago, and my time and head are full of bio flashcards, placentas, and the distinctions between APA and MLA citations. Which I like! But, you know, not everybody wants to read about placentophagy. I'll spare you the details.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Millennial Little Women

I watched  Little Women with one of my roommates last night. Both of us are at the point where we've seen it so many times that it's difficult not to recite it as we watch it, and bits and pieces of the script come up in every day conversation on an alarmingly regular basis. This is the roommate with whom, in college, I watched this whole movie in ten minute segments on youtube on her phone. I've been told this means we're addicts; I prefer to think of us as budget-restricted devotees.

It had been a while, though, since the last time I saw it, so of course lines that I thought I knew suddenly made new sense; I heard different things than I've heard before. Besides, I think I used to be a Beth, and it's possible that I morphed into a Jo somewhere during the last 5 years.


The part that really got me is when she's talking with her mother after telling her dearest friend that no, she doesn't want to marry him. She's fretful and unhappy and feeling lost and confused, and it doesn't help matters that her aunt has taken her little sister to Europe instead of taking her:
"Of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me. Why shouldn't she? I'm ugly and awkward, and I always say the wrong thing. I fly around, throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals! I love our home, but I'm just so fitful that I can't stand being here! I'm sorry - I'm sorry, Marmee - there's just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I can't. . . and I just know I'll never fit in anywhere."
"Jo. You have so many extraordinary gifts! How can you expect to lead an ordinary life? You're ready to go out and find a good use for your talent. Although, I don't know what I shall do without my Jo. Go, and embrace your liberty, and see what wonderful things come of it."
Okay, I know this is a sentimental movie. But oh my goodness, is it just me, or is this the eternal story of the flustered 20-something? It's not news that every generation has their own challenges, and that they think that their set of challenges is bigger and more monumental than the challenges any other generation has faced before. Ever. And this is what I keep hearing about my own generation, those of us who have been dubbed, "The Millennials." We're hopelessly floundering around our 20's, with little direction, mediocre accomplishments and nothing to be proud of or to hold on to. And no one has ever been so lost as we are now, right?

Well, not exactly.

If I had twelve sons, I might name every one of them Augustine. (Kidding. Maybe.) Born in 354, he didn't figure out his life till he was 32. In his own words, with my emphasis added,
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. . . You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance. source
Fast forward almost 900 years. In 1181, a cloth merchant's wife gives birth to a boy whom he names Francesco. He's fairly well spoiled, likes throwing crazy parties as much as Augustine did, and wants adventure in the great world. His big turn around happened gradually during his mid-twenties, and what a turn around it was. Luckily for Francis of Assisi, he didn't end up living too long; he did a good job of making an ascetically penitential life for himself, and earned, as far as I can tell, an early retirement.

Go another 500 years. A wild Spanish knight named Ignatius is wounded in battle, and has to lie in bed for months waiting for his leg to heal up. Bored out of his mind, the 31 year old picks up the book someone left on his nightstand. Thus, in 1521, were the Jesuits born, totally kick-ass missionaries of Christ imbued with a soldier's love of discipline and order. Have you seen The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons? Go watch it, and thank Ignatius of Loyola for what he started. (And maybe ask him to help get the Jesuits back to their former glory; they've hit a bit of a rough patch.)                  

So, I have two things to say to you, my fellow millennials.

First, get over yourself. Your challenges are really nothing special in terms of the scope of the universe and all the people who have lived here and what they've had to deal with and figure out. Everybody has to fight against something to know his own place. If we didn't, why then how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable would seem to us all the uses of this world (name that play!). Warning: sometimes they (those uses) will seem that way anyway. For example, bear in mind that figuring it out might take being imprisoned (St. Francis) or getting your leg mauled and lying on your back for a year (St. Ignatius). Get used to the idea, and buck up.

Second, you yourself are actually something pretty special. God never made anybody with the thought, "Now I will create a thoroughly mediocre individual whose highest possible level of accomplishment is unenthralled complacency." If you are anything like the rest of us, which you are, you'll hit that moment of crisis comparable to Jo's. A good life was offered to her; a man she loved, one of her dearest friends for years, asked her to marry him. But she knew it wasn't right, somehow. She didn't know what was; all she knew was that she was fitful and felt awkward and ugly and out of place and had to do something not that. Luckily for Jo, she had a wonderful mother who told her the right thing. She was meant for extraordinary things. She had talent, she had desire, she had passion, and she had an intellect. She didn't take the first thing that was offered simply because it was offered and seemed like a "good enough" idea. She went out to test herself and to make her fortune in the world -- and that is a story as old and lasting as the hills.

Millennials, your existential crises are nothing more or less than the eternal plight of the human condition. You have a multitude of comrades in the battle. Rise to meet it, revel in it, and be something extraordinary.