"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Eva at 10 Months!

I've been having some computer problems here, so unfortunately I have only one video to share. When Eva was ten months, one day old, she walked about eight steps in a row - the cutest thing ever. Since that day she seems to prefer walking. She really delights in it, even when she doesn't go precisely her intended direction. The video above, however, is not of Eva walking (since that video is still trapped on my frozen computer), but of Eva signing "all done."

We tried to teach Maia sign, but she's so verbal that she never signed anything she didn't also say. Eva, on the other hand, waves hi and bye, nods for yes, and now can tell us she's all done. In the above video I had asked her if she wanted more applesauce and she signed all done. I thought it was just a fluke, so I tried to feed her some more and she kept turning her head away. There she was, working so hard to communicate with a sign-word I had taught her, and it took her several attempts for me to figure it out!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the Idiosyncracies of Parishes (and Priests)

Ah, well, there's nothing like a move to another parish to help one reflect on the idiosyncracies of parishes. Because I am the petty, spiritually immature type who needs to grow in holiness when it comes to concentrating during Mass, I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks thinking about the differences in parishes - in particular the one I came from and the one I have arrived at, both of which are named for Marian dogmas. We went from Immaculate Conception to Assumption.

It seems to me that there are basically two types of parish idiosyncracies - ones that matter and ones that don't. Or perhaps I should say there is a spectrum, on which idiosyncracies are more or less theologically problematic. As the saying goes, lex orandi, lex credendi. How we pray indicates what we believe.

My last parish had an idiosyncracy I've never encountered elsewhere. The communion line always starts from the back. In other words, it is the last pewfull of people that are the first to receive the Eucharist. My first time at Mass there, I found this quite confusing, maybe even distracting (because, like I said, I'm the petty, spiritually immature type). But it only took a few Masses before I no longer thought about it. And, if we had to put this on a spectrum, I'd say it's not theologically problematic. We could even theologize it to say that it represents the last shall be first gospel message. Another idiosyncracy was that the parish sings the gospel acclamation both before and after the gospel reading. Visitors to the parish often sat down immediately following the gospel because they didn't expect another round of alleluia. But again, this seems not to be really theologically problematic (and it happens to match the parish's liturgical motion).

I find that many times, parish idiosyncracies can be directly tied to the idiosyncracies of the pastor. It oftentimes occurs that priests instruct their congregation to do things that are not in keeping with the GIRM. I can remember one incident of this at my parish in California where, on the occasion of Pentecost, we were made to hold a red tissue-streamer during the Our Father. It was supposed to be a visible symbol of our unity and the Holy Spirit's presence. For some reason, I just prefer receiving the Eucharist to holding a long red streamer across the pews. Much worse, even, was when an American flag processed down the aisle following September 11th during the entrance procession. But let me not digress with memories of the California parish. I don't want this post to be book-length.

Anyway, as I was saying, the idiosyncracies of parishes are often tied to the pastor. In fact, it may even be unfair to call them idiosyncracies of the parish as such. Our new pastor, who is a fine, friendly man who has already recruited us to help out at the parish, has more than a few difficulties when it comes to following the GIRM. The biggest distraction I've had is in his decision to replace the word "disciples" with "friends" wherever it occurs in the Mass. So, on the night he was betrayed, he took the bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said...

I've already spent a couple of Masses mostly musing over why "disciples" and "friends" are not equivocal. Even aside from the issue of following the Mass guidelines, I think there are theological reasons (and biblical) that make his little practice problematic.

I usually find that after a few months of being at a new parish, the idiosyncracies start to fade from sight, and it seems normal to clap at the end of Mass (which it's not) or to have a priest roaming the pews during the homily (also not normal) or to hold hands during the Our Father (should not seem as normal as it does).

I have met many wonderful priests, and I'm close to several. I have a high respect for the priesthood. And that's precisely why I wish that priests could stick to the script. Usually an anomolous practice comes from good intentions, some of which are to "be more inclusive to the laity." But ironically, by changing words or motions, priests often make the Mass more priest-centered than lay-focused (or Christ-focused!!!). One priest at my last university chapel liked to sit with the congregation instead of in the sanctuary. It was highly effective for drawing attention to himself and away from the Liturgy of the Word, but I assume that his intention was actually the opposite.

For now, my spiritual director has assigned me the task of praying daily for my pastor. I hope this will help me to be charitable toward the idiosyncracies of my parish that come from his many good intentions.

Learning A's

I've been trying to teach Maia some letters. We started a couple of weeks ago with A. I made this picture for her and wrote at the bottom "Maia, I hope you always make A's. Love, your mommmy." I meant it to be funny just for myself, as obviously she wouldn't catch any double meaning.

Theological Parenting Conundrums

(Above, Mom loves Eva so much that she really doesn't want her to die anytime soon.)

Every so often, I find myself experiencing tension between the sort of common cultural standards and the sort of Christian values I hope to instill in my children. Recently two particular episodes have occurred to make me think about two important general issues.

The first event that happened was that a child got hit by a car in our neighborhood (right down the street in fact). She was fine; she walked away from the accident, until some police made her stop so they could get details. At the time I wasn't too surprised. After all, our "borough" as they call in in NJ, is only one square mile, and people walk a lot because everything is so close (library, post office, farmer's market, the schools, the parks, etc.). But there is also a lot of on-street parking, and people don't always stick to the 25 mile speed limit. So with kids darting through parked cars and people driving faster than they should, it's somewhat inevitable that a kid would get hit at some time.

But after it happened, Jeff spent a fair amount of time thinking about the possibility of Maia getting hit while we're out walking. So then I started to think about it, too, and started to get worried about her dying. And, truth be told, I do not want Maia to die at such a tender age. Since that girl got hit, I've spent a fair amount of time when we're out walking, reminding Maia to be careful and stay by me so that she doesn't get hit by any cars.

(Above, Dad with the girls, at a non-worrying moment.)

In case you can't tell, the general issue here is that I find the common sense parenting wisdom to be instilling in one's child a fear of death. We want our children to fear death so that they won't put their lives at risk by doing things like running into a busy street, or sitting down to put on their sparkly pink princess shoes in a driveway where an SUV is backing out.

I think Jeff (Dr. Worst-Case Scenario), if not I, has done a pretty good job of getting Maia to fear death, sickness, and injury. But wait! I don't want my daughter to fear death! As a Christian, I want her to know that there are worse things than death, and that death represents the opportunity of eternal life participating in the life of the divine Trinity. I don't really want her to be afraid of death, so to speak. But I don't want her to live recklessly either.

A related theological parenting conundrum I've met with is wanting my kids to see Christ in every person, regardless of age, ethnicity, economic stance, etc. I want them to be kind and sympathetic to strangers. But I also don't want them to go anywhere with strangers. In short, I want them to see strangers both as Christ and as potential perpetrators of kidnapping and violent crimes.

(Above, the girls and Mom in a moment of natural beauty)

The second episode that raised a theological parenting dilemma for me was nothing as dramatic as a child getting hit by a car. It had to do, rather, with picture day at Maia's nursery school. Ah, picture day! From my memories as both student and teacher, it consists of a headshot. The day before picture day, Maia and I picked out a nice solid color shirt for her picture. Then that night I read the informational sheet they had sent home from school. This sheet informed me that girls usually wear pretty and colorful dresses and have their hair nicely done for picture day. Apparently the group photo would actually be a group photo, rather than a picture chart of headshots.

Hmmm... what was I to do? We had already picked out a shirt, not to mention that Maia doesn't have any long-sleeved dresses for this fall/winter. But what if Maia showed up to school and was the only girl not wearing a dress? What if she realized that all the other girls were wearing fancy clothes, and she was not? Would her self-esteem be ruined? Would she be worried? Would she feel unpretty?

Not to mention that with my morning schedule, I get back from Mass and have about ten minutes before we have to walk to school. Would I be able to do her hair successfully in that short amount of time (given that it's something that she dislikes and I'm not great at) while trying to get everything else ready?

(Above, sleeping beauty, getting some beauty rest, not that she needs it to be more beautiful than she already is)

When I tried to talk to Jeff about the issue, he didn't seem to think it was a big deal. While I was mulling over the options, he started to read me blurbs off the dust jacket of the new book he started reading until I informed him he was being insensitive. It helped me to realize (not the blurbs, but his lack of concern for the issue) that part of this is my own issue. Like most females, I had (and have) times where I worry about my appearance not being satisfactory. I always felt I was too short in my school days, and, since becoming a mom I've spent basically no time whatsoever trying to make my hair look presentable. As a conscious choice, I wear no make-up and don't paint my nails.

I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I want Maia to realize that true beauty is not about clothes or hair or shoes or jewelry. On the other hand, I want her to care about her appearance and, more importantly, to be confident about herself (as I was not in my school days). This is a Christian issue, too, which is why I'm always telling her that Mary is the most beautiful woman, and what makes her the most beautiful woman is her closeness to Christ. Moreover, as Jeff and I always remind our princess-crazy daughter, Mary is a queen. And it's not because she has sparkly shoes or pretty dresses. In short, it's the inside that matters, and the virtuous and holy life that one lives that makes a person beautiful. We can see similar things reflected in the lives of other saints as well; both Therese and Teresa lived beautiful lives, but they didn't wear fancy dresses, make-up, etc.

So why should it matter if Maia wears a dress or a plain blue shirt for picture day? Why does it matter whether her hair was nicely done or messy? I would like to be detached from such issues, but I find I'm not. Instead of deciding and being done, I find myself struggling with a sort of scrupulosity about the issues.

In the end, Maia did wear a dress, albeit one that she's worn already for two winters in a row. It's not the prettiest thing ever anymore, but SHE felt pretty, especially once she had her hair done and her princess shoes on. But of course, when we got to school we found that many of the girls were wearing their normal clothes. Not to mention that Maia does seem to have confidence that's not entirely tied to her clothing. Praise God for that!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Singing in the Shower

Ever since I gave the Sandra Boynton Blue Moo album to Maia, we've been listening to it every single day. Of course, Maia skips half the songs on the album. We've already both chosen favorites. She likes "Blue Moo" and "Speed Turtle". I like "Personal Penguin," "With You," and "Your Nose." And we both love B.B. King's "One Shoe Blues." We also both like the song "Singing in the Shower."

This last song, the first on the album, is an upbeat tune wherein a guy sings his woes of only being able to sing in the shower. "When I wake up in the morning, well my voice is all wrong, you can hardly even hear me sing my song. But when I step into the shower it's a whole new sound, as soon as the water's coming down."

The song is pretty hilarious, but one line always stands out to me. He sings "I put so much emotion to every single refrain... it's a shame to see this talent going right down the drain..."

I identify with it, not because I sing in the shower (or have any great singing talent, which I obviously don't), but because I have my moments where I think I see my talent going right down the drain. I was washing dishes yesterday and singing along because, yes, I was dishes in the middle of the morning, not to mention the afternoon, and many other times as well. And, along with my talent, I was trying to get some mushy Cheerios right down the drain.

In general I've been feeling very happy, and I've actually been enjoying housework, crazy as that sounds. It turns out hosuework is not all that stressful when I'm not studying for a qualifying exam or writing a prospectus. I made myself a schedule with one chore per day (e.g. vaccuuming, laundry, cleaning glass, kitchen floor), and, since I'm home all day, it's never hard to accomplish just that one task. And I am always happy that I got it done. It's fulfilling in the way that linear tasks often are: they begin and end, and the difference is clear (for at least a couple of hours).

But it doesn't stop me from occaionally thinking to myself, is vaccuuming the carpet really the best use of my intelligence? Did I spend all that time and effort getting an advanced degree so that I could be mopping the floor on a Monday morning? Let's be honest, my high GRE scores and stellar GPA just don't matter in the world of housework and full-time mom stuff. And so, washing the dishes, and singing along to my kids' music, I think, is all of my talent going right down the drain?

This leads to other reflections as well-- thinking about the many women before me who had genius IQs and would have been excellent students save that they dedicated their lives to breastfeeding, changing diapers, wiping noses, cooking dinners, cleaning houses, and so on.

Back to the song: "Oh, someday I might be singing in Carnegie Hall, and you know that I'll be singing in my old shower stall. Wearing waterproof tuxedos (maybe purple satin speedos) or I'm not singing there at all."

By the end of the song, the singer seems to appreciate that he does really have talent, but it just takes the right setting to bring it out. If he's going to make it big, he's going to do it just as he's done it all along - singing in the shower. He's not just a singer, he's a shower singer.

That's kind of how I feel too. If I'm going to make it as a theologian, it's going to be as a theologian mom. My "singing" will always be "singing in the shower," as in, I'm not going to compartmentalize the part of my life that's motherhood. I take it along with me, just as he would take along his shower stall if he had to sing at Carnegie Hall.

This is great silliness of course, but it is the silliness of a highly intelligent and educated Theologian Mom.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Severus Snape and Penance

When I was still taking doctoral classes, I had this nasty habit of diving into fiction precisely at the moment I was working on my final papers of the semester. It would start quite innocently, as a little break, to take my mind off my work. But in most cases I read multiple entire novels while writing my final papers and while being a full-time mom.

One semester I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, i.e. book one of the series. I had read book one before, and I thought it would be easy to put down. What happened instead was a three-week whirlwind in which I wrote two 25-page papers, graded 35 exams and calculated final grades, and read ALL SEVEN Harry Potter books, in addition to my mom duties. Whew! I was ready for Christmas break after that.

Since then, I've become fairly familiar with the series, and for some reason when we moved to Jersey, I started over with book one again. While I don't necessarily recommend just reading the seven books over and over and over, I admit that I catch something new every time. Knowing the later books makes the earlier books even more interesting, rather than less.

Anyway, one of the things that I mull over the most is how Chapter 33 in book seven changes the way I think about the character of Severus Snape throughout the series. I might even say that in this one chapter, Snape went from being one of my least favorite characters to one of my most favorite characters. Since my initial reaction, I've had more time to consider his role, and I admit that rereading the series makes my feelings much more ambiguous.

Perhaps I just can't get away from my dissertation topic of penance, even when reading Harry Potter, but it just seems that Chapter 33 defines all of Snape's time at Hogwarts with Harry as a sort of penance. He is living out the consequences of his actions, and seeking redemption. He is loving the woman he failed to protect by now protecting her son. By the end of the series, it is clear that Snape is making some pretty big sacrifices (like playing a double agent) to make Harry's mission possible.

Yes, Chapter 33 makes Snape look downright heroic. And yet there is still something so unsatisfying about Snape's penance. In rereading the earlier books in the series, he is just so nasty to Harry (and Harry's friends). For someone giving his life over to the mission of protecting Harry, Snape seems to detest Harry with great passion. Instead of remembering that he is protecting Lily's son, Snape seems intent on making James Potter's son suffer for the sins of his father (and the most inexcusable act of his having married Lily).

By the time of his demise at the fangs of Nagini, there is no doubt that Snape has done his penance. But has he done it well? Surely there is some merit in his suffering and sacrifices, even if he has mostly done his penance with an attitude of vehement dislike for Harry? But would we want to uphold Snape as a model of penance?

On the one hand, he has taken on a difficult task and embraced a mission that requries him to recall painful memories of his former archenemy, as well as bittersweet memories of the love of his life. He accepted the penance from Dumbledore in the midst of great emotion of failure and loss. And, if a Christian penance analog, one would hope that his penance would help Snape to work through his issues, to reform his life.

In some ways, it does. When Dumbledore asks him in book six how many people he has seen die, Snape replies, "Lately only those I could not save." At best, however, Snape's penance is only imperfect. While his actions are what one would expect, his attitude is not quite right. He has accepted the penance in a spirit of resentment. And while his love for Lily continues to be strong and his commitment to protecting Harry never wavers, Snape seemingly fails to accept the grace of the situation. He extracts Dumbledore's promise never to reveal, as Dumbledore calls it, "the best of you." Snape prefers to be the tortured martyr to the reformed and forgieven sinner.

Rowling's authorial intent in Chapter 33 appears to be one of exonerating Snape for all of his past rudeness to Harry. We're supposed to recognize the difficulty of his situation, and to know how Snape has suffered, not only at the hands of James Potter, but from his own memory of insulting Lily and ending their friendship. It's clear that Harry, anyway, does forgive Snape. When dueling Voldemort in the end of the book, Harry brings up Snape and tells Voldemort that he doesn't understand the power of love. After all, here is Snape who hated James Potter (and Harry), and yet he spent years of his life protecting Harry out of his love for Lily. As the epilogue tells us, Harry even gives the middle name "Severus" to one of his sons.

But I'm just not satisfied by this. If I could make one addition to book seven, it would be for Severus Snape's portrait to appear in the headmaster's office at Hogwarts, along with all the other portraits of former headmasters. When Harry goes into the office at the end, he and Snape could reconcile. Harry could thank Snape, and Snape could apologize. Such an apology would of course be very un-Snapelike. And maybe that's why Rowling prefers for Snape's "confession" to come in the form of his memories as he's dying. It's clear that Snape does want Harry to know his story, and I'm glad that Harry apparently forgives him and finds a new respect for Snape.

But again, there just needs to be a bit more if Snape is going to serve as a model of penance. Penance done out of duty will never be as beautiful as the penance that is undertaken in a spirit of gratitude for the promise of redemption that is inextricably linked to it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Videos of the girls

Maia likes walking Eva around the house.

Dancing/wrestling to "Singing in the Shower" off the Boynton album.

Eva's favorite activity at the park is pushing the jogging stroller.

"Eva, if you love Mommy..."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cherishing Childhood

"I miss my childhood," Maia told Jeff today.

It was a strange thing for her to say, but perhaps less surprising than it might have been. For some reason I've been overly sentimental about my kids in the last few weeks, and I've been sharing it with Maia.

Walking home from the Farmer's Market, with her little hand in mine (while pushing Eva in a stroller with my other hand), I said to her "Maia, right now I'm trying to etch in my heart the feeling of your little hand in mine because I know that your hand is not going to stay little. And some day, you're going to be all grown up and leave me. So I like holding your hand, Maia, and I don't ever want to let go."

Like I said, it's been a common theme over the last few weeks, partially because I feel like I'm finally really enjoying being a mom for the first time in my life. Without an enormous amount of work staring me in the face, I am much more appreciative of the kids, and more realistic that I will always have work to do, but I won't always have them as little kids. They are growing up, way too fast.

Another part of this is that Eva's one-year birthday is rapidly approaching, and her babyhood passing away. She is an absolute delight of a baby, and I'm not ready not to have her as a baby (ahem, but nor am I ready for another baby at this moment). She's weeks away from walking, and talking isn't far away either. Having this time with Eva as a baby has made me feel like I didn't adequately appreciate Maia's babyhood, since I was so busy trying to do my GA work and work for my doctoral classes. I love every day of having Eva as a baby.

Whenever I am snuggling Maia I can't help thinking that she seems so BIG in my arms. She's still a good snuggler, but she's not a cuddly little teddy bear. And I know she's just going to keep getting bigger. So this is when I say, "Maia I want you always to be my little girl, but I know you're going to grow up and leave me."

Today she told me, "Mom, it's ok if I grow up because I'll still be your little girl. And then you and Daddy can come visit me, and I'll make you tea and cake and we'll eat it together and enjoy each other's company. And it will be fun when you visit."

It was a sweet moment, only slightly ruined when Jeff asked if Maia's convent would always have a steady supply of tea and cake.