Saint George

“Why George?” Some asked after we named the baby. Besides being a good, strong Anglo name, we like the meaning (farmer) and we love his story.

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Donatello’s sculpture in Florence depicts Saint George’s anxiety before he faces the “dragon.”

Apparently St. George’s historical details are less than settled, but it is likely that he was raised a Christian around modern Libya and became a soldier under Diocletian (sometimes called The Dragon). This emperor, like the others before him, was a Christophobe and demanded compliance with official beliefs. George refused his offers of wealth and was tortured on a “breaking wheel” multiple times before having his head cut off.

Saint George and the Dragon, a retelling of the legend by Margaret Hodges was one of our favorite books when I was a child. The illustrations by Trina Shart Hymen are rich, detailed and dramatic. St. George’s wounds, his heroic exhaustion, and the dragon’s fearsomeness speak as clearly as the good prose based on Spenser’s Fairy Queen.

In it “The Red Cross Knight” swallows his fear to conquer the dragon ofimages wickedness and ruin–though it takes the patient guidance of his lady, multiple attempts of his failing strength, and divine aid (from life-giving water and an ancient apple tree) before at last, on the third day he rises, with his wounds, to triumph.

This is a familiar path for heroes and for the rest of us: called away to serve somewhere largely unknown, we embark with the confidence of inexperience on a fight that is too big. So we fall, and get up, and fail and get up, and try with whatever courage we can find to get up again. And in this bare but blessed trying we win. This is a path through life that I can believe in, though it is not one I would have chosen if the way of the world had been left for me to sketch out.

st george 5George also found his path difficult to follow, though his way to the dragon was guided by noble Una. For we read that “Sometimes the Red Cross Knight rode too far ahead of Una and lost his way. Then she had to find him and guide him back to the path.” But her womanly strength and mysterious beauty inspire George’s courage for “With Una at his side, fair and faithful, no monster or giant could stand before the knight’s bright sword.” Indeed, when a recent college grad, seeking his own path in the world, read the story to our boys one night he looked up at us and confessed, “I am looking for my Una.” As, of course, we all should be.

Our boys belong to the Troops of St. George and they celebrate his feast (April 23rd)0424_0287 together. I made shield cookies to commemorate it. I adapted and doubled the simple sugar cookie recipe from a 1957 Good Housekeeping Cookbook that I’ve been using for a decade. And while they sell cute shield cookie cutters, I was not forward looking enough to order one so I bent an apple cookie-cutter into a more shield-like shape. I dyed a small portion of the dough bright red for his famous red cross is the martyr’s symbol and went from there.

Here’s the recipe:

1 1/3 c. shortening or butter creamed with 1 c. sugar. Add 2 eggs and beat until fluffy. Add 2 teaspoons vanilla and 4 tablespoons of milk. Combine 4 c. flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and stir into wet ingredients. Divide dough and chill for an hour. Then roll out–I like these thick (1/4″) and slightly cakey, and perhaps slightly under-cooked so I bake them at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or less, but you are welcome to bake them until they are golden brown–try 12 minutes. They are nice with frosting, but I am not always up for that mess.

By the way, April 23rd is also National Picnic Day, so if St. George is a little too potent for you popular culture has other options.

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Mom Nids a Hug

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Although four o’clock comes everyday it still takes me by surprise.

Right around that time at our house somebody is fighting over whether you can get anIMG_20160319_173349 infraction at school for saying “fart,” and if not, can you get one for actually farting–but what if you fart at someone? Is that bullying? Is that carrying a weapon on school property?

My two toddlers, dressed respectively in a life vest and bike helmet (yet without pants), are fighting over crumby slices of banana from under the kitchen table. Someone is using a glue stick as chapstick. Someone else rides a pool noodle through the house wearing my snow boots while the flatulence disagreement escalates to a pillow fight, which escalates to people whipping each other with pillowcases with zippers, which ends with someone yelping and running out of the bedroom holding his eye.

So I offer reassurances to the maimed child, while changing the baby’s diaper, while talking someone else down from the ledge of despair caused by Saxon’s need to know how to split a bill of $25.67 by eight customers who must be trying to take advantage of a senior citizens Tuesday morning special.

Then the younger toddler joins us in order to point out–IMG_20160319_173146with perilous accuracy–the baby’s beautiful and still functional eyes.  And the other toddler calls our attention to the cat, who is fanatically licking something clear spilled all over the floor. “He likes it!” The child exclaims.

I bring the denuded baby over to inspect this weirdness and realize that the cat himself is dripping the liquid he laps up off the floor and (oh my) he is now gushing blood from some pea-sized hole in his neck. While I am on the phone learning about burst abscesses from the vet, the baby wets on me, someone spills a box of 1000 toothpicks in the cat pus and someone else assures us “it’s okay we can still use them.”  

——

As I astutely observed earlier, 4 pm comes every day so we have started anticipating the

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Hon, did you get need a bandaid?

strife: it can’t sneak attack us. It loses its edge when we expect it and try to respond. Extra trouble calls for strategies such as simplifying dinner, playing awesome music, making everyone go outside or go to bed or go to the neighbor’s house.

Also, I have started disagreeing with myself during traumatic moments. Surprisingly, phrases such as “condemned to my own personal hell” and “this is exactly what I never wanted for my life” have not proved so helpful with bad situations. It would seem that we have enough mouths to feed without nourishing a noxious mentality.

Rather we make an effort to laugh, sometimes interiorly (while, for example, picking up

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just a little mascara

biohazardous toothpicks). This is hard, but is much easier with another good humored adult–and a drink. Indeed, it can be no mere coincidence that Cocktail Hour is right after The Witching Hour, that Happy Hour falls after the Hour In Which The Couch Is Wetted With Our Tears.

For almost always the crises of the day are just that–crises of one day. The tub of beads can be picked up, the stove can be cleaned and more water boiled, another butter dish can be bought, the conjunctivitis can be treated, and the rug can be disinfected (kind of). In managing temporary problems I strive not to leave permanent marks on my people.  After all, Mean Mom never helps out much anyway.

I have wondered if St. Paul urges people to pray constantly because somewhere in the world it is four o’clock and someone is going to be cleaning up body fluid.

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Mom nids (needs) a hug

For You, Baby

IMG_20160115_100424When my first son was born I was showing him to his great aunts when one of them asked, “So do you love him yet?”

Everyone was shocked but she continued, “I remember holding my baby and thinking, ‘I love this child. I would kill for this baby.’ But that feeling doesn’t always happen right away.”

It is true–I don’t usually start out infatuated with my babies, but thankfully the love grows quickly. While I trust my devotion to Georgie will not bring me to the point of killing for him, mother-love is famously surprising, mysterious, and fierce. 

After the baby’s birth I tried to describe this voracious but well-contented feeling and came up with this:

 

For You

My love for you, baby, is a wild animal growing in my heart:
Ferocious, untame.

My love for you is bread and milk:
So satisfying I push back from the kitchen table and rest.

My love for you is strong wine:
An exchange of thoughts and words for peace and befuddled gladness.

My love for you is a blue star piercing the black blanket of our sky:
A delicate light that is, in truth, a blazing furnace.

Baby, it seems to me that my love for you is like a seed planted deep inside me:
Secret and hidden:

For somehow I have always loved you but
I needed to see you and hold you,
to feel in my palm your defenseless skull beneath peach skin,
to hear you whinny, chirrup and grunt
like the tiny man beast,for blog
like the creature of earth that you are,
to realize this love.

But now, because you came and I let you come,
we have the gift of knowing this love together:

You and me and the bread and wine,
a wild animal, all the stars,
and a secret seed that falls down to stand.

Good Waiter

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The boys meeting their new brother

In case you are wondering, our Baby George finally came–almost three weeks past the due date predicted by the 12-week sono.

In those weeks of waiting I was reading Josef Pieper’s Fortitude at my husband’s behest. I began the book nervous about having to birth another baby and I ended it feeling anxious that I would never birth him at all.

Through nights and days of worry and “discomfort” I was heartened by Pieper’s explanation that fortitude is shown both in perseverance and courageous activity. Our ability to do the bravest things (to risk, to suffer, and to die for what is good) is fed by our ability to do the most inglorious of things: wait. 

He writes, “Enduring comprises a strong activity of the soul, namely a vigorous grasping of and clinging to the good; and only from this stouthearted activity can the strength to support the physical and spiritual activity of injury and death be nourished.”

Despite its noble ends, the strain of waiting is difficult to accept. One morning I wrote, “life is a note suspended on a violin: taut, trembling, waiting. a mix of expectation and exhaustion, like standing for weeks on ice that has to crack….how I wish it were already accomplished.”

At the risk of appearing vain I’ll copy another entry:

newgeorgeSince we don’t have a real reason to worry about this baby, I know that inducing would be mainly for my comfort, convenience, and my desire to be in control. All these things I cede every day because of love. Love does not insist on its comfort. It does not insist on its plan. Love is inconvenienced without complaint. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

I believe in learning to wait. Someday I will be waiting for something that is harder: a diagnosis, a phone call, for help, for someone to come back. On that day I will be glad for practices at patience.

So it was in the middle of a difficult night one month ago, that baby George was finally born (not baby Gandalf to the disappointment of certain children). And we marveled that he did not look overdue at all: no long nails, no wrinkly or peeling skin, and not exceptionally large. He was pink and pretty–and not just by a mother’s standards.

So it seems we must have made a mistake about when to expect him. We thought we were being more than patient–persevering beyond reason and almost beyond prudence. But it turns out that there was a timing of which we were unaware. According to a reckoning hidden from us, his time was exactly right and our worry was futile.

When I look back across my life, how many such droughty stretches of unendurable waiting will I see? Surely, there will be many seasons where the fields are nothing but a barren, razed, or stubbled expanse. But perhaps from that vantage one can see that this emptiness masks the earth’s underground renewal of itself in its own quiet time.

Then we will know that the unendurable was not only endurable but was good. The rested field gave an abundance. The broken timing was not a minute late.

I get the feeling that I am only just learning to wait. But I’ll try to do it because, as Papa used to tell us: “Good waiters get good tips.”  Maybe that’s slightly ironic because he didn’t really tip. I guess life is full of paradoxes.

Ollie and George

Parenting When It’s Hard

Ike 2Shortly after I published “Not A Kid Person,” about my struggle to accept children, the Atlantic ran a book review on Selfish, Shallow, And Self-Absorbeda collection of essays in defense of elective childlessness.

Several of the article’s arguments or assumptions irritated me.  After stopping to think about why, I realized that many of the attitudes the authors express were mine before I had children. Is anything as galling as our own mistakes displayed by others?

Ike 1I am grateful that Ethika Politika invited me to write a response to that review, and “Parenting When It’s Hard” ran today.  It about half of what I wanted to say, so hopefully I’ll get around to penning the other bit soon, but please check out the article. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

Not a Kid-person

About a year ago my husband and I were walking through Chicago with our new baby, Gu0627_0190s, when a man stopped us, asking for money for a nearby school.

“You like children,” he inferred, gesturing at the baby.

“Well, we do have five of them,” I said.

“Five?! Whoa, you love kids! You’re crazy about kids!” He exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief.

I think it’s accurate to say that I love my kids. Sometimes I am crazy about them.  I am not, however, naturally crazy about kids in general. I am not a “kid-person.”  Kid-people gravitate towards children; they are naturally interested in what kids say; they want to give gifts; they find candy, frosting, and balloons desirable; they want to watch kid’s movies with or without children; they enjoy babysitting and are natural smilers.

I am very grateful for kid-people–they make the world a welcoming and bright place, and they make my job as a mother easier, but I am not, myself, a kid-person.

disatisfiedAbout five years ago a friend told me she wasn’t having kids because she isn’t a kid-person. At the time this seemed a strange rationale. If someone said, “I’m not a people person” and decided not to have anything to do with people we would say she has a social disfunction.  If you picked any other people group and said you don’t want that demographic in your life we would see this as a major human failing, if not bigotry.  With children (the hope of our future), however, exclusion is okay.

Hope of our future or not, I am fully willing to to admit that I have never had the “yipeee” thrill of discovering that, finally, we will be having a baby.  Each time I have learned of a pregnancy it has been a different type of difficult, but it usually involves the thoughts that: I’m not ready for this complication–I’m not organized enough, don’t have enough energy, enough time, enough patience, enough money, enough space in my life to accommodate another person with so many needs. Plus, I have my own stuff: What about Europe and doing art and getting in shape and finally getting on top of my life?

0827_0782 copyThere is a way in which I’ve never had what family planning advocates desire: “every child a wanted child.” But somewhere in the line of long days leading up to birth I’ve had the grace to do what might be the most important human action possible: I’ve had the grace and strength to bring my desires into line with reality. I’ve become able to say yes to what is being asked of me.

Sometimes we feel we must want ahead of time everything that happens or else we are being victimized by our own lives. In fact, our need to choose each event and its outcome might make us a nation of control freaks. From obsessions with choice (46 types of nut butter?) to obsessions with control (weight control, birth control, mind control, bladder control, remote controls, pain management), we are increasingly only happy within our small realms of power.

Children have taught me how little control I have. My life changes dramatically based on d and gus copy blogstomach viruses and teeth coming.  Children have showed me that being alive means the embarrassment and frustration of falling. They have showed me the pain and humiliation of trying, trying, and still not being good at what you do–but to smile with heart-brightening radiance in the midst of it. My children have taught me patience through furious tears over shoelaces, horrible potty situations, and all kinds of disobedience.

More than anything else, though, my children have taught me to get outside of myself–to transcend the tyranny of my own wants.

I have learned that if I only get what I already want there is no room for my desires to become what they should be.  It is a poverty for me to accept only what I already want. It is contentment with small-heartedness. We are naturally attached to and satisfied by a small vision for our lives. But the life we can control is always going to have a puniness to it–no matter how ambitious we are. After all, we have only a few decades to work with, a severely limited view to understand them, and the guidance of motivations warped by selfishness.  How can this render a true masterpice?

gus 10The relinquishment of that small, dear vision, however, is a death. And the acceptance of the new plan feels like death too.  Often our lives look like death followed by death, but in these Novembers followed by Decembers and Januaries and disheartening Februaries and disappointing Marches we cling to hope that does not disappoint.

And so now we, the not-kid-people, after telling you of death and disappointment, potty accidents and radiant smiles, can tell you of promise and hope, future potty accidents and future radiant smiles.  We are expecting our next little joy in October and the children want to name him Gandalf.

Death and Donuts

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At the graveyard near our house

When everything grays and turns cold in nature, we remember the dead. There is a little triduum of days dedicated to the good and holy whose lives are “changed, not ended.” There is Halloween (All-Halloweds’-Eve), the night before All Saint’s Day which is the feast of all the holy people who have preceded us. This is followed by All Soul’s Day, a day of remembrance and prayer for the dead who were good but not perfect–they’re in Purgatory.

Unless you are raised Catholic, Purgatory is a foreign idea. The word evokes vague images of unhappy people walking through bile under a darkened sky lugging sacks of lead.  Probably Dante’s Purgatorio, written in the middle ages for a medieval audience, informs a lot of our images.  But different eras and different cultures have different ways of understanding the same truth.  For example, Early Chpelicanristians found the pelican a poignant picture of Christ because she was believed to pierce herself to nourish her young with her own blood.  That image, while so moving to them has little currency for us.

Because “it’s like…” is the closest we can get to describing the supernatural, we need to be generous with the past and persevering in the present so we can better understand supernatural things in today’s terms.

God knows the supernatural is hard to understand (especially for materialists like ourselves) so He helps us to comprehend—to develop a digestion for it. We start with simple milk and proceed to more advanced foods so that when our time comes we can enjoy the feast of Heaven.

But what if one never develops the ability to digest solid spiritual food? What good is it for the one who can only keep down milk to be given a plate of surf and turf? It is not good. What would God do with a beloved child who is, for various reasons, “born into eternal life” without the ability to thrive?

_871115_baby300 copyIn regular physical birth we know that as soon as he is born it is best for the child to be given directly to his mother where he is held close in her arms, gazes at her face, and is nourished by her body (what a beautiful image of heaven). But what if the child is undeveloped in some critical way? His heart’s desire may still be for his mother, but first he must be incubated so he can develop the faculties needed to be held, to see her, to eat and to thrive in this new world. The same is true for those born into eternal life through death. If death is a birth, Purgatory is the incubator.

And just as we would doubtless intercede in whatever way we could for that child who is struggling to develop, so we intercede for the poor souls yearning to develop the ability to look at their father’s face, be held in his arms, eat his food, and fully know his love.

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We might object: couldn’t God make people sufficiently holy as an act of Divine Fiat at their deaths? Of course. But let’s remember the lovingly gradual way that the Lord has dealt with us our whole lives—showing and teaching, giving choices that come with consequences, and helping us again. He respects our freedom, even when we use our choices to reject life, happiness, and holiness. He could force his desire for us on us but he wouldn’t.

Purgatory strikes me as a very loving and parental way of bringing children, of varying degrees of waywardness, home.

 

So at our house we celebrate Halloween and All Saints and All Souls. This year Halloween was observed (if we can call it that) with the type of frenzy that eventually leads full grown adults to break store windows and smash televisions. In the future we will try to better direct our enthusiasm so it doesn’t come to that.

On All Saints we went to mass, had a nice dinner, and meant to sing songs and do other more symbolic things that we didn’t get around to.

For All Souls we went to a graveyard to pray for the departed and made soul cakes. Originally trick-or-treating was people going around offering to pray for your beloved dead and, in exchange for their offerings of prayers, you might offer them a small soul cakeIMG_0767 copy. My, how things have changed.

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Frying is not part of my family culture, but I’ve been figuring it out. This year I took one batch of soft no-knead-dough, rolled out to about ½ inch and cut pieces with a drinking glass.

I dropped the dough in three inches of hot oil (it’s ready when the test piece floats) for a minute or two per side, then drained them on the Wall Street Journal and dusted them with confectionary sugar. They’re better than donuts because they’re not super sweet and more substantial. For each one you eat pray for a soul struggling to become ready for heaven.

 

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Just as I finished writing this post I learned that my Uncle Pete passed away, so I’d like to offer it for him along with my prayers for his peace and eternal rest.