Wednesday, 27 March 2013
“Look, she’s still playing school,” my mother told my father the first time they visited the seventh grade classroom of my first teaching job. As a little girl, I played school nearly every day, even sending friends home with homework and decorating the door of my room with holiday themes for each month. I taught elementary and middle school for nine years before I stayed home after the birth of my oldest child. As part of my training in college, I was trained to analyze each lesson after it was taught and figure out what worked and what did not work. It became a habit that I maintained throughout my teaching years. I was a successful teacher, with an organized classroom and I could handle some of the toughest students, but I was barely keeping my head afloat as a mother. I finally went back to school for all the lessons my teaching years could offer. Most often, when I see my children behaving badly or having bad attitudes– much to my annoyance–it can be traced back to my own issues.
A popular education book is The First Days of School by teacher, Harry Wong. It was a gift when I graduated and one to which I referred throughout my teaching career. Its advice has value for mothers, also. The entire book focuses on preparing for the first day of school with an emphasis on the Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) philosophy. Wong tells teachers to let go of their expectations of imagined perfection so they can focus on the real task at hand: teaching children so they develop mastery of subject matter. One example of his advice is just cover the bulletin boards with fabric and border, so students’ work can be displayed instead of spending hours drawing, cutting and arranging a work of art on your wall. I have to return to this idea often to reduce stress on my children and myself. Sometimes we stress our kids and ourselves with our well-meaning efforts. Stressed people don’t always treat each other well. A family rosary can accomplish as much or more for my children’s spiritual formation than a craft or elaborate activity. It’s the end result that I’m looking for which has to be my focus, not what the activity might look like on my blog.
In my classroom, I had a system and routine for everything. During the first week of school, I trained the students in those routines, so we didn’t have to spend time on them later in the year. Even middle schoolers practiced routines for things like sharpening a pencil or leaving the room for the restroom. Seriously. It made for an organized classroom, without chaos and with more time for learning. A lack of simple systems and routines can cause problems in a classroom or a home. Kids’ rooms get messy when they don’t have easy-to-use storage for toys and clothing. Sadly, it took me a while to figure that out! Laundry piles up when I don’t have a system for hanging and folding or a routine for children to put away their own clothing. My messy kitchen in the evening was caused by not having a routine for everyone to help with the clean-up. As a mom, I had to do what I did in the classroom. I sat down and thought about all the normal daily activities and tasks in our home and figured out how I wanted them to look. Then, I had to establish the routines and systems necessary for that to happen, while allowing for lots of practice, tweaks, and mistakes along the way. This is a work-in-progress for me, as a drop-in visit would quickly reveal.
In my classroom, a lack of preparation or participation on my part carried over into my students’ learning and behavior. If I didn’t set up the materials I needed before class, I was left to search and waste time while students got restless. That’s when misbehaviors occurred. A neat (not perfect) classroom made a huge difference in my attitude in the mornings. I was in a better mood and had more time to focus on students rather than tasks. A neat (not company-perfect) kitchen and living room make a huge difference in my attitude now. If I have to clean the kitchen first thing in the morning, I feel defeated already and the resulting grouchy mood affects the way I interact with my children. It also affects the way I spend my time. Also, when I find I am distracted for too long by something like writing a blog post or watching news coverage, my children find mischievous ways to busy themselves!
Sickness, hunger, thirst and a lack of sleep have a tremendous impact on children. I understood this to a limited degree in my classroom. I allowed students to bring a mid-morning snack from home and they could keep a water bottle during class. I was a little shocked as a parent when I realized how a late meal could affect my children. A late bedtime makes for a grouchy person the next morning, whether it be a parent or child. I did not really understand how sickness affected children until I became a mother. The disappearance of symptoms didn’t mean the child was all better. Fatigue and lethargy could hang on for days afterward, so a child might seem irritable or to just have a bad attitude when his body was still trying to catch up after the illness. It was eye-opening the great effect that just a fever could have, as my children were exhausted from their bodies fighting it for even as little time as twenty-four hours. I learned to consider these things as I addressed their behaviors with understanding and empathy. There are some related moments in the classroom for which I’d like a do-over!
Then, there’s another little bit of wisdom that a supervising sixth grade teacher shared with me. I had just taught a lesson and I wasn’t pleased because it wasn’t perfect. I didn’t think the students participated well, nor did I think they learned that which I was teaching them. I began a litany of all the things I had done wrong. The teacher just looked at me and said, “That makes me sad to hear you say that because it was a good lesson.” He then continued to share what I have kept in mind all these years, in classrooms and at home.
“Terri, sometimes it’s nothing you did. Sometimes, kids just have bad days, just like we do.” I have to keep in mind, after I’ve analyzed for root causes, sometimes it’s just a bad day for me or for my children. Deep breath, reduce the damage as much as possible, and move on. Our children are not simply the sum of their actions or behaviors. They are complicated human beings and there is tremendous beauty in our being given a chance to start anew with them at each dawn.
I can’t solve everything that goes wrong in our family. I can plan and prepare to prevent or reduce some things. Still, it all centers on Christ, who has to be the real center of our home. I have to turn to Him for eyes to see my home and family and to Him for strength and grace to take reasonable measures as a wife and mother. Then, it is to Him I have to offer up my marriage, my children, my home and my worries, knowing that ultimately, it is ALL in His capable hands and not in my simple ones.
Tuesday, 26 March 2013
"Let me get my purse," she would say, as she turned around, untied her apron, and headed back inside. My parents would wait for Mama's Grandma Taylor until she came out with her purse and closed the door beside her. Mama always said that after they'd driven a few miles, only then would her grandmother ask, "Where are we going?"
This was the story Mama liked to tell me about picking up her grandmother for Sunday drives. Mama would emphasize to me when I was little that my great-grandmother did not care where she was going, she was just always ready to go. To get out of the house. To go on a little adventure. I knew my mama daydreamed about traveling across the country on a motorcycle or in an RV as part of a retirement life. She would imagine all the places she would see and the people she would meet along the way. She was always open to adventure when a friend called or stopped by with an idea of some excursion or some other fun.
It is surely a part of my pioneer roots, from relatives who came from England and Ireland and later ancestors who helped settle the prairie. There is no part of my pioneer heritage that I feel more keenly than a sense of wanderlust. I could sympathize completely with this characteristic in Pa Ingalls of the Little House on the Prairie books I so loved as a child. I almost felt myself get as itchy as he when the town began to close in on him or he was just ready to see what was further down the road, or off the road. There are times when I am taking the kids to school when I want to turn onto the highway and just take a road trip with them, abandoning the daily-ness of our day for some new adventure. Just to see where we'd end up and who we might meet along the way.
Mama told this story of Grandma, in her apron at the door, eager to go, with purse on her arm as one of her lessons for me. I think she wanted to preserve that sense of adventure in me. I think she wanted me to see it as a gift, to be able to drop everything and just enjoy a sunny day's drive. I can see its meaning in a larger way in my life, also. As a daughter of God, I trust in the adventure of my life, where God is there with me through the joys, sorrows, and the daily daily-ness. I want to be that disciple who stands eager for Him whenever He comes to me, in prayer, through others, and at my final moments on earth. With no hesitation, but trusting and giving in to my sense of wonder and adventure. Ready to drop it all to tend to a child, to baby-sit at the last minute for a friend in need, to make a meal when I'd rather read the next chapter of a novel. Ready, on my doorstep to follow where He may lead, quickly untying myself from the trappings of the world and giving him my "Let me get my purse" in the form of a "yes" that reveals my acceptance of His offer.
To remember this lesson, this prayer of my heart, I hung Great Grandma Taylor's picture in my kitchen today. Below it is one of the aprons another grandmother made. A little reminder, in the most daily of places, of the true adventure this life holds if I just accept the call.
|My grandparents with Grandma Taylor. This is how Mama remembered her.|
Friday, 22 March 2013
Here's my link-up to Jennifer Fulwiler's 7 Quick Takes:
1. Dancing Cinderella Demons
It's madness...March Madness and my Alma mater, Northwestern State University, which is located in picturesque Natchitoches, Louisiana (as seen in Steel Magnolias), made it to the Big Dance. They are one of the Cinderella teams at the NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament. I'm so proud of what this coach and team have accomplished, even though they lost tonight to Florida. They represented our school well, though.
Our mascot is Demons, specifically Vic the Demon. It's pretty ironic since the university is located in one very conservative town in the Bible Belt! So, job well done and Fork 'Em Demons (spell-check about a million times).
Here's an article about my small, but excellent Alma mater:
2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
My oldest wanted to see the movie adaptation after she finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We rented the Tim Burton film and I was finally able to see this version. Our fourth grade teacher read the book aloud to us, but I never saw the Gene Wilder version until I was an adult. I like the original, but I don't have loyalty to it which most of my friends have after watching the film as children. I have now watched the Burton version quite a few times and I really like it. His sensibility perfectly matches that of Dahl. It has the whimsy, darkness and tad bit of creepiness of the novel. The casting is perfect, especially Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket (his eyes break my heart each time he faces disappointment) and David Kelly as Grandpa Joe. I always marvel at the acting talent of Johnny Depp. I do think the original has the stronger musical score, but I love the Augustus Gloop number from Burton's version.
The novel and both films really are great examples of how something off-beat and modern can still be beautiful. Vice and virtue are on display, with their causes and effects left for readers and viewers to consider. It's been nice revisiting this classic with my children.
3. Paint: Ahhh and Uggghh...
In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was in the midst of a painting frenzy. Well, my little boy decided to join me. Monday morning, I got out the ladder and black paint. I painted the rusty, once-white ceiling fan on the back porch. It looks great! Then, I painted the door-frame. I still had a lot of dark teal paint left from painting the porch door, so I started walking around the yard, can in one hand, brush in the other, wondering (sometimes aloud), "What can I paint next?" So, I painted the wooden gate. Thomas was watching all of this activity. He disapeared for a few minutes and then returned. About an hour later, the doorbell rang and I answered it to find a man asking if he could sort through the garbage at our curb to salvage metal. I could barely answer him because I looked down and saw bright red paint all over the front porch, bright purple on the WHITE brick column and a stencil brush coated with both colors. The two bottles of acrylic paint lay on their sides, lids opened as if they had been quickly left, like the scene of a crime. After two days, a scrub brush, a wire brush, rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, etc., etc.,..the brick is only faintly lavendar and the red is gone from the porch floor. I may have to start painting at night, under cover of darkness.
4. Nature's Beauty
I discovered the artist, Isabelle Dupuy , on Facebook. How could you not be a beautiful artist with a name like that?! Her work is so bright and lovely. I love to see her updates of shows and installations. She takes such joy in seeing her pieces settled in the homes of collectors. I'll just let her work speak for itself. Check out her website in the link above and follow her work on Facebook.
Pies, cakes, cupcakes: not a problem when dieting. However, Wheat Thins crackers, potato chips, cereal...those are the temptations for me. I'm a starch-and-carb-lovin'-gal. So, I could appreciate this from Anne Taintor, Inc.:
And by the way...I've lost 20 lbs. so far:)
6. 1940s Superman
My son loves watching the 1940s Superman cartoons on Netflix. I love him tremendously to allow him to watch them while I'm present. I think my "favorite" one is the T-Rex episode where a T-Rex is kept in ice in a museum, but then the refrigeration system malfunctions and the dinosaur escapes, after he thaws out. They're really well-done for their times and I imagine the scene in theaters when they were first shown. Hopeful faces upturned to the light of a dazzling modern future where science and progress would bring forth a world where dinosaurs could be found in ice and come alive when thawed and a world of the Jetsons. I'm sure my dad, born in 1936, probably saw these same cartoons at the cinema.
And is it just me who gets aggrevated by Lois Lane?! Sure, she's plucky and bright, but poor Clark/Superman who has to risk it all because she refuses to listen to directions. It reminds me of The Rifleman episodes I used to watch on Sunday mornings. Each storyline centered around the father having to bail his son, Mark, out of trouble because he didn't listen to his father.
7. Getting Personal about Holy Week and Easter
I wrote a post about my childhood experience (or non-experience) of Easter. It's one of the most personal pieces I've posted on my blog and I went through lots of edits. My parents have both passed away, so that was a factor in writing my story. I just hope it reflects my struggles to try--only possible with God's grace--to consider everyone's back-story and my own sin: a 2x4 in my eye, rather than focusing on the toothpick in another's eye. It's a reflection on my stand on Easter, my longing for God, and my struggles with Holy Week and Easter. Life's not always lovely or picturesque, but it can all be worked out for good, thanks be to God.
Blessings to you and yours for Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter.
Find more 7 qt at Conversion Diary.
Thursday, 21 March 2013
A blur of azalea bushes in full bloom on either side of a wrought iron gate which led off our back porch to our side yard. Bees buzzing about as I ran as fast as I could between the blooms in an attempt to avoid being stung. Decorating eggs on Saturday night before Easter. Waking up to a new stuffed animal and more chocolate candy than I normally saw all year and jellybeans (meh). The excitement of bubble gum eggs and the disappointment of mistaking a malted milk ball egg for one of the gumballs. Lunch, promptly at noon, with Mama's lemon meringue pie. Maybe an egg hunt, with my sister hiding eggs for me or if it was a lucky year, a trip down the road to Mrs. Carmel's house to hunt eggs with her children and visiting cousins. Those are actual little vignettes of my childhood Easters that I tend to share. Those are the ones people expect from me. Those are the ones I share with my children, but their dominance in my memory is not representative of the amount of real time they occupied in my life.
You see, Thanksgiving: big dinner, football, sometimes my grandparents visited. Then, Christmas: decorations, music, presents, big dinner. On those two holidays, our family could get by with looking like everyone else. In the overwhelmingly Protestant area of Louisiana where I grew up, there were no "required" church services to attend on those days, although there might be a Christmas Eve service and special music programs during December, so our car sitting in the drive-way didn't seem so odd.
Easter, though, was another matter entirely. At no time during the calendar year did I feel like more of a foreigner than I did at that springtime moment. Other girls in my classes were talking about their new dresses for Easter. We may have been coloring pictures of bunnies and making construction paper baskets, but the talk on the side in my Louisiana public school classroom was all about Jesus. I got the idea he was pretty central to Easter. I had no idea of the Holy Trinity. I had heard talk of "gettin' the Holy Ghost," from Pentecostal classmates, but I had no idea what that meant. It was all confusing--part of some secret language--and I secretly wondered/worried if talking about Jesus must take attention away from God. From a few storybooks and schoolteachers, I knew God had created me and the world. I felt a longing for him that was evident in my diary from my elementary years when my entries became letters to Him. So, there was a true longing in my heart, along with a desire to fit in with the culture around me. It wasn't the same feeling I felt when I wanted the same brand of clothing or shoes as my classmates. I wanted to attend Church and be a Christian because it seemed to be right and part of being a good person, a part of living a good life. And I felt that not attending church was part of something that was wrong with our family.
Springtime was also revival time, with revivals of both the indoor and tent variety being held at various churches. Some of my classmates attended multiple revivals. This resulted in one of the occurrences which I most dreaded. Classmates would approach everyone on the playground, getting almost nose-to-nose in order to ask, "Have you been saved?!" In third grade, lots of my friends were being "saved" and baptized, with much congratulations from teachers and students as they shared the news the following morning.
Sometimes, the question was posed as, "Are you Baptist (Methodist, Pentecostal, fill-in-the-blank with a Protestant denomination)?" I remember going home and telling Mama that I had been asked that question. "You just tell them you're a Christian," she told me. But I knew regardless of my Christian ancestry, which included my grandfather's status as Church of Christ elder, that I was not a Christian. There had to be more to it. My grandparents had more than a statement of membership. My classmates had at the center of their social and cultural structure something with much more meaning. I only attended services on the Sundays when my grandparents visited from Oklahoma. They only did that for a few years and each visit usually included two or three Sundays. My mother, sister and I would accompany Grandma and Grandad to the Jackson Church of Christ, where I would try to follow the a capella songs in the hymnal. I would watch with curiosity as a plate with what looked like a large saltine cracker and a tray holding lots of tiny glasses of grape juice were passed over or around me. I was warmly welcomed and my hand was pumped many times in friendly greeting, but I was not truly a part of it. I was an outsider.
The way I often remember individual Easters--much like the years in general-- is by the work we did. The most vivid memory of Easter for me was the year we built a new working chute in our barnyard. I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that my father seemed especially disgruntled on that Easter Day. Easter always got under his skin and I could sense that from an early age. I would learn --and consider--many years later some of the things which probably contributed to that. That Easter, I barely had time with my basket discovery before I had to change into work clothes. We were attaching a long chute to the side of our barn. The support posts were huge wooden railroad beams, or ties, and 2x4 boards made up the sides of the chute. At its head, we installed a metal squeeze gate that would squeeze around the cow's neck when the lever was pulled down, so she could be still for worming, tagging, or other tasks. It was my job to stand and grease the super-long huge bolts that attached the boards to the railroad ties. Then, I used a crescent wrench to tighten bolts around the ends of the screws. There were a lot of nuts and bolts in that chute. It still stands strong today, I will admit.
At some point, Mama was able to go into the house and get dinner ready. When the rest of us finally went in to eat, I disappeared into my room. I tried to slip into my seat as quietly as possible, but my father still noticed it. The dress. I had changed into my best dress, smoothed my hair, and put on my dress shoes. It may sound silly to a reader, but it was a huge act of rebellion and I was a little surprised that I had been so brave. Visibly angry, my dad smirked. "Look at her, in her Easter dress." And I caught Mama's sad eyes and at that moment, I just wanted...normal. A bigger mystery to my child mind than the Holy Trinity was why such effort was being made to make this day a work day, like any other day. And how the sweet daughter of a kind church elder had gotten here. As an adult, I would better understand how people got there and marvel at an example of choosing peace and joy instead of bitterness. I got through the meal, and more smirks, more agitation, without letting the tears in my eyes fall. To this day, I have no taste for ham. I'm a southern woman; I'm supposed to make a mean ham and salivate at the sight of it, but it still holds a bitterness like that of the herbs of the Passover. After dinner, I had to change back into work clothes and the rest of the afternoon was spent working on the chute. Our spring break was always the week after Easter Sunday, so I usually didn't have to share details of our Easter with friends as I would have if we returned to school the next day.
Fast forward to Easter Vigil Mass, March 29, 1997. The gasp of the Cajun crowd who had never seen an adult baptized before. The tears streaming down the face of my best friend, Regina, as she witnessed the day for which she had prayed. Kneeling down in a kiddie pool, in my darkest work clothes, as I had been directed by my RCIA director, as Father--FATHER--poured water over my head three times. Running over to the rectory and changing into a new white dress, my wet hair smoothed back by a white hairband. It was just the beginning of my ever-constant conversion. I was welcomed.
Now comes the belonging. Now comes trying to figure it all out for myself and my family. Easter is hard for me to do as a mother. I don't know what it's supposed to look like. Before children, I could participate "fully" in the days of Holy Week; it felt right. It was a time of such spiritual fruits for me. Now, it's managing which of us will attend Holy Thursday and hoping the kids make it through Stations and Good Friday service. It's feeling guilty that my children are asleep on the pew beside me at the Easter Vigil as I joyfully watch my new brothers and sisters join the Church, while friends are up bright and early Easter morning as part of what looks to be the proper exercise of Easter. We barely manage to get some of the eggs dyed Saturday morning and I still have trouble mustering enthusiasm for Easter dinner, even the pies.
Eggs or no eggs, new dress or old dress, it's still Holy Week and it's still Easter. Every year, when I need it again, it's still a time for feeling--to my core-- the sacrifice of Christ, the limitless love of our Father. The washing of feet, done at home or as part of the liturgy is a reminder of the example of Christ and our calling to serve others in humility. It's the reality of our sins and God's love which is bigger than them on Good Friday as we silently leave the sanctuary. It's the remembrance of our sins being forgiven and the not-so-easy call to forgive others who may have hurt us in the past. The realization that everyone carries scars and we are all in need of forgiveness. And now for me, Easter is a day set apart, especially after the days of Lent. It may not be jam-packed with perfection, but it's not a day of work, not a day like any other. The Church still proclaims Jesus risen. The stone is still rolled away and He is not there. His resurrected body is still my Hope. A father, in collar and liturgical garb (only the best for Jesus) is still there at the altar, participating as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Body and Blood which are not passed above or around me, but which are offered to me at every mass.
I can appreciate posts about family traditions and lists of ways to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, but I think it's okay that I don't have it all figured out. It's not about the specifics of the observation. After twenty-three years without Easter, I just LOVE having Easter to celebrate. It's about Life--eternally, with the Father-- the life of Jesus as a model for our daily living, and our lives, lived out day to day. For me, it cannot be about a structure we leave behind, but it must be our lives --beyond physical evidence--and judged by the effects of that life on ourselves and all whom we encounter. I'm right in the thick of it in this life, working through what it means to be a follower of Christ: the real nuts and bolts of this Catholic life. I'm working it out with God, with my husband, and with my children. Together, we're on the journey for which my little girl heart so longed. Ham or no ham.
Wednesday, 20 March 2013
|Another link-up this week with Moxie Wife's fun FIVE FAVORITES:|
1. Purple Fences
I WILL paint my backyard fence purple! How lovely are these fences?!
2. R. Riveter Military Bags
I'm loving these R. Riveter (as in Rosie the Riveter) bags from BourbonandBoots.com. They are made from army surplus materials and each style is named after a famous military wife. Each bag is created by a military wife.
3. Big Chill Appliances
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the retro-look line of appliances from Big Chill. It's just hard to decide if turquoise, seafoam green, or red is the best color!
4. Oven-Roasted Shrimp
Forget boiling shrimp. Oven-roasted shrimp are delicious! This weekend, we marinated ours w/one of McCormick's dry packages and then roasted them at 450 for about 12 minutes. Amazing in a wrap or on their own.
5. Real Farmers
This one really cracked me up, especially "What Society Thinks I Do." The final real one is exactly right, from my experience of growing up on our little cattle farm!
Check out more Five Favorites at MoxieWife.com!
Sunday, 17 March 2013
No big trips. Just a relaxed schedule, a day trip, special food treats, and a few spring sprucing projects.
I've been watching this lantern at Hobby Lobby for almost a year. I could only find one at a time and figured that was a sign I didn't really need them. This past week, candle holders and metal decorative items were 50 % off and there were two lanterns! We installed them on our front porch and they add such a welcoming touch. It's beautiful to have real candlelight at the front door.
I'm in a painting mood. So, don't stand still for long at our house! I painted the kitchen door leading into the garage and the exterior side of the back porch door this lovely turquoisey-teal color. Such a happy touch of color! And I'm getting better at painting without taping off the area. Angled brushes are the key.
|See, that birdhouse sat still too long near the paint.|
We took a day trip to the zoo in Waco on the advice of many friends who said it is the best zoo for little ones. It is a lovely zoo and we ended up buying a year's membership so we can go back. Plus, we get free admission to the Houston Zoo.
|My comment to the kids: "And this is why Mama never went swimming in our pond on the farm."|
|"Not ANOTHER picture!"|
|Love the slide in the otter pond!|
We joined friends for a fun St. Patrick's Day party. Delicious corned beef, potatoes, key lime pie and real Irish coffees. Good conversation & friends, along with Argentinian wine to celebrate a new pontiff. 'Tis a grand time!
|Yep, that's 20 children!|
Wednesday, 13 March 2013
When I was a child, I would make my nice little list of all I wanted for Christmas. Then, Mama would end up buying gifts not on my list that were better than those I thought I wanted. Today, after that dear man who was not even on my radar, walked out on the balcony, I felt like I did as a child on Christmas morning.I was so excited to see the white smoke, but the tears didn't come until I saw him stand there on the balcony, obviously humbled by the task before him as he looked at the immediate sight of the faithful of St. Peter's Square gathered before him. That long pause. His request to first pray for our Pope Emeritus, then asking US to pray for HIM. Thanks be to God, for our new Pope Francis, the Servant of the Servants of God, our new Papa!
A quote shared on Facebook from Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis:
Cardinal Bergoglio's words:
“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio told his priests. “These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”
Bergoglio compared this concept of Catholicism to the Pharisees of Christ’s time: people who congratulate themselves while condemning others.
“Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”
This week, I'm glued to screens to catch a glimpse of white smoke from a little chimney. Under that roof is to be found some of the most glorious artwork ever created. And surrounded by the majesty of that art, specks of red in comparison, sit a group of flawed, imperfect men who have pledged to be truthful, faithful, and to let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. Even through flawed creations, God can work. It is one of my favorite images and reminders of why I am so thankful to be Catholic.
This "admission" might merit being called a confession by some. I am not just a fan, but a tremendous admirer of the AMC television series, Breaking Bad. If you're unfamiliar with the series, it centers around Walter White, a gifted scientist-turned high school chemistry teacher. White is played brilliantly by actor Bryan Cranston. When Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, he decides to use his scientific expertise to manufacture high-grade methamphetamine so he can build funds for his in-debt family when he is gone. His family is made up of his wife, Skyler, son Walter, Jr. who has cerebral palsy, and an infant daughter. Further complicating things (or making things more interesting) is Walter's brother-in-law, Hank, who is an agent with the DEA.
Then, there's the character around whom the show really revolves for me: Jesse Pinkman, played beautifully by Aaron Paul. Jesse is a former student of Walt's. He's also a drug dealer. Walt seeks out Jesse as a partner in his enterprise who can help him sell his distinctive blue meth. The writing and character development in this series is some of the best I have ever seen--on television, in cinema, or in literature--and it is especially true for the character, Jesse. It is in Jesse's eyes that we see crime and sin reflected and it is through these reflections and his reactions to these events that we are left to think upon the effects of our own sins upon ourselves and others.
A particular favorite episode of mine is the one titled, Problem Dog. In this episode, Jesse is attending a group for recovering addicts, led by a very "'I'm OK, you're OK' leader." When you find out the leader's past, or rather the way he chooses to frame it, you see he takes that mantra to the extreme beyond what most of its most enthusiastic chanters would agree to accept. At this meeting Jesse makes up a story about having to kill a dog as a way to work through his feelings about his participation in the murder of a human being. The looks around the room begin as sympathetic, complete with nodding heads to still, frozen looks of confusion, followed by horror as Jesse answers their questions. No, the dog wasn't doing anything wrong. He just killed it. This leads to some of the best dialogue written on television as Jesse exposes the logical and moral holes in the philosophy of the leader and then emerges as the moral guidepost of the program. He can no longer see shades of grey, but the reality of objective good and bad.
From the beginning of the show, as Jesse gets deeper into "business" with Walt, we see him descend into chaos and --seemingly-- madness, in a very Heart of Darkness way. It is a more extreme descent than that we see portrayed in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, as Henry Hill gets involved more deeply in the mob underworld. And like Conrad, Scorsese and Copolla (Apocalypse Now), we can recognize the temptations that led to faulty reasoning and weak decisions. Further than that, though, we identify something else about Jesse. It's something that causes us to feel sympathy for him that we might not feel so readily for other characters. Jesse, stoned to numb his senses and quiet his brain, laying on the trash-ridden floor of his house, surrounded by strangers who are there only until the money runs out. How else could one respond to the horrors he's witnessed and worse, the horrors he's actually committed? It's something that came to mind and has stayed with me since I recently finished reading a novel about World War I by Pat Barker.
Regeneration is the first of a trilogy by Pat Barker. In this novel, set in 1917, we find ourselves at Craiglockhart War Hospital where Dr. William Rivers is charged to restore British officers' sanity so they may be sent back to the front. It is masterfully written, as Barker manages to paint a picture of the atrocities of the front--and war in general--through the "patients." Dr. Rivers has a thought turning over in his mind, always at the back, and it waits there for him if he ever stops to fully consider it. Are they all insane? What is madness? Is their reaction not the only normal one after experiencing, witnessing, or even committing such horrors?
After reading it, the novel stayed with me, as a good novel should. It is not just a statement on a particular war or certain acts or players within it, but also a larger examination of how we treat each other, the impact of our actions, and our breathtaking capacity for good and evil. A break down, at some level or another, is it not a relatively normal response? In the case of Breaking Bad, Jesse's breakdown is much more normal than the increase in cold calmness and confidence that grows in Walter White as he becomes more and more devious and commits more crimes and sins, many of them done with Jesse's assistance. In Regneration, are the hospitalized officers not acting more normally relative to the "sane" officers and psychiatrists who seek to cure them so they can be sent back to the war? Of course, there is not a direct comparison of Jesse,who has chosen a life of crime and the soldiers,following orders in war, but one can inspire thoughts about the other which lead to greater wonderings.
Breaking Bad is not easy viewing (but I'm known as a person who can relate almost anything to the Bible, The Godfather, and Shakespeare). It portrays graphic violence, gritty language and activity. But it is real, it never glamorizes sin or crime, and it is compelling. From a technical standpoint, it is masterful drama. From a human standpoint, it is Seeking. At no point do I expect a religious conversion from any of the characters as part of the plot. But, I watch because the search, the seeking--of truth, meaning in life, of that which the seekers cannot name--is there. It is active and it is real. That's what makes compelling viewing and reading. The seeking, the struggle, the humanity. There is hope when we see the search taking place, especially in something like a television show that is hugely popular.
As a Catholic, I see Breaking Bad and Regeneration--as I see my own imperfect world--through Catholic eyes. In Jesse, in the trenches, I see original sin's handiwork. I see longing for Truth, the person--God--not some philosophical abstraction. I see what a lack of beauty does to an individual, a community, a world. I see what selfishness and greed do to corrupt a heart, a family, a nation. And when I turn off the television or close the book, I am grateful. Because for some reason that defies earthly explanation, I found Truth: fully human, fully divine, arms outstretched, hands and feet pierced. He beckoned me, through my faithful grandparents, through my Christian friends, through my longing heart. And in the Catholic Church, I found a line of scholars through the years, including our last Popes, who embraced art, scientific inquiry, and literature. I found the freedom to seek. All the secular and seeking television programs, movies, novels, magazine articles from my past were all part of my journey. They all played a part in my conversion, so when my seeking heart saw the light of faith in those around me--those who "had" that peace for which my heart longed--I was able to recognize the light, and eventually find its true Source.