Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 29, 2022


Van Gogh, The Drinkers, 1890

We are settling in to being only a five-child household. There is a several-week gap between the the oldest ones leaving the house and the third getting her drivers' license, which takes me back to a level of chauffeuring I haven't practiced since 2019. Biology class for two kids, community college for one, religious ed for three, park time for the youngest. It makes me tired, but not tired enough to drink.

It seems a strange and almost shameful confession, but here goes: I don't drink.

Here's an even stranger confession: I don't even like alcohol.

It seems like it's socially acceptable not to drink if you have a problem liking alcohol too much. Or if you're pregnant. Or, naturally, if you're driving. There is, however, the tedious assumption that if you are a woman, your day is structured around the moment when you can imbibe wine by the glass, by the bottle, by the floral box. There is a box of wine in my house, for adding to spaghetti sauce. I don't even sip the dregs of the cup I pour in the saucepan. The stuff makes my face turn red -- not a maidenly blush, but a blotchy Rudolf shine. 

I don't have any bad drinking memories to point to. I've never had a hangover, since I've never been drunk. I have been buzzed, and I don't care for it much. It's not exhilarating to be freed from inhibitions. I like being socially graceful, and I like my internal editor. And it's not necessarily fun to be around people who've been freed from these constraints. I also -- and this is key -- don't like the taste of alcohol. Not beefy reds, not hard seltzers. Maybe a good white wine, but I can count on one hand how many times I've had a sublime glass, and those rare vintages had a price tag to match. I don't like it enough to pay for it.

Don't tell me about your awesome margaritas or Manhattans. There is one person in the world who mixes drinks to my taste, and that's Darwin. That's because the amount of alcohol he puts in mine is negligible. I know better now than to order a gin and tonic out, because what comes to the table is a big alcohol bomb. 

It's not that I can't or won't drink. It's that it usually isn't worth it. It's a strange club to be in, alongside the other social misfits who don't like things that everyone is supposed to love, like chocolate or bacon. (For the record, I do like those things.) I've made my peace with checking NEVER on those doctors' forms that ask how often you have alcohol. It's not strictly true, but it's much much more true than "I have an occasional drink," the next option.

I rather wish I liked wine more. So many people seem to think it's terrific. Even Jesus drank more than I do. The wine column in the paper reads to me much like the car column: an anthropological glimpse into a culture I can't inhabit. But when I'm confronted with a glass, a few sips are enough to confirm what I always feel: meh. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A Pastor's Legacy

 Some years ago I read a book entitled Married to the Church by Raymond Hedin. Hedin was an ex-seminarian and indeed an ex-Catholic, who after attending a class reunion at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee in 1985 decided to write a book about the experiences of his former classmates (class of 1969), both those who had left the priesthood and those who remained priests.

There's a lot to be taken from the book about what went wrong with the Church in the US shortly before and after the Second Vatican Council. But one of the key things that struck me was the complaints of his fellow seminarians who had gone on to become priests that people did not sufficiently respect them as professionals. As narrated by several of the priests, it was dissatisfying that people did not think of them like doctors, lawyers, or professors, despite the fact that they too had attained advanced degrees, studies secular subjects such as sociology and psychology, etc. 

I was reminded of this as I read some of the discussion about the death of former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland. To pick an egregious example, Fr. James Martin (in a series of tweets he later deleted) posted in memory of the archbishop: 

“An erudite scholar, gifted pastor and Benedictine abbot primate, his legacy was marred by revelations that he paid money to a man with whom he had been in a relationship. I considered him a friend and mourn his loss. May he rest in peace.”

This seems to imply that one can somehow be a "gifted pastor" while at the same time having sexually abused (and then paid to silence) a young man under his pastoral care. (Not to mention Weakland's terrible handling of clerical abuse more generally: shredding records of abuse by priests why continuing to transfer them around in secret, blaming victims for the abuse they suffered, etc.)   It implicitly endorses the idea of the priest as "professional" such as the Milwaukee priests in Medin's book saw themselves to be. In this vision, one can label a bishop or priest as a "gifted pastor" because he gave speeches the author likes, wrote books, was a trained musician, and had avante garde tastes in liturgical art and architecture. It is a view in which the work of "pastor" can be separated from the actual work of being a shepherd of souls.

But this is an entirely incorrect view. A shepherd who makes a practice of randomly torturing and killing sheep is quite simply not a good shepherd, not matter what other skills he may show with the shepherds pipes or the craft production of shepherds crooks.

The work of priests and bishops is not alone in this sense. We would not say of a father, "He was a really good father. He did a lot of amazing improvements on the house. He was really supportive of his kids sports teams. He also sexually abused his kids, and that marred his legacy, but really overall a great father!"  Nor would we say of a teacher, "Such a great teacher. Always the most inspired lectures and leadership in extracurriculars. Of course, he also sexually abused some kids, but you know... overall a very gifted teacher!"

Just as we would not say that someone was a "gifted father" or "gifted teacher" while then mentioning that oh, yeah, well, he also sexually abused those who were entrusted to his care, it betrays a total lack of understanding of what the vocation of a pastor is to suggest that someone can be a "gifted pastor" and yet also a perpetrator of clerical sexual abuse.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Northwest Passage

It had been many years since I heard Stan Rogers singing Northwest Passage, but this week I've heard it twice on road trips, on the playlist my daughter assembled from suggestions from varied passengers.

The mournful heart-swelling harmonies make even a drive through the staid farmlands of Ohio feel like a voyage into the unknown. And indeed, I have been making a voyage into the unknown -- not simply sending children off, which I have done before, but in feeling vulnerable without fighting it off.

When my oldest went to school two years ago, I tried to tamp down any show of worry or weakness. This time I haven't been as successful -- or, if you like, I've been more successful at letting down my guard. Friday morning after Mass, after one daughter drove away and before I took the the the other one, I found myself bawling in public (something I'd wager I have not done since infancy) on the shoulder of a friend who also sent a daughter off to school this week. Friday evening, as I watched the car-weary little boys tear around the playground, a nearby troop of Brownies played tag, long ponytails swinging past slender arms. And I remembered sisters with ponytails playing chase together, and had to breathe measured breaths to stave off disaster. 

If this is how I handle myself when something essentially good happens, how will I ever survive something bad?

And then today I was busy, picking up loose ends of business neglected during the college prep and wrestling moody younger siblings back into ordinary family life. Darwin is gone until Sunday, but we can't wait until then to start getting back to normal. I threw away several things I'd been waiting for the big girls to clear away. I took four children to the grocery store. I kept the little boys in line at Mass. I made dinner and watched a movie and made the beds and put children in them and was talked at, and at the end of it all I felt tired. Not choked, not yearning, but good honest go-to-bed tired. 

And tomorrow will be busy too, but with normal chaos of picking up a Mass I wasn't scheduled for, and holding auditions for our next show. Not every day can sustain Northwest Passage-levels of melancholy. Thank God for that.

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Changing of the Wheat

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cornflowers, 1890

"Now you'll have a majority boy household, Mom," said my oldest, surveying the shipwreck of laundry in my room left from the two big daughters sifting their belongings from the family baskets.

And it's true. For the first time in twenty years, we'll have more boys than girls. Three boys, two girls left at home -- I'm practically an empty nester. There are other firsts, too. For the first time in twenty years, I'm not changing diapers. My youngest has finally made the total shift to being a big potty-user, taking himself even, and I am hungrily eying the real estate occupied by the rickety changing table, used when I got it two decades ago. My oldest son, almost 14, ready to move out of a three-boy bedroom, has claimed the attic room his oldest sister had been occupying. Suddenly, no girls are sharing rooms. Each girl has two beds in her room, but the 16yo prefers her privacy, and now the 12yo will not be kept out of her room by her older sister's phone calls or visitors. 

Now I have no drivers in the house, as the 16yo can't get her license until September. Now my babysitting situation is changing, but I also have no babies. Now part of my heart is in Kansas, at Benedictine College, which is not a convenient three hours away like Franciscan in Steubenville. Now people who meet us will only see five kids, and not even know about the two older ones. 

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, produces much fruit. The grain of wheat dies once, but we die over and over again. Unless, of course, what is dying is the new grain, the fruit of the previous dying. What dies is not the old, but the new, and we go on dying and multiplying until we have brought forth thirty- or sixty- or hundred fold. Or seven-fold -- that's enough for me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

'Tis a Gift to be Simple

Vincent Van Gogh, House at Auvers, 1890

Most families have that child: the one whose deep-seated need for parental stability manifests in sarcastic commentary on anything that seems indicative of some unfathomable internal life. Parents, and mothers in particular, must be a Rock of Gibraltar, comfortably, safely unmoved and unmoving. Do you feel the need to look less haggard? You will be greeted downstairs with a scornful demand to know why you're wearing makeup. How could you have been so presumptuous as to think you could wear a new shirt from Goodwill and not have it remarked upon? Should you watch a movie, you can be sure that sharp eyes will be monitoring you for the first signs of weakness: "Mom, are you crying?"

Which is why this morning I stood barefoot out by the compost bin under the overgrown mulberry tree at the bottom of the yard, seeking a place I could breathe a few great shuddering breaths, unremarked. Almost all summer I have moved from busyness to busyness, some tedious and some very pleasant indeed. Today, for the first time, I finally had nothing to distract me from the looming reality that my two oldest girls both leave for college on Friday. The body keeps score, of course. All week I've noted, and filed away to deal with later, the increasing anxious tingle in my fingers and the dull ache in the pit of my stomach. But you cannot let yourself start if you have no exit strategy. One shuddering breath, if indulged, turns into another and another until you are gulping great sobs down by the playhouse and hoping no child is monitoring you from the kitchen window. 

It is perhaps selfish to wish that I had a completely private place to scream every so often. But there are worse evils than to be caught out in a moment of weakness. I am almost sick with gratitude that the trials of my life are so simple. I face no evil, no betrayal, no terror. I endure nothing gives pain to anyone but me. I have nothing worse to face than to die to self, and I have to do that anyway. It is a gift to suffer love.