Is the Catholic Writers Guild Worth Your Time?

In the next few months the Catholic Writers Guild has some super good events coming up.  In July there’s the annual Catholic Writers’ Conference, meeting in Chicago this year (it moves around), held in conjunction with the giant annual trade show for Catholic bookstores.  In October is the Catholic Writers’ Retreat, held at a beautifully gardened retreat center outside of Lansing, Michigan.  All year long, members of the CWG confer online (and sometimes in person), helping each other in the quest to get our work into readers’ hands.

It might be a good organization for you.  Here’s the inside scoop, coming from a former VP of the CWG and now not-very-active member who has basically nothing to gain, at all, from your decision to participate or not.

Who Would Benefit from Membership in the Catholic Writers’ Guild?

Some people join the CWG and quickly realize it’s not a good fit for them.  If CWG membership isn’t for you, you might still enjoy our public events, more on that below.  Assuming you are a faithful-to-the-magisterium Catholic who is interested in some aspect of publishing (writing, editing, illustrating, graphic design, running a publishing company, etc.), here are the other things that seem to be most important in determining whether you’ll benefit from belonging to the CWG:

#1 You’re serious about your decision to write or publish.

Some people join the CWG for a year or two while they explore the possibilities, and that’s fine.  But the goal of the Catholic Writers Guild is to cultivate strong Catholic writers and other publishing professionals, in order to bring good literature to the world.  Our members are involved in every aspect of the business and every genre and venue, but we all have one thing in common: We are actually doing the thing.

You can be a rank beginner (indeed, that’s a great place to start). You can be uncertain what your future publishing career looks like.  You can be someone mostly interested in writing for a private audience.  But you won’t really be satisfied with belonging to the guild unless you are eager to keep moving forward in your craft.

#2 You are ready to take an active part in making the mission of the Guild happen.

The CWG is 100% member-run.  We aren’t one of these prestigious press associations with crazy-expensive dues and a staff to field phone calls all day.  We are a network of writers and other professionals helping each other with career advice, honest evaluations, contacts in the industry, moral support, and feedback on all the weird things that come into your head when you’re a Catholic writer.  You won’t benefit from CWG membership if you are planning to sit back and have other people infuse career help into your life.  You will find your support team and get the help you need through the process of engaging with other members and volunteering for projects that put you in the place you need to be.

#3 You are looking for help.

Some people don’t need this.  If you already know your craft, already have a strong support team, and already have the professional connections you need in order to get your work to your readers, then you should probably be focusing on getting your next project finished, or feeding the poor, or spending another hour at Adoration.  People who aren’t looking for some kind of help or social support in their publishing efforts usually only enjoy membership in the guild if they derive particular pleasure from helping others.   Many non-members satisfy the itch to mentor other Catholic writers by volunteering to give presentations at the CWG’s in-person and online conferences, or quietly providing other kinds of assistance to growing writers.

The Catholic Writers Guild is above all a way for Catholic writers to help each other learn how to improve their craft and get their work in front of readers.  If that is the kind of help you’re looking for, check out the CWG.

For everyone else?  Even if membership isn’t for you, the upcoming events might still be of interest.

The Catholic Writers’ Conference

The CWG’s annual conference is a chance to spend time with other writers, attend classes, meet editors and publishers, and find out what’s going on in Catholic publishing.  If you like books and Catholic stuff, walking the floor of the CMN’s trade show is Catholic fairyland.  The whole event is friendly and exciting and more or less one long festival of all things Catholic writing geek.

I try to go when I can, though honestly?  I come away with so many ideas for projects that in the years that I can’t go, it’s probably just as well.  If you like to be with people, and you get energized by seeing what others are doing and by spending time with people who are passionate about the things you care about, this is the place.

Registration is still open for July 2017, so take a look if Chicago is within striking distance for you.

The Catholic Writers’ Retreat

This is a picture of my perfect weekend:

Easy chair with computer keyboard by sunny window with a view.

I took my daughter to the coast, and while she played ball and then went out to the beach with her friends, I spent a whole day with a gorgeous view and a computer and knocked out a bunch of writing.

The writer’s retreat is a combination of that — quiet time to get writing done in a beautiful location — and a comfortable amount of time with other Catholic writers.  It’s organized by Margaret Rose Realy and this year’s speaker is Elizabeth Scalia, two fabulous Catholics who are definitely more retreat-personality than conference-personality.  If quiet time is something you need, these women know deep in their bones the ache that you feel when you say that.  I will you tell you very frankly that Margaret doesn’t skimp where prayer is concerned, and Elizabeth (no slouch on the Catholic herself) will tell it like it is when she has something to say.  You’ll be in good hands.

Both of these events are open to non-members.  If either one (or both) sounds like your happy place, take a look at what the  Catholic Writers Guild is up to this year.

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The Holy Trinity Unexplained

I think my favorite day of the year might be Trinity Sunday.

It’s not obvious, except that every year it makes me gasp and be happy.  I probably like it better than other feasts because there’s never any obligatory feasting involved, thank goodness for that.

I don’t have anything to say about the Trinity.  The Catechism does have some things to say, and those will keep you busy for a while.

Meanwhile, here are some icons of the Holy Trinity.
File:Torki Holy Trinity.jpg

Photos taken just after dinner, I guess.

File:Unknown painter - The Holy Trinity - WGA23507.jpg

 

You get pictures like this to explain the unfathomable if you’re from the mystic eastern lung of the Church; in the west, we prefer bad analogies, of course.  It’s good of the Church to call this Trinity Sunday and not Struggling With Theology Sunday.

But you can have a pretty good feast day if you pick one known true thing about the Holy Trinity and for a few minutes let it sit in your brain unfixed.  This is the thing with mysteries: They are meant to be worked at.  They are meant to be announced and examined and slowly revealed, bit by bit, until in the fullness of time our thirst for understanding is satisfied.

 

Icons via Wikimedia, public domain.

How to Get a Long Penance

Over at Mother of Mercy, my preferred venue for confessions, I wrapped up a list of weightier sins with,  “. . . and losing patience with other people’s shortcomings, which I know is ridiculous, but there it is.”

Fr. A* was still thinking after the act of contrition.  “For your penance, um . . .”  when he does this, you know you’re in trouble, because it’s the sound he makes when he’s fitting the punishment to the crime, “. . . pray for anyone you may have lost your patience with–”

–maybe I can work with this–

“–in thought or in . . .”

Oh for crying out loud, Father!  Even if I kept my mouth shut?! Really??

So did I pray for you?  If you take a long time in the confessional, or you give evidence that you are unclear on why your car’s gas pedal is also called the “accelerator”?  Then yes, I definitely prayed for you.

 

File:Postcard of Basilica of Our Mother of Mercy.jpg

Postcard of the Basilica of Our Mother of Mercy, via Wikimedia (public domain).

*A is for Anonymous.  I have no idea who’s behind the screen.  That’s what I like about the place.

French Culture – Marriage, Family Life, and Sexuality – Interesting Links

My latest at the National Catholic Register touches on some interesting bits of French culture where marriage is concerned.   I didn’t have room in a short essay to create an annotated bibliography, and anyway I stumbled on more interesting stuff than I’ll ever write about.  Here’s a list of assorted links of potential interest to select readers, with a few comments at the bottom related to my essay topic.

In talking about cultural contrasts, here’s an article on France’s military-run brothel system, dating from World War I.  Here’s a short history of the United States’ approach to the problem of venereal diseases during the same period.  The differences are striking.

This Google preview of Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945  has some history of the role of paternity during that time period.

 

All kinds of interesting parental-rights cases from the European Court of Human Rights are summarized here (in English).

On the question of legitmacy: Children Born Outside Marriage in France and their Parents. Recognitions and Legitimations since 1965.  Text is in English, and loaded with statistics concerning changes in practice over time.

Here’s a research paper exploring the range of issues in how biological versus social paternity is handled across Europe.  It is useful as an introduction to the kinds of issues that are in play, and how different countries have dealt with them.

Some Wikimedia articles that highlight the way French law handles questions of maternity and paternity:

A more academic discussion of the question of genetic testing legislation in Europe is here.  The European Journal of Human Genetics discusses the legal situation in Western Europe here.

Wikimedia’s English-language summary of the history of posthumous marriage is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthumous_marriage. Note there is a slight error, it is Article 171 that gives us the pertinent law.  The related topic of proxy-marriage is discussed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_marriage.

There’s a bit on the case law concerning posthumous marriage in Europe if you scroll down to paragragh 247 of Le Couple et la Convention Européenne des Droits de l’Homme .  Google translate struggles a bit on this one.  The French Code Civil (in French) is here.

On the topic of posthumous marriage, the only Church document, at all, which I could find was this: http://www.radiovaticana.va/Afr_bulletin/14_05_14.html.  The relevant part is here, boldface mine:

D. AUX CHEFS DE FAMILLE
24 – Chers chefs de famille, votre place n’est plus à démontrer, et votre responsabilité est capitale. L’impact de votre action peut être positif ou négatif, selon que vous agissez conformément ou non à la volonté de Dieu. Il vous donne de prendre soin des personnes qu’il vous confie. Votre mission est à la fois honorable et complexe. C’est sur vous que repose la cohésion de la famille, en matière de dot, de gestion d’héritage et de conflits, de traitement des veuves, des veufs et des orphelins. Dans cet ordre d’idées, à la lumière de la tradition et de l’Evangile, nous dénonçons la pratique illégale qui consiste à demander une dot trop élevée. Respectez ce que prévoit le code de la famille (art. 140). Nous condamnons la pratique du mariage posthume (versement de la dot lors du décès de la conjointe). Appliquez-vous avec courage, avec toute votre force, à accomplir dignement votre mission de chef de famille.

Nous vous assurons, de notre soutien, de notre proximité, de notre prière et de notre bénédiction.

The context is not (at all whatsoever) the French civil law on posthumous marriage.  Rather, the bishops are condemning the practice of asking too high of a dowry, and therefore also the practice of “posthumous marriage” as a vehicle for receiving the payment of the dowry when the bride has died.

By way of comparison on the topic of the French civil code’s practice of posthumous marriage, here’s the Code of Canon Law on the topic of “radical sanation,” which is something completely different.  It’s of interest because it shares the concept of “going back in time and fixing things” where marriage is concerned.  And that’s it — no other connection between the two.

 

File:Zingende boerenfamilie Rijksmuseum SK-A-376.jpeg "Singing Peasant Family"

I searched on “French Family” and the results came up Dutch.  Thanks Wikimedia!

How to Turn On Your Foreign-Language Reading Brain

When I first showed up in France as an exchange student in high school, my host sister asked me, in English, “When you speak French, do you think in English first and then translate, or do the words just come?”

At the time I’d had two years of high school French — just enough to make French people want to try out their English, that was not something French people of that era were too excited about doing.

I wasn’t sure.  I was somewhere in between, after a couple weeks in-country, and a lot of hours spent passing notes in bad French to my friend in geometry class the year before.

Brendan at DarwinCatholic writes about the challenge of being stuck in translation-mode as a student of German.

He is almost certainly paying the price that comes with being analytical and diligent.  I am neither (not to the degree he is, anyhow), and so I strongly favor a different approach to learning languages that will leave you with horrible holes in your grammar, but significantly better reading fluency than a slacker like me could ever deserve.

Here is what I told Brendan to do, and if you are in his shoes, it might help you, too.

#1. Relax.

This is not personal advice, it is mechanically necessary for reading fluency.

There are different parts of your brain that carry out different tasks.

If you are deep in analytical thought, the part of your brain that lets words flow effortlessly gets put on the back burner. Even though my French is fluent (not perfect, just fluent), if I’m nervous or distracted by contrary thoughts, it’ll bog down.  Here’s a real thing that happened to me once which made this clear:

For about five minutes back in the ’90’s, I studied Italian.  That’s like an actual five minutes, not a metaphorical five minutes — my husband had some Italian books I was putting away.  I run into Italian here and there on the internet because I’m Catholic and I read Amy Welborn, and since I’ve studied other romance languages, it’s something that kinda sorta makes sense.   So I can sometimes read easy Italian pretty well, if it’s a topic that I’m familiar with, heavy on the cognates.

Thus one day I was reading this magazine article in Italian, no big, hey, who doesn’t read magazine articles in Italian?  Totally rocking it.

It was religion or something, or else I got to thinking about religion or something, and I put the article down and set my brain to articulating a series of arguments on a tricky topic.  When I went back to the article with my analytical-brain in high gear?  It was all gibberish.  I literally went from reading fluently to having to painfully pick apart word by word — and the latter is not a good technique in a language you’ve never formally studied.

So anyway, I learned from then on that totally relaxing is the key.  Pour yourself a drink.  Think about picturesque villages and parts of the world where decent coffee is a birthright, and then amble on in like you don’t really care.  Makes a big difference.

#2. Gorge on the spoken word.

Part of developing fluency is getting the rhythm of the language into your head.  When you learned to speak your native language, you began by spending a year and some just listening to people around you say things you mostly didn’t understand.  The first part of it you were listening underwater, for goodness sake.

True story: My eldest came into this world crying like a normal newborn does.  Newborns have a distinctive just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck amateur quality to the way they cry.  #2 gestated in an environment flooded with her older brother’s loud and emphatic toddler tantrums echoing into the womb.  She thus entered this world not crying like some neophyte, but with all the intonation and rhetorical sophistication of a veteran whiner.   Woken in the middle of the night by some child carrying on, I could not know without looking whether it was the toddler being himself, or the newborn sounding eighteen months older than she was.

To get the rhythm of a language into your head, you have to swim in it, bathe in it, and guzzle it down with supper every night.  Understanding all the words is not the important thing at first.

–> The inner fluency you gain from hearing language more sophisticated than you have personally mastered is part of why read-alouds are so important to helping young children learn to read.

#3. Practice saying the patterns.

Brendan writes about the grammatical construction in German that’s giving him a hard time.  To get over the hump, what you have to do is use that construction.  Except that whoa, he’s only a couple years into this.  So what you do is learn some phrases and sentences of daily usefulness that incorporate the tricky grammar.

He has some children on whom he can inflict his practice sentences, if only he chooses commonly used expressions, such as whoever changes the baby’s diaper doesn’t have to take out the trash.  Or whatever else might be applicable.

Languages are collections of patterns.  Once you have a basic pattern into your head, subbing out a noun for a noun or a verb for a verb is pretty easy.

–> This is part of why building words with magnet-letters, building sentences with flashcards, and playing word games where parts of words or sentences are interchanged are so helpful to learning to read.

Edited to add: Erin at Bearing Blog has a superb technique for working odd language patterns.  I do this a lot in my head, but she’s methodical and diligent like Brendan is, so she does it for serious.

#4. Read lots and lots of easy stuff

When I say easy, I mean ridiculously easy.  Pick topics that are heavy on cognates of vocabulary you already know, and covering topics you already understand. (I recommended economics, history, politics, and religion for Brendan.)  Read these things in short sessions.  By short I mean: About the size of a paragraph in a church bulletin, or an article in a tourist brochure, or R.R. Reno’s paragraph-sized observations at the back of the print edition of First Things.

Edited to add: Reader Bill Hauk points out that children’s books are excellent for this.  I couldn’t agree more.

Be warned that micro-messages, such as billboard advertisements, are usually not that helpful.  They tend to require lots of inside cultural knowledge and grammatical sophistication.  You want a big enough chunk of text that you can miss a few words here and there and still know pretty much what was being said.

These are not a complete method for learning a language.

Brendan’s already got the grammar side of things under control, and I bet he pays attention to spelling too. For building technical translation skills, the sorts of training I’ve described here will basically ruin you.  You’ll absorb the language straight through the skin, and if you are reading anything produced by a half-decent writer, the thought of exchanging something said so perfectly into some pale imitation will become anathema.  No translator will quite get it right again, ever, as far as you’re concerned.

But you’ll be able to read, so that’s good.

FR_Colmar_20080828_005.jpg (2550×2025)

La petite Venise, Colmar, France.  By HNH (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

When You Can’t Shut Up About Evangelization & Discipleship

It turns out I have a lot to say on certain topics.

The start of my index of posts on Evangelization and Discipleship is now up here on this blog. I put it together because I happen to need to be reminded of things I kinda know but always forget.

The index is still in progress. I started by going through my posts at NewEvangelizers.com, then went through everything in the “Evangelization” category at my Patheos blog.  There’ll be more later, but for now we’ve got plenty.  The topmost section contains the basics, and I think I’ve managed to find all the posts I definitely wanted for the 101 pile.

Head’s up for the unaware: I can be a bit pointed.  The especially acerbic bits are down at the bottom of the page in a clearly-marked category of their own.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  

Samaritan womans meets Jesus at the Well, by Annibate Carracci

Artwork: Annibale Carracci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Evangelization and the Case for Catholic Fiction

Convergence of two happy things: The Catholic Writers Conference is coming around again, and I’m putting together an index of my writing on discipleship and evangelization.  In trolling my posts at New Evangelizers, I came across this one that is apropos of the conference season.  And yes, if you’re a Catholic who likes to write (fiction or otherwise), you should give the Catholic Writers Guild a good looking over.  More on that soon.

Evangelization and the Case for Catholic Fiction

Why bother with Catholic fiction?  As I write this, I’ve just returned from the Catholic Writers Guild’s annual live conference (our online conference is held in early spring), and once again I’ve met dozens of great Catholic authors eager to reach a Catholic audience.

I’ve also had a few discouraging conversations with publishers.  “We’re really only able to sell retellings of saints stories. We’d like to do other fiction, but we can’t.”  “We love that children’s fiction series, but we can’t break even on it, so we had to cancel further installments.”   “We want to do fiction, but . . .”

It’s a hard market. Over the past 50 years, Catholics in the pew have taken the notion that anything true, good, and beautiful is indeed “Catholic”, and run with it . . . right out of the Catholic market, and into the secular bookshelves.

And there’s something to that.  After all, we Catholics don’t need to decorate every story we read with a crucifix and a Hail Mary in order to be edified.  Reviewers like Julie Davis at Happy Catholic mine the treasures to be found in all kinds of strange corners.  The Catholic faith truly is universal, and so it’s no surprise that all good literature evangelizes, regardless of the label that goes with it.

Still, there’s a place for explicitly Catholic stories of every genre.  Why?

Catholic identity

Our faith is not just a cultural identity, but yes, we’re human, so it does matter to us that we aren’t the only Catholics out there.  My daughter is a big fan of the Anna Mei series from Pauline Books & Media.  These stories are your basic middle school coming-of-age stuff, and the Catholic faith is part of the fabric, but not the crux of the plot.  Still, I love that my daughter can see a Catholic character turn out for Mass on Sundays, or say grace with her family.  We all need to know we aren’t the only ones doing this religion thing.

Solid answers to hard questions

John McNichol is a house favorite at our place, since we have that middle school boy sci-fi / alien-attack demographic sewn up tight.  McNichol gets criticized for putting  religious conversations in his dialog.

Well, guess what?  That’s what teens really talk about.  McNichol is a veteran middle school teacher and father of 10 bazillion teens, so he knows that, and he puts real questions teens ponder into the mouths of his teen characters.

But here’s the rub: unless it’s Catholic fiction, those questions aren’t going to get a Catholic answer.

Catholicism is not generic

You know what irritates me on Facebook?  Vague “spiritual” feel-good platitudes being spouted by people who should know better.

Oh, I know, I need to lighten up a little.  And I’m the first in line to be ecumenical when ecumenical is possible.  But sooner or later we need for Catholics to claim their faith as the one and only.

Catholic fiction lays down the gauntlet: our faith is not one choice among many.  It’s not just a “flavor” or a “style” of religion.  A sincere faith means we’re going to have an awful lot of explicitly Catholic stories to tell, because our faith offers something you can’t find anywhere else.

Are you with me on this?  If so, here’s what I propose we do next:

1. Talk about it.  

There are lots of folks in the pews for whom this idea is absolutely radical.  It’s just not on their brain.  At all.  So mention it.  Drop a line in conversation like, “I love being able to find good Catholic novels for my kids.”  Or, “It’s so refreshing to read something that isn’t trashy for a change.”

2. Start buying Catholic fiction.

If you have a local Catholic bookstore, ask them to stock it. Print out the book info for the title that interests you, and ask them to order it.  If you have a parish library, donate good Catholic fiction to their collection.

3. When you read a good Catholic book, leave a review . . .

. . . at Goodreads, Amazon, and the publisher’s website. Then mention it to your friends – online and in real life.

People want to be able to practice their faith.  Reading good Catholic fiction is a way that many people can be encouraged,  inspired, and yes, even catechized at times, in a way that comes so naturally to story-loving humans.

***

Read any good books lately?

What titles would you recommend for the Catholic reader looking for a good story to curl up with on a lazy Sunday afternoon?

(Psst!  FYI for new readers – the blog discussion forum is here.)

 

Catholic Writers Conference Live! Logo.

 

The Makings of a Psychiatric Service Dog – Meet Frank and Josef

I’ve long been interested in service dogs, but something new to me is the idea of a psychiatric service dog.  You may have heard of “emotional support animals,” companion animals that help a person stay calm and cope with challenging situations just by being around in a general way.  You might think of it as passive support.

A psychiatric service dog, in contrast, is trained to perform specific tasks that actively help the handler through PTSD, anxiety, or other crisis episodes.  The dog actively monitors the handler’s well-being, and takes action to intervene or assist when needed.

Now a dear friend of mine is in the process of seeing if he and his dog have what it takes to be formally trained as a psychiatric support dog team — and all signs are very promising.

 

This is Josef Hathaway:

Image contains: 1 person, sunglasses, hat and closeup

Josef being himself.  Photo by Mary Hathaway, used with permission. 

He’s creative and insightful and a natural problem-solver.  His father John writes:

Josef was asking about getting an outside cat. Mary facetiously suggested, about an hour before Mass, that he catch one of the feral cats that prowl our yard. A bit later, we’re in our room getting ready and hear a loud crash! I thought another tree had fallen. We heard the girls, but no Joe.

Josef?!” Mary called.

“Yes?!” called a voice from below our feet.

“What are you doing?”

“You said I could trap a cat!” He was in the basement, pulling out the old dog cages.

“I also suggested you clean your room!”

“Yeah, but that’s boring!”

He’s funny and playful and loving.  This is a story Mary tells about Joseph and one of his three sisters:

Josef (menacingly): Gianna, you’re about to have a HEART ATTACK!

Me: Josef!

I turn around, and he proceeds to attack her by throwing paper hearts at her. (Phew.) LOL

Josef also has high functioning autism (Asperger’s) with a mood disorder, for which he receives professional treatment supervised by a psychologist specializing in his diagnoses.  At home, his parents provide the structure, diet, behavioral interventions, medical care, and family life adaptations designed by his care team for his situation.

One thing that helps him is time spent with animals.   Josef volunteered for about seven months in the puppy room at the  CSRA Humane Society.  The decision to adopt Frank the dog, though, was inspired by another Frank:

Dean Koontz (dog aficionado) led me to Frank Redman, who recommended we get Josef a lab, and we ended up adopting a lab already named Frank, rescued from Hurricane Matthew. That’s his back story. The SPCA brought him over from Charleston to their shelter during the hurricane.

When the family adopted Frank the dog, they were looking for a good companion who enjoyed chasing balls.  They had no idea how attuned he would be to the moods of the members of his adopted pack.  With no training at all, Frank has already started actively working as a psychiatric service dog.

Mary shares an example of way the Frank helps Josef calm down from a panic attack:

Josef had another panic attack.

Fifteen minutes before “Contractors for Christ” [coming to help the family with yard maintenance] showed up…he locked himself in his bedroom (John has now removed the door handle), and he was sobbing.

Frank came back and started barking at the door. John was able to get in, and Frank kept jumping up on Josef (kindly–not vicious) and barking at him and pawing at his hands so he would have to stop hurting himself.

Josef then went and closed himself in the closet, and then Frank barked at the door, I opened it, and he again came in and sat down with Josef and barked at him gently to calm down.

Josef was pretty stirred up–he gets anxious about anyone coming over, even if it’s someone he’s known for a while–so, he was still not 100%. But, thanks to Frank, he calmed down, thankfully.

Here’s an example of how attuned Frank is to Josef’s mood, and how quickly he intervenes to help:

Josef just talked to Frank Redman via Skype, and Josef joked that he was scared of something and fake whimpered. Frank came bolting into the room and started licking his hand.

This is all raw talent.  The Hathaways are arranging to consult with a professional psychiatric service dog trainer, to determine if Frank and Josef are candidates for training as a team.

Frank, black Labrador retriever, resting on the couch with Josef.

Photo of Frank and Josef, copyright John & Mary Hathaway, used with permission.

The Best Part of “Serving the Poor”

This spring, #3 and I have been volunteering about three times a month at either the shower-in-laundry place or the homeless-people clothing closet.  At S&L we move laundry through the machines, clean showers between users, keep track of who’s in line for a shower next, and make sure the supplies are in order.   At the HPCC, we’re back-end.  Elderly ladies with a firm disposition for taking no nonsense deal directly with the client; we naive pushovers sort through donations, take a look at the current inventory and decide what to send on to outlying ministries, and get the rest logged in and put away.

This is enjoyable work for many reasons.

It is relaxing.  You set aside all your other worries and just focus for a couple hours on getting a useful and manageable task accomplished.

It is companionable.  The other volunteers and the clients are interesting, fun people to be with.  For my daughter and me, it’s something we can do together, and we end up working more and more as a team.

It is satisfying.  You never wonder, “Did that guy really need a shower?”  Yes.  He needed a shower.  You made it possible for him to have one.  Done.  Likewise, no one comes and asks someone else’s grandmother to pick out second-hand shoes and clothes for them unless they really, truly, need some shoes and clothes.

It is refreshing.  After you’ve waded through enough sophisticated blather over the years from non-homeless people, it’s nice to be around people who have no particular social skills.  They just want a shower and some shoes, done.  We don’t ask you to listen to a talk about Higher Things or make a promise that you’ll never drink and you’ll always work really hard. We just tell you when the shower’s ready.

It is edifying.  Here are friends joking together, family members proud of each other, worried about each other, looking after each other, telling stories about each other — all this beautiful humanity in front of your face.  Everyone has a story of home, even when home is outside.

All these things I love.  But there’s something that keeps moving me most, week after week: The generosity of total strangers.

This week we had to stop off at St. Urban’s on the way to S&L.  “Oh, by the way, tell them down there we’ve got a pile of stuff the Sodality of Mary collected.”  #3 & I took a look at the pile, determined it would fit in our freshly-emptied front seat, and brought it ourselves.

This whole stack of things was exactly what S&L needed.  Late in the afternoon, after the waiting area had emptied, we sorted through the stuff to put away.  You have toothbrushes or lotion or shampoo, and you go to put it away, and discover the amount on the counter is the right amount to fill the gap on the supply shelves.  Here’s something we almost ran out of, but church ladies took up a collection and now we have it, just when we need it.

***

Every week when we’re pouring detergent or spraying disinfectant or setting a few more miniature bars of soap in the bin by the towels, we’re holding someone else’s generosity.  None of that stuff comes from grants or government-supply.  It’s all collected a piece at a time by people all over the city who’ve gone through the trouble of gathering supplies together and getting them delivered.

Imagine having the job of opening and delivering 500 hundred Valentines a week.  Then imagine that they weren’t love letters between boyfriend and girlfriend or parent and child, but rather each one said:

Dear Person Who Matters to Me,

I’ve never met you, I know your life sucks and people don’t want to be around you and some of it might even be your own fault, but I’m glad you’re here in my town with me.  I care about you, and I want to make your life a little bit better, and I want you to know you are not alone.

Love,

Your Secret Friend.

If you got to catalog and count and deliver box after box of that sort of love?

You would like that job.

Vintage Detergent Advertisement, circa 1948 File:The Ladies' home journal (1948) (14785694143).jpg

Artwork from Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Concerning Ferocity

Arguing about the “Fearless Girl” statue is old sport now.  Pause for a moment and take a look at a completely different argument.  Here is  Zachary D. Schmoll at The Public Discourse: “Physician-Assisted Suicide Tells People Like Me That Our Lives Are No Longer Worth Living.

As a man with a physical disability, I need a lot of help to perform many basic daily activities. I still consider myself to be an independent thinker, but my physical independence is substantially limited by my severely reduced muscle strength. I need help to drive my van, get dressed, prepare my meals, and complete other daily tasks. For me, this is life. For many others, this level of dependence is motivation to consider bringing life to an end.

If you are wondering why the supporters and detractors of the Fearless Girl both seem to have a point, the point is implied by Schmoll: We are suffering from a fortitude-deficiency.

I give the benefit of the doubt to writers who create super-fighter female characters.  Aren’t all superheros a stretch of the imagination?  It is not necessary to have a feminist agenda to identify with a girl-fighter character.  There is the appeal of the underdog; there is the charm of the unlikely hero.  Quick art relies on facile stereotype: If you want “artistic tension” write yourself a hulking ballerina or a grandmother who hates crochet, done.  Thus one can object to fighter-girls on the grounds of bad artistry, sometimes.  To my mind, the main offense of the female super-fighter character is that she’s mostly hired for the job of over-filling her super-bikini.

Girls are not for that.

I know girls who fight with swords, or play rugby, or do other things that require physical toughness.  They do not fall out of their clothing.  Also, they are women, not wannabe-men.

It should require no proof or explanation that men and women are different from each other.  Faced with a culture determined to argue against the self-evident, conservatives sometimes lapse into stereotypes in order to make that point. Stereotypes fail because men and women resemble each other intensely. We all have wrists and necks and breasts and jaws and feet, which tend to be different between men and women, but the tendencies are not absolute.  It isn’t that women have flippers and men have tentacles; we all have hands.  A male hand and a female hand resemble each other far more than either one is like a dog’s paw or a horse’s hoof.

So it is with human emotions, human reasoning, and human passion.  There are differing tendencies between men and women, but other than motherhood and fatherhood and your part in the act that gets you there, there is nothing in the human experience that is the exclusive province of only men or only women.  A man is sensitive and compassionate and nurturing in a masculine way by definition: If it is a man expressing those traits, he is doing it in a way that men do it.

Women identify with traits likes toughness because toughness is a feminine trait as surely as it is a masculine one.  Like hands or feet or ear hair, there are differences in how that toughness tends to express itself in the lives of women compared to the lives of men.  But it is certainly there.

If you do not think women are made for feats of intense physical difficulty and danger, I fear your parents owe you an apology: That story about the stork is just a myth.

You are here on this earth because a woman gave birth to you.

Oh, but that’s not the same as manly physical difficulty and danger!  No, it isn’t.  A man’s body is made to express its strength and daring in a different way.  Strength and daring are not male traits or female traits; they are human traits.  As with hands or feet, there tend to be differences between men and women in the embodiment of those traits. But if we try to say that physical toughness and daring are solely the province of men and not women, we don’t end up with a definition of masculinity; we end up with an argument for abortion.

We are a culture that values not toughness but power.  It isn’t fortitude we treasure but autonomy.  It isn’t the ability to endure great trials that we prize, it is the ability to conquer decisively.  If there is real danger? We want an out.

Life involves danger and pain.  From the moment of conception to the last breath, danger and pain are risks we all run, and sooner or later both will overtake us.

The fundamental argument for abortion is this: I would rather you die than that I suffer.

The fundamental argument for euthanasia is this: We would rather you die than that we suffer.

The fundamental argument for assisted-suicide is this: I would rather I die than that I suffer.

We talk a big talk about being “fierce” but actually we are cowards.  We are only “fierce” in the face of bronzed threats — frozen solid, unable to harm us.  We can stare down a picture of danger all afternoon; real danger makes us proud to run and hide.

A ferocious beast will kill for its own gain.  It is not ferocity but fortitude that we humans undervalue.  We like these girls who fight because we know deep inside that we humans are created for the fight.  We are created for living dangerously, and for facing the trials of our life unflinching.

File:Budapest kunst 0010.tif Virgin Mary with St. Barbara and St. Catherine of Alexandria

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia: The Virgin Mary with saints Barbara and Catherine of Alexandria.  I dunno, were those girls all that tough?  Hmmn.