Betty Duffy


Friday, April 10, 2015

The view from inside the bus

I chaperoned a third grade field trip to the Children's Museum, which is one of my least favorite places in the world, with its four stories of careening ramps that traverse you from floor to floor, the underwhelming Chihuly glass tower, the shallow exhibits that make such a righteous stab at deep topics like discrimination, kids making a difference, and women in science! 

All the kids want to do is see the dinosaurs or play in the water works on the fourth floor. And all the parents want to do is sit down, which I almost got to do for ten minutes, before a Museum employee got on her megaphone and performed a "chaperone check" commanding all students to find their assigned adult. 

And my nine year old son who loves rules so very much got to scold me for sending him to the playscape on his own for a bit. But I'm telling you, I was not the only chaperone taking a break. There was a whole row of them, all along the wall, staring blankly ahead or at their phones, or trying, through stiff smiles, to converse with one another.

The highlight of the trip was riding the bus, which as noted, is something I've been wanting to do for awhile. On the way there, parents were still trying to connect with their kids in a meaningful way. By the time we were heading home, there was no such pretense, and I was thinking how parents are like kindergartners who need a mat to lie down on after lunch. 

All the grownups were falling asleep. And the bus! It vibrates! This is what I had forgotten after all these years-- the absolute purring sensation of riding at high speeds over the cracks in the interstate, the bounce and sway, the wagging tail end of the school bus--it all courses through your body. The windows were open. Everyone's hair was in a vortex, whipping at their cheeks. There was no choice but to close your eyes.

Two girls sat in front of me, playing some kind of hand smacking concentration game that required them to name every teacher and administrator in the school system. 

One of the girls was rail thin, with wispy long hair, and blue veins in her temples, eyelids and cheeks. The other was pudgy with gigantic front teeth, glasses, ears that stuck out a bit, and a perpetual giggle. When I opened my eyes after a long stretch of having them shut, she said, "Welcome back! Did you have a nice trip?" as if she were my personal travel concierge. I get a kick out of little girls trying to sound professional.

My friend Amy and I used to make up commercials for things like deodorant and laxatives when we were on the bus in third grade. We thought we were hysterical. 

Speaking of deodorant, my older son could really benefit from the subtle persuasion of one of our old deodorant commercials. I usually keep a stick in the car for occasions when he forgets, but it melted yesterday in the (blessedly) warm sun. I said something about his poor classmates having to endure the BO.

"I don't feel bad for them," he answered. "My armpits smell like all my favorite foods--hotdogs, and just about everything on the menu at McDonalds." 

Bon Appetit!

There was another boy in my group of charges at the museum, who was keen to share interesting facts about his life, like, "My mother is a Buddhist. But I'm not. I'm not a Christian or a Jew or anything like that. I only believe in the Big Bang theory." (Cut to interminal description of Big Bang theory).

Also: "My mother was born in Japan. But my father was born in America. More specifically, he was born in Michigan. In the woods. So he can eat anything, like duck head and frog legs, and grubs. But not beets, because they are evil."

Interesting theology.

Incidentally, the beats in the following song--if you could make them into a tangible physical sensation rather than just an aural one, it would be almost the same rhythm as the school bus on the interstate.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Driving the bus

I've had a recurring thought lately, that I should be a school bus driver, because every day, I follow the school bus all around town, doing exactly what it does at the exact same time. School bus drivers I've known have all been good people, even "Bert" the grouchy bus driver of my youth with her giant mug-a-lug on the dash, and the little black rat-tail hanging from the back of her short haircut. 

She was an introvert's introvert (not that I am an introvert at all), looking up from the road only to say, "Shut up! Sit down! or I'm taking names!" Did she hate her life? I don't know. There was always a weird sadness on the last day of school when she dropped us off and said goodbye with an uncharacteristic smile, and also, "Have a good summer!" It was like one second of Easter after 180 days of Lent--Bert's smile. It seemed as if under her stoic veneer of absolute contempt, she might secretly like us. Then again, she was probably just glad for vacation.

Other friends of mine had kindly bus drivers, who gave out suckers on holidays, and told stories while they were driving. I wouldn't be that kind of bus driver, I don't think, because I'm not that kind of mom driver. I am a complete check-out-of-reality mom driver, in an alternate universe behind the wheel, completely oblivious to the voices in the rear. Are they dying back there? It certainly sounds like it. I'll clean it up later.

Following the school bus all over town is my nod to concerned parenthood. If I'm going to put them in public school, I can at least save them from the perils of the school bus--the swear words, the wedgies, the learning how to spit, and the handsy behavior of unchaperoned children. This is an ironic concession, since I am mildly in favor of free-range parenting, but I helicopter the kids to school rather than letting them take advantage of the best free public transportation that America has on offer. The bus is literally, door to door service, for free, and yet the line of parents dropping their children off at school rather than putting them on the bus gets a little longer every year.

This year, our school is totally renovating their parking lot to accommodate "car riders"--a class of students that was virtually non-existent in my youth--with a convenient car-to-school-door pathway that doesn't cross any lanes of bus or vehicle traffic. It's a long overdue renovation, eliminating what has appeared to me to be a far more dangerous dynamic of cars backing into parking spaces and children and parents wandering to the school doors in the manner of a Target parking lot, only with far more children and cars, all descending on the place at once.

We are technically a family within walking distance of the school, but I don't let my children walk either, because of the glaring lack of sidewalks on the roads that abut the school-- yet another reason why I am free-range in theory but not in practice. The world is not amenable to pedestrian traffic, when elementary schools are dropped in the middle of isolated fields on two-lane highways. More and more brick school buildings in the center of town are converted to apartments or civic buildings, while sprawling, windowless prison-scapes on the outskirts collect our children each day, claiming the amenities of playground space, and sporting facilities and parking lots. I get it. I really do. There's a trade-off for every good thing, and I'm game.

Am I allowed to be a little tired of the rosy nostalgia pieces about our sunlit youth, roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes from dawn to sunset, watched over by benevolent aunties who only intervened when someone was in physical danger?  Did this idealized childhood really exist, where kids learned conflict resolution and problem solving with hands-on experience in the totally really real world of the suburban boulevard and the drainage ditch? And if it did, may I posit that the strongest parties were the primary beneficiaries of infant justice? I keep wracking my memory for a golden age of children forming utopian societies in the neighborhood, but what I actually remember is casual cruelty, kissing games, encounters with porn, and no adults that actually gave a crap as opposed to many adult eyes on the street.

Dare I recall sneaking in the back door of the dark and tobacco infused W home to peruse the Spenser's catalog, which featured, among other delights, a virtual smorgasbord of edible underwear? And Mr. and Mrs. W? They were at work.

Two doors down, Mrs. L was usually at home, but she was the not-so-generous homeowner possessed of the neighborhood's only swimming pool. People were always trying to get invited to play with the L kids, but she usually said no, because kids who can't swim are a liability, and she wanted to watch Tootsie. Incidentally, Mrs. L told anyone who would listen that the eight-year-old son of the A family who lived around the block tried to touch her son's privates, and that's why she doesn't allow the A kids to come over anymore.

Speaking of privates, out on the county roads within biking riding distance, there was a bonafide penis flasher, who was reported to have given thanks for receiving directions from a twelve-year-old girl with a glimpse of his glory stick. Turned out he was a school employee.

Oh, of course, there were good times too. The drainage ditch really was the only science lesson of my childhood that stuck--catching tadpoles, wading after a storm, lifting the green scrim of algae with a stick to find a toad, and the awesome time we looked at ditchwater under a microscope and saw all the little squiggly moving things in it. Never drank that water again. But all that happened when my parents were around.

Sure, the vacant lot helped me to develop a taste for the melancholy solitude of nature, even though it was only a half-acre of wilderness. And when I was old enough, like fourteen, I was allowed to ride my bike away from the limited collection of people on my street to visit the friends of my preference and choosing. Nothing was better than being able to transport myself to the home of a BFF, but I did have to call first and arrange a "play-date" of sorts. 

What I think people forget about our free-range childhood is that most of us were latch-key kids. It wasn't that our parents were benevolently neglecting us because we lived in a safer world. They were at work, out of necessity, and after-school care was not yet a widespread offering. The truth is, sometimes bad things really did happen in these limbo hours, even in the midst of the good. But most of the time, we were sitting in our dens watching TV, because our parents were gone and we could get away with it.

I helicopter certain parts of my children's lives now (like the school bus), because of my own somewhat "free-range" experiences. But what I want to say, is that it's OK to be both ways, to be protective and to encourage independence.  I certainly don't micromanage the kids' free time at home, or keep them cooped up indoors. They play outside a lot, independently, and they're quite good at it. I'm also fine with letting my kids be mentored by other adults, like sports coaches and teachers, but only in a structured environment. I'm looking for a balance.

Children today do actually still know how to play, even the ones who also play video games. But on the whole, they're playing in safer, more structured and supervised environments. I think this is a pro, even while it's also a con, that kids get to try out many different activities with less concern of being felt up by the neighbor boy, or crushed by mean girls. Surely we've learned something from the scandals in the church and all the conversations about rape culture and bullies--that abuse thrives where there's silence and lack of supervision, where popularity is currency, where might is right, where blackmail keeps what happens on the playground on the playground. Children really can be quite naughty left to their own devices. Almost as naughty as grownups without oversight.

Someday, I would like to see a nostalgia piece about depression era childhood, where children were turned out of their families once they were old enough to earn a wage. Or what about Regency childhood in the golden cage--nannied and chaperoned to marriage? 

Until then, the world turns, quite literally, with bulldozers and pavers, to accommodate the helicopter parents in the pick-up line. Most communities don't have viable alternatives, if they ever did. And the helicopter parents increase, even if helicoptering is not their preference.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

ABC: Always Be Confessing

Took the kids downtown today for Confession and Mass. I feel like I talk about Confession all the time, but I really do go just about every two or three weeks. I'm not trying to brag on that note. I was thinking today about how my confession problem might just be a Divinely inspired Cross for my children, and maybe even their blessing someday, that their mother was always dragging them to the confessional, not because she was especially pious---but because she was a big sinner. We are developing a habit, a family ritual even, around my need to always be confessing.

And really, the increase in frequency of late is even less about piety and more about just getting on with life, confessing and moving on without harboring feelings of duplicity and doubt and self-contempt. Time is too precious to linger in that dark place.

I am a happy penitent, if that's possible or right. Maybe I should beat my breast a little more. Actually, no. I shouldn't. I've beat my breast for many, many years, and thinking on my wretchedness does not draw me into God's presence with the same efficiency as thinking on His goodness and mercy. It is better to err in presuming on God's mercy, than it is to err in doubting it.

And the more I go, the less anxiety there is about it, the less of a big deal it is to make the effort, even though the grace received from it is always a very big deal.

One such grace is learning to discern what kind of a confessor you're encountering. The best confessors refuse to offer advice, because frankly, it always misses the mark. If you are only confessing your sin, as opposed to telling your life story, they don't have enough information to offer helpful guidance. And if you are telling your life story, I can guarantee you're telling it slant. They still don't have enough information.

Why am I talking about this right now? Because my confessor today told me everything I wanted to hear, and I felt kind of pissed off about it. He was offering me advice that missed the mark, even though it was advice that would make my life easier by alleviating many trips to the confessional. It was a real discipline not to say, "Look, I know you want me to feel better, but just let my sin be a sin because you don't know how this plays out in my life. I barely know myself. All I know is that it fits the rubric, and we'd all do better not to obsess about it. Quit splitting hairs (because I've beat you through that process already), confess it, and move on."

But he wanted to be therapeutic. And I know it's hard to believe, but that's not why I'm there.

And soon, my sister will call and tell me again that if I am going to keep talking about confession, at least don't leave people to theorize about what I confessed. Trust me, it's very wicked and salacious, but speculating on other people's sins is a sin. You should go to confession too.

Anyhoo, I wrote something at patheos earlier in the week, and it's actually not about confession:

Overcoming the Agoraphobic Spiritual Life

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

20 Degrees

Indiana is always one step forward, two steps back. And so much depends upon the white barometer. glazed in brass. beside the beige doorway.

Just kidding. So much depends upon the weather app on my Iphone. There's an (almost) nine year old who wakes me up every morning asking, "Mom. Mom. MOM! What's the high today?"

And I think, what difference does it make whether you learn the high now or later? Just wear a jacket, and take it off when you get warm. But these choleric kids equate your timely, accurate relay of information with your love for them.

He's going to take his knowledge of the daily high with him back upstairs and plan an outfit which will accommodate him from the sun's rising to its setting. And he'll do so with the assurance that his mother opened her eyes and looked at her phone...Just For Him. I'm such a good mother.

Of course it used to drive me crazy when the other kids would try to wear shorts in the winter, or they'd be running around barefoot when it was fifty degrees. I'm as fickle as Indiana.

My daughter's name is Jane. And sometimes I like to ask her, "Do you know, Jane Eyre, where the wicked go?" It must be asked in a menacing tone with a British accent, like Brocklehurst.

She usually comes up with an exotic destination like Vegas, but last night she asked, "Where do they go?"

I thought I'd be tricky so I said, "Perdition," instead of "Hell."

She said, "Audition?! I'd love to go to an audition! What's it for?"

That's probably not as funny as I thought it was.

And neither is this next anecdote:

Joe and I went to a fundraiser Friday night and left the two older boys home alone. The oldest is fourteen. I started babysitting when I was eleven. But here I am just barely leaving my teenagers home alone, and I even sent the younger kids to my mom's because the boys forget they're watching children sometimes. Joe still forgets too, and he's in his forties.

Anyhoo, they did a good job. They cleaned up the rooms we asked them to tidy, and they were in bed, sound asleep when we got home.

In the morning, Joe and I sat up with our coffee, and called the younger of the two in to ask how their night went.

"It was pretty good. We watched a movie, played legos and Pokemon, then I did some origami and went to bed."

"Origami? Who said you could do origami?" Joe asked. "Is that something you would do if we were home?"

See, you probably had to be there. Joe's pretty deadpan, and I think the kids sometimes really don't know when he's joking. And I remember when I was little and my mom said, "You know when your dad is kidding don't you?" Because Dad was so subtle, and Mom was so obvious and it made me feel smart to discern the subtleties, and something about Mom's constant reassurances stole the delight from dad's jokes.

But I do the same thing: "You know your Dad's joking, don't you? You know he loves you. That little puzzle you've been working over in your mind--I just solved it for you!" Of course there is little pleasure in hearing your mother say that your dad loves you. But there's incredible satisfaction in discerning that little smile in his voice that gives it away, like a secret confidence entrusted only to you.

As expected, everything I did yesterday has been undone, and needs doing again today. is not productive as evidenced by the drop in temperature and my slowness getting up this morning.

(You know I'm joking don't you? You know I won't let the weather rule my emotions. One must always qualify and explain one's sense of humor.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sunny, 60 degrees

I am having a very productive day. I have changed the bedsheets, done the dishes, folded laundry, been to two different stores.

And so I will also finally apply links here to a couple posts I wrote at Patheos last week.

Here are:

Disarming My Accuser With the Sacrament of Confession


The Pleasure of Watching a Camel Pass Through the Eye of a Needle

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Looks like I wrote something

...which has drawn a friendly comparison to For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey, a poem written while Christopher Smart was in confinement for insanity. I didn't know Smart's poem existed until it was pointed out to me today, but I relate to the circumstances under which it was written. Lent has fallen at a bad time this year. I'd thought things were pared quite well already. I really don't know how to suffer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Others with more to say..

I think it's better for me to read right now than it is for me to try and write anything. Too many false starts all saying the same thing. Instead, found quotes, from all over the damn place, because one book is just too simple and clarifying. Might as well gum up your mind trying to read ten books at once. Make the deep winter even more of a fuzz.

Saul Bellow from "There is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction"

"We have for hundreds of years had an idolatry of the human image, in the lesser form of the self and in the greater form of the state. So when we think we are tired of Man, it is that image we are tired of. Man is forced to lead a secret life, and it is into that life that the writer must go to find him. He must bring value, restore proportion; he must also give pleasure. If he does not do these things, he remains sterile himself."

Thomas Merton, Seven Story Mountain, p. 295

"There is a certain kind of humility in hell which is one of the worst things in hell, and which is infinitely far from the humility of the saints, which is peace. The false humility of hell is an unending, burning shame at the inescapable stigma of our sins…

The anguish of this self-knowledge is inescapable even on earth, as long as there is any self-love left in us: because it is pride that feels the burning of that shame. Only when all pride, all self-love has been consumed in our souls by the love of God, are we delivered from the thing which is the subject of those torments. It is only when we have lost all the love of our selves for our own sakes that our past sins cease to give us any cause for suffering or for the anguish of shame.

For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God."

Merton, SSM

"The logic of worldly success rests on a worldly fallacy, the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men.  A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!"

Run to the Mountain: the Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol.1 1939-1941

"Many so called virtuous people are 'virtuous' from sloth, out of inertia….Virtue without charity is not virtue. Charity and sloth incompatible. N.B. The opposite of sloth is not 'Activity' or industriousness in a business sense. It is fortitude--including patience and long-suffering."


Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov

"First of all. I must explain that this young man Alexey, of Alyosha as we fondly called him, was not a fanatic and in my opinion, at least, was not even a mystic….He was simply a lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was because at that time it struck him as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love….

In his childhood and youth he was by no means forthcoming and he talked very little, but not from shyness or sullenness; quite the contrary…from a sort of inner preoccupation entirely personal and unconcerned with other people. …still he was fond of people. He seemed throughout his life to put implicit trust in people; yet no one ever looked on him as a simple or naive person. There was something about him which made one feel at once…that he did not care to be a judge of others--that he would never take it upon himself to criticize and would never condemn anyone for anything…

Everyone, indeed, loved Alyosha wherever he went, and it was so from his earliest childhood. ….the quality of making himself loved directly and unconsciously was inherent in him, in his very nature so to speak. It was the same at school, one might have thought that he was the  kind of child who would be distrusted, sometimes ridiculed, and even disliked by his school fellows. He was dreamy, for instance, and rather solitary….fond of creeping into a corner to read, and yet he was a general favorite all the while he was at school. He was rarely playful or gay, but anyone could see at the first glance that this was not from sullenness. 

Of Father Zossima: "He is holy. He carries in his heart the secret of renewal for all: that power which will, at last, establish truth on the earth. All men will then be holy and love one another. And there will be no more rich nor poor, no exalted nor humbled, but all will be as children of God, and the true Kingdom of Christ will come." That was the dream in Alyosha's heart.