Category Archives: Courage

The Other Side of the Mountain

As we gathered by the bus at 6:15am, a student turned to my husband and asked, incredulously, “You ski? I thought you would spend your weekends at home reading a book or something.” Zach replied with dignity: “Yes, I ski,” while I snickered behind a mitten at the boy’s uncannily accurate description of 95% of our weekends.

Let’s be honest: the closest we’ve come to adventure recently was purchasing a 75 cent memoir by an unfamiliar author at the public library’s book sale, (which, by the way, turned out to be a bad decision). So we can’t complain if anyone appears surprised when we voluntarily participate in semi-athletic events. Zach is actually quite good at skiing. He keeps pace with me out of the goodness of his heart, but I suspect he could have handled much more difficult trails on his own.

The the first and last time I went skiing was over two years, on a very special day that I wrote about here. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, or maybe Cupid’s cherub’s were watching over me to make sure Zach’s proposal plans weren’t interrupted by a trip to the emergency room–either way, my first day of skiing was AWESOME. Rather, I was awesome:  I was bold, if not quite fearless, and I remember grinning madly the entire time.

But my luck wore out on Saturday. Perhaps I was thinking about it too much, or maybe the lingering pregnancy weight affected my momentum; either way, I found myself with too much momentum and too little courage. Not practiced enough to adequately control my speed, I varied between two different approaches: tedious switchbacks and a full-throttle beeline to the bottom. The first technique frequently led to mishaps. Not turning sharply or smoothly enough often left me face-first in a snowbank, butt in the air, with one ski skidding down the mountain ahead of me, like a disdainful teenager trying to lose his parent in the crowded mall. The beeline “technique” always led to a combination of prayers and cursing as I sped past the contemptuous eight-year-olds with perfect form, screaming through clenched teeth “SCARED! I’m so SKEEERD. Oh, God, TOO FAST!” Fortunately, I never completely wiped out after one of those, though I did question the sagacity of getting back on the lift after God had already granted my less-than-eloquent prayers for survival.

I did get back on, though, and I kept going until the falling snow stung my face and made it difficult to see. People who ski regularly invest in equipment like goggles and face masks–I understand the value of these items now. But I don’t think I’ll ever fall into the category of people who ski regularly. Don’t get me wrong: Saturday’s excursion WAS fun, despite my lack of grace, and I’m grateful that I was invited to tag along on Zach’s school’s trip.

I just prefer to enjoy the outdoors more privately. To me, the trouble with skiing is everyone else. While I’m hugging an unaffectionate pine tree, attempting to reattach my ski to my boot, I don’t appreciate the audience of pitying passersby, and I certainly don’t appreciate suggestions shouted down from the chairlift churning overhead (even if they’re right and you DO have to push the latch down in the back first). When I sit down on my skis and weep while scooting my way down a sharp incline, I’d prefer to do it without witnesses. 

But my preferences don’t count for much. You can’t ski unless someone else has already invested millions in developing a mountainside into a series of trails and lifts. And those millionaires won’t get much of a return on their investment if they only sell a couple of tickets a day. I get it. I do.

Maybe I’ll give it another shot in a couple of years. Perhaps my inner equilibrium will be stronger by then. Or perhaps my pride will be less prone to bruising. And maybe, in a few more years, I won’t be a little disappointed when the day doesn’t end in another proposal. After all, the best day of your life can only happen once.

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A Penitent Post

The next time I post anything akin to yesterday’s despairing drivel, you have full permission to deliver my well-deserved slap. As penance for my pettiness, I’ve collected a variety of inspirational/illuminating quotations about the vice of whining.
These are for me, not you.
 
“He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.”
― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”
― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

“When any fit of gloominess, or perversion of mind, lays hold upon you, make it a rule not to publish it by complaints.” 
— Samuel Johnson
“Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints.”
—William Osler
 
“The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.” 
—Lord Jeffrey“Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”

– Henry Ford
 
“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
 – Shirley Hufstedler
“When a person finds themselves predisposed to complaining about how little they are regarded by others, let them reflect how little they have contributed to the happiness of others.”
– Samuel Johnson
“The usual fortune of complaint is to excite contempt more than pity.”
– Samuel Johnson
 
Ouch.  Dr. Johnson has such an honest, scathing way with words.
 
Please accept my apologies. Let us go, and whine no more.

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He Only Asked Him Not to Leave His Cell

A practical experience of acedia is described by the desert hermit Heraclides, who received a brother troubled by restlessness in his new cell. Heraclides advised him not to follow an extreme regimen of self-discipline but to eat, drink, and sleep as needed. He only asked that the brother not leave his cell…

Simply stay where you are: A small thing to ask, right? But the young brother couldn’t do it. His cabin fever got so bad that he saw demons lurking in ever corner, even under the covers of his bed. Terrified by the vision, he disobeyed the sagely advice of his elder and ran to Heraclides’ door. Though the hermit was displeased and made him sit outside all night, he finally had pity on the weaker brother and showed him the path to spiritual maturity.

In January, I resolved to fight against acedia. Knowing my tendency towards slothfulness, especially when alone for many hours of the day, I’ve been intentional about using my time well in work and leisure.  For the most part, this experiment has gone fairly well. My daily task lists diminished as my belly grew, and now that Sam is here, I am grateful to do two or three things a day in addition to feeding, changing, and holding him.

Yet acedia may loom over the most orderly of days. Restlessness persists, despite the most intentional use of time and resources. Answering a vocation to stay put when you’re itching to move on is just as hard as following a call to some far off mission.  Lately, I’ve felt a certain solidarity with that poor acedia-ridden monk: even though he wasn’t requiring a hard life of himself in his cell, remaining in one place was just too much for him.

I’m accustomed to four-year stints: four years in high school, four years in college, and now I’m wrapping up my fourth year in Colorado Springs. I struggled through my freshman initiation to the working world, got more comfortable during my sophomore year, enjoyed the settled satisfaction of a junior and now….well…I’m ready to graduate, to move on to the next thing.  Is this an acedian habit of mind?

Springtime in Colorado hardly inspires hope for new life: a few bold crocuses peek out of the gravel here and there; early daffodils droop after a cold snap; some tint of color returns to the patches of brown grass. There’s no burst of color, no refreshing rains, no encouraging warmth. A robin might have the temerity to whistle a tune once or twice, but the dry air soon leaves him parched.  (April is the cruelest month, indeed.)

But lilacs blossom eventually, even in these dead lands. We just have to wait until late May or early June for spring to settle in around here. Maybe I need to settle in a little, too.


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How Green Was My Valley

Last night I cried myself to sleep after finishing Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley. As the title suggests, the story is an elegy, a bittersweet hymn to a time that has ended and people who have passed. It’s the sort of story that resonates with all who have seen loved ones go and childhood end.

Llewellyn writes in English, but imitating the style of the Welsh language with unfamiliar colloquial constructions of the rural coal miners. Though it takes a bit of getting used to, the flow of their speech grows on you because of its simplicity and sincerity. For example, the narrator Huw Morgan once says, “O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come.”  Always “There is” and never “it is”, and usually another verbal in the same sentence that may or may not keep with the same tense. The meaning is clear enough, though.

I grew attached to Huw during this read–the first time in a long while that I’ve been truly fond of a protagonist. As a young boy, his innocence naturally makes him an endearing figure. As he matures, other aspects of his personality (an unexpectedly fierce temper, a weakness for flirtatious young women, and an unwavering loyalty to his dear mother and sister-in-law) emerge and render him imperfect enough to stay a believable character, but never so flawed that he loses the charm of his youthful sincerity.

How Green Was My Valley is Huw’s version of his family’s story: his father struggling to make a living as the local mines are given over to conglomerates; his brothers fighting to form a union and reverse the inevitable decay of working conditions; his sisters learning to listen to their hearts; and his mother, always feeding her boys, always loving well and always suffering for the pain of her children.

Llewellyn’s depiction of their home life is an enviable one. They always take supper together, even when the older boys are grown and independent. They sit around the fire reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson together, laughing out loud at the good Doctor’s wit. And whenever someone is in low spirits, another member of the family comes with a cup of tea and a listening ear. The brothers dole out black eyes to any young men who dare speak to the sisters without permission from the father. The sisters value and protect their own modesty. Even little Huw will get into a fist fight to protect his family’s good name. They just look after one another so well. And they sing! On the way to church, coming home from the mine, before a wedding, after a funeral, always singing together.

The story is thick with subplots and overflowing with universal themes, all of which you can easily enjoy if you choose to read it for yourself. But the most touching part of the story, in my experience, is Huw’s vision of himself as connected to the race of Man though the heritage of his family.

I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond. And their eyes were my eyes.

As I felt, so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning, and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one . . .

A beautiful image of the communion of saints. The story ends with a reminder that the dead live on in the memories and traditions of the living.

So though the last pages left me in tears, it cannot be considered a tragedy in any respect. Huw’s heart is loving to the end, and therein lies his hope, and all of ours.

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O Entrepreneurs!

(Entrepreneur: An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of a new enterpriseventure or idea and is accountable for the inherent risks and the outcome.)

When I was a kid, my dad was always creating or discovering new business opportunities for me and my brothers. If we weren’t pulling a wagon full of extra zucchini door to door (a dime a dozen, literally) or hawking baseball caps bearing the family restaurant logo, we were mowing lawns or babysitting or yanking weeds in the garden for a small fee. My older brother Andy and I even assumed ownership of a small name plate engraving business for several years. Teaming up with my best friend Hope and her sister Joy, we got some pretty decent accounts from a local community college and a sports camp. DuBois Industrial Nameplate Company, we called it, (“DINC” for short). Andy  handled most of the business arrangements for the company: I think I was more of a liability than a partner, but he still gave me a generous cut of the profits.

 

Our machine looked something like this, but more antiquated.

 

 

In retrospect, we learned a lot from those experiences. We learned about deadlines and responsibility when we almost had to stay up well past our bedtimes finishing a project that had to be delivered the next day. We learned about the rewards of hard work when we spent a Saturday canning a year’s worth of salsa–a family favorite–from the produce of our garden. We learned about the correlation between work and money by keeping track of our hours spent bent over the manual engraving machine (though, some days, my adult experience doesn’t seem to validate that connection). And, perhaps most importantly, we learned a lot about ourselves. For instance, DINC was the first real opportunity I had to grapple with two significant character traits: my tendency to procrastinate and my abhorrence of trying to sell people things.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not really  risk-taker. I don’t see myself as a business woman. But I am LEAST OF ALL a salesperson. Even if I believe in a product or service with all my heart, I cannot bring myself to try to get someone to buy it. It’s embarrassing: I blush and stutter and stumble over my words. I could barely bring myself to look our sweet elderly neighbor lady in the eye when I was forced to try to get her to take some zucchini off my hands. Sometimes I just gave it away, still feeling like a pest. (One of the reasons I dropped out of the Girl Scouts when I was still a Brownie was the unbearable pressure to sell those cookies!)

Despite my former discomfort with the sales aspect of small business ventures, I’m thinking about starting a little venture of my own.

I’ve been toying with the idea for some time. As my maternity leave approaches (only two weeks of classes left!) I’ve been trying to figure out a way to remain intellectually active and possibly work from home. The traditional housewife business ventures make me shudder: while I am grateful for Mary Kay and Arbonne and Tupperware and all they’ve done to liberate women, I would rather eat a cockroach than try to make a living hosting house parties in order to sell things to friends and their friends. I have to turn down invitations to spa parties and trunk shows because, no matter how tempting the free wine and facials and door prizes might seem, I know I will end up spending at least fifty bucks to assuage my easily triggered sense of guilt.

So, like I said, I’m considering a different kind of venture.

The idea came to me while I was working on lesson plans last week. My principal recently approved the addition of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! to my 8th grade English curriculum and I was putting together a new unit for my maternity sub. It was such pleasant work, reading through the familiar story of Alexandra Bergson and her resilience. I wrote reading quizzes and structured daily plans of discussion questions. I wrote a little guide to major themes. I chose key passages for analysis. I got to do the all the mental work of converting ideas from Cather’s pages and my head into something that 8th graders could digest without ever having to talk to an 8th grader.

While I do adore my 8th graders, there’s something so refreshing about just working with the subject matter. Wouldn’t it be great if I could write curriculum units for home school parents or co-ops who don’t have reliable instruction available for upper school literature? I’ve got the credentials, the experience, the practical know-how, and the time: do you think there’s a market? Could it be profitable? The existence of Sparknotes and other free cheat-sheets worries me a bit, but surely there are some people who would pay for high-quality instructional materials from a conservative, even Christian, perspective, right?

What do you think: good idea/bad idea? Those of you with homeschooling backgrounds, feel free to offer straightforward opinions here.

The thing is that I know that in order to turn this idea into a reality, I’m going to have to grow into the role of salesman that I avoided so diligently as a kid. Perhaps I’ll end up more like my dad than I expected to…

Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.” – Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

 

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Perspective

I’ve been fortunate to spend my pregnancy in a community that’s very supportive of our decision to start a family. With the exception of a few irritated glances from people who may or may not have been victims of an accidental belly bump as I wrangled my six-month-stomach down the narrow aisle of a plane, I have not been subject to any discrimination, harassment, or abuse. No one has accused me of single-handedly over-populating the world. And though I’ve been overly sensitive to the “Wow-you-look-ready-to-pop!” comments, no one has actually made any untoward remarks about the physical changes I’ve experienced during the process.

Instead, I have been showered with encouragement, empathy, and gifts for the little one. My boss (who is a mother herself) has put absolutely no pressure on me to make a decision about returning to work next year. My friends have listened sympathetically to my litany of woes (the kicking! the swelling! the exhaustion!) and have managed to compliment my figure with a straight face. Or, you know, at least my hair cut. My parents have made plans to drive out here all the way from St. Louis, to take care of us and just be here to welcome the baby when he comes. Dad is even building a bassinet for him.

And my husband: where do I begin? He has endured over 15 hours of birthing classes where words like “perineum” and “amniotic fluid” are mentioned about 5 times a minute…and he’s taken notes! Just to make sure that he can be as supportive as possible during labor. Instead of making fun of me when I burst into irrational tears, he kisses me and offers to indulge my every craving or whim. He’s actually excited about trying the whole cloth diapers things. And, most importantly, he’s even more eager than I am for the baby to actually be here.

I remember how freaked out I was when I first looked at that pregnancy test…and by the time I took the test, I already pretty much knew (thanks, NFP). That confirmation, though, was terrifying: I didn’t feel ready at all. But, with time and prayer and the reassurance of mothers who have gone before, I’ve become accustomed to the idea of being a mother. And, of course, I’m terribly curious to meet the tiny creature who has been tucking his feet under my ribs for the past few months.

It’s hard to imagine what this year would have been like if no one else had been excited with me, if no one else thought that having a baby was a good idea. I’ve always been adamantly pro-life in principle, but I don’t think I realized how much support I would need to carry my own child.

I came across this article earlier today: Ask an Abortion Provider (warning: explicit language). It’s basically a young woman’s defense of her choice to abort her baby and her aspiration to become an abortion provider. Her tone attempts a weird form of jocularity, but ends up sounding, not surprisingly, defensive and militant. And the “warm fuzzy” moments she’s experienced during her training fall rather flat as she celebrates the success of the procedures she’s performed.

She sees herself as courageous for daring to enter a profession so fraught with danger (from pro-life activists) and so laden with stigmas (from pro-life culture). And that she has plenty of examples (death threats, verbal harassment, people egging the family planning building) to add some legitimacy to her self-victimization is definitely discouraging.

Frankly, the article is kind of obnoxious and I don’t recommend you spend time reading it (or getting involved in fights in the comment box, for that matter). I just bring it up here as a point of contrast: I wonder how differently this woman’s life would have turned out if her loved ones had been able to celebrate her pregnancy and her baby instead of celebrating her independence. Yes, she’s responsible for her own choices and yes, I think she’s making poor ones. But, ironically enough, after experiencing pregnancy, I’m no longer able to see her as an independent agent.

She is a victim, but not in the way she thinks. She’s the victim of a pro-choice culture that did not support her life-giving potential and denied her baby a loving, welcoming community.  Her failure is our own.

***

I’ve always loved this Lauryn Hill song, but I appreciate its simultaneous struggle and celebration even more now.

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The End of an Episode

Though blessed with a week’s reprieve from the conflict with my mortal enemy, I awoke yesterday morning ready to finish the fight. As I curled my hair, delivering a pep-talk in the mirror, I felt a bit like Pope’s Belinda when her sylphs arm her for battle with “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles and Billet-doux.” Except that in my case, the battle was being waged over the rape of my pocketbook instead of the rape of a lock. (And, um, there weren’t any billet-doux involved. Or patches, for that matter.)

The pep-talk was intense: Imagine Kathleen Kelly gearing up to ‘go to the mattresses’ against the evil Joe F-O-X in You’ve Got Mail. I think I even referred to myself as a lone reed at one point.

Over breakfast, Zach counseled me in the ways of wise consumer advocacy. I ate a banana, drank some tea, and donned a power outfit. I practiced looking stern.  At any rate, by the time I texted my prayer warriors and headed out the door, I was no longer a mild-mannered middle-school teacher: I was Laurel, Warrior Princess.

(Admit it– you secretly loved this show.)

I stormed into the main office at precisely 9am, thunder and black clouds rolling in my wake. The face of evil–a gruff, towering, stubble-faced fellow named Sam–smiled at me from behind the main counter. The face of evil always smiles at first. We exchanged a few pleasantries (he had a VERY nice vacation, in case you were wondering) and got down to business. After delivering a report from the reasonable transmissions place, I reiterated my request for a refund. He hemmed and hawed. He called the transmission mechanic, who did not deliver good news. Sam continued wavering, donkey-like, until he was struck with a flash of managerial brilliancy: He had to talk to corporate.

Of course you do, I thought to myself, smoldering. Now you’ll get some bigwig on the east coast to put the kabash on the whole deal so that you won’t have to be the nay-sayer. I had a feeling that this was coming. Coward.

Sam needed some time to make his phone calls and arrange the business, so I went home for a while, a bit deflated but not defeated. A little after lunch, he rings me up. Unwilling to conduct business over the phone, I go back to the shop.

Sam is still smiling. Come on back to my office, he says.

This is it: the big confrontation—he wants to make sure I don’t emasculate him in front of his employees. He is wise to fear me.

I take a deep breath, preparing to deliver my diatribe on truth, justice, and the sanctity of customer rights. Then Sam says, “Okay–I’ve figured out a way to get you your money back.”

I stared, suddenly unable to remember my carefully rehearsed speech.

He then goes on to explain how he can’t refund it all at once because such a large output would require 6-8 weeks of corporate processing. But he has figured out a way to pay us back in weekly installments over the next month. He apologizes for the whole misunderstanding. He feels honor-bound to make things right. He hopes that we can still trust his business.

I was, and still am, stunned. For all my spit-fire and pugnacity and cultivated determination, it seems that the battle was won long before I showed up.

I walked out of his office feeling not victorious, but humbled. Sam’s change of heart and unquestionably fair solution completely disarmed me. It seems I was not really expecting my prayers to be answered, at least not so generously.

A few hours later, at a mass celebrating the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, I felt the true error of my pride as we sang the day’s responsorial psalm: The salvation of the just comes from the Lord. Aha.

That newly discovered courage I mentioned last week still matters: if I hadn’t worked up the will to fight, I wouldn’t have been present to receive this grace. But I hope that in the future I’ll know better than to assume that the outcome of any conflict depends wholly on my own strength.

(Still, it’s satisfying to note that, for once, a corporation is on a payment plan to me.)

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