My mother-in-law, Yaya, was here all this week, leaving me to wonder once again why we do not have our own reality TV show. (For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to there, read this or this.) Also, in proof that her zeal for potty training knows no bounds, she decided that it’s time to start potty training our youngest. Who is 11 months old. I will admit that it actually kind of worked, in the sense that she did use the potty whenever Yaya put her on there. I kept trying to silently mouth “Don’t encourage her!” to the baby when Yaya wasn’t looking, but she would just chew on her fist and giggle.
While Yaya was here I spent a lot of time writing at a local English tea shop. I loved being there, except for the fact that their tea was so nasty. It tasted delicious, but at the bottom of the cup there was always this layer of mushy sludge. Occasionally I’d catch the British owner looking at me, and she’d smile and ask me how I liked it. I’d smile back and say that it was lovely; I hated to tell her that she didn’t know how to make tea. Poor woman.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Per the above, this morning I learned some critical information about English tea traditions: when they serve you tea, there will a small object on the saucer next to your teacup. It will look remarkably like one of those all-natural brown sugar cubes, leaving you to wonder why they gave you an extra piece of sugar when you have plenty in the bowl on your table. Before you plunk it in your drink and start stirring it around, as I have been doing for more time than I’d care to admit, you should know that IT IS A COOKIE, not a sugar cube.
One wonders what the tea shop owner thought as she saw me drop a cookie into my drink, mix it in, and then grimace as I scraped the sludge out of my cup when I was finished. Probably something like, “Poor woman.”
While I’m on a roll, here’s another one from the “Why Do I Leave the House?” files: Last week my two-year-old’s Mother’s Day Out teacher let us take home the cherished class storybook. It’s a little story with the same style as the famous book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, only with pictures of the children in her class (e.g. “…I see PAYTON looking at me!”)
I knew this had disaster written all over it. Between pushing the baby’s stroller, gingerly holding artowrk with wet paint, getting jackets out of backpacks, signing everyone out and chasing down escapee toddlers, our trips from the school building to the car are like something out of The Iliad. So I lost the book.
The next time we were at class, I didn’t know how to break the news — I felt so terrible about losing the irreplaceable class book. I thought I, umm, might even tell a little white lie, just to emphasize how very much I appreciated it, lest the teacher think it was lost out of carelessness. “We sure did love reading it!” I was all set to exclaim. “Last night she asked us to re-read the page with Reese on it over and over! We must have read it ten times this weekend!” And, after that, I would tell her we misplaced it.
For a long time, I will be debating whether it’s more of a lesson that you should never tell white lies or that people like me should be kept away from society that the teacher interrupted me before I had a chance to speak and said, “Hey, Jennifer, you forgot to bring the class book home last time!” and handed me the book.
A reading update: I just finished Lit by Mark Karr and Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett, which I look forward to reviewing soon. Now I’m about to start A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken and The Story of the Church by Alfred McBride. Anyone else reading anything good?
In case anyone’s wondering why I always read two books at a time, it’s because I always have an “upstairs book” and a “downstairs book” going. The upstairs ones are usually ones that require some serious thought, since I can read them at night when the house is actually quiet. The downstairs ones are more light reading, something I can escape into while sitting at the kitchen table if I need a break from the chaos to recharge my batteries.
Funniest comment I’ve received in a while: A couple weeks ago, Matt of St. Blogustine wrote:
I have to ask….Am I the only GUY who ever does this 7 Takes thing?…I suddenly feel like I’ve stumbled into the ladies underwear department at Sears….*blushing*
No worries, Matt! 7 Quick Takes is an equal-opportunity carnival, with guy bloggers like Darwin and Fr. Christian Mathis being semi-regular participants. But, yeah, they’re usually outnumbered by chicks. We need to hear from more men!
I look forward to reading your posts!
This weekend I heard a guy on television talking about Tom Brady’s amazing life: he’s a handsome star NFL quarterback who was on track to have an undefeated season (this was before the game, obviously), not to mention the fact that he’s dating the beautiful Victoria’s Secret model Giselle.
The guy on television talked about how unfathomably amazing Brady’s life would be if the Patriots won the Super Bowl. He stared in wonder for a moment as he reflected on this concept. You could practically see the wheels in his mind turning as he pictured walking off the football field from an undefeated season in the NFL, feeling the rain of confetti, hearing the cheers of screaming fans, heading off to spend the evening with his hot celebrity model girlfriend. Clearly, this scenario represented the very pinnacle of the human experience for this man.
Being too tired to do anything more mentally productive, I took a moment to try to think of what my version of a big Super Bowl win would be. I thought back to the days when my life revolved around pursuing things like status and money and comfort, and thought about what it would have been like if I’d achieved more success in that area than I could have ever dreamed.
One result of this thought exercise is that I realized that my dreams were really nerdy (the best I could come up with was imagining my picture on the cover of Forbes where it was announced that Google and Microsoft were in a ruthless public bidding war over some amazing software I wrote). The most interesting result, though, was that I knew exactly how I would have felt if I had achieved all of my worldly ambitions: excited, prideful, honored…and a little bit depressed.
I’d forgotten about this until now, but up until a few years ago, almost every time something exciting or good happened I would feel a tinge of depression. No matter how great or exciting the situation, for some reason I could never quite feel fully happy about it. Just as my happiness would be about to reach a crescendo, something would make it fall flat, like when a singer just barely misses the high note. I didn’t generally struggle with depression in this time in my life; it was just that, for some odd reason, whenever something particularly good occurred, it would trigger a vague sensation of despair somewhere deep down inside. I didn’t understand why this happened. My best guess was that maybe I had some problem with not feeling like I deserved good things, or that I had some issue with depression that I wasn’t acknowledging.
Though those two things may have been factors, I don’t think they were at the root of the problem. Thinking back on it today, it’s clear that something else, a very real, inconvenient truth was there in the back of my mind when I got that promotion, deposited the big paycheck, bought the cool car, moved into the downtown loft, got that amazing Christmas present, traveled to the interesting places, went to the hip parties, landed a big client:
This is as good as it gets…but it’s not quite good enough.
The fun wasn’t fun enough, the luxuries weren’t luxurious enough, the excitement wasn’t exciting enough to completely smother out that part of my soul that begged for something more. It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful — to the contrary, I regularly felt overwhelmed with gratitude for all the wonderful things in my life — it’s that there was a subtle but present sense of despair that these things weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. I was kind of happy. But why wasn’t I fully happy, why wasn’t I completely at peace, why was I still a little bit restless, even when I technically had it all?
Christians used to ask me: “Don’t you feel like there’s something missing?” To which I would respond by rolling my eyes. In my worldview, the only things humans could possibly need or want were the goals that our species had evolved to need and want, and as long as I had those things or felt certain that I could attain them (which I did), nothing could be missing from my life. I continued to pursue happiness from the possibilities given to me by the material world alone. At some point I came to the realization that the best the world has to offer was probably never going to be good enough; that achieving my wildest dreams , even my own personal version of a Super Bowl win, would make me happy to a certain extent…but not fully. It was a bitter realization.
This is why I love Lent.
For me, Lent is a reminder that what I once thought was the worst news in the world — that there is nothing in the material universe that was going to bring me the deep happiness I craved — is actually the best news in the world. To give up worldly pleasures during Lent, things that I once built my life around pursuing, is to put them in their proper place; to disentangle my hopes and dreams from things and fleeting accomplishments; to set my sights much higher.
Lent reminds me to have a healthy amount of awe for one of the greatest mysteries ever seen: that the human animal, who should know of nothing other than the material world at hand, has from the beginning held on to this perplexing notion that what he needs and wants cannot be found in the only world he’s ever seen. Almost every culture throughout history, separated by time and space, has come up with this idea. I always wrote that off when I was an atheist, assuming that people just needed stories about fantasy worlds to make themselves feel better. But now that I have discovered God’s existence, I get it. This idea won’t die because the thirst we feel deep in our souls is real, and the material world offers us only saltwater to quench it. Looking outside the material world, finding God, is to finally find the pure water that fully satisfies the aching thirst.
Lent reminds me not that all the status and comforts and possessions I’ve pursued are necessarily bad, but that there is Something infinitely better. To quote C.S. Lewis: “All that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
Over at Inside Catholic, I have an article out about some thoughts I had when I saw the angry counter-protesters at the March for Life. You can check it out here: The Two Lists: Why I Sympathize With the Anger of the Pro-Choice Movement. Comments are open over there.