You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Philosophizing’ category.

The other morning on the way into town I realized I’d forgotten to bring with me an overdue library book, so I dashed back home to retrieve it.  When I approached the front door, I noticed something different about the cherry blossom-branch wreath that I’d recently hung on it to celebrate spring:  there were two gray mourning doves nestled together cozily in the bottom curve of the wreath itself.  They looked so natural there, like the sort of decoration one might add to a wreath to make it homier.  I hated to disturb them by coming any closer but they’d already seen me and both fluttered away instantly.  But it was one of the most magical things I’d seen in a long time, like some sort of benevolent sign.  I mean, I hadn’t been gone that long, I’d just come through that door, probably in a flurry of bags and toddler and dog and lunchboxes and loveys.  And I’d been, as is my wont, obsessively worrying about what this summer and fall will bring, as my doctoral funding comes to an end and we add another member to our family– how was I to make enough money to pay our bills (and my student loans) for the next year?  how will my marriage bear up under the strain of even tighter finances, another baby,  less time for romance and rest?  But those two doves, snuggled together in my wreath, seemed like the mark of God’s presence, a subtle blessing of hearth and home. 

I was reminded somehow of one my favorite “love” poems, one I read as a toast to my sister and her husband-to-be at their wedding rehearsal dinner.  I was reminded in particular of the lines:  “whatsoever love elects to bless/ Brims to a sweet excess/That can without depletion overflow”– I felt like those little birds were the outward and visible sign of the unending abundance I enjoy, a sweet reminder that love does indeed conquer all, that we not only have enough,  we have “sweet excess” both in our marriage and in our day-to-day lives, that God not only will provide, but will bless.  I wish you, as I wished Les and Beas at their marriage, the same plenty of love and sweetness in your life.


St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.

~Richard Wilbur

(I’m also reminded, just now, of the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury that Beas told me about; this man was asked, in seminary, to discuss the miracle at Cana, and while his classmates scribbled away for an hour, he said only this– if I am remembering Beas’s account correctly– “The water recognized its Creator, and blushed.” 

Very cool.  Thanks, Beas, for blessing MY life so much already.)


Happy Easter!

When did she get so grown up??


…and Happy Springtime!  This time of year, the world– in blossom and bud, blue sky glories and cool breeze abandon– can’t help but reflect the vivifying power of Christ’s resurrection and our own perpetual renewal.  Start fresh!  Alleluia!

Surrender:  (v.) To give up, resign, abandon, relinquish possession of, esp. in favour of or for the sake of another.  Also, to render, return (thanks, etc.).  (Oxford English Dictionary)

My church’s “Moms’ Group” is beginning a new book on Monday, called Surrendering to Motherhood, by Iris Krasnow.   Not knowing anything about either the author or, really, the subject matter or focus of the book itself, I found myself pondering the book’s title this week, turning it over in my mind to imagine what “surrendering to motherhood” might mean.

I thought about my aversion to major life changes, or at least ones I know will disrupt or significantly alter my routine, the way of life to which I have become accustomed.  Though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, when I found out I was pregnant in December of 2006, with a baby we’d been trying for and whom we truly wanted, it took me several weeks to fully embrace the fact that I was going to become a mother.  Rather than feeling the dreamy joy or giddiness every other expectant mother seemed to feel, I was terrified, wondering if this had been a mistake.  What the hell was I getting myself into?  How would this change my life?  How would having a baby limit my freedom or independence, change my identity forever?  I was doubly ashamed to admit this to anyone because I had so many friends desperately trying to have a baby, so I felt even more ungrateful and undeserving.  I found myself withdrawing, brooding in a not-healthy way, resenting already the changes to my life that this baby would bring.

Now, of course, looking back I can’t imagine life without AE, would not change a thing about becoming a mother or the new life that has meant.  And yet I already find myself, in thinking about a second child, resenting that child for once again placing me in that state of feeling tied down, limited to one identity and one way of being (at least when the child is a newborn), of feeling like nothing more than a milk machine, an exhausted, sore, weepy milk machine.  Because AE has gotten to an age where life feels “normal” again, where I have more freedom to have a life of my own.  And I am once again ashamed that once again I anticipate not receiving and enjoying the blessing of motherhood when so many friends would give anything for such a chance.

I know, of course, in my head, that life does get back to normal eventually, that I will once again feel human, feel more than a feeding/breeding machine, and that whatever child God blesses us with the next go-around will be, like AE, more amazing and breathtaking than I could possibly imagine.  I also know that the changes a child brings are all good ones, that children take you out of yourself in the best way possible, reminding you that there is more to life than YOU.   Embracing the period of the newborn baby reminds you just how dependent you are on God and on those who love you, reminds you that there is more to you than what you accomplished that day, that reminds you that you are not in control, and that all you can and should do is enjoy the present moment for the gift that it is.  I am so grateful for a God who blesses me even when I least deserve it, who forgives me my selfishness and ungratefulness.

But all this is to say, in pondering the phrase “surrendering to motherhood” I found that the word “surrender” opened up a whole new way of thinking about motherhood and about living life in general.  Once I surrendered to my new identity as mother, I was able to enjoy it.  When I am not spending all my time and energy fighting against something (most especially a blessing!), I can enjoy it, appreciate it.  What a life-giving way to be, to surrender to what life presents, both the good and the bad.  Because in surrendering you acknowlege your weakness, and you save lots and lots of time and energy fighting against things over which you have no control.

What if, instead of railing at minor frustrations like not being able to find a place to park downtown, or having to run errands I don’t enjoy (I know, poor me, what First World problems I suffer from!), what if I surrender to current circumstances, not in the sense of “giving up,” but of “embracing,” but also, as the OED defines it, of “giving back” my (fantasied) sense of control to God, the one whose plan is far better than any I could imagine or hope for.   (One of the moms in my church group once said that she’d learned she HAD to let the small things slide by, because if she used all her energy getting upset about those little things, what would she have left for the things that are truly difficult?  And I have found that to be SO true; those are some of the wisest words I’ve ever heard:  I’ll spend a day getting so worked up, so angry or resentful about small inconveniences, and find I have so depleted my emotional store that I’ve got nothing left with which to face the truly terrible, should it arise.  I mean, goodness gracious, if I throw up my hands in abject frustration or fury because the vacuum cleaner broke, what on earth will I do when something really goes wrong??)

And what if I surrender also “for the sake of another”?  In surrendering to motherhood, or to dissertation revisions, or to housework or to money worries, I relinquish my resistance, and I do it for the sake of those around me who witness a much calmer, more centered, and less self-focused me.  Surrendering to being AE’s mom means I give up part of myself (which also happens to be the self-centered, lazy part) to serve her as Christ wants me to and as Christ does every day of her life.

That is such a freeing concept to me, the idea of humble, grateful, selfless surrender.  And the added blessing is, of course, that in surrendering I gain more than I ever thought I lost.  I hereby surrender to today.

From the New York Times:

Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally
The theory of relativity showed us that time and space are intertwined. To which our smarty-pants body might well reply: Tell me something I didn’t already know, Einstein.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.
As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.
“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’ ” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”
The new study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, is part of the immensely popular field called embodied cognition, the idea that the brain is not the only part of us with a mind of its own.
“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”
Research in embodied cognition has revealed that the body takes language to heart and can be awfully literal-minded.
You say you’re looking forward to the future? Here, Ma, watch me pitch forward!
You say a person is warm and likable, as opposed to cold and standoffish? In one recent study at Yale, researchers divided 41 college students into two groups and casually asked the members of Group A to hold a cup of hot coffee, those in Group B to hold iced coffee. The students were then ushered into a testing room and asked to evaluate the personality of an imaginary individual based on a packet of information.
Students who had recently been cradling the warm beverage were far likelier to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than were those who had held the iced coffee.
Or maybe you are feeling the chill wind of social opprobrium. When researchers at the University of Toronto instructed a group of 65 students to remember a time when they had felt either socially accepted or socially snubbed, those who conjured up memories of a rejection judged the temperature of the room to be an average of five degrees colder than those who had been wrapped in warm and fuzzy thoughts of peer approval.
The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically. What is moral turpitude, an ethical lapse, but a soiling of one’s character? Time for the Lady Macbeth Handi Wipes. One study showed that participants who were asked to dwell on a personal moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth afterward than were those who had been instructed to recall a good deed they had done.
When confronted with a double entendre, a verbal fork in the road, the body heeds Yogi Berra’s advice, and takes it. In a report published last August in Psychological Science, Dr. Jostmann and his colleagues Daniel Lakens and Thomas W. Schubert explored the degree to which the body conflates weight and importance. They learned, for example, that when students were told that a particular book was vital to the curriculum, they judged the book to be physically heavier than those told the book was ancillary to their studies.
The researchers wanted to know whether the sensation of weightiness might influence people’s judgments more broadly.
In a series of experiments, study participants were asked to answer questionnaires that were attached to a metal clipboard with a compartment on the back capable of holding papers. In some cases the compartments were left empty, and so the clipboard weighed only 1.45 pounds. In other cases the compartments were filled, for a total clipboard package of 2.29 pounds.
Participants stood with either a light or heavy clipboard cradled in their arm, filling out surveys. In one, they were asked to estimate the value of six unfamiliar foreign currencies. In another, students indicated how important they thought it was that a university committee take their opinions into account when deciding on the size of foreign study grants. For a third experiment, participants were asked how satisfied they were with (a) the city of Amsterdam and (b) the mayor of Amsterdam.
In every study, the results suggested, the clipboard weight had its roundabout say. Students holding the heavier clipboard judged the currencies to be more valuable than did those with the lightweight boards. Participants with weightier clipboards insisted that students be allowed to weigh in on the university’s financial affairs. Those holding the more formidable board even adopted a more rigorous mind-set, and proved more likely to consider the connection between the livability of Amsterdam and the effectiveness of its leader.
As Dr. Jostmann sees it, the readiness of the body to factor physical cues into its deliberations over seemingly unrelated and highly abstract concerns often makes sense. Our specific clipboard savvy notwithstanding, “the issue of how humans view gravity is evolutionarily useful,” he said.
“Something heavy is something you should take care of,” he continued. “Heavy things are not easily pushed around, but they can easily push us around.” They are weighty affairs in every tine of the word.
The cogitating body prefers a hands-on approach, and gesturing has been shown to help children master math.
Among students who have difficulty with equations like 4 + 5 + 3 = __ + 3, for example, performance improves markedly if they are taught the right gestures: grouping together the unique left-side numbers with a two-fingered V, and then pointing the index finger at the blank space on the right.
To learn how to rotate an object mentally, first try a pantomime. “If you encourage kids to do the rotation movement with their hands, that helps them subsequently do it in their heads,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, “whereas watching others do it isn’t enough.”
Yesterday is regrettable, tomorrow still hypothetical. But you can always listen to your body, and seize today with both hands.

In my opinion, the value of various schools of theory and philosophy, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Marxism and psychoanalysis) is their aim to demystify the workings of daily life, of desire, of government and money, and ways of thinking.  Whether or not one agrees with them, at their best, works of theory and philosophy make one stop and think, to step outside and to observe, how people live.  This is the effect of good poetry and literature, too:  to jar one’s thoughts or command one’s attention, revealing or portraying things in a different light, with unfamiliar words, so that one leaves that reading with a new appreciation of or attention to something that one formerly took for granted.

In the class I’m auditing this semester, we’re reading some work by a Marxist critic named Henri LeFebvre, particularly his work on “the production of space.”  While I am not a Marxist,  I do see the value of excavating our systems of value, of finding the often-unnoticed assumptions or faults in such major systems as our modern economy in order to, it is hoped, rectify those.  LeFebvre’s point was that “space” (the spaces in which we live and move and work) are not just empty, innocent milieus or environments but, rather, that they are constructed (usually by an unseen power or corporation) to have certain effects on the people who move about or inhabit them.   One of LeFebvre’s big issues was, as he argued, the ways that space is divided up into parcels by the Powers That Be in order that they might be sold and arranged for profit.  One example is a suburban development, the worst being those that destroy natural habitats (of course) but also those that provide various “model homes” which give consumers a (false) sense of freedom of choice, when really they’re being corralled like cattle into certain (unsociable) living conditions, gleefully trading their money for a plot of land and a preconstructed, conventional home and making Big Development all the richer.

What I like about LeFebvre’s work (though I disagree with much of his method and focus) is the way in which it does make me stop and think about the way my life is structured and organized and directed in ways that I never notice and in ways that sometimes are the opposite of life-giving.  His work reminded me of an exercise I’ve had my students perform before, in which they select a human-made space (a public park, a building or room) and step back a bit, in order to observe and describe both its components and arrangement AND the way they feel IN that space:  for example, how does one feel (or how is one supposed to feel) walking into a giant cathedral? a library?  a doctor’s office?  a coffee shop?  the Lincoln Memorial?  a classroom?  Why does it matter how people are encouraged to position themselves in a space, where their attention is directed, how they are meant to behave or speak or feel?  (It’s a lot like generic conventions in writing– one wouldn’t use the same diction, tone, and vocabulary in a thank-you not to one’s grandmother that one would in, say, an email to a friend about a wild Saturday night or in a formal academic essay.)  It’s interesting to think about what the makers of a space wanted to do with that space, how they influence the feelings and perspective of their visitors.

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a really cool scholar of Renaissance literature who also blogs, with her twin sister, about contemporary design.  She and her sister co-wrote a book called Design Your Life:  The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things which is described thus:

Design Your Life is a series of irreverent and realistic snapshots about objects and how we interact with them. By leading design thinker Ellen Lupton and her twin sister Julia Lupton, it shows how design is about much more than what’s bought at high-end stores or the modern look at IKEA. Design is critical thinking: a way to look at the world and wonder why things work, and why they don’t.

The authors train their critical focus on various household objects, spaces, and items of clothing in a lighthearted attempt to demystify the ways that objects and spaces influence and even control us.  One chapter looks at a blender, discussing the ways that the various buttons, with their descriptors (puree, chop, liquefy) both help us to understand how something works and serve to confuse us, to be less than intuitive.

Both of these studies, on space and on things, really fascinate me and have really made me step back and think about what I otherwise take for granted.  It also helps me to laugh at our human institutions, at the ways spaces and things make us feel accomplished, safe, smart as well as confused, dumb, and needy.

This semester, I’m sitting in on a class on the senses in early modern Europe– sight, taste, touch, smell, sound.  Science now recognizes more than 5 senses, having added such senses as balance, kinesthetics, temperature, and more senses of touch than just one.   In the early modern period it can be (and has been) argued that sight and hearing were not the privileged senses they are in our contemporary culture.  Smell, taste, and touch enjoyed a higher standing amongst sensory perceptions.

But that got me thinking again about the privileging of sight and sound in our present society, especially in popular culture.  As I watch AE play with toys and watch movies, I notice how integral sight and, secondarily, sound are.  Baby toys are a bit more egalitarian– they are more tactile at least, if not more tasty (though a drooling teething baby might disagree).  But think about how important it is to us to be able to see  in order to enjoy or to understand.  How such cultural sites as museums and monuments depend on sight:  what’s the point of the Washington Monument or of the Lincoln Memorial, if not to be gazed on in awe?  I think most people would say that sight would be the last sense they’d choose to lose, if they had to.  But think how important smell is to taste– indeed, how each sense overlaps and enriches the other.  How would our ability to taste be compromised if we could not smell?  As one classmember pointed out, hearing is not some disembodied sense, but it relies on the material vibrations of the eardrums to function.

When one is thinking about the senses and sensory perception in the past, and the experiences of the past in general, we find that it is really difficult to reproduce such transitory experiences such as smell and taste.  In period films they often do a great job of recreating the visuals and sounds of a past culture (I’m thinking of Shakespeare in Love, in particular, or in more recent history the recreations of D-Day in films like Saving Private Ryan, which many vets described as uncannily accurate, missing only the stench).  What if movie theaters, in addition to providing surround-sound, provided scents to go along with the film?  How would the stench of blood in war films disturb our senses?  What if musems let you taste and touch the past, or at least our recreations of the past?  One guy in this class I’m auditing spoke of visiting a Viking museum in York, England, which featured sample rooms or marketplaces from Viking times, with things to touch (rope, pelts, wood) and smell (fire, meat, apples).  The professor, who works on smell in particular, spoke of a dinosaur exhibit that employed the expertise of a team of scientists in order to simulate the smell of dinosaur-breath (a mixture of grasses and leaves, rotting meat, dirt) that so frightened and disgusted visitors that it was changed to a mild scent of fresh grass, effectively turning a carnivorous dinosaur into a vegetarian.

What is the one sense you couldn’t live without?

“Pops” and I just finished watching Julie and Julia, the blog-turned-book-turned movie about Julie Powell’s yearlong journey through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Last summer I read Child’s memoirs, My Life in France, in which she recounts moving to France with her husband Paul in the 1940s, speaking not a word of French and having no idea what she’d do with herself while her husband was at work.  As everyone now knows, she ended up falling in love with everything French, especially French food, and learned how to cook, then brought French cooking into everyday American kitchens.  Her cookbook took several forms and involved various cooks, writers, photographers and editors over more than 8 years, but finally it was published.  Julie Powell’s blog chronicled her attempts at every recipe in the book over a period of 365 days at a point in her life where she felt lost, directionless, and doomed to failure.

The movie had its faults, but what “Pops” walked away with was this:  Julie Powell’s mother, whom we know in the movie merely as a voice on the telephone, is portrayed as this negative, pessimistic, nagging parent.  Most of Julie’s friends are portrayed as materialistic, shallow, self-centered, joyless even in their wealth and professional success.  Even Julie’s husband in the movie was, I thought, a bit of a bump on a log.  So, as Pops noticed, for Julie to “find” Julia and to get to know her (or her idea of Julia) through her experience of cooking and writing, meant that Julie found someone whose way of living and being granted her new life in a very real sense.  From Julia, Julie learned to master not only the art of French cooking but the art of living. 

In Julia Child’s memoirs, one gets the sense that even as she moved from place to place (for her husband’s government service appointments), Julia bloomed where she was planted.  And even though she and her husband were never able to have children, her works (her cookbook, her memoirs, her television cooking lessons) had such a far-reaching impact.  In this movie, Julia Child “mothers” Julie Powell, even though they never meet, in a way that Julie’s never did.

What a great thing to remember:  that our works, whether they be our children or our passions or our jobs, or even our actions in daily life, have such an impact.  They may inspire people to do great things or even just to do something different.  I’d like my friends and family to help me remember to live in such a way that I can be confident that my impact, however small, is a positive one.  Since I do have a child, I ask my loved ones to remind me, when I get down deep in day-to-day annoyances or my own moods or stresses, to pay attention to how I am living– to think about the sort of impact I am making on my daughter.  I hope that her childhood memories of me are that I was a joyful person attuned to and grateful for all the richness that life offers.  That I bloomed where I was planted.  That I pursued my passions with singleminded dedication and perseverance but without forgetting the daily joys of family and friends.  I hope that when AE is a young woman making her way in the world, that she can think of her mother, as I do my own mother, as an example she wants to emulate.  My parents bring so much joy to those around them, make people feel so loved and unique and supported; they take joy in the pleasures of life such as good food, beautiful art, fellowship.   As I continue to make my way in the world, and support my children in their own journeys, I want to say “thank you”– thank you for showing me what it means to have a “good appetite” for life.

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

 ~Pedro Arrupe

My best friend’s mom sent this to me in a card years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since.  It helps me to step back and take a look at what motivates me, how I spend the precious hours and resources that are given to me.  What breaks your heart?  What makes it sing?

A couple of blogs I read, one a blog written by a friend, the other my favorite “mommy blog,” have featured posts on running lately.  I’ve recently started running with some regularity, and find that if I can run every other day I start to see major improvement quickly.  I run slowly but make myself run the whole time.  My sisters, brother-in-law, and husband and I ran a Turkey Trot 5k on Thanksgiving morning, and my youngest sister remarked, as we all piled into the car at 7 AM, “Who are we?  Did we switch families?”   It was a hilarious comment, and spot on, because we are an active, healthy family but not the kind that wakes up at 6 AM on Thanksgiving to go run in the cold.  But I was so glad we did; even though for some people a 5k requires no training and is in fact merely a warm-up run, for all of my adult life I have thought of myself as one of those people who isn’t and never really will be a runner, though I truly wish I were one of those people for whom running is fun, a release and a joy. 

But I have indeed found running to be like most other things in life that are “good for me”– that is, I always am glad once I’ve done it, often enjoy it once I begin, but never seem to have the willpower to stick with it, to drag myself out of my lazy resting state and get going even at times or on days when I’d Really Rather Not, thankyouverymuch.  I love the feeling in my lungs for the rest of the day after a run, like they’ve really been put to use; I love feeling the energy and the health and the improvement in mood that follows a good workout.

Today’s run started off okay, and then went downhill from there, probably because I hadn’t run since last Friday and was already slowly creeping out of the habit.  After about 20 minutes I did not want to keep going (my goal had been 30 minutes).  I found myself once again listening to that voice in my head, the needling, wheedling little one that says things like, “Go ahead and stop, you deserve to give yourself a break.”  Or “Nobody is watching or cares whether you run this next 10 minutes or not.”  Or “You just can’t; you’re not built for this–give up!”

And then I realized that my answer to all these suggestions could tell me a lot about my answers to a lot of life’s challenges, big or small.  Why do I push myself, challenge myself, do things when I don’t want to?  Why keep going when it gets tough?  Who’s watching and who will really care?  (It’s almost easier, once you become a parent, because you haven’t any real choice in the matter.  It may be 6 AM and you may be exhausted, but someone does care if you get up, no one thinks you deserve a break, and they certainly don’t care whether you think you’re up to it!)

That last 10 minutes today was about more than running another mile (or less, since it’s me we’re talking about here– my mile is more of the 12-minute variety, but whatever, I show up!)– it was an attempt to counter all those doubts with an affirming confidence and self-discipline.  I ran those last 10 minutes for my athletic friend, who’s so painfully pregnant right now that she can barely walk across the house, much less run.  I ran for those who are sick or injured and who would love nothing better than to have the choice to stand up and run.  I ran for the One who redeems me from all my self-pity and fear, for the One who gave me a body that can run, and run farther than I ever thought possible.

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.  It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.

So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.  Grendel was the name of this grim demon…


Feeling outcast and enraged, envious of the warmth and light of the Danes, the monster Grendel preys upon them while they sleep, attacking and ruining the peace of the mead hall in which the people escape from the dark and the cold and the unknown they contain, until Beowulf comes and slays the monster and frees the people to live without fear.  I’ve been thinking of Grendel lately, and finding myself identifying more with him than with the fortunate Danes.  I spent most of yesterday with a severe case of “house envy” after a wonderful dinner party Saturday night.  Our hosts for the evening were a young couple with a daughter a bit younger than AE.  They have a beautiful, spacious home, with a brand-new, state-of-the-art kitchen, lots of living/entertaining/play space, a huge bed in a comfortable master suite, the list goes on and on.  It wasn’t a McMansion by any means, just a modest but comfortable house that’d been added on to over the years and decorated with love and good taste.  But once again I felt this nagging sense of entitlement, of self-pity:  why don’t I have a house like that?  Is that too much to ask?  I just want a home to which I could invite people over, hold a birthday party for my child, have room to breathe on a cold, rainy day.  I love our home, it’s been a wonderful place for M and me to start our lives and our family together.  But it is very small, as those of you who’ve visited before know, so it tends to feel very tight, especially when it’s cold outside and toys are strewn around, and you want to decorate for Christmas but find that every square inch is used up already, every surface and wall.  You want to put up a real Christmas tree but realize there isn’t any room, nor is there enough space to really stand back from a distance and admire your handiwork. You can’t get outside, can’t get perspective.

Ninety-five percent of the people in our neighborhood are poor or immigrants with six people living in the same size house as ours.  Generations before me raised an entire family in this home.  They had far fewer opportunities and have far less money, and yet here I go again, feeling sorry for myself, feeling entitled to more, waiting for that imagined day when I will have “enough.”

What my house envy reminds me is that I’m not so good at living in the present, of seeing and enjoying the abundance all around me.  I feel the first pangs of winter and decide I will just “survive,” get through, until spring comes again.  I see my house in comparison with another and decide that I’ll really start to live and to have fun once we have a bigger house, more money, etcetera etcetera.  I start to act like a Grendel, imagining myself on the outside, envying those who seem to have more. 

So I am trying to learn to live in the present moment, with joy for the blessings great and small (though really, are there any “small” blessings?).  As cliché as this sounds it’s surprisingly hard to do.  This weekend it was terribly cold, so that even when it was sunny, on Sunday, it was still too cold to be outside.  I tried to take AE out so we could get a few minutes of sunshine, thought it’d do my mood some good, but it was just freezing:  her little hands were like ice but once I put mittens on her she couldn’t really play because it was like trying to push  her play stroller wearing oven mitts.  We went back in the house, me hating winter more than ever because it means we can’t be outside; I always feel in spring and summer like I need and want to be outside, soaking up the sunshine and warmth, every possible second.

Today I decided instead to embrace the present situation, not just survive until spring but to find things to enjoy right now.  I bought a little Christmas tree and AE and I set it up this evening, lit a bunch of candles around the house, enjoyed the warm light they offered.  Maybe it’s the cold and the dark, but I once again found myself recalling another medieval English text, another moment of darkness versus light, joy and life versus “just getting by.”  It’s from The Ecclesiastical History by the Venerable Bede and quotes a cleric offering the pagan King Edwin his opinion on why the teachings of Christianity might be worth considering: 

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

Well, I’m going to enjoy this in-between time; I am going to practice living joyfully in the moment instead of looking restlessly to some imagined future.  Tonight AE and I danced and read books in the warm little glow of our tiny house, and I gave thanks for my sweet, happy, healthy girl, my loving, kind husband, my furry, patient, good-natured dog, my wonderful family, and a snug little rabbit hole that I know we’ll always look back on fondly as the house we made a home, to which we brought our baby daughter home for the first time, a house that stretched its little walls to hold all this warmth and light and love, even if only for a little while.