The Other I

November 20, 2017

Independence Day

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:31 pm

Related image

A friend of mine just told me about her niece.  She walked into the room and announced to her parents sitting there:

“You’re not in charge of me anymore.”

“Oh”, said her parents, “who is in charge now?”

“I am,” she said.  “I’m in charge of myself.”

She is three years old.

Teaching our children to be responsible for the consequences of their own actions is one of the great challenges of parenting.  But this kind of statement of independence usually comes in the teenage years, often accompanied by an unwillingness to listen at that point to any  parental advice.

But can you imagine rearing a child who makes this announcement at the age of THREE?

Good for her!  I wish her the very best of a very productive and satisfying life.  Not necessarily easy.  But fulfilling.

(Oh, and I do hope she learns at an equally-surprising young age that if she’s in charge, she is responsible for the consequences of her decisions — even when they aren’t what she was planning on.)



September 14, 2017

Our Dorothy Day Exceptionalism

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:15 pm

In the last two posts I described growing up on 70-acre piece of land that my parents converted from barren hills surrounded by swamps into complex farm fields, and a vibrant lake.  I said it sounds idyllic, and in many ways it was.  The gifts I received from my parents in the first eighteen years of my life are the foundation of a sense of fulfillment and happiness that I know is very great.

But life on the farm was a mixed blessing.

The very gifts with which our family grew up created, I think, a kind of exceptionalism in each of us.  We were the place where our classmates came to swim and ice skate and picnic.  We were a preeminent family in our parish.  Once a week, the Maryknoll brothers studying in the novitiate in Akron came to swim, work on the farm, picnic, or sled down the snowy-laden hills with us.  My father was a leading lawyer in the city, and his best friend, Father Basil, who was a professor of history at a university in Cleveland, spent every Saturday afternoon and shared evening dinner with us, where we inevitably listened to high-level discussions of current ethical, philosophical, or theological questions.  At school, if any of us of whatever age said “Father Basil says…”, the nuns inevitably acquiesced.  We always had the upper hand on that one.

These experiences and so many like them gave us a sense of confidence and identity.  But it also gave us a false sense that we were right.  Like our big house on the hill, we stood above others.  Yes, we had responsibilities and obligations, which profoundly shaped the decisions we made about our lives and futures.

But we weren’t always as right as we thought we were.  And our Right Answer assumptions often led us to presenting our views with an unappealing self-righteous arrogance.  And interestingly, a lack of creativity.  We had the right answers.  We didn’t have to search for solutions.

It also left us with somewhat limited social skills.  We didn’t really know how even our school friends lived.  They spent more time in our house than we did in theirs.  Even today, many of us agree that we find it extremely difficult to make small talk.  Yes, we can enter into in-depth discussions about the meaning of life, death, the existence of God, abortion, the poor, racism, and politics.  But we are a deadly serious lot.  Most of us have had to learn from our life’s partners that very few people are quite as eager to endure our endless debates as we are.

Life on the farm also left us, especially the girls, unusually naive.  That wasn’t only a result of the protective isolation of living on the farm (which perhaps by now I should begin calling an “estate,” rather than a farm).  It was in part due to the times and the Catholic religious culture we lived in.   We learned to be supportive and to some extent even subservient to men, but we did not learn how and when we had the right to say No.  Consequently, as adolescents and young adults we got ourselves into sexual encounters that we misread.  We felt betrayed and angry at unspoken promises we felt had been made, and which, from a more mature perspective, obviously had not been offered.

Unfortunately, our idyllic life on the farm came to a crashing end with the death of my mother of cancer at the age of 48.  Eight months earlier I had entered the convent, and my mother, who knew she had only weeks to live, made it clear to me that I had a calling from God, and that I was not to come back home to care for my eight younger brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was 7.   My mother also, I am sure, agreed with my father that he would marry the women we all called “Aunt Mary.”  She had been married to my mother’s brother who had also been my father’s law partner until his death 5 years earlier.  She and my father married four months after my mother’s death.

That’s when everything changed.  My father directed that everyone still living at home should address her as “mother,” but she was not a mother they recognized or felt loved by.  We always refer to the time after my mother died as “The Second Regime.”

As children we were never told we were growing up on a Dorothy Day farm.  After Dad died and we discovered their correspondence, it had little value to us and the letters were destroyed.  Because neither the joys of the first Regime with Mom, or the pain and the anguish of the Second Regime are due principally to the fact that we were living on a farm.  They are due far more to the love and generosity, to the limits and tragedies, of those individuals living there.

As Communism has demonstrated most recently, utopia does not exist independently in the system.  Right now,  we see today in countries throughout the world, including the United States and Britain, no system in itself operates independently of the people who are living within it.  As Thomas Jefferson said, freedom is something we must work constantly to protect.  The same is true of love.   The system can’t do it for us.





September 4, 2017

My Dorothy Day childhood

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

To explain why, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to live in New York, I think I need to begin with my mother.

Like my Dad, Mom was a second generation immigrant.  Her family emigrated from Warsaw, Poland,  she was bi-lingual, had three older brothers, earned a BA, and was very attractive.  Unlike Dad, she accepted Roman Catholic beliefs  with unquestioning peace.  Also unlike Dad, she did not possess the incisive analytical intelligence which made him such a successful lawyer, and which is by and large still thought of as an indicator of a high IQ.  That is how I grew up believing that girls could never be as smart as boys, and why, until my older brother demolished my plan, I planned to be a man when I grew up.

Today cognitive psychologists understand that intelligence is much more complex than the verbal, spatial, and mathematical skills measured in traditional IQ tests.  Howard Gardener of Harvard University identifies 9 independent kinds of intelligence  including interpersonal intelligence, or empathy, which is the ability to  understand the feelings and motives of others, even when it is different from what one is experiencing oneself.

In retrospect,  I think my mother was on the genius level in terms of interpersonal intelligence.  But as a child, I just thought it was what one would expect of a mother.  I didn’t realize it was smarts, that it was an immensely valuable contribution to holding the family together.  She moved with Dad to the farm because she was a loving, committed wife.  But Dad wasn’t a farmer.  He was a lawyer and didn’t live his dream on the farm seven days a week.  He went off to the city five and a half days, and really worked the farm on Sunday afternoons as a recreational escape.  Mom, though, lived on the farm seven days a week.    She never complained, but she was very sociable and liked having people around.   She was lonely on the farm.  We did have a telephone, but obviously no internet or TV.  We didn’t even have a radio in the first years.  Although she always made people welcome, we lived on that house on the hill.  She was not, in that sense, a part of a village, or a community.

I didn’t want to be like my mother.  I thought she belonged in second place.  When I was told I looked like her, I was insulted.  I wanted to look like my Dad.  But as I look back now, I realize I shared her loneliness.  I had four brothers by the time I was six, but no sisters.  And when I finally got a sister, I remember being appalled that she was just a baby!  She wasn’t going to be any good as a playmate.  I couldn’t wait to start school, and when I did,  I loved it.  I got good grades and the only C I ever remember getting in my life was for penmanship, of which I was very proud, because I thought Dad’s writing was almost illegible too.

I would like to believe now that I also inherited some of my mother’s social intelligence.  Coming from my father’s side of the family, however, we have a streak of Asperger’s syndrome – the exact opposite of social intelligence – and I do not know how empathetic I might be.  I do know that I am a city person, that I find even village life too isolating.

In any case, I know now that it was not just my father, but equally my mother, who made my childhood so enriching.  She was a wonderful, loving teacher.  She was not competitive with us.  She did not, for instance, need to demonstrate that she was a better seamstress or cook or card player with us.  She enjoyed her children, she was proud of us, and encouraged us to be our unique selves.

I think I inherited my particular capacity for loneliness from her.

And that is why, by the time I was six, I’d made up my mind that I was going to move to New York.

That’s my personal story.  I also think, though, that our idyllic life on the farm had some long-term limitations for all of us.  We paid a price for living in that idyll.  About which, more on my next post.

Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

Picture by Eric Upton;;  Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

August 31, 2017

My life on the farm

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

The land my parents bought was, to put it mildly, undeveloped.  There were three hills, surrounded with acres of low-lying swamp land.  But they were the foundation of my father’s Dorothy Day dream.  On top of the biggest hill he built the main family house.  He called bulldozers in to build a dam, and transformed the biggest stretch of swamp into a five-acre lake which was ultimately stocked with the blue gill and bass fish which provided us with our Friday suppers.  Another elevated spot by what became the lake provided housing for Dad’s parents – our grandmother and grandfather – and for his brother and sister.  Another swamp was converted into a celery farm by his brother when he returned battered and bruised from his war-time military service.

Another house eventually became the home of the Black man, Phil, and his common-law White wife, Ethel.  Phil had also served in the military during the war, but racism was still so blatant that he could not get a job with any construction crew.  Despite the fact that he risked his reputation as a lawyer, Dad hired him, telling us that no Christian can be a racist.  Phil was essential to the running of the farm, and, although I’m sure he never knew it, is the reason none of us are prejudiced.

The Big House on the Hill, early 1950’s

By the early 1950’s, the house had several additional wings added to the original square box to accommodate the growing family.  Fields had been turned into pasture land for the cows which provided milk and eventually meat for our daily sustenance.   The calves’ liver that marked our Saturday evening dinners stand out in my mind, as the multiple chicken dinners stand out in the memory of one of my brothers.  Apple and pear trees populated what became an orchard, and Quonset huts, no longer wanted by the military after the war, were converted into chicken huts, cover for the pigs, barns for storing hay, stables for milking the cows, and a beach house by the lake that became our summer playground for swimming, our winter playground for skating and sledding down the hill and over the ice.  We played hide-and-seek in the summer wheat fields, and joined in the harvesting picnics in August.

By then we had become The Big House on the Hill.

It looks enviable, doesn’t it?  And yet by the time I was six years old, I decided I wanted to live in New York, and by the time I was seven, I had devised a plan.

Yes, it was beautiful.  In all seasons.  I remember with deep gratitude the richness that has lasted a lifetime that my childhood there gave me.  We were very fortunate.  But it wasn’t utopia. I hope to explain in my next post why I didn’t – and still don’t – share Dorothy Day’s Dream.

November 30, 2016

My Dorothy Day puzzle

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

After my father died, we found several letters from Dorothy Day to him in the boxes of files he’d stored in the loft.  We didn’t know about the letters, but we certainly knew about Dorothy Day.  Because she was the reason we were living on that farm in Ohio.  My father was a lawyer and had little skill as a farmer.  But he was convinced by Dorothy Day that this was the ideal place to raise a family, away from the evils and temptations of the city.

Why?  Dorothy Day spent her entire life in New York city.  Why did she think there was some elevated goodness to be found in a country life she herself did not live?

There was, indeed, innocence.  And naiveté.  My parents were dedicated, loving, generous, sacrificing anything they had if they thought it was for our betterment.  And my father created what became an idyllic setting with a lake, fishing, swimming, ice skating, fields of wheat, cattle, chicken, pigs, fruit trees.

But was the isolation of farm life a better preparation for life than city life?  I’m not convinced.

Our “innocence” might better be described as ignorance, particularly in relation to sex.  I am not talking about our physical sexual differences – in a family as large as ours with newborns arriving almost semi-annually, one could hardly be unaware of our genital differences, beginning with the simple act of learning to urinate into the toilet.  But there was a general embarrassment about events such as menstruation, and the actual act of sexual intercourse.

I have more insight into the ways in which this simplicity, shall we call it, effected us girls.  The dynamics, I think, were just as profound for my brothers but they were different.  We sisters learned how to be generous and kind, but we did not learn how to say no when it was appropriate to do so.  We also did not learn the difference between sending signals of sexual interest as opposed to signals of friendliness.  We trusted too much, and I think each of us had to find out that male interest in having an affair was often interest in pleasure, but not a prelude to anything resembling a commitment or even wanting any kind of personal relationship at all.

Was all of this the result of growing up on a farm?  Of course not.  My own adolescence preceded the 1960’s and 70’s.  We were not the only ones to have naively misunderstood the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.  Many of the “city girls” I met at that time also confused the meaning of the flower children and hippies with a moral superiority that we thought was going to create a new world of love and liberation.

Nonetheless, admirable as she was, I think Dorothy Day was wrong in elevating country life, presenting it as somehow morally superior to city life.  As I said in my last post, I’ve seen too much love for complete strangers in one of the biggest cities in the world to accept that.

PS:  A friend who read my last post suggested that I might enjoy reading the Metropolitan Diary in the New York Times.  They are everyday stories about New Yorkers, and they will warm your heart.  I’m now making the diary part of my morning wake-up call.

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March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing





April 6, 2015

Faux encouragement

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

In order to illustrate my brilliant insight, I must first confess to downloading a game of Klondike Solitaire, my preferred time-waster that had to be replaced after my recent computer crash.  I’ve been playing it on and off now for close to a month, and I find it so irritating I might have to give it up.

My irritation is that whenever I win a game, the screen shouts “Congratulations! You won!”

Fine.  But when I lose, the screen says “You have run out of moves.  Good Game!”

And that’s what I find so irritating.  It reminds me of an enabling teacher or parent who tries to build self-confidence in their child or student by praising them even when they fail.

That is not how mature self-confidence is built.

Because self-confidence doesn’t come from others’ opinions of our accomplishments.  It doesn’t even come from always succeeding.  It comes from confidence in our own ability to assess what we have done.  We need to be able to say “Yes, I did my best,” or “I did as well as I wanted to,” or “I didn’t get this right;  can I do it better?  Do I want to do better?  If so, how?”  At that point, we might ask for advice.  But that is quite different from encouragement based on false praise.

Yes, we need to know that we are loved.  That is not the same thing as needing indiscriminate praise.  We need to learn to be proud – or not – of ourselves.  What parents and teachers need to help children do is to evaluate themselves.  “What do you think about that work you just did?” is potentially a more helpful response than offering our own assessments as if our opinions were what really matter.

If we can’t judge our own accomplishments (or failures), we remain dependent psychologically.  We can’t stand on our own two feet.  And as human beings, we need to be able to stand up for what we believe in, for what we decide is important, even when it seems that everybody else disagrees with us.  We decide, for instance, that we have to be thinner, more beautiful, smarter, richer, more popular, more famous because that’s what everybody says.

But it’s not the recipe for happiness.

So was this a good post?  can I play another game of Solitaire now?

November 16, 2014

Today’s news

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:48 pm

This Sunday’s paper carried a story today about Muriel Spark (the author probably best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).  As a teenager, she wrote letters to herself from imaginary admirers and pushed them between the pillows of the couch for her nosy mother to find.  One such letter included a pseudo reply from Muriel which read “Dear Colin,  You were wonderful last night!”

Ah, what a good little girl I was by comparison.  I completely lacked the creativity to even think up such naughtiness, but even if I had, I was a rigid rule-follower.  I didn’t even break the “no-talking-after-lights-out” rule at the boarding school I attended as a teenager.  I can only hope I’ve grown up a little in that regard.  One thing I do know is that I no longer have all the right answers I had then.

The second item that struck me from the papers today is an advertisement from Harrod’s department store for a Gingerbread House.  It’s quite a fabulous house, and resembles the houses we used to make at my German  grandmother’s house every Christmas Eve.

Harrod’s is selling their Gingerbread House of £150 (about $250).  We children might not have eaten our houses so readily if we thought we could make so much money from our efforts.

June 3, 2014

Anybody you recognize?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

My father was the son of first and third generation German immigrants.  In America they made their living as lawyers, musicians, farmers, and engineers.  The inheritance is evident among my 5 brothers and 4 sisters.

Two days ago, my lawyer-brother sent the family an engineer test, with the question:  “Does anyone recognize anyone in our family?”  The gasp of recognition was heard throughout cyberspace.

Since then we have been exchanging stories all suggesting that the incipient characteristics of the engineer were evident from an early age.

I remember –  I’m probably the only living person who does — that when I was about three years old, my oldest brother, who was four at the time,  decided I needed a cross on my doll house.   He didn’t discuss it with me, but I went out one day and there was this big ugly thing nailed onto the roof of my lovely little house.  We all had crucifixes over our beds, and there was Tom deciding that my dolls needed one too.  Actually, I doubt he was making an attempt to rescue my dolls from the clutches of paganism.  He just decided to try out his incipient skills as a construction engineer.  It was terrible and I remember asking Mom for her scissors so I could cut it down.  The adults in my life thought that was hilarious.  My sister – who wasn’t around at the time – says she is sure it wasn’t supposed to be a cross at all but a lightning rod.

I have another engineering brother who at about the age of six thought that taking off one’s clothes to go to bed at night was a total waste of time, when you simply had to put them all back on again in the morning.  So he developed a masterful time-saving plan:  put one’s pajamas on over one’s clothes.  When Dad found out, he called him to “come here immediately” in a scary authoritative voice of judgement he could use, so there wasn’t time to do anything but appear in full regalia.  What those of us who witnessed the confrontation knew was that Dad was laughing so hard he could barely hold it together.  Personally, I think that brother showed the ingenuity of a budding engineer.

Even my husband Peter (who grew up in a coal-mining village during WWII in England) could not believe the outfit Dad put on to “work on the farm.”  It was the outfit his second wife forbid him to wear above the basement level.

Which demonstrates why we are all unanimous in our gratitude to the partners of the engineers in our family for supplementing the lacunae in their undoubted skills.

If you know any engineers, I’d love to know if you recognize any of the hall marks too.   Double click on the test for engineers for the full authentic list.


May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

Filed under: Food chains,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney.  But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of  virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing.  The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.

But at heart, my father was not really a farmer.  He went to his law office  5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming.   One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding.  Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road.  My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office:  “Claude, the cows are out again.”

For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York.  After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his.  It’s worked out well.  The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.

Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try.  I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table.  Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do.  Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.

I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though.  Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and  planted two dozen plugs,  I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons.  It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground.  It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new.  The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well.  It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.

Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here.  I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.  You aren’t going to like this at all.”  We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again.  I started to laugh.  My husband looked at me quizzically.

“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.

I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars.  And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat.  I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.



May 17, 2013

Enough already!

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:52 am

When I was a very grown-up age of twelve, my mother told me she was pregnant with her tenth child.

I was furious and told her so in no uncertain terms:  “You have enough children!”

I didn’t understand it then, but  I was really saying that I didn’t want to be a surrogate mother to a baby about whose arrival I had not even been consulted.  Of course, in my adolescent wisdom, I had no idea just how much I myself was gaining from being an older sister who, however great my ignorance may have been on any subject, was always less than those of my younger, lesser experienced siblings.  So I grew up with a self-confidence that was perhaps not always due solely to my superior abilities.

My mother did have her tenth child, of course, and though I at first refused to so much as change a diaper without sulking, I eventually discovered that I have a great deal in common with my youngest sister.  And among other things, we are agreed today that if one is going to be a member of a large family, being at the top or the bottom of the array is almost always less of a challenge than fighting for a separate identity as a squashed in-between.

So I am now most grateful that my mother did have her tenth child and that she is now my grown-up sister.

Thanks, Mom.  She really is a gift.  Just like you said.

Besides that, she’s arriving from America today for a ten-day visit.  So I’m taking a break from blogging.


May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

February 27, 2013

A better teacher than a mother

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 9:21 pm

Until I left for the convent at the age of 18, I was a sort of surrogate mother of at least half of my eight younger brothers and sisters.  As a result, I thought for years that I had all the qualifications and experience needed to be a superb mother.

As I have developed something of an enthusiasm for gardening this last year, I have treated my fledgling vegetables and fruit in much the same way as I treated my younger brothers and sisters.  And I’m not so sure I would have been such a good mother, after all.

The unrecognized child-rearing philosophy of my youth probably was a result of my own “I can do it myself” psychology that I remember even as a two-year-old insisting that I could button my own clothes even if the first attempt was a bit out of sync.  So I assumed that what children wanted was to be taught how to do something, and then get on with it themselves.  I wasn’t much for hugs or nurturing.

To my astonishment, I’ve just realized that I’ve been treating the vegetables in the garden the same way.  “There,” I said to each sprouting seed, “I’ve planted you in fertile, well-watered earth.  You can grow now.”  So I was a little late in recognizing that the collard and cauliflower needed a little help in fighting off the white fly and slugs.  And it didn’t occur to me to actually read a gardening book to see when or how to harvest kale or purple-sprouting broccoli.  I assumed I would be able to tell when they were ready, and how to pick them.

But a good vegetable crop needs a little more fussing over.

Just as some children do.
I’m glad, though, that  carrots and swiss chard have been my instructors – even if it is a little late.

And next year I plan to be a more maternal gardener.

Or maybe I should just write a book telling somebody else how to do it?  I bet I’d be good at that.  And I could just buy my vegetables from the farm market.


February 3, 2013

My big sister syndrome

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:13 pm

I was never really a child.  By the age of 20 months I already had a younger brother, and by the time I was twelve years old, I had eight younger brothers and sisters.

So I grew up always knowing more than almost everybody else.  I learned how to do things first and then taught them.  I was given responsibilities for looking after them, and my authority was almost equal to that of my parents.  As a result, I grew up with a sense of confidence and independence that is so deeply-rooted that it almost feels genetic.  But it isn’t genetic.  It’s learned from having thousands of right answers, from years of being in charge, from knowing better or at least thinking that I knew better for the first two decades of my life.

Lucy 1
Lucy 2

As my younger sibs became adults, they began to tease me about always knowing best and gave me the honorary title of Lucy.

I hope I have modified my tendency toward telling everybody else what to do all the time.  But I am still an older sister.  I don’t expect to be given advice I don’t ask for and don’t take kindly to its being given.  I do ask for people’s opinions, but I don’t expect them to make decisions for me.

I’ve recognized these things about myself for many years.  But I have only just realized that all the women with whom I have been friends for any enduring length of time are themselves also oldest sisters.  I can’t believe this pattern is a complete coincidence.  I sense in other oldest sisters the same self-rootedness I learned growing up.  I find it liberating and supportive at the same time.  This independence in others frees me of a kind of responsibility for them that, unasked, I often spontaneously assume in relation to others.



January 22, 2013

Not sure I know what you mean…

So explain again how comparing apples and oranges is fruitless?

(Andertoons Comics)

Children don’t usually begin to understand metaphors much before the age of 6 or 7.  Until then, they tend to interpret everything they hear  solely in literalist terms.  I know a child who thought, when her mother said her dad was late for dinner because he was “tied up on the road” thought he has been delayed by men with ropes.

Similarly one of the most profound disagreements between fundamentalist and traditional Christians is whether the bible should always be understood literally or whether it is sometimes more accurate to interpret it metaphorically.

May 31, 2012

Why some children aren’t happy

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:04 pm
Tags: , ,
Peanuts by Charles Schulz

Sometimes as a child I used to go to my bedroom and cry because I wasn’t as happy as my parents hoped I would be.  They tried so hard and did so much to make me happy and I was failing them.

It was especially bad at Christmas.

Sometimes parents just can’t win

May 9, 2012

My vast unknowing

Filed under: Food chains,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:22 pm

I grew up on a farm.  We chickens and pigs.  We had cows that gave us milk and cream, and from which my mother made cheese and butter.  We skated on our lake in the winter, swam in it in the summer, and ate fish from it every Friday.  We had an apple orchard, pear trees, strawberries, a celery patch in the swamp, and most of our vegetables grew outside the kitchen door.  We played hide-and-seek in the wheat fields in the summer, and my brothers helped harvest it every fall.   I lived there until I was 18 when I escaped from what I never thought was the idyll that sounds so enviable.

But I never thought I didn’t understand plants.  My husband and I have grown everything from avocados to zucchini, from asparagus, bananas and lemons, to beans, tomatoes and squash.  Or perhaps I should say my husband grew these things.  I occasionally weeded the garden, but mostly I was happy with more urban pursuits.

We are now, however, engaged in an experiment in intensive gardening to produce more of our own vegetables in our own small suburban plot.  I told my husband I was planning on buying a few plugs for peas.  He sews mostly from seed, but I thought I’d experiment with plugs instead.  “What kind of peas?” Peter asked?

What kind of peas?! I thought.  Well, round green ones.  You know, the kind that come in cans or they serve with fish and chips.

Boy, do I have a lot to learn! I’m beginning to think that learning about peas is making my book about all of time look like child’s play.

Peas are not just peas, my dear.  There are round peas and wrinkled varieties.  There are mangtout varieties, petit pois, and asparagus pea varieties, all of which themselves come in various sizes, colors, heights, and temperaments.  Some crop as early as February, some as late as November, and others all the months in between.

I had no idea.  In fact, I had no idea that I had no idea.  The bags in the frozen food section of the supermarket where I thought peas went when they grew up just say “garden peas.”

Do you think Birds Eye know about this?

May 7, 2012

Talk to them!

A recent finding by the UK government’s adviser on poverty has pointed to what I think is quite probably the most significant parenting skill of all:  talking to ones children.

Frank Field has found that the amount of talk between a parent and a child predicts the child’s future achievements better than class, better than ethnicity, and better than income.  He also found that by the time a child is three, a child from a functional family has heard almost half a million more positive and encouraging comments from their parents than a child in a dysfunctional family.

This is recent research, but the findings are not new.  As long as 40 years ago, David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist, found that family interactions predicted adult achievement better than school grades.

Research has also studied children who are survivors – that is children who come through what to an outsider looks like significant abuse or neglect or other traumas such as illness or death in the family.  The single most significant difference they found is that “survivors,” children who came through and triumphed over trauma, had at least one significant adult who cared about them.  Sometimes that significant other was a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, a boy scout leader, or perhaps a neighbour.

Just one person can completely change a child’s world forever.

 That’s sort of encouraging to know, isn’t it?


February 13, 2012

A Valentine: for those old enough

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:44 am

Love is hard enough.

But love is also enough.

Chris Lawrence

April 6, 2011

An improved translation

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:37 pm

As a child I had a fierce debate with one of my brothers about the correct wording of the Act of Contrition.  This is a prayer telling God that one deeply regrets getting it wrong.

The politically correct version begins:  Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.

Dick’s version reads:  Oh my God, I am partly sorry for having offended thee.

It’s quite possibly a more accurate translation of the truth for most of us most of the time.

February 16, 2011

Potatoes of the world unite!

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:36 pm

One of the things that astonishes me about myself is how good I am at recognizing the wrong answers proposed by everybody else.

I might have gained some small smidgen of wisdom since adolescence (which in my case seems to have lasted well into my thirties).  At least I don’t assume any more that I have the answers to all the world’s problems.

But I read and I listen to the news, and it’s amazing how often I think I’m quite capable of judging how wrong-headed, stupid, ignorant, egocentric, or self-serving so much of what I hear is.

Somehow a little niggling voice in my head is suggesting I still might not be quite smart enough to seriously justify all my regular bouts of indignation with politicians and other public figures.

I think the Outraged Potato has a point.

But then maybe I’m just looking for an excuse not to be depressed by the nightly news and the fact that I haven’t the vaguest idea of what to do about any of it.

Alternatively, maybe I am that much smarter, insightful, and creative than almost everybody else on the planet.  But it’s unlikely.  It might be more reasonable for me to get over my indignant frustations.

September 11, 2010

Recognizing intelligence

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense — theotheri @ 8:25 pm

For all our intelligence, it’s amazing how often we humans have trouble recognizing it:

  • Research shows that children invariably know who the smartest kids are in class in a way that teachers often fail to recognize.  Children aren’t fooled by grades – they know there’s a difference between getting good grades and being smart.
  • For centuries, scientists argued that animals had no intelligence at all.  In fact, in my own professional life time, Behaviorism argued that intelligence was an unscientific concept, that animals were no different from machines and were controlled solely by a pattern of environmental rewards and punishments.
  • Even today, quite well-educated people believe that the intelligence of Homo sapiens is superior in every way to the intelligence of any other living organism.

All of which has made me wonder why as a child I thought my Dad was so smart and that women, including my rather gifted mother, weren’t.

One reason, of course, was the role of women in a traditional Catholic household in mid-20th century America.  Women were expected to stay at home and take care of the children, do the cooking, keep the house clean, and submit to their husbands.  The men were supposed to go out and hunt – err, I mean, earn a living.

But in my case there was another reason.  Dad treated all children who could at least walk and talk as if they were  adults.  He talked to us like adults, he reasoned with us like adults, he explained things to us as if we were adults.  That often made him very hard to understand.

My mother, on the other hand, had a gift for explaining things in terms we could understand.  She understood how children thought, and she herself had an ego that was strong enough not to need to make us think she was smart.  What she wanted was for us to think we were smart.  She was awfully good at making hard things seem easy and giving us the confidence to believe we could do them.

Lots of BalloonsI didn’t understand that.  I just thought she wasn’t as smart as my Dad.

But I think she was.  She was just smart different.

The interesting post script to this is that, although I have eight younger sibs and am a cognitive developmental psychologist who has written books and articles about how children’s thinking develops, I’m much more like my Dad.  I talk to children as if they were adults.

I don’t do it out of principle.

I just can’t do what my mother could.

August 11, 2010

Childhood grows up

Filed under: Growing Old,Growing Up,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

In the supermarket this morning, I overheard a conversation between a boy about age 7 and a woman who looked like his grandmother.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked him.

In one of the those grown-up voices that makes one wonder sometimes if children are really only rather short adults, he answered:  “I want to be an archaeologist.”  Then after a short pause, “Or an astrophysicist.”  We moved out of earshot as he was explaining to his grandmother what archaeologists do.

What a great change since I was a child.  It’s not just computers and the internet and i-pods.  It’s the scope of possibilities.

At seven, I thought my options were to be a nun, a teacher, or a nurse.  Or just a plain old mother which even then I knew I didn’t think was exciting enough.  (I know:  I apologize to every mother for this gross misunderstanding.)  Later I added the options of social worker and secretary.

So I opted to be a Maryknoll nun because working with the poor in underdeveloped countries seemed about the most exciting challenging thing I could imagine.  And of course it came with the extra advantage of social kudos from those who thought it was truly a holy God-given vocation that had been bestowed on me.

I consider myself to be extraordinarily fortunate.

But I wonder what my young self would have answered “what do you want to be when you grow up” if I were seven years old today.  Like every seven-year-old I would have a lot to learn.  Some things don’t change.  By the time you are seventeen, you know a great deal more than the previous generation.   Yet it’s amazing how much ones parents learn by the time one is 27.

July 8, 2010

Sleeping to get smarter

Filed under: Growing Up,Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

Science has told us for so long that our intelligence is inherited that not nearly enough people know how terribly important environment is.  Or what factors in the environment might make a really big difference.

Yesterday’s post talked about omega 3 fatty acids whose most abundant source is fish.  Eating fish makes people smarter.

And so does sleep.  Though it’s not actually quite as simple as saying that getting more sleep makes people smarter.

Most people know that jet lag is a result of our body clocks getting out of sync.  We keep wanting to sleep and wake according to the sunlight hours from the place we’ve just been.  So we are wide awake in the middle of the night and fall asleep in mid-day until our clocks get re-adjusted.

Scientists have now discovered that during adolescence – the ages between 13 and 21 – our body clocks go through a massive change.  Teenagers body clocks keep them awake later, and turn them into lazy slobs in the morning.  Or at least “lazy slobs” is what they have seemed to resemble.  In actual fact, they are struggling with circadian rhythms.

A scientific trial of 800 teenagers in Britain last year experimented with starting classes at 10 am every morning instead of 9 am.  The data thus far are astonishing.  Punctuality has improved, absenteeism has plummeted, and test grades have gone up a dramatic 10%.

I think the lesson is that smart cats stay in bed longer.  At least teenage cats do.

May 19, 2010

Mature wishes

Filed under: Growing Old,Growing Up,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:06 pm

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work;

I want to achieve it through not dying.

Woody Allen

I remember when I blew out all the candles on my birthday cake and all I wished for was a pet horse.

Never got it, by the way.

March 17, 2010

A fine distinction

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 10:06 pm

I was reminded today that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.

In fact, it seems to me one of the worst kinds of loneliness is being lonely in the middle of a crowd.  Or specifically, in the middle of a party where everybody seems to be having a wonderful time and knows everybody, and you’re the only one who isn’t and doesn’t.

I went to Greece one summer by myself.  I suppose it was a maturing experience to face being totally without friends when everybody else seemed to be dancing and drinking and going off in couples.

It reminded me of going on a hay ride when I was twelve and everybody seemed to find a boyfriend but me.

They feel like painful memories until I look a little more closely.  I wouldn’t give them back now.  I learned something useful about myself.

March 1, 2010

Looking forward over my shoulder

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

As a developmental psychologist, I was theoretically supposed to be interested in the entire life span.  But in truth, once I got to adulthood, I lost professional interest.

I’ll ake care of that when the time comes, I said to my young self.

It occurs to me that the time has come.

In his Eight Stages of Man, Eric Erikson said that the last stage of life was one in which we chose between Despair and Wisdom.   I think he meant that as time is demonstrably running out, an individual has to come to terms with our paltry accomplishments.  No matter what someone achieves, it is too little, not what we had hoped and planned for ourselves, nothing near the potential we might have foreseen.

So we can hang desperately on, denying our aging minds and bodies, assuring ourselves that we are just as strong, as insightful, as perceptive as we have ever been.  We can refuse to let go, refuse to make room for others, and then ultimately despair that life has given us so little, has betrayed us so cruelly.

Or we can see ourselves in a more realistic light, grateful for the gifts life has given us, grateful to have been given the years we have to be what we are.

Erikson also said that the stage most like old age is adolescence.  So I’m digging around the poetry I wrote in the first years after I left the convent.  They were, in some real sense, my “adolescent years.”  I’ll include one or two of them here in coming posts if they aren’t too embarrassingly awful.

February 9, 2010

The surprises of getting old

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 5:24 pm

To all, I would say how mistaken they are when they think that they stop falling in love when they grow old, without knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love.

From the poem The Puppet by Mexican ventriloquist  Johnny Welch.

Quoted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  Nobel Prize winner for Literature 1982, in what many thought was a farewell letter as he withdrew from public life with terminal cancer.

December 9, 2009

Street beggars

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:42 pm

I doubt there are few of us who are tall enough to look as if we have anything in our pockets who have not been approached on the street by someone asking for money.  My experiences are pretty benign but the way I respond to these apparent needs must tell me something about myself and how I’ve changed.  My responses may be not be more mature.  They may merely be more cynical, callous, or downright selfish.  But they are different.

Shortly after I left Maryknoll and my finances were seriously strained, a young good-looking black man approached me as I was about to go into the supermarket.  His mother was dying and he needed $25 to get to her bedside.  Could I help?  It was my food money but I gave it to him.  The whole lot.  I might have been a little hungry for the next few days but I did have a glow of virtue.  Until he approached me several weeks later with the same story.  He didn’t even remember my face.

Which might explain my response to the middle-aged man who approached us in London last week and asked if we could change a £20 (about $35) note.  My husband didn’t even pause.  “I’m sorry, no” he said.  “No,” I said as we walked on.  “You can’t risk it, can you?”

If I like their music, I sometimes drop change into the plates of buskers.  And one night walking back to our  hotel in London I gave some loose change to an obviously stoned young man who was playing a traffic cone in Trafalgar Square.  He wasn’t very good, but he made me laugh.

Another time when we were in London, a particular scam in which fake casts were used to attract donations was doing the rounds.  I had just read about it when I saw a young, very attractive and well-groomed young woman sitting on the side-walk outside our local grocery store.  One leg was stretched out in front of her, covered in an impeccably clean cast, and she was begging.  I walked by.  And then I turned around and went back.  I hunched down to her level and gave her a pound.  “Don’t do this,” I said.  “There are other ways you can survive.”

She just looked at me.  I’ve wondered a hundred times what became of her.

But here is my absolutely favourite begging story.  My brother who has been a paraplegic since birth was about six years old.  He was standing with his crutches outside the building where my father has his law office, waiting for him to bring the car around from the garage where it was parked.  It was the week before Christmas and the traffic was heavy so my brother was waiting for quite some time.  By chance he was holding his hat in his hand, and in the process he collected quite a bit of change.

We always told him it was quite brilliant the way he managed to turn his handicap into a money-maker.  He hadn’t even read Dickens yet and the story of Scrooge and Little Timothy.  But he wasn’t a natural beggar, and positively avoided making capital with his crutches ever again.

December 8, 2009

Holding on and letting go

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 10:25 pm

In her comment, Jooliedee asked after my post about London two days ago what I meant about “holding on to one’s self.”  It is, I think, a confusing, jumbled up process.  Not neat and clean like solving a mathematical equation or even like applying for a bank account.

My first London – the first place my world expanded in a big bang creating a whole new universe – was New York City.  I was 26 years old and after nine years, had just walked out of the convent.  I had no idea how naive I was.  I only knew that New York in 1966 felt like the most exciting place in the world.  And I thought that young people were about to overthrown the old stodgy, hypocritical ways of the past.

We were marching for civil rights and then against the Vietnam war.  We were experimenting with drugs and free sex, with Woodstock music and  living in communes.  I resisted the last, but none of the others.

It seemed to me that everyone else knew what they were doing, and it was only I who was overwhelmed.  I was living in Greenwich Village while I studying for my Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research and was whirling.

I was whirling, but I wasn’t having an absolutely fabulous time.  I was disoriented, confused, and often unhappy.  I did not understand how casual sex was for the men I slept with and was beginning to develop a bitter edge.  I was succeeding brilliantly in my studies, though, and was lucky enough to land a university position within weeks after earning my degree.

Gradually I began to right myself, to choose what I wanted to take from New York and what I didn’t.  And finally I met Peter.  That made all the difference.

Looking back, how would I say one can “hold on to one self”?

A young college student came into my office once.  She was distraught because she’d slept with someone the night before and hated herself for it.  No, I said, don’t hate yourself.  Learn about yourself.  Learn that you are someone who doesn’t like to sleep around.  That’s not true of everyone.  But it is for you.

That is what I would say about every new experience.  Don’t take drugs just because everybody else is doing it.  Decide what you want for yourself.  I smoked marijuana regularly until I found the hassle of getting it was more trouble than it was worth.  In truth, I might still be smoking it if it were legal, and even now I support the legalization of drugs.  I’m too chemically volatile to try anything like LSD or crack.  And I don’t personally want to take the kind of risk drug-taking involves.  But it’s my choice, not someone else’s.

I’d say the same thing about alcohol, about how much money someone wants to make, the things they want to buy, the clothes they wear, the friends we choose, the parties one goes to, where we chose to live, the jobs we look for.   Try things out, yes!  but then make up your own mind.  That is the crucial part.  Don’t just wake up the next morning and stumble on.

Above all, don’t just go along with the crowd.  Because one can’t do that and still hold on to one’s self.

November 27, 2009

Blog break

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:34 pm

I plan to be back by December 6.  That’s the day Dutch children put their shoes outside the door with the hope that Santa Nicholas (who in his pre-saint incarnation was a much-loved bishop) will put something in them.  It’s the more modest precursor to Santa Claus who actually gets into the house via the chimney.

The name of my father’s family in Germany was Von Hoerrman.  Von is roughly equivalent to the prefix of “Lord,” or possibly “Sir.”  But dad always said he thought the original name was actually Van Hoerrman, from the Dutch, rather than from the more lordly German.

As children we used to put our shoes out for Saint Nicholas, a tradition from my father’s side of the family.  So perhaps I do have some Dutch forebears along with my German, Polish, and possibly Jewish ancestors.

Not, actually, that I ever turn up anything in my shoes these days.

In any case, I hope to return here on the Day of the Shoes.

November 25, 2009

The limitations of perfection

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.                                                                                                                  Albert Einstein

I’ve never actually worked the numbers, but I think most of my family have above average IQs.  Most of us are also well-organized, hard-working, industrious, and reliable.  On occasions even heroically so.

But by and large, I don’t think we’re very creative.  Take me, for example.  I am good at explaining difficult concepts.  Even on occasion something as difficult as relativity – once I got my own head around it.  I’m good enough at criticizing theories, comparing them, rejecting or provisionally accepting them.  But I could probably count the number of original thoughts I’ve had with the fingers of one hand and still have several fingers to spare.

Yesterday the reason for this suddenly seemed blindingly obvious.  We were raised as Roman Catholics.  Not only as Catholics, but as thinking Catholics.  Which means that we were immersed in the Platonic world view in which perfection exists in a supernatural world and toward which we should strive.

The problem with perfection, though, is that there isn’t any room for mistakes.  Getting the right answers, doing the right thing is perfect.  Saying something foolish or outlandish is to fall short.  So if one doesn’t know the right answer, it is better to be quiet rather than blurt out something stupid.

Or unexpected. Or creative.

For example, my little sister Mary once put forth the idea that we think with our stomachs.  Oh how we laughed.  I remembered that last month when I read that researchers have found clear changes that take place in the stomach when we concentrate.  But Mary, at the age of probably about five, was humiliated.

And that’s the problem.  Aiming to be perfect sets one on a very narrow path of established right answers.  If you are smart enough, you trip less often than most.  But you won’t risk being creative.  Not unless you are very courageous, willing to be laughed at, or simply have such a kooky brain that these outrageous ideas just keep coming whatever the social cost.

Brainstorming is often the first step toward coming up with a creative idea.  Saying anything that comes to mind, not criticizing it but seeing where else it can take you.  We didn’t brainstorm in my family.  We worked at getting the right answer.

As  I move toward completing my 7th decade, I am reaching the conclusion that right answers have a lot to answer for.

November 23, 2009

How long is now?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

For some unknown reason I was remembering today a conversation I had at about the age of twelve with my sister C who was about three.  By the time I was twelve, I had a lot of authority in the house, and if I told one of my younger sibs they could do something, it was pretty close to my mother giving permission.

So I’m in the kitchen with my sister C about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and she asked me if she could have a cookie.

“Not now,” I said.  “Maybe later.”
Long silence.  Presumably to give the impression that the subject has changed.  Then:

C:  “How long is now?”
T:  “Well, how long now is depends on what you’re talking about.  But now is until something important changes.  Sometimes now is a long time, sometimes it’s very short.  Like now might be short if Mom says dinner is ready now.  But it might be long if she says it’s winter time now.”

A few minutes after this conversation I finished what I was doing in the kitchen and left.  When I returned, C was eating a cookie.

“C!” I said.  “I told you that you couldn’t have a cookie now.”
“I know, but you said now was over when something important happened.”

I knew already I was not going to win this battle.

“And what happened that was important enough for it not to be now any more?”  I asked.
“You went to the bathroom.  That’s important.”

I said in the About the Author page of this blog that I thought I learned to value the importance of seeing more than one point of view because my eyes each create a slightly different image.  So I have a permanent experience of the fact that things can look different if you look at them from another perspective.

But I doubt now that’s where I learned it.  I learned it because Dad was a lawyer.  And successful lawyers learn to look at both sides of an argument if they want to win their case.

And then, of course, there was all that practice in the kitchen around negotiating cookies and all the things the word now can mean.

November 22, 2009

Testing results

Filed under: Growing Up,Teaching — theotheri @ 5:00 pm

In one of those tests they give to prepare children for real life, a seven-year old was asked where the constitution was signed.

“At the bottom,” he said.

It is not recorded whether it was considered a right answer.

I’d give him credit myself.

November 6, 2009

Separation of powers

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 5:23 pm

Basic equality and principles of democracy ran deep in the family I grew up in.  There were a lot of us and since we varied in age, size, authority, and in the sheer amount of noise we could make, we developed a number of strategies for getting along.

One was the agreement that if we had to share something to be divided equally, the person who did the dividing was the last person to choose which one would be theirs.  If we were dividing a bottle of coke, for instance, the one who poured the coke into glasses got the last glass after everyone had chosen the glass they wanted.

This led to deadly accurate measuring.

I’ve often wondered which one of us thought up this clever rule.  I’m sure it was one of the children, not my parents, but who it was I don’t remember.

I do remember the time when Mary, about age 2,  chose her glass and then watched with horror as her older brother Tom poured his coke into a taller thinner glass.  “You just gave yourself more!” she shouted in aggrieved outrage.  Tom laughed and said “oh boy, you are going to be easy to fool.”

But Mary learned fast.  I don’t think it was a trick anyone ever pulled on her.

November 4, 2009

Feeding the sated

Filed under: Diet,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:06 pm

My mother often used to insist that we finish the food on our plates saying “there are children starving in India.”

Being a little slow on the uptake, I was already out of the house before it occurred to me that my eating my spinach or beans or calves’ liver was not going to provide additional nourishment for a single child in India or anywhere else.

Well-meant as this approach was, it also had another flaw.  It failed to teach me to adjust my eating to my needs.  It was irrelevant whether I wasn’t eating because I didn’t like spinach or felt that I’d already eaten enough.  Learning not to eat when you’re not hungry is particularly valuable in an environment which provides food non-stop 24/7.

To this day I find it difficult to leave food on my plate or leave left-overs in the fridge whether I’m hungry or not.

October 31, 2009

Halloween History

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Growing Up,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:43 pm

I read somewhere that Halloween was brought to America from Ireland.  As a child, I was taught that the beggars represented souls in Purgatory who were going from door to door to ask for prayers so that they could be released in time to get to heaven for All Saints Day on November 1st.  Halloween didn’t make it to England until about a decade ago – brought, I strongly suspect, from America by stores looking for something to fill the retail gap between summer and Christmas.


106th Street, NYC

My favourite personal Halloween experience was when I was living on 106th Street in New York City.  It was a neighbourhood influenced by Columbia University a few blocks north, and by the ethnic groups which gave the area its quite outstanding neighbourhood restaurants.  There was an edge in the neighbourhood which delighted me.  There was the old lady who sat at her ground floor window and asked passers-by to pick something up for her at the grocery store.  And our bag lady who accosted you if you put your trash into the bin after 10 a.m., when she’d already gone through the garbage on our street.

But for Halloween, the best was our local street panhandler.  He always waited until the morning after the night before, and stood on the corner calling out “Trick or Treat:  Last Chance for Trick or Treat.”

I remember him with such fondness that I wish I’d given him more than my standard quarter.

October 2, 2009

Beating the competition

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

I have a friend who grew up in Europe during World War II and then spent some five years in a displaced persons camp before being able to come to the States.  Now I grew up in Ohio during WWII, and I think I did not have an especially hard time during that war.  But  I would not have thought it could have been an easy childhood for A.

But she emailed me last week asking if I had any advice for helping a 14-year-old girl whose dog had just been killed by a car.  I wrote back saying that despite the fact that I’m a child psychologist, I mostly treat children like short adults, and do not have the skill of one of my younger sisters for dealing with children.

A. said her mother was the same, and as a result, as a child she pretty much could do whatever she chose.  The only rule, as far as I can tell, that she was admonished to obey was to follow the nearest adult to whatever shelter was in proximity when the air raid sirens went off.  She decided that even this rule should not be obeyed after a man led her into a grain silo to shelter.  It’s not that she was abused or beaten.  But silos apparently amplify noise, and sitting through a bombardment half a mile away sounded more as if she had arrived at the centre of hell.  She decided not to return whatever her mother said.

But when she went off to school, she found that the laissez faire attitude of child-rearing adopted by her mother was not shared by the parents of her friends.  They had rules in their houses.  And they were punished if they didn’t obey them.  Not to be left out, A. made up stories about the terrible things her mother did if she disobeyed the house rules.  Had her stories come to the attention of the authorities today, her parents would probably end up in prison and A. in care.

But of course none of these things actually happened.

Now as a child psychologist, I think children need rules in the home.  And so I would like to say that A. has turned into an undisciplined self-absorbed  cranky old woman.

But I fear my theory lies in ruins.  A. is creative, ingenious, generous and has a terrific sense of humour.  She is, however, independent.

I think her mother would feel vindicated.

September 17, 2009

Creative solutions

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:39 pm

The following are a selection of answers given in tests for eleven-year-olds here in England:

Q:  How can you delay milk turning sour?    A:  Keep it in the cow.

Q:  What is a fibula?  A:  A small lie.

Q:  Name the four seasons.  A:  Salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar.

Q:  What does the word “benign” mean?  A:  Benign is what you will be after you be eight.

Q:  Name a major disease associated with cigarettes.  A:  Premature death.

I couldn’t have done better myself if I’d tried.

August 20, 2009

Please don’t mention sex: we’re American

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

In a post some time ago (Sex education in my Catholic family), I said I thought sex education in the Catholic family in which I grew up was less than informative.  I have always thought this was a result of the neurotic constriction of a church hierarchy frightened of women in general and sex in particular.

But the terrified silence that gags over the mere mention of any explicit sexual organs or sexual activities might have been broader than that covered by American Catholics.

William Masters was the author with Virginia Johnson of the ground breaking research on  human sexual activity.  In the 1950’s – when I was growing up – he was an associate professor of obstetrics at Washington University.  When he asked the library for a textbook on human sexual physiology, he was forbidden to see it because the book was reserved for the sole use of full professors.

Do you want to have a stab at the reason given by the librarians?

The book was regarded as potentially pornographic.

August 5, 2009

Modern options

Filed under: Growing Up,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 3:14 pm

I must admit I was shocked when I read yesterday about the anti-wrinkle products women are ordering on the internet.  They come with needles for self- injecting into ones face to eliminate the signs of aging. And from what I can tell, “signs of aging” seem to appear somewhere around the age of about 25.

To get rid of these dreadful blotches, women are injecting serums that are often completely unlabelled, and are paying $1400 per self-treatment.

I remember what it was like to be young and to worry about not having a Hollywood body.  I know what it’s like to worry about having fat thighs or sweaty hands or a wonky walk.  These worries might be made worse by mass media, but they are not new.

By and large, one of the challenges of growing up is to learn to accept ones own worth and that of others as well, and to separate it from physical appearance.

But in the process, I am grateful that I was saved the temptation of doing something as desperate and potentially self-destructive as injecting an unidentified serum from an internet source into my face.

I think maybe it is harder these days to grow up.

Anyway, what is ugly about wrinkles?  I think they show character.  They often even look wise and loving and strong.  Well, not always.  But I’ve earned my winkles with hard work.  I’m not getting rid of them.

July 26, 2009

Whose life is it?

While the United States is convulsed with an argument about health care, a fierce debate is occurring over here about assisted suicide.

It runs along lines similar to the abortion debate in America:  do those who object to abortion or assisted suicide on religious grounds have the right, in a free society, to impose their religious views on everyone?

When lawmakers here realized that it was impossible to prosecute anyone who actually succeeded in killing themselves, they changed the law so that it is no longer illegal to commit suicide.  It is still illegal, however, to assist someone who may wish to commit suicide.

But now, according to a poll published yesterday, about 70% of the population in Britain want the terminally ill who are of sound mind to have the freedom to get assistance to end their lives.  There have also been a significant number of high-profile cases of people travelling from Britain to Dignitas, an organization based in Switzerland where for about $6000 one can receive medical help in achieving a peaceful death.

Some opponents fear that a change in law will lead to an increased pressure by relatives on the elderly and disabled to end their lives.  In the face of this potential temptation, they believe no one should have the right to receive help.

Actually, it is an unexpectedly encouraging view of the human condition that statistics from places like Oregon or Switzerland which do permit assisted suicide do not support the prediction that, given a chance, we will encourage our inconvenient relatives to end their lives.

July 23, 2009

Ringing endorsements

Filed under: Growing Up,Husband — theotheri @ 2:38 pm

Several years ago I walked into the trash room in the apartment block where we were living.  The floor was wet and slippery and I  fell on the bag of glass bottles I was carrying gashing the fingers of my left hand.

I got my wedding ring off before my hand became too swollen, but my ring finger never did return to the size it was when my husband bought it for me more than 35 years ago.  I was able to get it off recently only with great effort and a generous slathering of soap, but forcing it back on after I’d finished tarring our gutters didn’t seem very sensible.  If I need to get it off again, my finger might have to go with it.

So my husband wants to buy me another ring.  I’m not sure I want him to.  I don’t need another wedding ring.  My marriage is quite secure without it.

Today I read a story about a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.  When he first asked her to marry him, she accepted his ring, but later changed her mind and gave it back to him.  Being a pragmatic Yorkshireman, he sold the ring and bought a suit.  Later, when she changed her mind again, he didn’t buy her another ring.

As their 60th anniversary was approaching he said “come on, let’s go out and buy you a ring.”  So they went shopping together, but when they saw the cost of diamond rings, decided that they would rather spend the money on something else.

I understand.  My husband, however, wants to buy me another ring.  Okay.  Just as long as it’s not called an eternity ring, which seems to be a new fad for couples celebrating their wedding anniversaries.  I said yes the first time, and I still mean it.

Really, I’d like my old ring back.  But I don’t think it can be stretched.  And I’m pretty sure my finger can’t be returned to its original size.

I guess life is a series of unending compromises.

April 9, 2009

An improved world order?

Holy Week – which it is in the Christian calendar – seems to be inevitably a time when I start remembering my childhood.  

Today I was thinking about the time when, at about the age of seven, I asked my Dad why, if God didn’t want us to commit sins, and if he could do anything he wanted, he let us do bad things.  Dad said it was because God wanted us to be free more than he didn’t want us to sin – an answer that, in retrospect, was more explosive than I could possibly have realized at the time.

Eventually  my childhood conundrum matured into the question philosophers call “the problem of evil,”  which  led to a complete and fundamental rethink of my belief in that God of my childhood.

That one grows out of ones childhood conception of God should not be so shocking.  We grow up and realize our parents are not the paragons of perfection and power we might have thought.  We get married and discover that there was a great deal to our partner that we never suspected in the first mad passion.  Certainly our concept of divinity should also change as profoundly.

Today, the nature of the problem of evil has also changed for me.  I’ve been taking a sharp left turn since I asked myself exactly what kind of a world I would have created if I were God.

I was shocked to realize that I cannot improve on the present model.  Every time I get rid of one bad thing, something equally good disappears at the same time.  The only way I can think to rid the world of what I consider evil or injustice or suffering is to create a static, boring, unchallenging world.

Which gives me a lot of sympathy for my brother Tom’s problem at the age of seven, which was that heaven sounded horribly boring, and hardly an improvement on hell at all.  Certainly not worth sacrificing all the joys of living today to get there.

The world today certainly isn’t my idea of heaven by any definition.  But what is?  The question gives me a whole new problem with the problem of evil.

March 1, 2009

Joint pain might not always be incurable

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

In my mid-forties, I began to notice that pain in my joints was getting worse and my joints were getting increasingly stiff and painful.  I gave up wine and most alcohol which helped to keep the problem from getting worse, but not better.  Cod liver oil, salmon oil, manganese, and B-complex supplments didn’t seem to produce seriously visible results.  I didn’t try borage oil, MSM, or flax seed or primrose oil, which are also supposed to be beneficial.

But about a year ago I read some research that suggested that joint pain could be relieved by glucosimine chontroitin, but that to be effective the daily intake needed to be about 1500/300 mg a day.  So I decided to try taking three tablets of Carlson’s Nutra Support Joint Cartilage Builder each day.

I was told not to expect to see any results in less than 12 weeks.  I didn’t, and even after three months, the results seemed modest.  But since I had purchased a mega-supply, I kept up with the regime.

After a year, I can say that the results are dramatic.  I no longer get up in the morning and hobble across to the bathroom with the hope that after a hot shower I will be able to face the day’s activities without halting pain.  In fact, I now stand straighter, and the pain in my hips and knees is gone almost completely.  

I haven’t gone back to drinking wine to which I am sure I am allergic, and I do manage a solid 30 minutes of exercise on most days.  But the real pain-relieving factor seems to be the supplements.

I’m under no illusion that it would solve joint pains for everyone.  But for general age-related arthritis-like pain, it seems worth a try.

December 23, 2008

A Grown-up’s Hallelujah!

Filed under: Growing Old,Growing Up — theotheri @ 5:31 pm

The Number One Christmas song here in Britain this year is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s iconic Hallelujah!  There is a big debate about just which artist has recorded the best version, and to inform myself about this critical issue, I went to U-tube.  I have now listened to 14 different versions.

What surprises me most is that this song is making it as a Christmas song.  I often do not pay much attention to lyrics, but the only way to find this a soothing merry song is to concentrate solely on the chorus, which consists in its entirety of repeated hypnotic Hallelujahs.

Cohen wrote several versions, one slightly more hopeful than the other.  But neither version is a cuddly love song.  It does not burst with joy but with anguish, with that mixture of total selflessness and self-abnegation that marks an obsessive love you know is destroying you and you can’t let go of.  It’s not the victory song as one goes off to love or war for the first time but the dirge as one is returning with a shattered face, a gutted inside, a dead friend on the stretcher beside you.  The Hallelujah! wrenched from the lover’s lips is shot through with despair and bitterness.

I find it a haunting, terrifying, truthful song.  It’s ostensibly the story of King David’s obsession with Bathsheba that broke his hold on the throne.  But it belongs to every human age.  

It’s a grown-up song, and hearing it sung by the young and still innocent is disconcerting.  Those  who do not yet know that love can be as toxic and bitter as sin swing in a gentle euphoria to the anguish of the exalting Hallelujahs.  It is like watching a baby play with an unexploded grenade.

The most popular version of the song ends in the wreckage of isolated angry meaninglessness:

well, maybe there’s a god above 
“but all i’ve ever learned from love 
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you 
it’s not a cry that you hear at night 
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light 
it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

But the version Cohen himself seems to have preferred ends with an existential acceptance, even defiant celebration.  It all went wrong, but that’s how things are.  To life!  Hallelujah!   

“And even though it all went wrong 
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song 
With nothing on my tongue 
But hallelujah!” 

Maybe it’s a Christmas song after all.  A Christmas song for grown-ups who have faced the hopelessness of a shattered love.

 My current favourite cover is at  .  You can listen to Jeff Buckley’s version at  

Or type in Hallelujah on Google.  I think there are 80 covers of the song.

December 14, 2008

No, Virginia, there isn’t. But then maybe…*

Filed under: Growing Old,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:45 pm

A temporary teacher here in England was told earlier this week not to return after she told her class of 7- and 8-year-olds that Santa Claus wasn’t real.  Parents were angry and upset, and said they believed that imparting this kind of sensitive information is the responsibility of the family, and should not be imparted in the classroom.  One parent contacted the principal saying he’d had to spent hours convincing his 8-year-old daughter that the teacher had been wrong, and that there really was a Santa Claus.

8-years-old?  Isn’t that a little old to still be believing in Santa when 9-year-olds are wearing heels and lipstick, and 12-year-olds are having babies?

Still, I understand how crushing the discovering of cruel reality can be.  I  have just survived the revelation that the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus” is sung to the same tune as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is the same melody as The Alphabet Song, and “My Country Tis of Thee”  has the same notes as “God Save the King.”

All of this came as something of a shock.  But my musician sister has now just told me the worst of all:  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is really Chopin.

Arrgh!  Is nothing sacred?

It’s like discovering there isn’t a Santa Claus.

Still, I think I’m mature enough to handle it.

*More than a century ago, Virginia O’Hanlon, age 8, wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking the paper to tell her if there was a Santa Claus or not.   “Yes,  Virginia,”  replied the editor.  ” There is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”    (

December 9, 2008

Listening is hard to do

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the day the United Nations declared that all human beings have the right to live in peace and dignity.  The right to escape the degradation and limitations of dire poverty has often been one of the high lights of these rights. 

I think the right to think and believe whatever one chooses is today also one of the most important rights we need to fight for.  Governments, communities, religious institutions, schools, friends and families all are capable of exerting degrading influence to prevent people from holding what are considered to be objectionable views and values.  Some  may indeed be degrading and destructive.   

Often they are not:  the ideas of others are merely threatening.  But whatever the case, refusing to listen to another point of view will not make it go away.  It will simply make it impossible to try to convince someone of another alternative.  Or to be convinced oneself.

One of the things I like best about President Obama is his capacity to listen to a lot of points of view he disagrees with.  If that weren’t true, he wouldn’t be appointing such a variety of dissenting opinions to positions in Washington.  Clearly he is not threatened by those who don’t necessarily agree with him – even on very important things.  And so I believe him when he says he is willing to talk to Iran or other countries whom President Bush has said have not met his preconditions for discussions.

For the last couple of months several people have objected most vociferously to my book “The Big Bang to Now” on the grounds that it is not grounded in Truth as it is revealed in scripture.  Obviously it is not a view I share, but it is a view that I am willing to discuss.  But a lot of people aren’t.   Either they want to declaim without listening, or simply don’t  want to get involved in controversy at all.  More than once, people have suggested that the topic simply be closed to further debate.

I won’t go so far as to say that silencing debate is equivalent to killing those who do not accept your particular beliefs, but I think it springs from the same fear.

But I also appreciate that discussion and debate on important issues is a lot harder than I thought it was when I was young.  And it’s dangerous.  Whether it’s religion or politics, families, friends, and communities all over the world have found that relationships can founder and be ripped apart when we disagree on issues that reflect our fundamental values. 

And yet one of the biggest challenges facing us on our planet today is to learn to live together.  All the Muslims are not going to convert all the Christians, all the fundamentalists are not going to become liberal, all the Palestinians are not going to become Israelis, of the Irish Catholics become Protestant.  We need to do something beside slam doors.

I recognize the impulse in myself not to talk to people who I think are somehow “beyond the pale,” and I fight it.  But sometimes I do not have the strength or the wisdom to carry on a dialogue that is constructive rather than alienating. 

I think sometimes that the challenges of global warming look simple compared to the challenge of accepting our differences.

October 31, 2008

A modern alternative

It is more than two years old, but I have just seen the video at  I think it should be entered into a file dedicated to the eternal verities of childhood.

Admittedly, this version has a modern twist.  In my day, the alternative was helping with household cleaning by sourcing water from the toilet bowl.  It was so much more accessible than water from the tap.

August 19, 2008

Next stop Mars

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

I was in one of our shopping malls yesterday morning -you know, the kind with glass ceilings and trees inside and galleries and expensive restaurants.  I was walking toward the down escalator when I saw a child with his mother at the top.  “All right,” his mother said in some exasperation.  Whereupon mother and son got onto the descending escalator, the child holding his mother’s hand on one side and gliding his hand down the side of the wall with the other.  I stood about six steps behind him, and looked at his sturdy little legs indicating a certain satisfaction.  When they reached the bottom, instead of heading for the ice cream stand, he turned his mother around and they immediately returned to the upper floor from which they had just descended.

It was an absolutely delightful vignette and I almost laughed out loud.  It was a perfect example of living in the moment.  What is an escalator for but to use?  And why should you wait until you are old and weary with boredom before using it?  Why not jump on the ride when it is still a fantastic exploration, when it is a marvellous adventure?

I’ve been thinking since how much I lose by rushing through everything, always needing to get the present task done so I can rush onto the next one.  So today I concentrated on not rushing through making the bed, and loading the dishwasher, and putting the trash out.  I tried to do what I was doing at the moment, not leaping over it all in a mad dash to leap over the next ten hurdles, and then on again for a repeat tomorrow and tomorrow, and Now never comes.

On the other hand, that little kid is going somewhere.  If I were his mother, I don’t think I’d tell him about Mars.

June 20, 2008

Learning to say yes meaning being able to say no

After the whiff during my grade school days of an introduction into the unauthorized sex life of the Catholic clergy, my next wave of revelations came after I left the convent.  Chronologically I was twenty-six, but in terms of sexual awareness, I was still an eighteen-year old raised in a totally Catholic family in the 1940’s and 50’s in midwest America.  I’d even gone to an all-girl boarding high school taught by nuns.  I was released into the New York City of the late 1960’s and 70’s, into the world of civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests, of hippies and flower children and free love.  Academically I flourished, but in terms of understanding the sexual signals I was both sending and receiving, I was completely out of my depth.

I’d revolted against the concept of sex that seemed to permeate any discussion of the topic in my family, which managed at the same to to present it as something shameful and embarrassing while remaining somehow “sacred,” a fiendish turn-off for sexual enjoyment.  But though I’d given up my adherence to the Catholic teaching that sex belonged exclusively within marriage, I was without any anchoring principles to take its place.  I didn’t sit down and think about it, but vaguely assumed that it was fine to sleep with anyone at anytime if the spirit so took me.  There were several problems with this modus vivendi.  The first was that, even when the spirit did not so take me and in the absence of any sexual attraction on my part, I had no skill or confidence about saying no.  I’d been socialized as a good Catholic girl to please, especially to please my father, and by extension to please men.  So I found myself in compromising situations more often than I wanted.

The second thing I did not appreciate at the time was that I was not the only one who was at sea.  I thought everyone else was so terribly sophisticated and experienced about sex, that they knew how the game was played, and were enjoying it all immensely.  I missed the anxiety and pain and rejections that were not solely restricted to me.

After I left the convent, several priests stayed in contact with me.  One evening, Father D invited himself for dinner to the studio apartment where I lived alone.  We shared a bottle of wine and the chicken casserole I’d prepared, and he told me he’d fallen in love with his best friend’s wife and that the night before they’d had sex.  He was still an active priest, and was struggling with his realization that the one reason he would leave the priesthood – to marry this woman – was not on offer.  At what I thought was the end of the evening, I went into the back hall to retrieve his coat.

When I returned, Father D was standing there totally undressed.  “I want to have sex with you,” he said.  “I can’t have Arleen tonight.  Will you be there for me instead?”

I had never given him any signals that I was interested in him – in fact, I found him rather boring and dull.  and I am not the type to relish being a stand-in lover for the unknown unattainable Arleen.  And so I would like to say, dear reader, that I said an emphatic No.  But I didn’t know how to manage saying no without making him angry.  Consequently, I used a much more cowardly technique.  I submitted to his request without pleasure, showing absolutely no emotion and remaining cold and rigid.  When he finished, he put on his clothes and left, and I never saw him again.  Not, I will say, to my regret.

Mostly I’ve tended to blame Father D for taking advantage of me and betraying his commitment as a priest.  But there was another protagonist in this story, and that was me.  I wasn’t raped.  I was simply too lacking in a sense of self to stand up for my own wishes.  But if I found that, having discarded the unyielding Catholic strictures concerning sexual behavior, I was at a loss, there is every reason to think that so were many priests.  They were as naive and ungrounded as I was, and wandered into unsatisfying, unfulfilling relationships the same way I did.

With time, I did find my own set of principles.  With time, I decided that it was my responsibility to say yes and to say no in response of sexual advances.  It was up to me to decide what I wanted and with whom and when.  Father D was not the last priest to make advances to me.  But he was the last time I didn’t say no.

So I did learn something from our unsatisfactory encounter.  I hope that he somehow did too.

June 19, 2008

A glimpse of the less than the best

If Father Basil was an example to us of the best that a priest could be, we also had a glimpse of the less than best.  When I was about ten, our pastor at Holy Family parish died quite suddenly of a heart attack.  He’d had attacks before – several when he was saying Mass, but nobody knew at the time what was happening.  He had been a colourful pastor, and generally appreciated as dedicated and hard-working.  Once he actually went into the church and removed the life-size stone statue of the Blessed Mother holding the baby Jesus because he said we didn’t love her enough.  But when he died, the nuns all said Father Sammon had been a saint, and we all duly understood his various extreme behaviors in that light. 

That made him a tough act to follow, and there was some coolness toward Father P. who was subsequently appointed by the bishop to be our new pastor.  Within weeks, one of the nuns told her sixth-grade class that Father P. had stormed drunk into the church one evening.  When I reported this at the dinner table that night, my father looked at me and said that I was never, never to repeat that ever again.  I knew there was something wrong.  My father had never before, and never again looked at me like that and told me not to repeat what I’d heard.  My only point of reference was of stories in war-torn Europe when children were asked to keep deadly secrets to themselves.

But there was worse to come.  Within six weeks, Father P. mysteriously disappeared, and Father Archibald was assigned as our second new pastor.  I learned some years later that Father P. not only had a drinking problem, but that altar boys held a special attraction for him which, unfortunately, he did not resist.  My father and Father Basil learned about it, and agreed with the bishop that Father P. should quietly be removed without further scandal.

Looking back at this incident from my perspective today, I wonder about several things.  Would Dad agree to such secrecy again today?  How did he, even then, become convinced that quietly moving this priest on to another unsuspecting parish would do less damage than openly exposing the problem?  Perhaps the bishop gave an assurance that Father P would be helped.  Or at least kept away from working closely with children.  In this case, I don’t know what happened, but I do know that in diocese after diocese paedophile priests were simply moved from parish to parish to continue unaided in what were often failed attempts to fight their devils.

More latterly, I wonder about Father P. himself and hundreds of priests like him.  Were his paedophilic pursuits within his control?  I don’t know.  I think of the number of times I have sworn I will stay on a diet and the almost equal number of times I have succumbed to the temptations of chocolate and sugar, making excuses and promises that justify my behavior “just this once.”  Eating forbidden chocolate, of course, is not on the same level as sexual abuse of children, but it illustrates the narrowing of consciousness that destroys so many of one’s best intentions.  Perhaps Father P. hated himself, swore repeatedly that he would stop.  Was there any equivalent of Alcoholic Anonymous where he could call for help?  Was there anywhere he could turn?  Could he even lock himself in his own rectory until the impulse past?  No, of course not.  He had to walk over to the church and say Mass, joking with the same young boys who were the source of his tortuous temptations.

At the time, I thought that Father P. was unusual.  Perhaps Dad did too, and perhaps he was.  By the time I’d left the convent some fifteen years later, though, I discovered that if most priests were not paedophiles, an awful lot of them were womanizers.  They taught me a lot about my own limitations.  About which more in another post.

June 18, 2008

Father Basil

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

Most Catholic families and the majority of children who attended our local Catholic school in the parish where I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s knew our pastor, Father Sammon, and he knew us – our names, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers.  But the family in which I grew up had a special relationship with a priest.  We called him Father Basil.  He had been Dad’s best friend in high school, and Dad suggested to him that they both join the Jesuit order together.  When Basil said he was going to become a diocesan priest instead, Dad went on to law school, and Basil was eventually ordained.

Father Basil was unusual in that he was not assigned to parish duties but sent to Europe for a master’s degree in history, and became a professor of history at the university in Cleveland, where he was made a monsignor.  We knew this, but were fairly unimpressed.  We did learn rather quickly that if we began some statement at school with “Father Basil says,” we inevitably won the argument and the nuns never tried to disagree with us.  (Although we knew that Father Basil was a trump card, to our credit, we rarely, if ever, tried appropriating statements to Father Basil which he had not actually made. )

But the Father Basil we really knew came to our house on most Saturday afternoons and took us for hikes or swimming or ice skating or occasionally to plays put on by a visiting theatre troupe.  On rainy days he sometimes joined my brothers in an innovative game which seems to have been a blend of “Cowboys and Indians” and “Hide and Seek.”  I never learned the advanced rules, but it involved air guns that shot off ping pong balls, and his hiding his huge frame behind the basement door from where he aimed to get a better shot at “the other side.”  The footsteps that ran across the length of our living room ceiling were also put there on another rainy afternoon while Mom was busy in the kitchen.  I remember the strategy meeting among Father Basil and my brothers which proceeded as follows:  one of the younger (and therefore smaller) brothers took off his shoes, put his feet into water, and then walked around until his feet were sufficiently dirty to accomplish the task.  Father Basil then hoisted him upsidedown and “walked” him across the ceiling.  The footsteps were still there when Mom died.

Father Basil always joined us for Saturday dinners around the large kitchen table and inevitably he and Dad would discuss some issue of the day – the treatment of the Jews during World War II, or of the Blacks (or Negroes as they were still called when I was very young) in our own country, the legitimacy or not of using the atomic bomb to bring Japan to the peace table on unconditional grounds, the pros and cons of Communism, what “natural law” really involved, birth control, divorce or occasionally the convolutions of some local case of crime or scandal.  It was, for me, like listening to a weekly seminar, and it was where I learned to be fascinated by the process of thinking. 

I have appreciated for many years the importance of these dinner table discussions for my own intellectual development and confidence.  But I have only lately appreciated the sheer authenticity of the priest Father Basil was.  I took it for granted that he told the truth, that he was not a womanizer, that he loved my mother and father and each of us.  He did not boast, though he was confident and generous and clearly a leader, and we could trust absolutely that if he gave us his word he would keep it.

After Mom died, Dad’s second wife made him unwelcome in the house.  I don’t know exactly what happened – I remember her saying something about a ring she’d given him as a donation to charity which was insufficiently appreciated.  In any case, she never forgave him for something or other, and resolutely nursed for a lifetime what she believed to be justified and presumably unforgivable insult.  It destroyed the deepest and longest friendship my Dad ever had, and by the time my father died, they had not spoken in years. 

After Mom died, instead of stopping by on Saturday afternoons as he had done for years, Father Basil drove past and went on to “Tillie’s house” down the road.  My brother Larry was now living there with our aunt in the house on our land where my grandparents had moved when my parents first bought the farm.  I was in the convent by then, but Tillie’s house became the place where my younger brothers and sisters living at home went.  It was safe for them there, where they did not feel rejected for being too much like the boisterous children who had lost their mother.  Father Basil was a refuge.  He was in a tricky position, not wanting to undermine my father’s second marriage, perhaps appreciating more than we did how much my father needed a wife.  But he knew that the children needed some adult who would stand by them without melting into debilitating pity, who believed that they were strong enough to come through the conflicted family into which they had so unexpectedly been plummeted.   I believe he saved several of my sibs from out and out nervous breakdowns.

We loved him all his life.  He was our special friend who happened to be a priest.  In retrospect, I think we perhaps enriched his life as much as he did ours.  But as children we didn’t know that, which is as it should be.  I thought, as a priest, he was the norm.  But he wasn’t. 

He was much closer to the ideal.

April 2, 2008

Kristin Lavransdatter

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Growing Up,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:49 pm

I’m reading a book by Sigrid Undset that won the Nobel Prize in 1929.  My mother told me she read it three times in her life – once before her first child was born, again after her sixth child was born, and after her tenth child, and that it was like reading three different books as her understanding and insights changed with the years.

I read it the first time almost half a century ago, and am only now reading it for a second time.  After nine years in the convent  and thirty-five years of marriage, a different book it certainly is.  But what fascinates me most is that I think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading a biography about my mother.  It takes place in 14th century Oslo which is not where one would expect to find a parallel life for a second-generation American Polish woman like my mother.  But I’ve been having mental conversations with her as I make my way through the 1000 pages of Kristin’s life.

Kristin is the oldest daughter of an upright and successful farmer held in high esteem in the parish.  Historically, it is before the Reformation, and the teachings of the Roman Church are unquestioned.  My mother was like that.  I’m much more of a doubter, but for my mother there seemed to have been an unquestioning belief in God’s love and justice, in heaven and hell, and in all of Christian doctrine.  Like Kristin, she celebrated with her family the feasts of the Christian calendar, preparing special foods for special days, fasting, and worrying about her unworthiness.

My mother also married a man like Kristin’s father whose religious principles were rigorous.  In search of the ideal life, my parents bought land that was gradually tamed with wheat fields and cattle, and where my mother raised her family.  She was passionately in love with my father until the day she died, a passion that survived what must have been a fair number of insights into my father’s depression and general anguish at what he perceived to be his failures.

I told my youngest sister, who was six when Mom died, that I was lending the book to her.  She said she in turn wanted to share it with her own daughter who never knew her grandmother. 

I said I am bequeathing my mother’s 80-year-old copy in my possession to her, but for now I want it back.  Because I want to read it again in another ten years if I’m still here to read.  I’m pretty sure it will feel like a different book yet again.

March 12, 2008

In remembrance: RWR and a milk shake

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:37 pm

When my mother died and my father remarried, life changed.  Sometimes, I think in desperation to excuse the things she said, Dad described his second wife as “artistic.”  Mom’s children, especially those still living at home, found the term less than adequate.  In truth, Dad did too, and he would sometimes go out drinking with his law partner, R, who called her simply “Mother Hubbard.” 

This wasn’t quite fair because she was an extremely attractive and witty woman, but it was immensely therapeutic, not only for Dad but for his children who dared not say out loud what they thought.  R had a sense of irrepressible humour that could neutralize the bitterness and anger and replace it with laughter.  I think he was sometimes responsible for saving the very sanity of Dad and some of my sibs.

My brother Jack has just sent the family an email to tell us that RWR died today.  He had been in a hospice for the last several weeks, and this morning when he woke up asked for some cookies and a milk shake.  Which he ate.  Then he closed his eyes and died.

I haven’t seen him since “Mother Hubbard’s” funeral.  But I loved him.  He was Dad’s best friend and I don’t think there was a single Herman who has forgotten what a gift he was for us all.  He had an amazing capacity to wrench some modicum of laughter, even joy, out of whatever life threw at him.  I hope that he had some inkling of how much he gave us.  And how much we loved him.  I never told him.  It would have sounded too patronizing somehow, maybe too fawning. 

He died as he lived.  Dying with a milk shake and cookie is quintessentially Dick.

Thank you for having been there for so long for so many of us.

February 16, 2008

# One

Filed under: Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

As I look over my life, I see that being number one, while obviously having its advantages, also comes with limitations. 

From the day I first went to school at the age of six, I loved it.  I got so used to understanding everything faster than anybody else that the two outstanding memories of my grade school days are of the only difficulties I think I ever had.  I remember having a short moment of panic when we were asked to learn to spell the word “surprise.”  I was seven, and I didn’t see how I was going to remember all eight letters, especially in the right order.  When I figured out that the trick was to divide the word up into parts calm return.   After that, even 20-letter words held no terror.

When I went to the New School for Social Research for graduate work, it was like first grade all over again.  I loved it.  After a year of courses,  we crammed for several months before the two days’ of qualifying exams that would gain us admittance to the Ph.D. program.  Fewer than half those who sat the exams usually succeeded and those who failed had to settle for the consolation prize of a Masters and then leave.  I worked hard but not because it ever occurred to me I wouldn’t get through.   I worked because it suited me so well.  I came out number one.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, first of all do let me admit I was surprised and pleased.  The problem was, though, that I had very little experience of ever being anything but first.  But I achieved this in part by carefully choosing my goals.  If I didn’t think I could be first, I wasn’t interested.  This kind of risk aversion is actually quite inhibiting.  I took myself seriously, and my scope for creative thought was circumscribed by a fear that I might produce something inferior, even possibly ridiculous.

I completed my dissertation research and earned my Ph.D. in record time, and then embarked on an academic career that I found as stimulating and exciting – this will probably sound weird – as sex.  I thrived in the context of the university, and gained as much from the demands of my students as they did from mine.   I thought I had come home, and that I would spend the rest of my life at university.

But at the age of 48 I was faced with a choice I would never have wanted and I left academic teaching.  I don’t think I have ever done anything harder in my life.  The paradox is that the loss has not been without its rewards.  I have lived a life that would never have been possible had I remained within the confines of a purely academic career. 

And I don’t need to be number one anymore.    

February 11, 2008

The little sewing machine that could

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 11:01 pm

I was remembering yesterday when I was writing my post that shortly after I’d moved into West 13th Street in the Village, Aunt Mary, my father’s second wife, gave me a portable Singer sewing machine.  It fit into a small case which I have just confirmed is a little less than a foot square and eight inches deep. 

I had learned from my mother how to sew, and worked for a year making nuns’ habits in the sewing room at Maryknoll.  Aunt Mary thought it might be useful.  

Since I first received it, it has made skirts and cloaks, tents, parkas, sleeping bags, comforters, curtains, night gowns, and slacks.  It has re-upholstered at least half a dozen chairs, twice that many pillows, fashioned covers from everything from computer screens to toilet tanks, and mended anything through which a needle could be pushed.  The sewing machine itself still sits on my sewing desk, and I’ve used it as recently as yesterday. It is now 40 years old, and must be one of the most cost-effective gifts ever bestowed on me. 

Like the little train, it is the little sewing machine that could.   And did.

February 10, 2008

Growing up after the convent

Filed under: Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:10 pm

The apartment on 86th Street where I first moved with three other ex-Maryknollers after I left the convent served as a sort of half-way house.  By the spring, I’d been accepted for the Ph.D. program at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, and was vastly lucky at the same time to be given an NHS fellowship that covered both my tuition and modest living costs.

I found a studio on West 13th Street within walking distance of the university.  It was about 10 x 14 foot with a small stove, sink, and refrigerator and bathroom.  I bought a fold-out couch on which I slept, and a fold-out chair on which guests could sit and sleep.  A friend gave me access to the miscellaneous furniture used as back drops for TV shows and commercials, where I liberated a used table and several chairs and what I needed to make the kitchen functional.  Dad gave me a small black and white TV, a radio, and electric typewriter.

I didn’t need much else.  The grant meant I could afford the books and food I needed and I was embarked on an academic career where I thrived.  I loved the university, and loved the work.

I did, however, have some glimmer of an insight that perhaps I needed to understand a little better why I’d gone into the convent in the first place.  My fear was that if I didn’t get it, I’d repeat the whole process again in some hidden form.  I tried a variety of different kinds of psychotherapies, and finally settled on psychoanalysis, with three sessions a week which I paid for at a vastly reduced rate of about $9.00 a week.

I was eminently successful in my academic life, achieving my Ph.D. in three years with highest honors, and landing an academic position in the psychology department at Montclair University.  But for five years after I’d left Maryknoll, my sexual relationships were chaotic, neurotic, and immature.

Then I met Peter.     

February 6, 2008

Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Diet,Growing Up — theotheri @ 2:16 pm

The relationship between the forty days of Lent which beings today with Ash Wednesday and being on a diet is unmistakable.  And since I remain in my battle with my extra three pounds, I have been thinking about Lent as it was practiced in my family on the farm and during my convent years. 

On Ash Wednesday as children we all trotted off to church and had ashes smeared on our forehead, a reminder of our death to come, the passing vanities of today’s pleasures, and the need to live a life of love and conviction.  We took our Lenten resolutions seriously in those days, giving up candy and parties or making resolutions to do anything else we may have decided would improve our spiritual well-being.  They were the standard things – keeping my bedroom clean, helping with the dishes without complaining, saying the rosary kneeling up straight instead of slouched against a chair.   Most of the resolutions we made we kept, and when Easter came, it really did feel like a day of sunshine when we put on our new Easter clothes and went off to church together before hunting for the Easter eggs.  Even as an adult, I remember my Dad giving up alcohol during Lent, and his opening up the liquor cabinet in the kitchen on Easter Sunday to make his classic dry manhattan.

Those days are gone for me now forever, if only because the foundation of my belief has changed too radically for me to return to those childhood days.  But I can’t regret them, and their foundation of discipline and sense of seasonal rhythms that today almost seem to belong to the Middle Ages.

I ponder what kind of world we might have if Roman Catholicism continues to decline in the world.  I splutter at the arrogance of Rome’s claim to infallibility, at its unrepentant chauvinism, at the hypocrisy of celibacy which in my experience often is a mere excuse for sex without commitment.  And yet I am convinced that the world will always have a need for answers to those questions science can’t answer.  Does life have a meaning?  Is death merely a ghastly joke?  Why is there so much suffering?  Has the universe always existed, was it created, will it always exist?

So if we are going to have religious belief, which set of beliefs are most benign, which least destructive of the human spirit?   The answers are certainly not black and white.  But I am not at all sure the human race would be happier if Catholicism were, in practice, to be displaced by Islam or Buddhism or other approaches to Christianity or any other religion with which I am acquainted.  It seems to me each religion, like each culture, and each individual, holds both a piece of the light and a piece of the darkness, the best and the worst of humankind.

Getting rid of one religious persuasion or all of them isn’t going to change the basic challenge of humanity. 

February 5, 2008

The disappearing world of Catholic nuns

I did know that the world in which I had grown up had changed, but was astonished to read a summary of a report from the Vatican that today there are fewer than 750,000 Catholic nuns in the world, and less than 200,000 priests. 

And people living what the Vatican calls “a consecrated life” are continuing to disappear at an accelerating rate.  There are 25% fewer nuns now than when John Paul II became pope, and there was a jaw-dropping decline of 10% in the year 2005 alone.

I’m beginning to think that my past is a little more interesting than I realized.   

December 22, 2007

Little House on the Prairie Family

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 5:20 pm

As we were growing up on the farm in Ohio, we thought we were quite a special family.  We got into scrapes and troubles, but we were inventive and took care of each other.  We learned how to swim, and celebrated when one of the kids finally made it across the lake in one go.  We threw each other off the raft into the water, and played hide and seek in the fields of summer wheat.  I made cakes and apple pies and let the little kids lick the bowl.  We hid Easter eggs and made Christmas cookies in the kitchen and snowmen in the yard outside.  The boys learned to jump from the deck on the second floor when Mom wasn’t looking, and ganged together not to tell Dad about the latest breakage or accident.  We played 20 questions at the dinner table and discussed obtuse moral  questions like little theologians.  We sang songs around the piano, and at Christmas the house was decorated with two huge Christmas trees and masses of presents spread around the massive toy train that used up half the living room floor.

We thought we would always be like that, that things would never change.  But after Mom died, they did.  Dad began to engage in irrational temper tantrums, something I never saw because it never happened when Mom was alive.  I could barely believe the letters I began to receive from home.  Once Dad hauled the kids out of bed at one a.m. to remove all the dishes from the shelves and wash them again – and “this time do it properly.”  It was a desperate attempt to support Aunt Mary’s authority, and she did not try to moderate his tirades.  Cathy wrote and asked me if it were true that Mom had died because they were so bad.

Throwing Tom out of the house was, I think, the worst.  Because it crossed the very line Dad himself had drawn – not to ever let the sun set on your anger.  After Mom died, the sun set in anger quite a lot on our little house on the farm.

December 15, 2007

Phil, our Black farm worker

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:55 pm

Just after World War II, a client of my father’s, John E.,  who ran a construction company, came to him with a problem.  A young Black man just returned from military service, had applied for work with his company, but John feared he would be at serious risk from the other workers because he was living with a White woman.  This was not the deep south, but midwest Ohio, which had fought with the North during the Civil War, and where people by and large considered themselves free of racial prejudice.  Nonetheless, John feared for him and wondered if Dad knew of any place where Phil might get work.

Dad hired him to work on the farm, and Phil and his wife Ethel moved into “the green house,” a small two-bedroom building that was standing on the land when Dad and Mom bought the 70 acres in 1942.  The house was not luxurious, but it had running water, an inside toilet, and heat, and it was convenient.  Phil worked the farm, and sometimes we visited him and Ethel in their house.  We saw Phil a lot and talked to him as easily as we talked to each other.  He told us about different kinds of weeds that were edible, and explained to my brothers what condoms were.  Phil knew a lot of things that were not the kind of things my mother and father knew, and few more that they knew but didn’t talk about.  

We thought of Phil as belonging to our world, though he never was invited to join us for a meal.  Or if he was, he declined, which is quite possible.  I think often he was more aware that he was Black than we children were.  For us, he was Phil.

After he had been working the farm for about ten years, Phil began to disappear for days at a time, and when he was there, his work deteriorated, he was lethargic and depressed.  He told my brother Tom that he thought he might go away.  One day he disappeared and never came back.  Ethel didn’t know where he was or where he had gone.  Months went by. 

In the spring they found him.  He was hanging from a tree in a woods rarely penetrated by humans.  The coroner ruled he had committed suicide.

It was many many years later, after my father had died, that my brother Jack suggested to me that Phil had not committed suicide, but that he had been lynched.  Phil had been in the Army, and if he wanted to kill himself, almost certainly would have shot himself.  Did Dad suspect that Phil had been murdered, and knowing that there was little he could do, simply let the case be closed without argument?  If he had fought for an alternative ruling, would he have put the lives of his own children at risk? 

It is impossible to know if Phil was lynched, and if he was, why, or by whom.  I do know, though, that Phil Abrams is the reason why I and all my brothers and sisters take the equality of Blacks and Whites for granted.  None of us think it a small gift.


December 14, 2007

The black art of political correctness

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:20 pm

I have just heard from a university friend that the faculty there is greatly exercised over whether it is politically correct to refer to a “white paper.”  Presumably this is an offensive slur against people whose skin is not white.

I was reminded of another friend here in England whom we ran into in the supermarket.  He was quite embarrassed because he had just asked a Black girl stacking the shelves if she could tell him where the black treacle was.  He seriously thought this would be interpreted as an ethnic slur, the way, for instance, calling a shade of shoe polish “nigger brown” is a slur.  He really seems to think that even hinting that one observes the obvious cultural and biological differences among us humans is crass insensitivity.  I don’t think he himself is prejudiced.  But he can’t tell the difference between noticing group differences and racism. 

In that context, I treasure the comment made to me once by a Jewish colleague who was talking about what it was like to be Jewish but to have a name, which he did, that sounded Italian.  People say all kinds of things about Jews to me, he said, because they don’t suspect I’m Jewish.  Then he turned to me and said “you aren’t prejudiced.”  Several years later I prevented one of my Black students from graduating with her class because she had not earned a grade for the class she was taking with me.  As a result I earned a reputation among the close-knit group of Black students as a racist.  But a year later, one of the Black students with whom I was working looked at me with surprise as we sat discussing his work in my office and said “You aren’t racist, are you?  They say you are, but you aren’t.”

No, I don’t think I am.  I am also comfortable with people from minority groups.  And the reason for that is Phil.

Phil was a Black man who couldn’t get a job after he’d served in the Army during World War II because he was living with a White woman.  At great professional cost, my father hired him to work on our farm, and gave him and Ethel, his common-law wife, a house on the land to live in.  He was there for about ten years. 

Phil is another one of those people who died before I ever knew what a gift he was in my life and for all my brothers and sisters.  I know he himself didn’t know.  It’s a long story so I’ll write about Phil’s time with our family in a separate post tomorrow.  

December 4, 2007

Astrology and psychotherapy

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:55 pm

Someone recently posted a comment on my November 27th post about Sister Mary Edith.  I was eager to read it because I thought it might have some new information about Sister Mary Edith that I hadn’t known.  But alas, it was not. 

When I left Maryknoll, I knew it would be to my advantage to understand a little bit about the motives I’d kept hidden from myself about why I’d entered the convent in the first place.  It was the 1970’s, I was a graduate psychology student, and lived in New York, so the royal road to self-knowledge seemed quite obviously through psychotherapy.  I spent several years at that time analyzing my life thus far, and I cannot say it was a total waste of time and money. 

However, I gradually began to see an eerie resemblance between invitations to bare ones soul in therapy and seductions from men who ultimately were interested in a sexual relationship with minimal personal commitment.  By the time I had my doctorate in psychology, I thoroughly distrusted a good number of men and most therapists who seemed to try to seduce people with little self-knowledge with apparently insightful analyses of their abilities and problems.  I say apparently insightful because they were, in truth, about as accurate as astrologists, who are careful to say things that are general enough to apply to anyone gullible enough to think the prophecy applied personally to them. 

It’s been a long time since I worried about faux therapy for myself or anyone else.  But when I read the comment, giving me an analysis of my relationship with my father that was wide of the mark and inviting me to get in contact if I would “like to talk”, I was reminded of the conclusions I had reached about offers to talk decades ago.

Perhaps I misunderstand the intentions of the woman leaving the comment as fully as she misunderstood me.  Perhaps she doesn’t really think she has some special insight into my relationship with my father, as her comment suggested.  Perhaps she is actually describing her relationship with her own father, and her proscriptions to me those that she has given to herself.

In any case, I could not agree more that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and as a university professor, it was not unusual for me to call a gifted student into my office to make sure they appreciated just what a treasure – and responsibility – they possessed. 

And although I think there are few truly gifted psychotherapists, they too are treasures that can be invaluable when one does not understand what is happening in a life that feels like it’s falling apart.

October 8, 2007

Confession: A cooperative venture

During the family reunion last weekend, my sister Bernadette told the story of how she had given a paper she’d written to our younger sister Mary to submit for a course requirement in college.  Upon reading the paper, Mary’s professor called her in and accused her of plagiarism.  Mary vehemently denied it, but the professor was adamant.  “A twenty-year old is simply incapable of writing a paper of this maturity.  I am certain this work cannot be yours.”  Mary was so affronted at the implied criticism of Bernadette that she replied in fury “You are wrong.  My sister wrote this paper last year, and she was twenty.”

I just learned today that this cooperative approach began many years earlier.  Mary, age six, was preparing for her First Confession.  For those of you not schooled in the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance, confession generally involves going into a darkened alcove, where a priest sits at the other side of the screen.  The penitent then confesses his or her sins and asks for forgiveness, whereupon the priest suggests a suitable penance, such as saying several Hail Mary’s, and gives the person absolution.

Mary, though, was short of a list of sins, so Bernadette gave her a suitable selection to present.  Dorothy developed a different strategy to deal with a dearth of required sins.  She committed them.  She omitted brushing her teeth at night in order to confess disobeying her parents, or did not turn her light out at night until several minutes after the deadline for reading, which again produced another suitable sin. 

The interesting thing about this mechanism was that, although it was necessary to have proper sins to confess, apparently they had to be legitimate sins.  Lying about them would be wrong.  As Dorothy said “I always told the truth.”

September 15, 2007

Convent life: trying to get out

I think, in truth, I spent most of my years in Maryknoll trying to get out.  This might seem like a simple process for most rational people since all I had to do was literally walk out the door.  But I was convinced that I had a vocation.  And a vocation isn’t something one chooses for oneself.  A vocation is a calling from God that comes only to a selected few, and as I saw it, I could say either yes or no to God.  So getting out of the convent meant finding some way of getting a message from God that He didn’t want me there any longer.

During the Novitiate, my strategies were pretty transparent to everybody but myself.  I found strange lumps that I hopefully took to the nurse.  It was a normal breast bone.  I developed headaches.  The infirmary gave me an anti-depressant that had the atypical effect of turning me into a hyperactive wreck unable to sleep at night.  I came down with a suspected case of appendicitis (or I thought perhaps stomach cancer) that was cured with a laxative. 

Throughout these exhibitions, the novice mistress remained unimpressed.  “You want to go home,” she said with total clarity, “because you want to take care of your younger brothers and sisters.  But your father is remarried.  They do not need you.”  She was right, of course.  Obviously the ill-health strategy was not going to work.  I would have to think of something else.

Before we were accepted to take our first vows we were asked to fill out a questionnaire.  I don’t remember what was on it, except for one question which asked “Have you been happy while you have been at Maryknoll?”  My best friend told me she’d answered no.  “Phyllis!”  I said in as much sincere surprise as I would have felt had she announced that 2+2=3, “That’s the wrong answer.  They won’t accept you.”  Her response was quite reasonable:  I don’t think being happy is the point.

I was right though.  Phyllis was not accepted to take vows.  And I remember thinking that if only I had said that I wasn’t happy, instead of giving what I knew was the right answer without any reference at all to how I really felt, I would have been sent home too.  Instead, I resigned myself to answering God’s call to be a missionary nun.

But it was going to be a bumpy ride.  The 1960’s had started.  We had Pope John XXIII and the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War for starters. 

September 11, 2007

Becoming a Maryknoll novice

Filed under: Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:44 pm

After Mom died I returned to Maryknoll, and four weeks later was accepted into the Novitiate.  For the uninitiated, this means we were novices, admitted to the next stage in the process of becoming full-fledged Maryknollers.  We were given new names and began to wear the full Maryknoll habit, covering us from head to foot, but were distinguished from nuns who had already taken vows by a white instead of black veil.   My new name was Sister Bernadette Mary.  It was a day of celebration, but it was going to be several years containing some surprising revelations about what life in this convent was really like.

The ceremony admitting us to the Novitiate was attended by our families, and my Dad brought my brothers and sisters to New York to be there.  We had several hours to visit afterwards, and that is when he told me he and Aunt Mary were getting married.  Aunt Mary had been my mother’s best friend since college, and she had been married to mom’s brother who had died severl years earlier.  He had also been my father’s law partner. She had four daughters, the youngest of which was my age and we were friends.  I used to love to stay over night there and listen to the wonderful stories Aunt Mary told us.  

So Aunt Mary was not a stranger.  And clearly my family needed a new mother.  What I didn’t understand then was that Dad needed a wife just as much as his children needed a mother, and that, paradoxically, was a problem.  My two oldest brothers, Tom and Dick, had both seen what I had seen over the years when Mom was still alive.  Aunt Mary fascinated my father.  There was some electricity between them for years that none of us ever saw between our parents.

So the fact that the marriage was announced and took place within months after  Mom had died made it feel like a betrayal.  In retrospect, I do not believe it was.  In fact, I am now convinced that Mom knew, even approved, the marriage.  She was an extraordinarily generous woman who would have cared most of all that her husband and children were cared for.  It also explains to me how she could have told me so clearly that I was not to return home for them.

From this day onward I embarked on a double life.  One was in Maryknoll where I tried hard to be the nun I believed I had been called to be.  The other was with my younger brothers and especially my sisters who wrote me anguished letters of pain and conflict.  I wanted desperately to go home to help them, but it took eight more years before I finally found a way to convince myself that God did not want me in Maryknoll. 

For better or worse, by that time, my brothers and sisters no longer needed an older sister to be there with them, and I did not return to live in my family home.

September 9, 2007

Mom’s funeral

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:35 pm

On May 19, 1959, our postulant mistress, Sister Edmund Damien, called me into her office.  When I arrived she said “I guess you know why you’re here.”  “No,” I said honestly.  She told me my mother had died that morning, and that, accompanied by an older Maryknoll novice, I had permission to go home for the funeral.  I didn’t cry.  I don’t remember feeling anything.

That evening I was in my cell – the curtained area around our bed and locker each of us called our own in the large dormintory – packing the few things I would need.  Kathy Rossworn, a fellow postulant, came to say how hard it must be for me and how sorry she was.  I remember her expression of kindness as she sort of half laughed and half cried and asked if there was anything she could do –  “polish your shoes or something?”  I’m sure it is not so, but it is my only memory of anyone suggesting to me that my loss might have been profound. 

I took a plane to Ohio with Sister Bernice Marie, whose maturity my superior trusted.  I was expected to wear my postulant outfit during the entire visit, and was not permitted to take my younger and brothers swimming because that would have meant putting on a swim suit.  After all, it was clear by the mere presence of my Maryknoll chaperone that I now belonged to Maryknoll, not to my family.  And there was the recent mandate from my mother herself.  I had a vocation to be a nun, not to care for her children.  I remember sitting on their beds before they went to sleep talking to my younger sisters who wanted to know what would happen if Dad died too.  And saying to Dorothy, the youngest as we stood in the church “be brave.”  She was seven.  Cathy was ten, the twins two years older, Bernadette fourteen.  They were so vulnerable and courageous.

Hundreds of people, of course, came to the wake and to the funeral.  Many people wept openly, but I thought I was grown up enough not to need a mother anymore.  I was aware that I desperately wanted to be there for my younger brothers and sisters, and found leaving home this time far harder than it was when I left for Maryknoll the first time.   But I returned to Maryknoll thinking I had been responsible and mature.  

It would be years before I finally faced the devastation caused by my mother’s death and sobbed without restraint. 

September 3, 2007

The death of the princes’ mother

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:29 pm

Ten years ago this week Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, leaving a devastated nation, and two young princes aged 12 and 14 without a mother.  Last Friday, Prince Harry (he’s the younger one with a reputation for – how shall I put it? – politically incorrect exuberance, perhaps) gave a personal memorial for his mother at the service held in Diana’s memory. 

He said that he and his brother William can divide their lives into two parts – before their mother died and afterwards.  Even at the age of 67, almost sixty years after my own mother died, I knew what he meant.  When a child loses a mother, especially when they are so young, nothing is the same afterwards.  It changes you forever.  Not necessarily for the worse, but it can change you in ways nothing else can.

My nine months as a Marknoll postulant

Filed under: Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 6:51 am

During the first nine months in the convent, we were kept in a separate group as we were socialized into Maryknoll customs.  We were called “postulants,” a word derived from the Latin word meaning “to ask,” not, as the word might suggest, “posturing.” 

Though there is some truth in the latter.  We were trying it on, just as Maryknoll was trying us out.  During those nine months,  some decided to leave.  It wasn’t always clear whether the departures were voluntary or “assisted” by the non-negotiable counselling of the superiors who could inform you at any time that you would serve God better outside Maryknoll. 

 The regime was monastic.  We rose at 5:30, and gathered in the chapel for half hour meditation, which in reaity was more a struggle to stay awake than it was to draw closer to God.  We attended Mass, and gathered in the refrectory for breakfast.  We kept silence during meals, listening instead to readings, usually from edifying sources, to enrich our spirits.  The reading was done by one of the postulants.  When my turn came, I broke down into uncontrollable gigles which spread throughout all eight tables.  I was never asked again.

But I fit in.  Like an ernest aspiring saint, I worried about keeping the rules, some of which I now find seriously flawed.  The two strangest that stand out in my memory are the strong stricture against what was called “recreating in two’s”  and the other which was called “custody of the eyes.”

Recreating in two’s –  getting into a conversation with anyone except a superior in a group of less than three – was strictly and repeatedly forbidden.  I took it seriously, and was scandalized by some postulants who thought it was silly and fundamentally ignored it.  Phyllis, one of my best friends, was included in that number, which created something of a conflict for me.

Keeping custody of the eyes meant not looking around, but keeping ones eyes demurely cast down, somewhat reminiscent of Princess Diana in her shy phase.  This did not cause me much concern because I have always been seriously near-sighted, and looking around never yielded much information.  It was, however, a rule that, rightly or wrongly, helped induce subservience and an attitude of female passivity which I find destructive and repressive.

Despite these few irritations, I thought I was happy, and I’m sure my superiors thought so as well.  Then in March, after I’d been in Maryknoll for six months, our superior called me into her office.  My father had telephoned to say that my mother’s cancer had resurfaced, and that her condition was terminal. 

I was not told then that she’d been given only six weeks to live.

August 29, 2007

My interview to enter the convent

My application to enter the convent went hand in hand with my university applications, and psychologically they felt quite similar.  It didn’t occur to me that I might not be accepted to wherever I applied, and I simply concentrated on filling in the blanks on all the forms.  Maryknoll responded and arranged for an interview at their Motherhouse in Ossining, New York as soon as I had graduated in June.

For me, the trip to New York – my first visit to what had for years been a magical place in my imagination – had all the excitement of an astronaut’s first blast off to the moon.  I was tremendously excited, and it didn’t seem like anything of an irony that I bought an entirely new outfit which I conceivably would not wear more than once.  My mother and father took me around the city, to central park, the theatre, and restaurants, and night clubs.  I loved it.  And yet, two days later, without a twinge, I sat in the parlor at Maryknoll explaining to Sister Francis Assisi, the slightly nervous middle-aged nun who interviewed me, that I had a vocation.

We talked for about an hour, during which I said all the things that were expected of me.  She explained that if I took the vow of obedience I would be expected to do what I was told even if I disagreed.  I thought I understood because I thought what she meant really was “Maryknoll is a very modern, sensible order.  You might not understand everything you are told to do, but we won’t ask you to do stupid or meaningless things like planting a tree upsidedown or washing the same dishes three times to make sure they are clean.”  I said I understood.

Then she put her face in her hands and said “I think you should wait a year.”  “Oh, no,” I said without so much as a pause, “I know already I have a vocation.”  It was the “right” answer.  The first of many right answers I was to give over the subsequent years and that kept me in Maryknoll for longer than some others who were quite possibly more suited to a convent life than I.  It wasn’t that I was lying.  It was just that it never occurred to me to ask what I really thought or felt.  I knew what I was supposed to think and feel, and that was the answer I gave. 

I’ve thought more than once how different my life would have been had I been told to wait for that one year.  Many applicants were.  It may even have been the norm.  My mother would have died when I was a college freshman, and I would not have entered the convent at all.  Would that have been better?

No.  Knowing what I now know about my self and life, I think that the “right” answer I gave then was the right answer after all.

August 28, 2007

Leaving home for the convent

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

A friend who entered the convent months before I did has been sharing with me her poignant insightful descriptions of her large Catholic family and her decision to enter Maryknoll.  Today I was reading about the day she left her mother and father and nine younger brothers and sisters, and I found myself saying “Oh, don’t do it!  Don’t go!”

Of course, I was really saying it about the day I myself left my home in Ohio for New York and Maryknoll.  My little sister Cathy, my favourite, who was nine, came into my bedroom hours before I was leaving.  “I don’t want you to go,” was all she said.  I know she has no idea that it almost broke my heart.  But then she still had Mom and three other sisters, along with the five brothers. 

Eight months later she didn’t have Mom anymore.   And I was convinced that God wanted me in the convent.  Worse yet, so was Dad, and my superiors at Maryknoll.  I spent the next three years manufacturing headaches and strange lumps along with a display of neuroses that should have got me sent home.  I tried everything I could think of to get myself out of there by any way short of my having to face the fact that it was I who decided to leave.  If only they would send me, then I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not doing God’s will.

It would have been a disaster at home had I returned from the convent.  I would no longer have had the authority of being the oldest that was taken for granted when Mom was alive.  Dad’s new wife had four daughters of her own and  I would not have been special.  Nor did I have the maturity to raise my younger brothers and sisters that I thought I did, and I certainly had no insight at all into my father’s need for a wife, not a daughter posing as one.  And had I actually been needed, I would eventually have resented having to finish the job begun by my mother before I could live a life of my own choosing.

So I know it was better that I was not living at home when my mother died, and that I did not return from the convent.  But Cathy – now Catherine – I am sure has no idea that not being there for her during those years is still one of the hardest things I have ever chosen to do.

August 24, 2007

Sex education in my Catholic family

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

It is my impression that Catholics are not at the cutting edge when it comes to effective sex education.  I’ve heard enough stories from my Jewish and Protestant friends to know that Catholics aren’t the only ones where sex education, if it was present at all, was excruciating.   But the determined silence about sex I experienced was an achievement in a family like mine, and in many other Catholic families, where babies were born annually for years.

I did know first hand from taking care of my younger brothers that boys’ genitals were different from girls’.  We never used explicit words like penis, though, or vagina, and even defecating was given childish names so that we didn’t ever actually use words like urine or feces.  By the time I was about eight, I wanted to know how a woman got pregnant.  My mother had warned me not to walk in the fields alone far from the house because the occasional tramp we saw walking across the land might “do something” that would make me pregnant.  What, I desperately wanted to know, was “something.”

But it was worth more than my life was worth to ask, and if my mother attempted to bring the subject up, I walked out of the room or turned the radio up too loudly to carry on a conversation.  I found her embarrassing and I was not going to enter into some coy conversation about what “we women” had in common.  Especially since I’d already concluded that it was going to come with some stricture about being subordinate to men.  I scoured the encyclopedia we kept in the house for hints, and eventually, broadly figured out for myself what “sexual intercourse” involved.  The internet would have been a lot easier, and more explicit.  Whether in the end it would have made me less neurotic about sex I don’t know.  I would have been terrifyingly vulnerable participating in a chat room at that age and in that condition of ignorance.

In any case, my self-education still left menstruation, which my poor mother eventually managed to tell me about before my periods started.  When they did, I did not feel it was a step into adulthood, but a step into an embarrassing secret.  Not all my friends were quite as neurotic as I was.  Unfortunately, rather than finding this liberating, I suspected they were on the road to getting pregnant “outside of wedlock,” certainly one of the most shameful things a woman could visit upon herself and her family.  Even marrying a non-Catholic was less terrible.

I’ve learned from my sisters that their introduction to sexual information was close to non-existent until my mother died and my father remarried.  To her credit, Aunt Mary, as I called her, and Mother as those left at home were told was the appropriate form of address called her, did make sure that the girls received the rudiments of sex education. 

There is a lot about my Catholic background that has been a strength throughout my life.  But I would consider it a total failure if one is looking for guidelines for the sexual education of children. 

On the other hand, although I applaud and even envy young people today for the knowledge that is so easily available, explicit sexual information isn’t quite enough, is it, to achieve a satisfying sexual relationship?  How does one learn what one’s own preferences are?  how does one learn to be considerate of one’s partner’s needs?  how do you survive the inevitable heartbreak when one’s passion is not reciprocated?  I’m not suggesting I was given any hints about the answers to these questions, but I’m not sure a lot of young people today are given much help either. 

August 23, 2007

The unique gift of the depressed

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Growing Up,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my attraction to people who are depressed – among the short list of people whom I have loved the best, I think there is only one who doesn’t suffer from at least mild depression.  When I look at the list of men to whom I am attracted, they are invariably subject to some kind of depression.   I have to ask myself why.  The way one asks about women who repeatedly choose abusive men. 

Along with the obvious Freudian analysis that my father was a depressive,  I’m finding my motives are complex.  Part of it is being what my sister Dorothy calls “an emotional athlete.”  My version of it goes something like this:  “I can love you the way you need to be loved;  my needs can be put to one side;  I am strong enough to love you.”   Of course, if you are offering to love a depressive, you can’t ever take away his despair, that sense of failure, that insatiable longing to be loved, because it isn’t something that can be filled by someone else.  From his point of view, that someone else will never measure up or won’t really understand him.  Or if you do manage one of these two feats, he will be convinced that he’s not good enough for you.  So if a relationship is going to survive, someone like me has to learn not to need to be needed, has to learn that however important my love might be, it is never going to be a kind of non-medical cure for the emptiness and lonliness of the depressed.  In my case, in important relationships I have found a great deal to love and something between us besides my illusion that I’m important because I’m needed to fill an unrealistic need.  But it has been a steep learning curve and there are times when I still have to learn it all over again.

That part of it I have understood for a long time – and so has Peter, which is part of why I think we are happy that we are still together after 35 years.  But now I’m beginning to get an inkling that there’s more to it from my side of the equation.  Almost every depressive I’ve ever known is on the one hand filled with longing, and at the same time convinced that no one can possibly meet his/her need.  So it makes me feel very special if a depressed – especially an intelligent depressed – man shows some special affection for me.  I am amazed to recognize just how charged my own responses are when I resonate with someone like this.

I have always thought that women who are attracted to men who turn out to be abusive made the mistake of confusing violence with strength.  This may often be so.  But I wonder now if some women also stay with abusive men because they sense a need in the man which he has turned to her to meet.  I would stay with an abusive man for about ten seconds longer than it took me to recognize the abuse.  But the allure of being chosen to meet the needs of an intelligent and depressed man might be a similar dynamic in myself.

There is a third thing about depressed men.  Or at least the depressed men who have been important in my life.  They might sometimes be moody, they might be unreasonably demanding, but in my experience they are not clingy.  They often want to be left alone.  And so do I.  I need hours in the day to be by myself, or I eventually unravel into a kind of disorganized sarcastic bitch.   

By some paradoxical convolution, I think I have gained as much as I have given in my relationship with depressed people whom I love.  This probably sounds strange, but it makes me feel rather fortunate.

August 22, 2007

The family on the farm: My youngest sister Dorothy

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:31 pm

Mom already had cancer when she was pregnant with Dorothy, though the local GP kept giving her antibiotics for the flu.  The operation, when colon cancer was finally diagnosed, gave her five more years and time to be Dorothy’s Mom.  Dorothy, at home alone with her while the rest of us were at school, had a unique time with Mom, unlike time any of the rest of us shared. 

For myself, I was furious that my mother had had yet another baby, and even worse, that I was expected to help care for her.  It’s not my baby, I said, it’s yours.  I didn’t think I liked her very much, but when Mom was hospitalized with cancer, I realized Dorothy was really a very cute baby, and that it was my mother, not my new youngest sister who was my problem. 

What fascinates me most today is that in many ways I think Dorothy and I have some significant things in common that I don’t share with any of my other sisters.  For one thing, we agree we both are what we call “bio-chemical optimists.”  This might make us unique in our immediate family:  possibly the only two who don’t do battle with recurring bouts of depression. 

Dorothy reminds me of our mother in more ways than any of my other sisters.  Like Mom, she is not overly interested in housekeeping, which may be why it’s impossible not to be comfortable in her home.  She shares Mom’s spatial disability, but also her intuitive compassion, along with the same kind of struggle to believe in herself as spontaneously as she can believe in others.

Dorothy has two children who are now energetic young adults.  She is divorced, thrives on living alone, and cares for and about people in her village like an earth mother.  She still believes in rainbows, loves her trees and raspberry bushes, and celebrates the solstice.  She writes poetry, creates musical portraits, and knows that light and dark always go together. 

August 20, 2007

My sister who became Catherine

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

I was nine years old when Cathy was born.  I thought she was the most wonderful, beautiful, delightful child in the world.  She had blonde hair and large blue eyes, and a smile that could beguile a snowman.  She played the piano with innovative genius and in a family where outstanding musical ability was average, her musical ability was outstanding.  She also had a wry sense of humour and capacity to mimic that delighted us all, and captivated my father. 

As a six-year-old she was chosen to present the flowers to the Bishop during the confirmation ceremony.  As she came down the aisle, the bishop nudged the priest next to him and said “look at this.”  I remember this tickled Mom, and she often smiled at Cathy’s blue-eyed strategies but didn’t lose sight of the serious child within.  When Mom knew she was dying, she told me Dad loved her especially, but feared he wasn’t going to know how to give her the firm support she needed.  He didn’t.

Cathy described herself as “complicated.”  To me, she seemed to look at the world from just a slightly different point of view – a perspective I found fascinating, often wonderful, and sometimes baffling.  I don’t know anybody else who could make a successful fashion statement wearing a purple shoe on one foot and a green one on the other.  And I suspect it is part of her genius that I still don’t know whether she really had to count to find out how many 8ths there are in an inch.

Cathy was nine when Mom died and of all the children, I think her dying and the new regime established by Dad’s new wife was hardest of all for her.  I had entered the convent just eight months earlier, which meant that she had lost both her mother and her oldest sister who had in many ways been a second mother.  Bit by bit as her joy drained out of her, she replaced purple and green shoes with dark outfits, and serious anguish became her constant companion.  When she was in her early thirties, weeks after she and her husband had moved across the country to Arizona, Brian sat down beside the pool one morning and died. 

Eventually she asked us to call her Catherine, “the name my mother and father gave me.”  I think she was trying to cast off an old image, to step into a new maturity, but in some ways I felt I’d lost her forever.  I still love her with a special unique tenderness, and every once in a while, the old sense of fun glimmers through.  But I think mostly she is sad.  She tries with a painful earnestness to be good and kind and loving, but often asks for directions to understand what her sibs are saying, and I fear she lives with a sense of enduring failure.

Depression runs in our family.  Like so many others who suffer from it, I think Catherine pays a price of pain for the gift that can give so much happiness to others.

August 15, 2007

The family on the farm: Mary

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:54 am

My second sister and Bob’s twin was Mary.  Despite her position in the family where a lesser person may have been squashed, Mary was not a lesser person.  When Mary made up her mind, which she did regularly, she held on with tenacity. 

You couldn’t miss the fact that Mary had class and there was always an energy and exuberance in her life style.  From childhood she danced with  elegance, and excelled at sports.  By the time she was two, she was coordinating her clothes and shoes to match.  When her funds were limited, she chose beauty rather than food. 

What I still love best about Mary is her proud delight for the people she loved passionately and single-mindedly.  Despite our affection for each other, we were a  deadly competitive family in some ways, striving to excel in our own unique niches.  Mary stood out with her extravagant hopes for the rest of us.  Her most magnificent hopes were for Bob, her twin to whom she was fiercely loyal, and all her life she was a mother hen toward Dorothy, our youngest sister who was six when Mom died.

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who thought I was so wonderful, who thought my gifts should propel me to the top of the world, and who so delighted in anything I accomplished.  She was implaccably opposed to my being a nun, because she thought I would be suffocated in a convent.  She reached that conclusion when she was ten.  She said she herself felt liberated when I left nine years later.

Mary died of breast cancer when she was 46.  I still miss her.  In fact, as I get older and appreciate her unique brand of caring more, I think I miss her more.

August 13, 2007

The family on the farm: Bob

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:36 pm

Although Bob was named after Robert Bellarmine, his sisters think he would have been better named after Blessed Martin de Porres, the Dominical Brother who worked among the poor and seemed to appear almost anywhere he was needed, sometimes by seemingly miraculous methods.   Bob has never claimed – nor have any of us ever remotely suggestesd – he possesses anything resembling miraculous powers.  But he is one for figuring out labour-saving devices, and takes a special delight in those that are just a little ingenious.   

Once Dad was suspicious that Bob, then about age seven, was going to bed with his pajamas on over his clothes in order to save dressing time in the morning.  He put on his most ferocious Claude look and summoned him from his bedroom.  But faced with Bob’s frantic attempts to hide his trousers, he collapsed laughing and fled helplessly calling “Jean, come here and deal with this.”  And it didn’t surprise anybody to discover that one year Bob bought a dozen “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday” cards in January, and sent them out randomly during the year.

I don’t know exactly how he did it, but somehow he managed to maintain a reputation of simple innocence while plotting more schemes than most of us.  Even when he got caught, he was never really in trouble.  When he was caught shooting dice in the church vestibule by a nun with a ferocious reputation, she sent a note home for Bob to give to Dad saying “now I’ve seen everything,” to which Dad replied “So have I.”  It ended there. 

After Mom died, and what was called the “New Regime” was installed, Bob’s teflon luck continued.  While his sisters were constantly upgraded for their lack of cleaning skills, poor cooking, and general carelessness, Bob was the son our new “mother” never had.  He was about ten when, thinking it was a pile of paper, he jumped into a newly-delivered silk lamp shade waiting on the floor for installation.  It was dismissed as a boyish mistake. 

This might seem like a cozy life, but Bob wasn’t always comfortable being the favourite.  Nobody said it or even thought it, but I think Bob often felt guilty about getting better treatment than his sisters.  Nobody wished he would get into trouble though. 

Even today, when Bob is coming, it’s special for homes he visits around the world.

August 12, 2007

The family on the farm: The twins

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

18 months after Bernadette was born, my mother was once again in the maternity ward to give birth.  We were just getting to the top of the drive coming home from school when my granddad walked over from next door and said “You have a new brother.  And you have a new sister.”  It took a minute to figure out. 

As was the tradition in our family, the twins were given the names of holy people as examples of the kind of lives they should lead.  Bob was assigned to St. Robert Bellarmine, a cardinal whose committment to the Inquisition helped make it the vicious ordeal it was.  A more unlikely role model would have been hard to find.  Mary was given the name of the mother of Jesus, an equally ill-matched choice. 

But they managed to overcome these initial obstacles.  Twins each have an identity and personality of their own, but since they come in pairs, there is a value-added that two singles don’t have.  Tom and I immediately introduced them to the male-female definitions which we had concluded defined the men and women, probably for everybody in the whole world, but certainly in our immediate family.  By our gender identity rules, girls were Polish like my mother and inferior on most counts except cooking and cleaning to boys who were German like my father and ipso facto smarter.  This required that Bob be best at everything and learn everything first including using a spoon, tying his shoe lacess, and buttoning his shirt so the buttons matched the button holes all the way from the top to the bottom.  

I was already rebelling against our definition of unequal womanhood.  But having been unhappily informed some five years earlier than manhood was not an option for me, I set out to prove that girls were smarter (not just as smart, mind you, but smarter) than boys.  I taught Mary how to walk, to dress, to use a spoon, new words, even how to swim.  Tom furiously taught Bob everything he needed to know to win.  The only problem was that Mary refused to play.  Being a girl, she matured faster than her brother and learned almost everything first.  This, to her two-year-old mind, was a violation of the correct order of things.  Mary was not wont to put others in front of her.  Except Bob.  Bob was always, always, always first.  And so she pretended not to know things until Bob showed that he had learned “first.”

After many years, this strict code of appropriate gender behavior broke down among most of us.  Tom has decided that he’s more Polish than German, and I know I’m a lot more like my father than our rules said I was supposed to be.  

For myself, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those aspects of womanhood I learned from my Catholic background.  Someday I will talk about not only the things about it I reject, but also about those things which have been valuable.  My marriage certainly would have been different without it.

August 11, 2007

The family on the farm: babies aren’t real sisters

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

At the age of six, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that boys were not the same as girls.  I was beginning to feel lonely with the company of four brothers and began badgering my mother for a sister.  I was terribly excited then, when I learned that my mother was coming home with my sister Bernadette.

But when she arrived, I was aghast.  This wasn’t a proper sister.  She was a mere baby who couldn’t even talk or walk and would be no use to me at all.  I don’t quite know why I was so surprised.  My three brothers had all arrived as mere babies, but somehow I expected a sister to arrive fully formed.  It took another 25 years before we developed a relationship of equals.

Bernadette, like Mom, was, and is, above all a people person, while I am much more an idea person who needs to take people in measured and controlled doses.  Bernadette makes friends with everyone from the store clerk, the furnace repairman, the school janitor, her students, the woman living across the street, and above all, children anywhere.  She has a gift with children of which I, who treat all children like short adults, am totally bereft.

Bern spent her childhood as a middle child trying to gain admittance to the Big Kids.  We Big Kids were unwilling to dilute our status by expanding membership, and when Dorothy, the tenth child, was born, we argued with impeccable mathematical logic that while Bern could stake a legitimate claim to being the “Biggest Little Kid,” she could never break through to membership in the upper half.

Bern never did make it to the Big Kids circle, but she did make it from the middle to the center of the family.  Today we rely on her to remember a prodigious list of birthdays, telephone numbers, email addresses, and anniversaries.  As we are getting older, we are even depending on her to remind us of critical names that may have slipped from memory.  Living in Chicago she is also centrally located, and hosts more than her share of family get-togethers.  One of which is scheduled for the end of September.  No doubt I will write a post about it.

August 3, 2007

My brother Larry: paradoxically independent

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

My fourth brother, Larry, was born in February 1945.  The year is significant because my father had been called up by the draft to join the Army still fighting World War II in both Europe and East Asia.  He was given an exemption, not because he had a family of five children to support, but because the fifth child was born crippled.  Larry was born with spina bifida, a malformation which paralyzed him from the waist down, but more critically, usually kills those born with it before they reach adolescence.   The opinion of the doctors was that such babies should be allowed to die through benign neglect.  I remember the expression on my parents faces as they got out of the car on the day they returned from the hospital having been given this advice.  They were ashen.  But there was never any question of their following it.

For six months Larry was kept in the children’s wing of the hospital where doctors expected his imminent death.  Larry had other ideas.  With grit that became a lifelong characteristic, he fought to live.   Then my parents brought him home.  If he is going to die, they said, let it be with the family to which he belongs.  By that time, Mom was pregnant again.  Larry needed more care than most babies, and each evening our aunt Tillie came by after her day teaching to give him some of the extra time my mother couldn’t.  He also needed special meals, and soon he began to have dinner at Gram’s every night too.

Larry first started to climb the stairs when he was about two.  I discovered him on the fifth step on the way up.  This didn’t seem safe to me, and I carried him down.  He didn’t say a word, but later I discovered him again half way up.  By afternoon, he’d climbed to the top, and after Tillie came home, insisted on making it up the steeper stairs at Gram’s.  I think I remember this so vividly because it’s such a representative example of the way Larry is.  He doesn’t say a lot:  he just keeps climbing the stairs.  If you take him down, he’ll just turn around and do it again.  He learned to walk with crutches, and spent more time in the hospital than the rest of us.  But mostly we took him for granted, and he stood up for himself.  When he was six, he started school with us at Holy Family, and we pulled him in a wagon to and from the bottom of the long drive where the school bus picked us up.  We didn’t think much of it.

Larry is probably the quietest of all of us so it takes time to discover how much knowledge is stored inside that brain of his and how independent his thinking can be.  Today, he lives alone in a house on the farm, drives a specially adapted car, and prepares his own food.  He has an unusual ear for music and worked for a while as a DJ for a classical radio program.  He later switched to work as a medical records technician until he retired. 

The doctors are still telling Larry he is an extraordinary case.   As I write this, he is 62 years old. 

July 28, 2007

The family on the farm: grandparents move into the other house

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

Dad built the house we lived in on the seventy acres he bought in 1942.  But there were already two dwellings on the land, and in 1943, my grandparents and their daughter Tillie moved into one of the houses.  Unlike ours, it was an old house that had a wonderful dark wainscoting in the living room, and various unsavory creatures in the basement that occasionally climbed up the pipes for a swim in the bathtub or a slither around in the light.  It was a place that would remain a haven for as long as we lived at 677.

For us it was “Gram’s House,” one of the magic places where we learned to love Gam’s German cheesecake and dumplings and apple strudel, where she gave us piano lessons, and where we celebrated Christmas Eve.  And each of us had one night a week that was our special day to have dinner there.

Gram originally came from Wisconsin, where her family had immigrated a generation earlier from the same town in Bavaria where our grandfather was also born, although they met in America.  He had studied at various German conservatories but at the age of 27 left Bavaria because he liked women too much to accept the celibate life that had been chosen for him.  Gram always called him “Nogi,” after some Japanese general, but none of us every knew why.  We called him “Jaj” – our Polish term for grandfather we learned from my mother. 

From comments I only half understood at the time, I later suspected our grandfather was both a gifted musician and a charming rogue.  I think more than once the family may have slipped out of town at night, leaving their debts behind.  It may explain part of Dad’s strong sense of responsibility towards taking care of his mother and sister.

Both Gram and Jaj died many years later of polycythemia, a rare blood disease that also eventually killed my father and his brother, Norbert.  We thought at first it was inherited, but Norbert believed it was a result of a toxic dump close to the home where they lived for a while in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

July 26, 2007

Jack: my brother the lawyer

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:32 pm

My third brother, Jack, was born when I was three.  I’d been hoping for a sister, thinking that two brothers met my needs sufficiently for male competition.   But from practically the day he was born, Jack was one of the cutest little kids I’ve ever seen in my life.  He was a darling who people instinctively wanted to hug.  I always thought of him as being the sunniest of all my sibs, and indeed he seems to have been unaware of much of the trauma that swept through the house after my mother died and Dad remarried.

This probably made it possible for Jack to become a lawyer and join Dad in his legal practice.  He married Mimi, whose brothers and sisters had been in school with each of us and they eventually moved with their four children into the property where we had grown up.  It saved the homestead for all of us, and they have always made us welcome to return – for weddings, funerals, and various excuses we occasionally concoct for family celebrations.

Jack is the only one of my sibs who could have raised a family on the old farm without indoctrinating them with the conflicts of the earlier generation.  But he and Mimi did, and I have always been amazed by the sheer cheerful wholesomeness of his children – and now the many grandchildren.  Part of the farm has been sold and is now a shopping mall.  But the old property with three homes and as many generations still overlooks the lake and is screened by the trees planted over half a century ago. 

I guess Jack never felt he had to get away from Ohio.  I enjoy him a lot and find him easy to be with.  It is a surprise because in some ways he is living a life that, by the time I was six, I was determined to escape.

July 24, 2007

Dick: the brother who still wants to be a saint

A good friend from my Maryknoll days has just recognized me after stumbling on this blog.  We still seem to have a lot in common – not least of which is trying to trace our decision as children to become saints and the convoluted path to our each becoming what we are now.

I don’t remember talking to any other adult who as a child decided to be a saint, although it was an ideal held up to us in our family.  My brother Tom fell into despair by the time he was six at the thought of having to go to heaven when he died.  It sounded like the worst sort of hell he could imagine to sit on clouds all day singing with the angels,  worshiping God, and occasionally hobnobbing with various saintly figures who’d made it to the higher regions.  Before he was mature enough to ditch the entire theology on which this bland eternity was based, I think he set out to do whatever was necessary to avoid heaven.

My brother Dick, a year and a half younger than I am, took the idea of being a saint more seriously than any of the rest of us, and is the only one of my sibs who I think would still consider it a privilege to be a martyr. 

In a large family, sibs have to fight particularly hard for a unique niche that distinguishes them from the rest.  Tom and I were the oldest, which gave us securely unassailable roles for life.  Dick did not have the mechanical skills Tom had or my academic skills.  But he was immensely strong willed, determined, and intense, perfect strengths for becoming an old-fashioned saint.  As it became apparent, he also has significant skills as a community organizer.  Dick did go into the minor seminary at the age of 12, but left before he was 20.  He then joined the Peace Corp and spent time organizing and supporting community groups in the Phillippines until he was diagnosed with TB and sent home to recover.

Although he did not return overseas, Dick has maintained his undiminished commitment to sainthood.  He began and still heads a religious community called Servants of the Cross for lay people including both married couples and single people.  He and his wife have raised a family of eight children and have spent most of their lives in Mexico, working with the poor and spreading the gospel.  I asked Dick why he called his community Servants of the Cross, instead of the Resurrection, which to me represents the essence of Christian faith, hope, and charity.  He said it was because too many people thought you could escape suffering.

I was very close to Dick as we were growing up, but now I find his faith too near to religious bigotry to be comfortable with him.  For his part, I know he believes I am on a merry road to hell. 

It is hard to love someone as much as I love Dick, and to find myself living in  a world so incompatible with his.  We are kind to each other and are on speaking terms.  But I know we don’t comprehend how the other got to such a different place. 

July 23, 2007

The family on the farm: all of us

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

I seem able to rummage about in my past for only so long, and then like a desperate swimmer coming up for air, feel the need to re-emerge into the present.  So the story of the family on the farm in which I grew up will no doubt continue to lurch ahead with unpredictable stops and sidelines.  Eventually I will describe everyone. 

“Everyone” is a lot of people.  I grew up with five brothers and four sisters, and my grandmother, grandfather, and their unmarried daughter Tillie lived down the road.  Then there was my father’s best friend, Father Basil, and Phil, the Black man who also lived on the property with his wife and who worked the farm.  After my mother died, my father remarried our aunt, the widowed wife of my mother’s brother who already had four daughters.  So these cousins were added to our family list. 

It would make a pretty substantial tv cast. Indeed, there were times when we felt like another version of “Little Women,” or “Little House on the Prairie.”  The title I always wished we could appropriate though was “Up the Down Staircase.”  It sort of catches the crazy, often nuerotic, intensity of life at 677, – the number of the post office route where the mail box perched on the edge of the road leading to the farm and our house on the hill.

July 21, 2007

The love I only glimpsed

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:25 pm

I started yesterday to write about my family, but today I’ve been remembering MT.  I said in an earlier post that there were four great loves in my life.  I’ve written about my father, a man I fell in love with when I was a nun, and my husband.  I haven’t written about MT because in some ways this relationship and what it means is still a mystery to me.

M was a colleague with whom I worked closely for a fairly short time.  He was immensely popular with the students and secretarial staff, and was probably the most gifted person on the faculty.  At the same time he was diffident and generous and humourous, and I loved him.  I mean really really loved him.

I was already married and so was he, and I never once seriously thought of leaving my husband for him.  In fact, and this is what is so extraordinary, I don’t think M ever had any idea of the depth of my affection for him.  Nor do I have any idea how he felt about me.  He was always kind and brilliant and unpretentious.  My attraction to him was, surprisingly, not particularly sexually charged at first, and so I find it difficult to explain why my feelings were initially so intense, and my thoughts about him for some time almost an obsession.  Yet our relationship was never anything but professional.   Once  I saw him looking at me with great warmth and care, but he did not know I saw it, and I never gave any indication to him that there was anything unusual in how I felt about him.

I’ve often wondered why I was so careful not to let M suspect how much I cared for him.  I think he was someone for whom being loved was a burden.  I never learned anything about his life, but I thought perhaps someone important had needed him.  Perhaps his mother or sister.  So that he learned that being loved came with demands for a return of his love that he found constricting.  Perhaps this is pure fantasy on my part.  But I would compose my face so that I would not look too happy to see him, or show how much I enjoyed working with him.  I thought, if I really loved him, he would never be weighed down by knowing.  And I feared it would ruin the relationship we had and the ease with which we worked together. 

Knowing what I now do about the depth of my attraction to intelligent, principled, and depressive men, I wonder, in retrospect if M was a depressive.  I never saw it in him – he was always upbeat and courteous and I never heard him winge or complain.  My question about his depression is whether, in some unconscious way, it is what I was responding to with such intense emotion.  My responses to him, when I think about it, reflect the way I respond to depressed men whom I admire and like.

After a short time, our professional lives took different directions and I have no idea what M is doing now or know anyone who is contact with him.  I remember when we said good bye feeling the kind of anguish you feel when someone dies.  I would love to see him again.  Not to have an affair.  I would just like to sit and talk to him and see the laughter in his eyes and how fast he catches the point of what I’m saying, or the compassion with which he understands what a student or colleague needs. 

I knew so little about him that sometimes I wonder if I have made up a fantasy of a man that is no more than a figment of my imagination, that the way I saw him wasn’t the way he was at all.  At best, I only ever saw him in a professional role, and even that is frozen in time, like the nation’s image of Marilyn Monroe – always young and beautiful.  Never old and fat or grumpy.   Was M ever short-tempered?  too absorbed in his work to take time to care about his wife or children?  was he a Jekyll and Hyde personality. charming in his public life and terrorizing or freezing out his family?  I don’t know. 

But I remember him as one of the most beautiful people I have ever known.  Sometimes I still miss him with a terrible sense of painful loss and it seems only yesterday that I never saw him again.

July 20, 2007

The family on the farm: my brother Tom

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:46 pm

Despite my original plan devised at the age of seven to escape to New York City, at the age of eighteen I went into the convent instead, joining the Maryknoll missionary sisters.  Before I explain how such a drastic redirection occurred, I will describe my brothers and sisters.  There were ten of us altogether, so it will take a few postings to accomplish this.

Tom is my older brother by a year.  Mostly that made us equals.  I respected his areas of male competence and I was granted superiority in everything else.  He loved the fields and was intrinsically a much more gifted farmer than my father.  He was also a good mechanic.  At about the age of 12 he had the tractor apart in the garage.  I was appalled at what looked to me like an act of methodical terrorism, but Tom, unperturbed, bit by bit put it back together, and to my astonishment it worked.  After that, it never occurred to me to try to fix things for myself.  If something was broken, Tom would be able to figure out how to fix it if anyone other than God could make it work again. 

Tom and I were acknowledged authorities in the family after Mom and Dad, and our word was law with our younger brothers and sisters.  The defense “Terry said I could do it,” worked just as well as “Mom said…”  Tom says he knows women are as smart as men because I was smarter than he was.  That make him a pretty fantastic brother for a sister to have, though I might not have fully appreciated it at the time.  I didn’t know I was smart;  I just thought I knew more than most everybody else because, along with Tom, I was the oldest.  But I did know we worked together to try to raise parents fit for the modern world.  It was a tough battle, but things were working out pretty well until I entered the convent, and then Mom died and the whole project fell tragically apart. 

If I wanted to go to New York, Tom wanted to buy a farm in Alaska.  In the end, he became an mechanical engineer rather than a farmer, and worked for General Motors until he retired.  Now he and his wife hike, and kayak, and bicycle around the world.  They are on the road more often than they are at home.  His children are the most important things in the world to him, but we still discuss the philosphical issues of life and love.  Is there a God, does the Roman Catholic Church more harm or good, what’s the purpose of life, and all the other imponderables and unanswerables we spent so many hours discussing as children around the dinner table.

July 17, 2007

The fascination of an unachievable man

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Family,Growing Up,Husband — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

I described how I met the man to whom I am now married in my June 15th post.  We have been living together for more than half my life now, and he has become the most important and significant man I have ever loved.  As we have survived, exalted, triumphed, and despaired over the inevitable ups and downs for thirty five years, I have wondered about the glue that has held us together through it all.

Peter is immensely kind, exceptionally intelligent, highly educated, capable of expending baffingly amounts of energy and determination – and subject to swings of depression that can fill me – and undoubtedly him – with despair.   I continue to find him fascinating.  Not with, perhaps, quite the same driven excitement that I felt when I first met him, but I still love to talk to him, to be surprised by his alternative take on life.  He is without doubt the best – if not the easiest – thing that has ever happened to me.

For many years, I thought that, because of my father, I had confused depression with intelligence the way some women confuse abuse with strength in men.  But it’s more devilishly complicated than that.  As some women are attracted to married men because they are unattainable, I’m attracted to intelligent depression.

I am attracted to intelligent depressives because they are so hard to please, and because happines eludes them.  I am attracted only to men who think I am something quite out of the ordinary, and however kind and sensitive depressive men are, I always sense an unmet yearning.  My impulse is to say “I am that special person you are looking for;  I understand your longings, your exceptional gifts;  I can love you enough.” 

So I didn’t stumble accidentally after all into marrying someone who was an intelligent depressive.  I chose it, even though I may not have understood myself in the choosing.  I doubt that I have changed.  I’m still fascinated by that enchanting deception.

Anyone who has lived with a someone struggling with depression knows how hard it is.  Sometimes it feels simply impossible to overcome the bleak despair engulfing someone’s whole view of life.  It is not rational, even though it might be triggered by real tragedy.  It is not voluntary, though there are sometimes controllable factors like drink and nutrition and exercise and medication that effect it.  It demands strength from anyone living with a depressive.  Or at least it has made demands on me that have pushed me to greater maturity and I hope greater gentleness.

I never once talked to her about it, but the person – besides Peter – who is probably most responsible for my not walking out of my marriage during its darkest days was my father’s second wife.  I think my own mother blamed herself for my father’s unhappiness.  Mary never did.  I watched how she lived with my father.  Though at times I thought she was a witch incarnate in relation to my brothers and sisters after Mom died, she was also the best role model as a wife I ever had. 

July 13, 2007

My first grown-up love

Filed under: Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:21 pm

I was still in the convent the first time I fell in love with an adult passion – that all-consuming, 24-hour-a-day passion when you can think of no one else, and being with him is the goal of every hour.  It was not a one-sided affair.  Marc was as fascinated with me as I was with him, and there was an electricity between us that was probably evident to anyone with anything but my most virginal naivete.  He was married with a French wife who seemed unthreatened and tolerant in a European kind of way of her husband’s wanderings.  Nor did it bother me that Marc liked a lot of women and that I was sure his moral code did not forbid his sleeping with many of them.

We met at a time when the old disciplines of convent life were breaking down, and new disciplines more appropriate to working in the modern world had not yet taken hold.  Marc and his family lived adjacent to the Maryknoll grounds, and many of us often walked over there to spend our weekly free afternoon there.  We accepted their drinks and cigarettes and carried on hours of philosphical and religious debates.  At that time I was also going into New York City every week to record a children’s religious television show.  Marc was a television producer, and we often rode to or from the City with him instead of driving ourselves.  One day – I can’t imagine how this was permitted – I was in the car with him alone, and in broad daylight he leaned over and kissed me.  Not a chaste kiss, but one whose meaning even I could not possibly have misunderstood.  It was not the last moment of passion we had together.

I did not leave the convent for the sake of this love.  When it was strongest, I had not yet taken my final vows and I could have left with little fuss.  What tortured me, and what remains a value for me to this day, was his wife.  He had married her, not me.   I did not see how I could take him away from her without feeling I had betrayed a fundamental human trust.   After I did leave the convent, I slept with him once. 

The next time I saw him I was with my husband, and the old passion had been replaced with affection and a memory of a man who held a special place in my heart until his death.

July 11, 2007

Men whom I have loved

Although in retrospect, I can see that I have always been pretty independent, I have never shared the anger of so many feminists against men.   Despite society’s inequalities and unfairness, in general, I enjoy men.  They have been my brothers, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbours.  I don’t walk around resenting them.  (I am not talking about men who think they own their women and have a right to punish them as if they were lesser beings.  That is an injustice of such magnitutde that I am left gagging in revulsion and rage.) 

There are four men, in particular, whom I have loved with passion.  Not all with an explicit sexual passion but with a depth of feeling that reached to the core of my being.  The first was my father.  I adored him and I was his favourite.  He was an exceptionally intelligent, educated, highly-principled man who also suffered from depression.  He made depression look so reasonable, and became depressed about such truly great issues, that I was in my twenties before I realized that depression was not the only intelligent response to life, and that my father actually suffered from a clinical disease.  Although he loved us without question, Dad more or less communicated that he thought his children were failures.  I see now that was part of his depression and his inability to believe he could ever accomplish anything of great value, including raising children who were successful. 

I felt an immense burden to make him happy.  Although he never said so, I knew Dad would be terribly proud if I became a nun, and that was certainly one of the reasons why I entered the convent.  By the same token, leaving the convent and then getting married to a divorced man were steps out of childhood and into an independent adulthood. 

My father’s last request to me when we both knew he was dying was that I ask my husband to seek an annullment from the Roman Catholic Church for his first marriage so that we could be married by a Catholic priest.  I said no, that it had been a real marriage for my husband, and I would not ask him to pretend that it wasn’t.  Besides, at that point I had already left the church and most of its doctrine behind.

I was a nun when I met – and fell passionately in love with  – the second man whom I loved with what felt like my whole being.  His story is for tomorrow’s post.

July 10, 2007

And the greatest of these – is laughter?

St. Paul said there was faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity.  “Charity” thunders down the centuries, echoing with great works and towering sacrifice.  It is filled alternatively with some fair dose of hypocrisy mixed with the heroics most of us, thankfully, are not called on to exercise on most days.  More modern Biblical translations have used the word “love” instead of charity, but today the term love often means sexual passion and romance and again something quite apart from the humdrum of everyday.

So what about kindness and laughter instead?  Kindness as insight and caring and affection and everyday kind of comfortable reliability.  Kindness that laughs and doesn’t make everything too terribly important.

Last week, a Maryknoll missionary priest whom we called Father Don, and whom our family had known since we were children died.  We have been remembering that kind of kindness and laughter.  In 1959 my mother died quite quickly of cancer at the age of 48 leaving her husband with ten children between 6 and 19 years of age.  My father remarried within months, but it was an adjustment for the kids that never got easy.  My littlest sister reminded me of Father Don’s simple laughter when mostly there was sadness.

Father Don was based in Guatemala, and we only saw him every couple of years.  But when he came to the house, it was always magic.  Above all I remember “Father Don’s Song.”  Sitting at the piano, he would play only 2 notes in a repetitive rhythm of one, two-two, one, two-two, one, two-two, one, two–two (one being the lower note).  Once the rhythm is established, one starts singing “ahhh” in a dirge-like chant, designed to make young children giggle.  As soon as somebody starts to laugh, the music is stopped with an explanation of just how serious this song is to all Guatemalans everywhere and would everyone please show a little respect.  And so we straightened our faces and held our breaths while he started again, only to burst into hysterics before he got more than one or two notes out of his mouth.”

I doubt Don ever had any idea of the joy and happiness he gave to us in those dark abandoned days.

July 9, 2007

A nun’s very Catholic family

We grew up in a very very Catholic family.  In fact, we were super-Catholics, and were burdened with the belief that we were each chosen to do something very great with our lives.  So we thought pretty highly of ourselves, and thought we were a moral cut above the average sinner.  My father believed that the greatest thing any of his children could achieve was to become saints.  Sanctity became our highest goal.

 On the wall of the kitchen was a Christian calendar listing the feast being celebrated on each particular day.  Each one of us were named after a Catholic saint who was held up as our special example, and whose feast day was celebrated on the par with birthdays.  I was named after St. Therese of Liseaux, the “Little Flower” who became a cloistered nun and died in her early twenties, having celebrated the value of “little things.”  I never liked being named after her.  My plans for myself were never little. 

Every night the family gathered after dinner to say the family rosary together.  Mom was often pregnant and was the only one permitted to sit during this ritual.  The rest of us sprawled in what we called kneeling, positions that were rather surprisingly tolerated by a otherwise pretty strict parenting code.  During the forty days of Lent preceeding Easter, we each engaged in a series of public resolutions like abstaining from candy or parties or listening to our favourite loud music.  At Easter, Dad hid what he called an Alleluia Egg, pure white with Alleluia printed across its face in yellow food coloring.  Whoever found it earned a prize.  Mostly it was hard to find.  Once it was in the telephone (it was eventually found by the telephone repairman who was called in when the phone wouldn’t work), another time in the dust bag of the vacuum.  And there were first Communions and Confirmations, baptisms, and all the rituals of the Catholic year.

I thought all Catholic families were more or less like us.   But there was one critical difference between us and most other Catholic families.  For all his commitment, Dad wasn’t afraid to teach us how to ask questions, and to challenge religious authority.  I was an expert on the fine nuances of papal infallibility, and on just when the pope couldn’t be wrong, and the much larger arena when his view should merely be respected if not accepted.  This unsubmissive attitude, this default setting of disbelief, if you will,  which I learned at home, was not at all what most Catholics were like.  It certainly was not what was expected of me in the convent.   

July 6, 2007

The dream of the nun’s father

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:48 pm

To describe the world I grew up in, I think I have to start with my father, Claude.  He was the one who had the dream, and in 1941 convinced my mother, Jean, to move with me and my brother Tom onto seventy wild acres in a town called Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.  Dad was a lawyer and went into the city everyday except Sunday, leaving Mom, who was at heart a city girl, to worry about the developing farm and my father’s dream.

I think Mom was often lonely on the farm, and moved because Dad had a vision influenced by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.  I think he believed that growing food and raising livestock was untainted and that his ten children would be less influenced by the alluring seductions of materialism if we grew up surrounded by nature.  So he built a house that gradually got bigger as his family needed more bedrooms.   And although he never became a farmer – indeed had absolutely no talent at it – he and Mom worked hard at creating an idyllic life style for us. 

The swamp was dammed and the resulting lake stocked with fish.  He built a beach and a tennis court, and planted fields of hay that my brothers and neighboring farmers cut and bound into bales each summer.  Cows grazed in the fields and pigs grew fat in the pens.  After the war, he got some left-over quanset huts, and I was about three when the first chicks arrived.  Eventually  hens laid eggs for our breakfasts until they were killed for the evening table.  We picked apples and pears from our trees, strawberries and asparagus from the garden, and ate fish from the pond.  In winter we skated on it, in the summer we competed in swimming across the five acres, before collapsing on the dock made of boards strapped across six empty oil barrels that kept it afloat.

The dream had a good number of unscripted events.  My brother and I got caught in the mud where I thought I was going to sink into China which I’d been told lay beneath my feet.  The fields caught on fire, ruining the crops but giving the local fire department a lot of practice.  My brothers had the misfortune of turning the tractor over in the fields several times and twice drove it into the pond.  The cows sometimes bloated and died, lightning hit the farm buildings, and my mother lived in constant fear that one of her children would drown in the lake.  We were taught how to swim at a young age, and then life-saving skills. 

The farm was part of the dream.  I adored my father but I didn’t like living on a farm.  By the time I was six, I was plotting how to escape to New York City.   In the next posts I will try to explain how I ended up a nun instead. 

June 28, 2007

Why did I ever become a nun?

In retrospect, I have found it a good deal easier to explain to people why I left the convent than why I went into it.  That’s partly because people are usually delighted that I left, but somewhere between appalled and baffled that I ever decided to become a nun in the first place.

I spent some years after leaving the convent trying to understand myself why I went in.  One of the reasons it’s such a difficult question is because the full answer is multi-faceted. 

Was it the influence of my father whom I adored?  yes.  Was it the kind of Catholic world in which I spent my childhood?  yes.  Was it growing up in a rural community in Ohio instead of in a city like New York?  yes.  Was it the narrow options I thought were available for intelligent, independent women in the 1950’s and 60’s?   yes.  Was it the belief that imbued the civil rights movement and John Kennedy’s Peace Corp that we could build a better world?  yes.  Was it Pope John Paul who made so many of us believe that the Roman Catholic Church was changing?  yes.  All of the above.

I will try to convey in future posts just how dynamic each of these influences were, how they could make a life in a missionary order of American Catholic sisters sound like one of the most exciting things one could possibly do with one’s entire life.  And of course, ultimately not only why I changed my mind, but which ideas and values and beliefs I had then have been discarded, and which I think are still pretty fundamental to the way I live today.

June 24, 2007

Something adolescence and old age have in common

I was about eight years old when one day on the drive to school my father said it was worth remembering that Aristotle had written that happiness wasn’t something you could get at directly.  Rather it was something that happened when you were concentrating on achieving something else.  Exposed to this kind of casual conversation from a young age, you can see how I became such a serious person.   Along with a potent mix of intellectual Catholicism, this kind of thinking has formed the foundation of most of my values and big choices in life.  I haven’t been a believer for many years, but the old habits die hard.

It is now, though, getting in the way.  Instead of getting on with life, I remain tempted to spend hours worrying about questions like whether a sense of meaningless and lonliness are an inevitable part of growing old.  I went to bed last night and woke up this morning composing my little philosophical treatise on it. 

But before I actually got started, I sat down with my husband to read the Sunday papers.  Having concentrated on the Great Issues currently facing the world, I came away quite refreshed and energized.  Quite obviously, the elusive answers to the meaning of life, like happiness, disappear if I start looking for it.  So I will spare you – and more importantly myself – the treatise.

I said earlier that for me getting old is a lot like adolescence.  It’s a fantastic time to learn so much.  It’s a whole new perspective.   

June 20, 2007

The convent I left

I was a nun for nine years, so it will take a few more postings to describe my life there.   I do want to correct the impression that the convent I was in was the traditional, closed, stuffy uptight place so many people think convents are.  Orders of nuns and the rules under which they live are varied, and there was much about Maryknoll, even fifty years ago, that was a breath of fresh air. 

Part of the problem then was the often unbridgeable disconnect between the young sisters and the older nuns in charge.  Many of the young nuns came to Maryknoll with educational levels years beyond those of the older nuns.  And the world was changing faster than almost anybody in authority could cope with.  In universities and schools, in politics, in churches and families, traditions were in upheaval.  If the Maryknoll superiors sometimes tripped up, so did thousands of professors, presidents, politicians and parents.  The Maryknoll superiors were trying, but often they could not understand what was happening, and even when they understood, they rarely knew how to communicate with us.  Nor often were we listening, because we thought we had more to tell them than they had to tell us.

After Princess Diana died, the Queen, who had been socialized by the Second World War where people kept a stoic facade in public and mourned in private, was stunned by the response of hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in anguished mourning.  To her, this display of emotion no doubt looked self-indulgent and vulgar.  It is extraordinary to me how quickly she grasped that society had changed.  For several days she remained holed up in Scotland, looking as if she would never budge from a self-satisfied puritanism.  But I doubt very much self-satisfied is what she felt.  Looking at the subjects in her kingdom in a totally new way is closer to what I think now.

Many of the nuns in positions of authority at Maryknoll were like that, though the learning curve was less apparent at the time, and lasted for years.  Actually, it probably never stopped, because it was an order that engaged with the world, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian, and continues to struggle to understand.  Today, hundreds of nuns and ex-nuns remain friends, and return to the center Motherhouse in Ossining New York regularly.

But what was it like?  We usually rose with a bell at 5:30 am, had an hour of silent meditation before saying the Office in the chapel together and attending Mass.  Then we gathered for breakfast before beginning our assigned work for the day.  All of this was done in silence, and even during meals, we listened to reading, sometimes religious, sometime educational or inspirational.  Work was sometimes manual, sometimes study, and was punctuated with periods of prayer.  Music was an important part of the liturgy, and choir practice a significant part of the weekly schedule.  In the evening we had an hour of “recreation” when we talked and played games.  The discipline of the routine suited me well, but I chaffed against the constant oversight of authority.    

No, I didn’t belong there, even under the most modern of rules, and am very glad events did not construe to keep me there any longer.  But it wasn’t the way most people think of convents, and there is a lot about my experiences there that stood me in good stead when I returned to what we used to call “the real world.”

June 19, 2007

The night I left the convent

I left the convent nine years after I had entered as an 18-year-old, and three months after I had taken my final vows.  Yes, final vows does mean final, and just ninety days before leaving for good I had taken a solemn vow to live the rest of my life as a nun.  The life I led in the convent, and how I got to the office of the Mother Superior that night to sign the papers releasing me from this ill-fitting promise I will describe in more detail some other day.  This is a short version.  Actually, there are two versions of this story.  One is the story I would have told in all sincerity at the time.  The other is the one I think now is informed with a modicum at least of somewhat rueful self-knowledge.

I had joined the Maryknoll Sisters, an American missionery order, with the idea that it was a kind of life-time Catholic Peace Corp.  In the world outside the walls of our idyllic retreat in Westchester in upstate New York, Pope John XXIII was creating havoc with what so many had assumed was the unchangeable tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.  Out went the Latin Mass, and in we came with our guitars and folk songs.  I avidly read the pope’s encyclicals, along with the writings of intellectual rebel theologicans.  Consequently, I spent most of my time as a Maryknoll sister with a coterie of other young sisters fighting the Establishment.  The Establishment fought back by assigning me to the bakery, the sewing room, the pantry, to clerical work, and for two exciting years to the publicity department where I was the chief presenter on a weekly children’s religious show on NBC.  After six years, I was sent to earn a degree to equip me as a primary school teacher.  I was not asked.  Just told.  It was an ill-suited choice for me, but I was too much of a trouble-maker to be trained as a doctor or sent to study a dangerous subject like psychology or philosophy.   And I was kept safely in New York, rather than sent to work in an underdeveloped country, which is what I had come to Maryknoll for.

But the outside world was beginning to intrude.  In America, Martin Luther King was galvinizing the civil rights movement, and the protests against the Vietnam war were beginning.  Drugs and hippies and free sex had not yet penetrated our walls but many of us were convinced that we of the younger generation were at the cutting edge of world-wide renewal.  The older generations, both inside and outside the convent, feared we were at the cutting edge of outright revolution. 

The young sisters agitated to get out of our old-fashioned habits that covered us from head to toe, and inch by inch our garments were shortened, our arms and heads uncovered, a discrete calf and ankle shown to the world.  We were sent to live in houses in the slums of the Bronx in New York, and Paterson and Hoboken in New Jersey.  The regular trips into New York City to record the TV show introduced me to a dynamic world of committed people who often were not even Christian, let along practicing Catholics.  Most of the NBC television staff were New York Jewish intellectual types who could not fathom what a group of young, intelligent, vibrant young women were doing locked away as nuns, however modern we thought we were.

The speed of change was either too fast or too slow, but by the score, young sisters began to leave.  I convinced myself that if I were to continue the true work to which Maryknoll was dedicated, I too had to leave the convent.  I did not think I was rebelling against a life without sex, a life of poverty, or of daily unrelenting discipline.  I was rebelling against what I thought – and still think – was the demand for idiotic obedience.  But I gave myself high marks for moral integrity, and thought all my own motives were selfless.

Which is how one day in September I went to the Mother Superior’s office and asked her to petition Rome on my behalf to be released from my vows.  She had no choice but to do so, but not saying a word, she closed her face and turned her back on me.  I left the room. 

Three weeks later the permission had come through.  Later, Rome began to deny these requests.  How long I would have stayed if I had not been given permission to leave is a matter of conjecture.  Maryknoll or the Church had no legal right to demand that anyone remain, but for many, the moral authority of the Church was so great that they would never have considered going against it.  I do know I would not have remained there forever.

In the event, I was in the Mother Superior’s office at eight o’clock that September evening.  She placed the papers in front of me to sign.  Inexplicably, I broke down in violent sobs.  I fled the office and sat in the back of the choir stall of the chapel.   I guess I was saying good bye to an impossible dream.  Whatever I was doing through my tears, I wasn’t considering changing my mind.  Eventually I regained my composure, returned to the office and signed my departure papers.  Then I walked downstairs, caught a taxi to the train station, and went back to New York City.

I thought I had left the convent, and indeed I had.  But psychologically I thought of myself as an ex-nun for several years.  I was 27 years old but terrifyingly naive and innocent. Gradually Maryknoll receded and become a part of my childhood.  Today I rarely tell people I used to be a nun.  Not because it is something of which I am ashamed or embarrassed, but because it is misunderstood by so many, and I am no longer the compliant, believing, innocent young woman who left the convent that night more than 40 years ago.

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