Book Review: Why I Am Catholic (and You Should be Too)

Book Review: Why I Am Catholic (and You Should be Too)

I was a Catholic nerd as a teenager, reading every Peter Kreeft book and listening to every Scott Hahn cassette I could get my hands on. Brandon Vogt’s recent work, “Why I Am Catholic (and You Should be Too)”, is a smooth, intelligible summary of all that led me to choose for myself the faith my parents raised me with. It combines the best aspects of personal testimony and Catholic apologetics into a book that’s easy to read and leaves you nodding your head in agreement, often surprised by the clarity with which he writes. He meets you where you are at and patiently, but not patronizingly, walks you home.

I’ve heard many a convert say, “There is no one book in particular you could have given me to convince me to become Catholic”, but I’d have to say that this is the closest thing there is to it.

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Control freaks and The Land Before Time

Control freaks and The Land Before Time

I had an epiphany recently.

When things don’t go the way we wanted, the way we planned, we feel out of control. We hate it. It leaves us in a bad mood, asking “Why me?” or “Why would God let this happen?”

When things do go the way we planned, we feel in control. Happy. Peaceful. On top of things. We know what to expect: our desires becoming a reality.

Here’s the epiphany part: We were never in control to begin with! It’s kind of like that scene in The Land Before Time (my daughter is super into dinosaurs, so I get to relive the scariest movie of my childhood – yay!) where Cera is hungry but proudly wants to get the leaves down by herself. She runs into the tree, headbutting it again and again, until Little Foot mercifully and inconspicuously tosses a bunch down, timed with one of her attempts. She munches self-contentedly one her chlorophyll-filled meal, not realizing the goodness of her friend she so often snubs.

Sometimes things happen according to my plan, but I wonder how often it’s actually because I made them happen, and how often God just has pity on me and throws down some leaves while I walk away feeling so good about myself.

It’s not that we don’t need to try to do anything because our lives are predestined in a way that negates our free will. God gives us human means. We have intelligence and time, money and influence, knowledge of female reproductive systems, textbooks we can study, and rowboats we can float away in. But, for those of us who tend to want to control our surroundings, it’s good to remember that God gave us even those means. All that takes place in our lives does so under the loving eye of Our Heavenly Father, the Giver of good gifts. So when we pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us, we can feel free, and tell God with Pope Saint John XXIII, “It’s your church, Lord. I’m going to bed.” It’s in his hands; we do our best and leave to God the rest.

Things not turning out as we had hoped is a reminder from Our Lord that we are not in charge and that we need him. Being a parent has taught me more about how God sees us than my theology degree ever did. How badly do my children need me! How badly must I need him? My newborn could literally not leave the room if I just left him there. And my two year old – well, we’ve all heard enough stories about two year olds to know that things don’t end well when you take your eyes off them for more than 30 seconds (check out the literal writing on all of our walls if you want evidence of that). I think I am so capable when I check things off my to do list, when a recipe turns out well, when have a pleasant day with no tantrums or tardiness. In reality, I need the days where I hide in the bathroom or turn the music to maximum volume in the car to drown out the whining to wake me up to my dependence on Our Lord. He often throws me the leaves, but sometimes, I need him not to, so I realize that all this good in my life? It’s not my doing. I’m not in control. And that is a damn good thing.

Treading Lightly and Changing the World

Treading Lightly and Changing the World

I have been having an internal debate lately. Here are the two arguments:

  1. Treading lightly: I love the idea of not taking up unnecessary space. Of letting nature be. Of not filling even the virtual world with my picture duplicates and papers from college. Of giving people the room to think and ask questions and feel comfortable and dance. Of treading lightly on this earthly journey of mine, and not disturbing what is already so good.
  2. Making a difference: Both in the world and in Christian tradition, we want to leave our mark. Most people would say that they want to be remembered. In the Church, we want to bring light to the darkness. We are co-creators. We take trees and we build houses, stone and we build cathedrals, gametes and we build persons. We want to change the world for the better.

As I write this, I realize that the two thoughts are not necessarily contradictory. I grew up in a family of boy scouts and one thing that really stuck with me is “leaving no trace”: every place you visit in nature should appear untouched upon your departure, or even better than it was when you first arrived. We made sure to pick up after ourselves and after those who came before us. When I first thought of that lesson, I thought it fell under the “tread lightly” camp. But we don’t just “leave no trace” of our presence, we pick up the litter of others as well. And so, we do leave a trace, in a way, by making it better.

The problem arises because we all disagree on what is better. Would it have been better for Europeans to have stayed in Europe and not colonized the Americas, unknowingly wreaking havoc through the spread of disease, and sometimes intentionally destroying through slavery, violence, and racism? Or is it good that many local traditions were fairly supplanted by the newcomers own culture, language and religion? Should we have fewer children and instead adopt those who need loving homes? Or is each person such a wonderful, marvelous entity that an attitude of “the more, the merrier” is appropriate? I’m not here to debate. In fact, I am very over that. But do enjoy a good ponder, and a healthy dose self-reflection.

I appreciate the trend of minimalism, as I strive to practice it. Living clutter-free, or as close to clutter-free as possible in America with a toddler and an infant, helps keep me sane. I remember as a kid trying to get my mom to sit down with us and just watch a movie, as she repeatedly got up to clean something, and I am now that mom. It isn’t because we are masochists, but because, as moms, our home is our kingdom. We are in charge. And when that which you care for is in dissaray, it is hard to think about anything else! The adage is true that an exterior orderliness reflects an interior orderliness – and, for me, and exterior chaos creates an internal chaos! So I keep our home simple. I started with clothes – keeping what we wear, what we love, and what we need, and getting rid of the rest. I’ve Marie Kondo-ed my kitchen cabinets, our medicine cabinet, our linens, and our sports equipment. I am an adrenaline junkie and this is my high: having space to not be distracted, to sit and relax or to dance to the Moana soundtrack for the 10,000th time. I have started to try to carry this clutter-free environment with me wherever I go. I keep in my car only what I use. I’ve deleted old files on my computer, unstarred what I thought at the time were important emails I will never look at again. And in my activities, I like to just be. I don’t want to do crafts that I will make and not use. I cook. I garden. I read. I watch my children grow and explore. I hold my husband’s hand. I’m seeking the best of both worlds: appreciating and respecting and transforming to help something become more of what it is, and what it can and ought to be.

I don’t want to make the world a messier place, but I also don’t want to think that it’s all on me to perfect the world, either. I want to tread lightly, and I want to bring light to the darkness. I want to harvest a dirty, gnarled root and turn it into a beautiful, delicious meal to nourish the bodies and spirits of those I love. I want to be changed by the beauty around me. I want to soak it in.  And I want to cooperate with that which is good around me to bring out the best in everyone and everything.

I want to be salt. Too much salt kills a dish. Too little does nothing. The right amount allows the flavor of the food to shine forth, while it steps silently into the background.

As we dream of the simple life, let us not blame our children for technology

As we dream of the simple life, let us not blame our children for technology

As someone who grew up in an environment where my family had unhealthy relationships with screens, and now as the spouse of a man who provides for our family via screens and who likes to play videogames in his free-time, I needed to read this. Since I met him, I’ve been working on seeing them as tools – neither good nor bad until paired with our circumstances and intentions, but I certainly have my hangups and this article helps.

Beauty Will Save the World

Beauty Will Save the World

Reading this article by Humane Pursuits, and recent conversations with my self-employed motion designer husband have emboldened me to call myself and others to action: As Catholics, I firmly believe that we have to step up our game in the realm of beauty.

I know that I personally overvalue efficiency – why would I spend more on something when I can get something that works just as well for less? Because beauty will save the world. My husband works in beauty, in creating. My dependence on the success of his business has opened my eyes to the negative effects of my own short-term, function-oriented vision. If someone is willing to do a job he is trying to get for half the price and half the quality, many clients go with the cheaper. And who suffers, besides my family obviously? I would argue: everyone. Their company suffers, because even if they can’t really tell the difference between the two styles of product, the audience will notice that one has the it factor, and the other doesn’t. And the world suffers. It tells artists to stop making beautiful work because it is not wanted. No one shares crappy commercials on Facebook. But some of the most watched videos on YouTube are commercials that touch our hearts, inspire something within us, call us to something greater. Obviously, we need to be practical and prudent, but I would argue that beauty is a factor as important in our decision-making as function and cost. Otherwise, we begin to use and abuse things without orienting them to God, and we are tempted to begin to use people as well.

Minimalism and the Virtue of Detachment

Minimalism and the Virtue of Detachment

I was already getting into the minimalist movement via Marie Kondo* when my husband quit his job to start freelancing from home, I got pregnant with our second, and I lost my (part-time) job.

This pregnancy, I ended up getting rid of 10-15% of our stuff. Once the what felt like near-death symptoms of my HG wore off and I became more “normal sick” and mentally functioning, just mostly couch-bound, I hadn’t much in my control, many ways to feel productive, so I decluttered, and organized, and re-organized our house. A few weeks ago, I casually asked my husband if he ever used the holy water font by the front door, to which he responded while looking at me both imploringly and firmly, “Please don’t give away any more of our stuff before this baby is born.” Poor guy. It was a bag of donations for Goodwill every few days at one point. Plus a couch here and bookshelf there. But that’s just part of it.

I was, at first, living a privileged minimalism. I could get rid of something that didn’t “spark joy” in me and replace it with something cute with gold accents from Target or IKEA that did. Things have changed. Due to our current financial situation, with my husband being self-employed and a lack of regular paychecks in regular amounts, budgeting has been an adventure. We were already on the Dave Ramsey* bandwagon and at the beginning of this freelancing journey discovered You Need A Budget (it’s not free, but it is worth it). It has helped tremendously, says my husband. (I’m normally more involved with our finances but constant nausea isn’t super conducive to that.) YNAB is great because you tell each dollar where to go – it’s not designed to simply record where that dollar ended up going, and because it works with the actual money you have, not a theoretical amount that doesn’t align with your bank account. This has left us with the age old wisdom: if you don’t have money for it, don’t buy it. How has that been going for us?

My mom was great at buying in bulk, finding sales (maybe a little too great – “It’s on sale! If we don’t buy it, we will be practically losing money!”), and keeping every odd and end that passed through our hands for “someday”, “just in case”. I’ve definitely got her frugality, but her holding onto everything started to rub me the wrong way once I was in college and discerning religious life. I went away for a weekend with some nuns to learn about their life, and only brought with me a backpack with a change of clothes, pajamas, minimal toiletries, and a Bible. It blew my mind that you could live this way. We are talking about the girl who filled at 12 passenger van to move across the country for university, bringing even multiple sets of free weights which I lifted only when moving residences. Since getting married, I’ve been learning what I can and can’t buy from Costco. 50 lb bag of flour? Yes! We bake our own bread and go through it fairly quickly. Bag of nuts that I only use for a couple recipes? Pass. They have been sitting in my fridge for years. I still try to shop only from what’s on sale, but the hoarding thing is another story. If not minimalism, then simplicity has gotten under my skin. And while the end product of that is delivering bags of donations to Goodwill and a more open, more streamlined house, it starts, I’m learning the hard way, with my Amazon account.

I’ve always loved reading tips on our how to save money. It feels like entertainment that is also productive! And although the repetition gets old, I’m ever-hopeful that the next list will include an idea I haven’t heard before. The #1 suggestion listed is, almost without fail, cutting out Starbucks and either making your mocha-caramel-frappa-whoozie at home, or dropping it altogether. First off, I don’t like coffee. Secondly, due to probably both nature and nurture, I’ve never spent money on things I was taught to be extravagances. Like drinks. Bring a water bottle with you and fill it up. Not too hard. As a family, we already rarely go to the movies or out to eat. We stick to our grocery list when shopping and make ourselves leave the store or sleep on it to think it over before making a purchase. But then it hit me. Amazon is my Starbucks. Because we have a couple different accounts and I’m lazy, I didn’t tally up how much we have spent the last few years on Amazon, but I know I would be shocked by the number. No big purchases, mind you, and I don’t even buy clothes or shoes online because I’m annoyingly picky, but it’s sooo easy as a housewife to read a blog or hear a suggestion from an older, wiser friend and think, “That product would be so helpful! And it’s only $10! I’ll just pull it from my ‘household’ budget for the month. I’m doing my job.” Let me tell you: since my husband has been freelancing, our “household” budget has disappeared. Toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and toilet paper are the only non-food items we buy. Seriously. My recent Amazon order history is blank (except for some maternity underpants, but if your underpants literally made you throw up, you would think new ones were a necessity, too). When I first got into Montessori, I got major Instagram jealousy and thought I couldn’t educate my children well if I didn’t have every – or even one or two – wooden, naturally-dyed, organic things made by 7th generation German craftsmen with an affiliate link on a blog I liked. At first, I tried to keep up. Ahhh, my first experience of keeping up with the Joneses. A humbling one. Now, I don’t even DIY these activities. When my toddler is ready to sort by color, she doesn’t need anything I bought for the purpose. She doesn’t need a game I DIYed out of recyclables (that I went out and used and then saved for that purpose). She will sort her socks. And her balls. And her beads. Heck, with me stuck on the couch, she doesn’t even need me to model it for her most of the time. She will survive. And she will learn.

Another tip I read about to be thrifty is to have a “no-spend” weekend, or week, or even month. “Challenge yourself!”, the authors croon, “It will force you to be creative and work together!” Before this current stage of life, I could totally get down with that. Now? I laugh. How elitist I was! And how proud, I’m sure, my future self will see my current self as! It’s a constant temptation to see the good that others have, but to focus on the negative in our own lives. To wallow in our busyness and lack of time, and then we have kids! To mope over our financial situation, and then we lose our job! My life feels like a no-spend zone, I complained then, and I complained now. I thought not being able to buy red meat regularly was a deprivation, and now vegetarianism isn’t just a trendy lifestyle choice. But you know what? We aren’t starving – and some people in the world are. Not that my sufferings don’t matter because someone else has it worse, or even just different. It’s not a comparison game. It’s a humility game, if you will: seeing reality, including ourselves, for what it is, for what we are. Praise God. We have a home. And family and friends. We can feed ourselves and our children. We can put gas in our car to go to the park or to church. And if I really need new underpants, we will find a way to get me new underpants. I’ve heard it said, What if we woke up every morning, with only the things we thanked God for the night before? I am so grateful. I guess that’s what I’m learning from this whole experience.

I’m​ a list-maker, so I used to have a note on my phone with our immediate family’s special dates (anniversaries, birthdays, Baptism days, etc.) and next to each of those I had a gift idea. Whenever I came across or thought of another idea, I would extend the calendar , or even include less special days to make room for the purchases I wanted to make. It was hard letting that go. It’s difficult when something breaks to not be able to replace it. When people ask how you celebrated an event and you say, we went to the park or we had a nice homemade meal (like we do every week, but we did it with extra joy), it’s humbling. But this is our life. We are living this way by circumstance and by choice – but mostly by grace. This lifestyle is – I’m sure – closer to the reality of the “good ol’ days” than the idealized version expounding community and homegrown everything that exists in my head. I can see God’s hand at work, teaching me detachment, to stop creating needs for myself, to surrender my concerns over our financial situation to my omnipotent, omniscient, and most loving Father, to be grateful for every crumb on my plate and every sock I get to/have to darn, to, yes, enjoy the creative challenge of going without, to humbly let a generous friend buy us groceries​, and to just be – loving my people and using my things, rather than using my people and loving my things.

Plus, cleaning the house is a lot easier when you have less stuff to put away.

 

*Note: Any books, and almost any products really, that I recommend, I would borrow from a library or a friend if possible, and buy second-hand and locally if need be, to both save money and reduce waste.

Happy Hyperemesis Gravidarum Awareness Day! and my experience of it

Happy Hyperemesis Gravidarum Awareness Day! and my experience of it

Don’t you love all the holidays we celebrate in America? We are an interesting people. I mean, I’m Catholic and I use any excuse to feast, even if it’s a Saint I’ve never heard of. But I confess that when I hear about another awareness thing I sometimes want to stick my head in the sand. Well, I was scrolling through a calendar of health related holidays for my job, and I came across today.

I have hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). I had never heard of this pregnancy complication before I had children. I first had it when I was pregnant with my daughter who is now two, and I have it currently with my son who will, God-willing, be born next month. With my child in between these two, I showed no such symptoms. Our Heavenly Father called him home when he was just 7 utero weeks old.

After a long day photographing our friends’ wedding in the summer of 2014, we drove home late from the reception. I had my husband pull over into a CVS parking lot so I could grab a pregnancy test (never again – Dollar Store all the way). I was a little late, and just had a feeling. I held off until maybe four in the morning until I just didn’t want to wait any longer. We were pregnant! Well, I was pregnant. But I think my husband had something to do with it.

At the time, I was commuting about 45 minutes each morning to work with my dad. Pinterest has so many cute ideas for baby reveals, but we just wanted to tell as many people face to face as possible. Especially Grandpa! We hadn’t had the opportunity yet though, when I walked into his office and he was chatting with someone who was going to shadow him that day at work. I discreetly put my things in the corner and squatted to pull out some saltines for the nausea that had begun not too long before. My dad, always the joker, looked over and, interrupting himself, asked, “What are you pregnant?!” He had been saying the same thing since we got married, so it wasn’t out of the blue, but my answer seemed to shock him! “Yep!” Haha!

I was able to keep working for a few more weeks through the morning sickness. Since we are in the healthcare field and my dad is a doctor, he was able to make sure there was always a stash of barf bags from the hospital in his car for me, as we travelled to visit patients in their homes. It got to a point though, where I couldn’t keep up. I was vomiting in the bushes outside of people’s houses and the smells I encountered walking into hospitals and assisted living facilities became too much. I started working from home and my hours logs quickly tanked. I dreaded getting out of bed because I never knew how bad I would feel. There was no question that I would feel bad, but how bad. I went from a newlywed, excited to take care of my new home and my new husband to the lady who lies on the couch every waking hour watching TV. I had to lie at a certain angle because any more or less would make me vomit. I couldn’t turn my head without vomiting. I couldn’t walk, even to the bathroom. I couldn’t stand any smells – food, of course, but my own deodorant, my husband’s normal scent, laundry detergent. I stopped brushing my teeth regularly because it would only make me vomit. I couldn’t wear a bra or a belt or anything with elastic around my abdomen. The water pressure from the shower was too much.

Well meaning friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers all sympathized, telling me it was normal – they, or their spouse, or their sister, or their dog breeder’s cousin had it bad, too. And proceeded to recommend saltines before getting out of bed, ginger tea, eating small, frequent meals, avoiding fatty or spicy foods, etc., etc., etc.

I tried everything.

When my vitals started to reveal that I was losing an unhealthy amount of weight and my family physician/pre-natal doc who knew me noticed that I just didn’t look ok, he told me about HG. It’s Latin for excessive vomiting during pregnancy. That sounded about right.

We tried a plethora of medications but nothing even seemed to dent my nausea and vomiting. It didn’t help that I often couldn’t keep the medicine down in the first place. Since we were newly married, I wasn’t yet close with anyone in our area. One saint of a woman who’s husband knew mine would pick up my prescriptions for me and drop off meals from time to time. But mostly I stayed on the couch alone all day, every day, and watched every episode of Psych, The Magic School Bus, and any other show I was ever interested in that was available on Netflix. If I soiked myself too badly (because when you are that weak, you don’t have much control of any of your bodily functions, be it where you aim or whatever else), my husband would help me into the bath in the evenings. He would bring me the neti pot so I could clean out the accumulated food particles from my nasal passages. He would help me wash my hair. He would sit with me while I cried, which only made me throw up all the more. He wanted to rub my back, but that made me be sick. I would often let him touch my hand or my foot, and that was it. His body heat made it worse.

We worked hard to find a food I could tolerate, and maybe even enjoy, but it never lasted long. Maybe I got a craving and my husband would drive to the grocery store to bring it back, only to find that just the thought of it already disgusted me. Or he bought the wrong brand and it wouldn’t work. Or maybe I would eat the same thing every day for a week, so we would stock up from Costco. And the next day I couldn’t look at it.

From what I’ve heard, most women with HG are repeatedly hospitalized for dehydration and often end up on home health or at least with a Zofran pump. Looking back, there were many times I probably should have gone to the hospital. But I didn’t know.

I still don’t really know. I still haven’t figured out a medication combo that works for me. I’ve still not gotten IV fluids, even when my skin turns grey. But I have learned some things.

Ive learned that I will never be the triathlon completing, cute bump dressing, glowing pregnant mama I thought I would be. My mom birthed 6 children – all naturally minus my emergency C-section – and push mowed our acre and a third lawn until we all arrived. Not me.

I’ve learned that, for me, it gets better. By the end of the pregnancy I can even cook and clean some.

I’ve learned how to be patient as a disabled person in a wheelchair.

I’ve learned that I can relate to women who abort their babies. HG is not a fatal illness with current knowledge and medical treatment if you find a doctor who knows what HG is and doesn’t just thing you’re complaining, like it was in the past, but many still die of it today, be it via abortion or suicide.

I’ve learned that physical ill health can lead to mental ill health. And that tying your hair up in a bun and leaving it that way for weeks will make it near impossible to brush out.

I’ve learned that throwing up is ok. Did I mention I had a phobia of it before getting pregnant? Hahahah oh that’s rich.

I’ve learned that the nausea doesn’t necessarily stop once the baby is born. I had something akin to normal, mild morning sickness from the time my first was born until the time I got pregnant with my third. Crazy high protein breakfasts help my body calm down, but every day I would still wake up sick.

I’ve learned that marriage normally doesn’t look like it did on your wedding day. For us, it mostly looked like death, with some life thrown in at the end, interspersed with periods where I am happy and “normal” and we are able to work hard and enjoy life.

I’ve learned that normal is relative, and if you are going to wait for a reason to enjoy life, you might miss out on life itself. I take joy in my daughter holding my hand while I throw up. I take joy for my daughter’s and husband’s sakes in being forced to slow down (and mostly stop), because my personality doesn’t generally permit me to just sit and relax. I take joy in walking to the car in whatever weather without throwing up, just to be in the world again. I take joy in being able to receive Holy Communion. I take joy in any connection whatsoever with a loved one.

I’ve learned that marriage is a pathway to holiness, and that God both trusts us with a lot and wants much more for us. In sickness and in health can mean mostly sickness. I’ve watched my husband become a better man before my eyes. I’ve seen my own weakness and how much growing I have to do. My eyes have been opened in new ways to the omnipresent yet often hidden sufferings of others.

I’ve learned that pregnancy, for me, means sickness and depression and loneliness and fear. And a call to trust. 

I’ve learned that labor and delivery and newborn night feedings and toddler tantrums are not so bad, relatively.

I’ve learned that there will always be people worse off than me, and there will always be people better off than me.

I’ve learned that community makes all the difference.

I’ve learned that I can’t love humans in the abstract. I can only love a particular person and only in deed. I’ve learned that love is not the same as affection. I’ve learned to love someone I don’t know. I’ve learned to love someone who causes me great suffering. I’ve learned that love requires sacrifice. I’ve learned that people we love are worth sacrificing for.

I’ve learned the tiniest bit of what Jesus did on the cross.