Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ceremony of Innocence

(Again, it's been a while since I've posted here, but life's been busy.  Since my last entry I've married off another of my children and written, edited, and submitted another novel.  Between all that and working for a living, there hasn't been much time for blogging.  But I finally got around to a review of Ceremony of Innocence, a recent novel from Ignatius.  Hopefully it won't be as long until my next post.)

For my birthday I received a copy of the recently released Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean. I'd read the synopses and was intrigued, but wanted to find out just where the author went with all those elements in her debut novel. I was pleased by the quality of the writing – the story drew me in easily and engaged me in the plot and characters. This is important, because if “Catholic” authors are going to escape the “Catholic literature ghetto” (you know – that place where people buy “Catholic works” in order to support the authors, not because they necessarily enjoy the stories), then first and foremost the authors need to be high quality artists. If this is what McLean can do in her first novel, I have high hopes for her later efforts.
The story takes place in and around Frankfurt, Germany in 2008. The protagonist is Catriona McLelland, a woman in her 30s who is Canadian by birth but was raised in Scotland and now works as a field reporter. (Though Catriona isn't an example of the author writing herself into her own story, it seems clear that Miss McLean is drawing on her own experience as a foreign journalist to flesh out her characters.) “Cat”, as she is known, lives the life of a modern urban professional. She is divorced and awaiting word on her annulment, lives with her decade-younger university student boyfriend, and spends time in clubs leveraging her low-level celebrity status to flit about the edges of the privileged class of the wealthy and noble.
McLean paints a picture of postmodern, post-Christian European culture that is gritty, dingy, and a little depressing. Cat herself is no heroine – she is a “tribal” Catholic who knows but does not live by the tenets of her faith. She cannot claim ignorance. She has a doctorate, understands the subtleties and nuances of the Faith, works for a Catholic news agency, and writes “spiritual” books on the side. But despite this knowledge, her life far more reflects the values of the world in which she lives than the ideals of the Kingdom of God. She's casual about her occasional heavy drinking and drug use as well as her concubinage with her boyfriend . McLean handles the character well. Because the story is told from Cat's perspective in the first person, the reader is naturally sympathetic. But as the plot unfolds, one gets a better picture of Catriona – her condescending treatment of her boyfriend, her dalliance with the amoral “butterfly set”, the implicit cynicism of her double life as a spiritual and religion writer who lives in such moral confusion. I found myself sympathetic to Cat in the fullest sense, as uneasy and ambivalent about her identity and behaviour as I can imagine such a person would be herself.
The plot centers around the entry of Suzy into Cat's settled existence. Suzy is an idealistic young westerner who also hails from Canada, which in her mind gives her a natural relationship with Cat. Suzy has decided political opinions as well as (eventually) an eye on Cat's boyfriend. Out of respect for their friendship, Suzy is above board with Cat about this attraction, which introduces tension into their relationship but does not end it. The jaded, sophisticated Cat initially views Suzy as a dilettante, a child with a cause and a credit card. But as the story unfolds and they are thrown together in some very unusual circumstances, hints of deeper and more disturbing things begin to surface. I won't give away any critical details, but suffice it to say that it turns out that Suzy is involved in some ugly stuff and comes to a bad end (something that is known from the opening pages – the driving question of the book is at whose hands?) The most compelling part of the story is watching the moral dilemma in which Cat finds herself as she struggles with the disturbing knowledge she gains as the tale unfolds. This tension is particularly acute when Cat's boyfriend leaves her for Suzy – a development that has almost nothing to do with Suzy's allure and everything to do with Cat's waffling and duplicitous treatment of him.
As I pondered the story and its intricacies, one theme that became increasingly clear was how Cat was the mother of Suzy. Not literally, of course – the two women were only about 10 years apart in age – but philosophically. There will always be high-minded crusaders with young heads on their young shoulders, but ideally they would be assisted by wiser elders who, if they haven't always walked paths of righteousness, at least gained wisdom from the lessons learned when they didn't. Cat walks in neither righteousness nor wisdom, and thus can provide neither good guidance nor good example when Suzy appears, searching for a life of high ideals and stringent standards, a cause to live up to and sacrifice for. When she looked at Catholics like Catriona, she saw nothing of that, and thus looked elsewhere. If Cat and those like her had been living a vibrant and dynamic faith, people like Suzy might have an alternative to dangerous places where error is taught.
Even though this type of story isn't my first choice to read, I found Ceremony of Innocence a good novel, and hope to see more from Miss McLean in years to come. One bit of technical advice I might offer: the story is told in a flashback mode that gets a little confusing at times. It opens in the immediate aftermath of some dramatic developments, and then goes back to fill in the background of how matters came to this point. However, this flicking back and forth between the “current” situation and the “past” that explains it happens at several points in the story, and I struggled at times to figure out just what “present” I was in. I understand this technique, having used it myself, but with a story of this length and complexity it proved a little clumsy. Perhaps a more chronologically linear storyline would help the next work – either that, or clearer delineations between what time the reader is in. But this is not a showstopper, and those who love thrillers set in exotic locations and filled with dark secrets will not be disappointed by Dorothy McLean.
Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean, 2013 Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-731-7

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Giving Away

Again, my long neglect of this blog has not so much been because I have forsaken writing, but because my writing energies have been focused along more creative lines. Hopefully you all will have a chance to appreciate those energies in due time; in the meantime, here are some thoughts on developments in our lives:

I recently had the opportunity to do something that I'm not going to have many opportunities to do: walk a lovely daughter down the aisle at her wedding. This old custom, known as “giving away”, raises hackles in some quarters, who automatically paint it as a degrading vestige of patriarchy, with the woman being treated like property to be handed off from one Domineering Male to another.

Fortunately, the participants and attendees at this wedding were too well-educated to buy into such simplistic interpretations, but the term offers a good opportunity to meditate on the nature and manners of love. Of course, my daughter was never “mine” in a proprietary sense, even when she was a newborn. She hasn't even been “mine” in a custodial sense for many years, since she eased into a mature and personal relationship to her True Father. She's lived on her own for quite some time, traveled further and studied more than I have, made courageous and costly decisions, and accepted responsibility for her own life. Of course I've supported her as I could, offering support and sympathy and feeble advice, but I've by no means directed her life – she's made her own decisions.

Still and all, I think there's an important lesson behind the custom of “giving away”, and I could hardly find a better living example of it than the wedding itself. In all her travels and studies, my daughter has made many friends – not just casual acquaintances, but serious heart companions. She has poured herself out in love to those she meets, at times at great personal cost. She has given herself away in love, because love is the most important thing on earth.

At the wedding we saw some of that coming back around. One of the guests was a friend of my daughter's who had gone through some turbulent times in her life some years before. My daughter helped her through those times – I know because my daughter would retreat to her room for long, supportive phone conversations. That friend made it through those times into a wonderful marriage to a good man, without damaging any family relationships in the process. So when it came time for my daughter's special celebration, this friend showed up and essentially made herself a personal servant of my daughter and our whole family – serving in any way necessary without regard for dignity or convenience. Another dear friend was there with her loving husband and wonderful little baby boy. I know that my daughter had helped both the friend and her husband during some difficult years before their marriage – not with professional counsel, but with a steadfast, loving presence. I can't say for sure, but my guess is that my daughter's love was a critical component in that family forming and staying together. They were there to support and embrace my daughter as she began her married life.

These are but two examples of how the love which my daughter had poured out came flowing back to her on that blessed day. The hall was full of people who were there to rejoice with the new couple and, in a small way, pour back the love that they had poured out in their time (I'm sure it was equally true of my new son-in-law, but I don't know his stories as well.) My daughter had given herself away over the years, given in love in response to her Heavenly Father's promptings, and now love was given back to her.

So, what am I saying? That love is a prudent investment because it always has a good ROI? That's a self-contradictory attitude – something that is done in a calculating manner, trying to evaluate the “return”, is something other than love. Love can only be freely given by independent agents who seek the good of another – anything less fall short of true love. Sometimes we get a chance to perceive the fruit of our love, sometimes we don't. My daughter saw some of it on her wedding day (and that was a lot!), but I imagine that much more wasn't manifested there due to simple practicalities – people couldn't make it, etc. But in time, all the love she has poured out will come pouring back to her, as it does for all of us.

In that sense, all acts of love are “giving away”. I didn't walk down that aisle to “give away” my daughter as one would give away an object. What I was “giving away” was love – in this case the loving person my daughter had become, freely and joyfully granted into the capable hands of her new husband, who will pour himself out in love for her good. It was a symbolic act, but one that exemplifies the very nature of love.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Little Perspective

For the last 15 years or so, this weekend – just around the last weekend in January – has been the one where Ellen and I headed off for our much-anticipated winter getaway weekend at a nearby resort town. The town has a busy summer season but both pace and prices reduce significantly in the wintertime, and it's not far away so travel isn't a big issue. We started this when all the kids were still at home but had gotten old enough to leave, and the pace of parenting was nonstop. We started heading off for just a weekend, but the time proved so therapeutic that we started extending our stay until we were heading over for five days.
It's hard to convey just how much this time has meant to us. To have just a few days to ourselves, without any time pressure, was like a renewal for us and for our marriage. To be free from the relentless, 24/7, always-on-call responsibility of parenthood was such a relief that we took to calling the time “depressurization”. One of the reasons we extended the weekend was that we found that it took a full day or so after we got there just to slow down. We'd so look forward to this that, at random times throughout the year (particularly if the pressures were mounting), we'd look at each other and say “five” or “nine” - that being the number of months until our getaway. It never failed to elicit a smile and a rush of calm.
This year, though, we weren't able to make it. We had to call and cancel our reservation. The finances just wouldn't bear the cost. Now, it would be easy to get all caught up in the disappointment of this, and mope about grieving over what we might be doing if we'd been able to have our winter getaway, etc. But there are a few things different this time. One is that the pace of our ordinary life has slowed considerably. All the kids are really, truly out of the house, so usually it's just us living at a more sedate pace. Sure, we appreciate the chance for a responsibility-free long weekend, but we hardly need it in the same way we did ten years ago.
But another thing happened during the Christmas season. My son and daughter were on their way across our state in the wintry weather, hit a slushy ramp, and rolled the car. Thankfully, they were both securely strapped in and walked away with nothing worse than bumps and scrapes, but the event was an ugly shock for us all, and especially for my son who had to go through the hassle of replacing his totaled car.
Obviously, that's the sort of thing that makes you stop and think about what's important in your life. Having your children came frighteningly close to major injury or death sweeps the trivial things to the fringes in a big hurry. We celebrated our “all-together” Christmas – which was what they were coming for – with extra appreciation for the fragility of life and the preciousness of loving relationships. I've spent a lot of time being extra thankful to the Lord for sparing our children.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that I think there was some kind of cosmic trade-off here, that somehow the “price” of our children's protection was our foregoing our getaway weekend. That's not how God works. What I am saying is that life-rattling events cause you to step back from situations you're too close to and look at them in the broader context. Sure, a decade and a half of special couple time is a great record, and would be a wonderful one to continue. But nothing dire is going to happen if it's missed for a year. Having a child seriously injured or killed in an automobile accident – now that would be dire.
At this point, I've no idea what the future holds. Maybe we'll pick up again next year (when I canceled the reservation, I made one for next January), and this will just be the “year we missed”. Maybe we'll be able to only do it sporadically in years to come. Maybe we'll never have another such weekend, because the time for them in our lives has passed. Whatever the outcome, it's in God's hands, and I'm much more comfortable leaving it there. Special things like getaway weekends are wonderful gifts, but He has so many other blessings, everyday blessings that we tend to take for granted and even forget are blessings.
Sometimes we just need something to remind us of them.