Saturday, August 20, 2016

Making a home

When Ignatius Press published my novel The Accidental Marriage, I anticipated that at least some of the reaction would be negative. After all, the premise was unusual to the point of shocking – a man and a woman, both of whom consider themselves gay, conceiving a child and then marrying for practical reasons, only to find that the relationship they share growing deeper and richer as they face life's trials. It never becomes a romance, but it is a story of deep friendship and commitment, and self-sacrificial love. I knew that would hit a few nerves.

And strike it did. Though most of the reaction was positive, some was negative to the point of scornful. I was not surprised by those who reflexively piled on because the story refused to bow to the modern idol of homosexuality, not portraying it's “gay” protagonists as super-human heroes leading the race to an enlightened future, but rather as sinful and sin-damaged humans in need of hope and redemption that can't be found in perverted sexual expression.

But what somewhat surprised me was what garnered even more scorn than that: the idea that work to make and keep a home was demeaning, especially when (oh, scandal!) a woman did it. To judge from the reactions of some, the story was a deplorable apologia for female subservience, some kind of glamorization of the Ozzie and Harriet days (those useful targets!) Even some who didn't object to the same-sex portrayal were hesitant about that.

This was interesting because I deliberately set out to not write a story that did that. When the book opens, both protagonists, Scott and Megan, work. When Megan is laid off, she attempts to look for work, but economic and other conditions preclude her finding any. She and Scott share his apartment on a roommate basis, splitting the work evenly. When she moves in, she cleans his grody bathroom, not because she's a stereotypical woman and he a stereotypical man, but because he's a thirty year old adolescent who needs to grow up (a critical driver of the plot). When she can't find a job, she turns her hand to the available work, squaring away the household, which Scott has kept in adolescent disarray. But he still helps, both with the housework and with the baby when she comes. If looked at objectively, the household arrangement in the story is very modern and egalitarian, considering the circumstances.

Clearly certain readers weren't seeing this, as they sneered at the idea of Megan doing any work around the house (apparently not noticing that Scott was doing work as well). The derision was usually a rehash of tired feminist arguments, but the more it went on, the more apparent it became that the real acrimony was for the idea that homemaking was legitimate work.

This caught my attention. Having raised six children, I'm keenly conscious that building and running a home is serious work that needs constant attention. A home, understood as the loving order that is brought to the physical surroundings of a dwelling, is critical for raising children to properly love themselves and those around them. Nothing can substitute for a home – no educational institution, no community effort, no government programs. Homes are necessary for people to be loved and to learn love, and they are not built without effort – diligent, conscious effort. Furthermore, it takes everyone to pitch in – not just Mother, but Father and children as they get old enough to take on responsibility. Around our house, even though Ellen was a stay-at-home mother and homemaker, she was far from the only one who made the home. Being a self-employed consultant with a home office for the majority of our childraising years gave me plenty of chances to make the home as well, and our children were taught the same. None of this was seen as us “doing Mom's work”, but as everyone pitching into the common effort of building and maintaining our common home. In that regard, our household was a pinnacle of feminist sensibility.

Or it would have been, if equal work about the home were truly the feminist desideratum. But the more the contemptuous commentary piled up, the more obvious it became that the offense was not that Megan did housework, but that the home needed work at all. Apparently the simple, necessary effort required to have a home was considered demeaning drudgery, unworthy of attention by anyone of consequence. Perhaps it could be contracted out to some service firm, but was definitely beneath the dignity of anyone worth anything. Or if not that, show the man doing it. But to have a woman doing it? Why, that would be downright stereotypical!

This concerned but did not surprise me, for it reflects a societal attitude of contempt toward the idea of a home. In a time when outsourcing your life is a societal trend, the idea that anyone should expend effort to make a more loving environment for anyone else seems passé. Particularly offensive, it seems, is any kind of work that would be demeaning, such as cleaning bathrooms or washing dishes. Yet, such work is necessary if there is to be a home at all, because there's more to effort than getting a job done. Direct effort by a person on behalf of another person sends a message: specifically, you're worth it. I love you and my work for you is my gift to you. Here, let me show you how to love your sister (or whoever) by giving your work for them. That's what building a home is – and that's what no economic or commercial substitute will ever be able to replace.

The fact that a portrayal of the work necessary to build a home engenders scorn is disturbing. Either people are not aware that homes need deliberate, constant effort, or they think that such effort is scut work, unfitting for mature and dignified people. In either case, it forebodes a social environment when there will be no homes. I think we're beginning to see this, as people live their lives elsewhere – work, the club, the gym, the restaurant, wherever. They have houses and apartments but no homes. Professional are hired for difficult or unpleasant jobs, such as raising children. As I read the negative reviews about my story, it occurred to me that some of the reviewers may have never seen a home, and only know of them through negative portrayals in books and films. But humans require homes – they're the center of our existence. Without a home, we have no center, no grounding, no place to, well, come home to. And sadly, we're seeing situations where people have no center, living life on the peripheries, be it their work or their vacation condo or their regular bar.

Ironically, that's where The Accidental Marriage begins. Neither Scott nor Megan have true homes. Scott has a bachelor pad with a roommate, which is how he's lived for years. Megan is involved in an abusive relationship, in effect a living doll to her partner, who likes to dress her up and show her to her friends. Both Scott and Megan have a place to sleep, but neither has a home. It's only when circumstances throw them together do they begin to build one. It's not conscious or planned, in fact it's somewhat accidental, but it grows out of them loving each other and expressing that love in productive work. The fruit of that work is the home they build together.

Building a home is a noble and honorable thing. Homes do not accidentally happen, they are built by expressing love in works of service. There is no task that is beneath anyone, if it is undertaken in love and completed diligently. No man, woman, or child was ever diminished by working to build a home.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The World is Listening

There has recently been a bit of – ah – discussion in the world of Catholic online presence about what constitutes acceptable speech by writers known publicly to be Catholic. Much of the discussion I've read has taken place along the axis of personal freedom of expression vs. what is proper and suitable for people who are published in Catholic periodicals. While I doubt that anything I say is going to bring that dispute any closer to resolution, I wanted to share from my personal experience an aspect that isn't getting much attention in the discussion; specifically the aspect of evangelical witness.

I was raised in a home that had what you might call a high propriety level – my father had been raised a Southern gentleman and rarely used “strong language” at all, and certainly not around ladies. I followed suit, but when I left home it was into the military service, specifically one of the floating ones, where my immature and malleable personality was constantly exposed to people who swore like, well, sailors. Initially I began to follow suit, but since this was also a time when I was seeking to more consistently live my Christian commitment, it wasn't long before my newly acquired vocabulary faced the question, “Is this kind of speech honoring Me?” Since it wasn't yet an ingrained habit, it was an easy one to drop, and I continued through my career speaking as I'd learned at home.  This differentiated me from nearly all my shipmates, but I never thought twice about it. I didn't consider myself as “The Sailor who Didn't Swear”, nor did I dream of censuring my shipmates for their salty language. I simply lived, and spoke, in an environment where foul language came as naturally as breathing – I was just careful not to pick up any of those habits.

It was a while before I began to notice that my unconscious abstention was impacting those around me. I was astonished once when a shipmate next to me swore at something and then promptly apologized – to me! I was hardly such a fool to think that I could stop sailors from swearing! But I began to notice that they did swear less when speaking with me. I also noticed that if I was alone on the ship (which was often), some would seek me out just to converse – conversation that was almost devoid of foul language, no matter what the shipmate's verbal habits normally were. I began to see that talking with me was, for some of them, something like a verbal oasis, or a calm patch in the midst of the steady gale of profanity that was normal conversation aboard the ship. The conversations were rarely about anything noteworthy – how things were going at home, or hopes for their next duty station, or how their career was progressing, that sort of thing. Just casual talk, but it was conversation, not a stream of profanity.

It took me a while to perceive that my verbal habits were to these men a signal, a public and audible statement that I was different. Speaking with me could be at the least a gentler experience than dealing with the sandpaper edge of profanity-laden conversation. Furthermore, the change in the nature of the medium usually impacted the content. Speech thick with profanity is more commonly used to express criticism, cynicism, and contempt. One can express those things without cursing, but it's more difficult. But mostly I think it was simply the absence of the foul language that was a relief, like breathing fresh air after being trapped in a smog-laden valley for months or years.

The recognition that I was different in that way led to recognizing that I was different in other ways, too – specifically that I was a Christian who sought to live my faith seriously. Some may have expected that to be expressed as censure of their verbal habits, but when I didn't do that, they got to wondering just how I managed to avoid picking up this most obvious and contagious aspect of my environment. Nobody was proud of the fact that they swore, as evidenced by where and how they sought to curtail it (e.g. when they were trying to impress some girls, or around children.) I sensed that everyone wished they could swear less than they did, yet the habit had them in its clutches. They would have thought it was inevitable, but there I was (and a few others aboard with me), not succumbing to the tidal pull toward toilet mouth. I think it gave them hope. I know it ultimately provided me the opportunity to share with some of them why it was I didn't curse, and where they could find the strength to follow suit, if they wished.

From what I've seen, this aspect of public witness has been missing from the discussion of how we should be speaking. In my experience, even (and perhaps especially) in environments where profanity was not only unsurprising but as common as wall paint, people who do not conform their verbal habits to that environment are distinctive and noteworthy. What they do with that distinction is up to them. If they choose to emphasize how different they are, and how others should follow their example, it might send a different message than if they simply offer an alternative, a quiet witness that speech does not have to be profane to be effective. It may even open doors, as people seek refuge from the rising tide of caustic verbiage found in more and more places. Maybe St. Paul knew what he was speaking of when he says “Let your speech be gracious” (Colossians 4:6), because as I learned, our very patterns of speech can be a channel of grace to those around us – or not.

I realize this goes against the cultural flow, particularly for those who equate profanity with some kind of emancipation. Our speech isn't just about us, what we want to say and how we choose to say it. Our speech is about helping others, hopefully toward grace. Maybe this isn't what is common in popular music, or what's found in popular Broadway musicals, but if we're to be God's people, we need to be conscious of what is forming our speech patterns, and whether what comes out of our mouths is gracious.

Because the world is listening.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Till everyone is blind

Someone I love dearly recently posted a link to an online article, praising it as profound wisdom. When another whom I love also admired the article, I clicked through and read for myself. Sadly, what I found was not wisdom. I found arguments that sounded reasonable, but at the heart of which lay deadly poison. I am so concerned for those whom I love, and for the author of the article (who is but expressing a popular sentiment), that I feel compelled to respond. But I didn't want to do it in bits and pieces in comment boxes, so I'm writing a post of my own.
You can read the column here. The author, ever so gently, excuses the sin of unforgiveness in the name of speaking for justice. She uses the example of Irish pub songs to springboard to the racial tensions in America. The reason this is so wrong is that unforgiveness is a deeper, more pernicious sin than racial injustice or cultural oppression. Unforgiveness can never be excused no matter how noble the rationale, and those who indulge it will ultimately lose all other goods, including justice, as bitterness and hatred consume their minds and souls.
We need to remember that justice is a minimum standard for treatment of others. Ideally, we'll be charitable to each other, but failing that we can be generous, and if we can't manage that perhaps we can be kind, but at the very least we should be just. Of course, it's also true that justice is foundational – without justice, expressions of kindness or generosity ring hollow, empty expressions of sentiment. But if justice does not lead to the higher goods, it remains stunted, a truncated foundation for human relations. Just as foundations were meant to be built upon, not moved into, so justice points to the greatest good, which is charity.
Forgiveness is essential to charity. I cannot be charitable toward someone against whom I am holding a grudge. Neither is forgiveness optional, as if it were some lofty goal that only saints can achieve. As Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18), our not forgiving others can get our own forgiveness rescinded. Forgiving as we are forgiven lies at the heart of the central prayer of Christianity. As Peter Kreeft observes, if we refuse to forgive, we speak damnation on our own heads every time we pray. Forgiveness does not negate wrongs (the Unmerciful Servant was truly owed, and justly deserved repayment), and neither does it negate the requirements of justice. But neither does it become optional when a certain victim count has been exceeded. Unforgiveness in the name of an oppressed nation or group or race is merely whitewash, because ultimately all these things are abstractions. Only individuals are moral agents, and individuals are commanded to forgive.
The cruel irony is that while the sin of unforgiveness is excused in the name of promoting justice in some arena, be it political or economic or whatever, bondage to sin is the deepest bondage of all. Ultimately it doesn't matter how “free” you are economically, or how much “justice” you've obtained in the political arena: if you're in thrall to sin, you're a slave. In her column, Ms. Weiss refers to “songs about killing the English” as “a trope, not an emotional reality”, and excuses singing them because “we root for the underdog.” She acknowledges that “hating people is wrong”, but then neuters her own statement by saying that “telling oppressed people to 'stop that hating' doesn't work too well.” Odd how Jesus stood in the midst of a people who'd been oppressed for centuries and told them to do precisely that. Those who did were freed even though the political and economic yoke of Rome remained. Those who refused to remained enslaved in every sense.
The truth is that the “tropes” which Ms. Weiss considers harmless because they are “not an emotional reality” are not harmless at all, but poisonous seeds that have sprouted and borne bitter fruit in Ireland through the generations. Perhaps the parish priests of Ireland tended to excise Matthew 18 from the Mass readings when it came around, or maybe they taught that it didn't apply to the English, or that it was applicable to individuals but not nations. I don't know, but I do know that the Church in Ireland, as well as the Irish people, are now paying a bitter price because the Church there chose to be a cultural institution interested in preserving its power rather than the impoverished Bride proclaiming her Divine Spouse's message of charity – including that difficult part about forgiving. “Tropes” that keep alive unforgiveness are anything but innocent. In Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan recounts how the Serbs commemorated their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks at Kossovo Polje in 1389:
On June 28, 1988, the year-long countdown to the sixth centenary of Lazar's martyrdom at Kossovo Polje began when his coffin began a tour of every town and village in Serbia...The coffin drew huge, black-clad crowds of mourners at every stop... “Every [Serbian] peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for,” noted John Reed, at the front in World War I. “When he was a baby, his mother greeted him with, 'Hail, little avenger of Kossovo!'” (Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, p. 38, emphasis added)
Six hundred years.
In light of these “tropes”, this “rooting for the underdog” (which Serbians would certainly consider “rooted in a longing for justice”), does anyone think it coincidence that Slobadan Milosevic was able to appeal to this bitterness lying at the core of the Serbian soul? Does it surprise anyone that these same Serbs are now resisting the flow of refugees across their country – refugees who are victims themselves, and who have no relation to those who oppressed the Serbs – simply because the refugees are Muslim?
Unforgiveness is never innocent. Regardless of the argument used to rationalize it, it always bears poisonous fruit. Dr. Martin Luther King recognized it, which was why he always preached forgiveness alongside justice. Gandhi recognized this, and though the Muslims and Hindus had a record of mutual oppression that went back centuries, and both had suffered under the British occupation, he stood in their midst and dared proclaim, “stop that hating!” (How many heeded his call can be seen in the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims.) Unforgiveness never liberates. To hear a powerful testimony to just how innocent those tropes sung in Irish pubs are, listen to Irish poet Tommy Sands' song There Were Roses.

And another eye for another eye, till everyone is blind.”

That's where unforgiveness leads. Period. Those who condemn forgiveness as weakness, who refuse to leave offense behind, who fan the flames of indignation in their breasts in the name of justice, are but chaining themselves more tightly to a crueler master. There is no freedom down that road, only more slavery.

Stop reciting the tropes. Stop that hating. Forgive. It's the only path to freedom – for an individual, a family, a clan, a race, a nation. For Irish and English, black and white, Serb and Turk, Hindu and Muslim – it doesn't matter who. Forgiveness is the only way to freedom. All other paths lead to slavery.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Why I Wrote This Book

 I've obviously been slack on the blog activity of late (not that many would notice), but that's because much of my writing focus has been on the creative side. Since 2012 I've penned four full-length manuscripts, one of which was accepted by the only publisher who has yet dared publish my work. This book, entitled The Accidental Marriage, was released in the autumn of 2014 by Ignatius Press.
But herein, apparently, lies the proof that I am a pitiful excuse for a blogger who doesn't have a clue what personal blogs are for. They are for keeping people informed about what's going on in your life, which would include the fact that you had a book published! Here it is, a year and a half after the book was released, and I've yet to say a single word about the work on my own blog. I've made posts reviewing other books, and had my book reviewed on other blogs, and have even been interviewed on television and radio about the book, but I've yet to use my own blog to comment on my own work.
So, a bit late out of my own gate, here's the story behind The Accidental Marriage. It's a short book, just over 200 pages, with a fast-moving plot and only a few major characters. The protagonists, Scott and Megan, are friends who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he's an engineer at a tech start-up and she's a clerk in the city office. They both consider themselves gay, have respective partners, and are good friends who meet for lunch from time to time to share their struggles. The story opens with Megan burdened by the latest wish of her overbearing partner Diane: to have a baby. Obviously this requires a man's participation at some point, and though a sperm bank would serve, funds are tight and cheaper options are attractive. Seeing a way to help, Scott blithely offers to donate sperm to the cause with no strings attached. After a few tries, eventually the donation succeeds and Megan becomes pregnant.
Then things start to come apart. Diane turns on Megan, now seeming to despise both her and the unborn child. Her deteriorating performance at work causes Megan to lose her benefits, including health insurance, and Scott offers to assist by getting her on his policy. This forces a rupture in his already-strained relationship with his partner Greg, as well as the most startling adjustment of all: in order to get Megan on his policy, Scott has to marry her. This they do, merely as an administrative formality. When Megan loses her job and her relationship with Diane totally collapses, Scott offers her a place to live, essentially as a roommate. Scott and Megan work out a simple, mutually beneficial living arrangement that endures even after the birth. They have a little girl, Grace Marie, who is a much-loved addition to their lives.
Then Scott's secure world abruptly flies apart. The tech firm that employs him is secretly bought out, and he loses his job in the midst of severe economic conditions (the story opens in summer of 2009, so the story unfolds in the shadow of the Great Recession.) With no connections or resources in the Bay Area, the couple is forced to return to Scott's small hometown in Michigan simply to survive. Once there, Scott takes a relatively menial job, well below his abilities, just to keep food on the table, and both he and Megan have to grapple with the seeming collapse of all their dreams and intentions for their lives, as well as the additional burden of a baby. Scott finds that the relationships which were so easy and fulfilling when he had a surplus of resources are now chafing and burdensome, hindering him from living the carefree life he wants. Finally he is forced to confront some of the darkest corners of his heart as he struggles with what he is living for, and what matters most to him.
Through these trials Megan and Scott learn more about themselves and each other, and grow in understanding of what it means to be human. Their friendship and commitment deepens even as they question many of the assumptions that have been driving their lives. The story ends on an ambiguous note: both still consider themselves gay, but have a renewed commitment to their life together. They still view their marriage as a formality, but there's a hint that it may deepen in the future. There is hope, but resides completely within the friendship they share.
When The Accidental Marriage came out, it was well received by some, but in other corners it sparked no small amount of controversy and even scorn. Seeing that the protagonists considered themselves “gay”, some took up the book in hopes of it being a sympathetic portrayal of that aspect of their lives. Others approached it in hopes of finding a morality tale that would end in either the bitter reaping of a sown harvest or a dramatic renunciation of sinful lifestyles. Since neither eventuality unfolded, both parties were disappointed, and said so. But many read the story for what it was: a tale of human brokenness and movement toward love. They are the ones who saw most clearly what it was about.
But, since I'm the author, I'm able to explain what others can only guess at. One is the “gayness” issue. This facet of the tale was what generated the most discussion, and the biggest amount of disappointment – in some corners because it sympathetically portrayed characters who considered themselves gay, in other corners because it didn't celebrate their “gayness” enough. But I'm about to let the cat out of the bag here: the fact that Scott and Megan consider themselves gay is a minor plot point, invoked for a reason that has nothing to do with anyone's agenda. There's a sense in which it's almost irrelevant.
What? With “gayness” having such a high chatter quotient in modern society, wouldn't it make sense to exploit that? Sure, if you wanted to write a book about “gayness”. But I didn't. What I wanted to write was a full frontal assault on one of the most dangerous idols of our society, and having Scott and Megan consider themselves gay was a good way to stage the attack.
The idol to which I refer is what I call The Myth of the Everything Relationship, the persistent and unquestioned assumption that there is one relationship out there that can complete, fulfill, and satisfy you. This is epitomized in the concept of the “soul mate” – the mystical party for whom you spend your life searching and who, once found, brings meaning and purpose to your life. This idol is worshiped by gay and straight alike, and has even been enshrined even in Christian circles, with Scriptural imagery and passages used to justify this view of romantic relationships. Even the ancient institution of marriage has been pressed into service of this lie, seen as something subordinate and secondary to romantic fulfillment (as witnessed by the countless songs, stories, and movies that revolve around a married people discovering their soul mates somewhere outside their marriage.) Yet in all my nearly 60 years, I don't think I've found a worse enemy of happiness and virtue than this idol.
I discuss this somewhat in my post A Most Terrible Idol, but when I took up my pen to write a story about how love could, and arguably should, flourish outside the reach of this dangerous illusion, I found myself in a bind: how to portray a love that grew out of the reach of “romance”? How to portray a relationship built on self-giving charity that wouldn't risk invoking the shadow of the “soul mate”? In years gone by, the answer would have been easy: write about a friendship between people of the same sex. But, as Sheldon Vanauken predicted, that gate has been closed by the common acceptance of same-sex romance. But how about if one wrote about two people of the opposite sex who were themselves same-sex attracted? Would not their presumptions about their own “gay” identities serve as sufficient insulation to prevent them “falling in love”, and force them to deal with each other out of straightforward charity? That was my hope, and that was the reason I chose to have Scott and Megan consider themselves gay – not to celebrate or to denigrate that, but to make use of it for a different reason.
That reason was to explore what marriage truly is – not as a culmination or stamp of validity on a mystically preordained romantic relationship (which is what the concept of a soul mate is), but as a permanent intimate relationship focused on supporting each other and any consequent children. As a relationship of sacrificial love that endures despite transient emotional states. As a deep determination to will the good of the other regardless of cost. That's what Scott and Megan discover as they forge a life together – one without sexual or romantic attraction, but with a firm intent to help the other.
Another point that came up in various critiques was that the treatment of the ancillary relationships. The story is mostly told from Scott's perspective, and other parties incidental to both Scott and Megan's lives are given scant treatment, including the partners they have at the opening of the story. The reader isn't given much of Scott's history and almost none of Megan's, and other characters are minor by comparison.
I admit this freely: I deliberately chose not to build up those other characters or explore those relationships. I did this for a couple of reasons, one tactical and one strategic. The tactical reason was that I understand that I'm writing for the “post-Postman”* generation who was raised on video stories and prefers texting because e-mails are too laborious. This is the generation that prefers a movie about Narnia because the books are too tedious. Few anymore relish long, intricately plotted novels with a cast of hundreds, rich character development, and complex nests of relationships. Those who do will be disappointed by the sparse, quick-moving plot of Accidental. For that I make no apologies.
The strategic reason is that a principle of good writing is to not involve too many characters outside the circle of your main one(s). Even adept readers can only follow a handful of characters, and the further out you get from the core protagonist(s), the harder it is to follow the story. Thus, I didn't want to get too far from the main character. Scott and Megan were the first layer out, and everyone beyond was yet further removed. But wait – what? Aren't Scott and Megan the central characters, and layers of relationship counted out from them?
The main character, the party around whom the story revolved, was Grace. The baby. Her presence weaves its way through the story and looms over the lives of her parents, and through them, all the other parties in the book. She is the driving force from the first pages to the last, bending Scott and Megan's lives to her needs. Though the story is told through their eyes (mostly Scott's), they are the secondary characters. Interestingly, the artist who designed the book's cover cottoned to this when he first read the manuscript, which partly explains the “flying baby” motif. He spotted that the driving question of the book was, “Who'll catch the baby?” Grace was brought into existence on a whim, but once she was there, she changed everything.
So there you have the secrets. I figure I wouldn't be sabotaging any sales by making these points so long after the book's release. There are more, but if you want them, you'll have to get the book and read it.

* Read Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death