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.