Friday, 30 November 2012

God's Handwriting: History

It strikes me that reading God's handwriting in history is much harder than reading God's handwriting in your heart. It is also harder to write about because although one can write about the human experience of conscience generally, history is personal and particular to every single person as well as the general circumstances in which a nation and the the world lives. It doesn't help either than a lot of history is just not God-given. God did not stretch out His hand and prevent Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, but He did not will it either.

How a good God can allow evil to happen is theologically called "The Problem of Evil" and I'm not going into it now because it would take a long time, and a lot of reading, and my right hand hurts today. What I'll do is talk about personal history and then illustrate the relationship of someone's personal history with the contemporary geo-political events with her life.

Everyone who is reading my blog has a personal history, and even if you are only nineteen, you can look back upon your life and look for both patterns and astonishing, unusual events that have led you to where you are now. You can find people whom you wished to be like, people whom you did not wish to be like, and people who recognized a talent in you for something and told you what it was. I suggest you hang onto the memories of good, blunt teachers who liked you and said things like "You'd make a good journalist" or "You'd thrive in law school" or even "I'll see your name in lights one day" because the Holy Spirit may have been speaking through them.

You might want to pay attention, too, to memories of what you wanted to do with your life when you were a child. Unless they are entirely ground down, children are remarkably uncomplicated about their desires and plans. If they want to marry their kindergarten teachers, they say so. At fourteen, we no longer have that kind of mental freedom. We glance uneasy at the people around us and wonder what they would say if they knew what we wanted and we wonder if we want is in keeping with our image of ourselves and blah, blah, blah.

When I started elementary school, my uncle gave me a little journal with my name embossed in gold. It has a page for every school year from Kindergarten to 8 and was highly organized. It includes pockets for report cards and favourite scraps of schoolwork. For the first few years it asks what the owner wants to be when she grows up. My first answers were "Mother" "Artist" and "Writer."

(Five years later, my uncle was dead. He had no wife and no children. But my oldest brother and I treasure his memory and his few letters to us. And with his gift, he started my lifelong diary and writing habit. He was the first Searching Single I ever knew and loved, and the spectre of his early death occasionally flogs my brother and I into taking batter care of ourselves, into getting up from the computer, and losing weight and eating better. Although my uncle could not have known this, his short life has had an important and lasting influence on his once-little niece and nephew.)

Now you may point out that it was all very well that when I was 4/5 I wanted to be a mother, but I am not a mother, so what was that all about? And indeed that is a good question, one I sometimes ask myself, because by the age of fourteen, I was very good at childcare and quite fond of babies and small children. However (like you) I grew up at a time when motherhood was denigrated in pop culture, and the idea of being a "just a housewife" was horrifying to me. I wanted to be my dad, not my mum, and what I wanted above all else was to learn, talk and write about stuff, to live the life of the mind around artists and intellectuals, in a way compatible with my Catholic faith.

And absolutely nobody told me that this would make getting married and having children much more difficult, or that my fertility might drop dramatically at 35, and actually I think I can see the hand of God in even this. For whatever reason, it would seem that God does not want me to be a physical mother but to be a spiritual mother. When you are over 40, have married twice, love children and young people, write a lot of relationship and spiritual advice to the next generation, and yet have never become pregnant, this seems a logical assumption to make. Yes, it's not over till it's over. But come on: I don't even have the will to chart. We are approaching miracle territory here. (And nobody say naprotechnology again or I will scream.)

Now as this has once again disintegrated into a story about lovely me, let me examine a concrete personal life lived in the wider history of the world. It is the life of a German Jewish girl named Edith who was born in 1891 in a city called Breslau. (It is now Wrocław, Poland.) Her family were observant Jews and her father was a businessman. However, Edith's mother was an even better businesswoman, and when Edith's father died, the mother greatly increased the family finances. From a young age, Edith saw that a head for business is not beyond the capabilities of womankind.

The German universities had recently decided that post-secondary education was also not beyond the capabilities of womankind, so Edith went to university and excelled in Philosophy. However, the universities had not yet decided that women could be professors of Philosophy, so that bit of history put a serious block in a formal university teaching career. However, it also led to Edith teaching in a girls' school, which led to her contemplating what it means to be a woman, and how women should be educated, and what we offer to the professions.

By then Edith had converted to Christianity, an event strongly resisted by her Jewish family and even resented by them because of growing German anti-Semitism. Her family's resistance--particularly her mother's disapproval--stopped Edith from doing what she dearly wanted to do: become a Carmelite nun like St. Teresa of Avila. (Part of Edith's personal history is that she came across St. Teresa's autobiography at a friend's house and it converted her to Christianity.)

Because Edith did not feel she could be a nun, she continued to teach, to write and to lecture. As a Catholic woman intellectual, she felt it necessary to counter the growing tendencies in German society to view German women as either just like men (taught by ordinary socialists) or as baby-machines and providers of home comforts for the Master Race (taught by the National Socialists).

The historic rise of the Nazis led to the end of Edith's career in education, as even Jews who had converted to Christianity were considered a pernicious influence. This led Edith to a crossroads. As she had no other career options, she could either go to America or enter a Carmelite monastery. Uppermost in her mind was how either decision would affect her mother. She decided that it would hurt her mother least if she went into the Carmelite convent in Cologne. When things got so bad for Jews in Germany it looked like Edith might be taken from the convent, she was sent to a Carmelite convent in Holland.

That proved not to be a safe place. Nazi Germany conquered Holland, and although it did not want to alienate the non-Jewish Dutch (who in the Nazi view were also Germanic and master-racey), they began to persecute the Dutch Jews. The Catholic bishops of Holland publicly denounced the Nazis for this. In retaliation, the Nazis rounded up Jewish-Catholic converts and their families, and sent the Jewish-Catholics without families, e.g. the priests, monks and nuns, to Auschwitz. There Edith and her sister Rosa died.

It is hard to see how the horrible death at Auschwitz of Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedetta of the Cross), the most important Catholic woman theologian of the 20th century, could be the will of God. However, Edith did not try very hard to escape this fate. In fact, in 1939 she prayed that her death would somehow be a help to her fellow Jews. Meanwhile, in the Dutch barracks where prisoners stayed before being released or sent to Auschwitz, Edith wore her habit and took care of the children whose mothers were too traumatized to do so. Witnesses wrote that the presence of the Jewish-Catholic convert priests, monks and nuns were of infinite comfort to the other Jewish-Catholic converts and their Catholic spouses. They publicly praised their bishops for speaking out.

The lives of saints are very important for us to see how God works even in the most horrible historical circumstances to lead us to our life work and the meaning of our life. Edith Stein was as important as she is for us women because, when she wasn't allowed to teach at a university, she put her energies into teaching girls and writing about women. This work led, though John Paul II, to the writing of Mulieris Dignitatem. When the Nazis ruled she couldn't teach or lecture, Edith Stein decided to stay in Germany so as to become a Carmelite nun and not move too far from her mother. Under obedience, she went to Holland when sent there. And as a Jewish-Catholic convert in Holland she died among other Jewish-Catholic converts in retaliation for the Dutch bishops' protest. At the time, she was a comfort and help to other Jewish-Catholics in danger of Auschwitz. Today she stands as a reminder to Catholics that Jews can be saints and to the world that A) Catholic bishops did indeed protest Nazi persecution of the Jews and B) that when they did, Catholics died for it.

Most of us cannot change the course of world history. Edith Stein could not. But we can see in history how the saints dealt with their own historical circumstances to carry out God's will. Personally, I find it immensely significant that Edith Stein stayed in Europe, a decision that led both to her life as a nun and her death at Auschwitz, because she thought her staying would be the decision least painful for the person she loved best on earth: her mother. That human love, that obedience to the commandment "Honour thy father and mother", led to sainthood.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

God's Handwriting: Hearts

An anonymous commentator (ladies, no anonymous comments!) asked a very good question about how you can learn to read God's handwriting on your hearts and histories. This is the kind of question you could ask your spiritual directors or your confessors, although as "God's handwriting" is my own turn of phrase, they might be a bit confused at first. Maybe the question should be (to non-readers of this blog): How do see in my own heart and life God's will for me?

I am not a spiritual director, but I do have an M.Div. and an STB and, gosh darn it, a diploma in Lonergan Studies, so I will do my best to elucidate what I mean by God's handwriting.

First of all, the image of God writing on our hearts is an old one, and I've heard it most often used of the reason why we know murder is wrong. We all seem to grow up knowing that murder is wrong, and when we try to flush our little brothers and sisters down the toilet or push them down the stairs, we lie about it when caught.

This suggests that God has written other things on our hearts, too, that seem completely natural to us, like deep down loving our parents (even when we are furious with them) or feeling protective towards children or not wanting to sleep with just anybody.

Now one big objection to trusting the inclinations of the human heart is the fact that the human heart can be very selfish and even deluded. And this is why Catholics (for example) talk about "the formation of the conscience." Our consciences are formed by our parents' moral teachings, our teachers' moral teachings, our priests' moral teachings, prayer and Scripture. They can also be formed by reading theology, the writings of great saints, and great literature. And, of course, they can be formed by meeting people who are as unlike us as possible, particularly when they are weak: the very young, the very old, the sick, the refugee, the lonely foreign student, the formerly-middle-class man in a food bank for the first time in his life.

Consciences can also, of course, be deformed. There are a lot of interests out there competing for your conscience. There are people who will try to convince you that things Christian doctrine says are wrong are right, and that things Christian doctrine says are right are wrong. This may very often have to do with their own not-so-private struggles.

For example, England's youngest-ever tran**exual was shown on telly last week, being interviewed for a beauty contest. When asked why he-now-legally-she wanted to compete, the tran**exual said, "I want to educate people." Not win a prize, or have a good time, or show off how feminine a male body can be, or jumpstart a modelling career, but to educate people, in the same sense 20th century communist regimes enjoyed re-educating people. Such education was not to make the lives of the re-educated better, but to forward the triumph of the educators' will.

So pick your conscience-formers wisely. Which reminds me, if you ever feel really enthusiastic about anything I say, run it past your priest, your therapist, your best pal or your favourite aunt. (Just do me a favour and quote me exactly!) Even though I'm a lot of fun, I am just a lady with a blog, you know? I have zero teaching authority. I could be wrong, and if it is about something that takes math skills, I probably am.

If you have a well-informed conscience, and you are sincerely following Christ, then I think you can trust your own most cherished desires as God-given, especially if you often pray, go to church, keep an eye on your conscience (it is a Jesuit practice to run through the day's decisions before going to sleep) and check in with a priest (through confession, for example) or spiritual director once in a while.

Tomorrow I will write about God's handwriting on our personal histories.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Discernment Stuff

I wrote a long email to someone having a discernment drama today. I hope it works out for her, and in this case I mean I hope she falls in love with a man who is crazy about her, gets married in church and has a lot of little babies. At least two. I sincerely believe that most women who read my blog want to fall in love with a man who is crazy about them, get married in church and have a lot of little babies.

(The big challenge is to marry a man of whom you will be extremely fond years and years after the wedding, when he has gained twenty pounds, lost his hair and watches three hours of TV every night. This depends both on his character, and on yours. As the lovely Irish poem says of the difference between courtship and marriage, "The lover abandons us; the husband remains.")

Of course there are women who say, "No. This whole falling in love with a human man and having little babies routine is great for my friends and my sisters, but I want Something Else. I see young nuns with shining faces, and I want to ask them, What is it? What do you have? How can I get that?"

And there are still other woman who say, "No. The husband, the babies, I can't see it. Religious life, living with many other women in relative comfort and tranquility... I can't see that either. I don't want comfort. I don't want tranquility. As long as the least of my brothers and sisters is suffering hunger and want and loneliness and fear of violence, I want to share it with them. I want to give my life to L' Medicins Sans the Royal Canadian Armed the Catholic Worker Opus Dei..."

And there are even women who say, "I cannot read my own heart. I cannot read my own history. I can't see God's handwriting on either, and so I do not know what or whom I love or what I should do with my life. All I can think to do is wait and pray."

These are all human, good, concrete, human, truthful Christian experiences.

Discernment. Discerners. I think there is something rotten in the state of the contemporary theology of vocation. I am not sure what it is. I just know that a lot of people are made very unhappy by the new culture of discernment. For example, there is a lot of wrinkled forehead argument about whether or not the Single life is a vocation, or whether it was simply tacked on as an "official vocation" when it was decided that marriage was a vocation, too. Theology students can talk about this for hours.

Once upon a time, Catholics believed that the normal way of life was to be single and then to be married and then to die or be widowed, and the only vocation, the only calling, beyond Christ's call to all to follow Him, was out of that ordinary human life into religious or priestly life.

Eventually, i.e. in the 20th century, some married Catholics and priests sympathetic to their point of view got extremely tired of married Catholics being treated like they were second-class citizens of the Church and having perpetually to say "Yes, Father" to the parish priest and "Yes, Sister" to the nuns who taught their kids and (apparently) being treated like wallets and baby-machines. And so there was a theological revolution which led a) to Catholic married people feeling just as confident as Protestant married people that marriage is The Greatest and that religious life a bit of a waste, and b) to a huge drop in the number of Catholic children growing up to be priests and nuns. But perhaps I digress.

At any rate, we now have a situation in which young Catholics, perhaps young Catholics (convert and cradle) whose parents never by word or deed suggested that religious or priestly life was a good and noble thing, try desperately to discern--in the vacuum of your twenties or in the mystery of your unmarried thirties--if it is your job to plug up the gap and save the priesthood/take refuge in religious life. This strikes me as a terribly painful situation. I keep thinking about how lucky it was that my favourite Jesuit classmate, who came from a devout and pro-priest family, signed on with the SJ when he was 18, and is a happy Jesuit to this day.

I believe that vocation is completely mingled up in love and the deepest desires of your heart. I also believe that God writes His will for you not only in the Scriptures but in your personal history. The hard part is learning to read His handwriting.

Other people I know, traditionalists who strive for orthodoxy with might and main, try to convince me that one should "just do it." This is usually around religious life and priesthood because traditionally, and in fact, religious life and priesthood are the superior form of Christian life. Marriage is for weak people, and religious life for the strong, and few of us will be saved, and most of those will be monks. Et cetera.

Call me a crazy, bleeding-heart liberal Lonerganian, but I don't believe that. I am absolutely sure that the change in the state of your life--whether from single to married or from single to religious or from lay to priest should follow upon a falling in love. Although aspects of it may be painful (and being engaged is one of the most stressful periods of a person's life), leaving single, unvowed life should be an embrace of joy.

I would love to encourage young men to join the priesthood, particularly within the community and discipline of religious vows, and I would love to affirm teenage girls and university students in their interest in religious life for women. But I would never encourage you to ignore your own hearts and histories in this matter. Some of you really would be happier married, and some of you already know that, and as hard as it sounds, you must hang onto your faith in God that He will make things right for you.

Lastly, if you have embarked on a mental and spiritual project you call discerning, I urge you to A) get a spiritual director ASAP if you do not already have one and B) stop dating. Don't ask new girls out. Don't introduce yourself to new boys. Try to consider the feelings of other people while you think so obsessively about yourself. It strikes me that, although it may be necessary for people to have a formal "discernment" period (I never honestly had one), it could be fraught with spiritual danger. Honestly, I wonder if it is not best done within the safety of a retreat or vocations discernment house.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Boyfriend Pillow

Okay, a yahoo article about this just flashed across my screen. (I'm not linking to yahoo; I hate how their news service constantly distracts me and tries to fill the heads of the world with junk.)

I am so disturbed by the concept of the boyfriend pillow that I must pontificate.

First of all, its nomenclature assumes that the fact that women sleep with their boyfriends, not exclusively with husbands, is completely unproblematic.

Second, it reduces men to headless pillows, which although not as offensive as reducing women to blow-up dolls, is still pretty offensive.

Third, who is going to give a woman a headless, one-armed boyfriend pillow? (And what woman would want to buy it for herself?) Someone did once give me a tiny foam boyfriend that you could drop in a glass of water and presumably grow to boyfriend size, but that's more of a funny collectible you never take out of its box than an acceptable bed accessory. Hel-lo.

Fourth, would it not make more sense to purchase a huge woolly toy gorilla with two arms? Or four arms? For one thing, there is nothing immoral about sharing your bed with a big gorilla. As a child I shared my bed with a great blue whale. Oh dear, all of a sudden I miss my great blue whale. Sniff, sniff.

Does no one actually run these ideas past women????

Update: Oh heavens, I just noticed that there is also a headless squashy-breasted girlfriend pillow, too. In pink. To quote B.A., Help ma bob! Assistez-moi Rober'!

Madly Busy

Cherubs, I have been busily reading anarchist philosophy, so I have not at all been thinking about the Single state but about governments.

Various Western governments were happy in the past to leave a number of what are now seen to be very important social services in the hands of private benefactors and religious institutions, but now private benefactors and religious institutions are definitely second and third banana to the state. This means that the weakest, poorest people in society, the unborn, children, the elderly and the sick, are at the mercy of the state unless their families advocate on their behalf, and sometimes not even then.

(I think of the three Rotherham children--possibly Polish emigres--who were taken away from their kind foster parents by the agents of the state because the foster parents belonged to the "wrong" mainstream political party. It has been strongly hinted that the birth parents of those children are Roman Catholics.

Now, Roman Catholicism has for centuries has been considered the "wrong" mainstream denomination of Christianity in Britain, and is still so "wrong" Hilary Mantel could get away with saying that it was "no longer a religion for respectable people." There were no cries on the side of the irreligious to strip her of her Booker Prizes for her bigotry, and on the Catholic side I haven't heard calls from the pulpit to burn Wolf Hall in the streets. Indeed Catherine Pepinster of The Tablet merely said she didn't want to be respectable, which is actually the 1963 attitude that inaugurated Britain's moral collapse.

Therefore, it is not outside the bounds of credulity that a mandarin who would decide that members of UKIP were unfit to have the care of European children might decide that believing members of the Catholic Church might be unfit to have the care of children in Britain, particularly if those parents were suspected of teaching those children beliefs the mandarin did not like. The same may hold true of Poles (who usually are Catholics anyway), who sometime espouse views that may sound perfectly reasonable in Poland but could get them into serious trouble should they repeat them in English within earshot of a British mobile phone.

And so not only does there need to be an investigation into the Rotherham Council's decision to remove children from the care of UKIP members, it may also be helpful to re-examine the reason the children were removed from their birth parents. As white foreigners who probably haven't lived here for as much as ten years, the birth parents might not have as much "victim power" as the commentators on the Daily Telegraph might think they have. If they grew up under communism, they might be terrified of the state or terrified of lawyers or simply not know enough about their rights or have enough English to cope against the powers wielded by Rotherham Council. They would not, for example, think of calling up the right newspapers, and indeed those newspapers might not be as interested in them as they have been in a 30 year British Navy veteran and his wife.

Who is to do this investigation, however, is an interesting question because who can investigate the state but either an agent of, or someone contracted in, by the state?)

Amusingly there were quite a number of hits on the blog from Edinburgh yesterday, which reminds me that one of the eavesdroppers complained, with frowns and furled brow, about being called an eavesdropper.

Why is it that when I desperately wanted men to pay attention to me (e.g. when I was fifteen), they didn't, and when I very much don't want them to pay attention to me, they do? I think we must chalk it up to male psychology and more evidence that there is no point in chasing men, for the ones who are most interested in what you have to say will certainly hang around (however stealthily), even if the Hunchback of Notre Dame is scowling at them from a corner.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Those Three Terrible Words

It's rather an irony that your dear auntie is still writing about Single Life after being married for over three years. How dare I, I'd like to know. However, I suppose there is something to be said for looking at Single Life from the other side of the fence. I can see what in Single Life still looks pretty good (e.g. the freedom to go wherever you want when you want) and what looks worse than ever.

One of the things that looks worse than ever is the total drama and potential heartache around "I love you." You can say "I love you" to your family, if you have that kind of family, and your best pals, if you have that kind of best pals, but you can't just say "I love you" to a single man you think is pretty darn lovable (or just really, really attractive) without the risk of massive social upheaval.

And yet it seems so normal and so tempting just to say "I love you" because you feel like saying it, and you gotta be you, and let's just get this on the table, and---Whoa.

First of all, "I love you" can be a lie, like when a guy says "I love you" and you feel terrible that you don't love him, and you think (for whatever reason) that you should love him, and that just saying it might make it come true.

Second, it could actually be a mistake about how it is that you feel. You may think you love some guy, but in actual fact you just think he is attractive and that it would feel soooo good if he said "I love you" back to you.

Third, there are few better ways to derail what may be a promising relationship by dropping the "I love you" bomb on a man who doesn't yet know how he feels about you. Men are not women, so ever if you authentically and unreservedly know that you are crazy about this man and want to have his babies, he might not yet know that he feels the same way about you. It might take him an extra week or an extra month or an extra eleven months, and until he naturally makes the brain-heart connection, you have to keep your mouth shut.

Long-term readers of this blog may vaguely remember that I knew I loved my future husband before he knew that he loved me (absolutely true because I checked later) and I count it as a personal victory that I managed to keep my mouth shut. Possibly it was because the stakes were so high. Possibly because it was because I had been blogging this stuff for years. Possibly because it was only a lapse of three or four days. But whatever it was, I now have my reward because I can say "I love you" every single day to a nice man, and hear him sincerely say "I love you, too", which is basically the source and summit of Post-Searching-Single Life. (I probably could say it twice or thrice a day, too, although four times might be pushing it, especially when he is watching "Master Chef".)

Fourth, as I have blogged before (or just emoted over the phone), it is more important than ever for men to travel uninterrupted through the great adventure called Winning the Girl. One of the Great Seven Plots involves a hero going out into the world to make his fortune and win the beautiful princess through feats of derring-do. There are few stories in which the princess just hands herself over without any effort whatsoever on the hero's part. That would not be as much fun, or psychologically truthful, and frankly I think I would have enjoyed being a fairy tale princess watching all the poor woodcutters' sons, minor princes, et alia, trying to rescue me. At very least, it would have been flattering.

Seraphic (on tower phone): Okay, I know it's really mean and stuff, but I am like so relieved that the ugly bad-tempered looking one fell and was impaled on the thorns.

Seraphic's pal (over phone): Oh, I know. You're like, It's not personal. I don't want you to die, but you're not the handsome prince I'm hoping for.

Seraphic: The writhing in agony thing really sucks.

Seraphic's pal: So don't watch.

Seraphic: I feel bad if I don't watch. If I didn't watch, he'd just die alone in the thorns with nobody there but his horse.

Seraphic's pal: Well, it's not like you asked him to rescue you.

Seraphic: Hmm. That's true.

Anyway, I think it very important for a boy, especially one who generally acts like he owns the universe, to have to take the big huge risk of laying his heart before a woman, not being quite sure if she will pick it up, or just give it back, or even stomp on it. This kind of action makes a boy into a man, no matter what happens. Of course it is sad for a man to have his heart handed back and horrible to have it stomped on, so it is a good idea for a boy to have some indication that his ladylove might actually accept this heart before he gives it.

However, having a good idea is not the same thing as being 100% sure. And it is awful for a man to be 100% sure a woman thinks she loves him when he isn't sure if he loves her. His natural reaction is very likely to be running away and pondering things in his cave, like Grendel. There he thinks thinks like "How badly do I want to get married?" and "Do I really want to get married?" and "Do I perhaps have a vocation to the priesthood instead?" and "Does love feel like this?" and "Why am I sweating like a pig?" How tragic if all he needed was just some time.

Anyway, to roll up this whole post into one sentence, promise yourself not to tell a guy you love that you love him until he says it first. Say he is marvellous or amazing or wonderful or a gift. Say any nice thing you like, but don't say "I love you" first.

Above all, don't tell a guy you love him just to make him say "I love you." Tempting, very tempting, but a bad idea in the long run.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Victory Counts in Culture Wars

And now for something completely different!

Or is it? Because in almost every post we confront the fact that the sexual revolution of the 1960s changed the social landscape forever, encouraging the naturally modest and the naturally chaste to feel like freaks. Other social trends have discouraged early marriage and encouraged divorce. And other social trends are responsible for the low birthrates in Europe and Canada, and widespread disobedience of Catholics (never mind everyone else) of Humanae Vitae. This is the world in which we live because our spiritual mothers and fathers in the faith lost the culture wars of their times. And woe betide us if our spiritual daughters and sons ask us how we could have landed them in a totalitarian nightmare.

For example, imagine a country where children could be--and are--removed from your home because you support a conservative political party. This shouldn't be difficult because the country I am thinking about is England.

Foster parents 'stigmatised and slandered’ for being members of Ukip

A couple had their three foster children taken away by a council on the grounds that their membership of the UK Independence Party meant that they supported “racist” policies.

Here is the full story.

I should explain for readers who are not British that UKIP is a conservative party that attracts voters and members who feel betrayed by the contemporary Conservative (aka "Tory") party. It dislikes the fact that the UK is now governed, not just by Westminster (and in Scotland also by Holyrood), but by the European Union. It is also the only "respectable" party that wants to stop mass-migration. It is not racist.

It is perfectly possible to object to your country being bossed about by a foreign power whose founder members (Germany, France) were once (twice, etc.) your nation's most dangerous enemies without being "an anti-European racist." (If American, I bet you didn't know white people could be accused of racism against other white people, but this is the UK, where we can and, to be honest, sometimes with justice. But whether it should be actually illegal for Scots to moan about "the English" and for the English to moan about "the Scots" and for both to moan about "the Eastern Europeans" is another question.)

It is also perfectly possible to object to mass-migration without being an anti-"ethnic minority" racist. (If Canadian, I bet you will be astounded to read that as a Canadian living in Britain, I count as an "ethnic minority." My ethnic group is "Canadian"; how nice if we had that sense of Canadian ethnic cohesion in Canada.)

For example, I object to mass-migration, and I am sympathetic to the Eastern Europeans working away like mad and sending money home to their families. (Interestingly, I've heard that Poles living in the UK tend to have more children then Poles in Poland. I would not be at all surprised to discover that Poles living in the UK have more children than ethnic Brits have in the UK. The Poles are the future of Christians in Britain. Take them out and buy them lunch.)

But I'll tell you what I object to even more than mass-migration--totalitarianism. And social workers paid by the government arriving at your house to take away the children that you love and are caring for because you vote for a political party they don't like (and whose policies they obviously haven't read) smacks of totalitarianism. It's extremely alarming.

Incidentally, the council (local government) and social workers of Rotherham have been in the national news before. In the UK, PC ideology trumps the happiness of children, to say nothing of ordinary conservative-minded, old-fashioned British folk, again and again.

Update: Oh my heavenly days. Those children--the foster children taken away from the white British foster parents--are Europeans. And thus white Europeans have been taken from white Europeans on the grounds the the white European adults might be racist against the white European children, despite the facts that the foster parents were learning the children's language, sang their folk songs with them and were prepared to put them in their faith-based school, which probably means that these kids are Roman Catholics.

And that reminds me of another issue.

You know, if I had kids and they were taken from me, I would want them to be fostered by fellow Roman Catholics. But--oh, wait--that's not allowed anymore because--wouldn't you know it--the Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close.

And you know what, I would love to foster Catholic children, but I don't know if I would be allowed to because some jobsworth might need to to make sure I am a-okay with a variety of sexual practices first. It's nuts. The nice couple in Yorkshire were told they couldn't fulfill the cultural needs of the (presumably Catholic) children, and I suspect a Catholic couple wouldn't be able to foster them either, in case the children grow up to be gay.

Update 2: The public outcry has been so loud and furious that it looks like there may be a victory over totalitarianism this time.

Friday, 23 November 2012

An Auntie's Auntie

Imagine you are a heavily overweight, wrinkled old Englishwoman who smokes, dyes her hair jet black and simply can't walk a mile. You've never married, perhaps never had a boyfriend, and your non-drinking alcoholic friend thinks you are a drinking alcoholic who just hasn't admitted it yet. You break into song whenever you feel like it, you lace your conversation with references to God and the saints, the time you met the Prince of Wales you called him "Your Majesty," and you wonder if people really enjoy having sex because to you it sounds so messy. You live for food and cooking and love to joke about vegetarians.

And hundreds of thousands of people across the world adore you, because you are (the late) Jennifer Paterson, the elder of the Two Fat Ladies.

Yesterday I was feeling rather down, and needed the presence of a funny, aunt-ish person who takes nothing seriously except God, love and food. And so I got Jennifer Paterson's Seasonal Receipts out of the kitchen and took it to bed with me. And there was her soothing written voice introducing a recipe (or "receipt") for "Autumn braised leg of lamb" thusly:

'I shall entice them to eat me speedily.' The writer of these words was St Ignatius of Antioch who had been condemned to death for his faith and was about to be thrown into the arena with the wild beasts. 'I pray they will be prompt with me,' he continued--let's hope they were. It is his feast day on 17 October; on the 18th, St. Luke's, patron saint of artists; and the 19 is the day of St Jean de Brebeuf and Companions who were the first Jesuit missionaries to Canada and North America. Their area was from Nova Scotia to Maryland, but they were captured and vilely tortured to death by the Red Indians who didn't care for their interference--this was in 1642-49. Their death occurred in Auriesville, New York. What a tale. Let us therefore go to the antipodes for some refreshment [...].

This book, by the way, was not published by a "Catholic publisher" but by Headline. And Jennifer (as she is locally known) became world-famous through the auspices of the BBC, not exactly the most Catholic-friendly organization in the UK, and so it was on the BBC that anyone could hear Jennifer suggest to fellow Fat Lady (and Catholic) Clarissa Dickson-Wright that they pray to St. Peter before embarking on a fishing expedition.

I think the secret to Jennifer's success as a media figure (which she may have been of two minds about) was that she was simultaneously a kind decent person and someone who didn't really care what anyone but God thought. She certainly betrays no embarrassment about being a Catholic--a traditionally-minded Catholic who went to Mass at the London Oratory--let alone any of the the-government-out-to-get-us Catholic paranoia indulged in so frequently by yours truly. And she was as likely to burst into a verse of "The Road to Mandalay" as to enthusiastically second Dickson-Wright's suggestion that they toast the Almighty.

I should love to be like Jennifer Paterson--except for the smoking, obesity and virginity--and with luck I will become a lot like her--perhaps the "gypsy witch"* version. I hope so. It would be wonderful to think that people rescue themselves from the Slough of Despond years after my death just by watching me on youtube:

*A phrase used by one of our faithful eavesdroppers to describe my outfits at parties. It may also refer to my uncanny ability to read men's minds and the frequency with which young girls consult me about their love lives. But there, I'm afraid, the comparisons must end. I am mortally afraid of tarot cards, I cannot play the violin and very rarely does anyone cross my palm with silver. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind owning a donkey and an old-fashioned brightly coloured caravan. I wonder under what circumstances B.A. would let me have a donkey.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

American Thanksgiving Singles Survival Game

It has crept up on me and surprised me at the last minute! Oh my little American Singles, it is the dreaded day of turkey doom, that day upon which you will be asked by random relations you see but once or twice a year the perfidious question: So, dear, do you have a boyfriend yet?

The rules of this game are very simple. You have to pay attention to all references to your long-term single state so that you can report them here. Obviously you are on your honour here, so no padding. Just counting.

And then reporting! Because the best part of the American Thanksgiving Singles Survival Game is telling us all in delicious detail what your Aunt said and then what your Uncle said, and then what your smart-aleck cousin said after that.

In past years readers have reported their own variations on this game, including in-house competitions between sisters.

The beauty of this game is that (like grace) it heals and elevates the stupid So, dear, do you have a boyfriend yet? questions and Don't worry, you'll be next remarks into POINTS! Feel free to bring a piece of paper and pencil to the table. Actually, put a pencil and paper in your pocket right now because sometimes relatives can't walk in the door without immediately saying "So, dear, do you have a boyfriend yet?"

SCENE: A charming family home in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, nestled between cornfields. Ceramic dwarves stand frozen on the lawn in mid-gambol.

The doorbell rings.

Mom: Dear, can you answer that?

You: Okay, Mom.

You open the door and behold on the doorstep Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean from Chicago.

You: Hi, Uncle Billy! Hi, Aunt Jean! Come on in.

Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean come on in.

Uncle Billy: How's my girl? (He seizes you in bear hug.)

You: Great! Ouch!

Aunt Jean: Now, Bill. Leave the girl alone. Let's look at you. My, my. How time does fly. (Her voice sinks.) We must have a proper chat in the kitchen. I want to talk to you.

Uncle Billy (loudly): Uh, oh. Girl stuff. No men allowed!

Aunt Jean: Now, Bill. Don't you start. (Her voice sinks again.) Honey, I read this column in Better Homes and Gardens about Single girls and it made me think of you. Hold on a minute, I'll get it from my purse.

You: I'll be back in a sec.

You rush to your room, seize a pencil and a piece of paper and write a big, thick /.

Mom (yelling up the stairs): Honey?! Why aren't you helping your uncle and aunt with their coats?

You: Coming!

Mom: I don't know what's gotten into that girl.

Aunt Jean: Well, apparently Single girls get a little funny during the holidays. It's the pressure of family expectations. I read about it in Better Home and Gardens.

You write another thick /, making your tally //. You feel a thrill of early victory. It's only three in the afternoon: depending on what's happening on the East Coast and Florida, you could be in the lead!

Uncle Bill: Don't be silly, Jean. There's nothing about that girl a good boyfriend wouldn't solve.


You: I'm coming! Sorry, Aunt Jean.

Aunt Jean: That's okay, dear. I'm all right and tight.

Uncle Bill: She's all right but not yet tight! Where's the punch? It's party time!

Aunt Jean: Oh, Bill. (She turns to you.) Now dear. Into the kitchen with you.

Uncle Bill: Uh oh. Here comes the grilling. Give only your name, rank and serial number!

Aunt Jean: Oh, Bill. Really, that man. You just wait till you're married, hon, and then you'll understand what we all have to put up with.



Let the games begin!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Cemetery in Kraków

Next year I will write about this for my paper, but I have been writing to a Polish friend about it, so B.A.'s and my visit to a cemetery in Kraków on All Saints Day is very much on my mind.

There is still huge cultural pressure on young people in Poland to get married or embrace religious life, which is great when it comes to making adults behave like adults when otherwise they'd be tempted to become perpetual teenagers, but awful when it comes to women who don't have boyfriends or a religious vocation. The beauty and usefulness of unmarried, unconsecrated aunts must be stressed and celebrated. Maybe there should be a worldwide League of Extraordinary Single Aunts.

And I have a good reason to stress the family ties of Aunts, especially in Poland, because one of the sorrows of Singles is the idea that they don't have families when OF COURSE they have families. We're all born into families, and Poland has the family-friendliest culture I've ever seen. It even beats Italy because although Italians love children, too many (most?) married Italians have spent the past 40 years short-sightedly contracepting Italy towards extinction.

Nothing proved to me the importance of family in Poland more than All Saints's Day. All Saint's Day is a public holiday there, and Poles spend the day and night visiting and tidying the graves of their deceased relations. When B.A. and I were waiting very early in the morning for a tram, I noticed that the one that terminated at a cemetery was absolutely crammed with riders. And even on our less-crowded tram, there were many people with big bundles of flowers and pine branches in dirty plastic bags.

We went to Mass, in part because All Saint's Day is a Holy Day of Obligation in both Poland and Scotland, and after lunch, and fruitless attempts to see art or shop (the galleries and most shops were understandably closed), and a cancelled engagement, we decided to go to a cemetery ourselves.

I was in a tired and frustrated mood from linguistic difficulties, organizational shortcomings, and insomnia, but as we walked to the cemetery, joining the steady stream of people with flowers, branches and dirty plastic bags, and passing the opposite stream of people who now had just the bags, my heart began to lift. We were obviously witnessing something very new to us and very important to Polish culture. Tourists love to be "in the know", and it seemed that we were "in the know."

When we got to the cemetery, we crowded in as others crowded out, and there was still enough light in the early-darkening November sky to read the map. There were two long lists of the names of famous Krakowians buried there. I didn't see the Wojyła family mentioned, but I recognized the names Jan Matejko (the painter), Helena Modrzejewska (the singer) and--especially--Roman Ingarden, Saint Edith Stein's friend and colleague. So having located "our" grave, B.A. and I walked along the avenues to find it.

The tombstones were all raised; they were all big enough to sit on, and there were no flat markers on grass such as we see most of the time in Canada and the USA. They were more like real homes on real avenues; it was a city of the dead. There were trees and tombs as far as the eye could see in all direction, and each and every tomb had coloured, candlelit glass lamps on it. No tomb had been left neglected. There were several lamps on and around the Ingarden tomb; I wondered if family, colleagues or fans had left them there.

There were people everywhere, quiet but chatty and cheerful. Of course I could not understand most of what they said, but I could hear grandsons asking grandmothers how far away their grave was, and grandmothers assuring them not much further. A woman asked me in Polish, and then in a mix of English and Polish, where the Wojtyła grave was, and when I confessed to not knowing, she consulted an older woman who gave complicated directions with much dramatic pointing. In a distant corner, a middle-aged father and college-age son worked silent on and around a flat, raised tombstone, taking lamps and branches from bags.

From a small but ornate chapel, prayers and hymns were so amplified that we could hear them from at least a short distance away. And behind the chapel was a memorial to the victims of communism, in the form of a cross being grasped by many disembodied hands. There was a big crowd of people standing silently before this memorial, and in front of them hundreds of coloured, candlelit, glass lamps. No doubt some of the people were praying for family members who died in the horrors of the Stalinist period and after, but I suspect they were including all the victims in their prayers.

It was not just about family, this quiet cemetery festival. It was about neighbours and nation, too, and the Catholic awareness that our dead--the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant--are still part of our Church, still part of our families, and should not be left forgotten and neglected by us. For the first time in my life, I was well and truly ashamed of the Canadian/American Hallowe'en, with its pagan enjoyment of ghouls and prurient attitude towards our locked and silent graveyards. As a child in a Catholic school, I was directed to make spooky graveyard scenes with tombstones, ghosts, bats and skeletons, spindly trees, comic epitaphs. It was fun, but it had nothing to do with Catholicism because it had nothing to do with love.

The cemetery in Kraków was full of love. Not romantic, sexual love, although perhaps that was there, too, flickering in the hearts of widows and widowers and surviving sweethearts as they prayed for their lost beloveds. Just love: love for family, love for neighbours, love for the dead, love for the saints and parents of saints. Love for God. Love.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Who Gets the Keys?

I'm not posting the letter that inspired them, but I had many thoughts this morning on how women make themselves emotionally vulnerable to men. Men make themselves emotionally vulnerable too, sometimes, so I'll add something about that to the end of the post.

The easiest way a young woman can make herself vulnerable to a young man is to tell him that she is crazy about him and wants him to be her boyfriend.

The best case scenario is that the young man is beside himself with joy because he never dreamed that Suzy-Q felt the same way about him as he felt about her.

Then there a number of unhappy scenarios, each worse than the last.

1. The Good, Sensitive Man

The young man is shocked because he never thought of her this way. A very sensitive man, he now wonders if he has been leading her on without knowing it, and is sorry. Mindful of her feelings, he says that this is the greatest compliment he's ever had, but he doesn't want to date her. One great face-saving remark is "I don't want to ruin the friendship."

This sensitive young man then avoids the girl for the next month or two because he intuits that his presence may be a source of pain to her. He keeps her at a friendly distance, and then slowly returns to his normal schedule. He is careful not to give her any encouragement, and if she renews her advances, he says "No, I'm sorry" very firmly.

2. The Good, Insensitive Man

The young man is shocked and says he doesn't want to ruin the friendship, but he just carries on as before. He doesn't understand that he and the girl are no longer on the same page. He doesn't understand that she isn't one of the guys and that treating her like one of the guys is a constant source of pain. He might even call her up to tell her all his personal problems, just as before, and all about the girl he has a crush on.

3. The Emotional Opportunist

The young man is shocked because although he has been working on his cover his entire life, he always thought this girl might have guessed that he was a closeted homosexual.

He realizes that her regard for him is compatible with his lifelong goal of not being suspected of being gay. So he either agrees to become her boyfriend--a paragon, too, as he will never initiate kissing, let alone pressure her for sex--or he will hold out a carrot to keep her hooked. In the case of one of my readers and her closeted gay love interest, the carrot was "For now, just friends."

Then they go everywhere together (when he wants) and are the very bestest of friends and only the girl's most sophisticated friends are quizzical rather than envious when she brags that Boyfriend has never even tried to kiss her. Meanwhile, she wonders why she has never met his best friends in the city, or what he does on holidays, or why she has never met his parents, or why he has so many gay friends.

By the way, I know perfectly well not all closeted gay men act like this. But some darn well do, especially in communities where gayness is still such an issue, e.g. ours.

4. The Sexual Opportunist

The young man is not shocked because her feelings have been obvious to him for some time. In fact, he is rather amused. He knows that her feelings will not go away just because he says No. In fact, if he says "No" but acts "Yes" he can always point to the butt-covering fact that he had said "No" and she was free to do what she wanted. Then he proceeds to play her like a violin, and if he drives her crazy enough, she will eventually offer some kind of sexual intimacy, and off come the clothes faster than you can say Chloderlos de Laclos.

And that's my worst case scenario: you make yourself vulnerable to a cynical, clever, sophisticated, monstrously selfish man, and he takes both emotional AND sexual advantage of you. It probably happens every day, most often to sweet, innocent, religious girls who had no idea men could act like that.

So even if you do not believe, as I do, that you should never, ever make a first move as obvious as "I like you, be my boyfriend", for heaven's sake--and your own--consider both the reputation of the man and if there are any very, VERY clear signals from him that he likes, admires and respects you before risking making a fool or a victim of yourself.

Now a word about innocent men. All the scenarios I've listed above can be flipped, so that the besotted person is a man and the startled beloved is a woman. I will state for the record, however, that I have never heard of a closeted young Lesbian using a besotted, oblivious young man for cover.

You may have come across classic novels in which young women are very proud of the suitors they have and dangle them on a string. You may remember, for example, beautiful Philippa Gordon of Anne of the Island, trying to decide between Alec and Alonzo. You may also remember the heroine of An Old-Fashioned Girl deciding not to lead on her rich admirer anymore because she had learned her best friend was in love with him. Their behaviour was never strictly condemned, possibly because both plain Lucy Maud Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott wished they had that kind of power over men themselves and because it was the only power 19th century women really had.

But it is the 21st century and we are full citizens who can vote, work, save and spend money. Whatever men can do by law, we can do by law. There is no longer an excuse for using men's feelings to get the thrill that power brings.

It is not okay to jerk men around for a thrill or because you are too cowardly to give one a plain and firm "NO." Men are just as human as you and I. The Golden Rule applies.

Monday, 19 November 2012

I Heart This "Crisis" Piece

Here it is. Discuss. I'm going to bed, so I'll post your responses in the morning.

All I'll add now is that courtship and marriage have to be learned by example from babyhood on, so my guess is that most young people are not actually ready to marry until they are older than my grandparents' generation (the ones who fought WWII) was when they got married. If you're from an English-speaking country (with the possible but not obvious exception of Ireland) where the biggest source of entertainment was TV, you did not grow up in a pro-marriage society. You grew up in a consumer society.

Oh, and I disagree that alone is necessarily bad. It can be bad, but it is not always bad.

Update (Tuesday): I had some trouble getting into my email account today, which scared the stuffing out of me. I have since erased all my email back to January 2009, and will continue erasing to the end. Therefore, all-not just some of--the original Auntie Seraphic letters are gone. Future historians may weep, but the rest of you may draw a sigh of relief.

Auntie Seraphic & the Chemical Question

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

Hope you are well. I am happy to say I have been regularly reading your blog for some time now.

I'm sure this question has been asked numerous times, but I was wondering of the importance/necessity of the so-called chemistry in relationships.

See, the thing is I never really believed in this chemistry thing, or just assumed it would be there if liked a guy and that's it. However last year there was a guy, a bit older than me whom I really did not like or even trust at times (I had good reason); nevertheless[...]there was a lot of 'chemistry' between us.

This probably sounds weird; it however caused me some unhappiness and unfortunately circumstances were that I was in his company almost every day. I never understood why there was this thing between us and it greatly confused me as he was someone I never wanted to be with. I was repulsed by the thought of it. Happily this is no longer a problem as I rarely see him now but it still intrigues me.

[...]I've had a male 'friend' who very much likes me and we have been involved romantically but are now trying to be just friends. I really like him as a friend but even despite the romantic interaction we've had I don't want to be in a relationship with him and don't believe I've experienced the chemistry.

The confusing part for me is why did I have chemistry with a guy a didn't like at all and yet don't have with a guy that I like at least as a friend?

Anyway, I hope this makes some vague sense!

God Bless,
Chemical Question

Dear Chemical Question,

Thank you for your question, which is a brilliant subject for a blog post, by the way.

The short answer is that this kind of chemistry is irrational.

I am not sure why you did not believe in "this chemistry thing," when people talk and write about it all the time. Maybe it is because movies like Sleepless in Seattle strain credulity. However, as you have found out, there is something called "chemistry", which often takes the form of mutual sexual attraction.

Sexual attraction is not based on true knowledge of a person but what the presence of the person, whether in person, in the imagination or just in a photograph or a recording, does to your consciousness.

Many people can dupe themselves into believing that this sexual attraction is mutual, and are in danger of making fools of themselves. Others can dupe themselves into thinking a mutual sexual attraction is rational and/or good, when it simply isn't.

I suspect that this is a reason why Hollywood actors and actresses both marry and divorce each other so much. Casting directors see that they have "great chemistry" and so the actors and actresses work together and, hey presto, they fall in "love", only to divorce later because no marriage can survive on chemistry alone.

You probably didn't feel the crackle of chemistry between you and your friend because his presence just didn't inflame whatever it is in your imagination that makes you sexually attracted to men. And you probably felt chemistry with a guy you didn't even like or trust because his presence did inflame whatever it is in your imagination.

Maybe he seemed very masculine to you, or exotic, or sophisticated because he was older, or reminded you on a subconscious level of a man you had good reason to admire. I haven't the slightest idea; only you can figure it out, if anyone can. Hopefully it was not because you disliked him and found him untrustworthy.

This would be a problem, but not an unusual one. Lots of women find themselves falling for bad boys they don't trust and sticking around and being miserable all for the sake of the chemical kick the bad boys' brief smiles give them. (And bad boys may symbolically represent the courage and freedom from guilt girls wish they themselves had.)

That's not what I would call healthy, however. If you find yourself constantly sexually attracted to men you don't really like, it may be worth the money to talk to a therapist about it. Good for you, by the way, that you paid some attention to your rational thoughts about Mr Chemistry and are so honest with yourself now (at least) about him.

Incidentally, your letter reminded me of a time I was working in an awfully boring job, which had operators and line managers, and in the middle of a fun conversation I was having with a married line manager, there was a sudden spark of chemistry between us so obvious to both of us, I said "Must go!" and went. I never had a private conversation with him again. He was a very decent chap, I remember, and the point to this story is that reason and charity must always prevail over chemistry.

I hope this is helpful.

Grace and peace,

I see I have neglected to mention why chemistry is important in marriage. Chemistry is important in marriage--in Western marriages at very least--because both men and women feel ripped off if we don't start off our marriages with a great, exciting burst of flame that sets fire to the tinder and logs of our shared values and mature characters. (If there are no tinder and logs of shared values and mature characters, then the match of sexual attraction will just burn out, although not before burning your fingers and possibly setting fire to the curtains and leaving the house of your life a smouldering wreck.)

It may make perfect sense in India to say "You'll fall in love after you get married," but this seems to depend on family and social pressures to stay married that the West no longer has.

This is not to say that chemistry is always there in marriage. Sure it flames up now and again, but it's not the wonderful anguish crazy-in-love fiances and newlyweds experience. (And thank heavens for that.) And we must keep our priorities in order: chemistry is for marriage, not marriage for chemistry. Marriage is a way of life, not a feeling. But as marriage (early marriage, anyway, before the children arrive) boils down to sex and laundry, don't dismiss chemistry as some kind of frill.

Update: A Serious Single Catholic friend in Rome is looking for a Catholic housemate. Here is his Facebook ad. Let me know if you're going to Rome for at least a year and this looks like a good place for you. The caveat is that the household is so far of men. I can vouch for the advertiser as a very good egg indeed and a fascinating conversationalist.

I have a room available in a large flat near the Colosseum, well-connected to public transportation, supermarket on the ground floor of the building. Also has a large balcony and a roof terrace; the room has its own bathroom attached. 530 a month plus bills. Send me a PM if you are interested.

I don't actually know what a PM is, so just contact me and I'll put you in touch with my friend. Presumably the 530 is in Euros.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Attention Zurich Readers

If I have any other readers in Zurich, could you please bring Magdalena some soup? Contact me, Seraphic, at

(I don't know, Magdalena... My electronic spy suggests that the readers nearest you are in Austria Germany.)

Little Dreamy Dreams

Goodness me, what a week. What a week, dear poppets. Imagine a week with ongoing home renovations dictated by the landlord, two moves (Monday, to get out of the Historical House, and Friday, to get back to it), a deadline, a Polish class, and a sudden business crisis, and you have my week.

Poor, poor stressed out Seraphic. Plus my mummy and daddy aren't coming to Scotland for Christmas after all, weep, weep, weep.

I have to admit that the Monday to Friday sojourn (our fourth) in the Royal Mile flat was pleasant in itself although I did think for a moment the climb up the narrow turnpike staircase with all my luggage had brought on a heart attack. It is such a nice little flat, and if you are coming to Edinburgh for a few days, let me know and I will tell you whom to contact to rent this little flat. It is a stone's throw from the National Library, which is wonderfully convenient.

I have a little dreamy dream that one day I will not live in the attic of the Historical House but in a flat in a slightly younger building rather closer to the heart of Edinburgh. The occupancy of this flat will be funded by another dreamy dream, that of making enough money from my books (plus savings from B.A.'s heritage industry salary). And that, of course, depends upon me actually writing and selling those books, which is a lot of hard work. However, that is the kind of hard work I don't mind, once I get over crippling procrastination.

(This reminds me that the Inner Child has been muttering something about getting back to Prudence. We are hashing out a plan for making Prudence earn her keep.)

But enough about me. What are your little dreamy dreams that have nothing to do with future husbands and future children? I'm looking for little dreamy dreams that you can potentially get by working for them. (And wouldn't it be marvellous if you could get a husband by working for one? Like if husbands grew in fields, and all you had to do was be a really good gardener, digging and sowing and weeding and pruning and fighting the crows and shooting the rabbits... Ah! There's at least a short story in that.)

Dreamy dreams, please!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Auntie Seraphic & Toxic Glue 2

On second thought, there is only so much I can do on a Friday when half Britain seems to be having a long weekend. So I have done what I can do to resolve business woes and go back to the problems that beset Single life.

From a reader, I had this question:

It seems this toxic glue gets its power from emotional attachment which comes, for girls, when a guy either has problems or opens his heart up to her. A reader in a comments box a long time ago said she wished guys would realize that opening their hearts up to girls is as powerful for girls as erotic images of girls are for guys. I really believe this is true, especially if there's already some attraction or chemistry there. A man's vulnerability can be so incredibly attractive.

I'm wondering if it's ever okay to let a guy know you don't want him to open his heart up to you. On the one hand, he'll have a better understanding of you and be able to respect you. On the other, if he's trying to, as you put it, emotionally seduce a girl, this will give him the exact information he needs to accomplish his goal.

Just something I've been wondering. When do you know if you're handing over emotional power?

Oh dear. Power. It's like an old-fashioned children's party game: "Power, power, who's got the power?" How I hate that word. Thank heavens it's been years since I worried about "who has the power" in a personal relationship. (You have to worry about it in ministry because a ministry job gives you a ton of power whether you want it or not, and generally you don't want it.)

Anyway, I agree that in an attractive man vulnerability is really powerful (although I would add that in an unattractive man it can make a girl wish immediately to flee). And I imagine that some crafty guys have figured this out. You may remember Wayne of Wayne's World trying to get out of trouble with his girlfriend by wailing "And I can't READ!"

The number one guardian of your heart is you. And the knowledge that you are a softhearted girl whose heart is easily won by sob stories (be they real or fake) should warn you to be a lot tougher about who gets access to it. It is always okay to tell a man who is neither your boyfriend, your husband or your blood relation that you don't want him to open his heart to you. It is always okay to say "I don't feel comfortable talking about this." It is always okay to say, "You know, that's really personal stuff, and I'm not sure I'm the person you should be speaking to. Have you thought of talking to Father Such-and-such/a guidance counsellor/your mother/my mother?"

You don't add, "Because I might fall in love with you if you tell me your problems." That would be crazy. You don't owe any man an explanation of why you don't want to hear his personal business. It's not about him "having a better understanding of you" other than, "Oh, I guess she doesn't want to hear my problems." Which, hopefully, you don't. (If you do, you can say, "It's not that I don't WANT to hear your problems, it's just that I don't think I can cope with hearing them. But I think you should talk to Father Such-and-Such..." By suggesting an appropriate person, you have sincerely helped.)

It is tempting to "be there" for an attractive man, even if he has serious problems. Such serious problems include his marital difficulties, his addictions, his brush with the law, his violent behaviour and his mental illness. The problem is that you are not qualified to listen and talk to him about such serious things. And if you were qualified, you would know immediately that he should either be your client, not your friend, or, if you want to keep him as your friend, someone else's client. Qualified people know how to detach from other people's serious problems; unqualified people, not so much.

Meanwhile, most of the above problems are clear red lights. Stay well away from attractive men who have marital difficulties, addictions, brushes with the law and violent behaviour. Mental illness is in a slightly different category; you can decide if you mind being stuck on someone with depression, OCD, etc.

The sort of non-qualified women who might be good for men to spill their guts to are older women. OLD-ER. Older nuns. Older married ladies with kids. Mom-aged ladies. Older women can be caring, and they are less likely to get attached in the way a young woman, especially a young single woman, would. If his own mum is overly cold or overly sensitive, it makes perfect sense for a troubled young man to ask the advice of his friend's mum.

Sure, it can be flattering that a man wants to talk to you all about his problems. And it can hurt to see his look of disappointment when you draw a firm and clear boundary around yourself. But I think all this comes down under the heading of emotional chastity, both for him and for you. Don't let a guy your age or older open his heart to you unless he's given it to you first.

Business Leave...

Oh poppets. I've got to sort out a business thing, and it is going to take all my attention and energy. I'll be back when I can.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

We Go to Częstochowa

Second post of day: here is my latest article in the Catholic Register. That was not the headline I suggested, but I apologize to all Poles anyway. (Once upon a time there was a letter from the Polish ambassador to Canada complaining about another columnist. I certainly would not want the Polish ambassador complaining about me!)

The story was supposed to be funny, not whiny. I do not expect ticket-sellers to speak English, and I understand that there are serious historical factors involved in problems with the infrastructure. Thus most of the pain was caused by your poor Auntie's inability to cope.

The Casual Vacancy

Update (Nov 23): Welcome, readers of "The Hog's Head"!


The most successful writer in English living today is probably J.K. Rowling, who has a house in Edinburgh and is considered an Edinburgh writer. Edinburgh has three or four superstar writers, which is a cause for celebration for Edinburgh readers but perhaps a source of crippling self-doubt for other Edinburgh writers.

Writers are often an envious lot, and many writers had their knives out when J.K. Rowling dared to change genre and write a novel for adults about ordinary English life in a village that tries to hold itself aloof from the big nasty town nearby. I wasn't going to read it, but I succumbed to temptation when a friend offered to lend it to me.

By the way, conscience compels me to point out that borrowing books instead of buying your own copy is a kind of theft from the poor author. However, J.K. is rolling in money, so I think she is past caring about this kind of thing herself. My guess is she hopes merely that her books inspire people to be nicer to each other, especially to children.

This guess is inspired in part by The Casual Vacancy, which is a very good book (for adults). My biggest problem with the latter Harry Potter books was the pages and pages of very boring description that an editor less terrified of J.K. Rowling would have immediately cut out. Either whoever edited The Casual Vacancy had more guts, or J.K. herself came to him in a spirit of humility.

BTW I never had a moral problem with the Harry Potter stories; they are intensely, if subconsciously or unconsciously, Christian. Again and again they stress love, loyalty, kindness, self-sacrifice and an afterlife for those willing to accept death.

They are very much against trampling on the weak. The World (using that word as St. John the Evangelist uses it) loves stomping on the weak. In real life, the World would side with the Malfoys (rich, beautiful, with a "responsible" number of children) over the Weasleys (poor, ginger, numerous) faster than you can say "the glamour of evil." And yet in Harry Potter poor bumbling little Neville Longbottom (what a name) whose parents are no doubt costing the wizard NHS untold thousands of gold coins becomes a great hero. So does Somebody Else. The end-of-story Somebody Else twist puts me in mind of the great paradox of Gollum. Indeed, even if J.K. Rowling never sees the inside of a church, the Harry Potter stories are Christian in the same way The Lord of the Rings is.

But on to The Casual Vacancy, which is a very rooted-in-reality look at English society today. If you really want to know what England is like, going beyond fantasies born from reading English literature written before 1963, or Royal visits, or stories of immigrant grandparents, or war movies, then read The Casual Vacancy. It will make your hair stand on end, and if you are American, what is very likely to blow your mind is that white people--the native population of a European country--can be that impoverished, miserable and reviled. Their situation cannot be blamed on racism.

The Casual Vacancy shows a community where some women worship and collude with their abusive or self-satisfied husbands, where others seethe against the weakness of the men or children in their lives, and where teenage girls self-harm or live in a self-centered bubble. Some adult men are comfortable bullies, others are doting, easily-awed sons of bullies, one has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and one keeps ending up with the wrong woman. The teenage boys are a mess, either bullies or victims, striking back in devious ways. And that's just the middle-class characters.

The poor people, which is to say those who living on the housing scheme that blighted the village, live in an earthly hell of filth, drugs, sex, violence, rape, indignity, state control, and the constant threat that their children will be taken from them. I recently watched a show about very poor people who make their living from making clay pots by the Ganges. Well, those poor Indian people are about a million times happier than the poor English people in The Casual Vacancy.

The comparison is apt, too, because there is a middle-class Sikh family in The Casual Vacancy, who occasionally feel the sting of the disapproval of the local English, of both provincial middle-class morons and the almost totally demoralized poor. (The wealthy, professional adults can mostly shrug this off; it's not so easy for their kids, who have to go to school with these people.)

The parents, Vikram (a heart surgeon) and Parvinder (a GP) are fascinating to me. Vikram is the only adult whose point-of-view we never see. Parvinder is the only adult who is religious, and although her religion gives her some comfort, it does't teach her how to deal with her anger, which she takes out particularly on her youngest daughter.

So again there is no overt Christianity in The Casual Vacancy, even though the message J.K. Rowling gets across once again is that bullying and violence against the weak is evil, that shared humanity should trump family and class distinctions, that the strong must help the weak, that the weak have gifts to help the strong, and that loving self-sacrifice is transformative.

There is also, by the way, a hint that the trend of people having sex with whoever they want to have sex with, whenever, with very little thought for anyone else, especially their sex-partner, is a root cause of abject misery in any social class.

I am impressed by how well J.K. Rowling draws her characters, showing how their flaws are also their weaknesses. One is a social worker who uproots her life and her daughter's life in London to live in the same village as the man she thinks is her boyfriend. He is not really her boyfriend, and he doesn't even like her that much. He just liked knowing a woman in London he could have sex with occasionally, and he doesn't have the guts to tell her that. Both are to blame for the situation, although one might argue that the woman is even more blameworthy, for she didn't just uproot her home for her deluded fantasy of romance, she uprooted her daughter's, too. And in this she and her heroin-addled client are sisters under the skin.

The one weakness in the book is how J.K. seems to yell "See, see!" when comparing the illicit drug use of the miserable poor to the licit drug use of the middle class. But wine is a good thing and can be used in moderation; heroin is not and cannot.

The drinker in the book is a middle-aged woman whose business is on the rocks, and her husband doesn't really think this important. Always the sexy kind of woman who likes to make risque remarks, her libido goes a bit crazy and fixates on a boy band. Oddly, this is the only funny part of the book, and of course it is also sad although there is a liberating aspect to it, too.

So if you were thinking of reading The Casual Vacancy, go ahead and read it. I will warn you that there are sex scenes--albeit not sexy (in real life sex is not always sexy, which JKR points out)--bad language and a rape scene, which I skipped. It really is not for children.

The author has chosen to highlight the difference between middle-class people and the very poor (in my town they are called "schemies", after "housing scheme") by reproducing the accent of the latter. This may lead you, the reader, to see the schemies as akin to alien creatures, and thus may undercut the author's praiseworthy attempt to present them as hurting human beings. Of course, one might argue that she is presenting their aesthetically horrible way of speaking as just one more degradation they suffer.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Phoenix from the Ashes

I was thinking today about failure, and how afraid people are of failure. Fear of failure is the death of art and creativity and often of social opportunities, too.

I think, for example, of the many men who are too intimidated to introduce themselves to women at parties, and this makes me think of the many men who asked me and my friends to dance at a ceilidh last Friday night.

One great thing about social dancing is that the reason why men ask you to dance is because they want to dance. I think Alisha told me once that it is bad manners to turn down a dance (unless for a very, VERY good reason), so I never did, even though I am shy about my dancing skills. Thank heavens it was an old-fashioned gathering where women were naturally assumed to be the followers. Having been asked to dance so often, and having been competently led, I, loather of dance class, had a very good time at this ceilidh.

I hope it really is a rule that women at public social dances are not supposed to refuse dances because it suggests that here, at last, is a place where men can be relatively sure they can interact socially with women without being shot down. And the better they can dance (especially the better they can lead), the more grateful women will be to dance with them. And the more the men work at it, the better they will be able to dance and lead.

But to start such a new activity does mean overcoming a fear of failure.

The fascinating thing about the relationship between creativity and failure is that both the pay-offs for an experiment that goes right and an experiment that goes wrong can be enormous. The surrealist who first painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa is hailed as a great wit; the woman who satirized Gone with the Wind with The Wind Done Gone was accused of plagiarism. (The book was published, however, and became a bestseller.)

Creativity depends on risk--on formulating new ideas, on doing something new, on taking apart someone's project--like a mobile phone--and putting it together in a whole new way. But risk does indeed imply failure.

Failure hurts. But it is interesting to really look at what in a failure was the real failure.

My two worst failures were giving up my dream of marrying a fellow Catholic (age 25) and not paying attention to the voice in my head that said, You will not be able to make it through a PhD program in this place alone (age 35). The marriage was not a failure; the failure was contracting it. The PhD was not a failure; the failure was not being rooted in the reality of the environment. The first failure came about through fear of being alone; the second failure came about through pride.

The first failure was somewhat resolved by blogging for Single women, and it was completely resolved when I did marry a fellow Catholic (age 38). The second failure is not resolved. Maybe I'll let you know when it is, if it is.

Failing and then persevering. It's the American dream--and the Christian narrative, too. Our Lord's creative work on earth looked like a big failure, one for which He was blamed and mocked and crucified, but His work transformed the world and His very crucifixion led to Easter Sunday.

In today's combox, it would be great if you described a failure from which you recovered and a success that followed it.

I'm taking the guard off the combox because I don't have much internet access today, so please be respectful of the feelings of other readers. Remember that this is a place where vulnerable, often lonely, Single women with unfashionable (e.g. traditionalist) opinions should feel safe.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Is the Only Way the Hard Way?

I have never discovered if you really do get a fine or imprisonment for smashing the glass over the fire alarm on the platform of Sheppard Subway Station because I never smashed it. For years I would wait for my train, gazing uneasily at the warning over the glass, as if I would not be able to help myself and just break that glass. I didn't want to break the glass; I was terrified of breaking the glass. Breaking the glass might get me a FINE or IMPRISONMENT. I have to say, though, that even now I experience an unresolved tension about this stupid alarm, and maybe when I am a very old woman I will be back in Toronto and see an actual fire on the tracks. And then I will break the glass, secure in the knowledge that I will be neither fined nor imprisoned. Oh, the relief.

Freud would have a field day.

Anyway in the combox yesterday, someone mentioned the impossibility of knowing how to handle a relationship situation until you are actually in the relationship, and that made me sad. It shouldn't be that way, but it so often is. Both my mother's generation and my generation ignored any faith-based relationship advice of our parents (if they gave any) on the strength that they were old, and old-fashioned, and didn't know what they were talking about. This left some of us thinking, "Oh, if only I had listened to my mother," which strikes me as cold comfort, even for the ignored mothers.

I suppose the problem for mothers is that they prefer just to be themselves and cannot be consciously "on" and supremely clever twenty-four hours a day. Thus, when my mother objected to my calling boys on the telephone, instead of explaining why it is pointless and frustrating to telephone boys who do not telephone you, she called me a brazen hussy.

Now this was in 1986 (the women of my family never forget stuff like this, ever), and "brazen hussy" was not an everyday turn of speech. Nor did it apply to ordinary things like calling boys on the phone which every women's magazine I read in 1986 thought it perfectly acceptable to do. "If a boy doesn't call you, call him" was the commonsense thought of 1986, which was why it was particularly galling to be called a brazen hussy (i.e. a sexual sinner) by my own mother. And thus it made me less likely to listen to anything my mother ever had to say about love in the modern world, which is too bad, for although the world changes rapidly, human nature does not.

And thus the only way I learned just how frustrating and pointless it is to telephone boys who don't telephone me was the hard way. And "hard" is an apt adjective, as it really was the equivalent of trying to knock down a wall by banging my head against it. Your Auntie Seraphic never appealed to the masses, but to a small if worldwide brotherhood of men who adore short pale women with masses of reddish hair.

Frankly, I do not think I actually grasped how one can come to know the reality about oneself and make testable hypotheses about other people until I read the work of Father Bernard Lonergan, S.J. If you care for a serious plod through epistemology, I suggest you read a few essays from his Second Collection or from his Method in Theology (also available in Polish, albeit probably only in a Polish university library) before grappling with Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. But if the first paragraph you read makes you weep, pick up He's Just Not That Into You instead, and examine closely the techniques Greg Behrendt uses to convince you.

Speaking of Greg, one of his devices is the input of his single gal colleague, Liz Tuccillo. Liz is there to voice any objections the female reader might be making as she reads the words of the incomparable Greg. I find Liz an interesting figure because here is married Greg giving all these amazing, cold-water-in-the-face insights, and there is single Liz saying "But I don't like that, Greg."

Liz's protests interest me because I have a reasonable hypothesis that just as girls don't believe their fuddy-duddy mothers (if they have fuddy-duddy mothers instead of less trustworthy latex-offering hippy mothers), readers don't always believe me either. And when the stakes are quite high for the reader, this could bother me. However, I have learned to detach. I say my bit, and then the reader can get on with it, ignoring me or doing what I suggest, writing back to say thanks, or not writing back at all. It's okay.

It would be less okay for you, however, if the person suffering and needing decent advice was your own best pal. This is really a nightmare situation, because you don't want to alienate your pal and you equally don't want her to mess up her life. And on top of that, if she doesn't listen to you, your feelings get hurt. So what to do?

In ministry school, we were taught to listen to a suffering person and to ask questions for clarification. These questions for clarification were not for us to slake our curiosity, but for the suffering person. And in hindsight I saw that my therapist used that technique on me. Instead of telling me the answers to my problems, she asked me questions until I came up with the answers.

A really, really good question was, "Would you rather be married to an alcoholic or to a man who is not an alcoholic?" This question helped me (not perfectly, not without serious bumps and horrors) both to break up with and to get over the alcoholic boyfriend I was absolutely crazy about. And as a result I did not learn the hard way, how really awful it can be to be a co-dependent married to an alcoholic. In fact, although it seemed like alcoholics (drinking and non-drinking) were coming out of the woodwork, I was able to keep myself from dating any of them.

So the answer to my title question is "No". But the difficulty is getting really good and convincing emotional support, advice and help not to end up learning the hard way. And this is why I so often suggest readers take their problems to their parents (or favourite aunt) or a priest or a trained therapist. And, of course, to be rooted in reality.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Toxic Glue

I got an email the other day that I don't want to post right now as I am worried about the reader being identified. It's an unusual situation for most of my readers, and I hope even the bare outline doesn't make anyone say "Aha! It's my old friend X!"

In short, my reader is in a toxic, emotionally intense, if physically chaste, relationship with a very troubled, recently divorced man. She has tried to get out of it, but she is having a really hard time, in part because he keeps contacting her, and in part because she misses him and in part, I think, because of toxic glue.

Toxic glue is a phrase I have just invented for whatever it is that keeps you hooked to a guy even though being hooked to him makes you very unhappy. It's worse than a crush, because a crush implies unrequited love, whereas toxic glue gets its strength from mutuality. It's not that the guy doesn't reciprocate your feelings of attachment: it's that he does when he shouldn't.

Not all my readers are Catholics, so some will not agree that a divorced man might still be a married man. However, I hope I can convince these readers at least that it is a supremely bad idea to get involved with an unhappily married man, who becomes a divorcing man, who becomes a divorced man. People caught in marital breakdowns, especially if domestic abuse or children are involved, go at least a little (and sometimes a lot) crazy. And the divorce rate is so high, not because most people divorce, but because divorced people are more likely to divorce again. In a panic, many divorcing people throw themselves into rebound relationships.

The idea that marriage can be impermanent is so entrenched in English-speaking society, it's no wonder that even Catholic girls are influenced by it and think it might be okay to date a divorced man who has not had an annulment. The zeitgeist puts Catholic girls in a weird mental position: "I shouldn't be dating a married man, but he isn't really, really married, is he? I mean, like, he could have grounds for an annulment. He probably has grounds for an annulment, and it isn't really dating anyway."

And the guilt and fear of disapproval from Catholic parents and peers might keep such girls from asking for help in situations where such men have serious personal problems, either those that come along with the agonies of failed marriage or even worse ones. It's so easy, isn't it, just to curl a lip with disapproval and say, "Well, you should have known better." But what a failure of love that is. Love says, "You deserve better. How can I help you?"

I mentioned "dating," but never mind the whole artificial, shifting concept of dating, which is usually just whatever a person says it is. Emotional attachment is emotional attachment, plain and simple. My guess is that most of the time Single women can go out for a coffee with a married male friend or colleague, no problem, and then toddle off home without a pang. This coffee is a whole lot more innocent than an emotionally intimate email exchange between a single woman and an unhappily married man, even if they never go out for coffee.

Such emotional intimacy can become glue, and it is toxic glue if the woman realizes that she wants and needs to get out of the dynamic between her and the divorcing (or otherwise troubled) man but cannot get out. And in such a situation, she really needs to get help. She might need to sit down and tell her parents everything or, if for whatever reason she is afraid of her parents, a trusted older relative, a priest or a therapist.

One thing I cannot stress enough is that young, single people are vulnerable. Young single women are particularly vulnerable because, as far as I know, unhappy older men are more likely to exploit younger single women than unhappy older women are to exploit younger single men. (I am mentally listing examples of the latter, however.) Younger people are often awed and flattered by the attentions of older people, as long as the older people are not TOO old and still attractive in some way. Younger people are more likely than older people to believe whatever they are told, especially about an attractive person's "awful" husband or wife.

Oh dear, it's all so sad. Anyway, if you are in a toxic relationship with a man to whom you are not married--sexual, not-sexual, emotional, professional--and you cannot get out, please tell someone in a position of responsibility (parent, aunt, priest, therapist) who might be able to help you.