Therefore I Exist

old barn 2 27 20

A dying barn …

Yesterday was the beginning of Lent for Christians.

This was the first time in years (or maybe ever) that I was excited to get the ashes smeared on my forehead. Going back to Confession was a big step for me since for the longest time I hated the idea of a priesthood set apart. I wanted to be on equal footing with everyone and liked the idea of having “accountability partners” who basically were just as flawed and untrained as me.

It’s a rare friend who tells you the truth about your missteps.

The priest I went to see was pretty hardcore (in a nice way). He didn’t downplay my tendency to jump into family gossip and self-righteous back-stabbing of my adult siblings. After all everyone in the family does it. The priest shook his head. “No, that’s a bad sin.” Of course he was far more eloquent about it.

Friends tend to help you find excuses for your bad behavior. After a while all of my “accountability partners” became suspect. It started to bother me when they soft-pedaled around things. I’ve done the same, thinking to myself this person is a train wreck but not saying it. I mean, calling someone a train wreck isn’t helpful anyway, but you know what I mean. I didn’t have the faith that the friendship could survive an honest appraisal of the person’s behavior.

A priest at Mass recently talked about how draining  it was in this time of priest shortages and bad-apple priests to carry the weight of parishioners’ sins. Until I “got” the sacredness of the priests’ position I would not have understood what he was saying. He intercedes for us! Now that is a burden for sure!

Last night I took my puppy to her PUPPY CLASS. You can follow her on INSTAGRAM here: Comfychi_golden

comfy 02 27 20

Down … stay … good Comfy!

I was tempted to wipe the ashes from my head. I was torn because some teach that wearing your faith on your sleeve (or forehead) is offensive to the sensibilities of others, and I so enjoy being liked. Some say you should proclaim your faith in actions and behavior. In the end, since I’ve decided to fully embrace traditional Catholic culture I went ahead and wore the ashes to class.

Totally by coincidence, the judge who was involved in the adoption of our daughter was taking the same class with his tiny pug-like dog Wolfgang (which is the cutest name ever). It’s always funny to see people outside of where you put them in your head. Obviously the judge doesn’t wear his robes to class (and he doesn’t command the same authority with his dog that he does in the courtroom).

He smiled when he saw the ashes (by now I had forgotten them). “Oh, I forgot today was Ash Wednesday,” he said, “but I went to a Fat Tuesday pancake dinner last night. It was really good.” He sheepishly laughed again. How could he have forgotten after a full night of pancakes? I laughed too.

We all care so much about what people think. 🙂 As a writer I care about every last review and fret when people on Amazon find the few negative reviews from when I first published MY NOVEL “helpful” because this lands those reviews as Top Reviews. I tried to explain to an Amazon rep that it would be better to set the default on reviews to Most Recent (since my book has been thoroughly re-edited and getting good reviews for a while now) but to no avail.

I found this this helpful:

“To realize how desperately we depend on the ‘existence’ that recognition by others gives us, and how hopeless we are without it until God gives us feet to stand alone on. I have those feet sometimes, but once again, let me realize that there is no absolute ‘standing alone’ — only awful poverty and insecurity and clinging to God in one’s need of others, and greater appreciation of the smallest and most insignificant of communal verities.” THOMAS MERTON

Going to puppy school has been a good thing for me. The tendency to keep in my hermitage actually makes me more desirous of outside praise and notoriety. I don’t want to be that bitter person who compares likes on Instagram and lives for new followers, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. At puppy class everyone goes without their authoritative robes. We are all at least partially dependent on the whims of the puppies. Learning to let your guard down and take your lickings and laugh when you can’t make puppies stay is the best kind of humbling experience. And in this most insignificant of communal experiences I find, as I already know but forget, that we are all the same and live in this mystery of loneliness and friendship.

comfy 2 27 20

 

Are Artists Selfish?

“How good life is when one does something right and just!” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky originally intended for The Brothers Karamazov to be three times as long as it actually turned out to be. If it had been, I definitely would have followed his characters along. Despite being a huge book with questions worth pondering for a lifetime, I was left aching to know, when I finished, how each of the brothers fared after the decisive events following the murder of their dissipated and malicious father .

IMG_1569As a novelist I have to force myself to be alone to write. It’s not that I hate the idea of being alone. I love it. But … as artists we have to say no a lot. No to the people who love us and wish we’d call more. No to the husbands who wish we’d acknowledge them first thing in the morning instead of rushing past them to get in some writing before the kids and dogs wake.

If we are not making a handsome living at our artistic vocation it can appear to be a fool’s errand we are on. Isn’t it more saintly to serve others with our presence and maybe some fresh cooked pancakes? I used to hate the idea of serving God above all else — as if God was a selfish and egotistical slave master. I realized the reason I hated this was because I wanted people to elevate me in God’s place. It was not because I felt such loyalty to humanity that I wanted to serve them above God —  though that’s what I told myself.

Making art is a strange thing. It can feel  self-indulgent at times. It seems to serve only the artist, especially when the calling takes the artist into a private world for hours and days. Years go by and the artist may be preoccupied with the call, the words, the ideas, the images that God is pressing into his soul.

But making art and saying yes to the call is like entering a sort of priesthood of beauty and truth.  All vocations are like this.

“The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that ‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.'” Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II

Alyosha Karamazov takes his calling literally and seriously. It is not enough for him to “give two roubles instead of ‘all,’ and only go to mass instead of ‘following Him.'”

In Alyosha, Dostoevsky gives us the beautiful and ideal. He tells us that Alyosha is for him the hero of the story. He is the fulfillment of everything good that his mentor Father Zossima talks about and all of the other more troubled characters are drawn to him.

I wonder if the artist’s most important job is to document beauty, not only the easy beauty of a sunrise, but also the beauty that so often arises after great suffering. Alyosha is the sunrise and sunset. His brothers are all of those in-between moments of recklessness and inner spiritual turmoil we experience in life.

Some people simply accept the gentle nudges of the Savior, some resist all the way to the end, but those in-between people are the ones it’s so interesting to read and write about. Dimitri Karamazov lets his sensuous desires run amok in search of love and happiness, while Ivan, the intellectual middle brother avoids intimacy and despairs at the suffering of innocent children under a “just” God. Both men suffer, but their suffering offers enlightenment and beauty if they will accept it (as Alyosha does). Smerdyakov, the illegitimate half-brother, refuses God’s grace evidenced by his suicide.

The beauty of the story is not that we are given the answers to all mysteries, but that we are given the ‘beauty to enthuse us for work, and work to raise us up.’

There are some people who say being a Christian is as simple as doing what Jesus says. The What Would Jesus Do? crowd. As artists we are given the task of peeling the onion, of suffering dark nights and loneliness of the soul. Sure, we are also given sunrises and sunsets and these need to be captured enthusiastically as salves for humanity’s suffering. Jesus is all-knowing, all-loving goodness, truth and beauty — we mortals struggle.

I like to think that most people love children and puppies and sunsets. But some people go afar off track following an idea — a lesser idea that puts God in the passenger seat (or the trunk). I understand the impulse. Human theories are applauded and celebrated for being progressive paths to happiness and enlightenment, yet they so often fall flat — many lead to great evil — like communism. I struggle to think of a single human achievement that has not come with an entire host of unintended consequences.

The celebration of something beyond us, bigger than us, more beautiful than us has brought us cathedrals. The celebration of us has brought us Walmart box stores. The Brothers Karamazov brings us before God with big human questions while so many other books talk about self-help and the sensual pleasures of this life and this life only.

True artists are not selfish for locking themselves away for hours (there is a time and place for family gatherings and playing with puppies of course) but we need art like we need God to help us remember our mission as humans to seek out truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of suffering.

This week on the farm there has been a lot of miraculous, “simple” beauty. I hope your week had its share of beauty too. Let me know if you are a “selfish” artist in the comments! 🙂 How do you manage your time?

8 THINGS JOHN PAUL II WANTED ALL ARTISTS TO KNOW

AN ARTISTIC REFLECTION ON JOHN PAUL II’s LETTER TO ARTISTS

 

5 Great Books About Military Wives in 19th Century America

Since you all know I love history and historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well.Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

BOOTS AND SADDLES

THE COLONEL’S LADY ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER

VANISHED ARIZONA

LIFE AND MANNERS IN THE FRONTIER ARMY

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD

 

5 Great Books About Civil War Soldiers

Since you all know I love history and historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well.Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

THE STORY THE SOLDIERS WOULDN’T TELL

CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS

THE LIFE OF BILLY YANK

HARDTACK & COFFEE

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD (and series)

The Indian Wars: 5 Great Books About General George Crook

Since you all know I love history and writing historical fiction, I thought I’d share some lists of my favorite books by topic that I used when writing THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES. I hope research geeks will use these posts as a good place to start on the subjects I will feature and that readers of my fiction who have had their appetites whetted for the time period will enjoy the lists as well. Yes, I will put my own books on the lists — 😉

Happy reading and make sure to add your favorites on the subject in the comments below!

GENERAL GEORGE CROOK AUTOBIOGRAPHY

GENERAL CROOK AND THE WESTERN FRONTIER

ON THE BORDER WITH CROOK

WOLVES FOR BLUE SOLDIERS

THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD

Walt Whitman in the Civil War

I worry that a book like THE BETTER ANGEL by Roy Morris Jr.  in 2000 would not get written today because Walt Whitman, despite nursing thousands of young, suffering soldiers in overfilled hospitals who fought a war that freed slaves, expressed what we consider today to be offensive (and ignorant) opinions about slaves.  

Racism as a word needs to go. Its meaning does not allow for any complexity of feeling or thought. It shuts down avenues of reconciliation and fails to deal with the deeper issues which are basic: human hatred and ignorance. Cain murdered his brother as one of the first acts in the Bible. Anyone with maturity and experience lies to themselves if they think they are above nursing hatreds. Tell me at least one time when this hatred based on jealousy, past wrongs or misunderstanding ever brought peace to anyone, yet still we run to our little groups and cast hateful looks and words at others.

To take the argument away from American race relations for a minute I’d like to use the example of the long animosity between England and Ireland. Depending on who you talk to, people will bring up various battles and laws and wrongs reaching back a thousand years. Some people carry the bitterness of a lost battle between men generations ago into their daily lives today with no positive results.

How as honest humans can we not admit that we all have ingrained hierarchies of human importance? Some cheer for new late-term abortion laws while others like myself are sickened at the callousness and laughter on the faces of those signing infanticide into practice. Others decry borders and the mistreatment of foreigners. The hypocrisy of humanity is sickening. Yet I must remind myself that I am part of humanity.

I can be incredibly callous to suffering. I can make harsh and ignorant judgments based on race, class, religion and even the motives my husband has for doing something I don’t understand or like.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
 Matthew 7:3

I briefly entered the fray of blaming my insecurities and deficiencies on gender, genealogy and religion. Guess where it got me — nowhere.

People don’t like to hear it (I didn’t want to hear it until my sins could be hidden no longer) but seeking revenge or pity or money won’t cure bitterness. Only forgiveness does. People don’t like being humbled. It goes against the self-esteem religion. It goes against the I’m a star and you need to respect and idolize me religion.

What Jesus said is still as counter cultural and revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Be careful not to skim over these words. They are the keys to a life worth living.

Walt Whitman just before the Civil War was a man without a cause. He rode the city streets by day and spent the nights drinking and carousing. He was depressed.

His brother enlisted in the army at the start of the war. Walt left in search of him when he was hospitalized months later. He had planned to stay only briefly until he encountered the sick and dying young boys — thousands of them — in places we would never send our dogs to get well today.

Cynics might say Walt stayed because he had always had affectionate feelings toward younger men and maybe there is some truth to that, but anyone who thinks they are 100% altruistic is again living under serious delusion.

Forgotten Veterans

The many forgotten soldiers with no family to advocate for them adored Walt’s visits and the man himself. Evidenced by the letters he received late in life from grateful veterans, they believed without his small kindnesses they would not have survived the disease-ridden and terrifying hospitals.

As some of you may remember, I’m researching my young relatives who fought and died for the Union. Two died of disease early on but one was injured at Second Bull Run and spent months in hospital before being discharged only to enlist again and die a few days before Appomattox. Every wrecked young man  Walt showed special kindness to could have been someone very much like my cousin Waldo who enlisted when he was only fifteen.

The Civil War Dead

We so often think in terms of big numbers and so little do we ponder and appreciate the individuals whose tiny lives flickered so briefly. Their hopes, their mannerisms, the things that made them laugh and cry — Walt saw to those things and loved the boys “like father, like mother, like lover and friend.” He saw these suffering boys made in the image of God — fearfully and wonderfully made — and mourned for them and with them. He brought ice cream on hot days when no one wanted to be in the stinking tents of human waste and rotting flesh.

Walt wrote once about Private John A. Holmes,  a man I assume most of us have never heard of. Like 54 percent of the Union soldiers and 99 percent of the Confederates, Holmes was stricken with diarrhea — “a disease that would claim the lives of nearly one hundred thousand men.”

After weeks in camp Holmes was sent by steamer to Washington. On the boat he was too weak to open his bag to pull out a blanket. When a crew member refused to help him, Holmes was forced to sleep exposed to the elements with chills and fever. At the Washington hospital he was stripped naked and scrubbed under a cold shower until he fainted in the nurses’ arms.

For days he suffered in anonymity and hopelessness until Whitman noticed the poor boy’s look of despair when he stopped to make some encouraging remark.

“‘I saw as I looked that it was a case of administering to the affection first, and other nourishment and medicines afterward … I sat down with him without any fuss … wrote a letter to his folks … and gave him some small gifts and told him I would come again soon.’

“Holmes said he would like to buy a glass of milk from the woman who peddled it in the wards and Whitman gave him a little change. The young man immediately burst into tears.”

John Holmes credited Walt’s first visit that day with saving his life. I like to think that my cousin Waldo had someone beside him during the 24 hour period between receiving his mortal gunshot wound to the thigh and the time he spent suffering in the hospital before he died. On reenlisting he had not gone back to the regiment from Cortland, NY (his home) so I have no idea if he had any close friends near by in the end. He was only 18 or 19 when he died. He was buried on a plantation far from home as his parents celebrated Lee’s surrender.

Walt Whitman considered his Civil War days to be the most important of his life.

His collection of poems from that time are his best. Long after the country moved on and long after the thousands of young men  were buried and forgotten by all but genealogists,  Whitman’s poems live on as a testimony to the uncomplaining bravery and suffering of a generation of young men and their families.

THE BETTER ANGEL Walt Whitman in the Civil War is a book to inspire the most calloused heart. How many of us give so freely of ourselves as Whitman did? He’s always been my favorite poet, but now he is one of my favorite men.

A Twilight Song by Walt Whitman

As I sit in twilight late alone by the flickering oak-flame,
Musing on long-pass’d war-scenes—of the countless buried unknown
soldiers,
Of the vacant names, as unindented air’s and sea’s—the unreturn’d,
The brief truce after battle, with grim burial-squads, and the
deep-fill’d trenches
Of gather’d from dead all America, North, South, East, West, whence
they came up,
From wooded Maine, New-England’s farms, from fertile Pennsylvania,
Illinois, Ohio,
From the measureless West, Virginia, the South, the Carolinas, Texas,
(Even here in my room-shadows and half-lights in the noiseless
flickering flames,
Again I see the stalwart ranks on-filing, rising—I hear the
rhythmic tramp of the armies;)
You million unwrit names all, all—you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you—a flash of duty long neglected—your mystic
roll strangely gather’d here,
Each name recall’d by me from out the darkness and death’s ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many
future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, or North or South,
Embalm’d with love in this twilight song.

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DRUM TAPS by Walt Whitman

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“I love this series of books. You never know what’s going to happen next. It’s sad at times, but then it turns around and you see the love of family.” ***** Amazon Review

 

“You always think the next phase is going to provide answers and while it does often do that, it then brings a whole new set of catastrophes to worry about. I love that this series has a subtle humor to it, similar to that of a private joke you have with yourself. I’ve cared for each character almost equally, kind of the the way I would love those in my family. They each provide a different perspective that I can find myself relating to in some way, even if I completely disagree. Definitely my favorite in the series so far.” ***** Amazon Review