05 October 2008

Relationships at work

How do you know you know a person? Usually we can tell when we really know someone, or when we don't know them--or at least, we've felt the rude smack of realization that this person we thought we had figured out is in fact someone else entirely. Then in other relationships, we keep trying to know the person but a vague sense pervades that some vital component of their person is hidden to you. This may be somewhat intentional on their part--if they have something to hide, or they don't trust you enough to open themselves to you. Or it may keep happening in a relationship no matter how hard both of you try to reveal self and understand other: somehow, the two of you are different in such a way that there are parts of each (sometimes substantial parts) that can't be communicated to the other. Who knows why. It may be variations in how you each perceive the world, or stage in life, or in values or thought processes or even just taste or style. Whatever it is, it's there. Similar differences may have no bearing on other relationships, but somehow it matters to these.

That makes me wonder even more about the relationships that do work. The ones that don't tend to stick in our craw and we try to figure them out. The relationships that work best offer us a place of respite and comfort, a place where we can take communion for granted, in the very best sense. They become those rare and treasured spaces in life where we know this is how life is supposed to be. Trying to figure out why they work might jinx them.

I think though, really, we're just as clueless about why those work as about why others don't. It's like asking a happily married person how they knew their spouse was "The One" (assuming they believe in soul mates). They almost always give the highly unsatisfying answer, "you just know" or "it just works." Thanks guys, really helpful, thinks the single friend. That does nothing to help me know whether the way my girlfriend and I relate "works."

Currently being a person who dispenses such an answer, I'm sorry. But that's all I've got. Yeah, shared values and goals are important, bringing out the best in each other, and similar backgrounds can be helpful. But I didn't even know some of what the best of me was until I was dating my husband. Some of my values evolved through or simultaneous with my initial friendship with him. You never really know yourself or another person completely, so how do you even know why exactly you relate the way you do?

A friend once advised me, back when I was a single lass trying to make a final decision about a relationship I wanted but couldn't seem to get functioning smoothly. She told me, "You know the relationship will work when in the midst of problems, you know you will crawl through anything to get that person back." She said that not discounting the above-mentioned factors, as well as things like maturity and just liking each other (which often falls surprisingly low on people's list of priorities). But she wanted to highlight that almost irresistible love which flows naturally in good relationships and must flow most strongly in a marriage.

Two things to say about that idea. One, in pondering that idea I came to discover the limits of my love for that particular gent--in certain situations, I knew I would do the crawling if I had to, but not because I wanted to. The natural limits of the love I had for him reflected the limits of our relationship. Later, when I dated my husband, I discovered within myself an unlimited love that reflected the "it just works" nature of our relationship. Don't ask me to explain why, cuz I have no idea. But that's how it worked.

Two, while my friend gave that advice as a description of a relationship "just working", it can also be read as a prescription for how to keep moving forward in any relationship, regardless of its natural functionality. That's really what love is, in its essence--sacrifice of self for another. Being willing to crawl even when you don't want to, being willing to sacrifice both your petty demands and your real rights, being willing to wrap your efforts as a free gift to another person--that is love. That is the divine life in your everyday experience. "To love another person is to see the face of God," as they sing in Les Miserables. And the best part is that divine love is always an option for us. Whether or not a relationship clicks is irrelevant. Everyone I know can be loved, and with the grace of God I can be the one loving.

31 March 2008

True Believers

"I could go on listing my Christian accomplishments, but I think you can see that I was very serious about my faith, and that I am quite capable of analyzing religion from the inside out." (from here)

What's fascinating to me about this--and many, many other similar articles I've read recently--is that longevity and sincerity of experience is regarded as a sufficient qualification for making judgments. I'm not saying the author lacks rational capacity. I just find it interesting that no one brings up skills in analysis as a component of their rhetorical ethos. The typical story goes,"I was really committed--a true believer. If even I realized it was all a lie, then it really must be!" Someone could only lose strong religious faith because it isn't faith in anything real. And somehow once believing it was real--but eventually being able to see through all the lies--gives a person special insight into truth. So the story goes. Experience, rather than rational capacity, is what elicits trust from the audience and forms the basis of the author's assertion of his right to speak.

Often study (sometimes impressively extensive) is also invoked as a qualification, which fits a little better with the argument that being a "true believer" is inherently irrational. But that's not always the case. The conversion experience--whether to religion or atheism or something else (like activism, the hot new post-Christian morality for religiously disillusioned Gen Yers)--carries psychological hallmarks, no matter which direction you're turning. (Many of these authors don't seem to realize that applies to atheism, too.) That's what readers identify with, that familiar experience. That's what they trust, because that's what they know.

The ironic thing is that these particular versions of the atheist attack on irrationality are based on experience. Not that experience is inherently irrational, or even that these authors are themselves irrational as they abandon their religion. (Some are, but a surprising number thought things through quite carefully, and fought very hard to keep believing.) But none of these authors set out the logical syllogisms that eventually convinced them to become atheists. They all record their stories--and reader comments are either praise from those who identify or rebuke from those who don't. Each side has its case, but nobody seems to be making many converts without the shared experience that gets a hearing.

O, the postmodern world! Veritas, quo vadis? ~pronounce in British accent, strike breast for emphasis~

08 February 2008

The virtue of hunger

This year I'm observing Lent. Last year I thought about Lent and attended an Ash Wednesday service at St. Stephen's Episcopal, and then forgot about Lent. But this year I'm actually doing it. Many reasons motivate me--a desire to establish new dimensions to my relationship with God, an  increased interest in church tradition, simple curiosity about what it's like. These forty days are also functioning as a sort of final trial period (this year) in my quest to decide whether to join the Catholic Church; if this experience doesn't clarify some things for me, then I am not ready for such a commitment. 

Lent, of course, is the season of fasting: pick something you're too attached to (idolatry? dependency?) / isn't good for you (kick that habit!) / something that will be missed and abstain from it, offering it to God and deepening devotion to him through detaching from earthly life on some level (even if the thing itself isn't inherently bad). Of course, you don't really have to offer it to God--one lady I met on a past Ash Wednesday uses Lent to jump-start her annual diet, abstaining from sugar from Lent till after swimsuit season when she feels free to re-plump on Christmas goodies. Best of both worlds, right?! (As long as one of those worlds doesn't include the Beatific Vision.)

There's a little more going on in a Catholic Lent, from what I gather. First, life in the Catholic Church (and the Anglican and Lutheran churches) is shaped by liturgical seasons, which commemorate key events in the life of Christ (and, to a lesser degree, the lives of Saints). In this way, the life cycle of a Christian as she participates in the life of the Church is experientially connected to the paths of the Christ she follows, as well as tracing the footprints of those who have walked before her. Lent refigures Christ's forty days in the desert after His baptism, his fasting and preparing to begin His ministry--a ministry which culminates in His sacrifice on our behalf and His Resurrection. These forty days also carry the echos of other Biblical forties--Noah riding out forty days and nights of downpour in the ark, Moses' forty days on Mount Sinai communing with God and receiving the Law, the Jews' forty years wandering in the desert, Elijah's forty day-and-night trek to Mount Horeb where he heard the still, small voice of God, and the less popular forty days Jonah's prophecy gave Nineveh to repent. Another Catholic distinctive is the use of specific guidelines to shape commemorations: during Lent, one fasts (eats no more than one meal's worth of food) and abstains from meat on Fridays, refrains from festivities (hence Mardi Gras), devotes extra time to prayer and money or time for the poor. In Mass, the Alleluia and Glory to God in the Highest, very festive songs, are omitted and a longer confession of sin is used. Churches' icons and statues are covered. My parish is decorated with stark, bare branches rather than the usual blooms. Lent is a time of mourning sin, of denying self and pursuing God. Lent is a preparation for the desolation of Good Friday, and the glorious joy of Eastertide, which culminates in Pentecost.

Catholic Lent can be seen as a concentrated renewal of the Christian's devotion to obeying God, in acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with Him. The three pillars of lenten observance are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. To deny oneself pleasures, to give of one's resources to others, to devote oneself to time in God's presence--and to do all these in concert with the body of believers--certainly revamps one's perspective and sense of what's worthwhile. I find it impossible to actually get through one day--one day, much less a year or a lifetime--in conscious obedience to God. An entire season spent in corporate focus, with all its tangible reminders, is just the kind of ass-kicking a gal like me needs.

You see, I am perhaps the least disciplined person ever, and certainly so in my social circles. I'm lazy, I procrastinate (right now I should be reading Millenium Hall, or emailing Drew or Kate, or folding laundry), I avoid things I'm not in the mood for, I eat too much, I don't keep track of my money, and I never devote time to the things of God unless I'm curious about something or so wracked with doubt that I can't function unless I spend a few hours obsessively searching books and internet for insight. You might say my relationship with God is a highly dysfunctional one. And I wonder why I'm so resistant to following Him.

This year, my Lenten observance is an all-out attack on my star weakness (I'm using energetic language to help convince myself...thus far my "offensive" has included getting halfway through a pile of chicken strips before remembering that I wasn't eating meat that day). When I fast, though I eat just enough to keep my blood sugar from crashing dangerously, the edge of my hunger never really goes away. I feel weak, my mind is scattered, I crave salt. I am empty, dependent. But I am also simplified on some level. It's very hard to be proud when physically spent, somehow. My desires are present, but they cannot rule me as long as I don't carelessly or defiantly break my fast. As I repeatedly deny my desires, they become less insistent on being satisfied. The physical act begins to change my mind, my spirit. I have begun to crave a fast from all undisciplined behaviors--even dumb things like meandering around the internet instead of...well, just about anything I need to do. Who knew a wireless internet connection would be my undoing?

Of course, only three days into Lent, this is still the honeymoon phase. Eventually my Lenten fast and prayer and discipline will get old, and I will eat too many cookies or read random blogs I don't even like for hours rather than write a paper. I will forget to pray, or worse, choose not to. Doubt will deluge my mind. Today's appreciation of Christianity will be tomorrow's repudiation, whether from a justifiable doubt or from self-centered stubbornness. Makes no difference; the day will come. I'm not really sure how I'll react to that. Hopefully, the habit of choosing to persevere regardless of my desires will already be somewhat formed. And hopefully, my past experience of admitting and simply living with my doubt will kick in, without prompting me to also trust the doubts themselves any more than is warranted. We'll see.

Whenever it comes, I'll still be in Lent--the season of lack, of wandering in the desert, of weakness, of temptation to abandon God...and of hearing the voice of God in unexpected places, of preservation, of turning from sin and being faithful to the gospel, as the Ash Wednesday pronouncement goes. I'll be surrounded by a church that consciously chooses to walk that road for forty days, and accompanied by a Savior that walked that road, Himself and with His people. If nothing else, it'll be a good place to start again.

26 January 2008

Shopping Rules!

My friend Sara and I were shopping the other night. It was one of those friendship forging experiences--not because we weren't friends already, but because shopping reveals some fundamental things about a girl's attitudes about herself, her priorities, her personality. It was a night to remember. Also, we got a 1000-piece Klimt puzzle. All's right with the world.

Anyhoo, as we trolled the mall I shared some of my shopping philosophies, whether Sara wanted me to or not. She told me I should blog them--probably to get me to stop talking about it long enough to let her buy some shoes. So, at the risk of plagiarizing every person who's helped me learn to shop, here's the extended version of what I blathered to Sara. 

My Rules For Shopping.

1. Know thyself. This isn't about knowing your style preferences—those are changeable, and may determine where but not necessarily how you shop. This rule is about knowing your personality, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Do you procrastinate? Are you a details person or a big picture person? Are you a planner or spontateous? Do you mentally juggle with ease, or is your mind occupied with one thing at a time, in the present? Are you decisive or indecisive? Impulsive or hesitant?

You need to know these things because you need to understand how you relate to shopping and the boundaries necessary to being clothed appropriately and having money left over for bills and such. You also need to be aware of how shopping affects deeply personal issues—body image, social position and relevance, lifestyle (especially when the one you have and the one you want don't match), age (in our beauty-obsessed culture in denial of death), money (put your money where your mouth is, actions speak louder than words…). You may already know shopping, say, makes you feel like a pile of crap. And you know that shopping makes you feel like crap because all overweight you wants is to look sleek in that vintage pleated mini-dress, but instead you look like a pear wearing a smashed paper fan. How often do you lose the smashed paper fan and buy a tent instead, in an impulsive fit of of self-loathing? How much clout and internal space are you willing to give those feelings? How much more do you pay attention to them than to your true dignity as a human, or to what your clothes say about you to others, or to how your wardrobe relates to what you want out of life? Knowing the emotional and social underpinnings of why you buy what you buy will help you sort out your shopping style—and develop and stick to good shopping habits.

Even the less dramatic factors make a big difference in successful shopping. For example, if you're a procrastinator, don't buy something close to what you want and keep looking with the intention of returning thing A later—because you won't return it, and then you will have spent twice the money you needed to, or you'll have clothes you don't really want. Don't even make that an option. Enjoy the freedom of preventing situations that don't fit your natural habits.

2. Set goals and keep them in mind. It's pretty easy to either shop with a wandering eye or avoid shopping entirely—which can mean buying things you never actually wear, whether out of impulsive desire or frustration and inexperience. Keeping in mind what works for you, set specific goals for shopping: where and when you will shop, a budget, what you need. To set good goals, you're going to need to pay attention to why you set the goals you do, and what methods you adopt to achieve those goals. If you want a total wardrobe overhaul but you don't have $10,000 dollars handy, you'll want to prioritize—a good suit for the upwardly mobile, comfortable yet stylish clothes for the mom whose only time for herself may be getting dressed. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself aware of your goals: make lists if you're impulsive or absent minded, shop with budgeted cash if you're watching your wallet, shop with (carefully chosen!) acountabili-buddies if you're indecisive or you need help staying committed to your goals—or if shopping depresses you. Eventually these goals will become second nature, and your shopping will be more effective and a more positive experience.

3. Consider clothes an investment, and don't settle for less than what you want. Don't settle for cheap imitations of what you want—get good fabrics, for example, that match your lifestyle. Don't buy silk if you don't go to the dry cleaners, unless you really think you can incorporate that habit. Don't buy a lot of high heels if you can't walk in them, unless you're really committed to learning (and anyone can! but not everyone wants to). But watch your intake of the polyesters, the acrylics, the plastics. They don't feel as good, they don't look as good, and they don't last as long as natural materials. You're only going to want to replace them next year—the opposite of an investment. You're giving yourself an errand. If you're buying something you'll wear all the time, like a pair of basic ballet flats, get a version that will last, like real leather with comfortable soles instead of something plastic. And buy for your life—if you love suede shoes but you live in Seattle, you really need to get the good rain shoes, not the suede kitten heels. If you can only get one, you will regret the suede, I promise. And don't buy something that doesn't look right, even if you like it and it fits your criteria. Every body is different, as is every piece of clothing. You need to find the chemistry between the two that produces the best look and fit for you.

Be diligent in finding what you want (especailly difficult for the anti-shoppers, but truly worth it in the end). Don't spend your money, your effort, or your future on something that doesn't fit your needs. Keep in mind that leaving a shopping trip empty-handed because you didn't settle is a success!

Also, be diligent in researching clothing—fabrics, styles, fits. Get to know your body-type (not just what you consider your flaws) and understand what styles suit you. It's true, the fashion industry is generally not kind to those not shaped like models. But no matter who you are, you really can find clothes that look actively good on you, and reflect the self-respect you deserve and the personality and values that define you. Not to be a walking advertisement, but TLC's What Not To Wear is really a great show for understanding shopping in general, and this rule in particular. Many of us can't afford most of the clothes on the show, but you'll pick up a lot of insights about clothing, style, shopping, and what is worth spending money on.

Extra tips, especially for those new to shopping:

  • Do not buy cheap shoes. Even if you don't regret it now, you will after four hours of wearing them, or after a lifetime of bad shoes when the bunions set in.
  • Try to avoid marathon shopping, whether you love it or hate it. Visit your favorite stores briefly on a regular basis, sticking to your budget and list. Shopping does not mean purchasing; but those visits will familiarize you with your options. After trying on similar boots at three different stores, you'll know which ones feel right.
  • Pay attention to sales. That doesn't mean running out and shopping every sale you hear about. It means finding out the sales of the stores you already shop. And don't neglect the clearance racks, or thrift stores and vintage stores. I have friends who look like a million bucks, even when they're casual, cuz they get lovely, good quality stuff affordably by exclusively shopping clearance racks.
  • Learn to sew, or go to the cleaners for alterations. This will help update older items that still have some life in them, or adjust new items that need a little help. If you're feling really adventurous, you can experiment with dyeing—anything can go black, and white can go anything. Research your options before you act. 

22 January 2008

Good morning to you

I'm going to start by saying nothing, except that you should read this article: http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2339&Itemid=48. It's people like these, the Frederic Bastiat types, that make sense of politics for me. God bless the French for at least giving us Bastiat, Edith Piaf, and fantastic cheese.