Monday, January 16, 2017

Worrying is not a charism

Like many of my fellow Catholics, I can't help but wonder what the heck is going on in Malta. I've seen bits and pieces of headlines (Freemasons? Conspiracies? Adulterers, line up for communion?) and have scratched my head at them. I admit to being confused by just what the goals are here, and whether the goalie is, perhaps, taking a bit of a nap or something.

There was a time in my life when I would probably have gone on some sort of verbal rampage about things like this (and I can't guarantee that those times will never return). But I've come to believe something, something that started vaguely occurring to me way back in Pope St. John Paul II's pontificate and, perhaps, reaching its clearest expression during the papacy of Pope Francis. It is, quite simply, this:

Worrying is not, and never has been, the charism of any parish, religious order, lay Catholic group, individual Catholic, etc.

There is no holy duty to worry. There is no pious practice of fretting. There is no blessing in the Book of Blessings given to Catholics engaging in verbal combat with other Catholics on the Internet. There is no Rite of Calling Out Your Religious and/or Political Enemies for Doing or Supporting Things That Annoy You For What Are Probably Highly Personal Reasons But Can Under The Right Circumstances Sound Quite Noble And Whatnot (tm.) There just isn't anything like that in the Church.

In fact, we're supposed to do the opposite of worrying. We're supposed to trust God, and cultivate a spirit of obedience to Him. We're also, most of the time, supposed to obey those in lawful authority over us unless they ask us to do something we are absolutely certain is wrong in a way that conflicts with our obedience to God. St. Thomas More is an excellent example of the right way to do this sort of thing; the wrong way is to have a knee-jerk, default attitude of contempt toward our religious or political leaders and plan to thwart them unless almost by accident they do something we agree with once in a while.

I have sometimes heard people speak admiringly of St. Catherine of Siena, that holy woman whose calling included some involvement in political action and in persuading the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon, as a particular model for our times. She is certainly a wonderful saint, and for those whom God is calling to act in the public square or within the Church's internal structures she may indeed be a powerful patron. But I think perhaps St. Therese of Lisieux, with her "Little Way," may be a more pertinent model for those of us who aren't being directly called by God to meddle in Vatican affairs or national politics. Posting "anti-Francis" memes or holding an Internet inquisition to determine who is really pro-life may be attractive hobbies to some of us, but they do not get the dishes done, let alone feed the poor or clothe the naked.

It's one thing to read the news, both secular and Catholic, to stay informed and take various matters (and various people) to prayer. It's another thing to feed on the media's endless diet of death-by-clickbait so we can shake our heads over What The Church And the World Are Coming To instead of folding the laundry or paying the bills.

No, worrying is not a charism, and God has everything that we fear firmly in His hands. We should try to trust Him, and to please Him by living our own vocations instead of fretting about everyone else's.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to teach children to hate reading

I've been caught up in a bit of what we retired homeschoolers might call "rabbit trails." That's what happens when you get interested in something, so you read about it, and then you find out some other thing related to that first thing, and you read about that, and pretty soon you hate all of humanity and wish the giant asteroid would hurry up and get here already because trapped rabbits at the end of a trail are the least of your worries.

Okay, I'm kidding--homeschoolers' rabbit trails usually lead to things like mom finding out exactly what wagon train pioneers ate for supper and trying, with the dubious assistance of small but eager children, to make a meal that will sort of look like pioneer food when you post it for bragging rights on Pinterest. Nobody will eat that meal because the pioneers wouldn't have, either, if they'd had any better choices, but nobody on Pinterest and none of your Instagram followers ever need to know that part. And your children will get the benefits of a living history lesson, by which I mean they will suddenly appreciate life in the 21st century enough to quit begging for screen time for five minutes or so (at least, that's what I hear; back when my kids were young enough for those rabbit trail kinds of things we didn't have any portable screens in our house yet).

But as a non-teaching adult who is easily distracted by stuff on the Internet regardless of whether or not I am presently homeschooling, the kinds of rabbit trails I hop down these days usually involve things like political issues or religious matters or other things of that nature, which usually end with wistful dreams of giant asteroids, if I'm lucky. And sometimes, despite the whole "retired homeschooler" thing, I get caught up in issues pertaining to education.

This happened recently when a friend posted something to Facebook that mentioned Lexile (tm) scores. I didn't know what those were, and I started searching the Internet. What I found appalled me: apparently, while I was naively homeschooling my children in the belief that reading was the one subject you didn't have to micromanage or direct, while I was remembering my own childhood happiness whenever I could be surrounded by a pile of books at least three of which I hadn't already read eight or nine times (nobody's fault but mine; I'm still an inveterate re-reader of books I enjoy), the school system went on this aggressive campaign to change the "Reading Is Fun" idea I grew up with into a systematic attempt to stamp out any vestige of joy children might find in the act of immersing themselves into a book.

There seem to be at least three separate attack plans being used to carry out this battle plan. The first is the combination of mandatory daily timed reading sessions and the recording in a notebook of what was read, how far the student got in the story, how long the student actually read, how many times the word "and" appeared in the child's reading selection, and the like. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but let's be honest: if you're going to suck the joy from a child's pleasure reading by turning it into drudgery busywork of the worst kind, you might as well ask how many times the words "and" or "the" cropped up, and make the child do some extra math homework while you're at it.

The second plan of attack in the battle to destroy every child's joy in reading is the proliferation of reading quizzes. Now, I'm not an opponent of some basic reading comprehension quizzes forming part of a well-rounded educational plan. The problem is that if you train children to expect to have to answer quizzes on just about anything or everything they read, you are training them not to read at all, but to scan blocks of text looking for facts that will crop up on the next quiz. The child who becomes good at this will be able to tell you that Jill got mad after her ice cream cone dripped on her red coat because she was distracted by the little black dog that ran by her at recess, but the child may, in gathering this collection of easily-quizzable facts, totally miss the point that Jill is a spoiled brat who cares more about fashion than about her friend Polly's heartbreaking loss of the dog her grandfather gave her right before Gramps went into the hospital. In other words, the child may be so busy collecting quiz grades that he or she never progresses from mere reading comprehension to the level at which one begins to analyze the deeper elements of a story.

And that's before we even get to the problem of standardized tests making up such nonsensical questions that even the author of a work can't answer the questions, which, it turns out, have nothing whatsoever to do with her work. Do we really think classroom reading quizzes are doing a better job here?

But both of these weapons, impressive though they may be, do not have the power to destroy a child's love of reading the way that Lexile (tm) scores do. As I learned through reading various bits of information online, a Lexile (tm) score is supposed to be a nice analytical way to measure how difficult a book is, and thus to make sure that your child is always reading books that match his or her level of reading ability. However, as I also gathered from the information available by the many nay-sayers who dislike this technique, what really happens is that a Lexile (tm) score is given based on things like how long the sentences are and how many difficult words the selection contains. It has little or no connection whatsoever to a book's content or the actual age-appropriateness of the writing.

This leads to absurdities such as various children's books (the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was mentioned, as was one of Julie Andrews' books for children) being given a higher Lexile (tm) score than anything written by one Ernest Hemingway. In a classroom where the teacher is extremely strict, a child will not be allowed to read Hemingway if he or she has a personal Lexile (tm) reading ability score that puts his books in the "too easy for this student" category. Some bloggers mentioned other absurdities, too, such as a high school boxing up its copies of Elie Wiesel's book about surviving the Holocaust and sending the books to an elementary school because its Lexile (tm) score is too low for high school, or that under the Lexile (tm) system both Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Alice Walker's The Color Purple are appropriate books for...wait for it...the fourth grade.

It also leads to intensely frustrated children who discover that books which actually are age and content appropriate for them to read are considered "too easy" while books that make no sense to them are considered just right; and it leads to even more frustrated parents who must scour libraries for books with the "right" seemingly arbitrary number value only to discover that the books in question contain shocking levels of graphic sex or gratuitous violence, neither of which require long sentences or difficult vocabulary words (which can keep their Lexile (tm) score right in the middle-school range). In fact, the American Library Association is proud of its "Banned and Challenged Books Week," but fails to mention much of the time that the "challenges" to books often come from angry parents whose elementary and middle-school children are being assigned, because of Lexile (tm) scores as much as anything, books which contain near-pornographic levels of sexual content or scenes of violent crime including rape and murder, which is hardly the kind of content one expects one's fourth-grader or fifth-grader to bring home.

So with reading turned into a dreaded daily record-keeping chore instead of a free flight of imagination, with endless quizzes making children zero in on the mundane trees and completely miss the enchanted forest, and with the insistence on "books with the right score" making children give up, far too young, on the books that actually capture their interest and entrance their minds and hearts, the plan to teach children to hate reading is well on its way to succeeding. Reading will become another dull and incomprehensible part of the school day, and children who used to pick up books for fun will have yet another reason to pick up smartphones instead. One wishes one didn't suspect that this is what is intended, because even a giant asteroid may not be enough to wipe out stupidity on that grand of a scale.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The minimalism trap

We took our Christmas tree and decorations down today, and I have to admit it: I am happy about it. Some of my Facebook friends have been lamenting the annual "putting away the Christmas stuff" event, but I have never related to the idea that it's bittersweet to pack it all up until next year. Don't get me wrong: I don't mind decorating for Christmas in the first place (though we usually wait until Gaudete Sunday to do so, and then wait until just after Epiphany to take it all down; I'm not a "Thanksgiving until Candlemas" sort of person when it comes to Christmas decor). It's just that by the time Epiphany (or Epiphany Sunday, whichever comes later) arrives, I'm ready to have my living room back.

Maybe part of the problem is that our living room is sort of small and prone to clutter anyway. It's supposed to be a combo living/dining space, but apart from the small dining table as a nod to the builder's purposes, it's really become a kind of "Bookland and Deskland" world where study and reading takes place. That happened out of necessity, because homeschooling families need plenty of desk and table space for school-related activities and a decent (though never adequate) number of bookshelves; even though our girls are now in college, they still need desk space at home, and the two who share a bedroom have no room for desks in their actual room. So, like lots of families, we use the space for what it's needed for, not for what some builder's design catalog envisioned.

Which is good, because I think that we (especially us women) can drive ourselves kind of crazy by thinking that there's some all-purpose standard of perfection that our homes ought to have, and then doing whatever we can to try to reach that standard of perfection regardless of the cost. For some people, it might be insisting on using a dining room as a dining room, darn it anyway, even if the dining room is the perfect size and shape for a study and it's carpeted and you still have toddlers so you won't be bringing food in there for a decade or so. For other people, it might be throwing minor conniption fits any time a CSI team could reasonably prove that actual people live in the home and do actual people things like bathe or eat or play card games or work on homework. For still other people--and this one sucks in a lot of us--it might be falling victim to that rotating cycle of house management and living advice that has come to be known as minimalism.

If you are a modern-day hermit and have never heard of minimalism, it's an idea that the main problem we have maintaining our homes and lives can be boiled down to a few seductive words: you have too much stuff (though, come to think of it, this is not usually a problem for hermits, modern-day or otherwise). Like many half-baked ideas, this one is dangerous not because it is false, but because it is at least a little bit true for quite a lot of us Americans. Quite a lot of us really do have too much stuff, and quite a lot of us would benefit from a regular sweep through closets and under bathroom cabinets and in other clutter-prone locations, so that we can remove the stuff we no longer need (and perhaps donate the things that are still in good condition to charities and so forth). In fact, many of us do attempt to do this sort of thing, and enough of us do it on a regular enough basis to keep this lady quite busy.

Minimalism, though, takes the idea of routine cleaning and clearing out and decluttering a step further by informing us that our stuff really is the problem, and that the way to find happiness or peace or "maximum joy" (in one author's way of putting things) is not just to clean out our junk, but to engage in a radical re-altering of our relationship with our belongings in such a way as to strip from ourselves every single item in our homes that does not fulfill some terribly useful purpose or contain some incredibly fraught meaning or otherwise really BELONG in our lives in a way that random clutter never will.

Lots of funny and clever memes have attacked these ideas, by pointing out that one's cleaning tools rarely give one a whole set of matching warm fuzzies or that most of us live in homes with other people whose stuff is essentially meaningless to us, and that's all quite true. But those memes, funny as they are, don't get at what is, to me, the root problem of minimalism, the reason that I call minimalism a trap. It is simply this: minimalism makes the stuff we own too important.

Christians are supposed to practice a kind of spiritual detachment from our material possessions. This doesn't mean that it's sinful for a flood victim to cry about her grandmother's china and her lost wedding photographs, of course. But it does mean that our stuff shouldn't, by and large, be anywhere near the center of our lives. It shouldn't hold us back from doing what God wants of us, and it shouldn't become a false idol. Anything that leads us to idolize our material possessions is spiritually unhealthy.

But a lot of minimalism movements want us to do exactly that: to idolize our material possessions, to examine the role of each piece of flatware and each sweater and determine if they are deeply necessary to our happiness (and to get rid of them if they are not). Then they want us to keep doing that every single day forever afterward, so we won't accidentally find discarded reading glasses, expired receipts, and tiny dictionaries in Italian sprawling willy-nilly upon our writing desks for no discernible reason. The stuff we own, and its role in our lives, is supposed to remain so much at the forefront of our minds that it will be unthinkable for us to leave so much as a just-removed ponytail holder anywhere but in its appointed place on the bathroom shelf with its exactly two companions for more than three seconds without its discarded and orphaned state causing us something pretty much akin to physical pain.

That is not a recipe for joy, and it's not a recipe for detachment from one's physical possessions, either.

Most of us could stand to clean up a bit. Many of us could donate more than we think we could to charity, and throw out quite a bit too. But following a path that forbids you to own so much as a paper plate without questioning its importance and necessity and joy-giving properties is the opposite of keeping our material goods in their proper places in our lives. On a spiritual level, it is giving these things too much power, of a kind that leads to an inevitable frustration and disappointment--especially if you are living the vocation not of a cloistered nun but of a wife and mother whose children may temporarily need things that do not cause you one bit of joy, especially when they leave some of those things on the living room floor and you step on them in your bare feet in the middle of the night when one of your children asks for a drink of water.

To me, that's the worst temptation minimalism offers: the temptation to go from thinking that your own belongings are a burden and a barrier to happiness, to thinking that the things owned and used and enjoyed by the other people in your family are the real problem--and from there, the feelings of resentment and burden have this way of pointing at the people as much as the stuff. In other words, it's not a huge leap to go from being annoyed at your husband's habit of leaving half-built model ships out on the worktable he put in the family room for the very purpose of model ship building, to being annoyed at your husband, full stop. Why does he have to build model ships? Why couldn't he find a nice minimalist hobby that doesn't require physical space at all? the frustrated would-be minimalist mom may catch herself thinking.

When that happens, it might be a good idea to remember that man does not live by minimalism alone. After all, it's harder to think of a more minimalist living space than a maximum security prison cell; yet somehow the cell's uncluttered state doesn't lead one to think of happiness and joy...

Friday, January 6, 2017

The New "And Sometimes Tea"

Welcome to the new And Sometimes Tea blog!

Why a new blog, you might ask?

To be honest, I've been planning this for some time, as those who have faithfully continued to follow the old blog know. I was actually intending to move to a different platform altogether, and have been working on a whole new blog at a different site. But the frustrations mounted, as I grappled with difficult coding and unnecessarily complex layouts and the site's charming tendency to reset to defaults just as I got things looking sort of-almost-the way I wanted them to.

Last night I'd finally had enough, and deleted the whole thing. I almost gave up on the idea of a new blog; blogs are practically dead anyway, so what did it matter? Then in the way that only blindingly obvious ideas can, it hit me: I could just create a new version of And Sometimes Tea right here at Blogger, which for all of its occasional frustrations has still tended to be more or less predictable and not too hard for a non-tech person like myself to use.

But to get back to the question: why a new blog at all? Why not just keep sporadically posting at the old And Sometimes Tea on the occasions when a bit of online journaling felt like a good idea?

The truth is that so much has changed since I started blogging ten years ago. (Yes, I started blogging in January of 2007!) And while ten years' worth of archived posts make a sort of neat diary of my past decade, I felt like it was time to move on, to start with a clean slate, so to speak. Most of us aren't exactly the person we were ten years ago, and change can be a good thing.

Ten years ago, for instance, I was still actively homeschooling children who were still in grade school, and a fair number of my early posts were homeschooling related ones. Now I have finished homeschooling all three daughters through high school, my girls are all in college, and homeschooling itself has changed a good deal. I'm not saying I'll never write about homeschooling anymore, but these days any posts along those lines would be more likely to be encouragement and support directed at you brave people still teaching young ones at home instead of any actual advice.

Ten years ago I was also a lot more politically-minded. I'm still quite issue-minded, but I no longer think that political parties and leaders can or will or even want to provide real solutions. Ten years ago, for instance, I was writing that gay marriage would be legalized (to the detriment of the natural family and religious freedom) and that the push to eradicate heteronormativity would be next. All of that came true, but I was naive ago back then to think that at least one political party sort of wanted to stop it.

Ten years ago I was an aspiring writer, a dabbler in children's fiction that I hoped to publish one day. Last year I published my sixth children's book, and if all goes well 2017 will see at least three more books published (and three new ones written). Which means I may start writing more about writing, and especially about writing fiction, than I used to.

Of course, some things haven't changed. I am still a Catholic who is interested in writing and talking about the Church, both in her spiritual and mystical reality (though I'm not really qualified to delve too deeply into theological matters) and in the everyday nitty-gritty Catholic life, the good, the bad, and the felt banners. I am also still a political conservative for the most part, though I think it's sort of important to figure out what we are conserving and to avoid conflating godless and unbridled capitalism of the stock-market kind with anything that is actually conservative. And even though my daughters are wonderful and amazing adults now, and are rapidly reaching the ages where they will begin their own independent adventures, I will always be a mom, and always concerned about what our society and culture is doing to our children generally.

Is it worth it to start a new blog when most blogs and blogging have quietly disappeared? Way back when I started my first blog, my whole goal was to have a place to write, a way to put down in words those random thoughts and ideas that drift into my mind. I figured that family members might check in occasionally, that real-life friends might read a post or two--but I didn't have any delusions of grandeur. The fact that people I didn't know at all were reading my posts was an honor, and some of you became friends along the way, which was even more amazing. Yet even if the only person who reads this blog is me, it's still worth writing here just to have a dedicated place to put those random thoughts and ideas; otherwise, when I'm in "fiction-writing mode," I get distracted by wondering just how distributism would work in a late-stage technological economy, or whether the U.S. Military is going to force Muslim chaplains to officiate at gay weddings, or similar musings. Better to write it all down and move on than get stuck in Mason Cooley's "...circle of repetitions."

The one thing I am changing to go along with the times is this: I'm not enabling comments. Honestly, most people don't comment on little blogs like this one anymore; if I actually write anything worth talking about, people seem to share the post on Facebook or other social media and talk about it there. And I don't really have time (who does?) to wade through "comments" that are really thinly-disguised spam ads for psychic robotic vacuum cleaners (which would actually be awesome, come to think of it).

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll check back in!