26 September 2015

Forgive Yourself

This morning I prayed day five of the St Therese Novena. If you would like to join in the one I'm doing, you can find it here. Part way through the prayer of the day, it says:

"Loving God, You gave St. Therese the gift of forgiving others even when she felt hurt and betrayed. Help me to be able to forgive others who have wounded me, especially..."
Do you know who popped into my head? Myself!

I lay in bed for a moment, stunned into silence by my response. Perhaps for some, forgiving oneself sounds cliche. Perhaps several people pop into one's head: "My siblings, for being insufferable annoyances. My spouse, for doing everything the wrong way. People in general, for altered bus schedules, crappy work days, taking all the close parking spots, and global warming." For me, though, there are no truer words when it comes to me forgiving someone. The person I am worst at forgiving is myself.

Now, there are different ways this manifests.

One way is in day-to-day inner monologues. I make a mistakeforget to return library books on the right day or slosh a cup of tea all over myselfand I think, "What an idiot!" I remember all the fights I had with my sister and think, "There is no worse sister than me." I realize that I haven't talked to a friend in months and think, "We shouldn't be friends anyways. Why would they want me as a friend?" I ask my husband a question I've asked him three times before and think, "He probably can't stand me. He should have chosen someone who paid better attention."

Obviously, this cycle of negativity does no good. Not only does it confuse other people (for I withdraw into myself when I am upset and then they probably do think I am upset with them), it makes me treat myself in ways I would never treat another person. I would never tell another person they are lousy, undeserving, or the worst person/sister/daughter/friend/wife ever. So why do I do it to myself?

Some flaws, though, may help me realize when I am wrong. Maybe I have serious sins on my soul that need to be confessed (and I need to brush up on a guide to Confession). In that case, I should make myself right before God. For the most part, I find Confession to be a truly freeing experience. I am blown away by the mercy of God. But sometimes, in my imperfect heart of hearts, I'll confess something and still be thinking on it months later. Why? If God can forgive me, why can't I forgive myself?

If I have been forgiven, what use is it to dwell on the past? In the Gospels, Jesus told those he healed, "Go and sin no more." He did not say, "Go and dwell on your past failures." What did I say my favorite verse is? "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17) This verse is a reminder that in Christ I can be new. So why do I insist on holding on to the old?

The St Therese Novena continued: "I try to forgive, Lord. Help me to forgive 70 times 7 times!" 70 times 7 times! Could I forgive myself that much? I should forgive myself that much! If Our Lord can forgive the people who denied Him and crucified Him, surely I can forgive myself for burning my morning toast.

If you struggle similarly, I don't know the secret to treating yourself with the respect you deserve. I do know that if God lowered Himself and became man for our sake, if He endured ridicule, persecution and a gruesome death for our sake, then we can all manage to be a little bit nicer to ourselves. Let's talk in the comments.

22 September 2015

A Guide to Confession

What is Confession?

Confession, also called the Sacrament of Penance, is the sacrament by which one is forgiven his sins after confessing them with true sorrow and receiving absolution from a priest. The penitent must be truly sorry and intend to avoid sin in the future. Now, this may be quite the mouthful for some readers, but I'll go through it (as always, feel free to ask questions below!). I should first say that I know there is sometimes confusion when it comes to Confession. How can Catholics seek forgiveness from another sinner? What difference does confessing one's sins aloud to a priest make when we can simply turn to God in private? What if someone doesn't mean it? How can they be forgiven? These and other questions can be answered here (the Catholic Encyclopedia is one of my favorite sources when I'm doing a bit of research, so consider bookmarking this website!).

Scripture References:

We see Christ speak of confessing sins multiple times in the New Testament. Here are some of the most popular passages:
  • "[W]hatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)
  • "Confess, therefore, your sins to one another: and pray for one another, that you may be saved. For the continual prayer of a just man availeth much." (James 5:16)
  • "As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained'" (John 20:21-23)

History in the Church:

We also see Confession encouraged throughout Church history from the Didache (a writing from people in the early church), St Augustine and St John Chrysostom, both of whom lived in the first few centuries. St Athanasius writes:
"As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ." [my emphasis added]
"But this was all ages ago. Surely, time must have changed things," someone might say. Well, if you want a contemporary source, Pope Francis has said that he tries to go to Confession every fifteen or twenty days. Outdated practice? Methinks not. As long as people continue sin, that is as long as Confession will be relevant and important.
So here is something Christ told us to do, something that was practiced and encouraged by the early church, something that we still see is important. It's good for us to know how to do it, right? A couple of things first:
  • One of the Precepts of the Church is to go to Confession at least once per year (usually during Lent). You can certainly go more frequently, and you are encouraged to do so if you have mortal sins on your conscience. It is also good practice to confess venial sins.
  • If one has mortal sins on their soul, he is not to receive Holy Communion. We are to be in as clean a state as possible when we receive the Eucharist. Imagine going to meet a world leader after having just committed treason in that country. We would think that crazy, wouldn't we? So we must make ourselves right before God before we receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.

I. Before Confession

Before Confession, you should take time to examine your conscience (in fact, you should examine your conscience each day). I usually use an app on my phone (Mea Culpa: it's rigorous in its detail, but probably needs an update) and go through the Commandments in detail. Parishes will often leave out pamphlets or handouts to guide you through the Commandments. I have also referred to Fr. Z's 20 Tips for Making a Good Confession, just to remind myself of good pointers.

Look up Confession times at your parish. I am lucky enough to go to a parish where Confession is offered regularly twice per week, but often up to four times per week. Jackpot! If you are unable to make the scheduled Confession time, you can set up an appointment with a priest. Unfortunately, many parishes only offer an hour (or half an hour!) on a Saturday evening. Would that Confessions were offered every day! But that's a result of many people neglecting Confession. Don't blame Father for not reading your mind and knowing your schedule. Just make a bit of an effort. (If there is a surge of Confession frequenters, then Father may add more hours to the week!)

Then, make a commitment to go at a certain time and stick to it! Make sure you show up with ample time and not five minutes before the time for Confession is over. I strongly encourage this because if many other people are trying to go to Confession that day, the priest may not get to every single person who shows up near the end, but he will make the effort to hear as many people as possible. Better safe than sorry! Remember that Confession is important: this is a matter of the soul and your standing with God. So do approach it with the seriousness and sincerity it deserves.

I find it helps to have Confession coincide with Adoration or Mass, as you have further reason to go and another good spiritual thing to do at the same time. I highly recommend going to Adoration or Mass after Confession. If Adoration, you get to thank Christ in what seems a more intimate way when you step away from the confessional. If Mass, you get to receive Christ in the Eucharist. Do all three together? That's the best!

II. During Confession

When you confess, bring along the guide you used to help you examine your conscience. I keep everything in that phone app, but if you're worried about a technological blunder, you can write everything down (and destroy the paper later). Whichever way you are comfortable with, because whichever way you choose needs to work for you.

Follow the priest. At the start, you'll make the sign of the cross. Then you'll say, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ___ days/weeks/months/years since my last confession." You should also state if this is the first time you've ever gone to Confession. That way, the priest will know to guide you a little more. You will continue by confessing your sins in kind and number. This means you confess what the sin is and how many times you committed it (for example: "I lied three times."). You are only required to confess mortal sins (sins of serious nature, committed with full knowledge and consent; an example would be blasphemy), but confessing venial sins (sins which fail to meet at least one of the criteria of mortal sins) is good practice, too. Once you have finished confessing, you should communicate to the priest that you are finished by saying something like: "For all these sins and any that I may not recall, I am heartily sorry."

The priest may ask questions to clarify. He will give you counsel and advice. Then he will give you a penance. Penance is usually a prayer (for example: five Our Fathers), but may be an action (for example: apologize to the person you sinned against), assigned to you in order to pay the temporal punishment of sin (the eternal punishment is remitted by the sacrament) and increase your hatred of sin. Make sure that you understand the penance. You will then be prompted to make an Act of Contrition and say something like: "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all of my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I have offended you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen." It is good practice to have an Act of Contrition memorized, but I have often seen them printed out and secured to the confessional.

The priest will then absolve you
. This is essential. Make sure that the priest says, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Respond, "Amen." There are rumors that some priests forget to absolve (!?), so if you've said your Act of Contrition and Father just says, "Peace out, home skillet," kindly remind him to absolve you. He may then say, "Go in peace." Respond, "Thanks be to God." I also like to say a quick "Thank you, Father," before ducking out.

III. After Confession

As you exit the confessional, you may feel as light and free as a bird. Do not, however, fly outside. Post-Confession prayer is some of the best prayer, and it is good time to do your penance. If you have been given a prayer as your penance, do it immediately. If you have to do some act, make a (physical, if necessary) note for yourself to complete your penance as soon as you can. Remember my advice to go to Confession and then go to Adoration or Mass? You have nice, squeaky cleanness, so what better way to celebrate than to adore Our Lord in the monstrance and receive him in the Eucharist?

Confession can be intimidating. I know, because Confession has been intimidating for me. But do you know what's more intimidating? Thinking that you have separated yourself from God by your sins and may never make amends. When you postpone Confession, you are only dragging your sins around  like a ball and chain longer. Once you've confessed, the anxiety and guilt tethered to your ankle falls away. It is truly a great gift Our Lord has given us.

Some Notes:

  1. The priest is bound by the Seal of Confession. This means that he cannot talk to anyone about what is confessed. Your cringe-worthy fails are safe with him.
  2. Venial sins can be remitted by prayer and reception of the Eucharist. I still like to confess them.
  3. If you can manage to have a regular confessor, that would be great! I've moved so much in the last few years and even at the same parish, I haven't always had the same priest. Having a regular confessor can help both of you to see the pattern of your sins or any underlying problems. Then you'll be better able to come up with a plan of attack.
  4. If you conceal any sins, then none of the sins you have confessed are forgiven and you have committed an additional sin, sacrilege. If you forget any sins, just bring them up next time.
  5. If you're ever feeling a little nervous, just remember: it used to be the practice to confess one's sins aloud in front of others in the church. Take solace in your dark, private confessional!
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below! Here's my post on my first Confession if you're curious.

16 September 2015

7 Tips to Make the Most of RCIA

As a new school year begins, I am mindful of the fact that RCIA is starting up as well. I went through the RCIA program during the 2012-2013 academic year at University and it is simultaneously difficult to believe it was so short and so long ago. Here are my tips for how to make the most of RCIA.

(like, seriously, chill out)

If you're anything like me, you get nervous over the silliest things. I remember walking to RCIA with a faster than normal heartbeat thinking about being quizzed on things I didn't know or not getting on with anyone or it not being a very good experience overall. At some point on the walk, I just started saying Hail Marys...and my freak out went from a nine to a two. Our Lady has got our backs. Never be afraid to ask for her help. Also, just don't be afraid of RCIA. It was a great experience and I learned so much and became a better person by it.

(and just plain get involved)

It was great having a sponsor because that meant I got (1) a person to ask questions to (and a had a lot of them) and (2) a dear friend. We met for lunch, took walks and made dinner together, utilizing the time to talk about all sorts of things I didn't know as well as our hobbies and interests. It can be overwhelming to be thrown into a huge group and be told, "Hey, make friends." But my sponsor and I were, it seemed, perfectly matched, and it was so much easier to feel a part of everything.

You're not going to mesh with everyone. Certainly, I've found bonding with other Catholics easier in some ways than bonding in other groups. There is a common understanding there. And it's so nice to think: "That's Julie, my sister in Christ, my pal." There's an automatic camaraderie that, for introverted people like me, is so refreshing. 

(now I look like Father Z)

It isn't all making friends and talking about siblings, guys. If you're a convert, you'll make your first confession (here's my account of mine) and I know it can be kind of intimidating. Oh, recall all my sins from all my life? I'm a monster! But the confessors I've had have been so patient and kind and if you let the priest know that it's your first confession (DO make sure to do this), he'll help you out. If you have a priest who has been hearing confessions for a couple of years or so, don't worry: you won't frighten him away by your grievous faults. AND, because of the Seal of Confession, he won't tell anyone what you say to him in the confessional. One night, our group at RCIA talked about how to go to confession. If you have questions, just ask.

Remember that book series "Chicken Soup for the [insert demographic here] Soul?" Confession is like chicken soup on sanctifying steroids. It is so good for your soul. I really ought to make a good post about confession, so look out for that in the future.

(holla at ya savior)

I was absent only one RCIA class and that was when we were to talk about adoration. Major fail, right? Make that class! Then find out when your parish holds adoration and if they don't (yes, apparently this is sometimes a thing)...ask Father to start that awesome hour up. I know what must be a common perspective: "I'm going to kneel for an hour looking a a host? What's the big deal?"

First of all, that is JESUS up there, kid. He's just hanging out with you all in the monstrance. Am I the only one boggled by that sometimes? If that isn't enough to convince you, the whole liturgy is beautiful. I know it isn't at all applicable, but I so want Tantum Ergo sung at my funeral, it's so beautiful. I know: there should be adoration at my funeral. I mean, pray for me and everything, I appreciate that in advance. But if you're going to be at church anyway...I'm just saying. A little adoration time never hurt anything.

"But what do I do at adoration?" Well, pray, quite simply. You could pray the Rosary or the Liturgy of Hours, read scripture, or, like me, just kneel in awe for half an hour before managing to string together any coherent sentence. We are given such an incomparable, amazing gift in the Blessed Sacrament. It's okay to just be in that moment (though, finding something good to do with your mind ensures that your focus doesn't get terribly sidetracked).

(and you thought class was over)

RCIA was a great way for me to learn more about the Catholic faith and grow alongside other catechumens and Catholics. We covered a wide range of topics, had some good discussion sessions, talked about practical applications of the faith and I made some of the best friends I feel like I can talk to at any time about living the Catholic faith. However, for most people (because if you feel hesitant, you are not forced to continue to Confirmation; some people need more time to figure everything out), RCIA is just one year--just a fraction of a year, really--and one year is not enough time to learn all one may about the Catholic faith. I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor if it is your intention.

While my RCIA group covered the basics and explained things pretty well, I am naturally an inquisitive and knowledge-thirsty person. I had been thinking about converting for some months before I joined RCIA. In those months I checked out books on Mary (because she is such a point of mystery and confusion for many Protestants, including myself at the time), Church history, the Mass, the Magisterium, Catholic practices, cloistered religious... There was nothing I didn't want to know. Reading gave me more knowledge and also helped me formulate questions. If this was to be the biggest decision of my life, I wanted to be sure of it. I wanted to understand as much as I could. I did all of this on top of an overload of coursework and a job, so if I can do it, you totally can. Do recognize the importance of this moment in your life and give it the time and energy it deserves.

A few writers and saints I've enjoyed: Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Home was my first read; Hail, Holy Queen, Reasons to Believe, The Lamb's Supper and Signs of Life are also good ones), St Therese, Thomas Merton, St Thomas Aquinas, and early Church fathers. I also like to "quiz" myself and learn more about topics I need brushing up on from sites like this.

(the best friends you've never met)

If you asked me five years ago what significance Mary or any of the saints had in my life, I would have fixed you with a confused look. For real. The saints still aren't quite as big a role in my life as I would like to make them, but I've certainly come a ways. I am so thankful for the saints who stand as role models to us. These are the ones who have succeeded, who have run the race of life well. You'll probably experience a time or two when you lament a particular woe and a fellow Catholic says, "There's a saint for that." It is so true.

I think I appreciate the saints so much because of their real life versatility. The saints have been mothers, fathers, cloistered nuns, royals, musicians, virgins, martyrs, warriors, and--get this--sinners. It reminds me of Harry's line in Order of the Phoenix: "Think of it this way: Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than we are now. Students. If they can do it, why not us?" Modify wizards to saints, and you've got it right there. The saints lived very human lives with human concerns and became saints. We get to ask their help! If they can do it, why not us?

(and the Catholic year)

How better to show your faith than by your actions? The best way, I've found, to get to living out the Catholic life is to just jump in. Carry a Rosary in your pocket or bag, download Catholic apps, pray the Angelus and the Liturgy of Hours, pray Novenas, go to Mass multiple times per week, get to know other Catholics... There is much to do.

Did you know the year is divided into different seasons, speckled with fasting and feasting? No Creasters (people who only show up to church on Christmas and Easter) up in here. Almost every day has a saint to study and familiarize oneself with. Also take the time to understand why we fast or abstain. This is the rhythm of life.

Haley (particularly for food: she and her husband Daniel have two cookbooks out on following the Catholic year) and Kendra (particularly for activities: she recently had her eight child, so she has many little ones to teach and the ideas she has are perfect whether you have eight children or zero) are my go-to bloggers when I want to figure out how to celebrate a particular day or season. If they don't have what you're looking for, a google search will do you fine.

If you are interested in knowing what my experience with RCIA was like, you can click on the RCIA label link on the sidebar. Here are some of my favorites:
Not Alone: One of the things I felt when I started RCIA was that I was the only one. How foolish! Especially when there were a good thirty people in the meeting room with me, when I knew logically there had to be other people in the other RCIA groups in other dioceses. When I met my sponsor, we hit it off so well, that then it finally hit me: I wasn't alone. I was preparing to be welcomed into the best group ever.

Rites and More Than Alright: Less than two months out, we went to Peoria for the Rite of Election and met with Bishop Jenky. It felt super fancy and special and the cathedral was gorgeous.

And of course, Easter Vigil Scene IScene II and Scene III: Because one post wouldn't be enough, I needed three posts to capture the evening I was confirmed. I was beyond excited and it was in so many ways a perfect night.

14 September 2015

Washington DC

This post has been a long time coming. With the whole moving process, though, it fell by the wayside, so I'm finally sharing it today. Heads up: this is a photo-heavy post.

In lieu of a grand honeymoon week (though we do have something planned later this year!), C and I decided to hop down to DC for the weekend of 4 July. Well, let's be real: C came up with the whole thing, which I agreed to more out of "Sure, that sounds alright," rather than "I find this to be a super exciting idea!" As usual, he was right about what a good idea it was. One day I'll learn.

Early Friday morning, we made a necessary coffee run and then we were on our way. The trip went so smoothly that we got to our first stop, Arlington National Cemetery, by late morning. I have often heard of cemeteries described as haunting, mysterious, creepy, but almost never beautiful, which is what ANC was. It helps that things are well organized: graves sites near the entrance are uniform and roped off, keeping tourists off the well-manicured grass (I did see people visit people they knew, though). That sounds impersonal, but I believe it preserves the serious and almost sacred mood of the grounds. We were also able to find C's uncle's ashes in the crematorium (a labyrinth in itself).

I think my favorite part of the visit, aesthetically, was the Kennedy site. Not for the graves (and people definitely were interested in those), but for JFK's speech carved into a semi-circle down the hill from them.
"We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. ... In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibilityI welcome it." 

Afterwards, we checked into our hotel in Alexandria and C napped while I figured out our evening's schedule and the metro system. Just a heads up: the metro system gets an A for number of locations, area of travel and frequency of transfer points. The metro system gets a D for their cards not working properly and requiring exit swipes (y u no like Chicago and just let us through?). I digress. We got into the city and were welcomed by rain as we made our way to the National Mall. The rain let up and we enjoyed the remaining hours of daylight walking by museums (most of them were closed or closing at this point) and to monuments. Unfortunately, a lot of buildings and sections of the National Mall were under construction, but the beauty of the area wasn't entirely marred. After the rain subsided, the sky was a perfect light gray that cast a nice, calm light on everything.

We continued our walk into the downtown area and, let me tell you, DC looks so much like Europe. I remarked several times that weekend how much I felt like I was in Paris. The layout of the city is just well thought out and the architecture of the buildings is really nice, too. Pennsylvania Ave is just super pretty at night. At the end of our walk, we got dinner at &pizza. There are many of these throughout DC and I think they just have a fun vibe and set up. You can get menu items (like dessert pizza! whaaat) or you go down the line, crafting your own pizza. There are so many options that I think you could probably come up with thousands of different combinations. &pizza also specializes in housemade sodas, some of which are pretty standard in taste (like burdock and anise rootbeer), but others have more of a twist, like ginger berry lemonade.

red pepper chili oil! yesssss.

Full of pizza, we headed back to the hotel and ended our day. The next morning, I woke up at 6 AM. For real. But I figured it was the best time to have breakfast where I wouldn't face a huge crowd. This hotel was a little unusual because it had healthier options I never see at other hotels. I mean, do people still eat turkey sausage? After another nap, we headed out on a very cold and wet July 4th. It rained almost constantly all day and we took shelter at the Library of Congress (not in the Library, mind you, because they stopped allowing visitors an hour before closing. :( ) for at least twenty minutes because we were those people who didn't bring umbrellas. When the rain lightened to a sprinkling, we walked over to the Supreme Court, which was much more popular with tourists than I thought it would be.

We continued our walk, looking for dinner, when we ran into a Paul! These patisseries are all over Paris and I almost started jumping up and down when I saw it. Of course, we had to stop in and I scooped up the last escargot pastry. It is called escargot because it's rolled like a snail shell, but there are no snails to be found; rather, the pastry is swirled with raisins and custard. So so good. We went on and found Pret, a cafe we went to in London, and had our dinner there. Basically, our food this day revolved around our Paris & London trip. We ate lentil soup and sandwiches at the window while people watching.

From here, we set off to the National Mall again and passed a stage set up with some evangelists who were talking about true freedom residing in Christ. There was a sizable crowd for it, but every few people, I heard someone remark on it negatively. I expected C to stop and engage in conversation with some people, but for some reason he didn't and we stayed on track to the Washington monument. Here, they were having a concert, and as the last notes ended, Taylor Swift pumped through the speakers and the fireworks went off. One of the best moments was looking around and seeing this beefy guy dancing with his girlfriend to Shake It Off. I've got that moment on camera, luckily. ;) The fireworks only lasted through a few songs and I was actually kind of disappointed in them. I didn't have time to dwell on such things, though, because all of a sudden, tens of thousands of people were headed for the metro and we did not want to get lost or held up in the crowd. C and I dashed through a crowd of slow walkers, small children and food trucks and down a metro escalator only to hit an un-moving wall of people.

There were easily hundreds of people around us, and that was only on the upper platform to pay before you got down to the trains. It was an absolute mad house and it was like we entered the grumpiest, high tension environment I've been in. I'm not claustrophobic, exactly, but I really don't like being surrounded by people (who does?), so feeling people press in on every side was crazy and I held on to C's hand very tightly so as not to be separated. Finally, the crowd started moving and we had to maneuver pretty slickly to get onto the next (broken) escalator and down to the main platform. A train was due to arrive in a minute and we kept trying to surge forward in order to have access to a door. When it arrived, the train was already more than half full and we jumped on as quickly as possible and a flood of people just continued boarding. Old, young, children, people with strollers but no infant inside (?)... Eventually, there was just no more room to be had, the doors closed and we went on. Travel time did take longer because the metro system was very much tried, so delays are inevitable. But we did get back to our stop in Alexandria and got on the first shuttle back to the hotel. I've never been more thankful for C's initiative and relentlessness.

We laughed about it when we finally got to our room, but in the moment, it all seemed so precarious. If we had patiently followed the slow crowd, missed the metro entrance like I nearly did, or not been so proactive in boarding, we could have been out for hours more. We woke the next morning, breakfasted and visited the National Archives to see original letters, revised drafts and the Declaration of Independence and other documents. No photography was allowed (though I did see some people try to get away with it), because the flash can damage the papers, which are kept in temperature controlled cases. I am not a huge American history buff. I am one of the least patriotic people I know. But seeing things like the Bill of Rights, right there, in person, with ink strokes founding fathers made hundreds of years ago...well, it's a little surreal.

Afterwards, we set off for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (or, as I thought in my head, the main event). It is one of the most gorgeous churches I have ever seen. The walls, ceiling and even floors are beautifully adorned in glittering stones, multi-colored mosaics and brilliant sculptures. We got there about an hour before Mass and wandered around different shrines. Perhaps my favorite area was an alcove where depictions of the Joyful Mysteries resided. As if that all wasn't enough, there was a basement level below full of more shrines, bookstores and a cafeteria. We could have spent much longer there than we did, but there were a few other things we wanted to do before we left.

We returned to our hotel and drove off to dinner at Nando's. After hearing and seeing people talk about going to Nando's for years, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity. C and I had salads and split half a chicken and a ton of chips (fries). The hot sauce selection did not disappoint and I poured multiple options onto my plate. I have been on a hot sauce kick lately, so I scooped up Peri-Peri with every chip. We were fairly full of chicken, but not too full for ice cream. Nicecream is an ice cream shop that crafts made to order ice cream with local ingredients and liquid nitrogen. I know. It was basically a constant science experiment in there. I grabbed scoops of blueberry and chocolate (C stuck with double chocolate) and we enjoyed our novelty experience outside. The texture is super smooth, almost velvety and, dare I say it, I think I liked the blueberry more than the chocolate. Wild! We savored our treat and watched billows of evaporated liquid nitrogen smoke pour out of the shop.

11 September 2015

Links I'm Liking This Week

I've found some pretty good reads this week and thought I'd pass them along. Here are the links (in some cases with my more-extensive-than-planned commentary) I've been liking so far.

I came across this article thanks to a graduate student (if you're reading, thanks!). The title is enough of an eye catcher, isn't it? Its basic premise is that neoliberalism has changed the face of colleges, and particularly the study of liberal arts. Instead of attending college for the sake of learning, people go to college to grab a degree and then land a job which will keep them productive and, one hopes, well-to-do. A couple of notes:

  1. Of course, one should better themselves and prepare to have a good job. If your livelihood is hanging in the balance, you're going to want to do what you can to appear the best to potential employers. I don't think that that is the argument on the table. Rather, the question is whether college is meant to be an environment for internships six-figure job searches.
  2. If one intends to go to a university and spend all their time partying, well, that isn't going to do much good, is it? I sometimes would run into such people who would talk about skiving classes and prepping for parties that evening or weekend. Not everyone who attends college is college material, either. It probably sounds harsh, but not everyone can be the best or most talented: it just doesn't work that way. Lest you think I believe myself perfect, an example: I can't be a star athlete. It isn't in the cards (and if you saw me play any sort of organized sport, you would understand). There's obviously a way to do well at college and a way not to do well.

So what do we make of these two points? College isn't for everyone. (Trade school is an option and what I really think would be good is a stronger push towards things like that.) Historically, college has been a place to learn how to learn, to reason, and to improve one's mind by extensive reading. College has been a place to round out one's character and learn how to become a better person. It isn't just about the paycheck one hopes to get afterwards (but now, as the article points out, most people major in fields like business, communications and technology-geared studies). It isn't about hinging school-wide goals on vague slogans like "leadership," which no one, not even a university dean, can define.

Deresiewicz highlights a couple of comments commonly said in response to a student's announced major: "So you decided to go for the big bucks" and "What are you going to do with that?" I find these quotations so interesting, partly because I've heard the second one before (again, philosophy major), but also because they sound so similar to comments I hear directed at families with multiple children: "You know what causes that, don't you?" and "Are you done yet?" Perhaps comments and questions like these aren't meant as insensitively as they sound, but there are a lot of assumptions flying around and not a lot of looking into the value of people or certain studies. Exactly how open to conversation is the questioned person going to be after that point? In addition, how can anything contradictory or even explanatory not sound like a defense, to which the questioner can reply with a chuckle? Should everything we go after be for monetary gain or for personal ease and comfort? Should we not open ourselves up to the possibility of learning more about the world and ourselves?

Learning is what it is all about, or what it should all be about. Deresiewicz writes, "If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all." How sad! And how truly bizarre. Still, so often I sat in lectures of 300 people asking questions like: "What (least amount of work) do I have to do to pass this class?" instead of "What does Wittgenstein mean when he says x? If I accept this premise, what does that mean I must believe as a consequence?" or "I find the Milgram experiment to be immoral and this is why..." (And I studied philosophy!) People often seemed more interested in getting a passing grade (honestly, the lowest C would do) than really delving into the topic at hand, facing seemingly impossible problems, finding satisfying resolutions and emerging a stronger, more capable person in the end.

Yes, it is good to study topics which will help us be good workers and support ourselves. Anyone frustrated by being branded with the lazy/arrogant/free-loading millennial label would surely want to prove themselves. But going after an education (if you can call it that) which will only get us a six figure job also runs into a problem, as Deresiewicz continues: 

"[T]he biggest challenges we face — climate change, resource depletion, the disappearance of work in the face of automation — will require nothing less than fundamental change, a new organization of society. If there was ever a time that we needed young people to imagine a different world, that time is now."

Where do morals and values enter the scene when everything is focused on monetary gain? If more money can be gained by exhausting the earth and eventually replacing humans with robots, where will we six figure job seekers be? Turning to those who droned on about the inherent value of human beings? Turning to those who were truly creative in their approach to the world? Turning to those idealists and dreamers, reformers and protectors of what we once held sacred?

I feel like this article speaks so much to what our society is like now, and even gives an indication of how we have gotten to the point of accepting things like abortion and euthanasia. When we see certain groups of people as expendable, it becomes easier to deem them without purpose (and if you have no purpose or use in society, you're out). In this way, I find this article to be very similar to the one above. We have gotten entirely backwards what makes a person valuable or a topic worth pursuing. When we stop caring about people for their own sake or about learning for its own sake, we really miss out on opportunities to do what humans were designed to do: love and learn.

Off the soap box a little, now. If an article features a Wendell Berry quotation, chances are I will enjoy it. From The Work of Local Culture, he says:

“There used to be a sort of institution in our part of the country known as ‘sitting till bedtime’ After supper, when they weren’t too tired, neighbors would walk across the fields to visit each other. They popped corn, my friend said, and ate apples and talked. They told each other stories. They told each other stories as I knew myself, that they all had heard before. Sometimes they told stories about each other, about themselves, living again their own memories and thus keeping their memories alive. Among the hearers of these stories were always the children.”

Berry's quotation reminds me of stories I've heard about women in a neighborhood doing laundry together and bringing the children with to play in the yard. The sense of community, I feel, has largely vanished. What Leila from Like Mother, Like Daughter calls collective memory has also largely vanished. A century ago, knowledge was passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. People went to family members for information, tips and tricks. The idea of inheritance and tried-and-true methods was woven into life.

That all hinged on community, on respect for people of all ages, on often multi-dimensional families, which we now only see when we study other societies (I'm thinking here particularly of Mexican and South American culture that I studied when I learned Spanish). I feel lucky that I, though only for a brief time, lived with my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Four generations in one house (and after we didn't live with them, we established weekly visits). I think when a lot of people lose their grandparents, it doesn't always come as a big shock. I have talked to many a person who has said that their grandparents died before they were old enough to understand or form strong attachments; otherwise, they felt like their grandparents were practically strangers. In either of these cases (though the former is harder to control), opportunities to learn about the family, about what life was once like, and about where you come from are just off the table. They can never get back onto the table, either.

However, if we take note of how important and valuable each person and their stories are, we can open up a treasure chest which holds gems from the past to give us insight into the future. Why would we not seize such an opportunity? 

This is the Etsy website for the artist friend I mentioned in my previous post (who gifted us with some of her paintings so that now our drab apartment is a little more colorful and doughnut-ified). My favorite work on her page is Seattle Melting. I really like the color palette and think it has such a clean finish. It almost looks like it was made digitally. I hope she does more similar cityscapes! Hop over and take a look at what she's selling.

4. The Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle

There is another bundle, this time the Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle, available now until Monday the 14th. If you don't know what these are, bloggers and health lovers alike get together to bring readers knowledge, personal advice and tons of products aimed at improving your health naturally. Basically, if you're looking for allergy-free recipes, fitness tips, natural remedies and more like-minded things, this is the bundle for you. You'll get dozens of eBooks, online courses and bonuses to get you on track for healthy and, I'd definitely say, confident living. I purchased one of these bundles last year (bundles between years are different) and have yet to go through all of the materials. The amount of information you get is insane (and I love having something to delve into). One of the best parts is it is all less than $30. For real. Scoop it up in the next couple of days.

5. Playlist Party!
I have created a playlist for the month as well, in case you are interested in what I'm listening to at the moment. It's pretty relaxed, easy listening, which I usually reserve for Fall/Winter. As it's still resolutely in the 90s, I'm hoping the music will trick me into thinking it is a bit cooler. Think it will work? ;)

10 September 2015

What Starting A Home Is Like

From the previous post: "Looking back, I can only appreciate how lucky I was and how lucky I am that the idea of "home" isn't something that scares or irritates me, but something that makes me grateful. Not everyone has that luxury. Going home makes me happy I have a place to call home. Now that I'm married and moved away, however, I have a new home to find. But that's another post."

So here is another post.

In mid-August, my husband and I moved to Waco, TX where he is pursuing a PhD in philosophy at Baylor University. The one thing I was certain about when he decided on Baylor was that we were in for a hot new home (and by hot, I do not mean whatever kids mean these days). I don't think it has dropped below 95 degrees, save a miraculous rain storm, for the last two weeks if that is any indication. I've never wanted to be more wrong.

We arrived to a spacious (especially for two people) apartment with slightly less than ideal kitchen counter space and very bare, bland walls and floors. As we hauled our things inside, which took all of five minutes, I remember looking around and thinking, "What are we going to do with this space?" Now almost a month later, we're completely unpacked (I'm pretty sure we were unpacked within two hours) but very obviously living the student life. Our living room still only contains a nicely stocked built in bookshelf (of course) and our router and modem. Our dining room is equally as sparse with only a garbage bin, and our bedroom has plenty of space I have decided is my workout area (aka, twenty minutes of yoga while I watch Netflix). Thanks to a new friend (more on that later), we do have some cool original artwork in the apartment, but it's all propped up on things since I still haven't gotten around to buying command strips.

I am less concerned about making the apartment look great. Our basic needs (sleep, C getting work done, and me being able to make a variety of meals) are met and to be honest, I only feel any pressure to actually furnish the place if I ever want to host people (which I'm pretending doesn't have to be on the table for a few months more). What is more fun to think about is the people we've met and the things we've done around Waco.

When we moved in, we were helped by two other grad students (you can imagine the excellently grungy first impression I made after twenty hours in the car), who were only the first of the abundantly friendly and helpful people we would meet. The week we moved in, I was invited to a women's book club where, let's be real, more than reading books happens and I'm totally cool with that. The group of women has been very welcoming and I feel like I've known some people longer than a few weeks. One of these women is an artist who gifted me the aforementioned paintings; she has such a cool, and at times quirky, style and I really like it. I've also met professors that C has talked about for months, so meeting these people in person almost feels like meeting a celebrity or something (which I suppose some of them are, in a way, in certain circles). All of this, in addition to other meet ups that I've arranged with people, has made this month the most sociable of my life. I don't think I'm exaggerating much, if at all, when I say that.

Yes, those are doughnuts!

C and I have also made an effort to explore. We've taken walks around campus, visited the student life center where we have developed a new hobby of racket ball, found new restaurants, checked out a huge stack of books from the library, and pinned down all the nearest Starbucks locations. When I'm not feeling like corporate coffee, I go to Common Grounds, a coffee shop with a nice, relaxed atmosphere, live music and often someone from the philosophy department searching for shade and a place to get their next paper done. I've also gone to something called First Friday, where shops and restaurants downtown are open later with special deals on the first Friday of the month (Someone even got engaged there last week! Talk about a deal). Waco can be blisteringly hot, yes, but there is no shortage of enjoyable things to do or people to meet.

It does help that Baylor's campus is one of the prettiest I've ever seen (and I've visited a fair few). I'm not the only one who thinks so. We've found a church just off campus that offers Latin Mass every weekend, which I did not expect to find. Many things here are looking up.

When we were in IL, we shared our future plans with family and friends. One of my aunts told me that we were going to have good, exciting lives, and this is just the start. At the time, I said I hoped she was right. But I think that's true. We are at the start of a lot of goodness and a lot of excitement. So many good things in my life have happened because C came into it, and I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that now it's the two of us against the world. I don't have everything figured out. Our apartment isn't spotless, I'm still job hunting, and no place like a college campus will remind you that you have plenty to learn. But I'm not alone. C and I are going to tackle these years at Baylor and whatever comes after together. I think that's what a home really is.

08 September 2015

What Going Home Is Like

In August, I visited home. My husband and I stopped there as a half-way point in our move (more on that later) and got to spend some time celebrating our wedding with family and friends who were unable to travel to Philly in May. My week and a half was split pretty evenly between goofing around with my sister, having heart attacks every time my year-and-a-half old cousin stood on chairs, and eating a lot of cake (no really, a lot.). I've noticed more and more since I left for university five years ago that home has a bizarre way of feeling exactly the same and completely different every time I go back.

There is something strange about going home. Not that it is bad, but many memories lie around waiting to be recalled. Going down one street throws me back into 8th grade: the sharp crunch of cheddar pretzels at a sleepover; the feel of a cool handful of quarters ready to be spent at one of the only restaurants in town on a school institute day; boys narrowly missing telephone poles and skirting around trees on their bikes; hot Summer afternoons balancing across the curb at the car wash; the tickle of overgrown grass around my ankles; the corn growing high above my head; a cloudless azure sky; a red car I'll never see again.

I know my town and the surrounding land like the back of my hand. I don't know how many times I've crossed a particular bridge and I find myself almost wishing I'd kept count on early mornings to work, on afternoons from school or very near curfew with my best friend. Then, as familiar as so many things are, differences stick out like a slap in the face. Something as ridiculously simple and mundane as a new gas station remind me that I've been gone, that though I have some claim on this space, I can't really hold on to it forever.

One night, my friend S and I talked about the past, present and future: our old friends, my current (likely baseless) anxieties, her baby due to arrive around Christmas. As we sat talking over coffees (decaf, in her case), I was hit with the thought that we've been friends now for ten years. I thought about how much has changed and how much has happened in that decade. We've had some serious late night conversations, we've sung and played music together, we've both gotten married, we've celebrated two of her pregnancy announcements. She was the first person I told about my eating disorder and she was the first person I turned to when a friend died. I then shook the thoughts from my head, hugged her goodbye, and went back home.

The best spot in my parents' house is a chair at the dining room table. Some of my favorite moments the previous year were the early mornings when I would make a cup of tea and watch the sun rise. Sunlight would slowly stream through the woods out back and the dew-covered lawn would be cloaked in a golden sheen. (Or, if I was lucky, a storm would wake me up. Heavy rain drops would patter on "my side" of the house, which had been added on later, and had a less soundproof roof.) It wasn't uncommon to see squirrels chasing each other up the walnut tree, a pair of rabbits wandering around, or a neighbor's cat go lunging at either of the former. The usual sounds at that time were chattering birds, the clunk of my mug against the table, and the scrape of the chair when I went on with my day.

Last month I spent more time there than anywhere. I filled favor bags and piped macarons for the reception, played games with the family, ate the most horridly flavored jelly beans in the world (and laughed hard when other people got worse ones), found out that I'm a competitive Jenga player, had the best fried chicken in the Illinois Valley (though, that's a popular point of contention), and managed a few solitary tea-fueled musings, too. I don't know exactly what it is about this spot that makes me feel most at home. I imagine that others have more atypical spots, but this is mine.

The thing that isn't strange about home is how it feels to leave.

I've left anxious to meet with friends, nervous for university, and excited to reunite on trips to visit C, but always with a sense that I'm leaving behind not only a part of myself, but the best parts of myself, my family. As sickeningly cliche as it is to say, they ground me (literally: I was grounded as punishment far into my teenage years). They remind me that as much as I'm eager to travel, to move, to change, and to find new things to interest me, there will always be a part of me that longs, too, for a stronghold. As much as I've talked about escaping that trap of a town, there will always be a part of me that thinks of that trap as a blessing. I think I've taken for granted my upbringing. I've taken for granted that I got to grow up in a place that was fairly safe with people who encouraged me to be the best person I could be. I've taken for granted the winding country roads, the new music flowing from car speakers, the friendships I developed, the reassurance I received at every new step in my life, and the beauty that only comes from harsh experiences of pain. This is what growing up is.

Looking back, I can only appreciate how lucky I was and how lucky I am that the idea of "home" isn't something that scares or irritates me, but something that makes me grateful. Not everyone has that luxury. Going home makes me happy I have a place to call home. Now that I'm married and moved away, however, I have a new home to find. But that's another post.