Friday, October 9, 2015

Crafting a Masterpiece: Personalized Art for Starting Your Life Together

Since we rent our apartment, and since we've been renting for our entire marriage across 3 dwellings in 4 years, I've been torn in the past between kind of neglecting semi-major things like nails in a rental while still deeply wanting to make our home, however temporary, truly feel like it belongs to us.

Which brings me to this, today's post.  The desire to furbish your living space, as a way of visually manifesting your life together, is a good one; one that's particularly exciting when you're engaged.

In all honesty, it's hard for me not to roll my eyes at every calligraphied, chevron-printed "live, love laugh," heart-shaped map, or monogram on burlap I come across.   Not that there's anything expressly wrong with those; I just have a hard time wading through them all to find more uncommon designs that better suit my taste.  Anyway, personalized art makes a wonderful gift if you're a wedding guest, a great treat to yourselves if you're newlyweds, or just a nice timeless piece for your home if, like me, you're neither at the moment.  Here's a roundup of some Etsy favorites, any of which I'd love to hang on our walls and would consider worth the Spackling when we move out one day (Andrew, if you're reading this…).  Links are in the graphic caption:
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1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8
Which one's your favorite?  And please tell: have you given or received a personalized piece of wedding art? I love hearing your stories!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My Renegade, TOB Take on Maleficent

A few disclaimers before we get into this: 1) I'll admit, this has little to do with weddings today, but this is the forum I have for writing so here I write.  2) If I weren't 8 months pregnant, my hysterical crying over this movie might have been just regular crying.  Still, I think it has a lot of emotional merit worth crying over.  3) Spoilers lurk ahead, though I suspect I'm one of the last people in the world to have watched this.

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A few months ago, I read a few posts floating around Catholic blogland praising the truth, beauty and goodness to be found in Disney's Cinderella remake, particularly compared to the lack of goodness in Maleficent, which, of course, is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.  I'm dying to see Cinderella and haven't yet, but as a lifelong Disney lover, I grabbed Maleficent, in spite of what I'd heard, when I spotted it at the library.  Free movies, people.

To my surprise, I found myself more moved (read: sobbing uncontrollably) by this film than any other I've recently seen.  To my even greater surprise, I seem to be in the minority on this.  After watching, the general secular opinion I read was that Maleficent is visually striking but weak on its intended pro-woman storytelling, and the general Christian interpretations I came across viewed the film as too subversive, with the message that men are weak and true love isn't real.  All due respect, especially to Kendra, whose Maleficent vs. Cinderella post I really enjoyed reading, I have a different take, one rooted in the longings of our fallen hearts and the hope of our redemption.

Maleficent introduces us to the titular fairy when she's a girl, joyful and free in her gorgeous woodland home.  There are some beautiful shots of her flying through the sky, gazing upon the heavens.  Like in the start of Genesis, the world, the garden, is unstained by sin or shame.  

Pope Saint JPII's Theology of the Body points to the Genesis narrative as a lens for understanding the deepest parts of our humanity: daily battles between love and lust, temptation and self-control, and our ache for something infinite, the result of the broken communion between man and God that took place at the Fall.  It's a communion we won't fully get back this side of heaven, but the unitive, nuptial aspects of each vocation give us a glimpse of the Father's divine love, the only love that can ever satisfy entirely.  

The Fall in Maleficent takes place when Maleficent's first love, the future King Stefan and Princess Aurora's (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty's) father, a poor young man and reformed thief who's set his sights on greatness, secures the throne for himself by fulfilling the (current) dying King's request that Maleficent be destroyed after humiliating him on the battlefield.  Specifically, Stefan returns to Maleficent's wood after years apart have passed between them, drugs her into sleep, and cuts off her wings.  

The scene where Maleficent wakes from this sleep, completely bewildered and in deep physical and emotional pain, is wrenching (this was about where my tears started, and they didn't really stop after that), and marks the start of her path to becoming the glamorous-yet-terrifying villain I remember from my childhood.  Her transformation comes complete with shape-shifting raven sidekick; in this movie he is a man named Diaval whom Maleficent tends to treat like a plaything--to his resentment in several instances--turning him into whatever animal suits her whims and her needs.

Are these exemplary, functional relationships between men and women?  Not at all.  But that's what I think affected me so deeply and so truthfully about this movie.  It's oversimplifying, in my opinion, for morally-minded viewers to draw the conclusion that the film justifies Maleficent's descent into darkness and that it begs us to sympathize with her.  It's undeniable that she's been horribly, painfully wronged, by a perhaps more obvious villain than she in Stefan, yet it remained impossible  to see her in an entirely sympathetic light, or to feel she had a right to her sense of hatred.  I just saw it as a believable, if not virtuous, reaction to being so burned in her vulnerability.  I think Maleficent's resulting mistrust and manipulation of men makes her neither the sole victim of the wing-cutting, nor merely a misunderstood woman whom we should see as morally relatively good just because she was on the receiving end of an evil act.  I wept for the tragedy of human fallenness and of the wounds men and women inflict on each other, and for the actual walls of thorns Maleficent builds around herself.  King Stefan falls for selfish ambition, while Maleficent falls for revenge and isolation, each to the other's harm.

It's an interesting figure of speech, "falling" for something.  The movie speaks to this in a literal way through Stefan and Maleficent's sins, yet the phrase also implies someone has believed a lie they shouldn't have.  In Maleficent's case, she falls for the lie that cursing Stefan's daughter, Aurora, will right the wrong done to her and bring her fulfillment.  The second half of the movie focuses on the surprising maternal pull that draws Maleficent to Aurora as the princess grows up in seclusion, safe from Maleficent's spinning wheel curse.

Strangely, it's only since becoming a mother that I've felt most acutely a woman's desire for motherhood and for giving life, and have mourned most deeply the times when a woman struggles with this, through miscarriage, fertility issues, or otherwise.  I cried a whole lot more as I watched Maleficent's inclination to care for baby Aurora, who's left in the care of three incompetent pixies, and later, to engage her in conversation and invite Aurora into her company.  I found it beautiful that a woman so broken, so walled, still found her feminine heart stirred, subtly and unknowingly at first, and then more fully, by Aurora's new life as an infant and by Aurora's purity of spirit as a teenager.

Can we talk about Maleficent's love for Aurora?  Much seems to have been made of the fact that the movie suggests men are unnecessary, for the reason that it's Maleficent's motherly kiss that wakes Aurora from her cursed slumber, instead of Prince Philip's.  While it's true Maleficent's experience of betrayal is what leads her to make a mockery of true love's kiss when she casts the curse on the baby princess (which, again, is in my eyes an indicator of her imperfection, rather than a call to justify her actions without critical evaluation), I'm not so sure the reality of true love is in question here so much as the reality of love at first sight.

Aurora and Philip share a sweet, shy conversation in the woods at their first meeting, which notably lacks the "Once Upon a Dream" sequence from the original Sleeping Beauty, with its lines like "you'll love me at once."  When Aurora's pixie guardians learn about the prince, they're so excited at the possibility of Philip being the one to break the inevitable sleeping spell that they seem to depersonalize him.  In their understandable desperation to save Aurora, the pixies are happy enough that anyone, that is, the first man to come along, might love the princess, rather than someone.  JPII professed in one of his TOB audiences that "man is unique and unrepeatable above all because of his heart, which decides his being from within"--it makes sense, then, that each person and each couple's love story will be similarly unique. 

I go back and forth on the idea of soulmates.  On the surface, maybe, it looks like Maleficent suggests either that true romantic love isn't real, or that Philip and Aurora aren't meant to be, but I think there's actually another idea at work.  Regardless of whether or not the prince and princess are each other's destiny, the spell simply specifies that the princess be awoken by "true love's kiss," raising the question of whether Philip and Aurora can actually share true love, as in self-gift and sacrifice, after just one short encounter.  It could be just a matter of semantics, but I prefer to see Philip's "failed" kiss as an insight into how we fall in love--it's more than emotion, more than the flutter of feelings that spring from a first meeting, that makes for authentic romance and good will. What's more, the movie makes a point of showing that Philip is an entirely different man than Stefan.  Unlike the king, who drugs Maleficent and violates her body against her will, Philip is hesitant to even kiss Aurora while she's asleep, for the very reason that she'll have no idea, and finally agrees only at the pixies' incessant requests.

I got a little wary at the end of the movie, which shows Aurora and Maleficent on their own, back in Maleficent's newly dethroned forest.  The woods have been restored to their original beauty and Maleficent's wings have been restored to her (which, together, suggest to me a powerful image of a return to the garden in eternity and the resurrection of the body).  Had the film concluded just with that whole All You Women Who Independent business, I would've been disappointed.  After what I perceive as an effort to explore the truth of love as a gradual development--the fruit of coming to see and know another, rather than instantaneous, traditional fairy-tale love--leaving Aurora entirely on her own would've been a little too obviously feminist, too easy an ending for me.  But I don't think this movie takes many easy outs.  Instead, by making a choice to show Prince Philip returning to visit the princess, we're left with a sense of possibility that maybe a truthful, personal love really could develop between these two.  Their first meeting and first kiss aren't the end game, but the beginning.

So that's that, my unexpected reaction to and weird interpretation of this story.  I think secular critics missed the point of the movie by reducing it to a commentary on the injustices men inflict on women, and that it's a shame it was marketed (falsely, in my opinion) in a way that made light of evil.  And I think audiences who care about the moral implications of what they watch also missed the mark, making the assumption, perhaps, that if any plot twist strays too far from tradition, there must be some agenda at work. I know it'd be naive of me to think Hollywood doesn't, in fact, have an agenda, yet the beauty of Maleficent lies, to me, in the truths about who we are, beneath any cultural conventions or media-driven intentions about love, sex, and gender.  Whether the world chooses to recognize it or not, it's the truth that all of us are fallen and walking around with wounded hearts, yet there is grace at work in the world, and restorative love and healing are possible.

What about you? Agree?  Disagree?  What did you think of Maleficent, and did you notice any of the TOB underpinnings I did?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Surviving a Long-Distance Engagement, Catholic-Style

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Andrew proposed to me beneath a statue of Our Lady on our college campus, the summer after I graduated and right as we were preparing to spend a year apart, me for mission work and him for grad school 5 hours away.  We set our wedding date for 13 months later.

Given the choice, both of us would've preferred a shorter engagement.  Yet given the responsibilities entrusted to each of us over the upcoming year, it would have been both impractical and imprudent to get married any sooner.  Off we went in opposite directions, seeing each other roughly halfway between at one of our families' houses every two or three weeks.  And oh hell was it a marathon.  When I think back on that year, the hardest aspects were the mounting panic that our wedding was fast approaching and we had little time to plan, the heightened temptations against chastity that came with not seeing each other often, balancing time alone with family time (since they were hosting us and also happy to have us around), and struggling against impatience. If you're currently engaged long-distance and have similarly experienced at least one of these, and if you'll allow me some unsolicited advice, here's what my own heart could've used some reassurance on at the time:

Don't fall into believing the two of you are all alone.  Sounds obvious, yet I bought into this lie over and over, the one that made me think if didn't control every part of wedding plans and cultivating our relationship across the miles, everything would be doomed.  But it wasn't just on us to take care of all that.  So often, I forgot to invite the Father in and to turn to prayer for even the smallest matters.   Since we'd started dating, Andrew and I had just sort of naturally created our own litany to a handful of saints, and both of us had fallen hard, in particular, for JPII's spirituality rooted in human love.  At some point, Andrew reminded me of the grace and power that reside in saintly intercession, and though I, in my inadvertent pride, took a while to develop the habit of calling on their prayers, there truly was peace to be found there.  If you haven't already, choose a few patrons for your engagement and pray to them often.

Don't expect perfection, but don't stop pursuing it.  Chastity, yo.  It's such a battle--both before marriage, when it asks abstinence of us (though I don't personally consider chastity and abstinence the same thing), and continues to be tough after marriage, as spouses are constantly called to die to self, to live out their sexuality through self-gift in its infinite forms, and to strive for virtue and self-discipline.  But let's talk about the before marriage part.   No matter where the two of you are living relative to each other, it can be seriously hard to discipline the good and beautiful desire to physically express your love, so much so that for me, I sometimes questioned (and hated that I was even asking myself) whether love or lust was the motivation.  Add infrequent time together into the mix, thanks to long-distance dating, and things get even harder.

But listen.  While I fully view sexual sin as serious business, I also view it as so incredibly human.  We are created, body and soul, with a longing for the infinite, an ache whose earthly fulfillment is fulfilled, at least in part, through a properly integrated expression of our sexuality.  For those called to marriage, that expression is physical, so of course those desires are right at the surface during engagement.  While it's true that God is just, it's also true that he is so, so merciful and wants so deeply for us to run to his mercy and to come back to him every time we fall.  Be gentle with yourselves, don't give up the fight (I'm no theologian, but in my opinion there is more culpability in giving in to temptation because you've decided chastity's not worth it than in continuing to seek holiness even amidst occasions of giving in), and go to confession as often as you need to.  Speaking of which…

Seek out spiritual time together, especially time away from wedding planning.  Practically speaking, it was sometimes necessary for Andrew and I to condense into a single weekend some of the wedding planning that we might've had more time for had we been able to see each other more often (you can read about our semi-disastrous registry experience here…).  But, making it a priority to go to confession and Mass when we were together, and to pray with each other in the car and before heading off to bed, impacted our peace for the better, in ways I probably didn't even recognize.  When your time is limited, it's tempting to try and fill every second with managing your to-do list, yet we quickly noticed how much more relaxed and content we felt when we made a conscious effort at leisure and quality time.  Carving out time for prayer and for just sitting down to read or get coffee had the ironic effect of making us feel like there was actually more time than we perceived to get everything wedding-related taken care of, and had two added benefits for our situation.  First, making a point to relax gave us time with just each other, which was sometimes hard to come by when we were visiting each other in our parents' homes and were usually surrounded by other people who were happy we were there (that setup was really good for chastity accountability, but not as good for quality conversation between the two of us).  Second, it gave us an opportunity to trust each other and follow through on our word in a specific way; because it simply wasn't possible, or even necessary, to do every bit of wedding stuff together, we had no option but to delegate tasks to each other and do them on our own, a habit that came in handy after we got married, too.

Don't just make this time about surviving.  For me, at least, there were so many occasions when I wanted to fast forward through our engagement and just get to the altar already.  Normal as it might have been (someone tell me I was normal?), it would've been unhealthy if my entire life was defined by the fact that I was engaged or if I didn't take pleasure in anything outside of my relationship with my fiancĂ©.  I needed to remind myself I was doing work I loved and sincerely enjoying my life's other pursuits.  Time is sacred, for the simple yet profound fact that God freely chose to enter into it, a man among us.  Use it well.  Frankly, counting down to the start of my vocation flat out sucked sometimes,  yet I also clearly remember a sense of sweetness in the waiting and an urge to not make it wasted time, not in my friendships, my work, my spiritual life, and my overall sense of presence.

Last week Andrew had two back to back loooong workdays of student-teacher conferences where he didn't arrive home until I was almost ready for bed, yet by the time he walked in the door, I was so happy to finally talk to my husband that we were up for another few hours.  Even though he'd basically spent the past twelve hours talking, we spent the time asking question after question about each others' days, and I did my usual I'm-so-glad-Aaron's-in-bed-but-let's-talk-about-all-the-funny-things-he-did-and-look-at-pictures-of-him thing.

At one point, Andrew asked me if our conversation, one we'd unconsciously been saving up all day for, reminded me of our engagement.  It did!  Four years ago, when most of our daytime hours were occupied and we weren't seeing each other at the end of the workday, we didn't usually talk until after dinner in the evening and did a pretty similar blow-by-blow of our days, mixed in with all the thoughts and debates the day had sparked.  I love that I get to talk to this man forever.

What about you?  Is your engagement long-distance?  What are the biggest struggles you've faced, and the best ways you've found to deal with them?  I always, always enjoy hearing your stories!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Living Heart: Attending Pope Francis' Mass in Washington, D.C.

You guys.  The Pope.  I count myself so blessed to have attended Francis' canonization Mass for now-Saint Junipero Serra (with a seat, in the semi-shade, no less!) last Wednesday, yet was surprised by all the mixed feelings in my heart when what I expected was more along the lines of happiness and fortitude alone.  Beforehand, I tried to be conscious of not trying to force myself into any particular emotions surrounding the Pope's visit, but just prayed that his words would take root in my heart and bear fruit in my vocation and my spiritual life.  It's only now, nearly a week later, that I'm starting to recognize those fruits and hoping they're just the seed of things even more significant to come.

I didn't want to have my phone out much, but by the time we got home I did have about 20 versions each of this photo of us and of the view from our seats.  I want to call it pew-view, but you know, it wasn't a pew... 

Truthfully, when a few people asked me how I felt about going to the Mass, the first word that came to mind was "undeserving," but I felt sort of insecure giving that as an answer.  I felt undeserving not just in the greater spiritual sense that any good I receive is purely thanks to grace, but in the sense that I applied late to ask for tickets from my parish and was surprised to receive them, I'd never even heard of St. Junipero until I had my tickets, with his name on them, in hand, and I found out I was going only a few days beforehand; I felt like aside from happening to have gone to confession the weekend prior, I wasn't particularly prepared, spiritually, for a papal encounter.

It's uncomfortable, writing this.  The day after the Mass, as I scrolled through all my social media peppered with excitement over Francis' visit, I felt a growing sense of guilt that I didn't…I don't know, feel more.  I suspected what I did feel, which was kind of down on myself, had nothing to do with the Mass or the Pope, but with my own deficiency, which I don't exactly enjoy contending with.  Lately I've been feeling in a spiritual rut, a creative rut, and just generally not as alive as I'd like to be, thanks to a little too much time in front of screens.  I've been revisiting Francis' homily over and over the last few days.  His invitation to rejoice, as in the Mass' second reading, even when "so much seems to stand in the way of this invitation," and his reminder to the faithful of St. Junipero's personal motto, "always forward," maybe should've left me with a renewed spirit of mission and determination, yet I felt more a sense of defeat and frustration with myself.  The Pope pointed out that in the absence of joy, habit and apathy can come to govern us too entirely, "with a fatal consequence: our hearts grow numb."  Yikes.

The more times I meditated on his words, though, the better I started to feel.  Francis doesn't stop at this statement, nor intend it to be just a warning, I don't think.  He invites us to overcome "the force of habit" with a love for the Gospel and for sharing it "in faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity."  There are obvious examples of literal woundedness, thirst, and doubt in our brothers and sisters, those more than worthy of works of mercy.  Yet in another way, those faces are the faces of all of us, and certainly me.  As the faithful, I feel like he's saying we've been entrusted with much, yet being on the inside of the truth doesn't mean we're strangers to brokenness and imperfection.

But we also aren't strangers to the hope of our redemption.  I'm filled with admiration and surprise-yet-not-surprise at how Pope Francis so often asked those he met on his visit to pray for him, and how often he seemed to indicate that he wasn't just coming to us, but that we were coming to him.  Since his election, it's been so clear to me what a man of humility and Franciscan poverty he is, which maybe is why being at this Mass felt so unusually…normal.  Even in the presence of the Holy Father and in a different setting than my usual parish, I sort of just felt like I was at a Mass--a beautiful, elevated one, to be sure--but not like I was being spoken to by a celebrity or showman.  Just like I was being spoken to by Christ.

I had the pleasure of going to Mass and brunch with Jen this weekend, and described to her my struggle to put the experience of encountering Pope Francis into words.  Amazingly, she got it.  She told me the story of the time she walked into St. Peter's Basilica for Adoration.  Even in the midst of extraordinary beauty, history, and holiness, she said, she didn't feel overwhelmed with sentiment or drama, but simply felt the complete peace of knowing she was home.  That, ultimately, is one of the things I love about the Catholic faith: no matter where you're coming from, what language the Mass is in (this one was in Spanish!), or what wounds you bear, the liturgy, the sacraments, and the potential for boundless joy are home to us.  Thank you, Papa, for reminding me.  May my heart be not numb, but broken open, a heart of flesh united to Jesus' sacred heart.

How about you?  I'd love to hear about your experience of the papal visit, and not just if you saw him in person!  How did the Holy Father speak to your heart?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Precious Words: Ways to Pray For Your Fiance or Husband, and Why I Sometimes Find It Harder Than I Expected

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At least in the correspondence category, I sometimes feel like I was a better wife to Andrew before I even knew I was going to be his wife--you can read about all the letters I wrote to my then-future husband here.

We exchanged a lot of notes back and forth while we were dating, some that made me all twitterpated and anxious for marriage and some that just made me crack up.  I was reading some yesterday during a nesting/reorganizing rampage and just laughed in joyful disbelief and gratitude for what we share. 

Now that the gushing is out of my system…a few years ago for Christmas, I gave Andrew a journal we could write in together as a way to hold our letters in one spot.  We filled up a lot of pages quickly…at first.  Then we petered out a little.  I'm fine with things being unforced and just naturally having different seasons for different things--I prefer it that way, in fact--but at least on my part, the lack of writing started to feel like a lack of effort rather than a lack of actually wanting to start writing to my husband again.  

So, in a fit of Pinspiration a while back, I set out to do a 30 Days of Prayer-type thing for Andrew, and…well, failed.  I got as far as making a list of 30 intentions specific to him and faithfully wrote him a note about each day's intention before I went to bed, so he could read it before work in the morning.  For about two weeks.  The biggest problem for me, I think, was intentionality.  I sometimes fall into not viewing self-imposed projects, in this case writing a letter every day for 30 days, as real obligations, even when they should be--not that the writing was a duty in the sense it was a burden, but it became too easy for me to push it aside in favor of other things I wanted or needed to do…if I'm being honest,  it was more things I wanted (if the only choice was between a letter or dishes, my answer would've been obvious...).

Anyway, I gleaned at least two fruits from this.  The first is that in all things, not just in letters, my husband deserves the best of me, which includes a willingness to follow through on commitments and to sacrifice my time for him.  Not exactly a revelation, but an important reminder for me nonetheless.  The second is something I've always known and loved: that words have immense significance, and can become such a gift to another person.  It's easy for me to pray constantly for Andrew in my head throughout the day and to frequently thank God for our relationship, but I really do love the idea of creating occasions for more focused, intentional prayer.

That being said, I'm eager to reignite my attempts at daily written prayer for Andrew, maybe with less pressure on myself this time yet with a renewed effort to willingly give this gift to him, and I'm also curious to know how other couples do the prayer for each thing.  What's your experience been?  Do you and your fiancee have specific or creative ways you pray for each other? And do you encounter any of the same consistency struggles as I do?  I'd love to know!

P.S.  I'm SO excited to be attending Pope Francis' canonization Mass for Bl. Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C. tomorrow!  I would love to pray for you--please do get in touch if you have any special intentions!


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