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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Holy Frugality! The $700 Prom Dress and the Haters

I know, I know. Don't read the comments.

Recently on Facebook, this article showed up in a friend's page. The story is about a high school senior with a comfortable budget, who found the perfect dress for her prom. But because of the work she had been doing with the poor, she made the decision to forgo the $700 gown and donate the money to the orphanage where she was volunteering in the summer. But her actions did not stop at this generosity. Instead of buying a different dress, she purchased a $4 burlap potato sack, with the intention of sewing it into a dress, and she has invited interested students to do the same. The idea is to arrive at her prom, where most of her classmates will be dressed in expensive clothing and make a statement of solidarity with the poor, as well as one against a culture which is doubly myopic- both the culture of upper middle class America, and the culture of teenage-dom.

It's a beautiful story, and not only highlights the Church's preferential treatment for the poor, but shows the character and fortitude of a young woman willing to give all she has and be an example to her peers.

And then the comments squashed it.

Most of them looked something like this: "$700 for a dress?!" "My wedding gown cost only $300"… "My girls would be happy for a $70 dress."… "What kind of budget is that?!"

Are you kidding me?

The group of -all- women who were responding, whom I can say with some confidence are predominantly those who consider themselves to be good Christians (based on the original poster and her following) were in an all-out tizzy over the actual amount of money this girl had in her dress budget. No mention of generosity. No mention of solidarity. So when I commented that it was "even more impressive" that she had given so much away, I was pretty much attacked.

There are two problems at stake here, as I can see. The first is a real problem with economics as a sign of holiness. The Church teaches preferential treatment for the poor, generosity, and hospitality. She also teaches good stewardship, the goodness of having resources to share, and a personal right to have things like personal funds and personal property. We all make choices about how we make money, and how we use it. But in some circles, there seems to be harsh judgement against anyone who "has" money, regardless of how they are using that gift.

I have in mind a couple of examples of a kind of championing of -not poverty- but "lack-of-funds" that show my point. I had a friend who, God bless her, used to claim she would get pregnant by doing her laundry alongside her husband's. It was her comical way of claiming her very fertile gift of self. When she watched me go through the pain of multiple miscarriages, she admitted to me that she had often judged women with only one child as being "selfish" in some way. She equated her own choice (and discernment) to have six children with generosity, never considering that another woman's desire to have more than one child (or, Lord, even one child) might be just as right and generous. And I have heard "Christian" women complain that the family with two children and a Mercedes are selfish, or not living their Christian call rightly. What harsh judgment to pass on people who may be very responsible about money, who may have discerned that two children was what God wants in their family, who may have wanted more children but were unable, who may have a gift for investing that they use for their family and others, as good stewards.

I have other friends who live in and among the poor, because that is their response to what they believe is their personal vocation. One of the those friends bought a house with funding from a generous man who is committed to lending money interest-free. No one seems to fault the lender for having the money in the first place. He has no obligation other than his conscience to make this kind of offer. But he is committed to do it because he is able to do it. Other friends of mine who are brothers and priests in the Bronx also live among the poor. Their food is earned by begging. Their doctors bills are covered for them. Their home is a beautiful old Dominican convent (though they are Franciscans). Their needs are met by God's providence. Through the gift of those with money. And I would never have been able to have responded Yes to God's call for me to enter this doctoral program if a friend had not funded me for the first year. Others of my friends and family wanted to help, and did. But only she had the resources to pay for the entire tuition. And she absolutely didn't have to, but she felt called to, and so generously gave.

There are different gifts, but the same spirit. And this applies to material things as well. The issue with the Rich Young Man in the Gospels isn't that he is rich. It is that when he is called, he has too much to lose, because he is attached to those things. In some sense, when you have nothing to lose, it is easier to pick up and follow. Maybe you have nothing to lose because of your choices, like my friends in the Bronx. But maybe not.

One woman in this thread insisted that if the girl only had $50 and gave that up, it would "hurt more" and therefore be more impressive. I call shenanigans. If one girl has a $50 budget and one girl has a $700 budget, and they each give all of it away… it has the same impact because both of them are left with nothing. They have both given ALL of it away. Moreover, there is something decidedly different about the girl with plentiful funds giving her budget away, because if we rightly presume (and we many be wrong) that the $700 budget indicates a financially comfortable life, how much greater is her gift because she is not giving from a place of experiential understanding - "wow, I remember what it was like to have nothing, so I'm going to live with less" but rather she is giving from a place of compassion without experience. As in "there are orphans not getting what they need, so I will give up what I could have and change what I want to honor their dignity."

I suggest that the danged "snarky" responders never took into consideration that their daughters and their $70 dresses weren't actually offering to give up their $70 for the poor. Just saying.

Solidarity with the vulnerable, preferential treatment for the poor, commitments to distributism, community, sacrifice, almsgiving. These are part of the considerations we can make as a measure of fiscal stewardship - as part of our Christian call and responsibility. But these do not mean we can claim some right to hold others in judgement for the ways in which they are responsible because it is not the same as our way. Having a clothing budget of $100 and buying all your clothing cheaply from a place that uses sweatshops and child labor is not a more admirable thing than buying a $500 wardrobe from someone who is committed to fair labor practices. Extreme couponing might mean you spend only $5.75 on your $400 order, but there are serious ethical questions attached to this. (BTW, wouldn't it be a more just use of your couponing gifts to donate that extra 1328 tubes of toothpaste to the homeless?) These are complex issues. Talking down a teenage woman's gift of leadership and commitment to change, by condemning her for having $700 to spend on a dress in the first place, will not make you a better Christian.

No, it pretty much makes you a snarky b. And gives Christians a bad name.

So, you go for it, Courtney. You wear your potato sack dress and you have the night of your life. You are a brilliant young woman and you can help change the world. And as for the haters, well, you just have fun throwing those stones and being bitter about those who give more because they have more to give. But I assure you, your own personal poverty is not coming from your checking account. It seems to be coming from your souls.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

GE and the Feminine Genius

When John Paul II spoke about the new feminism, he called it a philosophy "which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."

I'm guessing many women can get on board with this, even those who find other writings by John Paul II on women to be too conservative, or too focused on "motherhood." And while I understand the pushback, I also believe that criticism of the focus on motherhood has more to do with the reader's narrow definition of "mother" than the former pope's understanding of motherhood as a category as big as the Church herself.

In any case, as I am helping teach a class in the Women and Gender Studies department at UD on feminist social change, my spidey-senses have been heightened lately to the ways we see women's true genius in "every aspect of the life of society" these recent days. One of those ways has been in the joy of watching the Olympics - from slope style skiing and boarding to luge. When I was a kid, I'll admit, I thought the best part of the winter Olympics was the figure skating - not many girls avoid the lure of sparkles (and I wasn't really a "princessy" kid otherwise). As an adult I still love that sport, and ice dancing, because I am in awe of what people's well-disciplined and talented bodies can DO. On slender metal blades. On slippery ice.

My family are hockey people. And I think this might be the first time that I avoided spoilers on Facebook, recorded hours of viewing, and stopped everything to watch the Women's Hockey gold medal contest. When we were teens, my brother's "pin up girl" was a poster of Manon Rheaume, a goaltender (in full goalie duds, mind you)for several NHL/IHF teams. But still, you "never" see women's hockey teams on tv. And it's about time.

But the strength and gift of female athletes spins or slides its way right into our living rooms, and interviews show women dancing to music during warm ups, or wearing their lucky earrings to snowboard. It is a picture that has nothing to do with androgyny, but is radiantly and fiercely feminine.

Along with all this television viewing come ads, and we know the ways that most of these pigeonhole women. With the rare exceptions (Dad, don't forget the gogurt… and the Tide commercial where the SAHD washes his daughters favorite dress ups), women are either being pressured to color gray and anti-wrinkle themselves or use a better mop and cook a better meal. Motherhood is relegated to a list of household chores. Sure, there is some reality in this. But in that 30 seconds, this is all she is.

John Paul II also warns against "anonymous people" reminding us that when we see "art" reproductions of people we need to remember there are real people behind them.

And so, if you haven't seen the new GE commercial, A Child's Imagination I am happy to share a few words here. They are narrated by a young girl who is recounting all the things her mom does at work. From a general "feminist" standpoint, it's a good commercial. It places woman at the center of invention and technology. It pushes back against a long outdated model of working women as less innovative or intelligent than their male counterparts. And it involves the imagination of a young girl, who is clearly being influenced by the woman… handing down a pro-woman message to the next generation. More than "bring your daughter to work day," it's a celebration of women's successes without making her main contribution a Barbie like prettiness that decorates the world. In fact, we never see the mom.

But that's a second, and perhaps more interesting point to me, and to the idea of feminism as pro-motherhood. [Yes, I am talking about the physical kind here, although in another space I will be happy to expound on motherhood as a universal vocation of woman.] JP II also says of motherhood that it is an opportunity to reconcile people with life… So when we see this commercial and realize it is a girl relaying her mom's contributions to the world in a very work-centered way, we must also realize that this high-powered woman is also a MOM.

If she is a mom, it means she made a choice to give life to another human being. If she has a little girl, it means that she accepted the burden and joy and struggle and responsibility of life. It is not a woman who has accepted a "man's" interpretation of the world - a society where work and promotion and success occur in a linear and isolated way. She has not allowed the terribly limited regulations of maternity leave to stop her own imagination. She has not let sleepless nights stifle her gift and her genius. This ad manages to be both pro-woman and pro-life in a subtle, stunning way. It makes me want to be the little girl and want to be the mom. It is a tiny sliver of a view of the genius of women, and the ways in which both womanhood and motherhood may bring real value into the human condition, in a marvelous and counter-historically male dominated society- kind of way.

Whether you stay at home with children, have children and work, work without children, are spiritual sisters and mothers… whether you manage finances at home or in a Fortune 500, whether you create costumes or cakes, airplanes or printers, whether you bring music or prayer or leadership or education into the world, whether your world is contained mostly in 2000 square feet or you travel weekly… the world needs women's genius. And in whatever way we are called, women's genius brings life. Thanks, GE, whether you realized it or not, for affirming woman's genius and our service to life.

Enjoy this beautiful commercial -
A Child's Imagination and then go forth and celebrate your own genius and encourage genius in the women and girls in your life.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Was Bonaventure Right? Skinny Girls and Genius Boys

When I was studying Scholastic theology, I wrote a paper disagreeing with Bonaventure. This was regarding his contention that Jesus had to have been born male. Mind you, this answer is well within the tradition, though expressed in a very different way by prior thinkers. Augustine, for example, explains that in the cooperative work of the Incarnation of God within the womb of the Virgin, both male and female of the human species participate in redemption: woman in the hospitality of Mary's body and womb, saved in conception; man in the human person of Jesus conceived as a male in utero. Peter Lombard agrees. And then Bonaventure has to cock it up, veering far off topic to explain that the virility associated with virtue, and the perfection of the male form are reasons for Jesus' historical maleness. But the clincher for me to put Bonaventure on my sh*& list was thought #4. Jesus had to be born male because women all prefer to give birth to a male baby than a female baby. No excuses here, no conjecture, no reason. Men and women prefer boys to girls. When I first read this I literally wrote in black ink in the margin "are you KIDDING me?"

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

But as a friend passed this along via her Facebook wall, I had to wonder: was Bonaventure right? Because if he was, there is something deeply, deeply wrong with "us".

This NY Times article reveals an anonymous analysis done by researching most googled words and phrases having to do with boys and girls, as searched by parents. The findings? Parents search for positive traits attached to their sons and negative ones attached to their daughters. As the article suggests: parents "want their boys smart and their girls pretty." That this has ever been the case is perhaps not so surprising. That this is still observably and measurably the reality in 2014 is astounding.

You might suppose that the region of the world in which one lives and its attending cultures would impact the searches. And you would be right. In Pakistan, for example, 580% more people search for "how to conceive a boy child" (as opposed to a girl). You might also assume that backwards, rigid, narrow minded folks from specific regions and political backgrounds would be the ones likely to want pretty girls and leave the thinkin' to the boys. You would be wrong. Apparently these preferences cross demographics. Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Moderates, Educated, Uneducated, and the folks in the middle - as far as Google users are concerned, a smart girl may be just fine, but an "ugly" one is not.

We are still perpetuating someone else's beauty myth. You might argue that because of society's demands, girls who aren't pretty enough will not get a shot, even to show how smart or creative they may be. And you might be right. But WE are society. WE are ultimately responsible for not only this double standard, but also for the roots of every part of it.

Understanding the human person means being able to see boys and girls, women and men as created in the image of God - not that one person gets "more" of God's image and one gets "less."

The article explains how empirical data proves that more girls are higher academic achievers in grade school, that more boys deal with issues of obesity. But the social data shows a world in which girls can never be thin enough, and boys never too close to genius. And girls suffer when they have to be someone they are not.Pink and leopard and frills and bows are fine when they express something about a person. My three year old niece has a pink hockey stick and wouldn't have it any other way. BUT- when pink and leopard and bows and frills lead to eating disorders and dumbing themselves down and terrible dating relationships and unfollowed dreams, it needs. to. change.. (And I imagine boys must feel the pressure of performance, or the lack of pressure to be healthy and also suffer from both.)

Our girls deserve better!

In this week - this week of the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's memorial and the Roe v. Wade case - both days that earmark injustice done to humanity through injury to the body, and through killing and death -we need to pay close attention. This attitude is the same - that skin and hair and features can be "ugly". That looks and color and bodies can make a person disposable. That an unwanted life can be rejected. That if you can't measure up, even in the womb, you are not good enough. In some countries this has led to the mass murder of millions of girls. This is anti-woman at best and anti-God at worst. For what greater violence is directed toward the Creator than to reject the beauty of humanity, to reject the biology of your child, or the intelligence of a girl, or her height or size or coloring or bone structure.

What is wrong with us? We prefer our boys smart and our girls skinny.

We subjugate the redemption of the Incarnation and say incarnation is good on OUR terms only, not on God's. And if God doesn't meet our sense of goodness, well, we'll just pressure and primp it out of our kids. Maybe we can't make God in our image, but why not the most vulnerable among us?

What is wrong with us?

We let Bonaventure be RIGHT.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Actively Waiting - an audio link for Advent

This past weekend, I flew to Chicago and gave a talk at a women's event in a large Naperville parish. The talk was titles "Actively Waiting: Mary as Icon and the Feminine Genius"

I'm attaching the LINK HERE because some of you have asked for podcasts etc from me, and this is the next best thing! It's not short, but please let me know if it makes you think, and if you enjoy it… pass it on :)

Happy Advent!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Apple or Baby? (Eve and Mary Meet)

I can't believe I'm going to do this. I have a huge paper in very very rough form sitting Right Next To the laptop, and I have made very little progress on The Final Draft.

But I had put this painting, below, up on my fb page for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And then my old parish posted it on their page. (which, yes, I know because this is my writing process: write without coming up for air, then face book, snack, tv, back to writing…apparently this time with blogging mixed in). And I thought, because I really love it... this is so beautiful. Eve clutches an apple to her breast, and Mary puts Eve's other hand on her own burgeoning belly.

We are forced to consider the difference between the fruit Eve clutches to her heart, and the Fruit under the heart of Mary.

And then I thought:
Mary is asking Eve to trade in her apple for a baby.
Mary is asking Eve to trade in her apple for a BABY.

What does this mean for me?! What countless things am I clutching to my heart that keep me from fully embracing Life? What is it that I want to hold onto because it fits my hand / my comfort zone/ my expectations instead of opening my arms and my covered heart to the life that is unexpected/ messy/ nearly uncontainable?

What am I missing by assuring myself of the comfort of an apple instead of the wildness of True Freedom?

I had to ask myself. I am still asking.
And perhaps you might, too.

In some sense, this speaks to our social refusal to understand life as sacred. We prefer a job, a dog, our free time, to the total engagement with the other that life demands. I prefer to be the individual, shunning the community - even when community is a union of two. I allow myself to desire for things that are external. But I fear the total change of internal growth, stretching, vitality.

In this season of Advent, and every time, I can choose to say yes, a fiat great and full, to the light resonating from the life of Mary's womb. I can choose the life, the great bigness of eternity tabernacled in the limited space of her entire body. I have a choice to keep the apples of my life clutched to my heart - or to respond to this invitation in a new and vibrant way.

I can be Eve or I can be the New Eve. I can embrace the Christ Child or hold fast to my fears; those very fears that brought humanity to its knees and kept us from the fulness of life.

It's our choice today.
Apple or BABY?