Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Embarassment of Riches

It's hard to say where I am...well, where we are in terms of unity in our marriage. I'm struggling to discern God's design for me. On the one hand, I feel so strongly called to take care of the poor, but on the other, I've already made a commitment to take care of my marriage. I can't help one at the expense of the other.

Last week I ran an experiment. My husband and I had both watched the 60 Minutes documentary on Darfur, and we discovered that we fundamentally disagreed as to whether there was money in our budget for a donation. Rather than argue about whether we could afford it, I asked him what we could sacrifice. After some thought, he replied that he didn't want to make any sacrifices right now.

"You're kidding, right?"

"I know my limitations," he replied.

I was at a loss. We've had this discussion so many times and never get anywhere with it. So I simply said, "I'll find the money." And we went to bed. As I lay there praying and thinking, wondering how I could find an extra $100 without having the family sacrifice anything, it occurred to me that I spend $106 every week on groceries. (I don't really know how that number comes about; it just happens to be the total every time the cashier rings me up.)

I wondered...could I go a whole week without grocery shopping? What did we have? There was ground beef in the freezer, a cornish hen from when I bought three and only two would fit in the crock pot at a time, some homemade chicken soup I'd frozen months ago, a head of broccoli, some green beans, 1/2 an eggplant, a red pepper or two, a bag of carrots, a couple onions, 6 eggs and plenty of rice, beans, condiments, pasta and spices. Would it last a week?

I realized right away I'd have to buy something. Every morning my husband has a bowl of cereal with banana, and every afternoon he has an apple with peanut butter. I'd have to buy milk, apples and peanut butter or he would definitely feel that he was sacrificing. And the point was to do something for Darfur without affecting my family. Ideally, I would come to him after a week and say, "I didn't grocery shop this week. We did okay, didn't we? How about we give the money we saved to Darfur?"

I don't know whether to characterize it as hard or not. It was different. Almost immediately, I started to run out of things. Chili powder. Butter. Flour. Onions. Sugar. Eggs. Tomatoes. We'd invited guests for dinner on Friday night, so I had to entertain in the middle of this whole experiment. Overall, it was a success -- we ate a balanced, healthy, satisfying meal every night and I provided my husband with lunch to take to work every day. We were never hungry. It wasn't until Monday when he ran out of cereal that I brought him in on the whole idea, and he agreed to eat oatmeal for three days until I next went to the store.

I did things I'd never done before, like grate up a broccoli stalk and add it to chicken broth for our lunch. Normally I just throw the stalks out. Instead of cheese and crackers for a midafternoon snack, I popped some corn kernels. I substituted for lots of things I didn't have and tried new recipes when my usual ones wouldn't work. The thing that struck me the most was how much of my time I spent worrying about food, and how diligent I was at conserving it. I sat down at the start of the week and took stock of everything we had to plan out the menu. It didn't allow for any deviation. Monday's meal was crock pot beef bourguignon with a handful of green beans and the remaining 1/2 bag of egg noodles. So I couldn't touch any of that until Monday, even though Sunday's dinner could have used it.

And in so many ways, God provided. I'd planned to attend a prayer rally at my church on Saturday night. They advertised a "light supper" in between the 5:30 Mass and the speaker, so I planned it into our week. No cooking Saturday night. We'd just make do with whatever they served. Hot dogs? Pasta salad? Cheese and fruit? I hoped it'd be enough to satisfy our family and count as a meal. To my astonished delight, the Indonesian community at our parish prepared a feast for us. We had skewered chicken with peanut satay sauce, beef and vegetable crepes, rice with sweet soy sauce, salad, meatball soup, and cupcakes for desert. Not just enough food...bountiful, delicious, remarkable food. I was so grateful to God I nearly cried.

We only made it through the week, of course, because we had so much food already in the house. I think more than anything, it turned out to be a statement about how blessed we are. Even when my fridge is empty, my cupboards are still full. If we had to, we could have gone on longer, but at that point we would definitely have been compromising the nutritional content of our dinners.

Yet the success of the week wasn't the whole point of the experiment. Overarching the entire thing was my hope that it would set up another dialogue with my husband about giving to charity and where that fits into our lives. On that front, the week was less than successful.

When we talked about it, my husband agreed we could give $100 to Darfur. I'm grateful for that, and encouraged by it. But I don't know where we go from here. It's not like any time I want to give to charity I can just stop grocery shopping for a week. Besides the fact that it requires considerable reserves (and the intervention of my parish's Indonesian community) my husband doesn't consider it "saved money." To him, there is no difference between spending $50 on a skirt and spending $40 on a skirt then giving $10 to charity. We're out $50. I can't argue with his math, obviously, because that's fact. But to me, if our budget allows $50 for clothing, then buying something on sale should allow us to spend the extra on something else. Charity, for instance.

Without taking paragraphs and paragraphs to detail our fruitless, circular discussions, I'll just say that my husband feels the only things we should be spending money on right now are necessary items. However, he and I disagree on what constitutes a necessary item. In the interest of unity, and for the sake of my marriage, I want to resolve this in a way that makes both of us happy. I know we are a partnership, and therefore I can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do, but is it right for him to prevent me from the exercise of my faith?

Because that's what this is. God calls all of us to care for the poor. Stewardship is as much a requirement of my faith as Mass attendance and adherence to the doctrines of the Church. I don't know what the middle ground may be, but I know in my heart that it's not right for me to simply give up. I'm praying about this, asking God to help me discern what is pride and what is truth, for Mary and St. Elizabeth of Hungary to intercede for me, for Christ (who showed unflagging love and consideration for the poor while he was on Earth) to show me His way, and for the Holy Spirit to guide my words. I trust that God will find a way and give me the strength to follow it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Unity in the midst of Strife

A conversation I had with a friend of mine the other day has me thinking about unity; specifically: the unity of a married couple where one partner disagrees with the other on a matter of moral responsibility.

Specifically: my marriage, in which my husband and I disagree on the manner in which we should spend our money.

I started this blog to track my efforts to do more for the poor in my everyday life, but I haven't been posting so much about the main struggle that I'm encountering. My husband is a good man, highly ethical, supportive and a good provider. We make a perfect match, actually, because he is pragmatic while I am idealistic. As I told him the other day "Together you and I make a good person." Without him, we would be in fantastical debt. Our bills might not be paid. Our children's future would be entirely unsecured. We certainly wouldn't have a house without his responsible stewardship of our credit rating.

But he does not think we can afford to give anything to charity at the moment. In the past, when I've come to him with a certain cause I want to contribute to, he has agreed on the condition that we cut back on something we're currently paying for. My Netflix subscription, for example, was canceled so we would have money to give the Archdiocese of Chicago for their annual campaign.

In general, I think his method is both morally and financially sound. I don't need a Netflix subscription (good bye, dear historical romances.) I feel much better about giving money to my church than spending it on entertainment. But as of right now, there's nothing more we can chip away at to find extra money. We're living frugally and responsibly. So if we want to give to charity (which I do) we have to start giving up the things we need to share with others.

The paint is an example. I want to give equal the amount we've just spent on painting our house to refugees from the Darfur conflict. So I suggested that instead of painting the rest of the walls this weekend, which we had planned to do, we wait another month so we have money to give to Darfur. To put it simply, I was met with resistance.

And this is my quandary. I don't have any money of my own. Neither does my husband. The money he makes at his job, we share. The money I've made, we share. We are a unit, a partnership, and neither of us can act unilaterally.

Yet what to do when my conscience urges me to spend in a way that he disagrees with? How much say should one partner have over the other's spending habits, especially in a marriage where we trust each other to make responsible financial decisions for the general good of our family?

As a Catholic, I know that my marriage is a vocation. It is through it that I am called to serve God. Subsuming my own desires for the sake of my marriage is absolutely necessary, even when those desires aren't directed for my own benefit. My mother has counseled me numerous times to simply leave the issue alone, to serve the poor in non-monetary ways. For the most part, I try to do this. But I am called so strongly to do something for the poorest of the poor, particularly in Africa where my heart has always been drawn.

Moreover, I know that we DO have money to give to charity. It is important for me to decorate our house and create a welcoming place for us to live, just like it is important for me to send my son to Montessori, to give him the best start possible in his education. Yet when it comes right down to it, neither of these things are so necessary that if my husband were to lose his job tomorrow, we wouldn't immediately stop spending money on them. There is money in our budget for Darfur, if we are creative and willing to sacrifice.

Yet if one partner is not willing to make that sacrifice, then what?

I'm attempting something this week which can be characterized as courageous or deceitful, depending on how you look at it. My hope is that it's courageous, and when I share my experiment with my husband, I hope he'll see it that way, too. I ask for your prayers as we work through this division, and for our future together. If anyone wishes to share their insight on unity in a marriage, believe me, I'm all ears!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Heart of a Home

We are painting several rooms in our new house at the moment. My bath mat post has me reflecting on what makes a house into a home, and what is worthy of spending our money on. My primary goal remains to live as simply as possible, but does that extend to keeping walls stark and barren, or refraining from all decorating?

I think not, for several reasons. The first is that a home is a very personal expression of the family who resides in it. It's not enough to have shelter from the weather, as the sometimes remarkable efforts of college students to personalize their living spaces will attest. Within each of us is the fundamental desire to have a place that represents us, that evokes within us a sense of comfort and happiness.

A home is also the place we spend most of our time. (Especially those of us who are SAHMs!) It is where our family gathers together, where we instruct our children in the values we hope they will hold as adults. It's important for the home to be a place that's welcoming, pleasant and orderly, as these things encourage the family to spend time there. Restaurants make great efforts to decorate so that people feel engaged and interested when they come to eat there -- shouldn't we do the same for our homes? Studies have shown that patients respond better to treatment and ask for less pain medication when their hospital rooms are warmly and colorfully decorated, as opposed to the traditional sterile environment we've come to associate with medical facilities. Shouldn't our homes also be places that soothe our souls?

Finally, our home is a gift we give others through hospitality. Before guests come over, we make an extra attempt to clean. We pick up the kids' toys that have lain out in various stages of assembly the whole week. We sweep and mop the floors, even if we just did them the day before. We vacuum, we straighten pictures, we put flowers on the table. Why? To honor the person who is entering. By creating a welcoming and pleasant atmosphere, we are saying to our guest: you are important to us, so important that we will go out of our way to bring a little bit of joy into your heart. Shouldn't our homes be worthy gifts to give those who visit us?

Order and beauty are good for us mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. So the question is not "Should we decorate our homes?" but "How can we take the poor with us while we decorate our homes?"

The first way is to follow the "Rs" as much as possible. Reduce the clutter in our houses. We really don't need that much stuff. Reuse by shopping for decorations at yard sales and antique shops. When we do redecorate, recycle the old materials (hold a yard sale, donate old doors to Habitat for Humanity, dispose of paint properly and safely.) Research where we buy our decorations (Many Christmas lights are made in China by slave labor.) Be responsible, buy only what we need; if there's an attractive painting hanging in the foyer, don't buy a new one just "for a change." Here's where the difference between painting a wall and buying a bath mat comes into play. The only person affected by our lack of a bath mat is myself. My husband does not care. My guests never see our upstairs bathroom. My refusal to buy a bath mat helps me exercise restraint and develop humility. Refraining from decorating our more public areas, however, affects our whole family and those we invite into our homes. In this instance, I feel it's something that's worth doing.

When we do decorate, whenever possible, we should try to do the work ourselves. Most of us are not electricians, so I would always call in an expert if we changed our light fixtures or installed a new appliance. Painting, however, is something we can do ourselves, and something we should do. It's hard work. It's time consuming. It's messy. All these things might make the idea of calling in a painter seem very appealing, but there's merit in working with our own hands, not least because it helps us understand, in stark, physical detail, what it's like for the millions of people who labor for their daily bread. Like so many Americans, the closest I come to working with my hands involves chopping up an onion for dinner or typing on the computer. Physical labor can be a form of mortification as well -- it strengthens our souls as well as our bodies.

For us, painting is something we no longer want to wait on. We've lived in this house for 4 months with its bare white walls and darkwood trim and beige carpet, and it's honestly depressing to come home. So last weekend we bought some paint on the advice of a very reasonable color consultant who came out and planned a color scheme with us, and so far my husband has painted two walls and the powder room in bright, warm color.

The difference it makes is astounding and wonderful. It makes me think about those who have lost their homes, who are living now in conditions that are humiliating, depressing, or uncomfortable. I have beauty now in my home, and I want to give a little back, to help someone who isn't so fortunate as to have an accent wall in "Love Affair" in their foyer. I'm thinking particularly of refugees like those in Chad, displaced from their homes in Darfur where the Janjaweed have burned and destroyed every village inhabited by the non-Arabic population.

60 Minutes had an profound and disturbing segment on the conflict which aired this weekend. My husband and I watched it together. In it, they visited a camp run by The International Rescue Committee populated by thousands and thousands of people. I'd like to give some money to them, equal to the amount we just spent on paint. It's a small gesture, but a little can go a long way. And it's a good way to take the poor with me, even while I'm doing something extremely personal and insular, such as decorating my home.

Because I feel that's the true heart of a home. It's not the immaculate kitchen floor or the perfectly placed vase of cattails, it's the meaning behind the objects that decorate and the people who inhabit the place we call our own. When I look at my walls, I want them to mean something. And I want that something to be more than "Mustard Seed."

Picture Credit

Monday, August 13, 2007

An Idiot's Guide to Offering it Up

Ask Sister Mary Martha has a hilarious and perfect post about "offering it up" for the sake of the poor. I heartily recommend her blog to everyone.

Just be forewarned: you are liable to spray beverages all over your computer screen because she's THAT funny.

Pray For

Forced Suicide Bombers

My Marie Claire this month had a profoundly disturbing and depressing article about suicide bombers in Sri Lanka (the magazine itself was fairly disturbing and depressing overall, but I might post about that later.) The woman they interviewed had been caught the day before she planned to assassinate a Sri Lankan government official. Her story is horrible: raped at 7 by her father, she was ineligible for marriage because she was no longer a virgin. Her aunt and uncle gave her to the LTTE as a teenager to rid themselves of the burden she represented to them. In the Tiger camp, she was subjected to sleep deprivation, propaganda videos and other abuses until she volunteered to become a suicide bomber as a way out of her nightmare.

This week, whenever you hear the word "terrorism" pray for those who are unwilling participants. Pray for those who have no hope, who are so oppressed and ignorant that they do not have the moral capability of choosing not to do evil. Pray, too, for all those who are killed in the attacks.

PBS Frontline has more information about Tamil children taken to LIIE terrorist training camps and indoctrinated as suicide bombers.

The Terrorism Information Center discusses the characteristics of female suicide bombers, most of whom are pushed to the fringes of society and see suicide bombing as their only hope to "cleanse" or redeem themselves.

CNN reports some suicide bombers in Iraq have been found with legs or hands bound to the vehicles they're driving, or have had their entire families held hostage by extremists.

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thes 5, 17) With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. (Eph 6, 18) Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Phil 4, 6)

"Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours." (Mark 11 , 24)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Pray for...

Southeast Asia

Monsoons have caused massive flooding in the area, resulting in thousands of deaths, displacing millions of people, and increasing the danger of disease and starvation.

This week, whenever you have a drink of water, say a prayer for the people suffering thirst, sickness and homelessness in the wake of these terrible floods.

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thes 5, 17) With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. (Eph 6, 18) Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Phil 4, 6)

"Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours." (Mark 11 , 24)

Photo credit

Sacrifice and Solidarity

Katerina Ivanovna has a wonderful post on the need for daily sacrifices over at Vox Nova: Vox Nova - Catholic Perspectives on Culture, Society, and Politics: Sacrifice and Solidarity

The quote from St. Josemaría Escrivá is especially poignant:

What a sad little happiness you will have if you don't learn to overcome yourself, if you let your passions and fancies dominate and crush you, instead of courageously taking up your cross! (Friends of God, 129)

Friday, August 3, 2007

I get my sinning started first thing in the morning.

I'm trying to convince myself I don't need a bath mat. Why is it so hard not to spend money? I mean, I obviously am spending money. I bought my son a bike helmet at Target on Monday. I would have bought myself a round pail with a locking lid for my daughter's dirty diapers on Tuesday, but I can't seem to find a store that carries one. Today I dropped $100 at the grocery store for a week's worth of groceries. These are things I need, so I have to buy them. I don't have to buy myself a bath mat. We have an old towel on the floor which absorbs excess water just fine. It looks kind of jenky, as my sister would say, but it works.

So why do I look at it every morning and think to myself, "Man, I want a bath mat"? Why can't I just get over it and accept that I'm not going to buy the bath mat?

I'm also struggling with a desire for accolades. I want my husband to say something like, "Tienne, I've noticed how you're trying to save our family money by not buying a bath mat for the bathroom. I think it shows your strength of will and commitment to your ideals, and I'm proud of you."

This isn't going to happen for a bunch of reasons, primarily because my husband would just never say something like that and also because I haven't talked to anyone about this blog or what I'm trying to do. So it's doubly futile to hope for some kind of verbal acknowledgment or praise.

And I shouldn't need it. I mean, I'm not doing this for the accolades. I'm doing it because I think it's right.

So why do I feel disgruntled that I'm not being verbally stroked for my efforts?

I think it reflects just how difficult it is to be countercultural. As a faithful Catholic and natural living advocate, I ought to be used to this experience. In college, I used to respond to guys expressing interest with a flat "Just so you know, I'm a good Catholic. I don't have sex." And I have received a few indulgent smirks when revealing that I don't believe in punishing my kids or that a hospital is one of the worst places to have a baby.

It's amazing to me, though, how virulent the hostility can be to the idea that we don't have the right to spend our money however we want it. Of all the norms in our society, money may be one of the most untouchable and entrenched. People simply DO NOT want to admit that there's a moral component to the way they spend money, or that they have an obligation to people outside their family circle.

I mentioned at dinner one holiday ago that we Americans have an obligation to take care of the world because we are so incredibly rich. One of my relatives immediately piped up, "Well, not me! I'm totally broke." I replied, "You have a house with running water and a television. Your kids are well fed and educated. They have toys. You have more outfits than there are days in a month. Compared to the rest of this world, you and your kids are living like kings." But I could see that she completely disagreed with me -- in her mind, she was poor because she still had to think about money. She still had to plan where it went, save for the things she wanted, and worry about having enough for the things she needed.

I think the culture of our society has such a skewed perception of "rich" because we rarely see the truly poor. The Heritage Foundation posted a study a few years ago that studied poverty in America, and found that

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs.

There are people in need in this country, of course, people who are homeless, or going without food so their children can eat, or unable to pay their heating bills, or working in unsafe and toxic conditions. In fact, America has the widest gap between rich and poor in the world. But the average person who qualifies for assistance in America is better off than an upper class person in a developing nation. Small wonder, then, that we can't see how rich we are, if that's who we classify as poor.

And it's not just wealth that places us so far above the rest of the world. The advances in technology that we enjoy as a matter of course are so remarkable that they would be beyond the imagination of even a rich American of the previous century. As the Futurist has famously stated:

Consider John D. Rockefeller, a name nearly synonymous with wealth. At one point he had a net worth as high as 1/65th of US GDP at that time, a figure that would be the equivalent of $190 Billion today - four times what Bill Gates currently has. He owned land, employed people, and had political clout that would seem extraordinary at any time in history. But, having died in 1937 at the age of 98, Rockefeller never had photographs of his childhood, never watched a color film, never flew in a jet engine airplane, and never saw a photograph of the Earth taken from space. If Rockefeller wished to travel from New York to Chicago, it took him and his entourage more than a day. If his servant cut him during a morning shave (or even if he did it himself), a cloth bandage was the only kind available. His underwear did not have elastic, and since no cohort of servants could have realistically alleviated that problem for him, he probably spent every day accustomed to irritating hassles that would be unacceptable to even the poorest Americans today. He couldn’t have even obtained a tube of mint-gel toothpaste or a can of chilled Coca-Cola from a soda machine.

Just as I'm struggling to imagine how my mother went her whole childhood without central air or forced heat, most of us can't imagine living without a refrigerator or running water. These things are so natural to us, so ingrained in our lifestyles, that an existence without them is simply incomprehensible. How DO the 33 million people currently living in refugee camps survive? The conditions are brutal, and that's not even counting the emotional turmoil, the grief of losing family members, the stigma of interracial rape, the threat of continued violence, the adjustment to having lost a limb, etc etc etc.

In light of all this, how can I possibly step out of my hot, clean, wonderful shower, a luxury unattainable by the vast majority of this world's inhabitants, and fret about a BATH MAT? And then fret that no one is complimenting me for not buying one?

My selfishness is mind-boggling.

Picture credit.