April 2, 2019

The Waking Beauty Around Me: A Photo Essay

There are times I wish I could hibernate like the chipmunks.  Those times are called Winter.  I know many people love the brutal brumal season - but part of me drifts off to slumber with the bleak, cold, somnolent, natural world.

I don't even reside where the Winter is harsh.  It's not the snow; that's pretty!  Besides, here in the South snow signals a play day.  No slogging to work over slushy roads or slipping on icy sidewalks here.

It's the dreary absence of greenery and visible life that brings on this seasonal torpor.

That is why I love what I love about Spring.  Verdant Spring.  The wakening world around me rouses and blinks.  The warming sun resuscitates nature as she breathes and pulses anew with life.  Vitality is restored to our surrounding woods and fields.  The trees are atwitter with avian friends marrying and home-making.

Creation reveals the full pallate of the Artist, stroke by stroke.  First the daffodils emerge, trumpeting, "Wake up! The time has arrived!"

Looking down, the greening ground unsheaths individual blades, answering the call of rain and sun.  Clover waves its resemblence to its triune Creator.

The green swath becomes the canvas sky on which tiny stars are painted.

And firework thistles explode.

The silent earth, thawing, releases a choir of peepers, hidden in the wetland.

Puddle ducks dabble in the abundant mud.

Marshy streams of sky on earth reflect the sun-blue heavens above.

Looking up, trees stretch their empty limbs toward the brightening, scattering clouds.

Sap rises. Limbs limber, warm up, and sprout!

Finger branches tingle with bursting life.  The return of the leaves!

And my little neighbor wakes to come celebrate with me once again.

Happy Spring, my small friend!

All photos and words by Susannah Pearce

March 13, 2019

Only the Heart Sees Rightly

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes this is true. A picture comes in handy when seeking a suspect in a crime. If all they posted on the “Most Wanted” board at the post office was a thousand words describing the ne’er-do-well, it would be significantly less likely to be noticed. The concepts of Geometry would be really difficult to grasp without pictures. There is a reason Ikea assembly instructions are mainly laid out in pictures.

But, while it may be true in these cases that a picture is worth a great many words, it is not merely a matter of bookkeeping (1 picture = 1,000 words). There are times when only words will do. It is, in fact, mildly ironic that the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, gets across a point in seven succinct words that would be difficult to make with a picture!

Anyone who has looked through an old family photo album knows the frustration of turning over a photograph in the hope of finding the subjects of the snapshot identified, and finding it blank. How then can we make sense of the picture without the words?

Writing the Picture

A well written passage in a good work of literature that describes scenery can convey something more about the place than can be captured in many photographs. I have never been to Norway, but reading Norwegian author Sigrid Undset’s novels, set in her native country, has made me long to go to this land where the breathtaking and dramatic landscape has shaped the history and cultural character of the people.

Willa Cather has done the same for Santa Fe, New Mexico in her brilliant work, “Death Comes for the Archbishop”. If I am ever fortunate enough to visit, I will feel a familiarity and connection with these places because the authors have invited me into their love for them.

Santa Fe landscape.  Photo by Janelle Ortega

Poems too can convey vivid images that a picture could not capture. Take, for instance, William Wordsworth’s poem, “Daffodils.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

In a mere 153 words, the poet conjures up in the reader’s mind more than simply an image of some daffodils - more even than the whole scene he saw. He seems to magically offer to the reader the happy feeling the scene brought about in him. With words, he causes a spring breeze to cool the reader’s cheek. No wonder his name is Wordsworth!

Photo by Susannah Pearce

Poetry consists of words - with a weird magic, much like the way an optical illusion boggles the visual senses. Or a great work of art transcends a mere diagram of the same scene. What gives them this mysterious quality?

I think the answer is found in the most memorable passage of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s strange and beautiful novella, “The Little Prince”: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

A Wise Fox

These wise words were said to the little prince by the fox that had asked the prince to tame him – and was now, as a result, sad to have to say good-bye. What is essential is the relationship – the ritual and care - that had transformed them both when the fox had been tamed by the boy.

It gives a deep quality to their vision, by which they see each other differently than they see all other boys and all other foxes. It is the mutual caretaking of what lies between the two that sparks to life something that did not previously exist in either.

Paage from "The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Photo by Susannah Pearce

Transformed by a Spark

This spark of life also transforms words from description into poetry. The scene inspires the poet, whose careful attention and work “tames the scene”, giving it a meaning it did not previously possess when it was not his. The poet becomes responsible for the version of the scene, which captured his imagination and he translated onto paper.

It can be the same with a painting. The exact rendering and balanced composition in a work of art is not the only thing that makes it an object of beauty. It is often wrongly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – as if beauty is merely an opinion. In reality, beauty is, in a way, in the heart of the beholder. And what is in the heart of the beholder is a recognition of the beauty that actually exists in the thing. The appreciation of this objective beauty makes the artist more than he was – and he makes the scene into a new thing – his thing - on canvas.

Delight in Beauty

An artist or poet then invites the beholder of his work to share in this weird magic. It is felt by the reader or viewer as delight – a sort of tickle deep in the heart. That is what good poetry and great art do. They enfold the observer in the embrace of the original relationship and the beauty recognized.

That there is in us the capacity for delight is itself a bit of magic. Why should our hearts tickle at the sight of, the memory of, or another person’s account of beauty? What beautiful relationship are we being enfolded into? Where does this magic come from?

"Mother and Chile" By Emile Levy (1826 - 1890) (Public Domain)

We do not create it ourselves. Think of a mother delighting in her baby. She smiles at him and her smile causes the delighted baby to smile, which increases her delight in him. All of creation resounds with the creation and cultivation of a divine poet. The Poet of perfection.

Words well composed are sometimes worth a great deal more than a picture. They allow us to participate in the poetry of creation

This article was first published on The Epoch Times.

August 13, 2018

The Lady Vanishes: The Great Value of Invisible Motherhood

Years ago, we were watching a 1946, black and white movie co-starring a talented young actress.  Someone recognized her from one other movie, and commented that she seemed to have just disappeared after that.  It's not an unusual comment, but that time, the word "disappeared" bothered me and set me thinking about how our superficial culture values visibility.  Disappeared?  The assumption is that since audiences never saw her on the silver screen again, it was clear that her career as an actress had fizzled.  She had failed in Hollywood.  She was a nobody.  Poor girl.

But, as a new wife and mother myself, that attitude of our culture wasn’t good enough for me.  I suggested that the actress hadn’t failed; she had likely achieved what was, for her, a better and sought after position, for which she happily traded the fun of her acting stint and hope of future riches.  She probably got married and raised a family.  She had weighed her options and chose the better portion – for her.  While it’s true that some actresses of that time were able to do both, the 1940s and ‘50s were a time when being what is now called a “stay-at-home mother” was seen as the norm.  Hollywood often made women choose between stardom and motherhood through violent end to pregnancy.*  Hollywood has never been kind to women.

Our society tells us we must be seen succeeding to matter.  This supposed scandal of invisibility reveals not only a grossly self-centered sense of importance in the viewer – if I can’t see you, you don’t really matter – but also the lie that our own most important audience is that of our peers.  Naturally we come across this in the celebrity culture; being noticed is what celebrity is all about.  But celebrity based on ethereal appearance, momentary popularity, outrageous behavior is not what really gives us importance – or dignity.  It is a lie to believe that we are important only to the extent that others admire us for how we appear or what we do.  Our human dignity does reside in an image, but it lies in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  And He is our most important audience.

This great source of dignity surpasses our visibility to our peers.  The dignity of each human person is to be respected, whether that person is a movie star, a stay at home mother, a billionaire, a person living on the street, a sports hero, a prison inmate, a monk, or the tiniest child hidden in a womb.

Mother Dolores Hart now and as rising starlet
You may have seen articles about women who gave up everything to be a nun.  Dolores Hart, for instance, acted opposite Elvis Presley and was his first screen kiss, but followed God's call to a Benedictine Abbey.  We love to hear stories about what they gave up.  Why is it always that they “gave up everything” or “threw it all away”?  It’s really more like they quit a very public, superficial job to receive everything.  They sold all they had to buy a pearl of great price.

And a person following the will of God in his or her life, aspires to a far, far greater goal than the person who merely “follows her dream!”  Hard work toward a goal is admirable of course, but the prize of mere glory and celebrity rather lacks luster compared with the crown of glory given by God to one who has lived a life of self-sacrificial love for the good of others.  Sometimes, when the latter is the goal, the former accompanies it.  Just think of Mother Theresa who became famous and beloved even though she did not seek celebrity.

 There is great dignity in being a mother that transcends visible glory.  Or, maybe “eludes it” would be more accurate.  It’s not glamorous.  It’s generally hidden.  It’s often lonely, isolated, monotonous, and difficult.  You could say the same about climbing Mt. Everest – or any great endeavor.  But, in the glamour-seeking world “out there,” devoting one’s life to one’s children is not awarded the same glory as those great endeavors.  We have all heard - or maybe used - the phrase, “just a mother.”

When I lived in a university community amongst professors and their families, I would often see mothers of young children and big families, whose previous accomplishments were unseen in their current context.  Unless you knew them, you wouldn't know that the mom patiently pacing the sidewalk with her newest walking baby was a pharmacist.  That lady piling her crew into the minivan had been a smart, D.C. attorney.  The woman pushing two cherubs on the swings had starred in an opera in Italy.  Now, they were anonymous moms.

Even though the role of mother is highly sought after by many women and dreamt of by many doll-toting little girls, the actual job does entail a good deal of tedium and hiddenness.  Often, the world doesn’t even want to see this job happening.  At least, that is the experience of many mothers when they take a gaggle of children to the grocery store, cope with a screaming toddler at Mass, or nurse a baby in public.

Mothers would do well to meditate on the greatest event in time and space, the Annunciation, for inspiration and aspiration.  While the greatest event ever, it was among the most hidden.  On the human scene, Mary was something of a nobody.  But, in reality, she was The Woman, anticipated from the beginning of history.  The Angel Gabriel appeared to her with the announcement that changed human destiny – and awaited her assent.  The Incarnation of God occurred in a hidden womb in a private room without an audience, without a press release, without even a Selfie taken of the event!  Mary told no one.  She sought no celebrity.  God handled the publicity.

 Fra Angelico's Annunciation

There is another film that gets this right, but it didn't come out of Hollywood.  Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 English made film, The Lady Vanishes, presents to us an unassuming woman, overlooked and seemingly insignificant, doing great work in secret.  The film's young leading lady embarks on a train journey where she befriends a dowdy older lady, Mrs. Froy, a governess and music lover, who vanishes almost without a trace.  The young woman is the only one who remembers her because the older lady did her a kindness and accompanied her.  Mrs. Froy was not significant enough in appearance for any of the other passengers to even remember (or they had reasons not to).  Perhaps the hit to the head the young lady had suffered was causing her to hallucinate?  Only the attractive leading man came to believe her, and in the end, she was vindicated.  It turns out the older, unassuming woman was a spy!  She was the target of intrigue because she carried the coded, top secret message across enemy lines and delivered it, once again, to the good guys, saving the day.  (I didn’t bother with a spoiler alert because this film has been around since 1938 and if you haven’t seen it by now, it’s your own fault.) 

Mrs. Froy in a scene from the 1938 The Lady Vanishes

The unassuming job you mothers are doing in the isolation of your home, with little adulation, apart from flowers and burnt breakfast every Mother’s Day, is important.  The little secrets you are protecting and caring for may be what saves the day.  So, it's no wonder your apparent worth is being attacked!  You certainly have a good model in the Blessed Virgin Mary.  If God has called you to motherhood, you are not giving up everything worthwhile, you are choosing the better portion and it will not be taken away from you.

June 22, 2018

Bring Back the Family Phone

Phones aren’t what they used to be!  (Cranky old man voice)  Back in my day, we use to talk on the phone!

What the heck is going on??  Why do we even call these giant dominos everyone has in their back pockets “phones” anyway?

When people say "phone" these days, we generally mean a tiny, portable, internet device they use to take photographs, send text messages, look up information, get driving directions, listen to music, watch movies and check the time.  If you think about it, the word "phone" doesn't even make sense any more.  "Phone" is short for telephone, which means "far sound".  The original device that bore the name was made for talking to someone at a distance.  The one thing many smartphone users don't seem to use their phone for is to talk to someone!  (It doesn’t help that the sound is so bad for calls).

I think a lot has been lost by this original use being ejected.  I think we ought to re-think the whole phone thing.  I think that land lines should come back into fashion for everyone who shares a home with any other people.

I'm all for the benefits of personal cell phones, such as increased safety, time-saving efficiency, and getting to our destination by the shortest route.  But I’m not sure it’s really always an advantage to be able to directly contact only the one individual you want, at the moment you want to.  There are times, of course when this may save lives and avert disaster.  But, there is a lot to be said for making a phone call, not knowing who will answer – like used to happen before cell phones.  Remember when there were only land lines?  Connected to the wall and a hand piece attached by a tightly curled cord?

This is actually one of the phones in my house.  Crazy!

Recently, I phoned my distant friend, Karen, on her home phone.  I still knew her land-line number by heart, so I dialed it.  The phone was answered by her husband, Mike, also a dear friend.  Karen wasn't home, but I had a wonderful catch-up conversation with him!  It is because they still maintain their land-line that I had the pleasure of speaking with him - because it would have been weird for me to call his cell phone just to chat as we did.  I have even had some fun conversations with her children, whom I’ve never met.

This is the brilliance of a land-line – a family phone.  They connect more people, not fewer, and in a more social way.  They are inclusive and foster communication and a greater sense of community.

How can I say they foster communication more than a device that enables you to send an instant message directly to the intended individual, in writing, complete with photographs and web-links?  It’s because they are not individual that they foster communication.  When you call a family phone, you really don’t know who will answer.  You have to be prepared.  You may have to confirm that it’s the right person and may even have to let them know who’s calling (if like us, you don’t even have caller ID).  You feel like you’re calling that family, not just the individual – for better or for worse!  A family phone has a broader spectrum of communication potential than a cell phone.

They tell me I'll only get away with this
 for two more years!
So-called “Smart” phones divide people at least as much as they connect them.  Maybe more!  My recent experience is that calls are often replaced by text messages for smartphone users.  Even the voice is removed, along with all its nuance, familiarity – and personality.  I do have a cell phone – and I use it – but I avoid texting as a way of chatting.  Not because I’m morally superior, but largely because I’m still clinging to my flip-phone.  It’s really cumbersome to text.  And I like it that way, because it forces me not to use that as my default communication. 

More and more of my friends have changed their outgoing voice mail message to request that you not leave a voice message because they just don’t listen to them.  They see that you called and call back – or, you can text them!  I’m not criticizing them for this.  It works for them, all those I know having a house-full of children, including toddlers.  But, it does create both an immediate connection AND a distance.

One of the truths about human persons mentioned early in Holy Scripture is that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18).  Even earlier, we learn that man is made in God’s image; it’s recorded as God saying “in our image” because, as we know, the one God is a Trinity of divine Persons (Gen 1:26).  The human person is made to be in relationship with others, like a family.  And we see who, from the beginning, is out to wreck relationship connections.  Satan wants to isolate us – from each other, from God, from truth.  Just look at the rest of the story in the book of Genesis.

I think getting back a family phone also may be just the answer for parents who are struggling with the decision of whether or not to get their adolescent a smartphone.  That all their friends have one, may be just the reason not to get them one!  We’ve all seen a family group gathered around a living room or a restaurant table, where the teens present are, shall we say, not really present.  They are swiping and tapping, gazing slack-jawed at their phones, maybe texting a friend or a group of friends.  They are actually checking out of their family to foster a relationship with preferred others not physically present.

If you’re a parent seeking an answer to the kid-phone dilemma, consider hooking up a landline for all of them (and you!) to use when at home.

Here are some great advantages  to get a Family Phone:

·        The quality of the connection is radically superior to that of cell phones.

·        You can’t take the land line to the dinner table to text your friends below the tablecloth.

·        Since it is less private, it can actually be safer because it’s hard to have sneaky conversations.

·        It’s only a phone, so no worries about inappropriate or unsafe internet use.

·        Children can begin to use the phone at a younger age.  Even a four-year-old can answer the phone and retrieve the person the call is for.  (“Hello, Pearce residence”)

·        You have a chance of knowing who your kid is friends with when you happen to answer the call.  It’ll be good for them to have a chance to talk to a grown-up.

·        It forces you to speak in complete sentences.

Obviously, this doesn’t solve all the logistical problems like communicating with them when they’re out, but there are many other solutions for that that are not smartphones.  It really is possible to make the family phone their primary means of communicating with friends.

If you still have your old land line, start passing that phone number around to friends and see if you don’t feel even more connected as a family.  If it catches on, we’ll all be reconnecting with the others in our friends’ households we probably haven’t spoken to in years.

One more antiquated phone in my household

May 17, 2018

Unless You Become Like Little Children

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” our Lord answered, "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."(Matt 18:3).  It’s a clear message that aiming for greatness and prestige is not going to help us when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He redirected the disciples to aim low – to the level of a child.  But in exactly what way are we to become like children?  As I want to enter the kingdom and you probably do too, we’d better get this right!  What, could He mean?

Little children are small and cute.  The theory of many a parent is that God made them cute so we'll take care of them and help them continue to live – especially when doing so might not otherwise seem worth it, like when they take all your stuff and don’t let you get a good night’s sleep for three years.  But, clearly, that's not what Jesus meant, because grown-ups trying to be cute have the opposite effect.  So, we'd best look for other features and behaviors of little children that we are to emulate in order to enter the kingdom!

Christ Blessing the Children by Cranach the Elder - Detail

What do children do?  Babies spend a lot of time - all their time - eating, filling diapers, learning and sleeping.  Mostly sleeping.  Nice life, but surely He didn't mean that we should limit ourselves to those activities either.  It doesn’t jive with the whole rest of the Gospel message.

Perhaps you have heard someone wax lyrical about the difference between childishness and child-likeness.  G.K. Chesterton points out that children are filled with wonder and see God's creation with a sense of magic.  This is surely true in some sense, but as Chesterton did not have any actual children, it often strikes parents of these lovable tyrants as a bit of a romantic view.

I only have two children, but you only need to live with one from its infancy to dispel the notion that they float trough their days awed by the wonder of creation, in a ray of golden sunlight, emitting the lilting laughter of delight when the sun comes up on another day, or when they encounter a beautiful flower.  More likely they'll pull the flower apart and attempt to eat it.

Photo of an actual baby, courtesy of her mother,
 my friend Jenni Callahan
Let's remove the romantic, soft focus lense from this Hallmark inspired picture and expand the reality of child-likeness.  What are real children like?

Little children are demanding!  By which I mean they require a lot of care (feeding, changing, clothing, making sure they sleep enough, loving, and speaking to so they will learn).  A nursing mother may feel that her infant is literally draining life out of her!  She pours out from her own self and body, part of what she is, to enable the child become who he or she is designed to be.  It doesn't even matter if she is feeding her child at her breast; she will be drained.  

They are also demanding in that they loudly demand this care if we happen not to meet their current need immediately!  They are not patient creatures.  When they do not get what they need at the moment the need arises, they cry and scream.  That feature was put there by God to ensure their needs are met and that we parents learn to overcome our self-centeredness.  Demanding is in their job description.

Clearly, these little creatures expect us to do these things.  They are not customers, who will say, "Here, here, if I don't receive better service than this, I shall take my business elsewhere!!"  They are children, who look at their parents and simply expect us to provide for them - because it's what we parents are supposed to do.  They can't get to the fridge on their own legs to satisfy their hunger, so they simply expect our legs (and hands, and body) to be at their service.  If anyone else assumed that we existed in their life to serve them like this, it would be outrageously rude.  But when it is a child in our care, our heart is moved by love and responsibility to get up and do the thing, whether we feel like it or not.

An expectation like this signifies boundless trust.  Babies don't use question marks.  It's never, "Would you mind feeding me, Mother?" or "Will you please change my diaper when you have a minute?"  It's always simply "I thirst!!!!!"  And the parent, who knows to whom this demand is directed, never has to ask, "Who me?"

Even older children demonstrate amazing faith in their parents’ love and care.  Whether it’s a tantruming toddler or a back-talking school-age child, in the very midst of rejecting you, they often come to you for comfort.  It always astonishes me when my child can say, with utmost sincerity and love, at the end of a day filled with contention, “I love you, Mama.”  It is a love and trust that entails forgiveness of my failings and assumes my forgiveness of hers.

This unabashed trust and confident dependence on one side and limitless providence and love on the other defines this relationship between parent and child.  The relationship demands it.

We all know it is a great evil when a parent betrays this relationship.  A betrayal of a parent toward a young child is more than simply a failure of duty, or a lack of respect for the dignity of a person.  It is a lie told about God.

Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 3: 14-15 that parenthood is derived from God’s fatherhood.  This makes it more clear what it means to turn and become like a child.  It lies in our relationship with God, who is our Father. Our Lord wants us to demand, expect and trust in Him for those things we need.  And He will not fail to provide.  He says, “And I tell you, ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find, knock, and it will be opened to you. . . .  What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent? . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

Lest you think that God is there to be our vending machine of goodies, remember, He did not say, “What father among you, if his son asks for a bicycle, will give him a serpent?”  Babies demand what is good for them, according to their nature.  We must do the same.

Photo courtesy of E. Pearce
Babies know the secret to entering the kingdom of heaven.  They have the password – and they don’t hesitate to us it loudly!  It was given to them by God, as Jesus tells us: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was they gracious will.” (Matt 12:25-26)  

He teaches us to become like children in the way He taught the disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . give us this day our daily bread.”  (Matt. 6:9-13).  Father is who He is to us.

So, turn.  Turn and become like little children, whether it's a cranky, colicky baby, a contentedly sleeping one, or Chesterton's wonder-filled tyke.  Our heavenly Father is attentive to our needs with limitless providence and love.  Know that He will not abandon you.

St. Augustine said it like this:  “Our Father: at this name love is roused in us . . . and the confidence of obtaining what we are about to ask . . . What would he not give to his children who ask, since he has already granted them the gift of being his children? (CCC 2785)