Monday, February 10, 2020

Social Media and the Thief of Joy

In my last post, I discussed how dangerous the comparison game can be: how it can rob us of peace and tranquility, making us feel inadequate and unlovable; how it can make us forget that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, with an immortal soul that is unique and beautiful and worthy of love; how we were all made exactly as we are meant to be, warts and all (yes, we all have them--and that's okay!).  Why do we look at others around us and feel like we don't stack up?  Why do we think, If I was just [prettier, smarter, thinner, more talented, more outgoing--you fill in the blank] than I am, I would be [happier, more successful, more confident, a better mother, more beloved--fill in the blank again]?  Maybe you don't do this, but every now and then I do, and I know it's a terrible habit that I need to break.

I've struggled with this off and on throughout my life.  For instance, in this 1978 photo of my husband and me, taken at a friend's wedding when we were going into our junior year of college, I can remember comparing myself to the other females at the reception and wishing I looked like anyone but me.  I'd gained the freshman 10 and then added another 10 my sophomore year, decided to cut my hair short and regretted the change, and was wearing an extremely unflattering dress.  And there he was, my matinee idol boyfriend, so handsome I could hardly look at him without becoming breathless.  What did he see in me, anyway? I wondered.  I could be so hard on myself!  And why?  This guy loved me!  He could have discarded his high school girlfriend for someone "better" when we went off to college in different parts of the country, but our long-distance relationship was still going strong after two years of mostly being apart.  (We had no Facetime, but wrote lots of letters!)  2020 Laura, 39 years into an extremely happy marriage to the good-looking guy in this picture, wishes she could tell 1978 Laura to lift up her head and smile with confidence, secure in the knowledge that he wanted her just the way she was.

At the end of that last post, I hinted that I would be back to explore the topic of comparison further, focusing on how social media has made the habit of comparing ourselves to others even more of a problem than ever before.  So here it is, another post just days after the last one!  (Is blogging back?!  Maybe not, but I am.  And thanks to all the nice readers who left sweet and encouraging comments for me last time I was here.  I was feeling the love--and I finally got around to replying to all of you wonderful people.)

I don't know about you, but I find that I am sometimes left feeling a bit blue after too much time spent scrolling through Facebook feeds.  It's not just that Facebook has become a popular platform for uncomfortable discussions about politics and countless nasty anti-religion/anti-life memes; it has, but there is also plenty of positive news, daily, about family and friends, some of them long-lost before the advent of social media--not to mention all those wonderful photos of loved ones that you might not otherwise see.  There is so much good to be found there, no doubt about it.  But there is also so much bad.  And some of what is bad comes from looking at all the good and worrying that in comparison to what you're seeing, you or your life is "less than."

Jenny Uebbing, one of my favorite Catholic wordsmiths of all time, touched on this topic in her recent Instagram stories, admitting that sometimes after ingesting too much social media she comes away asking herself questions like Why can't I get up early and work out? or Why aren't my kids X,Y, or Z? or Why doesn't my house look like that?  She went on to talk about the danger in this--how social media is really just two-dimensional, and how it gives us a 40,000-foot view of other people's lives (I'm paraphrasing here, trying to remember exactly how she put things), so we're not really seeing the whole picture. I realize that deep down, everyone probably knows this about social media; they know that people usually only post the good and the beautiful, the uplifting aspects of their lives, not the dark struggles they might be going through at the time. (Because I don't care how blessed you are, let's face it: no life is ever lived without trials and tribulations, without sadness, fear, and loss.)  I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting to share mostly the best portions of your life with the online world.  But this can also lead people to compare, and then to feel down because their lives don't seem nearly as bright and sparkly as those light-filled images and upbeat captions they see--even though they know in their heart of hearts that these images and captions don't tell the whole story.

The other danger about comparing our lives to the Facebook and Instagram feeds of others, Uebbing observed, is that we're not all at the same point in life at the same time, and it's harmful to compare our lives to those of people going through completely different stages than we're going through.  How true is this?!  You might feel like you're drowning right now, with a houseful of crazy toddlers and demanding babies, or a couple of angsty teens, and find yourself worrying about how your children are going to turn out and wondering how things will look 10 or 20 years from now.  Then you'll see a picture of a family you know, showing the kids all grown-up, happy, and successful; and without even knowing you're doing it, you might start to feel like  maybe you're a failure as a parent, even though you're not seeing all the many difficult stages that family went through as they traveled the bumpy road you're currently on to get to where they are now.

You can do this in reverse, too, which is what I sometimes do; I see all the wonderful things young Catholic Instagram mamas are doing with their children, how they're creatively celebrating the different liturgical seasons and the feast days of the saints, and I'll worry that I didn't do enough to help instill the Faith in our boys back when I had the chance. When I do this, I'm comparing a grandmother who is now at a stage decades ahead of these moms, a mother who did her very best at the time and shouldn't waste her time on regrets, and it seriously makes no sense.  Especially because although my husband and I had to deal with our share of challenges and certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way, we somehow managed to raise five terrific sons who are still practicing Catholics, are in sacramental marriages with lovely young women, and have given themselves over to the will of God as far as how many children they will have.  Somewhere along the way, I guess, we must have done a few things right.  (Or maybe we're just incredibly lucky.)  So looking back and wishing to change anything that we did is an exercise in futility.  As my late mother-in-law (who quite successfully raised four sons and four daughters) used to say, "If you change one thing, you change everything."

Who would change this?

Or this?

As a mother, you can't help panicking just a little when your kids grow up and leave the nest for the first time, wondering if you've done all you could to prepare them for life; this certainly happened with me.  Danielle Bean describes those feelings better than I ever could in this Instagram post I stumbled upon recently, written as her daughter was getting ready to leave for college:

"We tend to pause and doubt...Did we say all the things?  Teach all the lessons?  Read all the stories?  Say all the prayers?  Did we do all the stuff?...Was it enough?  I can look back now and see that we did a lot of things, but it was not enough.  It is never enough.   We always fall short.  But God knows what he is about...We all fall short, but the gaps leave room for God.  And he fills them with grace."

I love that!  God fills in the gaps!

It's hard enough to think you're doing a good enough job raising your kids without the added pressure of seeing how everyone else is doing it, all the time, all over social media. I am so, so thankful that there wasn't that kind of added pressure when we were raising our boys!  I think it must be tougher for my daughters-in-law to feel they are "enough" (and believe me, they are MORE than enough!), when everyone is online, over-sharing, presenting a picture that makes it look like they have it all together, all the time.  Some young moms can handle it just fine, taking it for what it is and not letting it affect their confidence and peace of mind; if I was just starting out now in the motherhood game, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be one of them.

I think this post has gone on long enough, so I'll just wrap it up by saying that even when I catch myself succumbing to the dangerous practice of comparison, I simultaneously feel like the luckiest and most blessed woman on God's green earth and know that I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's.  So why do I ever waste even a single moment of this precious time allotted to me wishing for even one aspect of it to be different?  My mother-in-law was spot-on: if you change one thing, you change everything.  If I had been a different sort of person, or if even one thing had happened differently along the way, I might not be where I am today.  And that is the LAST thing I would want.

So here is what I'm going to strive to remind myself, whenever I start to compare myself to others and feel "less than": You are God's precious child.  You are perfect as you are--which is not to say that you are perfect, because the only human being for whom that adjective is true is the Blessed Mother; but you are the person God meant you to be, with the looks, talents, and temperament He gave you to use to use wisely and well, in order to make your way back to Him and become a saint in Heaven.

Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote bears repeating: "Comparison is the thief of joy."  Truer words were never spoken.  If checking Facebook or Instagram too often leads you to let that cruel and conniving thief rob you of your joy, take a break from social media for a bit.  Instagram is a mostly positive force in my life; but even so, I'm thinking of doing just that for Lent.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Mary's Beauty is the Standard

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my husband on a four-day working trip to Rome.  We flew (or rather he flew, I rode) over on Sunday, January 19, had the 20th and the 21st to explore bella Roma, and then we made the return trip across the Atlantic on the Wednesday the 22nd.  It was a wonderful whirlwind trip, and I suppose I should have blogged about it. But like just about every other blogger under the sun, these days I seem to spend more time over on Instagram than I do here.  (Mea culpa!  But it's just so easy posting something quickly on my phone, no matter where I might be at the time, rather than finding an opportunity to sit in the office at my laptop.  That must be why so many others have made the transition from blogger to 'grammer.)

But just when I thought it might be time to close up shop at String of Pearls, a funny thing happened: a few days ago, I was talking to one of my daughters-in-law about how I never make the time to blog anymore, saying that I was pretty sure no one is missing my blogging presence, and she surprised me by saying that she checks all the time to see if I've posted something new.  I hate to let any of my girls down--so thanks for the motivation, Preciosa.  This one's for you.

Anyway, I'm not going to post pictures from that short but very sweet recent trip here right now (you can see those if you visit my Instagram page, by clicking on the icon over on the sidebar there); well, actually that's not completely true, because I am going to post just one.

The night we got back from Rome, we said our daily Rosary and other novena prayers in our living room (fondly nicknamed "the Rosary Room"), and then we sat on the couch and talked for a while, reminiscing about our little Roman holiday.  My husband started scrolling through his iPhone pictures from the trip, stopping at one to show me and say, "I love this picture.  Now that's a beautiful face."

I looked over to see which picture he was talking about.  "THAT one?" I said, incredulous.  "You actually like that picture?"

"I love it.  You don't?" he said, equally incredulous.

"NO!"  (I might have grimaced.)

"You're nuts," he replied.

I'd asked him to take this picture during our al fresco dinner at a restaurant in the Piazza Navona, after I'd taken one of his handsome mug as he sat across the table from me.  When he'd shown it to me right after he snapped it, my immediate reaction was a silent, "Ugh!  Why am I so unphotogenic?  No filter can fix that one!"  I ticked off the flaws: too-squinty eyes, too-fat cheeks, too-limp and scraggly hair--and too-big glasses.  If only I could have the big wide-set eyes (20/20 vision eyes, without bags under them!), sculpted cheekbones, and voluminous hair of a supermodel, THEN maybe I could see myself as beautiful--in his eyes or anyone's.   So it truly astounded me that he could look at this photo and see beauty there.

This was not a healthy reaction, I realize; why would I want a different face than the one my husband loves?  Why would I think he would want a different--a "better"--face?  I was playing that dangerous comparison game--you know, the one you always lose, because we all know (or should know) that Teddy Roosevelt was absolutely right when he famously said, "Comparison is the thief of joy."

But it can be a struggle sometimes, because we women do long to be seen as beautiful; as Carrie Gress says in The Anti-Mary Exposed (which should be essential reading for all women, I believe!), "The desire to be beautiful is deeply embedded in a woman's soul...Even the smallest girl will tell you she wants to be as beautiful as a princess.  This isn't cultural conditioning; it is something universal that sits squarely in the feminine heart."

The trouble is that the world bombards us constantly with images of feminine beauty that few earthly mortals will ever have, images that focus on the merely physical.  So we get stressed out about our weight, we spend too much on cosmetics, we bemoan the appearance of gray hairs and wrinkles. We all give lip service to the idea that "inner beauty is what counts," but then judge ourselves harshly when our outward beauty doesn't live up to accepted (and mostly unattainable) standards.  Gress points out that every visionary throughout history who has had the privilege of seeing the Blessed Mother has reported that She was "the most beautiful woman he or she had ever seen."  But it's essential to understand why She was so beautiful: "Mary's beauty is important because it is the outward expression of her complete perfection emanating from God's beauty. We can never be as beautiful as Mary, who was conceived without sin; but we can strive to be as much like Mary as humanly possible.  She sets the standard.

My husband loves my face--because he loves ME, all of me (even when I'm occasionally nuts), and he sees glimpses (infinitesimal ones, but glimpses nonetheless) of God's beauty emanating from it. So it is with God; this kind of unconditional love from my husband is a reflection of the Father's love for me, for all of us.  Despite our sins.  Despite our flaws and failings.  He loves us, body and soul, and wants us for His own. He made me exactly the way He wanted me to be, with these eyes, these cheeks, this hair, but most importantly, this soul.  I am an unrepeatable soul, with inestimable worth, God's very own beloved child.  Whenever I cringe at a photo of myself, I need to remember that in His eyes, I am beautiful. This, then, is the reason my husband sees beauty where I see only physical flaws and features I would make more "perfect" if I could.  He sees his loving wife of 39 years, with whom he shares a sacramental bond that will hopefully help us both become saints; he sees the devoted mother of his five sons, the five precious souls God entrusted to our care; he sees the doting Grammy of the 16 grandchildren he absolutely adores; he sees the woman he is growing old with and whose presence--incredibly--he never seems to tire of.

I will probably never think that this photo from our Rome trip is particularly flattering.  But I’ll always be grateful for the guy who took it and the way he loves me.

I have a lot more to say about that sneaky thief of joy and the way social media has made it almost impossible not to succumb to the temptation to compare ourselves to others, but this post has gone on long enough.  So perhaps I will be back tomorrow--or if not tomorrow, very soon!  (Keep checking, Preciosa!)

Friday, January 10, 2020

One Last Book Signing

Back in mid-December, I was given the opportunity to do a book signing at our [relatively] new parish in VA, along with a much better-known and more commercially successful Catholic author, Steven R. Hemler, who has had several non-fiction works published by Tan Books.  Steve is a fellow parishioner, and he was going to be selling and signing copies of his books after Masses that weekend; the lovely woman who manages the church office had been made aware that I had written a couple of Catholic novels when I set up a table to sell them at the parish's annual Christmas craft fair/thrift sale the first winter we lived here, so she very kindly extended an invitation for me to join Steve.

I had this cardigan embroidered--with a Claddagh design and the title of my second book, 
Erin's Ring--back in 2014, to wear at book signings.  It has not been worn very often!

I did not sell a lot of copies of my books that weekend (#parforthecourse), but I had a wonderful time getting to know Steve (who also travels around to speak to groups about the Faith) and having in-depth conversations with him about all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the process of writing books and getting them published.  He was so kind to me, an unknown greenhorn author, and gave me lots of tips and advice about how I might go about having my books republished (now that they have been discontinued by Bezalel Books, due to poor sales) so that they might reach a larger audience.  He encouraged me to think about breaking up my epic-length novel, Finding Grace, and making it into a two or three book series.  Because while I personally happen to love, love, love long books that don't end too soon, the vast majority of the reading public likes to consume fiction in easier to digest portions.  (The word count for Finding Grace is about 200,000, whereas the popular number of words for a novel is about 50,000, I believe.)

Someone snapped a picture of Steve and me sitting together at this table, which I would love to share here, 
but they forgot to send it to me.  Oh well...

Anyway, Steve gave me a contact at a well-known Catholic publishing house, a friend of his who both works for the company and is a fiction author himself, and encouraged me to get in touch with him.  I did send this person an email inquiring about the possibility of republishing, and I received the most thoughtful, surprisingly long response from this kind gentleman.  I can't even tell you how much it meant to me that he would take the time to write it.

For the past five years, I have felt a bit guilty that Erin's Ring, a book for which I was given an advance and a real author's contract from Cheryl Dickow at Bezalel Books, has not done better.  I've worried that I haven't worked hard enough to figure out how to make it sell, because I really wanted it to have been a good investment for Cheryl, who went out on a limb for me.  She believed that Erin's Ring might find an audience, at least among Catholic homeschoolers, but it has not.

HOWEVER, for the first time in a long time, I feel as if a giant burden has been lifted off my shoulders, because I realize that there really is little I could have done differently that would have made my books commercially successful.  The fellow from the big-name Catholic publishing house told me, "For whatever reason, fiction doesn't sell that well in our market...We don't publish many fiction books but the ones we do are lucky to sell several hundred, while we expect our non-fiction books, whatever the subject matter, to sell between 1K-5K in the first year and continue to sell after that."  So obviously, no publisher is going to want to republish a work of Catholic fiction that has already been discontinued by another publisher because it has failed to sell well after years on the market.  His advice was to "put those other books to rest and focus on something new."

These words sound like they might make an author feel like a terrible failure, but they had the opposite effect on me.  I have been trying to keep promoting my books here and there, over on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter, and here on my blog--because as I said, I felt I owed it to my very generous publisher to try to make them sell.  I joined Goodreads and LinkedIn as well, thinking that all those social media platforms might help to get them some exposure.  My marketing and promotion skills are very weak, to put it mildly, but I've tried the best I know how--without much success.  So that email yesterday was a gift!  Knowing now that even if my novels had been published by a bigger company with more name recognition than Bezalel, and even if I had been less shy about promoting them, it's doubtful they would have done any better than they have, I finally feel free of guilt and light of heart--freer and lighter than I've felt in years.  I can, as this helpful insider advised, put those books to rest.

Focusing on something new might be great advice...but I don't seem to have the time and/or passion required to start a third novel these days.  Every life has its definite seasons, and I am in the Grammy season right now, so my career as a fiction author may be coming to an end.  And that book signing at our new parish may be my last ever.  But I am totally at peace with that.

I still have in my possession a fairly large number of copies of both of my novels, which I purchased for book signings, gift-giving, promotional giveaways, or sending to reviewers--and even offering for sale here at the blog.  I don't expect a lot of blog sales will transpire, but that's okay!  I intend to keep whatever copies I have to pass down to the next generation of my ever-growing family, my ever-lengthening string of Pearls.  I would love for these books to be an inspiration to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren; if they have a dream, I want them to reach for it, no matter how unattainable it seems.  And if in the eyes of the world they appear to have failed, I want them to know that they can still consider themselves successful in the only way that matters--if the work they've done has given glory to God, from Whom all blessings flow.

God has a plan; I believe that with all my heart, and I trust that He knows what is best for me and for the state of my soul. He didn't think I'd need a lot of book sales or writing accolades...but He thought I'd need a lot of grandchildren.

You know, I like the way He thinks.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Our December 26 Party: Just for the Grown-Ups!

Remember in my last post about our Pearl family Christmas celebration, when I said I'd be back "tomorrow" to tell you all about our awesome day-after-Christmas adults-only party?  That's right, I'm talking about that post I wrote back on December 28, which as you probably realize was not I am a bit late with the sequel, but that's about par for the course these days when it comes to keeping up with this poor old neglected blog of mine!

However, Christmas isn't over yet; officially, we have until the Baptism of Our Lord this coming Sunday to celebrate.  So here it is, the promised sequel (for those of you who even care anymore--and I know who you are!) about a party we had at our house that had nothing to do with squabbles over toys, changing poopy diapers, cleaning up spilled cups of water, and toddlers dancing on coffee tables.  Nothing against parties that include those activities, mind you; but this was going to be all about us big people!  Adult beverages would be consumed!  There would be platters of hors d'oeuvres where the offerings would not be picked over by chubby little fingers and then put back with bite marks on them!  Conversations were going to take place without interruptions!

Before you think I sound a bit Grinch-y about the usual chaos that accompanies most of our family parties these days, believe me, I love the craziness.  I really do!  I feel so incredibly blessed to have all 16 of our grandchildren (and their wonderful parents, of course) living close enough to us that getting everyone together fairly often has become part of our normal life in VA.  (Gone are the days when we had to board an airplane or spend a day or two traveling by car to see our precious little people.)  However, we weren't going to fight city hall when one of our boys' wives suggested the idea of having a little bash sans children, with just the adult Pearls (and whatever babies needed to come along with their mamas), and the rest of the overworked young parents enthusiastically got on board and set up babysitters.  I don't usually plan this sort of grown-ups only party, because I know what babysitters charge these days and I don't want to burden our gang with the expense. (I used to make 50 cents an hour watching three small kids, including one in diapers--and that tells you just how much of a dinosaur I am!)  But it was their idea, so no guilt!  My husband and I were just thrilled that they wanted to do this.

Our house was chosen as the party venue, since it is kind of the epicenter for the VA Pearls--which is the reason we chose to move to this particular town, located less than an hour in one direction from one son, about 35 minutes in the opposite direction from two other sons, and a stone's throw from a fourth (who moved here after we did).  When we bought this house, we hoped and dreamed that it would become a central meeting place for everyone.

We were encouraged to dress up like our favorite character from a Christmas movie.  My husband and I, who really aren't dress-up people at all (full disclosure: we've never been huge fans of Halloween), decided to go all-out and get in costume.  I hope you can tell who we are (if not, I'm not sure that we can be friends!).

I'm pretty sure you can figure out who this guy is supposed to be.

But what about me?

I stumped a few people, who don't know the movie Christmas Vacation as well as we do, I guess.  But I'm Clark Griswold, from that scene where he gets stuck in the attic.  Obviously.  (And I finally found a good use for my paternal grandmother's mink stole!)

Only one of our sons joined us in the dressing-up department.

I won the prize for best costume.  Obviously!

The party started about 7:00, and we decided to keep the menu simple with just hors d'oeuvres and desserts.

These two were the last to arrive.  They have 2-year-old triplets and a 2-month-old infant, so they had a good excuse.  It's amazing they were able to get out of the house at all!

We gathered around the tree in the living room and played a game where everyone took turns telling stories about their favorite Christmas memory, or the funniest thing that had ever happened to them at Christmas.  Three of our daughters-in-law have only been married to our sons for about five years (they all got married within an 11-month span, from Dec. 2013 to Nov. 2014), and we still have much to learn about them and their past lives, so this was actually a great activity.  And it was so much fun! We laughed a lot, especially when one of our daughters-in-law told a hilarious tale about her dad and a Christmas tree (I can't repeat it here, sorry; but suffice it to say that it had us all in stitches).  There was a prize for best story, and she won that one hands-down.

Instead of having a Yankee Swap, which we've done several times in the past, we did a "Favorite Things" gift exchange, which is a tradition in one of our daughters-in-law's family.  There were five couples, so each individual chose four favorite things with a value of $5-7 to give away.  We brought our items in gift bags, so we could easily take one out and show everyone and explain why this particular thing was a favorite before distributing them. At the end, each couple went home with eight new items.  It was fun to hear the explanations for the choices and to see the variety of items.  For instance, one daughter-in-law brought four bottles of red wine called "WELL REaD."  Her explanation for that choice was that she loved books and reading (she used to be a librarian), and as a mother of five she sometimes she needs a little wine at the end of the day!  My husband gave out "cocktail hour" bags, with a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade, a block of cheddar cheese, and a box of his favorite crackers inside.  There were phone chargers, coffee mugs, travel mugs, chocolates.  There were even personalized ornaments hand-painted by our second-oldest son.The whole thing was just delightful.

It was agreed that we MUST try to do this sort of thing more often.  I only wish that our youngest son and his wife could have been with us, but they were out in MI this Christmas with her folks.  Next year, though!  I think we have decided that this adults-only party must happen every Christmas season from now on!

It has been the most blessed Christmas for us, filled with so much love and laughter. I wish we had a better picture than these blurry selfies taken with a timer to mark our first ever Christmas party just for the grown-ups here in VA.

But these shall have to do!  Merry Christmas from this crazy crew.  And God bless us, everyone.