Talking About Hard Things (With Kids)

(Everyday Bravery, Day 4)

As I related on my other blog last month, my six-year-old son recently asked me about the Zika virus:

While I was driving, my boy spotted a bug in the car and I told him that I’d seen a mosquito. “Is that mosquito virus here yet?” he asked.

“Mosquito virus? Do you mean Zika?”

He did.

“Well, it’s here in the United States,” I told him. “But it’s not here in our area. It’s in Florida.”

“Oh, that’s too bad for the babies there. There will be a lot of babies dying in their mommies’ tummies.”

Most people would probably be appalled to know that my six-year-old was thinking of such things. I’ll admit to feeling a little guilty about it. But mostly, I just felt proud. My boy is paying attention. He’s understanding. He’s asking questions. He’s caring. And he wrapped up our conversation by suggesting that we pray for the babies.

“God, please take care of the babies in their mommies’ tummies. Please keep them from getting the mosquito virus. That’s all.”

In reality, the conversation was a little longer than I made it out in my post. When he mentioned the babies that would be dying in their mommies’ tummies, I explained to him how Zika works. I told him that it impacts the brains of babies born to women with the virus, causing them to be too small. That the babies wouldn’t necessarily die from the illness, but that it would cause a lot of problems for them. I was as honest as I could be.

Because in our family, we talk about hard things with our kids.

We talk about death. We talk about life after death and about war and illness and guns and racism and bullying. We answer their questions as honestly as we can. We try to simplify these sometimes-complicated concepts so that our kids can begin to understand them.

Our boys know that all people – including them and us and other people they love – will die. We tell them that we hope it won’t happen for a long, long, long, long, long, long, LONG time, when we/they have become very, very old and have lived good, long lives – but that we just can’t know.

When they ask what happens to people when they die, I tell them that we hope they go to heaven. I say that we should try to be very, very good during our lives and to love Jesus very, very much – so much that when we die we go straight to heaven to be with Him. And I encourage them to pray for the dead: “Dear Lord, please help Grandpa Ed go to heaven to be with you.”

Our boys know that sometimes very sad things happen and that younger people – including children – die too. When we admonish them for dangerous behaviors, they routinely ask if they (or their siblings) could die from them. If they could, we tell them so. (The other day we caught one of them shaking the baby, so I brought up shaken baby syndrome.)

Sometimes I hate these conversations. I absolutely hated planting the horrible sadness of shaken baby syndrome in my kids’ minds. Sometimes I worry that we’ll make our children too fearful by talking about such things. (And I’m sure others will think we’re wrong to be so blunt.)

But so far, we haven’t made them too fearful. And so far, I think we’ve struck the right balance between honest information and loving tenderness.

We talk about hard things with our kids because we want our children to have their bearings. We want them to have a sense of the importance of it all, of consequences and underlying reasons. We want them to know that life here on earth is temporary, because you never know when that lesson will fly at them with ferocious sadness.

I listen to NPR almost all day long, in the car and in the kitchen, so my boys routinely hear snippets of war and shootings and unrest and disaster. (That’s how my son knew about the Zika virus.) Sometimes I turn it off if I think it’s gotten to be too much for them. But mostly, I welcome their questions about what they’re hearing and I try to help them process the information:

“Sometimes people become very angry with one another and they begin to fight. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people aren’t careful enough. Sometimes people don’t like other people because of how they look or what they believe about God. Sometimes the ground shakes. Sometimes big storms come.”

And then, “What do you do when you’re angry?” or “Do you sometimes make mistakes?” or “It’s all very, very sad. How about we pray for those people?”

We pray when something sad comes up on the news. We pray when we hear sirens. We pray when we learn that someone is hurt or ill or has died.

We talk about hard things. We try to help our children to understand them. We try to give them context. I do my best to plant the idea in my children’s minds that they have a role in it all – that they will encounter difficult things in life and that they will sometimes have opportunities to make them better. And that no matter how hopeless something seems, they can always pray.

I hope all of this – the talking about hard things, the honesty, the questions, the praying – I hope it encourages them to be brave.

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This post is the fourth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.

These Walls - Everyday Bravery

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Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.

 

Arguing Well on Facebook – Even About Politics

Well, friends, we are deep into that most wonderful of seasons, aren’t we? Election season. And we know what that means: half of our Facebook friends are volunteering their political opinions to the world while the other half are signing off until mid-November.

I kid a little, of course. It’s not as clear as all that. While some people are vociferous in their political opinions, others are completely mum on the subject. Some are cranky, some (few this year, it seems) are inspired, some (many?) are despondent. Some people seem to be unable to handle the heat and so have decided to get out of the kitchen. Some argue their points well; others have little to show for their efforts but annoyed or offended friends and family.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s okay for someone to be annoyed with me because they don’t like my politics. What’s not okay is for someone to be annoyed or offended or hurt by the way I’ve discussed my political opinions with them.

So I try really hard, especially during election season, to make sure I argue my points well. Here are thirteen (what a lucky number!) ways I do that:

Read the rest at the Catholic Review.

The Space Between - Arguing Well on Facebook Even About Politics

Becoming Community: Mid-Atlantic Conference for Catholic Women Bloggers

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I hosted a small conference for Catholic women bloggers at my home last weekend, and it was just lovely. The weather, the people, the talks, the general feeling – it was all so lovely that I’m really kind of pinching myself at how well it went.

Because I was not ready for this thing.

I greeted my first guest (thankfully, someone who’d arrived early to help set up) in my bathrobe, my hair and make-up undone. I’d had three hours of sleep the night before. I hadn’t read up on the materials I was supposed to. I hadn’t put together the folders. I hadn’t arranged the flowers I’d bought or cut the lilacs I’d planned to. I hadn’t made the coffee or the mimosas or the iced tea or the sangria. (Yes, this was a fun conference.) The tables weren’t set up. The tablecloths weren’t ironed. The outdoor chairs were filthy from being stored in a shed alongside a tractor.

And all this was after running myself ragged for 48 hours, getting everything else accomplished.

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Like the indoor chairs! I had set up the chairs!

So when my helpers arrived (several ladies came early to help – thank you, kind souls), I threw jobs at them like I’d known them for years. (Though I most definitely had not.) One – poor lady – ironed linens that just wouldn’t be tamed. Another, who’d spent the night at our home, had already ironed the more cooperative ones. Lovely Mary, who had brought flowers for the lunch tables, also arranged the flowers I’d bought, set them all out, put together the folders, and served as my weary brain’s go-to question answerer. One woman poured the mimosas. Another made the decaf. Several directed our (potluck) food to the table and refrigerator. They pulled out the cups, plates, flatware, and goodness knows what else.

In short, women did what women do: they helped.

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

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Photo Credit: Rosie Hill

(I can’t neglect to mention my wonderful husband: By this time, Brennan was knee-deep into his third straight day of helping me prepare. He’d already mulched flowerbeds and cleaned bathrooms and taken our older boys up to my parents – thanks, Mom and Dad! Now he was setting up tables and making coffee and cleaning those dirty, dirty chairs. God bless him.)

(Nor can I neglect to mention the two ladies who helped me organize the event – Rita Buettner of Open Window at the Catholic Review, and Erica Saint of Saint Affairs. Without them, I surely would have burnt out before the conference day even arrived. Both were generous, wonderful collaborators and valuable sounding boards.)

So as this big day began – and as I grasped at every bit of help I could get – all I could think about was how badly I’d screwed up by not having everything ready when my guests arrived. I’d wanted the day to be peaceful, elegant, relaxing. Instead, we – all of us – found ourselves plunged into a confusing jumble of bodies and baked goods.

And I was embarrassed.

The Idea(s)

Now, allow me to back up for a moment.

Because the more I reflect on our conference, the more I believe that there was something important at play here – that our day was guided by One who knew what each of us needed, and who helped us to meet those needs for each other.

I’d first thought of hosting a gathering of local Catholic women bloggers a couple of years earlier. Jen Fulwiler had mentioned attending a “salon dinner,” at which guests listened to a speaker and split into groups for a sit-down dinner/discussion. Information about the guests had been circulated in advance to help people get to know each other, and groups were assigned in such a way as to introduce guests to those who might be new to them.

I thought it was a brilliant idea. It was right up my sociable/nerdy alley.

When I thought about how I might implement the concept in my own life, I landed on the idea of using it to try to get to know other Catholic women bloggers in my area. I’m not far from Washington, D.C. and I figured that there had to be plenty of such ladies around – right? So I tried, along with a couple of other local bloggers I knew, to get something going.

But the timing just wasn’t right. For a number of reasons, it became very clear, very quickly, that the idea would need to be set aside for a while. So it was.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when members of a Facebook group I’m part of began to discuss blogging conferences and what they’d like from one. Soon those conversations turned into efforts to put on regional Catholic Women Blogging Network conferences across the country.

Quick as I could, I stepped forward to host one for the Mid-Atlantic. The time was right. And just as I’ve learned so many other times in my life, the right circumstances make all the difference.

Out of the Weeds, Onto the Meat

Now, back to my embarrassment.

I focus on it because it shows where I was as our day began. I was months into the planning of the event and sunk deep in the weeds. I hadn’t actually given much thought to the meat of the conference: how the talks would go, how the day’s events would fit together, what people would get out of it. And I’d only recently – since reading re-caps of the California conference – come to realize that some of my guests might be nervous about attending. Until then, I hadn’t thought of what they might be feeling as we started our day together.

Then we began.

We started our program a half-hour late, but we started well. I gave a short welcome and had everyone introduce themselves. (And one woman hit on the wonderful idea of introducing the babies!)

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Gabriel, Peter, Margaret, Felix, Heidi, Magdalena, and Isaac. Photo credit: Rosie Hill

I recited a special Prayer for Peace issued by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in light of the riots there last week. Then I introduced our first speaker.

Meg Hunter-Kilmer, of Held by His Pierced Hands, was terrific. She (I’m stepping into my emcee role here) has two degrees in theology from Notre Dame. After five years as a middle and high school religion teacher, she quit her job to be a “hobo for Christ,” traveling the world speaking about the love of Christ.

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I was still moving around the house a bit, making sure things were set up properly and that my guests had what they needed. (I was also grabbing my own coffee and breakfast, thankyouverymuch.) So I didn’t catch Meg’s entire talk, called “Living an Examined Life.” But I was blown away by her enthusiasm, and what I heard from her renewed my desire to set aside some daily quiet time in which to just be – to listen, to pray, to simply sit in the presence of God.

Besides providing us with some general encouragement and commiseration on that front, Meg taught us about the Examen – a daily form of prayer that encourages one to examine his life and pay attention to how God is moving in it. It struck me as a beautiful and useful exercise, and I’m eager to put it into practice in my own life.

Restoring Reality

After Meg’s talk, we welcomed our keynote speaker, Leah Libresco, of the Patheos blog Unequally Yoked. Leah grew up as an atheist and started studying Catholicism “in order to have better fights with the most interesting wrong people she met in college.” She ultimately conceded the fight and became Catholic herself. But she still likes to argue: On her blog, Leah discusses anything from dating ethics, to approaches to almsgiving, to ways to forge communities in cities. She runs a monthly debate group in Washington DC and hosts sporadic Christian forums.

Leah says that she likes to find ways to have fights that turn into friendships and she makes sure to infuse disagreements with charity and love.

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Boy, does it show: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about arguments with as much light and joy as Leah did. She spoke on “Sharing Our Faith in Secular Spaces,” giving us plenty of smart, insightful strategies for making arguments that are not just compelling, but also life-giving.

Maybe that sounds strange. First, that we had a talk on arguments at all, and second, that arguments could possibly be life-giving. (My label, not hers.) But consider our lives since the advent of social media (and indeed blogging): how many of us witness our friends and acquaintances snipe at each other over politics or current events or parenting practices? How many comment boxes have become so nasty, we don’t even bother with them anymore? Which sort of radio and television programs thrive most today? The running theme to me, at least, seems to be: conflict, conflict, conflict…

And not the constructive sort.

Leah works hard to counter that culture – not by acting like disagreements don’t matter, but by respecting them enough to encourage them to be aired openly, respectfully, fairly, and in good humor. She remembers what so many seem to have forgotten: that behind every disagreement lies real people with (usually) honest motivations. Not one of us is a caricature of our beliefs. We’re individuals who deserve to be viewed as such.

So Leah said things like this to us:

  • Learn what your opponent loves about his argument and re-direct those goods to a better cause.
  • Discern what the strongest argument is for the particular person you’re arguing with.
  • It is more important to keep people dialoging than to “win.”
  • Leave things a little unsettled, because settling a debt exactly implies the closing of a relationship.

She also told us a story that, in my mind, somehow has come to represent our whole conference:

Leah said that she once had a couple of friends who were having quite the argument on her Facebook wall. Eventually she popped onto their thread with a suggestion: “How about you guys come over to my place and have this argument in person? I’ll make cookies!” (Leah seems to pair many such challenges with “I’ll make cookies!”) They – smart guys – took her up on her offer.

When the debaters arrived, however, Leah (deliberately) didn’t have everything ready. The cookies were still in the oven and she was scurrying around in a (manufactured – shhh!) rush. She tossed out a few directions: move this sofa there, those chairs here, carry these glasses of milk, please.

Leah took two people who’d been duking it out online and not only did she bring them together to resume their argument in person, but she made them work together on common, non-controversial goals beforehand. She brought them together so they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and see eye-to-eye, literally. In doing so, Leah was “restoring reality” to the situation, as she put it. Working together, sharing food – these are things that bond people to each other. And when people are bonded, their arguments are more likely to be respectful and fruitful.

As you might guess, Leah’s story struck me for its similarity to our day’s beginning. Though my own rushing was genuine and my guests had not come to argue, their helpfulness served a similar role. Before many of our ladies had even met each other, they were working together. They – we – were building bonds through service, which would then be strengthened by sharing prayer, food, and conversation. So as I scurried through the jovial chaos that morning, embarrassed and a little panicky, I was unknowingly playing my part in the day’s success.

Honestly, I could listen to Leah’s talk all over again. Meeting her left me feeling a little resentful of the fact that I’m no longer a young single thing living in DC, with plenty of time (and the Metro access) to crash her homemade-cookie-fueled debate parties.

(By the way, Leah just released her first book this past Thursday! Consider checking out “Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.”)

Faithful, Social Friends

After Leah’s talk, we broke for lunch. I threw more jobs at people (“Who wants to make the iced tea?!”) and we all scurried around to get the food ready. Soon enough we were settled at one of four tables, where we participated in small-group discussions with ladies who blog on topics similar to our own. I’d assigned the groups in advance and asked each attendee to submit links to the three posts which best represent what she’d like to do with her blog. Theoretically, everyone was supposed to read their group-mates’ links before arriving. (Though I’ve already confessed that I did not personally get to this!)

I can’t vouch for the other groups, but mine was great. We relaxed, we chatted, we asked questions, we commiserated, and we laughed. What more could you ask for?

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

After lunch we re-grouped to hear Cristina Trinidad speak. Cristina – who blogs at what was Filling My Prayer Closet, but is now, as of this week Faithfully Social – is a married, full-time working mother of two boys. Working in corporate by day, she is a blog and social media coach by night (or whenever she can get a minute).

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Cristina says that she enjoys helping other bloggers get noticed, or providing just the right prescription to manage their social media. Accordingly, her talk, “Blogging Smarter, Not Harder,” was full of insights into social media and tips as to how to better engage with it.

Images, titles, search engine optimization, pins, schedules, branding, design software, videos, keywords, alt tags, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram… it all kind of made my head spin. But in the best possible way! Cristina was friendly and energetic and she left me with pages of notes and several ideas for improving my outreach to current and potential readers.

We spent the remaining 15 minutes of the conference in a lively wrap-up session, which was moderated by Rita Buettner, of Open Window at the Catholic Review.

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I have to say, up until this point in the day, there were many things that made me happy. But now, as people enthusiastically offered ideas as to how we could collaborate and be helpful to each other going forward – I was thrilled.

One woman offered to host everyone for a day of quiet, uninterrupted writing. Another suggested meeting for a “write-in” at Starbucks. Ladies talked of a blog carnival. They mentioned Doodle and Google Docs and a resource page on our Facebook group where people could list their expertise.

The ideas bounced around the room haphazardly but the consensus was clear: We were excited about what we’d found here and we were eager to build up relationships with one another. We wanted to get together again soon – as soon as this summer. We wanted to offer a variety of ways for people to meet up and help out and collaborate.

(The activity on our Facebook group this week has reflected that excitement: multiple posts per day, questions, request for and offers of support. It’s been really beautiful to witness. I feel so grateful for this burgeoning community – and just a little proud.)

After our conference formally broke up, women lingered to say goodbye after goodbye. They took with them lovely boxes of delicious fudge, which was generously made by Emily Borman, Editor-in-Chief of Conversation With Women. (For the writers among you, Conversation With Women is a blog made up entirely of anonymous submissions from women who have struggled with, but ultimately found joy in living the Catholic faith in regards to marriage, sexuality, fertility and society. If you have such a story to share, stop over to Emily’s to see about submitting it.)

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Photo Credit: Rosie Hill

As the others headed home, eight of us struck out to enjoy dinner together. We walked to a local restaurant for some amazing pizza and more laughter than probably should have been allowed. (Seriously – we were the loudest party there!)

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I was so happy as I looked around at our group – women of different ages and backgrounds and family make-ups, women who write on different topics, whose lives have taken different turns – we chatted (and hooted and hollered) like we were a real thing, like we were a solid group.

And, I guess that now we kind of are.

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

Back row: Patti Murphy Dohn, Marie Bernadette Griffiths, Meg Hunter-Kilmer, Cristina Reintjes, Laura Scanlon, Mary Lenaburg, Jamie Gewand, Lisa Mayer, Abbey Dupuy, Laura Wright, Leah Libresco, Abigail Benjamin, Emily Borman

Front row: Erica Saint, Rita Buettner, Colleen Duggan, Kate Abbot, Rosemary Callenberg, Cristina Trinidad, Nicole Cox, Julie Walsh (me), Rosie Hill

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

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Photo credit: Rosie Hill

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(Many thanks to Theresa Conlan for designing our logo.)

 

On Abortion: Paul Ryan and Two Simple Questions

Almost a year ago, I was watching the Biden/Ryan Vice-Presidential Debate on television when the following exchange occurred:

MS. RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is indeed historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And please, this is such an emotional issue for so many —

REP. RYAN: Sure.

MS. RADDATZ: — people in this country. Please talk personally about this if you could. Congressman Ryan.

REP. RYAN: I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course, but it’s also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, “Bean.” (Chuckles.)

Now, I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life.

Now, I understand this is a difficult issue. And I respect people who don’t agree with me on this. But the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Before I tell you my reaction, let me point out that you can find the whole transcript here. And you can watch a video segment on this part of the debate here. Ryan had a few more comments after the ones I excerpted, but they all dealt with Biden and the Democratic party. And of course Biden gave his answer to Raddatz’s question, which is another topic for another day.

Though it goes without saying, let me also note that abortion is a highly controversial issue and that there are plenty of very real, very important emotional elements to the debate over it. But like Biden’s answer, I consider those elements to be other topics for other days. In this here blog post, I want to stick to the basic logic at the heart of the debate. And I want to give my reaction to Ryan’s answer, which is:

FUMBLE

What a terrific opportunity he missed! Sure, the “bean” story was cute, but Ms. Raddatz asked a question that gets right at two of the most precarious fault lines in American political discourse: (1) abortion and (2) religious influence on matters of public policy. Here’s what I think Representative Ryan should have said:

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.

For all the angst and gray areas and moral confusion over the issue of abortion, I think the logic at the heart of the debate is really very simple. It involves answering two basic questions: (1) When does life begin? And (2) (When) does life matter?

Here’s my thinking on that first question:

  • Conception is the only dividing line to which you can look for a clear differentiation between being and not being, therefore it is the only logical point at which life can begin.
  • That is, on this side of the line we have an egg with Mom’s DNA and a sperm with Dad’s. On that side we have a new being, a “zygote” with half of the DNA from each. Never again in our development do we see such a fundamental change.
  • From that point on, our cells divide and multiply. We grow exponentially. But we do not, in essence, change. We do not require anything but shelter, nutrition, and time to develop into a form that is easier for our eyes to identify as human.

If you were not to define conception as the point at which life begins, at precisely which other point on the continuum of development would you settle on?

  • Are we not alive when we look like a simple cluster of cells but we are alive when the cells have organized themselves into a spine and brain and heart?
  • Are we not alive when we’re free-floating embryos, but we are alive when, a moment later, we attach to our mother’s uterine wall?
  • Are we not alive before a physician can detect a heartbeat, but we are alive once our heartbeat has been witnessed?
  • Are we not alive before the 24th week of our mother’s pregnancy (the point at which today’s medical technology is capable of keeping us alive outside the womb), but we are alive once we’ve reached that 24-week mark?
  • Were we alive at 24 weeks a hundred years ago, when we would have died from being born so early?
  • Are we not alive when we’re lodged in the birth canal, awaiting our final exit from our mother’s body, but we are alive moments later, lying in her arms?
  • Or, are we alive when our mother wants us, not alive when she doesn’t?
  • Does our life depend on our physiology, or others’ perceptions of us?

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Okay, that’s enough with that one. Let’s move on to the second big, basic question: When does life matter? Or perhaps even, Does life matter? As far as I’m concerned, this is really the crux of the abortion debate, as well as the other life-related controversies: capital punishment, euthanasia, how we view people with disabilities, etc. The real question regarding abortion is not so much, “When does life begin?” It is, “At what point do we think life is worth protecting?”

And that’s where we have to look really hard at ourselves.

  • First of all, do we even believe that human life is worth protecting? Do we have a rigid “survival of the fittest” mentality, or do we believe that there is something special about the human person?
  • Second, if we indeed believe that human life, in the broad sense, is worth protecting, then which individual human lives are we honestly thinking about? Are we thinking about those we love? Are we thinking about those with whom we share beliefs, culture, class, race, nationality? Those who seem able and good? Or are we also thinking of the “other”?
  • Third, if we believe that some human lives are worthy of protection and we’re also thinking of those who are unlike ourselves, then do we take the final step? Do we believe that every single individual is inherently worthy of life, just by virtue of being human?

If we can’t make that leap, where do we draw our lines? Do we draw them at age, at health status, at conduct, at convenience, at others’ desire for the individual? Do we draw them along those ancient lines of family, faith, tribe, class, etc.?

  • Is a life only worth protecting when s/he is at a convenient age, in good health, innocent of crimes, wanted by the people around her/him, and a member of a favored family/tribe/class/nationality?
  • Is a life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, is a life always worth protecting?

And what about those babies – those zygotes/embryos/fetuses – whatever you want to call them? Reason tells us that, from the day they’re conceived to the day they die, they’re alive. But at what point do we think they are inherently valuable and worthy of protection?

  • Are they worth protecting once they’ve reached a certain developmental stage? Once modern medicine is able to keep them alive outside the womb? When they were conceived through a consensual encounter? When – and only when – their mothers want them? When they are judged to be perfectly healthy and convenient?
  • Is a baby’s life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, again, is a baby’s life always worth protecting?

My Catholic faith – the one I share with Representative Paul Ryan – teaches that human life is always important. It always has value. It should always be protected. Rep. Ryan indeed got something right when he said, “My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” I don’t know enough about him to understand exactly what he means by “take care” and “vulnerable” and “make sure people have a chance.” But I know that the Catholic Church is eminently consistent in its message: People have a right to life, from conception to natural death. People also have a right to the basic necessities of life: namely food, shelter, and health care. (In my opinion, to advocate for one – the “right to life” or “social justice” – but not the other is to miss the point.)

I accept the Church’s teaching on the inherent value and dignity of life. As a Catholic, I believe that people are precious – every single one: The beautiful, treasured, long-wanted newborn in his mother’s arms; the unborn child of a woman contemplating abortion; the baby girl thrown away as trash because she was unfortunate enough to be born into a culture that favors boys; the child with a congenital disease or developmental disability; the frail person suffering an illness that will surely take her life; the person who committed a crime that not only irreparably hurt others, but also harmed his own soul. They all count.

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.

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Care to answer any of the dozens of questions I listed above? Leave a comment! And I do (cringe) really mean that.

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 4)

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— 1 —

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like I’m behind on every front: My house is a mess; piles of (possibly damp and smelly) dirty laundry and baskets of unfolded, clean (yet probably still smelly) laundry seem to be taunting me; a rotating collection of dirty dishes has been occupying my kitchen counters; I owe a long list of emails and phone calls; I’ve been getting to bed too late and my boys have been waking up during the night (usually with their sheets soaked – seven crib sheets in three days!); and my list of interesting-looking articles to read has been growing and growing…

I guess I feel like I should be caught up on something. Like, if I’m going to neglect my house, at least my mind should be stimulated with interesting reads. Or if I’m not responding to people’s emails, it should be because I was busy eliminating the mountains of laundry and dishes.

— 2 —

Also, someone has vomited every day this week. As anybody who is friends with me on Facebook knows, my boys are prolific vomiters. Some parents deal with children who won’t sleep through the night, or are picky eaters, or throw major tantrums. Ours vomit. All the time. And it’s not because they’re sick – we’ve never been so unfortunate as to have a stomach virus visit us. (I say with trepidation, because you know that once I say it, we’ll get one.) The boys are gaggers. We have to go to ridiculous lengths to feed them food in such a way that they won’t gag and vomit. And when we get a respiratory bug with phlegm and coughing: Watch Out.

Anyway, last week I made the stupid mistake of saying to my husband, “Can you believe that we’ve gone almost a month without anybody throwing up? Maybe the boys have finally outgrown it! And even if they’ve haven’t entirely, at least #2 knows to lean over the side of his booster seat so he doesn’t get it on his clothes anymore and #1 runs to get a bowl to catch it! Win, win! I barely even have a mess to clean up anymore!”

Yeah. So on Sunday, the little one throws up on his Grandpa. (Sorry, Dad!) On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, he throws up all over himself. On Wednesday, the big one gets carsick and throws up all over himself and his car seat. Once again, I have a load of vomity clothes to deal with. And a car seat to clean.

— 3 —

But. Yesterday when I came up the driveway, I saw this:

Hydrangeas

Isn’t it lovely? And have you ever seen a hydrangea with both blue and pink blooms? When I saw the bush after a long day out with the boys, I had kind of a funny response:

Wow, that’s beautiful. I love hydrangeas. I should cut some to put in vases around the house. That little white pitcher would look really nice filled with hydrangeas and placed on the kitchen mantle. But it’s covered with junk right now. What’s the use of going through the effort of cutting and arranging flowers when the house is so messy? I should clean. Really clean. I should do a big push and get the house in great shape and put hydrangeas everywhere.

Makes sense, right? That a five-second glance at a flowering shrub would turn into enthusiasm for cleaning my house? Whatever; I don’t care where the enthusiasm came from. After a week of vomit and no sleep and peed-on sheets, I’ll take whatever enthusiasm I can get. So let’s see what I can do today: Dishes and laundry and junk, here I come! Hydrangeas, don’t fail me!

— 4 —

I have to admit that part of the reason (besides the rough recovery from a full weekend and the boys not sleeping and the vomiting) that I’ve been in a funk this week (and btw, Grace Patton had a good post this week on being in a funk) is that I spent a couple of nights staying up waaay too late writing blog posts.

I am someone who is very easily distracted; I can’t concentrate well when there’s commotion around me. (Rachel Balducci had a good post this week about needing quiet in order to write.) So starting a blog with two toddler boys in the house was a great idea, wasn’t it? With my days full of monster roars and “pwetend kitty-cats” mewing at my feet and boys who like to act, alternately, like rock stars or members of a marching band, the quiet of a late-night, everybody-is-asleep-but-me house is oh so enticing. Enter one, two, or ahem three o’clock bedtimes. With 3:30 wake-up calls from a soaking wet 20-month-old. Yes, sometimes I am brilliant.

I’m nearly a month into the blog now and I’m trying to figure out how best to fit it into my life. Right now I feel like I’m in the trying-it-on phase. I’m hoping (hoping!) that once I’ve done it for a little while and examined its impact on the rest of my life, I can find the right balance of writing time to housework time to time with the boys. In the past year or so, I’ve done a pretty decent job of establishing some general guidelines for running my home and schedule to minimize my stress. Soon I’ll need to recalculate them to account for the blog.

— 5 —

In particular, I want to make space in my schedule to take on some meaty subjects. I was decently well-pleased with how these longer, more serious posts on my background, immigration, and parental love turned out. And I’ve done a few shorter ones that fall into the same mold. But I feel like most of what I’ve been writing so far has been light and focused on my home life. And though there’s nothing wrong with that (and I very much enjoy reading such things from other bloggers!), I’d like to keep a steady pace of at least one or two more meaty posts a week.

Like I said when I started the blog, I want this space to become a comfortable place for readers to dialog on some societal/religious/political issues. I don’t have in mind a certain number of visitors I want to attract; I only hope it’s enough to generate some good discussion in the comments section. So, (hint, hint!) speak up if you have something to say! For my part, I’ll try to keep up that steady pace.

Here are a few topics I’m thinking about right now, and on which I plan to write once I’ve read up on some of those interesting articles I mentioned in #1: The worth of the individual, religious freedom, Pope Francis and the liberal/conservative split, and global poverty. I hope you’ll come back to weigh in!

— 6 —

I spent a long time Wednesday night cooking a very complicated meal for my husband. On the one hand, doing so made me feel like a very good wife, because it took FOUR hours and like a million steps and it involved a couple of his favorite dishes: Spaghetti Bolognese (as in the real deal, with carrots and mushrooms, veal/pork/beef, wine, etc.) and a dark chocolate tart with a gingersnap crust (which, to be honest, sounds fancy and tastes divine, but isn’t all that hard to make).

Father's Day Dinner, 2013But on the other hand, Wednesday night made me feel like a bad wife, because (1) dinner wasn’t ready until 10pm, which (2) meant that the boys got their standard hot dogs instead of partaking in the deliciousness, (3) the whole reason we had a fancy dinner on Wednesday was to celebrate a belated Father’s Day because I wasn’t prepared on Sunday. (I’m blaming that one on our family reunion and the celebration of our son’s birthday, both this past weekend.) And (4) one of our gifts for my husband was the oh-so-thoughtful catalog in a gift bag, so he could pick out which item he wanted. (Though I was thoughtful about which catalog it was: The Great Courses, because we’re the kind of nerds who like to listen to recordings of university lectures.)

J Coloring Card

Working on a Father’s Day card for his grandpa — also belated.

— 7 —

I’ll sweeten the end of this mildly negative Quick Takes by leaving you with some of the cute/funny/stinkerish/sweet things our big 3-year-old boy said this week:

“I’m havin’ a bad, wough day!”

After being put into time-out for yelling a nasty “No, Mommy!” at me:
“I sorry for sayin’ a bad no to you, Mommy.”

“Dere’s a bug in my back! Es eatin’ me!”
(There actually was a bug under the back of his shirt; it was not eating him.)

“Yiyons and mans and bears, oh my!”

Lunging and dancing while singing into his new toy microphone:
“I yike a wock sar!”

Pointing out the sunset:
“Yook! A boo-ful sy!”

Just after I walked away from him and his little brother, who was pretending to be a cat. I’d heard the little one scream and marched back into the room, asking big brother what he’d done.
Him: “I hit da cat.”
Me: “Do you mean you hit your brother?”
Him: “No. I hit da cat.”
Me: “Did you hit the cat that is your brother?”
Him: “Yes.”

After I gave a quick kiss to his injured thumb:
“No, not a pwetend kiss! I want a weal kiss yike diss.”
(He demonstrates.)

“I’m a man washin’ my hands.”

Him: “Mommy! Da table is waffin’ at me!”
Me: “The table is laughing at you? Why?”
Him: “Because, es funny! I bedder take a nap.”
(He lays his head down on the table.)

Dark Chocolate Tart

“Dis is a tart.”

At the playground as I was pushing him on the swings:
“You’re good. You’re a nice mommy. Sank you pushing me SO fast.”

Now be sure to go vist Jen and all the rest of the Quick Take’ers!

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 1)

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

Let’s call this the brand-spankin’-new-blog edition.

— 1 —

I am so excited to (finally!) be able to jump on the 7 Quick Takes bandwagon. Friday mornings are one of my favorite times of the week. Once I get the kiddos cleaned up after breakfast, I like to sit at the table with a cup of coffee and read through a bunch of the Takes. In peace. If the little noise-makers let me. If you’re a real-life friend (Hi, Mom!) coming here via Facebook and you’ve never heard of 7 Quick Takes, be sure to go visit Jen to see what it’s all about.

— 2 —

If you’re not a real-life friend and you came here via 7 Quick Takes – or some other internet route that I can’t fathom at the moment – my name is Julie and I’m a whole four days into blogging. You can read about my plans for the blog here. In a nutshell, I’m a stay-at-home mom to two toddler boys, a former lobbyist, and an avid consumer of Catholic mommy blogs and national/international news. I’d love to spend some significant time huddled up with interesting people in a coffee shop, discussing the world’s problems. But my two beautiful little boys actually need their mother to be here with them, so… blogging seemed like the natural alternative.

— 3 —

On a more technical matter, as a brand-new blogger, I expect to be experimenting with my blog’s layout, design, capabilities, etc. And I have to admit that I’m more intimidated by WordPress than I expected to be. So if you have any suggestions as to things I might want to incorporate into the blog or actions I can take to better familiarize myself with WordPress, I’m all ears. Or eyes. Whatever.

— 4 —

I took my boys to get haircuts (the little one’s very first!) this afternoon. So as to provide my (future, theoretical) readers with a little introduction to the boys, I thought I’d provide a picture and a short account of the experience. First, the cutie-pies, post-haircut:

Boys after haircut

The big one is almost three and the little one is 20 months old. Big brother is so sweet and happy and friendly that he is the most cooperative of toddler clients a hairdresser could ask for. And he’s so sure of himself that when I later said to him, “Let me look at you.” He replied, “I haaandsome!”

Little brother has a bit more attitude and a lot more fear, so I was worried about how this was going to go. Much to my surprise, he actually tolerated the haircut fairly well, but I kind of think his expression in the above photo is a pretty good representation of what he thought of the whole thing.

— 5 —

I’m already starting to miss those little blond curls:

Playing in the dirt

— 6 —

And the brown ones too:

Also playing in the dirt

By the way, kiddo gets to be a ring bearer this weekend! He has a little tux and everything. I’ll report on the experience next week; I think he’s going to love it.

— 7 —

To wrap up and pull back to my “brand-spankin’-new-blog” theme (which is funny that I’m even doing, given that I have this opinion that Quick Takes are supposed to be miscellaneous, not themed), I’ll just say that I’ve really enjoyed this first week of blogging. It feels so good to be doing something – however small – with my brain. And it’s been fun to watch the stats come in and see that people have actually been reading what I write. My first full day, I had views from Germany and Ghana, which I understood, because I have friends in both countries. But yesterday I had views from Egypt and Nigeria. What!? How interesting is that? So thank you – whoever (and wherever) you are – for visiting. I hope you’ll come back and I hope you’ll join in on my little conversations on some of the Big Questions.

An Ideal Government

There was an interesting discussion on the crisis (if you will) of democracy in the West this morning on The Diane Rehm Show. As per usual, I didn’t get to hear the program in its entirety because, you know – toddlers. But it brought forward some thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for some time.

P1140675It seems to me that in the United States, at least, a fundamental disagreement regarding the appropriate role of government is bubbling to the surface. Yes, it’s about “big” vs. “small” government, but aside from those terms being too broad, I think they’re also too subjective. (One person’s “small” is another person’s “big,” isn’t it?) Rather, I view the breakout as one of attitude. How do we think of our ideal government? The following is surely too broad and too rough, but for a quick get-us-thinking post, I hope it will do.

Many people (and most of the press) function under the idea that government, when it works properly, exists to solve problems and spur progress. Under this paradigm, some of the marks of good government are action, innovation, and cooperation.

Other people (including some of the most famous talk radio hosts) function under the idea that government exists simply to establish a basic framework of freedoms, security, and infrastructure. Under this paradigm, the primary mark of good government is restraint.

Like I said, it’s overly broad. “Basic framework,” in particular, is open to a wide range of interpretations. But still, I think it’s important for us each to consider our own inclinations. Do I respond more favorably to the idea of a government that makes my life better or to one that I hardly have cause to notice?

I wish more political pundits would start at this basic question. I’m so tired of hearing one guy say that Washington is “broken” because politicians won’t work together to solve the nation’s problems – and then changing the channel to hear another guy praise a Washington “outsider” who wants to get government out of the business of doing any such thing.

Perhaps Washington isn’t broken because politicians aren’t working together. Perhaps it’s broken because citizens (and therefore politicians) don’t have a common concept of what government should be. Let’s acknowledge this. Let’s examine our own personal desires for our government. Let’s encourage others to do so as well. Because whatever is broken in Washington, it’s not going to get fixed when we don’t even take into consideration that we’re working from entirely different pages.

What do you think? What would your ideal government look like?

These Walls

Hello! I’m Julie Walsh, a stay-at-home mom to two toddler boys. I’m a former lobbyist, an all-day NPR listener, and an avid Catholic-mommy-blog reader. I love, love, love to get into a good conversation. About pretty much anything, but especially about my family, my faith, society, politics, current events… and how they all interact. I have this fantasy of sitting in a cozy coffee shop or a snug little bar and discussing the world’s problems with interesting people.

But I have these two adorable little responsibilities, you know? So the closest I get to my fantasy these days is the occasional play-date with a mommy friend, where we maybe fit in a five-minute visit to A Topic of Great Importance, in between our review of developmental milestones, childhood illnesses, and pregnancy experiences (interspersed with admonitions to share and play nicely and not-to-hit-your-brother). If we’re really lucky, we’re drinking a cup of coffee while we chat, sometimes daring to set it down on this lovely table:

Boys and train table

I’m approaching the three-year mark on my role as homemaker/stay-at-home mom, and in that time I’ve (1) spent entirely too much time on Facebook, (2) spoken lots of my political opinions aloud to the radio, and (3) developed wonderful one-sided friendships with a slew of excellent mommy bloggers who don’t even know who I am. I guess that’s the 21st-Century way of socializing a mother of young children, isn’t it? But still, I keep thinking to myself, I want to join that conversation! I want to say something more than what I can fit into a few lines on Facebook! So after almost three years of wanting to blog and thinking I don’t have time to blog and daydreaming topics for blogs and drafting/trashing blog themes, here I am, finally giving it a shot.

As indicated in the subtitle, I intend to blog about some of the goings-on within my own home. But I expect to focus more on the events and ideas and questions that sometimes seem so very far away from the daily tasks of a stay-at-home-mom. (Or this one, at least.) And aside from the physical walls referenced in the blog’s title, I can’t help but think of the figurative walls we so frequently put up between ourselves and others because of our opinions on any number of issues. I plan to explore these in the blog as well.

Overall, I’m stuck on that mental image of a cozy venue for deep conversation on those Topics of Great Importance (and also topics of regular importance). I hope this space becomes something like that. And I hope those who participate in the conversation will do so with respect and kindness, a sincere interest in growing in understanding… and maybe a tasty beverage in-hand.

Boys asleep wine on table