Big life decisions

Plus: my first cover article!

My husband and I just got back from a lovely getaway to the Pacific Northwest. My parents and sister came to our home to watch our two daughters, so we were able to go by ourselves, which was amazing. We were both able to get two doses of the Pfizer vaccine before we left (why yes, we are very cool), but even so, it felt surreal to enter an airport after a year of staying home.

The trip wasn’t just for pleasure, though we did enjoy it. My husband has one job offer at a university out there, and one here on the East Coast, very close to where we’re living now. I honestly don’t know yet where we’ll choose, although they both want us to give them an answer very soon.

Boomers, Stickers, and the Art of Discernment

As I mull over all of the jumble of competing factors, both quantifiable and more immaterial, I keep thinking of Gracy Olmstead’s book, Uprooted. I published a review of it in the print edition of National Review a couple of weeks ago, which you can read here.

Just a few days ago, I read another review of the book, by Emil Doak at The American Conservative, titled “Wherever Home Is Now, Stay There.” I have a feeling I can guess which option he would think we should choose.

I have a lot of sympathy for Doak’s point here. I spend so much of my time thinking and writing about the ways that our society and the people within it are wounded by the dissolution of our bonds to each other. I think it’s a noble thing to quietly stay put, to do the unglamorous maintenance necessary to keep alive not just families and friendships but also church communities and the countless formal and informal networks and institutions that have the capacity to enrich our lives and bind us together in ways that shape who we are in deep and lasting ways.

In her book, Olmstead returns over and over again to the distinction between “boomers” and “stickers”: those who leave and those who stay. Boomers are drawn by the natural resources to be extracted and opportunities to be seized, and they leave once those resources have been depleted. By contrast, stickers set down deep roots and, come what may, they stay. The natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the outdoor-focused lifestyle, the sense of excitement and opportunity—all of these things feel of a piece with the individualist American call to “go West, young man!” I’m drawn to the idea of setting off on this grand adventure, creating a new life there together with my husband and kids, setting down new roots. It’s hard to discern whether that feeling is just flashy seduction or the sort of deep desire through which God speaks. And it’s hard to imagine willingly choosing to live so very far away from the people we love.

Still, even though Doak emphasizes the idea of staying put, I ultimately think that this kind of discernment is what Olmstead was really praising—or at least, what she was practicing—in her book. As I wrote at National Review,

Olmstead calls her book “an exercise in discernment.” When I read this description, I expected something in an Ignatian vein, though perhaps not explicitly religious: introspection and contemplation in a deeply personal mode, using one’s own emotions and experiences as keys to discern the way forward. I expected a memoir-style narrative that would progress chronologically and end with a choice to stay in Virginia or move back to Idaho. Yet Olmstead doesn’t mention until the very last chapter questions such as whether her husband could find a job in Idaho or whether her parents might need support as they age, even though she notes that these will be key factors in her decision.

Instead, most of the book is dedicated to a different kind of “discernment”: the effort to see clearly. This is something akin to the effort you make to “discern” the contours of the furniture around you when you suddenly find yourself in a dark room. Such discernment requires patient presence. You have to let your eyes adjust. Then, gradually, the blackness that surrounds you becomes full of detail. Shapes emerge, and you slowly gain a sense of their spatial relationships to you and to one another.

My husband and I are deep in that process right now. I’d love your prayers. And if you have gone through similar transitions, I’d love to hear your experiences and wisdom in the comment section.

America Magazine

On another note, I just published my first print feature, and it made the cover of the May issue of America magazine!

This was my first time going through the whole process of pitching a magazine and then conducting interviews, research, etc, and writing a heavily reported feature article. Most of the time, I write the piece first and do the pitching later! But it was actually really helpful to have that anchor to direct my interviews and force me to cull things that were fascinating but not directly related to the article I already committed to writing.

This process was such a great capstone to my Novak fellowship experience, and the piece allowed me to integrate some of the deeper philosophical work on feminism and Catholicism with the stories of a few of the the fascinating women I’ve gotten to speak with over the past couple of years. I’m excited to share it with you.

Here’s a taste:

The Catholic Church is a global faith, with believers all over the world who profess the same creed and celebrate the same liturgies. Yet the universality of the Catholic Church makes room for religious orders, parishes and families to live out their faith through a vast array of cultural traditions and charisms.

Even within the United States, the Catholic Church encompasses countless subcultures, which send very different messages to young women about femininity, family life, marriage and careers. Some traditional communities go too far in one direction, enforcing rigid gender roles that can be overly restrictive, even oppressive or abusive. These communities can attract significant attention in the media, yet in fact those communities are in the minority. It is actually more common for Catholics to absorb and echo the values of their surrounding culture. In doing so, they fail to offer a real, appealing alternative to many secular visions of what it means to live the good life. We fail to provide a model for how to obtain a healthy balance between an individual’s ambitions and a family or community’s needs. This, too, is a failure—one that hurts both our daughters and our sons.

It is important to listen to and learn from the stories of women who have been harmed by both traditionalist and modernist distortions of the church’s teaching. Church leaders, parents and teachers must strive to avoid both extremes. Fortunately, Catholicism gives us the theological and philosophical tools we need to do just that. There is a beautiful message within church teaching on the feminine genius and the nature of vocation—one that today’s women and girls desperately need to hear.

It’s a pretty long piece, but I’d love it if you would click through and read the whole thing.

Recommending Reading (and listening)

  • The Next Right Thing, by Emily Freeman. Since I am currently in the midst of the aforementioned Big Life Decision, I’m finding this book so helpful and so comforting. Freeman really emphasizes the importance of slowing down and finding quiet to listen for God’s voice. Her questions promote deep interior reflection, as opposed to the kind of frenetic or obsessive analysis I can be prone to in my more anxious moments. I haven’t checked it out yet, but the friend who recommended this book (shout out to Elizabeth, who is making the idea of a cross-country move less scary!) also recommends Freeman’s podcast of the same name. Note to my fellow parents of young children: I’m sorry if you now have the Frozen 2 soundtrack stuck in your head. Welcome to my world.

  • My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This is part one of a quartet known as the the Neopolitan novels, which I have been wanting to read ever since I read Zena Hitz’s discussion of them in her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life. I devoured it on the plane ride out and got through the first half of book two (The Story of a New Name, which gets rather spicy!) on the way home. It follows the lives of two girls growing up in the slums of Naples in the 1960s. I don’t want to give too much away, but the writing is so compelling and the characters so deeply relatable in spite of the squalor and violence of the girls’ surroundings. I can’t wait to finish reading all of the books.

  • The work of Tsh Oxenreider. I discovered Tsh when she appeared on one of my favorite podcasts, the admittedly oddly named Fountains of Carrots. I then asked her to write an essay for Public Discourse about her practice of writing a rule of life, which she kindly did. I find this idea so intriguing, now more than ever. The idea is that, by articulating clearly and revisiting regularly what you value most, you are better able to make decisions—whether small or large—in light of whether or not they are in line with your personal hierarchy of goods. There are lots of things out there that are good, but we can’t say yes to all of them. (See: my husband’s two job offers.) Tsh has an audio course on how to write your own rule of life which I have not yet listened to, and a podcast called A Drink With a Friend, which I have. This episode is on the topic of a rule of life (she does talk about other things!), and is great.

  • Mom Genes, by Abigail Tucker. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of this book on its release date tomorrow. (I didn’t get it together to exercise my writer/editor perks and request a review copy in advance, so I preordered it on Amazon like a real woman of the people.) I’m sure I’ll write more about it soon, but in the meantime you can read this description of the book by her husband and NYT columnist Ross Douthat and this interview with Emily Oster, whose substack I also highly recommend.

Until next time!

Serena