12 Extra Years: Anna Quindlen, Aging, and the Unreason of the Trinity

Waking up early on this Vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, I caught a rerun of a Tavis Smiley interview with Anna Quindlen.

I’ve never shared the enthusiasm for Quindlen that many women my age profess. Much less would I join Smiley in referring to her as one of America’s greatest living writers. I find her prose pedestrian at times, and shrill often–and I had those reactions even during the great span of my life in which I agreed with her opinions. But there was nothing else on (I don’t have cable, and even if I did, there would still have been nothing else on), and I was interested to see if Quindlen would address the part of her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake in which she describes her decision to leave the Catholic Church in which she was raised. In keeping with her role as one of the chief spokespersons for the war on women, she’s been getting a lot of airtime and a number of column inches lately over that chapter in her life.

We did get there eventually, but not until after Quindlen had talked about how wonderful aging is now that she’s admitted she’s doing it. Quindlen noted that members of the boomer generation can expect to live an average of 12 years longer than their parents did, and and should think about how much fun they can be having with that extra time. “We’re all so much more fit, and have fewer responsibilities,” she announced cheerily, apparently using “we’re all” to mean “I am.” She refused to be sidetracked by Smiley’s questions about the reduced quality of life many older people experience in the current economic climate, and shrugged off concerns about sandwich generation issues by reminding the host that her mother died when she was 19–a seminal event in her writing–so it’s not something she has to worry about. When pressed, Quindlen admitted that a good bit of what makes aging wonderful for her is that she comes to it “as a prosperous woman.”

Well, yeah. And without catching her breath, she switched to chastising Americans for being too materialistic, another seminal theme. “We went on those shopping sprees in the 90s,” she said, “and now we look at all those storage facilities full of stuff and wonder, Why did I think I needed that?” (Maybe as a hedge against aging unprosperously?) I do love it when the wealthy counsel asceticism.

The Faith Thing finally came up near the end of the interview, when Quindlen explained, with long-suffering directness, why she left the Catholic Church–and why everyone else should, too. It Just Doesn’t Work Anymore, she sighed. Raised a Catholic, she married a Catholic, and baptized their three children Catholic. (“Of course, like every woman in America, I used contraception,” she laughed, “or I’d have had fourteen children instead of three!”) But swallowing the Church’s hatred of women every week at Mass finally became too much, especially as the abuse scandals came to light, so she said Enough. Yes, it caused hurt to her family, but there comes a time when you say, This far and no further. It’s only reasonable. When the Church tries to shut down “our fabulous Planned Parenthood,” who in her right mind would stay?

And for one early-morning minute, Anna Quindlen got me wondering.

What if she’s right? What if a Church that appears to kick so hard against what everybody else knows is the goad of human progress–the liberation of women from the shackles of sexual repression and traditional marriage and childbearing, equal rights (including–and does this smack just a tad bit of irony?–rights to traditional marriage and childbearing) for people of all sexual orientations, population control by any means necessary for the purposes of preserving a threatened ecosystem, moral choices based on personal autonomy and economic expediency and “what I know in my heart is right” rather than outdated codes that don’t account for scientific development–is an unreasonable anachronism at best, and a tyrannical oppressor to be overthrown at worst? It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d have been not just agreeing with Quindlen, but standing with her in calling for Catholics to throw off the yoke of Rome.

Instead, I asked to take up the yoke again. I walked back in. And I have all but committed those extra 12 years I may have–though God knows I am neither fit nor prosperous–to being as Catholic as I can, out loud.

I can’t explain it, this thing that changed inside me two years ago in Assisi, when there came a time when I said, This is not far enough! Further! I am not in my right mind. I am unreasonable. And on this Vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, all I can say is that I am, most undeservedly, in good company. Because the Trinity–the central truth at the heart of Christianity, the engine of Love that drives the universe–is not a thing of right minds or reason. It is the opposite of autonomy and expediency. It makes no sense. The Trinity is Mystery, and given my ‘druthers I will always choose mystery over what’s only reasonable.

But of course it’s not my decision at all. I am not (none of us is) the chooser but the chosen, called by God from before time to live in the Trinity’s timeless bliss when my time here–12 years longer than my mom’s or not–is done. The Church is the mystery of that Mystery embodied here, aged indeed and, in the world’s and Anna Quindlen’s eyes, both not fit enough and too prosperous. Quindlen may unfriend the Church for that, but the Mystery that is the Trinity will never stop choosing Anna, never stop calling her back, never say Enough. And that same Mystery will never stop choosing the Church, never stop calling her to account for falling short of the witness to love, never stop sending prophets (even self-appointed ones like Quindlen) to goad her into doing a better job of calling the world to true human progress.

So call me crazy. But when our days are ended, Anna’s and mine and yours, let’s not be caught looking back at lives like crammed storage facilities full of things the world sold us and asking, Why did I think I needed that? when all we ever needed was summed up by Patrick of Ireland in his great hymn:

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14873681229902155435 Brother

    Your Labels above make a nice freestyle poem:Aging Anna QuindlenLeaving the Church.Mystery: You Returning to the Church.[Blessed] Trinity Sunday!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00442985285647041700 Melody K

    Actually I was quite surprised to read that Anna Quindlen had left the Church recently. I thought she had done it years ago. I share your lack of enthusiasm for her writing. She belongs to a type of writer who universalizes her own experience and projects it onto her gender or age group. Gail Sheahy is another. The "passages" they write about are really just their own interpretation of their own experience. Those "twelve extra years" are a bit presumptuous. Every day I read about people younger than myself dying. Or even if we do get the extra years, they may well be spent in poor health or poverty (would be nice to get an extra decade between, say, 30 and 40. But in reality if it happens, it will be between 80 and 90.)I like your comment about the mysteriousness of the Trinity.Also The Breastplate of St. Patrick is one of my favorites; I like to say it when I have to do something difficult, that I'm not sure I'm up for.

    • http://rau.3littlefoxes.com LindaF

      I agree – those bloviated Baby Boomers who extrapolate their unique experience to ALL who shared their age range grate on me. How DARE you set yourself as the norm, and marginalize all who DIDN’T share your experiences as “not representative”?

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I gotta say, I’ve never been a fan of hers either. She has always struck me as a slightly more gifted, slightly more mature Maureen Dowd, more beholden to times and trends than is seemly.

  • abbe

    hey – I like your writing very much, and your insights – it happens that I agree with them: there are alot of women who are very visible, whether writers or “vocalizers”, who celebrate themselves and their notions as being shared by So Many….seems they are frequently the more left-leaning of us. And thus get so much press. regarding the idea of …. 12 more years, and celebrating it: my mother died several months ago, at a wonderful 95: I spend the last 15 of those years caring for her. prior to that, she and I together cared for my father, her husband, who had Alzheimers Disease. So, for 20 years I spent my lift as one-of-those-Catholic-daughters – you know The Ones, with nothing better to do Anyway, so…I’ll hang with Mom & Dad. I consider this time in my life as a great gift from God, to be trusted to do this, and believe me, without lots of help from Heaven I could not have done it. I miss my mother – I miss praying with her each night, before I left the nursing home, where she finally had to live. I wonder how those of our generation (I am 59) will regard their current fearlessness and confidence of a continuous wonderful life in about 20 years: I hope & I pray so very much that my left-ish friends, many of whom are atheists, will Hear the wonderful voice of God, sooner, rather than later. for me – I have to start all over, find a job, figure out what is next: and again I’ll trust God, and try hard to live in the moment, and not count on the material world but keep my heart open to God – its scary sometimes….I look forward to more from your blog, and thanks for letting me ‘speak’……

  • Jem

    I am a new reader. I like your thoughts. I will be back for more.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Being a Conservative male, and Quindlen writing from a decidedly Liberal female perspective, I’ve never warmed to her. But you are absolutely right about her writing – very pedestrian. I’ve always thought the only reason gets so much notoriety is because she’s a Liberal’s Liberal which brings a certain base of followers. I was not surprised in the least she dropped her Catholic faith. I’m actually wondering why it took this long. But then I don’t understand the Nancy Pelosi’s of the world.

    I’m very touched by your sudden conversion story. Thanks for sharing it.