Monday, June 6, 2016

memories and villages...real and imagined

There's been talk of a "village" on the internet these days.

From one essay: "When one of (sic) was feeling sick or needed extra rest from a long night up with a child, we’d swoop in and tend to your children as we would our own for as long as necessary — no need to even ask. You would drift off to a healing sleep with full confidence. We’d want you to be well because we’d know that we’re only as strong as our weakest member — and not only that, we’d love you, not with the sappy love of greeting cards, but with an appreciative love that has full knowledge of how your colors add to our patchwork."

As someone who has not, since giving birth almost 30 years ago, drifted "off to a healing sleep with full confidence," I don't get the current fascination young women seem to have with the concept of this "village" that helps you raise your children.

Apparently, in some land not so long ago or far away, women cared for one another in the fashion describes in the above fantastical paragraph. I have never experienced such a thing, and I know my mother and probably grandmother had nary a day in such a world.

I'm 51, which means I grew up in the 1970s. My mom had advanced degrees, but she stayed home, even after my brother and I started school. Back then, many of the moms in our neighborhood went to work during the day. I think our neighbor to the south was home too, but she and my mom weren't friends. She was at least 20 years younger than my mom, and they didn't have much in common, except kids the same age who played together. Their house, which sat back from the curb and was surrounded by a fence, was a run-down structure too tiny for the family and the dobermans they kept. Good thing the dogs stayed outside. That way they could keep better watch over the garden of tall, green plants that didn't smell anything like the cucumbers my dad planted.The plants smelled even stranger when my friend Jay's dad dried them in their garage. I wasn't supposed to go in there, but sometimes Jay and I snuck in (we used to hide in the doghouse, too, which was really stinky) but the garage creeped me out, mostly because of the poster with the colorful silhouettes on the black background, one for each sign of the zodiac. It was the 70's after all, so astrology was in, but even a kid like me, who had several pieces of Capricorn jewelry, knew this poster wasn't something a child should see. I learned more about sex from that poster than I ever learned in any class or from any parental discussion. Let's just leave it at that.

Creepier than the poster was Jay's dad. He was young and skinny and really ugly, with frizzy hair and a pocked-marked face, and he and his friends rode motorcycles. His daughter, Jay, was my age, and his son a couple years older, although he was only a grade or so ahead of me in school. He had at least one other child, a baby girl, but she didn't live with him. Her mother, whom he was sleeping with in addition to Jay's mom, his wife, would bring her over occasionally. Jay and I loved this, because there were few children younger than us in the neighborhood, and a real baby was way more fun to play with than a doll. We were 10 or 11 and getting too old for dolls anyway. Often we would go to Helen's or Terri's - the young moms who lived on our street - and ask them if we could play with their babies. Usually Helen just left her little boy, Jamie, out in a playpen in front of her house, while she stayed inside and watched soap operas and smoked cigarettes or something, so it was easy to play with him without even bothering her. We had to knock on Terri's door, and she never once said no when we asked to play with her 18 month old daughter. She would even wake her up from a nap if need be. She was so nice like that. And we could play with her for hours and hours and bring her back before supper. Sometimes we brought her back sooner, but only if her pants got so wet it wasn't fun any more.

We didn't like to knock on Helen's door because her husband Joe might answer. Sometimes he was in his bathing suit, which looked like tight underwear to me. I remember Jay once saying he should have been embarrassed to come to the door with a boner, but I didn't know what that meant, and I was embarrassed about that, so I just nodded.

I nodded at at lot of things Jay said. She seemed very wise and old, even though she didn't understand the things I did. She was my age but a grade behind in school, so I used to help her with her math facts. I got really frustrated when she didn't get fractions, and I felt our friendship begin to change, which made me sad. She was thin, tan, and athletic, and I thought she was beautiful. Even in my immaturity I could tell that she was really smart, but that something hadn't been quite right in her upbringing thus far. If we were friends, maybe I could help her. If she could just get those math facts straight, she might have a shot at something.

She didn't think she was smart, but she knew she was pretty. That's what her dad told her.

I don't remember when she told me her dad was raping her. I just remember the day she told me she started her period, and I didn't believe her, because I hadn't started mine yet and I was older and had bigger breasts. I was jealous. Then she told me she didn't mind having her period, but now it meant she might get pregnant from her dad, and that scared her.

I'm sure it scared me, too, but I don't really remember.

I don't know what I did next, but I know I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my mother or my teacher, or any of those other mothers in the village who were hanging out caressing each other through life.

I didn't tell Mrs. Todd, who was our neighbor to the north. She was at work all day, and I was only allowed to talk to her daughter Debbie, who was 13, through her bedroom screen. She wasn't allowed to come out of the house until her mom got home from work. I didn't think Debbie would have any good advice anyway.

I didn't tell Teresa's mom, who was probably home across the street, because she had her own kids to worry about, and had never really talked to me about anything other than what time Teresa and I would be done jumping rope, so I doubted she would be interested in the sex crimes and child abuse of our common neighbor on the corner.

I certainly would not have ventured around the block to talk to Vicky's parents. Vicky was just a bit younger than me - maybe eight or nine - and she never went home during the day, not even to go the bathroom. Even though she was old enough to know better, and even though we kids scolded her, she just went in her pants, right there on the sidewalk. Surely she had a good reason not to go home during the day, or even until well after the street lights went on.

I didn't live in a slum. I lived in an average neighborhood in a suburb of Metro Detroit. My blue-collar dad brought home a paycheck every week. My mom did housework and spent the check frugally, sewed us some nice clothes and made us dinner every night. We walked to the neighborhood public school, and my brother played little league baseball. We went to church every Sunday. Most of my friends were probably not being abused by their parents, but I don't know much about that. Some of the moms worked, and some stayed home. Some parents were divorced, and some swore and smoked cigarettes. My parents didn't, but they had other faults, as all folks do.

My mom had a sister and a brother, and each of them were married with six children. Both families lived within three miles of my home. My dad was one of four, and his two sisters and their families lived within the same radius. Any one of them could have walked or ridden a bike to my house, but I don't recall that ever happening. They were busy living their lives in their own neighborhoods, with their own stories.

When my brother or I stayed up all night puking, so did my mom (minus the puking part. Moms don't puke.) The next morning she got up at 4:30 to make my dad breakfast, then, if it was Friday, she scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom floors.

When the water heater broke and my mom had a newborn baby and cloth diapers to wash, she dealt with it. Dad had to go to work, after all.

When the next door neighbor (she moved away to make room for the Todds) came over to tell my mom her husband had been killed in Viet Nam, my mother tried to get my brother to be quiet long enough so she could show the new widow a bit of compassion. He was a needy child, so she didn't stay long.

There was no one to "swoop in and tend to the children" as long as was necessary. I don't think there ever has been, and I think this sort of stuff tends to do more harm than good to mothers who are trying to figure this all out.

The picture I've painted ain't pretty, and to be fair, it's only a portion of the picture. I was well-cared for. I was a sensitive child who happened to befriend one who was being abused, and neither of us could have been expected to do anything about that. My mother knew nothing of it until years later, and she certainly isn't at fault. She did the best she could.

I did the best I could, too. When my girls were little, our family lived in a lower flat in Hamtramck. Sometimes family lived upstairs, sometimes not. Sometimes we got along, sometimes not. Family is like that, it's OK. I had a husband and while we lived there, two more children came along. Most days I was lonely. I didn't have a car, and there was no such thing as cell phones and internet. No Facebook or blogs to read; no other mothers to reach out to or commiserate with. On my block, there were a few other young moms. One had a little boy, Bernard, who was my son's age. She was Yugoslavian, and she didn't speak much English. I allowed Bernard, who often had black eyes or bruised legs, to play in our yard. When he went home I could hear his mother yelling at him, and even though the words were foreign, I could understand.

I finally met another mom like me one day at the library. She also had two daughters and was even a Catholic homeschooler! We became friends; our families ate dinner at one another's houses, and our girls shared sleepovers. They moved soon after we met, and then again and again. It soon became apparent there was something unusual about the family, as they seemed to move almost compulsively, sometimes more than once in a year, even though there was not a job-related or financial reason to do so. Soon they moved to Florida, and not long after I got the news that my friend was dead. Her charming husband, with whom my husband had shared more than one cigar in our backyard on a summer evening, had murdered her before killing himself.

I live in a different neighborhood now; we've been here for 21 years. Most would say it's gone down over the years, but I think it's quite lovely. The widow Browne lives next door with her daughter - she was planting some annuals just this morning. To the north is a couple with two grown sons. One of them is in the military (a West Pointe grad!) Like us, they have been married about three decades and are proud grandparents. Across the street, Carol has done a great job of keeping up the yard after Carl's death, which is really saying something, as he was very German.

I have three boys still at home, although one is actually a man, not a boy. One of my daughters lives less than two blocks away, on the same street. My son, his wife and three little ones live one street over. My younger daughter and her brood are less than two miles away.

I look at them, and I see something of that "village." They care for one another so well, babysitting one another's children and listening to one another complain about their husbands, their children, politics, the way life is, or me.

They exercise and shop together. They have "girls nights" and google hangouts.

But truthfully, at the end of the day they have their husbands and their children and that gal in the mirror. They are the moms, and that job title indicates a one-woman show. I worry sometimes that the job is too hard for them, but mostly I worry that they don't recognize how capable of doing it that they truly are. I worry that they might be expecting a village when what they really should expect is that they can and will be the women they need to be.

To hell with the "village" What you have is an imperfect family and friends who love you and support you like crazy, one made up of individuals who are all truly trying to do their best at this thing called life.

You will have neighbors and family and friends. Some will be right next door, others a stone's throw away, but the work of daily living and raising your family is YOUR work - your precious, sacred, difficult work. 

When things are really difficult (one of your children dies, your husband has a heart attack or an affair, you have a truly life threatening illness) your people will come rallying. There are many who love you, and they will abandon their daily struggles for a time while helping your tend to your extreme situation.

But the daily struggles and challenges? Those are yours to carry. Don't worry; you can do it!

You will make plenty of mistakes, don't worry, and your children will remind you of them. Hopefully your children will then grow up to have children of their own, at which time they might realize that there really was no way for you to know about the child abuser next door, or any other evil you may have encountered.

Like every other decent mother out there, my mom did her best. Pretty much on her own, dammit. She made the breakfast and wiped up the puke and made dinner AGAIN. She poured the glasses of milk that we would undoubtedly spill, and she tried to be a good person and muddle through life somehow.

I refuse to judge her for the evils she didn't see or the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, when I think about Jay, I pray that she turned out OK. I heard she became a nurse, which means she probably learned those math facts. I hope that when she remembers our childhood, she remembers the fun we had playing with the babies, and that she knows I loved her, even though I didn't know how to save her.

I choose to remember the good times, too, which is why I don't write like this too often. Today it just seemed right to focus the magnifier on that sliver of dark memories that can still make me feel dirty and scared sometimes. The bright, shiny image of that imaginary village made it seem necessary.

My children and their children are lucky to live in a family/village that is wholesome and mostly healthy. There might be scary things next door but they are being kept safe; as safe as their very capable mothers - myself included - can keep them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

a time to live, a time to tie dye

I went to a really good funeral today.

And by good I mean good, really truly good in many senses of the word. The liturgy was properly executed and the church was full; there were moments of open grief, but they were balanced by authentic laughter. There was appropriate music, and very fine singing, and the altar servers were reverent. The attendees seemed comfortable - not as if they wouldn't be visiting a church again unless it were their own funeral - and the family was lovely, dignified, and warm.

A good funeral can have quirky elements; this one certainly did. Fr. Bob, who spent most of his career as a pastor in the Caribbean, offered the homily. It included a giraffe, nearly six feet tall and cloaked in tie dyed fabric (the deceased's signature style), and the singing of a modified version of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Quantum physics and a homemade board game focusing on the old TV show "Mayberry RFD" were mentioned. And yes, it was all good.

I didn't know Mickey well, but I believe he too was "good."  He was known in our parish for his optimism and joy, for his love of music, his family, and his faith. When I performed in a community theater production of "It's a Wonderful Life" with him a few years ago, I discovered he was also a talented actor. Unconventional and childlike, he was the ideal Uncle Billy.

As I prayed for Mickey and his family today, participating in this very good funeral, I prayed also that I would be worthy of a similar one someday. I decided the best way to do that was to live a life like Mickey's. A good life.

Mickey suffered a great deal in his final months. I believe that had something to do with the goodness of his funeral. Suffering and joy inexplicably accompany one another in this life. I imagine the latter is more rich and full after having lived through the first.

My 13-year-old son attended the funeral with me. As we walked out, I said, "that was a really good funeral."

"It was!" he agreed. "I want a funeral like that someday."

Me too.

I'm preparing by making today good. Suffering patiently. Smiling more often. Listening to more music.

I probably won't wear tie dye, but you never know.

It suddenly seems like a good idea, a very good one indeed. Thanks, Mickey.

Friday, January 22, 2016

for the babies and the mamas

I've never had an abortion. But that doesn't mean I haven't thought about it.

At the age of 20, I became pregnant. I was just beginning my senior year of college at a Catholic university not far from my home. The baby's father was a student there as well; we had met at a Halloween party the previous fall. I had been raised with the "Catholic values" that spelled sexual morality out quite clearly:  Don't have sex outside of marriage. Don't have an abortion.

I wasn't taught these things overtly as much as they simply seemed to exist; they were just there and they were true, like gravity or the earth's roundness. I didn't consider abandoning either belief in my younger days, as they didn't apply to me. But then I was a college student. Many students, then and now, experience college as a path to an exciting future. For me, it felt more like a path I could use for running away. My home life was unpleasant. I was a sensitive girl, and my father's drinking and the atmosphere of anger and fear was taking a toll. I reacted as many do; I coped by drinking and looking for places where anger and fear hid in the shadows where they belonged. I wanted a "family" that was fun. I found one in a group of friends; not necessarily a consistent group, but one composed of peers who came and went, young men and women like me, who were raised with certain values, but finding them too difficult or too painful to live up to.

As in all groups, there were values to live up to, a code of sorts. The code included sex, of course. Young women of a certain age were expected to have lost their virginity. (We all know a similar standard exists for young men.) At 19, I was well past the expiration date. So when a nice boy seemed to like me (he really was just a boy, and I just a girl) it seemed right that I should meet our "family" expectations. Birth control was not something most of us took seriously. It should not have come as a surprise to me when I found out, officially in mid-December when my mother took me to the family doctor after I threw up one morning, that I was expecting a baby.

I'm not sure if I was surprised, but I can name many emotions that I felt:  sheer terror, complete horror, and the deepest, deepest shame imaginable. After all, I was a "good girl." I had spent most of my life earning excellent grades, being honored with awards, offending no one, and going to Church every Sunday. But none of that mattered now. I was pregnant. My life was over. No matter what I did next -- if  I lost my baby, had an abortion, gave birth and gave him or her away, chose to raise him or her myself, or married the father and tried to form a family -- one thing would remain. The shame. The shame was forever.

Yes, I thought about abortion.

Women and girls I knew began to suggest it. They told their stories, and assured me I would be OK. An older coworker, who at 40 seemed so mature and knowing, told me about the baby she had aborted, whom she later named Morgan. She wiped one or two tears away while telling me, but she was smiling as well. She assured me that if I went soon, I could tell my parents that I had a miscarriage. It would be so simple.

Friends at school told me their stories. One told me of how much she appreciated her father taking her in for her abortion, even though he seemed very angry at first. Another reluctantly shared how she had been gang raped. When she discovered she was pregnant, she traveled to Texas to abort when she was six months along and could no longer hide it from her parents. It took an enormous toll on her, but she told me if she got pregnant from her current boyfriend, she would probably have another abortion, as the "time just isn't right."

I heard much encouragement to abort. One person told me that she would have told no one and had an abortion. I was being selfish. The voices were not only from friends, coworkers and acquaintances. I think the most powerful voices came from the world, from everywhere I looked. If I had this baby, my life would be horrible. I was a smart girl with a future ahead of her. Be sensible, it said. Do what is best for you.

I thought about abortion.

I was a smart, educated, thoughtful young woman. I knew right from wrong. I had the privilege that accompanied living in a white, middle-class home. I had gone to Church my whole life. I was a good person; one who tried to be kind to others and do the right thing. And yes, I thought about abortion.

I didn't think about it for very long. I had thought about it objectively many times, when it wasn't something that affected me directly. I had decided that it was immoral, meaning essentially I knew in my gut that it just wasn't right. I knew that each and every human life had value, and that just because a human was small and not born yet, he or she still had value. I could not have an abortion without violating my conscience. But for a time, I was tempted.

I was tempted because I am human. I was terrified and ashamed. As my friends began to drift away and my mother could not look at me for months, as I wept daily and could not imagine a future in which I would ever be happy again, I began to rediscover the God of my early childhood who loved me. I prayed. I asked God to give me the strength to make it through the experience. I accepted the love of the baby's father, whom I married one month after our daughter was born. I was blessed with the most magnificent gift a woman has ever received, my precious Rachel. As I moved away from fear and toward the God of Love, I was blessed even further, with  the perfect husband for me and six more children.

I can now look back and reflect on this period with perspective. I can understand the pain of my parents, who loved me so deeply and only wanted the best for me. I can know that those who shared their stories had their own reasons for what they did, and that they cared for me in some way, too. I can forgive my friends who abandoned me, as I was a sign of what might happen to them. I can forgive myself for the mistakes that I made, and be grateful for the graces that I received when I allowed myself to trust God.

But I will never forgot that for a time, I thought about abortion.

Today is the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in our country. It's a day to take sides; don't we Americans love to do that? I am certain that my Facebook feed will reflect these divisions, as my friends have varied beliefs. Some will post pictures of babies and pleas to save them, others will celebrate that women have a right to choose abortion. I thought about what I might post, and when I (as usual) discovered I have far too many things to say, I decided to write this.

I am strongly "pro-life." This means that yes, I oppose abortion. I also oppose many other things, like capital punishment, torture, and the victimization of the poor, elderly and disabled. But remember, I am PRO life. This means I don't just object. This means I support.

I support providing resources for women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies. I support making it easier for families to adopt. I support initiatives that provide for the poor, elderly, disabled and mentally ill. Most of all, I support a culture in which love, not shame, dominates.

We talk about whether or not we can legislate morality. One could argue, of course,  that all laws are based on morality. The truth is, abortion will likely always be around, whether or not it is legal or paid for by tax dollars. I don't know much about legislation or laws, and I don't care to become an expert in either. I do, however, want to become an expert in Love.

If I love as I should, I will do my part in making the world a place where the focus isn't on whether or not we can terminate pregnancies. I might be a simpleton, but I've decided that while my reach might be small, I do have a sphere of influence. I have a mantra: " I will do my best to love the person standing in front of me." I do not have to determine if this person deserves my love. I don't have to know if they qualify for benefits, or if they meet any particular standard. I do not need to see a list of their sins, or even to know if they believe sin exists. It matters not if they are a person of faith or an atheist, a hero or a fool. What matters is that I love.

Sometimes love will require me to challenge the person standing there. I might have to tell him or her something that is difficult. Often love will require that I be silent, which is much more difficult. Always love will require that I recognize that the person standing in front of me is worthy of respect, that he or she deserves to be treated with dignity.

So today we, many of us, will think about abortion. Some of us, including some people I love and admire and cherish as friends and family, will think about abortion and be grateful that it is an option for women. Others, equally loved and respected, will spend the day praying that no abortion will occur ever again, for any reason. While I agree with the latter, passionately, I refuse to attack or shame the former.

Each of us is on a journey through life, and I will not be so self-righteous as to tell anyone that I am in a better spot than they on that trip. I believe that most people believe what they do and behave as they do because they sincerely believe that they are doing what is best. They may be profoundly wrong, but they still deserve to be respected. They deserve to be loved.

I have some suggestions for my friends who join me in praying for an end to abortion.

  • Do not refer to those who support abortion rights as "monsters." They are imperfect, sinful human beings. Just like you.
  • Do not ask "What kind of mother could kill her own child?" I'll tell you what kind of mother could do that. A terrified, shamed mother, for one. A mother like me. 
  • Do not post pictures of dismembered children. I understand you want to expose the horrifying truth about abortion. Those pictures, like pornography, don't show too much, they show too little. They don't depict the horror of what the mothers suffer as well - even the mothers who don't feel they are doing anything wrong and never feel remorse. They also traumatize many who see them (especially sensitive folks and young children) and they often make those who support abortion believe more than ever that pro-life people are extremists who want to terrorize others to change their point of view. 
  • Do not stop supporting women in crisis pregnancies the moment they decide not to have an abortion. The goal isn't just to prevent an abortion. The goal is to help a woman become the best mother she can be. The goal is to love her so much she knows that abortion wasn't the choice for her, or for anyone. 
  • That girl who didn't have the abortion, and is now walking around ((gasp)) single and pregnant? Stop shaming her. Stop being scandalized that she is a visible sign of sex outside of marriage. There is a man walking around somewhere who is not a walking billboard of  that scandal. Encourage this mother (and this father, if you know him) to be the best parents they can be. Do this by example.
  • Stop the madness of telling your children that the key to future happiness is found in going to college and getting a good job. These things are fine things, excellent goals. But there is an incongruity in many Catholic families that drives me mad. We tell our children that they should welcome children, but ONLY if they can afford them. We shame members of our community who accept public assistance so that they can welcome these children, often while attempting to work and perhaps go to school. Treat each child like the blessing her or she is. Even the children that YOUR children have when you think they cannot afford them.
  • Treat those who disagree with you with respect. Don't tell people who support abortion rights that they are hell-bound. Don't talk about "those people." Don't say they are "evil" and don't say Hitler. Show them the love that every person - from the tiniest innocent pre-born child to the oldest pro-abortion atheist  - deserves.
  • Anger, fear, and shame don't change lives. Love does. Talk quietly. Be patient. Smile. Be respectful.  
  • Be aware of your own sins and failings. It might be very possible that some of these pro-abortion folks might be standing in line far ahead of you at the pearly gates. Only God knows their story - their experiences, the formation of their consciences. Focus on your own paper. Ask God to show you your own sins in a brighter light than the one you cast on others.

My daughter Lauren has four young children. The six-year-old boy, Zeke, and four-year-old girl, Gigi, saw the candle that mom and dad had brought home. 

"Mama, what is that candle for?" Gigi asked. 

"Yeah, why are we lighting this candle and putting it outside?" said Zeke.

Lauren took a moment before answering, contemplating the complexity of the issue, trying to come up with an answer that was both authentic and audience-appropriate.

"Oh it's just for the babies, and their mamas,"she replied. "To remind us to pray for them."

The children smiled. 

"Oh, it's for the babies and the mamas! We will pray for all the babies and the mamas." 

Today, let's all do that. As usual, if we listen, the children will remind us how to love. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

the real reason I don't want to win at Powerball

My dad liked to play the lottery.

Back in the day, in the 70s and 80s when he did most of his “gambling,” there was no such thing as the Powerball.  Instead he wagered on what three digit number would be chosen that evening. Most of his bets were small ones; a dollar, a dollar fifty – one bet straight, one “boxed.”  Boxed meant that even if he didn’t get the order of the numbers right, he would still win something if he guessed correctly on the digits.

Dad had a little notebook and pencil that he kept in the drawer of the side table. Stored along with the notebook was a book about dream interpretation that would, I suppose, help Dad choose the right numbers. I always found that amusing. He wasn’t a particularly superstitious man (although he did believe in ghosts) and he seemed too devout to me to entertain any sort of real belief in that sort of mysticism. I think it was just for fun. This means something significant. He wasn’t the sort of man who did much for fun, unless you count mowing the lawn in shirtsleeves with a pushmower after a long day of working on the assembly line.

I remember the evenings when I’d be getting ready to go out with friends on the weekend. Dad would be watching TV – I’m pretty sure it was Wheel of Fortune – waiting for the time when the numbers were drawn. It was at an odd time, something like 7:26, and there was a woman with an odd name – Aggie Usedly – hosting the show.  Funny that I still remember that after all these years.

So Aggie would draw the numbers, and Dad would jot them down. He won sometimes, but I don’t remember him saying anything at the time. It’s not like he jumped up and down or even smiled; he just wrote the numbers down and put the book away.

He said that “if you have a dollar, you should play” and “Every workin' man should buy a ticket.” I rarely took his advice. I did play once, when I found a bracelet at work, turned it into the lost and found, and was rewarded with it 90 days later when no one claimed it. There was a price tag on the back:  it was marked $165. Dad took me to Safeway and we bought a ticket. Of course we played it straight and boxed. I think it came up 156, and I won. I don’t remember how much, and I don’t think I ever played again. But I do remember going to Safeway with Dad and learning how to buy a ticket.

Today everyone is at Safeway or 7-11 or the gas station or wherever it is people buy tickets these days. With or without their dads, they are standing in lines, filling out papers with lots of red ink and lots of little numbers. Some are doing it for fun, others to join in the cultural excitement. I imagine many are uttering prayers as they choose the numbers, perhaps the only prayers they’ve said in a long time.  Certain that a lottery win would change their lives for the better, they cling to a hope that somehow, this time, things will go their way. They will win. They will win so much money. They will pay off their bills, and their mom’s bills too, and maybe even their rotten kids’ college loans. They will get big new house and some cars, boats, who knows, maybe even a yacht. And of course they will never work another day in their lives, and they will travel to beaches where it never rains and maybe even buy their own island.

And the decent people standing in line with all the other regular greedy people? When they win, they will do So Much Good. They will create nonprofits and foundations and charities, and they will feed the hungry and give clean water to everyone, even the children in Flint.

I don’t want to win the lottery, at least not one like the Powerball. It would do too much damage.

It’s not because I’m not materialistic. I’m massively materialistic. I love things. I beautiful clothes and art and everything you can buy at Target. I love to travel. I love food and wine and houses, oh man, do I love houses. I am still working to overcome the envy I feel when I see the beautiful homes others dwell in. I want it all so badly sometimes.  So badly that I thank God daily that I don’t have the ability to obtain much more than I need.

Even on a day like today, when I have only 39 cents in my checking account, I am wealthier than most people in the world. I’m not talking about the non-material blessings in my life, things like my health and family. Those things are priceless. I’m talking about money. I have a roof over my head and more clothing than I need. I have more than one coat and several pairs of shoes. I have enough food for the day. I have cleaner water than some people in my own country.

I don’t currently have a job or a steady income. My husband has a seasonal based commission only job. But I still have more resources, a better education, and better possibilities for good fortune than the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet. I don’t need more, and I know myself well enough to know that too much more would make it much more difficult for me to become the person I’m meant to be.

But you’re a nice person, friends say. You could do so much good with that money! Imagine the possibilities! That is true, I suppose. But what would it cost me to give away what I don’t need? Perhaps I’m selfish, but I want the joy of giving from my want. I want the experience of loving people by allowing myself to suffer a little to do good for them. I could have endless financial resources and I could give and give and give, but I don’t think I would be learning to love. And the world doesn’t need money. People don’t need money to solve all of their problems. They need love.

This sounds so pious and trite. I realize that many people suffer because they don’t have enough money to provide for themselves and their families. However, good people winning lotteries is not the solution.

The solution is good people giving what they can give, right now, today.

If you can offer a hot cup of coffee to a homeless man, do it. If you can babysit for a tired young mom, or sit with the elderly, or make your husband a sandwich, do it. If you can donate thousands, do that too. But don’t wait for the money to be generous.  You’re cheating yourself of one of the greatest joys you will ever experience.

And don’t feel badly that you can’t hand each of your children enough money to pay off those loans and buy their own homes. You would only be denying them the joy of earning their own way, or maybe the joy of learning to depend completely on Providence.

I suppose it’s simpler than I’m making it out to be. I don’t want to win the lottery because I don’t want to forget about that Providence.

I’ve experienced the indescribable joy of trusting completely in God. I recognize that He is responsible for every good thing in my life:  for my health, my family, my home, and yes, my money. Sometimes he provides by allowing me to work at a job I enjoy. Sometimes not. Sometimes he allows my husband to provide for me. Sometimes he gives me what I need through the generosity of a friend or a stranger, or even a program of the government. My job is to be faithful, to use my gifts to best of my ability, and to be generous. The rest is up to Him.

Yes, God might choose to provide for me with lottery winnings. Full disclosure:  my husband asked me to fill out one of those red inked forms, and I did it. When I’ve told him in the past that I would not want to win a large sum, he has assured me that he won’t tell me if I do. That’s fine with me.

In the meantime, I’m waiting on a sure thing. I am completely confident that God has me covered. I am honestly excited to see how He is going to work things out this time. He’s never let me down. With him, I always win.

If Dad were alive, I’m sure he’d buy a ticket, and he’d tell me to buy one too, even though I’m not a “workin’ man” these days. He’d probably even loan me a buck to do it. But to be honest, I’d rather have Dad here to take me to Safeway just one more time than win any lottery.  Maybe I’ll see if Mom has any of his old notebooks filled with numbers tucked away somewhere. She might even have one of those dream books. But I don’t need one to guide me. I know what my dreams mean. And I know the ones that come true – and the ones I still hold deep in my heart – have nothing at all to do with lottery winnings.

Monday, January 11, 2016


I've been putting this off.

The first month, I told myself I was in recovery. November has always been cruel to me anyway, so I didn't need much of an excuse to hide from myself and everyone else. The days were getting shorter and even though the weather was milder than usual, I needed to be safe. So I laid low. And I didn't write.

By December I was feeling more like my old self. I was tired of being exasperated. I allowed myself to feel deeply, profoundly relieved. I began to gain awareness of the fact that they did not deserve me and that while I had indeed been abused (and this is not just hyperbole or popular me-speak) I had also been freed. It was up to me to let go of all of it, everything. I allowed myself to feel angry at people who lied, demeaned and I-want-to-spit-I'm-so-pissed micromanaged the hell out of me. I felt it and I let it go, at least ten times a day, and then I did it again until I got tired of that too. But I still didn't write.

I prayed. I went to Mass almost every day. I took photos of things, mostly trees, but sometimes dogs, small people, rocks and flowers, things like that. That was praying too. It was mid-December and it was time to be busy, so I shopped and wrapped and cried less often and started to feel more sorry for them than I did for myself. I sat in an almost empty church on a Tuesday morning, and for two and a half hours I prayed and finally, I wrote something. It was in longhand and lots of things were crossed out. I reread it only once, the other day, and I liked the part at the end where I said I would wait at the well until I knew what to do next.

Now it's time to do what's next.

I've been putting it off, oh hell yeah I've been putting it off. I've been CLEANING OUT THE LINEN CLOSET. I've been prettying up the house with things like vinyl stickers of branches with three dimensional birds. I've been buying little crafty things like birdhouses that need to be painted and I've even colored in one of those coloring books that I got for Christmas, just like every other middle aged woman in America.

Oh dear God Cathy, will you just do it?

I thought about writing a fairy tale, and I still might. Joey thought about taking a course in Understanding Fairy Tales, and it was offered at a fine university, so that's a real thing, y'all. My story would (or will) begin with a Beautiful Princess who didn't know she was beautiful, of course. She ended up trapped in a castle with an Evil Ogre, but she remembered the Secret Box she had hidden away, you know, the one with all the awesome powers in it, and she used it get herself the hell out of there. The end.

So while I'm figuring out what to write about and how to do that, I'm going to go back to taking back the things I gave away. My words and my faith are mine. They will both do me good, and good is what I deserve and demand.

I've been putting this off.

Monday, June 22, 2015

loose change

A blind beggar sits, head lowered, hand begging for money.
 Etching by J. Zubau, 1865.
Why is it, when life reminds me that I’m a jerk, I’m so taken aback? Why am I continually surprised by my lack of generosity, my selfishness?

I tell myself daily that I’m a good Christian woman. I drive to work singing along to KLOVE and saying my morning prayer of praise/don’t let me hurt anyone today. Then I encounter someone who needs help, or is rude, or hurried, and I digress to what I truly am:  a self-centered ingrate.

The woman at the corner of the Davison and Livernois wasn’t very attractive. Her teeth were rotten and gappy; her pants were too tight and her shirt was dirty. I wondered why she put that big rock on her purse that she left at the base of the street sign. Did she think it would blow away? Did she suppose that the stone would deter a would-be thief? The purse was cheap; it couldn’t have contained anything of value. And if it did, why was she begging?

She held out her hand defiantly. How rude. Why does she think we owe her something? She held up five fingers and approached each car. Does she assume we are all wealthy commuters with at least five dollars to spare?

I could have kept my eyes focused forward. It would have been easy to ignore her. My window was up and my door was locked. As I waited in the left turn lane, I could have pretended not to notice her. But something compelled me to open my window a crack. “Honey, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to spare.”

I told her the truth, more or less. I knew that I didn’t have any bills in my wallet. I rarely did. Like most folks of my status, I use debit and credit cards almost exclusively.  And I really am cash-poor, I reminded myself. It was rare that I had anything left in my account in the days before pay day.

She was ticked. She looked at me in disgust and shook her head. “Even a dime? You don’t have a dime?”

I was ticked now too. “No, I don’t have a penny, I’m serious!”

It was a lie but it didn’t feel like it, not at all.

I drove a block or two before I checked my change purse. It was fairly full; the coins added up to at least two and a half bucks.

My face felt hot. Should I go back? The other day, when I saw that sweet old man on Six Mile, I almost turned around. He had a cardboard sign with “God bless you” scrawled on it. He certainly needed my help in a way this woman did not, I was patently sure of it.

I looked in the rear view mirror and applied my favorite lipstick:  Clinique’s “extreme pink.” I only buy it twice a year when I can get a gift with purchase at Macy’s.

Maybe I’ll stop tomorrow.  I could hand her the lipstick along with my wallet, and it wouldn’t be enough to cover the imperfections, neither her obvious ones nor mine that I hide so effectively each day. I know that I won’t stop; my wants have become needs. I’ve been blinded.

So I sit at my desk and type, and drink hot coffee from a pretty mug. Will I see? Can I change? Who is the blind beggar most in need? 

I’m a good Christian woman. Don’t let me hurt anyone today.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

lost and found

Several weeks ago, I lost the diamond from my engagement ring.

I was driving to work. I looked down at my left hand and where the stone should have been, only prongs remained.

I had been going through a few “rough months.” I was waiting for an answer to an important prayer, and it was taking much longer than I expected. (What else is new? I eventually got an answer, by the way. It was no.)  So as I looked down at my diamond-less ring, I reacted in the only way that made sense. After gasping with surprise, I laughed.

Really?” I said out loud. “Really???” Then I laughed some more.

When I got to work I took off the ring and put it in my wallet. I didn’t tell any of my coworkers, and I thought about whether or not I’d tell my husband about it when I got home.  I thought about the day he gave me that ring. We were 20 years old; I was pregnant and finishing my senior year of college. He had dropped out and was delivering pizzas. We stood in front of the Christmas tree at his house, which was decorated only with a cardinal ornament that reminded Aaron of his dad, who had died six years earlier. Aaron put the ring on my finger and I said yes, which at that point was really just a formality.

The diamond was tiny, but it was a marquis cut, which he knew I would like. He paid $500 for it, which was far more than he could afford. It had been on my finger for almost 30 years; since I only took it off a handful of times, my finger had “aged” around it. The spot where it stayed was much smaller than the rest of my finger.  It was as if the ring hid a part of me, a part that was allowed to remain young.

Because I’m not good at keeping secrets or sorrows to myself, I told Aaron later that day. I was surprised that he wasn’t very upset. He tends to be much more sentimental than I am, one who embraces a significance in material things that I choose to downplay.  This time, he was peaceful. “Don’t cry, honey. It’s all right.”

I took the ring off and put it away. I still have a tiny ring on my left hand – an “anniversary band” that we bought just a couple years after we married. The diamonds are so small they are almost invisible. It’s fine, I tell myself. I don’t need an engagement ring anymore, right? I’m an old married lady.

In a few months we will celebrate our 29th anniversary. In a time when families crumble more often than they stand, when the meaning of everything from gender to sexuality to marriage itself is being questioned and redefined, this seems miraculous.

How did two immature young people, unequipped for life, ignorant about everything, outlive the diamond?

I want to write with wisdom about the how. I want to say that I know now what it means to give yourself fully to another, to forgive unimaginable wrongs, to grow together instead of apart. I want to know why we have outlasted the diamond, so that I can tell my children and grandchildren. I want to be able to shout, “Do THIS! This is how you will survive! This is the secret!”

Instead I can only say that there is no formula to follow. There is only one thing you can do. Don’t quit.

When you have done something terrible, and you hate yourself and know your spouse should hate you too…don’t quit.

When you look across the table and wonder who is sitting there with you, and think you will never have another word to say…don’t quit.

When you are so tired, so, so tired of fighting or not fighting, tired of life, tired of struggling to pay bills or make money, tired of working, tired of the same four walls and the same sameness…don’t quit.

Perhaps there is one more thing you must do.  Make room for grace.

Because there is nothing that you can do completely on your own to make a marriage last. And please know that I am talking about good marriages here, marriages that are valid and meant to be, marriages that have not been nulled by abuse or neglect. This is not an indictment of the divorced, of those who had to leave marriages that never really existed.

This is just a word for people like me; people who wonder how in the world we are actually doing this.  Don’t quit. Make room for grace.

I have mentioned some challenges but grace opens my eyes and all I can see right now, in this moment, is blessings. When I look in my husband’s eyes, a fleeting memory is reflected:  a young man holds out a tiny diamond and gives it to me, trusting that I will accept it.

I can see the joy and exquisite beauty brought into the world by each of our children, the unique people that would not exist if we hadn’t taken this outrageous risk and been open to each other and new life.

I remember the death of our daughter and the way that she forged a bond between us that will never be broken.

I find that I am a better woman because of this man. I believe that he is a better man because of me.

I look around my tiny house, my little world, and it overflows with brokenness and sorrow and so much love and joy and so many PEOPLE (how are there so many people?! The children! The grandchildren! Look what we have done!) and I realize that there is not a large enough diamond in the world with value to rival this: THIS life that we have because we do not quit and we make room for grace.

Today I found this. I wasn’t sure when I began writing what I would find, but that’s how it is sometimes. We lose many things, no? That isn’t what matters, when it’s all said and done.

I pray that I may continue to find, through persistence and grace, that we have done just what we set out to do, perhaps without even knowing it. We will have found Love, which is God himself

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

what next?

Yesterday I wished one of my sons well as he set off for a trip to Europe. Venturing to Spain’s Camino de Santiago, he is one of a group of pilgrims who will walk the ancient trail together. His goal is discernment, or at least that’s what I’m told. He is, unlike his mother, extraordinarily private. While his career course seems set (he is well into his nursing studies) his vocation has not yet been decided. Will he marry someday? Remain single? Become a priest?  I don’t think he knows yet, and I’m certain I can’t predict his future. I am convinced, however, that he was on the right path long before he decided to walk the Camino. He is young man of faith, unusual in his maturity and commitment. He asks God and then does the (to me) unimaginable:  he is silent. He waits for an answer.

I do not do well with waiting, silent or otherwise. I pester God incessantly, making that persistent widow who demanded justice from the judge seem like a tiny flea on the back of his hand. I’m more like a bee buzzing around God’s head. Buzzzz buzzzzz buzzzz…..Why God? When God? I don’t understand! Will you answer, God? Why not, God? Why God??? What next?

God hasn’t squashed me yet. I imagine He wants to sometimes.  But instead of a swatter, I imagine Him sitting there holding a flower, waiting for me to light long enough to taste its nectar. What He has for me is far better than what I seek, I’m sure. But in the meantime I’m just that pesky bug who won’t stop moving long enough to find out that I never really needed to fly away anyway, and I definitely don’t need to sting so much.

Let’s pack that ridiculous analogy away. It sounded much better in my head. I am saying something quite simple that doesn’t need insects for explanation:  I’m frustrated. I pray, and I don’t hear back in a timely fashion. I’m faced with decisions that present no clear choice. I am surrounded by companions who seem to be in the same spiritual boat. So many are unemployed or at jobs where they are dying a slow death…others are faced with serious decisions about their children, marriages, and parents. We want to do God’s will, but what exactly does that mean? What next?

I’m a bit jealous of my son, and definitely not because he gets to walk 164 miles in the next 16 days. While I’m happy that he has this unique opportunity (I am his mother, after all) I envy his ability to step away from his daily life and focus on discernment. While my vocation was decided long ago, that doesn’t mean I know what to do other than be a wife, mother, grandmother and person who tries not to offend God or my neighbor. 

Because, is that be enough?

I attended, along with my eldest daughter, a Called and Gifted workshop last weekend. We were invited to take an inventory of experiences that allowed us to begin understanding the charisms we may have received from the Holy Spirit. As baptized, confirmed Catholics, we have those! They are not natural gifts or talents. Rather, they are gifts that allow us to give glory to God in ways that we could not achieve on our own. They are supernatural helps that let us participate in the expansion of the Kingdom, i.e. they are super cool.

As we were confirmed in what we suspected might be true about ourselves (writing may be one of my charisms, administration one of Rachel’s) there were some surprises, too. Might I have the gift of prophecy, wisdom, or faith? Hospitality?  Am I called to explore ways I can be a teacher or an artist?

I was simultaneously overwhelmed and awed. God is a generous giver, and He gives these super powers to all of his people for a unique purpose.  But He doesn’t throw them out randomly like t-shirts at a concert. He chooses just what He needs us to have, and He brings it forth when HE needs it - not when WE demand it.

It was no surprise that my extroverted daughter and I sought out the presenter and asked her questions. How can we better discern our gifts? Once we do that, how will we know what to do next? She told us that (shockingly) extroverts like us tended to overestimate their gifts, and to rush into situations where they might be used. She gave us some useful advice, which I will share here for your consideration:

“Wait for opportunities to come to you.”

OK then. So while I sit here waiting for those opportunities… what next?

I tend to believe that God, the most cheerful Giver, rejoices when he finds a cheerful recipient. But He doesn’t want us to spend so much time obsessing over the gift that we ignore the One who gave it.

There are so many questions, so many decisions, so many times I don’t know why or why not. Do I have the means to find answers, or peace? I imagine so. I know I have just the right gifts for me, as they are the ones chosen by Someone who knows me better than I know myself.

The young men who left for that pilgrimage wore shirts imprinted with a verse that will serve as their motto as they travel.

Thus says the Lord: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
(They left out the end part: But you said, 'We will not walk in it.' See, I’m not alone here.)

One young man on that pilgrimage also carries with him his mother’s heart; her prayers went with him and she knows he will safeguard them and make them his own. They will travel alongside his requests and questions, and they might make it straight to the ear of God.  It’s worth a try.

So I’ll wait here on the side of the road for now, asking “where the good way is”. In silence? Eh, some mildly irritating buzzing may or may not be heard.  I will keep asking for those answers, but this time I’ll try to be still once in a while. I might even hear something other than the sound of my own voice, and taste something much sweeter than what I’ve been feeding myself.

For good or bad? Only God knows. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

challenge the process; encourage the heart (AKA "tick people off nicely")

Recently I participated in a leadership seminar. Using the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), we took a survey, tallied results, enjoyed a very well-done presentation and discovered a few things about ourselves and others.

The presenter asserted that all are leaders, but that we have different leadership “styles.” I think it might be more accurate to say that some lead more than others, that some are quite content to sit in the back seat while someone else drives. No matter. Either way you look at it, it was an exploration of who we are and what makes us tick, and I dig that kind of thing.

I scored pretty much equally for two types of leading – two types that normally oppose one another. Well, that explains a lot! I’ve been pondering them lately and come to the conclusion that they are quite accurate and there is nothing wrong with exhibiting both sides of the leadership coin.
I scored big in “Encourage the Heart,” which means I am able to recognize and celebrate the contributions others make. I am someone who “makes people feel like heroes.” I hope this is true. I do try to look for the positive in others and to offer them true encouragement. However, my other style enables me to call people out if they are messed up. I scored equally high in “Challenge the Process.”

I’m willing to experiment and take risks. I’m willing to tell pretty much anyone if I disagree with him or her, and yes, I will die on that mountain. I don’t care too much if people like me. I want to do “what’s right” and I’m not afraid to speak up. (Well, sometimes I’m afraid, but I do it anyway, because I HAVE TO.) This part of my style explains why my father would say, “Cathy, you’d argue with the Good Lord!” and I’d answer, “Yes, but only if I was right!”

I found it interesting that the presenter portrayed the CTP personality negatively. (Also interesting that I was the only one in the group who had their highest score in that category.) He said that CTPers could come across as harsh and difficult. Come to think of it, ETHers didn’t sound so great to me either. It was as if all those types did was “have flowers on their desk” and “want to hug everyone.” Ugghhh.

He also said I was “fascinating” since I was a CTP and an ETH. (To which I answered, “I am!”)

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if gender stereotypes played a part in our understanding of leadership. As a CTPer I was reminded I needed to “watch my tone” when explaining why things weren’t working as best as I could. As a ETHer I needed to “stop being so emotional.” To me this sounds like typical reminders for women who try to play a “man’s” game (i.e. being a leader.)  
In one exercise “team” members were invited to comment on which type was their friend and/or foe. Guess which two types got the least love? Again, interesting.

So I’m here to do something typically CTP/ETC/Me:  I’m going to embrace who I am. I LOVE the idea of Challenging the Process when the process sucks. People like me  are the ones who incite much-needed change. We are willing to say what no one else has the nerve to say, to do what everyone else might want to do but is afraid to bring up. I’ll work on my “tone” but, oh what am I saying, the hell with my tone! My tone is fine. I’m an ETCer too, remember. I’m always starting with the positive and trying to make others feel good about themselves. I’m encouraging and I love to recognize others’ accomplishments.

Any way you look at it, the LPI is pretty interesting stuff. You can find some info about the five “practices of exemplary leadership” here. (Of course the best leaders combine qualities from all five “types,” which include Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable others to Act, and Encourage the Heart.) Which one(s) resonate most with you? 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

sea change

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to go to the sea.

I've been to the oceans, both Atlantic and Pacific, and enjoyed each for very different reasons. At nineteen I took my first plane ride, solo, to visit Southern California for two weeks. There I met up with my best friend, who visited her dad there each summer; soon after I arrived, my brother and his best friend joined us. Renee and I stayed at the apartment of a family friend named Dolores. We slept on her living room floor, and took in a kitten that we found on the patio. At night we met the boys at the ocean's edge, where we drank beer, looked out into the black sea and sky, and talked about the meaning of life. It was glorious. I was very young. The ocean made me feel small and strong at the same time.

My visits to the Atlantic came much later. My eldest daughter fell in love with an east coast boy. She had met him online and we traveled to the region first to meet his family, then a couple years later to celebrate our children's marriage. In Maine we walked out on rocky shores to see the urchins. Later we soaked in sun and shopped in tourist trap shops and ate lobster dinners. It too was glorious. We made friends who became family. It was a scene from a book:  young romance, good food, and the scents of sea spray and pine.

I'd seen the oceans and I'd spent much time in pools, lakes and rivers. Sometimes I was elated just to swim in the local park at Turtle Cove, more than happy to relax on the pontoon near my brother's trailer. Sleeping in a hammock, I was rocked to sleep as I traveled to islands in Brazil.

I loved  the waters, from Lower Crooked to the Amazon River. Both oceans filled me with awe. But I needed the sea. Turquoise and exotic. Faraway and warm. For so long, I've dreamed of taking a trip there. And now I've gone and come back, and I've so much to say that I'm not sure I can. For now I just have to feel it, but I don't want to forget.

For many, this might be laughable. A trip to Mexico for a week -- so what? A stay at a resort with a couple thousand other tourists? Big deal. But for Aaron and me, it was indeed a big deal. We had had no honeymoon, no trip for a whole week together for just the two of us. That alone would have made this magical - the fact that we finally gave ourselves this gift. But the gave to me what I have trouble finding elsewhere.

Ten years ago next month, Celeste was born, and four months later she died. When I wrote about her in my book, I thought, at first, that I was done telling her story. Soon I learned this was hardly the case. I found her inspiring me to change and to help others do the same. She provoked me to continue sharing with all the gift that we each have in this one life. She made me passionate about reminding people of this. She made me want to live a life of courage and grace, the kind of life that she had lived.

Those who have read Celeste's story will recall (I hope!) the image of the sea at the end. I share an image of "The Sea of Souls" that I believe, in some way, will greet us when we get to Heaven. The water is a place of healing on this earth, and I have no doubt that an eternal sea will be a part of the glory of the Beatific Vision.

One of my goals on this trip was to photograph the sea. I have in mind a very special project for Celeste on her tenth birthday into Heaven. I knew I would feel her in the sun and the sand, and  see her in the sky and especially in the azure waters. Oh my friends, she was there!

One morning we got up before sunrise and headed to the beach.  I don't recall if I've ever seen a sunrise....and I know I've never seen one like this. The sky was cloudless, and as the moon crept over our shoulders, the smallest amount of warmth broke the horizon. As I took one photo after another, catching the movement of the sun that we scarcely notice once it reaches midday, tears streamed down my face. A man and his daughter walked along the sand. The little girl smiled at me and ran after her dad. I snapped a photo just as she raced by.  She was dressed all in pink.

I looked at Aaron and he smiled, his eyes wet with tears as well. He showed me the time. It was 7:23. Celeste was thinking of us; her birthday into Heaven was on July 23.

Another morning we took a long walk around the resort. There was a chapel at the furthest point from the lobby; it was where couples who wanted a church-like setting said their wedding vows. It had a crucifix, pews and a statue of Mary, but of course no tabernacle, so it was pretty but not truly sacred. On the way back we found an empty area of the beach that was quite lovely. Of course we stopped to take photos -- there was a perfect palm tree framing the scene of the ocean. I took a shot of Aaron and he took one of me. I glanced at the pictures and thought they looked great. As we started to head back, I was overcome with joy. The natural beauty was just so overwhelming, and I  felt such profound gratitude. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving, and my heart felt Celeste so strongly. I knew that she had played a part in getting us there. I imagined her grinning and hugging Jesus and thanking Him for giving her Mama and Daddy such a special gift.

I took a moment to close my eyes and raise my face to the sky. When I opened them I saw her. A tiny monarch butterfly stopped for a moment on the pampas grasses that waved in the breeze. I approached and she was gone, and I begged her to come back, but that's not how it works. When visitors come from heaven they are usually unexpected and their stay is brief. The beach was beautiful, but she was eager to return to true paradise, and I can't blame her for that.

Later that day, or maybe it was the next, I looked through the photos again. This is the part where I say that I could not believe my eyes, which is hokey, but it's true. That palm tree where we took photos of each other? Someone had painted a heart on it. I didn't notice it when I was taking the photos, I swear. And even if I had, it was still perfect. What are the odds of there being such a perfect piece of graffiti in such an unlikely place? The odds were great, of course, because there are no coincidences. There is grace. There is love. And there are so many blessings for those of us willing to open our eyes and see with our hearts.

So I return from the sea, to home in a land of snow instead of sand, but the warmth remains. I'm committing once again to honor Celeste with a life of joy.

She deserves that. And so do I.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Today, I turn 50.

Isn't it a funny expression, "turning" a certain age? It's as if I woke up this morning and noticed my eyes were a slightly different color, or that I had grown a tail. Turning is what leaves do....they are a brilliant green, then vibrant red or orange, then they brown and wither before they die. Is this the turning I'm to expect?

But I'm not turning. Not turning in, turning over, or turning Japanese. I'm fifty. That's cool. I'm about eight hours in and so far it feels fine.

Our culture tells us that it's one of those landmark birthdays that are supposed to be acknowledged with special events and gifts. That's cool, too. I like parties and gifts (and trips to Mexico) just as much as the next guy, and I'm happy to be experiencing or anticipating those good things. Our lives have seasons that deserve recognition. We are made for times of fasting and feasting, days of looking back and looking forward.

Since my birthday falls just before Christmas, near the end of the calendar year, it's always an emotional time of reflection for me. I'm a year older, and soon I'll be starting a New Year, with all the pressure to make resolutions and become The Person I Was Always Meant to Be. Now that I'm fifty I want to say, "I'm here! I've done it! I've figured out how to stop gossiping and begin praying every day. I know the secrets to fast, permanent weight loss and effective closet organization. I don't let the negativity of others get me down, and I have my dream job."

But I don't possess any of those things.

I know that I am older and wiser than I once was, but that I will continue to make daily mistakes. I will likely fight the same demons for the rest of my life. And well, if resignation is maturity, I'm finally growing up.

This is truth: we have very, very little control over the circumstances of our lives. Bad things will happen to us, and for us, and around us. And so will absolutely amazing beautiful things that we don't deserve.

We can't choose much, but most of the time, when our mental and spiritual unwellness don't prevent it, we can choose our attitudes. I'm going to choose a good attitude more often. I'm going to choose gratefulness and joy.

Last Sunday I attended Mass at a neighboring parish. I had dressed nicely, which I try to do when I go to church, but also because I'm vain, and I like clothes, and I was going to a party later. Objectively, I probably looked put-together. But I felt ugly. I felt fat and old and unattractive, and while I tried to pay attention to the service, I kept thinking about how I didn't like my haircut and that I still hadn't lost the weight I wanted to lose by my birthday, and that I wouldn't like the pictures that would be taken of me at holiday gatherings.

Despite my self-absorbed distracted state, I got up to go to Communion. When I did, I recognized a woman in the row behind me - she and I had attended the same high school. She touched my arm and commented on how much she and her daughter, who was with her, liked my scarf. I thanked her and told her it was a gift from my daughter. Then I noticed that her daughter was helping her stand. They walked together up to Communion, with her daughter supporting her the entire way. I could see the pain in her face, and it became clear she was suffering from some disability or illness.

I returned to my seat, ashamed. Here I was, about to turn 50, and by all accounts in excellent health. Yes, I have arthritic knees and my blood pressure and sugar are a little high now and then. But I can walk unassisted. I am not in constant pain. My face is not lined with suffering, and I look younger and healthier than many.

My good health is a tremendous blessing that I take for granted. So is the gift of my marriage, my children, and my large extended family. I don't thank God enough for my job, my friends, my home, or the many natural gifts I've been given. I'm blessed. I'm lucky.

As I left the church an elderly man came up to me. He walked with a limp, and he was missing more than a couple teeth. He mumbled a question, "What's your name?" I told him, and then he asked me how old I was. I thought it was an odd question, but I answered. "I'll be fifty on Tuesday! Wish me a happy birthday!"

"Happy Birthday, Cathy!" He looked me in the eye and took a hold of my hand. "Happy Birthday!"

Happy Birthday, Cathy. Yes, it is a happy birthday. I'm going to make it a happy year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"quicktakes" and TAKE AWAYS!

I was invited by another blogger to get back into the swing of things by sharing in 7 Quick Takes Friday.'s been awhile! I see the festivities have a new host (hello Kelly!) over at This Ain't the Lyceum. When I get done here I'm going to look up "lyceum." I'll get back to you guys when I learn more. :)

Seven quick takes from the last week? Not hard to come with seven things to write about. It's the quick (read: brief) part that challenges me. I'll do my best to say more with less and all that.

ONE: I got my nails done, and they look just like Dorothy's ruby slippers. Isn't that amazing? I can't decide if they are a little bit tacky or oh so glamorous, but I love them. Looking at them makes me smile and feel festive, and reminds me of the great time I had while my friend Debbie did them for me. Debbie is positive and sweet and when I see her, I feel encouraged (and a little bit prettier.) Isn't that what time with other women should do for us? Doesn't it often have the opposite effect? Take away: Do fun things for myself with fun people, and encourage others and make them feel beautiful - not torn down - after spending time with me.

TWO: Last fall, I bought a conservative grey interview suit. (I spelled grey with an "e" to make it sound more edgy, because it was not that at all.) After discovering, sadly, that I had no urgent need for said suit, I returned it. But no worries, my credit card balance was nary affected (let's keep the economy humming, right?). I went back for a jacket that caught my eye months ago...I couldn't justify it then, but I'm turning 50 in less than a fortnight, and it was deeply discounted and IT HAS A FUR (fake of course) COLLAR. I love it so much and it has such deep metaphysical meaning to me that I am going to write an entire post about it soon. Take away: Be yourself. Don't put on the gray suit or even the grey one if you are more comfortable in the moto jacket with the fur color and did I mention it's navy leather???

THREE: I got my hair cut this week. It is very short and the blonde highlights have returned. I feel like myself again. Take away: see points one and two above.
This picture here to the left is not me, not my hair, but I wish it was!

FOUR: I am really, really vain, materialistic, and self-centered. At least this week. But take a chance on me. I swear there is more to me than glittery nails, a leather jacket and blonde hair. Really. Take away: Don't focus too much on the externals. Have fun, be yourself, and then realize it is all fading, girlfriend. Prettying up the inside is WAY more important.

FIVE: I have been fighting the concept of "prayer time" for pretty much my entire adult life. The thought of entering my "prayer closet" is about as attractive to me as swearing off makeup, dying my hair and shopping. The phrase has always sounded overly pious to me. I'm one of those people who claim to "pray always," which means, as my son pointed out to me, that I don't make personal time with God a priority. Now, even though I'm often busy being vain, I go to Mass at least weekly, Adoration sporadically, and begin each day with my version of an offering. (Dear God help me survive this or something of that nature.) But a number of things have happened in my life recently that are leading me to the same conclusion. I need to make a specific daily prayer time a priority. But I'm going to call it something different. Maybe Inner Beautification Session or something like that. Take away: you can run from God but you can't hide. He is the initiator of all Good, and He Himself put this desire for prayer in your heart. Who are you to ignore Him?

SIX: It's never too late to develop a new affectation. I noticed this week that I now make "air quotes" ALL THE TIME. And I've begun to PUT THINGS IN CAPS FOR EMPHASIS. They are both such charming new habits. I can't wait to see what new weird thing I start doing next. Take away: Getting older is humbling, but it's also entertaining, if we take the time to realize how goofy we are.

SEVEN: I'm not too old to make new friends! I have met some really incredible people lately, and I'm excited to get to know them. I've been praying for direction in so many areas of my life, and one concerns whom I should spend regular time with. What is so fascinating to me is that my new aquaintances are incredibly diverse but all so attractive to me. The common denominator? They radiate positivity. Take away: Be positive, seek positive, share positive and LIVE "positive."

Head on over to the not Lyceum to read more quick takes!