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...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.