Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent Journey

Last fall we contemplated The Psalms in our women’s scripture study group. The study guide, by Jeff Cavins, is entitled Psalms: The School of Prayer.  The ancient tradition of daily meditation on scripture, Lectio Divina, came alive as we journeyed with God’s people to receive His blessing. As I reflect upon these responses to our Father that have been recited since the time of Abraham, I’ve new appreciation for the well- worn path I trod toward heaven. Nothing I experience is unique in the eyes of my Father. Modern circumstances may appear different, but when you scrape all the trappings back to the route of the problem -- fear, grief, loss, hunger, greed, anger, envy, self- doubt – there has been no emotional or spiritual evolution in the human race. In fact, it would appear our technological advances have made it more difficult to follow our primary mandate; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as our self.
In the Old Testament, God’s people had a long standing tradition to journey to the house of the Lord to receive His blessing. According to Cavins, “God has always been about the business of that life giving action we call blessing. He blessed Adam and Eve in the beginning with fruitful life and He renewed that blessing with Noah’s family when sin threatened to engulf life. With Abraham, God stepped in and gave a special blessing to help people turn back to Him, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:23-26)
This blessing was enough to send God’s people out into the wilderness in search of it. They loaded up their families and the first fruits of their labor and set out on long, physically demanding journeys to seek the blessing of the Lord. I have to ask myself if I have a depth of love for the Lord that would inspire me to make such a journey even once in my life, let alone once a year. Christians are called to walk this path each Advent Season with the Holy Family in liturgy and in spirit, and sometimes even that journey fails to become a priority for me when compared to the energy I expend on the chaos of the material aspects of the Christmas season.
The journey to God’s House is long, Satan is crafty, and we often stumble. Sometimes we stumble so far out of sight that we fail for a time to return to the path. Those closest to us, the people we love most and hope to share the blessing with, may choose not to make the journey with us. The blessing eludes us. We wonder, but fail to see what has been awaiting us all along. We rename and reformat our Father to fit our own agenda; we recalculate, listening to our fleshly GPS, and head off in the wrong direction.  
This year I had hoped to set out on a journey to seek the blessing of the Lord. I started most days with reflection on the daily readings of the liturgy and reflections on devotion to the Blessed Mother. I do feel a sense of peace that surpasses understanding, considering my circumstances. I wish I could say I experienced miracles worthy of an inspirational testimony, but in reality not much changed. Much like that first Christmas Eve, life went on as it always had; unchanged by the presence of the Savior.  The shepherd’s still had sheep to tend; but they had experienced the face of the Lord shining upon them, and I am confident returned to their ordinary lives with an extraordinary reassurance that God keeps His promises.   
The beauty of the liturgy becomes more vibrant each year as I have experienced my own passing of the seasons. “This too shall pass” has become ingrained in my reflections, but often I forget to embrace, “This will return; I will journey to my Father’s house once more. I will receive the blessing. His countenance will shine upon me. I am his beloved daughter, no matter where I find myself on the path. I am blest.”
I am grateful for each of you this Advent season and I pray that you have the heartfelt assurance of God’s love for you. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Two Funerals Too Many

I stopped blogging last summer because my funeral attendance record was rapidly mounting and I just wasn’t ready to write about it. Somehow writing about anything else seemed trivial in light of so much sorrow. My son was preparing to leave for his first year of college; a wonderful transition for him, but grief filled for me. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to gird myself for the silence threatening to descend upon my home. It wasn’t a good summer for my stepsister to commit suicide, or my friend Gayle to succumb to kidney failure from type I diabetes, or my nephew Cody, to put a shot gun to his head. But then again, it never is.

I don’t count my friend Gayle in the mix. Although she suffered from a disease that ravaged her body for years, she knew great joy in life. She left knowing full well the hope she had in the love of Christ. Gayle left a legacy of faith to her daughters and husband that will be passed on. I had the privilege of praying with Gayle and her family while she lay on life support and even with the ventilator and the tubes and machines assaulting her frail form, the peace of God’s presence prevailed. Her body had been through enough. Even when it was apparent that her life here with us was over, hope reigned. It is difficult to explain and I in no way want to minimize the grief her family is experiencing in facing life without her; but I experienced a sense of hope deep within my soul as I prayed with Gayle. I am confident the peace that surpasses understanding will continue to comfort all of us during this season of grief.

Mourning someone who has made the definitive decision never to see you again is a confusing process. No matter how many extenuating circumstances there were or how severe the extent of the mental illness involved, for those who mourn nagging questions lurk behind every gesture of consolation: “Didn’t you love me enough to stay? Didn’t you trust me? Was there something I should have done?”   I now mourn for two. My nephew shot himself on September 2nd, at his parent’s house, in the evening at around 8:00 pm.  I remember the date because it was the night before my 51st birthday and we were out to dinner when my husband’s cell phone rang.  It really doesn’t matter, but little details like that stick and force the unthinkable into the realm of what is real.

My stepsister Kirsten died on June 5th, the night before my husband’s 53rd birthday, about 8:00 p.m. I saw her about 6:15 when she stopped by with our parents: my mother and her father. We spoke briefly; I gave her a hug in the driveway and said I would call her for lunch.  I will always remember the look she gave me from the passenger seat as they backed away; weary, gentle and sad.

Kirsten went home and packed a small backpack with her identification, my mother’s Ambien prescription and a small pistol my mother didn’t even know she owned. She sent her note out by email and told our parents she wasn’t hungry and was going out for a walk. By the time her friend opened the email a few hours later, it was too late. Her farewell note was articulate and thoughtful; she was grateful to our parents and had come to very rational decisions about her inability to cope with her depression any longer. She was forty eight years old.

 Kirsten was artistic and found joy in creating and enjoying things of beauty. I had grown closer to her in the last year; after she’d lost her job, significant other and mental stability which left her with no option but to move in with our parents. She was, despite her addictions and severe depression, a really lovely and gentle person. She held multiple college degrees in various areas, including social work. She had experience as a counselor for suicide intervention.

Even though our step-sisterhood began in our teens, we held dramatically different world views which kept us from really forming any sort of meaningful relationship apart from our parents’ marriage before her world fell apart. In less obvious ways my world was disintegrating as well, and we began to reach out to one another. It brought me a deep sense of joy to become friends with Kirsten. Step families are an odd phenomenon.  I should know; my father was married four times and my mother twice. It is difficult to know how tightly to hold on to family ties not formed of blood; once the door starts revolving, will it ever stop?

I am grateful to have had time with Kirsten even though my hope of being an encouragement for her was in vain. We did have some good, meaningful moments together which are precious to me. We were beginning to trust one another; to become family. I am grateful to have been the last person to have given her a hug, and devastated not to have had any idea what she was on her way to do. As I help my mother sort through her belongings, I draw a sense of the longing for beauty, security and family which she could never achieve or possibly accept for herself.  I kept a few things to remind me of her spirit. I probably kept more than I should, because in some small way, holding on to symbols of what was good helped both my mother and I feel better about letting go.

My nephew Cody’s story is still raw. His mother Amy is my husband’s sister. She and her husband RV have always been fun, kind and outgoing. It is difficult to walk this path with them. Cody was three when I married into the chaotic family of nine children and almost 20 grandchildren. I will always remember the active, happy little guy with white blond hair who refused to come up from under my mother-in-law’s enormous dinner table the first time I came for a family dinner. I try now to hold on to him in those good, happy times: for his parent’s sake and for all those who are carrying the weight of those questions.

 An uplifting quote from scripture -- that consoling passage to help make some sense of these tragedies: that is what you’ve come to expect from my posts.  Articulating my faith, assisting others in the emotional leap from pain to purpose; isn’t that what good Christian writing is all about? Understanding the depth of that familiar passage in Romans 8: “that God uses all things for good for those who love him”. “All” as in everything. Slowly those realizations are taking shape, but the questions linger. They nag. They are stark realities, visual images that assault my senses. So my prayer now is very simple; I am praying that I am able “to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength”. If I can keep my focus on God and learn to trust him completely, maybe I will have something to offer others when they are in need of a reason to stay. Maybe a faith well lived will be enough to shed the light of hope on those around me, through it all.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Call from Beyond

Yesterday I got a call from Frank. Normally I would welcome hearing from Frank Fiorini; he had been like family to me, a favorite uncle. Frank was a fixture at my parish: the parish financial manager, trainer of the altar servers, co- founder of an organization named Uplift which serves the homeless population of KCK, and countless other things. Frank, a faithful attender of daily Mass, always greeted me with a hug and a gruff but kind word. He was like a burnt marsh-mellow, a little crispy on the exterior, but inside nothing but a bunch of sweet goo.

I miss Frank. He died last February. He felt bad one night, went to bed and slept his way to heaven. It was a great way to go, but I was irritated that I didn’t get to say good-bye. I never got the chance to descend on his house with food that he really didn’t want, or any of the other things we church women do for our own when they’re in need. You can imagine my surprise when his name popped up on my Caller ID.

I didn’t answer the first time. I stared at the phone. There it was – Fiorini, Frank. My thoughts raced. Was this possibly what Jesus meant when He said to be ready? Could I just be sitting at my desk one minute, and the next Frank calls from the great beyond and says, “Hey, it’s time to go.” Just like Frank would. No time to get all sappy and upset about it. It’s just time to go. No time to finish the scrap books, get the drawers in order or put color coded Post-Its on every possession I want to pass on.
The phone rang again. It was Frank. I figured I’d better answer it; how many times can you refuse to pick up when your deceased friend calls and feel okay about it? What if it was my time and I didn’t answer and Frank got mad and they sent someone else, someone I didn’t like as much? I picked up.

A familiar voice greeted me, but it wasn’t Frank’s. It was a mutual friend, calling from Frank’s house. Apparently, it was not my time to check out.  It was, however, my time to collect the donations for Uplift from our parish. Frank used to do it, now it’s my job. He never asked me to take over the task, but he used to call me when he was going out of town to see if I would go down, make sure the kids who wanted to help on volunteer day got a ride, things like that. Just a few of the hundred little things Frank took care of in our parish that everyone took for granted. They were always taken care of; until Frank wasn’t there to do them anymore. I’m sure there are dozens of people like me, who loved Frank, assimilating themselves into a small slice of the huge life he encompassed in a very quiet way.

Today my boys and I are going to load up my van with the donations for Uplift that are piling up in the church foyer and deliver them to the un-air conditioned warehouse in Kansas City. There will be volunteers working to load the three vans full of food and supplies that will go out for tonight’s run. Others will have prepared the hot meal for 150+ homeless people that will be served from the trucks. There will be basic supplies, candles, canned food, socks, t-shirts, bug spray, toiletries, all donated, sorted and distributed by volunteers from un-air conditioned trucks in 108 degree heat. The Uplift trucks go out three nights a week, rain or shine, heat wave or snow storm. The volunteers come from all over, all sorts of people from all walks of life.
Project Uplift, which Frank helped found, has grown to a huge organization, all volunteer run. For years Frank was involved in every aspect. He knew the homeless community; he drove the trucks and handed out the food.   Frank didn’t just feed the poor, he loved them like family – treated them as his neighbors. He didn’t talk about it, he just did it. He was the ultimate “fisher of men”; yet I never heard him say “Come and follow me”. Frank had already heard that call and he just kept on following.
Frank wasn’t one to talk about himself or his accomplishments, he just kept doing what he thought was right. He was an integral member of the Body of Christ that is my parish. I think of him when I look over to the pew he sat in for morning mass or walk by his old office. I miss the way he would tap his watch and shake his head when I was late for mass, which was often.  But he would scoot over in the pew and have a nudge and a smile for me.
 Frank was a foundational part of my church family. I learned from him small lessons, like always use my right hand in the holy water (something over looked in my instructions when converting to Catholicism) and big things, like what it means to feed the poor in a real and engaged manner. I miss him like I missed the expansive weeping willow tree in my back yard after it was struck by lightning: he was a fixture in the landscape of my church community. I miss him, but I see him in so many ways, living on in the ministries he fostered.  I don’t know if I will get a heads up phone call when my time comes to move on to heaven, but if I do, I hope it comes from Frank.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Trying on Gumption

               This is my first attempt at Flash Fiction. The contest specifies the word count be 500 words or less and it must be based on this photo.    I'm at 499 including the title.                             

"Trying on Gumption"

“Just turn left.”

Aunt Betty was sure; she knew those roads like the back of her hand. Uncle Levi didn’t like riding in the back, but at 88 he couldn’t see well enough to find the way and I sure wasn’t going to let him drive. Besides, it wasn’t his Momma’s place. He’d spent a good deal of time there for sure; courting Betty, cleaning up counters and stocking shelves for Fannie, his widowed mother- in- law who’d never made it to California. Two miles down county road EE from the church where they were all baptized. The church his grand-daddy preached in til the day he died, literally – right behind the pulpit.

“Betty, did you bring the key?”

My Aunt fumbled through the purse that swallowed her frail lap.  Betty, who’d inherited the land and my grandmother’s tenacity. Gumption, that’s what the family called it, “That Fannie, she had gumption.” I’d heard a thousand times while roaming around family reunions.  I pulled in and went around to help my aunt out of the car. The uneven terrain made me nervous; if one of them fell we were out in the middle of Kansas, not quite to the Flint Hills but far enough from the last truck stop at Beto Junction that I was feeling  vulnerable,  gumptionless.  

“Steps held up nice.”

Uncle Levi accepted my arm as we entered. “Put those in not too long ago. Had Billy’s boy down from Emporia do the work. He owns a good business down there.” Not too long ago was 1986, the year my oldest daughter was born. She just turned 25. I watched my aunt run her crumpled hand across the old counter top; gnarled roots of an ancient tree breaking through their foundation, making room for new shoots.

“Do you think you’ll sell the place?” Aunt Betty looked past me out the window.  I could see Grandma Fannie’s pictures of the sunset in Malibu hanging in Aunt Betty’s kitchen, as they’d hung on these walls for generations. They’d inspired countless cousins and their offspring to move on, to break free of the endless miles of prairie and good morals and see the world. I was one of the few who’d stayed; the most logical keeper of the keys.

“You know Annie, Uncle Billy’s boy; he could help you out if you wanted to fix the place up. You know if they put that strip mall up by the highway, you might even be able to open her up again. Make a go of it.” Uncle Levi paused and we all looked out the window and mulled that thought over. He didn’t have to say ‘now that your kids are grown’. He knew better to throw in the ‘since Bill took off for a Harley and a better sex life’. No need to say it, I wore it, constantly, like a uniform.  My aunt looked directly at me, sizing me up. That uniform could be refitted, as an apron.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

You Can't Save Them All

The sound of tiny desperate claws scratching against brick lured me into the family room. Entombed between the fire place and the chimney, a small life chirped for its mother. It was a stupid place to nest; the rim of the chimney, disguised as shelter. I could relate to that poor mother bird who’d attempted in vain to provide a safe haven for her children. I sat on the hearth a few moments, praying for a miracle for that one small life. I knew it was hopeless, but I wanted a reason to hope none the less. I thought of the small white bone I had discovered in the soot when cleaning the fireplace the year before. I cursed the man I’d hired to secure the shingles on the roof to prevent another mishap. Cursing was pointless now. I left the room with the echo of the pleas from behind the brick laced in my thoughts. Another failed attempt at prevention accompanied me to the kitchen.

The neighbors moved in sometime after we did, a year or so after our family of six settled in. My four children were young. Young enough to peddle tricycles and be pushed in strollers up the street. The woman was paralyzed, confined to a stretcher on wheels. Her husband was an older gentlemen, who I would often see smoking a cigarette as he walked his small white dog to the corner and back. On nice days he would roll his wife into the garage or onto the driveway while he worked in the yard. They installed a lighted fountain in front of the picture window of their one story home and although I couldn’t see her through the glass, I imagined she enjoyed the calming illumination it cast on summer nights.  I often thought I should walk up and introduce myself as I drove by on my endless stream of carpools and errands. But for years, I didn’t.

At Christmas we would take the children caroling and ring the doorbell with baked banana bread in hand. They never answered the door, so we sang “We wish you a Merry Christmas” on the dark front porch and left the bread. On Halloween we included them in our neighborhood tradition of “Ghosting” -- leaving treats and a paper ghost taped to their front door. Again, no response.

One summer I was heading out for a walk and they were out, so I introduced myself.  Jack and Lynne were their names. Lynne was very animated, confined to a stretcher from birth, she was now in her 60’s. Jack was a slight man who appeared a bit older. He was eager to show me all the work he’d done in the back garden. We exchanged emails. I learned a bit of Lynne’s history, her struggles with her disability and her love of communicating over the internet. It felt good to finally make the connection. They were nice people.

Lynne and I corresponded for a time by email. I wasn’t acclimated to using email yet and the frequency with which she sent messages was more than I could manage.  My older children were now teens. Clinical depression, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, personality disorders, you name it, plagued my family. They were like bricks descending around me.  Walls began to form. Brick by brick, diagnosis by diagnosis; my life was closing in, solidifying the distance I felt from my community.  I read the books and went to the seminars and prayed the prayers, but chaos prevailed. It came in uneven and unpredictable bursts; gusts of wind that sent my once secure nest plummeting into darkness.

 I sought safe haven for my family, using the materials at hand. Coping with chaos requires a faith and level of acceptance I had not yet developed. I was an apprentice at best. I slapped those walls up as quickly as I could, not giving thought to the world I was shutting out. Lynne and Jack were left on the outside. I just didn’t have time to focus on others; my attention hadn’t saved the ones I loved. I stopped receiving emails from Lynne, and I didn’t pursue to friendship.

The years past and the children lost interest in caroling at Christmas time. I didn’t see Lynne outside anymore. Dave, the mailman, told me she had been very sick and could no longer leave the house. I rarely saw Jack. Sometimes the garage door was open, but I never saw the van, large enough to accommodate the stretcher, come or go.  On my side of the wall, the counseling continued for a time, then  stopped, same with the medicine. There would be a lull, a temporary peace when the nest was intact and it seemed all would be well. Construction would cease but the wall remained, always a bit higher than before. Then things would get bad again, and the desperate calls were made to psychiatrists to refill prescriptions: the small terrified cry from the hearth once again resounding in my ears.
The for-sale sign was placed in their lawn last week.  I thought Lynne must have died. I hadn’t noticed the garage door open for a long time, even though it was spring. I ran into a neighbor who told me Lynne had died three months before and Jack followed suit last month. Cancer. I don’t know what became of the little white dog. I don’t know if Jack died alone in the house with only his frightened little companion to see him off to eternity; my view completely obstructed by brick and mortar.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Mother's Walk through Grief

Recently I had the privilege of visiting with Leslie McCullough. Leslie’s sixteen year old son Connor died last month after a seven month battle with cancer. I knew from her Caring Bridge posts that Leslie and her family were fortified by a remarkable faith. Many of the insights she shared with me about her life are worthy of reflection, and I hope to be able to continue to share those through posts on the blog. As Lent is coming to a close, I felt her most recent entry was so inspirational that I am sharing the majority of it. It inspires me to strive to carry my own crosses with an eye on glorifying God and I am confident all who have the opportunity to meditate on Leslie’s words will be inspired as well.

Leslie’s Caring Bridge Post on March 11, 2012:

Dear Friends-

Not sure if this will reach many of you or not. It has been three weeks since Connor went to his heavenly home. We have been trying to get details taken care of such as death certificates, cancelling cell phone accounts, reminder notices for 6 month dental appointments that need to be cancelled, etc. etc. Each time we take Connor’s name off of something it is a painful reminder that we will not have a chance to enjoy any more time with him here in this life. We all have what we have come to refer to as “Connor moments” where tears will come seemingly out of nowhere. (A special thanks to the Sprint Customer service rep who waited for me to compose myself as I could barely get the words out that I would be needing to cancel Connor’s cell phone account. He loved texting friends before and all through the time of his illness. His sticky fingerprints are still on the screen of the phone from the evening right before he had the seizure…) But those moments also provide another opportunity to look forward to the life ahead with him in Heaven and thank God for that blessed hope.

Meanwhile there are tasks here to be accomplished by those of us that remain and we press on. It is not a denial of the grief that we all feel so deeply, but a recognition that we have a solemn duty to move forward and serve God well with the time we have left. Just before my mother passed away 16 years ago, she gave me her Bible and a devotional book, Streams in the Desert, written in 1925. I have read it occasionally throughout the years since her death but not regularly. I happened (actually the Holy Spirit directed me) to see it on the table today and I picked it up to read the entry for today, March 11. I was amazed at how it expressed what I had been feeling these last couple of weeks. While knowing that there is a need to grieve, I also felt very keenly that it is a slippery slope and that if I was not careful, grief like quicksand could pull me under. So what is the balance? How do we as Christians, who are not to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), deal with our grief? I was inspired by what J.R Miller wrote in this selection and wanted to share it. We lost a soldier in this battle we call life--a strong, brave, talented, and beautiful son whom we loved and still love dearly. But what must we do now to honor him and more importantly to honor the God he served and that we still live to serve?

March 11 (Streams in the Desert by Mrs. Charles C. Cowman)

“Now it came to pass after the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, that the Lord spoke unto Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying, Moses my servant is dead; now, therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou and all this people.” (Josh.1:1-2)

“Sorrow came to you yesterday, and emptied your home. Your first impulse now is to give up, and sit down in despair amid the wrecks of your hopes. But you dare not do it. You are in the line of battle, and the crisis is at hand. To falter a moment would be to imperil some holy interest. Other lives would be harmed by your pausing, holy interests would suffer, should your hands be folded. You must not linger even to indulge your grief.

A distinguished general related this pathetic incident of his own experience in time of war. The general’s son was a lieutenant of battery. An assault was in progress. The father was leading his division in a charge; as he pressed on in the field, suddenly his eye was caught by the sight of a dead battery-officer lying just before him. One glance showed him it was his own son. His fatherly impulse was to stop beside the loved form and give vent to his grief, but the duty of the moment demanded that he should press on in the charge; so quickly snatching one hot kiss from the dead lips, he hastened away, leading his command in the assault.

Weeping inconsolably beside a grave can never give back love’s banished treasure, nor can any blessing come out of such sadness. Sorrow makes deep scars; it writes its record ineffaceably on the heart which suffers. We really never get over our great griefs; we are never altogether the same after we have passed through them as we were before. Yet there is a humanizing and fertilizing influence in sorrow which has been rightly accepted and cheerfully borne. Indeed, they are poor who have never suffered, and have none of sorrow’s marks upon them. The joy set before us should shine upon our grief as the sun shines through the clouds, glorifying them. God has so ordered, that in pressing on in a duty we shall find the truest, richest comfort for ourselves. Sitting down to brood over our sorrows, the darkness deepens about us and creeps into our hearts, our strength changes to weakness. But if we turn away from the gloom, and take up the tasks and duties to which God calls us, the light will come again and we shall grow stronger.” -- J.R. Miller

I hope this reflection is an encouragement to each of your hearts, those of you who have prayed for us, grieved with us, and cared for us in so many ways. Let us continue to encourage one another to run our individual races with strength, courage, and faith and when our earthly journeys are over, to arrive in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and hear the precious words, Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” (Matthew 25:21)

Blessings now and forever…Leslie McCullough

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Another Muse Bites the Dust

Spring is poking its blustery head out in a big way this week, so hat- wearers are facing a challenge. Beaver hats fair well against the wind and they  aren’t entirely uncommon, if you live in Wyoming. I lived there for a while and yes, I own a beaver hat. Very Daniel Boone, a great addition to the costume box, and practical in a state where fifty and sixty mile an hour winds are common place.  However it is entirely unlikely to see one prominently displayed on the head of a middle aged woman in Overland Park, KS as she enjoys a mid-morning walk with friends.

 So as I approached these pedestrians, this woman caught my eye from a distance. She was walking in the middle, a step in front of her comrades. Dressed in black, only the beaver hat caught my attention; I would have done a double take, but I was crossing an intersection and my mind immediately went into muse overdrive. Who would wear a beaver hat in Kansas, on a sixty degree day in March, in public for heaven’s sake? The possibilities swarmed through my mind. Maybe, like me, she’d lived in Wyoming and knew to approach the wind as a worthy adversary. No pesky spring blast would be blowing this baby off her head, it was genuine beaver.   Instinctively, I liked this woman. 

 As we approached each other, me in my mini- van, she leading her posse of beaver hat wearing “wanna-be’s”, I realized I was mistaken -- foiled once again by the wind.  Her chin length, layered, highlighted,  perhaps streaked, - or let’s just call a spade a spade,  - her black and beige striped hair was blowing up and around her head, with the longer back section forming a tail.

She was oblivious to the “beaver hat” apparition hovering over her as she marched up the sidewalk. I was crest fallen; a perfectly good muse, gone with the wind. A mere gust of inspiration, vanquished with one brief inkling of reality.  Such are the woes of the creative writer. 

I find myself challenged recently with many acquaintances who’ve done a drive by inspection of God and organized Christian religions and decided they didn’t like what they saw. No second glance necessary. No effort to actually learn theology or biblical teachings. They thought they saw a beaver hat whether it made sense or not. Something related to God made them feel bad, and that was it. The mere mention of God, the bible or the Catholic Church can send them into an emotional tail spin. And their beaver hat of choice is tolerance. They hate Christians because they are intolerant. They hate the Catholic Church for the same reason. Too bad they never checked the label on that beaver hat, because lasted time I checked tolerance and hatred couldn’t be worn together.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Satan Behaving Badly

            Why do we write? It’s a mystery, this compulsion to share stories. I’m once again participating in a creative writing workshop at the junior college. Its enjoyable, frustrating and tedious. Reviewing manuscripts of my fellow classmates always presents a challenge and a wealth of comic material. Not to insult their work; it is often very good and enjoyable to read. But the class discussion does illustrate this reality: each of us wakes up every day and we walk out into the same city, speak the same language and see a vastly different and unique world.
            In past classes I have been the only Christian, or I should say writer that chooses to include an element of my Christian beliefs into my work. I go in knowing my work will receive an emotional reaction. The mere mention of a priest, prayer or female bible study leader will set many readers down a path of deeply rooted “gut reaction” that has little to do with my actual plot. I have witnessed characters from science fiction novels who torture and murder their victims receive a more favorable reaction than one of my Christian female characters who has an unkind thought. Our feelings about religion, negative or positive, strike a sensitive nerve.
            This semester, my manuscript is number eleven on the docket. We review four a week in the three hour class period. The first week, I was surprised to receive a manuscript with a biblical reference in the title. It was a very well written short story, with even a fairly long passage where the character read the bible passage to her Sunday school class. Unfortunately the message meant nothing, to either the characters or the plot. I was unsatisfied with the story, because it was so well written and had so much potential, but ultimately left me with a cast of shallow characters who I didn’t care about. I didn't connect with them because they didn’t seem to care about themselves, or each other, or their faith. Waste of a perfectly good bible metaphor if you ask me.
            Week two presented me with an even bigger challenge. The manuscript once again was technically well written. It was the opening prologue of the second novel in a trilogy. The opening point of view character was Satan. Interesting premise, however this Satan was a bit neurotic and far too human to represent the source of all evil I am familiar with in the bible. At one point, Satan is having a flashback to a confrontation with Michael the Archangel and he states that he “behaved badly”. Seriously?!? Does Satan behaving badly mean he was inadvertently kind, perhaps he held the celestial gates open for Michael or offered him a cup of tea? Who knows, but in speaking with the author I did learn that he is aware his portrayal of biblical figures is not scriptural and he doesn’t care. It is just a story to him, and these are just dramatic characters.
            No one else in the class had a problem with that because no else saw God as real either. The bible is just good literature. It can be pillaged at will and no one cares. I posed the point to my fellow classmate, an atheist, that if I met your mother and decided she would be a great character, would it be fine for me to use her name, and fictionalize her, using only the shreds of truth about her life I found appealing? “Of course not, she is a real person” was my classmate’s response.
            God is very real to me, as are Satan and Michael the Archangel. Jesus Christ is “the Word made flesh who dwelt among us”. John 1:14   It is offensive to me when they are portrayed inaccurately. Moreover, I believe it is dangerous. Most people will accept fiction as gospel truth without ever reading the bible or any credible theological work. Ignorance is bliss. This week my manuscript is up for review. It’s a humbling process, but ultimately it promotes my growth as an author. I’m praying most of all to stay true to my faith beliefs and that nothing I write would lead others away from Christ.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hope is the thing with Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul . . .”
Emily Dickinson

Lent brings with it an opportunity to bear one another’s burdens and sacrifice in some measure to walk in the path of Christ. In the past week I have had this stark comparison of how two women chose to carry their crosses.
Maggie is a lovely woman. She is kind and generous and strives to love others – except her husband. We enjoy similar hobbies and spending an afternoon together now and then. I have become a sounding board for her marital discontent, which troubles me because I feel I should be able to encourage her to have hope that things could improve. Her response has grown increasingly adamant, No, I have decided I need to accept it. I married a man who will always criticize me and never see the good in me. Even if I am widowed I am too old to find someone else. To make it worse, my sister married the most wonderful Christian man in the world, who would never be rude or say an unkind word to anyone. So I know I could have chosen someone better. That is my curse. I made a bad decision and that is all I will ever get out of life for my punishment.”
Maggie even went on to say that when she was a teenager; she was sometimes unkind to her mother when she was asked to help with chores, so this is what deserved in return. I have no idea what Christian denomination my friend Maggie was raised in or where she attends church. I do know this; she is hurt and angry and has been for a significant portion of her sixty plus years, and is convinced Jesus isn’t going to help her out until she makes it to heaven.
So I was listening to my friend  - trying to find some way to witness to her - and came up blank. She didn’t want to hear it. She was bound and determined she had “won” the tragic life story contest, and there was no way I was bursting that bubble. I wish I could say that I walked away compassionately shaking my head, completely unable to relate to her sentiments. Unfortunately I’ve had my share of self-righteous pity parties and her declarations were familiar and disconcerting. I felt her anger, discouragement and pain. I also felt my nose rubbed firmly against that wall of stubborn self-righteousness. I know that wall; I’ve spent many years constructing one for myself.
Earlier this week I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending the wake and funeral of a young man named Connor McCullough. Connor was seventeen years old when he died last week. Connor and his family fought a courageous eight month battle against an aggressive brain tumor. They were gracious enough to invite our community to walk with them on that physical and spiritual journey to heaven. His family was such a pillar of faith and dignity: his wake lasted almost seven hours and his entire family greeted every person that went through the receiving line, which at times had over a two hour wait. Entire basketball teams attended, stopping to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Rosary with our catholic community.
Leslie McCullough and her family understood the purpose of our Christian walk here on earth, to lead others to heaven. And that they did - with hearts full of grace. Their loss is tender and sorrow filled. No mother buries her son without the deepest heartbreak. I understand my friend Maggie on one level, we are to carry our crosses, we get what we get and sometimes life is just hard. Some people won’t or are unable to change. But I watched Leslie McCullough receive hundreds and hundreds of mourners at her son’s wake with tireless kindness and I know there has to be more. Christ wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. Not when our circumstances are all perfect, not just when we make it to heaven, but right now.
I am not completely sure how this all relates to my Lenten sacrifice. I know that I often err on the side of self-righteousness and discouragement – not being able to see that God can and will use my trial to bring about His holy will AND that while He’s accomplishing His goal, my life will be abundantly full of joy. Not happiness in circumstance, but joy in the peace that surpasses understanding. The joy I saw on Leslie’s face as she beheld the witness her son’s life was for Christ. That is the  joy, the communion with Christ that is worth sacrificing for, -- even if it means tearing down a wall I spent a long time constructing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

If we try to escape sadness by seeking our consolation in sleep,
we will fail to find what we are seeking,
for we will lose in sleep the consolation
 we might have received from God
 if we had stayed awake and prayed.”
St. Thomas Moore

Today is Ash Wednesday. I used to look forward to the season of Lent. I enjoyed practicing Lenten Devotions with my children. We always had a huge Easter Egg Hunt to celebrate on Easter weekend. I felt the fruits of change in my spirit and the prospect of the journey of Lenten Devotion brought me renewed enthusiasm for my spiritual growth.

For the past few years this prospect of Lenten joy and renewal has been ebbing away. My children are nearly all grown. We no longer have an Easter Egg Hunt. For the most part my family doesn’t consistently participate In Lenten devotions above attending Mass and giving up meat on Fridays. But this year I am determined to make a good effort at the spiritual journey of Lent whether my family participates or not. That expectation may be the most difficult thing for me to give up for Lent. It’s 8:00 am on Ash Wednesday, and so far, so good.

Tonight I will attend the wake of a young man named Connor McCullough who died last Saturday night. He had been fighting a brain tumor since July. He was a sophomore in High School, a classmate of my youngest son. His older brother Clint is a friend of my son Andrew. I watched my boys get in the car today to drive to school, and realized the blessing of that small moment -- backpack laden Andrew carrying his guitar to the car, singing an impromptu version of “Mary did you know, your son would not drink fish oil” in response to a new supplement I had unsuccessfully tried to introduce at breakfast. Peter laughing. The boys waving goodbye from the car. Leslie McCullough will not ever again experience a moment like that with her sons Connor and Clint, and next year her youngest son Clay will go to high school alone.

My instinct tells me to sleep, these past few days have been heavy with the broken hearts of a community mourning their son. In my heart I know St. Thomas Moore was speaking the truth. – it is time to stay awake and pray. It is time to really walk through the devotions of the season with a heart for change, not sleepwalk through the motions. My heart feels weary, but I am off to Mass to pray for the discipline to stay awake and pray.  

Night Song

The chorus flowed from the palm of my son’s hand
Rhythmic text illuminating the lament:

Rest in Peace, Connor
Rest in Peace
Rest in Peace

No audible words exchanged
at the passing of a friend.
As one by one they joined the voiceless choir:

Rest in peace, Connor
Rest in peace
Rest in peace

A Silent symphony of sorrow

His mother, our own Mary –
blessed among women, sorrowing
full of grace.

Faith substantial enough to carry the burden
of her suffering sons,

Petitions to the Father for healing
their family mantra.
“Be it done unto us according to Your will”
their family crest,

Wednesday - a good night, family
gratitude, faith and hope – the last supper.
A mother’s instinct to savor
- to hold the treasure in her heart

The way of their cross not a dust covered road.
Linoleum clad hallways,
Scourged with cancer, chemotherapy, surgery, last chances,
911, ICU, a ventilator

Friday – she is a voice for a generation
who has not learned to speak.
Paul writing epistles from prison
encouraging those who might become weak in faith
in light of such loss

Saturday the Night Song swells in communal chorus
A mother holds her son for the last time

Rest in peace, Connor
Rest in peace
Rest in peace

Saturday, February 18, 2012

This blog has become one of my many projects left untouched in the past year. Turning 50 wasn't as upsetting as the passing of the previous decade, but a discouraging reminder that there are so many things in life I haven't accomplished. It isn't that I haven't had any good intentions or interesting inspirations, but my enthusiasm has waned. I am once again in a creative writing critque class and have dusted off a few old manuscripts for editing and submission. Hopefully the next decade will be more productive.

I owe a deep expression of gratitude to wise author who recently sent me on a mission when I related my list of "woes" relating to pursuing a career in creative writing. She sent me out into the publishing world in pursuit of rejection. She advised me to "get back in the saddle" and submit, submit, submit. Initially, my pursuit has been successful and I have a new rejection letter to add to my small collection. I was surprised that even though I knew the publication was probably out of my league as an unpublished author, the rejection email still sent me into the emotional dumpster. However, I have made progress. I only wasted one afternoon indulging in lethargic self pity: two episodes of Crimminal Minds and few Snickers were all the wallowing I needed. I think that's progress. I will most likely submit again.

Rejection, failure, lost dreams -- all of them are tough to take. We spent the last two days at the State High School Swim Meet. My son made it to the preliminary round, which is an achievement, but was sick the entire week before, and although he swam his best time ever in backstroke, he did not qualify to swim in the finals. He was the first alternate, and his preliminary time would have been the 14th best in the final round. But "would haves" don't count in sports, or publishing or anything of importance.

Even though I know these set backs are an important part of the learning process for both of us, watching Peter struggle through the disappointment is difficult for me. No one said the journey to achievement would be easy. This semester in our scripture study group we are studying the Book of Revelation. Not to be disrespectful to the sacred scripture, but it isn't my favorite. I find the imagery hard to digest. The author of the study stated that the book reveals our final exodus to the Promised Land. I like that concept and find it easier to relate to the text when I think of it that way.

Plagues, hardships, repentence are all part of the journey.Small disappointments like rejection letters and poor qualifying times seem insignificant in comparison, but the manner in which we view and regard these small losses will prepare us for the larger ones in the future.

Ash Wednesday approaches and contemplating what I should sacrifice for the journey leads me to self examination. Do I believe that all these obstacles are in God's hands, and that He has a greater good in store for me? Am I consistently grateful for my blessings, even when my hopes aren't met? Do my circumstances determine how I feel about God, or do I strive to love Him with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul and all my strength no matter what?

I am truly blest to have some many good examples of people who exemply faithfulness in their everyday lives. I hope as part of my lenten journery to share them through the blog. And yes, I may give up watching Crimminal Minds and eating Snickers as well.