Tuesday, December 30, 2014

THOU SHALT HAVE NO GRAVEN IMAGES--INCLUDING YOUR OWN






THE LIGHT SHINES IN DARKNESS,
AND THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME IT...

Advent was especially deep this year: the home-made cards, the counting down of the days with the vintage German calendar, the Office in the dark each morning, 7 am Mass, the walks around the neighborhood at night, the opening of the heart, the forgiveness of self and others, the planning of the December 25th dinner.

Christmas eve I thought to attend a vigil family Mass.

I loved seeing the families and the children. After weeks of "O Come, O Come Emmanual," as always we finally got to sing a couple of opening carols.

Then the priest gave his homily.

He opened by addressing the kids. "We all get excited about our presents, don't we?" he said. "Well, I got so excited about mine that I opened one of them first. And you know what I got? A selfie stick!"

I froze. I did not know what a selfie stick even is but I knew it couldn't be good, and I could also guess. (One brand describes itself as "a Selfie taking package comprised of an extendable monopod and a remote bluetooth button)" [sic].

"Anyone who knows me knows I love to take pictures of myself and my friends!" the priest continued, producing a wand-like object from his cassock and turned it this way and that for all to admire.

This, while a poor woman on the run is undergoing labor in a manger. This, on the night the shepherds watched their flocks by night and the Savior of the world was born. This on the altar on which Christ was crucified.

A selfie stick.

The "new evangelization" was complete. A Catholic priest, on the holiest night of the year, was delivering a homily encouraging children to shop, buy useless consumer goods, and take pictures of themselves.

You could say, Hey, give the guy a break, so he likes to take pictures of himself and his friends. But gone are the days when we pasted the photos in an album reserved for our cousins, grandchildren and close chums. The whole purpose of selfies is to put them on the internet in order to project in image of ourselves as loved, as thriving, as "happy." The whole effect is to hide from ourselves our terrible emptiness, our fear that we are not loved, our terror in this culture of success of being perceived as losers.

While I'm on the subject, since when did the Mass become a low-grade Oscars ceremony? As this one continued, we were encouraged to clap six or eight times. We clapped for the children who read, the parishioners for whom this was their first time at the church, for the choir, the people who bought poinsettias, for the servers, for the priests.

We clapped for everyone but Christ for the very good reason that you don't clap for Christ, you prostrate yourself before him.

And don't try to pin it on LA. You know and I know this stuff goes on all over the world.

The next day I hosted Christmas dinner for 12 friends. Just as I stood to say grace, one of them straggled in late and before even saying hello, produced a camera and started snapping photos. "Put that thing down," I surprised myself by hissing. "Do not post pictures of this on Facebook."

Partly I was annoyed at the boorishness of a guest who'd show up an hour late to a sit-down Christmas dinner. Partly the day before I'd gone to my FB account and been confronted with a ready-made Year in Review, "curated" by some repulsively intrusive marketing algorithm. How dare you purport to tell my story, to witness to my life?

But mostly that Christmas eve Mass had shaken me to my core. I have always been an abjectly grateful convert. I have always quoted Romano Guardini; "The Church is the cross upon which Christ is crucified." I've always known to take what I like and leave the rest, not in the sense of being a cafeteria Catholic but in the sense of realizing that the aesthetic and sensibility of the Church is not tailor-made for me, and that nothing trumps the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, that the insult of bad music, bad art, bad homilies and sometimes bad theology are to Christ, not to me.

But this was an experience I'd not quite had before, of literally feeling like I was worshiping at an altar of a different God than the priest himself. To think a selfie stick is a good thing, period, never mind a good thing to promote to children on Christmas eve, evinces an orientation of heart, a prayer life, and a lack of concern for the suffering of the world and the forces from which that suffering springs that are so diametrically opposed to my own that I quailed. "They have taken my Lord away and I don't know where they have put him," as Mary Magdalene said...

Listen, I'm as narcissistically disordered as anyone: probably more so. That is precisely why I'm so often before the Blessed Sacrament, more or less ceaselessly in prayer, and continually examining my conscience, more often than not appalled at the extent of my half-heartedness, my hypocrisy, my out-for-myselfness. I struggle constantly with the need to make a livelihood from my writing, and thus to make known the availability of my work and speaking schedule, versus the very narcissism of which I speak.

But it's one thing to be cognizant of our tendency toward idolatry and another to celebrate it.  

From the chapter "Notes on Consumerism" in Jeff Dietrich's The Good Samaritan:

"This process of substituting image for reality, surface for substance, began with the invention of photography a little more than a hundred years ago. Stuart Ewen quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes in a euphoric but prescient vision:

'For Holmes, photography signaled the beginning of a time when "the image would become more important than the object itself, and would in fact make the object disposable." "Form," he proclaimed, "is henceforth divorced from matter." Men will hunt all curious, grand, and beautiful objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.' "

I'm sure that priest is a wonderful guy. I liked his bearing, his voice. I appreciated the way he said the rest of the Mass. But I can't get that image of a Catholic priest, brandishing a "selfie stick" on the altar, out of my mind.


And we laughed at the silly Native Americans who feared the white man's camera would steal their souls.

MARY AND JOSEPH,
NORTH OCCIDENTAL STREET, L.A.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: L.A. CATHOLIC WORKER JEFF DIETRICH'S THE GOOD SAMARITAN



This week The Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper of L.A., has both a feature on and the review of a book by L.A. Catholic Worker Jeff Dietrich.

The book is called The Good Samaritan and I wrote the review--which was a treat as Jeff is a long-time friend.

Here's how it begins:

"A couple of Sundays ago, I drove over to Loyola Marymount for a reading by Jeff Dietrich, a founding member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. Members of the LACW run a soup kitchen in downtown’s Skid Row, offer shelter, food, and care to the marginalized and dying at their house in Boyle Heights, and regularly vigil for peace.

Published by Marymount Institute Press, The Good Samaritan is a handsome book — Jeff’s third — with a gray matte cover, ivory lettering and a raised illustration of Van Gogh’s iconic “The Good Samaritan” in sumptuous oranges and greens.

The essays are complemented by Madeline Wilson’s stunning black- and-white photographs and the superb woodcuts of Rufo Noriega. Printed on heavy photographic stock, the end result is just the kind of fine work we Catholics — especially we Catholics — should aim for: a book that demonstrates across-the-board excellence in craft, subject matter, layout, artwork, editing and publishing."

READ THE REST HERE.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A STORY OF A MOTHER AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL


Tuesday I received an email with the subject line "The God of Dysfunction." I opened it eagerly and found the following Advent reflection from Fr. Robert Barron:

"The opening lines of Matthew's Gospel-and hence the first words that one reads in the New Testament-are a listing of the genealogy of Jesus, the 42 generations that stretch from Abraham to Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, then God had, not only a mother, but also a grandmother, cousins, great-aunts, and weird uncles. If the Word truly dwelt among us, then he was part of a family that, like most, was fairly dysfunctional, a mix of the good and bad, the saintly and the sinful, the glorious and the not so glorious. And this is such good news for us.

Let me highlight just a few figures from Jesus' family tree. Matthew tells us that the Messiah was descended from Jacob, a great patriarch and hero of Israel, and also a man who wrestled with God. In a lyrical passage from the 32nd chapter of the book of Genesis, we hear that Jacob struggled all night with the Lord and was wounded permanently in the process. I imagine that there are some reading these words who have wrestled all their lives with God, questioning, doubting, wondering, struggling mightily with the Lord, perhaps even bearing spiritual wounds as a consequence. Well, the Messiah came forth from Jacob and was pleased to be a relative of this fighter.

Matthew's genealogy informs us that Ruth was an ancestor of the Lord. Ruth was not an Israelite, but rather a Moabite, a foreigner. I would be willing to bet that there are some reading this who have felt all their lives like outsiders, not part of the "in" crowd, perhaps looked at askance by others. Well, the Messiah came forth from Ruth the foreigner and was pleased to be her relative.

And then there is Rahab. As you recall from the book of Joshua, Rahab was a prostitute living and working in Jericho at the time of the Israelite conquest of the promised land. Are there people reading these words who feel like Rahab? Who think that their whole lives have been sunk in sin, who have become unrecognizable to themselves? Well, the Messiah came forth from Rahab the prostitute, and he was pleased to be her relative.

The good news of Christmas is that God himself pushed into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man. And he continues to join us, even though we, like so many of his Israelite ancestors, are unworthy of him. Like them, we are flawed, compromised, half-finished. But he becomes our brother anyway. That's the amazing grace of the Incarnation."

The reflection struck me as the perfect segue to the story below. It's the story of a wife and mother who I interviewed last year for a collection I was contemplating called Christ on the Outskirts. I don't know if the book will come together but I do know it is the best kind of story--full of paradoxes, swings from dark to light and back again, and thus human, true, and a Gospel journey with which I, for one, can closely identify. 

I've called the woman I interviewed Joy Shortley.
To protect their privacy, I've changed the names of the folks she mentions.
Here it is, a true Christmas story (and a long Christmas story: read it leisurely over the next few days if you like). May your own Christmas be bright.


PART I: THE BACKSTORY

Why don’t you just tell me about yourself. Tell me your story.

Well I grew up in a really wild place. I grew up in a suburb of NYC. It was a rough town. There was a lot going on the 60’s. Mostly African-Americans lived there. It didn’t really start out that way. It was really the center of Long Island and then this influx of people came…Anyway, I grew up in a strange place, for a white girl. I was always a bit old-fashioned in a certain sense. I was very naïve and Pollyanna-ish. Even though people were marching down my street, getting beat up…It was very…I had a very deep faith. I had no problem believing in God and Mary and Jesus and the whole thing. I loved the Church. I always felt at home there.

So cradle Catholic?

Yes.

And family demographic?

My father was a composer, but at that time he was a music teacher. To make money, support the family. He went on to not have to do that, to be able to compose exclusively. And my mother, believe it or not…my grandfather was a funeral director. The parish priest at the time said Chuck, would you do this, and my grandfather said Yes, so my mother and her two aunts, at the time the town I grew up in was a very beautiful place. lots of Irish, lots of Italians. My mom was a stay-at-home mom till I was about eight, then she taught for a while, and then she ended up taking over her family business, the funeral home, for a few years.

Did you have sisters and brothers.

No. Well my next oldest brother twenty-five years ago died of AIDS. And I don’t know why, but I feel like every time I say he died of AIDS I also have to say he wasn’t gay and he wasn’t an intravenous drug user. I just feel like I have to say this. Not that it should have to matter, but it’s always the assumption. He was just one of those people, I always used to say Nate isn’t long for this world, he was just a restless, restless soul. He just couldn’t be in one place for very long. Never comfortable anywhere. Everybody loved him, didn’t matter where he went, somebody could drop me off in Michigan and someone would say, Oh, you know Nathan!? So it was me and my two brothers, my older brother actually lives out by you, in Ventura [California]. I went to Catholic school in the early years and because my dad was teaching in the public schools, I was going into sixth grade…

How old are you?

53. Which I can’t believe.

Stick around, baby.

It sounds so foreign when I say it. 53. It’s like What?...Anyway so I was born in 1961 and when I was entering sixth grade, I couldn’t go to the school where my father was teaching. There was a lot of unrest, Martin Luther King…so a white girl wasn’t safe in public schools. I was happy in my Catholic school, but my dad encountered this teacher he really liked in another public school, and since he worked for them, I could go out-of-district for free. So he switched me from Catholic school to this public school when I was in sixth grade and I just didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t know where I was.

Cause the culture was so different?

The culture was so different! I remember meeting…someone said to me “Alma’s Jewish.” And I was like “Jewish? Really?"…It was shocking.

Wait, isn’t Long Island…there are a ton of Jewish people, aren’t there?

Not where I lived but in NY, yeah, you’d think that was so funny. But I was like Wow. So they’re the ones who killed Jesus. You don’t know how funny that is. I mean I came from this incredibly rough neighborhood and I’m shocked to meet a Jew! I’d hear gunshots and there were all kinds of things going on and this is what shocks me.

Now wait, are you Irish?

Yes. Mostly Irish. That’s my culture. And that was the culture of the time. That was how naive and insulated I was.

Go ahead.

So I was kind of Pollyanna-ish, as I said. I don’t know what happened, and I know it’s the diagnosis du jour, believe me, but since I’ve become a mom, I’ve had to advocate so strongly for my children, I’ve learned a lot. So I’ve discovered I have ADD and not only do I have it, I have it really bad. I’ve had it all my life. And it explains so much. It was a great relief to discover this because I was just like Oh my gosh. I get it now. Anyway, so I was socially awkward, I wasn’t athletic at all. Couldn’t catch a ball, couldn’t run, my hair was always messy. Didn’t know how to dress. I just didn’t see it. I honestly didn’t see this doesn’t go with that, this looks really bad on you. I didn’t get it, you know.

When I got to junior high, my world really turned upside down. I had an older cousin who I really worshipped. I just thought she was the greatest thing. I still do. I just thought she was the end-all and the be-all. So when I got to junior high, I’d already spent the summer with her. We smoked pot and we were sneaking cigarettes and that kind of thing and we would get some Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. So I had a little experience, you know, Oh wow, now I’ve smoked pot. It was a big deal—not to anyone else, to me. So now I’m back in junior high and I’m still a bit of a weirdo. I had this little bit of experience and I thought I’ve got to try to navigate this. Look around. So I picked the coolest girl right away, and I said Okay somehow I’ve gotta make friends with this girl.

So I did everything I could to that end. I bought new clothes…I was still really bad at it, but I thought This is what other people are wearing, so let me get this…So I got myself into this kind of rough crowd. The other thing was this was a wealthy town on Long Island. So they all had money. We didn’t have a lot of money. They were also way more worldly than myself. So I kind of got caught up in that. So the Church kind of became in the background. All of a sudden it didn’t have its appeal. Jesus wasn’t hanging out with me, you know what I mean.

Being an adolescent, friends are just so important. That’s what I did. I started to roll with a rough crowd, smoke pot and drink beer on the weekends. It didn’t get really bad. I wouldn’t really say it was a problem so much then. Well it was a problem, of course it was a problem. But it wasn’t impacting my life to the degree I couldn’t function. I was still going to school, doing my work, though as I said, I had ADD. Now it makes sense why I couldn’t get anything finished and stared out the window all the time. But anyway, so there was junior high and then my parents could see This isn’t working out for her. So they put me in the regional diocesan high school. There I was more comfortable. But the problem at the time, it was the 70’s, there were nuns there who were wearing more makeup than I was. There was all this social justice, end the war, that kind of stuff. And Christ was sort of in the background. He wasn’t really present. And I got farther and farther away. And then it just got cool to say This is bullshit. It’s bullshit. The guitar Mass…it was torture.

It still is. I mean the bad guitar Masses...

Right, and even then, I was saying to myself, one of the things that really turned me off, didn’t have anything with being cool, cool or not cool, was the music. I mean Why are you doing this? And funny thing was at the time the same thing was going on with my father. My father was just like I can’t listen to this anymore. So he stopped going to Mass. When I was at my elementary Catholic school, I sang in the choir, sang at midnight Mass…my father would play the trumpet and he’d get his musician friends in…Anyway, so I got away from the Church and that’s when things started to get really bad. Smoking pot all the time, drinking…mostly smoking pot. Everyone was doing it. Seriously, everyone was doing it. The whole school. And I just remember being so lonely and so unhappy. Really deeply lonely and unhappy. And really trying to find my way and trying to keep my friends from the other school, and I didn’t really have a friend near by me. So I’d have to ride my bike or take the public bus. I mean I did it, but it wasn’t like I could just run up the block and hang out with somebody. The other thing was my brothers were 5, 6, 8 years older than me. My older brother was in the Navy and my middle brother was in college. And I remember feeling really, really lonely.

Lastly, all the friends I used to have on my street moved because the neighborhood had changed so much. And they’d had 6, 8 kids while we only had 3. And that really bothered me. My whole life I’d wanted a sister. I said to my mother, Please! I didn’t know my mother had a thyroid problem. Both my brothers had been born premature. My brother that died was a twin, my sister, she had Down syndrome, died when she was three months old. So my mother had been through a lot. I never really got from her if she really couldn’t have any more kids or if she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. I never really asked her. I remember just feeling really lonely most of my life.

So then I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. I found out I could graduate a year early if I took this one English class. So I took it at the local high school which was funny…you have to understand the people who were in that class were the kids who’d been suspended. But I wasn’t as Pollyanna-ish at the point. So I took this English class to get out early, which I did, and then I went to this community college. Again, I had friends, I’d go out on weekends, like everyone that age. Same thing, drinking, smoke pot. I wasn’t really sleeping around then, because I was still a virgin. Then I met an older man, actually it was a friend’s older brother, and I started to have a sexual relationship with him. He was very good to me. I never felt he took advantage of the fact that he was older. We had a deep deep friendship for a long time before that happened. Then I guess I was about 17, I had a relationship with him for awhile.

And at some point he said, You know what, Joy, this is wrong. You’re younger than me, this isn’t right. I think we should stop. He was a gentleman about it, I guess, but it kind of broke my heart. I wasn’t completely devastated. That was another thing, I was always falling in love with people. Since kindergarten, I was always in love with somebody. Always. This prince was gonna come. I remember in kindergarten I was going to get married to Mark Stephens and then it was Andy Copsky I was in love with for three years. Like insane in love. Not rational.

I totally, totally get it. Love addiction or whatever you want to call it.

Yeah, always, always. And I remember people couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t understand that they couldn’t understand. I’d be like But I love him and they’d be, Joy, you haven’t even gone out with him. What are you talking about? Pull yourself together.

Right. And then would you be devastated if the thing ended?

Oh my God! Inconsolable.

Right?

Inconsolable. I can remember a few of them…one time I was working at Arby’s, and I met this guy, really good-looking, really good-looking. He made me laugh. And we got to be really good friends. Of course I fell in love with him within about three minutes, I need to say that. Well we started to date and it’s kind of funny now, but oh my gosh Heather, I was just crazy about him! He was so good-looking, and he was funny, and he was so attentive. Wherever we went, he would totally look me in the eye. You know how girls will walk by and guys’ll look at em. He never did that, he was a perfect gentleman, he just kissed me, and we’d make out, and oh my gosh, he was just wonderful. And one night, we’d been dating, in my mind, for about a month…You know what I’m gonna say, right?

He announces he has a girlfriend…

Right. So we’ve been dating a month and a half, I’ve brought him around to my girlfriends, they’re like Oh he’s wonderful. And I’m like I KNOW!! There was this other guy in the bar I’d been in love with and I’m thinking Ah ha, check it out, now I’m with this we didn’t use the expression hottie in those days, but I’ve got this hottie with me I’m in love with, so nuts to you. So all of a sudden the guy says to me, Can we go outside? And I go Sure! So we go outside and he grabs my hand and he holds it to his chest. And he says, Joy, I really, really wish I could be more for you. I wish I could be what you want from me. And I said What are you talking about, you’re wonderful! You’re like…oh my gosh, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And he looks at me and he goes, You don’t know? I go, Know what? And he goes, I’m gay…

I honestly had no clue whatsoever. You could have run me over with a truck. I had no…I mean NO inkling. I’m ready to literally faint. And I realize I can’t do that, I’m just gonna catch a breath and go, Oh! Okay…Meanwhile, it’s not okay at all. He’s like Well I thought you knew, but now that you do, you’re okay? Well I was not okay but I was like Oh, definitely, of course! So we went inside and we finished our drinks and I said maybe we should go home now, it’s getting late. I was driving, and I dropped him off, we said goodbye and the minute he closed the door I retched. I mean I cried for three days. I remember telling my friend Donna, He’s gay. She was like What’s wrong with you, so he’s gay, you have a great friend! She couldn’t understand…

That your life was over.

Right. My life was over! Exactly. People just aren’t understanding. You dated the guy for a month, what’s the big deal? And I was like sobbing…Inconsolable. It totally…and this is how it would be. In my mind, if these guys who I fell in love with, who had no idea I was in love with them by the way, or I don’t know, maybe they did, but if they wouldn’t talk to me or didn’t notice me, I’d be devastated. My friends would say What’s the matter? And I’d be all melancholy and somber: Oh he’s over there talking to someone else. They’d be, What?....Oh gosh, for years, like that. Since I can remember. My mother told me when I was three, I had a crush on my uncle.

That’s in a way a whole other conversation, though not really. I heard this woman the other day and I laughed so hard in commiseration. She goes, I just seem to feel things so deeply. Like I’ll go out with someone for three months. And if it doesn’t work out I’ll start wearing black and go around in mourning for three years. I was just like Oh my God, I so get it. I’m not sure what that is, but vis-à-vis religion, I call it the Mary Magdalene…

That’s exactly what I came to later on. I finally figured out who could fill me up that way.

Exactly.

But I sure didn’t know it then, so it was this constant looking. This constant desire to love and be loved in a real deep way. I was always that way. I was never…I was all the way, with everything. There’s no…I couldn’t finish my college papers but when it came to anything like that, I was…

On it.

All the way. Then I became that way with sex. You know, here’s something I can feel. I can feel this. But it always left me so depressed! But at the time when I was into it, at the moment, I thought Okay it’s satisfying me for now, but it’s making me feel way lonelier after the fact. And then everyone around you telling you that No you don’t really feel that way. You don’t really feel bad about this.

Right. The sense that you’re crazy. Cause you partly are…But in another way, don’t you feel, it’s that holy longing. The attraction to the beauty itself, and the kind of window onto divinity that every human being is. Unfortunately, though, we long too hard. We attach to it. We want it to fix it, to fill that void. And then it gets obsessive and addictive. It can just get weird.

And twisted.

And really not love at all. But you’re in agony.

Total, just total. So much of me…it was just this huge thing. Even in high school, it was always a guy. High school, it was Andy Mullen. The poor guy, if he had any idea, he just sat in my math class, he had no idea…

That they represent life.

And I honestly would…if he…here’s the thing, because I was so much that way, I think I turned people off. Cause a normal quote unquote girl would just be like “Hey, how’re ya doin. What’re you workin on. Oh you’re on the football team, that’s cool.” I couldn’t even do that. I couldn’t even talk. It’d be like Oh my God, there He is…

Capital H: Him. Like we capitalize God. I so have that. That is actually a condition. A spiritual, psychological, and in a way a religious condition. And we don’t hear that much about it. We hear sex and love addiction. That’s the closest we get to categorizing it. I think that gets at part of it. I’ve spent my share of time looking at it from that angle, not so much because of sex anymore, God, no, because now I’m a nun [laughing], but the freakin romantic…THAT thing that is so…The other scary thing is you never know when it’s going to come upon you. That whole thing of being shot through the heart with an arrow…Because you don’t have any control over when that’s going to happen to you, and with who. You can’t really protect yourself from it and that’s what’s unsettling. And yet, as you say, if you can refrain from killing yourself, or anyone else, and just go through it, consent in a way to suffer trough it, that really is a crucifixion. You come to see…can I accept this about myself? Can I just be with Christ and see it is not a fatal malady…or the sign that I am incapable of love or being loved?...

The other thing is…I finally…there were times it wasn’t reciprocated at the level I put out there. But when the opportunity presented itself…there was this one guy I was madly in love with. And when he actually moved toward me, I did everything to sabotage it. I got drunk and was an idiot and said stupid stuff. And I was like, What’s that about? He was gonna ask you out and look what you did! Or we went out a couple of times and I blew it. Then I got a little bit better. I had a couple of years’ relationship with a guy I went to college with. We dated and there was reciprocity there, again, maybe not the level I had, but it was more or less of a normal thing. That was rough. When I got to college, I was really drinking a lot, doing cocaine and other drugs. I took a semester off from school, I got a summer job with my girlfriend working for the Department of Transportation and it was a blast. We’d fill Fitch barrels with sand and cut down trees and pick up paper. For young college girls, it was a hoot. But there was an element because people who do jobs like that year-round, I don’t mean to stereotype, but they’re political patronage jobs, they’re really jobs for…they’re almost like charity. There were a lot of alcoholics, a lot of Vietnam vets. So we were with these kind of skeevy guys.

We couldn’t believe some of the stuff they said to us, I mean talk about sexual harassment! "I want to f___ you right now." It got to be joke. But there was this one guy, I feel madly in love with. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, I mean physically beautiful. A beautiful man. Couldn’t believe he’d even talk to me. But he was a roaring alcoholic. At 18, you don’t see that. Nobody’s an alcoholic, nobody’s a drug addict, because we were all doing that stuff. Cocaine was rampant, and that would kind of sober you up anyway. Do a few lines and then you could drive home. Anyway, I got hooked up with him. He was the one I really had a sexual relationship with. Got pregnant, had an abortion, got pregnant with him again, had another abortion.

That was really my downfall. Oh wait, I missed a huge piece.

Okay.

That is…so, I left high school early. I went to community college. That was actually a pretty good year. I think the gay guy I mentioned before was during that year. I was living at home and going to community college and just working at Arby’s. That year was okay. I drank and partied on the weekends but during the week I functioned fine. This is what happened to me. I went away to school in upstate NY, and I really had a hard time being far from home. As worldly as I thought I was, I still had the Pollyanna thing. I was still kind of innocent. I’d had that relationship with the older brother, but again, he was pretty gentlemanly. He was kind to me. I’m not saying we should have slept together, but he was loving and good to me. He said I’m always here for you, I will never not be here for you, but I don’t think we should continue.

So I go to college and I was shocked at school to find guys living across the hall. My roommate was very needy and I was always kind of the helper person and she would dump on me. And I would always listen and take care of her but I really wasn’t taking care of myself. That part of my life I can look back and see I was a pretty girl. I didn’t know it then. So one weekend my whole floor went out to party. We sort of did a community trip, I don’t know if it was acid or THC, but all twenty of us or so took a hit. And we went out and we’re laughing and laughing, and back then in NY the drinking age is 21 so you could go to bars then so at a certain point in the night we split up and we all went off to different bars. So I got back to my room before the others. And these two boys knocked on my door and these guys were my friends. So they knocked on my door and said Can we come in? And I was getting ready for bed but I was like Well I guess so, yeah, come on in.

And they raped me.

So that…that’s really when things really went bad. I always felt…I mean I know now…first of all, back then there was no rape crisis center. Back then you didn’t talk about it. If you were raped it was cause you were in a dark alley and someone hit you over the head. And even then it was shameful, you know what I mean. I felt it was my fault cause I’d let them in.

How old were you?

Eighteen.

And were you going to Mass at this point? In other words, where were you with the Church?

I’m totally not even…no. But if you were to have asked me, I would have told you I was Catholic. The other thing is, oddly enough, considering how far I got away, I was never one of those people who bad-mouthed the Church. I might have turned my back, but I always had a deep love. I never really left it in my heart.

Okay, so that horrible thing happened in college…

Naturally, afterward I went into a really deep depression. I couldn’t even function at school. I had to call my girlfriend to come get me.

And did you know why?

I kind of knew why, but again, I felt like it was my fault.

Yes.

I didn’t fully understand everything.

So I went into this deep depression. My friend had to come get me. I remember telling my parents why I had to come home from school, I had these horrible professors, I told them. I sunk into a very deep depression. I gained like twenty pounds in three weeks and all I did was sleep. My mother got me to go to a psychiatrist, but I didn’t even tell the guy what happened. I just said I was depressed. So then when I left there, I think I went back to the community college and that’s where I met the guy I had the abortions with. And then I was just drinking and drugging and off the rails. I was worse of course after the abortions. Again, you can’t even explain that to somebody.

Right. I’ve had abortions, too, so I get it. It’s like you don’t even hook up, it’s like you so deserve to feel bad, you can’t even really see cause and effect…

And how you feel after you’ve done that and then you do it again. You can’t even explain being so disconnected…You just can’t. The depths of that horror. I don’t even know, Heather, if I fully understand why I allowed it to happen again. I don’t even know if I can express that. I was in such a dark place and then the abortions made it worse…

I think sometimes of Jesus on the Cross saying Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. When you’re in that state, and it’s not like you’re not responsible for what you did afterward, but you almost literally “do not know what you do.” You know it’s wrong, but you seem powerless almost to prevent yourself from doing the wrong.

Yes! Yes! Exactly. That’s what it was like.

You have six kids, right?

Yes.

And they’re all at home?

No, my second oldest and my third oldest aren’t here. My oldest is in the mid-West and then my other son, the one in between, is pretty disabled, and then the next son is at college in upstate NY. He’s a mess, too. We’re far from the Cleavers. We’re not even anywhere remotely close.

Well that’s what I really want to talk about. Because deep down, who really IS like the Cleavers? I think we try to put on a front, but the fact is family is…just hard, family is a crucible. And it sounds like you’ve had specific…challenges. I love that word, “challenges.” Meaning nightmarish, intractable, bring-you-to-your-knees…challenges. "I see you’ve been 'challenged' this week”…

I really want to hear next time we talk how you found your way back to the Church.

I want to say Hang in there, it gets better. I just had to give the background. How about, let’s see…I’m back at school full-time now, which is another insanity. I’m going back for social work. And part of school is to do field placement 14 hours a week so it’s kind of like working, too. So guess what, I was going to hold onto my regular job because of the health benefits. But I realized, how am I gonna…go to school full-time, work full-time, and have a part-time job, too?

And a family.

No, it’s crazy. So my point is tomorrow I have field placement. Thursday I should be around again, so if you want to do this time again [aside, to one of her kids: “Okay, honey”].

You’re doing me a favor, so totally at your convenience.

Well this has been kind of cathartic, so I feel like you’re really doing me a favor, too.


PART II

I want to start back in college. We were assigned papers. Course I got assigned, we had to do these presentations, four people, and what do I get, women’s rights. So one of the other women with me, she goes, I’m gonna do the whole reproductive thing, all right? And I was like By all means! Knock yourself out. So that was a great relief. And then I did voting rights.

So she does this whole schmiel. And it just gets to a point…you know, everyone’s making the anti-Catholic remarks. And it’s like Okay, enough already. At a certain point, I was so provoked. I couldn’t just sit there and take it. It’s like somebody talking about your family, like your dad or something. I mean enough already.

I hear you. Catholicism is the one thing that is fair game to smear. People who would not dream of talking in such a way about Buddhism or Judaism or even Islam, feel totally free to…

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s Christ. It just shows his power. He’s so compelling that you can’t stand on the fence. You have to have some kind of response. No one can be truly neutral about Christ, the sinless victim…who we--meaning the human race--crucified. We’re also, rightfully, held to such a high standard, because Catholicism does stand for the highest, highest possible form of love. So when we fail, as we so often do, we get nailed for it. And we should. We like to blame the secular culture but the real deal is we're almost totally secular ourselves. Who is going to be compelled by a person who claims to be a disciple of the Prince of Peace and advocates for torture, war, and the right to own assault weapons--while simultaneously proudly claiming to be "pro-life?" I'm just as guilty as anybody; I have my own version of that. But obviously it becomes this sort of fundamentalist hatred, both for those who were raised in the Church and those who know next to nothing about the Church. I mean if I hear one more person say The nuns beat me…Obviously horrible things have gone on, always, within the Church, and just as obviously, the 50s and 60s were not exactly the heyday of Catholic education. But did EVERY SINGLE nun who ever lived during the 50s and 60s mercilessly beat children? Is it even possible during that period that there was not one nun who was kind, who helped people?

Here’s the thing, too. I had a positive experience in Catholic school. I did get smacked over the knuckles, I think once. We had to wash our desks—which was great! I wish we could help the kids do that today! I just had this experience very recently. I had to go have a conference with the teacher, and she’s telling me that my son is having a hard time paying attention. And I say to her, Quite frankly, I’m having a hard time paying attention to you. There are three computer screens going, there’s a fish tank and a hamster cage, the walls are painted bright yellow, you have a million posters up, there’s mobiles, and I’m sitting in a quadrant facing you. When I went to school, I sat in a room where the desk was bolted to the floor, and the only thing on the walls was the Palmer method [of handwriting] and the crucifix, and the walls were painted puke green. And I don’t mean to say it was Utopia, and everything was perfect back then, but I was Number 44. Forty-four and there were three kids behind me, okay, in a first grade class, and I learned to read, with one teacher.

How is that possible? Forty-seven kids and we all learned to read. I came home, I ran around outside, my mother had dinner every night, five-thirty, six and I mean I’m guilty of this, too, but we didn’t run around to Target and Wal-Mart every other day. You had one car and your dad took it to work and your mom went shopping once a week! I had a very positive experience. Not only did our teachers smack us once in awhile but our parents did! And you know what, I have no bad memory of that. And you also knew when you were gonna get it. It wasn’t freakish. You did something wrong, you got cracked on the behind. That’s just how we rolled, and you didn’t think a thing of it. It wasn’t traumatizing, it wasn’t I’m scarred for life.

Now certainly there were parents who took it overboard, but for the most part, they didn’t. Today, I can’t believe the way kids talk to their parents…And I’ll tell you another thing, maybe there was a nun who cracked em on the knuckles, but my brother, who was probably really learning-disabled, probably dyslexic, color-blind for sure, he had a lot of things, but you know what? He got through school. He got through school because those nuns would stay with him every day after school and work with him. They’d stay till five and work with him and they didn’t worry about their union contract, they sat with him and worked with him and got him through.

When you said the Palmer method, I could totally picture those 26 letters, one capital, one small, ranged around the top of the blackboard. I think we had a map of the United States, too. That was about it. But everyone in those days received a solid public education that totally equipped you to…learn further if you wanted to.

But anyway, falling in love with all the wrong guys and the abortions…Go from there. Somehow you got married…

What happened was, at a certain point, I was in such a dark place after the abortions. I was going out with this guy who…this whole idea of putting young girls and guys together in a dorm is crazy. Anyway, so the rape knocked me for a loop. I had no idea how really horrible and traumatic at the time that it was. I gained a lot of weight, I got depressed, I had to leave school, but I didn’t even realize why. I just thought I hated school. So I left and took a little part-time job, maybe I was taking one or two classes, then I got this job with my friend in the summertime and met the Department of Transportation guy and was just in this spiral of drugs and sex. Got pregnant twice, had two abortions. I finally got away from him because I caught him cheating on me. I just thought, What are you doing with this guy? He’s an idiot and he doesn’t care about you.

Anyway, I got enrolled back in college, and it took me awhile to get away from him, he was still coming around and being kind of stalker-ish. So I went to college and I was in a political science course and at the same time the big thing was Geraldine Ferraro was running for Vice President with Mondale. She came out with this thing and said you could be a Catholic and not have an opinion on abortion, or rather she said Catholics have a wide range of opinion on abortion. At that point, I thought I was pro-choice, because I had to justify what I’d done. So I was in a political science class, and we had to pick a topic, so Cardinal O’Connor was archbishop at the time, came out against Geraldine Ferraro. This man just intrigued me so much.

I thought Look at this guy. For years the Church never said anything. We were just rolling over, the whole thing, I mean the terrible music at Mass…It just got corrupted. The nuns were wearing mini-skirts and just going off the rails. In any case, here comes this man out of the mist and literally sticks his staff in the ground and says, Screw you. You’re wrong. I couldn’t get over someone finally stood up and said something. No you don’t, you can’t do that. So then Mario Cuomo gave this big impassioned speech and everyone thought he was so brave because he said he couldn’t impose his morality on anyone else. And then Henry Hyde who since fell from grace, wrote a response, but none of that really mattered. It was O’Connor, who totally owned it. So I decided to do a paper on this topic, politics and religion.

My professor said, Okay, fine, that’s a good one. By all means. Ferraro, Cardinal O’Connor. So I was doing my research and I can tell you like it was yesterday, I was on the eighth floor of the Hofstra Library, and I was literally, I had some books out, and I had this book, Abortion and Social Justice [by Thomas W. Hilgers and Dennis J. Horan], which I still have. So I’m on the eighth floor, and I’m researching and I’m studying, and it’s like I’m struck by lightning. I see Oh my gosh. This is horrible. And I was all at once converted at that moment.

The book was against abortion, but more than that, I had a supernatural encounter. I was in the library thinking this is terrible, this is such a bad thing. But what happened to me overrode that. The book wasn’t inconsequential, but the book wasn’t the thing. It was just the means by which this moment of grace happened. And I was like, I had a total conversion experience. I went to see a priest, and confessed everything, it took me a few times to get to the abortions.

Nevertheless, I came back to the Church. I started going to Mass. I really had to go to the depths. It took me awhile. And when I went to the Confession, for the abortions, it was a big thing.

Back up for a second. When you say you had a conversion experience, meaning you had an encounter with Christ where you saw abortion is just a terrible tearing of the human fabric…

Yes! Yes, yes. And I was horrified. And at the same time, I was brought to a place of mercy.

It’s almost like in the same instant he allows us to see the horror of abortion, he gives us the mercy. Otherwise I think we’d kill ourselves.

Thank you, absolutely we would. We’d just be like Oh my gosh. I want to go briefly back to my experience at that class last semester. I’m against abortion, I’m a practicing Catholic, I have six children, I don’t use birth control. I’m against abortion, but probably not for the reason you think. I said The reason that I’m against abortion is because the human person is the way in which God enters history. So there’s nothing so grave that it could be a reason for that not to happen. That’s what I became aware of. It’s not because I murdered somebody. Though I did. But that’s not the thing. The thing is that something wonderful could have happened to me if I’d said yes.

Yes! Exactly. That’s always the essence of letting God be in charge. Giving you a kid, not giving you a kid. Cause it works the other way, too, this insane engineering of kids. We must have a baby at any cost. That’s the flip side. Cause there are some things we don’t get to have in this world. So how can I accept, and find the miraculous mysterious gift, in that? With abortion, it’s not only that something beautiful, and by beautiful, I don’t mean without suffering, could have happened for you and for the kid, but something beautiful could have happened for the whole world. I don’t mean the kid’s going to discover the cure for cancer, necessarily, I mean that if a kid is conceived, that means that kid is irreplaceable. He or she has some essential, if completely “unseen,” part to play in bringing the kingdom of God into being. That’s the thing you see is the terrible, terrible error. Because of the Mystical Body, we’ve screwed up the whole system. It’s not just our little world. So that’s the sorrow.

Yes, and I hate, you know how they always say what about in cases of rape. It’s horrible, and I don’t go around telling people that happened to me, but why is that child any less? So I hate these politicians who do that. In cases of rape. So you missed the whole point. Rape is horrible, so you rape the woman again by killing the baby? It’s not to say, there are people in the pro-life movement who can get a little weird. They’re like rape never happens. It does happen.

That’s where it gets really thorny. I know I featured this woman in one of my books who was a victim of the genocide in Rwanda. She watched all seven of her kids butchered, then she got gang-raped. And she got pregnant. Everyone told her to have an abortion, but she said Why should the innocent child suffer? So she had the kid, a girl, and she named it some beautiful African name that means Child of God. So moving. On the other hand, this is where to me it gets thorny legislating this stuff. To force people…you can only invite people to Christ. To force someone to have a child after the rape, if they don’t get it, that of course to them does seem like another rape. It’s impossible for me to know what that would feel like, to be carrying the child of my rapist…

Anyway, so you had a supernatural experience….it’s like getting another kind of vision in an instant, hunh?

It changed everything. And Heather, I have to tell you, I have struggled ever since. It doesn’t work that way, that you never have another struggle. I don’t even know how to explain this adequately. It’s kind of a fear, a profound inadequacy that I clearly can’t express adequately. I just had this thing with the Blessed Mother. I love her. But I’m just not comfortable around her. I pray to her every day but I just feel like…I know how much she suffered. But I guess that’s part of it—she said yes at sixteen and I said no. I know I’ve been forgiven but there’s a part of me that feels like the girl who sits on the bleachers and watches the cheerleaders.

This is so fascinating. It would be really interesting to sit people down and say between the Father, the Son and Mary, just for now, who do you most NOT want to get close to? I’m sort of always with Jesus. With God, it’s taken me a long time to take in that Jesus said If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. It’s taken me a long time not to be wary of getting close to God. But then there’s Mary. And I think our relationship to Mary has so much to do with our relationship to our own mother, and to our sense of womanhood. I think the way she’s portrayed is very unfortunate. The whole blue cape, the pious, it’s off-putting cause it’s so far away from what we really are, or who I am and anybody I know. Sorry I’m interjecting my own thing but I get so excited when someone touched upon a phenomenon I’ve grappled with…Just this last couple of weeks, I went to this novena…all this stuff cradle Catholics are so over, I’m actually just discovering. Anyway, I saw Mary is the missing link, the thing that kind of closes the circle. Still, I don’t feel the warmth for Mary, the tenderness, that I do for Christ.

But I desire it.

Right.

I wish she could sort of come to me and say “I get it. It’s all right.” I don’t know what I want from her exactly. I don’t need her forgiveness but…I guess I do need her forgiveness. It’s hard to express adequately. There’s a pain in me, a jealousy, when people tell me about their relationship with her. I’m very intrigued by Fatima and Lourdes and all that.

I love that the Church is roomy enough for those kind of miracles but in the Gospels, Jesus says Go to your room and pray in secret and your Father will see you in secret and repay you. There’s nothing remotely of the tone, anywhere, of “You have to have someone paint a bad picture of Jesus 
and say such and such a number of rosaries every other Tuesday.” It’s all about the orientation of your heart. In the Gospels, Mary hardly said anything. She said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” So it just never rings anywhere near true to me when I hear these prayer-by-the-number pronouncements from her. "I am the Immaculate Conception." Hunh? Mary never even used the word "I." It was all about him. Listen to him, my son. My soul magnifies Him, God. 

You know what’s helped me. I have this friend, her name is Tensie. She’s married, they have a couple of kids, they run a little Catholic Worker up on the coast of California. She’s just really…exceptional. She has an exceptional soul, I think. Very humble, very simple. She ponders things in her heart. Very sensitive, huge sense of humor, very realistic about the suffering of the world and how little we can do. Except we do it anyway, or try to. She has a beautiful beautiful face, a radiant face. She radiates peace and she makes everyone feel seen and accepted and valued and loved. She’s a visual for me of the Virgin Mary. Of what the Virgin Mary was really like. She was a peasant. She was illiterate. Not that Tensie’s not highly intelligent--in fact she has the best kind of intelligence which is intelligence born from the heart. But Mary bore. She bore the paradox of existence in her soul. I mean look what you’ve had to bear with your kids. So I feel like that’s the Virgin Mary. The best of motherhood, of womanhood—that which endures. With patience and perseverance, with a huge sense of humor, with a total knowledge of how often we stumble and how far we fall short. But just that open-hearted invitation—Come sit at the table. The open door. Share our meal with us. That to me is just the heart of all of it.

Yeah, well I will say one thing that was healing for me, and who knows if the healing will ever be complete in this world. But one thing was in the film The Passion of the Christ when she’s giving Jesus lunch, where they had this moment of, you know, the Jewish mom, you have to wash your hands before you sit down, that to me, is brilliant. When I saw that, it helped me. Because I could imagine it. She’s human, she cleaned the house. It’s a struggle, it’s my cross, this failed relationship with Mary, or one of them. I wasn’t that way as a child. It was probably because of the abortions. It’s something that has to continue to be healed.

I love that you said that! I’ve not been a mother, but I have to assume there’s a whole lot of stuff people, especially Perfect Catholic Mom people, don't say about motherhood. Like there have got to be times when you want to kill the kids, and you probably actually do like one better than another. Anyway, so you have this huge conversion and tell us about getting married.

Okay so I met my friends, I met Gladys and Bill, that goes into the whole conversion. We were crazy and we had an awful lot of fun. I was dating one of the guys in the pro-life club, we’re still good friends, Joe’s his name, and we’d gone out rather seriously though we weren’t really met to get married, clearly. I had a job and I was going to college and there was this guy there and he was so totally different from anyone I’d ever dated. Not my type at all but every time I turned around he was there. I found it very dear. I could tell he liked me. Hi kitty. My cat is bringing me a mouse and I hope it’s not alive.

Anyway, I mean the poor guy, it took him six months to even say hi to me. We dated for several months and I thought, Poor guy, nice guy, but not for me. I had a real thing with commitment. I still do. I’m terrible, terrible, awful at committing to anything. I’m a really bad friend. I really am. I try to be better but I’m…it’s real work for me to commit. I’ve always been that way, for whatever reason, insecurity…So the idea of really getting close to someone was just I don’t know, I can’t do this. I would get really panicky and afraid and I’d do things to get people to not like me. So I’m dating this guy Joe and I don’t see him for awhile and we go out and have a few drinks and I get pregnant. But this time I go I’d go insane if I had an abortion. I can’t have an abortion. And I didn’t want to. I didn’t really want to be married to this person either. So I thought well I guess I’ll just raise this child by myself. People do, and I thought That’s what I’ll do. And he was just so sweet, and bought a ring, and said, I’ll marry you, and I was like Well I don’t know, I’ll have to think about this.

Now wait, are you going back to Mass now and everything?

Yes, I had been. But I was by no stretch, even though I was back, I was still going out on Saturday nights to disco. You’d think I’d be…

Not sleeping around?

Exactly! Thank you. I wasn’t…well I was clearly. The Joe guy and I, we were both in the pro-life club, I mean we were scandalized that we were having sex. We’d go, Okay that’s it, no more, and then two days later…and you know, it was fun! It just became hard to…I think that’s why we broke up. It just got too schizophrenic. So anyway now I’m dating this other guy and I remember talking to my father and my father said, “Look. You’d better marry this guy because you need someone to take care of the baby. Marry him civilly if you have to but you gotta do the right thing.”

So I civilly married my husband and we had this terrific kid. Just great. Adorable little boy. My brother was very sick at the time. My husband’s sister got ill. They both died of AIDS, it was horrible, very sad time. Anyway, we ended up getting married a year later in the Church. I even was unsure then. I was like What are you doing? But by then I was pregnant with my second son so I was like Well you’re in it now, you’d better do this. I always remember Princess Diana’s sister saying Your face is on the tea towels now. You have to go through with it…So we went through the pre-Cana and that was good but we didn’t even really know each other still! It’s really been a journey. It’s been a long journey with him.

How long ago was this?

We’ve been married twenty-five years. I’ve come to realize God was very merciful. First of all, I think he just uses everything. I just feel…he knew I wouldn’t commit, so he just said You’re going to have to. So it was a great grace. And also with someone who it’s work for me to be with. Who challenges me. We do not have an easy marriage. It’s really work, for both of us. And it’s not that it’s violent. It’s not that it’s unpleasant. Let me be clear about that. It’s not that it’s horrible. That’s not what I mean to imply. It’s just that it doesn’t come easy to us. We’re not doting on each other, oh sweetheart, we’re just not like that. So it’s a work to try to understand each other, it’s a work. I used to be jealous of people who seemed so supportive of each other, but you know what? That’s not what’s going to sanctify me. God gave me exactly what I need and I’ve come to realize that and it’s been a great thing for me. It’s been a ride, let me tell ya, but it’s been a great thing for me.

Cause that’s the deal, right? That’s the deal with all of life. Our culture tells us you manage and control your environment so you create your “happiness.” And good luck with that is what I’ve found.

Here’s the thing. I’ve told you how I “fall in love” with people. I never felt that for my husband. I never felt that rush, that whole…I never did. But I have a real love. A real…there was another time in my life. I need to go back a little bit. I had an experience where I met a person who was very holy. That doesn’t mean he was sinless. But I met this holy man, he came to my house and we had dinner with friends, and it was a big deal because he had a high position in this lay movement (Communion and Liberation) and I was really transformed by this event. The point is after he came, he brought Christ to me. I was sitting on my front porch and Christ was in my garden. I felt him. I fell in love with him.

When that happened, okay, there’s a lot here, that’s when I understood all that crazy in-loveness was the desire to be in love with that man, with Christ. When I fell in love with Christ, I understood that he accepts all of me. Every kooky part, every pimple on my face, every hair on my head, my sexuality, the way I thought it should be expressed, everything about me. And in that moment, I fell in love with him and he laughed at me, in a way, like, I get a kick out of you. I get a charge out of you. You give me a jolt. I felt that way toward him and I felt it reflected back way stronger than I ever could. I could feel the particular love he had for me. I could see in that mystical moment the particular love he has for everybody.

It was weird, for awhile I had this grace that would come to me and sometimes I would tell people, “You don’t get it, what you just did, Christ thought was so funny.” So I had this grace, which has since dissipated, I mean the conscious feel of it. But that grace was what allowed me to stay with my husband. Because for those moments that I felt I wasn’t in love with him or I didn’t have those strong, Oh my gosh look at him, isn’t he the greatest, still my love had been answered. And it allowed me to look at my husband with a sympathy of understanding. Because there’s no man that could ever meet that need. No-one could ever fulfill that. So it was very freeing of course. And it made me love him in a real way. A real way.

How soon after you were married did this happen?

Maybe five or six years.

Okay so tell us about your kids.

My kids are beyond…my kids are a constant…there’s nothing easy about my kids. There are six of them and they each have…just like any of us. My oldest is quote typical whatever that means. Super smart, always been a quote good kid. He was a real gift to me because he was the one who kept me with my husband. They all are. He stuttered when he was younger but he never had any major problems. He’s straight as an arrow. Sometimes I actually wish he’d cut up a little bit. He’s 25 now, a dear, he lives in the mid-West as I said, and is getting a masters.’

The next one is Jeff. Jeff has high-functioning autism. He was…it’s hard with him because he’s so dear. He’s not typical in his…he’s not annoying. He doesn’t repeat things. I was devastated when we got the diagnosis. I hadn’t seen it and he wasn’t diagnosed till he was almost in sixth grade. Part of the disorder is the demands get greater. You break apart more. I saw when he was a kid something was off but part of the problem was he always played with his brother. We lived in a rural area so you’d say That’s typical, he’s playing with someone. The other thing is my older son always answered for him, he’s day No, he wants this. Jeff does speak, he’s verbal and all, but he was delayed in his speech and he wouldn’t always express himself fully.

Nate, the third one, is…holy mackerel. He has Asberger’s and he’s…he’s rough. He’s just really rough. I just never know what’s gonna happen with him. He is totally, totally in God’s hands. I am absolutely powerless before that kid. There is nothing…nothing hat I can do…to…there’s just nothing. He is…the thing that’s so painful with him is that he is completely and totally aware of his limitations. And it kills him. He hates himself. And that is really, really hard. The other thing is he’s so impulsive. His tolerance for pain is very high. So he had a broken foot for a week and I didn’t even know it. From skateboarding. He’s cracked his head open a million times. I’ve gotten I can’t tell you how many calls from the police. He’s the one at school everyone always blamed for everything. He would take it because first of all, he was in the spotlight, and second, he doesn’t know how to express I didn’t do that, didn’t you see I wasn’t even in the room? He’s said to me, There is no God, because He wouldn’t create me.

How old is he now?

He’s twenty.

So he’s with you still?

Right now he’s in college. And I’m really cautiously optimistic. Last year I had to go get him. I want them for him, because he wants it.

So he’s smart, and he can go to school?

Oh yeah. But he has so much difficulty with executive functioning, First of all, there’s the social piece. And he knows it. “I’m an awkward f--,” he’ll say. “I’m a totally awkward f--.” The thing is people like him. He has a great sense of humor and he’s very appealing. Thanks be to God because I don’t think he would have gotten this far. But it’s hard. There’s just so many things with him. There’s nothing I can do for him. And I wait for the call. Isn’t that awful? I wait for the call. I just never know. I’ve had to pick him up at the hospital. He is just not…and I don’t like to be one of these really spiritual type of people, but the thing is I look at him and he’s just one of those souls who it’s just very difficult for him to be here. He’s just from another planet and he rolls a whole nother way. All the things you’re taught, this kid turns the whole world upside down. So anything anyone can even say to me for advice, the rules don’t apply. There is no rule that applies to this kid.

Except you love him.

Except I love him. I’ve done things for this kid that no-one…what? You bought him a pack of cigarettes? I have pot plants growing in my yard. I’ll tell you why. He’s on meds and his doctor told him, You really need to start growing pot. The stuff you’re buying on the street has been stepped on you don’t know how many times. And I told him Nate, there’s a moral piece to this, too. Some Mexican is all hacked up because that’s the system when you buy illegal drugs. Some American needed to get high.

Nate is the Christ figure because he throws everything off balance.

I have no control, no nothing. He literally brings me to my knees. Then there’s Matthew and Matthew is 16. He’s kind of a typical 16-year-old. He goes along. He muddles through. Then there’s Leo. Leo is just…Leo is the sweetest, most innocent…he’s a challenge, too. He has some learning disabilities, He had a really bad concussion when he was 11 months old. He was eight feet down on the cement. Instead of going down the stairs, he went through an opening. I don’t know if that was it, clearly with two kids on the autism spectrum, there’s a genetic component.

He’s sort of a mixed bag with learning disabilities. He had trouble learning to read. He’s very bright. He goes to regular school and all of that but…everybody loves Leo. But they love Leo because…he’s just an innocent. I don’t know what else to say. There’s not a mean bone in his body. He only sees goodness. He doesn’t fight with people. It sounds like Oh maybe he’s “simple,” but he’s not. He’s just got this gift, this grace, where he sees goodness and wants to be around goodness. He’s repelled by anything that he perceives is corrupted.

Okay, back up a second, the one who’s just older than Leo. He doesn’t have major disabilities?

No. He’s a regular kid. He’s not at the top of his class; he’s not at the bottom. He’s got some intriguing things, too. He’s an artist, he likes to make films. He can be a little out there, too.

I love this family! And who’s the baby?

The baby is Lucy. We didn’t expect a girl, she could have been another boy. She’s a hoot. A lot of fun. She’s a good-time gal, Lucy.

How old is she?

She’s ten. She’s feminine, but she’s a tough cookie. She’s a tomboy and she likes animals and she’s never liked Barbie dolls to my great…I love dolls and I thought finally I’m gonna get my girl and we can play dolls together, and zero interest. AND she doesn’t like to go shopping so it’s kinda hard. That may change. But she’s a hoot, she’s fun. Curiously, she has this thing about her nails and hair which is so hilarious. She’s a contradiction in terms. But she’s great. She’s a lot of fun.

So how many are home now?

Four. And like I said Nate, I might get the call any day now that I gotta come get him. But hopefully he’ll make it through. The problem with Nate is he’s at the top public school in New York State. Everybody wants to go to this school. So he’s there and he has every support possible if he’d take advantage of it. But he won’t do it. He’s been going to counseling. The college told him he had to go to counseling and he’s been doing that so that’s good. But there are so many other things he could be doing and if he were doing would increase his chances of being more successful, but he won’t take advantage. He refuses to do it. But whatever.

Okay so just a brief windup. You’ve kind of said it, but where do you stand with Christ in all of this? Where’s your kind of practicing faith? Does the whole family go to Mass? How does that pan out?

Yeah we go to Mass on Sunday as a family. I mean my 16-year-old…he won’t go, forget it. Anyway, we’re the family that’s always late. We’re very, from the outside world someone would say we’re dysfunctional. We’ve got all these kids who are wrecks, and then in the next pew is the family with the parents who are the youth group leaders, and the kids are all blond and blue-eyed with a little ribbon in their hair. But yeah, we all go to Mass still.

But the messiness is just the outside stuff. That thing you said about how Jesus gets a kick out of you, and therefore he gets a kick out of your kids and we just kind of stumble forward, day by day, right?

Yes. Exactly. But I want to say, too, the thing about Nate, in the same way as my marriage, he’s a great gift to me. Because I understand that I am totally dependent and that I can’t change reality. At all. I can’t do it. Not even an atom. And I think the blond-haired, blue-eyed family thinks that they can.

I don’t want to be stereotypical, it’s just an example I’m giving. But for me, it’s a great grace. I can be late with the crazy kids in the back of the church but my prayer is that I never forget that I’m nothing in terms of that. I constantly depend. Nate’s presence always brings me back to that place. I have had moments where it’s become overwhelming. And I just can’t think about it. I’ll say to God Will you just sustain me? Just let me ride for two or three weeks. You know what I mean? So it’s a constant…but it’s a great grace. A great gift and a grace. The wonderful thing about Nate, too, as with all of them, when he’s happy, it’s so much…more. Everything with him is like a huge magnifying glass. Everything with him is magnified.

Does the family in some way constellate around him because he is the most damaged?

Oh yeah! That became a problem, actually, when he was in high school. I said I have to get him out of here, and I had him go to a residential school. It was a problem because he was becoming the center of the home. I had to say to him, I know you’re troubled, I get it, and I know there’s certain things you can’t help, but you cannot be the center of this house.

In the wrong way.

Right, in the wrong way, exactly. So he went away for the last two years of high school. That ended up being a really good thing for him because I’m not sure he would have been able to even attempt college otherwise. But he had to go. It was just not a good thing.

Oh Joy. I’ll let you go but it’s so fascinating, these thorns in our side. Not that your son is a thorn…

Yes he is!

So these situations are not going to go the way we want them to, they are not going to go the way we want them to, they are not going to go the way we want them to! As you say, we're powerless to change them. It really is an excruciating death of our ego. I had my alcoholism, and a bunch of other things that showed me that. Intransigent situations. Dark nights of the soul. People are just who and what they are. What a lesson.

I always say I could never be a Protestant. Number one, I’m not nice enough. And number two, I just can’t pull myself together. I am the person who just can’t get that wrinkle out of her dress. Just can’t get the hair right.

Right. The crumbs are always on the floor. The coffee stains on the pants…I need Jesus! A living, breathing…I need his Body. I need his Blood. Anyway, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Believe me, if you don’t use a word, I’ve enjoyed this time with you.













Monday, December 22, 2014

ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX'S CHRISTMAS EVE CONVERSION

DON'T BE SUCH A BABY!

This week's art and culture column is called "St. Therese of Lisieux's Christmas Eve Conversion."

Here's how it begins:

"Thérèse of Lisieux, as you may know, is one of only three women to have been made a Doctor of the Church. Her mother died when Thérèse was 4. One by one, her four older sisters left for the cloister. She became emotionally clingy.

A key moment in her spiritual development occurred on Christmas Eve of 1886. She called it her 'second conversion.'

The French custom at that time was for children to leave their shoes by the fireplace for the parents to fill with candy. As the youngest of the Martin daughters, Thérèse — 13 at the time — was the last to keep up the ritual. Returning from midnight Mass that night, her father, tired and uncharacteristically cranky, passed the pair of filled shoes and remarked: “Well, fortunately this is the last year.”

Thérèse overheard and began to run up to her room. Her impulse was to burst into tears and make a scene. Instead, halfway up the stairs she paused, willed herself to smile, turned, marched back to the parlor, embraced her father and opened the presents with good cheer and thanks"...

READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.

St. Thérèse entered adulthood at the age of 14. I'm still waiting...

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

A GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST
FROM THE YEAR THE SINK STOPPED UP JUST BEFORE DINNER

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A THEOLOGY OF FACES

DOROTHY DAY

FLANNERY O'CONNOR

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

It was a spiritual kinsman of St Isaac, the Father Zossima of The Brothers Karamazov, who showed how our direct responsibility for our own bodies and for dumb creatures may indirectly stretch yet further. In his final conversations father Zossima describes how our very faces may indireclty produce momentous consequences. He asks us to think of a child walking down a street, rather bewildered by the evil in the world and searching for signs that life has meaning. If we have over the years allowed our hearts to become embittered, that will be reflected in our faces. So when the child has seen our face the image that will remain in his heart will be of evil and meaninglessness. It may turn out that our face has sown a seed of evil in the child which will one day overgrow his whole heart. On the other hand, if we have over the years filled our hearts with love, that also will be reflected in our faces and the passing child in the street will be encouraged by what he sees to find meaning in life.

Nor is such an illustration by any means imaginary. We have from the pen of Olivier Clément a moving account of how a face saved his life. It as in the days when he was an atheist, though an unhappy one. He was so unhappy, in fact, and so oppressed by the meaninglessness of human life that he was seriously thinking of committing suicide. Then one day as he was walking depressed beside the Mediterranean sea-shore his attention was riveted by the face of someone who was passing by. The person's face was radiant with meaning, full of such goodness as can only come from years of cultivating a loving heart. In a twinkling Clément's suicidal thoughts were dispelled and a seed sown in his heart that was eventually to transform him into an ardent believer. Not surprisingly, Clément asserts with warm conviction that there is a branch of theology that is properly described as a 'theology of faces.'


--Donald Nicholl, Holiness (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 48-49.


DETAIL, HEAD OF CHRIST, c. 1648-56
REMBRANDT
 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

GOD IS AT HOME; WE ARE IN THE FAR COUNTRY





I have many friends and family members who are in pain, who are lonely, who are struggling with loved ones who are sick or dying or in the grip of obsessions and compulsions, who are worried about their financial situation or their health or their kids.

So I'm thinking to run this piece on the Feast of the Epiphany that I wrote for Magnificat a couple of years ago.

"The Magi appear. The star hovers in the East. The star that points both heavenward to God, and earthward to a family. The Holy Family. Mother, father, child. The family, soon to be on the run, hunted by brutal murderers. The family, perpetually under siege. The family, our sanctuary and our exile. The family, fount of all that is good in us, and all that can become so terribly wounded.

Right from the beginning, Christianity is “a religion you could not have guessed,” as C.S. Lewis observed. “It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.” The Savior of the universe born with a bounty on his head. The Lamb of God, fresh from the womb, already up against Satan’s powers and principalities. Christianity is never sentimental, even toward babies. Joseph and Mary already had in their midst the Cross. Christ already had in his eyes the reflection of Mount Calvary.

Christianity has at its center joy, but joy is born of brokenness, limitation, tension, paradox. The shepherds, who have never left their pasture; the wise men, who have traveled from afar. A God of drama, of theater, of sensuality, of extremes: light and dark, poverty and wealth, anguish and hope. In the humblest of dwellings, three Maji materialize bearing gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh; the sweet fragrance of incense. What must Mary and Joseph have thought? What could such an event have signified?

A religion born of dreams: the angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary, the dream of the wise men in which they are warned to return home by another route, the dream of Joseph, as soon as they depart. The dream of every human heart: to love and be loved; to not die alone. "The star was seen by everyone but not everyone understood its meaning,” notes Cromatius of Aquileia in his Commentary on Matthew's Gospel.

The Epiphany. The star that sheds just enough light so that we can take one more step, and then we must look to the star again. So like our lives that we, too, live in exile and fear, but also in hope. So emblematic of the strangeness of Christianity; its incongruities and contradictions. Never what we think it’s going to be, never what we think we want it to be. Always a fresh twist, a new pain, a new joy. Always a God whose ways are not our ways. Always, just when we think we’ve found a foothold, the order to flee to Egypt

The star shines in the east. How quiet the night must have been all around them. How deep the dark.

'God is at home,' observed 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. 'We are in the far country.' ”




Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A NEW BOOK, A TRIP TO HONDURAS, AND MORE

BE THE FIRST ON YOUR BLOCK TO OWN A COPY!
ORDER HERE. 


My newest book, out March 6, 2015, is available for pre-order on amazon. STUMBLE is a collection of essays about the mad search for beauty, our anguished human hearts, my own personal attempt to navigate the world with an abandonment-wound-scarred psyche, and the glory of L.A.'s hibiscus bushes, 99-cent stores, Catholic churches and public libraries.

My 2015 trips include but are not limited to a Lenten mission outside Boston; a women's retreat, followed by a private week in Seattle; Rome in October; and from February 8 to the 15th, Honduras. That's right: the country with the world's #1 homicide rate, I will be there for Valentine's Day. (Here's an article about how the United States has had a huge hand in fostering, creating the conditions allowing, and committing much of the violence).

This will be courtesy of what sounds like a stellar organization: Unbound, which hooks up sponsors with children, the elderly and young adults throughout the world.

In light of my extreme introversion, as soon as the invite came through I called the woman at Unbound right up. These were my questions:

"Can I have my own room?"
"Does it have wifi?"
"Will there be time during the day when we can be by ourselves?"

After hanging up, I thought, Shoot, I forgot to ask about the coffee situation.

As my friend Christine said, "Heather, they produce coffee in Honduras."

At which point I thought, I can do anything for a week and signed right on.


HIPSTER "GASTROPUB" IN MY HIPSTER NEIGHBORHOOD
OF SILVER LAKE, L.A.
MAYBE I WILL EAT THERE ONE DAY--
BUT PROBABLY NOT.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A RETREAT IN THE CITY: THE MATER DOLOROSA PASSIONIST RETREAT CENTER. IN THE RAIN.




Last week I took myself off on a short field trip: a one-day retreat at The Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center on the outskirts of greater L.A. The rain poured down that day and what with our long-standing Southern California, drought, we raised our faces to it and were grateful.

Then I wrote about the day (and night) for my arts and culture column.

Here's how the piece starts:

"I find I am most excited about the Advent and Christmas seasons around Nov. 7. Then, the First Sunday of Advent hits, the calendar starts filling up, I start feeling a teeny bit of the stress. I imagine the Holy Family felt fleeing Herod.

Times like this it’s good to know that right here in greater L.A., nestled in the San Gabriel foothills, is a spot where you can possibly get away for a day or two: Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center.

The mission-style retreat house, dating from 1949, is set on 30 acres of beautifully landscaped, Old California-style grounds. The Center is best known for its very popular ministry of group and silent weekend retreats.

But if space and staff permit — call ahead and be flexible — you can rent an individual room for $55 a day. For $65 you can spend the night. For $95 you can spend the night and eat three meals"...

I, of course, craving silence and solitude, brought my own food and ate in my room...

READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.