1/7/21: An Ethiopian Merry Christmas

Orthodox Christians in much of the world observe Christmas by the Julian Calendar on January 7th. My dear co-worker on the facilities crew is from Ethiopia. He prepared for Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas throughout their Advent fast: 43 days with no animal products whatsoever, no oils or fats, and no food (or water?) before or after his one small everyday meal at 3:30 in the afternoon. But all through the fast he kept working, charging ahead through the same laborious heavy tasks as always, on his feet from 6:30 to 3:30 every day. During fasting seasons year round, like his 50 days before Paskha, I like to bring fasting food to work. We sit and share our lunches; beans, vegetables, injira teff bread. He tells me wonderful stories about the culture and customs back at home.

Christmas festivities, church at Lalibela

On Christmas Eve, after a strict fast all day long, everyone enters church holding a lighted candle at 6:00 pm. There they stand chanting until 3:00 am — the hour of the birth of Jesus, when families go home for their Christmas feast. Here is a small glimpse of the festive celebration. (The churches of Lalibela are made of one solid block of stone, created by hand-carving down from ground level.)

On January 8th my colleague came looking for me, to wish me a Merry Christmas. In these pandemic times his own church was closed down, and he couldn’t travel to visit any of his relatives or friends in other cities. We couldn’t even share our lunch breaks; I had to leave his lunch in a labeled bag in the company fridge. All he and I could do to celebrate was stand with our masks on 15 feet apart, shouting greetings in Amharic and exchanging air hugs. But he was radiant with the joy of the season, and eager to leave a Christmas treat for me: the beautiful card shown above, and my own home-baked slice of fragrant honey cardamom whole wheat bread.

And to think that until this kind generous man came to work several years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia or its beautiful culture. Every day, there are people who live and work around us, carrying inside themselves the most amazing worlds of wisdom and beauty. Sitting in my cubicle and eating my bread, it was a blessing to think how human connections like these are a real treasure of life.

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12/20/20: The Play House

(The house in this picture is not the same dwelling as the one in this story, for reasons which will be clear soon. It is added here only for ambient nostalgia value.)

On Day 1, Mom was kneeling in the back room. Planks and wood pieces were stacked on the floor. On graph paper she was marking measurements and angles, and penciling the wood using a tape measure and yardstick. 

   “Mom?” I was back from the bus after my half day at school. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Never you mind,” she said with a smile, and went on working on her latest project.

Mom was always working, doing everything perfectly and fast. She could make anything out of anything. She thought things up, then made them with her own two hands. She scrubbed and painted and polished, cooked and baked. In spare time she sewed clothes,  knitted sweaters and scarves, and crocheted afghan quilts. She painted rooms and hung wallpaper. She got bricks and concrete and built steps and a garden wall. She raised fruit and vegetables. She made glass pendants and silk flowers and stuffed animals and tartan wool plaid covers for my schoolbooks. One time she traced my feet on a piece of thick cork and cut it into soles and crocheted snug sandals out of cord with wool tops. I was excited about trying them on, but she threw them away because they weren’t as good as the ones that she imagined. 

On Day 3, the back room was all cleared and swept.

   “Where is the wood?” I asked.

   “Go out back and look,” she said, mixing up a meat loaf in the kitchen.

I ran outside. There in the backyard under the neighbor’s dogwood tree was a brand new little house, just the right size for someone like me. The light solid wood shone palomino color in the sun. The house had a step, and a plank floor, and a door and window, and a peaked roof with a scalloped strip all around, like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale.

I ran in to the kitchen. “Mom! A play house? For me??”

   “For you.” She patted the meat loaf into shape and lit the gas oven.

   “Can I invite my friends for tea parties, and take the doll dishes outside?”

   “Yes. It’s your play house. You can play any way you want.” She scrubbed the potatoes.

   “Can I put my blackboard there and play school?”

   “Yes! It’s your play house. Go ahead.” She wrapped the potatoes in foil.

   “Can I grow flowers in the window and put crumbs there for the birds?”

   “YES,” she laughed. “It’s YOUR play house! Wash hands for supper.”

That night I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the play house. We can have tea parties with the doll tea set. We can put up the blackboard and run a school for the little kids on the street. In the window we can hang flowers. Like, red geraniums or something bright. If I put out bread pieces and stay still, the birds can come and feel safe there with me.

On Day 4 I ran home from school. At our house there was wood at the curb. They were light lumber pieces broken here and there with the nails torn out, and strips of scalloping all next to the trash can waiting for the garbage truck.

I ran into the kitchen. “My play house! What happened?”

   “Oh I don’t know.” Mom was working hard, scouring the stove. “Some boys came through the yard and acted up. They wrote on the wall, or something. Don’t breathe in here, I sprayed oven cleaner. Go play outside!”

I went out under the dogwood tree and stood in the rectangle of flat grass. It was a wrong time to talk to Mom. She needed everybody to leave her alone and let her work. And even later, there was no point in asking. She moved on right away to her next project, designing and supervising every step when a construction crew put on a new second floor and new bathroom. Then she sanded down the floors, and got a team to put down varnish. She braided rag rugs for the doorways. She sewed upholstery covers and bolsters for the old sofa to make it look nice. She started running a Scout troop, and the church education program, and the school drama club. 

Now it’s miles and years away, in a town full of fine woodcraft construction. Older homes and yards come with toy houses, child sized. Some are in branches with rope ladders. Some are on boulders in rock gardens. Some have little box hedges and tiny gates. Some have shutters, flower boxes and curtains, or tables and chairs. There are name signs, ceramic lawn animals, bright colors softened down by weather and moss. All of them look well scuffed and played in, by people grown and gone. 

Passing by, I always stop and admire, and think back to a story with another ending that says “Sweetheart, sometimes when you build something beautiful, the world will come and try to hurt it. For us, it was boys who maybe don’t have a play house, or parents to build it. But you and I can scrub off what they threw at the walls, or paint over what they wrote there. Maybe the house won’t ever be as good as new. But we can still care for it. It can still be ours.” 

Little houses in older-fashioned yards have a cozy sentimental appeal. But they don’t shine like mine did, the night I jumped out of bed to look at its window and door and scalloped roof. In my dreams it’s gleaming there still, moonlit palomino wood and trim angles and fresh smell. It’s spilling over with red flowers and eager birds. The lady of the house is caring for them all, serving bread bits and tea for everybody. 

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Salve Regina

Tonight at the shopping center bus stop it was getting dark and cold.

I hopped around foot to foot singing “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen” — not the zippy number in the film “Sister Act,” but the chant at Catholic evening prayers.

We Catholics are fond of our Hail, Holy Queen; no rosary is complete without that prayer at the end. Thomas Merton writes about it in The Seven Storey Mountain, in part III chapter 3, “The Sleeping Volcano.” At that point in the memoir, after agonizing for ages over whether he has a vocation to the priesthood, he takes a long night walk at St. Bonaventure’s Monastery, and prays for help:

“Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani [Monastery] ringing in the night — the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill.The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in my imagination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline. The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged — as if it were calling me home.”

Like Thomas Merton I was headed home too in a more ordinary sense, after a trip to the Goodwill Store to replace a pair of everyday trousers. The managers at Goodwill, God bless them with health & safety, came up with fine precautions. They’ve cleared out half the merchandise, widened the aisles, shut down the fitting rooms, mandated face masks for entry, put up hand sanitizer stations, and reduced the number of shoppers allowed in. That should have kept things in pie order. But then I got in line to pay for my purchases. All of a sudden, between me and the exit, ahead and behind and to the right and left, the cash-registers-&-donations corner suddenly turned into some post-holiday flash mob superspreader gleefest. I should have dropped the shopping basket and bolted for the door. But my first reflex for that last five minutes was to yank my sweatshirt up over my cloth mask, shielding my head toward a display of tutti-fruity gummy worms, with the judgmental thought “Is it so hard to count up to a social distance of six feet?”

Soon, outside under clearing but dark storm clouds in the falling dusk, while taking huge breaths of open air, I realized with repentance that anyone vaguely in touch with modern living would have realized that this was Black Friday Weekend (!), a sub-optimal choice for social distance shopping. Was I now just a walking viral vector? Resolving sadly to stay even farther away and barricaded off from absolutely everyone for their protection, my discouraged mind latched on to the evening prayer “Salve Regina.” In the wind and headlight glare I belted out the Latin words over and over until the bus appeared.

Upon arrival at home, sitting down with a nice bowl of oatmeal, it was slightly disconcerting to see my internet feed algorithm immediately serve up “Salve Regina.” But at least it was a sweet version of 450 voices in a virtual pandemic recording by Canto Católico.

The visual film calls to mind the gradual individual-to-group unifying theme that one would see from The Piano Guys, that is if devout Latter Day Saints went around singing to Mary at the bus stop. The video shows little clips of the contributing singers praying the rosary with their families. The thought of having a family to pray with had me bursting into tears right away.

Bedtime. Clouds are gone; we’re due for heavy fog and frost in the morning. The moon out this window is 98.7% full, waxing and rising. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Holy Queen.

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11/15/2020: Ruination Shoes

Our Festschrift Day excitement began at 6:00 am.

The team hit the ground running. We racewalked to the all-night copy center, to food services, to the research library to scout out a quote that the keynote speaker needed, to the florist, to the ice machine, to the offices of the top brass to round up their written good wishes on a giant greeting card tied up with ribbon, to the trophy/award store to pick up the crystal pyramid with name engraving, to the rest rooms to monitor tidiness and stock up on extra paper supplies. We lined up chairs along the carpet pattern in the auditorium, draped and bannered the dais, tested the panelist microphones, cued up the tape deck with blank cassettes labeled and ready, proofed the names and titles in the invitation list, stacked the programs by the door, set the tables with red cloth, unwrapped the flowers and set them up in vases, set out glasses, filled the pitchers with water and fresh ice, and stood back to admire it all. Show time!

Now our guest of honor was on the way. The scholars had lured him out for this dark and stormy night to preside over an evening of lectures. They didn’t let him know that the lectures were all about him. This Festschrift was a surprise, a whole intellectual bouquet of tributes dedicated to his lifetime accomplishments in academics, research, comparative political systems, and publishing. Tomorrow I’d take the list of panel talks, and enter all the titles in the Invited Presentation section of everybody’s curriculum vitae. Then I’d transcribe the tapes of lectures and extemporaneous comments and questions and answers. Then we’d put that in a manuscript and publish the proceedings in a bound journal for sale in our bookstore and gifts for the experts who attended.

But for now, Catering showed up to take over for the evening. So I headed down the hall for the two-block walk to the back of the building, then down three floors to my office. I got out of the good shoes and stockings and long red dress suit, into sensible clothes for the walk home: army surplus trousers, hood sweatshirt, ski hat, supersized khaki knapsack crammed with books from the research library sale, long green rain tarp over all, and the ruination shoes — sneakers with soles peeling off. (Wearing them saved the shoe leather from my better footwear, though they made a comical flippery noise at every step.) With a sigh of relief I stepped out the back utility door and into the wind and rain along the parking lot. Driveway. Dumpsters. Fleeing rat. Loading dock, grated and locked up.

Wait, what?
Facilities was supposed to open that grate at 6:30 pm! At 7:00, Specialty Bakers was due with pastries and a tall tiered cake. If that grate was locked, the courier might drive the cake back and try to call Catering, who were all out of their offices and standing at their posts in the hall. Would he just leave that cake out on the ramp wall? That would be a poor outcome, as any listen to “MacArthur Park” can tell us. Now what? Email and cell phones were years away in the future. This was a job for a personal messenger.

We staff weren’t issued keys to the utility exit. So I ran across the lot for one block to the end of the street, two blocks right, one block right again to the main entrance. I charged past the elevators (both full, both too slow anyway), up two floors, through a bevy of guests, to the Catering team. Soon they beelined for the back door to open the grate.

To catch my breath I backed into the auditorium alcove with its two loveseats and large  mirror. I mopped off my sweating forehead and polished the steam off my eyeglasses. Putting on the glasses I noticed a petite solitary figure on one loveseat, looking lovely in a dress and jacket of turquoise brocade, highlighting her blue eyes and silver hair. 

It was Mrs. Professor.
That’s what she called herself, loyal to an earlier American custom of taking the rank and name of her spouse — our Festschrift guest of honor himself, who even now was running off to the dais. Usually she’d be with him, attracting a circle of their peers. She was always in her element at social gatherings. Why wasn’t she in the auditorium now?

A moment’s reflection turned up a possible reason. Not long before this, Mr. Professor went home for lunch and found Mrs. Professor packing for their summer trip with the children to Mackinac Island. Problem was, there was no trip in the works. This wasn’t summer, and they’d given up that Mackinac house years before, and those kids were middle-aged now with teenagers of their own. Ever since, Mrs. Professor grew distracted and upset in bustle and crowds, and was uneasy alone without Professor at her side.

So after the Mackinac incident, Professor came to the break room to ask the staff for a little favor. He asked us to find him immediately, every time his wife called the office. He also asked us to assure his callers and visitors that Professor would be back soon, at those times when he slipped away to check on his wife at home. Naturally, we were ready to help this kind courtly pair who survived the Depression and his wartime service overseas and some major illnesses together in mutual devotion. It was only right to pitch in a bit for their convenience and comfort.

Now I sidled up quietly to Mrs. Professor, giving her a smile.
She gave me a bright glance and a deep nod, but peered at my face with growing bewilderment. I slid back my rain hood, untied the sweatshirt drawstring, and pulled off the ski cap to give her a better look at me. She’d seen me around the center for years. I was forever trundling in with bookcarts of Professor’s library requests, or with sandwich trays for his seminars, or with a spray bottle and chamois cloth to polish his glass-topped book display table. One time she was amused to see me crawl out from under Professor’s desk after troubleshooting his phone line. She’d praised my Catholic schoolgirl cursive, recording Professor’s messages on little carbon-copy pink slips. And on her calls to the center she even complimented my phone manners.

Those phone manners came in handy now as I started talking to her. At the sound of my voice, she looked relieved and attentive. When I stopped talking her attention unraveled, distracted by the company milling around and their animated chitchat. So I stepped in front, to shield her view from the fuss in the main hall. Then she flinched at the shadow from the rain tarp, so I crouched down at her level. Then I started talking again, floundering around for whatever pleasantries her social set might use. I exclaimed over her lovely outfit and accessories, talked about the weather, pointed out the decorations for this evening’s event.

She nodded agreeably, and extended her hand.
After our handshake I opened my fingers and stood up to sit beside her on the other loveseat. As I drew away, she looked with some anxiety toward the door as if wishing to make her exit. So I knelt down, offering my hand again. She clasped it firmly, smiling again as I went on impersonating more society talk, drawn from editing Professor’s curriculum vitae and tribute biographies and press clips, and from his social anecdotes overheard at the office. I reminisced hearsay details about her adventures living overseas, her elegant supper menus, her heirloom fruit home preserves, her petit point needlework, her dried aromatic flower wreaths and sachets, her pets, her son and daughter, and Professor’s accomplishments listed in the evening’s program. 

In the hall the panelists’ voices festschrifted on and on, with smatters of applause.
Shifting my pack with its load of books, of which one hardbound corner was pressing into my spine, I glanced around to watch for Mr. Professor — and spotted our reflection in the mirror. There we were, in view of the guests. One graceful lady in silver and blue with an apprehensive smile. One wet figure latched on to her hand, towering over in an indecent proposal pose, with Clem Kadiddlehopper shoes and a getup like the rear half of a Morris Dance horse costume. Tears of chagrin sprang to my eyes; so much for my fuss to make it a nice evening, and to be a considerate hostess to a solitary guest. What a spectacle! If this were an advert idea, United Colors of Benneton would turn it down as too edgy.

Mrs. Professor leaned forward. She patted my hand between both of hers. 
She gave me a nod and a smile of encouragement, patting away.
I wiped my eyes with the ski cap, shrugged, and burst out laughing. So did she.

And it could have been the tiredness, or the tears; but somehow things just started blending together. Panelists and guests, caterers to and fro; flowers and pastries and bunting and dumpsters and the one fleeing rat — Whatever! We were all just creatures, running around, trying to team up and make something nice out of a dark evening and talk about meaningful things and have cake. It was just another medieval stained glass window with divine figures trailing glory center stage and then off in the corner some little gargoyle looking on, gnawing on a mangelwurzel.

This lovely lady and I were still holding hands and laughing when Professor came rushing up dressed to go, holding a coat and scarf and crystal pyramid token of esteem. “My dear!” he hailed his wife, offering a startled but kind glance to me and his elbow to her, draping her in her coat. “My dear, shall we?”
She stood and tied his scarf around his neck with tenderness and precision. She fastened his top button, smoothing his lapel. Then she turned to me, fastening my sweatshirt hood drawstring with a little pat. They turned to go. She took his arm.  That was the last I ever saw of them; Professor retired with honors and a warm sendoff, and the two moved off to be with family in quieter climes.

I helped myself to a cream cheese marble brownie for the road, with some supersize dinner napkins. Crossing the bridge in the wind and rain I loped along, admiring the city lights, munching my goody. It was a blessing to be out in the fresh air for a bracing hour’s walk. It was a bigger blessing to get back to my warm room, set down that load of books, and get some rest.

The dinner napkins were just right for packing the ruination shoes and propping open the soles. Set beside the radiator as I crashed headlong into bed and slept, they were dry by morning.

___________________

Fact Check: The house was not on Mackinac. It was in another quaint and scenic getaway. But as disguise devices go, Mackinac had a nice sound. I heard of it in Girl of the Limberlost and a picturesque pastel movie with Christopher Reeve. 

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10/27/20: The Racket

(Small retraction: Historically informed readers may point out an inconsistency, that the hit parade song on the transistor radio was released several years after the change in the name of the airport. They’re right, too.)

Sirens are the loudest. 

It’s like the sky is barking right into your mind, and then wailing like air raids in a war movie. The siren is right over on Allen Street, on a pole in Mrs. R’s backyard. One time Mom went to visit Mrs. R., and I ran outside to play with Beagle. Just then the siren went off. Beagle just wailed around in circles, dragging his soft velvety ears all along the grass. I wanted to catch Beagle and help him, but I fell on the ground holding the bones in my skull. They were buzzing so hard I couldn’t think.

Sirens have to be loud in case Russia drops the bomb. Then we’ll have to get under our desks and say the rosary. So the fire department tests them every day at twelve o’clock sharp. Sirens at noon means it’s probably not Russia and probably nothing’s on fire, just time to stop and pray The Angelus and then walk home for lunch. 

If sirens go off in the dark, it’s maybe Russia but probably something burning. All that howling and hollering is really a code to tell the firemen what zone the fire is, and how many station houses need to come to the rescue and also volunteer men with blue lights on the car dashboard so everybody knows to get out of their way. If the fire gets bigger there are sirens from the next district over, and maybe the one next to that.

When the sirens stop, the worst fire signal is a loud robot voice growling notes that don’t fit together and sound terrible on your nerves: 

EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B.  EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B.

That sounds like code too. Maybe it says All the children, All the children, are dead. It goes on for a long time. Then it stops and the night is silent. Then it kicks up again. Then it stops and the night is silent. Just when you think it’s over, it’s not! It will kick up a few more times. You can hold your ears and hide your head in your pillowcase. But one time I couldn’t stand the robot voice any more, and trying to escape under the covers I tore the bottom bedsheet right in half.

With all that racket there is no way to get to sleep anyway, so it’s a good time to go check the upstairs windows for smoke, and listen for trucks to make sure they are on the way and not on the way here. Also every night after Mom tucks me in I get up again and line up some clothes and shoes and a snow hat at the foot of the bed to grab and go in case the trucks come for us. The closest it got was late one night at Lombardo’s Shoes with the poster in the window of Papa Geppetto hammering a heel with nails in his mouth. Out the window there was the smoke right over the trees! The boys were allowed to get dressed and run down Hillside Avenue for a look.  

Then in rainy weather, here comes the jet planes. Dad says if you hear a whistle from away far off, then it’s a real jet and not just a regular propellor plane. We’re on the flight path to Idlewild so in the rain or especially fog, planes fly right over the TV antennas. The boys go out and watch for the different airline and plane types, and argue what kind is going over now. Then in the house, the TV picture rolls up every time, and Dad has to wiggle the rabbit ears on top, or reach in the back and jiggle the knob until the picture slows down and stays put. If people are talking and trying to hear each other, or on the phone, they have to just sit and wait until the plane goes by. 

If a room is dark and quiet, and you’re just lying there, it’s easy to hear the first sound. It’s a shivery jingle in the windowpanes, or a spoon in a glass, or china animals on a shelf. If the whistle starts, the jet is on its way. If the lights are really low I go look outside and make sure the pilot is high enough. That’s another reason to keep clothes and shoes handy, because you never know. Then when the lights sweep over the house and things finally stop jingling, it’s ok to lie down until the next plane.

Was that thunder? Oh no. Time to shut the windows and unplug the angel night light, and make sure the lamp is unplugged too. Then I make a nest with the blanket away from the windows at the top of the stairs, and hold the St. Joseph’s Family Bible and look at the color holy pictures inside until the storm is over. If it gets bad Mom will let me come downstairs a while.  

There’s another noise to worry about, and it isn’t even real. It’s being sick in bed with a fever. A fever sounds like cotton balls crashing like cymbals on your ears. Then you can even see your pulse flicking on and off in the shadows and tiny bubbles start filling up the room. The bubbles aren’t really there and bubbles can’t hurt you, but it feels like if the bubbles fill the room you’ll drown. So when they climb the walls I wake up and kick off all the blankets until the cotton crash simmers down and the bubbles go away again. 

Other noises are pretty loud, but mostly they are just ordinary things. The radiators bang and hiss steam, and Mom comes in at night and fills the metal pans on the side with water. Neighbors are yelling in their windows all around, because they didn’t finish their yelling during the day. The dogs are barking news back and forth, and cats fight in the bushes. Hillside Avenue a block away has motorcycles and sometimes drag racers with skidding and brakes. If somebody hits a pole, there goes our lights. Two times there were crashes and people even died. One night a car flipped over turning the next corner, and the men went running to see what happened and meet the police. After a while the rescue people and the tow trucks left, and the men cleaned up the street. Next day the parents didn’t talk about it, and we kids knew better than to ask. When we went out to play in the morning there was nothing left but some glass sparkling on the lawn around the block. 

Sometimes to get some rest I pretend I can’t hear anything any more. I even practice spelling words quietly in the dark, from the hand alphabet in my Helen Keller book.  

But some sounds are fine.

It’s nice to hear Mom up at night taking racks of cookies out of the oven. Or the teenage boys outside on the corner chatting and playing their transistor radio. It’s interesting to hear the hit parade of all the songs if it’s not that Napoleon 14 guy with the clowny voice. There’s a rough chime when the men drag the steel garbage cans to the curb on Monday nights. The trains on the LIRR sound like long harmonicas dippling along higher and then lower and then higher up again, and you can picture the people tucked in to bright square windows going home. 

There are click bugs and crickets or raindrops or icicles or snow. There’s our maple trees all along the street. In winter the branches hum, and in summer they shush their leaves. In storms there’s the tall flag at the garbage dump, and the rope and metal braces bang on the pole and make a nice bell sound Bink Bink.

Televisions downstairs and in the other houses have the vacuum tubes humming really high eeeee and blue lights flickering through the curtains. You can tell all the different shows by the theme songs. Perry Mason is a spider walking up your arm, and then glass bottles rolling around in a speeding car. Bonanza is horses bouncing around if you put twangy rubber bands on their hoofs. Dr. Kildare has a real melody of notes in a soft pattern and it has a harp and church bells. Twelve O’Clock High is even better with even more church bells.

If we are lucky there’s a Goodyear Blimp going to the World’s Fair with bright electric letters running all along the sides like the sign at Radio City. One time Dad woke us up to go hear crowds of geese honking over the roof, and sometimes he’ll come inside and call us to look out if there’s a satellite. One time the most amazing sound was a mockingbird. My John Kieran book says they are only in The South but there he was right outside in the moonlight, imitating all kinds of other birds.

But the best sound happens right before the sky gets light. First the rooster way over at Rhodes Farm calls out a tiny silver thread of E-e-e-aaa. Then especially if it’s springtime and drizzling, that wakes up the robins. Robins are the nicest sound blending in with raindrops on leaves. There are hundreds of them out there in their trees all over town, knitting their voices together in a whole soft curtain Cheeraleep Cheeraloop wooty-woot Cheeraleep!

That means night is really over. We made it until morning.

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Celibacy and the Priesthood: Pick a Side

From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Robert Cardinal Sarah

Devout reviewers at goodreads.com and on Catholic websites have hailed this book as a powerful testimonial to priestly celibacy as a Church tradition, and a powerful response and rebuttal to its detractors.

We Catholic faithful deeply appreciate and love our many wonderful priests and their sacrifices for us. These men are gems and lights of Catholic culture. Willa Cather described the potential beauty of that state of life in Book 8 of Death Comes for the Archbishop. After a final farewell to Father Vaillant, his lifelong partner in missions, the Bishop comes home dreading his first night in an empty mission house.

But when he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him…. That feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration…. It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering. A life need not be cold, or devoid of grace in the worldly sense, if it was filled by Her who all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven….

In line with this power and beauty, and the example of good priests over the centuries, the book addresses two demands: news coverage of scandals in the church, regarding the celibacy of certain priests, and a suggestion at a recent conference that the Church consider ordaining married men. 

After reading and appreciating my copy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, I was eager to read this new book, looking for words of compassion first and foremost for children and vulnerable adults abused by priests; compassion for priests in so much pain that they’ve hurt other people, and need counseling themselves; compassion for priests in pain who never hurt anybody and keep forging right along; compassion for priests in pain who feel that their religious convictions are shaken, who might consider leaving the priesthood or leaving the Church, and need transitional support for the discernment process; solidarity with us allies — single Catholics, living alone in obedience and faith; and, resolve to support and connect all of these people, devoting church space and time so we can help one other lead better lives, and build healthy communities. 

Instead, the book offers this.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI acknowledges that some priests and laity are disillusioned with the Church’s promotion of celibacy, and its track record on living it out. The author blames this disillusionment on “a methodological flaw in the reception of Scripture as Word of God,” and “abandonment of the Christological [and Pneumatological] interpretation of the Old Testament.” As his solution, he then sets out to prove in scholarly detail that today’s state of celibacy among the clergy is a direct heritage of the priestly community in Israel. 

The first similarity offered is that the priestly tribe of Levi had to live on tithes and were not allowed to own land. Psalm 16 is interpreted to cover modern priests as well, with its idea that in celibacy a priest’s natural land is God, and God alone. (It’s a beautiful reading of Psalm 16. But while individual priests do not own their rectory real estate, how does this fit the Church’s historic talent for acquiring land, buildings, and material wealth?)

The second similarity presented is that the Israelite priests were required to abstain from sex while presiding over ceremonies at the Temple. The early Christian church as heirs to this tradition also linked abstinence with the Eucharist. But the book points out that the early Church then found the Eucharist to be a daily necessity, meaning that priestly sexual abstinence then needed to become a permanent state. (Page 41) This meant “the impossibility of a matrimonial bond” as “sexual abstinence… was transformed… into an ontological abstinence.” (I looked up the definition, but still could not figure out what it meant, or how ontological celibacy is different from not having sex.) Just as celibacy is determined to be essential in celebrating the Eucharist, so the Eucharist is seen as essential to celibacy. Later, Cardinal Sarah argues that “No one can remain faithful to celibacy without the daily celebration of the Mass.” (115-116) Does this statement account for us lay people of faith who somehow seem to carry it off?

One might wonder how the Church accounts for the survival of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy does ordain single men, those preparing for life in a monastic community. But aside from some special dispensations, for parish life their Church requires that if a man is called to counsel and confess families, then to qualify for ordination he must first be a married man committed to family life. The entire married congregation, priests and laity alike, observe sexual abstinence anyway from Saturday through Sunday during their fast before communion and during the very many fast days of the church year. Setting aside the question of whether on an Orthodox altar the bread and wine are in fact transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (Catholics will passionately argue for or against), Orthodoxy is traditional Christianity which has always accommodated family life within parish priesthood as not only possible, but a foundational support. One factor is that in Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is not assumed to be a daily routine event or a right. It places much more emphasis on preparation for Communion, through fasting, special prayers the night before and the morning before Sunday Liturgy, and often confession. And while a Catholic priest can be condemned in the headlines if he declines to offer Communion to someone at the rail, in an Orthodox church it’s routine. If a priest there knows of any spiritual issue affecting potential communicants, he will not hesitate to greet them at the altar, and invite them to instead stop by confession or counseling first before approaching the Chalice again. Most Orthodox have small commuter congregations, with Eucharist offered in general no more than once each Sunday, so the Church balances days of marital abstinence each week and during the great fasts as a natural part of life.

For the second half of the book, Cardinal Sarah speaks to “priests who are disoriented, disturbed, and wounded in the very depths of their spiritual life….” (63) “You seem lost, discouraged, overcome by suffering. A terrible sense of abandonment and loneliness grips your heart.” (64) That raised this reader’s hope that the conclusion would be “Enough of leaving our priests bereft of stable supportive human bonds! Let’s unite and do everything possible to give these men a closer Church family and home life with parishioners who need them!” (Catholics may or may not approve of all the points raised in Dilemma by Father Alberto Cutié, who left the priesthood to marry and who now serves in the Anglican clergy; but his warning of serious systemic loneliness among our priests is worth taking seriously.) What does the Cardinal name as the root cause of discouragement among his fellow priests? Not isolation, but “violent challenges to the Church’s doctrine” on the part of society. (63) “A priest on fire with faith and apostolic love quickly realizes that the world in which he lives is, so to speak, upside down.” That would indicate that discord is caused not by the actions of certain priests, but rather by society itself and its lack of appreciation for faith and apostolic love. (This conclusion brings back memories of a “Welcome Home” class at my parish for lapsed Catholics. I attended to welcome and support the visitors. The organizers told the lapsed Catholics to share their reasons for leaving. Every one of them related some painful incident which made them fear setting foot in a church again; one guest shared a particularly sad story of sexual abuse. The organizers then cheerfully criticized the logic of the visitors’ reasons for leaving, and announced that they had all left the Church because they had been “poorly catechized” to begin with. One by one the hopeful returnees walked out in tears, while the organizers joked about the people who had left. Finally I walked out too.)

The book responds to a Church conference about evangelization of the Amazon region and its shortage of priests. At the conference, some delegates suggested that the Church start ordaining local married men in that area. The Cardinal calls this a “contemptuous, neo-colonialist, infantilizing” solution (117) brought on by “theological milieus at universities,” (75) “sorcerer’s apprentices, who wish to utilize the distress of poor peoples as an experimental laboratory for their clever plans.” His assessment is that ordaining married men would be a “pastoral catastrophe,” detracting from the honor of sexual chastity and its lineage with Old Testament practices and the early Church. He also warns that the presence of married men as “second-class” priests (71,72) would discourage vocations to celibacy (109). “The faithful of all cultures unfailingly recognize Christ offered for all in the celibate priest.” (116) And for those who fail at this recognition, the importance of the Gospel gives evangelization the right to “destabilize” and “purify” that culture, as Christ brings “not peace, but a sword,” unveiling celibacy as a “scandal for the world.” Could there be anything neo-colonialist in that idea?

As proof of the value of celibacy in impressing the people of a mission, Cardinal Sarah describes a pastoral visit to Guinea. There, traveling in arduous conditions under full sun, he felt uplifted in the journey by the thought that he was “self-giving for the Church Bride.” (70) Is celibate mystical union with the Bride the prerequisite which enables a man to tackle the adversity of mission life? So much for Brother Andrew van der Bijl and his 60+ years of dangerous work in Communist countries, or Jim Elliot, Oswald Chambers, and Eric Liddell, persisting in mission work right up to their deaths. The Cardinal emphasizes that his celibacy is the reason for the Ghanaian people’s “unimaginable joy when I celebrated Mass, which they had not experienced for a long time.” (70) His conclusion is that the people would have taken the Eucharist dismissively for granted if all along they’d had the benefit of local married priests. “The thought of it wrenches my heart. What sadness!” (74) But instead the people of Ghana were able to greet the Cardinal with appropriate ceremony. “What festivity! The songs, the dances, the effusiveness, and the meals express the gratitude of the people for this gift of self in Christ.” It just happens that Africa is blessed with a rich heritage of communities with a genius for songs, dances, effusiveness, and radical hospitality for strangers. But the explanation given for this warm reception is that “Poor and simple people are able to discern with the eyes of faith the presence of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church in a celibate priest.” 

But the book explains that ultimately it is we parishioners who dictate that our priests be exclusively celibate men. “The Church, as the Bride of Christ, desires to be loved by the priest in the total, exclusive manner in which Jesus the Head and Bridegroom loved her.” (82) Quoting Pope John Paul II, the priest’s spousal love must radiate “divine jealousy,” maternal tenderness capable of bearing the “pangs of birth” until “Christ be formed” in the faithful (85-86). This passionate zeal is thought to be especially essential to set a good example “in countries that are just being evangelized… [where] sometimes the meaning of marriage is distorted; the dignity of the woman is trampled on.” (Do new mission fields have a monopoloy on disrespect toward women in intimate relationships?) The book maintains that we 1.3 billion Catholics constitute a wedded Bride ready for love, demanding a celibate priest to consummate our mystical union in the Eucharist, since in any wedding “the nuptial bed is the Cross.” (83) Is anyone else consoled by this favored Catholic comparison between ecstatic virginal lovemaking on a wedding night and death by public torture? It’s always troubled me. I don’t need a priest coming at me with spousal love and divine jealousy. I want him to be stable and fortified in a network of other priests, parents and siblings, good friends, and neighbors. 

This analogy of Christ as Ardent Bridegroom would then rule out the ordination of women to the priesthood. The book points out that the Bridegroom role can be filled only by biological males. What’s more, women are seen as irreplaceable in the pews in their role as witnesses to model the receptive acceptance of Jesus’s virginal love, and carry on Mary’s gift of femininity, of “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” (88) The book concludes that women must be left unordained and free, to bring the church their special genius; in relation to the all-encompassing Bridegroom, “in the heart of every woman… there is a fundamental disposition to receive love.” (Is soaking up love the role that women play in this world?)

The womanly role of receptive acceptance of love draws the Cardinal’s concern, that a married priesthood would prove oppressive to women. “What will happen to the wife of a man who has been ordained a priest? What place will there be for her? Is there a vocation to be the wife of a priest?” Yes there is. In the Orthodox Christian churches, the priest’s wife holds a highly honored and well loved place. Of course there are tragic exceptions out there, and marriage is no family guarantee against loneliness, depression, or sexual problems. But when my friends argue for the ordination of women, they are pleasantly surprised to hear stories of how a committed Mátushka (Russian “Little Mother,”) lends invaluable spiritual and practical authority in a congregation. (One excellent article in the Russian press advised seminaries that in selecting candidates for future ordination, they must also seriously consider the character of his wife as a mainstay of his vocation.)

The Cardinal’s concern extends to the children of married priests, born to a life which they did not choose: “A better appreciation of the dignity and of the freedom of each person makes this modus operandi impossible now.” (80) Does it? And do Catholic children freely choose the vocation and habits of their parents? Do the children of military service members, or neurosurgeons, or cattle ranchers? Those families are called upon to make major sacrifices in support; should we allow only celibate people in the military or medical school or farming? Plenty of children grow up inheriting their parents’ way of life; Bindi and Robert Irwin found themselves growing up in their parents’ Australian zoo, and they radiate joy about it. Among my Orthodox parishes the children often became priests or married them, and established churches of their own; some gravitated to careers in classical music and architecture. They flourished in the parish house, surrounded by beauty and prayer and ceremonial languages and music, seasons and feasts, structure and service to others, honorary relatives, and wholesome fun with the other parish kids.  

But finally the Cardinal proceeds to the real concern: “Will married priests have to be paid accordingly?” (A living wage? Why not, if you’re getting the work of a whole family instead of one man?) Yet only celibacy, according to the book, renders the priest “totally available to men and women.” (68) In other words, “How could Christians understand that the priest gives himself to them if he is not entirely given over to the Father?” (69) Earlier in the book, the Cardinal maintained that total self-sacrifice to God makes it impossible to be devoted to one spouse; then he states that only total self-sacrifice to God makes it possible to be  available to everyone. Which is it?

Total availability is a lovely idea, except in its present form. In my childhood, priests were much more socially connected. They lived in communities, with some mature neighborhood widow living nearby to rule the house and scold The Fathers for skipping lunch or going out in the rain without their galoshes. The priests worked long hours with many cares, but they also played with us kids in the school next door and were welcome guests in parish homes, and often had parents and flocks of relatives nearby. Today our parish priests generally live alone and commute to two or three parishes. They not only maintain a schedule of Masses and confessions, but must attend to fundraising, event logistics, building maintenance, soup suppers and food banks, strife among the flock, and now pandemic precautions with far fewer donations and far more cleaning and monitoring tasks. From what I’ve seen, in Orthodox families the peripheral business incidentals can be handled by the family, multiplying pastoral availability and leaving the priest more time to prepare for and celebrate the lengthy services and counsel parishioners. Besides, generally the priest or his wife, and sometimes both, bring in money from outside jobs. (The children of one such family asked me shyly how Catholic priests manage church chores without a family to pitch in and help. At the time the kids and I were using citrus oil on the candlestands, polishing off the celestially fragrant beeswax which gives such rich candlelight. “Oh, our candles are electric. We just push a button,” I replied, to their delighted amusement.)

How does the Church account for married Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism with their families, and are ordained as married priests? The book dismisses these as a transitory situation, not as an exception. (108) What about the Catholic Church’s tolerance of married clergy in some Eastern Churches in union with Rome? This is described as “a gradual development toward the practice of celibacy.” (81) The book further states that all married priests in the early Church were required to observe celibacy with their spouses from the time they were ordained. (42) The book discounts many centuries of marital and family life in the Eastern churches as a transcribing error in canons introduced at the Council in Trullo in the year 691. (79-80) 

What about the Orthodox model of both celibate monastic and married parish priests? “[With that option] We run the risk of inculcating… the idea of a high and a low clergy.” (110) Quoting Pope Francis, “I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.” (138) The book further states that “there are many Orthodox Christians who would never go to confession to a married priest.” What? Where are they? In 22 years of worship with hundreds of Orthodox parishioners I have never met one. On the contrary, parishioners with families gravitate to the counsel of a family man, and women seem reassured that that man is settled with his own spouse. The Orthodox do not judge their priests as high, low, or “second-class.” Parishioners have profound reverence for men in monastic communities, and make regular pilgrimages to these monasteries. But they are devoted toward their priest at home, and see both vocations as mutually supporting.

The book concludes with exalted praise for the self-abnegating and yet elevated mystical state of the celibate priest, where at the altar he is “ipse Christus; he is Christ himself.” (113) Quoting Saint John Vianney, “A priest is a man… who is vested with all the powers of God. See the power of the priest! The priest’s tongue makes a God out of a piece of bread.” (112) Father Vianney, the Curé of Ars, could make this statement as he stood on solid spiritual ground of holiness, extreme parish labor, hard travel, and strife among the faithful. But in general, a man who declares a vocation as a spiritual figure is vulnerable to hazardous temptations. This is where an Orthodox family can be a tempering force. In The Scent of Holiness, Mother Constantina Palmer tells in Chapter 20 of a priest’s wife who at home after church services would say to her husband “‘Take off that gold cross. Do you think you are someone special because you serve with the bishop? Just because you serve in the cathedral doesn’t make you a good priest. A good priest has humility!’ He took it all very well, with a grateful heart… ‘I have a good presvytera [priest’s wife]; she humbles me.’”

The book defends this elevated state from “detestable scandals,” which it blames for hurting morale and missionary fruitfulness (122, 123). It adds, “How can we bear the fact that some of our brothers could profane the sacred innocence of children?” (125) Here at last is a word of concern for children — but only as a function of how priests suffer. I once saw a priest in a sermon ask in tears how he could possibly bear it, if any of his brother priests had ever committed such an act. He did not ask how the children might feel themselves, or how he might serve them. The book describes the priesthood as “Wounded by the revelation of so many scandals.” But revelations and scandal didn’t wound anybody. Sexual actions did, something the book doesn’t address.

What then does the book suggest, as a solution to the current crisis of faith? It tells us all to pray for more vocations to the priesthood, and more apostolic fervor. It calls on us to reject criticism of priestly celibacy as “theatrical productions, diabolical lies, and fashionable errors.” (146) It tells lonely priests to spend more time sitting all alone with Jesus in prayer. (128). It commands us to voice our support for this teaching (147), calling down on us “woe to the one who remains silent.” (148) (This echoes a recent sermon at my parish, that priest pedophilia will always continue until we the faithful stop it — through prayer, fasting, charitable works including tithes to the Church, and by all of us becoming saints.)

We people in the pews do not oppose celibacy; even detractors on social media are able to recognize good priests doing good work. It’s just that we want our kids to be safe. We want abused and scandalized loved ones to recover from heartbreak and to be okay. We want the Church to help our priests, the ones who suffer from depression, addictions, or personality changes caused by social isolation. Whether they stay or go, they need safe places to talk and find support — long before problems start, long before the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe takes notice. We just need the few troubled clergy to pick a side, not preach one thing at us from a pulpit while practicing another in private.

I still remember the moment years ago that convinced my Catholic mind that the Church can benefit from a married as well as a monastic clergy. At one Orthodox church after a festive Liturgy, a visiting priest finished hours of chanting, standing on his feet on a sweltering day. He descended through the Royal Doors of the iconostasis to bless the parishioners. He wasn’t received with an entire village, singing and dancing for joy. He wasn’t hailed as a man whose tongue turned a piece of bread into God. Instead he got a good talking-to from his three year old daughter, who ran up and cried “Oh Poppy — you locked Bunny Bee in the car all alone, and my sippy cup too.” Uh-oh! Poppy was in trouble now! He took a separate car to church early that morning, while Mom was dressing the kids. He didn’t notice the lidded cup or plush toy stowaway in his back seat. And so our distinguished celebrant, all gold brocade vestments and long hair and flowing beard and scholarly glasses, gazed down at his small petitioner. His grave countenance softened in tender repentance. Sifting through layers of vestments to his belt, he unhooked his keys and humbly handed them over to his wife. Soon Poppy’s wee one was all contentment on his lap at the church supper, with a sippy cup of milk and Bunny Bee safe in her arms. Just a typical moment in the life of a parish. Ceremonial worship bore a man’s consciousness aloft to heaven. His child’s needs brought his feet back to earth again.

After three reads of this book, it took me a few weeks to shake off the spiritual despondency. The hierarchy may be talking from the depths of their hearts, but they are not listening to the depths of ours. If for even one priest in a thousand celibacy simply does not work, then that constitutes a crisis which can harm them, and people around them.

For Catholic priests who feel especially distraught about lack of home life, what ultimate consolation does this book offer? It advises that when sexual deprivation feels like a burden, a priest can connect his feelings of emptiness to the bleeding nailed empty hands of Christ. In addition, on the eve of each Eucharistic celebration, if priests can “remain like children snuggled in her arms, the Virgin Mary prepares us to deliver ourselves body and soul to Jesus Christ” (114) where for comfort they can “get onto the Cross.” (125) Is that the best the Church can offer? Is it even a mentally healthy balanced goal?

That might work for just about everyone. But for a few men out there, a better use of time would be to hand over the keys, and get Bunny Bee out of that car.

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8/13/20: Cecropia

Back in the day, August was bug time. Insects were everywhere, sharing our lives whether we asked them to or didn’t.

Houseflies got in through the screen door no matter what, landing to rub their little faces and tap the kitchen table with their tongues if they got half a chance. That meant running to get the fly swatter from inside the closet door, because if they landed on our hands we’d get the typhoid fever. We had no idea what typhoid was, but we knew to run for that swatter when they got in the kitchen.

Dive-bomb beetles came in at night to bounce off the walls during the best part of TV movies and right into our lemonade.

Cicadas rattled the air every day. We called them locusts, hefty noisemakers in green military camouflage and armor and clear wings, thrumming around in treetops and then leaving empty molted shells of papery brown skin and glassy eyes clinging to the bark.

Ant wars looked like a pound of coffee grounds in motion dumped on the sidewalk. Every so often they even sprouted wings and came right into the house to swarm on the curtains.

Inchworms spun around on invisible threads to drop down and hunch and wave along. They got into Mom’s petunias, so we had to coax them out and put them back on the trees.

Rose beetles hid in the roses, ready to burble out and ambush our noses when we stopped for a perfume sniff.

Tomato hornworms could strip a whole tomato stem in no time. A common chore for children was to check all the plants and pick the caterpillars off, and to wave away the white cabbage butterflies before they could lay eggs. We also had termite duty, checking all the concrete foundations of the house with the garden hose, to wash away anything that looked like a sand tunnel leading up into the wall shingles.

Click bugs ticked at night before thunderstorms.

Some moths were beige and got into the pantry for the flour, and then we had to shoo them away outside. White moths circled and circled the porch lights at night. But the prettiest kind was Sweetheart moths. They sat there on a tree like just part of the bark. But if you got close they opened their pretty pink underwings and flew away.

Praying mantises the size of your hand rocked back and forth on branches and twisted their tiny heads around to stare at us. We kids knew that if we killed one there was a fifty dollar fine, and the police would knock on the door and tell your parents and take the money out of your allowance for like a whole year.

Candy-striped leafhoppers had beautiful red and turquoise stripes, and lived on the wooden street light pole.

Dining needles, or darning needles, or dragonflies, were pretty too. Their wings were so fast and clear that you couldn’t see them. Instead you could see that they were very thin shiny bright blue or green sticks. Tt the edges of ponds and streams they skipped around forward and sideways, flashing in the sun.

Yellowjackets would be all over a soda can or hamburger in no time if we left them on the picnic table.

Nobody liked spiders, but we had to let them stay around to get at the flies.

Everybody liked ladybugs. If you hold still and let them walk to the tip of your finger, they pick up their red shell wings and unfold their black lacy wings underneath and sail away. We counted the spots on their back to see how old they were, because they grow a new spot every year.

Crickets were good luck, so we didn’t mess with them. It was nice when one crept in under the warm oil burner and kept chirping right into frosty weather. We knew about Dolbear’s Law, how we could count the chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 and get the temperature outside. But it took a lot of arguing to get the kids to agree on what was 14 seconds and which cricket we were listening to, so all the crickets generally got quiet until we let them be.

Lightning bugs trailed their lights around after dark, nestling with their stickly feet and pink and black stripes, turning our cupped hands into magic lanterns.

Bees were everywhere, hard at work with multiple armfuls of fluffy yellow pollen. So were butterflies: Tiger Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Skipper, Painted Lady, Monarch, Cloudless Sulphur, Buckeye, Red Admiral.

But in life with bugs, I had this dream of finding the most beautiful insect of all — a Hyalophora cecropia, a Cecropia moth. I read up enough to know that the Norway Maples lining the street would be just the right habitat for them, and knew just what color pattern to watch for at what time of year. I kept going to Martin’s Candy Store and soda fountain, and asking for any empty cigar boxes. Finally one day Mr. Martin happened to have one in the trash, and he fished it out for me — a real Dutch Masters, with men in black hats standing around in the picture. Then I asked Mom for some cotton from the medicine cabinet, and pins from the sew box, and moth balls from the linen closet. I drew a nice label on an index card, with a space for the place and date of capture. With display case and butterfly net ready, with daily patrols around the neighborhood, I was all set for that moth to show up.

There was competition though; pesticides and light pollution and habitat loss. And there are plenty of natural enemies out there, from parasitic wasps to squirrels and birds, who find an appealing target in a red white and brown moth with a seven inch wingspan. One summer slipped by, then the next. Only one moth turned up on a morning after a big storm, a traveler with shredded wings who latched on to our kitchen light to breathe his last until he spiralled to the ground.

Summers and years went on, and later I was a teenager at college, walking around in a lot of locked-in sadness and not knowing why. But one day Mom and Dad invited a favorite guest for supper, a cheerful friendly elder priest from Ireland. He’d spent his summers helping out at our parish, and his kindly counsel in the confessional was a real comfort over the years. It was comfort too to have that little distraction for the day, helping Mom with the meal.

By noon, everything was planned out. The patio furniture was scrubbed and hosed off, the garden was watered, the table settings were ready to carry outside, the flowers were earmarked to cut for the centerpiece, the citrus-scented citronella candles were set out (our insect friends included mosquitoes). The vegetables were picked and trimmed, the meal all prepped for final cooking and assembly. I stopped to rest in the kitchen garden doorway, looking around to see it all through the eyes of a guest. What more could I set out, for an appealing atmosphere?

Maybe this Cecropia.
It landed on the house, right at my shoulder. It was a perfect specimen seven inches wide, in warm vivid oxblood-brown with red and white highlights, a furry red body, and feathered red antennae. I slid sideways inch by inch, lifted a fluted glass vase from the picnic table, eased it down over the moth, and slipped a napkin under to seal him in. This was our living centerpiece now, a gem that few Americans and fewer Irishmen would ever see. In only six hours Father would be here to marvel at it with me, with his signature delight in all the workings and wonders of the Creator.

The moth under glass fanned its wings in slow trusting gentle strokes, waving its antennae. Its fresh coloring, clear markings, and perfect wing condition suggested that he’d just emerged from his cocoon, perhaps that very morning. For a person carrying around an individual portion of inner darkness, it was very moving to sit transported by such amazing beauty, to know how fleeting and rare this experience was. I knew that Cecropias live for only a few days, and that this moth had one mission in life: to fly and fly and find a moth like him, and spend the day with its own mate so that one or other of them could lay some eggs before they both died.

Then it dawned on me. For a creature with three days to live, half a day lost was a disaster. Cecropias did not grow on every tree. In these hours of fluted glass captivity, what if this moth’s mate was passing by and the two of them missed each other and just kept searching and searching for the rest of their small lives?

That night, Father (may he rest in peace) got a fluted glass vase near his plate, and a story with his dinner of the moth that got away.

That Cecropia was long gone by then. He floated over the roof on his way to the sky.

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6/7/2020: The Lourdes Garage, 1963

J | M

J

The little shrine was close by, just right for an after-supper family outing.

The Our Lady of Lourdes Garage Project started when a homeowner a few miles off turned his backyard garage into a prayer room. Soon, word spread to the neighbors, and got around town. How? Maybe it was printed up in the St. Anthony Messenger that every household got in the mail, or mentioned at church with the week’s announcements. However we found out, it was all the talk on our street, at night when neighbors sat on the steps and lawn chairs talking about the day. One long summer evening, our parents decided to go see for themselves. They hopped in the cars with the children, and we set out in a little convoy. 

The family with the garage was at home mowing the lawn and hanging the wash on the line. They were used to people stopping by, and told us to go right on in. The men stood outside a while first, talking to the man of the house about his creative home project. They listened to and talked with our host about his giving up a good indoor parking spot, and his investment in concrete, plumbing materials, electrical wiring, benches, a stereo system, landscape and garden supplies, not to mention statuary. Then, once they knew how the shrine worked, they took a look in the door and agreed that the place was fixed up nicely and was worth the trip. 

The moms talked to the wife in a quiet way off to the side. They listened to her story about the Blessed Virgin’s intercession for their family. We kids didn’t hear any details about it, but we heard other stories like it all the time. Maybe somebody’s relative needed an operation, or a couple wanted God to send them another baby, or a son was going into the Army. So families printed a note in the church bulletin to dedicate a Mass, or they asked the priest to serve a whole novena of Masses nine days in a row, or they made a pilgrimage, or stayed in the church all night for 40 Hours’ Adoration to gain indulgences for a deceased loved one in Purgatory, or they took out a newspaper ad with the prayer to St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases. This family prayed to Our Lady to intercede for them with her Son Our Lord; the prayers were answered, and the family built the shrine. 

That made perfect sense to us.
We all liked extra devotions. At school, at the top of every sheet of paper, before writing a word we always drew a cross with the initials J M J, to dedicate our work to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One mom in town made a pilgrimage on the first Saturday of every month for a year because the family’s new baby had asthma, so Mom got up at 3:00 a.m. and left the baby and the kids with Dad and drove Upstate to a mission shrine for a special healing Mass and a bottle of blessed holy water; she always got home just after midnight, and she anointed the baby with that holy water every day until the next month’s trip. One grandmother took old broken charm bracelets and necklaces, and made rosaries as gifts. One girl in high school baked hot cross buns with sugar crosses on them for every day in Lent and gave them away. One neighbor went to her garage piano at 5:00 every morning to play and sing “Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire!” and we could hear her all up and down the street. One family lost their son when he was hit by a car, so the father made a little altar with his son’s picture, and candles; then he cast a white plaster mold of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the size of your hand, and put that on the altar. The he made a second Pieta to put beside it. Then the neighbors liked his Pietas so much that he worked for weeks, day and night, to make Pietas for everybody. He painted them in silver and gold with Christmas glitter around the base, and even made enough to surround his backyard fishing pond. There the little Pietas formed a circle around the pond, sparkling in the sun. 

But the Garage Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes was special.

It was like a whole outdoor scene right inside in a room, like the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, or the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden, but more holy. In different houses I  saw plenty of little scenes like H&O model railroads with green plastic grass hills, or Nativity sets with fluffy spray-on snow. But this was the first time in any house that I could walk in and feel like we were all surrounded out in a peaceful place of nature. 

The garage door and ceiling had corky white squares with holes like Munster cheese, to keep out noise. There was a chorus singing music, and not like our phonograph record turntable or transistor AM radio either. This music came from everywhere all around and filled the air but in a very soft way. The front wall was a hillside grotto cave made out of white stones, and a waterfall with spray mist trickling down the rocks into a fountain. The ceiling was like a black velvet sky with tiny white twinkling lit-up stars. The waterfall grew thick ferns and jade plant and white peace lilies and moss. The grotto had a beautiful statue of The Holy Virgin. The family kept a little bouquet of white roses at her feet. She wore a white flowing robe and blue veil and gold crown and the gentlest face, holding out a long crystal rosary in her hands.

I sat on the bench looking up at the face of Our Blessed Mother, and thought about how this is how she really looks all the time, watching over us. Everything outside that garage faded away, and the bench felt like a good and comfortable place to just stay for good. But finally the parents called their kids to get in the car, and we all drove home. And even then, the picture of that shrine was too beautiful to forget. Everyone else went indoors to lights and conversation and housekeeping and TV. But to keep that picture fresh in mind, I stayed outdoors in the silence. I lay down on the front lawn in a cross shape, and looked up at the sky.

The weather was perfect and quiet and clear. The sun was setting. The sky was all goldish blue. Right overhead, there were folds of light clouds row on row like flying geese. They turned from white to pink to lilac. I lay there a long time in the white clover flowers with the planet turning under my back. The thought of Our Mother left a completely pure feeling in the grotto of my heart.

Heaven looked so close. It seemed a very good idea to die, leave now, and float up there.

I prayed to God to let me keep this shrine feeling forever, and thought that maybe this feeling would stay if I went through the rest of my life and never committed a single sin ever again. Then in the end my soul could rise and fly along as just another rose cloud.

In the house, through the open kitchen window, Mom and Dad dried the dinner dishes and got ready for the next day of job and school. They didn’t say anything about our trip to the shrine. They talked about work, because they worked all the time. So I didn’t mention our visit to them or to anybody else. But now all these years later, it would be good to mention it to that family, to find them again and thank them and to hear their story at last. 

That family didn’t preach at us with special visions or prophecies from the Queen of Heaven. Instead, because of her they gave up savings and weekend free time and living space, put the car outside in a weatherproof tarp, made trips to the hardware store and garden center, tinkered with the tool box, and then opened their driveway to interested strangers. They seemed to think that grace waited to bless anyone who stopped by. And they were right.

Their gratitude and hospitality were the real beauty of the Lourdes Garage. It was devotion so pure and simple that pure and simple people can make a home for it anywhere. 

At any time. Under any roof.

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5/24/2020: One Drop of Distance

They all had the right of way.

They walked in pairs holding hands, or in little family groups, many holding a walker or baby stroller or dog leash. On this sunny Sunday after days of rain, stuck in town on Memorial Day weekend, they were all over the place. And caught up in conversation, they didn’t monitor the pavement width or social space or anyone around them.

So on every block, I stepped off the sidewalk.
That meant sidling between parked cars and checking for bicycles or traffic, walking down the middle of the street in a wide arc, then stepping back up on the curb. After an hour of deferring space to anyone who belonged to anyone, I stopped on the hilltop and took off my mask for a deep breath, looking up at the overcast gray sky.

The sky looked like life as a Single person; individual quarantine with no Phase 1 in sight. Before, that was chronic low-grade desolate. With orders to stay at home, life got colder. Offices and churches and libraries and stores and coffee shops shut down. Loved ones teamed up with loved ones and went to hunker down together. The rest of us were left outside the collective Ark.

And, that is no license to complain.
Not with other people overcrowded in, some running out of groceries. Spouses self-isolating on separate floors of the house, or scared of abuse or addictions under their roof. Students trying to graduate. Parents trying to home school. Kids going up the wall. ICUs and nursing homes with heartsick relatives locked out and heartsick patients locked in. Mourners in Italy allowed only to shout farewell and blow kisses through the closed back door of the funeral home. Medical staff, meat plant packers, priests sprinkling holy water at freezer trucks. A teacher at a closed school, gloving and gowning and reaching through a plastic partition so she could sterile-hug her little pupils goodbye for good. Small business owners. People in prisons and refugee camps and tent cities. In a sea of planetary suffering, what’s one solo life in a studio apartment? It’s one ocean drop of insulated trouble-free convenience and ease.

It still tastes empty and meaningless.
The thoughts came teaming in that God is off perfecting triple helixes or rings on Saturn or whatever. And out of seven-point-eight billion people, He couldn’t bother sending a single conducive human to team up with me at home to do life with in an alliance of any kind. But it’s supposed to be fine, because after death we’ll see the lovely picture on the right side of the embroidery hoop and shout praise for His master plan. Well, tonight that master plan drew only a couple of choice silent words from me as I put my mask back on and stormed in to the local open-air vegetable stand.

“Hey MARY! Hi!” The owner’s son waved happily. Behind his cash register and mask and gloves, he welcomed me and the other customers to his very own homemade alcohol hand sanitizer, tinctured with herbs and coconut oil. He eagerly pointed out the good-as-new bargains, and the newly arrived seasonal fruits and vegetables just stocked today. As always, he was hauling cart after cart of food, arranging richly colored pyramids of produce, tidying the space, sweeping the floor. He presided over his eclectic music collection, his warm artfully arranged lights of Christmas cheer for covid days, and fresh free coffee and tea. He told us the stories of our purchases as he rang them up, talking with enthusiasm about the small local farms and cottage industries that his father conscientiously seeks out and highlights in the store. As always, he added his usual sage humorous kindly observations about the weather and current events. He even delighted one young woman by admiring the hand stitching in her wallet.
“Mary. Always great to see you,” he said, handing me my receipt.
Gazing at one another over our masks, we were all smiles.

Still beaming after that first social interaction of the day, I stopped and looked at the sky again. Now it was a soft tinted vault of sunset, a cathedral dome so spacious that all my hurt and anger fit in there quite comfortably. It felt then as if plenty of believers must have a whole spectrum of feelings like mine; just part of the whole sentient spectrum of the Body of Christ.

The strolling families had gone home to their supper. The side streets were empty, with only bunny babies and songbirds and squirrels. Soon I was stopping to take pictures of vegetables and flowers. At our apartment complex, at my own little home patch I gathered some kale before heading indoors.

“Excuse me?” A young woman called from the street. She seemed anxious about disturbing me, but urgent about her message. “You’re a retired nun, right?”

Retired nun? “Oh! The convent,” I realized. “Right, I used to live in one.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.” She hesitated, but forged ahead. “And I’m not exactly the most religious kind of person. But see, I’ve got a friend, she’s on my phone earbud right here. She was raised a Catholic. And she has a situation going on right now, it’s serious, and she’s telling me all about it. And then — there you were. Will you pray for her?”
“Pray? I most certainly will! What is your friend’s name?”
“She’s named for Saint Therese.” She spoke into the phone connection. “Yes, I’m talking about you to someone. She’s going to pray.” Back to me. “She says thank you.”
“Tell Therese I have an altar upstairs, and a list of people to pray for. At night I say a decade of the rosary for each one of them.”
“Yes! Like that. Send her a blessing, will you?”
“Right away. And wait, what is your name? I’ll look for you, to find out how she is.”
“Last apartment second courtyard, around the corner.” She gave me her name before saying goodnight. “Thank you. I saw you, and there was this… cosmic connection.”

And to think what kind of person she was asking, and where that person’s religion was only an hour before! Well, there was only one thing to do.

“Rosary!” I called after her. “Right now.”
Gathering up the kale I headed upstairs to put the vegetables away and start the prayers.
White Wisteria White Cottage 5.18.20

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5/29/20 Suicidal Thinking: Open Questions

The day was going along pleasantly, when there in my internet viewing queue was a highly acclaimed Christian film about evangelization to teenagers at risk of suicide. Obligingly I took a look, meaning to write a review about its teaching material. But, nothing doing: the film looked like shock programming to trigger and strong-arm vulnerable teens into agreeing to accept the evangelizer’s package of Jesus. I soon turned it off, wondering with alarm how many susceptible people will see this film. How in this day and age can anyone still produce such a terribly anti-helpful message?

How would it look, to even start to get it right?
I have no professional credentials for this. But if I could make my own movie, the message would be this. – M

The Huge Print
1. I don’t know a thing about the acute emergencies of suicidal teenagers or children, or anyone living with an unsafe life or a head injury or chronic pain or a mental illness or an addiction. That’s a crisis calling for immediate professional help. Don’t look to some language major like me writing an amateur blog.

2. Writing this is not to claim that we can rush in and rescue anybody.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide already, you don’t deserve a bunch of advice. You deserve all the support and help and kindness in the world.
Besides, when people in my life committed suicide (and all of them were better stronger smarter people than I), it always came as a complete shock. So bear in mind that my success rate with them was zero. Having me as a friend didn’t save a single one.

So, these are a few thoughts on how to maybe not make things worse, and hopefully to help.
It’s based partly on weathering the hurtful idiotic feedback that other people have said while trying to snap me out of my own problems.
Most of all, it’s learned by listening to friends who confided to me. These are hyper-brilliant over-educated types with a fierce gift for self-reflection and eloquence and humor. As a rule, they’ve worked through every therapy, recovery program, diet, exercise, and personal philosophy option they can find. Most of them ended up stabilizing from serious episodes of despondency, perhaps because they are so skilled at self-expression. Even those who go on bearing innate melancholy over the long term tend to soldier on and forge strong families and productive careers.

When a person experiences a suicidal turn of mind, it generally doesn’t mean that he wants his life to end. He probably wants his life to begin -— a life that is safe, that is his, that bears some hope. I don’t have the exact quote or the book at hand; but in Ritual Abuse, author Margaret Smith wrote that a suicidal thought is a soul saying “I hoped for more from life than this.“)
This alarm signal should not just be shut off at all costs. It deserves to be heard and held in safety, to see what lessons it is bringing and what fruit it can bear.

That said, you as an amateur friend have to be ready to step aside and call for professional help if there are enough indications of danger. Don’t set out to be a hero with this.

Now. While you’re listening to a person in pain who is afflicted by suicidal thoughts, try to not do these things.

Please God — do not laugh and crack jokes. Just trust me on this one.
As Judge Rob Rinder tells us on TV, “Don’t be STIUPID.”
This goes double if your witticism is sexual or morbid. Some perfectly nice people resort to jolliness by default, in the well-meaning (or frightened) effort to snap their loved one out of feeling sad. (These are the same folks who clown their way through wakes and funerals. Maybe they’ll all show up for mine, pouring out of a little car with bicycle horns and a rubber chicken.) A whole group of my college students from Country X loudly insisted that the only way to respond to a suicidal person is to ridicule him — and the more earthy and graphic and explicit and revolting the jokes are about his demise, the better. I wonder what success rate is attained by Taunt Therapy?

Don’t tell her that if he commits suicide he’s going straight to hell.
That’s about the level of narrative cooked up by the Brothers Grimm to keep small children from wandering off into the forest by themselves.
And if you believe (or have been told) that your loved one is in hell, whoever told you that made a terrible mistake. You deserve counseling and understanding from the best and wisest advisor possible.
The Scared Straight Deterrence method just does not work.
Your friend has heard that. Over and over. Besides, your friend is basically living in hell already. All we can do is the same we’d do for someone stuck on an elevator: tap on the wall and tell him we know he’s in there, that help is out here on the way, there are ways to navigate this, and that plenty of other people have been rescued from this elevator in the past.

Don’t tell him that his abject mood constitutes despair as a sign of pride.
This is two mistakes in one. But it’s still believed by some well-meaning traditionally religious people.
Example: The cherished Russian Orthodox monastery of Optyna Pustyn’ is known for its generations of revered priest elders. They left a treasury of personal letters with spiritual counsel. A strong theme of their advice is that despondency is a result of pride. Maybe it’s because the more formal letters were written to benefactors among the aristocracy, the literate letter-writing members of society who were more likely to feel pride?
By the way, the Catholic Encyclopedia emphasizes that “anxiety, no matter how acute, as to the hereafter is not to be identified with despair.” The official Catholic definition of Despair is more a determination to deny and rebel against God’s plan of salvation and grace for us. Chances are your friend is not up to challenging the Almighty; he’s too busy feeling miserable.

Don’t promise that she will feel better if she converts to your preferred idea of God.
Heaven knows how many people have demanded that I convert to their faith in their dunk tank or fire-coal walk or whatever, in order to be cured.
Now there are plenty of cases when people on their own initiative become interested in a whole new way of life, embark on that change, and then feel better.
But I would never tell my atheist friends that converting to my faith will cure them, because my atheist friends are waiting for faith to cure me first. (It’s still a perfectly good faith; Jesus didn’t promise us an easy life.)
Of course, it can be helpful to listen for and gently sift through someone’s beliefs if they are virulently damaging to him or her. For example, one friend asked me in fear and trembling to reveal the secret Bible verses; she informed me that The Jesuits use a special esoteric translation of these verses as permission for them to rape children. So I sat down with her and we chatted through that one.
If he or she has a favorite faith system with positive sensible beliefs and practical value, then sure — take an interest and show appreciation. I’ve gone with people to their favorite house of worship, made and sent cards with inscriptions from their favorite holy books, and learned to sing some of their favorite hymns.

Don’t tell him that suicide is for cowards.
People who believe that could learn a lot listening to combat veterans.
Chances are, your loved one already believes that these feelings mark him as a total loser. At one Catholic church event attempting to raise suicide awareness, every single audience member vented plenty of anger and zero compassion — over the suffering that their suicidal relative had caused to them. One woman, in obvious and understandable pain at losing her middle-aged son, cried out “Suicide is a cluster bomb aimed directly at The Family.” I bit back my tongue from saying “Ma’am, your son was in no shape to aim anything at anybody. That cluster bomb went off in his mind years and years ago.”

So what can help? Where do you start?

First, take very good care of yourself.
Therapists have training and continuing education and support networks to help them set boundaries and recharge their energy. Amateur friends don’t.
And if you’re signing up as a deep listener, chances are you’re also sensitive and impressionable and might even have some trauma of your own.
So be careful. Aside from special emergencies, being there for your friends will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Besides, it’s good for your friends to keep the perspective that they are not alone in their suffering — that the people around suffer too and need some consideration.

If this is going to be a deep dive into someone else’s pain, speak up with your availability and limits in advance so that you don’t have to interrupt later. Let your loved one know whether you can handle drop-in visitors at your office or not, or whether you’re ok with a phone call or a knock at the door at 3:00 am. If there are certain details about violence or abuse that are too hard for you to hear, let them know that hearing that won’t be your share in the work that needs to happen.

If a friend’s revelation takes you by surprise, take a moment to think about your own needs right now. What next step were you going to take in your day? If in an hour you’ll need to let the dog out or go get ready for an appointment, say that up front. If time is limited, you can still say something like “Thank you letting me know that this is happening. You matter very much to me, this is important, and I want to hear all about it. Let’s sit down now for ten minutes, and then after my work day I want to call you and we can share the rest of it.”

If this is a good time to listen, start with a wellbeing check. Are you both seated comfortably? Are the lighting and temperature okay? Do you have enough privacy? Before the talk starts, both of you go take a trip to the rest room and fix a mug of tea to hold before you hunker down.
If the talk goes on a while, a person talking about horrific emotions may well take a break by suddenly shifting gears. He might say “And how about YOU? Still taking that vacation?” She might want to show you a cat video. This is normal; people need to rest their minds at times, and if you like you can roll with it and chat about the news for a while. One friend of mine in massive bereavement started joking one day, and I promised her “You can joke around all you want. I promise to not assume that you’re Over It.”

A useful question for the end of the talk is “What is your strategy for getting through today, or tomorrow?”
Is there someone they can call and talk to? Do they have a hotline number on hand? Are they in therapy? If they are, encourage them to talk about what the therapist might say now. Does the therapist have a way to collect urgent messages after hours? When will you check in with this friend again? It’s a nice touch to say “I look forward to hearing how it went.” The idea is to let the person know that his future plan matters and will serve as a future point of connection. If he says he’s going off to watch Hamilton, then keep that in mind (or even jot it down as a reminder), and ask later what he thought of it — and then what his next future plan is.

After the talk, check on your own wellbeing. Do you need to decompress in some way? Do you need to talk to someone yourself?
Then if you feel like it, next day reach out to your friend. I thank them for sharing what they did, and send the hope that they’re having a good day and we can visit again soon. That can help your loved one from the after-fear that you’ve been driven away and are now going to bail out of the friendship entirely.

What things can you say, then?

As a listener I first ask “What is your level of safety right now?”
Are they just trying to escape from an abuser? From a whole cult of abusers?
Is someone at home keeping them locked in with violence or threats? (This can happen to men as well as women.) Is someone bullying or stalking them? Did someone hack in to their social media or target them for harassment?
The first task is to know how safe this person is when they go home tonight for dinner and a night’s sleep, and when they wake up tomorrow. And if they don’t have dinner or a place to sleep, again this is a crisis that needs extra help.

Then I ask “What’s the picture of this in your mind?”
If the plan has specific details and called for real planning on their part, this would be a real cause for concern.
Does it involve weapons or travel to a specific place or a specific special holiday or life milestone, like a birthday?
Did they make arrangements for their pets or home or favorite things?
Is there a note that they want to write? Who is it for, and what will it say? What do they want people to remember about them?

What addictions are crowding in on this person’s life?
Gambling or random sex or alcohol or drugs can make it very hard for anyone to make decisions or calm down.
For plenty of people in my past, nothing I did or said or was, not all my love or caring, was ever as fascinating or as beautiful as a can of beer.
That is also true if your loved one is completely wrapped around some other person — either an ideal figure who is now lost, or someone abusive. There are times when your loved one has tied up all the bandwidth in their fixation on someone else, and your presence does not stand a chance of having an effect. If you try to talk to them and they seem to be hearing (and talking to) only a third person in the room, you may not be getting through at all.

Is your loved one reacting to some event or (more important) his own story about the event? Was it loss of a loved one, loss of health or job, threat of being deported, chronic pain, humiliation, betrayal? What message did they internalize about the event? Is there a conclusion they’ve drawn, a special slogan that they tell themselves about how life is and always will be?

What is their constellation of close people? What’s been going on with these close people lately?
In the psychiatric ward of a large city hospital, I once assisted with three different patients. All were women age 20 or so, all undocumented immigrants with very limited English, all completely hysterical after suicide attempts. All were brought in without their consent and placed in locked cells. Then clinicians stood there with clipboards, checking off questions from a list: “Have you noticed a change in your sleep patterns? Eating? Bathroom habits? Blood pressure? Do you no longer practice activities which you used to find enjoyable? On a scale of one to five, would you say that you always, seldom, or never experience thoughts about…” Because I have no clinical training, I couldn’t understand their methods at all; I wanted to chime in and ask “WHERE IS YOUR MAN?” Why wasn’t her husband or boyfriend here in the waiting room? Where were her children? Her family or friends? Would a young woman really would make it all the way to the US and then try very hard to end her life all on her own? I thought the first order of business ought to be finding out what had happened in her close relationships that very day.
Somehow our Anglo-American retail mass media popular culture assumes that we are all emotionally independent agents, no matter what our social circle may be up to. But in fact the opinions and activities and even health habits of our people can affect us deeply. (Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But although Mrs. Roosevelt bravely bore many secret burdens and sorrows, social inferiority was not her area of expertise.)

What everyday situations or activities does your friend navigate, to manage the level of this pain?
What helps? What doesn’t?
Your friend might feel like a paramecium under a microscope light, ricocheting around in a rapidly shrinking water drop. Her ricochet pattern might baffle or frustrate the rest of us. We can never see all the same limits or constraints that she does. But nevertheless, people are still geniuses at navigating their own lives within the limits and constraints and resources that they can see. Chances are, they’ve already heard a lifetime of unwanted advice; they might be quite defensive if they feel that you are just tapping on their aquarium glass to see which way they jump. But, if you can gently elicit their insights on the boundaries of their life as they see it, and if they can tell you their logic such as it is, that can teach a lot about what they are dealing with.

What is your loved one’s map of guilt and shame?
Do they feel guilt over something they have done?
Have they acquired a sense of shame over who they are?
Perhaps they have been imposed upon with the message that people with their body shape / facial symmetry / ethnic heritage / criminal record / family messages / spectrum processing differences deserve to die, or will never find anybody anywhere who can understand or love them.

Shrapnel fragments of guilt or shame can burden even people who project a forcefully self-confident, assertive image. They can have an armament of overcompensation tactics to keep you or themselves from ever seeing that cause for shame. At times some random pleasant remark of mine has caused others to detonate from zero to sixty in anger or hysterics; later it turned out that they had a hidden source of guilt or shame, and I’d blundered right into it.
If a person is able to identify and talk about guilt and shame, then they may benefit just from hearing the news that they are in good company, that other people share this sentiment, and there are local or internet resources and support abounding.

Have they ever thought of harming anybody else?
Among my people this was an issue in only two cases, and those feelings were temporary. Still, it’s a good idea to find out what local resources are qualified to help if someone is troubled by an idea of this kind.

What is their secret dream?
You don’t raise that subject by saying “You should be proud of yourself. Look at all your innate gifts and skills.” The idea of unused potential is one more thing for upset people to be upset about, especially if they know their Bible story about the buried talents.
But if a person does have a secret dream of a real-world experience that they might enjoy, try listening to their ideas. The most miserable men I have ever met had some secret cherished dream, one that was reasonable, positive, and in easy reach.
One longed to put on a glittery uniform and twirl a baton in a marching band.
One yearned to go cuddle orphaned puppies in an animal shelter.
One fantasized about singing karaoke.
One wanted to decorate fancy hats with gold lamé and tulle and velvet flowers.
One confided that he wanted to make marionettes and put on a show.
When they decided to trust me with their secret, I always burst out with “Great idea! Let’s start today!” And every one of them said “What are you — nuts? I can’t do that. EVERYBODY will laugh at me,” which seems to secret code for “My dead father laughed at me 20 years ago.”
But their dead father got the wrong idea, probably smacked into him by his own dead father. The truth is, people can hook rugs or do magic tricks or yodel or flash a yo-yo and yet still look way cool. If you buy your friend that pogo stick and give it a demo in their driveway — the secret dream can crack open a window to more light and air and company.

Who is their guiding light?
This doesn’t mean an exclusional hero such as a K-Pop band singer. (Not to criticize anybody’s music — but the terms of a K-Pop promotional contract excludes just about everyone in the world from joining the band and making the cut to the top.) A media product star is not available to bring companionship or kindness to someone’s life, and media fantasy worlds don’t strike me as the safest footing for a deeply depressed person anyway.

In contrast, a guiding light is a real-life person who notices the people around them, who imparts kindness, wisdom, acceptance or support in a personal encounter, often without realizing that he or she is having any affect on other people.
This could be the elderly gentleman at the store who bags our groceries and has a smile and a “Have a nice day” for everyone. It could be the school bus driver who greets and learns the names of the pupils. It can be a priest who stays after Mass to chat with the parishioners, a little girl creating wonders in colored chalk on the sidewalk, a clarinet player on the balcony across the street, a UPS driver who sings while slugging boxes to the curb.
If we can invite our loved one to think back and talk about guiding lights, this can align them to notice and benefit from positive people in the future, and to see the guiding light within themselves.
If your loved one can’t think of any examples, show them some Steve Hartman clips from CBS News. They feature people of all kinds who create differences in their communities using the means within reach. Watching these short stories can set up some good mirror neurons and a sense of the possibilities waiting right at home.

Who is their role model in resilience?
Now don’t go hand someone a copy of Unbroken and tell them to be more like Louis Zamperini.
And again, this isn’t about a music celebrity or fashion model or actor or sports figure or portrayed superhero. But see whether your loved one resonates with someone who was slammed with suffering and adversity, and who then
1. took clearly defined steps and choices to work through it,
2. used positive values and ethics,
3. created something better that could never have happened without that adversity, and
4. shared those benefits with other people.
For me that long list includes book authors like these:
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
Jimmy Wayne with Ken Abraham, Walk to Beautiful
Rob Scheer, A Forever Family
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree
Joni Eareckson Tada, Ken Tada, and Larry Libby, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story
John Elder Robison, Be Different
Laurence Gonzales, Surviving Survival
Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam
John Hockenberry, Moving Violations
Diamond Dallas Page, Positively Unstoppable
Nick Vujicic, Life Without Limits

Who needs your loved one?
Don’t admonish someone to “Hang in there; look at the people who need you.” Chances are that your loved one is already simmering in guilt, imagining “I’ve let them all down, and they are better off without me.”
But if the conversation does come around to care for a favorite person or pet, then by all means listen to and appreciate whatever way he or she has of being there for them.

In the film Me Before You, maybe what Will needed was not only Lou to love and care for him and cheer him up and take him on vacation to lovely scenic places. Maybe what Will needed was a couple of demanding toddlers who would crawl all over him and grab his glasses and clamor for his attention and fatherhood and presence in their lives.

How is your loved one reaching out as a physical creative self?
Again, we have to be very careful not to tripwire a loved one’s shame with this.
When the women in my life talk to me, a top subject is sadness and remorse and frustration about weight, waist size, and diet. Many of us are discouraged about our insulin resistance and food cravings, or the physical experience of moving around in our own bodies, or catching sight of those bodies in the mirror without the usual assortment of clothes. And we Americans as a culture are terribly harsh about criticizing our own musical or artistic talent, preferring to find all our entertainment in purchased or downloaded professional products. (Try asking American adults whether they can sing or draw. They’ll probably protest like a bottle rocket.)
But maybe we can listen for and show pleasure at any spontaneous physical activity on their part. Maybe he or she has started to practice with a dance video, or started a little garden, or started walking a neighbor’s dog, or fished the guitar out of the closet, or rediscovered the French lessons from college days. Physical hands-on tasks and activities can move the brain forward, expanding it outward from whatever hurt and pain has injured its wellbeing. Even small tasks can build a foundation for good things.

Is there positive structure or organization to build upon in this person’s life?
Frozen intertia and perfectionism go hand in hand. Perhaps your friend is afraid to tackle any task or have any structure. Maybe he fears the shame of missing a day of the routine, or she fears being mocked if she makes a mistake. But perhaps your loved one would enjoy calling you at the same time every morning to establish a regular waking and sleeping cycle, or would like sharing even a 15 minute walk after supper. If clutter or hoarding is a source of stress, perhaps the two of you can have an Amish-style Barn-Raising or Quilting Bee: he or she sits with you at your home for one hour one week to be supportive while you declutter a closet, and then you go and visit for an hour while he or she tackles some housekeeping chore with your support.

What might help (or at least offer some breathing room) is to show up and be physically present to your loved one in some manageable consistent reliable way.
What helped me was a valiant little self-facilitated support group that met every single Saturday for ten years until everybody got better and moved away.
One group of men formed a Sunday baseball team. They were all recovering from severe sexual abuse, and all were in therapy, but according to their wives they didn’t rehash it in conversation. They just relied on the other guys to show up once a week and crack a bat and chase a ball all over a field.
One friend booked a weekly schedule among two dozen women neighbors. At the scheduled time she would show up in each living room, curl up in a corner, sob her heart out, and crochet gorgeously colored drawstring bags. We all knew her story, and we could go right on fixing dinner or grading papers until the end of the hour. Then she’d dry her eyes, give us a hug, and drive to the next house. Before long her fine handiwork was in demand in shops all over town, and she started her own business. She recovered beautifully, and two dozen women were the happy recipients of lovely crocheted gifts.

Can he or she start keeping a journal of good things?
A wonderful priest used to encourage us to keep a daily journal, and to write down three good things to be grateful for from each day of our lives.
During one very rough time I started writing down every single offer of help. When anyone said “Here is my phone number. Call any time before 10 pm,” or “I’m always happy to give you a ride to the support group,” I wrote it all down. It felt good to have a written record by the phone of people and their offers.
Nowadays, right before bed I read five Psalms, choose one particularly beautiful sentence from among them, and write it out in a notebook kept with my Bible in the kitchen. That one sentence is something to memorize and appreciate as a last thought of the day while falling asleep, and a first thought for waking up the next morning. The notebook also keeps all my favorite verses, ready to pick up and review.

Does your loved one have some idea of how a good life would look?
Perhaps the person has no idea. Here are some possibilities dreamed up by my imagination.
A family of people who support, understand, and are eager to know and respect our thoughts and feelings and to tell us theirs.
A Beloved Person to do life with, somewhere along the way.
A spiritual community.
Physical affection.
Nourishing food in health-promoting quantities.
Home space of safety and permanence as a place for rejuvenation and self-expression and hospitality.
Creative handicraft.
Balanced wholesome exercise as our health permits (I’ve known completely bedridden people who improved their health just by deep breathing and meditation).
Good work that brings fulfillment, a comfortable income, and appreciation.
Access to natural beauty.
Something to stay alive for next year, and in 5 and 10 and 20 years.

“Hey Mary — you didn’t mention diet, exercise, medications, and treatment methods!”
Yup. Plenty of websites do, written by people who unlike me are qualified experts.
And say now. Speaking of websites — advice columnist Cary Tennis is back! Good news for lucid public wisdom:
Learning From Pain: How Not to Kill Yourself

What else?

What matters is not just the strength of someone’s death wish.
What matters is the strength of their will to live.
The two can co-exist for an entire highly productive honorable lifetime. The most suicidal people I’ve known, even on their worst days, can still
– Love other people and creatures great and small.
– Create beautiful works and kind deeds.
We can affirm their ability to do just that, and we can notice and appreciate the efforts that they make.

Despondency seeps under the foundation of our shared human condition.
Sometimes despondency can take people under, and they can die from sheer pain.
It can also galvanize us to great and wondrous achievements.

Being suicidal is not just a black or white either/or condition. There can be many many steps that lead a person closer to the edge. There can be many many steps that lead away to safe pasture. Interaction with us can be one of those steps. Every day, every time another person crosses my path or my desk phone or my email, I don’t know the pain they are in or what kind of day they are having or what forces are blowing through their sky. All we can do is make every effort to say a kind word and show some courtesy and respect.

Sometimes, just for today, that can make a difference.

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