21 Jun

My ex-husband got remarried a few years ago, and last week their first child was born. Needless to say, I’ve experienced a smorgasbord of emotions about my children’s new baby brother, but the most striking are my recollections of when my own first child was born, and my earliest days of motherhood. On one hand, that first week as a new mom was one of the hardest of my life. On the other hand, it was just a drop in the bucket.

I remember looking at my nipples, cracked and blistered from breastfeeding, and telling myself it would get better (it did). Being utterly exhausted from the night waking and the anxiety of every sound that baby made, and telling myself it wouldn’t last forever (it didn’t). Standing in my kitchen with tears streaming down my face, bouncing a screaming newborn and feeling completely overwhelmed and inadequate to the task of motherhood, and telling myself in time it would get easier.

But it didn’t. It got harder. It was as if each difficult stage of being a mother has just toughened me up for the next slightly more difficult stage.

It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.

My son was eight weeks old when this realization dawned on me. Followed first by the words, “Oh God,” then a strange peace as I took a deep breath and thought, “Oh well.” The “oh God oh well” is a frequent mantra even after 13 years; it’s like a morning prayer as I open my eyes and an evening oblation as I haul myself into bed. Does postpartum depression last into the teen years, I sometimes wonder. The mental exhaustion of being responsible for another human being – make that three human beings – takes a tremendous toll. A daily toll.

That word “daily” jumped out at me from this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Most of the time when I think of “crosses,” I think of the temporary crisis, like an illness in the family, or a job loss, or a difficult relationship. “This too shall pass,” we say. The crucifixion, after all, was a one-time event, followed by a glorious resurrection after only three days. Would that all our crosses could pass so quickly.

But Jesus used that word daily. The cross is not one and done. It waits for me every morning. Like the laundry.

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

It’s helpful to keep Jesus’ words in context, especially when my all-too-human instincts for self-preservation rise. This weekend’s passage begins with Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And they answered rightly when they recognized him as the Messiah. But instead of giving the disciples a verbal gold star for recognizing God in their midst, Jesus rebuked them. This has always confused me. Why would Jesus rebuke them for recognizing Him for who He was?

Jesus was not rebuking them, but their illusions and fantasies about what “messiah” really meant. The Jews were hoping for a savior who would literally be a king, who would deliver them from Roman occupation. The reality, as we know in hindsight, was to be much different.

Jesus may as well have asked me, “What do you think having a family is?” When I was young, my one desire was to get married and start a family. It feels so long ago I can hardly remember what my fantasies were, but I suppose I imagined the trip to Disney World, fresh cooked meals together every night, reading to my children before bedtime, and spending evenings with the quiet affection of a husband who took joy in being a partner and didn’t have to be asked to pick up his socks. I thought having a family would save me from loneliness. Although my reality has given me a certain fulfillment of those hopes, it has not been without an equal part of suffering, rejection, and sacrifice. Daily. Unrelenting.

Oh God oh well, I pray as I surrender the illusion.

The divine promise is that in willingly losing my life, I will find it. If my crosses are not one-time events, then neither are my resurrections. They, too, are daily, and in my experience they do not often come in three days’ time, but are fleeting moments of connection to my source of life, my Father who cares for me, not Christy the exhausted mother, but Christy His beloved child. And He never gets tired. He never feels resentful or bitter when I reject Him or fail. He doesn’t love me any more or any less than any of His other children (including the ones to which I gave birth). His love is the great equalizer, as St. Paul so eloquently wrote in Sunday’s letter to the Galatians. We are one in Christ, even if we are not always one around the dinner table.

In my darkest moments of motherhood, I feel as if I have lost my life, and if I stay mired in that attitude, I miss out on recognizing the blessings. This was not what I expected; I certainly never imagined being a single parent. I didn’t picture the constant feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and failure that linger in every pile of clutter, every moment I lose my temper, every time I’m running late. The inner critic taunts me, saying, “Hey lady, you are the one who wanted this.” And it’s all I can do not to crumble.

When I hear those words ringing in the space between my ears, I consider how Jesus literally carried His cross. He fell multiple times under its weight. Already beaten and abused, He was not strong enough to carry it without help. There was no hiding the cross and suffering privately; His pain was mercilessly on display for all to see and judge, from His weeping and powerless mother to the cruel Roman soldiers to the judgmental haters who sentenced Him in the first place. He must have felt like a failure, and in at least one account He felt abandoned even by God. It is a comfort to know that my Savior understands when I falter under the weight of my daily crosses. It’s ok that I feel overwhelmed. That’s the whole point of the cross.

Jesus also said to follow Him daily. He knows the cross leads to resurrection, and if I follow Jesus’ example of grace, if I can find it in my heart to say the words, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do,” I may feel pain but I will also experience the exhilaration of birth. Those early days of motherhood with each of my babies may have been exhausting, but I never felt more alive than in the moment I first looked into each of their eyes. There is no intimacy that rivals holding them in their first days, weeks, and months of life, before they have words.

In my spiritual journey as a mother and a woman, I am the helpless newborn without words who embraces the chance to be born again every time I embrace the cross, to be cradled in the arms of my Father. Daily.

Pool Season

30 May

Right now I am thinking about my shaved legs. Yesterday, the neighborhood pool opened, and of course the girls wanted to go. Fortunately it was hot and sunny, but I had things to do around the house and was in no hurry to put on a bathing suit. I promised them if I got everything done by 5, we would go then, so they promptly suited up in their matching one-pieces at 2.

I took a break from yard work and cleaning to take a shower, my second that day. I’d neglected to shave my legs the first time, and as I lathered up my calf, not without a twinge of resentment, I thought to myself that this is Tori’s last summer to suit up for the pool with reckless confidence. She is ten.

The summer I was ten was the summer my mother said I had to shave my armpits. My strawberry blond is not there yet, and I’m deeply grateful, because you can never go back once you cross that threshold. By the time I was 12 I started shaving my calves, and the next summer, my thighs. Finally at 14 I tackled the bikini line after being thoroughly disgusted at the beach seeing a woman who did not take that care.

While I continued to love the beach and its anonymity through my teenage years and beyond, I stopped going to the neighborhood pool at 13. Why give the assholes on my school bus any more ammunition than they already had? Yes, I knew we all had insecurities about our bodies, but that was little consolation, because the more insecure they were, the more likely they’d verbally abuse and belittle me to feel better about themselves.

About ten minutes before venturing to the pool, Tori asked if she could wear her bra (which she doesn’t need but insists on wearing) under her bathing suit. Something inside me died. Insecurity starts early, I guess. I told her no.

“But it feels weird!”

“But no one wears a bra under their bathing suit,” I said. “That’s kind of the whole point.” I was in my tankini (chosen to cover my less than toned mom belly) and I puffed out my chest to display my size A half-rack, which will probably be surpassed by hers in another two years thanks to modern agricultural practices and her dad’s genes.

She complied and did indeed get used to it once she was in the pool, doing water acrobatics and behaving once again like a little girl who doesn’t notice body hair, who still yells, “Watch me!” instead of hiding under a towel on the deck chair.

Just Another “Epic” Rant

19 May

I’m tired of all the damn soap boxes.

Yet here I am, mounting one myself, writing a rant in a sea of rants about bathrooms or Trump or the Constitution or the gender pay gap or millennial mentality or addiction or #whoselivesmattermore or the micro-aggression du jour.

I’m tired of it.

When I first got on Facebook nine years ago, I loved connecting with old friends and acquaintances and family I never see. Especially as a introvert who loves people but needs socializing in baby steps, the bite-sized intimacy of social media was perfect.

That is, until everyone started force feeding each other their opinions as if they alone had been appointed the moral authority for the universe.

The thing is, a lot of my friends are highly intelligent and articulate and make really good arguments. You’d make great lawyers, or preachers, or tv pundits.

But I don’t want a lawyer or a preacher or a talking head. I want a friend. I want to see your beautiful children as they grow. I want to laugh with you and grumpy cat. I want to be inspired by how you handle life’s big challenges, like cancer, and humbled by how you handle life’s little annoyances, like the dishes and the laundry.

I want to learn with you, about technology, and eating organic, and nature, and theology. I want us to encourage each other through all of life’s seasons.

I want to share myself with you. And increasingly, I can’t. Because I’ve seen how you treat other voices that dissent from your worldview. My brilliant, well-spoken friends can verbally slash someone’s throat in disagreement. I suppose I could too, but I don’t want to. I’m not interested in being right and making sure everyone knows it.

Being right means nothing. #relationshipsmatter

I will always have opinions, and I will probably always be tempted to share them. But my opinion doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters is how I treat people, especially the people who see the world differently than I do. We are all Samaritans to each other, and we need to care for each other.

I’m so tired of the soap boxes. I just want to love the people standing on them. I want to be loved back.

I’m not dropping any mic. I kinda hope we can keep talking.

What One Sheep Hears

21 Apr

I had a conversation with my best friend the other day. I’d just read an extremely disturbing article in Time magazine about war atrocities against women in the Sudan. It is unspeakable, almost unwriteable, and I had to vent my feelings lest they poison me. (You can read it here, but I’ll warn you, I had to stop reading about midway through.)

“Sometimes I think we should just eradicate these barbaric demons. They are barely even human. I know the women and girls would probably be collateral damage, and that would be terrible, but right now what they are living with is worse than death. Some of them would probably welcome death as mercy.”

My friend, who is the epitome of non-judgment, kindness, and unconditional love, replied to me with deep compassion, “That may be, but it would also be genocide.”

He was right, of course, and I sighed, grateful that he could listen to me without actually calling me Hitler. But my argumentativeness wouldn’t let go.

“But isn’t it the moral equivalent of justifying abortion when the fetus has a genetic problem or abnormality that would cause them great suffering, or would be born into poverty to a mom with a bunch of kids and no way to feed them?

“I think you know the answer to that question,” he said.

I paused, then continued. “But even God destroyed whole cities of people because of their depravity. Heck, He sent the flood to destroy the whole damn sinful world!”

“And you can see how well that worked.” My best friend can be as snarky as he is kind. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “If God Almighty Himself couldn’t eradicate the existence of evil in the world, what makes you think human beings could do any better?”

My friend then went on to give examples of how God actually did address the problem of saving the world from itself. Of course, they were familiar to me; I shared these very same with my third graders this year in religious ed. First, God made a promise to Noah never to destroy the world by flood. Then He befriended Abraham and made a covenant with him to make his descendants His chosen people. Then God saved His chosen people from the cruelty of slavery to the murderous Egyptians. He disciplined them for 40 years in the desert, but provided for their basic needs, and finally, He settled them in a land He designated as their permanent home.

God gave them laws – LAWS! – when the rest of the world was made up of lawless barbarians who were little more than animals, and God’s laws set limits – LIMITS! – on punishment and retribution. It was revolutionary to seek only an eye for an eye. Vengeance is mine, said the Lord. And even though these chosen people continually turned their back on God and suffered the natural consequences like misbehaving children, God never turned His back on them, and the whole world could see these people were unique and their solitary God was unlike the panoply of idols and beasts they worshiped.

The barbarism of humanity continued, admitted my friend, but God tended His chosen flock. Finally, He was ready to bring them to a new level of spiritual maturity. No longer was eye for eye enough, but turning the other cheek and forgiving 70 times seven times. God gave a new law to complete what He had begun in Genesis and Exodus. He donned flesh and lived not just in spirit but in body with them.

“And they killed him,” I interrupted obstinately. “At the end of the story the chosen people were no better than all the pagan hoards they thought they were so superior to.”

“Did you read this Sunday’s readings?” my friend asked. It was a rhetorical question; he knew I had. He started quoting Paul from the passage in Acts:

“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.

For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”

“God’s plan was never just for the Hebrews,” he said. “It was always intended for anyone who wanted an alternative to the evil ways of the world.”

I thought about all non-Hebrews in the Bible whom God had blessed – Ruth, the widow whose son Isaiah brought back to life, Naaman the Syrian who was healed of leprosy, the woman at the well, and many others.

“The Jews were jealous,” he continued, “they didn’t want to share, and they barely understood what a gift they’d been given in the first place. Their vision was so distorted they couldn’t even recognize their own God standing right in front of them when he quoted their own scripture! And sadly, they denied their blindness. But Jesus hand-picked a few friends and opened their eyes and their hearts. He made a new covenant with them and gave new commandments. He mirrored everything his Father had done in Genesis and Exodus, because He and the Father are one. Only this time, he told them to share it with the world. He showed them what love truly looks like when he died, and he proved to them there is more to living than just earthly existence when he rose from the dead and went before them to Heaven.”

“It’s a shame human beings have so corrupted the church Jesus started,” I said. “Christians have been no different than the Jews who had Christ crucified. They’ve done terrible things in God’s name.”

“Human nature is what it is, and even God won’t violate the rules he set up in the Garden of Eden,” said my friend. “Love is not possible without free will, and love was always more important to the Father than obedience, control, earthly perfection, or even peace. After all, He already has perfection in Heaven and within Himself, and the peace He gives surpasses earthly circumstances.”

I let it all sink in. My friend has so much wisdom, which is why I love spending time with him. An added bonus is, he’s one of the few people I know who never tires of my questioning and debating. This nut actually encourages me! I think he knows this is how I learn, and that I’m being teachable, not obstinate.

“I can tell you’re not fully satisfied,” he said, inviting me to continue our conversation long past the point where most courteous friends would have set the topic aside and moved on to the kids or the weather or the great new restaurant they tried last week.

“Well,” I started,” “All this salvation history stuff sounds great, but what difference does it make to the women and children who are raped to the point of death in the Sudan? Christianity doesn’t seem to be doing them a whole lot of good. It’s not doing Christians any favors in Iraq or Syria either, for that matter. Even Christians in the U.S. face first world problems like ridicule and disrespect from an increasingly secular society.”

“You need to hear the Sunday readings again,” He said. And then He read them to me. In the voices of two lectors and a priest, I heard His voice at Sunday evening mass.

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I imagined all the women, old and young, in Sudan who’d been raped, sodomized, left for dead only to survive carrying scars that few of us could ever understand, being washed in a heavenly river and restored. I could see them in my mind’s eye, at peace.

“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”

By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, this sheep hears His voice. This is the relationship I have with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is why I can sing at mass every week, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and believe it. Christ comes again to me, personally, whenever I want to be with Him, and sometimes even when I don’t. He is the reason I’m rarely lonely when I’m alone, and the reason I’m frequently lonely when I let other people, places and things crowd Him out. He is the reason I write these words and the reason I wake up in the morning.

He is my best friend, and I feed our friendship whenever I eat his body and drink his blood in the Eucharist. I repair it whenever I go to Reconciliation. This friendship began before my memories, in the waters of baptism, which is why I had my children baptized, in the hope they would one day know Him like I do. I took him with me into adulthood at Confirmation. I experienced a deeper understanding of His sacrifice when I entered into the sacrament of marriage, a marriage that taught me unconditional love can look an awful lot like failure from the outside, and being born again can happen if I surrender my fantasies of how I think things “should” be, and let my ego and pride accept whatever cross will bring new life.

It is the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had or ever will have, and sharing it with others scares me. What if you make fun of me, or think I’m crazy? What if you judge my very human mistakes and call me a hypocrite? I’d hate for someone to reject friendship with God because of my failings to live up to the person He calls me to be.

I wonder if the disciples had these fears when they went out to spread the good news. Paul and Barnabas, it says, just shook the dust from their sandals and moved one when they faced rejection. Their focus was not on the ones who rejected them, but on the Gentiles who welcomed them. I need to remember that whenever I’m worried about what other people think of me.

I asked my friend how I should end this reflection, and he reminded be of a woman whose story I heard a few years ago. She had been gang raped in her twenties. She is now a recovering alcoholic, and her journey in recovery had taken her into prison to share the message of hope with some of the male inmates there who went to 12 step meetings. She told her story to them, and a few of the men came up to her afterward in tears. They had gang raped someone, and had found deep remorse for their behavior, and expressed their deep contrition to her. They begged for forgiveness. And she gave it, not only to these strangers, but to the men who had hurt her so deeply. When I heard her story I was moved to tears.

“You live in a world where not only can that happen, it actually did,” says my best friend. “Don’t ever forget that.”



Spiritual Adulting

12 Apr

If you are an American born in the 70s or early 80’s, chances are you’re familiar with this advertising jingle, most prevalently heard during the weeks leading up to Christmas when we were about 12:

“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid . . .”

That may be the defining anthem of my generation, judging from how social media has embraced the word “adulting.” Initially I thought it was cute, clever and relatable; today, this overused catch-all grates on my nerves, maybe because it touches a nerve. For those unfamiliar with this recently coined term, “adulting” in practice is a temporary submission to adulthood, without any intention of permanently or even consistently sustaining maturity. It’s the appearance of acting like an adult without fully accepting the reality.

We gen-xers don’t want to grow up now any more than we did when we were 12; in fact, I’ve read social science articles claiming my generation’s version of a midlife crisis is when we finally accept adulthood and all its trappings (unlike our parents, who embraced adulthood during the materialistic me-generation 70s and 80s only to relapse into ridiculous twenty-something behavior around the time we were singing that Toys R Us jingle). I think this gen-x midlife crisis is preceded by a series of fits and starts, dipping our toes into the water of what we think is adulthood. We go to the J-O-B, we’re adulting. We pay the bills, we’re adulting. We make a meal in an actual kitchen, we’re adulting, and we Instagram the proof. We mow the grass, and everyone in the neighborhood knows we’re adulting, in real life no less!

When I was 12, part of me desperately wanted to grow up. I wanted to grow boobs. I wanted to grow out of my acne and into my big teeth and makeup and the juniors department at J.C. Penney. I wanted to have my own space where no one could tell me what to do, and my willfulness motivated me to keep my bedroom and bathroom clean enough to my mother stayed out (maybe) and make good enough grades for me to go away to college where I’d finally be free to eat Kool-Aid out of the canister and buy clothing out of the J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret catalogue with my first credit card.

A deeper part of me was subconsciously terrified of growing up, quietly whispering to my heart all these years that if I grew up and got bigger, no one would love me, even as I ventured into the ultimate triathlon of adulting – marriage, home ownership, and parenting. It was around the time my youngest daughter was vehemently fighting potty training that a light bulb went off in my own head; both of us feared passing certain milestones toward maturity, because as long as you’re the “baby,” someone will love and take care of you. Talking her through this helped ease her transition out of diapers, while introspection and journaling yielded much insight into the “whys” and “hows” of my fears. Much of it is too private to share publicly at this point in my life. But I can say this – my tactics for staying young and physically diminutive were doing me no favors; I have thankfully begun to outgrown them, and now I’m embarking upon the gen-x midlife crisis – truly accepting adulthood.

For me, the ultimate in adulting is waking my kids up for school. The little one who fought potty training is also a late sleeper and only semi-conscious when I have to pull off her pajamas at 6:30. I long for the day when she can dress herself in the morning like her big sister (the morning person in the family who was born adulting and potty-trained herself at 2). This morning, as I was putting on her shirt while she whined, “But I don’t WANT to go to school,” I thought of this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said to Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Spiritual adulting, it seems, is less about being an autonomous, self-sufficient grown-up, and more about being, as Jesus told us earlier in His ministry, like sleepy little children. This exhausted mama is half-way there any given moment.

Like my daughter, I hated those early school mornings when I was a kid, and I couldn’t wait to go to college and no longer have to wake up at 7 am (I took only one 8 am class my entire college career, my first semester). I used to believe becoming an adult meant I would be able to make my own decisions and do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted instead of submitting to the choices someone else was making for me, but I also knew true maturity meant doing the right thing even when I didn’t want to do it, and considering other people’s feelings and not just my own, and I wanted no part of that. I wanted all the fun of being the captain of my own ship of fate with none of the responsibility to “feed His sheep” and “tend His lambs.” I certainly didn’t want the hardship that comes with growing older.

Apparently, that’s not really an option. As one of my co-workers who is pushing 80 just said to me bluntly, “Christy, getting old is hell.”

As much as we may try to postpone age, observation has taught me hardship can and will come to any of us, almost capriciously, before it is even expected. A friend recently lost the love of his life to breast cancer, and she wasn’t even 40 years old. I know many others who’ve lost their spouses and loved ones far too young, succumbing to cancer or suicide or addiction. One of my dear friends is battling an extremely aggressive cancer, and the experimental medicines that are killing the disease are waging war on his formerly healthy body. It’s heartbreaking.

They are being lead where they did not choose to go.

When Jesus said this to Peter, He said it in reference to Peter’s ultimate suffering and martyrdom to come. My hope is no one reading this will ever become a martyr for their beliefs, but I’m certain every one of us will experience a private suffering at some point in our lives. Accepting life on life’s terms requires a surrender not unlike martyrdom. We talk a lot in my faith about “dying to self.” Peter, in Sunday’s reading from Acts describes what this means succinctly: “We must obey God rather than men.” That is spiritual adulting, and it doesn’t always look like being a grown-up. In Peter’s case, spiritual adulting meant preaching the Good News that Jesus had risen the dead, shunning his former career, experiencing public shame and ridicule, and literally risking his life. I’m sure the Apostles’ families were thrilled at their career change.

Jesus gave us the ultimate example in spiritual adulting when He accepted death on the cross. Any rational, self-assured grown man when faced with false accusation and impending execution would at the very least try to fight the charges. Jesus didn’t. He even had the power to avoid it all, but He obeyed His Father, not common sense.

How many of us have heard Christ’s words, “Sell all your possessions and follow me,” while sitting in the church pew, and let it go in one ear and out the other? I’ve rationalized that Jesus wasn’t saying those words to me. Jesus would want me to be a good mother to my children. He’d want me to provide the best I can for them. He’d want me to be making a living wage. He’d want me to be generous with my excess, I’ve told myself, but He wouldn’t want me to deprived. He’s given me talents and He’d want me to use them to support myself so that I’m not a burden on society. He’d want me to be a responsible, socially conscious citizen demonstrating the benefits of living a good, Christian life, right? He’d want me to be a good, solid adulting adult. Right? Right?

Rationalizations are not the language of spiritual adulting, but the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus was obeying God when He went to the cross; they understood only in retrospect. Even Jesus questioned it in the garden, though God gave Him the grace to obey. Many of us (including yours truly) avoid cultivating a spiritual life for fear of what God will ask us to give up or change. Our deacon preached this weekend about how we avoid reading the Bible for this reason, and sadly, my parish had to postpone its annual women’s retreat for lack of participation, probably for much the same. As much as gen-xers avoid adulting, all generations avoid spiritual adulting. We don’t want to be changed; I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you very much.

But I don’t get to stay where I am any more than the little one got to stay in diapers, or I got to stay in that blissfully irresponsible pre-adulting decade of my 20s. The older generations never miss a chance to tell me life will only get harder from here on out, but most of them say it with a twinkle in their eye, as if they know some secret I don’t. But I do know.

I know God won’t forestall anyone’s suffering and death anymore than Peter following Jesus protected him from eventual execution. Loss comes to us all eventually. The secret is that as I become weaker, God’s presence in me can become stronger. The more I release, the more God can bless me. The less I hold onto my own will, the more God can use me to accomplish His will. And His will is beautiful and everlasting.

We all will be lead where we do not choose to go. The secret is, I can choose to go alone, or to go with God by my side. There is nothing more adult than that.


The Loneliest Bayou

6 Apr IMG_3230

Last week I went on the first vacation I’ve had since my son was born almost 13 years ago. (I don’t count the family trip to Disney two years ago as a “vacation;” that was more of an “event!”) My fella Floyd took me to his home state of Louisiana for five days, to do some sightseeing in New Orleans and visit his big, beautiful extended family.

To get to New Orleans from the Lafayette airport, we had to drive over the Atchafalaya Basin (yes, I CAN pronounce it!), which is the largest wetland in the United States. As we embarked upon the almost 20 miles of bridge through swamp and cypress trees, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Do you know what is the loneliest bayou?” A brief pause, then both of us exclaimed in unison silliness: “Bayou Self!!!!”

I’m not in the habit of traveling with other people. In thirteen years of being a parent, I can count on two hands the number of overnight trips I’ve taken with my kids, and still have a few fingers left over. In nine years of marriage, we had one week of honeymoon, one week of a beach vacation with friends, and one long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I went to a three-day conference on church stewardship in the middle of Kansas, and a three day direct sales conference in Las Vegas in July, pregnant. After my divorce, I took a long weekend to Washington, D.C. That is a woeful lack of time off.

Before I got engaged in 2000, I booked a two-week solo trip in Ireland which remains the gold standard of vacations to which all others will be compared. Two weeks of glorious solitude, away from my stressful advertising job, with a week of taking public transportation to hand-picked sights well off the beaten tourist path: the tiny town of Bunratty, the even tinier town of Kilfenora, the Poulnabrone dolmen, the seaside music town of Dingle, the Aran Islands, and a week of intense horseback riding in Adare. It was all about me and my interests.

When people I met along the way learned I was recently engaged, they were surprised I was making this trip all by myself, which should have told me something. But I couldn’t imagine having a traveling companion during those hours walking the countryside, or waiting for the sun to set so I could get just the right lighting for a photo of a rock wall. Being alone was, and still is, my comfort zone, and the way this introvert typically recharges.

Still, when I got married, I had fantasies of us vacationing together, and vacationing with our children, just like I did when I was a kid. I grew up with a family that travelled to see grandparents, and I loved family vacations. When married life didn’t deliver, I assumed it was because he didn’t like to travel. But after a few years on my own with only one long weekend out of town, I’ve had to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

The visit to Louisiana was not my first trip with my sweetheart. We planned a weekend trip to the mountains last fall, to see if we could handle a whole weekend of uninterrupted togetherness without getting sick of each other. I was nervous for days leading up to it, but we had a fantastic time, and found a new level of intimacy (the kind that develops when you learn more about each other’s bathroom habits and you let him watch you curl your hair and apply makeup). So when Floyd told me he wanted to take me to Louisiana (and promised no surprise “questions” or “jewelry” associated with said questions) I was excited and ready for a real vacation.

Or so I thought.

The Big Easy was not quite so easy for me. Uncomfortable emotions hit like unexpected tidal waves. When a client had a quick graphic design correction that turned into more than an hour’s worth of work, I was worried he’d be angry at me for wasting our precious vacation time. When we didn’t have a plan for our day, I felt anxious we wouldn’t make the most of our limited time there. When I was tired after a full day of walking and could barely keep my eyes open at 10 pm while my heart wanted to be out enjoying the night scene, I felt guilty. I felt sad we didn’t get to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter. And when I met his family at the end of the week, I was worried they wouldn’t like me, and PMS didn’t help. To top it all off, I felt shame for all the craziness going on between my ears.

I feel a bit crazy just admitting all of that now, and I’m seriously debating whether I’ll ever let this post see the light of day, except I know there’s probably someone else out there who might also have a touch of social anxiety, and maybe, just maybe, my sharing will give you courage to step outside of your comfort zone.

Because here is what happened, in spite of my dis-ease:

My fella didn’t get mad at me for working on vacation.

Although we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could do in New Orleans, I saw Bourbon Street and ate a beignet at Cafe du Monde, I rode the streetcar and walked through the garden district and sat on the limb of a beautiful live oak and drank my first Bloody Mary (with breakfast!) and ate crawfish and slept really hard every night and woke up refreshed every morning.

I didn’t bother to curl my hair, I wore only lip gloss, and I got stuck in the mud 4-wheeling on his brother’s farm. I learned I love roasted oysters and that kumquats are to be eaten with the skin on. I felt truly welcomed by all his brothers and sisters and in-laws at a big cookout at the Hollier home (yes, I can pronounce that, too!). I listened to his father reminisce about his mother, and I felt the loving presence of her spirit in the house Floyd grew up in, and in the souls of all the people who made him into the man I now get to hug and kiss and hold hands with.

If I had taken a five day vacation by myself, I’m sure I’d have had a relaxing time. I would have captured many wonderful photos and seen plenty of sights, and I wouldn’t have been plagued by the insecurities of traveling with another person after so many years of flying solo or not at all.

But now that I’m back at home, what I realize is this: for much of my life, I’ve been living in a self-imposed loneliness that has become my comfort zone. Solitude may have been a source of creativity and rejuvenation, and it certainly served a useful purpose in temporarily protecting me from the pain of rejection, not just in recent years, but going way back into childhood. Being alone has been an integral part of my identity for 40 years. But maybe I’m ready to let it go in favor of connecting more intimately with the people closest to me, instead of trying to escape from them.

While driving through the swamp, we could catch a glimpse now and then of a shack on stilts, where some Cajuns still live off the “land.” Floyd told me if you go wandering in there and don’t belong, there’s a good chance you won’t come back out. Those folks are serious about keeping to themselves and being left alone.

I don’t want that to be a metaphor for my heart. I don’t want to be the loneliest bayou anymore. I want my heart to be a big Louisiana-style outdoor kitchen, with more than enough seats for everyone and all their cousins, with kumquat trees and live oaks filled with tree-climbing youngsters, and three generations grilling together.

Ça c’est bon! And, merci beaucoup, Mister John Floyd. For weeks I’ve been thinking the reason I haven’t been able to write is because I haven’t had enough “alone” time. Turns out, all I needed was a good vacation, and you delivered!

Still Single On Saturday?

13 Feb

It’s Saturday and I’m single. I think. I dunno. I’m not married. I’m confused. I have a headache.

Last week, an unmarried male acquaintance of mine, in the context of teasing me about how I actually like cleaning my house, asked me, tongue in cheek, “Are you single?” To which I responded, “Technically, yes. Well, I’m not married. I don’t have a ring and a date or anything. I guess it depends on your definition of single.” At which point I wanted to sink uncomfortably into the floor.

My Facebook status says “In a Relationship.” Not only that, it’s an exclusive long-term relationship, not just some flavor of the month. But when I fill out government forms, I can’t check the box marked “Married.” Sometimes there’s a box marked “Divorced.” When there isn’t, I check “Single.”

Whether or not “In a Relationship” ever turns into “Married,” I will always be “Divorced.”

Or will I?

The Catholic Church is like Yoda: there is no “tried.” There is either “I do” or “I do not.”

There is no “divorce.” There is either “married” or “not married.”

My religious faith doesn’t recognize divorce. In the Catholic Church there is no such thing. Yes, the Church acknowledges the secular reality that about 50% of people who get married will eventually get a divorce decree from the state. But as far as the Church is concerned, I’m still married to my first husband. Even though he has taken a new spouse. Even though they are expecting a new baby. As far as the Church is concerned, he is a public adulterer, and I’m a private one by dating another man. Apparently the Church is less concerned about the “dating” variety of adultery, given that most divorced Catholics do at least date while remaining active members of their church community, as long as they aren’t cohabitating with their partners and aren’t publicly flaunting their presumed sexual behaviors.

Contrary to popular misconception, divorce itself is not necessarily a sin, nor does getting a civil divorce mean I’ll be excommunicated from the Church; remember, the Church says there is no such thing. But if “the fella” wanted to give me a diamond for Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t be free to say yes. Getting remarried would be the thing that keeps me from being in communion with the Church, and as legalistic as my religion is in this regard, it is an important part of my identity that I have no desire to abandon for, say, Anglicanism.

It’s Saturday and I’m a divorced, married, single mother in a long-term, exclusive relationship. Facebook can’t handle a relationship status like that. (Wait, I forgot about “It’s Complicated.” Insert laughing emoji here.)

My unfulfilled New Years resolution for 2015 was to “simplify.” A year later, I have begun to simplify the relationship status. Last Sunday, the day after my uncomfortable relationship status exchange, I began writing the summary for my annulment request.

There are lots of misconceptions about annulment. When I talk about it with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, one of the first responses is, “What about the children?” There’s a common belief that getting an annulment is akin to publicly stating my children are illegitimate, which is a ludicrous word to describe any human life. Just as there is no such thing as “divorce” in the Church, there is no such thing as an “illegitimate life” in the Church. Nor is it saying that my children are bastards or born out of wedlock.

An annulment acknowledges the reality of a wedding while at the same time nullifying the validity of the marriage. In the Catholic Church, it takes more than mutual love, vows, rings, and a marriage decree for a marriage to be valid. Even consummation is not enough to seal the deal, although not consummating the marriage relationship is definitely grounds for dissolution.

It comes down to the Church’s definition of marriage and the conditions present at the time the ceremony took place. If the marriage is missing just one part of the definition from day one, it was never a valid marriage to start with. For example, marriage by the Church’s definition is biologically procreative, which is one reason why two people of the same gender cannot have a valid marriage in the church. It has nothing to do with discriminating against two people who love each other and everything to do with simple biology.

By definition marriage is a loving, unconditional, permanent, exclusive, procreative covenant entered into by both parties freely and without condition or impediment. The annulment process looks at whether those basic qualities were missing for one or the other of the spouses. If something was missing, like the intention to remain faithful, then the marriage was never valid in the first place, the marriage is annulled, and the spouses are free to marry again.

Any number of factors could render a marriage invalid – intoxication, mental illness, pregnancy and a father-in-law with a shotgun are just a few. When I first spoke to a deacon about annulment, he informed me that he and his wife had at least seven possible grounds for annulment. I suspect most couples do; at the very least, we all go into marriage with expectations of which we probably aren’t even conscious. For half of couples, God’s grace makes up for it and the sacrament is renewed every morning along with their vows to stay faithful for another day, into perpetuity. Having grounds doesn’t mean the marriage is destined to fail, which I suppose is why the Church continues to preside over most marriages, even the ones that start on shaky ground.

Conversely, annulment, at least in the United States, is the Church’s best pastoral, compassionate response to people whose marriages failed and who want a second chance.

I don’t know if I want a second chance. There’s a lot more to marriage than love and companionship; every decision becomes a jointly made one, and I’m used to being independent. Would I really be ready to love someone through “worse” and not just “better?” Is anyone? I have a friend who just lost the love of his life to cancer, and I am certain he wasn’t ready to love through the worst of the worse, but he did. Could I love like him?

Ultimately marriage is a choice. So should being single. Today my relationship status is not so much a choice as it is a default position. Perhaps if and when my annulment is approved and I am free to make that choice, I’ll have a better answer when someone asks, “Are you single?” Maybe I won’t stumble over my words or hide behind church legalities to avoid the joys of true intimacy and building a life together. Maybe I’ll find the grace to put “we” before “me.”

Until then, it’s Saturday, and I have a date with a lovely man I treasure, who is cooking me dinner and going with me to a bluegrass concert at the same place we met and had our first date – our Church. I can’t think of a better place to be regardless of what boxes I check on forms.


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