Not the mothering-type

I’m researching childcare for this week’s column. When I write, I tend to invite old demons to torment me.

Old fundamentalist, complementarian demons are divebombing me this week about childcare. During the shutdown, a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian I know was giddy that women were divesting themselves of careers because they belonged at home. My mom stayed home. I tried to stay home. For the first four years of mothering I spend scads of what felt like my husband’s money trying to assuage my ennui. I made candles for gifts using hundreds of dollars of Hobby Lobby finds (I shudder now at what I spent at a place I no longer support). I spent hours cleaning up the wax. I made jewelry. I created pies as gifts. I bought out the seasonal produce and put up several dozen pints of goods like spiced cherry jam that lingered on our shelves, in expensive mason jars, mocking my investment of time and money. I grew the veritable $84 dollar tomato. All of this because I was bored. I needed to earn money and contribute, so I tried to offer childcare but I resented the parents who went home, napped, then picked up their kids at the latest minute when I was trapped in my home with three weeping toddlers clinging to my arms.

I had to admit I am not a nurturing type. While I love kids’ imaginations and development, and find activities and songs with them fun, I have a timer on my “love” for doing this. I cooked with them, made art, read stories, cuddled sick kids, fed them treats and gave them “airplane” rides. I did this in explosions of energy, a hour to three at a time. Then, I let them play and explore until they’d dug up my house plants and colored on the walls and I screeched in surprise. Their behavior didn’t surprise me. My disinterest that allowed them to do whatever until it tipped my scales, that is what appalled me. I had to accept that I am not a child care provider.

I want to write books, create art, help people. I am a renaissance woman. I am a teacher. I didn’t know it then. I only knew I was deeply bored at home. I failed to be a child care provider so I went to work to pay off loans to Taylor University, then on to more loans from Purdue University to complete my degree. Beforehand, I recall a long through town with my father, a kindly, wise, but traditional man, who ventured that couples now -in the nineties he meant- may need both incomes to survive.

I interrogated myself as I slumped with relief at his words. I knew I could be thriftier to support our three person household. I could even have more babies and use that to try to salve my ennui, but I also knew listless creativity, my vision, and my impatience. While I wanted to honor my mother’s years at home, those old time values, I worried that my restlessness would result in a kind of resentment, anger and cold frustration at limited circumstances. I decided to take my father’s words as a blessing, even if offered not in line with my literal circumstances. Thus I set myself from free from guilt and let another care for my child en loco parentis, in place of parents.

The fundamentalist view of the world condemns this. I learned growing up, It was worse so when using public resources, so I tried to hold the tension. I asked my husband to choose a private ministerial childcare provider, then a private Christian school would show that I was not “allowing” the state to “nanny” my children. These are the frets that tense the fundamentalist. Though I would go on to teach in public schools, and often queried as an outsider who’d been home educated, I didn’t let the system have my kids until they were both in high school. I was trying to thread a needle that would sew my children to a moral and cultural cloth of my choosing. If only that is the appropriate analogy and metaphor for raising humans. Alas, what a fallacious approach to the human condition.

My point is this. We paid too much for our daughter’s church-based childcare, and endured some hyper-silly procedures in the name of moralism, and we paid what we could afford for our son, once no family could provide affordable childcare any longer. In both cases, the childcare was costly, imperfect, and something we thought we could dictate improvements upon, inasmuch as we had economic power. Except we were economically disadvantaged.

What silliness. Had I kept the kids home, I might have been as morally, spiritually, and socially as silly as the church-based ministry. I would have been an enormous linguistic improvement to the non-ministry and more affordable daycare for my son, though he would have taken months more to potty-train. I would have read stories, been a strict disciplinarian, impatient on matters of messiness, kindly on matters of fun learning, and been familiar with my kids’ personalities. I would have remained restless, which might have led me to teach my kids how to bake bread, preserve fruits and veggies, to do art and sing, but I would have also ignored them when my brain was overwhelmed with all that I knew I was called to do, but not for or with them.

They would have also experienced the same deep economic stressors that almost imperceptibly affect spirits and bodies when there is never enough money for food, bills, housing and transportation. They experienced this acutely while my husband was in seminary and was wildly underpaid in a small parish in his first years of ministry, when at times our shelves were bare and we juggled bills. Sometimes the electricity and water were shut off for a few hours or day. Nothing awful, but always a reminder that we survived on a thin red line.

Choosing to work made it possible for my husband to go to seminary, to be a priest, to let those ascetical years of almost nothing teach us to care for those in similar situations. We’ve learned to identify with the “other” over and again, though our situation has improved.

Looking back, I don’t regret putting my kids in childcare. I cringe at the fundamentalism that haunted me and made me question the spiritual and moral validity of becoming a teacher and letting others contribute to my children’s moral, spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual development.

I’ve come to a conclusion that the fundamentalism dictating that a nuclear family unit is the superior mode of raising children, a unit where mother is nurturer in the home, lacks the historical evidence as the right way for raising children. In Biblical times, there is scant evidence of a nuclear unit being the primary or only social unit for human development. Across all religions, including my own faith confession’s historical tradition, there are far too many modes from polygomous marriages, to villages, to multi-generational and non-traditional methods of child-rearing, including dropping a kid off at the temple. I was held captive a dogma that has no justification for being dogma.

And that truth set me at ease.

Because kids grow up in an ecosystem and any agrarian knows there is only so much a person can control in the environment. Soil, rain, pests, heat, sun, coldness will all effect what grows and what doesn’t that year. Most of that is out of human control. Ours is to do our best to cultivate soil, water, weed, love and prune. That is all.

I’m not the mothering type, not a nurturer, as is nebulously defined by fundamentalist religious people. I’m a gardener, I suppose. Yes. I am a gardener, willing to acknowledge what I cannot control and accept the wildness of things.

Hell is the narrative that I am not “those people.”

I don’t rest easy when I see myself someday turning into the self-condemned rich man of Luke 16. During his lifetime, he ignored the beggar at his gate. By this he condemned himself for eternity. He would always be selfish and narcissitic. Even after death, he has the gall to plead with God to send the beggar to him to give him water. He wants the poor man to leave heavenly rest just to ease his discomfort.

I’m working on a piece about whether my family was homeless or not and how that changes our narrative. Why would it matter to interrogate that year in our lives from that angle?

Seek peace & pursue it.

Hoo-ga, I say over and over to myself. Not hyggie, as I’ve pronounced it out of reverting to English phonetics because it’s spelled hygge. I repeat words when I’m absorbing something foreign to me from another culture. Hoo-ga, koosh-lee (koselig), lar-gohm (Lagom), and see-su (Sisu).  I love new sounds, foreign words, cross-cultural lessons, and there is no frigate like a book, to take me to another place and gain wisdom from its culture. With books, I wander, I take a peregrenation, a journey without a destination. 

This journey was not one I’d have taken by choice if Nic Hartman hadn’t asked me if I’d like to read his book The Northern Lights of Christ. Hartman and I hobnobbed at a writing conference two years ago. I pitched him a book idea, and then shelved it. Meanwhile, he made use of the quiet(ish) hours of the pandemic shutdown, as I learned through the narratives throughout the book, which opens with him slogging through the wet snow, on his way to love his visually rich prose style. My first reactions were: a) being intrigued by his clear voice, the driving prose that moves a reader towards a woman, through faith, and toward a resilient, settled self; and b) my contrarian reaction to both the cold climes he adopted in his travels and the sudden wide popularization of their cultural wisdom. 

Hoo-ga, kosher-lee, lar-ohm, see-su: I mutter the pronunciations of words that have buzzed before my eyes in recent years. Tell me you haven’t heard of The Little Book of Hygge, or something along that line. I have wildly mispronounced them, having sounded them out with English phonetics, in my ignorance. I have resisted the zeitgeist of their newfound relevance in mild climes that are my habitat. By the time I’ve finished the prologue, and the first chapter, I know that I’m being obstinate, resisting the change that Hartman gently offers as he explains the synergy of these terms with our mutual faith confession: Orthodox Christianity. Truth be told, I’ve been resisting change, which the sacrament of faith and the practices of fasting and prayer discipline me to accept. I have long resisted winter, its early sunsets, late sunrises, the blasé gray, any run-resistant snow, sloppy and slick, or too thick. It’s been a stubborn sin for a decade, maybe, or hopefully less.

This is a confession of sorts, since I’m supposed to do better as an Orthodox priest’s wife. I’ve flailed, a slide that began in 2016, when my sister died of cancer and the temperature of the country mirrored the extremes of climate change. The political climate, and my sense of belonging as an Orthodox Christian have felt as if I based-jumped, plummeted to the ground, and am now barely recovering. These multiple griefs have dogged me. I’ve had a long argument within. Stability! My soul screams. I need mild winters, long outdoor runs, hard long writing sessions, to support my husband, and not fail my kids.

Apparently I needed this book. My initial resistance was inversely proportional to the change I need. I needed the reminder to light warm candles, to stack the house with warmer blankets, to celebrate the fifteen empty canvases waiting for me to ply with paint in the dark winter nights, and to puzzle with my husband. Winter is for creating a sense of warmth that comes with hygge. I’ve been good at the sisu, the strength of will, courage and resilience in the face of adversity, mostly. I like to pick what I am facing and those would never be: cold snow, humid summers, or things that defy my control issues. 

My early notes in the book were acerbic. Screw winter cause we don’t even get real winter here in Indiana. I can’t snowshoe or cross country ski. “White people do weird things in snow,” writes Scaachi Koul in One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None of This Will Matter.  Snow shoes and cool winter sports are not possible in slush that defines Indiana winters. When Hartman writes about the Orthodox Christian analogue to freezing spas and freezing waters on Theophany, I think of the highly polluted spring waters where my husband and a fellow priest do the blessing. That’s a cold nope. It’s all I can do to shiver there while trying to pray.

The truth is that when I resist change, I need it. I tend to go all in for the hard stuff of my choice. My ethnicity is German, and it was close growing up. Notions of comfort, balance, peace, those are a challenge. In my world, it was all about destinations known, hard work, effort,  “What’s Hoo-ga got to do, got to do, for me?” I hear Tina keening in my imagination. I don’t burn scented candles. I burn incense, but not as a way to quiet my overworked self. 

I finished the reading on a plane to Rome, feeling over-indulged, finally getting to realize a life goal to see parts unknown to me, even as COVID ravages the lives of my loved ones. I’m not yet sure I have the grace or permission to relax in a world where need, sickness, and selfishness prevail. Yet, the message of this book was to create in my soul the space to receive that peace. The world is always cold. What we do with it, as spiritual people, is to settle ourselves for the comfort we can create. A temperate weather system doesn’t mean a temperate spiritual climate: the latter takes intention. A person at peace brings peace to others, but an agitated, anxious person emanates that stress to those who are more in need of peace.

Thinking About My Thinks

Photo by Gary Yost on Unsplash

Some lessons from the past week. Insights, not lessons.

  1. When spiraling, ask myself two questions: Are my thoughts useful? How are they behaving?
  2. I am not my thoughts. I am the person able to step back and observe them. In fact, I will be a more effective writer to be the person considering the way my thoughts influence my behavior. Thanks to Eckart Tolle
  3. We don’t enter into conflict to change another person’s mind. We enter to keep our side of the street clean. Thanks to Geoff and Kriss Whitman
  4. It can soften hearts to ask for a blessing, but be clear you’re not asking for permission. Thanks to Geoff and Kriss Whitman
  5. Ask you kids for a blessing when writing on topics about them.
  6. When the Great Commission said go to Samaria, it meant a place geographically close and culturally different. If you can’t go to another region, at least go there. Thanks to Geoff and Kriss Whitman
  7. If we are raising our family in a way that does not extend outside our family, is that really the way we want to raise our family? Thanks to Geoff and Kriss Whitman

Each of these has a story, but for now, I’m tucking them into my advisements

The Monster In Me Must Die: On Moral Injury and Infection

My monster is roaring. I’m trying to pound it back into my gut or heart or wherever it usually sits quietly playing with or sleeping on its wealth. Later I will probably feed it booze to shut it up.

Booze works nicely. I’ve not shed the inner voice that tells me that I use booze as a crutch, that it’s one of my sinful passions. It renders  me a sinner after the second drink and that shuts up my monster.

My monster roars now because of all the BS, the lies by omission or the willfulness of others who cowboy the world. 

Some portion of the population doesn’t concern itself with moral injury, my monster is hollering. It kills with its carelessness. The parents who take their kids on vacation during the school year, when the kids are failing all their courses. The people who excuse themselves from masking or hand washing or vaccinating because they think health is entirely individual. But my monster is mad right now at the ones who believe that is their personal choice and yet like to use “life” and “abortion” to try to trump any conversation about how to vote.

My monster gives me a fever and makes my heart race. My monster needs prayer, but I tried. I tried all through church. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  I tried praying to quiet the sense that most everyone was staring at me. Why is she masking today? Now that we don’t have to mask. I read the directive, I scream inside. I read what it said and what the priest said about the spirit of it. Mask if you are not vaccinated. I read what nurses wrote for the past year about losing their hope and goodwill as they watched their patients die, one after another, each person’s death taking a part of their own main continent, their soul, because no man or woman is an island. Death after death angry and desperate families, dementia and depression, addiction and despair chipped away at them. In this week of May 2021, the NY Times reported that almost Six hundred people are still dying each day in the USA. It’s 1400 less than a few months ago. It’s still a huge loss. There is physical death still and…

There is such a thing as soul death. Does it start with an infection from moral injury? The soldier sent to the front over and over, killing and being maimed, losing his conscience as he kills, injured as a trade for this and the only ethic is patriotic might? – Please don’t rebut with the Holocaust. We fought for that moral good once and ignored it a thousand times over in Rwanda, in our own nation’s treatment of Native Americans, with the Rohinga and the Uegers, in waiting decades to have a president say “genocide” about Armenians. 

About moral injury: I’m just being initiated into the term, which will probably be overused in short order. Yet there is such a thing as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society” and “damage done to the soul” (“What is Moral Injury?”) On the US Veteran’s Administration site,  Sonja B Norman and Shira Maguen outline it this way:

In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (1). When someone does something that goes against their beliefs this is often referred to as an act of commission and when they fail to do something in line with their beliefs that is often referred to as an act of omission. Individuals may also experience betrayal from leadership, others in positions of power or peers that can result in adverse outcomes (2). Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events (3). A moral injury can occur in response to acting or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs.

My problem is how often I feel pulled into commission and omission as I do now, feeling betrayed and confused by the urgent need for protecting the vulnerable from illness, or at other times the urgency of feeding, housing and providing healthcare for those that Reagan-era Americans neighbors called “lazy” or said were bilking the system. Or protecting the spiritual, social and emotional identity of those who are not heterosexual or in heterosexual relationships (anyone who identifies as LGBTQ or anyone who is monastic or asexual). Why are these my moral values and ethics? That’s about training my monster, because a long time ago, my monster had a lot of anger about lazy poor people or addicts or “the gays.” I was raised that way, then I learned lessons that utterly humbled me.

When my monster howls, I am about to be eaten, inside out. And part of me will be spiritually sick. I will fight the infection in my bowels. I will fight some level of depression, sometimes crippling, sometimes manageable. I might die, or some part of me might have to change. 

I don’t know which. I cried angry grieving tears as I left church today. I shifted my anger and burden to my sister, an ICU nurse whose moral injury is first degree, whereas my is more sympathy pangs. I asked her, should I keep trying to be the example, to do the right thing? I did the work to heal and protect myself up to now. I masked, distanced, isolated, read and learned how the science changed. Now the science says I can unmask, but others are at risk. What is the message that will be for the greater good? Unmask and let the deniers deny?

My sister typed back. “You can’t control what others do. You have the vaccine. You can unmask.”

I can’t control what others do. She will go on losing patients to COVID, fighting for their lives, giving away a piece of herself week after week. I can’t control it or save her. I will that none of her should have to die like that, but I am going to have to let that hope die.

I can’t find joy in that. I’m not ready to celebrate unmasking yet.

Maguen, Shira, PhD and Sonja B. Norma, PhD. “VA.gov: Veterans Affairs.” Moral Injury, 20 Apr. 2020, www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/moral_injury.asp.

“What Is Moral Injury.” The Moral Injury Project What Is Moral Injury Comments, moralinjuryproject.syr.edu/about-moral-injury/.

The Cross and Flippancy

My first two years of teaching were at a Christian middle school in Indianapolis. As we wrapped up Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, one of the White 13-year old students was broken open as he realized the lynching towards the end of the book. Seeing a teachable moment, I made the mistake of showing a lynching postcard out of Without Sanctuary taken in Marion Indiana. I showed the date stamp (1930’s) and told students that it had been sold as a commemorative postcard for the picnicking witnesses proud to have witnessed the torture of Black man. To be clear, I told students they didn’t have to look at it, offering to let them leave the room. I didn’t account for the peer pressure I created. Nor did I think about how I might create either further suffering or more apathy, depending on how students grappled with what they saw. I wanted to these kids to know what a lynching looked like, that it happened here, and that like crucifixions in the Roman empire, it was a spectacle. I wasn’t being explicit about the kindredness of the Cross and a lynching tree, as theologian James Cone has written, but it had seeped into my conscience.

Aside from passion plays, loaded with bathos to evoke a feeling for what Christ sacrificed, I haven’t experienced such suffering. The Cross requires a lot of imagination for me. I sometimes have to work to feel the suffering.

April 4, 2021 was mid-point of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians and Easter for Western Christendom. The Orthodox Church has a special commemoration each Sunday and the Sunday of the Cross falls smackdab in the middle. I’ve often thought that it falls here in the middle of our desert journey of forty days as a call to gaze upon it when we may be despairing at the length of Lent. I don’t enjoy Lent. It dredges up fights I don’t want to have, like not drinking wine, the obligation to go to church constantly, and resentment about my lack of enough time. The Cross in the middle seemed to be like the staff with the snake that God told Moses to put up to save the Israelites while they sojourned for forty years in the desert. They were being bitten by poisonous snakes and dying. It prefigures the Cross because we are to gaze upon and contemplate the Cross as the image of death that turns to life. But I forget about real suffering.

I have lost loved ones, but not to torture or to hateful evil nor to willful apathy of crowds. Yet plenty of American Christians know the Cross intimately. They’ve come to the tree, to the rood, to the wood, to the cross. They stood like the Mother of God and the women, witnessing their hearts being tortured with Christ’s body. They looked upon Him, not as one they crucified, not as a picnic or a spectacle, but as their very suffering.

In my poetry unit for Lit 206, I teach motifs in Black experience- the body, the oak, strange fruit- which Black Americans have long written songs, poems, and essays about. I play Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s renditions of “Strange Fruit” in which you can hear their throats swell with the pain. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Oak” is told from the voice of the tree bearing that fruit. It’s nothing like the medieval “Dream of the Rood” (Caedman), flowery and hopeful. It’s like the Cross, a story of sorrow and shame foisted upon innocent people.

It’s far too easy for us to talk about the Cross as a symbol, to speak about suffering and martyrdom carelessly. Dare I say, if we don’t bear witness and come as Simon of Cyrene to help carry the Cross for those who know it, then our use of “bearing our crosses,” talk of our suffering, discussion of martyrdom is as careless and offensive as those who talk about having OCD or being bi-polar or other serious illnesses. If you’ve never washed your hands till they crack or gotten up in the middle of the night to drive back to places you’ve cleaned to check if the doors or locked, or driven over and over one spot on a road thinking you hit something, or been diagnosed with OCD, then you shouldn’t be casual about “your OCD kicking in.” So too we shouldn’t be too cavalier about bearing our crosses. The Cross is serious as death.

We can bejewel it, bear witness, and be honest. Our lenten grapplings are ours, meatless, sober, (masked up when we can see the promised land of the end of the pandemic but aren’t there yet), these are more like many of our crosses. Not the same as dying on one. What we do when we recognize the deep centuries endemic suffering of others is bring ourselves to what Anthony Barr says is “the profound solidarity of the Gospel.” First, we have to enter into that solidarity and look upon the suffering: the broken bodies of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, of migrant workers brutalized because they lack legal recourse, or the controlled bodies of Black Americans. Their bodies don’t offer the Resurrection, but with their suffering in solidarity with Christ’s, we can be reconciled.

“…the world-altering reality that when we say “body, broken for you,” we mean a literal broken body, and that this literal broken body is given for him, and you, and me. Jesus has placed his body between our bodies and the world. It is the nexus where suffering meets grace, where oppression gives way to radical self-emptying. The table at which he offers us his body is a place of egalitarianism where one’s race and social station have no weight or meaning. It is also a place of inescapable solidarity, for it is here that we are united to Christ’s cross, here that we are empowered to bear our crosses and so fill up in our own flesh the redemptive suffering of Christ, as Paul writes to the Colossians.”

The Sunday of the Cross in the middle of Lent now means more than looking up at the Cross to bear my own suffering. It is the GOOD NEWS which our bleak period of penitence and self-restraint may obscure. It’s why I can say, Christ is Risen to my Western Christians family on the middle day of Lent.

Saturday Recommendations

“Just so, the Gospel confronts us with a terrifying truth: Jesus’ life ended as it did, not because the powers of evil overcame him, still less because God forced it to happen for the sake of accomplishing a predetermined “plan,” but because ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.”

Photo Credit: Jessica Delp; unsplash

On Saturdays, I do a lot of reading, usually theological reading and listening because the Plough Cast and Macrina come through for me on those quieter days. Saturday has become the Sabbath, as it should, a day more restful in that it is unstructured, and preparatory for the 8th day, the day of Resurrection: Sunday.

I’ve been posting about Chris Green’s Lenten series on Macrina Magazine. He’s focused on transfiguration.

Here’s this week’s review and following, the full list of his pieces, as well as recommendation for this week’s Plough cast and an article on James Baldwin and Peacemaking.

Blessed Holy Saturday to the West. In Christ’s assumption of humanity, we are elevated in nature.

I love the story at the end of this, of the humility of Coptic Christians who wouldn’t cut in line for food, despite the famine. They took less care for their own lives and more for the group. This is so hard for Americans to practice. It’s in our human nature, but opposite of what our nation values. The promise of the Cross and Resurrection is not something for the vague future. Christ is not indifferent to the body, He transformed the material world. We are not just spirits in a material world.

Yesterday in confession, just thirty minutes after my second vaccine dose, two disparate topics boiled to the surface. At first, my father confessor tugged at his mask and asked how did I feel about losing the mask finally. I know that many Christians are more libertarian than me, so I took a breath before answering. I will lose the mask in stages, with CDC and local health guidance. I won’t lose the mask entirely until it is good for the group. To take it off sooner is to put emphasis on my individual comfort and safety. (A mask is an inconvenience at worst. It’s not caused wholesale SEL damage, though I am aware it’s harder for those with language and autism processing issues.) Shortly thereafter my father confessor noted that Orthodox Christian theology is communal (interpersonal, interdependent, no man is an island stuff). We recognize persons, but individuality is problematic.

That said, this passage hit me because evil is more often the product of self-protectionism that aggregates into communal apathy.

“Just so, the Gospel confronts us with a terrifying truth: Jesus’ life ended as it did, not because the powers of evil overcame him, still less because God forced it to happen for the sake of accomplishing a predetermined “plan,” but because ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.

We need to feel the weight of this truth. People condemned Jesus, and required his death, or failed even to try to save him from his sufferings, not because they despised him, but because they were so afraid of their own death or the end of their way of life that they could not see what was happening to him as anything but unavoidable.”

I can’t help but draw parallels to how people shrugged off their agency to protect one another this year with “death is unavoidable.” I still have people tell me that they are sick of masking and that masking is living in fear. The same people are also afraid of the mask. They are not afraid of the risk of death they say out of one side of their mouth, and yet they fear the vaccine. We are incongruous and inconsistent beings, aren’t we? We are individualistic yet need each other, self-protecting but if we were the last human alive, we’d despair. In this year of the polemical, where everything is all or nothing, we should note our behavior and ask we’ve capitulated to the extremes and poles.

As Chris Green writes, “kenosis is not emptying but filling and fulfilling. In St. Cyril’s words, God the Word does not empty himself of his fulness but in his fulness descends into emptiness and fills it with himself.” The binary creates a canyon of emptiness between ourselves and each other. God came to fill the whole and draw us to each other and himself.

Chris Green’s series in Macrina Magazine

Transfiguring Being

Transfiguring Repentance

Transfiguring Doubt

Transfiguring Obedience

Transfiguring Identity

Transfiguring Death

Transfiguring Silence

Plough Cast “Violence of Love” Part 3 with poet Rhina Espallait– You should listen to this for her poem on fathers and daughters , as well as her insights into Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and provocative thoughts rejecting martyrdom.

With Love We Shall Force Our Brothers by Anthony Barr– Barr responds beautifully to the appropriate anger of Ta Nehasi Coates and defends faith not as

How to Retreat

Plan to retreat. Clear your calendar. Let your parish know that you’ll be unavailable because the week after you’ll be doing two or more hours of church services daily to kick off Lent. (The uber-pious call this “Great Lent” but is a kind of wandering in a spiritual wilderness for 40 days, so “great” is not what you’d call it. You’ll being fasting intensely, leading more church services and book discussions, hearing more confessions, and low key supporting the spiritual struggles of a mid-sized parish in a mid-COVID trauma.)

Get an AirBNB for you and the wife. Ask her if this is okay, because you’ve done this for several years running. This year it intersects with her state testing (more stressful because of the ‘Rona) and the end of the grading period for her high needs students.

Cancel the AirBNB two days before the retreat because she is melting down, a la “Everyone wants a piece of me and I just can’t anymore.” Determine you’ll just be invisible by being low-key on staycation.

Night one: In a fortuitous turn, you and the wife find Shaun of the Dead to watch that night. It’s a cathartic throwback to the first weeks of the pandemic when you played the game of the same moniker with the urgency of an actual public health official and you watched a lot of funny zombie movies.

It goes too late. Your wife can’t find her phone charger and melts down. You run to the gas station to buy a new one and when you get back, you find your pop tarts for a bedtime snack. They are smashed.

Your wife’s temporary crown falls out, she cycles through a depressive episode, and you hear her banging her head against the shower wall muttering about the patriarchy. She curls into sleep while you have a late night sesh with a fellow musician. You plan a collaboration, feel good about your creative side hustle, eat your smashed pop tarts, shower, and go to bed.

At three AM your wife gets one of her 24-hour GI sicknesses. Unable to lay on the cold bathroom tile, she pulls a trashcan to the side of the bed and leans off the edge to puke into it for five hours. You get to wake up every hour or so to the smell and sound of her hurling all her food into the trash can.

Late that evening, she’s up for a hike, so you venture out for a couple mile walk. As you drive off, you both jump at a crashing. Her water bottle rolls onto the windshield, rattling you both. A prescient start.

Remember that one topic you told her you didn’t want to talk about on this retreat? She’s about to hit it head on. It starts after you say, “I don’t think I know how to retreat anymore.” To retreat, a person needs to back away from the conflict, away from the ledges of life, which in the COVID year have included the ledges-buses-walls-traumas-losses-stressors-family systems of each person in your parish. You are a parish priest. OBVs. In this year, conflicts erupted like wildfires. Also, some people disappeared like lost hikers, like innocent people in Mexico, like Vietnam vets who went off the grid and quit their families. You’ve offered up the Body and Blood of Christ for every one of them. You feel like their shepherd, a father, a friend, and every loss and every conflict begins to be your Battle of Okinawa. You are a kind of Desmond Doss in your head. You just want to carry everyone to safety.

So your wife ends up ten steps ahead of you after she starts with “I’m going to say a hard thing” after which she begins a strategic questioning/grilling about the literal one thing you said you wanted to retreat from. She asks you to inventory your time spent in services, in administrative work, in pastoral care. She and you banter about moving towards health. Two miles later you feel a little better about your ability to be adaptive, to move towards health, to acknowledge when you aren’t in health, but you still say you are as close to burn out as you’ve ever been.

That night, you kiss each other goodnight. She falls asleep. You stay up to pen a letter to a mentor with whom you are to meet late the following morning. You spend the last of your energy mixing some music and fall into restless sleep.

After coffee, breakfast, and a chat with your mentor on day three, some of the shards of your broken spirit seem to fit back into their places. This is not healed, but there’s enough put back together that you have a plan. You are able to slip into a kind of intention and rest for the next fews days to re-establish some health, some priorities, some boundaries, and to have a way forward.

So, to plan a retreat, start with great plans and high expectations, and let them get shattered. It helps to have some one help clean up the mess, even if you didn’t make a single bit of it and you were the person trying to fix it all in the first place.

Throw Open the Doors

When I consider how many Christmases have painted themselves as bright sugary memories in my mind, I really have had a charmed life. But not all Christmases sparkle. One of the ugliest is an angry green sea, with orange limbs and black heads gasping for life while I crumple thirty bucks in the first I’ve shoved in a coat pocket. It’s the day after Christmas, Dec 26, 2004. I’m standing at the front door of my brother’s home, stepping out into winter, wondering what right I have to spend it on myself. The giver intended for me to spend it as I’d intended, on a the embossed, leather-looking box set of The Two Towers.

Fifteen minutes before while I was pulling on my boots, preparing to wade through waves of dissatisfied people returning their Christmas gifts, when I caught the news. In the living room, my brother, father, husband and other men in my family reclined with their eyes glued to laptops. “Did you hear?” I asked. They confirmed the tsunami that struck Indonesia and beyond had 10,000 reported casualties. 10,000 people washed into walls of the sea, grasping for their children and their lovers.

white and brown boat on black sand during daytime
Photo credit: Unsplash, NOAA

Two and half times the casualties of 9/11. 

I clutched the bills and felt as I had when I was young, watching the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars. Somewhere far away in the universe there was a disturbance. A world obliterated. Thousands of lives silenced in seconds.

Fifteen minutes later, the walk in Walmart felt surreal. The crowd noise silenced everything. I recall listening for my own heartbeat and feeling the radical injustice of fate or nature or God or whatever. I felt a kind of disgust at myself that I would carry on with my purchase of entertainment while a whole world of Rachels were weeping in great mourning. Weeping for the children, their mothers and fathers. Because they were no more.

If we watched The Two Towers that night, I didn’t pay attention. I checked the news. The body count climbed over the weekend, over 100,000 by that night. Over 227,000 in total. My life was preserved because I was born in the United States.

“There are some years that ask questions,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “There are some years that answer.”

Photo credit: Maria Weir

This year, my life is fragile, because I was born in the United States. The richest country in the world, the country that published Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” I teach that story to high school students every year in American Literature. They love the vivid imagery and the macabre Red Death infiltrating a medieval soiree.

In 2014, when Ebola swept six of Africa’s fifty-four nations, I drew parallels between Ebola and the Bubonic Plague for students. That year, an acquaintance in Atlanta expressed outrage that the CDC brought Ebola infected doctors to Emory University. Surely they’d risked American lives, the social media post intimated. Surely noble doctors could risk their lives on some other soil, but how dare we risk American lives to find a cure at the best facility in the US?

This year of our Lord 2020 Poe’s story is as beloved as ever. This year I asked my students about the symbolism of Prince Prospero’s moniker and why he chose his wealthy friends to hole up in one of his “crenellated abbeys.” Do the wealthy think they can escape death? I asked

Not that our wealthy all holed up literally, but our presidential leadership team used access to any and every possible treatment at all costs to prove that Americans can buy their way out of death.

While millions in poverty struggled to work, feed, and shelter themselves, while vulnerable populations died in disproportionate numbers, while those with addiction overdosed in desperation, while kids and parents struggled to find an equilibrium of connection, emotional health, work and education, while doctors and nurses nursed themselves to precipice of exhaustion, while some churches risked the connection/community that makes them strong by going on-line, while some businesses policed personal behavior, while some demonstrators distanced but showed up, others made the decision that this pestilence would devastate only if we believed it would.

This year, the pestilence became most fatal and hideous when individual liberties, collectively practiced, created chaos. It seems that wealthy nations maddened themselves on free markets and free will. They proved that a crenellated abbey cannot keep out even Quiet Death. For this plague is no virus that makes eyes weep blood and pustules seep life. This virus is subtler.

This virus seizes the respiratory system, veins and arteries, and it squeezes the life out of them as stealthily as the flu. 

green leaf plant near brown concrete wall
Photo Credit: Anne Nygard, Unsplash

In The Masque of the Red Death, the plague or something is evil. Sorry to bring up the “e-word,” a word that umbrellas such varied applications that it’s bound to sound judgey or existential or hyperbolic, if one doesn’t subscribe to it. 

This virus, to be clear is not the “e-word.” The e-word is evil. Evil doesn’t generally look evil. While we are screaming about “evil” over there, the evil that threatens has cloaked itself, infiltrated, and run amok. It’s the threat we think we can control. It’s a force we both believe in and remain skeptical of. What do we call evil with some certainty? We call Hitler, his syncophants, and the Holocaust evil. We call Pol Pot and Khymer Rouge’s murder of Cambodians evil. Stalin’s own 14-20 million dead, that’s evil. Mosquitoes: evil. Psychopaths: evil. Serial rapists: evil. Known evils.

After that, we have lesser evils about which we disagree. This year’s pandemic demonstrated that our lesser evils are individualized and polarized.

One person’s evil is another person’s freedom. I don’t wear a mask, freedom. You don’t wear a mask, evil. I travel for mental health and can’t give up a year or I’ll regret it: freedom. You travel: evil.

I’m going to say, this pandemic polarized further what was already divided. I have relationships so strained in my life, I’m not sure they’ll ever recover. They will work, seize up, work, seize, then one of us will die. Not unlike how the virus wreaks havoc in some.

I’m not here to say whose side is freedom or whose is evil. Some of the things labeled evil no longer seem so evil to me.  Another Christian might kick me out of the abbey for that view.

Some years ask questions.

After 2004’s tsunami, my questions included: Is God the ultimate maestro? Is there a god? Or do I have to resign myself to unknowns? Can I live that way?

In 2020, my questions include, Do humans know how to make wisdom out of knowledge? Could we ever be selfless enough to save the race? Is there such a thing as good humanism? Are we really progressing? 

Some years answer. 

I don’t remember what answers I walked away with in 2004, except: I have a life long battle to live less for myself alone. I choose to believe in God and God chose to believe in humans even if we really ‘eff it up.

In 2020, the answers are as thin. I don’t think we’re progressing. I think the same global problems start within individuals. Until we work on our own salvations, we cannot can’t save the race entire. There is a God. It’s a wonder that God goes on loving bodies and souls in this condition. Not the condition of dying or being ugly or imperfect. The condition of being unable to love others as we love ourselves. 2020 may be the year we realize the narcissism within. Then again, we are pretty terrible at saving ourselves.

In Ireland, there’s a tradition at midnight to open all the doors and windows to let the old year out and the new year in. I’m part Irish. My heritage shows up in my grandmother’s nose, which I inherited. My husband is mostly Scotch-Irish. His nose is short and flat too. Our year had its griefs and blessings. He weathered COVID and contentions. We postponed a sabbatical, then a mini sabbatical. We celebrated a milestone anniversary and birthdays without much fanfare. What happened to us sickened me less than what has been happening to those people we work with in our vocations. 

Yet the doors and windows have started to open. I’m ready to throw up the sashes and bang the pots and wait. Good fortune, like salvation, is a work of patience.

A bit rundown here at the moment

I started an essay, forthcoming, on War On Drug’s song “Eyes to the Wind.” My faith is weary, not of Christ, but by fellow Christians. I’m a bit rundown here at the moment. At every turn, many fellow Christians have made a fight out of being kind to each other by masking and social distancing or of taking care of beat up fellow citizens who are BIPOC or LGBTQ.

I don’t why some Christians aren’t masking.
I don’t know why some Christians have attacked critical race theory and have a beef with wanting to care for Black lives.
I don’t understand the fear that drives some Christians to carry weapons (especially to church) but not masks. Or what makes them pledge a de facto allegiance to state capitalism while decrying socialist economics (both of these economic systems co-exist somewhere with democracy). I am flummoxed that their fear of being persecuted leads them to persecute.

I’m either falling into healthy spiritual silence or I am numb-frozen as to how to speak the truth in love. I think I’m in a state that fluctuates back and forth between the two. The former looks like the following:

A few years back, during college, my daughter had the words of Bishop Kallistos of Xelon inked on her. “Do not resent. Do not react. Keep inner stillness.”
Seems a good word to always keep before your eyes.
Speaking of ink and what to keep before your eyes.
Before the lockdown, I had the words of St. Anthony put on my left shoulder.

Always keep your eyes on God. My right shoulder has the Theotokos and Christ with “Still she persisted.”

wORKINGaRTs
Owner of wORKINGaRTs

This year I’ve been reading the works of Francois Fenelon. As I struggle with other Christians’ practices, I came across this:

“I am very sorry for the imperfections you find in human beings, but you must learn to expect but little from them; this is the only security against disappointment. We must receive from them what they are able to give us, as from trees the fruits that they yield. God bears with imperfect beings even when they resist His goodness. We ought to imitate this merciful patience and endurance. It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are, the more gentle and quiet we become toward the defects of others.”

Francois Fenelon

These are my spiritual thumb presses, think rock climbing.

Be still and know
that I am God. My peace
I leave with you. Not as the world gives…

___________

On a funnier note, I keep thinking of the line in Princess Bride when Westley says, “Everyone will be wearing them (masks) in the future. They’re so terribly comfortable.” Actually, masks are my beard right now. So warm. Also, a nice place to hide my RBF from strangers.