The Nones Shall Pass

Why are so many people looking at the faith of their culture and youth and saying, “I’ll pass. Thanks.”?

I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over this. I’m a camp counselor, a high school teacher, Sunday School teacher, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, and friend. I struggle with the thought that all my family and friends may not have that transformative moment that proves God is real, loves them, and is waiting on them. Also that a relationship with God, as with any person, means showing up, as in worship, not just thoughts and prayers. I mean, I can’t say I love a friend when I blow off her for weeks, right?

I think and read and pray. On Sunday, I read Nicholas Kristoff’s Op-Ed “We’re Less and Less a Christian Nation, and I Blame Some Blowhards.” Then I listened to last week’s podcast of Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armitas and Fr. Anthony Savas on my post-liturgical run. I bookmarked Luke Beecham’s piece, The Prodigal Church to read for today. Each piece dealt with the steep decline of people who affiliate with Christianity. Pew calls these the “Nones.” (As an aside, it’s terribly hard to converse about the Nones when my own faith confession has nuns. It gets very confusing at times.) I have many more friends these days who are just plain done with faith. They are trying out atheism or humanism. I have my reasons for struggling with this, but this is not that blog.

When it comes to pondering this problem, I suspect the principle of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “coupling” is at work. Conditions of multiple forces are coinciding. Luke Beecham says we’re prodigal. The church is guilty of not truly being Christian. Dorothy Day said something like this in The Long Loneliness. She suspected that few people have met real Christians. Ouch. Gandhi too said more people would be Christians if more Christians were like Christ.

We Christians are doing soul-searching, or at least hand-wringing about this. What are some hypotheses?

Cause 1: Church+Republican Party
I’ve heard talk that the double-digit decline in religious affiliation is caused by the increasing identification with the evangelicals (thus all who call themselves Christians by association) with the Republican party. That party has cornered the market on the morality of abortion. But they are challenged when it comes to be whole life. Again, tomes have been written on this. This is not that tome.

Cause 2: Church + Intolerance

One of the reasons that family and dear friends cite for quitting religion is refusal to care for the poor, people of color, non-citizens and right now, members of the LGBTQ community. Oh, we say we care. Church goers give to charity at the highest rates. We send missionaries to other countries. I’m having a hard time seeing how the church is showing up for the current calls from our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. Most of what I hear about our efforts comes out like: We marched with Dr. King. We have friends who are different from us. We respected or even voted for Obama, before we voted for Trump. Lastly we don’t tell people who are not cis-gender they can’t come to church. — We just tell them the hospital is here to fix them. When they are fixed they can come to communion, or teach, or speak, or be around our kids. —

Why are people leaving the church? I ask them. I’m not satisfied with their answers. I know that’s because I don’t want to be. Maybe being a person of faith is like being a parent. Every couple that finally decides to have a baby after resisting it gets my “Awesome! You are going to love it. I mean it’s hardest thing ever. You’ll never sleep the same again and kids cost a ton, but welcome to the club.” I make it sound like we are miserable and want company, don’t I? But we aren’t. We have a powerful anchor in hard times and the good. God works in me. I change, verrrryyy slowly. But I do give up my hang ups. The sacrament of confession helps. The sacrament of marriage will definitely change a person. Holiness inches me towards wholeness.

So I am trying to figure out how to keep or recruit people to God and the Church. Having revisited a few clips from the (retired) BBC show REV, I proposed the following to my husband to chew on for a while: We’ve created consumer churches. Each Christian confession does it in its own particular way. We make ourselves a warm community and try to be convenient and inviting, but mostly to a narrow market. It’s no secret that Sunday morning carves up Christians on racial and ethnic lines, but also on socio-economics. We don’t want to worship next to someone who hasn’t showered recently, who smells of alcohol and body odor. It’s also divided on gender and sexuality. We do not want to explain the woman or man who always comes alone, let alone the two men or two women who come together every week. Maybe those people need to meet with the pastor. They need help.

We whisper this, suggest it, hint. Even if they are obtuse, they get the hint. “I don’t really belong here, do I?” What’s weird is that some of those people know they need it, so they stay. Others of us bear witness to the subtleties (or not so subtleties) of the loudest voices, and get angry. If church people don’t love the “weird ones” enough to touch them, be friends, look them in the eye or stop trying to make them into the same image as themselves, then of course, why should I trust those people? They want to remake everyone into their own image.

The hardest task of the faithful is love without secret ambition, vain conceit, or hidden motives. The greatest of the saints looked others in the eye, rather than turning away from their immorality. They covered over the shame that fellow priests and Christians heaped upon the cast outs. Right now, the LGBTQ community are our cast outs. We will touch them, with a ten foot pole of “counseling and conversion.” We don’t start with love. Everyone around them, even they, push back. Does the Church really mean it when it says we are to cover over a multitude of sins? That perfect love casts out fear? That the Holy Spirit has this?

Love is a harsh and dreadful thing. It’s so simple it’s complicated. Sometimes we mistake love for being a rainmaker and fixing. It’s why I want to “rain make” people into the arms of the Savior. Or trade my place there so they may have mine. As Dostoevsky’s Alyosha says to a woman who wants to love the whole world but can’t find love for her ungrateful, demanding daughter:

I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.  Dostoyevsky

Love is a harsh and dreadful thing for us. Love calls us to descend into the particulars with people. We cannot do that with the wrong motives. If a person comes unwilling to be what we think they should conform to, we cannot do that work. When we can’t change them, we make a line between us and them, the deserving and undeserving.

What can I say? Maybe I am driving people away from God because I want too much for others to know God. Maybe I am loosy-goosy about “right and wrong” or the Church’s stance on this or that.

On the one hand, I try to unclench my moral ideas about how people should be. I try not to change my friends. On the other, I’m totally guilty of attempting hail mary’s for friends about to leave a spouse or a church. I happen to think social networks of the analog type prevent much of the descent of a person into isolation, co-dependency, addiction, depression, or suicidal ideation or or or or… any other personal hell.

I might not know the right way to love and be loved. I might have wrong motives or vain conceits. Trust me, I take these to confession. Indefatigable love feels very confusing at times. What’s a Christian’s role in helping others live their best lives? In helping others know that God knows them best. We are at best, orderlies and patients in the same hospital we call the Church.

Here’s my other theory about why people no longer affiliate with the Church:

Preemptive exclusion. I think lots of those leaving the church have asked, what would it look like to love so hard that I change? And what if the moral authorities in the Church blackball me for this change? And defame me for my intimacy with the outcasts?

So those people preemtively leave. It’s easier that way. You know what makes me sad? I think some other people are relieved by this self-deportation.

But some Christians try to stay, try to speak up for the dignity, personhood, humanity of their friends –who are “not moral.” What I am here to say is that I bear testimony to what I think are their good motives. They are called to be that part of the Church that looks without judgment and loves. I bear witness too that I see these people being silenced, overtly or subtly.

Instead of seeing that these people may be called to serve this way, moral authorities feel the need to dismiss, discipline, exclude, or ignore them. I ask this, have we considered that they might be carrying a great burden of all those leaving the Church? They are taking the risk that God has the other stuff under control. Because like it or not, not every person who needs the fullness of the Church and to see the face of God in other human beings will have the grit to stick out the callow bedside manner of the orderlies.


One Provocative Word

Jesus. It makes some people shudder. Jesus. It makes some people shout, or pray, or look away, or look upon. 2000 years of history, means that name evokes all the things, doesn’t it? It’s been weaponized and neutralized and lionized. So I run the risk of opening with it. But this is a book review of a memoir written by a man famous for leading off with Jesus and getting some decent results, even from college students about to riot or evangelicals about to pick a fight with him.

Fr. Peter Gilquist finished his final book, Memories of His Mercy, shortly before his death in 2012. He’d been writing and working in publishing for decades, including ghost writing Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, as well as a number of books about becoming an Orthodox Christian after years working with Campus Crusade. In fact, after the Kent State shooting, while he was chaplain on Northwestern University’s campus, the administration asked him to speak at a rally about to turn riot. Uncertain of what to say or how to begin, he simply started with Jesus.

In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gillquist recounts memories that shifted the direction of his life, with early vignettes reading like parallels to the stories of other athletes who became evangelists and pastors who became influencers. Where his story veers begins with putting family first, as a little church, and early on listening to a niggling urge to find the New Testament church. He and other chaplains working with Campus Crusade tried to create Orthodox Christianity 2.0, the evangelical edition, but ended up back where Christianity started. But this is not that book.

This is a book that reminds me of a memoir I helped edit: my grandmother’s memoir of her conversion and my grandfather’s before they fell in love at Bible college, of making love work when poverty and ministry test marriage, of snaking dirt roads of ministry. Fr. Gillquist writes like I imagine he talked. He tells a story, he draws out a purpose, he links it to the mercies of God. It’s never quite a homily, never just a memory, retold like someone else’s dream.

Once, while I helped my grandmother flesh out a chapter of her book she said to me, “I think your grandfather was a better preacher than Billy Graham.” I can’t help realizing how the Graham archetype permeated most of the mid-twentieth century. He was relatable, fatherly, loyal, and kindly, but driven by the urgency of the story of Jesus and how it might transform lives that had been milled in previous decades by the Depression and World War II. Fr. Gilquist’s early anecdotes vibrate with that icon of Christian evangelical, but the 60’s changed us all. He ministered to the young as a Campus Crusade chaplain but in his private spiritual journey, he linked himself to a group who wanted an ancient, wizened faith.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read his Becoming Orthodox, but when my husband and I tossed up our arms and said, “That’s it. I’m not an evangelical Christian anymore,” we ended up at a little church just exiting the group Fr. Gillquist helped to found and entering the Orthodox Church. In our case, the parish was one of the malingerers who came into the Orthodox Church of America, years after Fr. Gillquist and others came to into the Orthodox Church via the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in America. Both are the same church, different organizational leadership due to the USA’s salad bowl of cultures. Orthodox Christianity is worldwide and untidily organized by regions. I rather like it’s decentralized, broad sharing of leadership, but I digress. What I learned in Memoirs of His Mercy is a story that was both familiar since my husband and I left non-denominational evangelical Christianity to become Orthodox Christians at the same time as a whole parish on a similar trajectory with a longer arc, and yet helped to explain the relationship of a rather stodgy, eastern version of Christianity on a continent that is always trying to make everything new.

It’s a bit confessional, and time-bound to admit that I loved reading these vignettes because I have one or two degrees of separation from Fr. Gillquist. I had the joy of getting to know Fr. Peter Jon and Presv. Kristina as they transitioned fresh out seminary and music to the parish just before we trundled off to seminary. We came back to Indiana to find they’d ministered so deeply to dear friends who shared the heartache of still births. We too treasure the precious moments with Schmemann’s (in our case, Mat. Julianna) and Fr. Thomas Hopko. We love Fr. James Ellison who gets a cameo in the latter chapters. We get to rub elbows with him every summer at St. John’s Camp, a ministry out of St. John the Forerunner. And, we love our intimate brothers and sisters in the Antiochian Archdiocese as Fr. Gillquist honored his dear friends in the OCA. What I love most though is that this humanizes what it looks like to make marriages work, to make a slow, steady path of faithful service. We read the lives of those came before us centuries ago. Ever since the first time I read the line, “Mary stored up all these things up and pondered them in her heart,” I’ve looked for examples of the inner and outer journeys of faith of those who have gone before. This collection fills out the numerous tomes of Fr. Gilquist as an account of such faith. We can see how he writes with his own hands what it means to stay true to a full faith in this modern context, an Americanized version.

Finally, I love that Fr. Gillquist gives us a call to action by his life. Faith is a life-long commitment, a discipline. It’s an action we commit to, not a feeling.

An Embarrassment of Praise

Status: “It’s complicated.”

In my third year of teaching, my superintendent kicked off the year with an in-service, after which he pulled me aside in the hall and said, “You listen with engagement. You track the speaker, and respond.”

I appreciated the small notice. I hadn’t done anything so great, but what I had done acknowledged the value of his message to me. It was a human moment. At the same inservice, he’d said something that caused me pause: “Never praise a person in the middle of a crowd.” Essentially, he explained, it increases performance pressure. It makes the overachiever feel like they must always perform that way, which is too much pressure to live up to every day. It embarrasses the introvert or the cautious.

Praise always embarrasses me. No, I don’t flush red up my neck and into my cheeks anymore, but I never know how to respond.

Part of this is due to nature, part to nurture. I grew up in a world where praise was salt. My mom taught me to cut the salt in half from the first time I mixed granola at six until I left her house. This is to say praise too much praise could create a congestive condition. Save it as the flavor, a toast for only the highest occasion. My memories of being graced with praise or my behavior evoking happy tears are as limited as momentous life moments (though not the same as such events as graduation, marriage, childbirth).

I craved those tears and any recognition. Due in part to my eeyorish disposition of “Oh, okaaayyyy,” I believed all appreciation required hard work and high quality results. I believed this in the face of grandparents and teacher who thought such an idea was hogwash.

As a rule, only a handful of people had the ability to make me feel amazing in spite of myself. First among those equals is my paternal grandfather who always asked me to do the special song at his little country church, even though standing in front of strangers reduced my love of singing into cringy, terrified notes that devolved into crying and hugging my grandmother in the pew or on the piano bench, depending on whether she played that week. She was my other grand champion. They thought I could sing no wrong. — Aside: Grandpa couldn’t sing. He had a deep bass and a limited ear for the musical range. Famously, my grandmother threw the hymnal at his feet during one service during which she was playing piano. She wrote in her memoir that she shouted, “Learn the notes.” My grandfather didn’t give two hoots if he hit the notes, nor if I did. God loved him as he sang in his own key and preached a solid word. He trusted in that, and in me.

From my paternal grandparents, I experienced the closest I will come to the wonderful love of God. No strings. No demands. I adored them for that. But I knew intrinsically that my talent didn’t warrant that praise. I distrusted their faith in me. They believed in who I was/am, not something I did. Yet, my grandfather pressed me to do something that stung my cheeks, and I soon quit his call for me to do the special song.

I’ve been revisiting my veneer and trying to blow it up recently. Thanks, Brene Brown and John Bradshaw. From them, I’ve learned that my reaction to my grandparents’ unrelenting belief in me was actually a healthy shame, not a toxic one. It told me my limits. Yet it still had all the love of the universe tucked in it. My grandfather and my grandmother both had a knack for seeing people through heaven’s lenses. To them, I was a human being, not human doing, to paraphrase John Bradshaw.

But a person wants to be sure she is worth the praise. Here are times I was praised and felt I’d earned it:

  1. Scoring off the charts in kindergarten and skipping a grade for my reading and ability to recognize patterns. My parents talked about me like I was accomplished.
  2. Writing a paper in 7th grade that my dad (my teacher at the time) put high praise on. I had come to love writing so much it was the talent for which I longed praise.
  3. Just before I flew to Atlanta to help my aunt and uncle during a difficult pregnancy, my dad pulled me into a long hug and cried before he put me on the plane, which made me feel like my life and death would hurt or help others.
  4. Years later, my aunt wrote me such letters of love and support because I broke off a four year relationship with a boy everyone thought I’d marry. She covered over my shame.
  5. When my pastor “prophesied” that I would lead people to Christ.– Aside from writing, my other vocations have been helping others and being spiritually missional.
  6. When my Spanish teacher, Mrs. Yoder, and my grandmother’s writers group took note of a couple of small, somewhat normal achievements in speaking (in Spanish) and writing. Spanish acquisition felt like an extension of writing, as in, I was adept with language.

This is a strange list. It highlights the weirdness of growing up in an charismatic church as well as being privately and home schooled when that was mostly “new.”

Now for what’s complicated: I parented as I was experienced life, not as my kids needed. I withheld praise from my kids. Weirdly, I’m likely to offer a hug or back rub, which was not normal in my growing up years, yet I bet my kids would tell you that I’m anything but effusive with praise.

As this is a blog post about what I could have done better, this is a blog about how my kids have deserved more of the kind of heavenly, embarrassing, effusive, healthy “shaming’ love, that lets a kid recognize what limits they know and to differentiate not on the lines of being “unworthy” versus “but beautiful.”

When I read the previous 3rd passage of the Tao, I have complicated, mixed reactions. On the one hand, there is a false sense of accomplishment about my own modesty. –Some call this “the Dunning-Kruger effect.” I’ll let you explore that more, but in short it means that people often evaluate themselves as better than they actually are, except the people who have a knack for doubting that narrative.– I operate as such: bestow no undeserved honors. Instill modesty, mostly by withholding praise.

There’s a problem with this way of being. It creates a scarcity complex. It treats praise as a limited resource, which increases needless competition. Bountiful praise and unlimited love reduces the stunted hierarchy complex (think Dwight Shrute) and lets a person compete for their own personal best. They learn from healthy shame what limits they have. It’s a god-thing, to give love and grace with such bounty. In the safety of that love, we can confront ourselves honestly. Most people need to duke it out with their own ego. Or starve it. When we know we are loved, that much is expected of us out of love, we impose disciplines upon ourselves to become better versions of who we were meant to be.

I speak cautiously about when I say what I think this passage is that is this. It is about fasting from all indulgences of the ego. What a mature self learns is that there are times of unlimited resources and in that situation, we must learn to self limit.

Here’s my issue. What I know in my head becomes a control issue in practice. Because much of this is about fostering a healthy ecology. And doing so means relinquishing control over the whims of a season, knowing some years are more productive, some less.

God have mercy on my control issues.

The Tao of Parenting

I have a pretty fantastical story to tell. But first this caveat.

When you read the story, you may want to dismiss it. After all, I was a child with an overactive imagination when it happened(I’m a writer, so what did you expect?) And, I’ve been a bit of a mystic all my life. I’m not so much a miracles type, though I believe they can happen. More so, I do believe in mystery, myth, metaphor, God. Maybe I was born this way. Maybe my parents laid the groundwork. Maybe I’m a mystic because of this little moment that happened in the middle of the night, which at first scare the bejebus out of me, then transformed me.

I woke up heart racing, like out of a nightmare I couldn’t remember. I was still papoosed beneath the quilt on the top bunk. I had this habit of asking my father to pull the sheets and quilt as tight as possible over me and tuck them deep between the mattress and the open springs that supported the mattress. BTW, this open spring system was a horror show for most of my life because if I happened to be on the bottom bunk, inevitably my long hair caught in the springs. There was no detangling. One simply had to rip that chunk of hair out of the scalp because the springs always won. It’s why, when I was little I begged for the top bunk, in spite of my fear of heights. On the other hand, the top bunk was justifiably the safest when accounting for creepy beings that lurked beneath the bed at night. That said, being shrinkwrapped between my sheets ensured no beings could infiltrate and do whatever these unknown beings did to fulfill their evil urges.

So there I laid in the dark, panicked from some dream I didn’t remember. If I cried out for my parents, I’d wake my sisters. That would result in reproach. Clearly I could not climb out of the bed because something was in the room. That something, I rolled over to see, happened to be a brilliantly lit, ginormous hand hovering in the center of the room. My heart thudded, then my head said, in some kind of audible voice: That hand is God’s hand. It’s too big to be any other kind of hand. It’s okay. You are cared for.

Do I realize now that this is anthropomorphizing the Divine, a spiritual being? Yes. But I was a little kid. I best understood God through that person of the Son, e.g. Jesus. As I mentioned my parents laid a solid foundation by being super into church. They took us Saturdays and Sundays to a church of Jesus people types who spent three hours on Saturday nights eating together, doing a lot of singing and then listening to the pastor go line-by-line through books of the Bible. Then we showed up the next morning for more clapping, hand-raising, Kumbayah moments followed by another hour plus long “sermon.”

I hadn’t seen many pictures of Jesus, aside from those in children’s books. Our church was okay with felt doves representing the Holy Ghost (we did not use the word Spirit) but not pictures of the Lord or of the Father. So actually, I had no reason to believe the huge hand was Jesus’. It would be too large for a real man. Nor would it be God the Father’s because I knew the Father didn’t have a body, yet there it hung. And I felt peace. Since I was a fearful, anxious child, this moment contrasted with my usual experience in profound ways.

So maybe it helps you understand why I became a lifelong mystic, even if my understanding of the Divine has changed over the years.

And, being a believer helps make sense of the nagging feeling I’ve had about being a small part in a profound schema. Having faith doesn’t give me all the answers, but having a relationship with the Divine, having a sense that the Divine is personal helps me. I’m not innately warm, nurturing or personal. I’ve had to train myself to get out of my head and connect with other beings as they need. Otherwise, my sense of relationship behaves in the most one-sided, self-oriented way.

If hurt people hurt others, then maybe it follows that cared-for people can care better for others. For my example, I offer my husband. He grew up in a house where he was doted on. His mother was adored. His father was loved. My husband has a reservoir of warm affection that consistently overcomes whatever aggravations he feels. My dad grew up with that kind of love and humor. My mom grew up with some of it, but also some pretty German baggage, which is like some of the Slavic stuff, where self-sacrifice, suffering and stiffness are values.

That wonderful hand in the air and the voice that assured me carried me through most of my life. It assured me of love and care by filling a void humans couldn’t. I wanted that for my siblings, my children, or pretty much anyone I’ve loved. I wanted my kids to experience the sense of love and mystery of the Divine. I think it helps to have such an experience to connect all the dots of being alive and having consciousness.

But here’s the thing. It’s not something I can conjure or control. I pray for that to happen to those I love. But others have to have their own relationship to the Divine. Since I’m clearly such an enlightened, slightly-loveable, curious and interesting person, it follows that everyone should experience life just as I have, right? Ha!

It’s the first principle of the Tao, which I realized I need to dig into after I re-read The Tao of Teaching this spring. I re- read it to lead a discussion among teachers, but as I read, I thought about how I utterly failed to apply its wisdom in my role as a mother.

I realized that I needed to dig into the Tao Te Ching from several angles. First just read the original, translated, of course. Then also, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, which is more Eastern than the flavor of Christianity I grew up with, I should read Christ the Eternal Tao (Hieromonk Damascene.) And since I want to write about this from a mother-child point of view, maybe I needed to read The Tao of Pooh. Then I could share my thoughts. So here they begin. Use or lose, as one wiser colleague of mine says.

First of all, what is the Tao Te Ching? I should not assume you know much about it because I didn’t for most of my life. It means The Way. It’s one of a few ancient ways of wisdom from China. Confucius offered another. To be sure, I’ve quote Confucius often to my students, but I’ve had the Tao distinguished from Confucianism as such:

Taoism- It focuses on nature and the mystery of all things. If one sees oneself as a small part of all, one has a better orientation towards the rest of creation. It’s easier to be at peace. Peace and humility unify us. Taoism stresses rest (verbal irony in that sentence construction?), lack of ego, humility, selflessness, and dispassion. I like this because the Eastern Christian teachers often believed that pride is one of the greatest pitfalls of humans and humility is one of the greatest virtues. When we are humble, we are not at war within ourselves or with others.

Confucianism, the other Eastern (Chinese) system of wisdom, focuses on what it means to be human, as an individual in an ordered society. It can seem more hierarchical and more about teaching social order or the social contract. It too contains wisdom, but seems less about the sacred and mystery. But I am not an expert.

I value the wisdom of both. As an Orthodox Christian, I realize that I understand them through an outsider’s lens, yet much of what is within them offers another doorway to the wisdom of my own faith. Reading the Tao gives fresh language to metaphors that have been rendered cliches or stale due to misuse or overuse or misunderstanding. Familiarity has bred this in me. If I don’t allow myself to see with new eyes, it may prove the old adage true. I may fall into contempt towards my faith.

So that said, I’m going to look at my parenting through the lens of the The Way by Lao Tzu.

Chapter One

Tao (The Way) that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao’

The name that can be named is not a Constant Name. Nameless, is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The named is the Mother of all things. Thus, the constant void enables one to observe the true essence. The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations. These two come paired from the same origin. But when the essence is manifested, It has a different name. This same origin is called “The Profound Mystery.” As profound the mystery as It can be, It is the Gate to the essence of all life.

Tao Te Ching 1

It brings me back around to that aforementioned mystical experience of my childhood and my will to impose this on my children. Because the first chapter of the Tao lines right up with the ineffable, uncontrollable mystery of God. He has so many names. How he brought about origins remains cloaked in mystery. In this Way, we have Father and Mother imagery (The Mother of God fits nicely into this. She becomes the means of one person of the Godhead becoming Incarnate.) In the Ineffable, or what the Way calls the “constant void,” we get essences or whiffs of what is infinite and unknowable. The “outward manifestations” are energies, where we see God at work. In life God is at work. But these are mysteries. I don’t get to prescribe to my children, or anyone. I can only hope they perceive these.

And this really bothers me. Turns out, I am not god. I have a long way to go to being transformed by the Divine. Another reason to meditate on it, I suppose.

The Speaker

began his power point with chortling satisfaction
regarding well his apocryphal vision
of the dire situation facing humankind. He fished
around in words by
Lewis, Nietzsche, Tolkien, Aquinas
like the caller with bingo ball in his hand, deciphering
faded symbols for the players to put together.
BINGO! I get it.

The speaker finished his power point so they jingle applause.
Most everyone zips up laptops and ripples out into the halls
But the lingerers line up, jittering for a fix.
Chewing on his words, gnawing on their lips,
needing answers deeper in his bones, if they can dig,
they offer up their particulars, “What should I…,”
“If this… then what?” , truth
They lamb onto the podium tying the speaker to it.
They follow him, a pied piper, until the next proof and answer session.
Observing from the back is the skeptic-cynic
Dismissing the speaker who conducted his presentation to feel this gratification.


Do It For Love

“So one can talk and write of love. People still want to believe in that even when they are all but convinced it is an illusion.”

Dorothy Day

Christ died for love, not an idea, writes Dorothy Day, but most people no longer believe in Christ as God. Christ has been reduced to idea: the idea of higher Love.

Meanwhile, those of who hold to His Mystery mumble prayers to Him even as we concede to use the lower language: love as the Noble Idea because, as Day writes, it is hard to talk about God if your listener does not believe in Him. At the end of my sister’s life, she became one of these people.

A Parable, Forgive Me

I’m still rummaging through my memories and my grief over Naomi.

ASIDE, HERE: I’m totally ripping off Nora McInerny’s TED Talk to justify this return to events previously blogged about but I retain my right to do this because “We don’t move on from death. We move forward through it.” BTW, she has a TED talk which I know will be great. I haven’t viewed it, but listening to her podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking, has been therapy for me. It’s better than getting my nails done. Thank your or you’re welcome, TTFA and Nora. Love you. And for good measure, because I’m from the Midwest, Sorry.

I suppose I made Naomi’s death a bigger bomb by strapping her to me right after her diagnosis. I chose to make her the focus of my MFA thesis project, interviewing her frequently, increasing our time together and then confiding as much as interviewing. Then I agreed to help her have a green burial. And, the bi-state living I did for the last few weeks of her life. I lived mostly in Maryland through September and October, far from my beloved husband and my children, and working from my parents’ house so I could mutter at her when she putzed into the kitchen. I’d mutter at her while she reheated soup that she didn’t eat it.

“Are you excited about the release of Stranger Things season two? Should we re-watch Season one?”I asked while grading exams. But I knew the answer. She’d stopped watching TV. The sound hurt too much. Then, her husband, our siblings, watched the first episodes while she slept in her chair, dehydrated, mostly asleep, the smell of stale phlegm filling the room and the sound of her clearing her cannula overwhelming our sensations.

I have not moved on. File your complaints with the complaints department in room…. (indistinct voices). I am moving through. I am changed. I am having epiphanies about life and death and God and faith and stuff. Neuroscience says the memory cycles and rewires with each regurgitation. It makes new meanings. I’m reassured because I live the seasons of a liturgical religious cycle where this is valued. In the Church there’s an official season that returns us to life, death and the meaning of our actions. It’s Lent. And in it, thoughts get real, y’all.

Like, I realized that I end up praying for her more informally than formally. We have these services called Soul Saturday liturgies. I’ve missed them all. We are supposed to show up and remember our beloved dead. I let my husband, the priest, whisper her name. In place of that, I pray other services alone, while running or riding my bike, exercising or exorcising myself.

On the first anniversary of her death, I invited all my coolest friends to a party and bombed them with a prayer service. Heck it was also my birthday, and she would want me to wallow only for a few minutes, giving her credit for her awesome effects here and there, then go on being inspired by her ethos of joy.

So, my prayers are my punch in the face to the painful flashbacks, like a surprise cube camera flash to the eyes. Like this memory, this parable of a memory of her final days.

She jabbed weakly at the plaid fleece throw on her lap just days before she died. She was trying to talk, which required blocking her cannula while gesticulating.

“I’m trying… my life, like the parts of ….” she pointed at the brown on the plaid lap fleece “dark and light, trying,…” long breaths breaths and hacking between “to find my way to this light.”

Right as it happened I thought, this is a God moment. I wrote about it shortly after it happened. I interpreted it one way. I’ve heard my mother explain it another since, but I recall my father, mother and me at her knees like suppliants to her and God, whispering prayers for a girl who said:

  • It’s easier not to think about God and guilt and the church.
  • I don’t believe in God anymore, but I respect that He’s important to your life. He’s part of our family culture.

My breath snags at that memory. I lose my spiritual certainty on this God, heaven, hell, love thing. I conjure another memory where told her about a night of jaggy weeping for the future souls of her and our siblings. God forgive them should they ever lose their faith. It’s what kept me awake at night when I was sixteen, I said. What kept her awake at night was us dying young. When I try God on this, in response to readings, in Confession, in prayer, I find a pretty systematic answer.

God is Love.

For Lent, I picked up a published set of talks that Metropolitan (fancy title for one of the Bishops over a region in the Orthodox Clerical hierarchy) Anthony Bloom. Tonight I read the chapter about the nature of damnation in the book entitled Churchianity vs. Christianity. The Judgment is real to be sure, writes Bloom, but that’s in his third point.

I’m getting ahead of myself because it goes the first point I would present about my sister. She knew love. I think she knew love, then she got lost from the source of it because of disease. Disease shows up like a physical manifestation of the spiritual crisis: the co-existence of good and bad that leads to death while hiking through the valley of misery. Some of my **favorite** (sarcasm voice here) are long-acting diseases like cancer, NMO, MS, Lupus, Parkinson’s, dementia, and Alzheimer’s especially because they twist parts of one’s self into its own enemy.

Disease is the living experience of death. It’s the one we live to tell about. No wonder we want to end it early. No wonder some want nothingness afterwards. And no wonder we make heroes of those who somehow hang onto their humanity, showing what humor and love they can, like my sister did. It’s makes a lot sense since disease is stealing the energy of love, which is life, one cell at a time. It steals energy from self-care, keeping up with a heart bursting with love for your children/partner/friends/family. Yup, who has time for the Ineffable when the physical now seems like a mystery or less than real? Only pain is real.

But back to my sister’s essence and the Great Judgment

In the parable of the Great Judgment, writes Bloom, the first judgment that confronts us is “the vision of who we are.” Have we been “simply human,” in the simplest sense of mercy, compassion, charity? First this, before communion with God.

Proof

At her funeral in Michigan, one of our cousin’s outed Naomi on a good deed she’d kept from us. – I knew she was good at secrets because she said she never wanted me to read her cancer reddits. And, I still haven’t found them.- My cousin had called Naomi some years before when she lived near Detroit. A friend of his was about to be released from prison. If the friend didn’t get picked up and given money for a bus ticket to Ohio, she’d fall back into the old incarceration cycle. Naomi put the money on the credit card. **Side note: When Naomi died, she and her husband had tens of thousands of debt in college loans, crappy cars, medical bills, and her absurd belief that eventually they’d land decent jobs. They’d pay it off by the time they died, she figured BC, that is, before cancer. Naomi gave love.

But about that parable, the counter narrative…

Her husband doesn’t want that plaid blanket, light/dark vignette transformed into legend. No mystery. No spiritualizing the hallucinations of a dehydrating woman on a pain pump. I get that. What can we know about the coherence of the human psyche at the end? Yet I can’t help but think her intellect and spirit were too powerful to give in until she was comatose. I know he wants her final memory to be one of the sister who allied with him in a firm rejection of the idea of God. “What kind of God (fill in the blank)?” ask all manner of intelligent, good people like him.

Yet, here is where I choke. Because Naomi was good, yet she chose to reject the idea of God as love. She wanted love without God. Love that is pure materialism. But what is that? I am too much a mystic to know that. I’m stuck with the fact that there is only one way to out of God is Love. It’s to reject God. Lots of folks do, while hanging onto an idea that dies with each of them. An idea that becomes Noblesse Oblige, a gift from the privileged to the other. A bit paternalistic or bougie, when removed from the Mystery of the eternal. But that’s just my opinion. But in my worldview, we then have to ask a harder question.

What is the nature of damnation?

Met. Anthony Bloom tackled that procedurally.

First, that God is love. God did everything out of love. The law of God is love. Out of love and communion God created all things.

Second, damnation comes with the metaphor of the judicial system, i.e. judgment, comes with some imprecision and incompleteness. Ah, the nature of the metaphor is to circle the elephant and try to define a large thing by comparisons to parts. He points out that of the courts we know this: there is the lawmaking and there is the law judging. The judges are not those who make the law but who execute it.

I teach Karel Capek’s “The Last Judgment” to my 10th graders. I hope the story haunts them as it does me. It’s about a killer, a man guilty of 19 murders, who finds himself on trial in Heaven before a panel of cynical judges who dread and despise the one and only witness ever called to defend all the accused. The witness is God. He always blathers on about hidden motives and mitigating circumstances: the childhood abuse, the life of emotional damage, the needs, the hard edge, the muted conscience, the slow bleeding out of humanity because no one gave thought to love, or forgive or reach out to the person. They are the judges who execute but do not make the law.

Where does the law come from?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa said in doctrinal terms what Capek hopes for, what I hope for: “it is impossible that the God whom he knew as God of triumphant love, of exulting life, should ultimately reject and condemn his people– the people whom he had created, loved into existence, to whom he had revealed the depth of creation, the depth of their souls, and even his own presence and depth” (Bloom 55). But here’s the trouble. The church needed to call out Nyssa on this. They rejected it because it doesn’t square with the entirety of Scripture, yet they validated some of it. God is love. Who the rejector is, that is the issue. The rejection lay on the terms Saint Gregory of Nyssa set, writes Bloom. A God of love cannot reject anyone, but we can reject God.

It is not enough to be loved, it is not enough to be forgiven, it not enough to be offered any gift: we must accept and receive forgiveness and mercy. Met. Anthony Bloom

So the judges in Capek’s story condemn the killer. He asks the witness, God, why he is not the judge. Because he created the man and knows his heart and all that happened to him, replies God.

Third, death is not the finale. The bell tolls, to be sure, but a human’s body and soul, though separated at death, do not end a human’s mark. Yes, our actions in this life cease, but the good and the bad we did remains a force.

Do It For Love

Did Naomi do it for love? What did she do for love? What kind of love?

For love, did she seek to make sense of the light parts of her life, even when it was too tiring to tremble before the fearsome version of a God who is the ether of modern Christianity? Am I reading into her too much to think she confused him with the law itself? That law is a force of nature, like a law of spiritual dynamics. It came into being when man and God were separated. The law of spiritual dynamics says that darkness and light are real, that we are separated from light, the Creator of light, that the principle of death can only be overcome if we commune with our Creator. We need rejoined. I like to tell myself that she wanted rejoined. In the end, maybe she saw the Creator in the only way she could see Him.

I write this for love.

For my sister, for whom I will whisper prayers all my days. For myself. (Lord bear witness: I’ve done terrible things, like kneel down and hurt myself in front of my kids in a cycle of deep depression.) For my friends with horrible diseases who just trying to put one day after another. For those who don’t want to hear me talk about God while I prattle on believing there is a hidden longing in them for communion, for the fullness of Love (God. That’s God, if you didn’t catch on earlier).

Post Script

I don’t do love well. Maybe if God looks down and sees me (the self-harmer) who selfishly wants herself and all her favorite people in a wonderful communion with peace light joy and, well, God. Then He will look on the times when I didn’t give up wine for Lent, didn’t go live with the poor when every instinct in me says I should do it now or I will keep getting too comfortable with my stuff (aka why I read Dorothy Day), when I hawk my words for a vacation in Ireland instead for others. Maybe God will look down on me and say, still, Maria, I love you. Maybe I won’t be good enough but His love will be.

The missing prayer of my Kadish, the Third Kneeling Prayer of Pentecost

This year my grief hit lows I never believed possible outside of Hades. I hit obstinate walls of emotional distance, even an unseemly, persistent unforgiveness, which haunted my dreams. Fr. Stephen Freeman’s podcast this week sent me back to the 3rd Kneeling Prayer of Pentecost. Had I only prayed this over and over last year. I will pray it now and will pray it. It is my Dadish for this year. To listen to the podcast that reminded me of my need to pray it, listen here.

Will You, then, Master, accept our prayers and entreaties, and give rest to everyone’s fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and children, or of the same family or people, and all the souls that have gone before to their rest in the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life. And place their spirits and their names in the book of life, the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the land of the living, in the kingdom of the heavens, in the bliss of Paradise, Your angels of light leading all into Your holy mansions. And on the day You have ordained, raise up our bodies as well according to Your unfailing promises. In departing our bodies to dwell in You our God, there is no death for Your servants Lord, but rather a change from the more sorrowful to the better and more pleasing, to rest, to joy.

And if we have in any way sinned against You, be merciful to them and to us; for no man is free of stain in Your sight though he live but a day. Only You, Who came sinless to earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we all hope to find mercy and remission of sins.

Thus as good and loving God, remit and forgive them and us our failings, whether witting or unwitting, committed in knowledge or ignorance, intentionally or unaware, in deed or in thought, in word, in all goings about. Both to those who have gone before and to us who await, give release and repose, granting us and all Your people a good and peaceful end, opening up to us Your heart of love and mercy at Your terrible and awesome Coming and judging us worthy of Your kingdom

Stanislaw Lem and Yelling at God

When I realized my sister Naomi would die denying God. I fell into despondency. I thought she and I too much alike for this. She’d been a kind of intellectual twin to me, a mini-me but better, smarter, snappier, happier. That is until cancer. Until disbelief became unbelief, not just among friends but then family.

The Christmas nearly two years before she died, we began documenting her end-of-life plans. The scene was a dark room, full of young children, absorbed in their Disney, while we whispered our way through questions on Everplans.8e750187f3c0b07d2593bd44e3d43113

“What kind of service do you want?” I whispered at her.

“It doesn’t matter. I mean, what you guys need.”

“Not a faith service?”

“I don’t really have faith anymore.”

I chose not to unpack it that night. No more questions. It already hurt too much, the cancer, the failed rectal reconstruction, the wasting away, the auric headaches and dehydration, her sense of doom.

She lived another two years. Most of those not actively dying. We several times a month and one night I told about my year of weeping, as a 16-year old afraid for my siblings souls. We headbutted over faith in those last years. The way I saw it, she, along with so many friends and family, were giving up God. \

She died without regaining faith. Her loss of faith and my clinging to it are partially about the difference that we held on time and existence at the end of her life. I believe it goes on. She thought she entered nothingness. If it goes on, its hard to think how we will connect again in eternity. For the past year I’ve been fighting the brutal takeover of despondency about this.

St. John Climacus says that despondency is, among other things, “a neglect of asceticism.” During my husband’s years at seminary, I worked to develop a quiet soul through asceticism: reduced caloric intake, vigorous exercise, morning and evening prayers, steep limits on alcohol and sugar and sleep. But in this past year I’ve indulged my whims, my grief. My morning prayers have shrunk; my evening prayers evaporated. I began drinking hard liquor and to an extreme. I took in many more calories than needed. I began to crave dreams. I ended up this year having restored all the horrible habits of my youth, eating, sleeping, worrying, despairing, controlling. My body and appetites have become unmanageable again.

A few months ago probably fueled by overindulgence, I fell asleep after an hour or more of raging at God. I anguished. I yelled. I bit my pillow. I bit God, metaphorically. That is, unless what one imagines she does with her body has spiritual force. I can’t recall what I said, only that I woke with salt in my eyes, the kind that lasts for days, and a wounded soul. I knew I’d crossed the line. It is time to reckon with my despondency. It is time to respond, as Dr Nicole Roccas writes about in her book Time and Despondency.

It is time to stop pummeling God with my fists. After all, I remind myself, Most people have survived and lost more of value than I have had in all my 43 years. I live in a first-world nation. In most of the world, women lose many of their children. People are widowed young. They have few of the “comfort” items I have: food, a good bed, alcohol, any other indulgence I could procure if I wanted, therapy, vacation days to take when it’s too much. They have more illness, loss and difficulty than me, but most have more resiliency. I have to reckon with the question: What right have I to yell at God?

I’m wrestling with how to respond, how to think of God, after my sister died. I am wrestling through literature, because literature speaks to me. As I continue through my “Read Through the Bible in a Year” I have come again to Judith and Job. Again, they remind me of the thematic ambiguity of  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. 

How can we know God when we don’t know ourselves? Humankind cannot plumb its own psyche. How can it claim to understand God enough to spew out or eschew the Divine or hate God for not being what we think God out to be?

Judith, a widow about to go out and seduce the Persian general Holofernes, goes first to her king and people, who despair of God and rescue. She says to them what Job ends up concluding after God speaks out to him and his friends.

Judith 8

12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn? 14 There is no way that you can understand what is in the depths of a human heart or find out what a person is thinking. Yet you dare to read God’s mind and interpret his thoughts! How can you claim to understand God, the Creator? No, my friends, you must stop arousing the anger of the Lord our God! 15 If he decides not to come to our aid within five days, he still may rescue us at any time he chooses. Or he may let our enemies destroy us. 16 But you must not lay down conditions for the Lord our God! Do you think that he is like one of us? Do you think you can bargain with him or force him to make a decision? 17 No! Instead, we should ask God for his help and wait patiently for him to rescue us. If he wants to, he will answer our cry for help.

In many ways, I think Judith distills most of the book of Job into a few short sentences. Be humble before what you cannot understand. Neither Judith, nor Job nor any human is the Creator. Job is wiser than his friends for holding onto his clear conscience but when he objects to his fate and God answers Job saying what do you know, in your finite being, Job repents. (I would love to read a good deep Jewish commentary on Job because I suspect not every word out of Job’s three friends lips are blasphemy. Instead, they puff themselves up as wiser than they are.) Judith’s words bother me in the same way the books of Job and Ecclesiastes do. They seem to say “when it comes to God, human, you are not going to get it. Admit it. Don’t curse what you cannot understand.”

And we humans have ourselves as the first example of what we cannot understand, which is why I think of Lem’s book Solaris. The premise of Solaris is that humanity has conquered space travel and found the first “living” planet. Believing themselves wiser and more progressive than they are, they come to study the planet. What happens as they study is that the planet turns out to be wild, something they cannot understand or control. It manifests their human desires and fears. It is a mirror but faced with the mirrored image of themselves, the humans cannot make meaning of what they are being shown about themselves. I love the following passage. I leave it for you to wrestle with along with me.

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore.”
― Stanisław Lem, Solaris

 

On the Table

What do you think about when you strip to your tighty-whities, lay face down on the table, and wait? Do you think about when in the rotation of penny whistle covers you will hear “Danny Boy” or Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”?

I think the following:

I shouldn’t think.

I could pray.

I hope my nose doesn’t drip.

Is it okay to tell her that’s not enough pressure, that I want the crap beat out of me?

I can hear my husband breathing- this is a couple’s massage- Is his therapist applying the right pressure?

They are whispering in an Asian language.

Are they skinny? Mine is strong. She sounds older.

Are they Chinese like the woman who took my appointment and checked us in?

Is that woman Chinese or am I assuming?

Are these legal immigrants? Are they safe? Are they paid fairly? Are they working here of their own volition? Is this an industry where people are trafficked? Do they like their jobs?

Do men who come alone expect happy endings?

That review on Groupon  “No happy endings but good massage anyway”-  made me feel icky.

She is sitting on the edge of the bench. She is gripping and loosening her hands up and down my biceps and forearms, my hand jelly in her grip. It brushes her. Does a sick, predator of a male make his move here? Does she wonder if a person will make a move? Does she have recourse?

Where does she live? Does she have an apartment and friends to hang out with on her days off? Does she share a tiny space with too many other people? You know, like my Hispanic neighbors?

Why do these places ask you to book without Groupon the next time? They say, “Book with us. We give you same price. Not Groupon next time.”

She is strong. She will leave my muscles sore. I love her right now. What is more than a twenty-percent tip?

Tomorrow I will wake up and run another dozen miles by sunrise. I will be sore again. I need massages every three months.

What does she and her fellow therapist think of American bodies? Mine used to be yoga-stringy and hard.

Since my sister died last year, I’ve been eating and drinking too much, sleeping eight to ten hours a night. I’ve added a layer of doughiness.

I am ashamed of my body now.

Does she think Americans are fat? Or hairy? I forgot to shave. My legs have the tiniest prickle of hairs.

Does she shave? What would she think of my husband’s growing hairy-ness?

Why do I sleep so many more hours? Is that part of what makes me fat?

Do I sleep because everything hurts? Because of the two fractures in my pelvis and hip socket that I either ran, biked or walked through, so that MRI’s showed inflammation two years out? Do I sleep because I’m depressed that my sister died last year? That she was only 33? That God didn’t save her?

The last “couples” massage was with her. She came in the beginning of the summer, shortly before her last “NED” scan, a scan that turned out to be false. She had an aggressive tumor climbing down from her tongue, half of which had been reconstructed from her arm. We didn’t know then that it would kill within months, but her instincts hinted as such. Her instincts said this pain was more cancer. She’d squeezed in one more solo trip to see me, Grandma and some of her gal pals in the Rust Belt. While she was here near Indy, I sprang for the massage.

She’d said she appreciated it. Her MIL offered massaged but her MIL worked so hard that my sister struggled to ask or accept offers. In the waiting area, my sister wrote on her form, “I have an ostomy.” She had to say this again in case the girl, who’s language skills seemed in doubt, needed reinforcement.

We’d undressed as if e were little girls, sisters without shame, sisters who had given birth with midwives, who were comfortable revealing imperfect bodies. She had full breasts still. Her’s swung with a graceful heaviness one could cup. Mine looked like green walnuts compared to what swung out front before I nursed two kids almost sixteen years ago. She wore a skin colored belt over her ostomy bag. I sucked my thick waist, a lifetime imperfection. After our massage, we brushed our wild oily hair, dressed and drove to a nearby Pho restaurant for noodles and spring rolls.

Another first in a yea without her. I realized I thought about her because I’d had a dream about her two night before, a dark dream where my entire family was indigent. We were staying in a broke-down shelter, a community building in disrepair. She was in labor and my mother, sisters and I were going every whichway to get a phone, an ambulance, money, someone to help, someone to watch kids, and she gave birth to a baby on the dirty bed, wrapped in dirty blankets and wouldn’t stop bleeding. The bed turned out to be on rollers and we pushed her to the service elevators to get her downstairs to any broke down van to get her to any clinic but she kept bleeding. Under a huge swaddle of blankets she bled to death while we held her infant. Helplessness shows up over and over when I think of her.

Fuck.

I realized why I am sleeping so much. Dreams, man. I hate them and I need them.

After a dream like that I cannot  muster the energy to get out of bed. The dream vivisects my waking self. It knifed me. I loved her alive again in my head, I hate the nightmare. The past and the present are confused about their identity.

I want her alive again. I want the pain. After all this, the pain makes sense to me. It makes sense like the four years leading up to her death.

I fractured my right pelvis the week after Christmas 2012 and walked fifteen miles a day at my treadmill desk to replace the usual twelve or thirteen miles I ran outside before dawn. I popped a dozen ibuprofen a day and drank several shots of Evan WIlliams a night to sleep. Later, while I still popped six or eight ibuprofen a day, she told me it contributes to cancer. She also told me that by relationship to her I was at risk for the rest of my life.

I complained about this sprain to y crazy old doctor, coincidentally Chinese, who, in turn, told me I had “strain,not sprain” for the first eight weeks. The week after my sister’s diagnosis with stage four rectal cancer, I demanded an x-ray. A hairline fracture had slowed me from seven or eight miles an hour to one mile an hour.

In the four years my sister lived with cancer I broke a wrist trying to avoid crashing my bike into the seven am Amtrak and I fractured the ball of my femur. The sports orthopedist told me I’d better start paying attention to my pain or I’d end up with a pin in my leg. My pain, I could tell him, is how I cut myself to stay aware of my sister’s pain. It was the language that united us in the frequent calls where I interviewed her about her life before and during cancer. My pain paled in comparison, but I knew what it felt like, in the same way she’d bonded with me about the year of mysterious gut problems she’d experienced leading up to her diagnosis. Whereas I have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder that likes to take me one wild rides – I ride the anemic danger zone, the zero-menses osteoporosis dare, the I-exhibit-signs-of: blood cancer or lupus–  she actually had cancer.

I thought about all this on the table.

And the Pho noodles. Also that in one exact month I will turn forty-three and remember the day of her death, the same day.

And I realized why I sleep eight to ten hours. It’s not because I’m getting my wish– to have a fatal disease that will let me out of this loop of pain and loss– but because I need my dreams. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember more than I used to. My dreams keep me in bed so late I have to rearrange the daily run that keeps me from getting digestive pain and thus my work days.

This disruption looks like depression but it’s something undocumented in grief and mental health. My dreams help me make sane what is insane. That is, my sister died at 33 with a husband and two kids left to live without her, not to mention the rest of us.

While slurping Pho in a generic strip mall in Carmel, Indiana, I asked her what she thought about the state of the Asian women who’d massaged us. We took a pass on speculating too much. We couldn’t know. If we did know that they were trafficked or paid unfairly, my sister and I would have one more thing to wrestle. We wouldn’t take a pass on it either. The cancer card doesn’t trump the abuse of another human being. She was the kind of person who would live with pain before allowing a person to be abused for her relaxation.

At the end of my massage I tip generously. While on the table I pray. I thank God and think, I need to do my research.

Incongruities of the Women’s March

I’m glad I went to the Women’s March on Washington with my sisters.  I’m glad we let ourselves undulate with the flow of women throughout the streets, warming what was frigid the winter overtaking our country. We flowed with our kind, taking any route that our forces desired. When we met someone in law enforcement, we thanked them. Every now and then, we consulted our phones for the official route, but mostly we throbbed like blood. We gave in to the body electric and after several hours, made it close enough to the front. We heard some of the speakers projected onto giant screens, speaking to the life issues of immigration, health care, diversity, women’s rights. We ogled each other’s posters. We cheered each other.

My sisters and I formed semi-circles around Abby and her ten-week old, swaddled against Abby’s chest under her coat. When she needed to nurse her infant, we found a warm spot on the grass. We stretched our legs over the grates of the office complex exhaust systems. We lingered, snacking on fruit and chatting with strangers. We gave thumbs up to our favorite signs.
I couldn’t believe Abby had recovered enough from the emergency c-section two days before Thanksgiving to wander the capitol a day after inauguration without passing out. Then again, Abby had demonstrated her stamina by delivering her daughter a couple of days before Thanksgiving then showing up to the dinner, in spite of fresh stitches. The next day she orchestrated the family photos. We didn’t know it would be the last group photo to include all thirty of us living. We’d costumed in shades of scarlet, purple, gray and black. We’d posed under the red boughs of the tree line separating my parents’ property from the manse next door. It was as if Abby and Naomi had nudged each other through their pain. Naomi had pledge to be Abby’s birth to be a doula, she hadn’t been needed because of the c-section. Nevertheless she shown up at the hospital and stayed. In spite of her cancer, Naomi had denied herself rest. Just the same in January, Naomi dragged herself to the diner for sisters-and-mother’s dinner on the night before the march. She’d fight me for that word choice- dragged. Naomi never wanted or would admit to dragging herself anywhere. But we knew. She’d had to sleep in cars while her kids tumbled the backseats, just so she could take those trips to visit grandma, me, her gals in the Rust Belt. She’d slept part of our father’s 60th birthday party, just so she could show up to part of it. She’d show up as much as her body let her.

But the Women’s March she left to us. We marched with the ghost of her between us. As she said, she’d never survive being wheeled for six or eight hours through the cold streets of Washington DC. I suspect Abby was determined to be hale and whole just to honor Naomi.  Abby never complained as she marched with all of us creating a guard around her to keep the baby from being smooshed in the crowds. When we explained our funky formation to women, they cheered Abby.

“You’ll be able to tell her she was here.” They’d jerk a chin towards my niece.

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*****

Abby mentioned several times the thrill of participating in a movement bigger than us.

“Doesn’t this feel…?”

I can’t recall the specific word she chose. You know why? Because I was aloof. I’m always removing myself from the exhilaration of a moment. The music in my head is either “Won’t get fooled again” or “I exploit you, still you love me, because I’m the cult of personality. ” — Either The Who or Living Colour.  Either the movement or the person. Where did I get this yellow light—Warning: You might be suckered?

Part of me thinks it’s innate. Another part of me questions the hubris of that prior assumption.  I don’t want to identify any childhood system- church or family- that might have conditioned or indoctrinated me. That would have been an abuse of authority. But I know some of those systems did abuse their authority over a soft-souled, pleaser of a child like I was.

So there’s Abby, thrilling with the moment. And, there’s me, thinking judgy thoughts. She thinks this is a zeitgeist, an almost spiritualized exhilaration, a thrill, a movement.
I could appreciate the moment, I think, but I won’t because of that childhood manipulation. I remember when I’d been told to march with my Sunday school in local parades and with the Right to Life movement in high school. There was the time when the statewide homeschool group sent me and a buddy into our statehouse to confront strangers. Our task? Tell strangers, hopefully lawmakers, that evolution was a heresy and it was sin to believe the universe was over 6000 years old. –Within three years, I’d realize my pastor grandfather believed that the earth was millions or billions of years old and that the Big Bang had credibility. — What happened to my buddy and me? We’d been kicked out, which left me ashamed and questioning. Who sends children into political activism when they cannot parse the nuances? They’d made me a tool and resisted it ever since. It sewed the seeds of doubt. I don’t know what became of the otehr homeschooled kid who was kicked out with me.

So, that’s the context of me. Even at the Women’s March a part of me held back: knowing that what the March meant in the moment and to the future takes time. In the moment, the its impact should elude the best formed minds. A collective action can only be evaluated by the collective witnesses, not a singular opinionator. I am a singular, opinionated questioner. Would we change anything, meandering the capitol in pink pussy hats with signs? Would our numbers and the rhetoric of the day become a catalyst for out-powering those who’d just be granted the authority?

Furthermore my internal voice resisted the idea that social justice might replace true faith and mystery. I don’t want it to become my enlightenment, my epiphany. How dare I get high on it and let that motivate me. That would be placing my faith in princes and sons of men. If it became that, it would eclipse the quiet, eastern spirituality I’ve been cultivating.

That eastern version of Christianity calls for humility, silence, quiet, being present in the moment and dispassion. It meant freedom from the legalese of Western Christianity which turns the Bible into a system of rules and reads spiritual texts likes science and legal texts. Or, it swings wildly to another side of the spiritual pendulum where all things are hyper-mystical in a solitary personal sense. I wouldn’t return to the spiritual state I’d known in high school wishing to be “slain in the spirit,” which is to say have some kind of religious experience. I’d learned to dislike the idea of myself as a spiritual warrior, a leader, a change agent, the little martyr girl.

I wouldn’t want social justice to be a high, or a morality rule by which I order my life. It takes away the personal relationship that defines me, the one that makes my relationship with Jesus Christ the defining archetype around which I try to order every other relationship in my life.

So, in my head, I thought one thing, an unspoken retort to the thrill of the moment, but I want to be clear, it was not against Abby. I respect her. To negate her experience was to disrespect what opinion she brought to our collective reality. It was the thing. I held my “stand offish” position, wondering inside, If this is the thing, what is it? What’s its end, its downfall, its weakness? What were we all to think after a reality TV star known for bankruptcy, beauty pageants, sexual assault, inconsistent ethics, amorality, nepotism, narcissism, and deception could fool people into voting for me? The whole moment baffled me. It probably always will. I doubted a march would make a difference.

Confession: In the closet of my mind I thought dark thoughts about what it would take to end what dark power unleashed his control. In Biblical language, if you say “fool” in your heart you are guilty of murder. If true, God have mercy. I’m guilty of assassinating the current president, vice-president and most of his cabinet every day. While I exculpate myself by thinking I would never kill a person, not even him, how do I address that simultaneously what’s running through my head is that the next guy would be worse? I exculpate myself by thinking, maybe cardiac arrest, ISIS, accident. But still, the next guy is just as bad. Everything in my imagination ended badly then and now.

Looking back, I needed that march. I needed the strong bodies, the curves and muscles of women who spoke strongly worded resistance. I needed other women, different from me making kindness with me. Our bodies hard with yoga and running and birthing. Our bodies soft with mothering, loving, eating, living, abiding. Abby had something vibrating in her as she watched women swerve to create a protective swath around the baby girl swaddled to her chest. I needed it, I realize now. I needed that flow. Hot between the arms and legs, fingers and toes of the government.

Still the incongruities of it niggle at me.

What never made sense to me was, and is, how we recognize the lives and rights of the faces in front of us, but not the ones inside of us. We women, having lived under threat and violence so long, how can we not emotionally and intellectually evolve beyond cutelage and hanger, saline and pump, fistfuls of excess hormones? We know our bodies as no man can. We know the force of life that wants to press out of us. Most of us who resort to the clinic and cutelage have some control our bodies. If I read the #makeabortionpositive stories, most abortions are not of rape or incest. They are of will. Are we surprised when fife wills itself? We women should empower this flow.

When we abort, we are salting our own soil. We deny ourselves the credit that we have enough, that we are resilient to face nature, that we are homesteads who can withstand the storms, the heat, the flood, the rampages, that we will find gratitude for the harvest. We can have the vocation, the career and be mothers. We can find sound support and make roots in strong communities. Might we have enough yield to hire gardeners and landscapers to aid us? We need not appeal or live in fear of scarcity and threat as previous generations may have needed. We can sustain what germinates within.

Caveat here.

We: I’m speaking to middle and upper class white women particularly because we have  advantages. We are too quick with abortion when we have a multitude of preventative methods, and we have either other escapes or supports. Having offered to adopt two at risk fetuses and having been rejected, I know another story. Young women can and do one-up grown career women on this point.

We treat pregnancy as if it were weeds in the lawn. Why are we are as quick with pesticides on the life within as with the life outside? Weeds are not a scientific denominator. Dandelions may be harvested for many good uses, as may lamb’s quarters, banana plantains, and creeping charlie. Each offers beneficial qualities to the human body, like cells of our unborn children who leave in us better ways to fight illnesses. They leave their immunity gifts for future siblings too. While we remove them with blades or poison, we do undocumented damage to our future. I lament our feeble, short-lived attempts to control.

All this comes to me as I recall about the hard, strong, round, happy, angry women around me at the march. They smiled at the baby we protected. They gave a thumbs up to my rainbow colored sign that read, “I march for the least of these.” Did they assume the rainbow meant I was equating LGBTQ citizens with the least of these? I played the double entendre on purpose. I knew if they thought about it, it might seem I was infantilizing people based on gender identity. They’d think about it long after the first emotional-gut reaction when they thought it was cool. Later when they intellectualized my sign, they’d see, I might not have meant what they thought. Like poetry, the sign used ambiguity to evoke multiple reactions, multiple meanings.

What I literally intended was to link the unborn to their assumptions of the least of these. If they came to that idea, it would alight, not rest, though. Because a few of the same women who affirmed me with a wink and smile also turned to face the Catholic Women’s marchers with their pro-life signs. They trashed the Catholic women with threats and mutterings as they floated on. I know the militancy of the right after a lifetime of their indoctrination. I know too the militant social justice warriors who pledge to religious affiliation. I knew that some soft women’s bodies become brick houses when they want.