Running to Mass in the rain

Last month, near mid-December in the middle of my work day, I ran to daily Mass. It wasn’t for exercise, and it wasn’t because I was a few minutes late – although I was, as I frequently am. And it wasn’t because the desert sky was pouring rain and I had no umbrella, although it was and I did not.

Rather, I ran because I could not wait to get there. Could. Not. Wait. It was such an unusual feeling that I noted it as I jumped over one puddle and landed in the next, thinking to myself, “Do you see this? You’re running to Mass!” Considering that I’d left a Sunday Mass at the offertory in mid-November (so ham-handed the liturgy, so awful the homily, so off-key the music I simply could take no more), this running to church needed to be noted.

I was out of breath when I slipped in the side door, arriving just as the priest  concluded the opening prayer and the congregation sat in unison to listen to the first reading. I didn’t care that I was late, didn’t care that I was breathless, didn’t try to hide in one of the back pews with my sloshy shoes. I went where I was pulled, which was the third pew, as close as I could get without making a total scene. When I sat down, I felt ridiculously joyful, which, as I’ve written before, is an exceedingly rare feeling for me.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to church even when I’ve been frustrated, angry or upset with The Church. I honed my beginning journalism skills in the Catholic press and got my start in column writing with commentary on (and, sometimes critique of) the Catholic Church. And for years – both in childhood and as a young adult – I found great comfort and solace in the practice of my faith. In mid-adulthood, I enjoyed deep intellectual stimulation from the study of Catholic theology and history.

But nearly a decade ago, the solace was ever-so-slowly replaced by a deep, gaping hole. This was more than doubts about the Big Questions and more than irritation with the hierarchy. It was more than a side-effect of what has been described positively as “an extra dose of sensitivity to life’s brutality” and negatively as “high-strung” or “anxious.” It was, my late spiritual director said, a dark night of the soul. Perhaps tellingly (or perhaps not) my secular Jewish shrink called it the same thing.

These dark nights are not pleasant places to reside, but the only way out of them – like so many of life’s brutal parts – is through. And so I kept on the journey, surviving mostly on the faith of others, like someone harvesting a Wi-Fi connection off a neighbor. I kept going to Mass, kept reading James Martin and the Bible, and because I’m an Advent girl, started praying the Liturgy of the Hours during my bus commute when Advent started.

My new job is downtown, just a couple blocks from the Cathedral where there is a noon Mass each day. I went once, then again, and pretty soon I was going a few times a week. It was a perfect break at just the right time.

I’ve always preferred daily Mass to Sunday; the quieter, simpler, stripped-down liturgy draws me in. Daily Mass at a downtown cathedral is especially nice because of the mix of  people attending: men and women with Seriously Important Jobs sharing pews and prayers with the homeless and mentally ill, all of them there out of desire instead of the obligation attached to Sunday.

So maybe just giving God an extra place to reach me is all it took, or maybe the Liturgy of the Hours on the bus fertilized the soil of my soul, but whatever the reason, a shard of heavenly glass began slicing through the cloak of black draped over my faith and on the day I ran to Mass, light broke through. It was like an inhaler being given to an asthmatic.

girl praying

When I received communion, I responded with the appropriate, “Amen,” but then, gratitude jumping out of my mouth before I could clamp my lips against it, I also said “Thank you.” Nonplussed, the priest responded with, “Sure,” which made me smile all the way back to my pew.

And then Mass ended, and I walked back to my office in the rain, and life and work went on its busy way. But underneath I felt something I haven’t for a long time, something that seemed a lot like peace. And all I can do fall to my knees in thanksgiving.

This is what God looks like

I’ve battled depression on and off for nearly 30 years. During that time, I’ve had three bad episodes, week-long events when I needed help with my family life so I could make it to doctor’s appointments and throw darts at a medication chart to see what help might present itself to me.

I’ve also had exactly three days – count ’em three – when I’ve felt complete peace and enjoyed what I think must be the average amount of happiness “normal” people feel on most days. They were wonderful days and I hold out hope that someday a fabulous mood-disorder cure will be developed to allow me dozens more of those days.

With the exception of the aforementioned episodes, I am fine, just fine, as long as I stick to my medication-doesn’t-work-for-me regime of exercise, my happy light, eating a fairly healthy diet and getting a decent amount of deep sleep. Life inside my head is far from sunshine and rainbows, but I can participate fully in all parts of the world: work, family, second job as a closet novelist, church, friends, our dogs, random hobbies. Most of the time, I feel that life is hard but beautiful. (Or as the Momastery folks say, “Brutiful.“)

But now the Demon is back and it seems worse than the other times. I know this because I’m doing things I’ve never done before. I’ve missed Mass because the thought of driving there is overwhelming. I’ve sent regrets to wedding invitations because trying to figure out which dress to wear is too much. I’ve missed weekend meetings with friends because the thought of having to shower on a Saturday – or at least wash my face and comb my hair – makes me burst into tears.

I have almost no energy, and what little I have is reserved for my job. I know that eventually this episode, like bad weather, will end and I don’t want it to end with me unemployed, so all the strength I have goes to the Monday through Friday routine. I’m like a squirrel saving up for winter except I’m only saving up on the weekends for the rest of the week. I’m basically Just No Fun. And like the millions of others suffering from depression, I’ve felt really alone and for a bit, forgot what God looks like. This past week, I was reminded that God looks exactly like Love, and in my particular case, Love looks like this:

photo (2)
Tiny, beautiful candles from my daughter dropped off in the middle of a Sunday afternoon….
… a who-wouldn’t-love-this-face card sent with an iPad case by my soon-to-be-related-not-just-friends friend Stacy …
A custom card filled with tiny notes from my women's group reminding me that it will get better.
… and a custom card filled with tiny notes from my women’s group reminding me that they love me, God loves me, my family loves me, and no matter what, Love Always Wins. Always.

What you learn on the bus

The great thing about riding the bus is having no distractions, and thus, plenty of time to think. This is also the problem with riding the bus: Having plenty of time to think. If you’re prone to rumination like me, sometimes thinking isn’t the best idea. But every so often, I decide to put down my smart phone or my book and just look around on the bus, like I did this Monday, and when I do I am reminded of truths I’d forgotten since the last time I looked around.

First: You see that, for the most part, it really is true that the people who ride the bus are the poor. You count yourself lucky that riding public transportation is a choice for you, something you can decide you want to do instead of have to do to get to work or school.

Second: You notice that most of the poor – in spite of what FOX News might say – don’t actually have fancy phones, and they most certainly don’t have Kindles or iPads. They might be reading the newspaper, but just as likely are not, and it is rare to see anyone with a book.

Third: You see that the poor all look pretty dang tired. The older poor look exhausted. Every day you ride, no matter what time you ride, they look tired. And the younger poor look frustrated, angry, irritated, confused.

Fourth: You remember that almost all of the poor are in some sort of uniform. They are waitresses or vet techs or cosmetology students or mechanics or nurses aides or Goodwill employees. They are trying to make it in a world that says if you work hard you’ll succeed. You realize that mantra really does depend on the definition of success.

Fifth: You realize the younger poor are often nicer to the older poor. They stand so the older, more tired version of themselves can have a seat. They pick up canes that are dropped on the floor. You realize, with shame, that the poor  – at least these poor on the new route you now take to the new job you have that allows you the choice to ride the bus or drive a car – take care of each other and are, quite frankly, kinder and more patient on even rotten days than you are on good days. They are more humble and more steadfast and less whiny than you are.

You wonder, watching, if you would have the energy and determination to keep going if you had to pull on a waitress uniform each day and have your pay check determined by the mood of the family who stops in for breakfast on their way to whatever kind of day they are going to have, a day that seems like it will be better than yours by far because, at the bare minimum, they had a car to drive to your restaurant while you had to ride the bus. And you decide, with some amount of embarrassment and shame, that you don’t think you would be.




My brother’s keeper

At our house, our kitchen counter serves as a place to prepare food, leave messages for each other and drop the daily mail. I came home from Mass today and sifted through yesterday’s mail that Husband had fetched from the mailbox. “Oh no,” I said, fingering one particular piece. “Yeah,” he said, “I was debating whether I should leave that for you to see.” It was this:

CAM01309The notice was on a card I’d sent to my brother the prior week. It was the second letter I’d sent in four months. The first wasn’t answered, but it wasn’t returned either, so I took that as Sign of Life. This returned one means that B is no longer living at his last-known address, or, maybe, something worse. I’m a journalist by training, so I could find out what this worst might be, but I can’t bring myself to tonight. The past eight weeks have been a never-ending stream of Hard and I’m just not my normal Little Engine That Could.

The last time I saw B was more than a year ago. I was concerned because I couldn’t reach my brother by phone and the last time we spoke – the night of our father’s death – things had not gone well. B only gets pay-as-you-go coverage on his phone, so I always know when he’s absent a job and can’t pay as he goes, because the phone no longer rings.

That day, about a year ago, Husband and I drove to Phoenix to check on him and he hid from us in the backyard of a house he had told us he owned, a house he said he got through a quitclaim deed from his prior roommate. Each time we’d made the trek up north we found him in the backyard of this house, never in it, and he never invited us inside. After this final visit, we accepted he was most likely living in the backyard, not the house. We also had to accept that he didn’t want to see us because he ducked behind a wall the minute he heard me call his name. Husband, being tall enough to view over the fence, saw B before he went into hiding, so we knew he was alive. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

I spent all my free moments the next week talking to a mental health professional about my brother and how to approach him. I don’t know his diagnosis and I couldn’t report if he was on medication, I could only report behavior. He can seem fairly normal one day and the next manic or anxious or paranoid. Five years ago he spent Christmas with us, and while there were a few moments of Awkward, overall he did well. But then just two months later he was incoherent, bits of his life all mixed up like a 500-piece puzzle falling out of the phone at me in a torrent of pain.

The mental health professional and I went over a variety of options, and we had to settle on me sending letters with information about how to get help and a phone card. I couldn’t do a well-check because I couldn’t say for certain that B didn’t have a gun. Lots of veterans have them. If I sent cops to do a well-check and B wasn’t well and got aggressive, my do-gooding would land my sick brother in jail instead of a hospital. So I sent a letter. I didn’t get a response or a phone call. And now, laying on my kitchen counter, an “Attempted, not known, unable to forward” postal message.

A long time ago, when we were the final two children in a home troubled by alcoholism and abuse, I was my brother’s keeper. The problem was, I wasn’t very good at it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of us standing in our pajamas in a dark hallway watching our parents yell at each other. B was shaking so badly that his right hand kept hitting mine and his left was hitting the wall. “Make them stop,” he cried, “make them stop.” I couldn’t control those adults of course, but instead of comforting my brother I yelled at him: “Stop shaking, you have to stop shaking!”

He was a fragile child, always, and suffered at the hands of bullies in school. There was no refuge at home, because forty years ago little boys weren’t allowed to cry and fathers yelled at you if you weren’t “man enough” by eight years old. As I’ve said before, my parents did the best they could with what they had, but they simply weren’t equipped to deal with their own marital misery and the needs of their children. And in the end, living amid chaos and fear, all of us children moved into survival mode, focused on saving ourselves.

I know it is “normal” to do that in a highly stressful environment, but it doesn’t make me feel any better, looking back, realizing that I should have reached out more to my brother, paid more attention to what was happening to him, tried to get him help long, long ago. Nor does it make me feel better knowing that at any point in the past five years since we have been re-connected, I’ve never offered shelter to him. He’s my brother, for goodness sake.

There was reason to keep him out of our house when we had children growing up; the parental instinct of protection is one that must be attended to. But after they left home and B and I had had a year of phone conversations leading to a dinner in Phoenix leading to Christmas at our home with three of our four 20-something children, there wasn’t really a reason. Maybe if he lived with Husband and I, he’d get better.

Except for the fact that just two months after that normal Christmas, we gave him a used computer and two hours later he called me frantic that he saw something in a picture we accidentally left of the hard drive, a picture of my son in ski goggles. The government was spying on him through those goggles, he yelled at me. Why was I trying to help the government spy on him? I finally gave the phone to Husband, who spent an hour trying to calm him down. We thought it was settled, but he called at least three more times that night, continuing to yell at me about helping the government spy. Finally, I said I wouldn’t talk to him anymore and hung up on him.

Two weeks later he called, a different person. Calm. Apologized. “I’ve ruined the computer,” he said. He explained that he tried to “scrub” the insides with a toothbrush. He couldn’t stop, his mind wouldn’t let him, until he’d pulled everything inside the computer out. There was no fixing it. “I’ll pay you back,” he said. I told him his phone call had frightened me, asked if he remembered what he said. Yes, he said, sometimes he got a little paranoid and it made him say stupid things.

“A little?” I asked. He chuckled. No, he said, more than a little. But he was getting help now. Except, it seems he wasn’t. Because if he was, he wouldn’t have been living in his back yard.

B is suffering. He is mentally ill and he’s poor, a lot like the People of the Bus. He can be scary – again, like some of the People of the Bus. You have to wonder which comes first – the being poor so then you can’t get help for Illness and Illness morphs into Scary, or being mentally ill so you can’t hold down a job and unemployment leads to terror? I don’t know. All I really know is that because B is unpredictable, I’m uncertain how to get him help without risking him hurting me out of fear someone is trying to hurt him. As the youngsters say, “It’s complicated.”

And yet. I see my 8-year-old brother shaking in that childhood hallway and at 19, at our mother’s funeral shaking again, and then just last year, hiding in his backyard, huddled behind a cabinet, no doubt still shaking. And my heart breaks. Then I see him, five years ago at Christmas, 49 years old but looking 60, laughing with two of my sons and building a gingerbread house. And I wonder, am I not my brother’s keeper? If not, who is?





On funeral etiquette, ritual and grief

My new job requires me to travel quite a bit, so sadly, I’m doing less bus riding and more car driving of late. Now instead of noticing things on the bus, I’m noticing things on the road, including something I’ve never seen in 15 years living in this Tucson suburb – a funeral procession. It looked a lot like this:1388118391_cb42260d2bThe reaction of other drivers to this event made me think about the pace of our lives. Most of the cars driving in the opposite direction of the procession just kept on driving. They didn’t slow down, and only one pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

As a young child I was taught that all cars should stop when a funeral procession is approaching,and if driving in the same direction, one would never overtake it. That lesson was long time ago but it stuck, so I was surprised to see so many drivers acting as if nothing was happening as the procession passed by.

I don’t think people were necessarily trying to be rude. There’s a chance they’d never seen a funeral procession (especially not one at 5:30 p.m.) or that they’d never been taught funeral procession etiquette.

But there’s also a chance they were simply too busy to notice. There are children to fetch from school and groceries to buy and dinner to cook and music lessons and soccer games to get to and blogs to write and … all this after working an 8 or 9 hour day. We’re tired. We’re distracted. And, frankly, I think we’ve lost touch with the importance of ritual as a process that helps us grieve.

The Western world, IMHO, doesn’t have much space for grief any more. In other countries – those we like to call “developing” – when a parent loses a child or a spouse his or her mate, the grieved person can take to the streets and wail and it is considered perfectly appropriate. You’re allowed to dress in black and hole yourself up in your room and burst into tears at a moments notice and no one questions it. There are funeral rituals that last days, if not weeks.

Here in the “modern world,” we’re not so good at that. We allow for some grieving, and some religions are better than others at offering rituals that helps walk people through the beginning stages of mourning. But as a culture in general, we want people to pick themselves up and march right along as if nothing has happened. Sure, you can feel out-of-sorts for a week or two, but then you’ll have people tell you to “keep busy” and “move on with your life” and other advice that only further highlights how uncomfortable we are around overwhelming sadness. We prefer people pretend that their heart hasn’t been ripped from their chests and torn into a million pieces; we’d like them to ignore the fact that every time they try to take a drink of water it feels like they are swallowing glass.

This past week, the 33-year-old husband of a former colleague of mine died. He possessed a great talent for someone so young, evidenced by his body of work in photojournalism. And, evidenced by the 100 or so people who attended his wake, he possessed a larger-than-life ability to be a friend.

Both he and his wife were journalists, making them part of the tribe I call my own, so I went to the wake to pay my respects even though I didn’t know Will. I saw a few of my former students and expressed how difficult it must be to have a friend who is so close to their age die. One explained that this was her second experience of young death and she had learned something the first time around. This time, she said, “I’m giving myself time to be sad.” As tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she wasn’t going to pretend things were normal when they weren’t.

That’s what we do when we stop for a funeral procession – we acknowledge that things are not normal. Perhaps it seems an old-fashioned ritual, but in our busy lives, I think we need more of it. We pay heed that the world has changed for the people in that long line of slow-moving cars. We pay attention, if even only for the two or three minutes it takes for the procession to pass, to the fact that someone lived and has now died. And maybe (hopefully) we think about the people following the hearse and the sadness they feel, growing a tiny bit more empathetic to our fellow human beings as they walk through the valley of death.





On reading the Bible in public

We’re in the homestretch with Lent, with just two more weeks until Easter. This week will be difficult but Holy Week will be better, due to the oh-so-close feeling of being inches away from Easter Sunday. (Forgive me Father, for I am a Lenten whiner.)

I’ve been pretty good with my Lenten sacrifices, but not perfect. It’s been easier to succeed with the #LentChallenge of reading the entire New Testament through during the 40 days of Lent, as long as I stick to my bus-stop reading schedule. But in the past two weeks, due to a friend’s death and some family illness, my bus riding has been lessened and so I’ve been reading the Good Book in an airport, on an airplane, in coffee shops, in parking lots and in restaurants. It has been catch-as-catch can, which has meant a whole lot of reading the Bible in public because falling behind – as I did a week ago – is a pain.

Reading the Bible in public definitely draws the looks of strangers, but I just try to get down to business, plow through that day’s reading assignment and not worry about what anyone might think. Most likely no one thinks anything at all, but this past week, first at an In and Out Burger and then at a Starbucks, three people did.

At the burger place, two construction workers asked me how long I’d been a Christian and if I found Bible study easy. This led to an odd conversation over French fries about Catholics being Christian, scholar notes in scripture and God in the movies. I felt like I should go to confession afterwards because the whole time the men were speaking with me, all I could think was, “I only have 30 minutes to get this reading done and you’re interrupting me!”  Completely and totally not the reaction anyone should have to another human being, especially when you’re trying to emulate Jesus. Sigh.

At the Starbucks, a man watched me for 30 minutes but, luckily for my reading schedule, didn’t say anything until he was ready to leave. Then, he stood up, nudged his movie-star sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, tossed his empty coffee cup in the trash and walked over to my table. Nodding toward my Bible he said, “Good for you and God bless you.” And in that moment, I did feel blessed. Now if only I can pass it on.

Less of a Lent loser this time #Lentchallenge

I have the self-discipline of a sloth. I’d like to have focus and determination of a leaf-cutter ant or some other creature of control and tenacity, but in much of my life, I simply don’t.

This is especially true when it comes to Lenten practices. I’m impressed by people who can abstain from coffee for 40 days and still be gracious at the workplace, or folks who sacrifice a particularly addicting pleasure (chocolate, movies, Facebook) and never complain. I really admire those who add significant extras to their Lenten journey (daily Mass, for instance, or what Brian Harper’s doing over at Busted Halo) and still exude peacefulness in a world where there is never enough time.

While I’ve not been a total Lent loser, I’ve rarely made it to the Easter finish line without the sad side-effect of replacing the sin I was trying to conquer (i.e. gluttony) with another (i.e. grumpiness). Not exactly the reason for the season.

But this year may be the non-loser one for me. The #LentChallenge of reading the New Testament in 40 days is proving quite doable, perhaps because this particular discipline fits my personality: I like to read, I like to learn, and I like to be able to check off boxes or cross things off lists.

Additionally, it fits my bus-riding habit. I’m on the Route #6 for about 40 minutes each day, and the readings take about 35. I just hop on and read for the ride, which is what I would normally do but with the daily paper, not the Bible. (Lo, she went into the desert for 40 days with only the Word of God and became woefully uninformed about the world. Journo 5:18)

This change of habit – Bible not newspaper – has led to some interesting encounters with other members of the Public Transit Tribe. One man asks questions every day about what text I’m reading and then tries to engage in a verbal battle about why the Bible is “crazy.” Another woman asks me which Church I attend and raises her eyebrows when she hears the name. “Oh, you’re Catholic?” she asks. “That’s interesting.”

These experiences and others have made me realize how uncomfortable I am reading a religious text in the public square, and that has made me think a bit on why that discomfort exists. I wasn’t always this way, but then again, I didn’t always ride a public bus or work at a public university.

It’s safe to say the majority of people where I work are non-religious and many have no qualms about expressing their disdain of all things faith. They are especially intolerant of Islam and Catholicism, although they would never call it intolerance. For instance, someone will say the Catholic Church is “categorically wrong” to fight abortion because “a woman has the right to her own body.” If a Catholic were to point out that yes, a woman does have the right to her own body and by the same token, so does the female fetus, that person would be dismissed as being blinded by religion, even though groups like Secular Pro-Life make the same argument and are atheist.

Or someone will say that they don’t understand how a Muslim woman – a graduate student, for goodness sake! – could choose to wear a hijab, and when that woman tries to explain her feminist rationale for doing so, the non-religious person will announce that the Muslim woman is misinformed about true feminism because she is “constrained by her religious heritage.”

I’ve had a professor describe the parents of potential university recruits as “holy rollers” and had colleagues make offensive jokes about every religion possible because I used to be a religion reporter and it is assumed I’ll find the jokes funny.  I’ve stood in line for coffee behind women in abayas and overheard whispered criticism of them as “religious nuts,” and had Christian professors in the sciences confide that they are in a “religious closet” because they don’t want to be labeled zealots or have their research questioned.

Considering this, it is probably not surprising that I’m uncomfortable reading a Bible in public. But because I really don’t want to be a Lent Loser this year, I’ll keep it up. Maybe if I make it all the way through, my husband will buy me a pony. Or, at least a chocolate bunny.