Veronica among the pro-lifers

My mother, at her best moments, was Veronica.

When she could still write and speak, she was wonderfully articulate, even brilliant. She cannot speak now. But here I am, learning from her how to be a Catholic—not so much from what she said but from what she did and what it showed me.

My parents were pro-life activists. As adult converts, they had already spent several years among evangelicals, some more earnest than others. They had encountered true holiness and Christian simplicity; and they had also encountered people like their landlord, who preached the Gospel and then told my mother she must hang her hand-washed cloth diapers up to dry in her tiny kitchen all winter because wet clothes on the porch just looked too poor. Blessed are the classy, for their property value will not depreciate.

Eventually, they made their way into the church, and once their Howard Johnson swimming pool baptism was conditionally repeated, they waded ashore as Catholics around 1978—right in the thick of liturgical silly season. I remember a Snoopy-themed catechism, altar balloons and some of the most Caucasian dancing known to mankind. My mother, praying in her makeshift chapel in the darkened back stairs, would wrestle with the homoousion late into Saturday night and then wake up early for Sunday Mass, which turned out to have clowns. And sometimes actual heresy.

I was young and only dimly aware of what my parents faced as they tried to anchor their spiritual boat in such choppy waters. They did try. My mother wrote about some of her efforts in this short, hilarious essay, “How I Wrecked Two Parish Ministries,” that you will skip at your peril. As I remember it, she struggled to keep her own massive hunger for truth in proportion with the equally urgent mandate to treat other human beings with love. Yes, even those who sneered and raged at her for giving up everything to follow Christ. Yes, even those who said they loved him and then told lies in his name. In all her many spiritual incarnations, my mother was always a personalist, long before I knew there was a name for it.

She was, as I say, a pro-life activist, which took many different forms. She prayed peacefully outside abortion facilities. She wrote letters to the editor. Shy as she was, she manned the booth at community health fairs and showed teenagers accurate models of fetal development. I think she tried sidewalk counseling but decided it was not right for her, so instead worked with agencies that helped new mothers with clothing, housing and food. She fielded her share of profanity and abuse from abortion activists. And she irritated her conservative friends by insisting we acknowledge the chastity of Jesus, not just the purity of Mary. She knew what so many of her fellow Catholics seemed to have forgotten: That Jesus was a real man, a virgin, and that how he behaved in his actual human life meant something.

She believed that you could touch his face.

Our minivan had a bumper sticker that said, “One abortion: One dead, one wounded.” My mother especially liked this message because it was not about society or politics, but it reminded us that every single abortion represents a massive failure toward some particular woman.

One day on the highway, we passed another car, and my mother thought she saw a short vignette play out: A woman saw the bumper sticker and began to cry, and the man at the wheel tried to comfort her as he drove.

Who knows what really happened. But as soon as she got home, my mother peeled the bumper sticker off the car. The last thing she wanted was to wound someone. That was the whole point: It does not matter how right you are. What you do has to be about the human person. You cannot just go around wounding people who are already wounded and call it “Christian.” It is our job to heal, not to wound.

My mother was so socially baffled at all times. She could talk about ideas, but petty chit-chat left her stymied. As if they realized this, the needy and disabled who were too weird and smelly for everyone else were drawn to her in droves. I always imagined her in paradise, followed, like Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce, by an adoring, jabbering crowd of all the hapless, gormless outcasts she awkwardly welcomed and comforted, fed, clothed. Social pretensions she understood not at all, but a person in need or a person in pain claimed her entirely. It was always about the human person, the real human person. When no one else would touch their faces, she would.

My mother had a drawer where she kept her pro-life materials—her posters, her pamphlets, her reams of purple mimeographed facts and resources. In the back of the drawer was a box, and in the box was an envelope. This was where she kept some photos of aborted babies . . .

Continue reading the rest of my latest for America.

Image: Holy Hill Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus, photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Light that builds

Several times a year, I hear about promising new treatments to halt or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful when people send me links to these stories, knowing I have a personal stake in them; but to be honest, I rarely read them. It was too late for my grandmother and it’s too late for my mother. If this hellish disease comes for me, it won’t make any difference if I’m personally informed about the latest research or not. Either it will help or it won’t. 

For several years, as my mother’s excellent mind became more and more smothered by confusion, I was angry. At her, which makes no sense. She hated and feared what was happening to her, and did everything she could to fight it off, which was nothing. There really isn’t anything you can do. I knew very well that none of it was her fault, and I knew very well that my anger was a shield put up around my heart. Anger often is. 

Lately, the wall of anger is being pulled down to reveal what sits behind it, which is of course a bottomless sorrow and terror. From that well of grief comes up memories, and lamentations. The good conversations I had with my mother were so few and far between; the misunderstandings and missed connections were so many. I’m 45 years old — almost half a century! — and I’ve sorted through enough nonsense that I think my mother and I could finally really understand each other. I’m passing through from the years of childbearing to whatever it is that comes next, and I want to talk to someone who made it to the other side. I want to talk to my mother, and see what she knows. I want to stop evading her and reveal my heart to her in a way that I never did as a young woman.

But it’s too late. I missed her, and now the best I can do is drive an hour, sign in to her dim nursing home, and watch her slump in a wheelchair. Her arms are shielded so she won’t scratch herself to pieces. She tilts, and a crust forms in the corner of her mouth. A few words make their way out, and some of them seem to mean something. She doesn’t open her eyes. 

“I like your shirt,” I can say. “You look nice in pink.” And in honesty, that is something I never would have gotten around to saying when she was present and able to hear it; and if she had said something so simple to me, I probably would have taken it as a veiled criticism of some kind. We didn’t connect well. We didn’t understand each other, at all. Now I have no idea how much she understands of anything. Something, surely. When my father unloads his medical woes to her on his daily visits, she sometimes mumbles, “Oh, you poor thing.” The same thing my grandmother said when someone unpeeled a helpless banana in her sight. 

Poor thing, poor thing. 

One of the articles I did read was about some promising therapy for dementia patients. Guess what it is? Light. 

We think of light as the thing that reveals things for what they truly are. The thing that strips away pretense, that pierces through shields. And this is true, sometimes. The light of honesty is what we need, even when it’s painful. I remember one time I was so seized up with depression, it was as if I lived outside my body, observing. I saw myself talking to my mother about my children, and I watched with detached interest as my face unexpectedly and randomly curdled up into the grimace of a tragedy mask and I started to cry, because things were just so hard, too hard.

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” she flew to ask, because she is my mother.

“Nothing,” I said, and composed my face again, sealing off the tears. It felt too risky to show to her what a failure I was, and how much I was suffering when I shouldn’t, I thought, be suffering. Maybe if I had told her how wretched I was, and how guilty I felt to be sad when I was so very blessed, she might have helped.

Or she might not have known what to do. Sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do. I suppose I could go and tell her now. She is still my mother, even though she has passed through the years of childrearing and into . . . whatever it is that she’s in now. It feels like it would be cruel to go and cry to her now. Maybe she’d be just aware enough to sense my sorrow and her own helplessness one more time. That’s not what I want to share with her.

But, I suppose there are different kinds of light. Light that reveals, and strips away pretense, pierces protective shields, and leaves you naked and helpless, poor thing. And then there is the light that builds, stimulates. The light that gives, rather than taking away. 

The light therapy they are experimenting with boosts gamma oscillations in the brains of mice, and this apparently makes better connections between nerve cells. More connection is good, apparently. This light therapy “preserves against cell death in mouse models,” they say. 

I don’t know how to end this essay. I don’t know how this ends. I suppose I could make the drive to see my mother before the end of the year, and see if I can make a connection one more time. Either it will help or it won’t. 

Pseudoscience, shmeudoscience. I believe in graphology.

When I was in grade school, we spent an inordinate amount of time learning penmanship. We didn’t just learn a specific way to form each letter and call it done; we spent hours every week getting it precisely, excruciatingly correct.

We would send off writing samples in official yellow folders to some faceless penmanship expert who, I imagined, was installed behind a polished mahogany desk with a magnifying glass permanently affixed to her eye. Weeks later, our samples would return to us, critiqued. We would be scored on things like how wide the loops of our lower-case g’s were, whether the masts of our h’s swooned too far too the right, and whether, in our fifth grade intensity, we pressed too hard on our Number 2 pencils. We’d be graded individually and as a class, and we had to keep sending them back until we produced something deemed adequate. 

In retrospect, it was bizarre. Our schooling was not otherwise exacting or pedantic. Volleyball was big, as were popcorn parties. Science class circled constantly around the central idea of “the webs of life,” and we filled out copious worksheets about our feelings, and coloring in charts to show whether our behavior toward others could be classified more as Warm Fuzzies, Cold Pricklies, or something in between. But when it was cursive time, it was all business.

I imagine there was money involved. Some tightly-wound busybody with deep pockets and a fetish for handwriting would disburse a major grant to the school if all the young ones emerged with properly trained pencil hands, maybe. 

Except for a few stray Jasons and Heathers who were born knowing how to make a perfectly ornate capital G in all its ghastly glory, everybody hated penmanship lessons. But it hasn’t turned me against the idea of kids learning cursive. Science backs the idea that it’s important, if not as all-consumingly important as it was when I was growing up. Learning cursive helps kids’ brains develop, engaging both the left and right hemispheres; and people engage better and retain ideas better if they write notes out in longhand, rather than typing. My kids are learning cursive in their elementary schools, but it appears to be a simpler, more streamlined version, which is good.

I have another, more frivolous reason for hoping cursive stays around: I believe in handwriting analysis — up to a point. I don’t think you can tell everything you need to know about a person based on his handwriting; but I do believe you can tell something, especially if we’ve all started from more or less the same standard and then developed our own deviations.

My mother used to take a gander at the handwriting of the young men my sisters were dating, and she’d be enthusiastic or wary, depending on what she saw. And she was onto something. It’s not a science, but it’s not nothing, either. You can also tell something (not everything) about a person from how they dress, what car, they drive, their tone of voice, their personal hygiene, and so on. Some of it has to do with external circumstances and how we’ve been taught, but some of it expresses who we are. Something interior gets put on the page, flowing through the pen.

Take a look, for instance, at this handwriting sample from one Thomas Aquinas, shared by Weird Catholic on Facebook:

How much of this is how he was taught to write (and the quality of the pen and paper, and how much light was in the room, and how much of a hurry he was in, etc. etc.), and how much of it is his own personality expressing itself by deviating from the norm? I have no idea. But what I see (and yes, there are huge gobs of confirmation bias at work in my analysis. Whatcha gonna do) is:

Those horizontal marks over letters. What are these? Aquinas would have been writing in Latin. I’m not enough of a scholar to know if they are dots over i’s, or some other diacritical marks. Whatever they are, they are long (not just over one letter) and are heavier at the right than at the left, and they look aggressive and definitive and a little bit angry.

The individual letters are very upright, not slanting to left or right, which suggests self-control and rational thinking, and also a certain amount of reserve and coldness toward others. No rush toward the future, no pining for the past; and no inordinate dependence.

You wouldn’t mistake this handwriting for that of a shy or indecisive person, or a sentimental person. It’s confident, possibly arrogant, but not showy. The pressure on the pen is very consistent throughout. This isn’t someone with meandering thoughts or a lot of time to waste. The words may not be clear to the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the writer suffered from any sloppiness of thought

Anyway, it’s mostly just fun and games. If you want to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll readily agree, and I won’t even hold your cold pricklies against you for it.

It’s true, though, that when someone has been raised with a keyboard and barely knows how to form letters, you can’t tell much from the unpracticed chicken scratches they do produce. And that’s a shame. All my life, I’ve looked forward to the moment when I can walk solemnly up to my daughter, grasping in my trembling hand an intercepted love letter from her beau, and telling her, “This man makes his lower-case a’s with a little gap at the bottom! RUN AWAY NOW!”

Ah well. In the words of Thomas Aquinas . . . 

. . . yeah, actually I have no idea what he says. 

 

 

Say it again

She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.

But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo via MaxPixel (public domain)

My mother couldn’t hear me during the consecration (and other excellent lessons)

A friend recently reminded me of this post I wrote about my mother in 2012. We’re just home from camping, so I thought I’d re-run it today, on her birthday (because my mother reduced, reused, and recycled long before it was cool, so she’d definitely approve of reposting). Please say a prayer for my mother, if you would. She has advanced Alzheimer’s, and while we’re very grateful she’s in a nursing home that takes good care of her, we miss her.

Here are the things that my mother always taught us (not always in so many words):

Reading is what people do, like breathing or blinking.  Read to yourself, read out loud to your kids (any age), read with your spouse at night.  Every time you turn off the TV, you’ve won back a little bit of your life.

Not everything that’s good is explicitly Catholic, and not everything that calls itself  Catholic is good.  True for art, music, ideas, lives.

But sooner or later, you have to decide which side you’re on.  I think she said this to me when she saw the trashy cover of a CD I was listening to as a teenager.  You can make excuses and give yourself passes, but your spiritual life is made up of these choices:  there’s no such thing as (a) the religious part of your life, and (b) the rest of your life.  If you want to be a Catholic, you have to live that way all the time, even if it means cutting out things you enjoy.

Functionality is beautiful.  If it works, then it’s a good system, even if it looks silly.

There are worse things in life than being embarrassed. I remember hearing one of my parents’ friends telling his conversion story.  The only part I remember is, “And right there, in the middle of the airport, I kneeled down and said to God . . . ”  I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “Boy, that sums it up.”  It seemed like the rest of the world was the airport, going about its business, and our family was the weirdos, standing out, doing something different, acting like freaks — not always about religious things, but about everything.  Well, it turns out that children (and teenagers) do not die from standing out.  Also, when they grow up, they will be able to enjoy something the Normals never enjoy:  the exquisite thrill of fitting in.  I still get a delicious little transgressive frisson when I make cake from a box mix, JUST LIKE OTHER PEOPLE DO.  Brrr!

Never lose hope about other people.  Maybe you can’t change them — in fact, you definitely can’t change them — but God can.  So keep praying for them.  Even if they never know you’re doing it (and even if you never see the results yourself), it may be the most important thing you do for them.

Everybody’s tired.  Nobody feels really well.  Everybody feels like they’re no good at least some of the time.  Now please get up and go to work anyway.

Accept the people that God sends into your life.  My mother is a magnet for strange, needy, difficult people.  They seem to realize that she’s no good at social chit chat, and will answer them directly, on whatever bizarre terms they choose to start the conversation; and she will help them if she can.  She is ready and willing to talk about anything, as long as it’s interesting or important.  When I was little, I hated having our house open to strange and unpredictable people, but now I wish I were courageous enough to have that kind of house.

A good idea is worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating.  People may groan and say, “Not that again!” but they’ll thank you later when they actually remember it.

You go to Mass to worship God.  If you’re there for anything other than that, you’re wasting your time.  My mother would answer me any time I called her name, any time at all, except during the consecration and elevation.  I remember being very young and being baffled that she didn’t seem to hear me when her head was bowed.  Eventually I figured it out!

Go outside for a minute; you’ll feel better.

Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.  My mother would love to live in a one-room shack with a cot, a computer, a hot plate, and a drain in the floor for easy cleaning.  Instead, my parents maintain a dusty, cumbersome, 12+-room Victorian house, because sometimes people need a place to stay (as we did one year, when our entire family had a collective nervous breakdown and needed shelter).

Catholics aren’t afraid of science.

Catholics aren’t afraid of history, or sex, or death.

Catholics aren’t afraid of anything. Actually, of course they are, but they are the ones who are equipped to forge ahead anyway.

Charity believes all things.  The good you see in people may not be the whole truth about them, but it is true.  So start there, and make a fuss over it until it turns into something more.

Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, and don’t pretend to like things you don’t like.

Poetry is meant to be read out loud. The first time you read it, just listen to the sounds. Then read it again and start to think about what it’s saying.

When in doubt, add more garlic.

 

Prayer request for my family today

I am sorry to have been scarce around here lately.  My mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, enters a nursing home today, and frankly it is hard to think straight. I haven’t written about it because I don’t know what to say. We are very grateful to have a relatively good place for her, and I’m very grateful to my siblings and especially my brother Joe for working so hard to make that happen. I would appreciate prayers for our whole family. Thank you!

Don’t bother lying to God

When my mother was a new Christian, she was in with a crowd that put great stock in outward appearances. Since she had many more kids and much less money than everyone else, she felt horribly self-conscious about her house, which was shabby and cluttered despite her constant housekeeping. She got in the habit of saying, if someone stopped by, “Oh, please excuse the house. We’ve been away all day and I haven’t had a chance to tidy up!” or “Sorry about the mess around here! The kids have been sick and I’m so behind.”

Then one day, she just got sick of it. The smarmiest, must judgmental neighbor of all happened to drop in, and she said, “Well, I’m sorry about the house. This is how we live.”

I wish I knew the rest of the story. Did the judgy woman gasp and flee? Did she tell everyone that Mrs. P. lives like a pig and isn’t even ashamed of it? Did she (it’s possible) think, “Wow, that’s kind of refreshing. Someone just told me the truth”? It’s possible that the woman was even grateful that someone trusted her with some difficult information. It’s possible she went away and asked herself why it was that people felt they needed to lie to her.

Telling the truth is says something about us, and also something about the person we’re talking to. When we tell the truth, its a risk to ourselves, but also a great compliment to them.

The older I get, the less patience I have for people who try to shine me on. It feels rude to be lied to. Do you think I’m too dumb to know the truth? Too weak? Too shallow? Who has time for pretense? There’s so much nonsense in the world that we can’t get around. Why add to it by pretending to be someone we’re not?

I’ll tell you something. God is even older than I am, and he has even less interest in hearing lies. My brother Joe tells about a priest who had a big problem. And he was mad. Mad at the world, mad at his situation, and mad at God. So every day, he went into the adoration chapel, knelt before the Sacrament, and told the truth: “I don’t love you, God.”

Every day, every day he did this. Until one day he said it, and he realized it wasn’t true anymore.

I’d like to know the rest of that story, too. I do know that it’s never useful to lie to God. It’s never useful to lie to ourselves about what our relationship with God is. It’s never useful to run away from God, and refuse to talk to him, if we feel like we can’t say the right things or feel the right things. No one has time for that, and it’s an insult to God to even try it. If you feel like you have to hide, then tell him that. If you feel that he’s not fair, tell him that. If you aren’t even sure he exists, tell him that. There’s no time for anything less than the truth.

Utter honesty is a luxury we do not always have with the rest of the world. Civility, duty, and charity often demand that we reserve such blunt honesty from other people, at least most of the time. So do what you need to do when you’re presenting yourself to the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s appropriate to lay it all out there; sometimes you will want or need to be a little more guarded.

But not with God. Never with God. Go ahead and tell him, as you open your front door, “This is just how I live.” It doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of changing things, if that’s what needs to happen; but God will not help you change until you are willing to talk to him about where you are. He is a gentleman. He only comes in where He is invited. Honesty is an invitation he always accepts.

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Image By Miguel Discart (2014-04-05_14-13-49_NEX-6_DSC08220) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons