Maybe someone else will bring stamps

I had that dream again! The one where you’re being arrested or deported or evacuated, and you’re forced to pack up everything for yourself and a bunch of other people to survive, and you only have a few minutes to do it, and you only have a tiny little suitcase, and you have no way of knowing what you’ll actually need, and you know you’re making horrible choices, but you just don’t have the time to do it right. Do you have this dream? I don’t have it routinely like I used to, but it still comes around every once in a while.

But something new happened in my dream last night. Right in the middle of the anguished panic of stuffing a mishmash of precious and useless belongings into a too-small suitcase, I was thinking frantically, “Stamps? Should I bring stamps? We may need them!” And then I thought, “Maybe someone else will bring stamps.”

And that was it. I still had to do my best, and the rest of the dream was very unpleasant, but at least it occurred to me that not everything was riding on my efforts alone. My therapist will be glad to hear this. He’s only reminded me about eleven times that this is so. Maybe you need to hear it, too. 

It’s not always true. Sometimes it’s really the case that, if you don’t do the thing, then the thing won’t get done, and maybe it’s a very important thing that absolutely must get done. Sometimes life is just like this, and it stinks, but there’s nothing that can be done about it; or sometimes, life is like this because other people are terrible, and they’re letting all the burden fall on you because they know they can get away with it. Good old you, always doing thing.

But sometimes, someone else really will pack stamps. Or maybe you can get stamps when you get there; or maybe you won’t really need stamps after all. Or maybe you will, and someone else can arrange for it to happen. I’m trying to get in the habit of asking myself, especially when I’m feeling overburdened and rushed and pushed into things unwillingly: Who is putting this burden on me? Who is pushing me? What will happen if I step away and let the burden fall?

It’s almost shocking to see just how often someone else is perfectly capable of doing the thing that I thought I alone could do. Or sometimes someone else is already quietly doing it, and I didn’t even notice, because I was so self-importantly accomplishing things. Or sometimes no one else will do the thing if I don’t, but it doesn’t really matter as much as I thought it did. My busyness is very often not as important as I think it is. Sometimes, I’m chagrined to realize, the main purpose of my busyness is not to accomplish things at all, but to make sure people know I’m important. Ick.

So, there’s a secondary revelation here, not as icky, but harder to internalize: I am important, but not because of all the things I can accomplish. I’m important when I’m in the background, and when I’m resting. Check it out: I’m even important when I screw up and pack the wrong thing and everybody suffers because of the dreadful lack of packed stamps. My actions and choices are meaningful, but they are not a test of my inherent worth. 

That’s it. That’s the dream. I needed to hear this. Maybe you did, too!

***
Photo by: Senior Airman Alexandre MontesReleased 

 

 

What I learned on Corpus Christi this year

The first Sunday we went back to Mass was the feast of Corpus Christi. I was delighted to realize we could mark this feast, one of my absolute favorites, by receiving the actual corpus Christi inside the church building at last, back where we belong.

I have never been angry or bitter at our bishop for keeping Mass closed to the public. If we’re Catholics, we can’t just go get what we want and ignore the risk to the vulnerable. Even if it’s the body of Christ we want. Especially if it’s the body of Christ we want.

But oh, it was good to be back, even with masks, in alternate pews, with the sweet smells of early June roses and candle wax blending strangely with the increasingly familiar scent of hand sanitizer. I was so glad our separation was over, so glad we could be moving forward and starting to figure out how to safely make life more normal again.

Then came the first reading, and it hit me right between the eyes.  It’s a short reading, and very pointed. Moses exhorts the people to remember how God brought them out of Egypt, and how God dealt with them in the desert.

It’s a reading chosen for Corpus Christi because it reminds us: Look, from the very beginning, God has been leading you and feeding you. God doesn’t mind his business up in heaven, but he comes to us in the desert and gives us manna, and then he brings us home. Perfect for the feast day.

But it hit me so hard because of how it’s framed. It doesn’t just tell the story of how God cared for the people. It’s also the story of why God treated them as He did, and it’s a command to think about it and remember it, learn from it…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

On meteors and managed expectations

Not long ago, our hemisphere passed through the Perseid meteor shower. When I was young, my family was heavily into astronomy. We owned more than one telescope, and we would sometimes all pile into the van after dark and drive out to the countryside, where there were no streetlights or house lights, but only the velvety darkness and the sound and smell of sleeping cows.

On this road, you could look up and see the Milky Way spread out across the top of the sky like a shining river. The planets gleamed like jewels, red and yellow and blue. More than once I actually heard a meteor sizzle past like a drop of water on hot soapstone.

Having had these almost mystical experiences throughout my childhood, I feel very strongly — perhaps too strongly — that astronomy ought to be part of every childhood. But in this, I have largely failed with my own kids. We’re just too busy. We’ve prioritized other things, and the thought of dragging ourselves outside in the dark for one last outing at the end of an exhausting day is unbearable.

So my kids know a few constellations. We’ve dabbled in homemade sundials, and they understand the seasons and eclipses and why astrology is nonsense. But a love of astronomy is not part of our family identity, the way it was for my family of origin.

I know this, and I know that knowing it sometimes cause me disproportionate distress. And this is why, when I prepared to take my kids out for the annual Perseid meter shower, I gave myself more than one stern lecture . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The difficult balance between honesty and complacency

Look, it’s a model wearing size 24 jeans! And look, a shaving ad that doesn’t airbrush cellulite away, and a weight-loss ad that shows a woman smoothing her sweater over her stomach — a stomach that is clearly far smaller than it used to be, but is still striated with permanent stretch marks.

I absolutely love it. Welcome to the 21st century, when lumpy, imperfect people are starting to populate the media almost as much as they populate the actual country. As a fat person, I’m intensely grateful for ads that make it clear I can be both large and human, even both large and beautiful.

Representation is about so much more than just a happy jolt of recognition. It’s about feeling real, feeling fully a member of the human race. 

There’s a similar movement going on in what I’ll call, for want of a less cringey phrase, the spiritual media. Less than 10 years ago, I pitched some book proposals to Catholic publishers. I strove to paint a picture showing how it really feels to be a Catholic wife and mother, with all the actual joys and sorrows, and without any of the literary airbrushing that was de rigeur in books aimed at Catholic women.

To a one, the publishers responded that my work was unsuitable for Catholic readers. It was too dark, too negative, too harsh, not uplifting and joyful enough. In short, too honest.

Things have changed. In 2019, it’s commonplace to be both Catholic and honest in public. It’s no longer shocking or unacceptable, in most communities, for Catholics to speak openly about the messy, unresolved, unedifying aspects of their lives — depressionalcoholismporn addictionburnout, weirdness in general, or even sincerity itself — and for readers to respond with gratitude and recognition, rather than shock and condemnation.

But this new “warts and all” honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably healthy to be sincere, to courageously acknowledge the flaws we perceive as unusual and shameful. It can be immensely liberating and encouraging for others to see they’re not alone in their imperfections. We must correct the notion that, to deserve respect, we must be (or appear to be) flawless. We need to know that we’re not somehow less human just because we struggle.

But there’s such a short jump between “I am imperfect, but I still deserve respect” and “I am imperfect, and there’s no reason to change.”

I must reluctantly admit that, when I see fat models looking lovely, sometimes it’s good for me, and makes me feel more human; but sometimes it just gives me an excuse to skip exercising for two weeks and slap extra sour cream on my taco. It’s vital to know I deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what size I am. But it’s also vital that I keep my arteries from exploding. When my Facebook feed is populated by lush, queenly, opulent models even bigger than me, I could go either way. Sometimes honest representation is good for me; sometimes, not so much.

The same is true in our moral lives. When we surround ourselves with “warts and all” examples, we may feel encouraged and comforted, seeing clearly that it’s human to struggle, and not a cause for despair. If we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, we may truly need a reminder that haven’t lost our right to dignity simply because we sin.

But there’s also a true risk of normalizing sin.  It’s one thing to know that it’s normal to struggle with chastity; it’s quite another when no one you know takes chastity seriously, or has any intention of changing their lives to pursue this virtue. It’s one thing to know that many decent people enjoy a cocktail on the regular; it’s quite another to accept that getting trashed every night is just how mommies cope.

It’s one thing to understand that everyone struggles; it’s quite another to conclude that struggle is therefore unnecessary . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Martin Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Non-scale victories for your spiritual life

Like half the country, I would like to shed a bit of weight. Before you send me a V.I.P. discount code for your amazing protein shake, let me assure you: I do know how to lose weight. I have done it many times before. There was the time I ate only coffee, ice, lettuce and horrible pre-mixed whiskey cocktails from the gas station. The pounds melted off, and I was an emotional wreck. Then there was the plan where I spent countless hours on the StairMaster while reading Wordsworth and crying. I know they say you cannot lose weight by exercise alone, but what if you are too dizzy to eat? You just have to know how to work it.

With this glory-free history of hitting my goal number on the scale, I am fairly content to be what I am now, which is fat but more or less happy. If I am neither wasting away nor in danger of knocking out close friends when my arteries violently explode, then I feel like I am doing all right (and so does my doctor).

Here is what I have discovered: I have a much better shot of keeping my weight in reasonable check without losing my mind if I think less about the scale and more about “non-scale victories.” Instead of focusing solely on numbers, I accept credit for achieving things that are harder to quantify but are worth so much more—things like reaching the top of the stairs without wheezing, shopping for clothes without sobbing, or finding out the garlic bread is all gone without flying into a rage.

A non-scale victory is when I painfully resist a second helping and realizing once I have cleared my plate that I really am already full. Or when I give into temptation and scarf down far, far more cheese than any sensible being should ingest—but the next day I simply start over with my target plan, rather than spiraling into a black vortex of self-loathing.

What makes these victories both poignant and powerful is they do not reduce me to a clinical number, but instead they acknowledge and rejoice in the specifics of everyday life. Yes, the number on the scale matters, but I am more than a number. And when I see myself as a whole, worthy person with some flaws, rather than as a giant, walking flaw, it is easier to build on what is good.

So let us imagine, for a moment, that my problem is not that I am overweight but that my spiritual life has gone rather flabby. Imagine I look into the mirror of my soul, and I really do not like what I see. What to do?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image via needpix

Other people is where God is

“I hate being here,” I snarled at Jesus.

I was in adoration, for my appointed hour. This is what I get for shouting far and wide how wonderful adoration is, how marvelous, how life-changing, how all-but-essential: I sign up for a slot . . . and so does this other guy. 

This other guy, who barges into the tiny, dim, sacred, space humming and whistling, grunting and wheezing comfortably, like he’s meeting his pals at the VA bar. He plonks his stuff down on the floor, and sometimes taps out a jazzy little rhythm on his thighs. If he spots someone he knows, he’ll gab about the weather or his sore hip. Right out loud, right in front of the monstrance! Finally, preliminaries over, he’s ready to act like he’s in a chapel, and so he drags out a rattling sheaf of prayer booklets and begins to pray . . . out loud. In a whisper, technically, but loud enough that you can hear every single word.

This is bullshit. I want to be with Jesus, to lay my turmoil and agitation at His feet, and reconnect with Him, who brings peace. I want to read my Ratzinger book, which is helping me know Christ better. I want to make the most out of this one measly hour, because I knew this is where Jesus wants me to be. But none of that is going to happen, thanks to Mr. Oblivious who won’t get out of the way. Yes, friend-o, we all pray. Yes, we’re big fans of the rosary here. But what the HELL makes you think it’s okay to monopolize the entire room with your own personal devotions? I could barely hear myself think, let alone pray.

And I have misophonia, which makes it almost physically painful to hear mouth noises, especially in a small, enclosed space. Smacking and slurping and snorting engender irrational rage and panic that I haven’t figured out how to overcome in four decades. How and why a man could smack, slurp, and snort his way through five decades of a rosary, I do not know, but I am your witness: It can be done. 

“I hate it here,” I told Jesus. “I don’t want to be here.” 

Now you think this is going to be a story where I learn to drop my spiritual pretensions and come to understand that we do not meet God only in silent, spiritually elegant moments, but that God speaks to us in the rattling, baaing, shambling herd of our fellow sheep.  It may not be edifying and it may not look well on a gilded holy card, but it’s so much more satisfyingly real. 

Heck, I thought it was going to be that kind of story, myself. I remembered hearing that St. Theresa (I forget which one) was driven batty by one of her fellow sisters rattling her rosary chains in the chapel. But she was a saint, so apparently you could use even annoying people to get closer to God. Right, Lord? That seems like something saints do. No one’s going to be the insurmountable obstacle that keeps me from getting to God, not even some kind of psychopath who doesn’t know how to behave in adoration. 

Wait, he’s done with his rosary! Maybe he’ll quiet–

Nope. “Sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld. . . sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld . . .”

I put my fingers in my ears, discreetly. Then I put my fingers in my ears indiscreetly. I even turned around twice and (I’m not proud of this. Any of this) administered a fleeting Adoration Stinkeye. I stewed. I sighed. I wrestled with true red-brain rage. And I prayed. I prayed most earnestly to God for aid, that He would help me tune these disruptions out, that I could overcome the things that were distracting me from having a good and fruitful experience with Him.

And He says to me, He says: “That man isn’t being distracting. You’re being distracting.”

Okay. 

I hope I can convey to you how different this was from what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting for God to somehow arrange it so that I could be alone with Him, even despite everyone else in the chapel. That I would not hear, or not care, or not have to deal with the distraction of other people. I was quite convinced that being alone with God was the goal we both wanted. That’s what adoration is for! Isn’t it?

But instead, I saw very clearly that this desire to be alone with the Lord — this desire to have the experience that seemed fruitful to me — this desire to get what I came for — the desire to be in control, even to bring about something objectively good — that was the distraction, and I was carrying it in front of me like a shield; a shield between me and Christ.

If that man had not been there, and if I had come in and knelt down and read quietly and prayed what I wanted to pray, I would have come and gone still carrying that shield. I just wouldn’t have known it.

I’m always carrying that shield. I don’t like other people. I want them to leave me alone so I can accomplish what I think is fruitful. I want them to be quiet. I want them to behave to accommodate me. Not only in the dim, sacred space of the adoration chapel, but everywhere, at all times. It’s not that I have some pietistic fantasy of aesthetic loveliness in my prayer life. It’s that I want it to go my way, every time. I want to be able to yell at Him, alone. I want to tell Him I love Him, alone. I want to be able to have ugly prayers, alone. But I am always disrupted from doing what I want to do because I am always distracted by other people. And I clutch that distraction firmly to my breast, because it protects me. It shields me from God, even as I complain to Him that we never get to be together. I saw the shield, almost with my actual eyes. My fingers ached from clutching it so hard.

And I looked at Christ, in the monstrance. No shield there. Just a willingness to be with all comers. 

So what did I do?  Ever gracious, I shouted “FINE!” at Jesus, and went ahead and dove headfirst into being with other people, if apparently that’s SO GREAT and WHAT GOD WANTS, apparently. I started to pray along with the prayers Mr. Annoying was praying. “You give me this man?” I said. “Fine, then he can be my FUCKING RETREAT LEADER sorry.” And I started shambling and sputtering and mumbling alone with him. What he prayed, I prayed. I leaned right in. Never mind the important things I needed to pray through. Never mind the illuminating truths that were waiting for me in the next pages of my book. Never mind. NEVER MIND, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world!

Have mercy on us.

Have mercy on us, and on the whole world. 

Have mercy. On us.

US.

Would you believe it, my rage drained away, and it did not come back. What rushed into its place, I’m not ready to name; but it felt like the presence of God. 

Because, apparently, other people is where God is. You don’t get past other people to get to God. You don’t use people to get closer to God. You can’t use people at all, if you want to be close to God. All you can do is be with people, and . . . that’s where God is. I don’t know what that means, but it sure is what happened to me today. I wanted to be in the chapel because that’s where God is; and guess who was also there? Other people. Sometimes the obvious answer is the answer. Other people is where God is. 

I’m not going to lie: I hope that man isn’t there next week. He really was terribly annoying, and I know enough not to hope I can somehow replicate this experience next time around. And I know better than to hope I’m somehow transformed from now on. But I do want to remember this: Other people is where God is. The world is full of people, and people is where God is. Have mercy on us, on us, on us, on the whole world.  

***
Image: “Harmonie” by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain]

When mankind has a tantrum

Good and loving and patient God, difficult me. 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Creative Commons (license)
 

Check out my featured interview on the Mystery Through Manners podcast

Here’s the latest Mystery through Manners Podcast episode, featuring me! I truly enjoyed talking to the gracious and intelligent host, Jules Launi, and was very impressed at how she made something coherent out of my rambling. (I sound like a heavy smoker because I had bronchitis.) Definitely subscribe to this podcast. I don’t know anyone else doing this kind of work.
There is one tiny part where I think I was talking about Britney Spears and it sounds like I was talking about myself, but that’s on me. Ha!
 
Show notes:
 
In today’s episode, we primarily talk to one blogger, whose decade-long career has, in many ways, personified the ups and downs of the Catholic blogosphere. To begin, we speak to others in the Catholic blogging world about how they engage with their audiences, including dialoging with believers and non-believers alike about important topics concerning the Catholic faith. For information on these bloggers, please refer to past Shownotes for references to their work.
 
For the second half of our episode, we speak to Simcha Fisher, on her journey in the blogging world, the impact of blogging in her own life, and in the greater Church culture. Simcha’s story is honest, humbling, and funny, as she walks listeners through the story of her career in blogging, including her rise as a star in the Catholic writing community, her reflections on motherhood, the campaign to get her fired from the National Catholic Register (and some of the other writings about her), and her mistakes along the way. I am incredibly grateful to Simcha for her speaking to me and for the lessons we all can learn from her story.

Learning to pray, again

How strange that it’s still so hard to pray. How strange that I have to learn it over and over again. Maybe some people take to it more naturally, but I constantly find myself coming to it like a rank amateur, making silly mistakes, sheepishly repenting, and starting over again.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by By Chris Creagh (Creative Commons)

Nothing looks pretty when it’s still becoming

What is our final project? Ah, that’s the tricky part. If I’m making a lobster costume or a vampire costume, I have a general idea of how it needs to look when it’s done. But when it’s our own selves we’re working on, there is less clarity, less certainty. We’re not in the process of making a costume or a disguise; we’re in the process of becoming who we are meant to be. If we have a clear picture in our heads of who we’re meant to be — or, even worse, if we think we’ve already become it — we’re probably wrong. Sorry!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image of unfinished Godzilla costume courtesy of John Herreid