Tag Archives: hope

The Iron Cross: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

CruzdeFerro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t know Julia well.

The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the far end of the table around which our language class met. Although I knew the instructor, Chiara, it was my first day with this group of students who for years had gathered in Chiara’s dining room to discuss classic books in Italian.

That day I was the last one to arrive, and when I entered the room the group was already engaged in friendly pre-class conversation. As I took my seat, six pairs of eyes looked up at me, six mouths chorused “Piacere” with American twangs, and six hands reached across the table to shake mine.

But the person I noticed most was Julia, a trim woman about my age with a strawberry bob and a smile like a lamp.

Since I was new to the class, Chiara asked the veterans to introduce themselves: Filippo, Becca, Davide, Laura, Carla—all genial, interesting people who loved everything Italian.

But again, it was Julia who drew me. A psychologist with a PhD, she seemed warm, spoke Italian perfectly, listened to others with attention, as if they were the center of her world. Of all the members of the group, she was the one I hoped to make my friend.

Before turning to the novel we were reading, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, Chiara asked us students what we’d thought of our first assignment. Several confessed they had busy lives and for them the week’s reading was too lengthy—seventy pages requiring eight to twelve hours. But Julia said she’d had no problem—she’d even read ahead—having too few diversions in her life and too much time on her hands.

Really? A woman like her?

We discussed La Storia for a couple of hours. It focuses on the life of Ida, a Roman widow who carries many crosses: epilepsy, rape, single motherhood, a half-Jewish pedigree during World War Two, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death of two young sons. Ida’s a very complex character, and Julia zealously engaged in our analysis of her. She seemed to identify with Ida, her voice becoming gentle whenever she mentioned her name.

When class ended, everyone stood up, that is, everyone but Julia, and a man I hadn’t seen before entered the room. “Ciao Roy,” the others said while packing their belongings. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, Roy nodded and smiled, then made a beeline to Julia. From her chair, Julia looked up at him, and from his height, Roy looked down at her. That’s when I first saw it: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

“You doing okay?” Roy said as pushed her chair from the table. “Yes,” she smiled. Then he slid his arms under her thighs, and with her shoulder leaning on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder, he tenderly picked her up, carried her out of the room, through the front door, and down the porch steps.

Outside, a wheelchair had been parked and Roy settled Julia in it, making sure she was comfortable. Then he wheeled her to a waiting car and slid her into the passenger seat. After stowing the wheelchair, Roy climbed into the car and sped way.

I was shocked. How could Julia be in a wheelchair? Such a smart, sparkling person. How unjust it seemed. No wonder she identified with Ida. She too carried a cross. No wonder she welcomed distractions. She was trapped in a metal chair.

Chiara told me her story. Julia and Roy had been married more than thirty years. They had met in a dance class in their twenties and become inseparable. They’d always led an active life, doing everything together—dancing, walking, running, watching movies, traveling in Italy.

But when Julia was in her fifties, her legs began to tingle. Over time they progressively weakened, becoming paralyzed. Her doctors diagnosed a syndrome that could potentially interfere with her breathing and eventually take her life.

Her case, though, wasn’t wholly hopeless. Many people with the same syndrome survive and recover completely. Since that could take weeks, months, or years, Roy and Julia were optimistic. Maybe she would be among the lucky ones.

Still, at the moment, Julia needed full-time care and Roy provided it. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her, did all the household chores. He carried her to the toilet, onto the airplane for vacations, and into Chiara’s house for class. And each time I saw her in his arms, I was moved by their obvious affection, the way she nuzzled against him, the way he rested his chin on her head.

How I wished I could wave a magic wand and cure Julia’s illness. How I wished I could see her stand and walk hand-in-hand with Roy.

But I didn’t have a magic wand. So I resolved to say a prayer for Roy and Julia at the base of the Cruz de Ferro when I walked The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to reach the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some do it for sport, others for contemplation, others to pray for miracles. In September 2013 my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We began our walk in León, trekking 200 miles in twelve days.

Our first day ended in Hospital de Órbigo, a village with an arched Gothic bridge, our second took us to Astorga, a small city with a gorgeous Gaudí palace, and our third finished in Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square.

On the fourth day of our Camino, we rose before dawn and departed Rabanal. As we walked a country road beneath the moon and stars, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

We arrived in a village called Foncebadón. There, in the eleventh century, a hermit named Gaucelmo had built a hospital, hospice, and church for the pilgrims on the Camino, but these had fallen into ruins, which we passed as we left town.

By midmorning the day was growing hot, and we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a thirty-foot, weathered, wooden mast that marks the highest point of the Camino. According to tradition, Gaucelmo had built the cross too.

The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by a hillock of stones amassed through the years by pilgrims who perform a special ritual there. They bring a stone from their homeland, or one they’ve picked up along The Way, and add it to the hummock.

Each stone is symbol of a burden a pilgrim wants to leave behind before leaving the Cruz de Ferro and beginning life afresh. Some stones have messages written on them, others the names of towns or people. Some have paper notes or photos tied to them, others stuffed bunnies or bears.

I’d come prepared for this moment. From my backpack I sifted a pebble I’d brought from my garden at home. Holding it in one hand, I climbed the hillock of stones, which shifted and clinked beneath my feet. When I reached the base of the mast, I looked up along its length at the turquoise sky. There, high above my head, the iron cross glinted hazy in the sunlight making me squint my eyes.

I kneeled at the base of the mast, pressing my forehead on the wood. I thanked God that I had legs to walk and vowed to finish the Camino for Julia, whose legs no longer worked. I prayed for Julia’s healing, that she could soon leave behind her wheelchair, symbolized my stone. Then I placed my stone among the others, stood, and descended the mound.

There, at the bottom of the hillock, I saw a young woman and man who had just arrived. They were standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming although they were smiling, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. That’s when I saw it once again: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

I didn’t know the couple’s story and I didn’t need to. For me, they were Julia and Roy, the way they’d been before the wheelchair, the way I’d prayed they’d be again.

I never told Julia or Roy about the Cruz de Ferro, prayer, or stone. I never tried to befriend them; the timing seemed all wrong. But I continued to go to Italian, each week more moved by their bond.

One day towards the end of class, Julia was commenting on a character when she began coughing and gasping. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring around at us in terror. Someone grabbed a glass of water, another took her by the shoulders and tried to calm her down, another seized a phone.

Roy arrived at that moment, and the rest of us moved to the sides. He crouched before his wife, looking straight into her eyes. He asked her to match his respiration—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—as husbands often do with Lamaze. Soon Julia was breathing, and Roy carried her away.

They never came to class again. Julia died, her breathing having failed her, six months after my Camino.

I don’t picture death, though, when I think of Julia and Roy. Instead, I see them standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming as they smile, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. The sun shining overhead, the wheelchair now discarded, they are free from their iron cross.

 

First published in Good Letters.

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Calling 2008

Untitled

The Kindle version of my memoir, Pieces of Someday, is free on Amazon through Nov. 5, 2014. Please download it by clicking the link to the right and tell your friends about it!  I’d love to give away as many copies as I can, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, please write an Amazon review.   

The following is the opening section:

What am I doing here this morning, sitting in a church when it’s not Christmas? Sunlit clouds, breeze tinged warm, pink clematis scent—I should be out in my garden. For twenty years I’ve driven by this place, felt the pull of its wine brick walls and copper steeple. Cornerstoned when my grandparents boarded steamships from Palermo, this Seattle landmark never called me in until this moment. Possibly its name has been the dissuasion—Blessed Sacrament— saccharine as raindrops on roses. Or maybe I still don’t understand what a blessed sacrament is.

I survey the strangers gathered in the pews—the quartet of moonfaced girls sitting to my right, their University of Washington sweatshirts nubby, needing bleach. They whisper, nod, and smile— smooth skin, glossy hair, teeth straight and white. To my left is a gray- haired woman in a hand-me-down cap. It’s crocheted, studded with buttons—S’ mores Not Wars, Hope Obama ’08. Crinkly eyes, liver- spotted cheeks, whisker-stubbled chin, she’s transfixed by something on the altar. Jesus crucified? Must be. For here, except for the icons, there’s a howling scarcity of men. Only Saints Dominic, Jude, Thomas, and Francis stand niched and polished around us. They watch in mahogany silence, this nave of waiting women, this raftered ark with its faint incense smell.

The walk from my house to this church took less time than I’d imagined, past Cowan Park, the student rentals reeking weed, Pierced Hearts Tattoo, the Wayward’s coffee cloud. Past the bungalow with the big magnolia and the homeless teen crouched in the doorway of the bar who reached his palm out to me, cut my core with steel-gray eyes. If I’d had the courage of a year ago, I would have stopped before him. I would have taken him by the hand. I would have pulled him to his feet and urged him to come along, for it’s the church’s Called and Gifted Workshop that’s drawn me. My kids are grown, away at college, last June I lost my job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, three decades of résumé be damned. Is this what middle age means? Superfluous, obsolete? Which is why I left the boy behind. The blind leading the blind.

The last time I heard about callings, I was probably twelve years old. Every Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Giordano and I left public school early to go to Catechism on a church bus. I was embarrassed by the attention this practice garnered at our mostly Jewish junior high, but also grateful that at least at Saint Christopher’s, I was counted among the flock. I remember the day Sister Agnes chalked vocation on the blackboard, her sprawling, spidery script, her rosary-crucifix-swinging habit hip. She explained that vocation was a calling, the work God created us to do. Each of us would have one, each would be unique, and God would give us the necessary talents—gifts—to do it well. Some of us would be doctors or nurses, others firemen or teachers, many husbands or wives. If we followed our callings, we’d please God by serving man. Every day of our lives, we needed to listen carefully for God’s voice so when He revealed our callings we would hear.

 ***

Gifts. A special calling. Through the years I’ve often thought about those teachings, sometimes with anger, others with longing, always with sadness. I’m old now, Sister Agnes, when will my revelation come? And how will I recognize God’s voice? Are my dreams signs of my calling? Or are they just sinister specters rising from the refuse of my childhood? After all, both the Crusaders and Al Qaeda thought they were heeding the call of God.

 ***

The light shifts in the church. Rainbowed sunbeams moving through stained glass draw my eyes to the panes above the altar. Jesus in white robes, golden crown upon his head, raises an amber chalice emitting a nimbus of flames. The Virgin Mary prays in turquoise; Saint John clasps a scarlet book. Then a host of swirling symbols— an emerald scale, a stringed harp, a silver sword. A pair of candles, a yellow star, a nodding lily. A russet heart, a rising sun, a purple fish. A pelican pierces her breast, splay-beaked fledglings at her knee.

 ***

When I was a little girl, my cousin Angela told me life’s a circle, and looking across the generations, I suppose she was right. We are born, have children—at least those who can and want to. Then we die and, theoretically, our children carry on.

But I pictured life as a vector, one leading to a place called There. To arrive, I’d have to work hard—that’s what my father said. I’d also have to be good, which I knew meant do as I was told thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Then one day I’d finally be There, in an Oz of endless sunshine, love, and reward where I could remain for all time.

Now life seems neither circle nor vector. Those shapes are too simple, one-directional. So I’ve tossed away both paradigms, and that’s just fine. I did well enough in math, but only through resolve and application. Numbers, graphs, and figures don’t come naturally to me.

Life, it now seems, is a stained glass window composed of bits of translucence and opacity—fragments of yesterday, chips of today, pieces of someday, soldered with time. Some jewel-like and whole. Some fractured by the weather. Others fallen from their leaden frames. Only fusion and repair complete the image and allow us to make out the picture. Am I a scale, a harp, a star? A candle, anchor, or heart?

And what about tomorrow?

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

Pondering Prayer

ponderingprayer-300x215I had a problem with prayer.  It’s not that I didn’t think of God or talk to him; I did every single day.  But I didn’t understand what made me do it, didn’t know what it accomplished, wasn’t sure what I was doing was prayer.

You see, I just can’t pray as Sister Clare taught us kids in Catechism; I don’t say formal prayers except at Mass—not the Confiteor, not the Our Father, not the Hail Mary—and even then I don’t actually say them; instead, I listen to the congregation’s voices, straining to focus on the words.

And I can’t pray like my Lutheran colleague Laura, who asks the people in our office to hold hands and spins extemporaneous prayers whenever one of us is ailing—Dear Lord, healer of the sick, we turn to you as our friend John faces knee surgery.  When she does this, I lose her thread almost from the start, so urgent is my need to drop my neighbors’ palms.

Nor can I pray like my old friend Beth, who at all times carries a binder, each page with a scripted prayer meant for a particular person, addressed to a specific saint, repeated several times each day—O glorious St. Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, to you do we raise our hearts and hands to implore your powerful intercession on behalf of Tom. Whenever she asks me to join her, my mouth iterates the words, but my mind remains unengaged and my eyes seek the bottom of the page.

And while experience had made it clear that public prayers composed by others didn’t work for me (especially while holding hands), I wasn’t any more successful praying my own words privately.  Every single night from age five to fifty, I’d turned off the lights, climbed into bed, closed my eyes, curled up like a fetus, mumbled a personal prayer—Dear God, thank you for today, for the compliment Bill gave me at work, for the avocado sandwich and companionship I shared with Dave at lunch.   But before I’d get much further I’d be ruminating some incident that had happened during the day or running through my checklist for the next one.

I often wondered why I even tried to pray:  What was the point?  While I certainly thought it proper to thank God for blessings—health, home, family, friends—and apologize for failings—envy, anger, petulance, pride—I thought it selfish to ask him for favors—a slimmer body, a better job, a bigger house.  With six billion people on a planet rife with poverty, violence, disease, who was I to ask for anything?  And then, when it came right down to it, I couldn’t believe, as Clare, Laura and Beth did, that God responded to petitions.  The Holocaust, Viet Nam, 9/11, Darfur, Katrina.  Was no one praying then?

I was a failure at prayer.

And it bothered me.

So I met with Fr. Boniface, a priest at the Catholic church I go to, to ask him what I was doing wrong.  He said:  “What you do isn’t what matters.  Think about what prayer is.  It’s a conversation with God.  It’s about entering into a relationship with him.  When we converse with people, we come to know and them, and that takes time.  It’s the same with God.  Prayer is about falling in love with God, being close to him, now and in eternity.”

What a baffling response.  Until that moment, if you’d asked me what prayer was, I’d have called it an obligation.  Something I did to be good.  Something I did to thank the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient Creator for my stint in the world.

Prayer, a relationship with God?   It was a concept I’d heard before, mostly from Protestant students at the Christian college where I teach.  When one student, Hannah, wrote of her personal relationship with Jesus, I’d pictured him in blue jeans, sitting on her shoulder, strumming a guitar, singing love songs in her ear.  How strange.  Still, while part of me thought this picture crazy, another burned with jealousy.  Jesus was right there for Hannah.  Where was God for me?

I, like most people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, had been taught that God is omnipresent.  He is everywhere.  But omnipresence is difficult to fathom.  Perhaps my problem with prayer was I couldn’t sense God’s presence when I prayed.  Presence is crucial to relationships.  Absence causes love to fade away.

So I read about Divine presence.  The transcendent view stresses the otherness of God:  He’s above the clouds, beyond the stars, not in the material world.  And I realized scripted prayers placed God out there for me—too far to sense his presence, too distant for relationship.

The immanent view sees God within all parts of Creation:  He’s in every object, element, animal, plant and person—including me.  And I realized my improvised bedtime prayers placed God within my self—so close he dissolved into my substance, too indistinct for relationship.

Yet I knew, absolutely, that I had felt God’s presence in my life.  I’d catch my breath at a tangerine sunrise and whisper, Thank you, God., then be moved to smile at everyone I passed along the street.  Or I’d be startled by an ambulance siren and think, God, please let that person live., then be prompted to write to my aunt who’d had a heart condition for years.  Or I’d shriek when my daughter burned a skillet and wince, God, why am I so testy?, then be spurred to take my daughter out to lunch.

So while I can’t sense Divine presence beyond the clouds or within me, I feel God close, and clearly, in unexpected moments like these—moments of awe, joy, fear, sorrow or contrition.  God captures my attention in these moments.  I cry in recognition, feel a surge of heart.  I respond with acts of love, often in spite of myself.  Are these exchanges conversations?  I’d like to think yes.  Thus, they’re no less prayers that the kinds I struggle with.

Requiescat in Pace

l_btiAEUoAHAHKbCeJGive them rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. The just will live in memory everlasting and will not be in fear of ill report.

Thus begins the Solemn Requiem Mass that some Roman Catholics say on All Souls’ Day, when the Church prays for the dead. Historically, the Catholic tradition grew from a Jewish practice first performed after a battle described in the Second Book of Maccabees.

According to the Maccabean story, so many faithful soldiers perished in the fray that their leader Judas fretted for their souls. Desiring to atone for their sins and ensure their resurrection, he took up a collection, amassing two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem. In a similar way, modern Catholics combine their prayers, hoping to expiate sins and usher souls from purgatory to heaven.

While the custom of praying for the dead is ancient, there was no official Catholic celebration until late in the tenth century, when a French pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was shipwrecked on a craggy island. There he met a hermit who told him of a chasm in the rocks through which continuously rose the groans of the suffering souls in purgatory.

From the fissure also erupted the intermittent curses of the demons that supervised the dead. These devils reviled the monks of Cluny, France, whose prayers were especially potent and were depleting purgatory’s ranks.

Prompted by the hermit, the pilgrim hurried off to Cluny and begged the abbot and brothers there to redouble their supplications so every soul in purgatory could stop suffering and pass to paradise. Thus, the second of November became All Souls’ Day, an annual day of prayer, a custom that spread throughout France and Europe, reaching Rome in the fourteenth century.

My church, Blessed Sacrament in Seattle, celebrates each All Souls’ Day with a Solemn Requiem Mass according to the Dominican Rite. The Mass is said at night in Latin and includes Dominican chanting and polyphonic hymns.

A black casket is placed upon the altar surrounded by six man-tall candles that burn throughout the rite. Inside the otherwise-empty coffin are the names of the parishioners’ deceased, hundreds and hundreds of names, among them those of my parents and grandparents and many others I have loved.

Also among the names is that of a priest, Father Tom Kraft. Tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, a jack-o-lantern smile and deep gray eyes, he said all the Masses I attended when I first joined the church. Every single Sunday, he talked and sang of God and placed communion in my hands with a grace that moved me greatly.

Still, I never said a word to Father Tom until his last second of November, when I wrote him a letter. Now, on every All Souls’ Day, I pray to always say I love you to the living, not wait to pray for the dead.

November 2, 2008

Dear Father Tom—

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and there would be peace, and no poverty or illness, and you would be well.

But I don’t have a magic wand, which is why I started going to Blessed Sacrament the week after Easter this year, after a thirty-year almost-total lapse in church attendance. I chose Blessed Sacrament because I liked the bricks and steeple, and it’s close enough to walk there from my house.

What I found at Blessed Sacrament was more than bricks. I found music so soulful I ache, stained glass so lovely I fly, and a sweet, consistent community that sounds like they mean it when they shake my hand and wish me peace. They look right into my eyes and I look back.

I also found you, a priest who smiles and glows from the altar, like the prayers, songs, readings, and community all really mean something, and like God is actually up there, or even better, down here with us. And when I walk home each Sunday, the sky and flowers and leaves somehow seem more vivid, and the homeless make me bleed even more than they usually do.

It’s probably for this reason that I thought of you a few weeks ago. My son Sean is a sophomore in college who will defend just about anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or sexual orientation.  The only people he doesn’t understand are those with religion.

As far as Sean can tell, God is an excuse for committing atrocities who allows people to go to church on Sunday, then spend the remainder of the week denigrating Arabs, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, the poor, the disabled, and gays. To my son, religion is a show without interiority.

This, I think, was one of many reasons that the recent death of Sean’s friend Luke shattered Sean as it did. Luke was a good, caring person, and Sean kept on repeating that Luke didn’t deserve to die at age nineteen. Sean also didn’t want to believe that he’d never see his friend’s face again or hear his voice.

So I wished I could send Sean to you because I had a feeling you could open a window that would enable him to hope that someday he would see Luke, and maybe even God.  

I didn’t know when Luke died—I didn’t know until today—that you are fighting cancer, or that you have a CaringBridge blog-site with 911 letters and almost 25,000 hits, all expressing the same prayer—that you go on glowing from the altar. I can’t predict the future, but I know one thing for sure, one way or another you will.

I miss you, Father Tom.

Requiescat in pace.

Isaac Unbound

CollegeParent

 

Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.

The Truth Told Slant

1879221_101_430Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of them and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days. The Space Needle basks in sunrays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD, a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety and social strain.

Since evolution has optimized humans for equatorial light, SAD is common in northern latitudes and climates with cloudy skies. Dark-eyed people like me are genetically predisposed. Blue eyes take in more light. Seattle is simply insufferable for someone with my genes.

I can’t, though, blame my darkness solely on the weather. The past six years have been tough. Just as my children left for college, I lost my full-time job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, thirty years of résumé be damned.

Since I’ve desperately tried to fill the void with a grab bag of pursuits not always suited to me—part-time, volunteer and temp jobs, housework, classes here and there—I’m left feeling frantic, lonely, worthless, bored, and more so every year.

This winter SAD struck hard. I could barely rouse myself mornings, sometimes didn’t bother dressing, cried if my cat crossed my path, overate, skipped the gym, ignored my friends. Every evening I pleaded with my husband, “Get me out of here! There’s nothing for me in Seattle, nothing at all but rain.”

But, in truth, I knew my husband couldn’t leave. He’s worked decades to grow his business and it’s not portable.

Once, I met an American woman vacationing in Tuscany. She told me that although she was married, she always travelled solo and lived alone too. Her husband preferred Boston and she Cos Cob, so they had separate homes.

When I asked the woman if she was ever lonely, she shrugged, “Why should I be? I’m never by myself. My favorite companion is me.”

At this, I remember passing judgment. How selfish. What’s the point of such a marriage? I could never be like her.

Still, in the bleak of winter, I determined that I could. If my husband couldn’t leave Seattle, I’d move by myself.

The idea was so radical and bewildering that my mind could scarcely comprehend it. I’d buy a tiny house. A house in North Carolina, where there are 220 annual days of sun. I turned on my computer, began to search online, and after ten minutes on Trulia, there my dream home was.

2026 Sycamore.

This classic 1929 cottage was one-third the size of our Seattle house. See the lovely lemon shingles, the cheerful side veranda, the steep pitched roof and sun-drenched lawn.  Note the cozy rooms, the quaint divided windows, the sunbeams angling through the panes lighting the honey hardwood floors.

What relief this house would bring me, so tiny, simple, bright. I’d leave my tattered furnishings behind, discard my old books, not need very much. I’d spend my time reading Kindle on the porch or planting a garden in the sun—azaleas, honeysuckles, witch hazels, asters, bee balms, goldenrods.

The inside of my cottage would be an uncluttered haven just for me, the outside an ebullient sight for the community.

This would be the home of my heart. Thrice daily I ogled it on Trulia, walked around the block on Google Earth. How apt that it was located on Sycamore, for I was sick in love.

One rainy spring morning after dreaming of the house, I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson, as quoted in a Parker Palmer essay:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth’s superb surprise.

Palmer was pondering depression, a state he claims is caused when we disrespect the true self, the person God created us to be.

When we honor the true self, we choose pursuits that employ our inborn talents, resist pursuits that don’t and heed our natural limitations. Doing so brings us joy and enables us to serve those around us. Doing otherwise causes depression and burdens the community.

To honor the true self, we must listen to the promptings of its voice, which Palmer calls the inner teacher, others call the soul, and others the still, small voice of God. But this voice can often challenge the resistant ego, so to make acceptance easier, it sometimes tells the truth slant, using metaphor.

Could it be that the Carolina cottage was a trope composed by my true self? Not the dwelling I should buy, but the person I should be?

Rather than welcome less square footage, should I embrace my diminished role in the professional world? Instead of shedding tattered furnishings, should I drop unfulfilling work, like teaching basic grammar and dusting the church pews?

Rather than throw out old books, should I discard worn sob stories, like those about my SAD and unemployment? Instead of planting a new garden, should I cultivate pursuits I have and love, like writing and, yes, gardening, and caring for family and friends?

Who would I be if I did these things? Inside, an uncluttered, tranquil person; outside, ebullient, generous.

Perhaps the brilliant sunlight angling through the Carolina windows is simply the truth told slant by the voice of my true self.  Now it’s summer, and I am listening.