Category Archives: Catholicism

Vacancies and Writing and Buddhism and my favorite Sister

“What are your vacancies?” Bethany wrote in her blog, after writing about the voids she feels in her life sometimes. I don’t like thinking about mine. Most of the time I ignore them. If I’m to be honest, I realize my actions have disqualified me from karmic goodness. I abandoned my horse, essentially. Something has shifted in me, over the years, to feel a personal distaste at the idea of buying and selling horses. They connect with us humans, and then we sell them. They move into a life absent from us, and they could be abused or neglected, starved or overworked, and we don’t know.

Sometimes I wake to find I have been dreaming of my horse, and I wonder if he ever misses me. Does he wonder why I just disappeared? I know where he is, but I can’t bear to go visit him, although I know he is well treated. I didn’t sell him, either, though perhaps I could have made some money doing so. I just couldn’t do it. I gave him away to someone who loved him, and then turned away.

Another absence: I shared some writing with a writer friend who has been increasingly successful over the years. She gave me excellent advice, the kind that is at once helpful but also leaves one feeling somewhat down: “Why didn’t I see that? I should have known that.” But the advice was doable, reasonable, well framed. What silenced me was her comment about not really liking my style, although I have suspected for years that she would not choose to read anything I write if we weren’t friends. She has encouraged me as a writer, but she and I write differently. She doesn’t like my “Latinate” word choices, prefers simplicity and straightforward sentences composed with Orwellian transparency.

After her review, I couldn’t write. I sat down to do so and found myself silenced. No matter how much I understand intellectually that writers differ in their styles, and that one can appreciate a writer’s ability without particularly liking the style, I can’t emotionally move past the disappointment of my friend’s comment. And I can’t help but think of my mother, who didn’t like my style either. “It’s too flowery,” she said, every time she read something I wrote, and then inevitably turned to grammar. “You’ve ended this sentence with a preposition. You can’t do that.” Grammar and style. I could never get either one of them right.

I suppose there are other absences, but right now I don’t have time to think of them. I’ve been trying to write this for three days. Every time I start, someone interrupts me. It’s summer. I should have time, but I realize I’m busier than ever. I’m teaching two classes, and Zeke has driver’s ed, and her friends spend as much time here as at their houses, and the dogs need walking, and no matter how much I want to write, something holds me back.

And now, hours later, I return from an evening at Sister A’s house, where we talked about “I am the way and the truth and the light” and about Buddhism and Hinduism and her neighbors in the shelter house next door who bring her the raspberries they grow in their garden between bouts with alcohol. A homeless man stopped by for a sandwich, and the breeze blew the heat of the day away. “OK, I’m going to do my Buddha thing,” I said once, to prepare her and the others for another off-the-wall connection with Eastern religion — Buddha nature in this case. And she laughed and recommended a book by Diana Eck, and said, “You’ll like her, Adah.” This Saturday is her 60th Jubilee, and I’m going.

Right now, right this moment–long may it last–I feel no absence at all.

Her name is Lloyza

She is seven, will be eight on the 16th. She stands against a stone wall, in a pale pink top, hot pink jeans and matching pink flipflops. Her black hair is pulled back into two pony tails on either side of her head, and a few stray hairs fall over her forehead, wispy dark. She looks directly at the camera, not smiling, a probing, serious look.

I saw her photograph as soon as I walked through the main doors of the cathedral. A priest I didn’t know stood behind a table on which stacks of folders bearing colorful pictures waited. I scanned the pictures, and stopped on Lloyza’s. I reached out my hand, touched the folder, and heard the cantor name the opening hymn. No time. I turned to enter the nave and find my spot in the pew, leaving the folder behind with all the others.

The homily, given by the visiting priest, reminded us of our responsibilities to others less well off. He was speaking on behalf of poor children and aging people worldwide. “Sponsor a child or an aging person,” he encouraged us. “For $1 a day, you can make a huge difference in the life of an individual who is barely surviving. That person will receive health and dental care, food and clothing, an education.” The association he was speaking for, The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, spends more than 94% of the money it raises on the people designated to receive it. Less than 6% goes towards administration and fund raising. I listened harder. For years I had wanted to sponsor a child somewhere in the world, but had always hesitated, afraid that the money would go to some millionaire CEO and to glossy advertisements and solicitations. No. Not according to Father D. The foundation has received an A+ from one charity regulating board, four of four stars from another. He speaks of the seven children he has sponsored and watched grow up. “I can’t have my own children,” he says, “So I made a family for myself.” He names them, their ages, what they are doing. He has visited them. The foundation arranges trips to the countries where they provide sponsorships. I imagine visiting the little girl in pink, wherever she lives. I’ll look at her folder after Mass, I think.

But after Mass, Father D asks the servers to bring in packets to hand out to interested people. I raise my hand. A man walks over and hands me a folder. It’s the girl in pink.

I sponsor her. Her name is Lloyza and she lives outside Manila, in a small village, in a hut with a sheet metal roof. She sleeps on the floor, and cooks on a charcoal fire. She has two little brothers, and she helps clean the house and wash the dishes. She is “diligent in schooling.” Her favorite subject is Filipino. I wonder if she’s like me, an English-speaker whose favorite subject was English. She loves to sing.

Soon I’ll get an address for her and I’ll be able to write to her and send her a photograph or two. I hope she writes back soon.

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

On being happy

“You’re the happiest person I know,” he said.

I laughed. “Except when I’m not.” I suppose it’s true. I’ve been terribly unhappy at times, but realistically those times have coincided with pretty serious stresses — losing babies to miscarriages and getting cancer twice is not quite as easy to overcome as a hangnail might be. And most of the time I recognize how lucky I am to live this life of relative ease and comfort, to have a stimulating job that allows me to set my own schedule within certain parameters, to have a funny, smart, loving daughter who is dealing remarkably well with the challenges of being a teenager in these difficult times, to have a vet who gives me discounts when the littlest dog gets dental surgery (yesterday), to have a new car with decent gas mileage and the income to buy organic food and fresh produce — even to indulge Zeke in her love of pink lady apples at the outrageous price of $2.99 a pound. I have a window in a quiet condo that looks out onto a patio, a patch of grass, and flowering trees in shades of pink. Tulips line the fence in vibrant red. Pansies turn delicate purple faces towards the light. Everything glows in the resplendence of spring sunshine. I feel the sun even here in the shade of my living room.

It’s dangerous, of course, to think about it. It has taken me years to recognize the transience of both joy and sorrow. When my mood darkens, I know to breathe deep, take a walk, wait for the change. When I feel happiness lifting me, I know to enjoy it but not to become attached. There will be another storm. The mood will shift.

I have been thinking about happiness since I read Dale’s post on it. When I was younger, I always looked forward to the day I’d have everything I dreamed of. There would be the horse farm in Ireland, the reading tours for my book, the fame and acclaim and steady flow of cash. I wouldn’t have to think, “Do I really need this?” because I would have the money to buy it (and back then, of course, I didn’t even think about the fact that moneyed or not, we shouldn’t be buying things just to have them, just to start them on the path to the dump or the incinarator where they would loose toxins into the air.) And yet. And yet. Somehow I had an inkling. I remember my best friend from Ireland (who is still my best from Ireland 30 years on), not bothering to clean her tack. “One day,” she said, “I’ll have a job that pays me enough I’ll never have to clean my bridle. I’ll just buy a new one when the old one get too dirty.” I never understood that attitude. I cleaned my tack and oiled it and won awards for the “best turned-out” pony. The leather of the reins and the headpiece and the check straps and all the rest of it was buttery soft. And I still have that bridle, though one of my more recent horses chewed on the reins, and it is showing its age.

I have digressed, perhaps because an aspect of happiness for me is the sensualness of a moment, and I remember those reins in my hand, the living mouth at the end of them and the feel of our connection — my pony and I, and then I am drawn here, to this moment with my computer in my lap, the slow ache in my right knee that impinges when I think about it, and then slips away when I look out at the dew sparkles on the grass. Sadie breathes beside me, wrapped in a blanket as is her preference. Bridjy sleeps at the other end of the couch, half toothless and older than we thought when we rescued her, but still happy and a lover of walks.

Surrender, Dale says. He prostrates himself in his Buddhist practice, and I think of the rituals of Catholicism, the genuflection, the grace bestowed in the Eucharist, these moments that are also acts of surrender. I think of Islam, which comes from a word that means love and peace, but also surrender.

Sometimes I imagine myself forward to what might be. Nada and I might get a house together some day. Some terrible thing that I can’t name might happen some day. But I stop myself. Surrender is a surrendering to the moment, to Now.

To Sadie breathing beside me, to Bridjy with clean teeth, to clicking “publish” and heading upstairs to wake Zeke for school. To Now.

Houseful

The house is full of teenagers — Zeke’s friend, and their two boyfriends, and two gay friends — and they’re boiling eggs for Easter, and the TV is going, and the iPod is plugged into the speakers, and even though I’m up here in my bedroom with the door closed, I can hear the music and the movie voices, and the clink of spoons, and I can smell spaghetti cooking, and I’m trying to write, but I can’t. It occurs to me that I probably seem a bit flaky, switching from one thing to another, abandoning projects and picking them up again here and there. I haven’t abandoned my book on Esperanca, but I’ve run into a snag with it. She wants her name on it, her real name, and her real name is so unusual (and beautiful too) that it is distinctive. If I make the typo-free book available, I will expose her. So I’m trying to decide what to do with it.

Time for a confession: Nada fell asleep last week, while I read him a bit from my book about my mother and the heron.  And I stopped writing for several days. My mother always criticized my writing, and now any hint that what I’m working on is not good enough freezes me. How I finished my thesis (a creative one) is beyond me.

But I couldn’t stop writing it. I think it’s a way for me to make sense of what happened, of my role in it, and a way to find my way back to peace with my sisters. So I keep working on it, but when he calls and asks me what I’m doing, I lie. I tell him I’m reading, or just got back from walking the dogs, or doing laundry, because after he fell asleep all I could think about was that my ex-husband wouldn’t read the book my mother and I wrote about our breast cancer experience, and that my life has always been full of people who haven’t really liked anything I’ve ever written. It feels whiny to write what I’m writing, but I’ve sworn I’m going to stop censoring myself. I’ve been censoring myself for too long.

I’m in that strange transitional mood that happens when the quarter ends. It’s been a great quarter, with fun classes, but I’m a bit bummed out because I submitted grades that I know some students aren’t going to be happy with. But they have to learn somewhere, somehow, to read the assignment, to listen to me when I tell them that if they don’t include copies of their sources with their papers they’ll fail the paper — period. They have to learn to read and respond to their emails BEFORE the grades are in. One student didn’t send in her online quiz, and I emailed her twice about it, and then she emailed me after the grades were in and wrote, “If you didn’t get my quiz yet, please call me ASAP at 555-5555 and I’ll send it to you.” TOO LATE!!! Four minutes past the deadline for me to submit my grades. What was she thinking? And I like her. But I can’t — and won’t — change the grade for her even if she does have the quiz and does submit it. There’s some kind of insane epidemic of students who are fun and interesting and just nice to be around, but they don’t pay attention and don’t do the work and then they act hurt when their final grade isn’t what they expect. I’ve been warning them all quarter, but I think they’ve been trained in a high school system that warns them they’ll fail, and then passes them anyway. So that’s what they expect.

I read last night, for Holy Thursday. I wasn’t as nervous as I expected. I went for a walk beforehand, in the Canyon, one of my favorite places, and I felt the fierce, wild spirit of the rocks rising into the air around me. And it was something like the night before Anne Frank opened, when I saw Kuan Yin laughing in front of me, and knew it would be OK. I’m more used to it all now, and the Spanish reader was a former student of mine, so we had fun in the sacristy beforehand, catching up on news, and when it was time to process in, I was calm. It was moving, to be reminded of a year ago, when I was in the front row, getting my feet washed by the Bishop, and I remembered Nada in India, getting his feet washed by his friend, and there’s something about that story, about my memory of him telling me about it, that touches me every time. Afterwards, we processed out with the host to the chapel, and I walked right behind the Bishop as the choir sang hauntingly before us. In that moment the music and the clear sound of the bells brought back memories of China, of that dawn chanting and drumming that so captivated me, and I knew why I could have at home a shelf on which Kuan Yin sits beside St. Teresa, and the temple guardians watch over both of them.

I’m rambling. There’s nothing organized or meaningful about what I’ve written here, except perhaps as a way to capture a moment. I’ve jumped from idea to idea, and not edited or changed anything, though I guess I’ll proofread at least.

One of the lads downstairs has an astonishingly loud laugh, and it bursts out regularly, rising above the general cacaphony of music and food being prepared and kids talking. I’m tired but I probably couldn’t sleep, with all the excitement downstairs. Tomorrow I’m going to visit my dad for Easter, will get to see my little nephew again. Then it’s the break, for a week, and I’ll clean up my office and prepare for next quarter, and find a moment to do some yard work in the little garden. And then it’s spring quarter, and the days are long enough for evening walks, and the cold is gone so I can go outside without my chest constricting, and another year is drawing to a close. (I measure the year based on the academic calendar more than I do the Christian one!)

Three things: Long days; Zeke’s friends; the growing ability to recognize a mood as simply a passing moment, like ripples on the water, and therefore, for the moment, a resulting peace.

Retrospective 11: 1973 — God is Love

“Irish is easy,” I told Mum at dinner when I first began learning the language, soon after coming to Ireland. “Spoon is spunog, and God is love.” (Spunog is written here without the necessary fadas — accent marks — because I don’t know how to make them in WordPress, and it is pronounced something like spoon-ohwg, if I remember right.)

“Yes,” Mum said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. God is love.” She said nothing about the Irish. It was a mystery to her, and as was the case for so many Dublin families whose children were forced to learn Irish by legislators that insisted upon it, she resisted our need to learn a “dead language.” My father scoffed too, and far more than she did. We learned early on that it wasn’t worthwhile to try in Irish, because trying was a sign of submission to the authorities. So I gave up. Truth to tell, Irish isn’t easy at all: the spelling is bizarre for an English speaker, the pronunciation illogical for an English speaker, and the grammar complex and out of order. A literal translation of the grammatical construction for  “I am hungry” (which is, if my memory serves me, “Ta ocras orm”) is “There is hunger on me.” But I remember so little of the language, despite my decade of learning it, that I could be wrong on all counts. (So don’t sue me if you know Irish and I’ve represented it all wrong!)

Anyway, I soon learned to despise Irish, something I regret today, though I wouldn’t dare admit it to my father. And I learned that God wasn’t love. God didn’t exist, actually. God was despicable, a crutch for weaklings. Mum, despite her rigid Methodist upbringing and the desire to flee all religion that reminded her of home when she fled the world of her dying mother, at least dealt gently with the fact that Irish schools contained religion of some sort or another. My father, on the other hand, rolled his eyes and spoke with contempt of a system that was trying to brainwash people with the ideas of “the biggest cult of them all,” Catholicism.

After that one slip up, bringing home “God” and daring to present the word at dinner, I never made the mistake of mentioning religion again.

For a moment I wonder why I brought Irish and God home in the same sentence, why they were so entwined that I connected them the way I did — illogically but somehow correctly. Then I realize that I have only to look at the history of the country to know the answer.

In the name of the mother, the daughter, and…

…. the holy spirit.

Last night I was invited to the new inquiry group at the cathedral to talk about my “faith story,” the journey I took that ended up in me being Catholic, and my favorite person was there, one of the major influences on my decision, giving her talk on God. I hadn’t seen her since the first time, two years ago, and she hadn’t changed at all, still with that thick curly white hair and that gentle face, those probing blue eyes and that soft voice. And she was as funny as ever, as self-deprecating and as smart.

I told you about her before, the nun who spoke for an hour about God without mentioning a pronoun? Last night one of the RCIA team leaders asked her about the challenge of a religion that shapes the higher power in the image of a father. “What if you have a bad relationship to your father, or no father at all?”

“Well,” she said. “God has no gender. God is neither man nor woman. I say you find an image that works for you, and it doesn’t matter what gender it is. Imagine God like a beloved aunt or sister. Whatever lets you feel a connection.”

“What,” one of the cheekier RCIA attendants asked, “if I were to cross myself and say, ‘in the name of the mother, the daughter, and the holy spirit.’ Would I be tarred and feathered and chased out of town with pitchforks?”

“It depends who you said it in front of,” Sister Catherine said. “Some might be shocked, some scandalized, some might reprimand you, and some would jump up and come to your rescue and say, ‘Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right!'”

Do you love this woman or what?