Category Archives: Spirituality

Defying reason

The grass grows, a faint green wash across the hills. Where the heron stood two weeks ago, the color rises vibrantly out of the decay of dead weeds. I look each day as I drive the exit, my eyes scanning the patch of weedy grass, and always the bird is absent, as I would expect it to be. Loren wrote in a comment, “It almost defies reason.” For me, it does defy reason. I have a physicist father, a neurosurgeon grandfather. I come from a line of scientists. The heron’s presence, always precisely connected to my mother, is a mystery.

Oh, it’s not that herons are never present on unimportant days, or when I’m not thinking of Mum. It’s just that those herons appear where expected, standing in the river, flying over the heronry that’s off the main freeway across the gap. I see them and think nothing of it. It’s when they appear in odd places, at significant times, that I am halted and drawn into the mystery of their presence. One of my favorite nuns here, a woman from the Phillipines who had spent a year or two in Ireland on retreat, told me during my first weeks in RCIA that the Irish nuns she met all had a strong connection to animals. “The heron fits so well,” she said. Her immediate acceptance of the heron as an aspect of the divine drew me in, although it was perhaps in a different way than she might have expected.

Then, today, I was glancing at my stats (not an obsession, just a curiosity, because I like to see what search terms pull people in, and some of them are funny and some curious — like the sudden influx of readings from a listserv on teaching in response to my entry about multiple choice grading: what’s that about?) and there was someone searching for “What does heron signify” and just out of interest, I Googled it. And there was another interesting synchronicity: The heron sometimes is associated with meditation for its habit of standing motionless for long periods. My mother, who meditated almost every day for the last 30 or more years of her life, loved a bird that evokes meditation.

It almost defies reason. No. For me, at this point, it does defy reason. And I’m not worried about it, anyway, whether it’s a coincidence, just me paying attention because I have been awoken to the importance of herons in my life, or whether there is something beyond reason in it. It just is. And that’s enough for me.

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Retrospective 3: 1965 — Reconciliation

We are four, sitting on the grass, in bright sunshine. She wears a pink cotton dress, and her honey-lit hair falls sleek down her back. She turns to him, and he holds me on his shoulders, his hands dark against the pale cream of my baby legs. I smile, toothless still, wispy blond hair catching light. My grandmother, her mother, watches us all, wrapped in a lace and orange dress that is like a sari, that hangs loose over her body, which has been ravaged by cancer. She is breastless but bloated, large. Her dark hair is wrapped in a smooth bun on top of her head, and she carries herself imperiously. She must have one of those deep, commanding smoker’s voices. She looks happy, in the pictures where she holds me, but also distant. There is a time when those who are dying begin to let go, to drift away. She is right there, teetering, fighting for life, and yet somehow, irresistibly, beginning to leave.

My mother looks at my father, smiling, happy. She knows, already, his proclivities. These pictures must have been taken at the time of reconciliation, after she left him to come home to Nashville, and after he followed her, begging for another chance. And she loved him, hard and deep and without boundaries. Oh he drove too fast, so that she clung to me in the car and prayed to the God in whom she no longer believed. Oh he left her alone in her little house on the beach, sometimes for days, and then came blowing in with stories of danger, and lust and loss in Mexico, carrying flowers, or a handful of earth, or a stone from some far-off beach. “I thought of you. This stone is the color of your eyes.”

Carrying a leaf.

In the end, though, his rage, his fits, his acid-dropping hallucinatory nights, the way he drove as though he desired to push the car through into another dimension — to bring all of us with him to that place he longed to find, me crying or quiet, I don’t remember — these things were enough, and she fled.

In the pictures, taken after he followed her to Nashville, there is no hint of the darkness. I reach for him and he laughs. He looks as though he loves me. Everything is green and pink and white and orange and rich and filled with something lovely. But my grandmother is letting go, the cancer spreading through her. My mother is reaching for him, and he is looking elsewhere. And I? I am laughing, laughing, petulant in one of the pictures, spoilt, loved, oblivious.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.


Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

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?

Lector, part two

Continued from here

The question is why I would want to be a lector in the first place. There are several reasons. First, I’ve always loved to read aloud. I spent many happy hours reading stories to my daughter when she was younger, putting on different voices for all the different characters. Second, I have terrible stage fright. I can walk into a classroom and teach, but strangers terrify me. I thought it might be good for me to get in front of a cathedral full of strangers now and again. Third, I want to know more about the Bible. Maybe reading it regularly will help me to learn about it. There’s something about religion that gets my students fired up, and I find myself resisting the common academic stance that there’s nothing for students to learn in religion. In fact, I think they need to study religion in college. Having teachers that are open to discussions of religion, and knowledgeable, and willing to accept that intellectual pursuits and spiritual ones are not mutually exclusive, these things might make all the difference to a highly religious student’s experience in college (and I have a lot of them, in my conservative, fundamentalist town). And it might allow us to find some common ground from which to begin conversations about global warming and the Iraq war. Maybe I won’t be seen as the enemy, the intellectual anti-religious Satan worshipper their mothers warned them about (and believe me, my students do get warned about us Satan-loving professors — using those words, too!) If they sense a kinship in inquiry and spirituality, perhaps they’ll be more willing to listen to the questions I ask and the viewpoints I present.

And finally, I just love the language of the Bible. It’s majestic and powerful and cadenced… and oh, wait… that’s the King James Version, which no one uses any more. Sigh. I have to settle for more modern translations, which might be more accessible and perhaps even more accurate, but which lack what I remember from my childhood — that soaring language, a kind of poetry. Still, it’s fun to read.

Eventually I was contacted for training, and after my lessons I was allowed to read at a daily mass in the little chapel. During the summer, I read on Thursday and Saturday mornings, to a scant dozen in the little chapel which I love so much. Then I was brought in for a Sunday service, along with my trainer, who had softened towards me by then, perhaps because I do enjoy it, when I’ve over being terrified, and because I do feel a kind of reverence in reading.

And now, now, I’ve been scheduled for Holy Thursday, one of the biggest masses of the year. Last year I sat up front with my fellow RCIA journeyers while the bishop washed our feet. Nada sat close by, participating too, and all I could remember was a story he told of being in India with his best friend. They’d been walking all day, and their feet were filthy. “And we went into a bathroom and he took off my shoes and washed my feet. I think that was one of the most moving moments of my life,” Nada said when he told me the story, and his face was soft as he remembered.

As the bishop came closer to me, with his jug of water, and the catch basin, and the small white towel, I realized what Nada had meant, how the act of foot-washing symbolized so very much: humility, love, grace, compassion. Nada’s friend’s act was an act of love and reverence towards him. The bishop’s action commemorated Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet, as well as the words Jesus told the disciples at the time: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (KJV John 13:34). The bishop, an elderly man, sank to his knees before us, and washed our feet, and dried them gently, with words of compassion, and I was moved by it all, by the incense and organ music and choir, and the holy water sprinkled over us, and the prospect of being able to participate in the Eucharist in just two days. And by the bishop’s “peace be with you,” as he finished drying my feet, and stood carefully up to move to the next person, grimacing slightly, his knees paining him, and yet no word of complaint. Just a service to us on this eve of baptism and confirmation. It was grand.

In the end, perhaps reading on Sundays is a way of thanking them all, the RCIA team, the bishop and monseignor, the choir, everyone else, for that moment of understanding.

Lector, part one

Why do I find myself wanting to make my Catholic posts private? I think it’s because I lack what some Catholics might consider the necessary reverence towards religion in general and Catholicism in general. And yet that’s not really true, either. I am both reverent and irreverent. I revere the mystery that is life, that is Obadiah in flight, that is Bridgey envisioned before she came into my life, that is the light in my mother’s head. I revere the beauty in rituals, the grace of the Eucharist, or the power of the chanting at dawn in Chinese Buddhist temples. But I don’t revere dogma or judgment. I almost walked out of RCIA forever when a pompous young man gave us a fifth grade sex education lesson and told us adults that reverencing life means being anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-woman’s rights, anti-birth control. It was the only talk during the 18 months of my RCIA experience in which someone tried to tell us what to think, rather than presenting the church’s position and then inviting a discussion in which dissent was welcomed. He was new, I was told later. He’d never spoken before, and had volunteered when the usual facilitator couldn’t make it. He wouldn’t be invited back, my sponsor told me. I wasn’t the only one who’d been upset.

In a sense, I am anti-abortion. I couldn’t imagine having an abortion, and it pains me when Zeke tells me that her friend has already, at the age of 15, had four. But I would never deny Sarah or any woman the right to choose. If I were a doctor, I probably wouldn’t perform an abortion, but I’d never judge doctors who choose to do so. And I believe in the right to be taken off life-support, to death with dignity, to choice. None of these things are incompatible with a reverence for life. Still, I might not seem the natural choice for a lector. Certainly the head lector didn’t think so last year, during the mystagogy portion of the RCIA experience, when we were asked in what way we might serve the church, and were given many options, one of which was lector, or reader, or … here it comes … Minister of the Word.

“I like reading,” I said. “Maybe I could do that.”

The woman in charge of lectors lifted her head. “You?” she asked, and I could swear she wrinkled her nose a bit. It’s true I’m the one who always found every way possible to compare Catholicism to Buddhism, and who eventually chose Catholicism because the Dalai Lama suggested it was best to stick to one’s heritage (I’m simplifying, you understand!). I’m the one who walked out on the man who insisted that “Go forth and be fruitful” meant that anyone who would ever think about not having 14 kids was a sinner. I’m the one with the atheist father and the Buddhist mother, the one who kept saying, the whole time, “Well, I’m probably not going to come back.”

So when I said, rather flippantly, “I can read. How hard can it be?” the Woman in Charge of Lectors bridled.

“You do understand,” she said, “that you are not just reading when you Proclaim the Word?”

Right. I forgot. I’m Proclaiming.

“But reading’s part of it, right?” I said.

“It’s far more than reading. Not just anyone can be a lector. You need to be Trained. And you need to Proclaim. It’s a Serious Duty, an Honor, and must be treated with the Reverence it deserves.”

There’s that reverence thing again. I’ve never been particularly reverent when it comes to rules, to behaving right.

“I can try,” I said. The WiCoL frowned.

“We’ll see,” she said, ominously.

To be continued…

Protected: On being Catholic

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Like something dropped on me, so sudden does it hit, stopping me there in the center of the path, in the mute light, shards of ice catching sparks from the hiding sun, black branches, a horizon where the snow and the sky meet and weave together and become one another. And I am filled with it, the suddenness of it — transubstantiation.

It doesn’t matter that I am here, on the path, and not at Mass. It doesn’t matter that the dogs sniff the undergrowth and I worry about my father. It doesn’t matter, any of it. It will be fine.

They hit me, these small epiphanies, in surprising ways. They always have. I had no words for them before, and few enough words now. I simply stand and wait, absorbing it — the knowing, the calm. I could die like this. There is another side — but that is the wrong word, side. As though there really is one place, and another, or one time, and another. Opposites. Bifercation. They are constructs. Words cannot say.

My mother’s head spilled light when she was dying. I dreamed of beautiful nothingness and came back through flaming embers. Those moments, those memories that are more than memories, stop me dead. They return and return. If I had been born and raised Catholic, I would be a nun.

Old Girl’s reference to Martin Luther King’s experience on the bench when he was tired of fighting, a time when God spoke to him, followed me all day yesterday. I have carried with me the moment on the path last weekend, that sudden, knee-buckling realization that is pain and ecstasy at once. There is no difference between the two, in the end. Martin Luther King heard God speaking to him. I hear no words. There is no grand light, no operatic music. Just that moment, repeated and repeated. Mum’s head spilling light, the rich earth spilling through my fingers in Ireland, the rising up and up and then falling into emptiness of my strange moments as a 10-year-old in Ireland. Kuan Yin and Teresa of Avila spin in the clouds, touch fingers and dissolve. Nada is my beautiful emptiness. I tell Mum of my dream. “I know,” she says. “I’m not afraid.”

The light in her head flickers, and fades. I am the only one who sees it — Mum and I alone in the house that afternoon — but the heron is for all of us. I do not fear dying.

After Thanksgiving bits n’ pieces

It’s 61 degrees in Dad’s house. I hate the cold. I’m wearing a coat and gloves to type, drinking tea. The milky morning light is burning off the water as the sun rises. The water is bleached and still now; everything seems to wait.

Later on, we’ll be finishing off a downstairs room in my sister’s house. Every time I come over there’s some project to do. Ruth May’s house is old and with the baby she can’t do much. Dad’s knees are bad and he can’t kneel any more. I’ll put on a mask and try to put the skirting board back in the room where she (we) put down laminate wood floor and painted in the fall. The paint will slip through the mask and I’ll cough and wheeze anyway. The three of us are worthless at home improvement.

The dogs try to help, but they’re not allowed in the basement. They’ll skitter around upstairs, angry at being shut out. Sadie will climb the gate and come down anyway, or push through and come down. She wants to be with me. She’s used to it. Yes, she’s spoiled, and I don’t care.

Outside Dad’s window, the cormorants sun themselves on the nearby pilings. They lift their wings to dry them, and their black feathers shine. Obadiah hasn’t been back since Leah’s birthday on the fourth. I’m glad. Every time the heron is absent on an insignificant day, her appearance on a meaningful day becomes more poignant. Still, I miss her. The year Mum died, she was here any time I came down, as though to convey her approval. Now, I guess, she just expects that I’ll be here quite often. She comes only for birthdays or gatherings, or when illness threatens.

I’ve been working on my young adult novel for my friend’s daughter. It’s to be a Christmas present, though the odds of me finishing it in time are getting slimmer and slimmer. It keeps getting more complicated. It’s got to be a series, like Harry Potter, but with theme of religious pluralism and respect for this spinning planet that we are hellbent on destroying. I started it three years ago, then stopped, then started again. I’ve stopped and started only because my friend’s daughter keeps asking about it, so finally I decided to write it for her, making a commitment to her that becomes binding on me. It’s slow going, though. It requires research, for it weaves in mythology and religion from all over the world. The protagonist, who is my friend’s daughter, of course, loves otters, so I had to find an otter friend for her. I found an Irish otter, Dobhar ChĂș, who is white with a black cross on his back, and who is dangerous in all the mythology about him. But the otter in my book, the “water hound” in my story, is not dangerous at all, except to those who would destroy that which he is charged to protect.

To write about him, I have to find pictures, read about him, find the core of his being in the stories about him so that I can present him to my friend. He comes alive that way.

Dad is downstairs…. Time to start the day.