The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

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Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

One Hundred Years

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When I think of my Aunt Valeria I think of her raisin and pecan cookies that she called “hermits” and her carrot cake that was the best that I have ever tasted. She was is a woman with simple tastes, not needing much in the way of luxuries to be content. She was born in April of 1919, the first daughter of Paul and Mary Ulrich, two recent immigrants from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungry. Of course, if you do the math, you realize that she is turning one hundred years old, a milestone that few of us ever reach, but I’ll talk about that later.

Aunt Valeria was a good child who dutifully helped her mother as the family grew and grew. She was there to watch the birth of most of her siblings and to help her mother care for them. By the time she was sixteen she was already well schooled in household duties and the intricacies of raising children, for she had been a source of great assistance to every one of her eight brothers and sisters, often setting aside her own needs to care for them. She was the essence of the responsible eldest daughter, but she had fallen in love and was hoping that her father would be amenable to the proposal of marriage that her boyfriend, Dale, had delivered to her. She waited expectantly as Dale asked for her hand in a deep conversation in which his true intentions were being assessed by her dad.

Dale passed muster and before long he and Valeria were married. They settled down in a bungalow on the East end of Houston where he would be close to his work at one of the refineries that were popping up along the Ship Channel. He was as good a man as ever there had been, and he was quite handsome to boot. Valeria loved him with all of her heart and wanted little more than a quiet and steady life with him. Before long they had a baby boy whom they named Leonard who was followed by another named Delbert Dale who quickly earned the nickname D.D.

The boys went to St. Christopher’s Catholic School and attended mass each Sunday with their mom who was devoted to her faith. They were already teenagers who had matriculated to St. Thomas High School when Valeria surprisingly learned that she was again pregnant, this time with a little girl. Valeria gave the gorgeous child the name Ingrid after the beautiful movie star Ingrid Bergman who had so impressed her in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The family squeezed into the house that had been Valeria’s home since the earliest days of her marriage and made do with the tight fit, adding a little bed to the dining room to accommodate everyone. Dale often suggested that they purchase a bigger home, but being a practical woman Valeria never felt the need to expand. She was happy in knowing that the house was paid for, free and clear. She had grown up in a much smaller place with more people, and she had seen the hardships of the Great Depression. She was not willing to take financial risks that to her seemed unnecessary.

I remember visits to my Aunt Valeria’s house. My mother loved and admired her older sister so much. The two of them called each other on the phone every single day, and my mama often spoke of the wise advice that she received from her sister. Aunt Valeria represented stability and no nonsense to me. She was the first person to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night when my father died. When a kid at my school insisted that I would be sent to an orphanage if my mother also died, I was able to protest that I knew that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me even though I had never asked her if that was true. I simply assumed that the extra little bed in her dining room was there for me if I ever needed it.

Aunt Valeria liked to watch Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby on television. I recall sitting on her sofa, which was perennially covered with a sheet to make it last longer, while the two crooners enchanted her. She had copies of movie magazines on her coffee table with tantalizing headlines about scandals and such. I always wanted to read them or at least sneak a peek at what was inside, but children didn’t dare do such things back then.

Aunt Valeria was very religious, devoted to her faith. She often tuned in to hear Bishop Fulton Sheen preach. When I had to sit quietly while she and my mother listened to his homilies I silently squirmed inside wishing that I were watching my father’s comedies or my uncle’s westerns. Nonetheless I was always deeply respectful of my Aunt Valeria because my mother was so in awe of her. I felt that I was in the presence of someone quite special and I truly was.

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I immediately hear her little giggle and see her face with an impish smile. She has always been responsible, but also a bit girlish with her joy for music and movie stars. Some of my all time favorite moments were spent seeing musicals like Oklahoma with her in gilded movie theaters that we attended in our finest regalia. I liked being with her because she always made me feel special, happy and so relaxed. I knew that she loved me and hoped that she understood how much I loved her.

Somehow my Aunt Valeria was always the person who showed up whenever I needed someone on whom to lean, but the years went by and she and her beautiful first love, Dale, grew older. One day he died quite peacefully just as she was serving lunch to him in the house that they had purchased decades before. She was bereft and alone, so she called my mother more and more often, the two of them sharing their widowhood and all of the love that they had for each other. Eventually Aunt Valeria became disabled and moved to St. Dominic’s Village where she would receive the kind of care that she had always given others. My mom and I often visited her, bringing her a burger from Burger King or potato salad from Pappa’s Barbecue. Always we snuck in a coke and a snickers bar and Aunt Valeria was as delighted as a child with our presence.

When my mother spent her last year of life in my home I grew to look forward to taking her to see Aunt Valeria for those visits. It seemed that my aunt was ageless and her magical effect on my mother and I was a constant in our lives that we dearly needed. After my mother died there was a kind of sadness in my aunt that I had never before seen. I suppose that she was slowly watching one loved one after another pass away while she still remained. Now there are only two of her siblings left and they are no longer healthy enough to make the journey to visit her. Even her children are growing old and becoming less and less able to be as devoted as they once were. She spends her days in a never ending routine, but whenever any of us visit that same beautiful smile lights up her face and we know that we have made her happy.

One hundred years of service to everyone that she ever encountered is my Aunt Valeria’s legacy. She asked for little, but has given so much. She has been her mother’s helper, her husband’s partner, her children’s devoted caretaker, her sister’s lifeline, my rock in a world that was so confusing and frightening, a faithful servant to her God. Her one hundred years have been well spent. There is no feminist or member of Pantsuit Nation who is as phenomenal as my aunt. Hers has been a life well lived.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

Comedy of Tragedy

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I’m a creature of habit. I still tune in to Saturday Night Live whenever I happen to be home on a Saturday night. I have to admit that the writers seem to have run out of original ideas. In the golden days there were so many great comedians and hilarious skits that I would laugh my head off. Now I’m lucky to find one segment that makes me chuckle. Still I watch in the hopes that new talent will bring more genius  and hilarity to the program, but on most nights I leave disappointed, wanting more than the show appears capable of providing.

I’ve always enjoyed political satire. I laughed at the antics of comedians who impersonated the Kennedy family. I had no trouble finding the humor in jokes like The Vatican Rag with it’s chorus of “genuflect, genuflect.” I’m a great fan of satire, and don’t generally feel indignant when my own sacred cows become the butt of jokes. I truly believe that laughing at ourselves and our idiosyncrasies is a healthy exercise. Still, it seems as though Saturday Night Live has taken a one note approach to laughter. I weary of the continuous digs about President Trump, republicans, and religion. Surely there are other topics that are more interesting and worthy of exploring. What happened to great schticks like candy gram, Bill and Ted, Samurai chef? Why are the present day offerings so predictable and actually a bit unfunny?

On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live one of the comedians indicated that listening to the music of Michael Jackson given his supposed predilection to pedophilia is akin to continuing to go to a Catholic church after learning of the grievous offenses of some of the priests. The goof ball who made the comment is the same fool who poked fun at a Texas congressional candidate who wore an eye patch without learning that the man was a war hero who lost an eye while fighting in the Middle East. The so called jokes come across as more akin to insults than clever ways of poking fun at institutions. The constant beating of such drums feels like propaganda rather than entertainment.

I serve as a Eucharistic Minister at my Catholic church which is a humbling task because it has shown me exactly why my fellow parishioners continue to hold fast to their faith in spite of grave anger about the handling of wayward priests. As I present the chalice to each person the notion behind the word “communion” comes clearly into focus. What I see is a community of good but imperfect souls who come together in a spirit of faith and love to be better versions of themselves. The fact that some among us have sinned is not the point of our devotion, rather we are searching for a source of serenity in our lives that we find in the gospels and promises of Jesus. We know from them that we will always be loved. Why indeed would we want to abandon something that powerful?

I’ve learned that there are bad people everywhere. I’ve seen teachers harm students, bankers steal, doctors take advantage of patients, coaches cheat, engineers build unsafe structures. The fact that any profession or organization is found to have evil in its midst is not an indictment of an entire group. It is simply an indication of our human weaknesses.

When I worked in a school where a man was accused of sexually abusing his daughter the rest of us were shocked, saddened, and even angry. We had no thoughts of indicting the entire faculty based on one man’s transgressions. Our students did not leave the school in droves for fear of being in a nest of evil. So it is with the Catholic church. As the faithful we are filled with so many emotions. We grieve and seethe with anger while also understanding that our own faith and the ideals of our church are bigger than the harm that has been done.

We are a family, and just as with any family we are shocked and hurt when one of our own proves to be a traitor to our group. A breach of trust is difficult to handle, but we do not break apart the entire structure because of the sins of the few. So it is with those of us who remain members of the Catholic church. My own parish is a loving and inviting place that brings me comfort, and so I eagerly go to mass each Sunday. I do not ignore or forget the sins of some of the men who were supposed to be our shepherds. They have smeared our reputation as Catholics in a horrendous way, and we want assurances that things will change. I also understand that we will never reach a state of perfection as long as humans are part of our group.

If the comedian who posed such a silly question were to come to my church with a sincere desire to become a member of our community I am certain that he would be welcomed with the spirit of love that Jesus taught us to convey to all of our fellow humans. Knowing that we are one in the spirit of our religion is what keeps us coming each week, not some blind allegiance to strange beliefs. In reality our continued support of the Catholic church is more of a pledge to the teachings of Jesus than a testimony of ignorance. It is indeed a beautiful thing.

A Joyful Presence

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Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.