Poet...Musician...Thinker...Blogger...Teacher...Husband...Father...I'm not perfect, but I try!
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
June 29: Saints Peter and Paul
I have a confession to make. It may come as a surprise to some of my readers, but those of you who know me personally will not be surprised at all by what I am about to reveal. Here goes.
My confession: I get pissed at God sometimes. In fact, God and I haven't been on speaking terms for long periods of time in the past.
I'm not talking about an anger that comes and goes quickly, like God eating the last piece of pizza I was saving for breakfast. I'm talking about a lasting and abiding rage that lasts for months, like God seeing me broken down on the side of the road at 2 a.m. and just driving by me, honking His horn and waving.
There have been times in my life when I couldn't pray, times when I felt so betrayed and abandoned by God that going to church was like attending a birthday party for Hitler.
At the start of one of these crises, I was in the office of my pastor friend at church. He already knew the circumstances that brought me to him. I sat on the couch in front of him, sobbing and snotting all over myself.
When I was finally able to speak, I said, "I just want to know what I did."
He looked at me puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"What I did," I said again. "To make God punish me like this?"
Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering what personal catastrophe brought me to this point. So let me clear that up: I'm not going to tell you. What I will tell you is that I was wounded. Shattered, as a matter of fact. And I was looking for reason, logic, sense in a senseless situation.
I honestly thought God was adjusting the scales, meting out some divine justice on my head. I just couldn't figure out what I had done to deserve it.
"You didn't do anything," my friend said.
I shook my head and hugged my stomach, as if I'd been gut-punched.
"Listen to me," my friend said. "You didn't do anything."
I looked at him.
"God doesn't work that way," he said, leaning back in his chair. He waved his hands at the contents of his office. "And I wouldn't work for a God who did work that way."
I shook my head again, gripped by another stomach spasm.
"I'm serious," he said. "I'd resign today and go work at Burger King if I thought that's how the way things were." He said it so firmly and with such conviction that I wanted to believe him. I wanted to be that sure of God's constant and unchangeable love. I was drowning.
It's really easy to blame God for the crap that happens in the world and in your life. He created the world, after all, so He should be responsible for its brokenness, as well. Hurricane Katrina--God. Genocide in Rwanda--God. Racism--God. Mental illness--God. It's a pretty easy formula, isn't it?
But it ain't that easy. That would be like eating a Florida orange and claiming it was the solution to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. I want life to be that simple, that reductive. It's not.
What my pastor friend made me understand was that God did, indeed, make the world. Babies, rainbows, full moons, oceans, sunrises, sunsets, Godiva chocolates. But all the shit--global warming, murder, abandonment, war, alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual addiction, pornography, mental illness--that's just a symptom of human beings chasing the cracks in creation, the human-made fault lines full of shadows and pain. God always wants what's best for me. For us. He didn't want me sitting in my friend's office, weeping. But God did give me a friend who listened to my cries. God can take a huge pile of manure, add a seed, and make an orchid bloom.
Take Peter and Paul, for example. Peter argued with Jesus on more than one occasion. He pissed Jesus off so much that J.C. even called Peter "Satan" once. Peter was always telling Jesus that he knew J.C. was the savior and son of God, but when the chips were down, Pete's basic response was, "I don't know nothin' 'bout that Jesus guy." Paul was even worse. Paul, AKA Saul, was throwing Christians to the lions. Literally. After his conversion, he suffered from a "thorn in his flesh", which he writes about in 2 Corinthians. Different people have interpreted this "thorn" as an eye ailment; depression; guilt over his earlier persecution of Christians; and a particularly troublesome opponent to his work in Corinth. Regardless of what or who the thorn was, Paul didn't have it easy. Yet, God took both of these flawed, broken men and made saints out of them.
What's my point?
My point is that I know it's OK to be pissed at God. If He can take eight years of George W. Bush, my little bundle of anger must seem like a mosquito buzzing around His head. God doesn't create problems. Humans do. God takes problems and creates beauty.
From the Holocaust came Anne Frank's diary. From moldy bread came penicillin. And from mental illness and anger came a rebirth of love and my beautiful son.
Monday, June 28, 2010
June 28: Saint Vincentia Gerosa
Well, don't think that NB's prolonged absence from this blog indicates any shift in her mental health or general disposition. She is still pretty miserable and goes out of her way to make other people miserable. NB still treats my wife like she's a combination of Lizzie Borden and Eva Braun, and, as far as I can tell, has still not received the treatment she needs to make her situation any better. In short, nothing's changed.
In her, anyway.
I add that qualification to my previous statement because, obviously, something has shifted. NB is still behaving the same way, but I am not consumed by her petty comments, ignorant cruelty, and old-fashioned bitchiness. She has not changed one iota since I began praying for her at the start of Lent this past year.
So, eliminating NB from the list of possible suspects for causing the change in my relationship with her, that leaves only one possible conclusion: me, in the kitchen, with the lead pipe.
Yes, I am the person who has changed in some way. That's quite the statement, considering I like change about as much as I like eating blood sausage. In short, not very much. Picture Gordon Ramsay from Hell's Kitchen screaming, "It tastes like dogshit!" That's pretty much the way I feel about change.
Yet, here I stand naked before you in cyberspace (there's an image for you), a changed person. It obviously wasn't a sudden shift, or I would have bridled against it almost immediately. One of the best ways to insure that I don't do something is to tell me that I have to do it. Think of how many times your mother or father or grandparent or teacher sat you down and told you to finish your peas or apologize to your sibling or read chapter 11 in Introduction to Modern Philosophy and Political Theory. Even if you want to do it--were, in fact, planning to do it--there's the stubborn five-year-old in you that clamps your lips shut, crosses your arms across your chest, and refuses to do anything at all.
However, I have to admit: I'm a changed person. NB does the same things to piss me off; I just don't get pissed off any more, for the most part. This may seem like a small victory in the grand scheme of the universe, but, for me, it's akin to Barack Obama being elected president of the United States. It's huge. I don't know how it happened, when it happened, or why it happened. But it happened.
I now think of how sad and miserable NB is all the time. She could be better. She has the power to choose to be better. She chooses sickness. That's the crappiest thing about mental illness. The person who can help the most is the person who's sick.
I feel angry and sad and frightened sometimes, but I'm able to move beyond these emotions. I can enjoy my son's happy screams. I can get excited when my daughter goes for a run with me. I can say a prayer for some happiness and feel like somebody up above is listening. It's called hope.
NB is like a scratched LP. The needle just sits in the groove, playing the same two musical notes over and over. I don't think NB ever experiences hope in any form, and if I were in that situation, I'd be a pretty miserable person to be around, too.
Vincentia Gerosa knew about hope. Her whole life, in fact, was an exercise in hope. As a girl, she was orphaned, but she spent her youth and adulthood caring for the poor in her native Lovere, Italy. Hope. With Bartholmea Capitanio, she established the Sisters of Charity of Lovere. This religious order cared for the destitute, ill, and young. Hope. Vincentia Gerosa tried to shine light in darkness, instill hope in hopelessness.
I'm not saying I'll never get angry with NB again. I will. I know it. I'm human, and because I'm human, I'm broken. But, unlike NB, I choose to hope.
Do me a favor tonight. Say a prayer for NB. For anyone with mental illness. A prayer for change. For light. For happiness.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
June 23: Saint Ethelreda
|My freshman yearbook photo|
So, my pastor friend and his family left town a couple days ago. After a weekend of lasts (last time at book club; last time at McDonald's having breakfast together on Saturday with the kids; last worship service on Sunday), I stopped by his house for the last time on Monday, June 21, to say goodbye and help him and his wife load up some last boxes.
I went to his house immediately following a doctor's appointment. It was a six-month checkup, so I was expecting the whole song-and-dance: bend-over-and-spread-'em, turn-your-head-and-cough, open-wide-stick-out-your-tongue-and-say-"ah." It wasn't quite that invasive, for which I was thankful. However, the thing I really dread, even more than the digital rectal exam, is stepping on the scale and receiving the bad/good news about my weight.
I have fought the battle of the bulges my whole life. In high school, I went from being a pudgy, freshman outcast to a thin, cross country runner. In the years since high school, I have fluctuated from being normal to fat many times. You pick the term, I've been labeled it: husky, burly, big-boned, tubby, plump, obese, grossly obese, fat-assed, double-chinned, double-wide, etc. Whether these words were an accurate description of my physical condition is beside the point. No matter what the scale says, I always feel fat.
Stepping on the scale at the doctor's office, then, is my least favorite part of the visit. The fact that the scale is in the middle of the public hallway is even worse. Anyone can see you standing there, receiving the judgement. At least if the scale were in a private exam room, I could remove my shoes, socks, shirt, pants, insulin pump, and watch. Like at home. If I took a healthy crap before the appointment, I stand the chance of, at the very least, maintaining my weight from my last visit.
The fact that my doctor revels in telling me that I could stand to lose a few pounds doesn't make the situation any better. I sit in the exam room, half-naked, feeling more exposed than Ron Jeremy at work, and wait for my doctor to look up from his laptop with an expression usually reserved for the bearded fat lady at the State Fair. It's inevitable. As a life-long skinny person, my doctor doesn't have a lot of sensitivity to weight issues, aside from knowing it's unhealthy.
On Monday, when my doctor said, "Well, everything looks good. The only thing is your weight," I said, "I know. I don't understand it. I've been dieting all day long."
He looked at me. I looked at him. We stared at each other for a full twenty seconds before I said, "It was a joke."
He went back to typing on his laptop, and I went back to feeling like a Buddha statue at a Thai restaurant. Rub my belly for luck, I thought.
Needless to say, I wasn't in the greatest mood when I showed up at my pastor friend's house. I don't do well with partings to begin with; throw on top of that my encounter with Dr. Skinny-ass, and you have a pretty good idea of my frame of mind.
I helped my friend and his wife finish packing for about half an hour, long enough to walk through the empty parsonage and let the permanence of the change sink in fully. Generally, I try not to wallow in self-pity, but I was pretty much up to my eyes in it by the time I hugged them goodbye and drove away.
Ethelreda, today's saint, is one of those holy people who seem attracted to pain. The book actually says, "Sufferings were her delight. She thanked God when, in her last sickness, she had much to suffer." I understand, to a degree, accepting suffering with grace and dignity. I even understand thinking of suffering as a way a distilling your character, burning off the petty angers, jealousies, and hurts, to make yourself a stronger, spiritually deeper person. I understand that. I do. However, I don't get the concept of being delighted with suffering (unless it involves a Republican). I've been through some difficult times in my life, and I don't think I would ever volunteer to do it all over again. Am I a stronger, better person because of the trials I've experienced? Yes. Do I delight in feeling like a pile of elephant dung? No.
Now, a few days past my doctor's appointment and my friend's departure, I can honestly say I don't think I'm a better person. In fact, I don't like people too much at the moment, friends or relatives. It'll get better. It always does.
But for the time being, I feel like a fat, little high school freshman, dodging the balls God's hurling at me.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
June 17: Saint Theresa of Portugal
So, my book club met tonight. We read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger this month. A while ago, we read Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. We all liked it, so we gave her another chance. This book was not as good as her first, but it was still good. Symmetry is a ghost story about twins, death, obsession, OCD, sex, and dysfunction. In short, it's about family.
My friend from Georgia claims that I force the members of my book club to read "theee most depressin' books ever." This is, in fact, an untruth. A little over a year ago, we read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This past December, we read a book by David Sedaris, Holidays On Ice. Both of those books I loved. Granted, Eat, Pray, Love starts with a hideous divorce and Gilbert sinking into crushing depression; Holidays On Ice features a story about workers in a county morgue and a heartwarming tale about a woman who puts her infant grandchild into a washing machine on the spin cycle. However, everything ends up well in both books. Sort of.
This month's meeting was also the last that my pastor friend could be at before his impending move. Therefore, it was a farewell party, as well. Everyone brought my friend's favorite foods, including a cake with a facsimile of the cover of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis on top. The cake was in recognition of one of the most hated books the club ever read. Of course, it was recommended by my pastor friend. We take our book selections seriously, and Screwtape got my friend on the blackballed list. It was a couple of years before the group would even consider a suggestion from him again, and then it had to be accompanied by the endorsement of another club member.
SIDE NOTE: This blog in no way reflects upon the literary value of Mr. Lewis's talent. We chose Screwtape for a July read. It was summertime, and everyone wanted something light and not too taxing. This book didn't fit the bill. Even I, who am fairly tolerant of almost any writing, got a little impatient with the book. Therefore, the Summer of Screwtape, as it has become known, will haunt my pastor friend forever.
My friend loved the cake, took a picture of it with his i-Phone. And he took the joke well, although he was quick to remind my sister of her ill-fated suggestion from a couple years ago, Edith's Story, a tedious holocaust memoir that almost landed her on the banned list with my friend. He also took the opportunity to remind me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a book which I love and he suggested (with the support of the required second member, per the terms of the blacklist contract). My friend always plays The Road card, but Screwtape trumps it. He's never been able to get his name removed from what has become known as the Screwtape List, and he frequently complains about the injustice of his continued inclusion. There's nothing to be done, unfortunately. Book club is a cut-throat world. Think Lord of the Flies with artichoke dip.
Overall, it was a lovely evening, and everyone pretty much gave Her Fearful Symmetry a thumbs-up, which doesn't happen very frequently. Of course, the gathering was tinged with sadness because of my friend's imminent departure. He's been a part of our group since its inception about seven years ago. In book club time, that's almost 150 years. In my experience, book clubs have the shelf life of a banana, so our group is a rarity. Membership is fairly stable, and everyone still likes each other after all these years. We have become a family of sorts.
Theresa of Portugal was pretty devoted to family. She married her cousin, King Alfonso IX of Leon, Spain. (Yes, the does border on Deliverance territory, but let's keep the banjos out of this post.) Their marriage was eventually annulled because of their familial ties, but not before Theresa managed to have quite a few children. So her kids were also her second cousins, and they were their own third cousins. Or something like that. Let's just say, it's a crazy family tree. Eventually, Theresa joined a convent, but her kids kept her busy. When Alfonso died, they got into a huge fight over who was going to take over the throne of Leon. Theresa was able to bring peace among her children. I imagine her giving them all time-outs until they played nice. Of course, when a crown is at stake, I bet there was more than name-calling going on. It was probably like a Corleone family reunion, complete with a horse's head and a kiss of death. But, Theresa worked it out.
A family is like that. Disagreements arise. A sister borrows a sweater from a sister without asking. A little brother loses a sister's treasured goggles while swimming. A friend suggests reading a book that everyone hates. Siblings fight over inheritance. But when the sister gets married, the other sister cries. When the little brother leaves for college, the big sister buys him a car. When war breaks out, the mother steps in and brings about peace.
When the friend leaves the book club, everyone misses his suggestions.
Monday, June 14, 2010
June 14: Saint Elisha
The mother worries about DNA, how helix
Can twist, like shadows on bedroom walls,
Into something terrifying, tree into banshee,
Chair into dragon, son into a person
She’d avoid on street corners, thin
As a blade of grass, arms full of purple
Canals, a universe of scabby stars.
She wonders how the collision of egg
With sperm inside her belly created
This creature so drawn to the smell
Of carbon monoxide, the taste of razor.
From where in the evolution of family
Did this vestigial finger or toe of insanity
Come? Was it grandpa from Buffalo,
Who got drunk at Niagara Falls, walked
The railing like a Wallenda, one arm
Stretched toward his new bride,
The other toward thunder, mist, oblivion?
Was it great grandma from Russia,
Who buried two daughters in wheat
Fields before they could suckle because
They were daughters, couldn’t work the earth
From rock and frost into mud, into yam,
Corn, cabbage? Or was is someone she
Didn’t know, someone further than memory,
Who planted this seed in her tree,
This son flower who now fills her pillows
With the wail of loon over moon and lake?
One day when she was a girl, she stood
In the shallows of Superior, her body just
A promise of woman, mother. She felt
A monster slide by her in the water,
Larger than her father, a freight, all
Cartilage and fin, scute and armor,
A live fossil against her skin. She reached out,
Touched its flank, her fingers connected
To a thing ancient: carnosaurus, tarbosaurus,
Pteranodon. It moved slower than glacier,
Gave her time to know its prehistoric form,
Shape unchanged by seventy million years
Of spawn and weed, the skim for minnow,
Mayfly, mosquito. As a girl, the mother
Didn’t fear this car of a fish, instead accepted
Its presence as blessing, Paraclete, spirit
To pass on to her mother, father, mate, child.
Beside her son’s hospital bed today, she watches
Him, counts his breaths, wants to press
Her thumb to the flutter in his wrist.
She thinks of Longfellow’s hero, swallowed
By the sturgeon, crawling down its throat,
Through rib, toward the drumming darkness.
She closes her eyes, wraps her arms around
Nahma’s great heart, lets it throb, convulse
Against her face and breasts, hears blood
Roaring in and out, to gill, brain, nose, tail.
She holds on the way she wants to now hold
Her son. To save him, reverse Darwin, genetics.
Force Him backwards to the time when his life
Was still cretaceous, a mystery. A shining,
Black egg in the vast water of her womb.