Friday, December 21, 2012

7 (not-so-quick) Takes Near Newtown

--- 1 --
I’ve been observing a kind of “radio silence” regarding this blog, due to last Friday's tragedy in Newtown.  What can be said in the wake of that?  Newtown is a brief car ride up Route 34 from where we live.  While this did not “hit me where I live,” this was close to home.  We had a relative teaching in the building; she and the students with her are safe.

The daughter of my former department chair was also working there; she was shot.  She survived and is recovering(how does one “recover” from witnessing the unimaginable?)

Two of my husbands’ college classmates lost their six year old girl.

There are no words.  

--- 2 ---
I would be lying if I said I was not pinned down by depression last week.  Depression saps the desire to do and replaces it with a never-ending-chain of procrastinations, of "I'll-get-to-that-eventually's." Everything from paying a bill, returning a phone call, wrestling over handwriting with your focus-deprived son, making dinner, getting the mail, showering... The mundane hurdles of daily life suddenly seem insurmountable.

What can one do when this weight settles in?  First, face it and call it out for what it is.  In this case, the root cause was obvious.  Profound sadness was "normal".  How could I possibly feel happy and in the moment?  I allowed myself the grief.

What else can one do?  Be real.  I stopped blaming myself for the myriad things I had not done yet for Christmas.  I'd had a massive cold the week before; being pregnant I'm also responsible for the well-being of another soul who currently shares this body with me.  For the good of my child, I had to take that week easier.  More sleep and less activity means less gets done in a day; there is a cumulative effect to that.  That is life, not a character defect.

One needs to talk it out: online with friends, with my husband, phone calls with my mom.  And especially with God.  Its OK to remember to ask Him for His grace for myself.  To do so is not selfish; it won't deprive the others who are in need, because there is no shortage of Grace.  His mercy is infinite, and for the asking.

Finally, after all of that was done, I had to take some action.  Start with one thing, even if small, even if the completion of it is less than perfect.   Make a little list of what you want done this day.  Then begin.  

Help others who are struggling.  A gesture as simple as helping an elderly person to reach that chocolate syrup on the highest grocery shelf shines some light into the darkness.

--- 3 ---
Returning home from Little Flowers and Blue Knights on Friday was like returning from another planet. While I'd heard about Friday's shooting from my husband, who had called from work before we'd left the house, details were sketchy.  I went about my day without knowledge of its tragic extent.

I came home to find Emre already here before us, eyes red.  He assured me his cousin was safe, but then whispered the outcome in my ear: an entire kindergarten class gone.

Meanwhile, Gianna flitted about the room, laughing, loud, on a sugar high.   

How do I explain the reaction in a mother's heart?
My outer reaction was to hug each of my children, who had no idea of the days' events, as they carried on with the business of playtime.  Emre later sat on the couch, with all three children close, our own kindergartener hugged at his side; every so often I heard a bemused Gianna, full of sillies, complain, "Dadd-y, you're squeezing me..."

Gianna's Rosebuds group had spent Friday afternoon celebrating Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She returned to us sporting a tilma and mustache.  My heart brimmed both with joy and pain when I snapped this picture. 

--- 4 ---

Reflecting on our parental reactions of Friday night has reminded me of James Russel Lowell's poem, The First Snowfall.  Most of us read this in high school, but to review: the speaker gazes out of his window as the first snow of the season falls.  He seems merely focused on the transformed landscape outside of his home, but his thoughts are actually with a "mound in sweet Auburn" (a cemetery in Massachusetts), and a "little headstone" that is likewise being "gently" covered by the snow.   This reverie is interrupted by his inquisitive young daughter, Mabel.  His actions in response to her typically child-like questions serve a dual purpose: one purpose is visible.  The other is invisible, but just as real.
--- 5 ---
The First Snowfall

The snow had begun in the gloaming, 
And busily all the night 
Had been heaping field and highway 
With a silence deep and white. 

Every pine and fir and hemlock 
Wore ermine too dear for an earl, 
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree 
Was ridged inch deep with pearl. 

From sheds new-roofed with Carrara 
Came Chanticleer's muffled crow, 
The stiff rails were softened to swan's-down, 
And still fluttered down the snow. 

I stood and watched by the window 
The noiseless work of the sky, 
And the sudden flurries of snow-birds, 
Like brown leaves whirling by. 

I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn 
Where a little headstone stood; 
How the flakes were folding it gently, 
As did robins the babes in the wood. 

Up spoke our own little Mabel, 
Saying, 'Father, who makes it snow?' 
And I told of the good All-father 
Who cares for us here below. 

Again I looked at the snowfall, 
And thought of the leaden sky 
That arched o'er our first great sorrow, 
When that mound was heaped so high. 

I remembered the gradual patience 
That fell from that cloud like snow, 
Flake by flake, healing and hiding 
The scar of our deep-plunged woe. 

And again to the child I whispered, 
'The snow that husheth all, 
Darling, the merciful Father 
Alone can make it fall! ' 

Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her; 
And she, kissing back, could not know 
That my kiss was given to her sister, 
Folded close under deepening snow.

--- 6 ---
In all of the shock and tragedy, I have been consistently awed by the witness of people who are obviously filled by God's grace.

There are friends who stand at the foot of that cross with these mothers and fathers, regular people who unceasingly pour out their love in order to carry these families through this hellish time.

Countless numbers of firefighters attended the funeral of a little boy whose dream had been to grow up and be a fireman himself.  Their presence at that event had everything to do with honoring the wishes of a fallen little boy who had become, by his desire, one of their own.

Priests, rabbis, pastors of all denominations were side by side with first responders on the scene.  I can not fathom what they witnessed.

Communities step up to support these people, who daily offer up their lives in service to God, this week serving Him without ceasing.

The faithful offering prayers and sacrifice.  So many offering some service, some help.

Victoria Soto, who offered her life and saved her class.

I am humbled.  Their example speaks volumes.  As St. Francis observed, the gospel is best preached by living it.

Words often matter very little in the end.

--- 7 ---
This song performed by Mahalia Jackson has been on my mind this week.  It has become my new prayer:

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Riu Riu Chiu: Reflections on the Immaculate Conception

One of my earliest obsessions was with The Monkees.  I fell in love with these Beatles knock-offs in 1980s syndication, in those days before my family had either cable or a VCR; I depended on  the static-ridden airwaves to bring the show to me via Boston's Channel 56.   On a good day, the wavy lines weren't too distracting, and the sound quality would be decent.  I hovered about the television set, adjusting the antennae for an optimal experience.

In those days before Youtube and digital recordings, I never had a choice of what episode or what portion of an episode to watch.  I had my favorites which always thrilled me to see; having one of those aired was like getting a gift.

The best such gift for me was the Christmas special, the plot of which I can no longer recall; I loved it for the closing sequence, an a capella harmony of a song called "Riu Chiu."  This tune was, hands down, my favorite Monkees recording of all time.

Furthermore, the airing of this episode was a near-sacred moment for me because I did not own a copy of this tune on any of my Monkees albums; I had not been able to find a recording of it anywhere in that pre-streaming, pre-Amazon, pre-iTunes era.

Last Advent, I was brainstorming ideas for hymns that I could listen to before Christmas, to prepare for the season without jumping in full-tilt, full-steam-ahead.  (Yes, I love "O Come Emmanuel," but there are just so many times you can hear it/sing it/pray it, no matter how many versions or languages you find it in.)  I wondered, "What songs would prepare my heart for the coming of Christ?

Suddenly, after years of not hearing the tune, "Riu Chiu" entered my mind's ear and stayed there.  Thrill to my soul!  I ran to the computer, and a quick search of Youtube provided me with that moment I'd always waited and waited and pined for as a kid.

The song was every bit as moving as I recalled; as a child it had moved me to tears, the harmony was so lovely.  I never took Spanish, so I had absolutely no idea what it meant.  All I knew was it was a "traditional Spanish carol," and I loved it.

I was teary-eyed again as I played it on Youtube.

Then I googled the lyrics.

Suddenly, my emotional response made perfect and logical sense.

"Riu Chiu" flat-out begins with the Immaculate Conception of Mary: the belief that Mary was conceived in her mother's womb to be free from Original Sin (i.e. the first sin of man).   It alludes to the enmity that existed between the devil (the black wolf), and Our Lady.

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,That first sin of man never touched the Virgin )

Thus, God has kept the devil away from Our Lady by preserving her from "that First Sin of Man".

The round about Our Lady's protection continues, after which the lyrics focus on the culmination of salvation history: the Incarnation of Christ.  

He who's now begotten is our mighty Monarch,Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.He has brough atonement by being born so humble,Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think this song had that much depth. 

Another translation (of a different arrangement) of this carol notably differs in associating the refrain, "Riu Riu Chiu," with the song of the nightingale, rather than with the sound of the river:
Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb (Bruce Cockburn
Here, the river bank protects the nightingale in the same way that God protects Our Lady from sin.  As a literary symbol, the nightingale has at times been associated with love, and its song has been associated with a "lament." Such imagery is entirely appropriate for the Blessed Mother, who would one day follow her Son to the foot of the cross, and there have her own heart pierced with swords.  The very fact of her Immaculate Conception prepares her for this future role:

The rabid wolf tried to bite her
But God Almighty knew how to defend her
He wished to create her impervious to sin
Nor was this maid to embody original sin

Why would such preparation for Mary's role as mother of God be necessary?   Consider how even once Baptism washes away Original Sin, our souls are left weakened by it.  This is our fallen nature, our temptation to sin and to not strive for virtue.  Could a weakened soul like yours or mine find the strength to face an angel, hear his words and say, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word"?  Could such a weakened soul consent to and face the suspicion and the ridicule of being found pregnant out of wedlock in that time and place?  Could a fallen soul patiently, courageously, and with consistent hope and faith rear that child, knowing who He is and the violent fate that awaits Him?!

It only seems fair that a perfect, loving, and merciful God would prepare Mary for the coming task of mothering Our Savior.  And He did prepare her;  His grace was instantaneously granted upon her conception, the moment in which He preserved her from Original Sin.  Thus Mary's Advent began; she had time to love and grow closer to God without the obstacles the rest of us have.  Without that propensity to sin, Mary would not kill the grace within her the way the rest of us so often do.

 I know how many times I stumble and fall in my own motherhood: how often do I lose patience, shout,  say "yes" when I should say "no," or say "No!" when I should say "yes?"  How often do I cling to my own desires ahead of my children's needs, even if unconsciously or just for a moment?  How frequently do I set them a poor example?

How many times a day do I fling myself on my knees to apologize and beg God for His mercy?  I'll tell you: not as often as I should, given how any mortal sin kills the life of grace within me.  Even those venial sins leave my soul sick and at less-than-optimal efficiency.  

I can not imagine undertaking the task presented to Mary.  No one truly can fathom it.  In my weakness, there is no way that I could co-operate with God's grace enough to walk with a Son who was fully God,  my own Creator and Savior, yes... but who was also fully human and as such, needing a mother's love.

I recommend folks check out the full translation of the original carol; it will rock your theological and literary worlds.  Especially on a day such as today, as we ponder God's plan in preparing Mary to one day be the first to know, love and serve Jesus: when He was a baby in her own womb.

And yes, before bed I will give this version one more go as well:

Friday, December 7, 2012

7 Quick Takes: St. Nicholas Dreams

--- 1 ---
The doctor couldn't get a good enough look at the little one to reveal the gender today, but I am tempted to declare that I am carrying a boy.   My dreams have been movie-quality vivid.  One of my dreams this week featured a scene in which I was cut off in traffic by a yellow corvette convertible, driven by an attractive blonde woman wearing a cream-colored skirt and tailored jacket.

I am either experiencing an influx of testosterone to my system, or I have completely missed my calling as an Advertising Executive.

--- 2 ---
Here is my cutie at just under 14 weeks today, measuring 7-ish centimeters from head to rump:

--- 3 ---
Another vivid dream, which woke me up because it was so disturbing, was that the neighbor's backyard was completely over-run by snakes of mythically huge size (both fat and thin) and rainforest colors.  On one hand, I thought it was a visually striking scene.   Then again, nothing curdles my blood like serpents.  In the dream, after pausing to think how amazing this looked, I turned tail to head inside.  

One shiny green python-looking one slithered after and leapt at me; I caught it mid-air,  before it sank its shimmery fangs into my neck.  I then wrestled with it, bashing its head against a countertop.  I woke up before I'd learned if I was successful in doing it in, whether it wriggled away to bite me anyway, or whether the army of red & black, blue & black, green, and striped cousins followed after it.

I hate snakes. Why on earth would I wrestle one?  Even if merely a dream, why would the sight of a dozen or more snakes cause me to pause and think, "Wow.  That's so cool looking"? 

Its a boy, I'm telling you...

--- 4 ---
For some inexplicable reason, when the rain started today, I decided to bake chocolate chip cookies.  Not only would the kids be stuck inside (with me), they would be stuck inside with a sugar high.


--- 5 ---
Speaking of sugar highs, yesterday was the feast of St. Nicholas.  Last year I decided to incorporate the leaving-shoes-out-by-the-chimney tradition in observance of this feast.  My kids woke up to find their shoes filled with chocolate coins, chocolate Santas and Crayola crayons.  I slacked off this year however; I did not make mini paper bishop hats for the tiny chocolate Santas.  Happily, no one noticed.

--- 6 ---
Today's Quick Takes and FB newsfeed reveal that I'm not the only Catholic amused by the St. Nicholas "Hammer of Heretics" meme.   Hmmm... I wonder why the Arias incident wasn't included in the Veggie Tales re-telling of the Story of St. Nicholas?  I say this begs for a sequel.

--- 7 ---
On Saint Nicholas' Feast Day, I  break from my Advent playlist and allow a day of Santa/St. Nick themed tunes during the day (Did I mention I'm a domestic church geek?)  Here is one of my favorites from my St. Nicholas iTunes Playlist (seriously: total geek!).  Enjoy!:

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Veni, Veni...

I'd honestly thought I would be blogging in a frenzy of Advent-inspired ideas this week.  Try as I might, nothing in that vein has materialized on the screen.  Instead, something is prompting me to move beyond the topic of hymns and purple candles, to focus for a time on those "gloomy clouds of night" overhead.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve suffered with depression.  First for years, without understanding what plagued me, sometimes not thinking there was any problem with me; obviously everyone around me had problems, and their issues were what brought me down.   Later, with therapy, I learned to identify, face and deal with reality: I am the adult child of two alcoholics, a co-dependent with a second-hand form of PTSD.  Yet I’d walked through life as if I was the Unscathed Normal One, the Marilyn of the Munster clan.   By the time I was twelve years old,  I had already read Bradshaw's On the Family, and the Al-Anon publication Adult Children of Alcoholics ("gifts" from my big sister).  I was painfully well-informed of the dynamics of the "dysfunctional family" shaping me, but I figured my knowledge was a talisman against actually being affected in any "forever-after" sense.  I always imagined that all I'd need to be a healthy adult was to just get away.

Once alcohol loosened her memories and lips, my mother would share horrific or sad recollections of her own childhood.  My heart always felt near-to-breaking for her.   My much-older sister was living a wild life and in therapy; she often shared family secrets she'd experienced or uncovered as well.  Thus, my second-hand trauma;   I knew too many gory details of others' poverty, alcoholism, and experiences with violence while I was still a child myself.  My friends had grandfathers who were retired from careers, owning vacation homes, and playing catch with them.  I never knew my grandpa, and recall meeting him only twice, but I knew he was an abusive drunk who'd wielded a butcher knife and chased after my grandmother.  (That is the lesser of horrific tales I'd heard about him...)

On one hand, I was highly sensitive and introspective as a result of such disclosures.  On the other hand, I felt an increasing desire to ameliorate everyone's past hurts by becoming the standard bearer for our clan, Bradshaw and all not withstanding.  Everyone has a role to play; seeing how I was already trending, I supposed I could choose worse... and maybe, just maybe, my goodness would achieve results.  Thus began my savior complex.  

Adulthood brought trials that my "goodness" was no match against.  My brother-in-law died in his thirties, after battling Chronic Mylegenic Leukemia.  My sister was left to raise 2 teenagers, neither of them her biological children, both of whom turned to hard drugs, a rough crowd, and theft because they were still children and they had been through hell and this was all they knew how to do in response.  I watched helplessly as my sister unsuccessfully navigated these modern realities of family life.  Suddenly, it didn't matter how good I was; my sister and these young people suffered so profoundly.  It didn't seem just.

This was the period in which my own father died, rapidly and painfully, from lung cancer.  I struggled with how to "properly" react to his impending death.  I can see now that I should have visited him more often; I'd thrown myself into my career and raising my (then) two children, instead.  While my mom and dad encouraged me not to step away from my own responsibilities, in hindsight, I think that was a form of denial on all of our parts.  I'd even skipped out on Thanksgiving, telling myself that my young family was already maxed out/stressed out, that in-laws were visiting from California, that there would be more time to be with dad during Christmas.  

By the time I visited for Christmas, he was in too much pain to truly talk or to enjoy time with us.

The fact that my father was dying at this time of year is something I need to recall and mourn and not push away anymore.  The fact that my mom had achieved and maintained sobriety, only to lose the soul mate who had stuck by her through her nightmare of chemical dependency, is a pain I need to share with her, not shirk away from or ignore.  (There are other traumas and griefs, the total of which comprises my own "gloomy clouds of night," but I feel like I have given a good enough snapshot with just this much.)

Everyone has their personal darkness; details may differ, but the dark nights are there.  It is no secret that the holidays are a catalyst for depression in many people.  Is it because our reality, with its gloom and imperfections, does not line up with what we want for our reality?  Is it our helplessness to disperse the darkness that drives us into a holiday funk?

The price I paid for not dealing with reality was that I stopped functioning.  My anxiety became so acute, I was afraid to drive the car any great distance.  I was reluctant to leave the house alone.  I was uneasy about leaving the children.  I sloughed off my hygiene habits, ending up with ten (!) cavities in one dental visit.   Meanwhile I crafted with the kids, took them on walks, taught the oldest to read, had friends over for dinner... Increasingly these were mere motions that covered over the crumbling that was happening on my inside.

Have you ever felt numb? I am talking about emotional frostbite: to know an emotion should be present in a given circumstance, either happiness or sadness, but instead realize that you have no feeling of any kind.   For me: to host a family celebration, and cognitively know that this is the kind of thing I get happy and excited about, yet in the moment feel absolutely nothing.  It was as if I had left my body and had stopped being me.  I had not told my husband this was happening inside of me, but he was perceptive enough to see it.

My husband  was the one who one day said, “Are you okay?  Really.  I am very worried about you.”  I answered with, “Everything's fine,” or “I'm just tired,” excuses.  I told myself that as always, the problems were all outside of me, in the issues of others: my husband, his mother, my sister, my mother.  If everyone else could only get it together.  If I could just hold everything in place and get these people to see how to live... we'd all be fine and then I'd be fine. I didn't know that was co-dependency, a sign of my own savior-martyr-complex keeping me from treating with reality.

Luckily, my husband did not accept my dismissive assertions that all was well.  "I am very worried about you.” He said it again.  And again.  And finally, after several months of this gentle prodding, he told me a truth that terrified, angered, and yet strangely, relieved me to hear spoken: my behavior towards others was dysfunctional. It was time for me to seek help.

How did I get to that point?  Rather than show my wounds, admit my pain, and cry over tea with girlfriends, I'd tried -- as always-- to be the exemplar of courage and good cheer.  I had tried to skip and deny my dark periods, fast forwarding through my life's losses to get to the good parts.  I thought those negative emotions, and the story of my upbringing, were unattractive and unacceptable; I decided they didn't jive with being a Catholic revert.   I stuffed my negative emotions; I hid the pain of my formative years and the real experiences of my life from everyone.  This was not stoicism or strength.  It was not Christianity in action.   It was dishonesty and maybe a bit of cowardice. 

I had always feared hurt, which was why I always ran from it, denied it, pretended I had beaten it back, and outrun it.   What I learned from therapy, and from reading books such as this one is: If you don't sit patiently with your pain for a while, it won't leave; it will seek you out, and it will catch you.  It caught me.  You just won't see it for what it is when it does.  Add to that the self-pride I had at being a sort of martyr, of thinking I mattered that much to everyone around me, well... My suffering wasn't exactly sacrificial in the end.

Why do I feel like ruminating on all of this today, instead of waxing on about seasonal feast days and Advent hymns?   Perhaps there is an appropriateness in facing and remembering the darkness right now, not just ritually, but personally.  Our struggles are real and the darkness is there, alright.

 It is just that a Light shines in the darkness, and that Light will not be overcome.

In shutting my eyes to the darkness, I had shut my eyes to the Light of Christ.  In denying my own loss, struggle, and pain, I denied my own weakness.  I denied my need for Him to heal me.  Even as I professed my Christian beliefs, even as I received the sacraments and participated in the life of the Church, in my fear and pride, I denied my own dependence on God.

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It is a two-fold preparation: we are readying our homes to celebrate His birth and we are readying our hearts for His Coming again.  He will come again for each of us; that should not cause despair.  He has shown through His Incarnation and His sacrifice on the cross, that he is Love itself.

This is reason for hope in the midst of the chaos and frustration on this side of heaven.  This is reason to exhale, to wait it out in this darkness, and to trust in its passing.  This is reason to rejoice.