Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A personal litany of saints

Every morning I say morning prayer with my Magnificat and, when at the end there is time to reflect on my own intentions, I also invoke a list of saints that, through the years, has grown rather extensive. I didn't realize how many there were until I wrote this post!

In addition to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I petition, in the following order (not of importance, or even alphabetically, although some of them are alphabetized-ish, but simply how they've grouped themselves over the years):

St. Anne
St. Anthony
St. Andrew
St. Benedict
St. Bernadette
St. Francis de Sales
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Valentine of Rome
St. Joseph
St. Joachim
St. Jude
St. Gemma Galgani
St. Rita of Cascia
St. Gertrude the Great
St. Philip Neri
St. Alphonsus Ligouri
Blessed Anton Smolsek
Blessed John Henry Newman
Servant of God Elizabeth Liseur
St. Margaret of Scotland
St. Margaret of Cortona
St. David
St. Dominic
St. Columba
St. Ninian
St. John Ogilvie (when I remember)
St. Jerome Emiliani
Blessed Anne of St. Bartholomew
St. Anselm
St. Maximillian Kolbe
and the recently added St. Hildegard of Bingin.

I always close with the prayer to my guardian angel and the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, and if there is a particular saint who's feast falls on that day, I'll ask for their intercession, too.

Some saints I've been devoted to for years (Anne and Joachim, Bernadette who is my confirmation saint, Benedict, Jude, Joseph, Rita, Michael), others because they are patrons of writers (Columba, Francis de Sales, Max, Hildegard). Valentine I invoke not because of his patronage of the single, but because he is of Rome, and I started praying for his help years ago, when I hoped to make a pilgrimage to Rome a reality. Philip Neri because I prayed at his grave while in Rome. Gemma because she helps those with back pain, Gertrude and Margaret of Cortona because they are strong advocates for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Then there are the Scottish saints, whom I learned more about and prayed with while in Scotland: Columba (again), Margaret (although I'd know and loved her history long before going), David, Ninian, John Ogilvie.
Several joined the list as a result of Jen Fulwiler's Patron Saint generator: Blessed Anton (who was also an author), Jerome and Blessed Anne. No doubt in 2017 I will add another from this fun source.
Elisabeth Liseur because her jouurals and letters are so lovely, moving and faith-filled. John Henry Newman's writings, too.

Blessed Feast of All Saints! May these and all holy men and women pray for us!

Friday, October 21, 2016

8,365 miles, just the one way.

I have a fairly extensive bucket list of places I want to visit.

Domestically, there's the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Redwoods in California, New York for the Met and Broadway and the food, Chicago (I used to want to move there, once upon a time) and Savannah and Charleston (it's nuts I've been to neither) are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Of course, internationally, the list is vast and extends far beyond the ability of my bank account: Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, Paris and Normandy and Lourdes (St. Bernadette is my confirmation saint), pretty much everywhere in England, Hay-on-Wye in Wales (Sigh. A whole town of bookstores...), back to both Scotland (I didn't make it to Dunnotar Castle or Aberdeen) and Italy (to much-loved Rome and Florence again, especially the latter where I only spent a day. I'm really hoping to visit a college friend who's husband was recently stationed at a base in Vincenza for the next three years), Ireland, Morocco, the Great Pyramids and Valley of the Kings in Egypt (I've been fascinated by Egypt since I was little. I had a book on mummies and grave robbing when I was 6...which is a bit strange, when you think about it. Who bought that for me?), Greece, Poland (I've long wanted to visit Auschwitz, if that doesn't seem too strange, to see and mourn and pray where St. Maximillian Kolbe and so many others died), the undisturbed old-world charm of Prague, various countries in South America, Bora Bora (partly because of its WWII connection), Belgium (Vielsalm, specifically, because of another family WWII connection, Spain to see the Prado and Sagrada Familia among other sites, Australia and New Zealand....

I could keep on going. What you'll notice about the above (frankly still abbreviated) list is that there aren't any Asian countries on it. If pressed, I'd say Japan would be my first choice. China was never really in the picture.

So guess where I'm headed the day after Christmas and will ring in 2017?

As it turns out, both of my younger brothers will be getting married next (I joked to my mom that, barring a very quick courtship that commences incredibly soon, I won't be getting married next year, too. She laughed and said she could use the break.). My brother Ethan (after he returns from his deployment) I've already mentioned, but my brother Daniel will be marrying his fiance, Mira, January 1, 2017, in China.

They met in grad school and dated for several years, countinuing their relationship even after her program ended (it was a year shorter than his), her student visa expired and she had to return to China, her home country. Earlier this year, they became engaged. Because of all the variations possible in order to get her a green card, after much research, they decided the best way to expedite that -- and it could still take between nine and 18 months -- is to get married in China first.

It will be beyond interesting, because, first of all, we're not headed to Beijing (although we have a layover there on the way) or Shanghai, but to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province and the closest city to where her family lives in Western China. It's where the pandas come from, where there is some of the spiciest food in the world (I'm not sure how my mother will cope, as she doesn't do spicy food much at all) and also has more tea houses (allegedly) than anywhere else in the world. :)

The wedding itself will take place on New Year's Day (apparently less of a big deal in the East, where Chinese New Year several weeks later is the real celebration) and then, the next day, we'll travel about an hour and a half southeast to Lezhi, where Mira's family is from, for another -- smaller -- celebratory dinner. We're staying in Chengdu in a flat her family owns at the top of a 15-20 story apartment building.

The more I've looked into things, the more excited I've become about this adventure I never expected to take. It's also going to be a complete fish-out-of-water experience. Although Mira speaks perfect English, her parents don't beyond 10 or 15 words, apparently, and her grandparents none at all. And it won't be like going to Europe, where in Italy, for example, I could understand quite a bit based only on my Spanish language background alone. I've bought a Lonely Planet phrase book that contains some basics on both Mandarin and Sichuanese, but I'm probably slaughtering the pronunciation... Note to self: watch some videos for help with that!

The flights have been booked, I've had a photo taken for the visa application (I look tired in it, but that will no doubt be the state of affairs after a ridiculous amount of time on planes -- the flight from LAX to Beijing alone is more than 13 hours) and I've completed most of the four-page travel visa application.

The trip will involve more than a little time travel, without a Delorean and its flux capacitor, or a TARDIS, traveling a day ahead in time and going so far east we have to go west to get there. We -- at least Mom and I; Daniel's staying a month beyond -- are slated to fly home Jan. 8, 2017. We will arrive back in the states while it's still the same day.

And while it will be a grand adventure, involving strange new places and a both new-to-me and ancient civilization, I am so very happy my brother has found someone with whom he can share his life, and that I will be there to see his marriage take place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A small update

Last month, I wrote about my friend's marriage difficulties and how I felt utterly unable to do anything to help her beyond being a listening ear and offering up daily prayers for God's grace to help both her and her husband find their way back to each other.

Recently, she told me that things between them have become a little better -- at least she and her husband are communicating again -- although she knows there is a lot of work still to be done on both their parts.

I was beyond grateful to hear her news. The stresses on both of them, as well as their children, have lessened. I'm relieved and hopeful that things will continue to improve.

I can only praise God and offer thanks to Him and to the Blessed Mother that my prayers for my friend's family have been heard, and keep those prayers going. And if any the few of you who actually read this prayed for them, too, well, thank you so much. Truly.

"Praying to Christ for your friend, and longing to be heard by Christ for your friend's sake, you reach out with devotion and desire to Christ himself. And suddenly and insensibly, as though touched by the gentleness of Christ close at hand, you begin to taste how sweet he is and how lovely he is."  - St. Aelred of Rievaulx

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The perfect age?

Today a priest asked me if I was married, and when I said no, asked me why not.

Oh, if I had a dime for every time someone's asked that question...

Anyway, while it was asked kindly, it was unexpected, as we weren't talking about that topic. So I rambled through my typical responses: "bad timing," "haven't met the right guy yet, I guess," "I certainly want to be married but I suppose its not God's will at the moment," "I don't want to marry just anyone..." and then drifted into silence.

Then he asked me how old I was. Not having any idea where he was going with this (was he going to say I'm too old, or that I should pack for the convent?), I told him the truth about being 38 because A, (duh) he's a priest; B, it was in a confessional (ergo, honesty required); and C, my age is not something I lie about. Doing so just seems vain and silly.

Anyway, his response surprised me.

"Oh, that's the perfect age. You know who you are and what you want, you're solid in what you do."

The perfect age? Ok, I'll take that. :) Although I certainly don't feel like I have it all together some (most?) of the time. That may be a lifelong work in progress!

Father continued, "But don't wait too long. Just expand your search a little."

Expand my search, huh? Having tried the online thing several times, with no success (I was too Catholic for most, or, on one of the Catholic sites, sometimes not Catholic enough, believe it or not), so I'm not sure what else I can do, aside from move...which I should probably do anyway. Anyone have any suggestions?

I did give the modern way of doing things a try recently. Some younger friends who are all about dating apps like Tinder and Bumble suggested I try one of those. Tinder just seemed too tawdry, so I gave Bumble a shot, briefly, but it, too, was so incredibly superficial, just lots of swiping in one direction or another based on nothing but looks  I admit to doing some judging -- the multitude of men with gym mirror selfies, and the seemingly vast swathes of them shirtless on boats holding large, dead fish (is it just because I'm in Florida? Because it reached the ridiculous stage so quickly) was beyond disheartening -- being healthy is important, and it's not that I dislike fishing, but you can't base a relationship on that, regardless of how much I might like sushi. There was just no concrete information about who these men really are or what, if anything, they believe in, and I need more to go on. I suppose, really, I'm just too old-fashioned (old school?) for dating apps.

But, apparently -- dating apps aside -- I am the perfect age, and now have at least one other person praying for me. That's always a good thing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


All of your own problems suddenly look small when a friend calls crying and says her marriage is ending.

I have known things have been rocky, for months off and on, for this couple, but there have been patches of good, too. But I didn't know that her husband, who apparently now spends all his time -- when not at work -- on the phone with his best friend and his mother won't talk to her, is sleeping on the couch, is worried over the finances which he controls but is angry with her when she doesn't know things are tight -- but how can she know if he won't tell her, won't let her help? -- and won't go for the counseling she suggests. She doesn't know if he's seeing someone else. She has a home-based business, and home schools their kids, but is terrified of the uncertainty, and is trying to scrape together whatever she can in case he decides not to make her monthly car payment, or if she suddenly has to find a place of her own. She's been out of the professional working world for years and feels --wrongly -- that she has no marketable skills. She is somehow ashamed of her own supposed failure, and hesitates to tell any of her other friends. Her faith -- on so many levels -- is shattered.

I don't need to know -- don't want to know, really -- the details she shares, but I don't stop her recitation because she has been carrying these things for so long by herself. I am ashamed at the sense of relief that floods me when she suddenly switches conversational tacks of her own accord, because she is tired of thinking about it, too.

Holy family, pray for them!

I have spent so much time praying for them, for healing for both of them, for the children, for a reconciliation if God wills it, and while I know my prayers are heard, other than pray, there is nothing I can do, and it makes me feel guilty that I haven't done more, haven't called more, completely selfish and just...useless.

As I sit on my living room rug later, petting the drowsy dog more or less lounged in my lap -- she pokes at me with her paw when my hand stops moving for more than 2.3 seconds, the glutton -- I am thankful all of a sudden for the quiet, largely drama-free life I lead. While I so often lament my singleness, am I wrong to be grateful for it when someone I care for is suffering?

Then I read a post by Meg Hunter-Kilmer about Our Lady of Sorrows, who's feast was this past week. And it helped so much in making sense of how I felt. Meg wrote:

"Normally, identifying with the Blessed Mother is a good thing, a sign that you’re doing something right. You’re trusting God or pointing people to him or interceding. But when the people you love are being tortured, being Mary just means you’re standing there doing nothing.

I don’t want to do nothing. I want to fix it. I want to love them out of their pain or take it over for them. I at least want to do something, say something to make it better, even just a little, even just wiping the sweat out of their eyes.
But I’m not Simon. I don’t get to carry their crosses with them or for them. And I’m not Veronica. I don’t get to give them a moment’s peace. I’m Mary. I only get to be there with them, loving them in utter futility as a sword pierces my heart.
I hate being Our Lady of Sorrows. I hate standing there doing nothing, watching the people I love suffer. I hate waiting for a diagnosis, hearing about infidelity, watching depression. I hate going to prayer and begging, begging, begging to take their crosses from them and being told no. I hate being useless in the face of catastrophic pain.
And yet.
And yet, with all that he could have asked of his Mother in that moment of his greatest need, this is what he asked: just be with me. Just stand there and watch me suffer. Just love me in my pain.
And somehow, that nothing that she did was everything that he needed. Somehow, it bore fruit down through the ages for every one of us. Somehow, it is in her silent suffering with that Mary fulfills God’s plan for her. I’m sure she also wanted to be Simon or Veronica or Peter whipping out a sword or anyone doing anything. But she knew that being there and “useless” was good and right and beautiful."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

And now for something (almost) completely different

I haven't been a reporter for a week and a half now, and I do not miss it.

For a while, reporting, I was content with actually being able to write every day, but over the past -- too many -- years, it has become increasingly more obvious that it isn't the type of writing I wanted to do and was, in fact, keeping me from being creative very much at all. For the few who've read my sporadic posts at all regularly, I'm always wanting to write more, but haven't done very well meeting that goal. I've just been stagnating...

But I digress.

I'm not unemployed, and I'm still with the paper, but I'm doing something almost entirely different: layout and page design. And before I started on the copy desk last Monday, I had no idea what I was doing or whether I would even like it.

First, a quick(ish) recap:

Back in mid-February, my editor took a public information officer position with a nearby city, and pretty much everyone (coworkers, the high school principal, Chamber of Commerce executive director...) expected me to be moved into her slot, especially since I've basically been an assistant editor for six-plus years. Well, that didn't happen. They hired someone from outside, a man from Indiana (with whom I have no beef). I was a little deflated, even though I hadn't considered it a lock. A few weeks later, my friend Nathan, our copy desk chief, offered me a job on the desk that would come with a small but significant raise (i.e., larger than anything I'd received in nearly 11 years as a reporter).

I was skeptical. "I have no idea how to do that," I told him. He countered with the fact that since I already knew how the paper looks, what goes where, can proof on the fly and already write good headlines, that I'd learn quickly.

Being me, I vacillated and over-thought it for more than a month. Part of me felt that taking it would be almost a cop-out, a giving up on pursuing something elsewhere in another area. I have wanted to leave, so badly, for so long, but am too practical to just quit with no job/safety net, and have made too little to have any savings of note. I have applied for so many jobs and mostly heard nothing. In March, I scored an actual, in-person interview for a job I really wanted, as an internal senior writer at Valencia College in Orlando, but didn't get it (obviously. Maybe someone else needed more than I did?). I was frank with Nathan about the fact that I've been with the paper and in Port Charlotte too long, and want to leave. His reply was practical: "Why don't you learn a new skill and make a little more money before doing it?"

I made pro and con lists, and prayed about it, prayed some more, and while the pros outweighed the cons, I still couldn't seem to decide. What really clinched it, finally, was a chat with our executive editor (about whom I have many opinions but which I'm too polite to share). He had heard about the possibility of my leaving editorial, and "wanted to know where my head was." I told him I was seriously considering it, and not just because of the money. When he asked how much of a raise I would be getting -- small though it is -- he sort of dropped his head and basically said "we can't do that for you in editorial."

The moment I really decided, and told Nathan I'd accept the job, I felt so light.

I agreed to stay as a reporter until the middle of this month, when I would complete the special graduation section I've produced for the past six years (the new editor was beyond relieved he wouldn't be stuck with it). My last story for the paper wasn't some spectacular piece, but a rather anticlimactic advance of a free community education event about an archaeological site in the city. Cleaning out my desk was strange. My coworkers bought me balloons and flowers.

And so, I started on the desk last Monday.

It has made for a change in schedule, too -- it really only dawned on me the Thursday before that I'd basically be working second shift, going in around 12:30 p.m. or 1 and then working til about 9 -- and I was a little trepidatious about learning InDesign. I did a fair amount of observing my first day, but picked up on some of the basics pretty quickly, even flowing in a story and a photo or two, editing copy down to fit the space and helping with proofing before the pages were sent to be plated. By day four I was doing photo pages. I haven't messed up anything too badly, and I'm moving a bit faster than last week, although I still have lots to learn, and am definitely slower than those who've been at it for a while. It's not second-nature yet.

My view these days. On day one, I designed the page on the left.

I'm getting used to the new personalities I'm working with, too. Everyone's nice (both our proofers, two women, tend to wear hats, oddly. They favor fedoras -- a nod to newspapers of old? -- and trilbies). Yesterday, one of the other copy deskers brought in cheesecake. Speaking of the proofers, I take pedantic pleasure in finding errors in copy they miss. :) Even more of a change is my commute, now 10 minutes in the opposite direction, as opposed to about 25 before (although I don't have enough time to say my morning rosary while I drive now, so I'm saying it earlier in the day), which is sure to save me buying gas so often.

More of a night-owl anyway, one thing I am enjoying is easing into my days. I'm still up at 7ish (the dog won't let me sleep in much beyond that, lol), but can take more time with morning prayer. I'm washing the dishes in my sink more promptly, and cooking more frequently (I stewed tomatoes down for sauce the other morning, and can't even remember the last time I did that).

And I'm writing in the mornings. Nothing noteworthy, as yet, but last week I journaled four days in a row, something I haven't done regularly in too long. Hopefully, not spending my days writing about scintillating topics like school district budgets will save up brain power for an idea I've been kicking around in my head for a bit -- disparate thoughts that keep whispering at me to connect them. I'm trying to persuade myself to get back to the gym regularly after too long an absence, and want to go to daily Mass several times a week now that I'm able.

Do I love it,? The jury's still out, but I don't dread going into work every day. That's obviously a change for the better, and learning something new is always a good thing. I can't see into the future, or know how I'll feel in six months, but I can say without a doubt that, while not a drastic alteration, it's a challenge I needed.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

For Lent this year

I decided several weeks ago that I won't be giving up anything particular for Lent this time around. Instead, I'm going to chose something a bit more active.

Or, to be more precise, something more contemplative.

My parish, not terribly long ago, established a small perpetual Adoration chapel. I've been wanting to go, but haven't made it thus far. I ask and whine at God for a lot (this past week, I actually found myself angry with Him, which is unusual for me -- it was possibly the first time ever -- and a topic for another post), but need to be better about just listening and being present in His grace. 
from "A Month of Sundays: The Foolishness of Father Brown," Msgr. John J. O'Connor

Lent seems like a good time to establish that as a routine (it worked really well a few years ago when I started praying the Rosary on my morning commute; if I don't go into my workday having said the Rosary I actually feel off). So, I've decided I'll go to Adoration least once a week to start and, since I'm off work on Mondays, well, that's the plan so far.
Also, donating things. I've been slacking in the corporal works of mercy area, and the least I can do is donate some of the many items I'm not wearing to St. Vincent de Paul to help "clothe the naked."

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Stumped, with a deadline.

I have a slight conundrum.

Probably six months ago, my former roommate Pam and her fiancĂ©, Adam, asked me to give one of the readings at their wedding, and I was, of course, honored to say yes.

But it has turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. If it was a Catholic wedding, there would be no issue (couples select from a list of suggested readings for a first and second reading, psalm and Gospel), but it's not: Pam's Episcopal -- although a large portion of her family is more on the Evangelical side -- and not a frequent church-goer; and Adam's mom is Jewish and dad is Catholic. I think he was baptized, but that's about the extent of it; he was neither confirmed nor bar mitzvahed, and while he'll go to church with Pam's family, doesn't attend a temple. They've apparently agreed to raise potential kids in the Episcopal church, but their wedding ceremony is being performed by a friend who is a notary, and is taking place outside at a gorgeous historic Florida house (The Burroughs Home. Love the wrap-around porch!) along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers, which, while beautiful, isn't a house of worship.

Which is where I come in. One of Adam's sisters is giving a second, non-religious reading, but basically it's my job to lend a note of spirituality to the proceedings (no pressure, right?). The only direction I was given was "I'm sure you'll pick something that's just perfect!" (from Pam) and, laughingly, "Nothing from the book of Revelation," (from Adam), which was a downer, because that was totally going to be my first choice. ;)

I started looking at potential options before Thanksgiving. I knew from the start that I didn't want to chose the (in my opinion) always overused 1 Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient, love is kind," etc...), and it seemed obvious to go with something from the Old Testament, which would cover all the bases for everybody's families, Jewish or Christian. If I had my druthers, I'd pick Sirach 40: 17(b)-27, which I find so lovely (I've always wondered why Sirach 26, although also great, is one of the pre-approved Catholic wedding reading options and 40 isn't), or Colossians 3: 12-17, but since this isn't my wedding, and more importantly as the Episcopal church doesn't recognize the book of Sirach, that put the kibosh on that. The "set me as a seal" verse from Song of Songs is great, but it's so short. I'm partly tempted to cobble together something from Proverbs 3, 4 and 5 which, while the passages I'm considering are actually about wisdom and not about marriage, could still potentially be taken that way. Psalm 128 is a solid contender, and of course there's always Proverbs 31, but I'm not sure if the latter wouldn't be too much, since I want to find a happy medium between a good reading for both of them and being not-too-preachy.

There is no doubt (no doubt -- please feel free to throw something in my general direction or figuratively smack the back of my head) that I'm over-thinking this, because it's what I do. Both of my best friends have told me to stop. One suggested reading the Beatitudes. And I suppose I could always fall back on Genesis 2/"This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh."

Of course, because I wasn't totally satisfied with my Old Testament options (I keep wondering if there are wedding/marriage related scripture passages in the Old Testament I might not have considered) just last night I decided to open myself up to the New Testament for possibilities. As a result, I'm now finding myself -- quite unexpectedly -- leaning towards Romans 12: 1-2, 9-13.

Must. Choose. Something! The wedding is in three weeks!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reading and reality

I'm reading two quite disparate books at the moment. One is Dante's Purgatory (so much lighter, tone-wise, than the Inferno, which I suppose should be expected, really. I like the symmetry, too, of his having cast off a belt in hell and being gird again at the foot of the seven-storey mountain with another belt, this time of humility. I'm making all sorts of fun notes as I read. An English major is always an English major. :) But I digress...), and the other is "Career of Evil," the third in the Cormoran Strike series written by J.K. Rowling under her nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. It was a Christmas gift from my brother Daniel.

As I was reading along last night, Strike, the one of the two main characters, has to follow a lead to Scotland. He takes a train to Edinburgh and then a car borrowed off a friend to Melrose, which is an hourish south. Strike arrives and "deposited the Mini in a car park beside (Melrose) abbey, with its dark red arches against a pale blue sky."

I parked our rental car in that same lot during the trip Mom and I took to Scotland in June, 2014, and the abbey ruins are, indeed, stark and bold against the sky.

The beautiful ruins of Melrose Abbey

Walking through the Wynd, Melrose.
In the book, Strike sets off in search of a house which is addressed on the Wynd. He wanders up the high street "to the central square, where a unicorn-topped pillar stood." When he misses it, he doubles back on the High Street and found the "narrow entrance in the walls to his right, only large enough for a pedestrian, which led to a dim inner courtyard. ... (the) home had a blue front door and was reached by a short flight of steps."

And I knew exactly where he was, because the Wynd is a small alley that cuts through from Bucchleuch Street, where our B&B was, to Melrose's High Street. And in the middle there really is a small courtyard, with a shop, and a museum and that house -- which when I was there, had pots of red flowers on the steps -- that are only accessible from that courtyard.

Toward the end of the chapter, Strike also walks "to Millers of Melrose, a family butcher he had noticed on his troll around the town" where he buys some meat pies for his return journey.

I even have a picture of Millers' butcher shop. Why would I take a picture of a butcher shop, you ask? Well, as my mom and I were walking off our dinner the night we got to Melrose(amazing food at the King's Arms, and banoffee pie for dessert that I still want to try and recreate sometime), we went to the center of town, home of that unicorn-topper pillar, and then wandered a bit before turning in for the night. Close to the center of town was one butcher's shop which bore a rather hoity-toity sign that declared it was owned by "Martin Baird: High Class Family Butcher." It was only when we reached the bottom of the same street that we spotted Miller's. Mom and I were a little tired, still, and in a goofy mood, because I said something about it clearly being the low-class butcher of Melrose, and we both just dissolved in giggles. Maybe you had to be there to find it funny...
Snobby butcher

Millers: butcher to the people.

Anyway, maybe it's because I haven't traveled terribly extensively, but there is still a strange thrill for me reading about places I've now been. It happened after Rome as well, a sense of wonder and of somehow being in on something, in the know because you're not just imagining it, but have seen it and experienced it for yourself. And even, as in this case, when the book is fiction, you know the author (Rowling, although of course she's Scottish herself, so it makes sense) has been there, too. It's a tenuous connection, really, but I also know what it's like to see or experience something, even something tiny, and then include it in something you're writing. It just makes writing, and reading, all the more real.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

What I carry

This is a long one. I could probably have edited it more than I have, but to be quite honest, I didn't want to. Some I wrote over the last few months. Some was written, well, years ago.

I have been thinking a lot about death recently. Maybe because, not too long ago, I read a book about praying for those in Purgatory. Also, in November the Catholic Church makes a point of praying even more for the souls of our beloved dead.

Work plays into it, too. In early October at the paper where I work, we covered the case of a missing infant, an 8-week-old baby named Chance who, we in the newsroom felt the more we learned about his parents, was likely dead. It sadly turned out to be true: the father beat the child and then suffocated him -- the mother doing nothing to stop it -- leaving him in his crib for eight days before burying him in a shallow grave in an undeveloped part of the city and fleeing to another state. It is appalling and sad to read about these things as well as to write about them  -- murders, accidents, child molestations. You don't dwell on them, can't really -- and not what you envision writing when you go into journalism. At least I didn't. And while I'm not the cops and courts reporter, we're a small staff, and all of us wound up writing several stories on Chance's death. I covered a candle-light memorial vigil for baby, and the sorrow of his grandparents and of complete strangers in the community was palpable. Of course I cried for this little one, who deserved far more -- a life -- from those entrusted with his care. It was only later that I remembered his drug-addicted parents -- who appeared stone-faced in mug shots and first-appearance videos -- needed my prayers, too.

There was a lot of anger in the community toward the parents, who are in jail awaiting trial, but also toward their families, whom strangers felt should have done more to protect the baby. A lot of that vitriol was unleashed on social media, a laying of blame and criticism, and it got me thinking about how grateful I am that my own family's tragedy played out in the days before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is now (the fact that I am now, by writing about it, putting it out there doesn't escape me, but as it's a matter of public record for anyone who does a little digging, and as only about five people read this, and two of them know already...).

My father's death -- sad as it was, the cancer taking him so quickly -- was, of course, not the first I'd ever experienced. A favorite teacher died mid-way through my sophomore year of high school. One of my grandfathers died when I was 2, my great-aunt Rose when I was 14, Granny-B in 2006. But those weren't catastrophic. I'd try to sugar-coat it if I could, but there is no casual conversational segue in existence that will soften the fact that my uncle murdered my grandparents.


To say it was devastating to my entire extended family is a gross understatement. Two lives were ended prematurely, but there were so many reverberations, so much more long-term damage. The sorrow tore holes in relationships. It sparked my father's undiagnosed but completely real depression that never healed fully, and contributed to a rift between him and one of my brothers; they had barely spoken for six years before Dad died, although my brother came home in time to see him, but only at Mom's request. I pray he will be glad, someday, that he was there.

The sharpness if the pain is gone, of course, but the gap left by their deaths will always be felt a little. I've certainly processed it, over the last 21 years. I don't know about other members of my family, but I've forgiven my uncle, something I wasn't sure I'd be able to do. But it was one of those situations where you pray to hopefully, someday, maybe, have the ability to forgive, then find one day you have done it unconsciously. Quite frankly, while I had always prayed, I see that teenage hope to one day reach forgiveness as the first time I really trusted God with something as, at least ostensibly, an adult -- making the concrete choice to believe that, through His grace, everything would somehow be alright.
My uncle is serving two consecutive life sentences, without possibility of parole, and no one in the family has contact with him. He and Dad wrote letters for a while, but once my uncle realized Dad wasn't going to try and help him get out -- did he seriously thing my prosecutor father would? And with the sentence he received? -- my uncle stopped writing. I pray he has sought forgiveness and found peace, but he no longer deserves to know how our lives are going. If this makes it sound like I haven't forgiven him fully, well, I'm not a saint yet. 

Anyway, I don't generally ever talk or write about my grandparents' murder and uncle's imprisonment. Why? Well, it is a heavy thing with which to entrust and, dare I say, burden someone. I can remember clearly exactly where I was every time I've told someone about the murders, and can practically count those instances on one hand. I've spoken about it publicly exactly once, during a retreat talk to high school students on forgiveness. There are people I have known for a very long time -- some close college friends, for instance -- who have no idea. My coworkers don't know, either, although there have been plenty of situations where I could have brought it up. But I also don't want to be like a past coworker who, having lost her husband while in her 30s, brought it up his death in practically every conversation, even on the phone with sources, 20-plus years later.
Part of me has always felt, too, that it's no one's business. I remember, sometime after the murders, going with Dad to Walmart. We ran into someone he knew slightly, and Dad started talking about it. It was almost certainly more than this person had anticipated going into a check-out line chat, and I almost wanted to sink into the floor. Why was he sharing all our sorrow? Mom said it helped him to talk through it, but I have never thought I needed to....although perhaps, having had the urge to write about it for years, perhaps I do, after all.

It's ironic, then, that I sometimes find myself writing about murder cases, although fortunately I've never had to bother the family of a murder victim -- I'd refuse, anyway. I will never hound a devastated family for quotes. I know, too well, some of the things they're experiencing. Being hassled by reporters was the last thing we would have wanted at the time, and the only time any of us were quoted in the press was when Dad actually had to testify at my uncle's trial.

Why now, then? That's a good question. Partly because, while on vacation over Thanksgiving, I  helped my Mom clean out a spare room in her house, and there were many things that brought my grandparents to mind.

But also, portions of the story, in one form or another, have been sitting in my drafts folder -- not to mention in my head; how I'd couch it, the way I'd phrase things -- for years. I've wanted to write about these events. I've just never done it. Fear of opening up too much, perhaps? Probably. Even though it's hardly my fault and I have nothing to be ashamed of, there is that worry that people will judge, somehow. After starting several drafts, and more maybe editing than a lot else I've ever written, I've over-thought it time and again (me, over-analyze something? Pshaw!), and done nothing. Most of this post was written ages ago and, yet I kept prevaricating. "Why am I writing this?" I kept asking myself. It isn't meant to be a treatise on living through grief, an exploration of bad things happening to good people or an it-can-happen-in-anyone's-family sort of lesson. I suppose you could say it is entirely selfish.
I have built it up in my head as something so major (which of course it was) to reveal, but nothing has ever come from being locked away. As small as it might seem to some, even though I won't be sharing this on social media anywhere, it is a big thing for me to just hit the "publish" button. What, in fact, am I risking? That it will go viral? Unlikely as that may be, the thought is a bit intimidating. But it is a new year, after all, too, and with the goal to write more in 2016, I feel like I shouldn't shirk telling this story anymore. I recently I came across a quote from St. Catherine of Sienna, "Start being brave about everything," and realized that if I've wanted to write something for years and haven't done it, that only makes it more obvious that I should.
We all have scars that we carry. This is one of mine.

So, we need to talk about "The Lion King." This isn't a non sequitur, I promise.

The first time I saw it, I didn't like it at all. I really couldn't stand the crazy bright colors and harshly geometric, unrealistic looking crocodiles during the "I Just Can't Wait to be King," number, especially.

I know this would be tantamount to sacrilege to some people, as it's so beloved. But, it wasn't so much the movie itself that bothered me (it's great, actually -- loosely based on Hamlet, and beautifully drawn (minus those crocodiles), filled with subtle historical references like goose-stepping hyenas, and it's funny) so much as the circumstances surrounding when I saw it. I was 16, and it was July of 1994. I saw it in a nearly empty (or so I remember it) theater with all my first cousins (including Sam, who was still in the womb at the time) sitting together in one row.

Meanwhile, my Dad, Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Joe were buying caskets. Mom and Aunt Jean had taken us to the movies as a distraction. In retrospect, taking 10 children to see a film where a character plotted and then took the life of a family member might not have been the most enlightened choice, given the circumstances, although ultimately I don't think any of us were scarred by it (in fact, my cousin Carrie didn't even remember where she first saw the movie until it came up in conversation and I reminded her). In fact, we never really talk about that at all.

Anyway, my uncle had some mental issues, but was fine when he took his meds. By way of backstory, he'd graduated from high school, and started college, but decided he needed space, and went traveling. There were years of time where he was living off the grid, with no contact with family. He spent some time working an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point, he fell in love and proposed to a girl, but she said no, which apparently caused some sort of break -- he was arrested on stalking charges -- and he spent time in the state mental hospital in Chatahoochee. A little odd sometimes, but up until that summer, he'd never been violent. After he returned, my grandparents did all they could to help him out. They supported him in between low-paying jobs, gave him a car and he lived rent free in my late great-grandparent's small home. They didn't make too many demands of him. Partly, I think they gave him so much leeway because of Nana -- he was their youngest, and she didn't want anything to happen that would drive him to the point of leaving and cutting off communication again.

But it had reached a point, in 1994, where a line had to be drawn, and my grandparents gave my uncle an ultimatum: they would either pay his tuition to go back to college, or help him find another job, but if he chose neither, they couldn't continue to support him indefinitely. Apparently, that's what caused him to snap. Not taking his meds, in the week or so leading up to their deaths, he left several angry messages on their answering machine (messages Dad would find later and eventually testify about). Then, on the night of July 11th, my uncle asked my grandfather, who loved to fix things, to check out something seemingly wrong with his bike. While he was looking at it, my uncle attacked him from behind, hitting Grandpa with some sort of blunt object -- never found, it could have been any of the hundreds of tools my grandfather had. Grandpa was a big man, and my uncle, who was intending to burn the bodies, could only manage to drag his body into the side yard and cover it with a tarp. 

Nana, cornered in their bedroom, fought back. When police went to inform my uncle of their deaths, he apparently answered the door without a shirt on, his chest covered in scratches she left behind as she tried to fend him off while he was choking her. He wrapped her in a sheet and carried her body to the compost pile in the back yard where he planned to start a fire. She wasn't yet dead, only unconscious, however. But when she came to, and started to stir, he beat her to death as well.

It couldn't actually be determined which one of them died first. 

After they were dead, my uncle calmly went back into the house, washed his clothes and hosed off the driveway. Because he tried to cover his tracks, knowing what he did was wrong, he was found psychotic, not insane

If the above narrative seems dispassionate, or in any way cold or unfeeling, please trust me, it is not. But they are facts I have lived with for a long time, and you certainly become able to deal with things more pragmatically as time passes. To gloss over them seems disingenuous.

I remember snapshots of the day we found out, just flashes really. It was a Tuesday, and I was going to paint my bedroom blue. All my things were boxed, borders were taped off and all the really big furniture was crammed together in the center of the room. A month and a half later, when we came home, we pulled into the driveway at around 3 a.m. the first day of my junior year of high school. I put my room back together in the days and weeks that followed. That room, to this day, is still white. Only in cleaning out my parents' garage after Dad died did we finally get rid of those two rusted cans, never opened and still full of pale blue paint.

Anyway, it was still early that Tuesday when the doorbell rang. And officer told my Dad to call Pensacola Police Department. He thought maybe something had happened to my uncle. I then heard my father on the phone, and his cry of pain and anguish is one that I couldn't possibly recreate. Calls were made, to Uncle Joe in Tennessee, to Aunt Marilyn, across the world in Japan. A coworker from Dad's office came by at some point to get his files. Fr. Sheedy arrived from church, called by someone, and prayed with us. I remember, at one point, hugging a wall clock Nana and Grandpa had given me when they were down visiting just three weeks before and, later, standing at the end of our hallway, and my brother Daniel, 11 at the time, holding my hand. That night, finally on the road to Pensacola, driving up 471 through the Green Swamp, my brothers slept in the back of the minivan but I was still awake, wanting to hear and yet not listen to my parents, numb and speculating.

The funeral itself is also a bit of a blur. Little Flower was packed, and mostly I remember squeezing Carrie's hand hard as we walked down the aisle behind the caskets, telling myself not to cry as Dad gave a eulogy. At the graveside service at Barrancas National Cemetery, I was so far in the back that I couldn't hear what the priest was saying. Instead I took huge comfort from the two Navy jets that flew over -- Grandpa was a retired Navy pilot -- and even then, not knowing what signal graces were, I couldn't help but think that those planes meant they were okay. Most people would think nothing of it -- Barrancas is on base at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, and jet planes are common; pilots train there -- but you will never convince me otherwise.

Despite all the numbness and anguish, there was still laughter, seeing cousins again, the boys playing video games together, sitting with my then 99-year-old great-grandmother, even taking photos and enjoying food as a family during a post-funeral reception at a family friend's home.

We ultimately spent three weeks after the funeral in Nana and Grandpa's house, cleaning, sorting. It wasn't a ghastly crime scene, if you're wondering. My grandparents just had a lot of stuff. It took years before the house was ready and finally sold (my uncle wasn't convicted for four years, due to a number of issues including his competency to stand trial, and the medical examiner's deployment to the Middle East with his reserve unit. It was also nearly a decade before my dad, their executor, could close their complicated estates -- a fact which certainly contributed to his depression).
But what I remember about those three weeks spent with my family and cousins is, strangely, joy. None of us, during those weeks, cried: Carrie and I camped out in the music room, sleeping  in sleeping bags on the floor stretched beneath the baby grand pianos because there were no other bedrooms to spare between our parents and all our respective brothers; laughing over the 1970's era paisley jumpsuit that Nana had saved, laughing again when we found a photo of the Navy wives fashion show she'd worn it in; Grandpa's stashes of photos everywhere, -- many never seen, decades old ones of them courting, or of parties with people we'd never be able to identify; joking with my cousin Matt about things Grandpa could have jerry-rigged or fixed up if he was still alive. It always felt like they were on vacation and would walk through the door at any moment. I will never forget the smell of their house -- a mix of mothballs and coffee and whatever it was that gave their home, always a happy place, its character. Every now and again I catch a whiff of something similar, and it never fails to make me smile.

In writing this, I find myself wondering if my reticence to share this part of myself has to do with what happened when we got home. It seems strange, now, to think that none of us went to any sort of counseling. We probably all could have used it at some level, my father the most. But -- and I deplore this about his former workplace -- he would have been judged negatively for having any kind of counseling on his record, so he got none beyond talking to the priests at church, which was better than nothing, but still insufficient.

And like I said, we got home about 4 hours before the start of a new school year. Besides a few teachers, who hugged me when I checked in at the office, none of my classmates ever said anything, not even an "I'm sorry for your loss." For a long time, I thought they might not know, but news of any kind typically traveled my tiny Catholic high school like wildfire and I realized, belatedly, that everyone knew, but probably had absolutely no idea what to say. No one treated me with kid gloves, so things were seemingly normal. I went to class, and got mostly good grades, went to dances and sporting events and got my driver's license and life carried on. And since I wasn't breaking down in tears in public, I guess everyone assumed I was fine. Which I was, although I was certainly sad. But since Dad's emotions swung wildly for years -- sometimes I think my Mom alone held him together through force of will and faith; as an adult, talking with him about it once, he had no memory of his sometime rages -- we all basically kept a check on ours, and it wasn't until nearly three years later, in college, that I even mentioned the murders to someone other than family.

I know my Dad struggled with the why of it for years, but I have always known there was some reason God allowed this to happen. I don't know that reason, or what it means that I never belabored it too deeply. Talking it over with a very good friend in college once, I remember her saying that I was so strong to have survived all that, and to still be "normal." It surprised me, then and now, to think of myself as some sort of survivor compared to say, someone who has suffered sexual assault, lived in a war-torn environment, or experienced a terror attack first-hand. But these events are part of who I am and, I think, led me to cling closer to God, a fact for which I am abundantly grateful.

I will always miss my grandparents. I continue to pray for them and ask them to pray for me, too. I carry them in my heart. And despite the recitation of the facts above, I do not dwell on how they died, but remember them for who they were: her a talented, classy, gentle, prayerful woman, a classically trained pianist, artist and teacher who had a strong devotion to Our Lady, let me try coffee for the first time and would share her toast on early mornings when we were the only ones awake; him a retired Navy pilot turned Real Estate agent who could fix anything, loved photography, told ridiculous jokes and liked to sometimes buck the rules, teaching me to drive (illegally, at 14, on abandoned Naval base runways) and fish with live bait. Neither were, of course, perfect, but both of my grandparents, especially Nana, who was a convert and prayed the Rosary daily, had very strong faith.

I have tried several endings for this post, but all seemed too trite, or too abrupt. What does feel right is to close with the prayer given by Jesus to St. Gertrude the Great, which I pray daily:

"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."