I am going to tell you the story of my abortion

I have four children but in Catholic circles I might be expected to say I have 7 children: 4 on earth and 3 in heaven. I do not say this nor do I think this or feel this. I can only think of one person (other than my midwives) who knows I’ve had 2 miscarriages and one abortion (my husband). I do not mean abortion in the medical sense (basically, what normal people call a miscarriage). I mean “elective abortion”. What normal people call plain old “abortion.” In Catholic circles you might hear it referred to as “murder”. The climate in this country being what it is, I find I’m supposed to either be filled with shame and share with you all the negative consequences from my choice or bravely shout out that I have no regrets at all. Like all else in the abortion debate, I don’t think either side is right.

I am going to tell you the story of my abortion. Not because I want to, but because I feel I should. Aren’t I just such a giving Catholic feminist?

I would like to say I was 16 and scared of my abusive belt wielding father when I chose to end my baby’s life. That I was raped by the high school quarterback and knew he’d ruin me if I bravely carried on the pregnancy. But this was not the case.

I was 30. A grown woman. It was my third year of medical school. It was either a week before my birthday or a week after. So maybe I was 31. It doesn’t matter. I had it done the day before a really big exam we call “shelfs” in med school. They cover large amounts of information you’re supposed to have learned on recent rotations (note: 1. Medical school can be defined as nothing more than a series of exams that cover a large amount of information 2. The exam does not actually cover what you learn on rotation. In reality, you keep a study guide crammed in the pocket of your short white coat and study furiously every free minute you have between listening to the attending ramble on about politics or whatever other topic they’ve chosen to hold you captive audience to and typing their notes into the EMR for them).

The particular shelfs (shelves?) I took the day after my abortion were Pediatrics and Obstetrics. I failed both (note: don’t do this).

The father of my baby had a PhD in computer science from Johns Hopkins and worked at Google on language translation programming. He knew some Welsh as a result of this and was able to tell me what the name of the town Nant Y Glo was in English (note: Nant Y Glo is a small town in western Pennsylvania I used to drive past a lot growing up and laugh at its name. It is also the town where the Amish man who built my parents’ kitchen cabinets’ bipolar wife moved and began working as a CNA at a nursing home when she left him and their ten children. It is not clear to me if having ten children made it harder or easier for her to leave).

He grew up in Alabama but had only a trace of an accent. His father was a NASA scientist. He was a former Christian, now atheist, and had given up guns despite being captain of his high school’s rifle team after his gun accidentally went off one day. No one had been hurt but they *could* have been, he’d told me repeatedly with a somber look in his eyes. It was the sort of thing a person who’s led a sheltered coddled life said in such a way.

He was also a feminist. He made sure to add “not that I’m trying to pressure you; this is *your* choice,” to every pleading argument he made for me to abort our baby. See? Proof he was really a great feminist progressive guy who totally respected me and my body. Practically had “your body, your choice,” tattooed on his knuckles.

He looked scared as shit and smoked nonstop as he paced on the front porch. He was 40 and hadn’t started smoking until age 28. Who does that, I used to wonder. 28? Really? He didn’t smoke in his house. I watched him through the big picture window from the sitting room.

He made various arguments as to why I should have an abortion but the only one I can really remember is “it’s not a sentient being so it’s not immoral. And we don’t love each other so it wouldn’t be moral to bring a baby into the world in that kind of relationship.”

Not a sentient being. That phrase loops through my mind often, to this day. What an asshole. That one loops right behind.

It stung when he said we didn’t love each other. I loved him and I’d thought he loved me too until an hour or so before I told him I was pregnant.

I’d picked him up at the airport late at night. I don’t remember where he’d been exactly. It involved visiting a friend of some sort. He was hungry and we drove back to his house and ordered a pizza, then walked to the shop to get it. It was a cold March night but parking in his neighborhood was difficult and he was very green and eco friendly and all that. Respected goddess Mother Earth, you know, in a symbolic atheist respect all myths and traditions kind of way.

As we walked to the pizza shop, slightly more quickly than natural-the way you do when it’s uncomfortably cold, he told me about his trip. Something about some woman being there he’d had feelings for years ago but she’d been married to his best friend at the time. Or something. And he’d run into this woman and now she was single and she told him she’d had feelings too. He told me this story as you would a friend, not a girlfriend. Not someone you love or even someone you might one day love.

The point of the story was not that they fell into bed and he was sorry for cheating or that he’d realized he didn’t have feelings for her or that bad timing’s a bitch. I don’t remember the story having much of a point at all actually. Just another opportunity for more of his self indulgent introspective rambling. I knew in that moment he didn’t love me. That I was carrying the baby of a man who didn’t love me and probably never would. My heart sunk. Cliche but true.

Looking back on it, part of me realized something else in that moment: I didn’t love him either. If I hadn’t been pregnant I think I probably would have broken up with him soon after that night. But I was. I needed to believe I loved the father of my baby. And I needed to tell him.

We picked up the pizza and walked back to his house. I told him right as he was about to take his first slice. We never ate a single piece of that pizza. We left the lid of the box open all night and it dried out. I don’t remember what kind it was.

I don’t remember how I brought it up. I don’t think I blurted it but I didn’t put a lot of effort into a soft lead in either. I was fairly annoyed with his endless talking by then and a small part of me enjoyed the jolt my revelation caused.

He took it considerably worse than I’d expected him to. It could be because I already had two kids and he didn’t. It could be that he’d led a very, very, very easy life and I hadn’t. Or it could be that men in general freak out about pregnancy than women. Some of each, maybe.

He said he’d never gotten anyone pregnant before.(How do you really know, I’d thought).He couldn’t believe it, he said. What are you going to do, he asked.

I told him I didn’t believe in abortion, that I hadn’t ever since having my special needs son and thinking how many of us might have aborted him given the chance, so I would have the baby. I didn’t expect him to react the way he did. I didn’t expect him to keep me up all night explaining over and over why this was a bad idea. Pleading, pressuring, point after point after point. Always ending each with “not that I’m trying to pressure you. This is *your* choice.”

I was sad and lonely and wanted someone to love me. Anyone. Even this sad sack. I had PTSD and two special need kids and a black hole inside of me you can’t possibly understand if you’ve never felt it.

I convinced myself I loved him and that if I had this abortion surely he would love me too. How could such a sacrifice not show him how much I loved him? Am I sounding like Susan Smith here? I sure as hell hope not.

It was more complex than that. I needed to finish med school for my kids. I was already a couple hundred thousand dollars in debt with absolutely no way to repay it if I didn’t finish and become a doctor. My medical school did not look kindly on pregnant students and already had it in for me. My baby was due around Thanksgiving. My only hope would have been to give birth Thanksgiving day so that I could have 4 days off before going back on rotation. And I would have had to convince my mother to take care of a newborn full time in addition to my two special needs preschoolers. And I would have had to somehow finish med school, pass my board exams, apply to residency and raise my boys while taking care of a newborn.

Did I mention I was on *seven* psych meds for my PTSD at the time? I couldn’t have stayed on most of them while pregnant. That alone would have caused my very precarious life to collapse. I couldn’t do that to my boys.

I told my good feminist boyfriend I would have the abortion as the sun was rising, casting a very pretty rose colored light on the cold dried up pizza still sitting out on the coffee table. He was so damned relieved. He said not to worry, he would make all the arrangements and pay for it. What a swell guy.

I couldn’t miss rotation but I was on ER so I worked midnight to 8am, drove to Pittsburgh, had the abortion, slept it off at the good feminist boyfriend’s house, then drove back and worked another midnight shift.

The next day after that, I failed my shelfs.

I ended my relationship with the good feminist not long after. I met my husband in June. We had two beautiful children together. We finished med school and residency together. We’re starting up a medical practice together. We became Catholic together. We argue feminism and what it really means to be pro-life together.

I wouldn’t have met him and had our two bubs if I’d kept my baby. I couldn’t have finished med school. If I hadn’t finished med school, my very tenuous mental health would have fallen. And with it, my two boys and their own very tenuous mental health.

Part of me says, maybe not. Maybe it would have worked. Or, maybe it doesn’t matter. Because is anything worth killing your baby? I cry sometimes. Three of my four kids were born at the same time of year when this baby was due. I don’t allow myself to do the math. I don’t calculate out how old he or she would be. Because it makes me cry. And there’s already so many other tears in our lives.

I was using 99% effective contraception when my baby was conceived. I did not enjoy the sex I had with the good feminist boyfriend but I needed it. To try to fill the emptiness so wide and so deep inside the PTSD creates. I tried to fill it with relationships, with food, with shopping, with work. I tried.

I consider my baby and her death mostly a result of the trauma Jeremy Noyes and my med school LECOM did to me. You can feel free to disagre with me, but if you do I imagine you’re most likely one of those sheltered people who’ve led an easy life.

Life is not simple or easy. I am not in need of healing weekend retreats with Catholic sister fellowship to recover from the emotional and spiritual wounds of my abortion (no offense if you are in need of such a weekend. I’m just personally not) Nor am I okay with having ended my baby’s life. It’s not okay. But it is what it is. As is often the case in life.

My 16 month old has been suckling on my left breast the whole time I have been typing this out on my phone. He is asleep. The whole house is. A rare time of silence and calm where I can write. Do something just for me. Even as one of my kids literally feeds on me. This is motherhood. I have four children. I am their mother. I try my damnedest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skinny jeans: the anticlimax

I have a pair of jeans from 2007. They have moved with me from Erie to Indiana (Indiana PA, not the flat Midwest state) to Harrisburg to Latrobe back to Indiana back to Latrobe to Verona to Oakmont and back to Verona again. Packed and unpacked and hung up in closet after closet. I felt ridiculous at times. I didn’t fit into these jeans during these seven moves in ten years. I wasn’t sure I ever would again but I felt like I *needed* to. That it wasn’t optional.

I wore these skinny jeans, these size 10 The Limited boot cut blue jeans, in 2007. I stopped wearing them January 2008 when I gained weight because I was depressed. I was then traumatized for several months by a fellow medical student and my weight went up and up. I gained 74 pounds, but who’s counting?

Someday returning to that weight, to those jeans, was supposed to be the ultimate victory. Over my mental health struggles, over my trauma, over him.

But here I sit in those jeans after a decade of hard work and good luck, and it’s really very anticlimactic.

I do not feel good about myself again the way I did then. These ten years have been hard. For me, for my kids, for my husband. For my heart and mind and soul and body.

Pregnancy and med school and residency and the awful things you do after trauma. To yourself. To the people you love. To God.

We are supposed to lose our innocence as we get older so that we can protect the innocence of those who deserve to hold onto it. Who need it. I understand that and I hope I live it. But I sometimes wish I’d held onto maybe just a small bit more of it.

How can it be that sick kids and rape and dysfunctional families and struggling to make ends meet and mental illness take from me the joy of The Limited boot cut blue jeans? Is there something better in its place?

i don’t know, but I hope so.

I am opening my own practice now. For addiction and autism and all things behavioral health. I hope I will find a joy so wide and so deep there, sitting with patients who’ve lost more innocence than they’d have liked too. Helping them find a new kind of joy. I hope.

The Limited closed this winter right as I returned to the size I’d been waiting for. So, this pair of skinny jeans, my perfect The Limited size 10 boot cut blue jeans, will be my last. I’ve been dreaming for ten years of filling my closet with a dozen pairs Someday. Someday when I fit back in. Back into the jeans, back into the Life Before.

But there is no returning to the Life Before. It’s gone as surely as The Limited. Something new will open where it once stood. I just don’t know what yet.

 

 

 

 

A letter to my husband on suffering and God

My husband,

I told you I have been wrestling with certain thoughts of how we reconcile God and suffering. He cannot be all powerful, all knowing, all present and all loving. Kushner’s response is that he is not all powerful. That he created nature and created humans, and both of these are capable of inducing great suffering, but he cannot interfere and save us because he is not all powerful.

I had a similar idea about this 12 years ago when I was wrestling with the same question. I called it the Sleeping Beauty theory. In Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy comes and puts a curse on baby Aurora stating that when she turns 16 she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. There is a good fairy there (Merryweather is her name I believe) and she says her magic is not strong enough to cancel the evil fairy’s spell but it’s strong enough that she can change it that when the spinning wheel pricks her finger, she will just fall asleep (and can be woken by true love’s kiss). They try to hide Aurora away and get rid of all the spinning wheels in the kingdom, but it doesn’t work. She pricks her finger, but true love’s kiss saves her.

This idea is very different from what you (and Protestants in general) believe. You believe that you can change the outcome of things with prayer. You believe you can pray your child well and I can pray mine well (yes I know you recognize this is not guaranteed, but you do credit our son’s improvement to you and his biological mother praying). What I find cruel about this view is this idea that God would save one child because his parents prayed for him and not another whose parents didn’t. How could a loving God do that?

How could a loving all powerful God who is capable of intervening allow the cruelty and suffering of this world? 12 years ago I wrestled with the question of how a loving God could allow galactosemia: a disease that, up until 50 years ago, cause babies to die from their mother’s milk. Can you think of anything more wrong than that? God is our father and no father could stand by and not intervene. We let our children make mistakes to learn things but we don’t let them die or get raped or get ravaged by a tsunami. We protect them as much as we can but most importantly, we try to prepare them to head out into that world and handle all the bad things that might come their way, and let them know we are there to love and comfort them.

I found an interview with Kushner where he states it very concisely and simply:

Kushner: There were reports a few months ago about experiments in which two groups of hospital patients: one was prayed for, one wasn’t. The results showed that it didn’t seem to make a difference. I said in an interview at the time that God’s job is not to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctors’ job. God’s job is to make sick people brave. You know what we’ve done in this country? We have confused God with Santa Claus. And we believe that prayer means making a list of everything you don’t have but want and trying to persuade God you deserve it. Now I’m sorry, that’s not God, that’s Santa Claus. Prayer is not bargaining with God. Prayer is simply coming into the presence of God. Because when you come into the presence of God, even the things you don’t have matter a lot less.

God is a source of strength, resilience, love. Like we hope to be to our kids. And God is a teacher, like we hope to be to our kids.

It’s true I should pray everyday and read the Bible. It would strengthen my relationship with God and make me a more grounded, stronger person. And I will continue working towards that in my journey. But I feel like you fail to recognize that you have something to learn from me spiritually as well. There is a depth and a wisdom in Judaism that comes from the trauma of the Holocaust, from a history of oppression. And there is a depth and wisdom to my spiritual life from the things I have faced in life that you, luckily, have not had to.

How do you reconcile these questions? I would like to hear your thoughts. How is it that great suffering occurs if God is all powerful and all loving? How is it that our prayers cause him to act differently to the extreme that he would save one child over another as a result of one being prayed for and another not? I hope we can engage in a dialogue here. That is what I have to offer you. This is something we need as much as consistent prayer. To wrestle with God as Israel does. To worship with our mind and body and heart.

with Love,

your wife

Turkey

“My name is Turkey,” he said.

“Turkey,” I confirmed, not sure I had heard him correctly.

“Yes,” he said, “Your bird here in America named turkey, was named after the country Turkey. I am also named after the country Turkey.” He had an accent but I wasn’t sure where from. Perhaps Turkey?

It turned out Turkey was from Saudi Arabia, currently studying in America at my university. He was going to go back to Saudi Arabia when he was done and take his skills with him. He was some kind of Information Science type major. He was also a Muslim. The Muslim who’d been chosen to show me around the campus Muslim center and local mosque and talk to me about Islam.

It was summer 2001 and I was on my spiritual journey. I’d recently read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was moved by his story, how he’d changed so much in his life. Going from criminal to Nation of Islam to true Islam and activism that went after the global structures of oppression. From justifiably hating the white race to forgiveness and unity through God. If Islam had done such amazing things for him, maybe it was the truth.

I began reading the Koran and dressing in hijab. Hijab included long skirts, long sleeves and a head scarf (called a hijab also) that covered my hair completely and even my neck. if you dress in hijab you’re called a hijabi. I still love that word. I made my hijab from pink fabric I bought at Joann Fabrics. I found most people I encountered believed me to be a pink nun. White Muslims were not a thing in rural western Pennsylvania then. Still aren’t.

I contacted the campus Muslim group and spoke with the Imam who arranged for Turkey to show me around. So, here I was, standing in a campus dining hall meeting this Saudi Arabian guy with an unexpected name. He wore a t-shirt tucked into jeans with a belt and had a fanny pack on. I hadn’t seen one of those since the early 1990’s, but hey, you can’t be a slave to trends, right? You have to do you. After all, I was dressed like a pink nun.

His hair was fluffy and his body seemed somehow feminine to me. He was a bit overweight and the belt cinched in his waist. He had body odor. I guess they don’t use deodorant in Saudi Arabia, I thought.

I’d started eating Halal at this point. Halal is sort of the Muslim version of keeping kosher. It’s a set of religious laws governing diet. The basic tenet is that you can only eat halal meat if you’re Muslim. Halal meat has been killed and butchered by someone who is one of the people of the book (one of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) in the least cruel manner possible. I’d been driving an hour down to Pittsbugh to buy kosher meat because it met the requirements: killed and butchered by a Jewish person and killed in the least cruel way (kosher law requires the animal is killed by being cut with a sharp blade across the neck, dying instantly. There have been kosher meat producers exposed not to be doing this, but that’s the standard).

But as we stood in the university food court, Turkey asked me where I wanted to eat. He opted for Burger Kind and got a whopper for himself. He explained to me that since America was a Christian nation it was considered halal. Really? That didn’t seem quite… kosher to me. I figured Turkey knew what he was talking about though. After all, the Imam had chosen him as my tour guide through Islam.

I opted for a veggie burger and we ate and chatted. He showed me the room at the student center where they held Friday services each week. Men in the front and women in the back. He drove me to the local mosque, which was really just a house. The men worshipped downstairs, the women upstairs, he told me.

When we were done he took me to his apartment. I told him I needed to leave soon but he invited me in and I went. He said he needed to change into something more comfortable and given how tight his belt and fanny pack were, I didn’t blame him. He changed into a big caftan thing like the one I’ve seen pictures of my dad wearing back in the 1970s when he had a semi-fro and bushy beard.

Turkey had copious chest hair that now came forth from the V-neck of his caftan. I sat on a chair and he sat on his couch. I remember him showing me bootleg DVDs from Saudi Arabia of American movies. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be impressed. I also wasn’t sure bootlegs were the most Godly thing to be showing off. He then began telling me about jihad. He wanted me to know the true meaning of it given the way it was presented in America. I’d already read up on it but I welcomed his insight.

I was expecting him to go into the fact that jihad isn’t about literal war but rather the spiritual war we all face within ourselves or some other such similar thing. Instead he began telling me that when men went out on jihad (literal war, not the struggle within. he had no problem with jihad being a violent fight agaist the infidels apparently) they were away from their wives and therefore allowed to take temporary wives and then leave them and return to their real wives when it was over. Wow, I thought to myself, that’s pretty horrible and misogynist. But I nodded politely. I was trying to figure a way to get out of there. He’d driven me and I was hinting that I needed to go but he wasn’t picking up on the hint. Then I found out why.

He explained to me that he was here in the states studying for two years and it was considered the same thing as jihad. (Really? That’s a hell of a leap)  So, he was allowed to take a temporary wife. That is, sleep around. (Eww). I wasn’t even aware he was married back home. I don’t think he was. What I do think, is that he was trying to sleep with me. It didn’t occur to me at the time to be honest with you. I just thought he was a weirdo telling me things that had me questioning the path my spiritual journey was taking. He soon drove me back to campus and we parted ways on a polite note.

It was only once I told my older sister about the whole odd day with Turkey that she pointed out to me what he’d been trying to do. Oh. Yuck. Like, yuuuuuuuucck.

“But I was dressed head to toe in hijab,” I said, “why would he think I was going to sleep with him?”

“Your ankle length skirts have slits up to your ass,” she said.

It’s true my ankle length skirts mostly do have slits up to the knee so that I can, ya know, move my legs far enough to walk. I find it pretty convenient to be able to walk. But this never seemed especially risqué to me.

She said this and I felt dirty. Here I was seeking God and being modest and I got the same treatment as ever: a guy trying to sleep with me, looking at me as a piece of meat. Halal meat, but meat nonetheless.

These sorts of things happen all the time to women in this world. I used to look back on this memory, on all the other memories I have like it–some worse than this one, some more benign, but all wrong– with shame. It made me feel dirty. He made me feel dirty. They made me feel dirty. I wasn’t always covered up head to toe seeking religion when it happened. Sometimes I was drunk. Sometimes I was just walking down the street talking to a friend. Sometimes I was lonely and looking for love and an end to that vast void inside me. And instead of filling it, they made it expand ever further. They say the universe is constantly expanding. It felt that way for so long.

But I know now I’m not the one who should be ashamed. They are. Blame rape culture if you want. Blame Eve and the Fall. But I blame them. They know what they’re doing is wrong. They know they’re taking something they have no right to. They know they will keep us silent by shaming us so they can keep on.

That strange bird, Turkey, treated me like a piece of meat. He thought he was a good Muslim but he was a hypocrite. He ate meat that was most definitely not halal. Why? Because he wanted a whopper and couldn’t sacrifice his flesh for God. He somehow convinced himself it would be Godly to sleep with this presumably slutty American girl as he awaited going back home to marry a virgin (God help her if she was not a virgin on her wedding night). The slutty pink non showing off her calves clearly wasn’t here seeking God. She was clearly his for the taking, for his consumption. Just like the whopper.

But I am not meat. I am wonderfully made. I dress modestly now, almost 20 years later, not to protect myself from men like Turkey, not because I am ashamed of my body or of the things I have done with it, not to prove what a Godly woman I am. I dress modestly for God and for myself. I dress modestly because I feel closer to God when I do. I dress modestly because it is what my heart has wanted, has been called to, for a long time now. I don’t expect it to offer me any immunity from the advances of predators. I don’t judge women who walk around in less clothes than me with their beautiful hair flowing in the wind or think they deserve disrespect. And I sure don’t blame Eve. Even if she was naked.

hell be damned

I was sitting in church on Sunday with my husband and our two youngest bubbies. My eleven year old son was serving that morning. As I sat watching him, my four year old arranging the missals and prayer cheat cards on the pew into what appeared to be a house, it occurred to me: my kids are Catholic. This is their normal. Sit stand sit stand kneel repeat. The antiphon, the prayers we recite every week, the eucharist. It is home to them. If I took it away, they’d be off kilter.

When I was growing up, I took great pride in the fact that I was one of the only kids in school who was not baptized. My parents didn’t attend church and didn’t believe in hypocrisy so they did not go through the usual obligatory white baptismal gown, ceremony, after party with any of us. I respected them for that. I still do.

My parents had spiritual beliefs but I never knew what they were. Still don’t. They said it was a private matter between each person and God. My father had been raised protestant (Presbyterian I think) and my mother Catholic. They had both left their churches shortly before they began dating.

As I recall, my father left because of hypocrisy and greed amongst the elders of his church. My mother left for a lot of reasons. She’d had problems with the dogma ever since she was a girl growing up in Catholic school. The Church’s teachings unbaptized babies go to purgatory (something she obviously didn’t believe given she didn’t get any of us baptized), the requirement she go to confession each week and make up some kind of sin since she was just a child and hadn’t committed any. She resented Vatican II and its removal of Latin from the mass. And she was wronged by some people in the Church. I can understand why she left.

My friends would try to persuade me to come to youth group with them and would matter-of-factly state I was going to go to Hell if I didn’t. Hell. The worse imaginable pain for all eternity. All eternity. Horrible suffering. They stated this casually. If they really believed this, shouldn’t they have tried a little harder? I questioned the depth of our friendship.

There were sidewalk preachers handing out mini Bibles and telling us homosexuals would burn in Hell. There was a lot of talk about Hell. Very little about Heaven. None about love. And no dialogue. It was the holy roller Bible belt. We had a Catholic church too. The predominant evangelicals referred to it as voodoo. As they made fun of gay people.

So, yeah, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. I mean, keep-it-away-from-me-with-a-ten-foot-poll nothing. I fled my hometown happily when I turned 18 and wound up at Oberlin College, a progressive small liberal arts school in Ohio of all places. It was there I met amazing Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, who weren’t anything like the Christians I’d known my whole life. They were loving and kind and focused on social justice. They didn’t judge. They didn’t hate gay people. They didn’t talk about Hell incessantly. In fact, not at all.

I soon decided that maybe I should look into this religion thing. I took an amazing course with Professor Kamitzuka called Roots of Western Religion where we covered the great texts and thinkers from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Buber and Maimonides and Teresa of Avila and Mary Daly. I was sold. And so began my spiritual journey.

It’s a long story. A very long and winding story. And it will necessarily unfold as this blog continues. For now, I will just say I was finally baptized Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 2015 and have found my home.

I don’t agree with my parents (and my ex-husband with whom I have two children) that it is brainwashing to raise children in religion. Quite the opposite. When done right, it is a wonderful thing to give them that grounding and comfort. To let them know there is  perfect Father and Mother that’s always there for them. I think the other thing not recognized in their belief is that they’re raising their children in a spiritual school of thought as much as some with religion. Beliefs are beliefs. At least with religion it is a belief in hope and love, a belief in something rather than a belief what ought not be.

I raise my children in the Church and I hope they will remain as they grow up but if they don’t, I will respect that. My eleven year old loves the mass and volunteered enthusiastically to be an altar server. My 12 year old? Not so much. Our four year old daughter loves Mary and Jesus and St. Lucia and lighting candles and singing “Loooord have mercy. Chriiiiist have mercy” around the house. We had them all baptized this past summer and we require they go to mass with us but it is up to the old ones if they want to take first holy communion (eleven year old is impatient for it, twelve year old could go either way depending what moment you catch him) and confirmation. We do send them to Catholic school also (where my twelve year old, who has autism, often loudly proclaims “I’m not Catholic!” as weekly mass. Like I said, depends what day you catch him).

We don’t talk about Hell. In the teaching my husband and I have received from the Church, Hell is most likely empty and that makes a lot of sense to (well, most of the time. I definitely have my days where I hear of something horrible someone has done and say “special place in Hell for people like this.” That’s just my Irish temper though. It calms down). We talk about love and Mary and the saints and the eucharist. My eleven year old asks really good questions and we talk about what the Church believes and why and what other people believe. I leave it him to decide for himself and so far he’s siding with the Church. His dad presents him with the other side of things and that’s fine. He’s a smart boy. He can handle it.

The Church isn’t perfect (because it’s made up of imperfect people) but I really do believe it is the Truth. I believe that there is a peace to be found in this modern fallen world that you can only get from religion. I am glad I can raise my children in this security and peace and I hope they’ll keep the faith their entire lives, no matter where they’re led. In the meantime we’ll keep reminding them they are loved perfectly, going to mass, sitting and standing and kneeling and making the sign of the cross and asking Loooord have mercy. Hell be damned.

 

the stockings were hung by the chimney with care (or,we worship Mary and have babies like rabbits and eat flesh)

We had our first ever St. Nicholas Day celebration today. I’d call it a success. They weren’t as excited about the cinnamon sugar roasted almonds I stayed up til midnight making as I’d hoped (are they ever as excited about things we gruel over as we want them to be?), but the chocolate coins and candy canes were a hit.

The story of how we came to start celebrating St. Nicholas day all began this past Fall. It doesn’t involve visions of sugar plums dancing through my kids’ heads but there is a Mama in a kerchief.

My husband was becoming more and more involved in following what was going on at Standing Rock (in case you only watch mainstream media: First People’s activists and allies were fighting an oil pipeline that a company was building under the Missouri River and through sacred tribal burial land). At this point, various protestant churches and Jewish denominations had given formal statements of support to the movement. Because, why wouldn’t they? Not only were the indigenous people standing up for religious freedom, they were standing up for our water, for our environment. For now and future generations.

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There was one decidedly absent Christian church though. The Catholic Church. Catholic with the big C. You know, that church headed by Pope Francis. You know, that descendent of St. Peter, the rock upon which Christianity is built, who happened to have written a little something called Laudato Si, an encyclical on the environment (read it here when you have the time). In it, he called on every person to recognize their responsibility to taking care of the Earth. He said as Christians it simply wasn’t optional. Protecting the earth is part of our vocation.

My hubs and I were sad about this. Where was Mother Church when Mother Earth needed her? There were certainly nuns and priest there at Standing Rock as individuals, but no official show of support by Rome.

We began talking about it. And about how all of my son’s friends at school (Catholic school) had parents supporting Trump. They’d been supporting Trump all through the primary.  They *really* liked Trump. We talked about the complete lack of energy in the congregation at mass and the seeming attitude of “let’s get in, sit through all that crap, get the communion, then duck out as quickly as possible to go watch the Steelers.”

We converted to Catholicism at the Easter Vigil in 2015. Before that, we’d been Pentecostal. There is *no* lack of energy at a Pentecostal church. They are feeling the Spirit. We went to an amazing church in Harrisburg, Kingdom Embassy. It was singing and dancing and prophesizing and clapping and shouting and crying. Anyone was joyfully welcome to attend. It was people who’d made mistakes in life and were saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Can I get an Amen? Always can. And they mean it. It was also amazing sermons. Sometimes an hour or two long (when you mention this to lifelong Catholics, they’re horrified. A twenty minute homily is considered neverending in the Church). Tithing was a joy, complete with strutting ushers and the congregation dancing their tithe up to the basket. And getting called to the alter to be prayed over. Lay it down. Your struggles, your failures, your fears. Prostrate yourself as the faithful lay hands and pray over you and fill you with the power of the Holy Spirit. Folks may have been late (we pretty much always were. No one was ever judgy about it either. Just glad you came) but no one was bolting for the door, trying to leave early. You didn’t want that feeling to end. The Spirit alive.

Mass? Not so much.

And then you have the whole Trump thing.

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The ones who go to mass weekly and are seemingly the “most” Catholic are overwhelmingly socially conservative. They want abortion to be illegal, but… let’s cut Medicaid (lazy poor), keep out those illegals, who the hell cares about equal pay for women, let’s keep that war going, the death penalty is a great deterant, no don’t let in those Syrian refugees, black lives matter? nah, and everyone knows global warming is a hoax and union workers are just greedy whiners. An exaggeration? Not really. Pro-life? Not on your life. They’d be more appropriately called The Criminalize Abortion movement. Honestly. It would be more factually accurate. God is Love. Where’s the love, y’all?

Here’s the thing: Pope Francis is the head of this church. The Church. He is a descendent of St. Peter. The divinely chosen holy father of the Body of Christ. And Pope Francis don’t play all that. He can accurately be called pro-life whether you agree with him or not. He is against abortion but he is also for the environment, civil rights, human rights, immigrant rights, refugees, peace, reigning in capitalism, food and healthcare and clean water for all. Imagine that. God is Love.

Not clear on how the ones going to mass every week or even everyday, getting filled with the Eucharist, are saying, eh, what does he know? It’s hard enough to understand how you can read the Gospels and have so unloving a view of things, but when God goes so far as to appoint you an actual physical person right in front of you, very specifically spelling it all out for you, and you still hold to your fear and your judgment and smallness? No wonder people are cutting out of mass. The Church Alive is the church comatose. We’re your grumpy uncle who’s had one too many beers sitting on the recliner bitching that you need to get a *real* job and someday when you’ve seen what the *real* world is, you won’t be such a damn hippy.

We’re supposed to be your cool Grandma who bakes your favorite cookies but also watches professional wrestling and smokes little sugar dipper cigars and tells you stories about that St. Patrick’s day she was drinking in the pub in Lawrenceville and somehow ended up signing up for the IRA. Yeah, *that* one.

They take the eucharist like it’s this annoying obligation they do to avoid getting nagged at. Thing is: it’s God. The eucharist is… God. God. God. They take God into their body likes it’s just a habit. A dull, repetitive habit. The church comatose.

What happened to the Joy?

When I was called to become Catholic fourteen years ago, it was a call to the most beautiful overwhelming gorgeous heartaching love. Something so big, something… I really can’t explain with words. Which is sort of the point. Protestants have great sermons. Catholics have sensuality and beauty and mystery and transubstantiation and a church and her saints that go back two thousand years.

Christ is a sacrament that God sent us so we could know him with our senses (our body) as much as we know him with our hearts and souls (our spirit). Christ is both fully human and fully God. And so is his Church. And so we worship God with our bodies and our souls.  We glorify God with our bodies and spirits. We love our fellow human’s bodies and souls with our bodies and souls.

This feeling I’d had then had long since faded. How, I wondered now, could I get it back?

My husband and I had both spent time in Orthodox Jewish communities before we’d met and seen so much that was wonderful there. We talked now, wondering how could Catholicism have lost what the Jewish people have retained all these thousands of years? What was the secret?

I sat down and began brainstorming (I have not forgotten the lessons my elementary school gifted program teacher taught me). I took out three sheets of paper. On one I wrote down everything good about Judaism I missed, on another I wrote down everything wonderful about Catholicism I could think of, and on the last I wrote down everything bad/frustrating about Catholicism. Then, I looked for patterns (a skill of mine, #AutismRocks). A few things emerged.

I identified the broad categories of what Judaism does so well: the flow of the year with holy days, wonderful traditions, a sense of identity and belonging, spiritualy fulfilling food and music, Shabbat, a dedication to God that extends to the food they eat (Kosher), the clothes they wear, and so much more, that also sets them apart to the gentiles, a strong connection to the past as well as the diaspora, lively intellectual discussion and debate.  And one last one for me: praying in Hebrew. It technically fits into a couple of the broader categories but it’s a really important one for me. And it’s *my* list so, there you go.

And then I looked at my Things That Are Good About Catholicism page and found each and every one of them there (uh, except Hebrew). I found monks chanting and choirs singing Ave Maria and incense and staues, and cathedrals so beautiful it makes you cry, I found a two thousand year old Church with amazing intellects from Theresa of Avilla to Augustine to Pope Francis and saints with faith hard to fathom, babkas and buche noel and hot cross buns, fasts and feasts, a liturgical calendar with enough holidays and holy days and venerations to keep you busy all year long, women covering their heads, girls in Communion veils, the most beautiful contemplative prayer complete with beads made of rose petals-the rosary, rebel nuns and priests living out Liberation Theology,  Dorothy Day and Thomas Martin and their Catholic Worker movement, not to mention a world that for 500 years has most definitely viewed Catholics as a distinct people set aside from them (and oftentimes not treated very well at all). After all, we worship Mary and have babies like rabbits and eat flesh.

I looked at my bad things about Catholicism list and saw they were almost all really recent and really American. A self induced spiritual coma amongst American Catholics. I decided to wake me and mine up. Hopefully we shake up the ICU in the process.

And so, here we are at St. Nicholas Day. Christmas is a beautiful glorious feast of the Church. But, today? Not so much. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I knew I needed to read up on how Christmas is *really* supposed to be recognized and do it STAT! (my husband tells me people don’t know what that means if they’re not in the medical world. Really? Okay, well, it means do it NOW. Not ASAP (that’s a separate order), do it NOW).

The first thing I found out made a lot of sense. If you’re going to have a celebratory feast for the birth of God (i.e. a really BIG celebration) then you need to get ready with a fast (fast-feast, repeat). And that’s what Advent is. It’s a mini Lent. The best description I found came in a book by Meredith Gould (formerly Jewish, by the way, so girlfriend knows how to make the liturgical year pop!) called “The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days and Everyday.” Christmas is the birth of Christ. So, Advent is like pregnancy, awaiting this baby you’ve been looking forward to for so long. She describes it as a, “time to luxuriate in peaceful waiting.” Ohmygosh how can anyone *not* want to be Catholic after reading this book? I have no idea.

Lent is pretty much pure fast, contemplate, repent, sorrowful mysteries, stations of the cross all the way up until Easter. Advent is a little more complex. On the one hand we’re fasting and focusing on giving to others so that the feast day is all that much sweeter. We’re focusing on what a gift our salvation is, what a gift Christ is. We’re feeling those aches and pains of the last few weeks of pregnancy (and if it’s anything like me last pregnancy with kiddo #4, we’re talking some real pain. And really swollen ankles).

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On the other hand, we’re so excited the baby is coming. So grateful. Dying with anticipation. Getting ready, having baby showers (okay, not with #4 but if you’re lucky you get one or two along they way), knitting booties (hopefully you’re better at that than I am. Mine came out big enough for a heavyweight boxer).

That’s where jolly old St. Nicholas comes in. We’ve had the first two Advent candle lightings, reflecting on Love and Hope, reading scriptures (translation: a kid snooze-fest except for the part where one of them gets to light the candles. We try our best, but, yeah, not exciting stuff to a kid). Now it’s time for the good stuff.  St. Nicholas Day. We don’t know too too much about Nicholas but we do know he was a giving man who did good deeds and gave to those in need in secret. At times, they say, leaving coins in the shoes of the poor.

In a lot of countries, European low countries in particular, St. Nicholas is the big present day instead of Christmas. he brings them oranges and coins and chocolates and whatnot and puts it in their little Dutch shoes or their stockings.

Christmas in the States today is really this very empty, commercial thing. I love Frosty and Rudolph and cookies and all. But, let’s be honest: they’re a sometimes tradition. It’s like food. Veggies and fruits and nuts and whatnot are the All the Time foods. Granola bars and jerky are Fun foods. And candy and French fries and, well, cookies, are Sometimes foods. They’re the foods that taste really good. Release large amounts of dopamine into your brain, ya know (like cocaine). But they don’t fill you up because they’re void of nutrition. You can eat til you have a belly ache but your brain won’t trigger satiety until you eat something from the All the Time group. Sorry Frosty. You leave us wanting something more. Something else, whether we realize it or not.

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So, my hubs and I wanted to give Christmas more meaning. Catholic meaning, specifically. Still with some sometimes foods tossed in there, but some micro and macronutrients at the base.

We decided we needed to get the kids less presents overall (well, he’d decided this years ago but I was now on board so it would actually happen starting this year) and I also suggested we shift some of the gifting and sweets focus from Christmas onto St. Nicholas Day and St. Lucia Day (we’ll talk about her next week when it’s *her* feast day). This also allowed me to wean them from Santa by explaining Santa is simply St. Nicholas’s nickname (no pun intended) and St. Nick comes first on his feast day and then again on Christmas because he’s just so excited it’s Jesus’s birthday. They’ve given me some puzzled looks over this. I think mainly because it’s confusing and less that they don’t believe me. As long as we’re infusing a bit more God into the Santa thing I’m not concerned about the exact details. They get the gist.

I read up on St. Nicholas traditions around the world. I was frustrated at first that Catholic traditions are defined by what country you’re in. I wanted a little more universality (wanted it a little more catholic–little “c”). But I’ve calmed down about it. I started out focusing on Dutch traditions because my husband’s family is Dutch (thus, the burden of forever explaining to people my last name is spelled “S-P-A-A-R. Two A’s, One R” which I now follow up with “it’s Dutch”. Less annoying than explaining my boys from my previous marriage’s last name is spelled “C-H-I-A-N-G. It’s a transliteration of the Chinese name ‘Jiang'” as I pronounce it in the Mandarin tone its intended to be (like singing it as a high note, if you’re not familiar with the Mandarin language. Which I’m sure you totally are). I soon began to enjoy piecing together traditions from different countries.

The Dutch use shoes but that seemed off to me. I wanted something more organic for us, you could say. I saw some countries use the stockings instead. Perfect. We’d use the stockings for St. Nicholas and then presents under the tree for Christmas. Lovely little bridge there. I also began reading up on the horribly racist Dutch character of Black Peter and decided we would skip that one. (Seriously, watch this or read David Sedaris’s take here).

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The Dutch have these special cookies they make for St. Nicholas called speculaas . They’re made in these special wooden presses and we happen to have one that my hub’s Dutch step-grandfather Peter had given him years ago. I decided to make those but then we couldn’t find the press so we went with this cookie called a gadette instead. You make it in a waffle maker and it’s a lot different from a typical modern American cookie (translation: not full of sugar and red food coloring and more sugar). There was also a lot about St. Nicholas Day that reminded me of Channukah so, for St. Nicholas Eve dinner I made a roast chicken and latkes to eat before the gadettes.

This morning they awoke to stockings filled with the traditional (fruit, nuts, candy canes, chocolate coins) as well as a small present for each. My four year old daughter also got a couple books about the story of Christmas (along with the fairy Barbie we prayed and asked St. Nick for). I didn’t think fresh fruit would do it for them, so I got them some nice dried fruit from trader Joe’s (they weren’t terribly excited but I’m burning happy traditions into their little psyches, damn it. They’ll thank me one day). We have nuts year round so I took some and slow roasted them into candied nuts (stayed up until MIDNIGHT, have I mentioned that part? Seriously. And I had a 12 hour shift the next day. Not trying to be a martyr here, but… you make up your own mind on my possible election to sainthood). My 12 year old can’t eat dairy so I went on a long, arduous quest for quality kosher pareve chocolate coins on the internets (helps that chocolate coins are part of Chanukah too). Then this morning, I made silver dollar pancakes (silver dollar, coins. get it?) and we had orange (St. Nicholas associated fruit) juice. We don’t allow our kids juice very often (we haven’t had it since August according to my 11 year old) so it was a pretty big treat, actually.

This Sunday is the the third Sunday of Lent which means we will burn our frankincense and myrh and dim the lights and play the Gregorian chanting, as usual. But this week we light the pink candle (the other three are purple). This is Gaudete Sunday. Named for the first word of the week’s introit (read what that is here if you don’t know)

 

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob

 

Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always.