Thursday, July 24, 2014

Eyes Off The Road

I came upon my old Bible the other day, the one I read through from cover to cover twice, a TEV Protestant Bible, now incomplete to me, but still generating a holiness from within even when I  touch its cover.  I looked at the many scotch tape fixes, the numerous margin notes, the multiple dog ears, and I remembered a corny saying -- "She whose Bible is falling apart probably won't."  Well my Bible did fall apart many years ago, and as it turned out, several years after that I did too, so I don't know how much stock to put in that old chestnut, but it is true at its root and in its intention, to be sure.  If we spend time with Jesus, we will not completely lose it.  He will always provide enough grace so that we can do the work He has in mind for us. 

Around that same day, I was feeling absurd.  I laughed out loud at myself in the afternoon, thinking how my time was allocated -- what percentage of my day was spent cleaning up crumbs with the hand vac, how much of my day was dedicated to serving food and drinks, washing, folding, putting away laundry, or looking through unfolded piles of laundry for an outfit for one of my kids.  I thought of how I'm not a very good cook.  How much money I spend on my kids.  How my skin is breaking out.  It was one of those "pile on Nicole" days.  

Then came the kids' bedtime.  This is the time when I'm supposed to put them in their rooms and start using my alone time wisely and productively to maintain and perfect my home, give myself a facial, ped-egg my heels, and of course do my spiritual reading and prayers.  Instead, on this night, I felt like crawling under the covers and crying.  I missed my mother badly, and I didn't feel well in several ways.  I got my son down and then was working on my ten year old, who was not at all tired.  She asked me if we could do a role play.  This is something I have done with both my kids in order to prepare them for any situations that might arise where they would have to answer on the fly questions about important things like my son's allergies, our faith, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, etc.  Well, my daughter was in the mood to talk and she wanted to do a role play.  Since she is starting a new school in  late August, I assumed it would be about that.  But instead, she asked me to act out with her a scene where she was in college and she met a friend who was not a Christian. She wanted to know what to say to that person to get her to Mass and then to RCIA to join the Catholic Church.  

At this point I enter Shame-Ville.  All day I had been picking on myself for stupid little things, and here I have a kid who many consider in the "tween" years, who is asking to use her time and mine to rehearse how to evangelize! What? What kind of running over cup has the Lord given me anyway? 

I went through the role play with her, making alterations here and there, letting her play both sides, working on pronunciations and tone.  I told her that evangelizing is a matter of three things: opportunity, love, and example.  You have to see and seize the opportunity, and that can't be forced or contrived.  You have to speak with a REAL, not fake love for the other person, *and* you have to be an unimpeachable example of an adherent Catholic or you have no credibility.  She made me laugh when she threw in a bribe of coffee and donuts to her hypothetical friend.

I think too many times, we look at ourselves as just slogging through our days, hearing bad news, praying, barely treading spiritual water, and letting our physical world fall apart at the seams in the process.  But the truth is that if we keep Jesus at the forefront, even in our exhaustion, He will remain there and He will take the lead.  The truth is I can't control anything.  My life is about crumbs and pee accidents and bad haircuts and stained furniture.  My life is about dry elbows and overpriced prescription medications for old woman ailments, desperate prayers for a world going to hell in a hand basket, and laundry.  Always laundry.  And dust.  And to dust you shall return.  I smile to myself wryly, a face that my mother would make when a gallows-humor would take her over uncharacteristically.  I still miss her, and always will, but again, with Jesus' face before me, it's going to be alright.  It simply can't turn out any other way.  He promised that and I believe it.  If it weren't so, He wouldn't say it. He was saying it to me all those years ago, as I searched through that Bible for my answers, and He repeats it now, at every Mass.  He's telling me, "Nicole, you're mine."  

I remember when I told my daughter for the first time, and my son for the first time, (two separate occasions), that as much as I loved them and as much as they loved me, Jesus loved them more and loved me more.  Both of them were saucer-eyed.  But they have to know, so they can live a life that is properly ordered.  Jesus first.  Jesus in front of you, always.  Like your true North.  So don't keep your eyes on the road, or the scenery.  Keep your eyes only on Jesus.  Follow Him, and you will never be lost, even if you feel like you've dropped every single thing you were supposed to be carrying for the journey, He looks back and says, "Don't worry; I've got it." 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Loving The Unlovable

On social media as in your dining room or your workplace, you are guaranteed to encounter people who test your patience.  We are, as Catholics, commanded to love all people.  There is no exclusion in Scripture or Tradition for jerks.  There is no asterisk that features an addendum explaining that I am NOT required to love the person whose main goal appears to be to ruin my day, or even my life.  This is a huge chunk of the Gospel, and it is extremely difficult to adhere to at times.  Even if we can restrain ourselves from telling people off or gossiping about them, we still have the conversion of our HEARTS to tackle.  Not easy.  Cannot be done without much grace, which is directly from the Holy Spirit, not any magic talent that YOU have.  Like the meme says, “You are not the jerk whisperer.”  So how do we truly and sincerely feel love, in our souls, for our enemies? Where do we even begin?

1.     Begin at the beginning.  The mirror.  Realize that you, too, are a jerk.  Sometimes.  You are not the holy of holies.  You can be annoying to others.  Selfish. Manipulative.  Whiny.  Spoiled. Envious.  The Seven Deadlies? Yes, you have probably dabbled in all of them. And possible an eighth you invented in your basement.  When you come to grips with the fact that you have ruined someone’s day more than once in your life, you suddenly find a teeny well of mercy for others.  The more of your jerkosity you are willing to own, the greater your real Christian love and willingness to forgive becomes in regard to others.  You start looking at all sorts of people – liars, perverts, curmudgeons, grumps, contrarians, parade-pissers, the whole gamut, and you see little bits of YOU in them.  Frightening?  YES.  But necessary.  You cannot skip step number one, by the way.  That would make you a CHEATER. And then you would have to dislike yourself more and love others more.  It’s a no-lose for me as the author of this plan.
2.     For every annoying or hurtful action, there is an equal or bigger pitiable cause.  One of my favorite sayings is “Hurt people hurt people.”  The gal whose promiscuity drives you to such fits that you feel compelled to tell her exactly what she looks like and who she is probably already feels like she is.  That’s why she’s selling herself so short.  No little girl dreams of growing up to be a stripper, a porn star, or even just some gal who dresses provocatively and gets used by misguided men who are unable to commit.  We all start out wanting to be the special princess to someone.  What happened to take her train off the rails? Well, you can get to know her and find out, or you can just judge her and call her names.  But before you do either, you have to cultivate a Christian love for her in your heart by picturing her as that little girl with the big dreams.  Think about how far she has fallen, how much of her dignity she has negotiated and rationalized away, and pretty soon you will be drawn to the act of praying for her.  That’s your Christian love right there.
3.     Picture Jesus next to him.  I give this piece of advice out at least once a day, no exaggeration.  When you are fuming, when you are ready to type out a tirade against Barack Obama or your Uncle Kurt or the guy next door whose dog turned your perfect lawn yellow, picture Jesus right next to him.  Jesus is pleading THIS GUY’S case, not yours.  Jesus is saying to reread number two and try it.  Jesus is looking at you and saying this is his beloved also.  Don’t hate Jesus’ beloved.  That is not worthy of the title of Christian.  None of this means that you let your neighbor vandalize your property – love doesn’t mean becoming a lawncare martyr.  But you know full well the difference between charitable reaction to wrongdoing and what the world would have you say and do to this guy or about this guy. Choose Jesus.  Cause He’s standing right there, remember?
4.     Ask the toughest question of all.  Do I dislike or even hate this person because of some legitimate evil action she committed or is there something in her that reminds me of something in me? Or does she remind me of my abusive mother?  Or does she have something I want?  I’m asking you here to do a good old fashioned gut check on your anger and annoyance and its origins.  There might be someone at work who just drives you crazy with almost every word she says.  Her stuff is always late, but she bats her eyes and gets away with it.  Your boss is always on YOUR case, but SHE gets a free pass.  So your problem is your boss?  Your co-worker? No, your problem is envy.  You don’t feel like you are getting your due.  Just like when you were growing up and your sister got all of Mom’s attention, right?  Oy! Paging Dr. Freud!  Don’t let your own emotional baggage stop you from fulfilling Jesus’ command to love each other.  Count your own change, play your own game, and stop worrying about everyone else’s PERCEIVED good fortune.  You don’t know this woman’s life.  Maybe your boss knows something you don’t about the broken legs upon which this woman is walking the walk of life.  Or maybe not.  Either way, try this exercise: be happy for your co-worker when something good happens for her.  Say a little prayer for her.  Congratulate her. Bring her a couple of fresh organic apples if you have gotten a bunch recently.  You will feel better and before you know it, you will have no room for thoughts of resentment. 
5.     Let go, let God.  This one applies to the situations where you dislike or even feel hatred toward someone because he or she has wronged or damaged someone you love.  This is perhaps the biggest and most thorny challenge to Jesus’ very clear command that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us.  Jesus, we pray, what about this man who is hurting my loved one? Surely you want me to protect my loved one? (Yes, Jesus does) Surely you want me to warn my loved one that she is going to be abused again and again by this man? (Yes, Jesus does).  Surely it’s justifiable for me to hate this man because it’s a protective and noble hate, a shiny like a medieval knight hate, a righteous anger kind of thing.  As Grumpy Cat would say, NO.  Vengeance, if it is called for, justice, when it is meted out, is the sole domain of the Lord.  You can take reasonable measures to protect your loved ones, of course. And you are called upon by The Church to defend others.  But you are never called to hate.  NEVER.  Hate the sin that has gotten a hold of this person.  Hate the sin because sin is what wounded Jesus and tore open the flesh of Jesus.  But do not think for one hot second that you are pleasing Jesus or fulfilling some sort of holy obligation by saying horrible, hateful, threatening, belittling things about this person, no matter how heinous his actions.  Talk about the actions and their consequences, not the person.  He bears the Imago Dei.  Don’t ever forget that.  Love your loved one more than ever, even if there is a distance between you because of this other person’s actions.  God will take care of all business.  You don’t trust Him to do so? Then you have your own work to do, don’t you? I have seen too many times on Social Media in particular an open, egregious, fiery, violent hatred toward politicians, celebrities, or whole groups of people simply because of a sin they share.  All you are accomplishing is piling YOUR sin on top of their sin.  You are adding more wood to a burning bonfire.  And this is not the kind of fire that will warm you; on the contrary, it is more akin to the fires of Hell, separation from Jesus, who is LOVE. 

Undoubtedly we are all a long way from obeying Jesus’ very essential command to love our neighbor without condition.  You can help by refusing to egg on a friend’s hatred of someone else.  You can pray daily for a bigger, roomier heart, one that can accommodate all sorts of people.  You can pray for your behavior to represent Christ well.  “Hateful Christians” should be oxymoronic.  Instead of secular folk saying, “There goes another Christian hater,” they should be saying, “We might not agree, but I have to give credit where credit is due; this guy is unflappable.” If you are the only Catholic at your workplace, or in your family, what image of Catholicism are you presenting? Cafeteria Catholic? Judgey Judgerson? Political party follower first, Catholic second? Or are you presenting yourself in such a way that you are unimpeachable?  When you reach a point that even the “jerks” you come up against have to admit that your character cannot be impugned, then you have become a good Disciple.  You will hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” some day.

None of this is easy.  But we know it’s possible.  Because Jesus said so.  And Jesus always, always has the last word.

My Mongrel

“And she shrank away again, back into her darkness, and for a long while remained blotted safely away from living.” 

―D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow

The heavy door shuts with a "thwoop" and all that's left of your vision is the ken through a small rectangle fashioned from very thick, unbreakable glass.  This is for your protection from the patients on the other side of the door.  The thing is, just a moment ago you were on the other side of the door visiting a loved one, and you were utterly vulnerable.  But once you've signed out, passed through that door, and heard that sound, and looked through that little rectangle at your loved one's face, now slightly distorted and growing ever smaller as she is escorted away, you are in another world.  A safe world.  The world of the sane. To say that a mental hospital is the world of the insane is inaccurate.  Many mentally healthy people work there.  They are the okay ones, there to help the not-okay ones.  And then there are the big ones, there to protect you if a mentally unhealthy person, in his mental unhealth, attacks you.  They protect the patients from themselves and from each other.  

It is not unlike a prison, but most people there have not committed any crime.  They have simply been unable to keep up the daily work of living.  Some simmering pot they were tending in their minds has boiled over, and reinforcements were called in to clean up the mess.  Even their most intimate friends and family, spouses, children, siblings, confidantes, have said "We cannot handle you anymore, so we must give you over to strangers now. And they will help you, and then give you back to us."

To visit someone you love in a mental hospital shifts, possibly forever, the dynamic of the relationship.  Like seeing someone naked, there is a vulnerability now on the table that was not heretofore a part of your shared life.  It is very different from visiting someone in a regular hospital, which can be lovely, like after someone has given birth, or can be horrid, like when someone is having an operation to remove a cancerous tumor.  But with cancer or a heart attack, everyone knows who the enemy is: the physical illness, which must be rooted out and fought and is an outsider.  The mental illness sits next to you during your visit and tells you, "I'm not really going anywhere.  After she leaves here, you can try to manage me, medicate me, talk me away, but the fact is, we are going to know each other for a long time."  

Mental illness is the unwelcome and unspoken visitor in so many lives, so many more than you would guess.  Those of us with religious faith may feel like mental illness is demonic in nature and origin, and can be conquered by faith, by a miracle, by a divine healing.  But mental illness doesn't sit still for even one second while you research that possibility.  Mental illness is the most easily hidden thing and yet the most difficult from which to escape.  The patient can go for years grooming and keeping mental illness in a crate, like a little dog.  Then one day the dog gets out and goes wild, pisses all over the house, and bites your feet, and barks and barks.  What do you do?  Surely you can't desert your house, be driven out by this nasty little dog?  That in itself sounds insane.  So a decision must be made.  Facts must be faced.  The dog is disruptive -- the dog is violent, it keeps making noise and it won't shut up or be satisfied, ever.  It can't be good anymore. It seems to be showing it that it WON'T be good anymore.  It's time to get some help. Someone needs to remove the dog from your house. 

But the dog and you are together now, and as it turns out you have to go with the dog.  There's the rub.  Mental illness is that vicious little thing, but you can't evict him because he's attached to you.  He's in your head, and your head is on your body, and you are all together, and so you ALL have to go and you are all labeled mentally ill.  And once you are out of the house, the truth is that everyone remaining behind will be happier and better off that you are gone.  And you will not go nowhere. You will go somewhere.  To the hospital, the special hospital, where they only treat people with mental illness, and protect them, and protect other people from them.  

In a mental hospital, the violent and the nonviolent sit together to eat.  They sleep with only a wall between them, and we hope that nothing goes wrong as the night wears on, and the nurse sits behind her desk, hoping for the continued silence of all the little dogs on her watch. 

I see now as a woman of a certain age that we really never ever can know what someone is going through unless we have been through it.  We can sympathize, even empathize.  We can cry and give time and money.  We can even be right about what needs to be done to help.  But there is no knowledge of mental illness or anything else, really, without experience.

I know what it's like to talk to a loved one who was sane and then one day was not sane anymore.  Well, that isn't really true, you say.  There is always a problem brewing, there are signs.  But I am telling you that, officially and literally, one moment you are sane and the next, after three signatures are dry on a form, you are insane.  And you must go stay somewhere else, away from us, the sane ones, or, maybe more accurately stated, the ones who are still sane for now. 

When we were kids, we had a cat who gave birth to a litter of kittens.  She went crazy after that, and quite literally drove us all out of the house one afternoon.  You couldn't catch her or even get near her.  Her eyes changed.  She was not herself anymore.  She wanted to hurt us. She was now an animal, not a pet.  She wasn't a friend; she was the enemy.  

Talking to a loved one who has been remanded for her own good to a mental institution is best described as surreal.  You are suddenly very aware of your own mental health as you try to have conversations with your loved ones that two mentally healthy people would have.  These conversations don't work.  Just when you get out a point about how Lorna Doones are  good tasting cookies but so full of fat, she starts crying.  "I want to die." Well, that wasn't the answer I was looking for.  I really was hoping you'd say something about the cookies.  So, a new topic. I tell my loved one that she needs to shower.  Blank stare.  "What's the point?" Now there's a tough one to answer.  What ever the hell IS the point of showering when you're stuck in this hell?  Does it really matter at all to anyone anymore?  Will it ever matter again?  But I have to answer as if we are both sane. Yes, you need to be clean, and show them that you can shower and eat and smile and walk around and do crafts.  Then they will let you out, so you can come home and tend to your little dog again, and get him back in the crate.

People in mental hospitals may not want to pray, even if they used to laud prayer as a life changing activity in which to engage.  People in mental hospitals may use profanity even if before they really didn't do so.  Or if they used to use profanity jokingly before, they may now use profanity at YOU.  So when you are visiting them, you are visiting strangers.  It's like someone took over your loved one's body, and is residing there, and speaking out of your loved one's mouth, but has your loved one tied up in a warehouse somewhere.  You can try to be hopeful and optimistic.  That seems like a good way to be.  Everyone wants to hear about good outcomes that may or may not happen, right? 

"I hate it here.  Get me out of here.  I don't belong here.  Do you see how big that guy is?  He's going to come after me in the middle of the night." This is the statement of an insane person, so you can't do what she asks, but if the worm were turned, you would say the same thing.  So what to answer.  You'll be fine.  The old standby. Everything will be fine.  Really.  It will.  God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world. But still there you sit, and your loved one is sitting with her little vicious dog and you aren't scared at all.  You just feel like you want it all to be over, different, not this.  You have some pretty insane thoughts of your own.  But no one hears them, so they don't count. 

"Well, you better go." That is the toughest.  That pains.  The time to part.  I go back to the land of the sane, and I leave you here, to be crazy, among the crazy. Feet of lead move me toward the desk to sign out, then toward the door.  In her nightgown she embraces me, and it feels so familiar, because the body is the same.  But then she looks at me, and her eyes are those of a stranger.  Worse than a stranger.  The eyes don't cry.  She's not even sad.  Just resigned for the moment.  "I'll see you soon.  Be careful driving home."  

Don't look back.  Don't look back.  Don't look back.  You tell yourself this as your heart pounds in your ears. To look through the rectangle is to see the world of the insane, so you beg Jesus, please make this something else, please let this not be true.  But it is.  And you do, you do look back and see her face.  The loneliest, weakest, and most defeated face, certainly, that has ever existed.  Don't wave.  Just leave it.  Leave it be.  But you can't.  You put your hand to the glass even though you aren't to touch the glass or the door or the world she's now a citizen of and you're not.  Her hand waves feebly and then her back is to you as she is walked off by the orderly.  

And I freeze. Time freezes, that is. How much pain can a person feels before something inside just breaks permanently?  How many waves of sorrow can knock me under the water, how much noise and begging, and how many tears and ghastly images, can fill my ears and eyes before it becomes acceptable and normal that I will never get my head above water again?  That she will always be there, and I will always be here, on opposite sides of the door, even though the only difference between us is that my dog is still in its cage?