My desk on the first Friday of Lent

A handful of clay fired in the middle-school kiln has become a broken bird. Beakless, like some barking alien, it sits on the table and stares at me. A penitential cup of coffee sits next to it. This morning my coffee has evolved into a Lenten sacrifice, like bitter Seder herbs. No half and half. No sugar. No Red Bird puffed mint. A necessary sacrifice, I suppose, because I am so forgetful.

The left-hand side of the table is a mess of books, notebooks, and other miscellany. Like so many spaces in my life, it needs ordering. But it is Lent. It is the liturgical season for cleaning, mending, ordering, and planting.

My work space, my desk, is the kitchen table. I appropriate it each morning for writing, the best I can with the inevitable interruptions from my children. At the moment I am relatively free to write. The toddler stands in the chair on the other side of the table in her crying-uncle diaper watching videos on my phone and eating Cheerios out of a red Solo cup. The smiling boy is watching Super Mario walkthroughs. And the baby has a pizza crust in her hands and Cheerios spread out in front of her. She is happy. Her screams and vocalizations are boldly impenitent. They fill up the house with joy.

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Place

I grew up in Michigan, and my heart aches for it somedays. But I need these blue skies with which North Carolina is so profligate. The soil of my soul is too poor, like red clay. I quickly wither without this bright, happy sun. My brain is malformed. Its chemistry catawampus. I haven’t the mettle for Michigan.

Here, already, there are daffodils wherever I turn—dopey, pretty flowers like awkward teens. And blessed early blooms, such as forsythia and camellias, help chase away my noonday demon. Every flowering plant begins to wake under these warm, late-winter skies and whisper, Again.

This place, this necessary place, is also home. My children grew up out of this hard clay, spread themselves under these clear skies. Irrepressible wisteria, cover these hills in purple.

When I am not weeping, I am thankful.

 

He delights in you

I must be depressed, sick, exhausted, or all of the above. I seem unable to restrain my emotions. I’ve been particularly emotional during Mass recently. It seems like at some point during the liturgy, even at its outset apparently, I begin crying. Maybe it is for beauty or love. Maybe for loss or pain. This past Sunday the readings presented us with the incomprehensibility of God’s delight in us. He delights in me. Not because I’m particularly lovable, but just because I am. And, more importantly, because of who he is. His love is incomprehensible because of the magnitude of it, the utter uncontainability of it. His love is immeasurable. And then, necessarily, the unfolding realization of his same delight in you. He delights in us. He delights in your neighbor, the stranger and alien, and the marginalized. The homeless. The poor. He delights in those who are confused and lost. He delights in people similar to you and dissimilar. He delights in your enemy. He delights in each person. “Can a mother forget her baby? . . . Even should she forget, I will not forget you.”

O God.

I am a pearl diver. I am New Horizons hurtling past Pluto and Charon. I am Hubble or the LHC. I am St Isaac, the Syrian.

God is love. Herein is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Here is where all theology begins and ends. He loves you. Not because of your goodness or some prayer you whispered silently when you were eight. Not because of your baptism. Not because you give money at church or are faithful to your spouse. His love for you is not conditioned on anything you do or fail to do. He loves you. Even if you reject him and walk boldly into hell, he will still love you. And because of this great river of fire and grace, he has become man, that man might become god. He calls you to communion, to love.

He delights in you.

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The creative mystery of pain

It’s overcast where I live today. I don’t think of that weather as typical this time of year unless it’s raining. Today it’s just cloudy because of weather conditions that I can’t explain too good cuz I no smart that way. But my head gets it. Like an old bone fracture, my brain stem reacts, sometimes violently, against these weather changes. The more constant the weather, the fewer problems I have. My brain no like changey, is what I’m saying. It’s apparently damaged that way. It’s probably damaged in other ways as well, but that’s the area that drives the stake into my brain.

The good news is that according to my headache journal, today is the first day for 11 days that I’ve needed medicine for headaches. That’s a particularly good run for me. Last month it was nearly every other day, which isn’t good or healthy for a myriad of reasons. Most of which I’m happier not to know. Headaches are interruptive. They screw with my ability to be productive, creative, and present. I was going to add happy, but I didn’t. Though I will add that headaches, clinically speaking, can fuck things up. Most of the time my headaches are manageable, and occasionally they are not. Those occasions in which they are not are the ten-day stretches of constant pain. Not the curse-God-and-die kind of pain, necessarily, but no party either.

So what good is suffering? Although pain interrupts my ability to create, it also generates creativity. I am more creative and artistically productive because of my pain. I tell myself. Perhaps pain allows us to foster an inner life necessary to forge something great—pain as place, as a workshop for creativity and creation. Pain opens up spaces in my brain that are necessary for me (and for my salvation) to be opened, that would not be opened without the suffering. Furthermore, pain does not allow us to take wellness for granted; it allows to be thankful for something that we are not guaranteed in this life, that many do not have. So pain can teach us to be grateful. And compassionate. If we know what it is to suffer, we are more likely to live in solidarity with others who suffer. So that is also part of its purpose. Finally, pain makes space for us to participate in God’s plan of the redemption of all things. Not because Christ’s Paschal Mystery didn’t do what it was supposed to do, but because he allows us to be united with him in his redemptive suffering (St Paul, Colossians).

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The realization of these truths about pain does not, somehow, magically take away its sting. The pain doesn’t disappear. The brain-blinding cussedness of a migraine doesn’t melt away. So I don’t do a little Irish jig when I feel a headache settling in. Pain and suffering in this world is something we rightly resist and do our best to alleviate. This is no sado-masochistic party. There is a great amount of suffering that is due to the brokenness of humanity, due to my evil and yours. So we want suffering to disappear, rightly. But we also live with open eyes, understanding that suffering comes and will come. And when its inevitable march runs roughshod over you, let it be by grace your teacher, a craftsman to create something good and beautiful in your life and for the life of the world. As best you can.

The book fairy

My mysterious Catholic-book man came by Saturday with more books. But this time I saw the book fairy with my own two eyes. (Thanks for the books, Mike.) This batch of books is definitely more Catholic, some old missals and hymnals, some old New Testaments with Psalms. Some prayer books, Thomas à Kempis, and even a little summa of St Thomas’s Summa. Almost exclusively very-old books, except for a children’s Bible-story book and a paperback NLT Bible. One of the hymnals is from 1901. Pretty crazy. It’s standard fare for old books—mostly tiny, brown and blue books, some leatherbound, some black. I don’t know how people read this small of print, by the way. By candlelight. Not to mention the dinosaurs. It boggles the mind.

Some of the books have dedications in the front. The personal touch is perhaps the most interesting characteristic about them all—bits of history, touched by the hands of real people. One of the books is actually a leather-bound journal with a metal binder. There is no writing in it, just hundreds of clips of newspapers and typed-out songs, poems, and prayers glued onto the pages. And the pocket-edition Summa contains this dedicatory gem, “Dear Pat, I hope this wonderful little book will help to clear some of your muddled thinking. With prayers. From Louise.” Amen and amen.

One of the hymnals is a throwback to my college days in Winona Lake, Indiana, though it predates them plenty. It’s an old hymnal (Songs for Service: Special Tabernacle Edition) published by the Rodeheaver Co. It has the autographed pictures (just part of the printing apparently) of a bunch of olden people in the front, including Homer Rodeheaver and Billy Sunday. It’s fascinating how items like that, in the middle of a stack of old Catholic books, can find their way to Podunk, North Carolina, and eventually to me. It makes the box of books have a strangely personal feel to them.

Whoever owned these books, or contributed to them (Pat and Louise especially), pray for me.

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Ad nauseam

Not long after I published my last post, Elinor began vomiting. Such is my life: Blessings keep falling in my lap. So, listen. We get sick around here. Again and again. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that in the past 18 months there has been someone sick in the house more often than not. We have a big family, and that’s certainly part of it. Yesterday, Father Ambrose came up to me after Mass. I had only Anna and Avery with me, and he indicated the three of us by the spread of his arms, smiled, and said in his rich Nigerian accent, “Where is the rest of your family?” The first few months of his time at our parish he only saw either Laura or me separately, as someone was usually home with a sick child. It was a particularly rough patch.

Life with a large family is good. Each child is a blessing beyond my ability to put into words. I can’t imagine life without any of them. But life with a large family is also hard. It is constant. And it is tiring.

 

And apparently this whole family thing costs money. So after giving it a ton of thought, I examined my skill set and have come up with two options: dancing or rapping. Honestly, I don’t have the stamina for both. I’m leaning toward rapping—with my own white, self-deprecating twist to it all. Here’s to being salable and my first cool million:parental-advisory-explicit-content-label

Life is not what I imagined. Most days I wing it. Though I muddle through, I sing it. Though I’m muddleheaded, it’s embedded, and I try to keep it subtle and covered with a smile. It’s what I am, not what I’m not. It’s all I have; it’s my best shot.

I feel like I feel more, the older I get. I feel like I cry more. But I want to be steel more. Not closed and cold, but strong and bold. Invulnerable to people’s shit. Dispassionate, not uncompassionate. In love. In strength. I am so weak and spent. So bendable. So breakable. So mother fucking shakeable.

I want to be like a tree, simply sure of itself. Like stem and leaf so full of belief in itself. The mountain does not question. The ocean teaches the lesson. Smart and strong (I wanna be). Suffering long (so truly free). Looking over my kingdom—so peaceful, so serene—as masterful as Kong the King. Normalized like chili and cumin. Divinized but only human. Nothing in the universe but string and knot. This is what I got. My portion, my lot. It’s what I am, not what I’m not.