Why Do We Have To Go To Church, Anyway?

Emma, my almost 8 year old, is a relentless questioner, a dedicated seeker of truth. Nothing goes unnoticed or unchallenged. I hope that this quality will make her a crusader for justice, a freedom fighter, an advocate for the overlooked and misunderstood.

But as her mother, the constant interrogation can get exhausting, particularly when I don’t know the answer. Which, lately, is a lot of the time….because her questions are all about church.

This should not come as a surprise to me, considering she goes to a Catholic school, with her First Communion rapidly approaching. I was prepared for the standard “God Questions:” God is love, God is everywhere, etc. But the church/catechism questions are not my area of expertise.

For example:

The day of her First Penance:

“I just don’t get why I need to tell some strange man my deep, dark secrets. If God is always listening, why can’t I just tell Him?  Telling the priest is kinda like sitting on the fake-Santa’s lap at the mall.  It’s creepy – you know it’s not Santa.  Why the middle man?”

Upon discovering the library was closed on Good Friday:

“What I want to know is why do they call it Good Friday?  What’s good about it?  I can’t get any books out of the library, and it goes without saying that it was a pretty rough day for Jesus.”

After school yesterday, as I fumbled to open the door while juggling book bags and water bottles, THIS conversation happened:

“Mom, did you paint this door red to look like lamb’s blood?”

“To look like WHAT?” (I was pretty sure “Lamb’s Blood” was not on the Sherwin Williams color wheel).

“Lamb’s blood, like in the Bible.”

“Uhh….where in the Bible does it talk about that?”

Mom.  Shouldn’t you know this stuff?  In biblical times, they painted their doors with lamb’s blood to protect themselves from the Filipinos.”

“I think you might mean the Philistines.”

“Hmm.  Yeah maybe.”

Then there were the questions she asked for 75 minutes straight during mass at my parents’ church on Easter Sunday: “How much longer is this going to take?  When can we go home?  Why does that kid have candy? Is this almost over? Why do we have to go to church anyway?” She was hanging on my arm so heavily I almost lost my balance in the dusty black heels I had fished out of the back of my closet.

I sighed and gave her the hairy eyeball.  I knew I should reprimand her, but the truth was I didn’t want to be there either, which made me feel guilty and fraudulent – both as a mother AND a Catholic.  It’s Easter!  The Big Day!  The Catholic Super Bowl! Jesus is Alive!  Be joyful!

But I didn’t feel joyful.  It was hot in the choir loft where latecomers and families with rowdy children are banished; the Time-Out Chair for the inconsistent parishioner.

I went to church every Sunday of my childhood. Easter Mass meant tights, Mary Janes, an Easter bonnet – my mom wasn’t messing around.


But when I turned 17, I got my driver’s license. Freedom.

From that point on, I opted out of my parent’s regular 9:30 mass and instead attended the 12:15 at Our Lady of Perpetual Caffeination, aka. the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts, where I would drink coffee and read for an hour.

I didn’t fancy myself a teenage bad-ass.  I played the mellophone in the marching band. How bad-ass could I possibly be?


Nor did I consider skipping church to be an act of rebellion, but one of self-preservation. Like Emma, I was a sensitive -and literal – kid.  Being forced to say things like “I am not worthy,” without a greater understanding of the larger context of sin and forgiveness made me feel confused. And kind of ashamed. I just wasn’t sure of what.

During a 3rd grade confession, I asked a priest if you had to be bad to get possessed, or if Satan picks people at random.

He replied, “It’s totally random.”


So I spent the next decade waiting for Satan.  For some reason I thought he was less likely to be hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But in my 20’s, something kept calling me back, and I figured that “thing” must be God. Private prayer has always been part of my daily life, but I felt the pull to community. Not back to a traditional parish church, necessarily, but to the lively, music-filled student masses at Villanova University, and Maris Stella, the simple seaside chapel perched on the Barnegat Bay in LBI.

maris stella2 Maris-Stella


But last Sunday in the cheap seats, it wasn’t the crash of the waves that filled my ears, but the bang of children dropping missalettes and begging for juice, for Goldfish, for the entire contents of their mother’s purse.  The hybrid stench of incense and a baby’s dirty diaper was suffocating. I did not feel contemplative. I felt trapped.

So why do we have to go church, anyway?

Maybe the thing that keeps me hanging on is the desire for a shared spiritual discipline. One hour of the week where there are no screens or activities.  We just sit our butts down and be quiet.  Together.

Henri Nouwen says:

A spiritual life without discipline is impossible…the practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God.  The discipline of community helps us to be silent together.

No spiritual discipline is easy.  As a yoga teacher I have often said, “the hardest part is getting on your mat.” You go to class not because you feel like it, but because you believe in the power of the practice. The power of showing up. Maybe you spend the entire savasana making your grocery list in your head.  But, hey, you showed up. If the only true moment of quiet was that 10 seconds in Viparita Karani, well…that’s something.


One weird thing among many about the Catholic mass are the select songs that will make you weep instantaneously. As I walked back from Communion, the choir sang “Taste and See.” Something stirred in my cranky, Grinch heart. My shoulders inched their way down from my ears, my face relaxed, and my eyes filled with tears.  In that brief moment of presence, there was a release.  I let go of something that I didn’t need.

And if that’s the only reason that I go to church…I guess that’s enough.













The Spring Break-Down, Part 2

My husband Phil’s best spring break experience, with playlist:

I was not a candidate for the traditional spring break.  The potential of finding myself in a No-tel in Ft. Lauderdale was not on my radar screen in my late teens.  My lack of exposure to this option may have been due to my strong Engineering affiliation, where my counterparts were psyched about unfettered access to the Material Science Lab so they could perfect their new carbon fiber lamination process. Talk about being high on fumes….those guys could party. Or perhaps my lack of Spring Break options was due to the fact that my non-engineering buddies and I had about $157 in collective net assets come mid-spring semester.

In my junior year, I was presented with the late opportunity to road-trip. Chris “GreenJeans” Deas’ twin brother had a place for us to crash for free. His brother was in school at Tulane… in New Orleans. And, oh, our spring break week coincided with Mardi Gras. Now THOSE people can party – it was certainly the first time I left a bar when the sun was already up.

To this day, the spring’s anticipatory longings of summer rising are best captured by music and knocking the dust off those summer playlists with open window car drives, front porch happy hours, and live music outdoors. And there is no place on Earth where the smell, sights and sounds of the spring-summer crossover are captured better than New Orleans. Especially the music.

That first N’awlins trip merely started my love affair with the city. It was consummated by a series of subsequent visits to JazzFest. While the music is always in the air throughout the city, JazzFest brings it all into focus.

Here is a sample of some summer standards as inspired by, discovered in the Crescent City.

(Disclaimer #1 –  To fellow music lovers – and especially Chris Scalera and IRV – The following is a list of standards, it does not remotely attempt to capture the fusion of blues, gospel, zydeco, jazz, creole that rolls through the streets nor does it tip the cap to the local favorites that are the baseline of the fest… Dr. John, Radiatiors, Subdudes, Meters, Neville Family…)


1) Caravan – Van Morrison

Van Morrison to me circa 1993 was the artist of the ubiquitous “Brown Eyed Girl” “Moondance” greatest hits cassette tape. I had little expsosure to his library – a problem I have since rectified – and even less to the soul of “The Man” and his flat-out all-in live performance approach. JazzFest changed that. Barely facing the audience, Van Morrison tore off full bodied renditions of songs some familiar, some gospel, some randomly howling and indecipherable. And then came Caravan. A song I knew but never heard. This is when I got Van Morrison – he literally exploded onto the song. To get a feel for it live, check out the version from “Gets His Chance to Wail Vol. 3”

2) This Ol’ Cowboy – Marshall Tucker
Music in New Orleans from all sources is bigger brighter and better. Even the jukeboxes are juiced. Across from the JazzFest fairground was a corner neighborhood dive-bar that spilled onto the streets. It is here that we spent our most endearing hours onstage with the band, pouring drinks behind the bar, pacifying gun-toting locals and playing the jukebox. My apologies to my companions, but I discovered this song from the jukebox “Across Da’ Street” and I played it into the ground. A perennial staple of summer playlists since that day.

3) Grateful Dead – Eyes of the World
No, I did not see the Dead at Jazz Fest – at least that I can remember. In fact, I was resolutely not a GD fan at the phase of my life. But a moment stands out for me when that turned. Upon return from the first New Orleans trip with my senses still primed, a college friend popped “One From the Vault” into the CD player on a Saturday morning hangover recovery session. And it was “Eyes of the World” that opened up my ears.

4) Blue Sky – Allman Brothers
I know I am careening into the passe here. But if you can picture standing in the sunshine with 60,000 other worshippers at the end of 3-days of live music when the Allmans hit the JazzFest stage, you will sense that this was no ordinary version of “Blue Sky”. It was one of my first summer songs and the opening guitar riff on a summer day is all I need to feel that a cold beer is in order.

jazz fest 2 3

5) Who Shot the La-La – Oliver Morgan
So about being onstage with the band, “Across Da Street” had the local legend and one hit wonder Oliver “Who Shot the La-La” Morgan as their JazzFest house band one year. His band was in the party as much as being the party. And they were happy to share the stage – or to grab their instruments and proceed parade style into the streets. What could be better than a congo line with the band stopping traffic in all directions. Not much. As for “Who Shot the La-la”? I don’t know, but you can find it on itunes.

Wishing you many happy Spring returns, and looking for your Top 2, 5 or 50 spring/summer songs so I can compile a new playlist for the next time we meet.

jazz fest 2 3-1

Spring Breakdown: Part 1

The girls are on spring break this week, and yesterday, while driving home from the Constitution Center in Philly, my friend Dave’s Facebook status made me laugh:

I can’t help but notice that my friends’ spring break photos are a lot heavier on museums, cultural spots, and family activities, and a lot lighter on body shots, beer funnels, and bad dancing than they used to be.  We must be growing up.

I have known Dave for 30 years, and while neither of us were ever shy with a beer funnel, I had to agree with his assessment.  However I told him not to fret, as baby bags now come equipped with insulated beers holders.  Bottles, shmottles.

In the last few months, when the stress of moving threatened to break us, Phil and I fantasized about going away for spring break.  But the reality is:

  1. We have no more money.
  2. Go “away?” Isn’t this away?  Where’s home?  Where are we?
  3. Where are our bathing suits?
  4. We have no more money.

So, instead Phil took a few days off for a mini-staycation. A staycation, of course, is a vacation taken at home.  Although I must admit I was wary about something that sounds like a good idea, but actually looks more like this:

Stay-ca-tion (n): 1. A chance to look around at the chaos that is your life and remember why you were fantasizing about an escape to a tropical island.  2. A reminder that your kids are not just quarrelsome holy terrors after school, they are actually like that all day. 

But, this Debbie Downer is pleased to report that a staycation was just we needed.

We have visited some old haunts in Philly, unpacked a box or two, and saw some friends. And for the first time since our return to PA, Phil and I have just hung out:  in our kitchen, drinking beers, taking turns being the deejay….we call this a Lifelab Session.

So during last night’s Session, we started talking about our most memorable spring break.  Interestingly, neither his pick nor mine was of the Bahamas-wet-tshirt-contest variety.  (Disclaimer: We are not saying that we were above trips that included Jello shots and pole dancing, but simply were not cool enough to consider it in the first place).

My first two years of college were rough.  I left for a semester, came back, changed majors, gained weight, lost weight, drank too much, changed majors again….I think the term for this is hot mess “finding yourself.”  Sophomore year I lived alone while all my former hall mates pledged sororities, which was conducive to “finding yourself” but was really, really lonely.

By junior year things turned around, and I started hanging out with a great group of friends that are still my b-fries to this day.  We all moved in together and it was awesome – one of the best years of my life.  But sometimes…I could get a little overwhelmed by the closeness.  I went from being a hermit to a pack member almost overnight, and I think my happy place was somewhere in between.

So when my grandmother (Nannie) called me and said, “I can give you money when I am dead, or I can give you money now, but if I give it to you now you have to use it to go visit Helen in London for spring break,” I said, “Now is good.”  Nannie was the bomb.

Helen is my best friend from childhood.  In high school, I probably spent more nights on her parents’ couch then I did in my own bed.  And while Helen is Taiwanese, she actually wanted to be British, and decided to spend her junior year at University of Michigan abroad.

Helen and I were so different, but I think that’s what made our friendship work.  She wore vintage clothes from flea markets, I wore hippy skirts from head shops.  She went to jazz clubs and punk rock shows, I went to outdoor music festivals.  But when I was with her, I always learned something new – about art or music or poetry – and this felt expansive.  Plus we laughed a lot and did a bunch of dumb things.

Helen Jess on couch-1

London with Helen was not about double-decker buses circling Big Ben.  London with Helen was art museums and hidden gem noodle houses serving huge portions for cheap.

london spring break jpegs-5

London with Helen was taking baths with water we boiled in the kitchen sink when our hair had finally become too dirty to tolerate.

london spring break jpegs-3

London with Helen was sitting on the curb outside her flat, chain smoking Parliaments and drinking forties of Stella out of a brown paper bag.

london spring break jpegs-2

And apparently, London with Helen was wearing REALLY RED LIPSTICK.

london spring break jpegs-4

London with Helen was exactly where I needed to be that spring break.

*Because all LifeLab Sessions center around good tunes, Phil and I each created a mini-playlist to recapture the essence of our favorite spring break adventure. Here are the tunes that remind me of that trip -and my life- circa 1998:

  1. Girls and Boys”/ Blur:  A perfect pre-game song.  Tequila shots required.  I mean, it can’t all be about museums – it was spring break, after all.  london spring break jpegs
  2. “Sometimes, Always”/ The Jesus and Mary Chain: I still love this song.  It’s so peppy.  It also reminds me of the Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt I used to wear to torture my mother who probably thought I was in an anti-Catholic cult.
  3. “There She Goes”/ The La’s: This song reminds me of all my girl crushes.  Whatever, stop judging, you know you had one too.
  4. “Fake Plastic Trees”/ Radiohead:  Oh, Radiohead.  Is it really that bad?  A great song to listen to in your room in complete darkness and cry about how no one understands you, you will never fit in anywhere, wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  5. “Everyday is Like Sunday”/ Morrissey:  How can you make a London playlist without The Smiths/Morrissey? This song is the 3rd track on Morrissey’s debut album, and it makes me think of a rainy, hungover, “cave day.”  Although I heard it’s actually about a group of Australians waiting for nuclear devastation.  Which is way more depressing.

Do you have a favorite spring break?  What songs would play on that soundtrack?

Stay tuned tomorrow for Phil’s edition of Spring Breakdown: Part 2…








Words of Wisdom

This time last week, not long after posting my blog, my phone rang.  It was my mom.

“We got some sad news early this morning.  Uncle John died yesterday.”

A million thoughts could have run through my head at this moment: How?  He wasn’t  sick. What happened?  Where? Why?

But my immediate response to this shocking news was to challenge it: “But I just emailed him.  I just emailed him the blog like 30 seconds ago.”  As if this fact somehow invalidated her words, as if my magical thinking carried weight in this argument: He can’t be dead.  I was just thinking, before the phone rang, ‘Oh, Uncle John is going to like this blog. We will have a good conversation about this one.’  

I emailed my Uncle John my blog almost every week, because even if I thought it sucked, he would find the one golden nugget in a pile of manure. In the past week, I have gone through all my emails from him, and every word is positive, encouraging, and affirming.  He believed in me, and he wasn’t shy about saying it:

I loved this blog.  You are a fantastic, funny writer.

Love, Uncle John

My Uncle John was my dad’s brother.  Ten years older than my father, he was in many ways a mentor to my dad.  While their other six siblings scattered across the country, my dad and Uncle John raised their families in New Jersey, remaining close both physically and emotionally. Uncle John and Aunt Mary Ann had two boys, Stephen and Douglas. They were the closest things I had to brothers growing up; they would protect me at all costs, and make fun of me at all costs.

I want to say that my Uncle John was a survivor – which he was – but that doesn’t seem to cover it. He did more than survive – he thrived.  He overcame.  He transcended.  He LIVED.  And he encouraged others to do the same.

Uncle John was born on a farm in Orleans, VT -“North Country”- a small town on the Canadian border. At age 16, he was stricken with polio and spent a year in a Burlington hospital – in an iron lung.  Apparently I should have stayed awake in 10th grade history, because I thought an iron lung was a section of the hospital.  No, Jessie.  This is an iron lung:

iron lung

iron lung2

I never would have known that my Uncle John went through something this traumatic, because he never mentioned it.  Being a victim just wasn’t his style.   He taught himself to walk without braces on his legs, and swam everyday to keep his upper body strong and lean.  He skipped a year of high school, attended NYU on a full scholarship, and then put himself through law school.  He loved his career as a lawyer, and worked up until the day he died.

Speaking of style, Uncle John was not just stylish…he was dapper.  Perhaps he was compensating for what he and my dad call “humble beginnings,” but my Uncle John knew how to dress for success.  Polio had ravaged the muscles in his pencil-thin legs, but when his tall, lanky, and broad shouldered entered a room, you noticed.  He was a presence.  And what some might call a “limp,” I call the Polio Swagger.  He sauntered across the room with an air of sophistication, slow and deliberate, with his eyes only on you.  He would then open up his arms – an enormous wingspan to a young kid – and say in his distinctive, plummy voice, “Jessica!” before gathering you up and pulling you in for a full on embrace.  He was part John Wayne, part Thurston Howell III.  A class act.

thurston howell john wayne

My cousin Doug gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral on Monday.  Years ago, Doug started a list called “John Power’s Words of Wisdom;” a collection of wise words his father had passed on to him.  Doug hung this list over the desk of every job he’s ever had.  And now, I am lucky enough to have that list hanging over my desk.


The list goes up to #35. Doug shared his favorites with those of us gathered that day, and I would like to share mine with you here.

John Power’s Words of Wisdom

  1. The only constant in life is change.
  2. Be confident in yourself and your decisions.  Trust your instincts.
  3. Don’t be a sheep. Forge your own path.  Only your path will be the best for you.
  4. Don’t give your kids money.  Give them jobs to earn money.
  5. Every family should have a dog.
  6. Minimize stress.  It will age and kill you.
  7. Be careful not to drink too much – you are Irish after all.
  8. People make their own luck by positioning themselves for luck to happen to them.
  9. You can accomplish anything.  The hardest part is figuring out what to accomplish.
  10. If you are feeling sorry for yourself, go to the hospital and look around.

Last November, when my friend and former neighbor Jen passed away suddenly, I blogged about it, and then sent it on to Uncle John.  He wrote this in response:

Jess, you have a gift.  You converted a very sad story into an inspirational message for all of us.  I believe it was your friend’s destiny to depart this world at this time in order to be a teaching occasion for you and others who knew her.  That was her gift to you. Be very grateful.

Uncle John, wherever you are, I am grateful to you.  Thank you for believing in me, and emphasizing the importance of believing in myself.  Thank you for getting my head out of my ass and showing me that we all have something to offer the world, if we can only find the courage to put it out there.  Through your example I have learned that we all have a choice in how we respond to life’s challenges.  We can see adversity as a brick wall, or we can find a way to climb over it.  I will keep climbing.

John Maryanne florida


My Kid and Softball: A Conscious Uncoupling


Phil grew up in a world that centered around sports: Friday night football games and summers spent at the Little League field define much of his childhood.

When he said he wanted to sign Emma up for softball, I said, “Sure.  What did Emma say?”

“She’s got a great arm, she just needs to get there, you know, hear the chatter on the bench, feel those butterflies when she steps up to the plate, get into the zone, just her and the ball….”

Was this a monologue from Field of Dreams? “Uhh…Phil?”

He blinked, his reverie shattered. “What?”

“So she wants to do it?”

“Yeah, she’ll be happy when she gets there.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but….ok.  I’ll butt out of this one.

But it wasn’t long before I felt the need to butt back in.  When Emma was supposed to be finding her uniform for practice, she was reading a book.  She dragged her heels to the car while Phil bribed her with post-practice ice cream.  I held my breath as they pulled back in the driveway hours later, ice cream in hand but her face tense and blotchy from tears.

“What happened this time?” I said to Phil as Emma escaped to her room.

“She doesn’t like the pitching machine.  It makes her anxious.  She just needs to hang in there and get used to it.”

“Why?  Why does she need to get used to it? We just moved.  Does she really need one more thing to ‘get used to?’ Why don’t we try again next year?”

“Next year! Next year is too late!  The kids are gaining necessary skills and she is missing out! She’ll be behind!”

Behind what?  “Look, I’m just saying that maybe we took on too much too soon, that’s all.”

“So you mean QUIT!??  BRAUNS DON’T QUIT!”

Ahh, and there it was.  Phil’s tragic flaw: Tenacity.  It’s what I love most about him (because it keeps him married to me) but also the very thing that makes me want to bound, gag, and heavily sedate him.

Phil is part Tony Robbins, part honey badger. He has a mental catalogue of motivational sayings that often sneak into conversations:

  • “Always have your game face on.”
  • “What I lack in skill, I make up for in hustle.”
  • “Never leave your game on the field.”
  • “Turn a set back into a comeback.”
  • “Stick and Move”
  • “Brauns don’t say Can’t.”
  • “Brauns don’t say Quit.”

Well, I’m a Braun now, and I  say, “F**** this crazy softball sh*t.”

I get where Phil is coming from.  No parent wants to raise a quitter.  I think all the talk about Generation X or Y and the culture of “everyone gets a trophy” entitlement has made us hyper vigilant about cultivating integrity and a strong ethic in our kids.  I believe in hard work and commitment and discipline.  I think there is a place in life for blood, sweat and tears.  I see the value in extreme challenges that test our metal, bring us to our hairy edge, and unlock an inner strength we didn’t know we had.

But there is a ‘right time’ for those limit-pushing experiences.  And for my little 7 year old perfectionist who has moved three times in two years….that time is not now.

Through yoga, I have learned that, sometimes, the greatest strength is knowing when to pull back instead of push through – learning to identify the right kind of hard.  And sometimes the hardest thing as a parent is letting go of what we want for our kid and accepting what it is she actually needs.

In this article, David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, helped put this topic in perspective for me.  He says:

1. In the end it’s impossible to force them to participate. This will only develop anxiety that will make them reluctant to try new activities.

When I flashback to the extracurricular activities my parents “made me do for my own good,” I cringe.  These “character building” activities felt more like public humiliation to me.  In 9th grade my mother bribed encouraged me to join the chorus of the play “No No Nanette,” despite my complete lack of talent or experience in music theatre.  Her argument was:  “It will be nice to be part of a group – all that camaraderie!”

“But I don’t know how to tap dance.”

“Oh just fake it. You’ll blend in.”

Oh, I blended in alright – with the props and scenery changes back stage, which is basically where I ended up.  While my smiling comrades shuffle-ball-changed like Ginger Rogers, I just kind of…shuffled.  Every few minutes the director would shout into his megaphone: “EXCUSE ME!  WILL THE BLOND IN THE TENNIS SWEATER PLEASE MOVE BACK ANOTHER ROW?!”

Eventually, you run out of rows. And why was I wearing a tennis sweater to play practice? A clear indication I was in the wrong place.


2. Involve children in picking new activities rather than deciding for yourself.

I am not anti-activity.  Activities give some structure to the day, cultivate new experiences, and get the kids off the damn IPad.  I just think it needs to be the right activity – one that recharges rather than depletes. I asked Emma if she would prefer an art class to softball.   She said: “Yeah, that’s totally more my speed right now.”

3. Consider reluctance to be fatigue or need for more downtime.

Sometimes I forget that kids are…well, kids.  That they don’t have the words to articulate what they really want to say: “Hey!  I need a break!  I’m maxed out, here!”   I realize now that the sulking and temper tantrums and consistent “losing” of the softball uniform was her way of “saying” the same thing. Duh.

Yesterday, Emma said:



“Thanks for letting me quit softball.  I feel, like, super relieved.”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“Dad says Brauns don’t quit.”

“We made a decision. We consciously quit.”

“You’re so weird Mom. I’m going out to play.”