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.

easter_jessandbeth-1

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?

marchingband

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.”

Awesome.

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

Ahhhhhhh.

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.

ViparitaKarani

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…)

JazzFest

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.

IMG_4403

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

never-give-up

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.”
  • “YOU GOTTA WANT IT!!”
  • “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.

LittleMissSunshine

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:

“Mom?

“Yes?”

“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.”

running

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F*** Nice. Be Brave and Amazing.

I have an addiction to young adult novels.  I pretend to be “screening” them for Emma, but really I just love to read them.  I find the no-bullshit voice of a a young person refreshing: the sparse language, the honest observations, the raw self-reflection and poignant realizations about life. Or maybe I just like books that I can read in one day.

Which is what I did with this one:

Wonder_RJ_Palacio

Wonder is the fictional story of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman. Born with several genetic abnormalities, Auggie’s face is so disfigured that he announces on the first page: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you are thinking, it’s probably worse.”

When the previously home-schooled Auggie enters the fifth grade at a mainstream school, a story of bravery, adversity and transcendence unfolds.  The book starts with Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include that of his classmates, his sister, etc. The voices are different but the core questions are the same: Who am I, really?  What do I believe in? What does it mean to be brave?

If you managed to survive middle school, you can only imagine what it’s like for Auggie. “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” is how he overhears his dad describe it.  But the desire to live his life outweighs the fear of kids “looking away” when he walks down the hall.

The pure “wonder” of Auggie is astounding; his bravery undeniable.  But the reality is, he didn’t have much of a choice. Humans need to connect to thrive. Auggie takes a huge risk when he goes to school in pursuit of this connection. But he knows if he never leaves his comfort zone, he will never grow.

It’s the other characters – and how they choose to either embrace or reject Auggie – that fascinates me.  Because they do have a choice.  A few choices, in fact. They can:

  1. Choose to be an asshole.
  2. Choose to be nice but distant. Be nice but not necessarily do anything nice.
  3. Choose to be brave. To see beyond Auggie’s exterior and discover what lies beneath the surface.

I would love to say I fall in Category #3, and once and a while, I do.  But mostly I am a #2. Which may be worse than #1.  An asshole is an asshole.  Even when an asshole pretends to be otherwise, everyone still knows what’s up.

wolf-in-sheeps-clothing

But choosing to be a #2 is like not choosing at all.  Nice is neutral.  Nice is beige. The trap is, no one argues with beige.  No one is going to come into your house and say, “Holy crap, you painted your living room Practical Beige?  Were you high??”  But they also aren’t going to say, “Wow, dude.  Practical Beige was a ballsy move.”

My point is, it’s easy to not move beyond nice.  You’re not hurting anyone by being nice. You just aren’t helping anyone either.  You’re not going to the places that scare you.  You stay in the place that feels….nice.  Your comfort zone. Which is painted Practical Beige.

I am going somewhere with this.  Eventually.

I started reading Wonder early last Saturday morning, and I thought of my friend Margie.  I met her through Phil on a weekend handicapped retreat (the HEC) we used to go on before we had kids.  Margie is in her late 60’s, lives alone in a house near Villanova and has advanced Cerebral Palsy.  We haven’t seen her in years, and now that we are back in the area, I think of her every time I drive past her street.

So later that day, I decided to go for a run to Margie’s house.

It was a little farther than my out of shape legs remembered, and my snail’s pace gave me a little bit too much time to think.  What if she doesn’t remember me?  What if I scare her, just barging in?  What if I can’t understand what she is saying?  Maybe this is a bad idea.  Maybe I should have called first.

And when I finally reached her house…I kept running.

Yeah, not a proud moment.

When I confessed to Phil, he said, “Don’t feel bad, it was a really nice idea.”

Sidebar: How Phil originally met Margie. When he was a sophomore at Villanova, Phil saw an ad in the campus paper: “Morning volunteer needed to help disabled woman put on leg braces.” So everyday before his 8:30 class, he ran from his dorm to Margie’s house and put on her leg braces.

That’s brave.

Running 3+ miles to someone’s house and then chickening out at the last minute?  Not so much.

That night, I finished reading Wonder, and Auggie’s words hit me hard:

It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s someone in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk.  I know I am that person to other people.  To me, though, I’m just me.  An ordinary kid.

I didn’t run past Margie’s house because I was scared of what I might see in her. Margie is Margie. She’s funny and loving and fiercely loyal.  I ran past because I was scared of what she would see in me.  The awkward and nervous prodigal friend who is not nearly as brave and amazing as she is.

To which Margie would reply, “That’s stupid.”

To choose to be brave is to stop wallowing in your own inadequacy and just freaking shut up and show up.  Choosing to be brave is not having “nice ideas” or hiding behind a safe email after you ran down the street like a chicken shit.  It’s choosing to not look away from the stuff inside that makes you look away, which is exactly the stuff that keeps you from being brave and amazing. 

For me, I think bravery will come when I stop being nice and start being real.  So this weekend, I am running to Margie’s. For real, this time.

What keeps you from being brave and amazing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Occupational Hazards of Being A Mary

Ok, so I am not trying to make this a Biblical blog, but I felt it was only fair to pick up where I left off in my last post.  It wouldn’t be honest to drop it, letting you believe that over the past week I was transformed from a harried Martha into a Zen master Mary.  Because -shockingly – that’s not how things shook out.  You are already laughing at me, I know you are.

I began with good intentions. One afternoon while the kids were at school, I chose to put aside my to-do list for a home yoga practice.  I have practiced yoga for over ten years and even taught for a while, but amidst our string of moves from PA to MA back to PA, my mat has been rolling around the back of my car caked with rock salt and smashed up Cheddar Bunnies.

So it seemed like a very Mary thing to do, to forgo the organization of the linen closet for a little self-care.  I rolled out my mat in Phoebe’s bedroom and moved through some Sun Salutes and the Warrior series – a little stiff and distracted by the naked Barbies under the bed, but there nonetheless.

Then I got to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, or Pigeon Pose.

Jessie_yoga (7 of 7)

I. Started. Bawling.  No, no.  I mean it.  I totally flipping lost my mind, like Full-frontal-Oprah-ugly-cry-nervous-breakdown-Beaches-Wind-Beneath-My-Wings-Put Me On-Paxil-STAT kind of lost it.

One of the “benefits” of hip-openers is the release of emotional….gunk you have been carrying around in your body. I have gotten weepy in Pigeon before, but this was like cleaning the gutters for the first time in two years – gutters packed with leaves and sticks and mud that I just didn’t have time to deal with amidst the packing and unpacking and repacking of houses.

When inward tenderness finds the secret hurt, pain itself will crack the rock and Ah! Let the soul emerge! -Rumi

I am all for a good cry, but this was intense. And when I realized how long I had been there, and that the kids would be home soon, I started to panic.

Occupational Hazard #1 of Being a Mary:  Feel your feelings but be sure to leave enough time to pull yourself together so you don’t look like a meth mom in the car line.

After I scraped myself off the floor, I felt defeated and ashamed.  I tried to do something positive, yet somehow managed to dissolve into a puddle of sweat, tears and boogers.   I suck at stillness, I thought.  Stillness just reminds me that I have the happiness set-point of Droopy Dog.

Droopy Dog

The next day while driving home from school, Emma says: “There is no room at the lunch table I want to sit at, and no one plays with me at recess so I just sit by myself and watch basketball.”

Phoebe chimes in: “I play by myself at recess.”

This doesn’t surprise me. “Really Pheebs?  Does it bother you?”

“Nope.  I just run in circles”.

With a slight eye roll Emma says, “Well Phoebe, I am sure that is ok for a preschooler but I am pretty sure my chances of making friends will not be improved by running in circles.”

Phoebe shrugs her shoulders. Don’t knock it ’till you try it.

Occupational Hazard #2 of Being a Mary: Trying to listen to your kids’ problems without fixing them and/or offering helpful suggestions but not solutions.  Basically, fighting the urge to march into the cafeteria and say, “What’s wrong with you people??”

But I held my tongue, and listened to Emma vent about the playground politics.  Then, just as I was about to chime in with my 2 cents, she says:  “But you know Mom, despite all these issues, I still have the nerve to be happy.  After recess when the teacher puts on dance music, I dance.  Because I’m not going to be the girl that won’t dance.”

I mean, what do you say to that?  Nothing.  It’s why God invented the High Five.

We are the night ocean filled with glints of light.  We are the space between the fish and the moon, while we sit here together.  -Rumi

Duality is not my bag, baby.  I grew up in a black and white world where things were good or bad, sinner or a saint, feast or famine.  It may take me a lifetime to really embrace the paradox of this existence, to accept that life is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and dark.  Why the hell is it so hard for me to grasp?  Dolly Parton gets it:

DollyCross

Maybe it’s not about being a Martha OR a Mary; being the one who works OR the one who prays.  Maybe we can be both.  The one who works and the one who prays.  The one who struggles, and the one who dances.  The one who cries, and the one who still has the nerve to be happy.   All at the same time.

IMG_4204

Martha, Martha, Martha

During this season of Lent, I have been trying failing trying to start each morning with a short Bible reading and reflection.  One that really hit me was  Luke 10: 38-42, when Jesus Visits Mary and Martha.

The story (as I see it) goes something like this: Jesus and his friends are invited into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Jesus takes a load off and Mary sits at his feet, waiting to hear what he has to say.  Martha, on the other hand, is flying around the house, frantically cleaning and cooking and most likely muttering expletives under her breath.

The fact that Mary isn’t lifting a finger really starts to piss her off, and Martha says to Jesus: “Umm, excuse me Jesus, can you please light a fire under my sister, because this is crap. I still need to WetSwift the bathroom, and the taco dip isn’t going to make itself.”

Jesus says, “Martha, Girl, you need to RE-LAX.  Sit down, open the wine and the bag of Tostitos and let’s get this party started.”

Ok, what he really said:

Martha, Martha you are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed.  Mary has chosen the good part, and that will not be taken away.

Can’t you just see Mary smirking?  Jesus likes me more than you, Nanana-poo-poo!

Since our move a few weeks ago, I have turned into a major Martha.  My brain feels jacked up on Coke and Pixie Stix while my body bounces around the house, frenetically “doing” but accomplishing nothing.

I wonder what was behind Martha’s “doing,” why she felt the need for everything to be perfect.  For me, it’s Mommy Guilt.  I feel guilty for putting the girls in a new house and school mid-year, so I am going to do WHATEVER IT TAKES TO HELP THEM FORGET ITS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.  I stood for hours on Emma’s bed sticking glow in the dark constellations on her ceiling. When they climb into the car after school looking sullen and sad, my heart breaks.  So I try and fix it (aka. stuff their feelings) with fro yo or cupcakes or a new book.  I decorated their bathroom with a tulip border mural, and bought Phoebe a matching duvet cover that I will take out of the package as soon as I find the damn iron.  As if maybe an ironed duvet cover will make her say, ‘Well alright!  Who cares that I am in a new school with no friends?  I have an ironed duvet cover.  I have ARRIVED.”

But just as Coke-Pixie Stix bender always ends in a crash, so does a Control Bender.  The I Can Fix Everything and Make Everyone Happy routine usually ends when everything falls apart.  At once.  And then catches on fire.

The unraveling began on Tuesday at midnight, when, 4 hours before Phil had to be on a plane to Boston, our ancient radiator in our 110 year old house decided it had worked hard enough.  Water, water, everywhere.  Sometimes, there are just not enough towels.

After dropping the kids off at school and getting honked at by 50 cars for screwing up in the car line again, I waited for the plumber and the Peapod grocery order Phil had placed to “help out.”  I was so engrossed in my radiator water management that I didn’t even look in the grocery bags until the delivery guy had left.

IMG_4278

We don’t drink milk.

While I contemplated buying an extra dairy fridge off Craigslist, my sister-in-law Trisha stopped by.  We chatted for a few and then, after complimenting her new car, I sent her on her way with two gallons of milk and some coffee creamer.  When I returned 30 minutes later with my sullen children, the plumber was in the driveway and Trisha was walking down the street.  Her new car had broken down around the corner.  My first thought was, Oh man that milk is gonna stink.

While Trisha called a tow truck and the girls ran around me in circles shrieking, the plumber -let’s call him Frank- explained my radiator situation.  In detail.  Lots of detail.  My brain was starting to short circuit.  In an attempt to demonstrate how a valve works, Frank kept squeezing my bicep.

For the record, I am a “this is my box” personal space kinda girl.  I could see Frank’s mouth moving, but I could barely hear his voice over the one in my head:

“The valve of a radiator blah blah blah: EXPAND, CONTRACT” (Bicep squeeze).

You just touched my arm.

“So the water flow depends on blah blah valve blah EXPAND, CONTRACT” (Bicep squeeze)

You touched it again.

“So the valve is what determines if you have FLOW or NO FLOW” (Bicep squeeze).

Three times now. 

While I retained nothing about radiators, I got through the interaction without cold cocking Frank.  Trisha returned to her car of rotting dairy products, and the kids and I went to the park.  Jesus should have told Martha to take a walk.  Nature helps get your head out of your ass.

IMG_4279

While putting the kids to bed after a nutritious dinner of bagels and apple sauce, I sat down on Emma’s bed: “Hey Em, you know how you said you were nervous about the Terra Nova test?  Well I emailed your teacher and she said that you are doing great and that…”

“Mom! Why are you bringing that up NOW?  I wasn’t even thinking about it and now I AM.”

“Oh…I’m sorry….I just thought that…”

“Parents just don’t get it.”

That stung, I’ll admit.  But I didn’t get it…she was right. She didn’t need me to fix it.  She just needed me to listen.

Lying in bed that night, I thought about Martha and felt compassion for her.  She thinks she’s doing the right thing, that caring for others is how she shows her love. Someone has to vacuum the dog hair off the couch and make sure the grill has propane.  But when you become, as the reading says, “distracted with all the serving,” you start to miss the point.  You can’t really be with the people you love if you are always in your head.

Jesus didn’t want Martha to be The Perfect Hostess – he just wanted Martha.  And my kids don’t want The Perfect Mom – they just want me.  Which I think for many of us is a hard concept to grasp.  That we are exactly what our kids need just as we are.  No bells, no whistles, no magic cape or fairy wand necessary.  Just us.

As I put away all the towels used in the Great Radiator Flood of 2014, I found the iron in the closet.

IMG_4277

And for now, that’s where it will stay.

The Magic Bridge

The house we moved into two weeks ago borders Haverford College, on the “Main Line” of Philadelphia.  On the other side of the campus,  about 300 yards from our new home, stands our first apartment.  Phil and I could walk there easily by crossing the small footbridge that connects our neighborhood to the campus.

We used to call it The Magic Bridge.

IMG_4113

When we lived in the apartment over a decade ago, our favorite summer evening activity was to walk to Marita’s Cantina for chicken tacos and Tecates.  On the walk home, we had a Magic Bridge ritual.  Standing in the middle of the bridge with our eyes closed, we breathed in the heavy summer air, thick with the heady scent of wisteria.  The hum of the cicadas got louder with every passing second until it became a thunderous symphony pulsating in our ears.  Phil always knew the right moment to say what I knew was coming:

“Close your eyes and make a wish.  This is the magic transformer bridge, and wherever you want to go, it will take you there.  Whatever you want to be, you can become it.”

Disclaimer: When I say “we drank Tecates,” I mean like five six Tecates.  Each.

This is a bittersweet memory for me, because there was a desperation to this tradition. Two very scared people clinging to each other, wanting so desperately to believe that their love is bigger than their problems.  And there were problems.  Oh boy, were there problems.  But the moments on the Magic Bridge made us believe in transcendence. Standing on the bridge, suspended in time and space, I believed in the possibility of another way.  That there was hope for me/us yet.

After living in Boston, you would think that moving back to Philly would be easy. Like slipping on a glove.  Simple.  And in many ways, it is.  Family and old friends are close by. We can walk to WaWa. We drive around with the kids and point out our old college hangouts:

“OMG, that used to be Manhattan Bagel!  My roommates and I went there every Saturday morning but used to split the cream cheese because they charged like $1.50 for-

All Phoebe hears is bagel: “I’m hungry.  Do you have snacks?”

They have no idea what I am talking about, nor do they care.  To my daughters, I am not the hungover college kid with exactly $1.26 in her pocket after a night out at the bar.  I am the lady with the snacks.  Memories of my life before them have no context.  In their eyes, my life began at age 28, when I had Emma.

And in some ways, I wish it had.  Having kids anchored me.  The name Emma means healer, and she is just that. She healed me of my selfishness, my crippling neuroses, the helplessness borne out of my paralyzing fear of….everything.  And then came Phoebe.  Her name means light, and that is exactly what she brought into my life. She has taught me how to be present and joyful.  How to be free….free of the past.

Or so I thought.

Memories can be sneaky.  Familiar smells – hot dogs on a grill, burning leaves, Blistex Medicated lip balm – can bring me right back to a different time and place, as if it happened only yesterday.

For Phil, this is typically a good thing, as he relives his glory days as the Party Mayor of the Main Line, and his brief stint as a cable TV star on TLC’s The Dating Story.  Rumor is that he still has a fan base in Canada: “Aren’t you that guy from The Dating Story?? The Camden Riversharks guy?  Dude, that foam finger was HILARIOUS!”

Had my life on the Main Line been featured on cable television, it would be a Lifetime Movie:  psychiatric hospitalizations, eating disorders, social anxiety, etc.  Oh, and there was the removal of my entire colon due to a rare genetic defect found exclusively (before me) in Japanese cadavers.   My fan base includes the med students at Hahnemann University Hospital – although they may not recognize me with pants on.

Writer Madeline L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”  Exactly.  Because believe me, I’ve tried to lose a bunch of them.  To be reminded of a time when I was so weak emotionally fragile was too painful. Too scary.  

In her memoir Magical Journey, Katrina Kenison writes:

For me, the big surprise of growing older is this: Fear never actually goes away.  But I’ve had a lot of practice by now in confronting it.

Maybe my reason for coming back here was not to re-open those wounds, but to finally heal them once and for all.

I went for a run yesterday past the old apartment.  I stopped for a minute and let myself go back to that place when life felt too overwhelming; when I felt so undeserving of everything I had.  I stood with my feet firmly planted and just let those memories wash over me.  Then, when it felt right, I ran home.  And I felt lighter.

A bridge cannot stand without two ends.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I still believe in the Magic Bridge.  But, like The Giving Tree, I think the Magic Bridge meets us where we are.  The type of magic it gives changes as we change.  Now, the magic I need is not to be transported to another place, but to really be exactly where I am. To be present to my life.  And celebrate it.  Because it’s good.  Really good.

As I cross the bridge now, I try to be grateful for the life I had, and for the lessons that led me to back to this place, as a truer, less encumbered version of myself.

Then I run to meet the life that waits for me on the other side.

IMG_4127

IMG_4115

I’ll Be Back When I Find My Pants

Image

 

Hello Readers,

As many of you know we moved from MA to PA last Friday.  You would think after three moves in 18 months, I would be good at this by now.  And you would be wrong.

So, because our garbage disposal backed up, our internet connection works for about 8 minute intervals, and I have yet to find the box that contains my pants…I am taking this week off from blogging.  I will be back next week, fully clothed.  Maybe.

xoxox

Jessie