Thursday, June 12, 2014

Father's Day

The flashback triggered so suddenly the tears filled my eyes without warning. Leaving a local public library, I recalled my childhood visits to the Overland branch of the St. Louis County Library. That library served as a tiny portal to a world much larger than my working-class suburban neighborhood. We lived half a block away from the library and I began trekking there as often as wished the same year I started school. By the time I entered fourth or fifth grade, I read every book in the youth section. (I said the library was tiny!)

What triggered the tears, though, wasn't my happy memories of the library. Rather, I can't think of the library and books without thinking of Dad. Dad, who walked to the same library once a week and carried home an armful of books to read at his second job as a nighttime security guard. He read a book or two every night he worked. Watching Dad read and listening to him talk about the books he read inspired me to view reading as an essential, wonderful experience.

For years every Father's Day I included a note in Dad's card. I wrote a variation of the same thing every year.  "Thanks, Dad, for teaching me to love three things which still bring me great joy today: St. Louis Cardinals baseball, reading, and gardening. Also, thank you so much for serving your country by risking your life in World War II."

This is the third Father's Day since Dad's death in November 2011. I think of him often, especially when I listen to the Cardinals, when I read about World War II Veterans and anniversaries of D-Day and other markers of that War, when I visit a library.

Some day, I promise myself, I will write Dad's entire story. Dad, the very bright boy who grew up dirt poor in the Depression-era Ozarks and who loved to read for escape. Dad, the combat infantry veteran suffering from what we now know as PTSD. Dad, the farmer-turned-gardener, who worked for hours in our backyard garden to help feed our family. For now, though, I will thank him for his love of books which he passed along to me. I can't imagine my life without those books.  Thanks, Dad. Rest in peace.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Escape from New York

Nearly seven years ago, in August 2006, we took our son Lucas to New York for his freshman year of college.
Before deciding whether Lucas should turn down a full scholarship in Indiana to accept a lesser scholarship and attend college in New York, we sought advice from several friends and family members. Terry talked to his boss, a successful businessman, who carefully deliberated before advising New York. "But it'll change him," Mac wisely counseled.

Seven years is more than one-fourth of Lucas's life now, one-fourth of his life spent in the "capital of the world". So many events in these seven years: two NYC hurricanes, two world championships for our beloved St. Louis Cardinals (including the 2006 NLCS game seven victory in New York over the New York Mets), the 5th and 10th anniversaries of 9/11, the building of One World Trade Center, two Presidential elections, one highly visible shooting near the Empire State Building, one accidental private plane crash into a New York skyscraper. In Lucas's own life, several milestones: becoming Catholic, college graduation, Series 7 certification to become a licensed stockbroker during an internship at a New York securities firm, three years working as a paralegal for a New York law firm, accepting a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt Law School. Lucas attended countless Broadway shows, concerts at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, Yankees and Mets games, walks and runs through Central Park, dinners at famous restaurants and Chinese delivery in his apartment. (He claimed no desire to fight the Times Square New Year's Eve crowds.) He learned important lessons about daily life as a New Yorker: Seamless Web, fluff-and-fold at the corner dry cleaners, pay the price for well-made shoes and get them repaired several times before replacing them, run for the subway train at the bottom of the stairs even if another is coming in three minutes, black coffee and a bagel make any morning better, the 2nd Avenue Subway project is almost complete.

Thinking about Lucas's imminent return (escape?) from New York, I reflected a lot this week about the past seven years in my own life. Friends with teenagers leaving soon for college, take note: your life does not end when your children leave home! My fears of an empty life after kids proved completely unfounded. In the past seven years, I changed careers and earned teacher certification (in three states!), substitute taught in three school districts, made more new friends than I ever imagined making at this stage of my life (70 of the friends on my Facebook list are people I met in the past seven years), moved to a new state and city. Before the move, we grieved the loss of Terry's parents and my Dad. Our daughter Cassie started college two years after Lucas, graduated and got married last fall, and is pursuing her teaching career in Indianapolis. Life is fuller and happier than I ever imagined. Oh, we also became Catholic during these seven years, another development I never saw coming and for which I am truly grateful.

New York did change Lucas. He matured in more ways than I can list. It changed me, too. I grew to love/hate the city I first visited in 2006. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, New York is the best of cities and the worst of cities. It IS the city that never sleeps and never stops. Eight million people crowd into the tiny island of Manhattan every day and navigate its streets, sidewalks, subways, coffee shops, offices and apartments. The city boasts an incredible infrastructure which works amazingly well most of the time. When something fails (a subway track fire the night of the recent All-Star week home run derby, for instance), New Yorkers find another way to get where they need to go. In the years following the 9/11 tragedy, many observed New Yorkers became kinder and more patient with tourists. We found New Yorkers to be helpful and polite in our early visits. Recent visits: not so much. Life in such crowded conditions undoubtedly leads to chronic impatience and annoyance. (Perhaps I'm thinking of my recent visit during a record-setting heat wave?)

When Lucas recently mentioned to a college friend he finally felt ready to leave New York after seven years, the friend said, "Ah, you're in Joan Didion territory" and recommended  Didion's well-know essay "Goodbye to All That". I read it for the first time this week and loved it. She vividly portrays the love/hate relationship I feel with the city. The night we flew home after leaving Lucas in New York, in late August 2006, rain delayed our flight for several hours. Sitting on the tarmac at JFK, tears rolled down my face off and on for hours. My heart ached with uncertainty and fear. As we drive away from the city next week, part of me will relax and unwind. I will no longer tune in to the morning news shows thinking of my son in the middle of that city. I will thank God for lessons learned which helped my faith grow deeper and stronger. I will be glad for the ways the city changed Lucas and changed me.

recent photo by Michael Kaal, used with permission.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

God Among Us

Walking into the little church a few minutes before daily mass, I noticed her from the corner of my eye. As I dipped my hand in holy water and crossed myself, scanning the small room for a seat in a pew where no one else was sitting, I saw her motion toward me. A stooped-shouldered older woman, she wore a neon green sweater and a large purple bow in her hair. It didn't take my degree in special education to tell me she had special needs. Her motion toward me intensified and I turned my full attention to her. "Sit with me!?" she whispered loudly.

Oh boy, I thought to myself. This should be interesting.

Outwardly, I answered, "Sure!" and after genuflecting, climbed over her into the pew. She turned her head down to the skein of yarn in her lap and proceeded to work with it, leaving me to pull down the kneeler and pray. Instead of praying, though, my thoughts raced.  What if she talked throughout the mass? What had I gotten myself into?

"In as much as you do this for the least of these, you do it unto me," the scripture bounced into my head and I began to pray.

"OK, God, you have obviously put this woman in my path today. Thank goodness for my special ed training so I am not completely at a loss as to how to handle her. Please help me be a blessing to her and show her kindness today." Yeah, I'm the Pharisee who prayed out loud at the temple, "Thank you, God, that I am not like this woman."

I prayed for several minutes and sat back in the pew. I would have put the kneeler down, but the woman, who I now realized was quite tiny, was resting her feet on it. She continued to work with the yarn in her lap and I noticed she didn't have a crochet hook but was working a chain stitch with her fingers.  Just before the processional, she handed me a small circle of the chain which she had tied into a ring and cut off the yarn tail with scissors.

"It will fit any finger," she said quietly, as she handed me the ring. "I measured using my thumb."

I slipped the yarn onto the ring finger on my right hand and held it up for her to see.  She smiled and nodded and said, "The good thing about these rings is you can wash your hands and get them wet and they will dry." I nodded and smiled as the processional began.

We stood and said the opening lines of mass and the Confiteor (in which we confess to almighty God that we have sinned. I didn't have any trouble admitting it today). She spoke each line perfectly as one who has attended many masses in her lifetime. When we sat for the first readings, she began working with the yarn again. Later, during the homily given by the deacon, she handed me a bracelet made just like the ring. I slipped it onto my right wrist and squeezed her hand in thanks.

The Gospel today was Luke 24:35-48, the appearance of Jesus to disciples in Jerusalem following his appearance to the two men on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus explains to the disciples he is not a ghost because he has flesh and bone and then he asks them for food and eats a piece of fish. The deacon gave a short homily about how often God appears in our midst and we do not recognize him.  His closing line was "What if God was one of us, among us here today?" Thoughts of the song with the line "What if God was one of us?" mingled with thoughts about the lady sitting next to me. Yes, God was one of us, and I knew him not.

The Eucharist part of the mass began and I continued to ponder these things. When we greeted one another with the sign of peace, the woman reached for a hug instead of a handshake and I warmly hugged her in return. We went forward to receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord and returned to our pew. As mass ended, I wondered how I would take my leave from the mass and the woman. Would I ask her name? Would I make small talk? I needn't have worried, she once again took the lead. As others began filing out, she turned to me and said, "Can you wait while I finish this necklace?" I'd already decided it was too late for the water exercise class I had started the morning with good intentions of attending. Still, her request tried my limited patience.

"Do you have time?" I asked.  The ring and the bracelet had taken her awhile, each loop pulled by hand by her aged hands. "Yes," she said and nodded and worked more quickly.

I pulled out the kneeler next to hers and moved over to pray while she worked. She leaned over and whispered, "This will give you time to pray."

I prayed as long as my knees would allow. The church emptied. The priest and deacon returned to the sacristy to shed their robes. Someone turned out most of the lights. How long would this take? She worked faster and faster and finally measured the loop of stitches and said, "Do you think this will be long enough?"

"Yes!" I answered.  She cut the yarn and handed me the necklace.

"Are you sure it's long enough?" she asked.

I tried to put the loop on over my fat head and the yarn broke.

"I can tie it together," I said quickly, lest she offer to repair the necklace.

I tied the ends together so the necklace would hold and showed her. She smiled. Just then, the deacon walked up to the pew and rather impatiently motioned to her it was time to go. I wondered if she was his sister. He seemed almost irritated that I had kept her waiting.

"But you just said, God might be one of us, in our midst. Don't you see her?" I mused inside my head, as I stood awkwardly to leave without saying goodbye.

I hurried to my car in the rain and watched the deacon and the woman get into theirs. When I got home, I took off the ring, bracelet and necklace and carefully put them on my dresser next to my other jewelry.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent musings

My Facebook feed seems unusually full of friends and acquaintances facing critical health issues and the premature death of loved ones. The temptation for me is always to wax morbid so instead I add each prayer need to my list of intentions. "Life is fleeting" said the song which accompanied the video Lucas's friend from Ecuador posted on Facebook and I shared.

Earlier in the week I composed a post detailing a sad memory about my mom. The bittersweet memory kindled fond recollections of a small mall which Mom, Grandma, Janet and I used to frequent. Life is fleeting. Developers closed and rebuilt the mall years ago. I drove past often on the way to Dad's nursing home and never stopped and never thought of the original mall. Last week, a friend's comments on a Facebook thread about the mall prompted the older memories of the mall of my childhood, which were sweet and clear. Still, I couldn't hit "publish" on the post about the sadder memory, because I can't focus on that. I won't. Life is fleeting and I've spent too much of it in grief and sadness. At the same time, I can't simply gloss over the realities of suffering and grief, can I? How do I live a compassionate life without depression or obsession with the moribund?

Advent helps me focus on the light of this season, the reason for the feast of Christmas. One blogger wrote of refusing to celebrate the birth of our Savior on a random day in December. Still others write of fatigue of the glitz of Christmas. I love everything about the season: the lights, the glitter (though not on my floors and counters), the songs both sacred and silly, schmaltzy Christmas movies and shows, gifts (shopping, wrapping, giving and receiving), eating my family's traditional Christmas treats and sampling exotic new tastes, memories of Christmases past, dreams of Christmases future (grandchildren, please!), most of all the gathering of friends and family to celebrate this annual feast in this fleeting life.

Oh come, oh come, Immanuel! Bring your light, bring your life, bring your love. We need it so badly in this fleeting life so often full of pain and loss. Once more, let us turn our eyes to the simple miracle that occurred on some night. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God from God, light from light, true God from true God. A Virgin conceived and bore this God-child. Miracle of miracles. Paradox of paradoxes. Silence and loud hosannas. Lamb and lion. Peace and a sword. My brain cannot comprehend and hold it together.  I recently read this quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

I'm sure I am not a "first-rate intelligence" because when I think too long on these opposed ideas, I lose the ability to function fairly rapidly.

Today I buy our Christmas tree! We buy a real tree each year and don't like to put it up until closer to Christmas so we can leave it up for the 12 Days of Christmas. However, we learned a few years ago to buy the tree before the lots sell out of them.  Today I will bring it home and leave it outside until next weekend. Action overcomes my temptation to waste the day musing on thoughts too awesome to comprehend.

Not even half way through Advent and I am blessed and challenged by the season. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tallking to the Saints

Yesterday was All Saints Day, a feast day in the Catholic Church dedicated to honoring and remembering the Saints of the Church. I'd like to reflect a bit on the Saints and tell you one aspect of our move which involved a particular Saint, St. Joseph.

While studying Catholicism prior to joining the Church, I learned that Catholics don't worship the saints or pray to the saints. Saints are not considered more important than Jesus. They are not substitutes for our own holiness. Saint medals, statues, and other icons are not idols. Do you have photographs of your parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents hanging in your home? Are they idols? Or are they simply reminders to you of those ancestors who came before you and whom you choose to honor by keeping their memory alive in your home? In the same way we hang photographs of family members, Catholics keep medals or statues of patron saints to remind them of that Saint's holy life. We do not pray TO the Saints. We ask them to pray FOR us, much the same way we might ask a friend to pray for a need. Sure I still ask friends to pray for me. It's such a comfort, though, to ask certain Saints to pray for specific prayer intentions. Let me explain.

When I began to pursue teaching as a mid-life career choice, I learned about St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton. She was a native New Yorker and Catholic convert who spent much of her adult life starting and overseeing schools in the Eastern United States. When I began my teaching certification studies at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute, Indiana, I learned about St. Theodore Guerin. St. Guerin founded St. Mary-of-the-Woods and many other schools in Indiana and Illinois. I began to ask both Saints Seton and Guerin to pray for my teaching career. I asked other Saints to pray for other needs. I ask  St. Monica to pray for me as a wife and mother and seek St. Padre Pio's intercession for particularly challenging needs. Yes I've even been known to ask St. Anthony to pray for lost items.

Years ago we bought a house in Indiana owned by a couple who attended our church. Dave worked for a corporation which moved his family quite often and they bought and sold houses every couple of years. Mary Lou told me that in selling their last home they became quite frustrated when the house didn't sell for many months. Someone at church told them about an older man, a man well known for his fervent prayers, whose prayers for home sales seemed particularly effective. Mary Lou asked Charlie to pray for their house to sell and it sold within days.

After three unsuccesful house-hunting trips to Tennessee this summer, I wondered about the Patron Saint of house-buying. I knew many Catholics ask for St. Joseph's help when selling a home, but I learned he is also the go-to Saint for house buying. I sought St. Joseph's prayers for finding just the right house for us. One Tuesday following a weekend of frustrated house-hunting, I went to the local Adoration Chapel and prayed about the house, asking St. Joseph to pray for us as well. Later that day, I logged onto the real estate listings websites and looked again at a particular area which met our most important criteria: it was on the northwest edge of Murfreesboro and within 20 minutes of Terry's office. I'd scoured the listings in the area for weeks with no success. That Tuesday afternoon, though, a listing popped out at me. It wasn't a new listing but one I had never looked at it before. I clicked on the pictures, getting more excited with each one: beautifully remodeled kitchen, built-in pool, large lot in a tree-filled neighborhood, large Florida room in the back which looked perfect for Terry's music studio. One major drawback was that the bedrooms were all upstairs and we had already rejected several such houses. I emailed Terry the listing anyway and he replied immediately, "for this house, I would settle for an upstairs bedroom." To jump to the happy ending, this is the house we bought and the house we now love.

The family who owned the house were also Catholic and their three children were enrolled in Catholic schools. Because there is no Catholic high school in Murfreesboro, the family commuted thirty miles in heavy traffic to Nashville every day to drive their older sons to high school. They decided they could only keep their kids in Catholic high school this year if they could sell this house and move to Nashville. The house had been listed since March. I will always wonder if this family was also seeking St. Joseph's help in selling their home? It thrills me a little to think of St. Joseph playing "house matchmaker" for us and for them and praying for both families.

Yesterday at the All Saints Day mass, the first and second graders at St. Rose school dressed as Saints and processed into the mass. Later in the day, I attended a Saints Alive "museum" presentation in a fourth grade class where each student dressed as a Saint and gave a brief presentation to each visitor who walked by and pushed the "button" on the Saint's hand. What a blessing for me to witness these students learning about, teaching about, and keeping alive these particular "witnesses" from that great cloud who serve as wonderful examples of holiness for all of us.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Six months ago life hummed along in a daily rhythm.  Not exciting though never boring. Not glamorous though richly blessed. My teaching job, a full-time substitute position as an elementary school special educator, challenged and fulfilled me. I eagerly anticipated my new full-time position as a high school special educator this academic year. Our family life on our ten acres in rural southern Illinois followed the cycles of the seasons of nature and the seasons of life.

An unexpected opportunity changed all that, suddenly and significantly. We now live in a nice tree-filled subdivision in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, located 30 miles southeast of Nashville. The town pulses with growth and vitality. The weather is milder and the pace faster but Southern Hospitality makes daily life quite pleasant so it never feels frantic. 

We moved here ten days after my daughter Cassie's wedding, a beautiful event at our ten-acre home. Preparing for the wedding and the move simultaneously, we lived a surreal summer. Sprucing up the yard, the pond, and the house carried bittersweet moments and heart pangs. We moved to the farm when Cassie was six years old and Lucas was eight. They grew up there and the house remained full of their belongings and memories of their childhood years. Anticipating the move and the wedding, we swam in a swamp of sentiment for most of the summer.

Just now, looking through photographs on my phone for a particular shot of our driveway on the farm, I realized the scope of these milestone events.  In this past year I said goodbye to my dad after his long illness, said goodbye to my mother-in-law after hers, attended Cassie's college graduation, accepted and resigned a teaching position which culminated my mid-life career change, celebrated Cassie and Daniel's marriage, and moved 250 miles away from the area where we spent the past 25 years. Settling into our new home progresses phenomenally well. I love this house, this town, this life. I loved my old house, town, life. "It's all good" as we say, but I sometimes find myself strangely discombobulated, like at Sunday's Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts football game. I'm not much of a football fan, but for the past ten years we have rooted for the "hometown" Colts. Sunday I intended to root for the new hometown Titans but found myself being glad when the Colts won the game in overtime.

We've enjoyed some wonderful events here in Nashville already. Concerts, football games, shopping, visits from friends. We love having a bigger home with room for guests. We're eagerly awaiting a houseful of guests for Thanksgiving weekend.

Still, many days I find myself needing to sit down and catch my breath. It's been a whirlwind. I haven't even begun to tell about all the spiritual aspects of this move but let me say we harbor no doubts whether this was the right thing for us to do. I'll post later some of the multitude of signs too clear to ignore.

Happily trying to catch my breath and my balance,


Friday, October 12, 2012

Life as a baseball fanatic

In the Ken Burns documentary "Baseball", lifelong Boston Red Sox fan Mike Barnicle (whom I like a lot better as a commentator on MSNBC's Morning Joe because of his role in "Baseball") describes mixed feelings about passing along his love of the Red Sox to his son. He says something like, "You don't know if you're doing the right thing passing along the blessing and the curse." When my Dad passed along his love of the St. Louis Cardinals on this day in 1967, he must have known he was passing along a mixed bag of blessings and curses as well. On October 12, 1967, the blessings reigned and Dad made sure I enjoyed them.

I've written about this before but can't find it now so bear with me if I'm repeating myself. In 1967 I attended 2nd grade at New Overland School in suburban St. Louis. The World Series games in those days took place in the afternoons and school teachers, children, and people all over St. Louis found radios to listen to while going about their business.  I have such fond memories of spending the afternoons at my desk listening to the games on the radio the teacher brought in for the special occasion. (Imagine, teachers, how would we fit that into one of today's core curriculum lesson plans??)

The evening of the Cardinals 7th game victory, Dad listened to KMOX post-game coverage. He learned the time of the Cardinals scheduled return to St. Louis Lambert International airport. Dad's second job as a security guard for Pinkertons sometimes included an assignment for Ozark Airlines, the St. Louis-based carrier. Because Dad possessed insider's knowledge of a little-used back entrance, he made a decision out of character for a man who hated crowds. He came to the bedroom my sister Janet and I shared, woke us up, and asked if we wanted to go with him to meet the Cardinals plane at the airport. What a silly question! I'm sure I jumped at the chance to get out of bed and go anywhere in my pajamas, an unheard of indulgence.

Dad's back entrance yielded very good standing spots for us to watch as the Cardinal players, dressed in spiffy red sport coats and slacks, descended the plane's stairs and approached the microphones hastily assembled for the impromptu pep rally. Dad hoisted Janet and me in turns onto his shoulder so we could see above the enthusiastic but polite crowd. I watched Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda, and manager Red Schoendist take the platform and make brief remarks. I became a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, for better or for worse, that night.

While writing this, I searched and found a video of that night's events at the airport.  Enjoy!

Tonight, the Cardinals once again face a do-or-die final playoff series game, Game 5 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. I'll be listening on the radio, watching on the TV, pacing and yelling in the living room.  Ah, the life of a baseball fanatic. Blessing AND curse.