We’re living in very difficult times. We have every modern convenience, every means of communication, yet we live lives of anguish and isolation. Our ability to communicate, and to assess the subtle nuances of truth-versus-lie is tied directly to our face to face human interaction. You’d think we’d have more of that than any generations before us. But we don’t.
Ironically, psychologists tell us that our children will have less ability than any generation in history to interact with others in healthy and meaningful ways. The reason is because they spend far more time looking at a tablet screen than they do looking into the eyes of another human being.
And I totally get that. I can’t hear someone’s vocal inflection in a text. I can’t sense their energy or see their facial expressions in an email. In my head and without realizing it I write the story, I infuse the tone, I define the intent. That is what determines how I “hear” them. How often am I correct? How often have I gotten it wrong? I can’t know, because the moment in which it happens is gone in an instant. I’ve reacted based on “my assessment” before I even think about it.
And this, I contend, is how we have gotten so far away from each other.
Then there is the media. Do we really know what’s happening in this world? Or why? Are we given all the facts of a situation, and trusted to draw our own informed conclusions? No. There are extensive, complicated algorithms and processes that media uses to decide what we should be told, when, and how. The goal is to “drive” our opinions and conclusions; to create outrage, cause us to take sides, and define others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what we “know.” And the result is that we end up unable to debate or agree-to-disagree.
But … what is it that we really know?
I can’t say definitively. I’m honestly still searching, and I feel more confused than ever before.
But here are a few basic conclusions I’ve reached:
- I know that things are happening at high levels over which I have no control.
- I know that every story or event reported on is colored by the reporter’s bias – be it strong or subtle – so that I will believe I “know” something that may not be the whole truth or the whole picture.
- I know that it takes deliberate and brutally honest energy to dig into the volume of information … to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that make the picture whole, and true.
- I know that if I claim to be a seeker of truth, I have an obligation to the whole truth, regardless of what I might think about it.
- I know that people need each other. The separation we feel is an illusion. We are connected to each other.
- I know that we are more alike than we are different. Like flowers in a garden that thrive in the same dirt, drink the same water, and bloom under the same sun, we are a world of beautiful humanity, all created by the same God.
- I know that hearts are broken every day in a variety of ways. But generally speaking, it’s always about loved ones lost, either through death or separation.
- I know that when any person, anywhere, feels overcome with that loss, that it feels the same everywhere.
- I know that all broken hearts are red.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I was thinking today about the Christmases in my life.
In my early childhood, they were silver tinsel, colored bulbs and an angel star on a tree that shined through the front window and made the world feel magic. They were chenille robes, and the smell of bacon and coffee on Christmas morning; hair left uncombed and presents torn into. They were oranges and nuts, hard candy and a treasure tucked deep in the toe of a stocking.
They were rides in the car to Nanny’s house, clutching my new doll. They were pickled eggs in a jar on Nanny’s buffet, and a pink Christmas tree that glowed with starry lights inside a cloud of angel hair.
When I was old enough−about seven−mother started taking me with her to Advent service on Tuesday nights. I sat between her and my grandmother, Mom, breathed deep the incense, threw back my head and sang the Advent hymns lustilly, as young girls do.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptists cry,
announces that the Lord is nigh
awake and harken for he brings
glad tidingsof the King of Kings.
By the time I was in my teenage Christmases there were five more children. The young ones were so precocious that, every year on Christmas Eve, Daddy prevented early peeks by sleeping on the floor at the entrance to the living room.
Our trees had gotten smaller; Daddy usually picked one up at the grocery store for free the night before Christmas. We were all excited, it was Christmas after all. But something had changed; I was too young to know what, or why. I just knew I felt a little lost. Advent services, and Advent songs, had started to define the season for me, and I turned to them for the comfort I needed then.
Looking at it from here I can see it was during those years my father lost his job; he was doing what he could to keep six children fed and a roof over us all. It’s clear that his was a hero’s journey, and my heart breaks a little for him when I think about it now.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
I became a mother when I’d just turned twenty one. And that changed everything. Christmas was more magical than ever. Being Santa to my babies was wonderful. I sewed, and baked, and made ornaments out of egg cartons. We strung popcorn and cranberries; every year we bought the annual Christmas album from the Firestone store.
I saved S&H Green Stamps all year long; I poured over the stamp catalog to see what gifts I could get with my books of stamps.
We made our Advent wreath, lit the candles, purple and pink; said the Advent prayers; went to church and sang the hymns. We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and every Christmas morning the children would run to see if the tiny statue of the Baby was in the manger, having been “born” during the night. The ultimate result, through the years, was Christmas seasons of love, and laughter, and plenty.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Then there’s the Christmas I was separated from my husband of twenty-five years, headed for divorce. I’d been holding my own through what was a very rough year. But it seemed like everywhere I went during my holiday shopping I ended up face to face with the perfect gift for him. It was like the stores conspired to show me what I would not be purchasing. Try getting through the holiday without buying him THIS. With each ‘gift confrontation’ came another crack in my heart.
It was exhausting. I clung to my Advent. Yes, it became mine. I wrapped myself in it; I sang the songs and prayed the prayers, sometimes silently other times screaming them at the top of my lungs. There were moments I lost track of what I was praying for, or who I even was; I just knew that Jesus was my lifeline, and I was calling 911.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more
I’ve grown into a lovely single life, my kids are beautiful adults, and I have five precious grandchildren. During these Christmas seasons I find that I’ve returned to the feelings of my childhood, but with a depth I couldn’t know then. The many times, and ways, in which my heart was broken have taught me this: in me dwells a personal and a tender yearning for new life; I ache for the beauty of the season; I am joyful at the redemption this Holy Baby brings. And I treasure the brokenhearted, hopeful Advent in us all.
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.*
*Words: Charles Coffin, 1736;
trans. John Chandler, 1837
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Not sure why that saying came to mind this morning, but it wouldn’t leave me alone so I wrote it down.
I’m finding myself in an interesting place. The last quarter of last year was probably the most difficult, the most challenging, in my life. I say that, then I find my gaze drifting back through the past−pregnant at twenty, hysterectomy at twenty seven, trying so hard to be all I could be to everybody−and completely missing the mark on self awareness, self care, self sustenance.
Did it have anything to do with those Holy Cards? We were big on collecting them in second grade. They were like baseball cards for Catholic girls. The gilt edged ones with Saint Theresa, Saint Cecilia, Our Lady of Fatima, all were coveted.
Which brings up a whole different thing since coveting broke the tenth commandment. We were eight years old, and all guilty.
And then there’s the pride thing. Mary Margaret Snyder had more gilt edged cards in her Missal than anyone else in the class. She held it up during Mass, ceremoniously turning to each card as the priest said his Dominus Vobiscums, his Kyrie Eleisons, his Oremuses. We sat, stood, or knelt as was prescribed, but we were watching her out of “side eyes,” elbowing each other, and hating her. Rack another one up on our confessional hit parade. Hate. It’ll take at least three Hail Mary’s plus an Act of Contrition to scrub that off.
But where I was going about those cards is, they were Da Vinci-esque renditions of martyrs who died for their faith. They were bludgeoned, or decapitated, burned at the stake, nailed upside down to a cross, tortured in a wide variety of ways. And now were featured on Holy Cards, bathed in heavenly light, eyes cast upward, heads tilted ever-so-slightly, hands outstretched or coming together in prayer.
Every so often Sister Diana introduced a new Holy Card; she’d say in soothing tones,
“Children, which martyr is this who became a saint because he/she died for Christ?”
She held the small rectangle up like Vanna White, and cut her eyes toward it with her Mona Lisa smile. We were transfixed, and determined to add it to our collections. Two guilt-edged Michael Archangels in different poses were worth a fortune. Mary Margaret Snyder held three, and wasn’t trading. So you can understand the hatred.
But the point is that I recently started thinking about the focus on “dying for Christ.” A kid takes stuff like that literally. I remember trying to figure out which way to do it−I wanted it to be quick. Decapitation, maybe? I didn’t want any Daniel in the lion’s den stuff. That would take forever.
But eventually−third grade, I think, during Lent, when they took the boys for Latin lessons−we girls were told we should “die for Christ every day;” Some of the pie eyed looks traded amongst us are legendary. Karen Flanagan wet her pants and started crying. Jesus H. Christ, people, don’t EVER speak in metaphor to anyone under eleven!
But, you know, we got over it, and life goes on. We all grew up, went our separate ways; some of us probably separated from the saints, and the church, and the rituals of holiness.
Some of us learned, eventually, that the stories told about goodness are true, and that our lives are the very celebrations, the Novenas, the prayers of righteousness for which those icons sacrificed. So some of us found our way back.
Now, listen: I’ll admit straight up that I’m a holy mess. I’m a desperate contradiction between a hunger to express my own goodness and the need to barge right in, stop the proceedings, and tell the idiots running this world a thing or two. The older I get the more I care about telling the truth, and the less it matters to me how I’m excoriated for it. That, it seems, has become my Novena.
So there’s that. Stuff. DNA; corpuscles−all laced with it. Not the only ingredient, but it’s kinda like cayenne pepper: a little goes a long way. Remember to mind the burn. It will warm you, if you let it. And it can last a lifetime.
There are countless books available that promote ways in which we can heal our Selves. Some books are dedicated to traditional medicine, some prescribe alternative or holistic treatment, some are based on a myriad of psychological approaches, and some reveal processes and rituals of ethnic or religious origin. Each of these practices holds at least an element of validity, and all share in a common goal: to bring us to holiness.
The word holiness takes many by surprise. It causes some to pull back in reaction to a word that has traditionally been tied to religion. But holiness actually means wholeness; being truly whole. Knowing the truth about who we are, feeling loving and gentle toward our authentic Selves. We can call it many things, but when we reach this place of wholeness we are, indeed, holy.
There is nothing sweeter than a new baby; in its presence our entire demeanor changes. We speak in hushed tones; we walk softly, we move slowly, touch gently. We feel a reverence for the newness, the sweetness, the innocence of this tiny being. We are in awe of its perfection. We are beholding a holy one. And we are remembering our own holiness.
We learn, very quickly, to “become” whatever the rules say we must. We are good little soldiers, good children …we follow directions, or not; but the world continues to shape us, and teaches us to lead with our acceptable “‘personas” − caricatures of who God created − that carry us far from the holy selves who arrived here in the beginning.
And now, during this season of holiday, “giving” is in full swing. We watch the children in our lives, and the child in each of us awakens. We are, once again, those newborns; we are those “holy ones.” We embrace the chance to participate in a tidal wave of open hearts, of tender thoughts, and of uplifted ideals. We are individuals, certainly; in addition, however, we are a collective of all the things we ever imagined, of our deepest held dreams. Our wildest sacred hopes take wing in the December air. Is it possible? Could it be? If only … just maybe .… this is the stuff we’re made of; it’s the stuff of miracles.
The world has taught us to forget this, but it is true. This season of remembering takes us home to that truth. How sweet, how holy a world it will be when we choose to stay awake; to stay connected with our “original truth.” For that is, after all, where our holiness resides.