The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”
There’s a saying, “a man’s home is his castle.” And nothing – in a quite literal sense – could be more true for Luddy, or “King Ludwig of Bulgaria” to his subjects.
He was a young man when he assumed the throne – 18 years of age. But rather than focus solely on war and conquest, he chose instead to turn his attention to architecture, and built the Bavarian Neuschwanstein.
Such a beauty is this castle. Gatehouse, turrets, corridors, ballrooms, and a sixth floor singers hall, grand and spacious, with soaring ceilings. Yes, Luddy was into music. Wagner was his favorite. From high in that castle hall, the strains of those musical performances surely floated on the wind, and were enjoyed by people for miles.
Any one of the turrets – there are six major – may have held a young girl whose long, flaxen hair spiraled down, allowing her suitor to climb up.
The connecting bridges, did they ever feel the Beast’s weight as he went searching for Belle? I would not be surprised.
And what of Ludwig? Did he ever stand, high up on the sixth floor of his castle, looking down on the valleys surrounding, and ache for his princess to show, the one he had built all this for, the one he was prepared to rescue on his white horse? I like to imagine.
If you look at the chateau, above, and think it looks familiar, it should; Disney has used it as the architecture reference for its fictional castles … including the one it uses in its logo.
This dwelling has been known throughout history, and still stands today, as the Castle of the fairy tale king.
Today is January 1, 2018. I haven’t written prose in awhile — life has a tendency to get in the way, especially as the Holidays come steamrolling toward me. But I’m back with my morning coffee, on this New Years Day.
Here we are at “the morning after;” the “new box of crayons.” It’s the “First blank page, book 2018.” No matter how anyone’s viewing it, I’ll take it. It’s all good.
I’ve seen several online posts today referencing how “difficult” 2017 was. I’m sitting here in my warm kitchen, sipping my big mug of coffee with Peppermint Mocha creamer; the Citrus Bowl on the telly, and I’m thinking about “difficult.”
Like anyone else, I can rack up a litany of things that were/are difficult in my life. Some would include rigid, cold-handed parents who, if not full blown alcoholics, were certainly “problem drinkers.” A complete lack of support — in fact, demeaning feedback — toward my creative endeavors, from childhood through twenty five years of marriage.
Gaslighting was, if I’m honest about it, my family’s brand of “normal.” No wonder I sought out a husband who specialized in it. And the years of betrayals, both emotional and physical, were just “part of the deal.” After severing ties, it took me years of therapy to learn that my kindness does not have to mean weakness; that standing up for Self does not mean I have failed to support others. In fact, quite the opposite.
If I’ve faced anything really difficult in my life, it is the effort to embrace that concept.
Which leads me to why “difficult” is, I think, a subjective thing.
Nick Vujicic knows difficulties. Born without arms and legs, he is an amazing motivational speaker, and now the father of twins.
There’s my sweet friend Gianna Jessen, a young woman, self-described “God’s girl,” who is alive literally “in spite” of being aborted. She lives with what she describes as “the gift of cerebral palsy” — a direct result of being deprived of oxygen during her birth process.
These two people live lives of unbridled joy. What examples they are of “transcending the obvious,” with God as their compass.
A favorite Meme of mine says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
When I was a first grader at Christ the King school, I collected holy cards. Each card had a beautiful illustration of a martyr who lived, and died, for Christ. On the backs of the cards were descriptions of their agonizing demise, and a prayer of intercession.
I tell you this as a way to think through why I pretty much never think of my life as difficult; I tend to “suck it up.” My early childhood references of “difficult” told me, if anything, that I had little to complain about. I was taught to think “other.” And, with proper balance, M. Scott Peck seems to endorse that approach:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” – M. Scott Peck, Psychiatrist & author
So, to all of you, from the heart of me, have a Happy, Happy New Year. Let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s focus on the work ahead of us, and let’s be grateful every single day. Let’s breathe deep, laugh a lot, say our prayers, and let it go. Because “difficult” just doesn’t matter.
Here’s to us all in 2018!!
There was a period, not sure how long, during my growing up when I remember being blessed. I’m not talking about blessings abounding, though looking back I’m able to see that some did. I’m talking about the ritual of Good Night.
After pajamas on, teeth brushed, I was summoned to stand before my mother. She rested her hands, softened and smelling of Jergens lotion and tobacco, on my head.
“I bless you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” she droned. Her breath carried the DNA of Brown Derby beer.
There were no kisses. No hugs. Just a blessing.
Then one night, after the blessing, I posed a timid question.
“Aren’t we supposed to kiss and hug, or something?”
“You got a blessing. Go to bed.”
So I guess, when thinking about “being blessed,” this memory peaks up to remind me that those blessings did happen.
Regardless of what she’d been smoking, or drinking, the blessing was its own thing. A spiritual lifeline thrown to a little girl by a mother who knew no other way to tell her she was loved.
Every night, for as long as it lasted, I grabbed that line and held on for dear life.
That lifeline became a lifeboat, one that has carried me from stark childhood to rocky marriage to the open sea of tender possibilities. I know now that sometimes a brokenhearted love lies hidden in the coldest blessing, aching to be thrown a line of its own.
I’m a little teary today. Not constantly, but in those spaces between big thoughts it creeps in, and I catch my breath. Really, it’s the craziest thing. It started with David Bowie. And Jane Austen.
I’m of the generation that rode Bowie’s outrageous musical wave with him. I was on the sidelines, having babies; but I watched, and listened. And dreamed.
The Viet Nam war was raging, girls were burning bras, and in California, hippies were putting daisies in the barrels of guns.
In my little world, I imagined what that life would be like. If I could make the music I wanted to make. If I could chop my hair, turn it pink, or orange, or blue. If I could climb out of my responsible skin, and into the skin of a free spirit. Jump off the limb, way up high, believe I could fly.
And as an avid reader of Jane Austen books, I also imagined going back to those days, of handiwork under the shade tree; of a simpler life. Of Mr. Darcy.
But I was a young mother; my beautiful babies needed feeding, wash had to be done … all the things that go into keeping a life on track. Still, while hanging diapers on the line, or cooking dinner, or folding clothes, singing lullabyes, my mind went on amazing journeys … back in time, or somewhere future. It still does.
Sometimes I’m a literary writer, sitting on the sandy beach with her books and pens. The south of France; or Italy, in a small medieval castle by the sea. I can see that so clearly, it’s like I’m really there.
Other days I feel the need to trim the oil lamps and pull out my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine.
My fantasy world also embraces the anticipation of relationship.
I remember as a young girl of eight going to see War and Peace. We came home and for days I wouldn’t look in the mirror; I didn’t want to break the spell that I truly was Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, pursued by the handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
Years passed, and I kept growing up, as girls do. But I continued to live my fantasies while setting the table or ironing the pillowcases. From the Philco radio, Frankie Lane sang “They Called the Wind Mariah.” It may have looked like I was just pressing hard creases on cloth table napkins, but I knew I was riding a wild Mustang across the prairie, the wind in my hair.
That was long ago. My life has seen heartbreak, death, love, more heartbreak. And yet. Yet I still dream; I still believe.
In spite of what I’ve walked through, I know my Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon is waiting for me. But the truth is, I possess the spunk and mettle of Elizabeth Bennett.
So perhaps it will be Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy who calls for me, after all.
I’ve had several conversations lately about “Hope” and “Faith.” People ask me: are they different, or are they the same? I’ve given it a lot of thought; reflection from my seminary days. I’m going to write down some perspective I’ve had about it … mostly to clarify it in my own mind:
Faith is the element of knowing without seeing. It is the bedrock of my heart’s center, the knowing beyond understanding. We are born broken, and all long for redemption, for goodness, to finally believe we are lovable. Most of us are afraid to believe that, but it’s a critical piece on the journey to wholeness as the Father created us.
I know that my Creator’s Almighty fingerprints are all over me. I know that, in spite of my failure to always exercise “right use of will,” His plan is at work. When I feel alone, when I feel without hope, “hopeless,” it is I who have moved off center. The Creator – being truth and love – never yields, never moves. The truth is that my Father will be standing, arms outstretched, a beacon of Light, long after the noise of falsehood has collapsed under its own weight.
How can I declare this? How can I be so certain that these things are true? I have no explanation except … faith.
My parents did the best they could, but their profound brokenness saturated every thread of my childhood. Even so, it did not define it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my childhood was defined by, and my heart was protected by, my faith.
I was born with it. In my earliest days I thought everybody was. I can remember even as a tiny girl, age two or three, looking up to the clouds, talking to the angels. No one told me they were there. I knew it. I could see them. And they saw me.
Growing up, Spirit surrounded me at some of the darkest points, when most would ask how a kid could make it through that. It was not remarkable to me. It was my “normal.” There were my parents. There was my faith. Faith was my trump card. It trumped everything. I always trusted it would be there.
And the best way I know to describe trust is, imagine a baby learning to walk. The Mama or the Daddy is right there, giving the toddler its freedom, but keeping watch in case the child starts to fall. She learns to trust that a parent will be there for her. Trust. Faith and trust. The baby is not “hoping” that someone will catch her. She moves forward on faith, “trusting” that protection is present.
Hope … hope springs eternal, but faithful hope in action is “trust.”
There are those who question the atrocities in this world, and ask how a loving God could allow such things. My answer is, we are human beings with free will, and we are each given a moral compass. Free will has a perfectly calculable algorithm called “cause and effect.” Do many people suffer from the actions of others? Without question. I believe that all the inhumanity in this world is the expression of people who are driven by their own brokenness. Happy, loving people do not have on their agenda the harming or destruction of others.
Men are not evil. Women are not suffered. We are all brokenhearted. Casting aspersions based on ANYthing – gender, race, religion, nationality … only causes us to further break our own hearts. Division helps nothing, heals nothing, takes us closer to nothing good. It carries us further into the darkness.
Satan is about separation. People often attempt to … “hope out a plan.” And I don’t think I’ve ever seen it work … in large part, because they had no faith that it would. This is a process of isolation and futility. Separation tells us to make a plan, and cross our fingers, but don’t count on it, ’cause people suck and shit happens. And with this approach, it probably will.
God is about connection. Hope-as-Trust is the fierce tangent of faith that gives us the fire to move forward smiling, in spite and in Light. When we are in sync with that Divine energy, we make plans, but remain open to the fact that it could all shift, and may even appear to fall apart so that other things can fall together. We are flexible, and willing, and openhearted. We believe that all things will work together for good.
In either case, everybody believes in something. And whatever we believe, we’re right.
The best, most radical thing we can do for ourselves and the world … is to strive to be exactly who God breathed life into at the moment of our birth. If we all, every person on the planet, would be our authentic selves for one hour, the transformation would be miraculous. Instantaneous. The world could never again return to its former state of being.
My advice, if I have any to give, is this: be brutally honest, and ultimately gentle with yourself. Let yourself have, and hold, the truths of who you are. Look deeply into your own eyes. Be tender with your own shattered places. Hold closely those parts you have a hard time embracing. Make that list of loving things you’d do for someone else, and do them for you. We love others in direct proportion to our love of the Self God created in us.
My prayer is that every person, everywhere, will ultimately bear witness to their own loveliness, their own lovability. We will discover that the peace we long for abides in us. And it’s been right there all the time.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.
When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, my job was laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.
I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.
The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.
It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.
The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.
I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.
I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.
The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth; I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.
But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.
During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”
Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.
These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.
And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.