Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Shot in the back

It's a photo of my little brother and me on a happy day, at a family crab feast, in his front yard, not far from the spot where he later died. Suddenly it washed over me today--a tsunami of grief and anger over my brother's murder. I can't erase the image of the autopsy photos from my brain. It was his birthday last week; he would have turned 60. For what it's worth I wrote this, a letter that won't be mailed, to the murderer who is now rotting in a Maryland prison:

Why did you have to shoot him in the back? He must have been walking away from you, avoiding confrontation. He had no weapon; you had a double-barrel pistol in your pocket, loaded with “cop killer” bullets. You were once a cop yourself, so what made you become one of the bad guys, no better than those you detested, those you roughed up when you arrested them?
At the trial I saw my brother’s autopsy photo on the big screen. It was my brother alright, his lifeless face in black and white. I saw the autopsy photo of my brother’s back—no blood, no gross trauma—just the hole where the bullet entered at point-blank range before it severed the arteries leading into and out of his heart. Did you even flinch when you saw the bigger-than-life photos from your front-row seat? Why didn’t you bury your head in your hands and sob when you saw the damage you did?
What kind of man can have the arrogance to take another man’s life, to shoot a neighbor in the back on a sunny Sunday afternoon in his own front yard? I can’t understand what kind of human being can do that. God help me, I don’t want to understand that kind of heartless cruelty.
So my brother died in his own front yard on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April four years ago and you are solely responsible. And as you sit in prison, I hope that every minute of every day you know what you are—a miserable excuse for a human being, a bully, and a coward who shot my brother in the back.
Signed . . . still a heart-broken, grieving sister


Saturday, May 23, 2015

The only cure for loneliness

"The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty--it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God." -- Mother Teresa, A Simple Path: Mother Teresa
Often I have written about loneliness. It is something that has felt like a curse for many years. For so long I have howled at God, pleaded with God, wept, and gnashed my teeth. In the early days I did anything and everything I could to escape loneliness. I ran around like a chicken whose head has been has been severed with a hatchet, spilling blood on the ground and on anyone near me. It wasn’t pretty. This frantic effort to escape loneliness continued for years in different degrees and took different forms.  I got tired and stopped the frantic search for fulfillment, but still the loneliness continued. Then I went to the monastery and it all made sense.

When I went away intentionally and spent a week in silence, I began to see God’s purpose for where He has placed me. God gave me loneliness so I could be alone with Him. I felt the utter peace and fulfillment of spending time in quiet with the Lord. Now I crave solitude. And now I thank Him because I realize that what I once thought was a curse is actually a blessing. I am continually amazed by how perfect is His work.

Monday, May 18, 2015


For a few days I shut down this blog. I was stinging from a comment that a reader left on the blog on my most recent post. I didn’t want to respond in anger, didn’t want to defend myself if what the commenter said had any validity. So I thought about it for a few days and have begun to sort out my thoughts.

Since I removed the post, I suppose I need to include the original post here for the sake of clarity. Here’s what I wrote on May 13th under the title Hesitation:

As I begin to write, I hesitate. I hesitate because I’ve been told that most people won’t understand what I have experienced. They will think I’ve become some sort of religious nutcase and I’ll waste too much energy trying to explain—“throwing pearls before swine.”

But I also know that something real happened, I accept it, and realize that I may never be able to recapture the experience. Even though I can’t find words to adequately describe my experience, I know that it has changed me forever. I have had the incredible privilege of experiencing God’s presence, to my core I felt the power of the Holy Spirit, and I know that the story of redemption—that seemingly cockamamie story of God sending his son to earth to accomplish our salvation—is all true. Yes, I doubted before and probably I will doubt again. But having once felt it, I will carry that knowledge with me for the rest of my life.

I have been home from my retreat at the monastery for over a week. I have come far down from the mountain of peace and joy into the valley of a distracted daily life. I yearn for the closeness with God that I left behind. I don’t want to lose that feeling of joy and peace. I don’t want to forget that absolute certainty that God exists, that He sees me, He knows me, He listens to my prayer. The struggle is to figure out how to continue to grow closer to Him, to be inside the heart of God. I do not understand what God is and I know that the common personification of Him is not accurate—He is not a super-powerful man with a long beard, not the divine Wizard of Oz. My feeble mind does not have the ability to understand God. I don’t need theology and apologetics and intellectual reasoning to prove the existence of God. Now I know Him in my heart.
"Find God in interior stillness only once and your attitude toward silence and solitude will be changed. Find God in that silence a hundred times and silence will be your great love, solitude your dear friend because there you come face to face with the Lord your heart seeks.”  From You Can Know God by Marilyn Gustin (hopefully quoted accurately because I wrote this quote in my little notebook and don’t have a hard copy of the book to verify it)

And here is the anonymous comment that I received from the reader:

 “throwing pearls before swine.” ...
Interesting choice of words, I would say. Are we talking about the people who follow this blog? About those who read your posts searching for inspiration?

First, I apologize for any offense caused by my use of the phrase “throwing pearls before swine”—it is a phrase used in Scripture (specifically, Matthew 7:6). I used the term because that verse advises Christians to be wary about broadcasting the message of the Gospel to those who are not interested in hearing the message. The notes in my Bible on this verse say: “Believers are to be merciful, forgiving, and slow to judge, yet they should wisely discern the true character of people and not indefinitely continue proclaiming the gospel to those who adamantly reject it.” I should have paid more attention to the notes. Honestly, I just used the term without thinking it would offend my readers. I am truly sorry and should have heeded the warning to be wisely discerning. Sometimes words just get away from me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I have found many ways to figuratively stick my foot in my mouth and I humbly regret my choice of words.

Secondly, I never presumed this blog to be a source of inspiration—I have no words of wisdom. I see myself as a woman without answers, someone with many of the same struggles as others. I’m a storyteller, processing many aspects of my life through writing and sometimes the process ends up here. Enough said.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Elsie and me

Vigils, Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers, and Compline—the rhythm of the monastic life. I never made it to Vigils at 3:30 in the morning, though I did all the others. I’m not cut out for monastic life if it means I have to pull myself out of bed at 3 a.m., but I particularly loved Lauds and Compline at the beginning and the end of the day.
On my first full day at the abbey I quickly dressed and headed out to Lauds. The glow of the sun was just beginning to rise above the mountains to the east. Beyond the low freshly plowed field a blue fog hovered over the Shenandoah River, swollen with spring rain. I pulled my jacket tighter against the early morning chill and slipped on my gloves. I said good morning to a Black Angus bull and walked briskly down the path to the monastery chapel. Glorious, glorious spring morning in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I breathed it in, smiled, and whispered, “This is the day the Lord hath made. Rejoice, rejoice and be glad.”

I climbed the steps to the dimly lit chapel and slid into the corner in the last row. The wood pew creaked loudly in the silence. The bells rang and the monks filed in. The bells rang again, two barely audible taps, and they began to chant. They chanted from Psalm 118: 

This is the LORD’s doing;
     it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
     let us rejoice and be glad in it.
How did they know what I had been praying just minutes earlier?

The sun rose above the mountain just then and burst through a window on the side of the chapel. The chapel was dark except for that one beam of light shining directly on me, trying to hide in the corner of the last row. “Okay, God, I get it—you see me. Undoubtedly you know where I am. I hope this is where you want me to be.”

At the end of the day, as the sun began to set, again I went to the chapel for Compline, the last prayer of the day. And again the mountains and the fields glowed as the sun slowly drifted below the horizon. The barn swallows headed home and the cows bellowed louder at sunset than at any other time of the day. And I had a quiet conversation with a yellow cow, the only yellow cow among all the Black Angus cows in the pasture. (Lacking udders, she probably was a he, but I didn't ask any personal questions.) She seemed to need some company. I could grow to love this.

(Yes, it's the yellow cow in the photo, that yellow cow who needed some company.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

More questions than answers

Weeks ago I had one of those odd coincidences when Thomas Merton’s name kept popping up, over and over again in a short period of time. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a priest, and a prolific writer with a strong interest in social justice, especially during the Vietnam War era. I have read some of his work and have been inspired by him. It seemed more than coincidence—I believed God was sending me a message. I decided to go on a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery, to understand what the Lord wanted me to hear.

So I went to the monastery to spend days in quiet prayer, to hear the voice of the Lord. I have been thrashing around like a hooked fish in the bottom of a boat, struggling to understand what God wants of me. If I could use a single word to describe what I have been looking for, the word would be discernment. I needed to know my purpose—in God’s eyes—what would He have me do with the rest of my life? Where is the answer? Is it in Scripture? Would the Holy Spirit write my instructions with multi-color diagrams and a flow chart on the chapel walls? Not likely.

But as I searched for an answer, I kept bumping into another question—how do I grow into a deeper spirituality, a closeness with God, a union with Him? And it dawned on me that the second question is the answer to the first question. I’m asking God for answers to questions: Where do I live? How should I spend my time? Does He have a purpose for the remaining days of my life? And He wants me to focus on the second question.

Jesus came from the Father, became man, to teach us to be more like Him, to be one with the Father. So this yearning that I have to do something, to be something just may be a yearning for a closeness with God. Could it be that it’s a higher yearning than what I imagined? Could it be that it’s not about where I live or what I do with my time? It’s not the practical quotidian stuff—it’s about Him.

I still need to live and I’ll still fret about practical decisions, but maybe those things will flow more easily, with more confidence, when I have a deeper connection with my Creator.

(While on the retreat I wandered around the beautiful local countryside. I took this photo of an old abandoned church. I love the crooked cross on the peak of the roof.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shhh. . .

Shhh . . . don’t talk to me. I have just returned from spending the week at a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. When I told people I was going they told me stories of others who had done such silent retreats. The usual scenario was that participants would go crazy in the silence after a couple of days. “Just be prepared,” they warned. But I didn’t go crazy; I found peace. I live a rather quiet, somewhat sequestered life at home so the silence seemed normal. Being at the monastery has drawn me into it even more. But being totally focused on God for these days has changed me, hopefully forever.

This is my first day back. I got up early to walk outside, hoping the practice of being up at first light would bring peace and joy into my heart that would last the entire day. I can see how hard it is in this fast-paced environment. Even yesterday as I drove home I felt it change. I started the trip home, driving over gravel roads and country lanes, leaving the river and the gentle mountains in my rear-view mirror. I was hurling myself back into life outside the monastery—cars and concrete and super achievers. I know this crazy world is where my life is. Somehow I’ll figure out how to keep that peace and joy in my heart. Somehow.

I’ll write more about my experience in the next few days, but for now I’m resting in the silence.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

House dresses and divorce

This is a socio-anthropological study. My study group is people in the United States of America in the post-World War II era to the present. My thesis is that there is a direct correlation between women wearing house dresses and the divorce rate. My primary sources of information include Wikipedia and my mother.

My mother recently told me that when she got married she was confused about what to wear. I’m not referring to her wedding dress—that was easy—she borrowed it from her friend Gertrude McIntyre Catucci. She didn’t know what she should wear in her new role as a married woman.

My mother was 19 when she married my father in the rectory of St. Francis de Sales Church in Northeast Washington, DC, on June 30, 1945. Their reception was in her parents’ backyard. The idea of being a married woman meant that her wardrobe would have to change dramatically. She thought that having that gold band on her left hand meant she would have to wear house dresses.

I know what house dresses are—they are simple, washable dresses, sometimes with aprons attached, that women wore to do their house chores. (I verified this description by reading a brief entry on Wikipedia. Where else would I go for a serious study like this?) Some women bought these dresses from the Sears or the Spiegel catalogs. Other women made their own dresses. Mama Riley (my cousin’s grandmother with whom I spent a summer in Silsbee, Texas—another story—hot and lots of mosquitos) must have made her own houses dresses. She made my cousin and me skirts out of feed sacks, she milked the cow, and she slaughtered chickens before my very eyes. Women who both wore and sewed their own house dresses were hard-core, not to be messed with, the queen bees of house dresses.

In the early years after the War, women stayed home to care for the children, polish the furniture, and make Jell-O concoctions for dessert. They were called housewives, an archaic term no longer considered politically correct. But in time these women became dissatisfied with their domestic roles and their daughters, the next generation, went bonkers—they started movements for equality for women, they burned their bras, they used contraceptives. I can guarantee you they weren’t wearing house dresses.

When I was growing up in that post-War era, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced. None of the mothers worked outside the home, and in the early days they wore house dresses. Fast forward 50 or more years. No one wears house dresses any more. Even if a woman doesn’t work outside the home she wears jeans or—heaven forbid—yoga pants. And the divorce rate has soared.

I rest my case.

(Photo is my grandmother, Rose Blain, with her cow.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Back into the raw

There she was, sitting by the back door in the waning afternoon sun, probably watching the chickadees building a nest in the birdhouse in the cherry tree. I caught only a quick glimpse of her, took her for granted, just part of the rhythm of my life. In that brief moment I didn’t even get enough time to savor her existence. It’s early spring now and she died just before Christmas. My mind and my old eyes were playing a nasty trick on me—it was a bag of things from the hardware that I had dropped inside the back door. It wasn’t my sweet cat sitting in the sun on our first beautiful spring day.  

I’m sure it’s not unusual to think we see someone we love after they have died. I was almost certain I saw Mike driving his truck down my street one day. Not long ago I saw a man who looked so much like my former husband that I gasped. There was man in the parking lot outside my mother’s apartment recently who walked like my father and seemed to be wearing my father’s clothes. And occasionally I will feel a presence, a hovering in the house that I can’t explain. Sometimes it’s comforting; sometimes it’s unsettling. 

“Seeing” my cat made me ache for her soft, warm little body. Once again I slipped back into the raw familiar territory of inconsolable grief. I thought it was gone, finished. All those deaths in such a short time have been hard to process. There are a couple of things I am learning about grief. One thing I’m learning is that it takes much, much more time to heal than I ever imagined. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, two steps back. But another thing I’m learning is that the resurgence of deep grief doesn’t last as long now; it isn’t the same paralyzing anguish that it once was. I don’t want to learn any more lessons. I just want it to be over.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Farewell to Forrest

He died a couple of days ago. A big, strong guy taken down by brain cancer—glioblastoma, the same cancer that killed my husband. Cancer sucks.
I am proud to be among what must be a huge number of people who called Keylon Thompson a friend. There is no exaggeration when I say that Keylon was the kindest, most compassionate person I have ever known. He was so full of life and a spirit of adventure that we all felt like slackers in comparison to him.
He would post those crazy photos on Facebook—Keylon at the National Spelling Bee, Keylon at the Special Olympics, Keylon on the top of some mountain somewhere, Keylon biking in a cancer cure fundraiser, Keylon in Times Square, Keylon at a music festival in Mongolia. (I made up the Mongolia thing, but he went to music festivals and concerts with no regard to geographic restrictions, especially if Bela Fleck was involved.) I compared him to Forrest Gump because seemingly he was part of everything fun that was happening everywhere. So I started calling him Forrest.
Then one day in September of 2013, a gunman came into a building at the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people. That was where Keylon worked and he was there when the shooting happened, but he was not injured. It was a bad day for Forrest.
The gunman didn’t kill him, but cancer did. For me, I’m crushed to know that I’ll never see him again, never get one of those world-class hugs from the nicest guy in the world. The only thing I can do is carry a little ray of his sunshine, try to remember to do what he would do—live a big life with a big, big kind heart.
I’ll miss you, Forrest.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The view from here

When one has had the opportunity to live a significant number of years, the overview of life becomes different than it was in younger years. This my 68th year on this planet. How can that be? And how will I see things in another 10 or 20 years, if I am still hanging on to this spinning hunk of rock?

From this vantage point, at age 67 years and 8 months, these are some of my observations:

(1) I can now begin to see the fruits of my life’s work and it’s a glorious thing. My children are adults. Out of my body sprung two amazing people. They weren’t the size they are now when they were born. For that alone I am so grateful. They grew up and had children of their own. I sometimes have this image of those nesting Russian wooden dolls with a big doll that contains a smaller doll, and inside the smaller doll, another doll . . . me, my kids, their kids . . . a seemingly simple yet incredibly complex story of the perpetuation of the human race. And I see that I not only created a family, but I also forged life-long friendships. I created things with my own hands, I gained knowledge and skills. So, looking down from the hilltop, I see that some things worked, some things didn’t work, and that some things may endure beyond my lifetime. But I know that my existence mattered; I have left an imprint, however small it may be.

(2) From this vantage point I see the unending horrors of life. The hate and pain inflicted by some people on others never stop. The horrors morph and grow—different people in different places and new, hideous means of inflicting harm—but the human race seems incapable of living in peace. It seems we’ve been praying for peace since the beginning of recorded time and we never get one step closer.

(3) The enduring love of God has become so much clearer to me as I grow older. I see how he has blessed me by sometimes not giving me the things I wanted. Just looking back at prayers not answered gives me a small glimpse of His plan. His plan is so much better than any plan of mine. He has such incredible surprises for me, things I never could have imagined. I really am beginning to see that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. Seeing that love from this vantage point has given me an almost giddy joy. It makes me want to sink deeper and deeper into that peaceful surrender that only comes from a total trust in God. Sometimes being old has its advantages.