Mama T.

So Mother Teresa will be canonized this week.  I don’t know an incredible amount about her, but one of my favorite stories came from a seminarian I once met who went to volunteer with her order when she was still alive.  He described the horrible conditions of where he went to work, and what it was like to live and work for Mother Teresa.  He had brought along a mirror with him, I guess to check his reflection or whatever, and the story went that she caught him checking his look one day before volunteering.  She walked over to him, took the mirror and broke it, and gave him one shard to use instead — anything bigger would be the height of vanity.

I have no idea if that story is true or not, but I love it.  I love the single-mindedness of helping God’s people.  What a role model to have at this time in our history.

I was thinking recently about being a Catholic and what it means to be a Catholic voter in America these days, and I thought about what actually needs to be done to affect change in our country.  Think about the one issue (or two, or however many) you feel in your life is the most important thing, and if it needs changing, how would you change it? How would you change racism, or poverty? Indifference? Ignorance? Whatever the issue is, pray about how God wants you particularly to do something about it, and let’s do what Mother Teresa did — pray for courage and strength, break our mirrors, take the focus off ourselves, and go to work.

In the news today was a story about an FSU wide receiver, Travis Rudolph, who did an astounding act: while visiting a middle school, he sat with a kid during lunch.  The young boy has autism, and would normally not have anyone to sit with during mealtime — the other kids leave him out.  The player didn’t know about the disability – he just saw a boy sitting alone – and decided to keep him company.  The act blew the boy’s mother away, and on social media, she announced the good deed he did that made such a difference to her family.  The story blew up and became such big news because it highlighted that to which we are so attracted: stepping outside of ourselves to help others.

Mother Teresa did that.  Did she solve the problem of poverty? No.  But she showed us how we can start.  Travis Rudolph did that.  Did he solve the problem of ostracizing others because of fearing a disability? No.  But he showed us how we can start.  You and I can do it, too.  We’re all called to it, no matter how large problems might seem.  It will make a difference, I promise you.

Advertisements

Some Thoughts On Kanye.

So I guess as a disclaimer I should say right off the bat that I haven’t listened to a Kanye West album since 808s and Heartbreak.  But since his beginning, Kanye West has fascinated me.  I believe he is a genuine artist: extremely talented, astute, and gifted. But I also believe he’s a person who is trying to be as self-aware as they can be in an environment that is never stable.  He’s not a port in a storm; to me, he comes across as the piece of flora caught in the storm a piece of nature powerless against the incredibly strong wind that is determined to blow however the hell it wants.

Kanye West is probably the most apt representation right now of what it’s really like to be famous: constantly bewildered; knowing you have a platform and knowing you want to say something but not knowing how to present it in a way that will be relatable; trying to manage the deluge of coming from nothing, where very few people on Earth care who you are to being something that has become a commodity.

It would be an adjustment (to say the least) for anyone.

I think he’s still trying to be real.  I think he’s still trying to be himself, whatever that is. Others who are famous and successful and beloved (and not viewed – at least right now – as mentally unstable) have become that way because they either 1) focused attention on issues other than/larger than themselves; [e.g. Bono]  or 2) they’ve surrendered who they really are, either putting on a show or becoming the one who orchestrates it [e.g. Beyonce].

All of this makes me sound like a major Kanye West apologist, and I’m really not.  I think I’m most interested in the idea of fame as a construct. The larger issue, one we can really all relate to, is what our authentic lives look like.  Who are you? Underneath the labels of what you do for a living or how many kids you have, who are you? How would that change if you were famous? And if you are somebody with a platform of some kind – and you might be – what do you have to say? What is your reality?

On How “Wonderwall” is Kinda Like Baby Food

I don’t wish for high-tech things often, but I’d love a Bluetooth hookup in my car so I can listen to songs from my phone.  My Jetta came out just before the Bluetooth-in-car revolution, though, so I content myself and my kids with old mix CDs I have from college.  The one in the car right now (a really strange mix that includes dialogue clips from the films Chasing Amy and Dogma) features their current fave, “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” Driving home today from a friend’s house, one kid asleep in the backseat and the other nearly there, I realized two things:

  1. Wonderwall, as a song that was released in the 1990’s, doesn’t really hold up for me anymore.
  2. But that’s okay.  Because I’m not the person I was in the 1990s.

When “Wonderwall” was released, I was a naive, overweight teenager who was full of 90’s angst.  Its lyrics spoke volumes to me: I had multiple crushes on many of the neighborhood boys, and had no way to properly express my feelings for them.  So when I heard

I don’t believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now
And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I
Would like to say to you but I don’t know how
it made sense to me.  Oasis was speaking my language. Every boy I had a huge crush on was worthy of all my love and all my attention at the moment.  I was putting everything I had into the fantasy of being their girlfriend.  No one else ever felt the way I did about them, etc. etc.
And I’m grown up, now.  I see things much more differently as a mom in her mid-thirties than I did as a kid.  And the song itself just kind of grates, all that nasally singing and the monotonous strumming.  So it’s changed for me.
I think I might feel tempted to forget that I really liked that song, to laugh and say I was just a stupid kid when I listened to it.  But things meant something to me, and because it did, it wasn’t stupid.
__
My daughter is 13 months now and totally over baby food in the jar.  She wants real people food, big pieces of whatever we’re eating.  But in order to get to the bigger stuff, she had to go through the pureed things.
Baby food in a jar is probably the best thing ever.  Babies love it because food scientists engineer what goes into it to make it taste wonderful.  When my son was trying solids, I’d make food for him, also pureed, that tasted like garbage compared to the same things I’d buy in a jar.
It’s kind of like that with music, too.  I’ll listen to a Justin Beiber song, or any pop song on the radio today, and that is a song that is engineered to be catchy as hell.  “Shake It Off” won’t be anywhere in 20 years, but that is a fun song to dance to.  It might not be the best song ever in terms of longevity or depth, but it’ll taste good going down!
That was “Wonderall” for me.  To get to where I am today, I had to go through Oasis.
__
I read part of this interview recently with Dave Grohl, lead singer of Foo Fighters, and something he said really struck me.  He said,
“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I believe that you should be able to like what you like.  If you like a f****ing Kesha song, listen to f***ing Kesha.”
I don’t wish to be a teenager again.  It was a rough set of years for me, and I wouldn’t want them back to do over, not even knowing what I know now.  But I don’t mind that I used to like what I like.  I hope I don’t keep minding it.

The True Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

I won a contest, guys! It was for an essay detailing the misadventures of my first car, a beautiful, bright red Volkswagen Beetle.  I loved that car so much.

Like most things that happen to me, these stories are 100% true.

“It took me five tries to get my driver’s license.  It was mostly due to parallel parking – well, that and K-turns, those three-point turns you have to make to make a U-turn out of wherever you are.  It was pretty embarrassing, having to go through the test five times, but my brother took the cake for worst license test-taker in our family when he mixed up the gas and brake pedals and nearly hit a DMV worker who was walking into the building.”

Read the rest at Lumos!, the newsletter for Pittsburgh-area nonprofit Luminari.

So That Happened.

My Mom passed away in January.  It’s nearly five months later and while I’m still trying to process things, there are so many things I’m grateful for.

I’m grateful I was there as close to the end as I was.  I wasn’t there when she died, but I was able to spend time with her in her last days.  I never wanted that – I wanted to be far away and “get the call” and have that be that, but it was such a grace that I was able to see her again, even if she couldn’t see me.

There is so much that we fear in death – and not only death, but the things that go along with it: getting sick, growing older, losing the things we once had (or even the physical possessions we have now).  And being there for my mom wasn’t fun, or anything – it was incredibly difficult, at times – but it was a real privilege to see and understand how things work – how the body works to shut itself down, how things progress physically – and also to see what comes out in relief against all that darkness.

It was very similar to me to the process of having a baby.  Labor and death can really mimic each other, I’ve found — it’s a singular process that must be gone through alone – although support is needed, at the end of the day, it’s the person’s process alone – and it’s an experience that requires the double helix of work and of release, of moving towards a goal while letting go of everything else.  It was pretty humbling to witness, as I imagine many births are, too.  I’m happy that my labors with my kids all went beautifully.  I hope my own death is as great an experience, too.

__

I was honored to give the eulogy at my mother’s funeral.  Here it is.

Eulogy:

My mother could make friends with a bag of rocks.  

She had the ability to befriend absolutely anyone, no matter how standoffish or introverted, and within a matter of moments, make them feel comfortable. She made others feel important, and it’s a sure thing to say that if she knew you, she loved you.  Her joy came from those in her life, and where she came from.  

Growing up in Florida, my brothers and I heard stories about Inwood, and it seemed almost like Neverland to us: a place where that was more family than community, and every day brought a new adventure.  To my mom (and I know she was not the only one), Inwood was not only a place on a map; it was a source of life, a spring where she drew love that sustained her.  No wonder she had to be close to it, even if it was across the Hudson River from her home.  She could feel that love emanating from it even then, the love that made her tough enough to endure years of surgeries and procedures and chemotherapies that scarred her body, took her energy, and dimmed her light.

But through it all, she never complained.  Through the overwhelmingness of it all, each time I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d say “good.”  I knew it was a bad day on the days she’d say “I’m doing okay.”  Like Saint Paul wrote in the Epistles, she was constantly beaten down, but not broken; constantly wrapped in flame of pain, but never consumed.

What was she really consumed by? The love she felt for her husband; a love that had been tested and tried and found to be stronger than the greatest steel.  She was propelled by the love and pride she had for her children and her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews and their children.  She was energized by the love she had for her sisters. She was uplifted by the joy she found in the presence of her friends.

She loved her life, as hard as it was; and as joyful as we are that her suffering is gone, the most pain lies in the hard reality that the world doesn’t get another Janie Guerra.

Saint Paul writes in the second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” My mother’s race was filled with hardship on a road paved with the sharpness of suffering, of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.  She was, like all of us, just a human being.  But her ability to run it – and to run it so well – said so much not only about her, but about the God she so fervently believed in and loved so much: a God who knew suffering, who knew the value it holds.  There truly is no crown without the cross.  Her suffering had redemptive meaning; it was the manner through which she obtained her glory.  Her last days were flooded with palpable grace.  Death looks so ugly from the outside, but there is such beauty to be found in it.  There is so much about our world today that is ugly, but you and I – and my mother certainly knew – the awe and wonder that is in it as well.  How lucky we are to have known her, to have loved her.

So where does that leave us? She is in a place where we can know she is with God; where her beauty has been restored to her.  In a place where her smile is no longer crooked, where her face is full again, where her voice is once again strong and clear, and sitting on a stoop that looks suspiciously like the one on Park Terrace West.

Her life here is over, but ours continues.  Our responsibilities have not gone away; we still have jobs to go to and bills to pay and hard things to endure.  But we can draw strength from the knowledge that the love of God that sustained her belongs to us, too.  We can spend our days remembering it and living in it; and living our lives to their fullest is what will honor her best.

In the words of Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not yet here.  Let us begin.”

 

Poem: Breastfeeding, 3 a.m.

Because you had set the precedent
I was promised hours of sleep,
Instead receiving minutes strung together
like cheap Christmas lights,
plastic orbs of color that burst into light
and immediately fade.

I love you, sweet thing, and everyone wants
to be needed, but this is so scraping, so garment-rending
in its urgency.  Young lovers are desperate too, in their desire,
but your need is much more carnal: I am food,
I am comfort and warmth.  I am tired,

but that word, too, is different, wrong.
There is no real word for it,
And for you, tiny girl, lips flayed against the thin skin
of my left areola, your impossibly small hands
kneading the flesh that spreads above it.

Your babyhood will also flash and be gone –
and that burns, too, like the sacrificial holiness of my sleep,
my comfort, my sanity.

It burns the flesh away to reveal the bone,
something stronger, underneath.