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Saturday, July 6, 2019

Going to mass with a hardened heart --independence and isolation

I got eyes. I can see.

It wasn’t her fault. Charlie had needed to go outside even though it was raining. And then there was traffic on Gessner and traffic at the loop.  That mini-van off to the side; flashing. Smoke steaming from the raised-up hood. Slowing everything down.  And that red-faced woman standing off with her phone to her ear and the rain just falling; gesturing to the car and the smoke like she was afraid we'd miss it. We got eyes, lady. Still all the traffic slowing to make sure they didn’t.  
Not her fault, either.
But there she was anyway, coming in the heavy wooden doors closing her umbrella and shaking it out onto the carpet, cursing at herself and seeing already through the inner glass doors Father Leo standing already up by the altar reading out of the red book. Already closing it, even.  And she was still shaking her umbrella onto the carpet, seeing already everyone settling back down into their seats.
Ed would say, she did it. It was hers. Own up.
But she’d tried.  Only not hard enough, she knew that voice.  One day, you give us. She could hear it. One day.  His birthday, and you can’t get here on time. Can’t even plan ahead when you see it raining.  Why even bother? Nothing stopping you now. Already late. Just turn around. Walk out.  Get in your car and go home. Have some breakfast.  Who would know? Who would even notice? Not like anyone would care.
Except me. 
She leaned her umbrella in a corner and took hold of the glass door separating the vestibule from the church proper. It was almost empty.  She had planned to sit in their pew. The one they always sat in, up to the front and over. But Margaret was already heading up to do the readings; the glow of her bottled red halo wobbling up the steps to the lectern.  That was more than she could bear. Even for him. Her son. That sanctimonious gaze looking down on her from on high –the fissure of smile cracking her caked-on powder and rouge and those watery eyes suddenly so bright to see that yes, Dorothy was here. Just like Christmas, comes once a year. Yes, well—so nice that you could make it, dear. But if you cared enough, perhaps you’d come on time. 
And more often. 
But she didn’t.  After Ed died, she’d stopped.  Not right away, but after a while. Ed had been a daily mass goer, all his life.  Even after everything. You’d think sometimes that a man might get tired of God, but he never did.  Not even after the whole diaconate thing. But after he died, there was a morning when she got up out of habit and got dressed and had her Sanka and was getting the keys and Charlie was watching her, waiting to say goodbye so he could settle back under the table and get some sleep and that was when she knew it wasn’t something she had to do and so she didn’t. Not all at once, but through attrition and avoidance. Missing it even at first, some, but then after a while she found some mornings she didn’t even think of it. And then she realized, no one noticed. Not even her. And she was done.  Except this one day. Every year.  For him.  She made that clear to herself, like it was part of the bargain. You can stop going every day; you can stop going even any day –no obligations, save this one—this one day you will not stop. That is a line you will not cross.  And you will sit in the same pew you always sat in and you will take communion and you will pray as if you believed in it, as if it mattered. Not to you, but to him. And to the other. Both of them. Because this is what they would for you –if it was they who had survived to keep your memory and not this other way.
So here she was, only she was late and there was Margaret.  And that fissure of a grin was more than she could bear even for them.
Dorothy slid into a pew near the back.  Not the very back, where the homeless man had made himself comfortable with all his bags of newspapers and belongings.  And not too near the jogger in his shorts and headband.  He looked up and nodded to her. Smiling.  Certainly beyond that. 
She sat behind two men.  A man and his son.  It seemed fitting.  A fair alternative, at least.  And they didn’t bother to turn and nod. No acknowledgment. She liked that. It felt comfortable.
Margaret announced, “A reading from the Book of Genesis…” as if to say: Now that we are all settled. And then began: “The Lord said to Abram go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
Unclasping her purse, Dorothy took out an embroidered coin purse and opened it.  Inside was her rosary. And two holy cards, one from her son’s funeral, and one from husband’s.  She looked at them.  The one for Ed had a picture of Saint Joseph one side and the Lord’s Prayer on the other just beneath his name and dates; Edwin Eugene Williams 1921-1998. She put it back and looked at the other. One side was a picture of an angel leading two children over a bridge. And the other had the Saint Francis prayer, Make me an instrument of your peace…  her lips moved as she read the prayer and then the name: Jeffrey Eugene Williams; November 5, 1959-June 17, 1977.  June 17, she nodded to herself.  And so here I am. Again.  Nodding to the card as if to someone. She raised it closer to her lips and nodded again. 
Margaret was still reading –something about Abram and a foreign land. But Dorothy was thinking still of the day and of the words –make me an instrument… Yes. God. Go ahead. You do that… Anytime now.
I have lived my life longer now in his absence than I did in the hope of expecting.  The one day out of the year she still went to church.  And she always sat in their pew. To honor him. It was a promise she had made to Ed.  Like lighting the candles by his picture. The altar Ed had created for him. That picture and the candles. That shrine kept sacred. Sometimes it seemed to be all he had.  Kept him going, sometimes. I guess.  And when it came time, he would not let go until she promised she would not let go.  She would keep it for him, for them. But this morning… 
It wasn’t her fault.  The rain. The traffic. Charlie.
She glanced up.  Margaret was beginning the psalm. 
“Blessed are the people the Lord has chosen to be His own…”
Something about the two men in front of her caught her attention. She liked to solve puzzles. Crosswords and the Jumble in the paper. Not jigsaw puzzles, but ones where you had to think and puzzle it out. It gave her a good feeling –looking for clues, discovering relations.  It was something she was good at.  The positions of the two men, in the pew was a clue to something. They were sitting awkwardly close, but not together.  There was a relationship, but not a closeness, she thought.  And the way they were sitting. She felt like Poirot or inspector Morse now. One of them, the older one, was stooped –head dropping forward—as if exhausted, and the other –the younger one—the son—sat upright, tall –shoulders square and back –and looking away, like he was distracted by something or just not that interested. 
There is definitely a strain in that relation. A tension. Maybe the younger one, the boy, is only coming to please the old man.  His hair was dark and thick and long with hints of gray, so he must be close to 40, she thought. But still a boy. The unfocused air of immaturity hung about him. 
What was he looking at? Stain glass windows? The lady with the veil over at the far edge of the church? Nothing at all, maybe? Clearly, he wasn’t here out of any intention to participate in the festivities.  There was something proud and dismissive in the younger one, his unwillingness to be part of the thing his father loved.  Like this was a stipulation.  You want to live in my house, you’ll come to church…  She could see the weight of carrying out that stipulation was crushing the old man.
The boy seemed to be a good head taller than his father.  The old man was wearing a tweed jacket and she could see the pattern of a plaid shirt collar just rising over the half turned up collar. He’d probably been in a rush getting dressed. The boy making him late, maybe.  From behind, all Dorothy could see of the younger one’s clothes was the shoulders and collar of a jacket, a windbreaker –maybe for the rain—but there was something odd about it. Dated. It was a faded green, almost gray, with what looked like orange and white racing stripes coming down the back and on the shoulders those button down strap things; as if to hold something in place. It reminded her of a drill-team jacket or something that might be worn by a comic-strip aviator like Buz Sawyer or Tailspin Tommy or something a kid would wear who wanted to look like one.  She immediately thought of a thrift store. Someone must have been pretty eager to hand that down.
Dressed like that. Coming to church.  The father sitting there—looking like maybe it was the son who was his exhaustion. Just getting him this far—dressed like that. It was all he could do. All he could bear. Putting the clues together she realized: the boy’s come home. He’s been lost. Out of work. Struggling. Probably drugs. Maybe drink. Homeless at some point. Like Joshua.  She thought of her brother, another man missing from her life. Prodigal sons, all of them –she thought.  Every single one.  Run off first chance they get.
And here he is come home, tail between his legs, looking for help and his Daddy is making him go to church.
But, at least he’s here, she thought –That’s something. Counts for something.
“Blessed are the people the Lord has chosen to be His own…”
She heard the words intoned and was startled by the sound of voices around her responding and realizing that she had not. The words hung in her head and she thought of the homeless man and the jogger with his headband and Tailspin Tommy sitting there embarrassing his dad, and of course there was Margaret with her bottle of red hair and Fr. Leo looking like he was about to fall asleep in his big chair. 
Yes. Blessed… If you say so.  Blessed are the people the Lord has chosen.  
Margaret finished, and the fissure sealed. She closed the book and slid it onto the lower shelf and bowed her head. Very pious.  Waiting for something. Maybe God. Waiting for Him to make His real choice known. Then she turned and slowly stepped away, and down the three steps and watching her Dorothy thought, Good Lord how she has aged. Bent forward and walking with her hand reaching toward the pews as if unsure where each step might land.
Her face so pale with powder and cheeks so bruised with rouge, she looked like she was wearing some kind of mask. 
She’s all yours, Lord, Dorothy sniffed. 
The old man looked up. Reached for the pew back, the black beads of a plastic rosary dangling from his hand.  The beads clattered against the wood as he pulled himself up standing.  The son rose as well, with what seemed to be a little resentment.  As he did he reached for something in the pew and standing now, right there in front of her, Dorothy could see he was holding a large purse and she thought, Good Lord, what on earth… but then she realized it was worse than that. He was wearing a skirt –a plaid skirt.
Fr. Leo waddled past the altar, turning to bow with a brief nod as if to someone he recognized and continued to the lectern—his lips moving the whole time as if he was talking to someone.  He reached down and got the lectionary back out and opened it. Holding the red ribbon in his hand, he turned the pages a few times as if looking for something. Like Margaret had lost his place when she closed it. 
Everyone stood.  Everyone waited. 
Including the man and his son who wishes he wasn’t. It was strange to see them now; standing, the man was taller and the boy who wished he wasn’t and who had looked so tall and lean when seated now seemed stocky, almost thick and boxy; his broad shoulders matched by a broad waist giving him the look of a poorly dressed linebacker.  On top of that,  the jacket clashed with his skirt.
Finally, the old priest announced:
“A reading from the Gospel according to… “ And yet again paused, looking at the page as if it had suddenly gone blank.  “Oh dear. I can’t find my place. I… Uhm, oh dear. It’s been one of those mornings.  I was.  I got up too early.  I guess I forgot to have my Shredded Wheat.  I… I thought today was.  Oh dear. So, I’m prepared for.  Not this reading.  Another. I’d like to read that to you. If that’s okay.  I…”  He turned a page. Then more. Several. Each time he paused momentarily, scanning. Puzzled.  As if whatever it was he was looking for, had been there. Before.  But somehow vanished.  Margaret stood, cautiously stepping out of the pew, her hand still on the arm of it.  She glanced around, lips tight, eyes wide, cheeks glowing through the cake and rouge. She seemed put out, as if somehow this was going to be placed on her shoulders, made to be her fault, but –shaking her head in exasperation—she wanted to make sure everyone knew it wasn’t.
But Dorothy knew it was and took some comfort in that.  Clutching her son’s Holy Card to her breast with both hands.
Margaret started to move again, but before she could take a second step, Father called out:
“Here.  This will do.  This will do.  Not the one I had planned, but… Anyway, here goes. About time, right?  Here.  A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew.”
“Glory to you, Oh Lord…”
“What is your opinion?  A man had two sons…”
And one of them came home dressed like a woman… Dorothy clucked and thought how clever she was and how she would have to save that to tell to someone. Jeff would have laughed. He would have liked that.  He liked my jokes.  She would tell it to Charlie.  She thought. He will like that.
After mass, sitting in her she was laughing at another joke. One played on her, she thought. It was after she took Communion.  She was coming back toward her pew and thinking how desperately she didn’t want to speak to anyone. Especially Margaret.  She will talk to me, make a point of it.  She will say how nice it is to see me and how glad she is that I came and she will ask how I am doing and then she will comment about the day, about how this is the day. How she still remembers the day and how she prays for us. Always prays for us, all of us.
Perhaps she could just go. Lots of people do it. Just take Communion and keep walking right out the door. She had her purse. But she knew Ed wouldn’t like that. He would never have approved. You still to the end. You stay to the final note of the closing hymn and then you walk out and you greet people. You tell them how glad you are to see them. You wish them a good day. “Have a blessed day,” he would say. And if there was coffee you always got a cup.
Walking back to her pew, wishing she could leave and never come back, but knowing she would stay to the bitter end, she saw them. The old man and his son who wasn’t, the son who looked up from his purse clutched in his lap and smiled at her and whispered even her name:
And sitting now in the car, holding the key and buckling her belt, Dorothy was still laughing.  At herself.  The old man and the prodigal son in a skirt was actually Horace and Estelle Dominguez. That was no transvestite, that was my wife.  She laughed again at her own joke.  How long? How long had it been? I thought they had changed churches. Hell, I thought they got divorced, last I heard.  Of course, that was almost 20 years ago—more even. Yes, you’d make a damn fine detective, Dorothy Williams. Damn fine. And she laughed again and started the car. The wipers set off and she stopped them. The rain had stopped.  I should go out.  Make a day of it. Or at least a morning. For Ed. Over to Mytiburger for breakfast. Not too much to ask, in memory of… 
She was about to put the car in reverse when she remembered the little white cup of coffee in her cupholder. Tasted just like she remembered. Burnt.
Opening her door, she poured the contents carefully out, watching it rinse over the yellow parking-lot stripe where it slicked like oil. 
Just as she started to back up, there was a knock at her window.  It was Margaret.  She was holding Dorothy’s umbrella and waving it in her quick curious way –saying something. Asking something. And looking like she was trying to be cute.
Dorothy gritted her teeth and sighed. There she is. I knew it. I got eyes. I can see.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Dependence Day --some thoughts on Independence

“Do not say to your neighbor: Go away!
Come another time! I will give it to you tomorrow.
If you can give it to him today.”
--Proverbs 3:28

It is the 4th of July, and here in America we are celebrating what we like to call: Independence Day.  We broke free from England and declared ourselves an independent nation.  But in time, perhaps even from the beginning this declaration of our independence has been something of a two-edged sword; on the one side, we declared ourselves free as a nation, from the reign of a distant king who seemed to rule over his colonies with little concern for the people who lived there.  And we underwent the great experiment of self-rule, became a land ruled by laws and shaped by the consent and will of the citizens.  But the other side of this sword infected our language and our ideals with a kind of cancer also known as independence. Our national mythology became inflamed with a philosophy of self-creation & self-invention; stories of self-made men, rags to riches tales of men and women who rose from “nothing” to become mighty heroes of commerce and industry, politics and economy.  This myth of self-creation is truly a cancer.  It destroys and yet, how often do we (as a nation) conflate the national myth of independence, the ideal of inventing ourselves as a new and independent nation with a personal dream of inventing ourselves as a new and independent person?

But the truth is—we are not independent.  Not as a nation and definitely not as a people.  We were made by God to be in community, to be in communion, to be dependent.  I need you.  You need me.  We need our brothers and sisters of every race and land.  All of them.  All the time. Especially when they come to us asking for help. 

You see, in the myth of independence, they shouldn’t need us.  There is something wrong about their needing us.  Living in our 4-bedroom ranch-style houses with climate controlling AC and wifi extenders and hot-tubs and remote controlled refrigerators full of apple pie and corndogs and mayonnaise, we surely don’t need them!! What’s wrong with them?  Why can’t they grab hold of their own bootstraps and… just go away?  Can’t they see we’re busy celebrating our independence? Come another time!  Maybe, when you have something to offer.

But what if the thing they had to offer us was a truth we can’t find streaming on Netflix? Dependence.  The fact that being made in the image of God means we were made for community, and being made for community means we need each other.  And so when someone comes asking for help and we say: Go away.  Get a job!  Learn how to pay your bills and follow the rules and take care of yourself!  Learn how to be independent! Like me.  We aren’t just being tough, or hard, or cruel, we are being fools.  We are missing out on something glorious and grand, a gift from God: dependence.  We are missing out on the opportunity to become even more dependent. To participate in the interdependence of God’s creation.

Think about this: when you help someone, when you feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, you do something for their body, and often they are very grateful, but at the end of the day who lays down feeling more blessed?   Let us greet those who need our help as  not a burden to be avoided, or borne with (though with bitter resentment), but as an opportunity to become more fully who we were made to be. Your need is a gift to me, just as my insufficiency, my brokenness, my need for help, for community, is a gift to you. On this beautiful Fourth of July morning, I ask you to consider taking a moment to celebrate Dependence Day.

Happy Dependence Day.