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Friday, July 24, 2015

Fishing For Adjectives

*Written from a recent HoW (House of Writers) retreat in Tualatin, Oregon.

Once in a while I'll hear splashing, here lately, something leaping from the still surface of the Tualatin river and slap-crashing back into it.

That's so like how words emerge, that perfect word, the noun, the verb, the adjective.

Which is more elusive?  In greatest supply?  Are there more people, places and things, action words, or words we use to describe these?

And what about the words to describe what we can't see, hear, feel with our fingers or taste with our tongues?

What about the invisibles? 

Show me love.  Show me rage and grief and feeling alone in a crowd.  What is that moment in the middle of the night when the distractions sleep, when that army of secrets we keep from ourselves rises from the darkness?  How do we show the closing of the distance between ourselves and the bent woman in torn clothes, or the battered infant limp in his abuser's arms, or the man in the Bob Marley t-shirt ready to leap from a bridge or into a fresh bottle of Xanex?  

What is the word for the encapsulating moment we realize:  We are everyone

It takes more than a word or ten to gather the invisibles, to show the tenderness of a mother's nails gently raking her daughter's arm, the soul of the collective, an ephemeral place or moment.  Sometimes it takes an ineffable journey, an every conceivable cover to cover trek from Big Bang prologue to dust-settled denouement, a first to last breath of all nouns, verbs, commas, periods, pauses, breaths; a leap of infinite space where the words are left out, where they retreat.

Sometimes adjectives aren't words at all, but in the ghosts of what we don't say, can't begin to say, just beneath the surface.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Amazing Grace

"I hope our faith isn't just a bunch of bologna," said my nine year old daughter.

Heavy thoughts for a fifty-two pounder.

What do I say to that?  I had the same concerns and doubts at her age.  My conclusion was formed incrementally over the next forty years, after trying on different religions, after struggling against my suspicions, praying then refusing to pray, after reading and re-reading the Bible, quizzing priests and pastors, asking questions until my lips turned blue.

My conclusion?  That Catholicism and the Bible are, for me, bologna.  All deities are the adult version of Santa, a kind higher power, a force for good.  Something pseudo-sacred.

This was never what I wanted.  I fought so hard to hold on to faith, but the truth beat me down.

As I type there's a prickly heat in my belly, an angry fire tinged with anxiety.  It's the result of stuffing sadness and grief for the past several years.  I'm grieving the loss of God, only rather than acknowledge my sadness and grief, I've squeezed them into a tight fist of anger, a fitful response to the loss of psychic comfort.

I never wanted to be the one to take that comfort away from my children.  My plan was to show them the Catholic bag of tricks, then let them find out for themselves that it was all bogus.  At least that way they'd have a comfortable childhood, a safe passage toward adulthood.

But my nine year old is too smart.  She smells that funny odor of falsehood, the not-quite-right stench of a lie -- well-intended or not.  It's her intuition nudging her common sense, and she's too self-aware to ignore it.

There's another emotion at work here:  fear.  I'm flying solo as a parent when it comes to losing my religion.  My husband is 100% Catholic, EWTN solid, Bible study strict, a proponent of transubstantiation, the saints and sacraments.  So you see, I'm in a precarious place, a situation I must ultimately confront.

Love is definitely putting others' needs before your own.  Which is why I've signed up to assistant-teach catechism to my youngest son who has special needs.  He wants to receive the Eucharist.  He needs my help to make it through the education process.  I will do whatever it takes to help him achieve this goal.  I will encourage what brings him peace of mind, encourage prayer and belief in all Catholicism has to offer.  And I will continue to attend mass every Sunday with my family, genuflecting, kneeling, reciting prayers, bowing my head when the Nicene Creed refers to Mary's virginity.

Because it's my duty to make my children feel safe, even if it means promoting an impossible world in which humans beat death and miracles happen, biting my tongue as my child begins to see the less appealing truth.  Until my daughter is ready to embrace what she already knows, I can only hold her, tell her how much I love her.

Despite everything, I still tear up when I hear Amazing Grace.

Monday, July 6, 2015

It Sucks To Be You

Disclaimer:  The following is a work of fiction.  More or less.  Sort of.


"It sucks to be you," Rebecca Wolfe said laughing as she leaned forward in her office chair.  I'd just told her something personal and emotionally charged.  I wasn't laughing.

"And I thought you had it all..." she finished.

"Well, people aren't always what they appear to be," I said.

This was a woman in a position of power, and I was alone in her office without witnesses.  She'd requested a meeting via email on a Sunday night.  She wanted to know if we could meet the next day.  I knew it must be serious, her asking for a meeting late on a Sunday.

I suspected she was angry at me, or perhaps disappointed that I'd written a piece about an incident which took place at her business.  The incident involved violence against my child.

She had to delay our meeting for a couple of days, which gave me time to become more convinced that this was indeed about my blog.  I checked the website for any unusual activity and noticed a significant increase in traffic.  I saw a "referral" from Rebecca's business.  That was odd, I thought.  I labeled it as SPAM.

The next day as I sat in the reception area waiting for my appointment time, I imagined being face to face with Rebecca, her looking down at me from the top of her little empire.  I felt strangely guilty for "getting caught."  But "caught" doing what?  Telling my own story?

To ease my nerves I pictured Rebecca as a floating face, like the holographic head of the Wizard of Oz, except made of glass.  I imagined repeatedly smashing this face with a wooden baseball bat.  Over and over again, I crashed through her ornamentation, shattered her mask, her fragile front.  This uncharacteristically violent reverie built up my courage to face someone I'd actually admired up to that point.

When she finally emerged from her office to escort me back, I noted how briskly she moved toward me, her shoes like heavy metal clogs sprinting over ceramic tile.  I mentioned this jokingly, but she didn't seem amused.  Her face didn't seem fragile at all.  It was hard and fixed.

This was gonna be bad.

Sure enough, I'd been called in about the blogpost.  I initially let her do most of the talking, nodded quietly while she told me about incidentally finding my blog (nobody reads my blog).  I struggled to keep my facial expression as blank as possible, telling myself to keep nodding, to look down at the table, to avoid making eye contact.  I'd rehearsed this, letting her tell a story I'd already anticipated.  I'd decided that she probably Googled me out of curiosity, or maybe habit, a ritualistic gathering of dirt to use against those who might transgress against her.

Her story of how she found my blog was different.  She claimed to have been looking for information on autism, and lo and behold there I was, keeper of a blog about a Japanese aesthetic.  Not a very solid connection.

She was hurt, she said, that I'd written about something so confidential, something that could hurt her business.  She asked me to take down the blogpost, which I agreed to do.

What specifically didn't she like about the post?

That it was damaging to her reputation, that it was shocking, that it was true.

"I thought you believed in us," she said.  "Don't you trust us?"

I hesitated, glanced left then lied, "Yes."  I apologized for hurting her, said that I felt ashamed because she's "such a good person."  I'd always needed her approval for some reason.

"No I'm not," she blurted.

Ah yes.  People aren't always what they appear to be.  Right before my eyes, a former saint became a bully.  What I'd felt toward Rebecca Wolfe wasn't admiration; I was intimidated by her.  That walk, those shoes, the hard fixed face; the way she sat at the top of the heap.  She was a Viking in a dress, driven and on a mission to succeed.  At almost any cost, I would later learn.

I'd named no names in the post, and when I wrote it, I hadn't expected any traffic beyond my meager 36 followers, none of whom live in my state much less give a damn about this woman, her heap or reputation.  The post wasn't even about her.  It was about an employee of hers who broke the law and was quietly escorted out of sight, out of mind.  No incident report.  No notes.  No paper trail.

The only indelible mark was what still remains on my child's psyche.  His and mine.

She made the point that people would still know who the post was about if they know me at all, and she wondered out loud again why I would want to hurt "the business."  Why write about these things publicly, she wanted to know.  "Why not just put it in a private journal?"

I'd wondered that myself.  I had no ready answer for her, so I agreed to take down the post.

I would come up with an answer much later, which was that although I've kept a journal for forty years, this incident wasn't something I wanted to talk only to myself about.  I needed someplace else, a small quiet corner in space, like a cyber broom closet.  Nobody really notices a broom closet, except maybe the few lost souls who open the door by accident.

I hadn't wanted to be alone with what had happened to my son, so I whimpered within this small cyber closet, shared my stained rags and dirty mop water, just me, enough of a nobody to fly under most radars.  I named no names in my post.  Writing online was about a need I couldn't satisfy any other way.  I needed to scratch my message somewhere more visible than a private diary, less visible than a giant billboard;  I needed to pour bleach on my wounds in the company of a few disinterested eyes.

Rebecca suggested that maybe I'd been trying to reach out to others in my circumstance, others with children who'd been hurt.  Perhaps.

Unfortunately, the incident I wrote about isn't rare.

What else could I have done with this pain?  Called the media?  The police?  My attorney?  I'd considered these options at first, when my rage was out of control.  Without a doubt I had -- have -- a very strong case (with a five-year statute of limitations, by the way).  The guilty employee confessed, in writing.  She was terminated for injuring a disabled little boy.  At first this seemed sufficient. Then it wasn't.  So I shared.

I took down the post immediately following the meeting with Rebecca.  I felt better, cleaner, but the next day I felt duped.  I'd been silenced.  And laughed at.  By a bully.

Who and what are we allowed to write about?  Who has the right to tell us to take our words down?  Someone who quietly shuffles a child abuser out the back door?

I still wake up every morning feeling angry and unsettled, like I failed my child, like I gave away my own power at his expense.  The incident is more than three months old.  The evil employee was removed from the system, albeit quietly.  Why don't I feel better yet?

Perhaps because it's very likely that the incident was never reported to the proper authorities.  By law, Rebecca should have called CPS or the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, or police.

Failing to report this type of child abuse is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment of up to 180 days and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

My intuition has been screaming at me:  Something's not right.  Why did Rebecca ask other employees to keep quiet?  Why did she vaguely answer, "It's been handled," when I played dumb and asked how these incidents are reported?  Why didn't any staff members suggest that perhaps the increasingly distressing behaviors of the injured child prior to the nun's admission were due to frequent or repeated incidents of abuse?  Wasn't that a possibility?  

Yes it was.  And what do we know for sure?  That if this crime wasn't properly reported, the offending employee will go on to work with other children.

I called CPS myself within 36 hours of the incident, then again eight weeks later.  I called TDPRS as well, and General Counsel for the _____ of _____ _____.  They can't talk about cases, even those involving my own child, but they had no record of any other reports made.

Well, well, Rebecca.  Looks like it sucks to be YOU.