Happiness Is

Happiness is

…stopping at the bakery after Mass on Sunday morning and getting a large box with cinnamon rolls, raspberry danishes, and chocolate cupcakes.

…when the autumn wind is chilly and the sunlight is molten gold and every delphinium in the world is jealous of that blue, blue sky.

….writing this, finding words like gems and boulders, the freedom of description and remembering how writing soothes my soul.

…driving.  Driving home, driving to church, driving to visit a friend who lives far away, the reassuring contradiction of arching freedom in the sky above me and the private little world enclosed within a car.

…salty, buttery toast and drippy eggs at a diner after a late night.  Hot coffee and home-fries with peppers and onions.

…the dim lights of the bar and good live music in the background and a cold beer.

…my friends laughing with me.  Or at me.  Generally, at me.

…a busy night at the Cafe when everything is working smoothly.

…singing Latin at Mass, the chants or the songs.  The sound of an ancient language carrying down through the centuries: praise and sorrow and prayer in words of a different yet familiar tongue.

…that scene in The Return of the King when Sam looks up and finds the single star amidst the gloom and smoke of the sky above the Plains of Gorgoroth.

…my living room couch and a book.

…my bed and a book.

…a book.


I remember metal, sun, chalk dust on my hands
The longing appeal of a little girl’s plans
The hopscotch boxes of a lifelong dream
Held lines and numbers, an orderly scheme
From one up to ten, a simple enough game
Arrive at the end with a brand new name
Then slowly and blurrily the rain came down
Washed out the chalk with a regretful sound
Now jacks and a ball are all I have left
Little pieces of me that fell out of my chest
“Can you make it to ten, can you do this for me?”
My questions were never what they should be
This game wasn’t for winning, it was just for the joy
But you tricked me and yourself, dear stupid sad boy
Alas for a dream; Time makes great fools of us all
Hopscotch boxes, jacks and a ball
A little girl’s games, an older girl’s fall.




I feel like I need to say that I have been doing really well lately.  I’ve been happy and smiling and life has been good.  My friends are wonderful.  But tomorrow would’ve been my anniversary with my ex-boyfriend so he’s been on my mind a lot more this past week.  I’ll admit I’m a silly girl and things like that meant a lot to me, and we’d always do something nice or go somewhere fun.  It’s the ‘firsts’ that kill me during these past months… first time in 7 years I haven’t spent 10/11 with him.  Simply put: the date got into my head a little, messed me up, knocked me off kilter.  So I did what I always do when I need to get stuff out of my head, and I wrote it out.  The very act of putting the words onto paper- well, ok not technically paper- has always been a saving grace for me.  They’re outside of me now.  They’re a weight lifted off my heart and away.  And tomorrow, I’m going to this Jars of Clay concert and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it- because how could I not?- and I’m going to come home singing, with a smile on my face and a future full of hope.

My Favorite Band

(**all the italicized lines are Jars of Clay lyrics)

I became a Jars of Clay fan in the spring of 1998.  They had a self-titled first album and a second called Much Afraid out at the time.  I played those two albums over and over again, with the kind of devotion to music always found in the raging hormones and emotional turmoil of an adolescent.  I remember walking home from a friend’s house one night around nine.  It was summer: fireflies and humid air and mosquitoes at my ankles.  I was listening to Much Afraid on my headphones and Frail came on and completely spooked me with its haunting melody and words.  Nothing scary happened as I walked home, and I didn’t have any inspirational realizations as I listened to the lyrics.  I simply remember how powerful and eerie that song sounded in the dark, enough to make me shiver.  And that’s my first memory of my love for Jars of Clay: the first time one of their songs moved me.

Speaking of firsts, I think everyone remembers their first concert.  That’s the power of a live show, isn’t it?  You hear a song, relate to the words, feel the music inside your heart, and then see it come alive in front of you.  On Thursday, April 18th, 2002, I went to my first concert at the old Hersheypark Arena to see Jars of Clay on their Eleventh Hour tour.  They put on a fantastic show, and I can still recall, clear as day, screaming and grinning with everyone else in the audience when those first few notes of Flood rang out.  Now I’m going to see them on October 11th down in Sellersville for their 20th anniversary tour, and just saying that is hard to believe.  Over the years, the band has released so much more music, and each album has songs that have captured my heart and stayed with me as I matured (from Tea & Sympathy to Loneliness & Alcohol).  But more than just the music, it’s their lyrics.  I think that’s it, right there, why I love this band so much.  Their words are beautiful, the strange and surprising combinations, the phrases I wish I’d written: if our hearts are turned to stone, there is hope: we know the rocks will cry out.  Lyrics are the expression of a sentiment, giving form to a feeling, and the lyrics that the band writes are as relevant and intense today as when they first came out.

So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jars of Clay’s music has been the soundtrack of my life for the past months.  All the grief, the heartbreak, the spiritual struggles I’ve been going through… there’s a lyric for them all.  After my relationship ended, I’d listen to the lines “I just want to feel your hand in mine” or “but that’s not the way it has to be” and I’d think “yeah that’s how I feel, ‘I think of you more than ever’” and then I’d have to stop myself and remember that no, that’s not how it is.  The point is, I could not romanticize breaking up with Danny.  I couldn’t sit in my room listening to those poignant words about staying strong and battling through problems together and relate to them.  I’m coming home, I’m waking you up, in the middle of the night, I’m not giving up.  That struggle was no longer mine to claim.  Songs about letting go, songs about sorrow and doubt, the stark lines of heartbreak. Those were my music then.  “Because I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough, I’ll miss the shivers in my spine every time that we touch.”  I never thought that would be my line.

I thought You left me for the wreckage and the waste on an empty beach of faith.  Was it true? …I want to believe but all I pray is wrong and all I claim is gone.”  Was there ever a more fitting lyric for those first few weeks in March?  It wasn’t merely Danny and half of my life I lost; it was hope, and trust in the power of prayer, and that strange innocence I never knew I had until it was gone, because my heart had been truly broken for the first time.  What I get from my reflection isn’t what I thought I’d see.

But like they always do, Jars of Clay’s songs reminded me that my faith was there, buried beneath pain and anger and a hell of a lot of loneliness & alcohol, but still there, a firm and sure foundation.  “God hears your sighs and counts your tears.” That’s from God Will Lift Up Your Head.  For days back in May and June, I played that song on repeat in my car and in my room, clutching it like the metaphorical lifeline it is.  I sang it as a promise, as a statement of belief.  I listened to the words and found it within myself to tell Jesus that even though the hurt and anger were still there, I did believe in His mercy and goodness.  In July, after my sister’s baby girl died, All My Tears became my song any time I cried for her, simply because she isn’t crying.  Cecilia Joy may not have seen the sun or moon from here on earth but she’s seeing what our feeble eyes and ears cannot even conceive: the sunlight of Jesus’ face, the music of His voice, the moonlight glory of His mother Mary.  I was getting back to the basics, looking up at God and saying “don’t forget me, here it is, my frail faith, I hold it out to you in my shaking hands and even if I cannot do anything else with it, I can at least show you that it is here.”

Now I’m healing.  Time is passing.  I can think of Ceci in heaven with my cousin Christin and smile.  I’m moving on and discovering that I’m okay being single, even after six years of being in a relationship.  I’m figuring out, slowly but surely, who I am as a single person.  And more importantly, I’m realizing I need to be in love with Jesus before anyone else.  His love is a jealous kind, a First Commandment importance kind of love, and I need to orient my heart to that.  I need to have two hands, doing the same thing, lifted high in a sacrifice of praise.  That’s the hardest lesson, to learn how to give it all up, not just the easy stuff.  I’ve been learning my whole life how to give up good things for the sake of others, make a sacrifice of something I love, because sacrificial love is the source and the summit of faith.  Giving up the suffering is harder.  Offering up heartbreak, smiling through grief, singing the words of the best Jars song ever: take the beauty, take my tears, take my world apart, and meaning it, that is the hardest lesson of all.  I cannot wear my sackcloth and ashes on the streets.  I have to trust in the mercy of the Lord.

Although at times I still find it hard to pray, and the tears still come for what I’ve lost and what I do not understand, the words of Jars of Clay’s songs are there like a hand grasping mine, helping me up, reminding me that my orphan heart will find a home.  I’m not alone.  Light is leading.  Love will find us all.

Lighter Fare

As a Pennsylvania girl, this is the worst time of year for my wallet.  It’s a struggle; it’s a battle; it’s a war.  The next few weeks will be filled with a hellish ordeal, wherein I practice heroic amounts of self-restraint and constantly ponder the villainy of filthy lucre.  You see, my inbox is being bombarded with the new autumn clothing arrivals: soft sweaters and tunics and faded plaid and leggings and dark denim and printed scarves.  Oh they’re all so pretty!  It’s too soon for me to pull out my fall wardrobe, which means I can’t really remember what fall clothes I have, which means I want to buy everything I see.  (Don’t worry, Dad, the operative phrase there is ‘want to’.)  Seriously, I have never regretted anything more in my life than signing up to receive emails from the J. Crew Factory Store.  (That’s a bold statement, because I don’t really believe the whole “live life without regrets” adage.  I mean, how impossible is it to do that?  It’s rather impossible, if it’s possible to have degrees of impossibility.)  Whenever I get an email from the J. Crew Factory Store, it’s an automatic reminder for me to go to Confession, because I’m about to commit every kind of sin of greed and jealousy and lust that can be imagined over a merino pocket tunic in red currant.  (I’m an XS and my birthday and Christmas are closer than you think.)  After thinking about it for a lot longer than I should have, I’ve come to the conclusion that I love fall clothing the most because it’s the best of both worlds.  The hint of chill in the air makes layering an art, not a desperate necessity.  Your outerwear can still be an accessory, instead of a pitiful shield against frigid winds and biting snow.  But at the same time, it’s not so hot and disgustingly humid outside that you literally cannot conceive of wearing anything more than a tank top and shorts.  No jewelry, it sticks to your sweaty neck.  Hair up because re: neck.  Enter fall clothing and its blissful balanced lines.  Thank you in advance, autumn, for being the rational wardrobe season that you are.  Now let me spend money on you.

Grief and Faith

This post is about grief.  The sadness, the anger, the pain, the desperate desire to rewind time, to have it be not now, but then somehow.  I wanted to write a really good post about grieving.  I wanted to make it smart and wise and philosophical and special, a post where people would read it and say “yeah, that’s how I feel when I grieve, that’s sadness to me.”  But I’ve been trying for weeks and it’s not working, maybe because right now I find it astonishingly audacious to claim to know other people’s grief, and so instead here’s all my choppy, awful thoughts about it.  Perhaps, in a way, that’s better.  Because when you lose someone, when you feel like the world is dark, and full of hurt, and you can’t stop yourself from running off the cliffs when you can’t even see them coming, you don’t want perfect writing.  You just want the truth.  At least, I do.

Miscarriage. Even the word is ugly, with its negative prefix and thick, bumpy sounds.  On Tuesday, July 22nd, my mother called me to say that my sister had lost her baby girl, only three weeks before her due date, and for a minute all I could think about was that word.  It hurt too much to think about the baby, who was shortly christened Cecilia Joy.  We drove out to Michigan later that week for Cece’s funeral.  I have never admired my brother-in-law more than when he stood up at his daughter’s funeral and gave his tribute to her and to Jesus.  It suddenly occurs to me that admire is such an impersonal word.  I loved him so much for what he said and did.  How he told us Cecilia’s name means Blind Joy and how her first sight was that of heaven.  How he carried her doll-like little casket from the back to the front of the church, and I knew I’d never seen a more intimate Via Crucis.  I sat next to my sister in that first pew and watched sorrow pierce her heart like a sword.  This, then, is the bottom line of faith and suffering: to endure it becoming real right in front of your eyes.  To see a picture of a mother cradling her child’s body and think: there it is, that’s what Michaelangelo carved, that’s a mater dolorosa.  It is true.  It happened and it’s happening, and it will happen again.  This is why I attend Stations of the Cross during Lent, and meditate on the death of Christ, and pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.  Because when they become real in your own life, when you experience your own sorrowful mystery, when you are a weeping woman on the way of the cross, you know the end of the story.  Christ is present and He brings with Him life, not death.  The grave is no bar to hope.


Cecilia Joy

We love you, baby girl.

Ice Cream Place

I hear people complain all the time about the Valley and living here and how awful it is, and it always drives me nuts, and I have to stop myself from immediately reiterating Rose’s Condensed Bullet Point List of Why Complaining About Your Hometown Makes You Sound Like a Jerk.  (I’ve been working on this thing for years.)  But I just realized the number one reason why it bothers me so much, and that reason wasn’t even on the list.  Until now.

Look around you, guys, and wake up!  Wake up to the fact that when you live here in NEPA, you are never more than about a 5-7 minute drive away from the nearest purveyor of ice cream.  This is fantastic.  I don’t think everyone understands what a gift they’ve been given.  I mean seriously, people.  Stop where you are right now and think of the closest ice cream place.  Is it within ten minutes?  I would guarantee it.  Can you walk there?  Most likely.  You could absolutely ride a bike.  And I’m not just talking about a Turkey Hill or a Weis (although Turkey Hill ice cream is phenomenal, especially the fudge ripple).  I’m talking a genuine small-town ice cream place, the kind with sprinkles always rolling around the countertop, and garishly colored lights for nighttime, and you can never go there without automatically itching your ankle with your other foot while you stand in line because chances are you’ve got some whopping mosquito bites or at least painful memories of other bites.  This kind of ice cream place doesn’t take cards, cash only, and it’s super annoying but you also wouldn’t want it to change because then it would just be a DQ or something like that and not a childhood institution.  Bonus points if your favorite ice cream place is within 30 yards of a large and pleasingly cool body of water.  You know how I know that I’ve finally grown up?  Because I’ve gone back to childhood.  The cycle is complete.  I used to think that a soft chocolate cone with sprinkles was the most enjoyable thing in the world.  Then I turned 21 and realized it was actually a nice glass of white wine.  But now?  I’m back to soft chocolate.  And I’m totally fine with that.

Summer Sunday

Out of all the hundred and one ways in which the past four months have been awful, the worst are the summer Sundays.  I wonder if I would have had the strength or courage to break up with Danny if I had known these days were coming.  That the simple act of driving in my car with the windows down and my hand out in the pure flowing poetry of summer air would hurt this badly, like when you gulp water and it’s so cold it makes your teeth ache and you can feel it all the way down into your gut.  These should be the halcyon days: golden and blue skies, the fragrance of pine rising like incense as I drive through the woods, dusk lingering long past eight, but instead I only feel bruised, and nothing will settle inside my chest.  I can’t pray in my car now because when I pray, I can only ask why.  I hate that all my favorite music reminds me of him and just makes me cry.

Heartbreak won’t kill me, but I think if it did, it would do it softly, on a humid Sunday evening, when it knows I should be in his backyard with the dog, cool emerald grass under my bare feet, a sweating cocktail glass leaving rings on the patio table.  Instead, it creeps after me and finds me curled up on the couch at my home.  I am restlessly reading, watching X Files, talking with my siblings, trying to make a life without the back roads to Red Barn and Sunday suppers and Blue Ribbon ice cream.  Memories fill the room suddenly, tiny fragile things, butterfly wings unfolding, thin as gossamer and colored like diamonds.  I used to be the keeper of the butterflies.  Now they are uncontrolled, landing on my hands and shoulders, and for a moment I cannot breathe.

Then my father walks into the room and scatters them on the air, the grim specter of heartbreak chased away by his familiar face.  I am no longer a memory keeper, just a sorrowful daughter, a reader with a loving father.  Summer Sundays will get easier.  I am not sure I’m stronger, but I think I am becoming wiser.


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