The Girl at the Bar

The girl at the bar sat down next to me on a night when I really would’ve preferred to drink alone.  Not that I was knocking them back or anything so indelicate as that. No, I was just sitting there with a glass full of straw-colored wine, chilled enough that misty little pearls of condensation were rolling down the sides.  Because that’s what I do when I need to think.  I sip wine and watch my friends bartend.  But this girl sauntered in and kind of whirled her purse onto the bar stool next to me and sat down one over, leaving the gap that- for girls alone at a bar- always seems to announce I don’t know you but I’m willing to have a conversation, clear as day. (It’s very distinguishable from the three chairs away gap that emphasizes I’m good on the talking with strangers at a bar, thanks.)  She didn’t start talking to me right away, she ordered wine herself and then studied the menu for a few minutes.

I scrolled idly through Instagram on my phone, double-tapping my little heart on pictures of happy people and pretty clothes, plates of food artfully presented, babies with chubby cheeks grinning up at me. I wondered if I would ever have a chubby-cheeked baby.  I wondered why I always had to wonder about stupid questions that couldn’t possibly be answered without a crystal ball.  Then I drank more wine because I was annoyed at my own dumb, cycling thoughts.

The girl at the bar was looking at me.  She said, “You look like someone who is sad and happy at the same time”, and I just blinked and said I was, because it seemed like a decent enough summary.

And without me saying a word about why, she said, “I think people heal differently than we always expect them to.  You know, I went through a really bad breakup about two years ago and it took me a long time to stop wondering where I was in the ‘healing process’.” She made scare quotes with her hands.  “Don’t you think that’s a terrible word for it?  Process.  I don’t know about you, but to me, it conjures up images of a straight line, a mechanical assembly.  People don’t heal in a process.  They heal like the weather, like spring coming down into the valley after a long hard winter.  Little glimmers of sun and sky that scatter off the ice, that’s what you feel first. And you think, maybe this is it, the ice might be cracking. I’m going to feel warm inside again and not hurt all over and have these sharp jagged edges tearing rips in my lungs when I breathe.

But winter in NEPA has deep claws, and you don’t heal in just a day of weak sunlight.”

She paused to take a long drink of her wine and I stared at the bar top, remembering my winter, seeing ice and sleet and brown eyes like coffee.

“Then you get a week or two where it doesn’t hit below freezing, not at all, and you start to remember in your bones the idea of spring.  Slowly, slow as a hidden seed sprouting, the healing goes.  Your heart hurts as it happens, maybe because it happens, because the idea that you can laugh again is so strange. But you do,” she murmured, half to herself.  “You laugh at stupid jokes again and go on dates and inch by inch, you reclaim yourself, just like spring stealing pieces of the days right from the heart of winter.

Ah, there’s always that one day, you know,” she went on, and I knew what she was going to say before the words were formed. Everyone in this area knows those days.  “That one day in March when the sun just explodes and the air is warm and the breeze is so sweet across your face you’d think all the mothers in the world put their love into that touch.  I think that part of healing is like when you meet someone new.  You go on a really wonderful date, the kind where everything else is a blur but you’re focused on what’s happening between you and them, and it’s good and right. Those days are just like that: a good sharp focus on spring.  A spark.”

I laughed, because a few weeks ago I had been on a date just like that, and things were still going really well.  It was like spring inside my chest: sparks and sunlight.  I wanted more of it.  But the winter memories of a ghost still occasionally haunted me, popping out of corners late at night to rattle his chains in my heart.

I told her, “I know what you mean, but those are just a day, or two at best. They don’t stay.  Around here, you have one good day and then winter bullies its way in again.”  She nodded with a wry grimace. “No, they don’t stay. But-” she jabbed a finger in the air. “They come back.

“It’s not a process, remember.  There’s no one-step, two-step, three-step, four.  Maybe you meet someone and have this great connection and spring is coming- you can feel it, that glorious sunshiny day- and then boom. You hear your ex is dating someone else. Or it’s their birthday, or you see them out at a bar. Winter in Pennsylvania clings desperately to the remnants of his season.  He’ll throw a few more icy winds and early April flurries in your healing face.  But he can’t hold on forever, dear, and neither can you.  That’s just nature. Cycles. Gardeners know them; women know them.  Spring comes, every year. And time heals, every day.”

Suddenly she smiled and laughed at herself a little and shook her long blonde hair back over her shoulders.  “Sorry,” she said, “I always get a bit maudlin when I drink wine.”  And then she shot me one piercing glance from her blue eyes and said, “Be happy”, and she got up and walked out the door.  I hadn’t even realized her wine glass was empty.

The restaurant was humming with the noise of a busy dining room.  Glasses clinked and people laughed and the strong, spicy scent of rosemary and basil graced the air like a benediction. I sat there for a few minutes, enjoying the weight of sparks and sunshine inside me, thinking about healing and happiness.  And I knew that I was.  I am.

So I picked up my phone, and I called my boyfriend, and I said “hey handsome, how was your day?”

– – – –

Healing, like spring, is a gift of God and nature. But in the paradoxical way of all God’s gifts, it asks something from you in return.  You can heal without being happy. You can stare at the smooth scars on your heart forever, wondering how and why. Or you can smile, dance, drink cold white wine in the summer twilight, burn your fingers trying to eat meat straight off the grill.  And on those occasional nights when the stormy wind gusts and the sky is dark and troubled and something triggers your old heartbreak like an arthritic ache in your bones, don’t hide from the rain.  Go out and dance in it.  Make it good.  Make it beautiful.

Water

I have been captivated by running water lately. I cannot get enough of the motion of light upon water, of the idea of a cleansing stream.  Baptism captivates me as well, both the sacrament and just the idea of water running over my head, making me new, making all things new.  I stand in my pew at Mass and sing the Gloria, thinking all the time, baptize me.  Make me a girl with hands lifted in joy.  Make me a girl whose strength is from the Lord.  Cleanse me. Make me a girl who learns from my regrets, not burying them deep.  Heal me. Make me a hopeful girl, eyes lifted to the hills and feet set firm on the path.   

He is forging me anew.

In the midst of refining fire, I see water every day, I hear the fast-flowing streams in my head. I hold a thousand different memories of water catapulted over rocks, pounding down into pools, misty white and fine as silk blowing around me.

Refresh my soul, I pray. Keep me free from the stagnant puddles.

Guide me on right paths, for Your Name’s sake.     

 

You Take Care of Me

I wrote a poem a few weeks ago. It’s based on the novena written by Father Dolindo Ruotolo, in which the line “Jesus, I surrender myself to You. Take care of everything!” is repeated ten times at the end of each day’s prayer.

You Take Care of Me

When the world’s weight seems so heavy
And the cost of love too high
In the midst of heartbreak dreary
You call out to me

oh my Jesus, heal my heart, bring me peace
You take care of it, you’ll take care of me

In the mourning and the anger,
in the bitter memories
Through the struggle and the hunger,
you call out to me

oh my Jesus, heal my heart, bring me peace
You take care of it, you’ll take care of me

Though I wander, lost and lonely,
though my soul is full of doubt
With eternal tender mercy,
you reach out to me

oh my Jesus, heal my heart, bring me peace
You take care of it, you’ll take care of me

Send your Spirit and your grace
Reveal to me your resting place
Take my pain, make it worthy
Hide me in your heart, my Holy
Teach me how to kindle love
In all those souls who don’t know of
Your beauty, truth, and goodness
Your mercy and your faithfulness
And though I have failed before
May all now come to love you, Lord
This is my cry, a humble plea:
Oh my God, take care of me!

oh my Jesus, heal my heart, bring me peace
You take care of it, you’ll take care of me

 

That Golden Medal

I was reading an article online about Barnes & Noble’s ‘free book’ reading program, and one of the books mentioned was Maniac Magee.  I haven’t thought about that book in ages, but just seeing the title brought it back to my mind so vividly.  I could hear the thumping of Maniac’s shoes as he ran, feel Amanda’s anger over the desecration of her beloved books, and see that knot hanging in the middle of the town.  I was 11 when I first read Maniac Magee but I can still remember thinking as I got to the part about Cobble’s Knot, this is a great image for this book: Maniac picking apart the knot, because he’s the only one who can go between the black and white people.  I wish I could say I got all the meaning behind the story, the racism and the homelessness, but as an eleven-year-old growing up in Nanticoke, I didn’t really have much firsthand experience with those issues at all. What I do remember is the way the strong, bright prose stayed with me, the endless running away Maniac did, Amanda’s frustration, the reality of the story as it related to my own life. I hadn’t seen racism or endured homelessness, but I understood being lonely even when you were surrounded by people… I wanted to weep with Amanda over the thoughtless depredations of her younger siblings… And I knew all about dealing with bullies like Mars Bar.

So I sat at my computer last night and I remembered all the other Newbery Medal books I loved, the stories that opened up to me in the sunny and cheerful Nanticoke library.  These were the books that taught me to love words, the way they flow and how they sound; they tugged me insistently into new worlds, luring me in with that golden medal flashing on the front cover.  The Witch of Blackbird Pond: Kit and Nat and wise old Hannah Tupper, poor unloved little Prudence, the harsh Puritans and the Connecticut landscape.  I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond in two days flat, when my cousin Erica brought it down to the beach house in Longport because it was on her summer reading list. I couldn’t put it down. I can still hear Erica trying to convince me to come outside and play, and myself thinking that I just wanted to know if Kit escaped the fire, if Nat realized he loved her?  Oh, Nat.  Before Gilbert Blythe, Faramir, Mr. Darcy, or Jamie Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, there was Nat: the first male character I ever remember falling in love with.

There are so many other books I could name.  A Wrinkle In Time taught me to love fantasy, tales that swept from universes to middle-school classrooms, introducing me to misfits and close-knit families.  Number The Stars, Bridge To TerabithiaRoll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Giver… I can recite their names like rosary beads slipping through my fingers, but I could never count the hours I spent lost in their worlds, learning to build my own.  The golden Newbery Medal on the front cover was like a key on a map. It whispered that I would find good strong words inside, stories worth savoring. It was a promise that was always kept.

The Essence of Love

Today, April 28th, is the feast day of St. Gianna Molla: doctor, wife, mother, skier, and all-around awesome woman.  She’s also my Confirmation saint and one of my biggest heroes.

Read her inspiring story here:

On the morning of April 21, 1962, which was Good Friday that year, her daughter Gianna Emanuela, named for her mother, was born after a hard labor via C-section. She told her doctors, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child – I insist on it.  Save her.”  Seven days later Gianna died with much suffering on April 28, 1962. She was only 39 years old. Among her last words were,“Jesus, I love you.”

Gianna Beretta Molla was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, during the international Year of the Family. She was canonized a saint on May 16, 2004.  She is the patron saint of physicians, pregnant mothers, unborn children, and against abortion.

I could write on and on about being pro-life, about science and reason and inalienable rights, but I won’t.

I was brought down to the foundation of my life during my time of suffering and silent learning.  All I know now, all I have understood is that we are here to love. And love is sacrifice. We lay down our lives for those we love, and we are called to love all.  Gianna died that her child “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  She embodied Jesus with her whole heart and soul.  She gave herself up.  That is the essence of love.

As I write this, there are two women especially on my heart: my sister Juliana and my aunt Sue, because they both lost a child within the last year and a half.  Because they weren’t able, or asked, to make the same kind of sacrifice that Gianna was… they were asked to make a much harder one as a mother. To be the one still here, to have to continue, to pick up the cross and walk on.  But though the outward sacrifice is different, the essence of love remains the same.

Saint Gianna, pray for us!

Let the Green Leaves Unfurl

Let the green leaves unfurl from my soul. Let the rain pound down from the sky.

This is what we are: gardeners, working with our hands in damp soil and sun. Cultivating the earthy, necessary shoots of love, the flamboyant flowers of joy, and the tall climbing vines of hope. Those vines, they twist and wind tenaciously around the fences guarding our hearts; they’re an everyday miracle of waking up and invisibly growing by inches.

We build fences to keep our gardens neat and tidy. We plant in rows and stake evenly. Because we need the idea that our seeds will come up orderly.  We know we have to start planting now and it’s less scary to do it with some sort of map in our heads. Then the plants break through the soil and we water the love and inhale the perfume of joy and we watch those trembling hopeful vines curl themselves up and around our fences, and we wonder at their future.

Sometimes they die. We watch them wither. And maybe we water them and try to save them and maybe we don’t. We untangle the dead tendrils from our fences, lifting and separating, and throw them in the burn barrel with the rest of the pruning.  And that’s okay, because here’s the thing about hope: it pops back up out of the dirt faster than any weed. Give it another chance to blossom; it’ll be morning glories, it’ll be sweet peas and wisteria. It’ll be a riotous explosion of color and sun and delight.

Holy Week and the Good Friday Meditations from Rome

Over the past few years, one of the spiritual practices I’ve used during Holy Week has been to read the meditations written on the Stations of the Cross by the Pope’s chosen person.  For 2015, Pope Francis asked Bishop Renato Corti to write the meditations, and they were posted in advance of Good Friday on the Vatican’s site a few days ago.  Here’s the link to them and I highly recommend reading them.  My usual habit is to read two or three Stations a day and contemplate their resonance in my own life.  This is an excerpt from the meditation on the Fifth Station, Simon the Cyrenean Helps Carry the Cross:

Who doesn’t need a Cyrenean?

Lord Jesus, you told us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”.[28] Make us ready to be “Cyreneans” to others. May those who see our way of life find encouragement, as they watch us striving to cultivate all that is beautiful, just, true and essential. May the frail see us as humble, for we too are frail in so many ways. Those who receive tokens of our generosity will realize that we too have a thousand reasons to be thankful. Even those who cannot run can simply stand and wait, for they are dear to us. They will find us ready to slow our pace: we do not want to leave them behind.

Bishop Corti has said that he wrote with a theme of “protecting” in the meditations this year, and that he was inspired by the role of Saint Joseph as protector of the Holy Family.  In this article on Catholic News Agency, he says:

Protecting will be discussed in three key topics: the Word of God, the Eucharist, and forgiveness. The meditations will be also filled with a prayer for the coming synod, so that “the works of synod will be accompanied by mercy and truth.”

“I also recalled some grave facts which exist, and which are negations of protecting; for example, the evil done to youth, the abandonment of the poor, and the already-forgotten pillars of peace as recalled by Pope John XXIII: truth, justice, liberty, love.”

Holy Week is the most spiritually profound week of our Christian faith. Even if you’re still working your 9-5 or doing whatever duties your state in life calls you to, even if you can’t make it to a Holy Thursday Mass or a Good Friday service (like Tenebrae!), we still have access to all these wonderful resources online that can help make Holy Week meaningful.  Keep a little quieter this week, pray and fast a little more, try to keep the Easter Triduum in your thoughts.  The Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are approaching.  Solemnly, quietly, let us open our hearts to our coming salvation.

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