Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Wilderness in the Key of C

While the church is a bit fussy about music in Advent, I confess to being obsessed with the “mall muzak” of the holiday season.

Ever since I was a little kid, Jingle Bells has brought me joy; O Come, All Ye Faithful has given me comfort. The chaos of my childhood home not withstanding.

loved to sing — though Sister Inez Patricia kicked me out of the Glee Club for belting out Joy to the World off key. And with my piano teacher, Mrs. Wertz, I cajoled her into letting me work on Christmas carols the year round. And I have a vague memory of actually gathering a sibling and likely my grandmother (who would humor this child) “round the spinet” a time or two.

Christmas-Carols-1960-billboard-650

No matter how dark my December days, these little embers of memory never fail to warm my Advent soul.

But not to over do it! Psychologists warn us that overdosing on Christmas music is not good for your mental health. Especially, if you start tuning in the first of November, when Target has put up all of their Christmas stuff – post Halloween. The Twelve Days of Christmas will definitely drive you crazy, when you still have fifty five days to go!

But this second Sunday of Advent, I think we are safe.  “All things in moderation,” my dad used to say.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load;

Speak ye peace to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near,

calling us to new repentance,  since the kingdom now is here.

These words of Second Isaiah encapsulated  in Advent hymn #67, from the ’82 Hymnal, can make a good measure of the the music we play – to make our souls merry – this holiday season. As do the words of the psalmist, as well:

I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his people. Ps 85:8

Our lives in this world – no matter how charmed our circumstances – are but a walk in the wilderness. A wonderful walk. A dazzling and challenging walk.

And maybe this year has been wilder or weirder or more bewildering or even more wondrous than those past. With…

newborn babies and loved ones dying;

terrible twos and aging parents;

lost jobs and new occupations;

weddings and divorces;

retreat and renewal;

reunion and return;

delight and despair;

whether any of it be private, personal, or shared.

Having a Holly, Jolly (and hopeful) Christmas is a complicated thing.

For a decade running now, two of my children, Zach and Colleen have produced an annual Christmas album. It is not your usual holiday fare. It started out just silly and fun but has turned into a sibling bonding ritual they return to each year. (Zach now being 35 and Colleen 33.)

And each album has a different theme – that captures the mood and the meaning of this Christmas:

Party hardy Christmas;

Down Home Country Christmas;

Christmas All Around the World;

and in a bluer season:

The Smooth Sounds of Christmas.

The tracks they choose are outlandish, surprising, delightful, poignant, moody, and sad.

Each of them is a cacophony of voices, crying out in the wilderness – a way to tune into Jesus in the manger once again. A way to tune into the crazy Second Coming of God.

(Though I am pretty sure they would not describe it that way! Ha!)

So what have you got on that iPod of yours? What have you got on Spotify?

As a spiritual exercise, why not put together your own “Messiah” playlist: whether it be Handel, Bing Crosby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Prince, the Anonymous Four, Gregorian chant, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Instead of a Christmas letter, you can share your playlists and attach it to an e-Christmas card.

My own which I, so creatively labeled: Christmas, Christmas, Christmas 🙂  shuffles over 200 carols in the privacy of my car (or my living room.)  Where I can sing along – lustily and with abandon – which I recommend most highly!

So make a joyful and genuine Christmas Carol noise!

Lift up your voice with strength…

Lift it up and do not fear.

For here comes our God.

JoaniSign

 


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Over the River and through the Woods – Redux

The surgeon carved the turkey. Though Dr. Peacock preferred a scalpel to an electric knife, on Thanksgiving the electric knife would do just fine. And fine was what everything had to be. Not just fine — but refined. My father insisted on orange zest in the cranberry sauce, oysters in the stuffing, and lemon peel in his espresso. My manic-depressive mother somehow managed to oblige and laid the table with Lenox, Waterford, and Irish linen.

And on that fourth Thursday of November, each of us little Peacocks had to be perfect. Or at least appear to be perfect — family portrait perfect. My brothers, all in suits and ties. My sisters and I in smocked dresses and patent leather shoes. Hair curled and tied back with a bow. All of us — beaming in black and white and frozen in a silver frame. Perfectly pretending that we were perfectly fine.

So perfectly not so.

There was always yelling before and after and even during the meal. The turkey was overdone. The stuffing was dry. The relish was runny. The sweet potatoes bland. The pumpkin pies burnt. The kids misbehaving. The relatives rude. Everything half ass and nothing quite up to snuff – for Dr. Peacock.

Happy Thanksgiving – at 5408 24th Avenue.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

I swore that when I grew up, Thanksgiving would be calm, cool, and collected. At the tender age of seventeen, I married into such a family – par excellence — the Clark family. Their lives seemed so blessedly routine – so blissfully quiet. I married the boy next door – yes, the boy next door. No more chaos. No more dysfunction. No more crazy Thanksgivings.   At least so I imperfectly thought.

But the Clark routine turned to rigidity. And their quiet became passive aggressive. And my father-in –law, an alcoholic just like my mom. Their traditions seemed more traditional but they were just straight jackets of a different kind.

And still year after year, over the river, and through the woods insanely to their house we would go. We would go with all three of our kids in tow….Until one blessed year, when Jacob threw up.

Rolling down George Washington Parkway, our Subaru Station Wagon was packed to the gills. All three kids were bundled up and buckled up in the back seat: Zach with his comic book; Colleen with her Barbie; Jacob with his pacifier. All was right with the world until Jacob erupted all over his brother and sister. Projectile vomited everywhere.

Thanks be to God.

It was just about the best Thanksgiving we ever had.

We turned around and went back home. After hosing down the car and the kids, we made dinner from whatever food we found in the refrigerator and some random canned goods in our cabinets. We ate dinner in our pajamas while we watched “Ernest Saves Christmas” (a classic!) on TV.

The kids dozed off in their sleeping bags on the living room floor. And William and I had a little glass of wine before turning into bed.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

Now one of my favorite movies is “Home for the Holidays” – with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr. and some other really good actors whose names I don’t remember. The characters — all grown — return to their childhood home for Thanksgiving and some dysfunctional living: The neurotic sister. The gay brother. The rebellious teenager. The single mom. The uptight in-laws. The alcoholic dad. The codependent mom. They all get together for a hellacious holiday.

It’s not exactly “A Wonderful Life” but it is wonderful and I recommended it  to a friend. Appalled after seeing it, she asked me how I could possibly like this movie. The family was so terrible, she said. Just terrible people, she said. These are my people, I said.

And these may be your people too: a bipolar brother; a schizophrenic sister; an obsessive compulsive cousin; grandiose grandchildren; traumatized spouses; paranoid partners; manic relations.

And some of your people may be hard to break bread with. It’s a blessing if you do. It’s okay if you can’t. And it may be a blessing if you don’t. Being bipolar myself – being crazy myself – I understand there is only so much crazy any one of us can handle — especially at Thanksgiving.

So for sanity’s sake, this year, sadly I won’t be having turkey with some delusional and dysfunctional loved ones of mine. It’s time to celebrate the ties that bind and not the crazy making rituals of yesteryear. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe not. We’ll have to see.

So “thank we all, our God” for the people not at our Thanksgiving tables this Thursday. Thank God, that God loves them even when we cannot. Thank God, God loves us even when we cannot bring ourselves to do the same. Thank God, God commands us to love even our crazy making selves . Yes — ourselves. Even on Thanksgiving.

Over the river, and through the woods, to sanity’s house we go.

JoaniSign


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 Who Am I Really? A “Rebecca on Reunion” Podcast

Here, in my firstborn daughter’s own voice,  is Rebecca telling the story of our reunion.   Who Am I Really? is a project of Damon Davis: a series of very personal podcasts about the life journey of an adoptee and their search for reunion. Rebecca’s is Episode 18:What I Gained Through Reunion Is Context.

Listening to Rebecca’s voice, I definitely hear Joani. And I hear my daughter Colleen’s voice, too. Maybe even my niece, Lauren’s, as well. Not just the timbre of our voices resonates but how we all string words together. We use the same verbal punctuation. It is uncanny.

And Rebecca’s description of reunion dovetails incredibly with biomom’s. No coordination involved. Just DNA. Incredibly delightful.

So take a listen to Rebecca and let her fill you in on Who She Really Is!


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If It’s Green, Let It Grow

Back in the day in Del Ray, when I still had a yard, this was my gardening mantra:

If it’s green, leave it alone.

I should have had better garden sense, having once upon a time worked at a plant store called “Great Plants Alive”. But truth be told, my house was kind of like a hospice – where plants came home to die.

I depended on Mother Earth to till my soil.  Whatever grew, grew — and whatever withered, withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my golden rule:

If it’s green, let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my push mower and my weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

But I did learn one thing of worth at “Great Plants Alive” from a South African gentleman who came into the shop. I noticed him admiring the orange calla lilies just outside the front door.

“Can I help you. Sir? Those lilies are beautiful, aren’t they? Just three dollars a pot.”

“Back home these are WEEDS. Why are you selling weeds? We tear them up and throw them away,” he said.

One person’s weed is another person’s flower, you see.

Good seeds. Bad seeds. Whose to know the difference?

Consider your life a garden, crumbly creative dirt.  Watered by  grace, seeds sprout, reach for light, struggle to grow:

Seeds planted by parents who raised us.

Seeds planted by all the beloved, bewildering people in our lives.

Seeds planted by all of the puzzles we solve and by problems we invent.

Seeds planted by poets who inspire and by writers we have read.

Seeds planted in all of the ages and stages of our growing up.

Seeds planted by the predicaments and the challenges of our times.

Good seeds. Bad Seeds. Flowers. Weeds.

Whose to know the difference?

Over the course of our lifetimes, whose to know the difference?

Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned but gather the wheat into my barn. Matthew 13:30

 This burning thing makes me very uncomfortable. My personal and favorite heresy is the denial of Hell – at least the three-tiered universe kind of Hell, with Heaven above and Earth below. The flames that burn for all time, fire and brimstone, that eternal damnation kind of Hell.

No, I do not believe in it at all because, if you excuse the expression:

What in Hell kind of God is that?

have weeds taken over your garden picture

But I do believe in a more personal hell, more of a purgatory really, where we burn through, burn off, burn up the weeds that have choked out the wheat.

This refining fire is something we all walk through. Like the winnowing of wheat, all of that crappy chaff flies away, and we are left with just a handful of kernels, a few kernels of wisdom.  (Maybe.)

Anne Lamott did a Ted Talk a few years back. One of my favorite authors, she is funny, earthy, poignant, and profound – in the most ordinary of ways. Her Ted Talk is called: Twelve Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.”

On the eve of her 61st birthday, she decided to write down everything she knew to be true. Twelve things but by my count sixteen. Let  me briefly paraphrase them for you.

Lamott shares:

  1. ;I am every age I have ever been, though my paperwork says I was born in 1954, I feel 47.  My true self is outside myself. A friend in his seventies says, “I feel like a young person just with something really wrong with me.”
  2.  All truth is a paradox. Life is at one time a precious, unfathomable, beautiful gift. It is also hard and weird. Filled both with heartbreaking sweetness and heartbreaking poverty.  I don’t think it’s an ideal system.
  3.  Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes and then plug it back in. Including you.
  4.  Help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everyone.
  5.  You can’t buy or steal or make anyone else’s happiness. You can’t run alongside of your grown children with sunscreen and Chap-stick on their hero’s journey. You have to release them. It’s the respectful thing to do.
  1. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Everyone is broken, insecure and scared. They are more like you than you can imagine.
  2.  You also can’t fix or save or rescue anyone else or get anyone else sober. One acronym for God is the “Gift of Desperation.”
  1.  Be full of yourself. Being at home in your own cranky self allows others to be at home in themselves.  Being full of affection for one’s self is where world peace begins.
  2. Chocolate with 78% Cacao is not actually a food. It was never supposed to considered edible. It is best used to balance the legs of wobbly chairs.
  3.  Writers all write terrible first drafts. But they keep their butt in their chairs. Their truth comes through little by little.  Just take it bird by bird, her dad told her brother when writing a report for school. Tell them about each bird in your own voice. Bird by bird, God awful first drafts — really good advice for all of life.
  1. Success will not heal you. It will feel good for a while but it will not fill the “Swiss-Cheesy holes” in your soul.  But fostering old dogs or painting murals might
  2.  Families are hard, hard, hard — no matter how cherished or astonishing they might be. Remember that it is a miracle that any one of us was conceived and born. And Earth is forgiveness school. So, we might as well start at the dinner table. This way we can do this work in comfortable pants.
  1. And food. Try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.
  2. Grace. Spiritual WD40 or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Vladmir Putin and me and you exactly as much your new grandchild.

 Laughter is bubbling grace. It is really “carbonated holiness.” It allows us to breathe again and again and to renew our faith in ourselves and in one another.

 And Grace always bats last.

  1. A good name for God is “not me”.  The happiest person on earth, Emerson says, is one who learns from nature the lesson of worship. Go outside. Look up!
  2. And finally, death. Wow. Yikes.

 We never get over these losses and against what our culture says, we are not supposed to. Tears of grief bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize us on the ground on which we walk. Take off your shoes, God says, this garden is holy ground. All evidence to the contrary, this is the truest thing of all.

 Death is as sacred as birth.

 When all is said and done, we’re all just walking each other home.

Lamott says she will get back to us, if she thinks of any more.

So, winnow through your own wheat and toss out the weeds.  What kernels do you come up with?

I came up with three on my way home from Montana. A frequent flier, I am not, and turbulence is not my friend. I tightened my seat belt and rattled my rosary on a very bumpy ride out of Missoula. Usually it is terror that I taste coming up in my throat, but on this occasion, tears smearing my mascara streamed down my face. Three little words popped into my head.

Love. (OMG! I love you God.)

Thanks. (Thanks for EVERYTHING.  Thanks for EVERYONE.  I can’t say THANKS enough.)

Hope. (I hope I made a difference. At least a little.)

And then we were safely on the ground. Thank God.

I hope to hold onto these kernels, these little scraps of God given grace – from United Flight 3054.

Love. Thanks. Hope.

And with my feet firmly on the ground, I pray, that they take root, sprout up, and grow all over the place: my place, your place, everyone’s place.

Let the weeds grow up with the wheat, let them grow together until the harvest.

If it’s green, let it grow.

 

JoaniSign


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Bipolar Boudica, Bishop Brigid & Sister Fidelma

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, d. 60 CE

Since way back in the AOL days, my email address has been “celticjlp”. I am more than a bit of a Celtophile.  I have made three pilgrimages to the Emerald Isle. On all things Celtic, I have facilitated forums, I have led retreats and I have tutored a disciple or two. I am steeped, as steeped as I can be, in the history and spirituality of my chosen people. And in all five of the churches I have served I have concocted and celebrated Celtic worship, orthodox and otherwise. I am Celtic to the core and have the tattoo to prove it — a little green shamrock on my left shoulder. (A Christmas gift from my children!)

Let me recount just a few of the things that connect me so deeply to my Celtic ancestors. They worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars. They wove the sacred into their most ordinary of chores. They hallowed each and every very hour of each and every day with prayer. Their sanctuaries are the forests and the meadows and the cliffs. Holy spirits indwell their streams and inhabit their oak groves. Holy winds blow on their most remote islands and holy waves crash on their island’s shores. Every little blade of Celtic green grass practically shimmers with the divine. Well almost.

Not to over romanticize my chosen people, the Celts were a nomadic people who probably practiced human sacrifice. Not too often — but one human sacrifice is one too many. The Celts were a warrior people who liked to collect the skulls of those they conquered as trophies. They were a tribal people where both women and men exercised royal power. Yes, women in power. What’s not to like?

And this brings me to Boudica, the Celtic Warrior Queen.

Boudica, for those who do not know, was queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe of Britain in the 1st century of the Common Era. During the time of the Roman occupation, Boudica’s husband was able to keep his crown. Upon his death, however, the Romans rolled over the Iceni. They captured its people and confiscated their property. Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped. No one would have blamed Boudica, if she gave into defeat and despair. But hell no, Boudica rescued her daughters, climbed into her chariot, and led the Iceni army in the charge against Rome. She put down the 9th Legion, destroyed the Roman capital and went on to conquer London, another stronghold of the occupiers. There was bloodshed beyond measure and Boudica was eventually beaten back. It is said she took her own life to avoid capture. No one knows where Boudica is buried. But all of Celtic Britain knows her story, every little boy and every little girl.

And so this brings me to  Brigid.

Bishop Brigid of Kildare, c 451 - 525

In the second half of the 5th century, there was Brigid, Bishop Brigid of Kildare. Brigid is both the name of a Celtic goddess and the name of a saint. For the ancient Celts, Brigid is the three-faced goddess of poetry, metal work, and fire. And for Celtic Christians, Saint Brigid is the founder of the monastery at Kildare, the Church of the Oak. Kildare was a “double monastery” home to both religious men and women. And these Celtic Christian brothers and sisters were permitted to marry and raise children in service to the Lord. And Brigid, the abbess of Kildare, Celtic history tells us was consecrated as a Bishop. Carved into the stone altar rail at the Rock of Cashel, Bishop Brigid, crozier in hand, leads a procession of the twelve apostles. The Roman Catholic  Church turned her crozier into a butter churn and demoted Brigid from Bishop to milkmaid. Hopefully and forever, the hierarchy thought they had  put in her rightful and inferior place.

Until there was Fildelma.

The fictitious but o so fabulous, Sister Fidelma

The real Brigid did not remain buried forever. She has been resurrected and reincarnated in the fictitious and fabulous Sister Fidelma. Fidelma is the creation of Celtic scholar turned mystery writer, pen-named Peter Tremayne. Set in 7th century Ireland, the Sister Fidelma stories are a delicious combination of history and mystery. Fidelma is of royal blood, a princess of the Eoghanacht, educated to the level of dalaigh, an adovocate of the Brehon courts, just below judge. She is also a member of the monastery at Kildare, and married to Brother Eadulf. Yes, married to Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk, who is Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes. And by the time Fidelma and Eadulf  are solving their 20th murder or so they even have a baby. Crack open one or two of these books and you will be hooked.  Tremayne gives them hokey Agatha Christie titles like “Absolution by Murder”, “Shroud for the Archbishop”, “Our Lady of Darkness” and “Whispers of the Dead”. Who says women can’t have it all?

Boudica. Brigid. Fidelma. When feeling the need to slay a dragon or two – or just feeling a touch grandly grandiose — who better for my bipolar brain to channel than the spirits of these holy three, this Celtic and o so feminist trinity. Boudica — queen, warrior, widow, mother and savior of her people. Brigid — goddess, abbess, priestess, bishop and saint. Fidelma — princess, sister, lawyer, detective and murder mystery solver. Their icons and statues grace my halls and walls. Their books and biographies fill my bookcases. I have embraced their stories and made them my own.

It may seem silly, but to tell you the God’s honest truth, I believe these three women are kin to me. And O my, my this little trinity has given me the energy  to get my warrior on — from time to time.. And so I believe myself to be their sister – their soul sister. Joani, the soul sister of Boudica, Brigid and Fidelma. Crazy, huh?

Yes, Crazy, bipolar Celtic crazy. The best kind of crazy there is. The best kind of crazy of all.

So friends, whose spirits are you channeling today?

(And by the way, a happy Saint Patrick’s Day!)

JoaniSign

 


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Pajamas: a Way of Life

pajamas-normal-rockwell

I am addicted to pajamas.

The pajama drawer of my dresser is stuffed with over a dozen pairs — and yesterday, from my favorite store — I brought home two more.

Sometimes spelled “pyjamas” and nicknamed “PJ’s, jimjams, and jammies”,  pajamas derives from the Hindustani word for lightweight drawstring trousers traditionally worn by Islamic Continental Indians.  Perfect for lounging.  Perfect for sleeping. Perfect for so much more.

Like interchangeable monastic robes,  each pair I wear depends upon my manic-depressive mood.

Mostly manic and  mostly mystical, in the sanctity of  my sacred space, I call home.

Yoga stretching.

TV watching.

Blog blogging.

Coffee drinking.

Netflix binging.

Life contemplating.

Psyche orienting.

Decompressing.

Soul relaxing.

Head raising.

Life strategizing.

Event planning.

Day scheduling.

Church organizing.

Kid connecting.

Book reading.

Breakfast eating.

iPhone tapping.

Pillow hugging.

Couch surfing.

Spotify hopping.

Coffee drinking (Yes, again, coffee drinking.)

Mood mellowing.

Evening praying.

Inward looking.

Brain cycling.

Tightrope balancing.

Politics pumping.

Crazy resisting.

Fire dreaming.

Self loving.

Spirit restoring.

All in my pajamas: fleece, flannel, cotton, short and long, worn through and brand new.

All in my pajamas, in an hour or two, I collect my thoughts and reconfigure my gut,

at least for the next day or so.

I recommend it most highly  — in these most exceedingly strange and stressful times.

Pajamas: a way of life.

JoaniSign

 


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Theologically Incorrect (or Sperm Swimming Upstream)

Joani Immaculata Sophomore Year

Sophomore Year

 Growing up in chaos, Catholic school was both blessing and curse.

While family arguments, yelling, screaming, and name-calling by the so-called grownups in my house, flew over my little eight year old head, I would escape into the 1960’s institution known as parochial school.

It was my salvation. I ate it up big time. I was a little parochial school girl extraordinaire.

I dressed the part. It was required, of course: plaid jumper, peter pan collar blouse, saddle shoes and chapel veil.

Middle child and peacemaker at home, I was quite the expert at disappearing into the woodwork, keeping my head down, not rocking the boat. (I could go on but I am running out of metaphors.)

But in Sister Regina Clare’s third grade class, I was a star in the movie of my own making.

I raised my hand every chance I got.

“Call on me, Sister. Call on me!”

 And call on me, Sister did. Teacher’s pet and smartest kid in the class, I would do just about anything to delay going home after school.

“Who can clean the blackboards and clap the erasers?”

“Me, Sister, me!”

“Who can alphabetize all these test papers for me?”

“Me, Sister, me!”

 I would even volunteer to stay after school and clean the convent. Yes, CLEAN THE CONVENT! That is how desperate I was to stay out of the cross hairs of chaos called home.

(But I did get a scandalous eyeful of the nuns’ underwear hanging on the clothesline! BONUS!)

Catholic school was my salvation but it was not free. No cheap grace here.

There was the ever present threat of eternal damnation, everlasting hell fire: pretty f*ing scary to an eight year old.

So I memorized the hell out of my Baltimore Catechism.

“Who made me?”

“God made me?

 “Why did God make me?

“God made me to love and serve him for all eternity.”

 I rattled my rosary beads like there was no tomorrow. (Well, maybe there was NO tomorrow!!)

Scarier than Hell was getting stuck in the eternally boring feedback loop of Purgatory – not just for myself but for all of my dead relatives, as well. Whose full names I wrote in the back of my Saint Joseph Missal:

Bernard Francis Peacock, Sr.

Benjamin Joseph Cady

 I wrote their full names, I guess, so God would not get my grandfathers mixed up with anybody else’s grandfathers.

One loop of the rosary, could buy them a thirty-day get out of Purgatory early card. Two loops could lessen their sentence by sixty.

Eight years old, I was responsible for their immortal souls! Scary, scary stuff.

And God forbid, I commit my own grammar school mortal sin. MORTAL – meaning just that – that I would go straight to Hell if I forgot to confess it – if I should die before I wake.

(And whoever came up with that crappy, crappy prayer for a little child to pray as their parents terrifyingly tucked them into bed? To Purgatory they should go.)

So at Holy Family School, every Friday, I was first in line for morning confession.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. Father, I have (FILL IN THE BLANK).”

 Thoroughly prepped on Thursday by Sister Whoever, having examined my conscience and run through the Ten Commandments, I went into the booth fully armed with “THE LIST”.

Which I would pad with a few extra sins, here and there, just to be on the safe side.

  1. No false gods? No problem. I did not worship Baal this week.
  2. No idols? No problem. I did not carve any graven images this week, whatever that means.
  3. The Lord’s name in vain? Put me down for two “God Damns” and three “Jesus, Mary, and Josephs.”
  4. Sabbath holy? Holy Day of obligation? No problem. Stars in my crown. I get my butt to Mass every Sunday.
  5. Honoring mom and dad? Truth be told. I have been disobedient all over the place. Put me down for ten.
  6. Adultery? Sister says that’s “impure thoughts.” The lust of an eight-year old. Put me down once for Michael Spillane and twice for Jimmy Sinkieweiz.
  7. False witness? Well, not in a court of law but fibs, white lies abundant. Put me down for six.
  8. Coveting? What the hell is that? O, wanting other people’s stuff. Veronica’s red patent leather sparkly shoes. I confess to one.
  9. Stealing? Well, a cookie or two, out of the cookie jar. Purely, grade school stuff.
  10. Murder? Murder? I did think about bashing my little brother’s brains in but I managed to avoid the temptation.

And this is just for one week. Saving my soul was exhausting. And by the fourth grade, the system started breaking down. Little cracks were beginning to splinter my little Catholic psyche.

My little hand kept shooting up in the air, of course. I knew my catechism, just about better than other little RC kid in my class. But having reached the ripe old “age of reason”, I started thinking on my own.

Catechism answers turned into questions. Lots of questions.

“Hmmm. ‘transubstantiation’. Sister, why would Jesus want us to eat him and to drink him? That makes no sense.”

 “Hmmm, one true church? True? According to who?”

 “Hmmm, limbo? Poor little, unbaptized babies sitting in the dark for all eternity? What kind of f*ing God is that?

(I did not really say the “F word” but I do enjoy writing it that way.)

By seventh grade, my questions grew bolder.

“Hmmm, French kissing? Tongues touching is a mortal sin? A kiss on the lips is a venial sin? A kiss on the cheek is okay? Where is that in the bible, Sister?”

 And in my sophomore year, at Immaculata Preparatory School, I took on the Pope himself – and Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s crazy encyclical banning birth control.

Star of the debating team, I gave a speech taking on the persona of an unfertilized egg – yes, an unfertilized egg — which I followed all the way through the menstrual cycle and the reproductive system in great detail.

The egg triumphs!

 Legions of sperm go down in defeat!

 And not a single life is lost!

 Yes, I said these things.

Brilliant, right?

Well, to me, yes, but not so much to Sister Mary Clare, the principal at my prep school.

She called me into her office.

“Joani,” she said. “You have to stop. You have to stop asking questions in religion class.”

 “Why?” I shoot back. “That’s what school is for, right? Learning? Asking questions?”

 “Not for you, Joani. You have to stop. You are confusing the other girls.”

 “Really?” And  thenI risk one more “why?”.

 “Yes, my child, you have to stop.”

And then Sister says, and I quote, these words which have forever hence changed my life.

“Joani, you are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded. You are risking your immortal soul – and theirs too.”

 Yes, Catholic school saved me. This conversation with Sister Mary Clare saved me.

So, I skipped my senior year at Immaculata Prep and got early admission to Catholic University. (Yes, Catholic University). There, at CUA, I became a philosophy major, where I could ask all the GD, F*ing questions I wanted.

Sorry, Sister Mary Clare. You might be right. I might be about to lose my immortal soul. But I will truly be damned, if I am going to lose my mind.

A mind, you know, is a terrible thing to waste.

And I am very fond of mine.

(And truth be told, this is how I grew up to become an Anglican.)

JoaniSign