Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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I fear and tremble…therefore I am…

Kierkegaard cartoon question

“The existential question & the Dane’s answer.”

I had a bad case of Kierkegaard in college.

My diagnosis was directly attributable to Sister Mary Clare, my high school principal at Immaculata Prep.

You see — from my Jesuit educated dad, I inherited an insatiable curiosity and an inquiring mind. Virtually all my sentences ended in question marks – especially in religion class.

“Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?”

“The atonement? Why does God kill his only son to save us? What kind of God is that?”

“Bad Catholics go to heaven? Loving Buddhists go to hell? What’s up with that?”

And the deepest and most disturbing question: “Why is French kissing a mortal sin?”

Called into the principal’s office, Sister Mary Clare sat me down to set me straight.

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions in religion class. You are confusing the other girls.”

“Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded.”

Yes, “spiritually retarded”. That’s a direct quote.

So I skipped my senior year at Immaculata to start Catholic University early as a philosophy major — a philosophy major who could ask all the f*ing questions she wanted.

I loved my three years at Catholic U. Historically we read the greatest thinkers of all times: ancient, medieval, modern, existentialist and more.

We didn’t read about philosophy, we read the philosophers themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Boethius, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, Levinas, Wittgenstein, Sartre – and of course Kierkegaard. (Achoo!)

And because I left in my final year without finishing, I missed out on a generation or two of 20th century thinkers: Foucault, Derrida, etc.

But what I did not miss out on was a first class education. Philosophy not only exercises the brain and challenges the mind –philosophy is therapy for the soul.

I aced logic and excelled at metaphysics. I ached with existential angst. I entered Catholic U a parochial school girl and by the time I left I was a Platonic, Hegelian, Enlightened, phenomenological agnostic.

(What does this exactly mean? I don’t exactly know.)

I loved it and my grades proved it. I was invited by my professors to enter the prestigious School of Philosophy.

All of my professors were men. All of the School’s students were seminarians. Need I state the obvious? All men.

Even though I would have been the only woman –I declined. Because I would have been the only woman, I decided to stay behind in the more diverse and down to earth Department of Philosophy.

Women’s numbers in philosophy departments have dramatically improved since my college days – approximately 20% now in the US and higher the UK. But these are still low ball numbers compared to the numbers of women scholars in other halls of the humanities.

A book review in the July 17th issue of The Times Literary Supplement suggests the gender gap is not just a matter of bias – but women like myself – self-selecting out.

I studied philosophy to learn how to think clearly and creatively. I studied philosophy so I could ask Life’s most profound questions. I wanted to be in conversation with other seekers – in a community that mattered. I studied philosophy to expand my soul.

But philosophy – as does theology – gets carried away with itself for the sake of itself – tripping over technical jargon and getting lost in mind numbing minutia.

So lots of brilliant women just say “NO!”.

David Papineau’s TLS piece on “Women in Philosophy: What needs to change?” proposes that “pointlessness, pugilism, nitpicking, pin-dancing” are “all possibilities of why women avoid philosophy.”

 Hysterically he uses the example of professional snooker – a limited but very illuminating analogy.

“Even though women are eligible to compete as professionals, none is ranked in the top hundred. The six-times world champion, Steve Davis, has no doubt about the reason. It’s not that women are incapable of the highest levels of skill. It is rather that as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to ‘something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick.’”

 “As Davis sees it, ‘practicing eight hours a day to get to world championship level’ ranks high among the ‘most stupid things to do with your life.’”

 In other words, women philosophers, might ask more truly meaningful questions – and then choose to explore them in life affirming ways – not wasting their time contemplating “how many angels dance on the head of a pin.”

After marriage and children, I meandered back to school and matriculated in philosophy once again – but this time with an interdisciplinary flair. My undergraduate thesis was on comparative Christology according to George William Friedrich Hegel, Carl Gustav Jung, and John A.T. Robinson.(Don’t you love all those names?)

I remember virtually nothing of what I wrote (the manuscript is lost to time, thanks be to God). I do remember though that it mattered a great deal to me at the time.

A matter of vital importance, I did the best I could to answer Christ’s question:

Who do you say that I am?

 “I” here is reflexive pronoun, plural and not just singular. For Christ and me. “I and Thou”.

I continue to ask this question as an Anglican, as a woman, a priest and a bipolar crazy person. I ask this question every day when I get I up and every night when I lay me down to sleep. I ask it every time I look in the mirror. I ask it every time I preach a sermon or teach a class.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a very bipolar question – this philosophical and theological question. And better than 100 milligrams of Seroquel – it keeps me focused. Trying to answer it sharpens my mind. It clarifies my thoughts. It keeps me grounded and tethered to the ground – the “ground of my being”. It keeps me honest. It keeps me whole.

A dose of philosophy can be good therapy – exercise for the mind, medicine for the psyche, a balm for a fevered brain.

 And regardless of the answers – as a seminary professor once famously said — “learn to love the questions.”

Learn to lean into the questions.

It might just save your sanity.

It might just save your soul.

JoaniSign


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What’s in a Name?

baby-names1 - you named we what 2

My mother ran out of names.

Providence Hospital, DC, March 3, 1955: Three days old, I lay swaddled in the nursery nameless.

Preceded by a sister, Maureen Ann, and a brother, Timothy Francis, it seems my mom had already exhausted a very brief list of favorite names and could not come up with one for baby number three – me!

The discharge nurse told my mom I had to have a name to be discharged. “What shall I write  on the birth certificate? “ My mom responded with a question. “What’s your name? she asked the nurse. “Joan”, she said. “Then we’ll call her ‘Joan’,” my mom said, “and tack on ‘Louise’. That’s my middle name. That’ll work.”

So I went home as JoanJoan Louise.

Growing up I searched for a grander story – a better story to tell. A grandiose little Catholic soul, I believed I was named for Jean d’Arc. A lacquered portrait of Joan hung on my bedroom wall – a First Communion present from my second cousin, the priest – Father Buddy Litkey. Shining in her armor, mounted on a white horse, banner furled, and wielding her sword, I believed myself her heir apparent.

So I canonized myself – St. Joan.

Yet even sanctified, It did not take long to grow bored with my monosyllabic name. (Don’t you love it that “monosyllabic” has five syllables?:)) Such a plain Jane name is Joan. So at my confirmation – as little RC kids traditionally do – I chose a saint to be my patron.

I chose “Veronica”: the woman of legend who wipes the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary. Her beautiful name literally means “true icon”. So beautiful. But for none of the above reasons did I choose it.

I chose it because it was the sexiest damn name this little 10 year old could come up with. Four syllables, exotic, and musical it rolled off the tongue –

Veronica!

But everyone still called me Joan. Well Joani actually (as I spell it now).

As a kid I tried to stretch my name on the page by adding letters: Joan, Joanie, Joannie. In my hippy dippy adolescence I chopped off a couple– an “n” and an “e” in homage to Joni Mitchell. I still have all of Joni’s music on my iPod, but I held on to the “a” for my own namesake:

Joani.

Two weeks ago at SpeakeasyDC’s “Unhinged”, Dara, one of the storytellers, introduced us to her husband’s alter egos. Struggling in their marriage, she met them all in therapy. Out came Michael, a shy and vulnerable boy. Out came drill sergeant, Charlie, his champion and protector.

Her husband, who suffers from DID, Dis-Associative Identity Disorder, by any other name is still her husband. All three gentlemen sitting on the couch were fragments of the man she loves. Shattered by trauma, to cope and survive, he gives them different names.

Each week in therapy they would pick up the pieces, befriending the fragments, collecting them together, both hoping to be be healed, both hoping to be made whole.

And I too go to therapy — twice monthly — to remember my name. I go to recall who I am, to recall just who my God calls me to be – in this time and in this place. And in ten years time, who I call myself has changed many times over.

Names change as lives change. Biblically speaking, on the way to the Promised Land, Sarai becomes SarahAbram becomes Abraham. Wrestling with angels, Jacob is renamed as Israel.

Even the Holy One, whose name was never to be spoken, has too many names to number: Elohim, el Shaddai, YWHW, I AM, Emmanuel – just to name a few.

So what’s in a name?

Well for each and everyone of us  – a whole, whole lot.

Name them and claim them.  Count them up and collect them. Try to understand them. Hold them close and cherish them. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Birth to death, each and every one is an integral and indispensable part of you.

Thanks be to the nameless God — who calls us all by name — whatever that might be.

JoaniSign


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Angelic, Manic and Magic

angels victorian

“Two angels sitting on my shoulder”

I  grew up believing in angels and archangels and all the choirs of heaven. Angels graced the holy cards that marked my place in my St. Joseph missal. Angels glittered on Christmas cards and sat on top of Christmas trees. Glass angels shone through the church windows and marble angels guarded the church doors. Their wings shimmered like silver. Their names sounded like spun gold – Gabriel and Raphael. Angels flew like the wind and they could dance on the head of a pin. My world was awash with angels.

At Holy Family School the angels that mattered most were of more of a humdrum kind. There was the angel who carried your prayers to heaven – if your hands were folded just right. And each of us little Catholic kids had a guardian angel  — who watched over us as we crossed the street like a crossing guard. Then there was a little nameless angel who sat on your right shoulder like Jiminy Cricket — the clear voice of a good conscience for a third grader. And the greatest grade school angel of them all was the veritable star of the Christmas Pageant –“The Angel of the Lord”.

“And behold I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto to you this day  in the City of David is born a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

These were my lines! I got the part and a star was born.

Three days a week for three weeks straight, we  rehearsed the words we would recite and the carols we would sing. I remember beaming with pride as Sister Inez Patricia blew on her pitch pipe as we burst into “Joy to the World”. But then Sister’s nose curled up like she smelled cauliflower cooking.

“Someone is flat here, let’s start again.”

Secure in the knowledge that I had  the voice of an angel — the Angel of the Lord. in fact — I sang even louder the second time. I virtually shouted in order to drown out the voice of that poor soul who could not carry a tune.

“JOY TO THE WORLD!”

This time Sister looked as if steam was coming out of her ears. “Peacock, it’s you.” she said. “You’re out.” Wings clipped, this Angel of the Lord fell from grace, a third grader in  disgrace.

A place I was not totally unfamiliar with.

I did not grow up in a fairy tale household, but a crazy and chaotic one. I had, of course, an alcoholic bipolar mom and a workaholic dad and five wild and wooly siblings. But my childhood nevertheless was still somewhat enchanted. Now at fifty-nine, I can see that the guardian angel  that actually protected me. in fact,  was a hypomanic nine year old cherub. And those hypomanic years got that little cherub through a hellacious home life and all eight grades at Holy Family School.

A little mania is a gift that can go a long way. Euphorically it lifts your spirit. It can give you angel wings and let you hear the angels sing. Miraculously you open your mouth and out comes the voice of an angel. And you believe beyond a doubt and in your heart of hearts that God wants you in his choir.

And as long as you can keep your feet on the ground, it’s okay to walk around with your head in the clouds. And so for so many school days, I did just that. All through high school, all through college. Into married life, professional life, my seminary years, I did just that. A little mania is a marvelous management tool. And even better, prolonged mania is euphoric and delightful and delicious.

But it is also dangerous.

Tripping the light fantastic, I have fantastically overspent my bank account. Flying down the highway, I have flown over guard rails and totaled my car. Staying up nights on end, I have endlessly done myself in. Fearing no evil, I have lost my moral compass more often than I care to confess.

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

So goes The Steeldrivers’ song, a bipolar twist on “Angels we have heard on high….”

“I’ve been known to gamble on a long shot
Leave my better judgment on the rocks
When it comes to takin sides or takin chances
There’s a part of me that didn’t come to talk”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

“I’ve spent a lifetime listening to the whispers
Always try to heed my second mind
Never done nobody wrong on purpose
But I’ve come mighty close a couple times”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

I can blame the mania. I can blame the darkness. But in the end — bipolar or not – I have only myself to blame for my risky behavior — for my poor judgement — for my skewed thinking. There is no guardian angel to save me from myself. I am left to work out my own salvation.

Medically, chemically, prayerfully, therapeutically, responsibly, faithfully, fitfully, anxiously,  and o so gratefully. By the grace of God, I am left alone to work out my own salvation — in the choir of angels.

And now – Sister Inez Patricia be-damned – I continue to make a joyful noise. Fifty years on I have slummed in the soprano section of church choirs for Sundays and seasons both high and low. Singing is cathartic. Singing is ecstatic. Singing is therapy. Singing is a balm for my bipolar soul.

So friends, won’t you join me in the choir of angels?

JoaniSign


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Nighty-Night, Dark Night of the Soul

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew." from Where the Wild Things Are

“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew.” , Where the Wild Things Are

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake.

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Such a dark, dark lullaby. Such a dark, dark good night prayer to rock the baby to sleep. For three hundred years parents have used this prayer to tuck their little ones into bed. Night, night little children. You might wake up dead. “Now I lay me down to sleep” is the opening verse of The New England Primer of 1711: Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes. Boston Babes – sinners from their mothers’ wombs. 18th century life on the Massachusetts Bay could be cold and brief. Sadly even infant souls were depraved and needed  to be saved.

Now I lay me down to sleep” is nearly as familiar as the Our Father. But the words, I believe, would better keep a baby awake than put the baby to sleep. Chanted like a nursery rhyme, the dark verse was often the first prayer a child might learn. A night time prayer. A nightmare prayer that we dare not teach our children anymore.

There should be nothing more peaceful than rocking a baby to sleep. Nighttime rituals are some of childhood’s most cherished memories. With my own three children — I remember singing lullabies off key, fetching glasses of water, and checking under beds for monsters. We read and reread and read again “Goodnight Moon!” and “In the Night Kitchen” and “Where the Wild Things Are” (where Max gets sent off to bed without his supper.) We’d say the Lord’s Prayer, check the closet one last time for anything that might go bump in the night, banish the darkness and then turn off the light.

While the night still lurked outside their door. While the dark still kissed the windowpanes.

There is no taking the darkness out of bedtime.  It just cannot be done. Disney tried to do it with Sleeping Beauty – a great disappointment to the Brothers Grimm. And even as grownups — as we lay ourselves down to sleep – and pray the Lord our souls to keep – it just cannot be done.

Everyone has their share of dark nights of the soul. This is where Compline gets complicated. And in my case — bipolar complicated.

“The Lord Almighty grant me a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

10 o’clock.

Off to bed. Over and over I turn over. And I turn over  in my head all of the things done and left undone.  All the things I should have said, could have said. All the things I could have done, should have done. My fault, my fault, my fault. My most grievous fault.

“O God make speed to save me, O God make haste to help me.”

11 o’clock.

And then just out of earshot I hear  — Elvis the King — a lullaby sing:

Yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow’s out of sight,
And it’s sad to be alone.
Help me make it through the night.

Lord God Almighty, help me make it through the night.

Midnight.

Turn on the light. Turn off the light. Turn on the light. Read, read, read. The same chapter. The same paragraph. The same sentence. Silently and aloud. Silently and aloud.

“Be my light in the darkness, Lord. Illumine the night with celestial brightness.” Please.

1 o’clock.

Bump. Thump. Bump. Thump. Dear God, what’s that noise?

“Let me lie down in peace, Lord, please. Let me fall asleep, for only you Lord make me dwell in safety.”

2 o’clock.

Waking dreams. Scattered scenes. Faces I don’t quite recognize. Voices I can’t quite understand. I think “the devil does prowl like a roaring lion.”

“Visit this place O Lord, deliver me from the snares of my enemy.” Deliver me. Please.

3 o’clock.

Rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye myself to sleep, rattling beads and counting sheep. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Glory be.

“From my labors Lord, give me rest.” Please, Lord, please.

4 o’clock.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on the heavenly door. Knock, knock, knock. You said you’d answer. Knock, knock, knock. No one answers.

“Answer me when I call, O God. defender of my cause.” Please, God, PLEASE.

5 o’clock.

Sleepless walking. Up and down stairs. In and out of rooms. Sleepless talking. Talking to someone not there. Talking to the air.

“Incline your ear to me. Make haste to deliver me.” NOW.

6 o’clock.

Turn on the TV. Turn off the TV. Write, write, write. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Pull out the prayer book and recite:

“Keep me O Lord as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings.” PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE.

7 o’clock.

In my head I hear BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ.  The music plays and the Roches sing: “Break forth O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.”

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

8 o’clock.

Exhausted I  climb under the covers one last time.

God gave me no “peaceful night” and no  “perfect end” but I am finally, finally  asleep. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

I sleep ’til half past eleven, roll out bed, jump in the shower and am at work by noon.

This is how the  bipolar clock ticks and tocks. — on my one of many  – manic dark nights of the soul.  Mine may be different in kind  — but I believe — it is the same species of dark night — known by all the souls known to God. As the night falls fast, restless and weary we all  fall to our knees and pray.

And on such a night there is no better prayer – than this prayer from Compline, from the Book of Common Prayer.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary; bless the dying; soothe the suffering; pity the afflicted; shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”

“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guide us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Special Note: I want you to know I stayed up all night writing this!

JoaniSign