Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Scarlet Letter, No More

Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

For 45 years, I have locked my secret away in a vault.

Lead lined, buried deep, for me and me alone, always to keep and never to tell.

Under lock and key, it seemed safer that way.

Forty-five years ago, just sixteen years old, I went looking for love, wherever I could find it.

And it wasn’t at home.

Outside looking in, I was Doctor Peacock’s daughter, well to do, parochial school girl, goody two shoes, and middle child.

Inside looking out, I parented myself from a very early age. While my alcoholic bipolar mom was behind closed doors and my workaholic dad was forever making rounds, I learned to take care of Joani.

So I found love in the boy next door. Both refugees from our dysfunctional households, close friends, we clung to one another for love and support.

And then I was “late”. O my God, O my God, what have I done?

1972. Alone and disowned by my parents, I had become a disgrace. A shame on my family, impossible to erase.

Should we have a shotgun wedding? My parents said no. His parents said yes. But both sets agreed that teenage parents, we were destined to be.

But I was a minor, just a child myself. And though I had conceived this child, I could not possibly conceive of  being a mom at 17. No, not yet. No, not now. No visible means of support. No diploma. No degree. Not even a bank account to call my own.

I was terrified. Out and out terrified.

A junior in high school, at Immaculata Prep, I hid my belly beneath a sweater buttoned up well into the spring. And on May 19th of ’72, the priest having refused us, we were married at the courthouse by the Justice of the Peace. I bought a calico hippy peasant dress for the occasion but my mother insisted I wear white.

I might, as well, have worn a Scarlet Letter.

scarlet-letter-two

And though, I knew I could not keep her, I also knew I had to bring her into this world.

The social worker at the adoption agency, whose name I wish I could remember, mothered me three trimesters through. But it was 1972. There was no Planned Parenthood. No birthing classes. No Lamaze. Just a stick figure pamphlet from the Medicaid clinic.

I remember going to the public library to find a picture book, so I could see and understand what was happening inside of me. Blushing at the circulation desk, I was terrified to actually check it out.

September 28th of ’72, in a cab all by myself, I made it to my final appointment at Georgetown Hospital. Already in labor, the nurse rushed me to the delivery room. No time for drugs. I did nothing but push.

And out she came. Purple and slippery and squawking and full of life. Shaking and in shock, I could not bring myself to hold her. I knew that if I did, I risked not giving her up.

I had no plans to even name her, for she was never going to be mine. But the birth certificate sat on my tray table. I had to fill in the blanks. Elizabeth Catherine. Or was it Elizabeth Beatrice? I can’t quite remember.

But I did visit the nursery, though I did not go inside.

“Please, hold her up to the window for me, so that I can see her before I go.”

“Goodbye, little Elizabeth. I wish you a good life. I wish you the best it can be.”

And I have never regretted this decision. I am proud of that child that brought this child into the world in 1972.

So I signed the papers, a sealed adoption. She would never know us and we would never know her. It seemed best for all concerned. And what did I know? I was only seventeen.

So I locked the secret up tight and threw away the key. Grieving was a luxury, I could not afford. Traumatized teenagers, kicked to the curb, we had to survive.

So I skipped my senior year and a year or so later, I made it to CUA. We got jobs in a preschool and the tiniest efficiency you have ever seen.

And now, to make a long story short, we took ten years to grow up. Built a marriage. Built a home. Built a life. And ten years later, in 1982, we had Zach and then Colleen and then Jacob.

All three babies made possible by Elizabeth, the baby I never held in my arms.

And even to my three children, she was a secret. Locked up tight. Never to tell. Why? What good would it do? What would I say? What purpose would it serve? Forty-five years is a very long time. It seemed the vault would hold forever.

And then she found me.

Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com (my brother’s account), just before Christmas, she found me.

An emotional tsunami broke loose in my head. Pummeled by waves, I was certain, I’d drown. Buoyed by therapy, I did not.

Rebecca Dragon is her name. Mother of three. Lives on a farm in Vermont.Spiritual seeker. Russian Orthodox, by choice. Theater major. She found and read my blog. My daughter’s too.

Excited beyond words, she had found her tribe.

Terrified beyond words, I froze, not knowing what I would do.

But, of course, I did.

The next morning, I called her. The hardest phone call I have ever made in my life. We talked for half an hour. Crying. Incredulous. Laughing.  And now, we have talked many more times. Texting, emailing, Face Booking, too.

She is happy, healthy, and whole. A down to earth, sort of off-the-grid parent, she home schools her three children. Crafty, she spins and knits. Comfortable in the kitchen, she makes real food from scratch. She is snarky and hysterical, theological and spiritual. And a blogger, herself, twice over. An urban expat, living on a rural route, she grew up in D.C.

Though those domestic genes are certainly not mine, she reminds me so much of me. Different, of course, taller, green eyes, and a different nose. She is definitely one of us. Primarily a Peacock, I would vainly say.

DNA is much more powerful than I ever could have imagined.

And now my children know and have happily connected with her, too. And my siblings know. And my coworkers know.  And my friends.

And now you know too.

Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, I fly to Vermont, to meet Rebecca and her children: Bella, Jude, and Meir. And her husband too.

I am going as “just Joani.” I am not “mom” or “grandma”. Rebecca’s fabulous parents, alone, deserve these titles. I did not raise her as my own. I like to call her “my long lost offspring” and as for me, maybe “biomom”, at least for now.

But we are definitely biologically joined at the hip. And I really, really like her. And I look forward to knowing her and her family, more and more.

So the “Peacock and the Dragon” will meet and we’ll take it from there.

No more “Mea maxima culpa.”

Scarlet Letter, no more.

(And meet Rebecca! Yes, also a blogger @ The Wee Dragon!)
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

 

 


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Make Sure to Tiptoe Around Mom

tiptoe around mom house of cards picture

Middle child of six, my childhood can be best described as muddled — or better yet, “fair to middling” as my father used to say.

But charmed and enchanted is what outsiders saw.

My dad was a successful surgeon and my manic mom, a stay-at-home mom. Our six bedroom suburban home was well appointed 1960’s style: wing back chairs, antique sofa, oriental rugs. I had French Provincial furniture in my bedroom and my brothers had Ranch Oak bunk beds in theirs. And four bathrooms, so there was little need to share.

And all was spit and polished just about all of the time. Most of the time.

With six children, three adults, and a dog, the upkeep of the castle was intense. So Downton Abbey style, we had household servants. All African American, I am more than a little ashamed to say. Two full time maids: Nan and her daughter, Cornelia. And a handyman, a grown man, we shamefully called Sonny (Joseph, being his given name.). All members of the Simpson family. And Cora, whose last name I do not recall. She came twice a week to do the ironing.

Thanks to them, we were always freshly pressed in our uniforms or nicely dressed in our department store clothes. Shoes from Hahn’s or Stride Rite. Only the best.

And oh my goodness, we ate well too. Very, very well. My mom had a wall of cookbooks  which she rarely consulted but seemed to inspire her nonetheless. While other kids had meatloaf for dinner, we dined on Beef Bourguignon. While other kids wolfed down fish sticks, we feasted on Filet of Sole Almondine.

And all six of us went to private schools: Holy Family, Gonzaga, La Reine, Immaculata — with all the standard extracurriculars: piano lessons, softball practice, swim teams.

We were privileged, well to do. And while we were not taught explicitly to look down on anyone else — it was made very clear that we were to be looked up to. Or least to act like we were. “Remember you’re a Peacock.” my dad would say every time we left the house. Like mini model citizens, our appearance was supposed to be polished, our behavior beyond reproach.

Materially we lacked for nothing – or so it seemed. While maternally and paternally, we were falling apart at the seams.

My dad the workaholic doctor was barely at home.

My manic-depressive mom retreated more and more behind her bedroom door — a door on which I was very nervous to knock.

Each morning, I would check out  my mom like a weather report: dark and stormy; bright and sunny; cloudy with rain. The forecast was often in doubt and subject to change. When bright and sunny, my mom was the life of the party! Fun loving, story telling, cooking up a storm and shopping ’til she dropped.

I loved this mom very much – but as I grew up I saw her less and less. More and more she was dark and moody, drugged with valium, and with a drink her hand. Medicating herself for this malady for which we had no name. (Which now I truly understand.)

And this middle child — who was just a child – thought it my job not to upset her. I thought it my job to keep the peace, to maintain the status quo, not rock the boat in any way, if I could help it. So straight A, goody-two-shoes Joani kept her head down.

And little old me believed, that if I could be a better little kid, a better little daughter, a better little student, a  better little Catholic — that I could keep my house from falling down on my head. I could keep my house from falling down and crushing us all.

Not my job, right?

Of course not.

My own healthy, bipolar, grownup self knows this now. Knows this to be true. I know that childhood chores involve making your bed, doing dishes, and picking up toys. No, childhood chores do not involve saving yourself and your siblings from your very troubled mom and your mostly absentee dad. Though I do believe they loved us as best they could.

But funny how history repeats itself.  And funny how whatever we learned at our parents’ knees will stay with us until the day we die.

And it bubbles up in our grownup lives. Sometimes imperceptibly. Sometimes overwhelmingly.

I am still a middle child, peacemaker, model citizen, goody-two-shoes, bleeding heart, employee of the month. Raining sunshine wherever I go — or at least so I think.

And what goes wrong in my world – whether it be my fault or not — whether it be at home, or at church, or at work — I have the uncontrollable urge to fix it. Where things get rough, let me make them smooth. When things are sad, let me cheer you up. When things get messy, I will tidy them up. When others fail, I will take their place. When things get crazy, I will make them sane.

And I will tiptoe, tiptoe around “mom” — hoping against hope — that this “house of cards” wherever it is — this “house of cards” will not come crashing down on those who live or work there. On my head, or the heads of those I care about, on the heads of those I love.

Not my job, right?

Damn right.

Not anymore.

JoaniSign

 

 


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In her house are many dwelling places…

anacostia homes

Home Sweet Home, Anacostia, Washington, DC.

When I was a little girl, my Grandmother Peacock’s house was heaven to me.

I am one of six siblings in my branch of the Peacock clan. Grandma Peacock’s row house was a safe and secure harbor – a refuge away from the scary house in which we actually  lived. Once a month or so, each one of us got a chance to go on the equivalent of a Club Med vacation — a weekend at Grandma’s  — a chance to be an only child.

Grandma’s Anacostia home was a fairy tale castle. There was a bathroom with an enormous footed tub and a telephone closet on the first floor. There was a dining room AND a breakfast room. Downstairs was the best. There was an upright piano – painted bright red and a workshop with all kinds of gadgets and tools and little jars filled with all kinds of widgets and screws.

In my tea-totaling grandmother’s house there was a built in bar with a brass rail, swizzle sticks. and Heurich beer signs. The downstairs shower had four showerheads! (Who knows what went on down there in the Roaring Twenties?!)

In Grandma’s house there were many mansions. And here over many a weekend, she prepared a place for us. When you stayed over at Grandma’s there was always plenty of food. She was no great cook — she was big on cornflakes and Cool Whip as condiments. You could fault her on her cooking — but never on her generosity.

On Saturday night we’d go to the lecture at the National Geographic Society. On Sunday morning before breakfast, we would go to St Theresa’s for 8:00 Mass. We got fed in body, mind and soul.

For ninety-six years Grandma Peacock (It seems disrespectful to call her Agnes — even now) made room — enormous room.

Grandma’s little summer place on Butternut Road is where we learned to pick Chesapeake Bay Blue crabs – the family sacrament. We’d gather on the lawn for something like family reunions. The tiny cottage was way too small to hold us all but — miraculously — somehow it did. To  me it was as grand as the Taj Mahal.

In the seventies, Grandma downsized and moved to an apartment. Still her welcome mat was always out.

In our rebellious years, we regularly  showed up on her doorstep uninvited. She’d be ready to feed us in a heartbeat from whatever she might find in her fridge. We caused all kinds of trouble in our adolescence — which I will not embarrass myself with here.  No matter what we did, though, Grandma never turned us out. I never heard her speak ill of anybody although I’m sure she did entertain some not so nice thoughts. At least in my hearing — she never let them out.

I think Grandma always thought of us as we appeared in those school pictures and family portraits that lined her hallway. In the most desperate of places, she still managed to see glimmers of hope in all of those faces.

And she had faith.  Grandma’s apartment was a shrine of Catholic kitsch: plastic statues of Mary and the Infant of Prague and pictures of the Pope back to John XXIII. Rosary beads were draped over her bed post and an Ave Maria playing music box hung on her wall. Her coffee table was piled high with the Catholic Digest and the Catholic Standard. Remarkably — all this kitschy stuff  really meant something. Faith was not just something she believed. Faith was something she did.

She kept faith with us and  — in so many ways — she was my salvation. A weekend in my grandmother’s house made living in my own chaotic and dysfunctional house that much more bearable – at least for a little while. For three short days I would be loved – the way I should have been loved as a child every day of my life. The way all God’s children should be loved all the time.

Believe in me, Jesus says. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I go to prepare for you a place so that where I am you may be also.

I have often imagined when I hear this gospel: Jesus rushing back to his Father’s house to get the guest room ready: Jesus running the vacuum. Jesus changing the sheets; Jesus putting fresh flowers on bedside table and fresh towels in the bathroom; Jesus running to the Safeway to stock the fridge for unexpected guests – a heavenly Holiday Inn.

I know this Jesus – the Jesus who lived in my Grandma Peacock. I know that this Jesus loved me and loves me. This Jesus saved me and rescued me. This Jesus allowed me to grow up wounded, yes – but also healed and whole.

In her house is plentiful redemption.

In her house are  many mansions,

many dwelling places,

the very house of God.

JoaniSign


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Over the River and Through the Woods — to Sanity’s House We Go

Not exactly Norman Rockwell.

Not exactly Norman Rockwell.

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 a particularly delusional and dysfunctional loved one of mine. Totally in denial of her opioid addiction, she is totally indifferent to the damage done to herself and the pain caused to the family that loves her. For now she chooses to refuse all help. So for now, I choose to have Thanksgiving without her. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe not.

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. Thank God, God commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Yes — ourselves. Even on Thanksgiving.

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

JoaniSign