Thanks, Steubenville! We’ll be back!

Dorms like an Amazonian rainforest. Bad-boy priests. Horrible food. “Second-class citizens” with mobility issues forced to sit alone while their friends enjoyed the party. Worst of all, No Diet Coke.

I heard all these things ahead of time, and signed up as a chaperone with more than a little anxiety. Oh, and a fan, a cooler full of DC and enough Little Debbies to satisfy the juvenile cravings of a whole army of ravenous teens.

I’m returning with most of it, and the fan stayed in the van. Turns out St Thomas More Hall had both AC and a Coke machine. (And apparently most teens now eat Rice Kristy Treats. Who knew?)

To be sure, there are those whose FSU experience was memorable for the wrong reasons. You can’t have a light on a hill without evil trying to encroach, both from within and without, and social media gives that minority a powerful voice.

But there is often more to the story, and I found it here. Children with sensory issues offered earplugs and a quiet space outside to recover from sensory overload (and cots at first aid to lie down if needed). And about two dozen manly, fired-up priests and just as many beautiful women religious visibly present to the youth throughout the weekend.

Yes, the food was mass produced and … filling. Loads of carbs. But you could grab a sandwich or a latte at the food court. And interminable food lines were sweetened with snow cones.

Dorm rooms? Bathrooms clean, with separate rooms for chaperones and students. And next year leave the fan and cooler and bring a floor lamp, an extra battery pack, and a quilt.

Here is the most important thing. Anyone who doubts the future of the Church in America needs to sign up to chaperone next year. Yes, they were silly and loud. But they were also open to what the Spirit wanted to give them. Some of them must have been puzzled (or even unsettled) to see and hear the exuberant worship, and to witness the spectacle that is a FSU youth conference.

Was it a bit regimented? Absolutely…. you can’t host 2000+ teens plus chaperones for a weekend without some rules to keep kids where the action is, and to make sure everyone eats, sleeps, and gets the good seats at least once during the weekend. FSU has been hosting these things for 30+ years, I’m told. So when the rules pinched a bit, I rolled with it. Or tried.

And these kids surprised me. Offered a choice between a session on heaven, hell, and purgatory … outside in the heat; or Dating 101 in air conditioned comfort, all but 1 of our kids chose… purgatory. Wow!

Thanks, Steubenville. We will be back.

Notes for next year.

Bring a sweatshirt and hoodie for bed. Just in case.

Leave the snack bag.

Bring headphones. And a sense of humor.

Bring extra chargers. The kids never have one.

Don’t forget the bug spray.

Unhand the Cheerios…

cereals in basket

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Both kids were scheduled to work this morning, so we went as a family to the five o’clock Mass at St. Pius. It was the first time we’d gone there together — gorgeous church, lovely organ music, and the homily was short, sweet, and … a little crunchy.

The priest observed that every parish in America sweeps up at least a pound of Cheerios each weekend — a kind of divine detritus (my words) left behind by parents of small children who just want to be able to pray for five minutes. Then one day as he was watching his two-year-old nephew grow frustrated over trying to play with a truck with two fistfuls of Cheerios, he said, it made him realize that Cheerios are the perfect metaphor for human desire. “God holds out the truck, and we won’t let go of the Cheerios long enough to take it. But that’s what God is asking … he wants you to let go of the Cheerios,” he explained.

I looked at my mother, sitting so intently next to me. It has been only about three weeks since our priest gave her the anointing of the sick while she was in the hospital with pneumonia — for her, it was a sacramental windfall that included first confession, first Eucharist, confirmation, and last rights. Thank God, she recovered … and has been eager to go forward to receive Jesus each week. Her eyes just light up with so much joy, you never would have guessed what a miracle it is that she was standing there at all.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I was brought up believing Catholics aren’t “really” Christians. So to see God work it out so that my mother goes forward to receive Jesus each week is a little … strange. I’d had two aunts (one on either side of the family) who had married Catholic boys, and it didn’t end well.  (Interestingly enough, one of them — my namesake — wound up tending to my grandmother in her later years. I so admire her.)

All I know is that, for the past two years, mom has been going to church with us each week … and remaining in the pew as the rest of us went up. She would say all the prayers, and sing along to all the hymns, and listen intently as our Nigerian priest would break open the Gospel. At night I would tuck mom in and read to her from some of the books I’m currently working on, and one day she pulled out one called Catholic and Christian by Dr. Alan Schreck … and we started reading THAT.

Next thing I know, she’s telling Fr. John that she wants to be a Catholic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because her Catholic daughter rescued her from memory care prison. Maybe it’s because I refused to give up praying with her for her marriage. Maybe it’s because … well, maybe it’s because we were both ready to let go of the Cheerios, and hold out our hands for whatever God wanted to give us.

And so we did. And you know what? It was even better than we thought.

If You Give a Mom a Cookie …

amazon-if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie(With a thankful nod to Laura Numeroff.)

If you give a mom a cookie, she will sit in a chair and try to eat it in peace.

As soon as she sits, she will look in the kitchen and see Ravenous Teen left the milk on the counter. Again. So she sets her cookie on the table and goes to the kitchen … Where for the next ten minutes she wipes counters, empties dishwasher, and puts dinner in the crock pot. And, yes, gets herself a glass of milk. With a shot of Bailey’s.

The scent of Bailey’s inexplicably reminds her that she left of load of laundry in the washer downstairs … yesterday. Hoping against hope that it has not turned, she goes downstairs to the laundry room and trips over eight piles of clothes that Messy Teen has transferred from the floor of his room to the floor of this one. Muttering darkly under her breath and rubbing her stubbed toe, she rotates the wash and calls Messy Teen to fold his own danged clothes and take them upstairs. Now it is his turn to mutter darkly under his breath. Mission accomplished.

Exiting the laundry room, her eye falls on her desk, the laptop hopefully poised for action. Sorry she left her cookie (and the Bailey’s milk) upstairs, she sits down and proceeds to grind out 27 email responses, 4 tip sheets, and a proposal review before her tummy rumbles so loudly it scares her. And she remembers she hasn’t had anything to eat today but a few cookie crumbs. And her granola bar stash was discovered by Ravenous Teen 2 last week, and she hasn’t had time to restock. So back upstairs she goes … in time to see her elderly mother’s daycare bus pull up to the drive. Rats. Rats. Rats.

Helping her mom inside, then to the bathroom and back to her chair for snack time, she narrowly escapes slugging her husband when he comes down and asks with great feeling, “What’s for lunch?” Desperately she looks around for a teen to take over sandwich making responsibilities, and sees that Sneaky Teens heard the sound of work and barricaded themselves in their rooms, playing music loud enough to shake the house and wake the dead. “Just a minute, dear.” And she spots a bit of reprieve on the table, which the dog appears to have nibbled around the edges. “Here … have a cookie.”

Thankfully, he did not get the Baileys.

Day 9: Forgiveness

Alice (interpreter), Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton.

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Today’s theme is “forgiveness.” Not just each other, but those who move in your sphere of influence.

This year Craig and I flew to Rwanda to help Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga complete his book for Ave entitled Forgiveness Makes You Free. The highlight of the trip was getting to interview Straton, the man who now works alongside Fr. Ubald to bring reconciliation and peace to the people of Rwanda. Once a powerful burgomeister who gave the order for the execution of Fr. Ubald’s mother and extended family, he now works construction and travels with Fr. Ubald into prisons and speaks to those who, like him, were responsible for the deaths of more than a million former friends, neighbors, and co-workers — slaughtered in just 100 days simply because they were Tutsi.

Looking into Straton’s eyes, I did not see a hardened criminal. There was no hate, only sincerity. This was a man whose life had been transformed by the power of forgiveness — the forgiveness of his victims, the forgiveness of his family, and the forgiveness of God. All of it possible because of forgiveness and mercy.

Think about your own life. Is there anyone — even someone in your intimate circle — you are finding difficult to forgive? Are you willing to set your relationship free through the power of forgiveness? You will be amazed at what God can do in the heart that is willing to surrender.

Mortality Road

What is it like, to watch a parent die from dementia? It varies so much from person to person, of course … I can only share what it is like, watching my own mother: It is a roller coaster called Mortality Road; no one ever wants to get onboard, and once you are on, you are helpless to escape.

This roller coaster called dementia has reached a new low point for us this week. I look at my mother, curled in a ball on her bed, her eyes vacant. She does not eat, drink, or speak. And I feel as helpless as I did as a child, when her rages would drive me to my room, rooting around for a safe space. But now the only rages are taking place inside her head, where I cannot hear them — and cannot contradict.

There’s no running now. I’m in charge. Or so it says on paper. In reality, it’s her mental demons that are calling all the shots. Sometimes the voice sounds like my father, other times it’s this ever-present asshole my mother calls “The Judge,” telling her she is going to be executed for her many failings.

The chaplain at her daycare has given her a “Certificate of Innocence.” Her doctors have repeatedly told her she needs to take care of herself by eating and drinking. I have done everything I can think of, tempting her with all the things that used to make her eyes twinkle.

And here it is, 2:00 in the afternoon, and her breakfast tray remains untouched. I have to step away for a moment, just to take a deep breath and remind myself that it is the disease, and not my mother, who is at the root of the problem. She is not fighting for control. She has already been beaten by these unseen powers.

We are walking Mortality Road. And ever step gets steeper and harder.

We are facing the fact that, in the end, this disease is going to kill her.

And the only satisfaction I can take from it all.

The only thing that keeps me from feeling like a total failure.

Is knowing that we persevered, together, no matter what.

And that when it is over, the clouds will clear,

And she will know with the blessed assurance of eternity

Just how much she was loved all along.

Night Blessings

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Are you currently the primary caregiver for a parent or other loved one? Would you like a safe place to go for prayer or just to vent? I’ve recently started a “Catholic Caregivers” site on Facebook … It’s a closed group, but you are welcome to join!

These last few days have been sad ones for Mom. Lots of tears and confusion. She keeps writing and writing, but it only increases her frustration. She doesn’t know how to explain the conflict within her, and she is fighting a battle against accusers none of us can see, let alone help her to resist.

Last night as I tucked her I could see that she was on the edge of tears, and I wanted so much to be able to ease her mind. So I laid down beside her and sang to her some of the songs she sang to me as a little girl. As she grew calm, I decided to try a little ritual that I adapted from something that I experienced for the first time as I prepared to become Catholic, when my sponsor blessed each part of my body in preparation for the journey ahead of me — into the Church.

Now, my mother is a lifelong evangelical Christian, but she is familiar with the little rituals of Catholic prayer, and I hoped that this would help to comfort her. So I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and said, “I bless my mother’s mind. All her life her brain stored songs and stories and wisdom that she shared with her daughters. Now there are snarls and worn places that are hurting her. Please heal her mind, Lord Jesus.”

Then I blessed her eyes and said, “I bless her eyes. She looked out at the world and saw God’s beauty, and looked at me and saw God at work in my life. Please help her to see that she is a beloved daughter of God.”

Then I went on blessing the other parts of her body, ending with the feet. “I bless her feet, shod with the Gospel of peace. She traveled all over the country to take care of her family, and never complained. Please ready her feet for that final journey, that she would walk with you always.”

Mom didn’t say anything as I left, but kissed me back as I bent down to say goodnight. I think the darkness has closed in around her, and I’m not sure she can hear truth from my lips right now. But I know her angels are taking those blessings to Jesus. And I believe that he will be able to reach where I cannot.

Today the chaplain at her daycare asked us all to come in so he could give mom a “certificate of innocence.” He told mom that he knew she was worried that someone was wanting to bring her to court over something that had happened years ago. He had checked, and everyone has agreed that she has done nothing deserving of standing trial. So he was giving her the certificate to remind her that she is not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. It’s a tangible reminder that she is where she belongs.

I don’t know if either of these things are going to have the desired effect. When you are dealing with a dementia patient, so much is happening beneath the surface that he or she may never be able to articulate, let alone resolve.

But God is merciful. And he loves his children — even the weak and confused ones. For the weakness and confusion is temporary. Shadows of the glory to come.

 

“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.