Friday, October 31, 2008

Unfinished Business

In a previous post, I mention that it is a Jewish tradition for Jews to bury their own; instead of a light truck filled with dirt that comes to the grave after all the prayers are said, a pile of earth and a shovel sit graveside. I know about this tradition because of Ari.This is 18 year-old me with my neighbor, Ari Grashin. The Grashin family moved next door to my parents when I was 11 years old, and the four boys and I spent a lot of time together. Over the years, the boys became like my brothers; I helped them with homework, cut their hair, sewed on their stray buttons, answered questions about why girls are so weird in 8th grade, and generally loved them a lot. Ari was the second youngest, and when he was 16 he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had surgery to remove the tumor, and started chemo shortly after. To avoid the annoyance of shedding, Ari asked me to shave his head. There was an unspoken agreement among his brothers and friends to shave their heads too, and the haircutting night turned into quite a party. People just kept showing up until there was standing-room only, and when it looked like everyone was there, we started the head shaving. Ari went first, followed by his brothers and several friends. I went last. I didn't know it at the time, but this is the last picture I would ever be in with Ari. He died peacefully at home with his family, just as the sun rose on a brilliant September morning. He could not longer speak, and for the past few days had been answering yes-or-no questions with a squeeze of the hand. His parents knew their third son wouldn't be with them much longer, and asked if he was afraid. He squeezed his mother's hand, once for "no." His oldest brother Mayer chanted the Jewish prayers of Confession for Ari, and shortly after, Ari closed his eyes. I always think of Ari in October; his birthday was October 10. Seventeen days after his death he would have been 17. It has been one of my life's great disappointments that the world missed out on what Ari would have done with the rest of his life, given the chance.

Darth Matteas

Last night after Aaron gave Matteas his bath, he left his hooded towel on. Matteas thought it was great fun and ran at top speed up and down the hallway breathing loudly, like a tiny blue Darth Vader.

Baby's First Sentence

I think it is entirely appropriate that Matteas' first sentence was "I do it." He started shouting it about a month ago, in this very highchair. There are light switches behind him, and he climbed up in his seat and turned around to flip them on and off. "Matteas, what do you think you're doing?" I asked him. "I do it!" he shouted back. It is his mantra these days, his declaration of independence. I find it especially endearing that he shouts it when he's having trouble doing something, like it's his way of encouraging himself. When we took the boys to the pumpkin patch he insisted on getting out of the backpack and walking around himself, but the ground was pretty uneven. He'd take two steps and then tumble over, pick himself up and keep going, all the while shouting "I do it!"

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What I Know For Sure

I was raised in a large Catholic family, and our faith was always an important part of our lives. Mom was vigilant about preparing us for the various liturgical seasons, and I still remember the smell of the drawer in the buffet where the candles for the Advent wreath were kept. Although I didn't always appreciate it at the time, I'm so grateful to have been raised in such a rich tradition. In my adult life I have come to love ritual and ceremony more and more, especially as life events occur that require a significant way to mark them; marriage, birth, death. Tradition has played a pivotal role in helping me appreciate so many important events in my life, and sometimes it's all that got me out of bed in the morning. When my brother Karoly died, things seemed so surreal and so terrible that I wasn't quite sure how to function. Whenever something wonderful or tragic happens to a Catholic, one thing is certain: there will be feasting. And feast we did. As we shared stories and memories of our brother, we shared meals, coffee, dessert. I was surprised to find that I even had an appetite for such things in the wake of such enormous grief, but one thing I've learned through losing loved ones is that life really does go on. As magnificently terrible as grief can be, there is comfort to be found in participating in life, to gather with those still living and partake of life-giving food. This is something we do every Sunday as Catholics when we go to Mass and receive Communion, and it was no less comforting to share a communal meal with friends and family during a time of mourning. Tradition told us that we would have a funeral Mass to commend Karoly's spirit to God, to unite the grieving in healing sacrament, to come together as the living body of Christ to comfort one another. Tradition mandated that we would bury Karoly at the cemetery, that we would bring flowers to beautify his grave. We borrowed a tradition even older than Christianity and buried Karoly personally, like the Jews. Shovel by shovel, inch by inch, his grave was filled with earth and tears by loving hands. Tradition is pretty wonderful. But lately, I am aware that it can also be a handicap if handled incorrectly. While tradition is the stuff of childhood memories and treasured rituals, it can also hold you back and keep you from having a broader view. If we hold too tightly to tradition, we can miss so much. It is easy to be turned off by something new and unfamiliar solely on the basis of unfamiliarity; it is outside our comfort zone. Comfort zones can be nice, but they can also be an exile of sorts. I have found that a lot of my adult life has been a sorting exercise, going through what was handed to me my whole life and determining what I want to keep, what is so ancient that it is sacred, and what things I've been thinking and doing for so long that they hold me back because I am stuck in repetition and habit. The Catholic Church teaches that she has what is called the Deposit of Faith; The Deposit of Faith is the body of saving truth entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and handed on by them to be preserved and proclaimed. That's a pretty bold statement. It is one that I believe to be true, but again, one which must be carefully interpreted. I believe it means exactly what it says, not more and not less. I do not believe that it means that Catholics are right about everything all of the time. I do not believe that it means that everything a Catholic does is right. I do not believe that it means that no one outside of the Catholic Church can discover truth. I do not believe that it means that the Catholic Church owns a copyright on every piece of truth about everything. I'll explain. I am married to a Protestant. A warm, caring, loving, fair-minded, Christ-seeking Protestant. A consistent source of marital friction in our relationship has been my belief that I am right about everything all of the time. Of course this isn't true, but it is interesting what a fallen human nature can do with words like "body of saving truth." It took me a long time to realize that I had misplaced my faith in my ability to be right, in the reality of where real truth lies. Just because I am Catholic, and I do believe as the Creed says in "one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church," doesn't make everything that comes out of MY mouth holy Apostolic truth. It also doesn't mean that things that don't come directly from the pope aren't true. I can testify to this because I have learned a lot of true things that I've never heard from the pope or even a priest in a confessional. I am not challenging the authority of the Church. I am saying that it is neither the mission nor the responsibility of the Church to figure out the answer to everyone's problems. Yes, participating in the sacraments will help you grow spiritually, but we are not merely spiritual beings. We are physical, mental, and emotional as well. If I'm sick, I go to the doctor. If I'm dysfunctional, I go to therapy. If I'm sad, I seek comfort in my husband and my friends. And speaking of my husband, one of the best lessons I've ever learned about life was taught to me by him. My husband is a very honest person. Sometimes this is to his detriment because other people are not as honest with him as he is with them. But what I admire about my husband is that he doesn't let this make him bitter. Instead, he realizes that if you use a person's imperfections as a reason not to listen to them, you could miss some very important lessons. He says that his goal is to be open to learning whatever he needs to learn from whoever he needs to learn it from. I read recently that the cellist Yo-Yo Ma said "So many things I've learned in life have come from unexpected places." To me, that might sometimes mean swallowing your pride and learning something valuable from someone you don't personally like. Aaron explains it this way: there might be ninety-nine things about someone that you don't like, but ONE strength they have that you lack. Don't be so arrogant that you use the things you dislike about a person to refrain from learning what could benefit you. Which brings me to Oprah. Lately, she has been the target of a lot of harsh words from a lot of prominent Catholics. I feel like this is a huge mistake. First, consider the fact that everyone(this includes me and, unless your name is Jesus, you too) is less than perfect. The pope, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, priests, rabbis, and pagans: all equally imperfect. Lucky for us, God doesn't play favorites and He doesn't love me less because I'm not Mother Theresa. Oprah is also not perfect. I agree whole-heartedly that A Course In Miracles is a silly book and should not be taken seriously as the words of Jesus as dictated to Helen Shucman. However, just because she endorses a book I don't like and lives with her partner in un-wedded bliss doesn't mean she's not right about other things. It doesn't mean she can't recognize parts of the truth when she sees it. It doesn't mean that she is not capable of doing enormous good. It means that, like each of us, she has a unique life path and she is responsible for her own journey. She also has an enormous audience of people who listen to her every weekday, and I do believe that this places a lot of responsibility on her imperfect shoulders. But consider: Oprah was born to a poor single mother, molested by her uncle and cousins, raped at the age of nine and again at age 14, resulting in the birth of a son who died shortly after. She built the life she has piece by piece, was never handed anything but adversity, and currently gives away enormous amounts of her fortune to charity. She's not perfect, and she's the first person who'd admit it. She's not perfect, but she does a heck of a lot of good with her life. She lives with intention according to the dictates of her own conscience. She makes the exercise of examining your life and determining where you need to grow look like a fun and challenging engagement, she shares what she finds helpful and admits when she doesn't know something. What I admire most about her is her commitment to never stop learning, to always being open to learning whatever she needs to know about herself, God, and life. And yes, Oprah believes in God. In spite of the fact that she's not Catholic, she's allowed to. I think as Catholics, we sometimes want to put everything in one of two boxes: the "one, holy, catholic, Apostolic" box, or the "Other" box. I don't think it's that simple. Or rather, I think it is far simpler. I think that Truth is Truth no matter where you find it, no matter what is next to it, no matter who finds it or who is saying it. Some people will find more Truth in their lifetime than others. Some of it will come from spiritual leaders, some of it will come from books, some of it will come from friends, and some of it will be learned through painful experience. Truth cannot be diminished by the existence of things that are not Truth, and no one has a monopoly on it no matter how much of it they've learned. Of course, prudence is a virtue. I'm not recommending that anyone absorb everything Oprah says. But you'd also be well-advised not to imitate everything a Catholic(or Jew, or Protestant) does. No matter what your religious affiliation, ideals are one thing, behavior is another. Behaving in a way which is consistent with our ideals is the challenge all of humanity is engaged in. Some of the biggest assholes I know are Catholic. Some of the kindest people I've ever met are not. If you want to know how to be a faithful Catholic, read the Catechism. If you want to know how to be a good person, look around you; there are millions of teachers with millions of lessons to teach you. They may not be the people you'd expect to learn from, but I think that's what Jesus was getting at when He decided to redeem the world as a poor Jewish carpenter.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jack has wanted to make bird feeders for a long time, so yesterday we finally did. We hung them up in the yard, but no takers yet. Mausi, Lani and Damien were over yesterday. They made bird feeders too, then we took all the kids for a walk through the woods before dinner. This is my backyard. Well, a short walk from my backyard. Sometimes I kind of take it for granted that I can walk out my back door and be in this place. There is a busy street just down the hill, but you wouldn't know it from this spot.
The only place Jack looks small to me is in the woods.
I bought Matteas his first real pair of shoes yesterday, and he tried them out at the park. I've been putting leather booties on him up until now, but it's getting too cold and too damp not to have more protection on his little feet. He stumbled around a bit, but didn't seem to mind too much. I love his little man outfit; he was already looking so mature to me, but the big boy shoes really put him over the edge. You can't really tell from this picture, but I gave him a haircut recently too. It's always hard for me to give my kids the first haircut as it always seems to mark the end of their babyhood. If you put Matteas at the top of a slide, any slide, he will grin and slowly ooch his little bum closer and closer to the edge until he can pitch himself down, at which point he lies down on his back and gives himself fully to the experience of hurtling down the slide. I snapped this picture about mid-slide, but his face is really best at the top just before he launches: confident, mischievous and playful.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Jack Bites

"Mom, what's this dinosaur's name?" "That's a dimetradon." "No Mom, what's his last name?" *** "Mom, if you wanted to leave and go somewhere I could stay home and take care of myself." "Really? What would you do if you got hungry?" "I would just get myself a snack of fishy crackers." "And what if you got thirsty?" "I would run into the bathroom, take the Q-tips out of their little glass cup and get a drink with it, then put the Q-tips back." "What if you if you had to go potty while I was gone?" "I would just go poop on the toilet, then I would make sure my bottom was clean in the mirror." *** Jack, after spinning around for some minutes, tried to stand still and reflected: "Mom, my legs don't even make me move anymore, just the dizziness!"