Author: Bettina di Fiore

Finding My Father

Originally published at One Peter Five

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting in the back of my father’s car, listening to the music he loves. He would pick me up from daycare in the late afternoon, and I would close my eyes and fall into whatever song was playing – “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles, maybe, or “Through the Long Night” by Billy Joel, or “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” by Neil Young. Through my half-asleep reverie and half-lidded eyes, I would glance up and see my father smirking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Are you asleep back there?” he’d ask me, amused.

“No, Daddy,” I’d slur, “I’m just resting my eyes.”

In the supreme sweetness of those moments, I didn’t have to plan, or worry, or steer the situation to serve my own ends. I was secure in the conviction that I was in loving, capable, and protective hands that would pilot me wherever I ought to go.

I have spent the majority of my life trying to recapture that feeling.

* * *

My parents divorced when I was still too little to understand what the word meant. It didn’t take long for me to figure out it signaled the end of the world as I had known it.

Prior to the divorce, my father had been my primary caregiver. My mother spent her evenings nightclubbing and snorting cocaine and her days sleeping off the previous night’s revelries – often in a stranger’s bed. Where my mother was indifferent, my father was doubly attentive. Where my mother was absent, my father filled in the gaps. He cooked my dinners – grilled cheese sandwiches were his specialty. He ran my baths. He read me bedtime stories in my favorite rocking chair, and, ultimately, he taught me how to read those same stories back to him.

All of that changed when my parents split. My mother was given custody, and she moved me half a continent away from my dad. With her, meals could not be relied upon – there were times when I had to steal food from grocery and convenience stores to avoid starvation. With her, I was expected to take care of not only all of my own needs, but many of hers as well – I was essentially running the household by the age of 10. And with her, there were no more bedtime stories.

But there were plenty of tall tales. My mother lied so often, so flagrantly, and with such gusto that she often managed to fool herself. She’d lie to enliven dull facts, to bury unflattering realities – heck, she lied just to pass the time. Most of all, she lied to manipulate, and most people fell into the traps she laid at least once.

I was no exception. As a child, I must have been to her what a small rural town was to a snake oil salesman: innocent, credulous, and ignorant of ignominy. In other words, I was an easy mark.

The majority of the lies my mother told me were about my father. When I had to do without some necessity on account of lack of funds, she’d blame him. She’d tell me he hadn’t sent the child support check for that month – she couldn’t admit that she had squandered it on drugs – and call him a tightwad who loved only what was in his wallet. She’d put me on the phone to ask him for money, and the awkward silences and irritation-tinged resistance from him that followed seemed to support her contention. The fact that he was rapidly becoming wealthy climbing the corporate ladder at the oil company for which he worked, and the fact that he spent so much time at that job, even during my visits with him, seemed to verify my mother’s claim that he was purely materialistic and parentally maladroit.

But I desperately wanted to disbelieve, and I went on a mission to win some sort of display of pride and affection from him. I got it into my head that the way to impress him, the way to make him love me, was by overachieving. So I got straight As up through high school, was first chair in band and orchestra, and seized every opportunity to prove to him that I was special.

In 7th grade, for example, I fought hard for – and won – the school board’s permission to skip 8th grade. But when I told him the news, he barely looked up from the newspaper he was reading. It was my greatest coup, but it didn’t seem to impress him in the least.

So I began to believe my mother’s claims that he was cold, and uncaring, and interested only in his money. I began to believe that I was not a priority for him. I began to believe that he just plain didn’t love me.

* * *

It was at around that same time that I began to lose my faith in God.

Growing up in the Bible belt, I had always taken the existence of God for granted, even though neither of my parents was religious. I prayed in inverse proportion to the quality of life with my mother – the worse things got, the more I prayed. I remember countless nights spent lying sleepless upon the pallet of blankets that functioned as my bed – we could not afford an actual mattress – my hands tightly clasped together, my gaze fixed upon the moon shining through my window like a beacon on the pitch-black prairie nights. I remember calling out with my whole heart, “Please, please, save me from this hell. Dear God, please help me find a way out.”

The years wore on and on, and things with my mom got worse and worse; by the end of my time with her, she and the ex-con she’d shacked up with were completely strung out on crack cocaine. When they weren’t distracted by fighting each other, they were making – and carrying out – threats against me. Every night brought a grotesque circus – either my mom and her boyfriend would try to beat each other to death, or the crew of junkies, felons, drug-dealers, and other assorted miscreants in their circle of friends would drop in for an impromptu party. Every morning brought broken beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, vomit on the carpets, passed-out strangers, bloodstains on the furniture – all of which I was expected to put right.

The days went on and on, and my frantic petitions to a God I believed in but knew nothing about grew in intensity and frequency. I never felt that they were answered. Eventually, I grew to suspect that nobody was listening on the other end.

* * *

By the time I was a teenager, I was fully convinced that neither my heavenly nor my earthly father cared for me in the least. I’d completely stopped praying, and my relationship with my dad was set for shipwreck. The grilled cheese sandwich and rocking chair days seemed a lifetime away. When I was eventually able to leave my mother’s house at age 14, I went to live with my grandmother rather than my dad.

The explosion didn’t come until I was 21. After years of below-the-surface seething resentment (on my part), we finally had a major blow-up. He’d said he would pay for me to go back to college, and I had moved halfway across the country to get to the school I wanted to attend – but when the tuition bill arrived, he told me he would help with that semester, but after that, I’d be on my own.

For me, that was the last straw. I let him have it. He reacted in kind. We both said things that never should have been said.

And then, for the next fifteen years, we said nothing whatsoever.

* * *

In my late teens and early twenties, I spent most of my time being angry. I was forever telling myself and others that I didn’t need my parents, because I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and I often tried to convince myself that there was no logical reason I should love them. At the same time, I was furious at my parents for neglecting to care for me, because I was sure that I would not be so messed up as an adult if I had been better loved as a child.

I was mad at the various institutions that should have intervened to remove me from my abusive mother’s home long before I finally managed to make my escape, because I felt that my life wouldn’t have turned out so lousy had I not had to endure that hell.

I was mad at the universe and life itself for forcing me to exist, because I regarded my existence as a despicable thing.

My anger at my father grew to apply to his entire sex. I truly believed that all of the world’s problems could be blamed on flaws and proclivities generally attributable to men. Wars, genocides, and violence of every conceivable variety were the product of too much testosterone. If men were taken out of the picture, the world would be a better and more peaceful place. So I thought.

As much as I was angry at my personal patriarch, and at patriarchy in general, I was also angry at the Heavenly Patriarch. I grew to disdain the very idea of God; I felt that such a being likely did not exist, and that if He did, I wanted nothing to do with Him. Any deity who would allow children to suffer the way I had was not worthy of my praise.

Step by step, I wrote first my father, then other men, then God out of the script of my life.

* * *

In my mid-twenties, I became a high-priced call girl. That’s when my wising-up process began. My clients were politicians; CEOs; athletes; journalists; men who had made a fortune in tech; and, occasionally, Average Joes. I even had one young college student who came to see me every time he received a financial aid disbursement – a single visit would just about exhaust his entire surplus over and above his tuition.

All of these men had one thing in common: they were all wounded birds – lonely, alienated, bearing heavy baggage. Most of them were seeking something more than mere physical pleasure – some kind of meaningful connection. The majority could have been better served by a trained therapist, as that is the role in which so many of them cast me. For whatever reason, they chose to recline on my couch rather than a shrink’s.

Perhaps the illusion of anonymity was a factor: in that world, we had our own type of confessional seal – it is understood that what is said between a call girl and her client is privileged. These men knew they would never encounter me in their “real” lives, which made me safe in a way that other outlets might not be. Consequently, my clients, particularly my regulars, poured their hearts out to me. In my boudoir, they stripped away more than just their clothing – they also discarded their pretenses, putting me in a uniquely privileged position to see men as they truly are.

By and large, my clients were in miserable marriages. Some had wives who withheld sex and affection or used them strategically and manipulatively; others had wives who disrespected, belittled, or dominated them. These men were driven to buy a rough facsimile of traditionally feminine attention by the hour at an exorbitant rate because they could not get anything like it at home.

Should their spouses decide to divorce them, they generally lost everything – their homes; their savings; and, most painfully for the majority of my clients, their children. One man who came to see me had only recently ceased sleeping in his car, because his ex-wife had taken the house, and he was not immediately able to find somewhere else to live. Another hadn’t seen his son in over a year because his ex-wife had simply stopped sending him for visitation, and neither the courts nor law enforcement had intervened. Yet a third could not wrest custody of his daughter away from his mentally ill ex-wife, even after years of documented erratic and irresponsible behavior on her part, because of the court’s deep bias in favor of mothers.

These men were not unique. I encountered countless others in similar circumstances.

I had always considered myself a liberal and a feminist. But there, literally laid bare in front of me, was case after case providing evidence that defied my worldview. These were not cruel tyrants, callously taking advantage of a system made to favor them due to generations of male domination. Nor were they contented contenders competing side by side with their co-ed co-equals on a level playing field. These were vanquished prisoners of war being made to pay for their own crimes, whatever they might be, plus the alleged crimes of their forefathers, by spiteful women who were already benefiting from boundless institutional compensation. These people were told dozens of times in dozens of ways every day that they were bad and wrong, simply, at least in part, for being male.

I saw so very many men – good men, for the most part, if weak in flesh – persecuted and made unjustly miserable. I couldn’t disregard the evidence; I had to revise my position.

* * *

Since I’d been wrong about men, I had to accept the possibility that I was wrong about other things, too. When I went back to college in my late 20s, I discovered that that was indeed the case. I was at an extremely liberal school, but that didn’t stop my general chemistry professor from spending an entire class challenging her students’ atheism. Her ultimate point? You don’t get something from nothing, no matter what reaction occurs. You have to put something in to get something out. If that’s so, how did the something from which the universe originated come into existence?

It sounds so simple and reasonable now, but at the time, this blew my mind. It defied everything I had believed my entire mature life. But again, I could not ignore the evidence lying in front of me, so that day, I revised my identity from “atheist” to “agnostic.” Shortly thereafter, I began my search for whatever it was that had generated the original something.

I test-drove virtually every major religion. I even went to a voodoo ritual, just to check it out. The only one I seriously considered adopting was Judaism. I studied and attended synagogue. But when it came time for the mikvah, I backed out. Something, I wasn’t sure what, just wasn’t quite right. Something was missing.

It took me about eight years to find out what that something was.

* * *

I was living with my boyfriend and had been for about four years. I had gotten out of sex work – indeed, I had quit for my boyfriend. My life was better than it had ever been, yet something was still missing.

One day I pulled up to park in front of our North Oakland apartment, and the car parked on the street in front of me had a Catholic radio bumper sticker on it. “Ha!” I thought. “What could they possibly find to talk about for 24 hours per day?”

But then I started seeing those stickers everywhere. It seemed as if every third car I’d see had one. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to tune in to that station. What I heard surprised me. It made sense. And the people were not weird the way the Protestant media people were; I had grown up in the era of televangelists and TBN and had always found those personalities to be at least slightly creepy. But the people on Catholic radio seemed really…normal. And reasonable. I found myself listening to the Catholic station at work – I was cleaning houses at the time – and the programs I heard dampened the drudgery of my menial labor.

After a couple of weeks of this, I woke up one Sunday morning with a burning conviction: I had to go to Mass. As soon as possible. I felt as though I would not be able to go on living if I didn’t make it. I spent all day hemming and hawing, but finally, that evening, I went to my first Mass.

It would not be my last.

* * *

After a bit of searching, I found a Latin Mass parish that felt like home. I found a priest to catechize me who ended up having perhaps the most important influence over me of anyone in my life.

He was so patient with me. He would listen to me vent all of my skepticism, the objects of which were numerous. Then, in a clear and detailed manner, he’d use science, philosophy, history – whatever was germane – to prove the truth of whichever concept or teaching I’d gotten hung up on. He took my doubts and objections and dismantled them with surgical precision. In short, he did what my chemistry professor had done so many years prior, only he took it one step farther: he proved to me that God existed, then identified and familiarized me with Him. He not only satisfactorily answered my questions of what, Who, when, and where, but was able to tell me why. That was all it took to convince me to become Catholic.

But this priest did more than just convert me – he provided a model of what a father could be.

As my baptism approached, I began to feel like the ongoing cold war between my biological father and me was not only stupid, but an impediment to my true and total conversion. My priest agreed. So one day, in the fall of 2013, I picked up the phone and called my dad for the first time in 15 years.

He was overjoyed to hear from me. We cried, laughed, and cry-laughed. We had a long talk that included apologies, explanations, expressions of regret, and a commitment to building a better relationship in the future.

* * *

The loss and eventual rediscovery of my fathers have made the defining saga of my life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I found them both at almost the same time, lovingly prompted and prodded by a man whose title happens to be “Father.”

This is not a finished story – the getting-to-know-you process with both my fathers is ongoing. I’m still learning, and slowly at that, who my fathers are, how to love and respect them, and what it means to be a daughter. It’s the most exciting journey I have ever undertaken.

My dad summed things up perfectly: “I do believe the ending, when it comes, can still be a great one, and I hope we can write it together.”

The Needles and the Damage Done

If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair
 

–from the song “San Francisco,” written by John Phillips

This romanticized depiction of the streets of San Francisco, which I have called home for the last two decades, may have contained a kernel of truth in 1967, when hippies from all over the country flocked here for the so-called Summer of Love. But it doesn’t reflect our local reality on the precipice of 2019. Not even close.

For starters, it would be more prudent for San Francisco tourists to protect their hands and feet with gloves and work boots than to worry about their hairdos, because instead of finding “gentle people with flowers in their hair,” visitors are more apt to find homeless junkies with needles in their arms, needles they will likely leave lying wherever they happen to fall—in parks, on playgrounds, even on bus and train seats. And no longer do our streets smell of incense and patchouli—those aromas have been supplanted by the inescapable reek of human waste.

The problem spiraled dangerously out-of-control so gradually that I didn’t fully realize just how bad it had become until a few weeks ago, when I took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit—our light rail system) to the Civic Center station for the first time in several months. 

This station is in a notoriously sketchy area. It borders the Tenderloin, which is perhaps the poorest, roughest neighborhood in the city. At the same time, as the name implies, all of the city’s governmental buildings are located nearby, in addition to many of San Francisco’s finest museums and cultural attractions. So, every day in United Nations Plaza, where the Civic Center BART station is located, an almost absurd juxtaposition of contrasting characters convenes—civil servants neatly attired in conservative suits, opera patrons decked-out in posh finery, and souvenir-toting tourists share the sidewalks with grimy street urchins, peacockishly painted prostitutes, and everyone else who has fallen off society’s radar—often because they fell in love with the needle.

There is nothing new about the random socio-cultural cross-sectioning that occurs at this curious crossroads. But the last time I was there, I did see something new in United Nations Plaza.

© 2018 Aaron Levy-Wolins

Black syringe depositories have been installed near the regular trash cans—indeed, one might mistake them for garbage bins if not for their funereal color and stark, striking BIOHAZARD warning signage. 

Underscoring the need for such bins are the legions of strung-out zombies strewn about the vicinity—sitting, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, on curbs; crawling around the plaza on all fours, shaking and shouting and searching intently for heaven only knows what; stumbling aimlessly up and down the alleyways, caked in filth; and lying across the sidewalks, arms wide open and mouths agape, the living indistinguishable from the dead. 

© 2013 Kevin Montgomery

And punctuating this bleak de profundis dirge are the by-products of this wretched existence—feces, garbage, syringes, and urine—scattered and splattered everywhere. Virtually every San Francisco area resident, myself included, has been confronted with the grim spectacle of someone shooting up, urinating, defecating, or some combination of the three, in a public place and in plain sight.

Sleek new needle disposal bins won’t even make a dent in this problem. 

Indeed, nothing the city has done has helped. On November 30th, 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story regarding the skyrocketing number of complaints about discarded syringes in public areas, noting that the number had risen from 440 in 2012, to over 2500 in 2015. They also reported that the city was expanding access to disposal boxes and establishing “rapid response teams,” though exactly what those teams might do was left unexplained. 

Fast forward to April, 2016. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s blog, BETA, published an article entitled “Syringes and Needles on the Street in San Francisco: What’s Being Done?” This piece detailed the measures being taken at that time to combat the problem, which included: community cleanup events, wherein residents of “hotspot” neighborhoods “cheerfully [went] about the neighborhood to pick up syringes”; “increasing education” among the drug-using population about where and how to properly dispose of needles; and training museum and library staff in the Civic Center area on safe disposal methods. Library staff was also trained to provide disposal equipment to homeless people inside the library and was given said equipment, apparently free of charge. 

© 2018 Bigad Shaban

Fast forward to July 17th, 2018. Business Insider published a piece about San Francisco’s new mayor, London Breed, and her plans to combat what is still being described as “copious amounts” of syringes, not to mention human feces, on San Francisco’s streets. Apparently those rapid response teams, education programs, and community cleanup events just didn’t cut the mustard. What does Ms. Breed propose? She wants to set up “safe, supervised injection sites” where homeless addicts can go—in lieu of public spaces—to intravenously ingest their drugs of choice … because your average addict is oh-so-likely to forestall shooting up after scoring until he can get to a location supervised by a city official.

Right. 

While the city is scrambling to come up with strategies to combat the syringe litter problem, the San Francisco Health Department is busy handing out free needles. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that in fiscal year 2015-16, the city distributed 4.45 million needles at a cost of $523,363. The article goes on to state: “Of the 400,000 needles distributed monthly … about 246,000 come back though [the health department’s] 13 syringe access and disposal sites. That leaves more than 154,000 needles a month still circulating … thousands wind up on streets and sidewalks, in tent camps, and in parks and playgrounds.” The number of needles distributed by the city hit six million for the 2017 fiscal year.

It’s almost as if San Francisco’s right hand doesn’t know—or care—what’s being done by the left. 

Similarly, although most everyone acknowledges that addiction, including alcoholism, is one of the key factors leading to and perpetuating homelessness, one of the “solutions” San Francisco has proposed as part of a package designed to combat its homeless epidemic is a so-called “wet house”—a shelter in which alcoholic vagrants are allowed to drink openly and without fear of eviction. 

I read about all of these proposed “solutions”—the crews of law-abiding citizens sent out to “cheerfully” clean up the filth left behind by their junkie scofflaw neighbors; the “supervised injection sites” and “wet houses” and millions spent on free needle distribution—all of which enable and validate the behavior which caused many homeless people to wind up on the streets in the first place; and I can’t help but think, what planet are these people living on? Do they know anything about the people they’re trying to help? The fact is, although I have no doubt that there are countless hearts in the proper places, nobody here seems to be in touch with reality when it comes to actually solving this problem. 

There are a few things everyone agrees on: the addiction epidemic in our city is directly related to and intertwined with our homeless crisis, and the biggest contributing factor to that is the lack of affordable housing. This is a very real problem that I have experienced firsthand. I currently pay $1800/month for a studio apartment, and it’s not even in San Francisco itself, but, rather, in the Oakland/East Bay area. When I experienced a major injury that kept me out-of-work for the better part of a year in 2017, I was very nearly evicted, and, if not for my amazing faith community and family assistance—support structures that tragically few people in contemporary society have—I would have wound up among the Bay Area’s 35,000 homeless, up to 15,000 of which live in San Francisco proper.

Everyone knows affordable housing is a serious problem. But not everyone has a clear grasp on the causes for this predicament, or realistic prospective solutions. A basic understanding of the laws of supply and demand, for example, seems to be almost completely lacking among my fellow residents. Consider the following example:

There has been an empty lot next to my building for about 20 years. It’s in a prime location, right next to a BART station and in close proximity to the UC Berkeley campus. Several months ago, signs appeared in my neighborhood to notify residents of a proposed development in that lot. The project would be a multi-story residential building with commercial space on the first floor—so it would provide a considerable number of new housing units as well as space for a few new shops.

I was delighted by the proposal. It would take wasted space and put it to good use. It would stimulate the micro-local economy by bringing new shops—and, in turn, new jobs and more tax revenue—to the area. And it would make a significant contribution to the supply side of the housing market, which is, ultimately, the only way rents will come down; after all, housing prices here are high because demand is high and supply is low. It’s basic Economics 101 type stuff.

But my neighbors disagreed. Almost immediately after the signs announcing the proposed development went up, another set of signs appeared. They announced citizen meetings to discuss and organize opposition to the building project.

Neighbors within my building assumed I would attend. “The building would obstruct our view of the Bay,” they whined, “and it would make it a lot harder to find parking around here. Plus, it would destroy the laid-back vibe of our neighborhood and replace it with a really ugly commercialized energy. Besides, it’s totally unjust! There’s no provision for affordable housing!” 

It’s the same narrative I have heard a million and one times since I moved here—the developers are evil and greedy and only care about making money. They don’t care about the poor and downtrodden. What’s more, the things they build are ugly. Therefore, we must stop them at any cost.

Nobody seems to understand that they are shooting themselves in the foot by halting development—that they are thereby keeping housing scarce, keeping prices high, keeping people poor, and, ultimately, keeping people on the streets. They also don’t seem to understand that nobody is going to eliminate the supply gap by building a plethora of low-rise, low-rent housing units—assuming there were enough open space in which to do so, which there isn’t—because there’s no profit to be made in such an endeavor with the outrageous current price of land. No magic billionaire humanitarian fairy is going to float down from the clouds—where most of my neighbors’ heads seem to be—to rescue us with truckloads of free money. But, judging by the way they shape public policy, that’s precisely what Californians, and Bay Area residents in particular, seem to expect: a miracle.

And, at this point, that may be what it takes to put this place back on track. This is a city with areas regarded by some infectious disease experts as “more unsanitary than many of the dwellings in impoverished, developing countries”; a city with “contamination [that] rivals that found in slums of Brazil, Kenya, and India’s developing communities”; and a city that spends $30 million per year cleaning up discarded needles and feces from its public spaces. This is a city with the highest per capita homeless population in America; a city that refuses to prosecute that population for public defecation/urination and littering, and turns a blind eye to the epidemic of property crimes for which it is responsible. And it is a city with no realistic solutions on the horizon, and not a single pragmatic leader in office—how else might things be turned around? A bona fide act of God may indeed be required.

But this is also a city wherein God, and those who believe in Him, are openly ridiculed and excluded from civic discourse.

This is a city where, in 2009, a Catholic parish—and a notoriously liberal and pro-homosexual parish at that—was vandalized and spray-painted with swastikas after California passed Proposition 8, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman only.

This is a city that unanimously passed a resolution on April 4th, 2006 denouncing the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s directive to Catholic Charities not to place children for adoption with same-sex couples, calling it “hateful and discriminatory … insulting and callous, and show[ing] a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered by this Board of Supervisors.” 

Furthermore, this is a city that flaunts its abandonment of traditional morality. Once a year, fully sanctioned by the local government, gay men openly engage in public sex acts as part of the “Pride Parade,” an event which is promoted as being family-friendly. A few months later, the city’s BDSM community gathers to publicly flog and flagellate each other at the Folsom Street Fair. Public sex is de rigueur in the City by the Bay.

Should we really be surprised to see so much of the city’s population living in such debased and demoralized conditions, when the city itself has so thoroughly shunned morality and common sense? 

Given San Francisco’s downward trajectory and crumbling social ethos, don’t expect to see thoughtful, reasonable solutions to these problems being generated locally any time soon. We are too busy parading our perversions, persecuting our Christians, and enacting important legislation like plastic straw bans and sugary drink taxes. The only thing you can really do for San Francisco is pray. Pray for us like we’re blithely headed for hell in a hand-basket—because, as far as I can tell, we absolutely are.

The Sleepy, Hollow Labyrinth Within

 

 

“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere … the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.”

 

When I was 13, I attempted suicide for the first time. Life with my crack addict mother was a mad, merciless merry-go-round which ever threatened to whirl off its undercarriage. And, although an infinite parade of psychopathically violent boyfriends, perverts, junkies, and career criminals hopped on and off this ride with apparent ease, I was unable to leave the not-so-funhouse. It seemed the only exit was the permanent one, and, with the assumed assistance of two handfuls of pills and a half-bottle of rum, I endeavored to escape.

But, like most kids my age, I had no idea just how tough it is to snuff out one’s own candle. When people accuse those who have achieved this feat of taking the easy way out, they betray the same ignorance I possessed at age 13—there is nothing easy about killing oneself, for one thing, and no one makes the final decision without sincerely believing there is no other way out of their quagmire, easy or otherwise.

What people who have not experienced it do not know is, depression is a sleep-mask—it blinds, and thereby disables, the sufferer. It narcotizes, hypnotizes, and paralyzes one into an incapacitating slumber populated exclusively by nightmares. In this somnambulistic labyrinth, there are no guideposts—one can merely grope at thorny walls. Ultimately, the sleepwalker cannot find the exit in such a palsied state—yet, only after clawing one’s fingers raw in an attempt to scale the walls does one conclude that death is the only way out.

 

*             *             *

 

“By divers little make-shifts in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated ‘by hook and by crook,’ [he] got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of [his] labor, to have a wonderfully easy life.”

 

And that was me at age 30.

Having escaped my mother’s hellacious world through law enforcement intervention, married and divorced, and moved all over the country, I’d finally settled in California and enrolled in a private college by means of a generous scholarship. But I’d also begun to suffer the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and a genetic disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which had left me unable to perform most “normal” jobs. Bills mounted and eviction loomed. Finally, out of great desperation, I made the decision to become a call girl at age 24. By 25, I was the top-rated escort in the San Francisco Bay area. And by 30, I’d become accustomed to the expensive, fast-lane lifestyle such “success” engendered.

I’m sure that, to all outward appearances, I was a carefree, fun-loving party girl, a girl who allowed both her money and her affections to flow freely. Perhaps a bit like a combination of Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ophelia in Trading Places—a scrappy, lighthearted working girl who could drink a man three times her size under the table.

But that was just a mask I wore.

As a child forced to ride shotgun on the reckless drive that was my mother’s life, I had coped with the black, bottomless chasm within and without by creating a lush, intricate, vivid imaginary world. I retreated into Technicolor fantasy—sometimes I sailed so far away from the outside world that I had difficulty distinguishing reality from the experiences I’d invented. In my mind, I lived in a different time, a distant place, and among people completely disparate to the inmates of my mother’s subterranean dystopia.

But as a call girl, I was highly priced, highly rated, and thus subject to high expectations. My work demanded engagement—I could not simply drift away to make-believe shores. So I did the next best thing—I became a make-believe person.

By age 30, I had made a tangled mess of my life, and that old, too-familiar demon known in clinical circles as “major depressive disorder” once again began to take over. Once again, I was trapped in the sleepy, hollow labyrinth. And once again, I became convinced that death was the only way out.

 

 *             *             *

 

 

“The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal.”

 

Never let it be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes. Having failed to accomplish the job with two fistfuls of sleeping pills and a bit of booze at age 13, I was doubly determined to get it right at age 30. I was on several heavy-duty prescription medications at the time, both for depression and the many complex issues related to my chronic conditions, and I had just had them all refilled. I took every last one of those pills—in sum, over 500, about 20% of which were morphine.

And again, I did not die.

Apparently God had other plans for me. Perhaps the purpose of my survival was to tell you the tale here and now—because even if you aren’t personally afflicted, depression is all around you, and you may very well have a part to play in someone else’s twilight drama.

 

*             *             *

 

I still find myself being pulled back into that labyrinth from time to time. But I have several tools now that I did not have in my pre-Catholic life that help me keep my head above water.

First and foremost among them is the gift of prayer, the ultimate suicide hotline. It’s a direct link to someone who sincerely understands the nature of suffering, and has experienced intense distress—more so than any of us. Indeed, in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ was so anguished and anxious that He sweated blood. And the agony of His Passion is beyond anything anyone else has ever experienced. Tortured and mocked by His own beloved creations, abandoned by His closest friends—and betrayed by one of them—left to die like a common criminal in the most brutal and agonizing method imaginable, Our Lord has definitely trudged through the black chasm. When we pray, we are speaking to someone who knows exactly what we are going through—not merely because He is able to read our hearts, but because He has made His own journey through the valley of misery. He not only gets it, He also cares and wishes to help—and there is no one better equipped to do so.

The sacraments are also powerful tools in the battle against depression. When my soul feels overburdened, and I feel regret or remorse over the mistakes I have made, the Confessional is available to wash it all away. And if I feel alone, far away from God, I can reconnect with Him in a most magnificent way by receiving the Eucharist—no one who acts as a living tabernacle is alone or separated from God.

Finally, my Catholic community acts as a nurturing surrogate family; it’s a place where I know I am loved and accepted, and where I can indubitably find the support I need, no matter what. I have found solace in the friendships formed therefrom, and I’m deeply indebted to the numerous friends (and strangers) who have provided spiritual, emotional, and practical assistance in countless ways when I have been in need.

Becoming Catholic has filled my life with love and light where there was once only agony and darkness.

 

*             *             *

 

“As Ichabod approached this fearful tree … he thought his whistle was answered—it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches … Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze”

 

Ichabod Crane, deep within his own Sleepy Hollow, mistook a pumpkin for a severed head and a malicious man in a clever costume for a murderous phantom, and it cost him his life. Like him, we who labor under the burden of melancholy mistake opportunities for obstacles, and molehills for mountains.

We cannot escape this myopia alone. When we are in that place, battered and blinded and bumbling about, it is almost impossible to see the forest of hope and God’s love that surrounds us all, because the trees appear as encroaching problems too massive to overcome. We need a hand, a light, to guide us. And your kind words may act as an extended hand for someone drowning in despair; your listening ear and objective perspective, sympathetically shared, may be the light that helps a troubled soul find a path out of their sleepy, hollow labyrinth.

It has been said, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” If you know someone enveloped in darkness—and most of us do, whether we realize it or not—it’s not helpful to them to hear you say “chin up,” “just shrug it off,” or “think positive.” It’s just not that simple for that person. You may be able to do these things, but they cannot–if they could, you can be certain they would.

So, instead of cursing that person’s darkness, light a candle for him or her. Remind that person of God’s love; help him or her brainstorm solutions to the most pressing problems; and, most importantly, pray for that person, and make sure s/he knows you’re doing so.

You might very well save a life.

 

All quotations contained herein were taken from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

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Justitia Winked

Artwork by Jeremy Ingle: https://www.facebook.com/OremusPublishing

 

Starting in July of 2015, The Center for Medical Progress released a series of videos which exposed Planned Parenthood’s lucrative sideline of peddling aborted babies’ anatomical remnants. These videos are so shockingly horrific as to be almost unwatchable; millions of Americans did indeed watch them, however, and their ensuing outrage has galvanized a powerful backlash against the taxpayer-funded abortion monolith. Thirteen states have taken steps to block Planned Parenthood’s access to taxpayer funds within their borders; meanwhile, on a federal level, defunding legislation passed in the House and was only narrowly defeated in the Senate.

But Planned Parenthood and their allied institutional powers aren’t taking this lying down. They’ve launched a series of legal attacks both civil and criminal against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the investigative journalists who obtained the incriminating footage.

One such attack has been initiated by California’s State Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, a man who has been given both a consistent 100% approval rating and thousands of dollars in campaign funding by Planned Parenthood over the course of his political career. He has charged both Daleiden and Merritt with 15 felony counts.

On Thursday, August 24, Daleiden, Merritt, their legal teams, and a prosecuting attorney convened in Judge Christopher Hite’s San Francisco courtroom. The immediate matters under consideration were Merritt’s Motion to Dismiss fourteen of the fifteen charges against her, and Daleiden’s demurrer objecting to the validity of the charges against him.

Judge Hite rejected Daleiden’s demurrer, stating that it was not the right time to make affirmative defenses, and that Daleiden’s legal team would have a chance to make their case—namely, that the charges against their client are completely lacking in legal legitimacy—at a later stage in the process.

Okay, that’s acceptable. Disappointing? Yes—but it’s not a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

What happened to Sandra Merritt, however, is flat-out wrong—in fact, it’s illegal—and it ought to be of deep concern to all Americans, even those who oppose what she did.

On June 21st, fourteen of the fifteen charges against Daleiden and Merritt were deemed legally insufficient, and were dismissed “with leave to amend”; in plain English, this means the judge allowed the prosecution ten days to file a revised complaint containing additional evidence supporting the charges against the defendants.

The State Attorney General’s office did, indeed, file an amended complaint … against Daleiden. They failed to do so against Merritt. Therefore, according to statute, and even according to his own previous ruling, Judge Hite should have granted Merritt’s Motion to Dismiss this past Thursday.

But he didn’t.

When asked why they failed to file the amended complaint, the prosecuting attorney shrugged and said, “Well, we meant to file it.”

And that’s when things got surreal. Because that’s when Lady Justice lifted her blindfold and winked at the observers. That’s when the judge discarded concrete, codified fact in favor of abstract, amorphous feeling as the criteria by which to adjudicate. That’s when the judge said he believed the prosecution did, in fact, intend to file, and he was therefore denying Merritt’s petition, and giving the prosecution more time to correct their mistake.

When you were a schoolgirl or boy, did your teacher ever give you an A because you meant to do your homework? Was a patient ever healed because a doctor meant to perform a surgery? Was a crime ever punished because an officer meant to make an arrest? And was a baby ever sated because its mother meant to nurse it? Then why on earth would we allow an attorney to continue the taxpayer-funded prosecution of a case because s/he meant to file amended charges, particularly when we as a society have agreed upon statutes that prohibit such an action?

This may not seem like a big deal to you. You may think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill—even some of you who support what Daleiden and Merritt have done. You may be saying to yourself, “Oh, this is a minor infraction on the judge’s part, it won’t prevent Merritt from winning her case.” But that misses the point entirely. This isn’t about whether Merritt wins or loses. This is about the sanctity of the law, and the danger of allowing a fast-and-loose application thereof.

When I was sitting in that courtroom on Thursday, I could not help but think to myself: I have seen this before. I’ve read about judges slowly shifting from reliance upon the letter of the law toward reliance upon the spirit of the culture and age as a basis for forming their decisions. Instead of ruling according to that which had been codified, they began to rule according to popular sentiment. Instead of ruling according to that which was, they began to rule according to that which they felt should be.

Where have I read about this? In the War Crimes Commission’s official report on the trial against the Nazi judges following World War II.

In Nuremburg in 1948, we tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment eight Nazi judges for, in part, ignoring and/or exaggerating codified law and adjudicating cases based on their own arbitrary whims. Indeed, after two years under Hitler’s rule, this laissez-faire method of jurisprudence itself began to be codified. The Tribunal notes: “The penal laws were extended in such inclusive and indefinite terms as to vest in the judges the widest discretion in the choice of law to be applied, and in the construction of the chosen law in any given case” (6). They cite the lack of “objective standards” as one of the most problematic factors in the new laws of the Third Reich (7). They conclude:

This new conception of criminal law was a definite encroachment upon the rights of the individual citizen because it subjected him to the arbitrary opinion of the judge … destroyed the feeling of legal security, and created an atmosphere of terrorism. (7)

I admit that giving the prosecution a pass on its blunder and arbitrarily extending the deadline to file amended charges against Sandra Merritt hardly creates “an atmosphere of terrorism.” But back it up, just in that single sentence from the Tribunal. Does what Judge Hite did “destroy the feeling of legal security?” For Sandra Merritt, and anyone else in a similar legal situation, absolutely. Does it subject the individual citizen to the “arbitrary opinion of the judge?” You bet your sweet life it does. Because it does both of those things, it is also a “definite encroachment upon the rights of the individual citizen.”

And that, my friends, is the first step down the slippery slope toward tyranny.

So, you may not think it’s such a big deal that Judge Hite ruled based on the prosecution’s unprovable, and therefore extra-legal, intentions rather than its empirically observed actions, but most Germans didn’t think those early laws restricting Jewish participation in German civic life or that silly little loyalty oath for government employees were such big deals, either. They hardly imagined that ten years later Hitler would be sending Jews to the gas chamber by the millions, or inflicting total war conditions upon his own citizens. So, while they may not have agreed with those early actions, they let them slide. They kept silent and busied themselves with the everydayness of their lives. They didn’t notice the rug being pulled out from under them—it happened so gradually, they never felt the movement beneath their feet until the bombs falling all around them caused the earth itself to quake.

Will you allow their folly to inform your future?

 

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On Longings and Lies

 

 

At Mass this morning, a baby girl was sitting in the pew directly in front of me. She had wide, inquisitive eyes and dark, fuzzy hair that stood on end. Her carrier was turned in such a way that she was staring right at me throughout the first parts of the Mass, and every time I knelt, we were within inches of one another. I tried to ignore her, but she refused to allow it. Every time I looked away from her, she started to fuss. So we began to play games with our glances—I would roll my eyes about, and she would smile. And that would make me smile.

At the Offertory, her father took her out of the carrier. She stood facing me, gripping the back of the pew, and when the Sanctus came, and I once more knelt down, her tiny hands rested next to mine. Slowly, in that characteristic wobbly baby fashion, she reached out to grab my finger.

And that’s when a whimsical interaction turned into a heart-rending reality check. Because when those delicate fingers touched mine, what flashed through my mind was: This is what I threw away. This is what I destroyed. This is what will never be, not for me.

You see, I have two children. But they’re dead. And I never got a chance to hold their hands. They never even drew breath. Because I aborted them. And those are the two biggest mistakes of my entire life.

*             *             *

I was 16 when I got pregnant the first time. I was on the pill—actually, I was on the pill both times I got pregnant. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t get pregnant if you’re on the pill, because it’s a lie.

I knew I was pregnant at the moment of conception. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt the presence of another life like an epiphany—it was as clear to me as if someone had pranced into the room in a very grandiose fashion: Here I am! Look at me! And there she was. I know she was a girl the same way I knew I was pregnant. I can’t explain it. I just know.

And yet, I desperately wanted to be wrong. Even as I sat in my high school philosophy class feeling my body rearrange itself to make room for the budding life inside me, I clung to my shred of disbelief. I scribbled and passed a note to my best girlfriend: “Big problem, need help, meet me after school.”

She and I drove to the other side of town to buy a pregnancy test—we wanted to avoid being seen by anyone we knew. Then we went to the used book store where she worked and squeezed into the employee restroom to await the result. Neither of us said a word as we watched two undeniably pink lines appear in the rectangular window. We knew those lines were an equal sign with a whole mess of trouble on the tail end of the equation.

*             *             *

It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that I would have an abortion. Everyone in whom I confided my situation presumed that’s what I would do. Not a single person asked me if I wanted my baby, or suggested adoption as an alternative. They spoke about “the abortion” as if it were a reality already in existence, a decision already made: When are you getting the abortion? I bet you can’t wait to have the abortion. Don’t worry, you’ll feel better after the abortion.

This included the nurse at the Planned Parenthood clinic where I went for a second test, still hoping against hope that all other indicators had been somehow broken or misguided. After she told me I was most definitely pregnant, she launched into a speech she had clearly given many times before.

Of course, she said, I couldn’t even consider having my baby—and yes, she did use the term “baby.” My reputation, my hopes, my dreams, my goals, my whole future—they would all be ruined if I carried to term. And imagine the suffering of the poor child; it simply wasn’t fair to bring a baby into the world without reliable and adequate means of support and at my age. Imagine the shame and discrimination such a child would face, having a mother so young.

And besides, I was still a child myself, she said, patting my hand and giving me her best impression of a Glenda the Good Witch smile. She was my friend. She felt my pain. She knew what was best for me, certainly better than I—after all, she was an expert.

According to her, the best thing I could do, the only thing I could do, was terminate my pregnancy. By any means necessary. She even told me how to get around Oklahoma’s parental notification laws, referring me to a clinic in Dallas where they “put women’s interests first,” and consequently didn’t ask pesky questions about whether an out-of-state minor had parental permission for a surgical procedure.

My boyfriend and the father of my baby also assumed there would be an abortion. Not only did he not want this particular baby, he never wanted any children whatsoever. He seemed resentful, as if he were annoyed with me for getting pregnant. He called the clinic recommended by Planned Parenthood to find out how much they charged, and scraped together a couple of hundred dollars—his half of the cost—in a matter of days.

As soon as he’d given me his share of the money, he began to nag me about following through. Did you call the clinic today? Do you have the money yet? How are you going to get the money? When is your appointment? What are you waiting for?

I felt like I was being swept away by a pro-abortion tide. Amid all of that pressure and in the center of all of those projected opinions, I never stopped to ask for one of the most important opinions of all—my own. In that echo chamber of voices telling me to kill my baby, my own voice was drowned out, and, at any rate, didn’t seem to carry much weight. After all, who was I? Like the Planned Parenthood nurse said, I was just a kid without any means of support. And how could literally every person I talked to be wrong?

So I made the appointment. And I had the “procedure.” But it was not a cure for anything. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your dreams will be shattered unless you have an abortion, because it’s a lie. On the contrary, an abortion is the beginning of a life-long nightmare.

*             *             *

Two weeks after my seventeenth birthday, I married the father of my baby, the little girl I threw away. And about three years later, we got pregnant again. This time, things were both very different and exactly the same.

This time, I had no clue I was pregnant. There was no epiphany. Whereas my daughter made her entrance onto the stage of my life with a burst of light and great fanfare, my son tiptoed onstage, unnoticed by every other actor. I didn’t even realize he was a boy until after I’d shoved him into the orchestra pit.

Whereas I had spent the nights leading up to my first abortion tossing and turning, deep in apologetic internal dialog with the child I was about to discard, heavily conflicted about the so-called choice I was making, I initially felt no internal conflict whatsoever about my second abortion.

I still felt I had no choice—and my husband again contributed heavily to that feeling with his vocal determination to remain childless. But another influential factor was my own dissolute lifestyle in the months leading up to my discovery of the pregnancy. I had ingested countless teratogens in the form of various recreational drugs and alcohol, and was terrified that any baby that had been simmering in the cesspool of my womb for three months, as had been my son, would be born with horrible defects that would cause him a lifetime of suffering. The feelings of guilt engendered by that thought made me feel like a cornered alley cat—and having another abortion was my flailing effort to claw my way up the side of the building to escape the consequences of my own self-indulgent actions.

I made the appointment at the least expensive place I could find. I soon discovered the reason for the rock-bottom rate. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s possible to get a “quality abortion” at a bargain price, because it’s a lie. Firstly, there is no such thing as a “quality abortion,” and secondly, even with medically sanctioned murder, you get what you pay for.

It was obvious the minute I walked into the doctor’s office that she was really much more into the baby-delivering end of her practice than the baby-killing end.

The first clue was, every other woman in the waiting room was happily pregnant. They wore their baby bumps like badges of honor. Their faces radiated the joy of expectation. What must they think of me? I wondered as I sat down amongst them.

A beaming blonde leaned over. “When are you due?” she asked me.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell her, “I’m here to get rid of mine,” so I lied and instead said, “Oh, I’m here to find out.”

“How exciting!” She positively glowed with glee. I wanted to weep.

The second clue was, there were snapshots of the babies the doctor had delivered wallpapering every inch of that office. When I laid back on the cold metal table and put my feet in the stirrups, I discovered that even the ceiling was plastered in pictures. While the doctor brusquely tore away at my flesh (I was bedridden afterward for about two weeks), crushed the life of the tiny boy inside of me, and I cried out in abject pain, little toothless grins mocked me from above. Everything that could have been, but would never be, was right there in front of me, confronting and contemning me with joys I would never know.

I wanted to scream, “STOP! I want to keep him! Give him back to me!” but it was too late. My son was gone.

And every day since the deaths of my children, I have felt the two holes in my life where my son and daughter should be. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your life will be more complete after an abortion, because it’s a lie. It will feel like something is missing for the rest of your life.

*             *             *

There are very few people in my life who know about this part of my past—at least there were before today. It’s something about which I am deeply ashamed. Abortion is by far the worst thing I ever did—and I did it twice. It’s something I don’t merely regret, because “regret” is not a strong enough word to describe my feelings about what I did. I rue it. I lament it. I mourn it. Every single day. I have built intricate psychological cubicles in which to compartmentalize the crushing pain of it all, just to enable me to function on a day-to-day basis.

It is not my aim to give a political lecture, or to give statistics about the emotional, social, and psychological damage wrought by abortion—there are people who are already doing a much better job of that than I could ever do.

No, all I hope to do by telling my story is add my voice to the tragic chorus saying, “I did this, and it was horrible. I did this, and it was not a solution—all it did was create a larger problem that will never be solved, not in this lifetime. I did this, and I really wish I hadn’t. I did this, and I hope you won’t make the same mistake.” I’m telling my story with the hope that I might save even just one woman or girl the suffocating sorrow I have felt all these years—and that I will continue to feel until the day I die.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that bringing a new life into the world will close doors for you, because it’s a lie—the birth of something new always represents the opening of a door. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that destroying a life through abortion will open doors for you, or that it will help you realize greater fulfillment, because those, too, are lies—the biggest ones of all. Pushing your child off the stage of your life closes the door between the two of you, but it doesn’t sever the bond. And you can knock on that door ’til the end of time, you can pound on it ‘til your fists are bloody, but abortion seals that door shut. The only thing that provides some hope and eases the pain is seeking, and finding, the mercy and grace of God and the promise of a life to come. And yet, the void—the hollow space where your child should be—remains.

And inside that void, the longing whispers of what might have been will echo endlessly, inescapably, for the rest of your life.

 

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About Anna, A Friend of Mine

 

I want to tell you about Anna.

She is one of most remarkable people I have ever met. She immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1980’s. Actually, “immigrated” is not the most precise word—“defected” is more accurate, as her native country was still under a Communist regime, which was by no means willing to let her go. She was one of the leading computer scientists when that technology was in its infancy—for that reason, the Communists were desperate to hang on to her, and the Americans were salivating at the prospect of her switching sides.

For Anna, the choice, if not the process, was simple. As a devout Catholic, Anna naturally preferred to live in a place where she would be free to practice her faith. So when U.C. Berkeley offered her an attractive position, and the U.S. government offered to facilitate her escape, Anna seized upon the opportunity, and left her entire life behind—family, friends, and possessions—to embark upon a perilous journey into the unknown with only her faith and her intellect to rely upon.

*             *             *

 

 

My friendship with Anna was hard-won.

She was one of the first Catholics I met as I was entering the Church. I had only recently begun to come to Mass, and, searching for a way to get to know the people in the pews around me, I answered a request in the parish bulletin for volunteers to help make the flower arrangements. Anna was one of the two other people on the Flower Team, and that is how we met—surrounded by plush bundles of white roses, ensconced in the heady perfume of stargazer lilies, and framed by curving tendrils of vibrant greenery.

Anna rarely spoke while we arranged the flowers. When she did, her words were often self-deprecating, spoken in a tentative, tiny voice, like that of a shy child. She never made eye contact. She seemed impenetrable—she didn’t laugh at our jokes, and didn’t participate in our small talk. She reminded me of an escape artist—locked inside a safe, which was then wrapped up in chains and tossed into the ocean—only she wasn’t trying to get out.

I looked at this unusual creature, always dressed in gray and black with hair to match, and with thick glasses that hid her downcast eyes—this small, quiet, seemingly anti-social and possibly self-loathing person—and I sensed profound pain from deep wounds. I looked at her and I saw a challenge. I made up my mind to win her friendship, come what may.

*             *             *

 

 

It was not easy. But the more difficult and remote she was, the more determined I was to earn her trust. If I saw her working on a project around the parish, I would stop what I was doing and impose my help upon her. Then I would use that opening to impose my conversation upon her.

For example, one day I saw her sitting on the side steps sorting rose petals for a procession. She had a massive box filled to the brim, and she had to remove all of the wilted and decaying petals. It was a tedious, incredibly time-consuming job.

“Hey, how’d you like some help with that?” I asked her.

Barely audible, she replied, “It’s okay. I can do it.”

“I know you can, but you’ll be done in half the time if you let me help you.”

“It’s okay. I can do it.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting down next to her. “How about this. You do your half,” I said, scooping a massive armful out of the box and dumping it into the pocket-dip created by my long skirt, “and I’ll do mine.”

She shook her head, but one side of her mouth curled up just the tiniest bit, hinting at a smile. That was all the encouragement I needed to keep chiseling away at her granite facade.

*             *             *

 

 

The real breakthrough came when we started sewing. Our priest had requested new cassocks for the altar servers, and I started teaching a free sewing class with the goal of training a few more helpers for the project, which was daunting.

Anna was the only person who showed up to every single one of those classes. I think they made her see me in a new light, because she began to open up to me. In fact, our relationship underwent a radical transformation.

Where she had once been silent, she became unsilenceable. She just plain would not stop talking. She’d ask me a question, and I’d get three words into the answer, then she’d interrupt me and go on prattling. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It was downright crazy-making. She’d corner me after Mass and talk my ear off for two or three hours. It’d be dinner time, and my stomach would be growling—loudly—and I’d be saying Hail Marys for help in making my escape. I’d say, “Anna, I really need to go home now,” and she would just go on talking as if I’d said nothing whatsoever. I could be in my car, with the engine running, and she’d stand between the open door and the rest of the car, making it impossible for me to close it and drive away.

Where she had once been remote, she became incredibly clingy—she got to the point where she wouldn’t make a single decision, big or small, without consulting me first. In practical terms, this meant that she was calling, texting, and emailing me upwards of ten to fifteen times per day. I once tried to tell her, “Anna, I’m not qualified to advise you on anything. You’re older than me, wiser than me, have more life experience, and are more mature in the faith, too. If anything, you should be mentoring me.”

“Oh no,” she replied, looking deeply troubled that I would make such a suggestion, “you are very holy, Bettina.”

And this was horribly uncomfortable for me, because, although she was completely ignorant of my scandalously unholy life prior to coming into the Church, I was not—indeed, every moment of every day, I experienced feelings of visceral pain and intense shame over the things I’ve done. I wanted to cry out, “Oh Anna, you are so sorely mistaken! If you knew even one tenth of the things I’ve done, you’d be disavowed of that notion, lickety split.” But I knew that was not a wise idea.

So I became an expert in avoiding her. I stopped answering her calls, and stalled on replying to her texts. I got to the point where I’d figured out a zillion ways to sneak out of the church unseen after Mass so I wouldn’t get stuck in a talk hold with her. People would see me running across the parking lot and shoot me puzzled glances. But I didn’t care. I didn’t want to lose my entire Sunday afternoon and evening to a one-sided conversation.

And then she did something that made me feel ashamed.

My health had been getting worse for quite some time. One day I stepped on the scale and discovered I had dropped from 112 pounds—already a very low weight for someone my height—to 106 pounds in less than a week.

I flipped out.

I was worried that there might be something other than the usual RA and Ehlers-Danlos issues going on with me—that maybe I had cancer and was dying. I called an advice nurse, who recommended that I go to the ER. So Anna drove me.

But that wasn’t all she did. She sat at my bedside praying the rosary for me, over and over, for about 7 straight hours.

That, my friends, is Christian love in action.

In the car on the way home, she told me a bit about her childhood. Her mother and sister had treated her more like a servant than family. She was always and only given what was left over after they were done helping themselves—whatever food they didn’t eat at meals, whatever clothes they were tired of wearing, and so on. As for her father, he had rejected her outright. Refusing to ever touch her, he told her on a regular basis that she was “too ugly to love” until he abandoned the family entirely.

And suddenly I understood why she had begun to cling to me so tightly—I might have been one of very few people to take an active interest in her. I might have been the only person who ever courted her affection.

After that, I decided to confront the issues between us directly—she was totally deserving of that respect and consideration, and it had been childish and cruel of me to deny it to her. I wrote her a long letter telling her everything I loved about her, while simultaneously delineating my boundaries in a very concrete way.

And wouldn’t you know it? After that, things got a lot better.

*             *             *

 

 

We spent Thanksgiving Day of 2014 together. I was working as a live-in nanny for a well-to-do-family at the time, and they were away with relatives—I was alone in the big house. Anna’s son was unable to make it home for the holiday, and I knew it would be very difficult for her to spend the day by herself. So I invited her to spend it baking apple pies with me.

We had an absolutely delightful time. We peeled, cored, and sliced pound after pound of apples and debated the finer points of pastry-making. She told me about the traditional baking methods used in Poland, and reminisced about the decadent desserts she had made and eaten there.

We then had a simple, yet somehow very lavish dinner. She had roasted a chicken in advance and brought it with her. I showed her how to make rice pilaf with white wine and butter-caramelized onions. And we sautéed some carrots with garlic, honey, and ginger. The house was overflowing with delightful aromas. We ate like queens.

Afterward, we took a walk around the neighborhood. I had news I knew she would not take well, and somehow it has always been easier for me to break bad news while in motion—almost as if, by immediately moving away from the spot in which they had been spoken, I could somehow escape the ramifications of my words.

“Anna,” I tentatively began, “I need to tell you about something.”

“Yes, what is it?” she asked, looking over at me. Her eyes gleamed, catching the reflection of the setting sun.

“My grandmother called me a few days ago. The one who lives in Oklahoma? And, well, she asked me to come back. And, I kinda have to do it…” I trailed off.

Anna stopped walking. She took hold of my hand and clasped it between both of hers. She bit her lip. Her eyes glistened. But she didn’t say anything. She just looked at me.

I felt myself starting to break down. Quietly, I said, “Let’s go back to the house, Anna.”

Slowly, silently, we walked back, hand-in-hand.

*            *             *

 

 

The day before I left for Oklahoma, I came to the church to say goodbye to the people there. Anna lives across the street, so she was there, too. After I had hugged or shaken hands with everyone else, I came to Anna.

Anna had never been the hugging type. And even though I had never before gotten the signal from her that it was okay to do so, that day I threw my arms around her and held her tight.

While I was holding her, she put her head on my shoulder. In a trembling voice, she whispered in my ear something that cut right through my heart. Something to which I could not respond.

“Don’t go,” she said. “Please don’t go.”

*             *             *

 

 

But I did go.

Ironically, the forward march of technology had passed by the former computer science expert—she knew little about modern computers and electronic devices, and it was not long before we lost touch as a result. As time moved on, the emotional distance between us became ever more reflective of the physical distance, and when I came back to California about a year later, we were almost strangers.

Several years ago, Anna nearly died from an auto-immune related lung disease. She had been given only a few months to live by the doctors who ultimately, much to their own surprise, cured her.

Over the course of the time that has passed since I returned, the disease has recurred.

At first, Anna was merely very sensitive to smells. The incense used in the Mass was overwhelming to her, so she would come to Mass, but she would have to wear a surgical mask, and she would sit in the vestibule.

Eventually, she stopped coming to Mass altogether. Nobody—including me, I’m ashamed to admit—really seemed to notice.

Then, last week, I got a text message from Anna—she sent it to both our priest and me. She asked us if we would please come pick up the materials we used all those many moons ago to make the cassocks for the altar servers, which I had left in her care when I went to Oklahoma. We replied that we of course would, and we set up a time.

When we walked in her door, my heart nearly stopped when I saw her. This woman, who had always been small but robust in that stereotypically Eastern European way, had wasted away to a skeletal shadow of her former self. Her plump cheeks were now hollow, her once-bright eyes sunken, her lips thin.

I tried to fight back my tears while our priest loaded up the heavy boxes, but it was no use. I wanted to ask her, “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad? Why didn’t you ask for my help?”

But deep down what I was really thinking was, “Why didn’t I call her? Why didn’t I try to find out what was going on? Why didn’t I offer my help?”

So I tried to offer it right then and there. She claimed she didn’t need any help, didn’t need any food brought, didn’t need help getting to her doctor’s appointments, didn’t need anything, anything at all.

Before I left, I once more threw my arms around her, without bothering to ask if it was okay. And I felt her body, nothing more than a sack of bones at this point, soften in my embrace. And once more, she whispered in my ear.

This time, she said, “Don’t cry.”

And once more, I defied her. I cried like a baby. I cried until she stiffened in my arms, shrugged me off, and showed me to the door. I cried until she closed it behind me, possibly for the last time.

 

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On Resurrection and Renovation: The Agony and Ecstasy of Being Made New By Christ

Those eyes wherewith men see the dead in heart rise again, all men have not, save those who have risen already in heart themselves.”

St. Augustine

“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

—Revelation 21:5

 

 

When I was first coming into the Church, I was listening to a lot of Catholic radio. One of my favorite shows was Mother Angelica Live. One show in particular I will never forget.

Mother Angelica was talking about how new converts often initially approach their conversions with a nonchalance that betrays total ignorance of the true magnitude of the process. They think to themselves, “This is no big deal, I can just stop doing this bad thing here, and start doing that good thing there, and voila! My life will conform to Church teachings, and I’ll be a good Catholic.”

That, she said, was like thinking that allowing Christ into our lives would only require a smidge of redecorating within the houses of our hearts. Mother Angelica chuckled in her signature way and said that Jesus doesn’t want to remodel our current houses—he wants to tear them down and build new ones.

Well, that scared me a little.

But I optimistically reassured myself that I was prepared for, and willing to accept, whatever God might wish to do with me.

And besides, I thought, how bad could it possibly be?

*             *             *

When I began catechesis in 2013, the shooting of a short film I’d co-written with my boyfriend of six years had just wrapped. I’d been an aspiring writer for ages—in fact, I had gone to college and graduated with honors with a degree in that discipline. My boyfriend and I had already written two screenplays prior to the short, and the fact that we’d successfully filmed our third effort seemed like a major victory. It felt like we were quite possibly on the precipice of something big, career-wise.

My boyfriend and I had seen each other through some very dark times. He stood by me through some intense, painful trials, and he’d shown me unqualified forgiveness for some downright rotten things I’m deeply ashamed to have done to him. We were battle-tested, and he was, without question, the proverbial “love of my life.”

We were so much alike in worldview that I could not understand why he seemed to have no interest in joining me as I entered the Church. This was an institution that had formalized in doctrine virtually everything we already believed, and added to it the structure of indescribably beautiful ritual. What’s not to love about that? I couldn’t fathom his apathetic disinterest.

And I can’t overstate how arduously, intricately, and often I tried to explain to him why coming into the Church was the logical next step for people like him and me. How it was the missing ink that would connect the dots between the whats and wherefores of our lives. How it could cure what ailed us on an existential level, and provide meaning to the seemingly mundane.

But for the very first time since the day we met, talking to him was like talking to a brick wall. He admitted that he “liked me better” since I’d decided to become Catholic, that he felt it had made me a better person. But as for him?

He couldn’t be bothered.

*             *             *

Augustine, in addressing the three resurrections performed by Jesus recorded in scripture, points out that there are two types of death—visible and invisible. The former concerns the body, the latter the soul. He notes that, while we are all capable of perceiving physical death, “death invisible [i]s neither enquired into nor perceived.” Analogously, Augustine asserts that only those who “have risen already in heart themselves” are capable of perceiving the resurrection of heart which Christ can perform upon the spiritually dead.

In opening my eyes to the truth of Catholicism, God had resurrected my heart and soul, which had indubitably been dead for a protracted period as a result of my uncommonly un-virtuous life. And, although my boyfriend could perceive changes in my outward disposition and behavior consequent to that spiritual rebirth, he, not having “already risen in heart,” could not perceive the true scope of my transformation, and no amount of eloquence or explanatory elocution on my part could awaken his heart.

Only God can resurrect the dead.

So I was forced to accept phase one in the great renovation project Christ had in store for me by walking away from a man I still loved with my whole being, with whom I’d planned to spend the rest of my life.

It hurt like hell, and it was just the beginning.

*             *             *

Next, my health went straight down the toilet.

I have rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in faulty collagen, which, of course, is found all over the body, and, consequently, causes a wide range of symptoms.

Over the course of that year, I dwindled down to 106 pounds. I’d lose large clumps of hair virtually every time I took a shower. I vomited, or came darn close to doing so, between bites one and three of pretty much every meal. I experienced fatigue so oppressive that I felt like I was constantly swimming upstream against a river of murky molasses—indeed, it was so bad that I couldn’t drive longer than half an hour without having to pull over for a 15-minute roadside nap. And I sat helplessly by as my arthritis spread from my knees and spine, where it had been more or less confined for years, into my hands, fingers, hips, feet, and toes. I was in pain every moment of every day.

After about a year of this, I had a phone conversation with my maternal grandmother. She lived in Oklahoma—the place in which I’d spent most of my childhood, but hadn’t revisited in over a decade. My grandmother and I talked on a regular basis, but this conversation was different: she asked me to come home.

My grandma’s house had been my refuge growing up—when life with my alcoholic, drug-addicted mother and her violent, psychotic boyfriend had become unbearable, my grandma had taken me in.

So when she asked me to come back, I packed up the accumulated trappings of my 15 years in the San Francisco area, and headed quite unwittingly into the next phase of my spiritual renovation.

Once I arrived in Oklahoma, the heavy demolition began.

*             *             *

I didn’t realize how good I’d really had it in California—how spiritually spoiled I’d been—until I returned to the site of the worst years of my life.

In California, I was accustomed to having a close-knit, socially active Latin Mass parish and my spiritual director nearby. I had countless Catholic friends a phone call away to whom I could reach out for moral support, companionship, or help with just about anything under the sun. For crying out loud, my parish’s altar servers packed up and prepared my boxes for my cross-country relocation—and I think that was the third time they’d helped me move. I was incredibly well cared-for.

When I got to Oklahoma, the nearest Latin Mass parish was over an hour away by car, and spiritual direction was not available. There seemed to be no real parish community life to speak of—probably because virtually everyone who attended Mass there had to drive a significant distance to do so. Long story short, I couldn’t seem to find a place there for myself. Even as the weeks and months wore on, I felt like a perpetual outsider.

Daily life was a PTSD nightmare punctuated by a sequence of catastrophes.

When I’d lived there as a child with my mother, we had moved at least 2-3 times a year. I can’t count the number of times she busted into my bedroom long after everyone else in their right mind had gone to bed holding a plastic garbage bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Fill it up with whatever you care about the most,” she’d say, handing me the garbage bag, “because we’re moving.” And she meant right then and there, at 1, or 2, or even 3 in the morning—and everything that didn’t fit in that garbage bag, became garbage. We simply left it behind.

In each and every one of those places we lived, things better left unsaid took place on a daily basis. And because we had moved up and down and all around the greater Oklahoma City metro area, the entire landscape for me as an adult was tattooed with tragedy, the memories of which I had buried deep in the vaults of my mind, unrecollected for years.

Until, that is, one day I would unwittingly happen upon the site of one of these past calamities while running an innocent errand—and then it would all come flooding back. And I would have to pull over and have a minor meltdown, or get out of the car to vomit. Because, for a few interminably long minutes I would be 5, or 11, or 14 years old again, and trapped in the black cauldron of terror and despair that was my childhood with my mother.

That was happening a couple of times a week. Meanwhile, one major thing after another went horribly awry.

First, the so-called doctor I was seeing decided it would be a good idea to summarily discontinue a medication regimen my previous doctor and I had fine-tuned over the course of over a decade. The results were a disaster. I nosedived into a deep depression. I started to gain weight with shocking speed—2 pounds a week at one point. I had symptoms of both puberty and menopause, simultaneously—at age 37. Everything was completely out of whack. And the pain? The pain was almost unbearable.

Then, my car was destroyed in a flash flood. I happened to be in it at the time, but I, unlike the car, waded to safety.

Then, we got bedbugs. The stress of trying to get rid of them caused me to get shingles.

I’d lie wide-eyed into the wee hours on my air mattress on the living room floor, half-crazy from sleep-deprivation, pain shooting across my back in waves like electric shocks, jumping up at the slightest rustle to check for creeping parasites, terrified to close my eyes, wondering what calamity was coming next.

Something had to give.

*             *             *

After all of the isolation, illness, and infelicitous incidents of my Oklahoman sojourn, I felt almost as though I were spiritually hibernating. I had by no means lost my faith, but what had been a bonfire had dwindled to an ember, and I felt far away from God. I did not sense His presence in my life the way I had on an everyday basis in California.

In California, everywhere one looked, one could see the fingerprints of God. The ocean, the mountains, the green glory of the foothills, the sweetly perfumed flowers in every front yard from ritzy Mill Valley in Marin County to working-class Bushrod in Oakland—my neighborhood—it all sang God’s praises.

Oklahoma seemed to me an endless holocaust of yellow emptiness by comparison. I found nothing that said, “I am God’s creation, and I’m glorious,” like the chorus of natural beauty I’d been spoiled by in California.

And, like the landscape around me, I felt stripped down, parched, uninspired, and uninspiring. I longed for the intimacy with God that I had come to take for granted in California, which seemed to have vanished the moment I crossed the border into this place in which so many demons from my past still roamed free.

So I made up my mind to go back to California. But because of the bedbugs, and my determination not to bring back any parasitic hitchhikers, I decided to abandon my possessions. That 15 years of a life I’d packed up when I moved out there? I had to leave it all behind.

The decision was extremely painful, like a punch in the solar plexus—breathtaking, paralyzing. Like a wrecking ball slamming into a brick wall.

But after all, that is more or less what God was up to. How could I expect it to feel otherwise?

*             *             *

Right around the tail end of my time in Oklahoma, I discovered something that had been right under my nose the entire time: a Maronite parish literally within walking distance of my house. The first time I went there, Bishop Elias Sleman from Syria was visiting and celebrating Mass.

It’s difficult to describe the effect this man had on me. Here was someone who had seen horrors that made those of my life look like Romper Room by comparison—civil war, genocide, the sadistic murder of loved ones—yet he radiated inner peace and love for his fellow man. I could not help but weep at the sight of the wholehearted, reverent adoration with which he raised the host during the Consecration.

He was on-fire with the love of God, and the force of his blaze re-ignited my tiny ember.

I started going to daily Mass at the Maronite parish, and I could hear the echo of the passion and fervor which had drawn me into the Church in the first place.

As my departure date drew nigh, I began to feel a pressing urgency to make a General Confession. I needed to put the events of the past ten months in perspective—I needed closure, and something told me this was the best way to obtain it.

Bishop Sleman left, and the parish received a new pastor. I made an appointment with him for my Confession.

I poured my heart out, and cried my eyes dry. And he listened.

This was a man who had only met me a single time before. Yet, when he counseled me after I’d finished speaking, he referenced things I had not mentioned, things known only to God and me. And he told me something that helped me bookend my time there—something that allowed me to drive away two days later, leaving virtually everything I owned behind, feeling clean, and new, and at peace with what had happened.

He said, “My child, sometimes you have to die to be reborn.”

*             *             *

Unfortunately for me, I tend to be someone who learns the hard way.

Maybe some people could have learned to let go of their attachments without having to lose everything they owned. But not me.

Maybe some people could have learned to count their spiritual blessings without having to lose just about every last one first. But not me.

Maybe some people could have learned that they were not in control of anything, and that they really ought to let go and let God, without having to endure natural disasters, pestilence, and multiple ailments of both mind and body.

But not me … we’re still working on that one.

No, in order to build something new, God has to tear down the twisted, soot-stained, baggage-burdened piece of work that has stood in this spot for far too long, and it has not been fun.

But as each wall comes down, I feel cleaner, more straightened-out, and lighter. And it gets easier and less painful as more and more bricks become loosened, then demolished entirely. And I think—I hope—I can see the new floor-plan starting to take shape.

And that, my friends, is most exhilarating.

 

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On Freedom

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” –John 8:32

 

 

There was a time not so terribly long ago that I did not believe in God and practiced no religion. I had various reasons that seemed compelling at the time—anyway, they’re not particularly relevant.

I believed my lack of faith gave me an abundance of freedom compared to all the strictured, structured religious people around whom I grew up, with all their rules and behavioral regulations. Indeed, I believed that hedonism was categorically liberating. So I indulged my impulses; if it felt good, I did it.

There was only one problem with my theory: it ruined my life.

At age 30, I found myself without a respectable job, significant family ties, a meaningful romantic partnership, coping skills, or a dime to my name. What I did have was a mile-high pile of debts and bills I couldn’t pay, a string of broken-off affairs with men I never would’ve considered marrying (some of whom were already married), two pregnancies but no children, and a tendency to seek chemical solutions to my problems. I also had a massive supply of prescription painkillers and other heavy-duty medications, so, as was my habit, I turned to them to solve what I came to consider my biggest problem of all—that of being alive.

In sum, I took over 500 pills. The hospital staff tasked with untangling the aftermath of my actions agreed that my survival was nothing shy of miraculous.

 

 

*             *             *

I now look back on that time as my period of enslavement.

I was enslaved to my impulses—it wasn’t a matter of choosing to indulge them, rather, I felt compelled to do so. When one doesn’t believe there is anything bigger, better, or more powerful than oneself, one deifies one’s own desires, and becomes addicted to one’s vices. If life begins and ends with my own experience of it, then my whims are imbued with the gravity of divine decrees; there are no apparent eternal consequences for indulging them, nor is there evidently anything more sublime to pursue in their place. Thereby, in rejecting God, one makes little gods of one’s vices and oneself.

At first, these gods seem benevolent. Take, for example, the tribute paid to lust in the form of a one-night-stand. When you exchange those first few glances with your quarry, everything is mystery, intrigue, and the challenge of the hunt. Your heart beats faster; your brain turns cartwheels scheming up potential plotlines. And when the deal’s been sealed, and you’re on your way to the rendezvous, you feel triumphant, as though you have captured a rare animal for your own private zoo. And your thoughts, still spinning, sound something like this: This time, I’m really going to let go and have fun. This time is going to be the best one yet.

And then, the transformation begins. This rare animal you believe you’ve captured is his own personal god with his own deified desires and his own private zoo. You can “let go” all you want, but you’ll never “have fun” the way you hope to, because you mean just as much to him as he means to you—precisely nothing—and he, like you, is only there to indulge his own impulses.

And when the episode is over and the lights come on, the metamorphosis from enticing intrigue to awkward silence and cold corporeality is complete, and permanent separation is the only thing that can mollify both parties. One-night-stands last only a single night because neither party is interested in seeing the other again after what has transpired. It stands to reason that it must not have been all that spectacular—it definitely falls pitifully short of the fantasy you envisioned after those first exchanged glances.

And that is the god of lust showing its true, very ugly face. Rest assured, those hideous features run in the family—all of its brother and sister gods are equally grotesque.

 

 

*             *             *

People, even non-Christians (especially them, it sometimes seems), are terribly fond of quoting the scripture cited at the outset of this piece. We live in a time wherein truth as a concept has ceased to be defined as something binary, or even a binary thing qualified by degrees. Instead, “truth” has been re-defined as something relative—a thing about which it is perfectly valid to say, “You live your truth and I’ll live mine,” a statement that would have been considered harebrained jibberish not so very long ago.

In a time such as this, “The truth will set you free,” is a very handy quote to bandy about when one is attempting to validate, even glorify, addiction to his/her vices. One example of this is the LGBTQ community’s adoption of the pop song “Truth Will Set U Free” as a “pride” anthem.

The people who use this quote in such a manner are making the same mistake I did—they are defining “freedom” as the ability to act on every impulse, and indulge every whim. But is this the true face of freedom?

Dictionary.com provides five definitions of “freedom” that are relevant to this conversation:

  1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint
  2. the power to determine action without restraint.
  3. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery
  4. the absence of or release from ties, obligations, etc.
  5. exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.

None of those definitions apply to the kind of “freedom” pursued by most people in today’s world—the same fraudulent freedom I once followed with a focused, fiery passion that wound up burning not only me, but many unfortunates who crossed my path.

The first and third definitions initially sound fitting but, having once been imprisoned by vice, I can assure you, they aren’t. One who has deified desire may not wear visible shackles, but he/she is nonetheless bound.

When one knows no higher good than the fleeting pleasure provided by the senses, one is enslaved to the wants thereof. When one knows life is short, is convinced nothingness is all that awaits after death, and believes that pleasure is the meaning of the brief one-act play one believes life to be, one feels one must seize every opportunity to appease one’s senses, and experiences a sense of hollow failure at every missed opportunity to do so. Such an existence is certainly one of confinement—confinement within one’s own cycle of wanton vice, followed by empty despair.

 

 

And such an existence fails to match definitions two and four for the same reasons; addiction to vice inhibits one’s decision-making ability and obligates one to serve the vices to which one is addicted. Just as a junkie is essentially a robot programmed with one function—to seek and ingest drugs—one whose sole ambition is the pursuit of sensual pleasure is also a monofunctional entity, constrained by an obligation to gratify one’s impulses. Although that person is theoretically free to choose self-control and self-denial, doing so would be perfectly contrary to that person’s modus vivendi, and would seem absurd to him or her.

Definition number five is disqualified in much the same manner. When one is addicted to vice, that vice and the activities and people involved in the pursuit thereof run the show. For example, if one is addicted to drugs, the drugs, and the endless tail-chasing game of trying to obtain one’s next fix, are in charge. If one is addicted to lust, the tools of that vice—be they pornography and/or other commercialized sex, extramarital or premarital partners, etc.—dictate the parameters of the addict’s choices and actions. For someone addicted to greed, the means of accumulating wealth—a lucrative job, a wealthy potential mate, the ups and downs of the stock market, etc.—direct the movie of that person’s life.

No, the type of “freedom” championed by virtually every facet of contemporary culture is nothing more than a glittering, brightly colored, heavily perfumed, exorbitantly expensive set of handcuffs.

Luckily for us, a key to those handcuffs does exist. And it’s the same key that unlocks the doors to true freedom.

*             *             *

So, what does true freedom look like? Well, all those people so quick to quote the 32nd verse of John 8 would do well to read it in context (quoted from the Douay-Rheims—emphasis added):

 

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him: If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed.

32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

33 They answered him: We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free?

34 Jesus answered them: Amen, amen I say unto you: that whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.

35 Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever.

36 If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.

 

Obviously, verse 32 is not some blanket authorization for an anything-goes, I’m-okay-you’re-okay approach to life. Quite the contrary—two verses later we’re warned that sin enslaves. And, far from the free-to-be-you-and-me-style, relativistic, tripe-tinged slogan into which it has been misshapen, verse 32 is an assurance that if we follow the teachings of Christ, we will be made free. Not if we “follow our hearts,” or “live authentically,” or “live our truths.” No, this warranty only covers folks who are trying to sync their heartbeats with that of the Sacred Heart, and are living authentically Christian lives according to His truth—which, after all, is the only Truth.

 

 

I can hear my twenty-something self—someone steeped in the modern mindset and a product of contemporary morality—instantly object to that last statement: “But that’s not freedom! That’s the tyranny of conformity, and repression via behavioral regulation.”

This is what I would say to my former self:

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of fear and despair. Feeding my vices necessitated a lifestyle that prevented me from building any kind of security—be it financial, emotional, interpersonal, or spiritual. That led to many sleepless nights spent either worrying about how I was going to pay the bills, or crying myself sick over the profound sense of emptiness which lurked around every psychological corner, threatening to engulf me.

All of that changed the very first day I followed through on my desire to go to Mass. That night I slept like a baby. And I have just about every night since. I call that freedom—freedom from worry, freedom from despair.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of anger and heartbreak. I was bitter and brokenhearted about all of the injustice and cruelty in the world, and the fact that nothing ever seemed to be done about it. And I felt helpless in the face of it all, which only served to feed those feelings of melancholy and rage. I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

That changed when I learned the reason why injustice and cruelty exist, that they are temporary, and that I can do something about them through offering up my suffering and prayer. This empowered me to break that vicious cycle. I call that freedom.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of isolation and alienation. I felt detached from the people around me, as I seemed to have little in common with them, and did not sense any deeper spiritual connection with them. I felt profoundly lonely, but I didn’t know how to change it.

Coming into the Church provided me with an instant spiritual family and a community of people whom I could love and be loved by. Learning about the Communion of Saints showed me I was wrong about feeling disconnected, opening my eyes to the very real spiritual bonds between us all. It showed me I need never feel lonely again, because I never will be, and never have been, alone. I call that freedom—freedom from the oppression of isolation.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of my vices. I saw no reason not to indulge them—indeed, I felt obliged to do so—because I viewed this life as the main event rather than the opening act, and did not know of anything more meaningful than simple sensual pleasure. The pursuit of that pleasure led me to personal ruin, and caused significant harm to many people caught in the wake of my careening voyage. I was miserable, but I didn’t know any other way to live—I didn’t know the secret of happiness, so I was a slave to sorrow.

The Church explained the true meaning of free will, the existence of a life to come, and the joy that comes from following the path we were created to travel. I learned that free will is not just about being at liberty to do as one pleases; it’s about analyzing the consequences and potential benefits of all options in light of not only one’s personal needs and wants, but those of all involved parties as well, and making informed decisions with those factors in mind. It’s about avoiding mistakes, but having the safety net of God’s mercy to catch us when we stumble, and reinstate us when and if we have the humility to admit fault and the resolve to repent. It’s about choosing the greatest good for the most people rather than selfish fleeting pleasures—not by force, but because, as a person of conscience, that’s actually the choice that provides more lasting satisfaction. It’s about aiming high for the afterlife, rather than below the belt for the present life. And yes, it’s about having the freedom to choose not to do any of those things, but knowing that there will be eternal consequences for that choice.

I call that freedom.

And that is the truth that sets men free. At least, it’s a small part thereof. It’s not about confessing some tawdry misdeed or personal predilection, then using that to justify a life of iniquity. The former, although factually true, is not Truth, and the latter is not freedom, not really.

Having traversed the path from fraudulent freedom into the legitimate liberation only Our Lord can provide, I hope that all my former shipmates successfully make the journey, too. Please join me in praying for them—it’s something they desperately need, and will not do for themselves.

“Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy…”

 

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Marriage, Motherhood, and Money: The Morality of the American Dream in Mildred Pierce

Nominated for six Academy Awards, and winner of one (Best Actress – Joan Crawford), Mildred Pierce is a practically perfect film. It boasts a taut, compelling storyline; lush, evocative, noir-style cinematography; and first-rate performances across the board.

 

 

Essentially a cautionary tale about flouting the institution of marriage, misguided methods of mothering, and the idolatrous pursuit of money, it makes a powerful statement regarding these three foundational elements of the American dream. Its themes are equally apt today as in 1946, the year of its release—perhaps more so.

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Mildred Pierce is a woman driven by a solitary desire to profusely provide for, protect, and please Veda, the elder of her two daughters. Veda is also driven by a singular desire—she longs for wealth and social status. Veda’s obsession feeds into that of her mother, and the drama of the film is catalyzed by this conflict-ridden interaction, which leads to divorce, an in-name-only marriage, financial ruin, and even murder.

 

 

Mildred’s husband, Bert, sums up the core conflict of the film in one of its opening scenes: “The trouble is, you’re trying to buy love from those kids and it won’t work.”

“I’ll do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything,” Mildred replies. “They’ll never do any crying if I can help it … I’m determined to do the best I can for them. If I can’t do it with you, I’ll do it without you.” And just like that, Mildred capsizes their marriage.

 

 

Mildred does indeed do anything, and virtually everything, in an effort to please and appease the perpetually dissatisfied Veda. Veda, for her part, disdains and disparages everything her mother does, forever demanding more.

The dynamic of their relationship is overtly demonstrated the night after Bert moves out. Veda suggests that Mildred should marry a man she doesn’t love, simply because he is well-off. “If you married him, maybe we could have a maid like we used to, and a limousine, and maybe a new house,” Veda muses. “There are so many things that I—that we—should have and haven’t got.”

“I want you to have nice things,” Mildred replies. “I’ll get you anything, everything you want.” And, being a woman of her word, Mildred works night and day in an effort to earn the money necessary to placate and indulge Veda.

 

 

First, she surreptitiously takes a waitressing job, which pays well enough to provide the family with a comfortable life. But when Veda discovers the working-class nature of Mildred’s job, she charges her mother with having “degrade[d] us,” and accuses Mildred of having a low-class background, which she speculates is the cause behind her father’s departure.

So Mildred steps up her game. She opens her own restaurant, which is quite successful. She buys the building from society-page darling and unapologetic loafer Monty Beragon. Veda, who is rapidly “becoming a young lady with expensive tastes,” is instantly charmed by Monty, and they begin to frequent the places patronized by the idle rich.

Desperate to keep pace with Veda and Monty’s profligate spending habits—Mildred is supporting them both by this point—Mildred opens additional restaurants, transforming her business into a chain. Every location turns a handsome profit.

 

 

Veda, meanwhile, inveigles a young millionaire into a quickie marriage. She then asks for an annulment, deceitfully claims to be pregnant, and demands a $10,000 settlement to care for the non-existent child.

Mildred is furious when she discovers Vida’s deception. She demands to know why Veda would do something so remarkably reprehensible.

“With this money, I can get away from you … and everything that smells of grease.” Veda spats. Then she really lets Mildred have it: “You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store, and whose mother took in washing.”

Livid, Mildred rips up the $10,000 check and throws Veda out.

 

 

In an effort to run away from her past and problems, Mildred travels. But when she returns, nothing has changed—she still wants Veda, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get her back.

Bert takes Mildred to Veda’s workplace. They find her wearing a skimpy, flashy dress and singing “The Oceana Roll” in a cheap dive. Mildred begs Veda to come home.

 

 

“You still don’t understand, do you?” Veda asks. “You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that … the way you want to live isn’t good enough for me.”

In an effort to overhaul her lifestyle into something that will be good enough for Veda, Mildred proposes marriage to Monty Beragon, who has social standing and a veneer of respectability in spite of his lack of real wealth. In exchange for his aristocratic name and residence in his lavish family home, Monty demands a 1/3 share of Mildred’s business. They settle the terms of their marriage as if negotiating a business deal, and Mildred winds up doing exactly what Veda suggested years earlier—she marries someone she doesn’t love in order to elevate her social standing.

Attracted by the possibility of entry into blue-blooded circles afforded by Mildred’s new marriage, Veda returns home. But all is not well. The old pattern repeats, ultimately leading to financial ruin and violent death.

 

 

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In Mildred Pierce, marriage and motherhood are inextricably interrelated. They, along with money matters, are serious business that ought to be transacted according to traditional rules and conventions. A multitude of misfortunate events are triggered by the characters’ failure to follow the established socio-cultural norms associated with these structures.

For example, when Mildred walks out on Bert, she jettisons perhaps the only person who could have curtailed Veda’s evolution into a materialistic and morally bankrupt golem. Though Mildred defines herself primarily by her deep devotion to her children, no amount of effort or good intention on her part can ever compensate for the lack of a husband and father. Her attempt to redress Bert’s absence by showering her children with material things backfires horribly. And when she discards the time-honored customs associated with disciplined child-rearing in favor of parental prodigality, one child turns out to be a ruthless monster, and the other winds up dead. Her maternal vocation cannot be successful in the absence of matrimony, and no amount of money can change that.

Mildred’s divorce also leaves her vulnerable to the vicious exploitation she endures in her second so-called marriage. This seemingly tidy financial transaction leads to several serious and sundry betrayals, and ends with the untimely death of one involved party. Mildred’s divorce and remarriage for material ends also promote Veda’s moral dissipation; they insinuate that money is more important than love, that a marriage can be casually cast aside if it becomes inconvenient, and that matrimony and motherhood can and should be manipulated for material gain.

 

 

Veda’s marriage misadventure also serves to illustrate the film’s matrimonial, monetary, and maternal morality. When Veda misuses marriage and feigns motherhood for financial gain, she sabotages several important relationships, and ends up as catcall and wolf-whistle fodder in a tawdry dump—an existence that couldn’t possibly be any further removed from the aristocratic life of leisure she imagines she is owed.

At the film’s end, on the other hand, the properly wed Mildred and Bert are reunited. They walk together toward the rising sun of a new day, and a film heretofore characterized by the liberal use of shadows and darkness is filled with the light of dawn.

 

 

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Clearly, the worldview promulgated by this film has Catholic overtones, in that it endorses the same traditional values to which we adhere.

For example, Bert, in his role of husband and father, is the voice of moral authority and truth. His observations concerning the origin and nature of Veda’s greed and conceit, as well as their probable consequences, all turn out to be true.

Mildred’s first marriage is portrayed as the only truly legitimate one—one which remains even after a civil divorce. And Mildred’s decision to divorce Bert is not treated as a mere mercurial mistake—on the contrary, it’s outrightly condemned as wrong.

Suffering builds inner strength and forges a sound moral compass. The avoidance and lack of normal suffering, on the other hand, leads to the ugliest selfishness, an absence of charity, and grave sin. Mildred, who voluntarily adopts an excess of suffering in order to spare her children therefrom, is a formidable person with a strong sense of right and wrong who gracefully weathers many misfortunes. Contrarily, Veda, who has been handed virtually everything she ever wanted without the pains of labor, is an amoral beast completely lacking in love.

Finally, the intemperate love and pursuit of wealth provides no lasting happiness, but, rather, leads to dissipation and disaster. True success is not gauged by the size of one’s bank account, but by the extent to which one lives according to traditional moral principles.

In sum, according to Mildred Pierce, the authentic American dream is the achievement of moral, rather than material, prosperity. It is a timely message, now more than ever.

 

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Respecting Russia: Only Fools Rush In

“Whoever will come to us with a sword, by a sword will perish.”

 – Aleksandr Nevsky, 13th-century Russian prince and saint of the Russian Orthodox Church

According to multiple news outlets (including The Daily Mail, RT, and The Huffington Post), NATO is amassing troops along the Russian border. The tension between the United States and Russia has not been this intense since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

By this point, we’ve all heard the sour grapes issuing from the Obama camp concerning Russia’s alleged electronic interference with our recent election. According to them, Russia is at least partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s forthcoming presidency.

But if Russia tried to hack the election for Mr. Trump’s benefit, its efforts fail to impress—Mrs. Clinton’s vote count outpaced Trump’s by a margin of three million. And if we’re expelling Russia’s diplomats because they hacked into some other facet of our national security apparatus, why haven’t we done the same to China’s diplomats?

Simply put, all of this hacking-accusation hoopla is a red-herring sideshow put on to distract, incite, and inflame the American public. Why is Obama actually stirring up a war with Russia? Who can explain the whys and wherefores of that man’s inexplicable choices? Precious little of what he has done over the course of his two terms has been logical or far-sighted.

Of true concern is not so much why this is happening, but what the consequences will likely be. And we have plenty of been-there, done-that testimony to reference if we wish to learn what happens to armies foolish enough to rush in to Russia.

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The sagas of ill-fated invasions inscribed upon the pages of recent Russian history are impressively intimidating, and ought to give pause to anyone contemplating a military mash-up with the Muscovites.

 

 

First let’s consider Charles XII of Sweden’s 1708 endeavor. Charles XII’s military strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Charles was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Peter the Great; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Peter merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing Swedish army might use to sustain itself, thereby decimating it. The Russian winter took care of the rest.

 

 

The next epic fail began on June 24, 1812 when little Napoleon crossed into enormous Russia. His goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Russian territory. However, Napoleon was foiled, in large part, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Russian soldiers and civilians; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, Tsar Alexander I’s armies merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of Russia, destroying anything the pursuing French army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the French could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter more or less took care of the rest.

And, finally, we come to the most recent example—Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. It began on June 22, 1941; note the similarity to the date of Napoleon’s invasion. The parallels pile on from there.

 

 

Hitler’s goal was quick victory via massive onslaught. His strategy relied upon the swift movement of armies over unexpected terrain. This initially served him well; he scored many early victories, and rapidly moved deep into Soviet territory. However, Hitler was foiled, to a great degree, by the scorched earth tactics employed by Stalin’s armies; in spite of suffering multiple defeats, the Soviets merely retreated further and further into the endless expanses of the USSR, destroying anything the pursuing German army might use to sustain itself, thereby effectively chipping away at it, as the Germans could not maintain their ridiculously long supply lines. An early winter helped take care of the rest.

 

 

If you’ve failed to see the pattern here, you’re clearly not the first. Although these are obviously oversimplifications of complex operations, they are accurate broad-strokes synopses, and even a child should be able to extract the moral of the overall story, which is something akin to: fool me once, shame on you, fool me repeatedly in the exact same way, shame, shame, shame on me.

It’s worth noting the exception to the rule—there has been one significant successful invasion of Russia, carried out by the Mongols nearly 800 years ago. However, if Obama is taking his cue from this isolated bit of history, he ought to step in front of a mirror and reassess his reflection; he resembles Genghis Khan about as much as Hillary Clinton resembles Mother Teresa.

Furthermore, one might argue that this example doesn’t really count, since a united Russia as such did not exist at the time. In fact, it could be argued that the consolidation and expansion of a defined Russian state was the key factor that eventually allowed for the reclamation of their sovereignty over not only their own territories, but several Mongol successor states to boot. It may have taken them 200 years to pull it off, but this only serves to illustrate my next point: Russian tenacity should not be underrated.

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In one of my many former occupational lives, I was once an online English as a Second Language instructor. I had students scattered all over the globe, including several in Russia. Hands down, they worked harder, and progressed more quickly, than anyone anywhere else in the world.

The nature of the lessons readily engendered the formation of a personal relationship, and I got to know my pupils well. As a whole, my Russian students impressed me as an incredibly tough and determined bunch. Most of them had endured remarkable hardships; they were experts at stretching meager provisions into multiple meals, working long hours on little or no sleep, and cracking jokes in lieu of cracking up.

Alexey is a perfect example. When I first began working with him about five years ago, he was a penniless early twenty-something living on his parents’ couch. He had few legitimate prospects, but dreams the size of Siberia—he wanted to be a chef on a cruise ship so he could see the world. Over the course of the years I’ve known him, I’ve watched with wonder while he’s clawed and scratched his way out of poverty and into this precise occupation. He’s overcome impossible odds and repeated setbacks—obstacles and disappointments that would’ve caused every American I know to give up and walk away.

This kid lived in an uninsulated basement and worked sixteen-hour days at a job he despised for two years to pay his way through a degree program in Norway—a country in which he knew no one, and was profoundly lonely. Over the course of his studies, he was forced to drop out of his program not once, not twice, but three times due to circumstances outside his control, including illness and ultimately death in his family. Each time, he devised a way to resume his education. When he’d finally obtained his degree, he waited another two years for an opening in his field, toiling away in the meantime as a barista—a job well below his qualifications—in order to pay the bills.

But now he’s sailing around the world doing what he loves, and considers his long period of struggle to have been entirely worth it.

And this type of tenacity is the characteristic Russian trait everyone who invades that land forgets to take into account. When Russians really care about something—something like defending their homeland, for example—they will gladly suffer every form of deprivation and degradation in order to achieve their aim. Because suffering is nothing new to them—indeed, they’re old pros at it. You can bomb them, starve them, poison them, and beat them black and blue, and all of it will be in vain, because they’ll keep fighting until they come out on top.

 

Russian soldiers wave their flag, made from tablecloths, over the ruins of the Reichstag.

 

But don’t take my word for it. Hitler’s eastern-front officers—a group perhaps better qualified to speak on this subject than anyone else in modern history—made some far more relevant observations.

For example, in volume III of his Kriegstagebuch, General Halder said: “It is becoming ever clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus … [Their] divisions are certainly not armed and equipped in our sense of the words, and tactically they are often poorly led. But there they are. And when a dozen of them have been destroyed, then the Russians put up another dozen” (170).

In his The Third Reich at War, Evans writes that General Gotthard Heinrici “returned again and again in his letters [to his wife] to express his amazement at the Russians’ ‘astonishing strength to resist … Their units are all half-destroyed, but they just fill them again with new people and they attack again. How the Russians manage it is beyond me’” (199). Evans also quotes a letter from a German officer to his brother: “The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr. Goebbels characterizes as ‘animal’” (403).

But Field Marshal Fedor von Bock probably put it best, and most simply, when he stated in Zwischen Pflicht und Verweigerung: “The Russians are unbelievably tough!” (229)

 

 

*         *         *

So these are the people waiting on the other side of the border from our gathering NATO troops—troops that we say are being placed there in response to the buildup of Russian forces, which Russia describes as a response to the buildup of NATO forces.

Which side is “right?” Does it really matter when nuclear war looms as a legitimate possibility? In such a case, it would seem that what is truly right is the prevailing of cooler heads. Really, oughtn’t we to know better than to toy with worldwide annihilation?

Of course, Napoleon really ought to have known better, and certainly Hitler, too. Alas, they both seemed convinced of their own personal exceptionalism. One might argue that Mr. Obama suffers from similar delusions. Will Mr. Trump fall into the same trap? Only time will tell.

In the end, the overused, but never-disproven adage will almost certainly hold true yet again: Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it.

 

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