Child Sacrifice in the COVID-19 Era

Originally published at OnePeterFive

“It’s very difficult for us to recapture people’s motivations for carrying out this practice … Perhaps it was out of … a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child.” — Dr. Josephine Quinn, on Carthaginian ritual infant sacrifice

“The reasons and need for abortion (health, severe diagnoses, financial, protection of family resources, etc) do not go away during a pandemic. In fact, they are likely to be exacerbated.” —Jen Villavicencio, MD 

In the midst of, and as a result of, our current global pandemic, the battle over abortion has escalated to a fever pitch. Five states—Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Iowa—have declared abortion non-essential, and have effectively banned the procedure for the duration of the outbreak. Planned Parenthood and so-called “abortion rights” groups, however, have filed lawsuits against all five states, and it remains to be seen whether these bans will be upheld in the higher courts.

Meanwhile, the abortion lobby is pushing back hard, not just against the bans, but for increasing access to unsupervised DIY medical abortions, arguing that prescriptions for abortion pills should be made available via telemedicine, without an in-person appointment at any point in the process— allowing women to literally flush their children down the toilet without any supervision whatsoever. 

Both sides are gearing up for a fight to the finish. And the coronavirus may be what definitively propels this nation in one direction or the other—toward sane provisions for the protection of life or irretrievably further into the black hole of the culture of death.

Did anyone see this coming? If we didn’t, we probably should have—because where God has been abandoned, societies have always devolved into using child sacrifice as a means of solving their problems, especially in times of crisis.

The ancient Carthaginians, for example, sacrificed newborns at locations called tophets. It is thought that these sacrifices “may … have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community,” states Dr. Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford. Some experts conjecture that these sacrifices were instruments of population control and  that well-to-do Carthaginians used them as a means of preserving their wealth.

Child sacrifice is a well-documented facet of early Mesoamerican cultures. For example, at El Manatí, an Olmec “sacred place” dedicated largely to the worship of water, archaeologists Ortiz and Rodriguez unearthed countless bones of “newborn (and possibly unborn) human babies,” including “infants whose bodies had apparently been dismembered and/or cut into sections” interred alongside figures of pagan deities.

Franciscan Friar and missionary Bernardino de Sahagún documented the child sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs in great detail. One of their gods, Tlaloc, required the tears of these children to wet the earth, else the rains would not come—so they believed. Consequently, if the children did not cry, priests would tear off their fingernails prior to the sacrifice.

According to researcher Andrew K. Scherer, the Maya also performed child sacrifice in a variety of circumstances. Infant sacrifices, for example, might be performed to appease supernatural beings who might otherwise have eaten the souls of more important people.

In Peru, the Chimú people sacrificed children “to appease the El Niño [weather] phenomenon,” according to archaeologist Feren Castillo. The later Inca culture drugged their child victims with alcohol and coca (the leaf from which cocaine is made) prior to their sacrifices, which were performed on a variety of occasions, including during wars and natural disasters.

Today, two of the most common justifications for abortion are financial unpreparedness, and a desire to control family size—echoes of Carthage. Another common justification is the prioritization of personal goals, like career and education, over the birth of a child—me over you—echoes of the Maya. Bernie Sanders thinks abortion can help save the world from climate change—echoes of the Aztecs and Chimú. Planned Parenthood dismembers pre-born children and sells their parts for profit—echoes of the Olmecs. 

What’s perhaps most disturbing, however, are the echoes of the Incas. Like them, many are using a natural disaster—in our case, a pandemic—to justify the slaughter of our children.

Take, for example, Heather Artrip, a Texas woman currently seeking an abortion who said: “I … would like to have a third child at some point. Right now is not ideal considering we are experiencing a global crisis, a pandemic.” Then there’s Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, who claimed now was a ‘particularly bad time’ to restrict abortion, since coronavirus-related unemployment is making it even more difficult to financially support a child, and women may worry about the consequences of being pregnant during a pandemic. 

Meera Shah, chief medical officer for a New York City area Planned Parenthood affiliate, stated: “Abortion care is essential and life-affirming, especially now when there is so much insecurity around jobs and food and paychecks and childcare.” She continued, “People are really thinking hard about continuing their pregnancy right now. It feels scary for a lot of people.” She also stated that she has noticed an uptick in their number of abortion appointments.

If women are so scared to be pregnant right now that they are considering and choosing abortion, the environment on social media is certainly not helping. Dr. Jasmine Patel, Ob-Gyn, tweeted: “By postponing abortions, you are sentencing a woman to pregnancy that has more risks [sic] for her health and transmission of #COVID19.” Lara Adams-Miller, a self-proclaimed “biological healthcare professional” (whatever that means), tweeted that the state abortion bans are “particularly sinister in light of how at-risk pregnant women are to srs covid-19 [sic] complications.” Kae Bender likened unplanned/unwanted pregnancy during the pandemic to “torture,” and Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, called it “inhuman.” 

And then there are the folks who are overtly advocating abortion as a response to the pandemic, like Heather4amazon on Twitter, who stated: “What costs more resources[:] 1) a doctor’s visit and a couple of pills[, or] 2) months of prenatal visits and birth[,] resulting in a hospital stay[?]” And, perhaps most blunt of all, Hayley Vecchio said this on Facebook:

You might be thinking that modern-day abortion, although perhaps done for the same reasons, is not the same as ancient ritual infant sacrifice. For one thing, where’s the ritual? 

Believe it or not, it is not at all uncommon for women to engage in some kind of ritual behavior around their abortion experience. This phenomenon is described in Dr. SusanT.Poppema’s book Why I Am an Abortion Doctor:

Some women … stage what amounts to rituals around the procedures. A patient came in recently with her partner and brought candles, clearly making the experience a ritual way of saying, “I am proud of myself for making this choice, also sad about the choice.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A simple web search yielded dozens of pre-scripted abortion rituals. I found several combining neo-paganism with Judaism, for example, including this

Bless You, Rachamaima, Compassionate Nurturer of Life, who helps us choose life. Amen. I was on the abortion table when this prayer just came to me, addressed in the feminine … Divinity here is a compassionate, female gestater of life … During the abortion, my partner kept whispering the prayer in my ear, over and over, the syllables incantatory.

Another quasi-Jewish abortion ritual has two parts—“the first is for casting out, and the second is for purifying, or cleansing.” It involves multiple people, includes scripted prayers to the “Divine Presence,” and utilizes two bowls of water—one of which is meant to represent the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath for purification—and bread crumbs. The perversion of the mikveh into an abortion ritual appears to be fairly common. Then there’s this Judeo-pagan “self-birthing” abortion ritual, also involving a mikveh element, which focuses on affirming one’s own “inner beauty and Divine sparks,” and “involves blessing of the newborn/renewed self.” It is essentially self-worship.

But don’t think the Jewish tradition is alone in this behavior—far from it. The Pregnancy Options website has very conveniently compiled abortion rituals for and from virtually every faith tradition, including a Native American ritual, a Buddhist ritual, a pagan ritual, and a ritual “based on Christian and … African-American [c]ultural [t]raditions” involving “a plant, water in a container … a white candle, a glass or metal bowl (in which paper can be burned)” and ancestor worship. One of the many elaborate pre-scripted prayers in this particular ritual states:

I embrace my faith and African principles that empower me to choose. I choose because God has entrusted me with the power of choice. I choose for myself thereby I am living the principle of kujichagulia … It teaches [b]lack people to name themselves and their reality and to choose for themselves. I am naming my reality and choosing for myself.

Yet another ritual on this site—described as a “liturgy” and including a “celebrant”—includes prayers to “Holy Wisdom,” “Mother Goddess,” and “Father God,” and ends with an anointing with oil not unlike that which occurs at Confirmation. 

But the mockery of Holy Mother Church doesn’t end there—there’s actually an abortion ritual for “Hispanic Catholic women” which employs multiple sacramentals and centers on prayer to the Virgin Mary.

If there’s any remaining doubt in your mind that what we are doing today in the form of abortion is analogous to what our ancestors did in the form of infant sacrifice, these final two rituals ought to dispel it. First, this ritual from Sarah Kerr, PhD, a self-described “death doula”:

The image we held for Gabriel [the baby] was of a lighthouse, flashing a loving message to him … letting him know … that he was not going to be able to land here. We told him the date for which abortion had been scheduled, and that if he wanted to turn around on his own, he could do so before then. Otherwise, his parents would go ahead with the procedure, bringing as much beauty and love to it as they could… We offered prayers of gratitude to those who have fought so hard to make abortion safe and legal … We carried our prayer bundle outside to the fire pit, and built a hot, beautiful fire … We called out, by name, to the ancestors who would be waiting for [the baby] … We prayed that his voyage be blessed. And we laid the bundle on the fire. Then we turned and … listened while the offering was received by the hungry fire spirits.

And finally, as if that weren’t close enough to ancient pagan nature worship, there’s this, found on Facebook:

Commenting on the modern revulsion to ancient child sacrifice, Dr. Josephine Quinn stated: “We like to think that we’re quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us—the truth is, I’m afraid, that they really weren’t.” 

Actually, doctor, you might want to re-examine that position. We’re still sacrificing our babies, often in an overtly ritual manner—the only elements that have changed are the methods being used and the gods being worshipped. Today, the gods in whose name these sacrifices are committed are science, money, success, and, primarily, the victim’s own mother, who essentially deifies herself by claiming authority over life and death in the name of achieving her own ends. 

And now, during a plague that might well be a chastisement from God for our sins—including and especially that of abortion—the bloodthirsty gods are crying out for even more slaughter. Just when we most urgently ought to be repenting of such heinous crimes, the forces of darkness are pushing us to kill the innocent on an even grander scale.

Will you sit idly by and watch the escalation of violence from the sidelines as an impotent spectator? Or will you take action to defend the defenseless at this most critical moment, when we are potentially poised to finally win this bloody war? When you stand before the judgment seat of God, how will you answer for your downtime during this period of crisis?

Get involved. Make calls to your local legislators. Write letters and emails to your governor and congresspeople. Express your support to those leaders who are defending life—they need the encouragement—and let those who are promoting abortion know that they will never have your vote until they change. Pray—every day. And if you are able, reach out to the abortion-minded and strive, in charity and with patience, to change minds and hearts. Don’t wait. The right time is right now.

Our hands are bathed in the blood of the innocent. What will you do to make atonement?

The Saint, The Sinner, and the Wrath of God

originally published at OnePeterFive

Sunday was my thirteenth day in coronavirus quarantine. I must confess that, although I have done some liturgical sewing and have spent more time than usual exercising, cooking, and praying, most of this precious downtime has slipped by without anything of note transpiring. 

But Sunday was different.

My church—a small Melkite parish—is currently closed, but our priest has live-streamed Orthros and Divine Liturgy the past two Sundays from his own home, which he has re-arranged for this specific purpose. I tuned in yesterday from the utilitarian comfort of my sewing studio. 

It was Mary of Egypt’s feast day, and our priest told us this saint’s remarkable story during his homily.  She spent the first seventeen years of her adult life as a prostitute—not motivated by desperation per se, but rather by lust and love for the sport of leading others astray. At the end of that time, she traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross to seduce the pilgrims gathered there. She attempted to enter a church in which the True Cross was being venerated, but an invisible force prevented her entry, not once, but three times. Realizing that her impurity was what was blocking her, she retired to a corner of the churchyard and looked up to see an icon of the Virgin Mary above the church. Beset with grief over her sins, she promised Mary that if she would be allowed to venerate the True Cross, she would renounce her life of sin and go wherever the Virgin wished. Again she approached the church, and this time she was allowed entry. 

Being a former prostitute myself, I have always considered St. Mary of Egypt a patroness, although perhaps not one of my principals. But as I listened to my priest relate her story, I realized that I had never been truly contrite about those years spent peddling iniquity—sure, I recognized that what I did was wrong, and I obviously repented, but as for feeling a deep sense of grief over the sin aspect of what I had done, like St. Mary of Egypt felt outside that church? No, that I had never experienced. I had always at least partially justified what I had done by telling myself that, given my extreme circumstances and lack of other options, what I had done was really not all that bad. Not exactly good, but not exactly evil, either. 

This realization perturbed me. So I prayed for the grace of true contrition right there during Liturgy.

Late that night, I felt restless, and decided to go for a drive. I hadn’t been out of the house in several days except for walks around my own neighborhood, and I just wanted to blast my music and feel the road race by beneath me—I didn’t care where I went. And so I started out without any clear destination in mind.

Almost as if on auto-pilot, I found myself traveling customary paths—roads that were familiar because they were routes to places in which I used to live or work. And before I knew it, I was on my way to the apartment where I had lured so many men into sin.

As I approached the corner on which the building stands, I started to feel a great weight on my chest. Breathing became significantly more difficult. I turned the corner and saw the place itself, and it hit me like a sock on the jaw: “My God, what have I done to You?”

I realized the weight on my chest was the weight of my sins. And I realized that I had made a grotesque mockery of God’s laws, laws given to us out of love and for our protection. But, most painfully of all, I realized that I had deeply wounded the only One who loves me infinitely and unconditionally. He had given me everything, and I had squandered it in filth.

A shower of profound sorrow washed over me. It was more than I could bear. I had to get out of there. So I pressed the gas and raced down the street, although I was gasping for breath and could barely see the road through my tears.

I kept driving—visiting the sites of many past mistakes—shedding years of uncried tears.

*             *             *

Sunday was noteworthy in another way, too: the latest interview with the exiled Archbishop Viganò was published. In it, he discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and how it relates to matters of faith. He speaks of the pandemic as an instrument of divine wrath meted out upon a world saturated with sin, and, more especially, a Church hierarchy which has abandoned its own doctrine, embracing in its stead secularism, “religious relativism,” and even blasphemy. He characterizes God as a Father who “sends us many signs, often very sternly” to repent, this being one of them.

Abp. Viganò calls for the ‘immediate and absolute’ conversion of “[t]he Pope, the Hierarchy, and all Bishops, Priests, and Religious.” He also calls upon our societies to repent of sins “such as recognizing the right to abortion, euthanasia, and sodomy” as well as “corrupt[ing] children and violat[ing] their innocence.” 

“Public sins,” he goes on, “require public confession and public atonement”; otherwise, we “cannot evade God’s punishment.” 

In other words, it is time for the whole world, and especially the Church, to have its St. Mary of Egypt moment. Like her, we are being denied access to our churches. And like her, according to Abp. Viganò, it is because of our impurity.

St. Mary of Egypt spent the last years of her life battling, and ultimately overcoming, her temptations and doing penance for her sins. She was rewarded for her efforts with great spiritual gifts, including the ability to perform miracles. 

Right now, we are all in the equivalent of St. Mary of Egypt’s churchyard—and, in this quarantine environment, we have ample time to reflect upon our sins and how they might have contributed to our present crisis. Will we, like her, be gifted with the grace to repent in time to save our society, our souls, and our Church from ruin? Or will we selfishly cling to the world we have grown complacently accustomed to, which is so repugnantly offensive to Our Lord?

I urge each one of you to pray for the grace of true contrition. I can tell you, it hurts like nothing else on this earth, but don’t you think it’s about time we stopped indulging every pleasure-seeking whim and started doing a little productive suffering? I, for one, intend to start doing penance right now, today. And, during this painfully pregnant pause in our mostly misguided lives, every member of the Church Militant—including and especially the hierarchy, going all the way to the very top—should and must do the same, if we are to escape the horrific fate we so justly deserve.

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Shot Down in Motor City: How I Smelled the Tear Gas and Saw the Light

In September of 1995, I was just shy of eighteen, and I believed the entire world ought to be radically transformed.  That’s probably because the entirety of my brief life had been a disaster; my small world had been rotten and corrupt, so I believed the world at large was, too.  I wanted to flip our nation on its head — indeed, I wanted to turn the whole planet upside down.  I figured that was the only way to fix things.

I’d gotten married two weeks after my seventeenth birthday — before graduation, even — and growing up under the looming shadows of my mother’s alcoholism, crack addiction, and mental illness had forced me to mature far more rapidly than my peers.  Nonetheless, I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did. 

I had attended Oklahoma public schools for most of my childhood.  And, although Oklahoma is reputed to be the nation’s most conservative state, I remember being taught endless sundry left-wing propaganda.  The “captains of industry” were equally corrupt as the “robber barons”; indeed, the actions of the ultra-wealthy are always suspect.  The founding fathers owned slaves and were therefore filthy hypocrites.  White people are history’s villains, and owe the rest of humanity an apology.  True communism and/or socialism have never been tried, and therefore cannot be deemed failures.  The list goes on.  In other words, right in the crimson red heartland of America, I had been quietly and very effectively indoctrinated in liberal ideology.

It should come as no surprise, then, that during my first year at DePaul University in Chicago, I was intrigued by the signage posted around an International Socialist Organization (ISO) information table.  It declared the organization’s opposition to racism and sexism, and extolled its support for the rights of everyday people.  That appealed to me, so I took a copy of their newspaper, Socialist Worker, and my then-husband and I went to their meeting later that week.

It was held at a member’s home, and although the ISO claimed to have collective leadership, that guy was clearly in charge.  He was short, perhaps 5’5,” with a bulbous Buddha belly and dark, curly hair that peeked out from under his Rastafarian hat.  The rest of the group was quite diverse — there were people in business attire who’d come directly from office jobs, bookish intellectuals, hippies, blue-collar workers, and punky-looking kids like my husband and me.  Refreshments were offered, then Junior Rastafari called the meeting to order. 

He made a big push for volunteers to go to Detroit to support the striking workers of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.  The Chicago ISO was sending people over in a “gesture of solidarity” for Labor Day weekend, according to Junior Rastafari.  He emphasized that the strike would be a wild time, and that it was not something to be missed.

My husband and I had little in common, but we shared a thirst for adventure, so we signed up.  We had no idea what would actually be involved — I think we both assumed there would be sign-holding and marching — but we were game nonetheless. 

We were assigned a carpool with one of the office workers.  She was a most unremarkable woman; there was absolutely nothing outstanding about her.  I wondered if my husband and I would even recognize her again as the three of us made plans to meet that Saturday afternoon.

When she pulled up in front of our building, all the windows of Plain Jane’s tiny brown Toyota were down, and she was blaring the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.  She never changed the CD, letting that one play over and over for the entire four-hour drive.  It had lost all its charm for me by the time we arrived at the picket lines outside one of the printing plants.

It was well into the evening, but there were plenty of strikers about.  “Don’t worry,” Plain Jane assured us, “all of the real action happens in the middle of the night.”  She opened the trunk and removed three black backpacks.  “You two didn’t bring supplies, did you?” she asked. 

“Supplies?”  My husband and I exchanged blank looks.

“I didn’t think so.”  Plain Jane’s thin lips curled up in a manner both slight and sly.  “Don’t worry, I’ve gotcha covered.”  She handed us each a backpack.

I picked mine up — it was quite heavy.  “What’s in here?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” Plain Jane hedged, “water and stuff.  Things you might need.  Just strap it on.”

I did as I was told. 

Everything started out innocently and mundanely enough; we held signs and mingled with the newspaper workers.  I tried to ask a few why they were striking — after all, I didn’t really know why I was there — but they all blew me off.  I didn’t understand why at the time, but it’s obvious now: they had mouths to feed and bigger fish to fry.  They didn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the ignorance of some kid with a mohawk and lofty ideals.  For them, this wasn’t an ideological battle — they were fighting for their livelihoods.

As the hours wore on, a sense of anticipation became palpable, and the crowd began to meander, like one massive serpentine creature, toward the gate where the trucks went in and out. 

“What’s going on?” I asked a young African-American woman with a shaved head, a handful of something shiny and pointy, and a crowbar peeking out at the waistband of her incredibly baggy jeans.

“We’re gonna blockade those bastards so they can’t get no delivery trucks out.  If they can’t get no trucks out, they can’t get no papers out.” 

“How are we gonna do that?” I asked, feeling totally lost among all the shouting and seemingly random action.

“With our bodies, girl!” she laughed and shot me a sidelong look.  “You ain’t never done this before, am I right?”  

I allowed her to draw her own conclusion.  

She chuckled again.  “Here, you probably ain’t got none of these,” she said, placing three of the spiky metal things in my hand.

“What are they?” I asked, examining the unusual objects.  They had a three-pronged base and a sharp-tipped spike that pointed directly upward.

“Put those out by the gate and on the street outside.  If the trucks do get out, these’ll jack up the tires.”  Baldy flashed me a wicked grin. 

At the gate, we formed a human wall in anticipation of the exiting trucks.  We successfully stymied delivery of the paper well into the next day. 

Meanwhile, every so often, a few ISO people would peel off the main crowd to go on a “raid.”  It wasn’t long before Baldy and Plain Jane grabbed me to go on one with them, and I discovered what it was all about.

My husband and I had been advised in advance to wear all black.  That was easy enough, because I was going through a phase at the time, and, well, I had a lot of black clothing.  At any rate, as we three got away from the crowd and into the shadows surrounding the plant, Plain Jane told me to zip up my jacket and get my hat out of my backpack. 

That was the first time I’d looked inside the bag.  The little care package Plain Jane had so thoughtfully prepared for me contained several bottles of water, just as she’d said, but it also contained a black knit beanie, pepper spray, a baton-sized metal pipe, several large rocks, a few tire-shredding spikes like Baldy’s, a makeshift gas mask — essentially a pair of work goggles attached to a thick length of fabric that could be tied around the nose and mouth — and a pair of gloves with tacks sewn point-up into the tops of the fingers.  “What are these for?” I asked, removing the gloves.

“Oh, put those on, too!” gushed Plain Jane, exhilarated.  “If we get in a fight, you’ll tear ‘em up even if you punch like a girl.”  She looked at Baldy and they giggled.  “Put some of those rocks in your pockets, and slide that pipe up your sleeve.  And remember, if you see cops coming at you, ditch all that gear, and if you get arrested, don’t say anything.  That’s what we have lawyers for.”

We pulled our black beanies down to our eyebrows and armed ourselves for … what?

Plain Jane and Baldy hustled around the building single-file and in a crouched-down position.  At the time, they reminded me of special ops on a secret mission.  The mission was still a secret to me, at any rate.  Without thinking twice, I followed in like fashion.

Baldy was the first to introduce crowbar to glass. The clamor of the shattering window startled me, even though part of me must have known what was going to happen.  “Don’t just stand there, wide eyes, move!” Baldy urged, shoving me onward. 

It was all downhill from there.  We busted windows all along the dimly lit back of the building, then hit a few cars in the employee parking lot.  Baldy planted tire spikes behind the wheels of the more expensive cars, which she presumed belonged to management.  Occasionally, patrol cars cruised by, and we saw a few cops on foot, too, but nobody tried to stop us.

By the time we made it back around to the blockade, both my comrades were pink-cheeked and giddy.  I, too, felt caught up in the rush of it all.

But eventually, the sun rose, and nobody was willing to enact such mischief without the cover of darkness.  We rejoined the picketers, shouted the pro-labor chants, gratefully accepted the hot coffee that occasionally passed by, and just generally ran out of steam as the adrenaline wore off.

Eventually, we three needed sleep, so we rented a cheap motel room.  The blockade was still going strong when we left, but when Plain Jane spoke to Junior Rastafari Sunday evening, we discovered that the crowd had eventually been dispersed, and that a few arrests were made.  We also learned about a second blockade, planned for Labor Day.  Without asking my husband or me, Plain Jane gleefully committed our whole group to participate.

We were shocked by the scantness of the crowd when we arrived Monday night.  It was perhaps one tenth the size of Saturday’s crowd — hundreds instead of thousands.  I assumed everyone was home barbecuing with friends and family, but I later discovered that the second blockade was completely unofficial and not explicitly union-sanctioned.  I don’t know who organized it, but I do know that all of our Saturday-night ISO comrades were present.

Monday made Saturday look like Sesame Street. It was such chaos, I frankly can’t recall the precise sequence of events. That night, the police did not ignore our shenanigans — probably because there were so few of us that we could be easily reined in.  We flailingly tried to lock arms and block the gate, while the police donned shields and marched toward us to clear the way, which we foolishly resisted.  Someone in the crowd had broken in to a nearby auto factory and stolen some car parts, and people were hurling them at the cops.  I could hear Plain Jane shouting over the din, “Grab your rocks! Throw the rocks!” and I thought about getting mine out, but there were so many bodies crashing into mine, and so many objects flying over my head, I thought it better to hunker down. 

At one point, the crowd rushed the gate in an unsuccessful attempt to breach it.  No one in particular decided to do it, it just happened.  A hive mentality had taken over, and decisions were no longer being made by us as individuals, but by the crowd writ large.  We’d become a mob — completely out of control.  It’s a cliché, but individual resistance from within that crowd was futile — no matter how hard I might’ve fought the flow rushing headlong toward the gate, the force of the current would’ve swept me up along with the rest of the human tidal wave.  Once you were in the mob, there was no getting out.

Eventually, the cops got fed up.

When I heard the canisters hit the ground, I had no idea what they were. 

But Plain Jane knew.  “Gas masks!”  She shouted it like a battle cry.

It took me a moment to process what was happening, and by the time I began to fumble with my backpack, the crowd was scattering, and a thick greenish cloud was forming around me.  My husband grabbed my forearm.  “Run!” he shouted, yanking me into action.

We darted off in the direction of the car, our arms covering our mouths and noses, our eyes tiny slits.  It wasn’t until we’d gotten out of the thick of the melee that I began to feel the effects of the gas. 

We’d already slowed from a sprint to a jog, but the sudden excruciating tightness in my chest brought me to a dead stop.  It felt like a massive boa constrictor had encircled my lungs and was squeezing them with all its might.  I dropped to the ground, gasping for air through a throat that felt like it’d been scoured with sandpaper.  My eyes clouded with tears that seemed not to cleanse, but rather to corrode.  My body contracted into a tiny ball, as if by shrinking I could somehow reduce the severity of the pain. 

For about ten minutes, I thought I was going to die.  And while I was lying there, contemplating the ignominy of dying in this unfamiliar city which eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic war zone it hit me: 

This whole thing is a sham. 

What did smashing windows and chucking car parts at cops have to do with getting a fair shake for newspaper workers?  And why did my husband and I — people who didn’t work for The Detroit News or any other paper; people who didn’t belong to their union, or any other — blockade their printing plant and allow ourselves to be gassed by cops in a city over four hours away from our own?  It just didn’t compute.  As I lied upon crumbling pavement, among weeds growing unchecked, panting and weeping, it suddenly occurred to me that none of what I’d done that weekend could possibly have advanced any just cause.  And I realized that I hadn’t bothered to find out if this particular cause was, in fact, just.  I’d allowed some joker with a dingy red-green-gold hat and no obvious qualifications — a guy I’d have normally made fun of — to make up my mind that this was something worth doing.  I hadn’t asked a single question. 

I had been a sheep, and I’d almost been led to the slaughter.

When my vision cleared, I glanced around for my husband.  I found him sitting on a nearby curb trying to catch his breath.  His tear-stained face and labored gasps made it clear he’d been feeling the gas, too. 

I looked at him.  He looked at me.

“Let’s get out of here,” was all he had to say.

*             *             *

After our return to Chicago, the phone calls began. 

“Hey guys,” purred Junior Rastafari over our answering machine, “didn’t see you at this week’s meeting. Just wanna make sure everything’s okay.  Give us a call.”

The next day, another message awaited us.  Plain Jane’s chipper voice chirped: “How’s it going, guys?  Missed you at the meeting.  Haven’t heard from you, either.  Starting to worry a little.  Just let us know you’re okay.”

The following day, two more messages.  And the day after that, several more.  They just kept coming.

Finally, two weekends after the strike, Junior Rastafari dropped by our apartment.  We regretted opening the door almost immediately.

We could not get rid of the guy.  What started as an “I-just-wanted-to-check-on-you” conversation quickly evolved into a thinly veiled interrogation designed to gauge our commitment to international socialism.  When it became clear that our commitment was nonexistent, the dialogue transformed yet again into a sermon designed to convert us to the one true philosophy of Karl Marx. 

And that was when I had my second epiphany. 

When I was 9 years old, I’d gotten mixed up with some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and when I made my break with them at age 13, they had responded in almost exactly the same manner as were these ISO fanatics.  First came the string of phone calls and “concerned” messages.  Then came the home visits and high-pressure come-to-Jesus lectures.  Both groups stressed the dire consequences of leaving the fold, which were remarkably analogous. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses cautioned that I’d be swept up in the destruction at Armageddon and would miss my only opportunity for salvation if I broke with them, the socialists warned of the drastic repercussions that would follow if I found myself on “the wrong side of history.”  Both threatened me with apocalyptic decimation and claimed possession of the sole ark that could spare me from the coming flood.

I sat there, half listening to Junior Rastafari’s forebodings about what would happen to those who refused to unite with the workers when the inevitable day of reckoning came, and I realized: This is just another religious cult.  They’d substituted The Communist Manifesto for the Bible, and Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost — but the playbook was identical. 

So I interrupted Junior’s spiel, extended my hand, and thanked him for his time.  Bewildered, he stopped mid-sentence, accepted my handshake, and allowed me to walk him to the door. 

“So, we’ll see you at Friday’s meeting?” he asked as he walked out.

“Nope,” I answered, “no, you won’t.  And I don’t want to see your face around my building or hear your voice on my answering machine anymore either, got it?”

He initially appeared surprised, then his expression metamorphosed into a clueful smile, as if he knew something I didn’t.  Everyone who’s been successfully indoctrinated believes they possess all the secret answers.  “If that’s your choice,” he sing-songed in a don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you voice.

“It is,” I replied firmly.  

Then I closed the door on his smug smirk and on that brief chapter of my life.

*             *            *

Surveys show that socialism’s popularity among Millennials is soaring, even as we have just marked the anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians; as millions of Venezuelans face starvation and crippling shortages of medicine and other necessities; as Hong Kong’s protests against the communist mainland government are turning violent–in short, it’s happening even as we drown in evidence of socialism’s failures. 

How can this be?  If my story provides any insight, the answers are pretty plain.  When one puts children, most of whom have divorced/single/absent parents, into public schools designed to indoctrinate them with far-left ideology, and deprives them of any kind of counter-balancing influence — like religion — the final products are brainwashed, alienated, angry young adults bursting with radical ideas and poised to pounce upon whomever they deem responsible for the bleakness of their lives.  The hope once offered by the Church has been denied them, as they have been raised in a secular world.  They’ve also been robbed of the security once provided by the nuclear family, because the sexual revolution and the subsequent feminist and LGBTQ movements have radically redefined the family.  All that remains for these volatile young people is the State, so they turn to it to solve all of life’s problems.

And socialism offers them a seemingly magic panel of solutions.  Not only does it promise to cure all the world’s ills, it offers a scapegoat upon whom they can blame their troubles — the wealthy.  Nevermind the overwhelming evidence proving socialism doesn’t work — their 10th grade history teachers told them true socialism has never been tried, so none of that counts, and besides, the socialist slant on the story sounds so much more appealing.

Socialism also crudely fills the gaps in a world where religion has been shoved off the stage of daily life.  It offers a group identity, a code of behavior, a set of sacred texts, even gods of a sort.  Everything religion once did in a beautiful and sublime way, socialism now does in a vapid and strictly material manner. 

The key difference is, socialism offers no truth, only prettified lies.  And that is why it can only thrive in a world bereft of traditional sources of truth, like religion and family.  It’s no coincidence that Stalin did his best to destroy both religious and family loyalties, and it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing socialism’s popularity surge in this country only now, after the forces for God and family have lost the culture wars.

But all hope is not lost.  Millennials are swallowing socialist swill because they’re starved for meaning, and that’s what’s being presented to them.  But very few people will pick McDonald’s over filet mignon — at least, not after they’ve had a taste of a choice filet. 

And if we wish to convince young people that socialism is the wrong path — if we want to prevent this country from devolving into another Venezuela when Millennials become the dominant voting block — we must not only expose its vacuity, but offer something solid in its stead.  We must invite these famished wanderers to the banquet of truth. 

Most young would-be revolutionaries know nothing about the founding fathers.  They have never read the Bill of Rights, much less the Constitution. They think Plato is something akin to modeling clay. And they haven’t even picked up a Bible.  In an age where all information is at their fingertips, they nonetheless remain uninformed on matters of true importance, because they have not been given the tools to sort the melody from the noise. We must shine a light on the texts and ideas which have stood the test of time and weathered the trials of implementation.  We must point the way to truth.

And in the same way we’d introduce broccoli to a toddler, if our initial tidbits of truth are rejected, we should simply move on, and re-introduce them at the next opportunity.  We don’t have to force-feed, we have merely to offer — again and again until our subjects agree to at least try a taste.  We won’t convince everyone — some people will stubbornly cling to their Twinkies, even as they die of malnutrition.  But I sincerely believe most folks aren’t as thick-headed as me — most people don’t have to be tear-gassed to see the light.  Just one bite of truth will entice a sufficient percentage to flip our cultural scales back to some semblance of sanity. 

Our sustenance is sweet indeed, and we must actively and tirelessly present it in fresh and enticing ways on our collective cultural plate.  Eventually, those who are gorging at the slop-trough of socialism will begin to feel pangs of hunger for true nourishment, and they’ll seek other intellectual food.  Let’s just pray our citizens don’t have to literally starve, as have so many subjects of socialist regimes, before that happens.

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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 non-Christian 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.”

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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.

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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 possibly could.

No, all I hope to do by telling my story is to 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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