The Friends They Make Under my Roof

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This picture collage popped up in Facebook this morning. Last night, Katie and Karoline and I cut lace for hours in order to make new tutus for Nutcracker at our new(ish) dance school. Tchaikovsky is offering soft mood music as I write. It’s Nutcracker season and I kind of love it.

This collection of photos actually brought me back further than the pictured Nutcracker four years ago—the one when Mary Beth was Sugar Plum Fairy and Patrick came home from college and surprised her. Paddy was living in the shadow of horror that was Charlottesville that four years ago. We were happy to be together and to sink into the sweetness that was Nutcracker.

But the collage got me thinking. Last night, there were only four children in my house. The last four. And the dynamics of relationships among all my kids have changed remarkably in the last ten years. It started when Michael left for college, and accelerated when Paddy left for the National Team. I wonder what me-today would tell me-ten-years-ago.

I think back to the friends they were when they were little-- before Paddy left for Florida, back when every day ended with heart-to-heart conversations between Paddy and Mary Beth, back when she was who he’d miss the most-- and I thank God for every moment they spent with one another before their worlds shifted. No matter what happens and where they go, those two good people shaped one another into the best versions of themselves. So much of who they are today grew out of a beautiful friendship they had from the moment she was born.

I would tell ten-years-ago-me to buckle up because there’s turbulence ahead. I would tell her …

honestly, I have no idea what I would tell her:-). I think I’d just encourage her to be grateful for the friendships her children forged with their siblings, to remind her children to be grateful for each other, and to pray that God would protect and strengthen those bonds.

 Katie making a little magic.

Katie making a little magic.

And I would tell the me of today that Nutcracker is always magical. Notice the magical moments.

Slow Re-entry

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I’ve written this post three times before I sat here today. The first two were months ago when I got a paragraph or two in and then decided that I really didn’t want to blog again after all. The third time was last week, when I was literally one category away from finishing what I considered a truly lovely daybook post and my computer crashed. I spent the next hour deleting so many large photo and inDesign files and trying to organize the all the other files that are in disarray while I contemplated whether the crash was a sign that this whole blogging again thing is a bad idea.

When the pop up popped up and then browser shut down without a warning, thereby deleting everything I was writing, I might have uttered a four-letter word Paddy taught me. And I might have sighed a very heavy sigh. But I didn’t shed a single frustrated tear. Instead, I cleaned up all the garbage on my laptop, emptied the virtual trash, put the computer away and went to sleep.

I did not try to re-create the post.

The absence of frustrated tears or an attempt to write it all again quickly so that I could publish as planned is a sign to me that I am not the same blogger I once was. If I’m going to do this thing again, there will be a gap—a lapse, a chasm maybe. There will be a marked difference between then and now.

I am not the same woman I was ten years ago when blogging was a daily habit. I am more shy, if that is even possible. I am less confident, thereby dispelling any myths about busybody mothers-in-law who have all the answers. I don’t. I have more questions than I did in my thirties, not fewer. And I am also more private.

I’ve learned a thing or two the hard way. I allowed too many people in, and I granted them access to the most sacred, private corners of our home. Most readers were kindhearted, gracious women of goodwill. A few, though, were what a friend categorized as the “most vicious, worst of the worst kind of cruel.” She continued, “I don’t know what you’re doing to attract that kind of crazy, but living like that is unsustainable.”

I wish I’d heeded her words and shut it all down then. But I didn’t. Because I was stubborn and idealistic and so ever-loving forgiving that I didn’t know how to protect myself. Or, unfortunately, my children. Instead, I persevered until I couldn’t even open the blogging site without a sense of dread. Then, without ever making a conscious decision, or ever committing the pause to paper, I just stopped blogging.

I have children who have never recovered from reading what women wrote about them and their childhood on the internet.

I pause here and ask myself, What the heck are you doing right now? You know that’s true. You know you wish you could take back ever letting those people come so close. Why are you here?

Because.

Because those women were wrong. And I was wrong. We were all trying to figure it out and we made some terrible mistakes. Because my big kids had a beautiful (if imperfect) childhood. What was good about it was the faith that still beats in the heart of my home.

I believe that even if my faith has been tested. And, oh, how it has been tested.

What was damaging was the distortion of faith. What hurt them isn’t what was really happening at home, or even what I wrote about what was really happening. What hurt them was people both out there on the web and in my local church who were distorting truth from two entirely different places at the same time. And I felt so suffocated at the hands of both and so brokenhearted about my own loss of what I thought was good and true and holy that I just stopped.

Stopped so many things.

And in many real ways, we’ve spent years trying to recover. I know that won’t make sense to you without all the details. But I also know that I cannot possibly share all the details. People online were cruel in the name of faith, while at the same time, such affronts to the gospel were happening at the church across the street that I have a child who still visibly shudders when driving past.

I am a person who discovers what I think, and feel, and believe by writing. And I pretty much stopped writing.

Stopped blogging.

Stopped offering much of anything of myself—especially my homeschooling, my parenting—in this space.

I made a few false starts at returning. I tried to honor my obligations to my regular column by posting it here. But my heart left this space years ago.

And it’s been restless—searching, seeking, asking hard questions ever since.

As much as we say real friends can be found here—and they can; they absolutely can—the internet is not “real.” It is pixelated and flattened and lacking the warmth of breath and touch. No matter how we try or what we say, we cannot fully know one another online.

I come back to this space knowing its limitations. I come back knowing where I found strength in the hard years that don’t hold places in this space. The Internet is not my life. My family is. My soul is. My God is.

No matter what I write here, what is real cannot—should not—be wholly represented here. And I won’t even try. I’ll hold a place in my actual living, breathing, warm and tender life for the sacred. My children deserve to know that I can be a trusted keeper of that sacred place. And I won’t ever, ever let the internet be the master of that place.

If an online presence feeds my interaction with the real world—the world with trees and taste and tears—I will pursue it. If it doesn’t, then I’ve worked too hard for the real world to sacrifice it on the altar of the internet. I will simply click it closed and walk away.

I have hopes for this slow re-entry. I hope to find my voice again—not for clicks or kudos. Just for me. Just because I miss the medium. Just because I can.

Now What?

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I wrote this column over a week ago and sent it to my editor at the Arlington Catholic Herald early on the morning of Wednesday August 15, the day after the Pennsylvania Attorney General's report. Yesterday, I got word that the Herald will not print it.

I am passionate about this topic. I believe that victims deserve to have their voices heard. And I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that our churches should be sanctuaries for the most vulnerable among us. Until any victim of abuse can feel safe in any Catholic church, we have not adequately cleaned up this mess. Please help me to help them be heard. It is discouraging to be denied my usual platform, but we have the Internet, right? And I have you. I'm so grateful. Please read this, and then pass it on.

These columns are due a week before they are published. When I want to respond to a current event, that’s always a little tricky. What will change as the story unfolds in the next week? Will the content even be relevant by then? This time, I intended to write before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published. I knew—or I thought I knew—that the report was to be devastating, and I wanted one last reflection before the world of the Catholic Church in America tilted on its axis. But I was traveling with my daughter early last week and time was elusive, and instead I sat on the floor of New York City hotel room on the morning of August 15, after having spent a good bit of the previous night reading the report, trying to make sense of it all.

My reality is that I’ve known for more than ten years how a report of the abuse of power and sexual misconduct is handled when a victim comes forward. That hard won knowledge has haunted me. The grand jury report is extensive and it is graphic. To read it is to challenge one’s faith in the Church. There is no way around it. For some people, the interior struggle over whether to stay in the Church or leave in disgust will be quickly resolved. They will reflect on the Eucharist, reason that they cannot live without it, and they will press on with whatever part they can play in needed reform. Or, they will decide that this cannot possibly be a place where a healthy soul can grow, and they will leave in disgust and horror, with no small amount of sorrow. 

For others, they will toss and turn and wonder about the two thousand years since Christ promised Peter that he would build his Church upon the rock. They will remember that the Magisterium is true—that the teaching authority of the Church is just as sane and solid as it has been throughout the ages. But doubt will creep in. If the bishops of our time and place can be so complicit in such grievous sin, can bishops be trusted at all? If popes can let such networks of evil grow and become ever more entangled around all of us until they threaten to choke our very beings can they possibly be as prudent and wise as we want to believe they are in matters of faith and morals? They will not easily reconcile all the many doubts and fears and hopes and hurts. They will be tormented by the disparity between the true and the beautiful and the pure evil in the grand jury report. It’s not disloyal to lie awake wondering. It’s normal.

Please consider another group. If you are a person who has ever suffered abuse, if you are a Catholic who is a victim—either of the clergy or of any other sexual predator—this report takes on a new dimension entirely. Church is supposed to be a refuge. It is the safe place where one goes to heal. It is the balm that soothes the injuries of trauma—the embodiment of the promise that God knows and sees and he is faithful even when the whole world seems dangerous and threatening. But if in that very church, evil has been harbored and protected, where do the those seeking refuge go?

Trauma changes everything. Trauma demands the competent binding of wounds over time. Trauma wants wise, healthy spiritual guidance, and it will not easily trust a priest, not now, despite rationally knowing that most priests are good, holy men. Trauma means that the victim needs church to be safe and strong and reliable. The Pennsylvania report means that it is none of those for anyone who has ever been traumatized.  These are the most fragile among us. They need us. 

It is time to make the Church safe for victims. If it is safe for the victims, it will be healthy for all of us. It is time for those who choose to remain to commit to eradicating the rot, so that our churches are strong, stable places of refuge. It is time for us to understand that we sit in the pews with souls who have been grievously injured, and that that makes us all victims. 

The Church is the Bride of Christ. She is a victim. She has suffered horribly at the hands of evil men. There are early reports that she cannot survive the chronic assault and the grievous injuries she’s suffered over time. We are in agony as we witness her pain. But will we leave, or will we find the strength to stay? Can we kneel by her side in fervent prayer in her moments of suffering, knowing that a long convalescence is inevitable? Can we rise to our feet and remind one another of Christ’s call to be the church and so to be a part of reform, knowing  that much will be demanded of us to rid her of disease? Can we turn to the Eucharist, the source and summit of our lives, and draw enough strength to be a person who heals the church? Or will we walk away and leave her to die alone?

 

 

Difficult Conversations

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When I wear my mother-of-nine badge, one question I frequently get is, “If you could change any parenting decision you ever made, what would it be?” (or some version of that question). Until recently, I never had a good answer. I’ve felt pretty good about the big-picture parenting philosophies we’ve employed, and the small details never seemed worth mentioning. But now, the answer is easy. 

 

I would equip my young children with the words they need to tell me if someone ever takes indecent liberties with them. I was a strong proponent, even in this space, of preserving the innocence of children. I still am. Too much information, too soon, robs them of a precious period of life to which every child should lay claim. Childhood is all too short; let them be little.

 

But we cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap, and even the most protected children are not under our watchful care constantly. Sadly, according to the National Center for the Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. They are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13, and they are likely to be abused by someone known to them. Darkness to Lightreports that a full 20 percent are abused before the age of eight.  We cannot wait until they are nearing puberty to give them enough information to reach out for help. Even the most careful mother cannot control for every circumstance. Instead, she needs to give her children the power and place to tell a horrible tale if that tale needs to be told.

 

I don’t hesitate now to tell young parents—especially parents who believe in protecting childhood—that children must be intentionally taught how to recognize situations which are wholly inappropriate and even dangerous. They need to know the warning flags. They need the words to tell if something goes wrong, and then to be assured of a safe place to use those words. 

 

These are uncomfortable conversations. No parent wants to look into the eyes of a precious child and tell them that someone might hurt them. No one ever wants to introduce doubt into the life a child that he or she might not be altogether safe in every familiar location. The truth is that the more protected a child is, the more vulnerable she might be. We have to say some hard things, and we have to say them earlier than most of us would have ever considered necessary.

 

It is not necessary to give a very young child too much information. They don’t need to know all there is to know about sex in order to recognize molestation. We can tell them that they should keep their private parts private and introduce the idea of modesty. Then, we need to go a little further. We need to gently teach them that people might put them in a situation where they ask (or force) them to relinquish that privacy over their “private parts.”

 

Children need to understand that those times—and the feelings of fear or anger or discomfort or awkwardness—are red flags; they are a clarion call to get help. We need our children to know to both trust their instincts when something seems amiss, and to override their fear if someone threatens them not to tell. Remember, a very young child might not even recognize the evil of what is happening as it happens. It’s important to teach them that no one—no matter how known or trusted--should touch what is private, and no one should ever threaten them to keep a secret. 

 

Finally, they need to know that if something happens and their private parts are no longer private, it’s not their fault. They need to understand that the hurt they feel requires a trusted adult to help them heal, just as if the pain were a medical emergency. 

 

As difficult as it is to have these conversations, children deserve to be assured ahead of time that the adults in their lives will take care of them if something happens. They need to know that sometimes bad things happen to good kids, and that good guys will always, always hear the secret and help them from the dark place of hiding it to a better place where they are comforted. 

 

Don’t know how to get started? I highly recommend I Said No!: A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts privateby Zack and Kimberly King. God bless you as you do this hard thing for your kids. 

 

Tender Surrender

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Last week, on the morning of Stephen's final soccer game, the heat index was 109 degrees. The air hung heavy, and the haze made it so that I kept continually wiping my glasses, but my vision never cleared. Everything about the morning was oppressive. The weather matched my mood; life felt heavy and hot and enveloping. It was difficult to see more than a few inches in front of me. The familiar landscape was uncertain and light was diffuse — glaring but not illuminating. Please read the rest here.