I went to Ash Wednesday Mass this year for the first time in a million years. Actually, not a million but more than a decade. I tried to go last year but was late and got lost and wound up in Bessemer driving in circles. So I went this year to the Cathedral in Birmingham. I took notes during the homily because I find it so hard to sit still and just listen. I went because some friends are sick, and I am helpless in their sickness. So I went to pray for them or think about them or wish them healing.
I have no answers. I hate that they are sick.
I remember Francine Prose saying in a lecture at the Sewanee Writers Conference (or maybe she said it in a tutorial) that once she found herself in an empty Catholic Church weeping and I have thought of that image over the years. In my memory she warned us not to be too surprised if it happened to us too – finding ourselves in places we could not begin to imagine and I felt the bedrock of truth of her words.
Francine, Jewish, sobbing in an empty Catholic Church.
Me – there are so many places.
Birmingham’s Ash Wednesday was the usual fare of “spiritual warfare, appreciating the war for our souls – and now is the time to stop messing around and winning battles in order to live with the angels and saints forever.”
It made me sad and anxious the priest’s words, but I can hear my late grandmother’s voice in my head – “Well, what did you expect? Sweet-nothings in your ear? You’d better get right with your faith.”
Or my late grandfather saying, “The Catholics are on the expressway to Heaven. BINGO!”
The hymns were lovely though, and I saw a blind young man with his beautiful golden retriever in the first row. I saw lots of gorgeous young families and a shiny seven-year-old boy who offered the sign of peace to a bent old lady. One of the priests had a face of tremendous kindness.
There was a supper afterwards but I didn’t go.
I went to Mass in January with my parents both of whom are very devout. My mother sings in the choir and cantors at mass at the Mission in San Diego. When I arrived late with my husband and our friend, Mike, from England, my father leaned over and whispered, “You and me – we’re carrying up the gifts at the Offertory. Can you handle it? Got it?”
What? Us? You and me? This is something we had NEVER done in our roles as father and daughter – carrying up the gifts of bread and wine together. But I nodded and thought – oh if they knew me – if the priest knew – I wouldn’t be worthy to carry up the gifts for the Holy Eucharist. No way. But I did it. We did it.
It was not a big deal even though I fretted through the readings and homily. I think I carried the wine, and when we were done one of the ushers whispered to me, “Your dad is one my favorite people.”
He’s one of my favorites too.
Here is a memory of my father.
A few years ago we all attended the Betty Ford Family Program together – my parents and Kiffen. It was a week-long program from 9-3 each day to learn how to cope with a family member in addiction. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in the desert where the hotel staff stood outside in a line (maybe 5-7 people) to see us off on the shuttle in the mornings and then to greet us upon our return in the afternoons. It felt old-spa European somehow, and the hotel staff’s ritual was a surprising source of comfort to see them waiting for us at the end of each brutally exhausting day.
There were talks, lectures, and seminars all day long at the Betty Ford. And when it was time to round everyone up again for the next session, a volunteer gently tapped the meditative chimes to signify that it was time to start – a non-intrusive wind-chime/bell – a kind of ever so soft, peaceful desert call.
ding —– ding —- ding.
My dad, a former football coach, volunteered to be the “Bell Chimer” one day but instead of three taps on a harmonic bell, for him it became – CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG interspersed with clapping and LET’S GO FOLKS, LET’S GO FOLKS, COME ON, MOVE IT ALONG like he was calling his players into a huddle.
You could see the participants stunned back to reality over the herbal teas.
They started calling him, “Coach.”
My mother participated in the drum circle and got me to join her.
There were things I never anticipated doing in my life that week.
Anyway, after Mass in January, I told my friend who is Jewish about carrying up the gifts with my father, and he said he reads the Torah when he goes home to visit his family. And I realized it’s what we do. We love our families and obsess and worry about them and love them even when we’re afraid of letting them down – especially when we’re afraid of disappointing them.
But I’m so tired of being afraid.
And as I write my children’s novel, it’s true that I have a found concentration and plot difficult, but I came across a quote on a wonderful blog by Cheri Lucas Rowlands who mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of fear being boring.
You can’t get rid of fear, but do remember that fear is boring.
Yes, fear is boring.
So that’s why I decided to read from my messy unedited new novel last night instead of the old standbys. And I was glad to do it.
So I’ll end these disjointed thoughts with an image of serenity and fearlessness – a picture of Olive and Germy, Norah’s beloved stuffed amoeba who has traveled with us for many miles.
Olive and Germy
* * *
And a song by “Shovels and Rope” that also gives me comfort in a hard and beautiful way.