October 29, 2014

Books, Planes and Father Leo


You can tell a lot about a person by what they read, no? And you can tell a lot about a person by what they wear.

Before I get to my main point, though, let me share a little background. This week, we've had a special guest at our parish. Fr. Leo Patalinghug has been giving a parish mission or retreat, you might say. Some might know Fr. Leo from his weekly cooking show on the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), or the books he's authored, or his regular radio program. He's also a black belt in karate, and as I learned last night, a beautiful singer.

Fr. Leo and Me Oct. 2013 when he was in Fargo for another event

Beyond all that, though, Fr. Leo is a great story teller, and on Monday night, he shared a story about a nine-hour plane ride, whereby he ended up sitting down with a gal who was reading Dan Brown's novel, "The Da Vinci Code."

When you sit down with someone you don't know on a plane, you can't help but be curious about what they're reading, right? I've had more than one conversation when traveling by air surrounding the subject or title of the book either my seat buddy or I had in hand. Reading material is revealing, and can be good fodder for a conversation.

Fr. Leo noticed right away that the stranger he'd be traveling next to for nine hours was reading a book that deeply criticizes the Catholic faith and is, incidentally, fiction, in case anyone was wondering.

As much as he wanted to take a nap, he realized early on that clearly that was not going to happen; not when the woman caught sight of Fr. Leo's garb. He was, after all, wearing his Roman collar, which meant...there was no getting out of it. The nap was nixed.

"Are you a priest?" the woman asked, closing her book.

"Why yes, I am," Fr. Leo responded.

And so it began, and continued, for nine hours. At first, he said, the woman was furious and full of anger. As he listened, he could feel his blood pressure rising. But then something happened. He felt a sense of the Holy Spirit, with a little nudge from Our Blessed Mother, Mary. He was, at that moment, put in his place, and he realized that an articulate defense of the faith was not what this woman needed. More than anything, she just needed someone to listen.

And so he did. He listened, and listened some more, and more beyond that. I'm sure at some point, he answered some of her questions, and offered consolation. Fr. Leo didn't share the details of what that conversation beheld, but he did tell us that the nine-hour journey ended with the woman insisting on giving him a big old hug.

Is that not beautiful? I mean, really. Think of the tension that began the plane ride, and how each of them was looking at the other as the enemy, and how God used that opportunity -- a priest seeing a book, a woman seeing his priestly collar -- to encourage a discussion; a discussion that turned fruitful and full of love.

God can use anything to reach His people. Even a book on a plane. You never know when the opportunities will come. They can come anytime, including just when you're just about to nod off into dreamland and take that long-awaited luxury nap.

God bless Fr. Leo, and God bless the woman whose heart was listened to, then softened. That we all would see such opportunity as it presents itself.

Q4U: Do you have a book-on-plane story? What fruitful conversations have you had on an airplane, if any?

October 22, 2014

Words Like Swords


Sometimes, words can feel like swords.


That's how I felt the other day while reading the newspaper. I was so excited to know that the story I'd heard might run had found light. I know a lot of the people involved in the story, which surrounds the fact that our local Catholic high school has been asked to carry the lead banner in the 2015 March for Life in D.C. in January.

I'd heard a few days after the fact that the story had been in. Leafing through past issues to find it, I saw the headline and photo and my heart leaped. I've been on those same steps before as a chaperone. I remember being with all of those young people and knowing that our presence counted; that the 25-hour bus ride and swollen feet were worth more than a couple days playing hooky.

I was delighted, too, to note the main subject of the piece: Julia Johnson, the sweet daughter of my beautiful friend Roberta, who left our world a couple years ago as the result of cancer. Roberta had been ardently pro-life from all angles -- from the womb all the way to making sure her neighbors wouldn't go hungry. Could there be any better pro-life student spokesperson than her own daughter?


But then, as I continued reading the first paragraph, my heart spiraled downward. "Julia Johnson has walked blocks and blocks each year in Washington, D.C., to support anti-abortion activism."

Anti-abortion activism? I realize that some would say this is accurate -- even some in the pro-life camp, as this writer does here. But it doesn't seem quite right to me, and I'm questioning whether this is the way Julie Johnson thinks of what she will be doing in D.C. come January.

Pro-life, pro-woman, pro-baby, pro-birth, pro-lots-of-things, yes, but anti...four little letters that take the whole meaning of something and turn it on its head. Four letters that convey something so very different than what Julia and her mother would hold to be what they're all about, I'm thinking.

Roberta was a person of great optimism. When I interviewed her on Catholic radio in her final year, she was so amazing in how she approached her illness. When people said they wanted to pray for a miracle, she poo-pooed that. She wanted things to go exactly as God had planned it, whatever that meant. It was amazing to be near her at that time and witness her vibrant, optimistic faith.

Thinking now about her vivacious personality, it's possible Roberta would have been okay with "anti-abortion activism." She did like to call things what they were. But I have a feeling, because she was all about life-all-the-way, across the spectrum, she'd prefer "pro-life."

I want to make it clear that I value the written word and our community newspapers. I've also worked in that newsroom before and know it's no easy task to pump out stories day after day under pressure. All in all, I'm grateful for the story and I think the reporter did a really great job on it. I just struggle with the negative connotations of "anti."

But if we're going to go with anti-abortion, I think it's only fair to go with "anti-life" then, too, in describing those who hold opposing views to the marchers. And yet, that doesn't seem fair either, does it? So how can we be judicious about this? Even the writer of the article linked above conceded that we haven't found a perfect solution to this dilemma; it's still a work in progress in terms of how to best name these opposing sides.

Just a couple days after I read this piece, I opened the paper and found this headline: "Roman Catholic bishops drop moves to accept gays." There it is again. Words like swords. That's one loaded headline. So loaded I don't even know where to begin in my commentary of it.

That's when I realize, I'm powerless over this machine. As long as the discrepancy between what we hold in our hearts and what others believe we believe exists, and as long as it's purported the way the machine sees it even if we see it otherwise, we're just going to have to suck it up.

The only weapons I have in the face of this conundrum is 1) a humble little blog, where I am allowed to have an opinion and share it, and maybe it will make a difference, but probably it won't; and 2) prayer.

Words are important and they matter, a lot, but at the end of the day, as a woman of faith, I'm back knowing that the battle I'm fighting won't be won by weapons or words or words-as-weapons. It will be won by love, one action at a time. That's it. That's the most I can do, the best thing I can do, the most powerful, mighty, honorable, brave, amazing thing I can do.

Just love. Few words, if any. Mostly just surrendering to Almighty God and saying, I'll be your servant, but you're in the lead. And then stepping in to continue to do what I can each day to love well, through word and deed.

Q4U: When have words felt defeating to you?

October 15, 2014

The Colors of Carmel Fall 2014


This weekend, I had a chance to hole away at the Carmelite monastery here in North Dakota.


It wasn't my first stay. Each time after the first that I've gone to Carmel, I have enough sense of familiarity that I wonder whether past visits have given me enough exposure to this beautiful spot of land to the point of leaving little left to discover.

Yet each visit, I'm surprised by what is new about the place.


 

This visit, it was the color. Oh, there's always been that, but not quite like this, presented in just this way.


 


One of my favorite batches of photos comes from my and my friend Vicky's first visit together to Carmel. It was absolutely stunning, and the light was incredible. I got a little of that this time, but not at sunset like before. Still, it was a joy to behold.


This visit, we didn't find as much of that light play. In fact, after the first day, I wondered if this Carmel stay would produce anything in the way of cherished photos.

Besides, I was there to work, as I almost always am when I go there. Well, to work, and pray and replenish. Would I even have time to look?

 

I worked hard. But you can only work so hard for so long. By the third and last day, my brain was tired. So in an inspired moment, I took to the grounds to see what I might see.

Despite the hazy autumn day, I was amazed by just how much color was there to be discovered.


Different than other visits. New objects of interest.


Hints of the Guinea fowl, which I did not spy with my eye this time, though I heard their voices in the distance a couple times. With their African blood I'm sure they're already in holing-up mode themselves, readying for the brutality of winter.


Yes, winter will come. My first visit to Carmel was in February and I will never forget how beautiful it was then, sun gleaming on sparkling snow. But I can only imagine the harsh days, too, and how long it must get.

Which makes me appreciate the now of it even more.


Carmel is a true gift, and its colors, a refurbishing palette.


This place has a way of reawakening my soul. I will admit, Our Blessed Mother has something to do with it. I will admit, too, that she calls to me every time, and every time I am captivated, and challenged to see her in a new light. This time, I felt her presence more strongly than ever. The statue? It's just a representation of a true spirit that moves through this place, and cradles me in her maternal arms when I am most weary.


 



In her post from her impressions the other day, Vicky said, "How can one not feel God (here)?  I do not have any urgency to find Him, He is everywhere.  I just breathe deep."


Yes, yes, that is it Vicky. I feel that too, every single time.

It is hard to pull away from this nourishing place -- food prepared with love by the Sisters who pray pray pray for you and me...


...doing everything they can to chase away the darkness with their chants.


This time, Mother Joseph Marie wrote me a note my final day there inviting me to early evening prayer. I've sat in on compline before -- the night one -- but not vespers, which happens before supper. Sitting there, listening to the lovely litanies, the enchanting chants, I had the greatest urgency to run back to the guest house for my pillow and curl up on the pew for the evening.

I cannot see them, only hear. They are cloistered. And as Mother explained to us during a brief visit this stay, their order is one of only about four in the United States that falls under the Carmelite Nuns of the Ancient Observance.

I feel it here, a sense of being in a place of time gone by. I smell it in the incense, prayers rising up to heaven with few earthly distractions to impede their aromatic billowing.

It is all very simple, but incredibly deep and rich. Never have I felt peace like here.


I am privileged to take it in through all my senses. And I will admit, I have a hard time, every time, pulling away. But my life calls, and so I go and enter in again to the noisy world that awaits.

I sense that God wants me to hold some of this peace in my heart even in my returns home, however, so I am always looking for new ways to bring Carmel back with me -- its beauty, its peace, its smells, its colors.


Q4U: Where did you experience fall most vibrantly this season?


October 8, 2014

When Life Happens...


...the blog sometimes suffers. I have been trying to get back to my regularly scheduled program here, but Peace Garden Writer has been hit the hardest with my fall schedule.

So what have I been doing to merit my M.I.A. status?

Well, the crazy started with an out-of-town school author visit, which, I have to say, was one of my favorite so far. The kids were awesome (teachers, too)...


...the weather amazing, and the adventure also gave me a chance to see my grandmother and mother, which is always a blessing.


We also had a nice visit from the in-laws last weekend. This is "Mom #2" and me.


Grandma and Grandpa filled our boys' and their cousin's bellies with brownies and Mountain Dew then let them sleep over in their hotel room. Weee!

And speaking of Mountain Dew, a sweet gal I know in basic training needed some encouragement to push through her final couple weeks. This was my attempt.


There's been a 17th birthday party in there somewhere, too, along with a chance to assist my daughter in playing hookey over the lunch hour so we could indulge in some Olive Garden. Presenting the post-demolition cake and coffee:


Oh, and nails. With teen daughters, this is sometimes a given on these special days. 


It's also parent-teacher conference week, which means visits to school and checking up on the kids' progress. So far so good but it always makes for a lot of extra bouncing around.

I love the chance to see what projects have been keeping them busy, though. This one by my youngest made me pause and smile.


My husband also was gone a few days on business, but he brightened us with a photo of a San Diego sunset. And I thought North Dakota sunsets were awesome!


So, you see, I have not been hiding  under a rock or anything of the sort, but I have been awfully schedule-heavy. I've only shared a few highlights here. The days have been full with more to come.

I have missed my Peace Garden Writer posts but it's good to engage fully in life, too, and sometimes, that means pulling away from the screen to tend to the other pressing things.

Thanks for your patience.

Q4U: What has been marking your living these days?

September 17, 2014

Flannery's Bedroom


I have tried very hard through the years to establish an office in our home. With five kids, this is no easy task. For a while, I inhabited a little nook off the laundry room. But the area preceding it became overrun with laundry and I couldn't think.

Later, I cleaned all that up and tried to organize things and moved out further from the little nook, still in the same long room where the laundry facilities are, at a long table that served as my desk, near a window...but it soon became similarly disorderly around it and I couldn't think.

I later took over our family room, and for a while that worked. It was my haven. Until a neighbor started some odd behavior and I could no longer open the shades wide and enjoy that space as much as I had. Then the kids broke the TV upstairs so the only one they could watch was in my office, and slowly, I got bumped...again.

I am still waiting for the tried and true "room of her own" where I can sink in and feel at ease. Every time I think I have it, it eludes me.

So when I was looking for a new cover photo for my Facebook page recently, this jumped out at me, for reasons I will shortly reveal.


Introducing the bedroom of Flannery O'Connor, taken with my own camera this past summer during my writer journey to Georgia.

I think my two travel companions would agree. This room held us absolutely spellbound. It didn't just sit there being; it spoke to us.

Toward the end of her life, this became Flannery's sanctuary. Some of her best work was written here, much of it in bed when it was hard making her way around the house, flitting about freely.

"I have been at home a week and feel I'm getting somewhere. I have to stay in these two rooms but R. has got me the table with the electric typewriter on it put so I get out of bed into the typewriter, so to speak, and every day I am able to do a little more," she wrote in June, 1964 (Habit of Being).

As the lupus took over (thus, the crutches), this became the place where Flannery spent so much of her time. Her world had become so very small, but her writing, so very rich.

"I've had four blood transfusions in the last month," she wrote around that same time. "The trouble is mostly kidneys - they don't refine poisons out of the proteins & therefore you don't make blood like you should or you lose it like you shouldn't or something. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I can get at that typewriter, I have enough..." 

I, too, have become relegated at times to sitting on my bed, propped up with pillows, writing away in the small cell of my room. This occurs even on days when the kids are at school and my "office" is once again available, but, as it turns out, has been left a mess by the leprechauns.

Resigned, I head to the bedroom and curl up. I say my morning prayers, check in with social media if time, then roll up my shirt sleeves - often pajamas - and get to work.

When I posted this on Facebook as my new cover photo, I knew very few would know of its significance, other than my fellow Flannery friends. When I mentioned this during a three-way phone conversation this afternoon, we giggled about it - how some might erroneously assume it is my bedroom.

But then they might wonder about the typewriter. That made us laugh more, because, of course, I haven't used an actual typewriter in years.

Back in Flannery's day, one of her most cherished gifts was a television set some religious sisters gave her for helping them with their manuscript. Flannery had as much fun watching the ridiculous commercials as anything, and gleefully critiqued each one. Sounds like my kind of girl!

All this to say, considering how Flannery's bedroom became a cocoon of sorts to her, carrying her from one life to another in a sense, and that I, too, often hole up in my bedroom when writing, it becomes clearer why this photo pulls me right in. I look at it and it's like I am visiting Flannery all over again, and there she is in bed, waving me in for a spell, asking me to stay a while.

I've seen it with my own eyes, and I delight in it with Flannery, knowing it was her sanctuary, and that no plush accommodations in the world could take the place of that little spot where she could go into the deepest part of herself, and come out with a masterpiece of the imagination.

Q4U: Where do you find "home" in terms of space for your writing groove?

September 3, 2014

Birth Announcement: A Writer Reflects


No, I'm not having a baby. But 46 years ago, a newspaper in Lovell, Wyo., announced the birth of a baby girl, and that baby girl grew up into me.

Here I am at just a week old, being held by my Aunt Anne.


I'm struck anew by the little announcement my mom took care to paste into a scrapbook all those years ago. It's just a few inches in height and width, but these words are the introduction to a story. It's almost as if they say, "Once upon a time..."


Once upon a time in a place called Lovell, Wyo., a new person entered the earth. She was all wrinkled and pink, as her father used to describe her, and a bit on the fussy side, as her mother remembers.

Yes, she came in wailing, having strong opinions about things, but perhaps this was even more indicative of a child with a sensitive, perceptive, and emotional nature; a child who felt deeply, and couldn't possibly keep all of those emotions bottled up inside her. Someday, she would find a way to release all those deeply held feelings by stringing them into sentences that, she dearly hoped, would bring life and hope to others.

The words also tell of a father who worked as a teacher, and reveal times gone by when mothers' and wives' first names were tucked into the "Mr. and Mrs." designation. This "Mrs." was the person who birthed me, yet no signs of her name: Jane. It's just the way it was. But I do think my mother deserves more than that.

This "Mrs." has poured her life into mine in a way I can only hope to do in part as a mother and someday-grandmother myself. This weekend, for example, she came for a pre-birthday visit, and spent much of her time playing card games with the kids and treating us through meals out and helping a little around the kitchen and letting the pets know they haven't been overlooked.

And it was this "Mrs." who, all those years back, took the time, despite being drained and frazzled, to cut out that little birth announcement, telling of her second daughter's arrival, and placing it in the first page of "Roxane's Book I," a red scrapbook, the same color her daughter would someday choose as her favorite.

Just a few words, but words that announced my life, and subtly mention a mother; one who was determined to do what she could to make this little, imperfect family with the crying baby and toddler sister and a world full of unknowns work out somehow.

The words begin the story, but there is so much more to tell, and I'm grateful for the chance to try in any measure. Because fleeting as we are in the scheme of things, our stories do matter.

Q4U: What words were born with your first moments of life?

August 27, 2014

The Messy Life


When the kids are older, then I'll have time again to organize, I said. Things will be so much tidier, so much more manageable.

As I look around my house and see the piles, I can't help but think of those yearnings for order that have proven so elusive. What a fool I was, I think now.

And yet, am I really surprised?


I think there has to be a bit of a welcoming of disorder to open one's heart to a large family, for one. Add in the fact that most of us are high on the creative spectrum and the truth of the matter comes more assuredly into view.

I'm not making excuses. I care about order. I feel better when things are in place. But I gotta be honest, they're not right now, they haven't been for a while, and I'm not exactly sure anymore when that day is going to arrive, and I'm okay with that.

As a writer-mama, there's a lot to accomplish, and most days, I do what's in my face and work my way down the list. And that's as far as I get. The deep cleaning and organizing? I'm not there and don't know when I will be. I'll do what I can when I can.

Even though the kids are no longer in diapers, the layers have not gone away, and here we are. And as I look around, feeling a little mystified, I realize I have to give myself the excuse, because quite frankly I can't do anything more than what I'm doing.

A friend of mine has been saying she's realized she can only focus on one big project at a time. She can either cook fabulous meals, or have a tidy home, but not both at once. Another time, she said that even if she did have the time to be more organized, she's not sure how much she'd want to delve into it.

I'm like that too. Some people go stir-crazy without order. I go stir-crazy trying to maintain it.

Another factor has to do with my life as a writer. As someone who is creating order daily in her writing, there's only so much of that kind of intense energy it takes to write well to go around. By the time I've done my interviews or collected all the words or written the stories, there's another around the bend, and kids who need me, too. I pull away to tend to what is most obvious in the home and with the kids and that's as far as I can go most days.

Somewhere in this, I am at peace. In the messy, I am finding a way to exist and be at rest. Because every day I am creating life-giving things. On top of the writing and family, I am also engaged in a faith that is vibrant and meaningful.

With these interior things in place, it's not only possible to embrace the mess, but on some level, to be grateful for it. I could not exist in a sterile, barren world for long.

So I come back to gratitude, for having the kind of world that invites in the messy, feeling assured somehow that the more wonderfully strange and varied ingredients go into the pot, the tastier the stew is going to be when it's done simmering.

Q4U: How do you like to create order from chaos? When do you leave well enough alone?