The Tragedies We Honor, and Those We Don’t

Given the run of violence and destruction at places of worship in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking again about how we react to tragedy. Not the kind we experience personally – the kind that happens to someone else, somewhere we’ve never been, perhaps somewhere we’ve never even heard of.

How closely do we follow those tragedies? How empathetic are we towards their victims? Which do we mourn, which do we honor, and which do we overlook?

Since March we’ve had the Christchurch mosque shootings, the burning of three Baptist churches in Louisiana, the fire at Notre Dame, the Sri Lanka church bombings, and the shooting at a synagogue in California. And those were just the ones I heard of.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t take all that news the same.

Christchurch and Notre Dame both touched me deeply. I cried over Christchurch, imagining the victims’ last moments and their loved ones’ angst. Oh, how much they will miss! Weddings, jobs, joys, children’s first words – each loss is a universe of possibility, gone. How could someone do such a thing? How is it possible for a person to hunt down his fellow human beings? How could you kill someone engaged in prayer? Christchurch was and continues to be a weight on my chest, pushing me down.

I worried and paced over Notre Dame, made anxious by the importance of what could be lost in that fire. History and culture, yes, but the Blessed Sacrament too. The very body of Christ dwelled there within its tabernacle, safe for who knew how long. The relics, the sacred art, the windows about which Bishop Barron has talked so much. A place that brought God to people, and people to God. That church, one of the best known and most visited in all of Christendom, seemed in that moment an integral part of what it meant to be human. It was a place I’d hoped one day to visit, and suddenly my chance was going up in smoke.

I mourned the loss of the churches in Louisiana too, but I’ll admit that I didn’t feel, or follow, that tragedy as closely. I prayed. I imagined the pain of the people who lost the places where they prayed and wed and mourned. I hated that racism looked to be the cause of their suffering. But I was busy and distracted and news comes at you fast, you know. I moved on too quickly.

On Easter Monday, when I heard about the bombings in Sri Lanka, my heart fell. I mourned, but I was not shocked, and I was not stopped. I monitored, I prayed, I moved on with my day. I revisit the tragedy; I continue to pray, but my heart does not seem to have the capacity to adequately honor any more tragedies right now.

And then the synagogue in Poway, California. Poor Poway, to follow that run, to taste that horror. I am sorry for them. I pray, again. But my heart won’t open wide.

~~~

In the midst of such tragedies, we sometimes stop to examine ourselves and our fellows, to assess our responses and critique how unevenly we seem to value human life.

Why do we turn on the 24-hour news coverage for one tragedy but not the other? What does it take for us to flood our social media channels with links and lamentations? Why are some of our thoughts and prayers offered vocally and others in silence?

As you might guess from my characterization of my own reactions, I think one factor in how we respond to such tragedies is how distinct they seem from the news that preceded them. I don’t think it’s unnatural to tire of tragedy. Sometimes there’s only so much you can absorb.

But is it just the timing of the news cycle? The rhythm of our own personal lives?

Or does our reaction also tack to the victims involved – their race, their creed, their age, their corner of the world?

If those are indeed factors, then what drives us in our reactions? Is it some primal preference for those who feel like members of our own tribe? Is it a failure of imagination? Is it racism, either overt or underlying?

In the tragedies I listed above, we saw Muslim victims of mostly Asian origin in a mostly white, mostly Christian country. We saw African American and Jewish victims in the United States. We saw Christian, mostly Catholic victims in religiously-mixed, mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka.

There is great religious and national diversity in that list, but there is also one commonality: Nearly all of the victims were brown.

Would our reactions have been different if the Catholics attacked on Easter Sunday looked like my children? If they hailed from an affluent white suburb somewhere in the West?

I’m afraid they would. I know my reaction would have been.

Would my Facebook feed have lit up back in March if a Muslim man had attacked two churches in Christchurch, rather than a white supremacist attacking two mosques? Probably.

What of that? Even if it were 100 percent understandable for people to better honor the tragedies of those who look like them, would the difference be morally acceptable?

I don’t think so.

Now, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to stop living their lives every time news of a tragedy breaks. We take in more news today than people have ever, in all of human history, had to handle.

But in this historic experience, we have also had the historic opportunity to get to know people and communities across the globe. And maybe that opportunity brings with it the obligation to open our hearts a little.

We don’t live in an age where our experience of humanity is limited to the people we run into on a daily basis. Today, if we take the time to look, we will see it in places, and people, completely foreign to us.

So maybe, when news of tragedy comes to us, we should engage in a little on-the-spot self-reflection: “Do these people feel familiar to me? If not, what can I think of to connect myself to them?” (Family relationships are a great equalizer: Everyone is a son or daughter; most are mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers.) Also, “If the same misfortune had struck a community more like mine, how might I feel?”

As a Catholic, I believe we are obliged to value all human life and we are called to share in others’ suffering. We can do both by responding to the tragedies we learn of – from around the corner, or around the world – with real sadness and sympathy, with sincerely-meant prayers, and with love.

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On Turning 40

Last month I turned 40. I can’t really say that I ever thought on that age with dread, but it does seem strange to have reached it. Can I be at that point already? Did my thirties fly by so quickly? Am I really twice the age I was when I walked that college campus, just beginning to get to know adulthood?

I wonder if the age of my children makes the whole thing seem more incongruous to me. I didn’t meet my husband until my late twenties and we didn’t marry until our early thirties, so I reached 40 with an oldest child of eight years and a youngest of one. When my mother turned 40, her children were 17 and 15.

Yes, 40 feels strange. But it’s not unwelcome. It’s even kind of exciting.

Lately I’ve been thinking on the arc of my life and looking back to how I felt on the cusp of my twenties and thirties.

At twenty, I didn’t have any idea what lay ahead. Where would I live? What would I do for work? Would I marry? Travel? Have children? Twenty was thrilling and terrifying.

Photo of Julie in college

(College photo shamelessly stolen from a friend. I’m in the white.)

My twenties, thankfully, ended up being quite good. I did interesting, fulfilling work. I traveled to seven countries and twenty states. I lived in fun, walkable, urban areas with coffee shops and ethnic restaurants a-plenty. But the decade was also hard. Oh, was I lonely. I spent those supposedly “best time of your life” twenties pining for a husband and children. I couldn’t enjoy where I was because I was worried I’d be stuck there forever.

Then lo and behold, at thirty I married the husband. Which was also thrilling and terrifying. What would marriage be like? Would we be happy? Could we have children? Where would we settle?

Wedding photo

That decade, too, turned out to be good. I welcomed healthy, happy children. We bought a big, beautiful Victorian. I stayed home and kept house and cooked from scratch. But my thirties were also hard. Wonderful and beautiful and hard. Three months into them I married and two months after that I became pregnant with our first child. Thus began a decade of morning sickness and sleepless nights, of frayed nerves and aching joints. A decade of change and acclimation and learning to put others’ needs before my own. Indeed, a decade of learning that my life is bigger than me.

And oh, was I down. I spent my “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” thirties pining for freedom, for quiet, for physical autonomy. I couldn’t enjoy where I was because I was worried I’d be stuck there forever.

It’s only in the past year, as I’ve nudged up against 40, that my vision has cleared and my attitude has brightened. A whole series of small realizations have unburdened me of baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying. And I’m finally feeling the gratitude that my mind has acknowledged all along.

I am so privileged. I was born into a wonderful family and I am raising a (new) wonderful family with a wonderful man. I have had a string of beautiful, life-giving experiences and I have had opportunities and successes that I did not deserve.

And yet for years, I’ve focused more on what I did not have than what I did.

I know how obnoxious that sounds. I apologize for being that person. I am sorry for my gloom, for my pining, for wasting chances to be, and to do, good.

At this point all I can do is thank the good Lord that something has shifted within me, and move forward.

Forty is not thrilling and terrifying. It’s a sort of hopeful-joyful excitement. At forty, I know what my adult life looks like. I know that it’s centered on a family of five noisy, inquisitive, passionate kids and a blessedly patient husband. I know that it involves an exhausting, never-ending amount of work, but that it also comes with the most precious of rewards.

Photo of Julie's children

I know that my quiet moments are becoming less rare and more fruitful, and I’m hopeful that in my forties I can forge the divide that defined my previous two decades. In one I focused on career and longed for family, in the other I focused on family and longed for career. This decade will undoubtedly bring its own challenges. (You never know what life has in store for you!) But I am hopeful that this will be a decade without pining — one in which gratitude is keenly felt, and one in which I can be both wife and mother and… something else. What else exactly? I don’t know. But I’m excited to figure it out.

Photo of Julie

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Against Assisted Suicide

Last week, after a long and emotional floor debate, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill that would legalize assisted suicide in the State. Today, the Senate committee considering the bill could vote to advance it to the full Senate.

This means that we Marylanders could be just a few steps away from living in a society that enables terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

What does the bill do?

According to the Maryland Catholic Conference, the bill “would allow terminally ill patients to be prescribed a lethal dose of a controlled dangerous substance, which they would then pick-up at their local pharmacy and ingest without medical supervision to end their life.”

The Conference goes on to argue that “This bill, in addition to having no regard for the worth and dignity of every human life, establishes suicide as a societal norm, places large quantities of Schedule II prescription drugs into our communities with no measures in place for take-back or disposal, and leaves those suffering from mental illness, persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and our elderly at risk of coercion and undue influence by family members or caregivers.”

Where might this lead?

Advocates of assisted suicide focus on a narrow and short-sighted solution to what is a worthy goal: relieving the suffering of terminally ill individuals. In pursuing their solution, they dismiss concerns about the grave and lasting damage it could do to our society in the long run.

Here’s where this bill might one day lead:

  • To a health insurance industry that has little patience for efforts aimed at extending the lives or improving the experiences of patients who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses.
  • To a medical culture that encourages terminally ill people to end their lives, just as it already encourages the parents of unborn children with illnesses or deformities to abort.
  • To a society that is bolder in its utilitarianism – valuing individuals not for their own sake, but according to what they can do for the rest of us.
  • To a culture that encourages ill and old people to end their lives, that views those who want to live on in their suffering as selfish – as takers of resources, as wanting to drag their families along with them in their suffering.
  • To the expansion of assisted suicide laws, enabling minors and those with mental illnesses, even depression, to end their lives. (Indeed, this has already come to pass in some European countries.)

What impact might it have on families?

My grandmother died in September.

She was 95, a fiercely independent and stubborn lady who lived on her own until the last two weeks of her life. She died of an infection that her body was too frail to fight, so thankfully, she did not suffer long.

But she did suffer. And our family watched, suffering with her.

Some forty hours before she died, I sat by my Mom-mom’s bed, surrounded by over a dozen family members, and I watched her breathe.

In and out, in and out, slowly, haltingly – she labored to breathe. I watched her dry lips, her closed eyes, her skin that seemed to stretch ever tighter over her fragile, precious bones. I watched each breath, wondering if it would be her last.

I watched each breath, wanting and not wanting it to be her last.

In the months since my grandmother’s death, I have felt regret and gratitude in almost equal measure. There is so much to unpack. How we lived, how she died. What went unsaid, what went undone. All the love that was poured out and spread around.

But in the wake of last week’s vote in the House of Delegates, I have found something new to be grateful for: that while my grandmother was dying and our family was dealing with her decline, we were in a place and time and situation where assisted suicide was not an option.

What a luxury. What a gift.

I am so grateful that we got to deal with my grandmother’s illness and death without wrangling over the question of whether she wanted to end her life, or whether loved ones wanted her to put a stop to her suffering, or whether doctors thought that the most prudent course. We were so lucky to not have those questions hanging over our heads.

Discussion around assisted suicide primarily focuses on the physical suffering of terminally ill individuals. But I fear that in reality, it will have a much broader impact on the emotional and spiritual suffering of entire families.

I fear that, if passed, this legislation will lead to suffering that won’t end with the death of the sick person. I fear that it will cause suffering that lives on in families, trickling down through generations.

If families can be divided by property disputes and ill-chosen words, imagine the damage that will result from disagreements over how and when a beloved family member should die.

Imagine the anguish of children who don’t want to see their mom end her own life. Or the anguish of a mother who wonders if it’s time to stop being a burden to her children. Or the anguish of a family in which some desperately want dad to hang on and others think it’s time for him to be done.

What can we control?

Besides that (worthy) goal of alleviating suffering, advocates of assisted suicide aim for another goal: control. They want terminally ill patients to be able to control their own end.

But there’s another element of control that must be considered when it comes to assisted suicide – control over the thing itself.

Supporters of the legislation will say that it includes sufficient safeguards, that the choice to end one’s life will belong to the patient alone – not her doctors, not her insurers, not her family.

But there’s only so much they can control.

They can’t control what kind of pressures patients will experience. They can’t distinguish between overt coercion and the low-grade kind that builds up over time.

They can’t control the shift of societal opinion towards death as duty. They can’t control how the medical and insurance industries will react, and even use, that shift to their own ends.

And they can’t control what kind of impact assisted suicide – even the option of assisted suicide – will have on families. If for no other reason than this, let’s encourage the Maryland Senate to set aside this legislation.

Let’s allow families dealing with the grave illness of a loved one to handle their situation without the burden of struggling with another, perhaps longer-lasting, kind of pain.

 

If you are a resident of Maryland who would like to register opposition to this legislation, please visit the website of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Against Assisted Suicide

Didn’t you know how important they were?

Like many Catholics these days, my mind has been so full of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal that I hardly know what to do. I hardly know what to write. I hardly know where to begin.

But over and again as I read the accounts of abuse and cover-up, I return to one elemental, heart-rending cry:

“Didn’t you know how important they were?”

I imagine the abuser staring at his prey, the bishop staring at a pile of unwelcome paperwork, and I want to shake them both by the shoulders.

Those children – didn’t you know how important they were?

When I stare at my own children, when I notice their outlines – the places where their hair, their skin, their eyes meet the world, I see the brush-strokes of a master. I see art. I see treasure.

I stop to consider my children – their personalities, their histories, their particular sets of talents and challenges – and I am struck by the enormity of their presence. Each, so full of his own ideas, so full of possibility, seems to contain an entire universe.

Someone stared at those children, the ones who were abused, that way. Their mothers, probably. But if not their mothers or their fathers, then definitely God the Father, who could number every hair on their heads.

Didn’t you know how important they were?

Didn’t you, Father? Didn’t you, your Excellency? Your Eminence? Didn’t you, lay brothers and sisters who knew things, but didn’t tell? Who suspected, but didn’t help?

Didn’t you know how important they were?

That’s the angriest, most sincere cry of my heart right now. It has called out many times, in many situations, regarding victims of terrorism, war, abortion, racism, harassment, and other sin. But this time it’s got an edge.

It is harsher for being directed at people who should have known better.

Our Church is the one that speaks about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. It is the one that protests at abortion clinics and detention centers and execution chambers. It is the one that testifies to the importance of each individual life, no matter how humble.

Men who promised to serve that Church should have recognized the sanctity of their victims’ lives – of their subordinates’ victims’ lives.

Instead, some treated those children as objects. Abusers saw them as pathways to pleasure, as perks of power. They were things to them, to be enjoyed and used up.

Those who covered up the abuse saw its victims as problems to be smoothed over, as causes of scandal rather than results of it.

Too many of today’s bishops seem to see abuse victims primarily as public relations disasters.

Didn’t you know how important they were?

Don’t you see it now? Now, when we are so well acquainted with the sins of the past? Now, when we can see how those sins wreaked havoc on victims’ lives? Now, when we see the effects of those sins rippling outward, driving people away from Christ?

We are a Church in crisis. Because of the abuse and the cover-ups and the sin that undergirds it all, yes. But also because of what this situation says about us – about what we value. Too many of us have cared more about trappings than people. The trappings of office, of power, of achievement, of reputation, even of liturgy and politics.

While our society has grown ever more factionalized, ever more tribal, so have we in the Church. And the danger here (the relevant danger; there are many) is that when we think in terms of tribe, we cease to properly value individuals.

Priests may rush to the defense of their brother priests, bishops to their brother bishops, conservatives to the champions of their causes, liberals to theirs. We don’t want to think ill of our kin. We hate to think that a favorite son of our neighborhood, our city, our nationality, our side could possibly do evil. We are convinced that our goals are so worthy, they’re worth brushing aside the faults of their proponents.

What I want to know is, will we keep walking this path? Will we read news articles and bishops’ statements and the Vigano testimony and believe them only insofar as they align with our preferences? Or will we – clerics and lay people alike – resolve to seek the truth wherever it leads us?

Will we remember the cry: “Didn’t you know how important they were?”

Will we value the victims of the past and present? Will we value the youth of today? Will we be brave enough to challenge the people and the systems we’ve loved? Or will we cling to trappings, unable to let go?

 

To listen to an audio recording of this post, please click below:

 

These Walls - Didn't you know how important they were

 

Reeling

Yesterday morning I sat in Mass and cried.

I cried for those who were abused by their priests. I cried for those who were not believed, who were hushed, who were too scared to come forward.

I cried for the parents who could not protect their children – the ones who found out too late that they had misplaced their trust, the ones who didn’t know how to help their babies pick up the pieces.

I cried for those who have been, and who will be, pushed away from Christ by this disaster.

I cried as I imagined evil making its way through this mess, spurring men and women to do its bidding: sneaking, touching, hurting, pressing, obscuring, shushing, pretending, lying, demoralizing, denying, dividing, destroying.

I cried for those who cooperated in the evil, for those who still do.

As I walked up to receive the Eucharist under the gaze of Christ crucified, I cried for Mary, whose feast we were celebrating. Mary, who witnessed her own son’s abuse. While the evil one might not have targeted Christ with sexual abuse, he did use humiliation, betrayal, pain, and exhaustion. He used mankind to subject Mary’s beloved son to physical, emotional, even spiritual torture.

I cried for Christ, who bore all that suffering for us two thousand years ago, and who must surely continue to bear it today.

Men who were charged with bearing Christ’s light into the world instead chose the enemy’s darkness. People who should have protected His lambs instead left them vulnerable to wolves.

~~~

Like so many Catholics, I’m reeling from the news of the last few weeks. First (former) Cardinal McCarrick, and now hundreds more in Pennsylvania. Except of course there’s no “first” about it. This is a problem we’ve known about for more than 15 years.

Do I get to reel now if I didn’t back then?

Back then I thought it was awful, but it didn’t seem so overwhelming. It didn’t come with one-thousand detailed pages. It didn’t (to my knowledge) involve people I knew.

Today it feels so incredibly heavy. So pervasive. I’m reading the report (and if you’re a Catholic who wants to be part of the solution, you should consider reading it too). I’m feeling all the horror of the evils I’m learning about. And I’m experiencing a conflicted sort of disgust from knowing a few of the characters involved.

I’m also seeing it with a mother’s eyes.

I read about these victims and I see my own boys and girls in their places. I cannot grasp how anyone could do such horrific damage to a child. My instinct is to want to save these kids, to pull them out of their abusers’ clutches, to spirit them away. I don’t know why our bishops didn’t have the same impulse.

Such evil. Such evil has persisted through all of this.

A few years ago I wrote about the evil I saw in ISIS’s actions and I connected it to the evils we cooperate with in our own everyday lives. I wasn’t thinking about the clerical abuse crisis when I wrote it, but re-reading it now, I might as well have been.

I am stunned to trace the evil in these cases: It is a winding way swirling about the abuser, his victims, the adults who were supposed to protect them, the superiors who should have stopped it all. It continues through each life it touches, causing mental, spiritual, and physical anguish that can last a lifetime. It jumps from those individuals to others around them.

Do I get to reel now if I didn’t back then? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a hypocrite. But I’d rather be wrong in this direction – wrong not to have fully accepted the depth of the problem in the past, but moving to shoulder it now – than to persist in my milder disapproval.

I am sorry for not feeling then as I do now.

I am sorry for wanting the issue to just go away.

I am sorry for treating those who brought it up with anything other than respect.

If you have been personally impacted by the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, please allow me to say I’m sorry – for what you went through, for my own actions and inactions, for the sins and insufficiencies of my Church.

I am so sorry.

 

To listen to an audio recording of this post, please click below:

 

These Walls -- Reeling

The Lonely Way (or Why I’m not on your side)

Wednesday morning I was listening to the 1A’s discussion on the book The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics when one of its authors made a comment about Trump supporters that stood out to me:

People wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I’ve thought a lot on this “something bigger” idea over the years. I’ve always found it interesting that people become so absorbed with groups they’re part of. Just look at fans of sports teams, or proud university alumni, or my fellow Marylanders who wear socks, shorts, and even bikinis emblazoned with the Maryland flag. I guess it’s natural for people to want to feel like they’re part of a group, but sometimes I think that ‘belonging’ takes on an outsized importance.

We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Who knows – maybe it’s some sort of tribal instinct in us.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about this. We’re a social species; it’s natural for us to want to come together. But there’s nothing inherently good about it, either. Just as this longing to be part of a group can lead us to the good of forming, say, service-focused organizations, so can it lead to the ill of cliques and exclusion and even active hatred toward those who aren’t like us.

Sometimes we need to say no to the groups available to us. (Think of the KKK in its heyday in the 1920’s.) Sometimes we’re better off alone. Better to be by yourself, upright and ethical, than to be surrounded by company that leads you astray.

This kind of talk, of course, is more applicable to political groups than it is to people who wear Maryland bikinis. And it’s in this context that I’ve done most of my thinking on the subject.

I have this rose-tinged memory of my grandparents’ dining room when I was eight or nine years old: The grown-ups were talking politics and I was tossing little snippets into their conversation that made them chuckle. It was a wonderful feeling: a mixture of security and confidence and pride – a sense of belonging.

My family was politically engaged; my grandfather was a farmer and a county councilman, and through farming and/or politics, he knew many of the players in our small state. My aunts and uncles participated in his campaigns and others’. And we were stalwart Republicans, which put us in the minority in very liberal Maryland. We were used to feeling maligned or ignored.

I think that the two combined – the engagement and the knowledge that we were in the minority – produced a strong attachment to the Republican Party in my family. At least it did for me. And the attachment felt good. It feels good to belong. It feels good to be proud of those you’re politically affiliated with. It feels good to be planted firmly on the “right side” of something.

Only now, I find myself almost completely stripped of that attachment.

It’s not that my political views have changed so much (though some have) – it’s that the Republican Party has become something I hardly recognize. Where once I saw a party that prized hard work, fairness, opportunity, fiscal responsibility, and a robust role for America on the world stage, I now see a muddle of protectionism, isolationism, exclusion, and conspiracy-mongering.

The Republican Party I grew up with preached hope; today’s version peddles fear.

After the 2016 presidential election, I saw plenty of Democrats answer this degradation of Republican ideals with the demand that people “join the Resistance!” Meaning, essentially, the Democratic party. Or at least a wing of it. I guess it seemed only natural to Democrats that those disenchanted with the Republican Party would want to join theirs. Nevermind any serious policy disagreements. Nevermind moral judgments that stand in opposition to one another. The calculation was too simple: If Team Trump (or Team Republican) is bad, then you’d better join Team Democrat.

But of course, there’s no rule stating that only one side at a time can be bad. And there’s plenty for conservative-minded me to dislike about the Democratic Party.

And so I find myself alone.

For a while, I hoped for a third way. I looked for those independent-minded Republicans who spoke out against Trump. I looked for a leader, a movement that I could get behind. Man, it would feel good to be part of something again.

But I don’t see such a thing emerging anytime soon. And so I’ll take the lonely way – the way that refuses to choose sides when the sides aren’t worth choosing.

To be clear, I’m not really talking about party affiliation here. (I’m still a registered Republican because I don’t want to give up my right to vote in primaries.) I’m talking about something more important than that: the multitude of small, everyday decisions we make about where we’ll put our loyalty.

We can choose, as so many do today, to put our loyalty behind our party and its politicians. (Think of all the Trump voters who are deciding on candidates based on how willing they are to pledge their support to the President.) We can choose to believe the truth of news outlets that support our way of thinking and the lies of those that don’t. We can stick up for our side come hell or high water.

Or, we can choose to put our loyalty behind our values. We can detach ourselves from the pull of party, freeing us to consider each candidate, each question, each development as it comes.

That’s the lonely way. And my choice of it — that’s why I’m not on your side.

TW - The Lonely Way

To listen to an audio recording of this post (complete with baby noises and microwave beeps), click here:

Footnotes

On Tuesday I declared that I was diving back into blogging. And in the days since, a funny thing has happened: I haven’t regretted it.

Normally I approach writing (and life, really) with a sense of angst – inadequacy mixed with embarrassment, even hopelessness. So normally the days following a declaration like Tuesday’s would be full of self-doubt; I’d be sure I was about to fall flat on my face.

This time I haven’t really thought much about it. I’ve been a mellow kind of excited, if that makes any sense. I’m so tired of feeling helpless/guilty/unworthy/amateurish. I’m ready to move forward.

Okay, so there were several points I cut out of my last post and more I’ve thought about since then, and I want to get them up here on the blog before I move too far forward. They’re like footnotes to Tuesday’s post, I guess.

So here we go:

(1) At this point I don’t have much of a plan. I’m going to try to capitalize on the fact that, unlike my first years of blogging, I currently do have small children who will nap. I’m going to try to get a couple of posts up per week, but if life happens – then life happens. I hope to not let any little stumbles or delays keep me from bouncing back.

(2) I’m going to focus almost exclusively on politics – or rather, on my struggles with it. I’ll write up my thoughts on the issues of the day, my concern for the direction in which our country is heading, and my worries about what it might be doing to our moral development. I’ll write on the “walls within” I discussed in Tuesday’s post.

(3) At least for now, I think I’m done with the cute kid stories and musings on motherhood. I see lots of other women doing that well already. What I don’t see are many relatable writers who want to tackle the turmoil our society has stepped into, but not yell about it. Chew, not yell: That’s the place I aim to be.

(4) I’ll still be posting the cute kid pics and stories on Instagram. You’re welcome to follow me there!

(5) I’m going to re-work my website a bit. Five years of that set-up was enough; if I’m shifting my goals, I should probably shift how I present them.

(6) I think I’d also like to experiment with recording each of my posts so folks can listen to them if they want. Nothing fancy, and nothing so ambitious as a podcast (yet), but I know that I love to listen to other people’s thoughts as I go about my chores; maybe somebody out there might like to do the same with mine. If you’d like to listen to my stuff rather than read it, just look for the audio file at the end of my posts.

(7) One big challenge with trying to get going again: Facebook. You might be aware that Facebook has recently changed its algorithm. Ostensibly, this was to better connect people with their family and friends, but what it’s really meant is that they’re showing you fewer unpaid posts in the hopes that the businesses and blogs you follow will pay to get their posts into your newsfeeds. For every hundred followers a page has, Facebook might show twenty of them its posts. But as I don’t make any money from blogging, I’m not about to pay to boost my posts on Facebook. So! If you think you’d like to actually read what I’m writing, I highly encourage you to subscribe to my posts right here on my blog. (Look over there to the right: “Follow These Walls via Email.”) You submit your email address, WordPress will ensure that every blog post is delivered to your inbox. Easy.

(8) Speaking of the email thing, apparently the Europeans have gone and passed a privacy law that applies to pretty much anybody on the internet who has a European subscriber. And that includes me. So allow me to tell you now (and I’ll find a more permanent place on the blog to put this) that if you sign up to receive my blog posts via email, then… you’ll receive my blog posts via email. You’re welcome to unsubscribe whenever you like. And if you use your email address to comment, then… you’ll have used your email address to comment. In both cases I’ll be able to see your email address. But I’ll only ever use it for the reason you provided it: either to send you my blog posts or possibly answer a comment. That’s it! Simple!

(9) And speaking of commenting: For a long time I’ve held up this lofty goal of “encouraging discourse,” as I put it in my tagline. It’s a worthy thing, trying to get people to discuss their differences and come to some higher level of understanding. I commend anyone who attempts it. But you know what? I’m tired. I’m busy with five little kids under the age of eight and I simply don’t have the time or the emotional bandwidth to be monitoring other people’s political discussions. I’d rather focus on writing. So if you want to comment here or on my Facebook posts, feel free. But I reserve the right to preserve my time (and sanity?) by stepping away.

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, I have felt unequal to the moment. (Both for reasons related to the election and unrelated to it.) I have had too little energy and too little emotional space to engage on the issues of the day. And so I’ve waited. I’ve waited until I’ve felt better, until issues have been resolved. I’ve waited until I can do this perfectly.

Now, I’m tired of waiting. And I’m recognizing that perfection shouldn’t even be on the table. So I’ll see you next week, friends.

 

These Walls - Footnotes

The Walls Within

This month this little blog turns five. When I started it I had a two-year-old and a one-year-old and a new-to-us house that I hadn’t even finished unpacking. I was (am) highly distractible and my kids hardly napped at all, so I mostly wrote at night after everyone else had gone to bed.

Lots of nights I fell asleep at my laptop. Some days I drove myself batty trying to fit in blogging during TV time or “quiet” play. But I plodded along at a decently steady rate for a while, writing about motherhood and our home life and whatever political issue was bugging me at the moment.

Then I had another baby. And another. And another. And my kids got older and busier and I was spread even more thin than I had been at first. Before I knew it, I’d let a couple of years go by, hardly writing anything at all.

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2013

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2014

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2015

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2016

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2017

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2018

When I was tossing around ideas for this blog back in the spring of 2013 I landed on the title “These Walls” because I was looking for something that could work for both of the topic areas I wanted to write on: my home life and my politics. I didn’t love the title, but I thought that with my tagline (“Sharing stories from within the walls of my home; encouraging discourse on the wider world outside them”) it expressed my general goal decently well.

There was another, more fluid, line of thinking behind the title too. I mention it somewhere in my About Me (don’t go looking it up; that section is in desperate need of updating) or in one of my first blog posts: I liked the idea of discussing the figurative walls that people put up between each other when it comes to politics.

But these days there’s another kind of wall that most occupies my attention (and no, it’s not Mr. Trump’s). These days, in this age of political upheaval, of shifting loyalties, of upside-down values, I’ve come to focus on the walls within.

The walls within me. The ones I’ve hidden behind, the ones I’ve found refuge in, the ones I’ve broached, the ones I struggle to abandon.

I fancy myself a fair person. I like to think that I take in a decent representation of information and viewpoints, weigh them, critique them, and come to my conclusions based on impartial reason. I rail against those who would treat social and political issues like players on their favorite professional sports team. You know: if he’s my guy I love him, if he’s yours I hate him.

But the truth is, I’ve been struggling with my allegiances and my prejudices, my values and fears for a long time. On some issues, I’ve changed my mind. On some, I’ve become more resolved. On some, I wince and cling to my home team – not convicted, but not ready to let go either.

Which brings me back to the blog.

I’ve been struggling mightily over the thing. Not a day goes by that I don’t have a “walls within” kind of idea for These Walls and long to bring it to fruition. Not a single day.

But also – not a day goes by that I don’t remind myself how limited my time is, or how poorly I’ve been feeling, or how ill-equipped I am, personality-wise, to be a reliable presence on the internet.

Yet for months now (ironically, the same period of time in which I’ve been sick*), I have felt an almost constant pressure to get back to writing. The messages have come from many quarters, and they’ve been relentless. Whether it’s been from my spiritual reading or podcast listening or prayer life or social-media observing (or now Jennifer Fulwiler’s new book), I feel like I’ve been barraged by the following messages:

  1. You have a job to do.
  2. It’s going to require hard work.
  3. Stop getting in your own way.
  4. You don’t have to be perfect to do good.

So I think I’d better stop fighting it.

Maybe this post was starting to read as a good bye, but it’s actually far from that. It is, I pray, a hearty hello. I expect things to look different around here, content-wise, but I’m excited to be back.

I think I’d better get out of my own way and get busy doing the work I feel like I’m supposed to do. Even if I don’t feel well. Even if I have little time. Even if I have lots of little people underfoot.

Tomorrow I’m going to flesh out my plans for the blog; check back here to see where I hope to take it.

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*Those of you who follow Jennifer Fulwiler on Instagram – did you see her IG Stories on Resistance yesterday? I couldn’t help but recognize it in my own life. Did you recognize it in yours?

Also (I’m experimenting with this), if you’d rather listen to this post than read it, click here. (But realize that you’ll be getting a low-quality recording with baby noises in the background!)

Thirty-nine for the First Time

Today I turn 39. My mother quipped that this will be the first and only time I’ll be able to say that it’s my 39th birthday and mean it.

Mom wanted to know if I can believe I’m getting so close to 40. A couple of years ago I might have waffled on that answer, but now I don’t hesitate: I can absolutely believe it.

This morning I looked down at the four-month-old in my arms, all fat and soft and rosy, and I thanked God for these little lives in my care. They’re each incredible blessings in their own right, but they do something else for this almost-40 mama: They trick me into thinking I’m young. For a moment, at least. Until I go to rise out of the rocker and my hip screams at me. Until my back muscles object at lifting a child. Until my knees ever-so-reluctantly haul me up the stairs.

It’s been a hard few months. We pushed through the first month or so of baby’s life in decently good health, thank goodness. We made it through Christmas. But the following week we were each hit with bugs, one falling after the next.

Then on New Year’s Day I stepped out of the shower and experienced such intense pain that I could barely walk. My old problem joint, the one at the base of my spine, between my hips (my sacrum), felt like it would crumble to pieces. My husband stayed home from work for a few days; I couldn’t sit up in bed without his help, let alone lift the baby. But after some ibuprofen and physical therapy and lidocaine patches and time, the pain faded. Soon my hobbling turned to limping, and then that went away too.

But my cough — the one I’d started the week after Christmas — it did not fade. It got worse and my exhaustion grew and one night I experienced a stabbing pain in my neck. The next day there was a rash at the spot, and soon I was diagnosed with shingles. And bronchitis. Weeks of coughing and pain and exhaustion followed. I got two more respiratory viruses on top of the one I couldn’t kick. And to top it all off, I got a stomach bug.

It was a very Lent-ish beginning to Lent.

March was quieter. The cough went away; my energy increased. My pain was spotty and weak. I began to hurry up stairs and walk around the yard. I tried on health and hoped it would fit for a while.

But now April has struck. The day after Easter I bent over to put away a child’s boot and the muscles around my sacrum clenched in pain. Not as badly as on New Year’s, thank goodness, but badly enough to keep me from lifting the baby. Badly enough to force me back into my old-lady hobble.

Today the joint feels bruised and my back muscles feel strained from compensating for it. My shingles pain is flaring up. And I’m coughing again. A new virus seems to have settled into my lungs; their crackling sounds have me worried about another bout of bronchitis.

It’s as if my body wants to be very clear: You’re at the point, lady, where birthdays begin to chart your decline.

Or maybe the message is: You have to be careful with yourself. You’re not as resilient as you used to be.

I haven’t posted much about these woes because I didn’t want to complain. (Or to be seen as complaining — take your pick.) But at this point I’m just past caring. This is what my life has been lately, and so I want to write about it.

I feel like my body — or maybe the Holy Spirit — has grabbed me by my shoulders, spun me around, and pointed me at the next decade of my life.

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I spent my twenties as a young professional — working, traveling, reading, listening to music, eating whatever I wanted for dinner, and pining after a family of my own.

I’ve spent my thirties as a stay-at-home mother — caring for children, making a home, listening to NPR, eating dinner in spurts between refilling little plates, and pining after a professional life that I’ve missed more than I expected to.

I daydream about my forties being a marriage of the two: Maybe I’ll get to do some meaningful work from home while the kids are in school during the day and then I’ll get to be fully present to them in the evenings. Maybe I’ll finally get my calendar and my household chores under control. Maybe I’ll have everything running like clockwork so I can have empty hours in which to pursue my creative interests. Maybe I won’t have to pine after anything at all.

I feel like the past few months have been a reality check on those daydreams. A big, fat “HA” from my body or the Holy Spirit or whatever. These months have reminded me that even when life is good, it is not without suffering.

I am getting older. My body is weaker than I’d like. And even if I can ease it back into better health and shape (which I would love to do), I will still be at the mercy of age and genetics and real life. There will always be something to trip me up.

So I stand here (a little askew because of the pain in my sacrum) and stare down the road toward 40. I want to start gearing up for my next decade. I want to work to heal my body so it doesn’t stop me short. I want to be realistic enough about my time and abilities to know that my home life will never run like clockwork, but I also want to stop letting my struggles and imperfections keep me from pursuing work that makes me feel alive.

Today I’m 39. My forties will be here before I know it; I want to be ready for them.

 

These Walls - Thirty-nine for the First Time

A New(ish) Addition

Happy New Year! It’s been forever and I have a long-overdue update for you, and it’s the best kind:

The baby’s here.

She’s been here for some time, actually – Baby Girl was two months old yesterday! I wasn’t blogging when children numbers one and two were born, but I think it took me one day to blog a birth announcement for my third child and about two weeks to blog child number four’s birth. If we ever have another, I expect I’ll tell you about it around the kid’s first birthday.

Anyway! Here we go: On Tuesday, November 21 Brennan and I welcomed baby #5 and girl #2, our biggest newborn (9 pounds, 9 ounces!), who was delivered after my longest labor (15 hours).

Introducing: Ilsa Genevieve Walsh.

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Yes, that’s “Ilsa,” like “Elsa” but with an “I”. Poor kid – we’re always going to have to be clarifying that.

Because I rarely name them on the blog and because I’d like to demonstrate how (I think) Baby Ilsa’s name rounds out the others’ so nicely, here’s a full list of our crew:

  1. John Breckenridge – Called “Breck,” he’s named for my great-uncle and great-great-uncle, both of whom were John Breckenridge and called Breck.
  2. Anthony Jude – He’s named for Brennan’s late father, but we preferred his middle name, so our boy goes by Jude.
  3. Isaac Charles – He’s Isaac because we liked it, Charles for my grandfather. He’s our first child to actually go by his first name.
  4. Josephine Marie – Called “Josie,” she’s Josephine for my great-grandmother, Marie for my mother and myself. (For our middle names, that is.)
  5. Ilsa Genevieve – She’s Ilsa because we liked it, Genevieve for Brennan’s grandmother.

In all, we are now Brennan, Julie, Breck, Jude, Isaac, Josie, and Ilsa. B-J-B-J-I-J-I (I am a person who likes lists, and I like that list in particular.)

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I think I’m glad that we’ve hit the two-month mark. While part of me is a little sad that my baby’s gotten so big (I think she’s around 12 pounds now?) so fast, most of me is relieved to have gotten through the newborn haze. I always feel a little more ‘with it’ once we’ve gotten to two months. That’s when things seem a little more normal, a little more doable to me.

My recovery this time was pretty good, I guess. At least it wasn’t very painful; the most bothersome thing was just an extended period (two to three weeks?) of feeling weak and woozy. I always forget how long that can last.

I wasn’t thrilled with how the birth went, though. Like all the others, I was induced. But unlike the others, this time it took what felt to me like foreeever. With each of the other four, I delivered within 7 to 8 hours of getting my Pitocin. This time it took twice that. It also took me longer to push with Ilsa than it took with the previous two. (Thanks, nurse who suggested I up my epidural dosage.)

Maybe because of the birthing situation, but probably mostly because of whatever weird things hormones do, I’ve had my longest-ever period of the Baby Blues this time. With two of my other babies it lasted about three weeks. With the other two I didn’t have it at all. This time I’ve just been very gradually improving for months. It’s been mild, but still – I’m ready to feel like myself again.

Everyone else is doing great. The kids absolutely love her. They coo at her and say how cute she is and clamor to hold her as often as we’ll let them. (Which hasn’t been as much as anyone would have liked. It’s hard to have a baby in cold and flu season!)

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It’s hard for me to say what ‘kind’ of a baby she is. So far Ilsa is pretty easy during the day and difficult in the evening. Then she’ll sleep from midnight to three or five in the morning and I’ll nurse her in bed or in the rocker until it’s time to get up. If I were someone who loved co-sleeping this would be fine. But I’m not. I just don’t sleep well with a baby next to me; I seem to hold perfectly still for fear of hurting her, and then I wake with aches and pains from my efforts.

Oh, well! Do you want to see some more baby pictures?

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Isn’t she lovely?

Welcome to our world, Ilsa Genevieve. We’re so glad you’re here. All the Baby Blues and aches and pains and evasive actions to protect you from your germy siblings are so totally worth it. We love you.

These Walls - A Newish Addition