Thursday, November 29, 2018

The lesson of the kayak

The author in her titular kayak. Maryland, September 2018.

The picture shows me sitting in a solo kayak in the middle of a choppy bay, paddle straddled across my knees, strained smile on my lips. Behind me, a gray-green shoreline of trees and hidden cottages; above me, gathering clouds with "God rays" breaking through. With my upper torso obscured by my life vest (safety first!), you wouldn't know at first glance that I was eight months pregnant. And you definitely wouldn't know that I had just finished throwing a bona fide tantrum.

My husband and I were taking one last little weekend getaway before baby arrived, and we'd found a cozy, well-outfitted rental in one of the quieter outposts of the Chesapeake Bay. The forecast foretold gloomy rain and chill for the duration of our long weekend save for the afternoon we arrived, so as soon as we parked the car, we headed to the dock to check out the recreational equipment and take advantage of the partial sun and dry skies.

Fishing poles, crab cage, canoe, kayaks ... only single kayaks, though, no doubles. "Think you can handle one on your own?" my husband asked. "Sure!" I replied with a level of confidence I hoped would become genuine once we hit the water. We usually take a tandem kayak for a reason, in that Nature Boy knows how to paddle and turn and steer, and I know how to sit. But it couldn't be that hard, right? I owed it to him and his many hours of past aquatic chauffeuring at least to attempt it.

Loading in progressed without incident, as did our initial maneuvers beyond the dock. I was moving generally in my intended direction, and 15 minutes in, I hadn't capsized. (Both important wins.) When we turned into the wind, however, my lack of kayaking ability rendered me impotent. The choppy waves were slapping my boat back and forth. The brackish water was stinging my freshly shaved legs. My right arm was getting sore, my left arm was staying tense, and what the hell did it even matter because I couldn't direct the vessel where I wanted anyway.

The more water dripped on me, the more my arms pumped, the more the wind quickened, the more I felt like I was moving backwards, the more agitated I became. How foolish I must look, I thought, to be out here so pregnant and bulky, windmilling my arms against Mother Nature. How vain not to admit my limits before throwing myself into the middle of a bay. Where was my natural instinct? Where were the immediate answers? Why the hell couldn't I do what seemed so straightforward when watching others do it?

A familiar lump in my throat began to rise -- the lump of shame and frustration, a lump that fattens itself on my belief of inadequacy and drinks the tears I shed to dislodge it. The lump is rarely positive, so I trailed behind my husband's kayak in the hopes of experiencing my moment of weakness alone. No such luck. My dear partner, on noticing the widening gulf between us, helpfully paused and waited for me to catch up, and when I did finally slink alongside him, he could tell at once that I was a most unhappy camper.

Pulling up his paddle and holding my kayak's carry handle, he gently asked, "Honey, what's wrong? Talk to me."

Ah, those magic words, the ones that never fail to release the flood, especially when I'm trying to contain it. Which I couldn't.

"I can't even steer a kayak," I wailed into the void of the bay, empty except for us. "How on earth am I going to raise a human?"

As the gray clouds thickened over our heads and the sun sank lower, I poured out every one of my hidden and inarticulated fears to my patient spouse:

Our entire lives are about to change forever.
What if parenthood isn't what I thought it would be?
What if I'm not the mother I thought I would be?
How are we going to keep our marriage strong?
Will we ever feel free again?
Will I still get to be myself?

And so on, punctuated by angry slaps of my paddle against the water and ugly tears further soaking my cold, stinging legs (if they made it past the bulging life vest). A dam built over a long eight months of anticipatory mystery had broken. I was laid bare on the rough waters, no longer able to outrun my anxious thoughts. Tired and pregnant, nervous and excited, impatient and annoyed ... I was all these states, plus wet. No wonder I lost it.

My husband, god bless him, did not attempt to answer me. He simply listened. Nodded. Said, "Me too." "We'll figure it out together." "I love you." "Here, let me take a picture of you."

The last one caught me off guard. "You want to take a picture of me now?"

"Yes. We need to justify you carrying your iPhone out on open water."

That's when he snapped the picture you see at the start of this post. I haven't shared it or this story until now because it took two months to let most remnants of that emotional dam drift away downstream. Though, if I'm being honest, a few hearty logs remain, fortified by the very real doubts and fears and joys presented by having -- at long last -- a very new human in my house.

So when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.

Parenthood -- like maturity, like love, like spirituality, like any examined life -- will be an unbroken string of unanswered questions. I can rail against them (which I'm sure will still happen at times), or I can strive to be present to them and work toward wisdom. In the meantime I will snuggle my son, share a date night with my husband, and imagine the future day when I put my child in a kayak, point him toward the horizon, and say, "You've got this."

Prayer #329: Paddle

Why exactly should I learn to paddle? You have gifted me currents that bear the load, easily whisking me on their fast-flowing backs toward a determined end. If I simply raise my oar from the water and lay it across my lap, the river will carry me to the mouth of the great ocean, and my life as I'd conceived it to be will widen, deepen, amplify everything I hold most dear.

God of such obliging movement, build in me the trust to let go, and guard my tiny craft on its great adventure into the unknown.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Open to the wonder of it all

Wonderment aflame. katariinajarvinen/Flickr/C BY-NC-ND 2.0
"I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering about the big things and asking about the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love."

― Alice Walker, The Color Purple

My baby doesn't kick; it stretches. For months now, its semicircular position has helped it push its little foot into the flexible walls of my belly so that a heel-hard lump pokes out from beneath my right rib cage. A knob of wonder, I think every time. A reminder that an autonomous person is building bit by bit inside me, and that it too wants to test its constraints, explore its existence, and discover what lies beyond known borders.

These days, with gestation rapidly waning and actual parenthood waxing, I'm forced to consider whether 40 weeks of growing a human being has normalized the miraculous and made it mundane. I feel more fixated on labor stages and breathing techniques and birth partner support than I do on the mutability of life as I have known it to this point. Yet when that insistent heel chimes in like a game show buzzer, it recalls me (despite myself) to the present moment.

My priority for the last week or two of this sacred period, then, is not to freeze meals or stock extra diapers. It is to ask myself on repeat: Do I choose and invite the joy that longs to fill me? Have I left room for rampant delight to trample illusory control? In short, am I remaining open to the wonder of it all -- the beauty, the discovery, the pain, the enchantment, the enormity and impossibility of life itself?

A knob of wonder turned to 11, incapable of being any less.

Prayer #328: The Beginning of Wisdom

Socrates said, "Wonder is the beginning of wisdom," but I wonder if my brand of wondering -- my meandering awe, my distracted musings, my inconsistent revelations -- will bear the vaunted fruit in enough time for it to be any use to me.

Though, he did say the beginning of wisdom. Not the final stage to reach, nor the ultimate goal to attain. It's more like wonder is the patch of sunlight that beckons me outdoors, the curious object that begs my close examination, the low murmur that draws me closer for a listen. It starts my journey, then accompanies me, along the way honing my perceptions and augmenting my experiences.

And it will, if I allow it, open me to You.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

What will I tell my child?

mark notari/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What will I tell my child about this moment in time?

When we sit at the kitchen table 10, 20, 30 years from now, will shame stain my recollections as it does now? Will I fully convey the impotence, anger, and grief I felt? Will tension still constrict my bruised consciousness?

Where will tribalism stand? How about a two-party political system? Will my child understand the significance of truth and -- god willing -- not only be able to recognize it, but convey it?

Will the world be safer, letting us sigh in relief and laugh away the bogeyman from the safety of our warm home? Or will the world be worse, justifying my child's disappointment, blame, or -- god forbid -- fear?

Will I look my child in the eye and tell them with full faith and great pride that good women and men stood up to combat the abject wrong? Better yet, will I be able to count myself among that group?

On days like today, when old wounds reopen in the face of blatant, unapologetic hypocrisy; when people of integrity in our highest offices seem but a Pollyanna-ish dream; when the country's fevered news cycle compounds hysteria; when the September rains fall, fall, fall (to commiserate with tears, or to drown a scorched earth?) -- on days like today, I feel my unaware, unborn child stir within me, and I know in my deepest heart that I can not yet answer them to either of our satisfaction.

Thus, I am sobered. Emboldened. Terrified. A will in search of a way. (Or is it the other way around?) My path to the kitchen table is murky, but the goal itself is blindingly clear: to stand right in the eyes of God and all God's children.

Prayer #327: Back to the Light

Stand with the victim, the assaulted, the sneered-at, the spat-upon. Call out the hypocrites and liars in every rank. Don't just cleanse the temple -- burn it to the ground, and with it all who defy Your mandate to love. To love, to trust, to exalt, to truly and fully see. And I pray that my own defiance of Your great mandate lessens every day, that my heart opens its miserly, self-protective grip and admits Your power -- the only force that can sway our broken humanity back to the side of light.


Friday, August 31, 2018

My response to the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis

Kazuki Kobayashi/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I have lived as an active, practicing Catholic for 35 years now, and in that time I've witnessed several huge "revelations" from the Catholic Church about heartbreaking abuse of members at the hands of its clergy, the most recent being the grand jury report covering six out of eight dioceses in Pennsylvania, my home state. (The quotes I put around "revelations," are quotes of anger and sarcasm, as the reports always include damning evidence of fellow clergy who, though not directly abusing, were complicit in its continuation.)

And as it happens every time such a "revelation" occurs, I find myself swirling down the same drain of despondent questions: Why do we as a Church continue to allow this to happen? What is wrong with our leadership that they can't fix, once and for all, this grave systemic sin in our midst? Is my best form of protest to leave the Church, or is it to stay and advocate for reform?

The last question is the most fundamental, and no matter my disgust, dismay, or despair, I always elect to stay. Why? Because in my 3.5 decades of churchgoing, my participation in very human parishes constantly reveals to me that the true Church is not the gilded halls of Vatican City, but the humble communities that strive, together, to make sense of a crazy world and a mysterious God.

Here are just some of the ways my churches have revealed the Body of Christ to me:
  • My childhood parish taught me that I had the ability to participate in lay ministry from an early age. I lectored, I sang, I served, all alongside other lay ministers who were using their gifts, talents, and interests to make manifest the Kingdom of God on earth.
  • My college parish underscored how a safe and welcoming community acts as foundational glue that binds its members through love, respect, and shared worship.
  • My time at a cathedral parish demonstrated the transformational and transportive power of liturgy, when prayerfully curated readings, music, and homilies created a serene solemnity that heightened my contemplation of mystery.
  • The parish where I met my husband exposed just how much influence an ordained minister can have over a parish community, in this case dramatically changing the tenor and personality of the church (in my opinion, in an exclusionary way) through force of will and exercise of power.
  • The parish I now attend illustrates the Body of Christ each week in a literal way: We all join hands through and across the pews to pray the Lord's Prayer together. And every.single.week, I well up when we do it. Because in that moment we really do become one body, welcoming every "imperfection" our society rejects and empowering our lay leaders to emphasize social justice so all might experience this tangible expression of grace somewhere in their lives.
When Pope Francis released his Letter to the People in God in response to the grand jury report, his message was based on St. Paul's words, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." For that reason, I was particularly receptive to my pastor's tearful homilies following the report's release exhorting us to actually do something, to demand "meaningful and transformational change" from our church leadership, ordained and lay alike.

In this spirit, I share with you the letter I plan to send to Pope Francis, as well as adapt for my bishop in Arlington and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I am but one cell in the Body of Christ, but cells agitate and move and work in concert with one another. So will I do for my Church in my insignificant way, because it can and must do better in the name of the God and Christ we claim to follow.

Letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis re. the Catholic Church's Sexual Abuse Crisis

Dear Your Holiness:

In light of yet another dramatic unveiling of clergy sexual abuse in America, I -- an actively practicing American Catholic woman -- write to you insisting on your bold, courageous, and creative leadership to address this systemic sin.

For too long, offending clerics' love of power (and the community's near-idol worship of them) has blinded our ordained leaders to the heinous crimes happening in their midst and clouded their conscience-driven judgment. Every level of church hierarchy -- from you, Your Holiness, to the Spiritan priest who leads my parish -- must unequivocally denounce and renounce the systems and bureaucracy that encourage complicit silence and criminal behavior.

While our collective prayer is certainly essential to the entire Church's healing process (as you called for in your recent letter), swift, visible, and lasting change led by righteous leaders must accompany it, or else their apologetic words are merely that: words.

As you prayerfully consider how to enact this change and demonstrate the Church's core commitment to the Body of Christ, please also consider the following as part of your discernment:
  • how you can encourage lay members, particularly women, to rise up and assume Spirit-driven, fruitful leadership within their faith communities;
  • how the Church's response might continue to divorce pedophilia from homosexuality within its discourse, and continue to show sincere, loving support for gay religious who lead chaste and celibate lives;
  • how existing charters, procedures, and processes for identifying and prosecuting criminal abuse can be enforced, improved, and made absolutely transparent, so that no other child of God need experience the trauma that so many have endured over the long life of the Church.
Your Holiness, I have great faith that your leadership, combined with the resolve of our entire, beautiful Body of Christ, can undo the systems that tie us to grave sin and instead rebuild a Church that emulates the emulates the Holy Spirit’s creative vision and nurturing wisdom. Thank you for all you are doing to lead us forward.


Julia Rocchi

Prayer #326: For Our Wounded Body

As a body bears its wounds -- bruised, bloody, lacerated -- so our Body of Christ limps toward You now. How endless our capacity for self-harm, how raw the wailing for our injured parts.

Our only comfort right now is that we remember You love us, broken and bestial as we are, and that You heed our collective moan and wordless plea for healing. Salve our hands, our feet, our very souls, so that we regain the strength to limp back out into the world and transform our scars into marks of redemption.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The singular silence of mystery

Secret door. davefayram/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

My husband's grandfather laid gaunt on the loaner hospital bed, immobile, toothless, eyes unfocused and expression blank.

Meanwhile our baby discoed within me, all perpetual and exploratory motion, growing by the hour, eyes and teeth and muscle knitting together.

One human was inching its way toward full humanity; the other, slowly relinquishing his grip on it. Both were absolutely silent, but not the kind of restorative stillness that a drizzly afternoon or a solemn cathedral offer. This silence deafened all who were keeping vigil, because in it we recognized how much we rely on language to reveal our reality.

In our midst were two beings experiencing profound and mysterious change, yet neither could communicate the full force of their transitions. Those of us in the known state -- the long liminality of existence -- could only sit and wonder what was going through our loved ones' minds. Were they restful or suffering? Comforted or scared? Peaceful or resistant? In one of life's cruelest tricks, we will never know, because we don't remember life before birth and we don't learn about death until we die.

Or maybe the trick is not cruel. Maybe it's intentional, these frustrating bookends of amnesia and incomprehension. Maybe we are kept from grasping it because to be endowed with full understanding from day one might spoil the fruits of the lifelong pursuit. Maybe questioning and pondering are the real design. And maybe that's why our very young are mute and our very old are struck dumb -- to preserve the mystery's integrity.

My husband's grandfather now rests in the ground, and our baby continues to swim and stretch, and neither one is spilling secrets. As it should be. Our time for revelation has not come.

Prayer #325: Secret Passage

Where you come from, I cannot meet you.

Where you head toward, I cannot follow.

I can only lean against the door
and listen for your knock,
the anticipated signal
that I am ready to explore

the cozy garret
the sunlit hall
the windswept field
the soothing lullaby
the dripping peach
the nubbly sweater
the under-bed dark
the new punctuation
the curious question
the longed-for answer

that sits beyond.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The wound that will never heal

Wounded. premasagar/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

"Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. [...] The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love."

From "The Five Stages of Grief," developed by Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross and David Kessler

With each unbelievable, dystopian turn of the world, I realize anew that I am grieving the country and the fellow citizens I once thought I knew. And as with all grief, my feelings are rarely linear or tidy or expected. The pain surfaces from something as brief as a click-bait headline or as in-depth as a book about systemic racism. Sometimes I want to throw a brick through a window; other times I want to curl up and weep; other times I want to vomit. But always, no matter my desired outlet, I return to the horrible conclusion that in the face of so much injustice, I am impotent.

I have been here before. In fact, I am here often. What makes it worse now is that since 2016 I have been awakening -- not just intellectually, but spiritually -- to the suffering, injustice, and casual cruelty baked into the very fabric of our government, our society, and our humanity. I will grieve more deeply for the rest of my life because my new tears carry acid. They flood the floor where I stand, burn away the boards, and drop me into a liminal space that reveals to me my previous ignorance, understandable but no less acceptable for being accidental or unrecognized.

I know now that I have marching orders. But are my steps too small, I wonder? Do I let apathy roadblock me more than I should? Just because we as a nation are well beyond the reach of "civility" (cue bricks/weeping/vomit), just because our collective sin is deep and wide and egregious, does not allow me to stay and flail in a morass of angry, despairing tar.

So what do I do instead? A year ago, Nature Boy and I went to see Anne Lamott speak about her book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Given that the book appeared in the wake of the presidential election, much of the audience Q&A centered on the theme, "Good God, what now?" But I distinctly remember one woman around my age, visibly pregnant, coming to the microphone and asking, "I'm about to bring a child into this world. And now I'm wondering if that was the right thing to do."

I don't remember Lamott's exact response (sorry St. Anne), but as I sit here visibly pregnant myself, pondering the same guilt-ridden question, the answer I want to hear goes something like this:

The world has always been terrible.

The world has always been wonderful.

Still, babies come.

Because life brings with it hope. It gives us all a second chance -- and maybe a second or third or eighteenth -- to do better by the whole human race, to admit we aren't feeling brave but move forward anyway, to believe and trust that love really does win. That love must win.

As Rep. John Lewis reminded me today:

Time to get into good trouble -- the kind that heals our wounds from the inside out.

Prayer #320: To Live as an Open Wound*

To live the Gospel is to live as an open wound -- raw, gushing, muscle torn and bone exposed. No tourniquet can staunch it. No bandage can bind it. For faith is weapon and treatment both, a battle cry and lullaby, a charge and a destiny. The wound is Love; its cure, the same.


* Yes, I'm repeating a prayer I wrote earlier this year. I just can't seem to shake the idea of "wound as metaphor."

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

And God said unto the people: "You got this."

Infinite variety. Justin De La Cornellas/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

-- Romans 8: 22-27 NIV

Prayer #324: Wordless Groans

You think me deaf, but I am fluent in your unlanguage.

I catch your sighs and laments on the wind, sense the tension in your jaws, hear the smooth glide of tears past your snuffling noses.

And I answer you in the same unlanguage: It doesn't have to be this way. Not with all I've given you.

You, I give patience. You, I give eloquence. You, I give energy; you, authority; you, insight. My gifts are creative and boundless, unique to the receiver in how they are reflected and shared. Between all of you -- the billions of you -- I have given you exactly what you need, and all I ask is that you deploy it. No thank-you note needed. The gratitude will show through the use. Go forth and do.