Silence and Kindness in the Wake of #Ferguson

The snow came on a Wednesday after the grand jury decision, and brought with it a bit of welcomed quiet on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Yet the very constant and often charged chatter in my newsfeeds remained as loud as ever.

At times like these, social media seems anything but social. That place where I go for mindless entertainment, to catch up on the lives of friends, to give my thumbs up for birthdays and anniversaries, to commiserate about Taylor Swift’s 1989 album suddenly becoming the soundtrack to my daily goings-on thanks to my nine-year-old…that place has looked a lot different. And I don’t always like what I see.

St. Louis is my home, always has been. I do not live in the Ferguson area, but it is the place where my mom grew up, where I still have family and friends. Once upon a time, my husband and I were so charmed with the historic old houses and the sense of community that we considered living there. So it could have been my home. And even if it couldn’t have been, it is still a part of the city I love with a prideful fire. It is surreal to see it on this worldwide stage. Usually, the world pretty much ignores St. Louis, unless it’s the baseball post-season. Even then, it’s not like we’re the Yankees.

Every part of what is now just known as #Ferguson is a tragedy. Loss of life, loss of community, loss of businesses, loss of reputation, loss of faith. It has become something bigger than me, bigger than all of us, and represents many different struggles I often sadly feel are so far from ever being resolved. All I have to do is look at any one of my social media feeds to have that sense of hopelessness driven home. So many people seem so sure about so many things, and so sure there is no room to consider alternatives. Too many people are using blatant, disgusting, and unapologetic tongues of hate. Yet there are just as many people speaking under the guise of progress and righteousness whose underlying messages are no better. Both kinds incite anger, obstinance, and widen the divide.

And then there are those who are quiet. I wonder most about those who are quiet. Some may accuse them of being too cowardly to speak out…or not willing to stir a pot that needs to be stirred…or guilty of that horrid disease known as apathy. Make a difference, silent ones. Choose a side. 

But then I wonder, what if we were all quiet? Not forever. Just for a moment. Long enough to take it all in. Long in enough to block out what everyone else is saying, and simply listen to ourselves. Long enough to consider things another way, without the fear of being judged, or accused of being a traitor, or having to do that awful thing of publicly swallowing our pride to admit someone else might be right.

It is what my friend, who is a social justice teacher, called the spirituality of silence; the idea that truth, understanding, and enlightenment come to us only when we can really quiet ourselves. For some, we are listening for God. For others, it may be whatever inner beliefs guide our sense of righteousness. And often, in that silence, we can find there are truths on all sides. Only in recognizing that can we then successfully work toward justice.

Once words are out there, they are out there forever. We live in a society that encourages, almost demands, immediate reactions. Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk, once wrote,

“There are many declarations made only because we think other people are expecting us to make them.  The silence of God should teach us when to speak and when not to speak.  But we cannot bear the thought of that silence, lest it cost us the trust and respect of men.”

After the grand jury decision, I felt paralyzed by those expectations. Everyone is posting about it. I should be posting about it. Maybe people think I don’t care. Does my silence speak louder than any words I might say? But I don’t know what to post.

All I did know was that I felt a lot of uncertainty. What’s more, my immediate reaction after the announcement of the grand jury decision looked different than my reaction did the next morning, which looked different from my reaction the next day. Only in my silence could I really see that, understand why that was so, and figure out what that meant for going forward.

So I remain quiet. But please don’t mistake silence for apathy. I am listening. I am deciding what I can do to make things better. I may not have taken to my blog, or to Facebook, or to Twitter, like so many others. But I can tell you what I did do. I smiled at everyone I locked eyes with that day after the grand jury decision. I was more patient behind the wheel. I said thank you a whole lot more. Regardless of how I feel about the events in #Ferguson, I know things are broken in ways that seem too big for me to fix. But for now, I can do my part by being kind, by teaching my children to be kind, and by speaking the language of peace. Those things are contagious. We all know they are.

I will continue to be heartbroken that my city has become the poster-child-of-the-moment for so much of what is wrong with our country. But in my core, I know how many smiled back at me the other day. I see the countless stories of selfless people helping the city of Ferguson rebuild. I am aware there are good citizens organizing groups and coalitions to strengthen our communities and promote peace. I know that what they show on the television is not the whole story. For now, that has to be enough for me, regardless of what I read in my Facebook feed.

People like Jessica Townes and her kindness cards have to be enough for me as well. Jessica posted this on Facebook, and it made its way to me through a friend:

“…for those of you looking for an action piece and don’t know where to start, consider any small act of kindness today. The city is hurting, and moreover, individual lives and struggles continue on. People still have to deal with sick parents, troubled children, job loss, and all of the other trials of daily life. Whether your act is directed at first responders or protestors or a random person on the street, there is little chance the recipient could not use a little extra kindness today.”fergusonkindness

However you feel about #Ferguson, maybe step away from your newsfeeds for awhile to do an act of kindness or two…and do it for someone unlikely, someone outside of your comfort zone.

After all, which of these things is more likely to inspire you to have faith in humanity: a 140 character tweet or a stranger paying for your coffee?

At some point, the snow must melt, and it will be left to all of us to create that sense of calm and peace.

 •••

 A special thanks to my friend John Powell, for teaching me about the spirituality of silence, and to Jessica Townes, for creating the kindness cards and allowing me to share them. You can visit them on their respective blogs, brokenfishblog and On This New Morning…

 

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“Bad Catholic”

Sometimes I feel like a bad Catholic. Sometimes I don’t. But either way, I always delight in both Almond Joy and Mounds. I feel pretty sure that God put chocolate on this earth for me to eat without discrimination.

I haven’t really blogged much about my religion, other than to talk about why we chose Catholic school for our children, my son’s ongoing battle with church etiquette, and the time I witnessed my kids taking liberties with the sacrament of First Communion. Even then, I didn’t delve into my own deep-seeded beliefs…because they are MY beliefs. I don’t feel a driving desire to always tell others how I live out my faith, and I find spiritual life to be an intensely personal thing. I guess you could say I Continue reading ““Bad Catholic””

Smells Like First Communion

In a little over two weeks, I will be the mother of a child old enough to ingest the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I also like to call this the legal Catholic drinking age. First Communion is a BIG deal. Not only does it signify the point at which a child is finally able to  actively participate in all parts of the Mass, but it’s also the first of only two times a girl can wear a veil in public without people thinking she is a deranged lunatic. (Actually, Grace isn’t wearing a veil; she’s wearing a wreath of flowers. And it was totally her choice…because it was the only choice I mentioned to her. I was afraid that if she looked too much like a child bride, my husband would move up her nunnery induction date from the day she turns sixteen to, well,  tomorrow.)

We’ve had First Communion Fever at our house lately. I’ve been running around like a mad woman, prepping for the big day. Order wreath. Check. Send out invitations. Check. Plan food for the party. Check. Figure out the design for the cake. Check. Meet with seamstress about G’s dress. Check. Help G with her banner. Check. Meet with banner committee to put together the class banner for church. Check. Find shoes. Check…oh crap, too big. Uncheck.

Grace, on the other hand, has been doing the prep that really matters, as evidenced by the fact that she asked me to “play church” the other day. All I have to say is, I’d join her parish in a heartbeat.

Snuggie Priest
First of all, any church where the priest wears a leopard print Snuggie can COUNT ME IN. I bet it would be perfectly acceptable for me to wear my pajama jeans to Sunday Mass.

Mass began with the first reading from the Book of Mom’s Sleepy Time Tales of The Story of Three Billy Goats Gruff (cue the Church Lady: “Was it a troll, or could it be SATAN?”), followed by a second reading of a poem about band-aids. Then we were treated to a poem called “Chester” from the Gospel of Shel Silverstein, after which Grace gave her homily: “I have no idea what that’s about.” Honest, simple, and short. My kind of homily. Even Michael found himself entertained, which rarely happens with him at church.

sit 'n' spin
They should really think about replacing a few of the pews with a row of these at our church.

I was feeling so good about how quickly this whole thing was playing out that I didn’t even mind when Fr. Grace started passing around the collection basket…and expected me to fork over some real money. I gave her a quarter. Just consider me the poor woman who cast in all that she had, unlike the rich who only gave from their surplus. Or something like that.

the altar
I think there are some peeps who need to step up their contribution to the collection baskets. A plastic bowl full of stale bread hosts (that were put in the freezer “so they would be hard”), water with red food coloring, a bath poof for the holy water, a random scrap with what I think says Alleluia, and an altar stained with craft paint.

Next it was time for the Eucharist. When Grace informed me that she was “really good at turning water into blood and bread into body,” I made the mistake of assuming she was pretending to have those skills. When I stated what I thought we both knew was a fact, that  only a real priest can perform the Eucharist, church suddenly took a turn for the ugly. The poor thing was heartbroken, and she started crying at the realization that despite her little prayer, all that sat on the table was ordinary bread and red water. I blame her Catholic school. Hello?? Isn’t this what I’m paying you to teach her? I expect a deduction on my next tuition payment. Don’t laugh at me like you think I’m joking. I’m not. …Whatever.

I was finally able to get the “mass” back on track by agreeing with her that her prayer at the very least made the bread and water holy. It’s debatable, but I had other things to do. Let’s get the show on the road. So Michael and I processed up to receive Communion from the Snuggie-clad Grace. Then we sat down while she sprinkled us with holy water from a bath poof.

Are you ready to get wet?
Are you ready to get wet?

Fr. Grace was just about to offer the final blessing when Michael realized that Grace never got to take Communion. So he offered to be the priest. What a sweet and kind little brother, moved by the Holy Spirit no doubt. But as he put on the Snuggie, he let out an evil laugh and said, “I want de blood…he, he, he, he.” Typical. Then he took all the money OUT of the collection basket, handed me a quarter and said, “Body of Christ.”

Is this the face of a spiritual leader?
Is this the face of a spiritual leader?

I think Catholic school tuition will be well worth it for him.

Sesame Breadsticks and a Happy Heaven Birthday

I just wanted to make a quick little post because today my grandpa (a.k.a. “Papa” to me and a.k.a. “DooDa” to Grace) would have been 87 years old. But he’s been gone for almost five years now. Or has he?

A picture of the rainbow that encircled the sun on the day of my grandpa's funeral.
Some say that after a loved one passes, he or she will send you little signs occasionally. I’m not sure I believed that until my grandpa was gone. And he wasted no time in making it abundantly clear that he was okay, and that he would be watching us. After his funeral, the family gathered for your typical Irish wake. In the midst of beers and Bloody Marys and laughter and one-upping “Big Ed” stories, someone glanced toward the sky and saw a most unusual sight: a rainbow encircling the sun. Not a rain cloud for days, not even the smallest of haze…but still, a ring of color where none of us had ever seen one before. Coincidence? Maybe. An unusual scientific phenomenon? I’m sure it is. But at that moment, it felt like Gramps was finding his own way to crash the party.

Papa and his little Keeny

I’ve experience other little reminders of him gently nudging me throughout the years. And gosh darn it if Big Ed didn’t send me one today, on his very birthday. I was at the grocery store in the salad dressing aisle. I was walking rather briskly, barely paying attention to the shelves, because I knew I did not need anything in this particular area. All of a sudden, my eyes deadlocked on a package of sesame breadsticks, and I stopped in my tracks…and smiled. You see, my grandpa ate these ALL the time…so much so that we nicknamed them “Papa Cookies.” I don’t ever remember taking notice of them at the store before (mostly because they are right next to things like capers and olives, which as a rule, I usually avoid). Without a second thought, I picked up the Papa Cookies, put them in my basket, and whispered to myself, “Happy Birthday, Papa.”

Grace and her DooDa on Halloween 2006

So today, yes, I am missing my grandpa, missing the fact that he’s not physically here. Missing the tree trunk arms that would wrap around me. Missing the way he would bite his lower lip and smile when he was proud of me. Missing the way he would always greet me with an enthusiastic “Hello Keeny!” as if I was still the little girl who couldn’t pronounce her own name. But if it has to be this way, and by nature’s law it does, I am happy to have our time together over things like rainbow enshrouded suns and unexpected lunches of sesame breadsticks.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Chief Tecumseh that my cousin Bill, my grandpa’s nephew and godson, suggested because it embodies the man my Papa truly was. If I did not know better, I would have thought my grandpa penned these words himself, because he certainly lived them:

So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Papa, you were one hell of a man. Now you’re one hell of an angel. Happy Heaven Birthday.

Love, Keeny

A Worthy Price to Pay

Before my daughter started kindergarten last year, my husband and I had the discussion that I am sure a lot of parents have: whether to send her to public school or to a Catholic parochial school. In many ways, it was an agonizing decision. But truth be told, I think we both knew what our answer was going to be before we even started the discussion.

I would like to start by saying that first and foremost, I believe in SCHOOL…whatever form it takes. Education is one of the most important tools we parents can give our children. And my husband and I knew we were in a good position for this. We live in a fantastic school district AND our parish parochial school is very impressive as well. So this really was not a question of where our kids would get the best education. We knew we would be happy with the curriculum and standards of either school. Besides, learning is just as much about what the student and the parents put into it as it is about what the school offers.

But there is that little issue of tuition. That was really where our biggest stumbling block occurred. When you make a side by side comparison of free education with an education that comes with a fairly sizable price tag, it is hard to ignore the difference. Catholic school tuition meant sacrifice for us. The question became, is that sacrifice worth it? When it really came down to it, we thought it was.

It is sometimes hard to explain to people who do not understand why we would choose to pay for Catholic education when we could send our kids to a wonderful public school for free and supplement their religious education with PSR (Parish School of Religion) classes once a week. But it is the same reason I chose to take a teaching position at a Catholic high school over a better paying one at a local public school. It just felt right.

It felt right for the development of my children’s spiritual lives to be a natural part of their education, that God can be part of the equation in any subject matter. After all, He is part of the whole equation in our home life. Does it not make sense that He be a part of their educational life? I am not going all “creationism over evolution” here. But I do believe that God can be found in science. And it is nice to know that my kids will be able to discuss that in a classroom setting.

And there are other things that make me happy about sending my kids to a Catholic school. I had one of those little reminders just yesterday. As I pulled into the parking lot for pickup, I noticed Grace and her classmates were encircling the statue of Mary outside the church with a bunch of blue balloons. They were having a prayer service in honor of Mary’s birthday. And like any good birthday party, they all got goodies at the end, in the form of fruit snacks. Then the students dispersed to find their parents and head home. Grace walked over to me with her friend Sarah and I said, “It looks like you guys were having a little party over there.” They both smiled and replied, “Yeah! Mary’s birthday!” Then they high-fived each other. That’s right…they were giving each other some skin for the Holy Mother’s big day. The phrase “you know you go to Catholic school when…” popped into my head. But it was really just too cute for words.

Now that we have started our second year of Catholic education for my daughter, do we ever second guess our decision? I have to admit there are times when that tuition bill comes around and I literally grunt, and times when I drive past our public elementary school and envy all that free education happening behind the doors. But other than that, I can wholeheartedly say we have been so happy with the decision we made. Grace’s school has lived up to every expectation we had,  and I feel good that I am giving her (and eventually Michael) a similar educational story to the ones my husband and I had…which we actually really loved and appreciate to this day.

Grace's First Day of Kindergarten 2010

Oh, and I have not even BEGUN to sing the praises of those plaid uniforms. Let’s not even mention how adorable Grace looks in it. The fact that I can avoid the battle of the wardrobe every morning might just be worth the tuition alone…we certainly have enough battles to fight without that one rearing its head. Oh, how my gratitude to the Catholic school system swells…