Wanderlust

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There might be some changes to this blog coming relatively soon. A bigger place wants to pick me up. I’m sitting here with the paperwork half-done, wondering what the hell it means.

I don’t know what my “tag-line” should be. I don’t know kind of “brand” to create for myself, and I resent the idea of having one. (Tag-line: “Sometimes I say things”? Brand: “I’m not a shoe, thank you”?) Nor do I know whether I’ll end up somehow permanently destroying myself and my career.

I’m an optimist.

And though I know how they found me, sort of, it’s also puzzling. I’m not relevant, I write however I want, I don’t care to be provocative, and I’m super bad at catchy titles. I’m not that clever person who understands how social media shapes audiences. Basically, I just love writing, and in many ways I rely on it for my sanity. Rely on it in very, very real ways. So I write and write and write, professionally and…here. Doing this thing, here, this thing that now begins to cross over into my professional life.

I almost wish I could ask you, reader, to take my words and hide them away from my professional life. Make sure they’re safe, that not all of me is the job.

Lord, prevent me from being a public intellectual.

And yet.

Wouldn’t it be fun to wander through the Internet being maddeningly useless? Stubbornly continuing on with the odd poeticisms and Christological obsessions and obscure references. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if people liked it? Me and my really rather ordinary Catholicism; me and my complete disinterest in evangelizing anyone. I’m normal. Hurt in a lot of places, some common and some not, and I’m just normal.

I’m also an impulsive sort, and I have the hardest time resisting the chance to thwart expectations. I love doing that. This seems like a chance.

Oh, to be ordinary and therefore interesting. What a thing. And how funny it would be if it meant people could run out ahead of me. Loving the ordinary things I also love, and loving them better than me. I like that better than anything. Than anything at all.

So I don’t know what description I’d give my blog so search engines would find it. Really not sure what my brand is. I don’t know how to not just be intentionally frustrating about the meaning of my entire blog. And every time I think of signing my name, I get anxious and refuse to finish the paperwork.

Part of me thinks I have something to say; part of me thinks I have nothing. I don’t know what I’ll do, but here I am.

 

 

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A Professional Catholic in California

This is what came up in my Google Image search for "Catholicism." And that's AFTER wild Internet speculation over whether Catholics are Pagans.

This is what came up in my Google Image search for “Catholicism.” And that’s AFTER pages devoted to speculation over whether Catholics are Pagans.

The job description for my current post at St. Mary’s College of California did not involve “translating Catholic things to everyone,” but in fact that is a major facet of the job. I don’t mind, mostly, because it’s mostly incredibly entertaining. Let me explain.

(1) Do you know every other Catholic? 

From the outside, Catholicism is expected to be monolithic and predictable, when in fact it has never been either of those, ever. Here I am not referencing doctrine so much as I am calling to mind various Catholic cultural expressions (have you noticed we’re from everywhere?), both in the past and in the present. Catholicism is inherently plural, by which I mean intrinsically multiple in its lived experiences and even in its doctrinal emphases. This is one of the things that makes Catholicism itself: that it is one thing, but also not one thing.

And yet Catholicism is “one,” especially inasmuch as genuine membership in the community is of prime importance, and that this membership is associated with a particular way of life: following Christ is the way of life and the principle of the community.

Which is why predicting a Catholic is about as easy as playing darts after being concussed and pepper-sprayed, and yet all those crazy people with the burning eyes do have a family resemblance as they argue with one another over who is worse at darts.

My scholarly job is to make sense of the rampant complexities of the Catholic heritage, to lend them sense without imparting violence. It is my behind-the-scenes job to tell a student or colleague why we do not look like what he or she expects, which is more than likely that one thing from the news. Or that specific decade in which he/she grew up as a Catholic. Or that one pope to be much hated or much adored. Or those years of schooling that apparently explained everything there is to know about Catholicism ever.

It’s like fighting to escape a room composed entirely of colored plastic wrap just to have a real conversation. It’s both beautiful and terrible as I suffocate to death from all the assumptions.

(2) Be magical.

I'm not sure if I need you, specifically, to be magic or if all you Catholics believe in magic with your smoke and robes... But I like the knives.

I’m not sure if I need you, specifically, to be magic or if all you Catholics are magic with your smoke and robes… But I like the knives.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m young or new or nice – or some other adjective I haven’t figured out, smart maybe? – but in any case, I have been immediately tasked with defending the entire Catholic tradition of my institution and all of Catholicism in existence. Explicitly. I’ve been asked via emails and in conversations. And these sorts would prefer if I could do so in some way that does not simultaneously offend the majority of non-Catholics on campus. And Bay Area culture. And – I don’t know – the pope? All the popes? Wait, or bishops? What is the Catholic chess again? Win at that.

Which is just…magic. To be able to do. Sometimes I think I’m being asked to be magic.

And to explain why Catholics don’t believe in the magic thing. It’s… We’re… We’re, like, serious about the rational coherence of faith. That’s like a big thing for us.

Pictured: a typical conversation with a student.

Pictured: a typical conversation with a student.

I’ve begun to emphasize, in new leadership positions I’ve been offered, how the Catholic intellectual and spiritual task is inherently communal. To stress, that is, that it does us no good to assign a token person or department and move on with our own interests. We, together, go about enriching the Catholic tradition. More than once, I have noted that the very first essential element of this shared task is for all of us to be damn good at our jobs, Catholic or no. The Catholic task involves affirming those who are not (cf. the “rational coherence of faith,” above). And it at the same time involves affirming faith. Speaking of…

(3) I come in peace.

I’m not out to make anyone feel stupid, or wrong, or irrelevant. In fact, when I first say “How are you?” in my sheepish introvert sort of way, I genuinely want to know. Catholic things are not particularly the things on my mind, and definitely I do not have in mind convincing said new acquaintance about Catholic things. Most Catholics do not wander around like that. Hell, we’re way more interested in fighting with each other than in picking fights with new friends.

That’s for later, obviously. When we’re old friends. (Haaaaa.)

Growing up, I definitely loved picking those fights. That was an extended practice in being annoying through most of my adolescence. Which, as you know, adolescents love. My version was just, um, religious-y. Now I’m old or tired or something. In any case, I’m way too busy with far more interesting things. I’d much rather understand where someone is coming from and love them as God does.

Which is to say, no matter what.

Even when you make me a living Catholic Google Search.

And even when you assume all kinds of wrong things about my faith.

You see, Catholics are not pugnacious, uncompromising hooligans who will never forget an offense.

Well... Not always. And anyway, I'm the cat. Just love me and I'll follow you around.

Well… Not always. And anyway, most of us are the cat. Just love us and we’ll follow you around.

If Californian culture, or whatever culture Catholics find themselves in, is a legitimate space for living and breathing, then Catholics are genuinely interested in interacting with that culture in the goofy ways that make us who we are – ways that end up transfiguring both Catholicism and the culture. Hostility emerges when those spaces become narrow, stultified, or presumptive.

I’m not interested in a giant battle over Catholicism. I just want to live it. So let me. It’s pretty damn fun.

I’m not much for fights these days, but I’d go down fighting for that claim.

Dogs and Toddlers: Life “Lessons” for the Ridiculous

the old puppy

I laugh much more than this blog makes it seem. In-between grim theologizing about the nature of existence, anyway. So, let’s have a light moment: let me teach you what I know about toddlers. What I know about toddlers, that is, based entirely on my week of dog-sitting for my parents’ miniature dachshund way back during last December. San Francisco has more dogs than it does children, so that must mean dogs can stand for children. Let’s see how this goes!

THE SITUATION

I arrived for a Christmas visit, extracted from the sunny cool of the Bay Area of California, whose version of winter mostly involves what I grew up experiencing as the milder days of fall. That’s okay, though, because when it rains, everyone in California freaks out as if it has just snowed two feet. On come the winter jackets and the shivering grimaces, the slow and agonized driving, just like in real winter. Except entirely without pain, snow, heartache, ice, or shoveling.

I arrived to the Midwest, where I grew up, to encounter record-breaking cold and snow. My many years of tough winter survival had been readily obliterated by Californian living, and my entitled whining was entirely ignored by the battered locals. At least my mom lent me a winter jacket, which of course I did not have.  I am a very well-prepared and thoughtful caretaker. Who does not think to buy a winter jacket for winter.

Lesson one: have jackets

Looking good already.

THE DOG/TODDLER IN QUESTION

old puppy sleeping

Meet Penny. She’s a miniature dachshund my family got when I was in high school, which means that the tiny hound is about a million years old. She’s deaf, and can’t see so well anymore. She likes to bark at things, and people, and fictitious noises. Still chases chipmunks and squirrels all over the damn yard. (Dachshunds, by the way, are crazy fast for such tiny, ridiculous dogs. Even this old version of one.) Dachshunds love to dig and burrow, by nature, so we always give her a bunch of blankets to bury herself in and fall asleep on. She’s awesome at sleeping.

Something that is important to know about dachshunds is that they get very emotionally attached to their owners, especially as they age. They are loyal pack members, basically, who also happen to be capable of separation anxiety.

Something else that is important to know about Penny is that she has her favorites. My mom is her favorite person in the history of ever. Then comes my sister. Then my brother. Then my dad and me. Us last two have been in a competition for least favorite since Penny was a puppy. No idea why she resents my dad. He’s awesome. Me: I’m much more interested in Latin than dogs.

Lesson two: teach your children Latin

DAY ONE

My parents left for Florida early in the morning, leaving me and the dog together. We were both exhausted. The dog responded by crying incessantly and walking to the garage door to sit and cry some more. She whimpered and fussed, then came over to me – I had helpfully laid myself on the floor, trying to sleep – to howl right by my ear. Perhaps with accusation in her dog-voice.

Eventually, dear Penny put herself in her little bed and went to sleep.

Lesson three: tiny creatures can cry loudly

ADJUSTMENT

For the next few days, the tiny old dog flatly ignored me and moped around the house in mourning. She started a hunger strike. I went about my business as usual. As an academic on break, I naturally took the time to do even more work.

I figured something changed when I found the dog napping under the feet of my chair as I read a book.

Lesson four: eventually, your children will decide you’re dead and move on to other people

SNOW STORM

Snow dumped itself all over the Midwest again, and I found the dog and myself basically snowed in. It is important right now that you imagine a large, Midwestern yard and long driveway – the kind for houses that exist near cornfields, as my childhood home does. I could not be more effortlessly Illinois-Midwestern unless I was an Irish Catholic. Wait, I’m that too.

So of course the good old Irish fatalism kicked in when I observed the snow that reached up past my knees, blanketing the landscape until it was almost unrecognizable. “Penny,” I said, “we’re going to die.”

She didn’t answer. Remember, she’s deaf.

So I set myself to shoveling out a place for the tiny dachshund to do her business – she gets stuck in the snow otherwise, and it’s hilarious – and digging us out in case an emergency meant we had to drive somewhere. My many years of Irish-esque pessimism have trained me to assume that the worst can always get worse: people just aren’t imagining it right.

The dog was insanely upset at me for being outside for so long in the snow. She barked and barked. I opened the door for her to join me outside, and she just barked some more.

Lesson five: just leave children inside the house by themselves

After shoveling the damn snow for a couple of hours, I returned to the house exhausted. The dog had barked herself to sleep by the door. She jumped up to her useless little dachshund feet when she saw me, tail wagging vigorously, and she tossed in a few more barks for good measure. I have no idea what her barks mean. I assume German curse words.

Lesson six: watch it, kid, I know German too

I sat down, sore and cranky, to watch some TV and have some whiskey (yes, I’m a stereotype). My parents’ couch is awesome. A huge thing you can sink into and fall asleep on. It engulfs me. I’m a useless human, too tiny for real work, which is why I do academic work instead. And…I just realized I’m a human dachshund.

The dog, already traumatized by the apparent death of both my parents, was determined to keep me in the house henceforth. She did this by launching herself up onto the couch – she has the vertical leap of Michael Jordan – and climbing onto my legs. She set herself there with a huff, as if to dare me to try and move now that she had me helplessly pinned down with her bitty paws.

Lesson seven: if you sit down to rest, your children will sit on you

LIFE GOES ON

So we continued our days, me reading my books and the dog following me around like the world’s least sneaky shadow. We built up a little relationship, and together we survived snow and dark.

When my parents returned, the dog spent an entire day ignoring them both resentfully and sitting by my side. It was one of the most spiteful things I have ever witnessed in a creature. Of course, the next day, my mom was the best person in the universe again, and all was back to normal.

Lesson eight: children are hilariously spiteful

So, there you go. Now you can raise a toddler.

 

 

Gesturing.

Vincent Van Gogh, “Two Hands”

I talk with my hands. Always have. When I speak, it’s as if I’m trying to shape the words in the air. Perhaps because it has always been so difficult for me to speak. Soft-voiced and shy, living mostly wordless and watchful. Tremulously searching for how to say anything, anything at all. Gesturing with empty palms toward what I cannot say.

People notice the expressions I make. I know what they mean, though I do not know if they know the meaning. A hundred thoughts cross through me all electric, skittering along my hands, and I can only ever announce a few. The rest of my body struggles to make up for the lack.

It is perhaps an irony that I adore poetry. Or perhaps no irony at all. Poems are words bent to the shape of what cannot be said.

I talk with my hands. Always. And I always wonder why no one notices the scars.

Perhaps because I make sure they don’t. Long sleeves cover the white slashes that cross my arm at violent angles, sometimes betraying their sharp geometry just past a folded cuff. These are scars that I gave myself. Writing some broken, unspeakable word into my flesh with thin and ragged lines. Lines gathering at crossways into no word at all. A clawing silence.

There are other scars. The faded marks of I.V. lines, needles. The rough-hewn edges of surgeries past dashed across my abdomen. A juncture at my wrist, white and jagged, that I’ve had since I was a little baby. Also from an I.V.

And the pale slice of two lines over my neck, following the creases. Marks I also gave myself. I cannot see these unless I look carefully. Somehow the more violent gesture healed more perfectly.

Perhaps people notice, and do not ask. Leave the question unvoiced. And what, anyway, would they ask?

I do not wander around trying to explain, nor unveiling the bloody decisions in a wordless demand for comprehension. I am not sure, in any case, what I would want comprehended. The ragged lines reach into a horizon I myself do not know.

The painful pattern lives dimly on my skin, and – like some shadow cast by a silvery spiderweb – evince a simulacrum of what lives underneath. The sorrow that lives, has lived, underneath. Some unspeakable sorrow. Some unspeakable rage.

I wonder sometimes if people know that my gentleness extends silently from the darkness of this inner violence. If they know, secretly, that I am soft with them because my life has been so hard. That I am soothing for all the struggles.

My very first memory, shadowed and confusing, is of being held down. Of feeling that I had died, somehow, and yet still lived. Lived on into a thousand other deaths.

I know what it feels like to die.

I do not remember the hands that held me down. There are other hands from other times that I remember very well. And sometimes I wonder if I am struggling to shape my hands into some pattern that will help me forget. Or perhaps remember.

Or forgive.

Or perhaps hold on. To the arms that held me once and asked me how I felt. How I really felt. And all I could do was collapse into those arms and scream. Words again lost to me.

Always I gesture. Pressing toward some impossible shape. Holding together the impossible architecture of a word that I literally cannot say. That marks me anyway. Configuring me with a meaning that is neither sorrow nor rage.

Remember:

My scars are white because I lived.