Journal: Holy Week
I am currently in the car, sitting in the parking lot at church, stealing a few minutes alone while my older kids eat the free soup supper at the Parish Hall, and my husband is home with the baby.
I put my cell phone on vibrate during Stations of the Cross anticipating my husband’s call which came exactly 30 minutes after I walked out the door. When I checked my voicemail, I heard only the frigid tones of my baby screaming, which caused my milk to let down, but I pressed on because …the kids are eating free dinner.
I’ve been fighting off my own mysterious urge to cry for several days now. There’s nothing wrong with me that I can identify and yet it persists, like background music in a minor key.
Back when I had a spiritual director, she would say that if your heart is not at rest, you should go and sit before the Blessed Sacrament and stay there until you work it out, even if it takes all night. I wanted to try that tonight after Stations, but people were anxious to get us all out and lock up the sanctuary, so here I am in my car.
I’ve had knots in my back for months now. I feel crooked in a literal way, from the swayback sensation of being pregnant to the twisted torso position of nursing a baby while lying down. My shoulders are wrenched from carrying her, sometimes in the sling which puts all of her fifteen pounds on one side. I’m not tired; I’m just twisted.
And I love my car. I don’t have to hold anybody in here.
I had a professor in college approach me in the hallway once; he had just read portions of a story I wrote, and he said to me in a deep, ominous voice, “She looks like apple pie, but she has a dark side.”
The dark sometimes rises to the surface; it wants to do this terrible thing; it wants to sing the blues.
I’m recalling the evening of the second day of the Gerasene Writer’s Conference. Once all the participants had read through several manuscripts, once the drinks were almost gone, someone suggested it was time to sing, and there’s never been a more willing chanteuse than Betty Duffy’s dark side.
The Harlem Blues is what I sing to myself when I’m driving. The kids tell me to be quiet because they’re trying to fight in the back seat, but I never stop till the climax that goes, “I think I’ll mooch some homemade hooch and go out for a lark.” My voice often breaks on that note, but when I nail it–I have to admit, even to myself, it can be quite powerful.
With the Gerasene Group, however, I went inside to use the loo, and when I came out, reentering the conversation blindly, not knowing what turns took place in my absence, I felt an uncontrollable need to share the sparks of creative genius that struck in the water closet without realizing that people on the porch were now discussing the armageddon. I had just nailed the homemade hooch line in the bathroom, and my dark side demanded a witness.
But singing the blues is a very vulnerable thing to do in front of a group of people you don’t know very well. You have to make guttural noises.
Deirdre Lickona said, “We’ll close our eyes. Everybody close your eyes. Betty’s going to sing.” She put her head down, put a hand on my knee to make me feel affirmed of her nonjudgemental presence.
I tried a few bars, and then felt stupid about it and gave up. It’s the darkness that wants to sing the blues, but I think performing them requires a purity that I don’t have.
Sometimes I try to write my own songs, and I can come up with a big idea–like say, a relationship has soured and needs reconciliation. Coming up with the big ideas is the easy part; it’s the details that are hard to fill in. The song has to tell a story. We need to know what kind of unhappy the couple is. Where is the dust in their life? Is it on the books, the wine glasses, or the dancing shoes?
These are cliches of course, but they work for a song, sometimes.
In real life, it’s more likely that someone just isn’t being nice. Like say, the woman, she’s just tired and her back hurts, and she CAN’T be kind. She wants to be, but she wakes up in the morning, and for reasons she can’t explain, she’s impatient with everyone she encounters. Her husband having to go to work feels like an insult. Her kids being slow getting dressed and forgetting important papers feels like an insult. And her own being left behind when the kids leave for school and her husband for work, feels like an insult.
Turn that situation into a song. I’d title it, “Snap out of it, Lady.”
When I was driving earlier, the kids were all sitting behind me writing notes on small pieces of paper and passing them back and forth.
My daughter wrote a mean note to one of her brothers, which he swiftly reported to me. Her note was heartless, really, and without cause, so I asked her, “Why did you write that to him?”
There was silence from the backseat.
Then, after a few minutes had passed, my daughter handed me a note folded into a tiny little square. I unfolded it, and read in her writing; “I don’t know.”
“I have the same problem,” I said. “I am unkind, and I don’t know why.”
I had to get the oil changed in my car recently, and I brought the baby with me, sleeping in the pumpkin seat. I used to carry all my babies in a sling everywhere I went. And I would look at the mothers lugging their pumpkin seats and think, that’s an awful lot of effort to put forth in order to avoid holding your baby.
I didn’t realize the benefits, however, of being able pack your baby snug in the house, and then drop her seat into a warm car, rather than standing out in the rain or snow, struggling to get a baby out of a sling and into a car-seat. And then sometimes, a baby in a pumpkin seat will stay asleep the entire time you run errands, so you can actually get out and do more, which is good for your mental health.
In this case, thanks to pumpkin seat, I was able to set the sleeping baby down in the lobby at Firestone, and read a newspaper, a real paper one, which I hadn’t seen in months. And I was thoroughly enjoying the swishing papers with their tales of burglary and economic foreboding when two elderly ladies joined me in the waiting room.
“Oh, Rose! Look at that baby!” one of them said.
“What a doll. Are you a boy baby or a girl baby?” Rose asked the baby, who, by this time, was stirring. Her eyes were open, staring in a way that suggested she might go back to sleep.
“It’s a girl,” I said, a little disinterestedly. I wanted to keep reading.
“She likes your red gloves, Rose. I wish I had red gloves so that she’d look at me too.” The woman was wearing red pants which were more than enough to attract a baby who wanted to see red.
Both the women cooed and continued asking the baby questions, waiting patiently for her response, and it occurred to me, that I was going to have to put down my newspaper and play puppet with my baby so these women could have the conversation they so desperately wanted to have with her.
I picked her up, and took off her hat so the women could see her better. They both emitted sounds of delight.
“Look at those cheeks! I don’t think you get enough to eat!”
“Mommy feeds me well!” I said.
“I don’t know whether you have brown eyes or blue.”
“I’ve got my daddy’s brown eyes!” I said.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Becky, I might have to take you home with me.”
The conversation went on for awhile, and I had to talk baby talk and smile at the women so that by the end of it, I was almost in a good mood–which made me think this is why you need to get out more, to remember how to be kind to people.
It’s easy to be kind to strangers. It’s easy to take it one death-to-self at a time. Put down the paper. Talk to the ladies.
This is good practice for when I go home, and feel overwhelmed and caught up in the infinite varieties of death I might have to perform in the long years ahead with these people in my house.
My sister calls and asks, “What are you doing?”
“Aging,” I say, but maybe I’m actually dying.
“Why do you hate yourself?” the priest asked in confession.
“Because I love myself too much.”
The Easter vigil begins in darkness. This is always my favorite part of Lent, being brought out of darkness– the gradual lightening of one candle passing a flame to another.
Confession sheds light on what ails the soul, but it doesn’t cure it. I always feel like I need more help, and the Church keeps pulling and pulling me up. I renew my Baptismal commitments; I reject Satan and the glamour of evil. Blessed water washes me clean.
I sing the Litany of the saints: Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicity…Pra-ay for us
It’s almost like singing the blues, it has the minor key, the mournful imploring tone, and the rush to fit several words on one note. Here we sing in unison, the tragedy of our lives, the hope of being saved.
By the time we say Alleluiah, I have been exorcised.
What was cast down is raised up,
what has become old is made new
and all things are restored to integrity through Christ.