The “Oh, There You Are” Prayer

image of a large spider dangling from its web.Three egg sacs hang in suspension in the garden near my doorstep. When I look for information online, most resulting websites discuss removal, infestation, means of discarding. The spider has lived between the wall and garden for a little over a month, a strange home in the alley’s wind tunnel. Gusts waver the plants during storms and windy nights, so the spider will sometimes spend hours swinging softly in her silk.

When an egg sac first appeared, I thought it was cloth or dust caught in the web, but then two more sacs jointed the first, cottony orbs like planets stopped in mid-orbit around the spider’s still bulk. One darkened with spiderlings, their bodies softened with newness and the pressure of spherical suspension, all those legs blending and twining together.

The spider and I have an understanding, as spiders and girls understand sometimes wanting to be left alone. She is Steatoda grossa, a false widow. I have no desire to kill her. At first, she was frightened of my footsteps, my tendency to drop my keys into the space of her web. But we’ve learned each other’s habits. I know she rarely moves, preferring to sit fat and splayed in strings that reach to the ground. She is in the same place every morning as she was the previous night. And she doesn’t startle or hide when I run outside, headphones loud, in the early morning.

My heart palpitations are worse in the morning. Cardiologists can’t find a cause or even an effect, the erratic beats a mistake without known consequence. They’re just something to get used to. Because I can’t get used to them, because they still feel like slices of death, I run and shove the headphones all the way in my ears to drown out the mistaken pulse. [Read more…]

Endurance Test

a pair of nice shoes in the center of the floor.By Matt Newcomb.

My father held the wall to work his way from the bed to the couch, avoiding the ship’s bell protruding from the wall. He was sick—the kind of sick that meant out of work too. It was his adrenal system, or his pineal gland, or a hormonal imbalance, depending on the doctor. And it was definitely sleep apnea and diabetes on top of whatever else.

During his illness, when I was in high school, he would play a twisted game with me. I might be sitting in our leather recliner, the ugly but fought-over mark of middle-class luxury in our house. He’d slap me lightly on the cheek to try to get a reaction. No reaction. Another slap, building, a bit harder each time.

It was perhaps less a game than the action of a bored younger sibling, a role he frequently played. There was no question of serious violence; I dominated him in strength, height, and health by this point. Every couple of slaps he would ask if he should stop. My goal was to never say yes. I might move slightly with some slaps, but I would win. The question was whether my frustration or discomfort would make me stop him before his worry about hitting me too hard would stop him.

He was testing my endurance, not for how long I could take pain or discomfort, but for how long I could take him. Would I put up with the pestering slaps of his illness and neediness day after day? [Read more…]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Our Rumbling Nation 

This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and un-redressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

As I was reading these lines from the final page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I couldn’t help thinking of the current rumbling earthquake in our country. Though not yet with physical violence—or not much so far—we seem to be experiencing a sort of civil war.

Or, more accurately, an uncivil war.

This isn’t why I pulled Uncle Tom’s Cabin off my shelf and began re-reading the yellowed pages of my 1981 paperback edition. I’ve been interrogating the hundreds of books on my shelves: am I going to read you again, or am I going to throw you out, or pass you on to my church’s second-hand sale?

I hadn’t read Stowe’s 1852 masterpiece for decades, so figured it was time to give it another try. Though sometimes sentimental or melodramatic, it does hold up: it paints a multi-faceted picture of the various forms of evil that the institution of slavery took.

It’s commonplace (though true) to say that our country is still living with the after-shocks of this evil.  How many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did so in the spirit of backlash of having to live for eight years under a Black president? Of course, people’s motivations for voting are too complex to single out one factor.

Yet in campaigning, Trump did play the racist card. And so far, as President, he has slapped much of the deck onto the table: Mexicans, Muslims with non-European ethnicity, Native Americans who are resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. [Read more…]

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]