More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

lasagna (1)

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

***

Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.

In memory.

Dear friends,

Bob Crenshaw Army

My father passed on Sunday, just nine short weeks after I learned he had brain cancer. Ever since I got the phone call Sunday morning just after 4:00 am, time has slowed down. Hours last days, and days last weeks, and I remember every little thing I thought I had forgotten. I’m in that odd space where grief seems like lead in my limbs and gravity threatens to crush me until the tiniest kind word or gesture lifts me up in unexpected ways and my heart swells again and I think “Maybe I won’t die of heaviness after all.”

We buried him yesterday and because I have an unnatural and acute fear of anyone I love suffering from a bad eulogy, I wrote my father’s. I’m sharing it here because talking about him and writing about him is comforting. Glennon Melton says when someone suffers a loss, gather up all your brave and rush in. You don’t have to know what to say or what to do, you just have to show up. I’ve been amazed at the people who have shown up, with texts and phone calls and emails and cards and gifts and — in the case of Mr. Mom — more kindnesses and favors than you can possibly imagine.

I needed your brave and I thank you for it.

With gratitude {for kindnesses from near and far},

Joan-Marie, daughter of Robert, son of Marie, family of an Indian Territory town that will always be home

My Father’s Eulogy

I want to begin by saying – strange as it sounds – how happy I am to be here today. This place, this cemetery, means so much to me. I feel like I grew up here and I’m certain my cousins know what I’m talking about. For my grandmother Marie, my great Aunt Hazel, my Aunt Mary, my cousin Big Betty (not to be confused with my cousin Betty Marie) and her sister Virginia, this place meant so much to them that they visited often and they dragged us kids along. “Let’s go to the cemetery” someone would say and off we’d go! I remember doing cartwheels and playing chase with my cousins while the adults did whatever it was they did here and so it never seemed like a sad place to me. When we had a family reunion at my house in 2009, three or four generations of us loaded up in cars and came here after our dinner. I have a photo of Daddy from that day standing near this spot. For the five years I lived in this town as an adult, I even used to run through here at 5:30 am, morning after morning, never once deterred by the thought of running through a pitch black cemetery alone. My family is buried here and the family of my lifelong friends are buried here and so there is something profoundly intimate and comforting about coming to this place today to honor my father. I want to thank all of you for being here to honor him as well.

A few weeks ago when I found out Daddy was sick, I wrote an essay titled “Questions for my Dying Father.” In it, I reflected on all the things I don’t know about him, all the things we didn’t talk about, like his service in World War II or, of course, his wives. I mentioned that I knew what his favorite steak was but not all the places he had worked — and I wondered how I had failed to learn such important details of my father’s long life.

A friend of mine emailed me not long after I posted my essay. Carolyn is a fundraiser for a facility that provides long-term care and aging services, so my friend has an informed perspective on the needs of elderly patients and their families. She reassured me by writing “Knowing your Dad’s favorite steak is infinitely more important than the stuff of life’s resume. The rib-eye is what matters and I’m glad you are there for him.”

It was such a kind and thoughtful thing to say to a daughter who spent far more time away from her father than with him. And it helped me move on from what I don’t know to what I do.

What I know about my father is that he was one of a kind. Everybody who knew him knew that. Highly intelligent and well spoken, he had the ability to command the attention of others whenever he wanted. He could cut to the chase like no one I know, and I suspect his directness complicated his life at times but you always knew where you stood with Bob. By the way, I have a reputation for candor and directness, too, so there’s no question whose daughter I am.

He enjoyed solitude and he spent a lot of his time there. I often wondered about the paradox of a man who married so many times yet liked to be alone as much as he did. The demands of solitude include being comfortable with your own thoughts and abilities and Daddy was clearly confident enough to sail his own ship. I think there is a unique valor required to stand alone, to swim against the tide, and I’ve always admired his sturdy self-reliance and willingness to – as he put it – “call his own shots.”

He was eternally optimistic. His love for gambling is proof of that. In fact, I think his willingness to put down his money and bet it all is a sign of immense idealism. Nobody would call Bob a pragmatist, he of the grand gestures and generous spirit. He told me not long before he died that he often loaned money to his friends and neighbors. Now I had always known that if you needed money, Bob was the man to see. Of his neighbors, he told me “Sometimes they pay me back and sometimes they don’t.” He could tell you in a heartbeat how much he was owed and by whom, and yet he never seemed to be keeping a tab beyond the dollars and cents of this life. For someone who was never rich, he shared in abundance.

When I was in fifth grade, I made straight As my first semester. He told me if I kept it up, if I made straight As all year, he would give me a hundred dollar bill. I spent months pouring through the Sears and Roebuck catalog at my grandmother’s house, making lists of what I would spend my money on. In 1972 you could buy a lot with a hundred dollars and I mentally spent my money 20 times over with various lists of goodies to be purchased. I earned the grades and Daddy paid up, of course, but I think he knew it wasn’t the hundred dollars that was the gift. But rather — the months of anticipation of a hundred dollars is where the real fun is. After all, he played the lotto up until the end of his life and he always said if he hit big, he’d share it all with his family.

Despite his generosity and candor, he could also be circumspect. I was looking through some old files the other day and I found a letter from my mother to me in 1988 when I lived in Boston. She had been writing me and begging me to move home but in this particular letter she wrote “I talked to your father today. He told me not to pressure you and to let you make up your own mind.” Then she told me that if I did decide to move home, he had already figured out three different plans for moving my household halfway across the country. That was just like Daddy: he understood the virtue of self-determination but could make you a plan like nobody’s business when needed.

Most things in this life that are wonderful or extravagant or refined, I learned about from my father. I ate my first lobster with him. I had my first room service meal with him, and I thought it was so fancy that our dinner came on china plates topped with silver domes on a rolling cart. I remember sitting at his kitchen table with him and eating steamed artichokes with drawn butter. He taught me how to eat the soft flesh of the artichoke petal with my front teeth. He made a terrific crab salad and avocado dip. I usually say I got my cooking skills from my mother but I know I got my taste from my father. He took me to restaurants with starched white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers. Once, when my mother offered to take me and my grandmother out for a hamburger, I protested saying “I want to go to a place like Daddy would take me. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.” To this day I judge a restaurant by my father’s high standard.

My friend Carolyn has a philosophy about parenting. She says one parent brings the tree and one brings the ornaments and a child needs both to make Christmas out of her life. There’s no doubt that Daddy brought the decoration, the sparkle, to the life of his youngest daughter.

I love him and I will miss him.

String of pearls.

Dear friends,

pearlcu

I’ve been quilting again. Actually, I haven’t paused much since last time I showed you my work. Yesterday, I got one more baby quilt crossed off my list and I couldn’t wait to show it to you.

It’s for the first grandchild of a friend and colleague. Sweet baby Pearl was born two weeks ago but I’m a bit behind so she’s just now getting it.

It’s not her first quilt and it will be far from her last. Her grandmother is a talented seamstress and both her great aunt and her great grandmother are experienced quilters — so my little creation is just one of many handmade keepsakes the little girl will have. At first I thought twice about making a quilt for the first grandchild in a family of sewists but then I decided what the heck. Once I found out the baby would be named Pearl, I couldn’t resist making her a quilt with one of my favorite fabric lines called “Pearl Bracelet” by Andover Fabrics.

And, really, can you have too many quilts?

I decided not.

pearlfront

My quilt is a petite 39″ X 39″ so I think it will be perfect for tucking into small spaces like car seats or playpens.

Pearl’s mother decorated her nursery in bright, gender neutral colors so I chose several hues from the fabric line. In fact, I bought far too much material so, after finishing the front, I decided to piece the back with all the leftover colors.

pearlback

I like how the rows of bracelets are slightly off-kilter as it gives the quilt a bit of a fun-house vibe. And I think the curves on the front of the quilt are a nice contrast to the cascading frames on the back of the quilt.

Not long ago I discovered a terrific long-arm quilter in a city two hours from me. To save time, I’ve been sending my quilts to her for quilting. I rather like the precision of a computerized long-arm quilting machine and Crinkleove does fantastic work. Plus, outsourcing the quilting allows me to make even more quilts. (There’s some 22,000 stitches in the quilting alone so you can see why these things take time.)

Speaking of even more quilts . . . I’ve got to run. I’ve got to get going on a quilt for an upcoming wedding gift.

With gratitude {for so many happy reasons to sew},

Joan-Marie, who for obvious reasons loves old-fashioned baby names

Cranking out the awesome.

Dear friends,

In the last few weeks, I’ve taken refuge in my quilting studio. Five years ago as my mother lay dying, I found solace in long runs. I cried my eyes out through most of them (and let me tell you . . . snotting through seven miles is no easy feat), but I managed to find the release I needed to make the transition to life as a motherless daughter.

Now that my father is dying, I’m quilting my way through it. It’s not that I’m not running. I am. But I have running buddies now and instead of being overcome by emotion as I pound the pavement, we chat about the minutiae of  our lives. So the place I go to escape, to reflect, to occasionally burst into tears, is my quilting studio.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that I’ve been cranking out the awesome. Back in January, I committed to four quilts — two for babies of friends and two for strangers in Instagram swaps. After a long spring of doing very little, I finally kicked into high gear and got two quilts out the door last week and have another more than half finished. It feels good to turn my restless worry and sadness into something beautiful. Would you like to see my work?

(That was a rhetorical question. I’m going to assume you’re nodding.)

The first and most difficult is a baby quilt for a colleague. I was charmed by the pattern months ago and thought it would make a perfect child’s quilt with some whimsical fabric I had been hoarding for a long time. I started the quilt right after the new year, but it was a tedious pattern to construct so after making a block or two, I stalled for a very long time.

Nevertheless, I unveiled it last Wednesday at the baby shower and I think it’s the finest quilt I’ve ever made. Here’s a close up view.

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Isn’t it just as sweet as can be? When I began the quilt, I didn’t know the gender of the baby so I tried to keep it as neutral as possible. I later found out my colleague is having a girl so I started using a lot more of the dark pink tones. Little Hattie was born yesterday and here’s a view of her entire quilt.

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The back is also as cute as can be, with grey fabric that coordinates with the front border and pieced stripes using pink fabrics from the entire line.

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Once I finished this quilt, I quickly finished another — a mini I began back in March and also stalled on. It should arrive at my secret swap partner’s house TODAY, so I’ll be excited to watch my Instagram feed and see if she likes it.

The rules of the swap specified that we use a particular fabric line and do our best to match our partner’s tastes. She said she likes blues and greens and prefers traditional patterns, so — even though I like improvisational designs — I gave it my best go. Here it is:

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It’s a petite 24″X24″, perfect for hanging on every quilter’s coveted “mini wall.” By the way, the fabric line is called Cotton + Steel by RJR Fabrics and it’s the hottest thing to hit quilting in a long time. I kept the back simple with just  navy fabric from the front and a snippet of the selvedge to commemorate the Cotton + Steel theme.

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As soon as I finished this mini, I started another baby quilt. This one is for a colleague and dear friend’s first grandbaby. Unfortunately, sweet baby Pearl was born two days ago so I’m behind the curve on this one. But see what you think about what I’ve completed so far:

FullSizeRender

The fabric line is called Pearl Bracelets. I used it a long time ago in Kate’s tennis quilt, so as soon as I learned my friend’s grandbaby would be named Pearl, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Pearl’s nursery is decorated in bright colors so I think my quilt will strike just the right note.

Finally, after I started the first baby quilt (but before I finished it), I made three table runners as birthday gifts for friends. I won’t bore you with photos of each since they were all made with the same fabric selections and constructed with slight variations, but I’ll show you one of my favorites:

runner

Purty, huh?

And, somehow, that helps. The act of creating and sharing has sustained humans since the start of time, especially during periods of great pain and loss. The definition of art is “something created from imagination that is beautiful and expresses important ideas or feelings.” I’ll let the recipients decide if my work is beautiful but I’m certain it expresses the love I’m feeling in abundance as I contemplate the last Father’s Day with my Daddy.

With gratitude {for another day, to breathe, to love, to create, to share},

Joan, who wishes you and yours the happiest of Father’s Day near the ones you love

Questions for my dying father.

Bob and JM 1962

“Hi Daddy,” I said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”

“No good,” he said, firmly but quietly. He sounded far away and tired, which he was. “No good” came out sounding like one word . . . nogood . . . as if enunciation of separate words was a chore. It was the same answer he’d given me the last few days in a row. Why I kept asking is a bit of a mystery. He’s 93. He’s dying of kidney and brain cancer. He’s in hospice and hasn’t eaten in nearly a month. Do I expect him to suddenly report he’s feeling better?

“I have a question for you” I said confidently, as if I had rehearsed. Truth is, I had, sort of. Mentally at least.

“I want to know about your wives.”

“What?” he asked. He sounded astonished or possibly just confused. Like maybe he thought the phone wasn’t working properly. Or maybe his brain wasn’t. Cancer does weird things.

“Your wives. I want to know about them. You never talk about them.” My heart was pounding.

“Oh Joan-Maire,” he said, his voice and his precious little stamina trailing off. “You’re asking me to remember things. ”

***

I remember things, but the problem for me now that my father is dying is that I don’t remember enough. I don’t know enough. For years, I didn’t hear enough or see enough and I don’t know the stories. Like any writer, stories are precious to me, the jewels of my life and my connection to my family and it feels like there simply aren’t enough stories about my father to knit me to him. After 52 years, he’s like a ghost. I see him out of the corner of my eye but I can’t really know him.

***

One recent evening I told Mr. Mom in tears that I couldn’t even begin to write an obituary or a eulogy for my father. I took great care with my mother’s, but here I am at the end of my father’s life and I don’t know basic facts like where he was born, where he worked, the dates of his service in WWII, who he was married to. How had I failed to gather this kind of information all these years?

“Listen, honey” Mr. Mom said, trying to comfort me. “Think about it. We’ve been married 23 years and in all those years he’s never once talked about himself.  In the times I’ve been around him, he might say ‘Isn’t it great the Saints won the game?’ or he might tell you about a horse he bet on, but he’s never said one word about himself. You know how your father is.”

My husband’s sweet attempt at absolution calmed me, but I vowed to ask my father a different question each day during my phone call to him. I started with the wives because, why not?

***

It’s a family secret how many times my father has been married. Most bets are on seven, but those who know for sure (his parents, his sister) are dead. Growing up I knew it was a lot but my mother and my paternal grandmother never talked about it for obvious reasons. Of all the things that bothered me about my family when I was young, his marriages wasn’t one of them. I didn’t know the word unconventional back then but I  knew he was, and in some silly, school-girlish, unexplainable way, it made him a kind of folk hero in my eyes. Everybody knew Bob marched to his own drummer.

Once long ago — I don’t remember when or the exact circumstances of the conversation — my mother told me Daddy wasn’t honest with her about his past marriages. She said not long after they married, my grandfather pulled her aside and said “I don’t know what Bob told you, but you’re wife number X.” For the life of me, I don’t remember if my mother told me the real number or demurred, as she often did on the topic of my father, but it drives me crazy that I don’t now know. Why did I ask so few questions when I was in the best position to do so?

***

On the fourth day of the long week I spent getting him settled into the nursing home, arranging hospice, and disposing of his personal possessions according to his handwritten instructions, he looked at me and sighed and said “This is no way to die.” I wasn’t sure what to say but he quickly added “Everybody should die like your aunt,” referring to his sister who got out of bed one morning about six years ago and simply keeled over. I was standing beside his hospital bed, leaning on the railing, looking at his bald head and his pale skin and his still-sparkly eyes and thinking how far this scenario was from what I had imagined would be his end. “I know Daddy,” I offered. “But I, for one, am glad you’re here with me today.” His eyes watered, betraying emotion I had never before seen in him and he looked straight into my eyes and smiled. “You’re a good Daddy,” I said, my voice cracking, as I leaned over, kissed him on the lips, and closed my eyes just long enough to hold back my tears and think it’s too bad he couldn’t drift away that very second.

***

Since I have so few stories of my father to tell, I go over and over them in my head. Perhaps my favorite is from my wedding day. As you know, my name is Joan-Marie. Joan is my mother’s mother and Marie is my father’s mother. My entire life I went by Joan, unless you were family or happened to be in the company of my father, who was prone to correcting you if you dared abridge it or made the mistake of choosing some abominable variation like Joanie. As we rehearsed our vows in front of the wedding party, the minister — who we didn’t know because we had a destination wedding with rent-a-clergy — kept calling me Joan. At one point, I stopped him and said “Will you please call me Joan-Marie? Please, out of respect for my father.” I hadn’t planned it and I don’t even know why I said it, except it seemed strange to be in the company of my parents and to be called something other than Joan-Marie on my wedding day. My dad shot me a look. It was a millisecond of pure love and gratitude amidst a whirlwind weekend but I knew we were connected in that moment no matter how many years we had been apart.

***

My second favorite story about my father doesn’t even involve him. My mother and my paternal grandmother and I had gone on a Sunday drive, as we often did during my childhood. The day had turned out to be a wild goose chase. We were looking for a landmark we never found and had gotten lost more than once. On the way home, we were all three sitting in the front seat of my mother’s car and I had my head on my grandmother’s lap and my feet on my mother’s lap. We were hungry and my mother suggested we stop for a hamburger.  “No!” I said adamantly and sat up straight. “Take me someplace nice. Someplace like Daddy would. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.”

I was maybe 11 years old. I didn’t really know what the word atmosphere meant, but I recognized it when I saw it. My father had taken me to places with chandeliers and starched white tablecloths and lobster dinners in places like New Orleans and New York. I barely remembered it but I knew he had treated me to the kind of high class establishments he favored. I might be stuck in the boonies with my mother and grandmother, but I wanted them to know I knew the difference.

They laughed and laughed at me and I suppose they already knew I was my father’s child.

***

As I was sorting through my father’s belongings, I ran across an envelope of assorted papers and photographs. Among the photographs was the one at the beginning of this post. I’d never seen it and don’t recognize the surroundings, but I recognized my grandmother’s writing on the back: “Robert and Joan-Marie, August 24, 1965.”

Among the stack of papers were letters he wrote to his parents while stationed in Italy and North Africa during the war. One was a will he typed and signed in case he was killed as a 20-year-old soldier. I was staying with my cousin who lives near my father’s nursing home and after we went to bed, I stayed up late into the night reading my father’s correspondence. Many were signed “Your loving son, Robert.” It was the first and only glimpse I’d ever had into the young man he used to be. I recognized his refined and polite prose but not the affection, the humor, the warmth, the thoughtful reflection so evident in his letters. I cried myself to sleep that night, grateful for the carefully preserved history I had in my possession and sorrowful for the one-dimensional father of my memory.

***

“Never live close to your kinfolk,” my dad used to say.  I heard him say it a number of times and never asked why he felt that way. I suspect it was, at least in part, because he was a heavy drinker and an unrepentant gambler and book-maker and his kinfolk disapproved, as did his ex wives and his youngest daughter. His philosophy probably made his world a little less complicated in one sense because for most of my life, I saw him very infrequently. The flip side to that coin is that my father’s meager presence made him almost a mythical figure in my childhood. He was a kind of Santa Clause, a jolly gift giver who showed up on special occasions only, drunk and generous.  His drinking deeply hurt his sister and his mother, whose disapproval of my father’s lifestyle was a constant. My mother married three alcoholics in a row, so she said nothing, and later, one of the things I most admired about my mother was that even with all the reasons she could have counted to badmouth him, she always managed to take the high road. In the last years of her life, she grew close to him. She did his laundry and took him dinner and chided me when she thought I should call him more often.

***

The subject of calling him is a sore spot, so who better to bring it up than my mother? When Kate was a baby, my father had what I refer to as a mental breakdown. He was later diagnosed as bi-polar, which explained a lot, but at the time he was acting nonsensically and several members of my family were worried. At one point, I felt he was a danger to himself so I contacted the authorities and he was detained for three days. We went to court and he convinced the judge he should be released. He was deeply wounded by my intervention and we didn’t speak for years. I rationalized it was his choice to stay away but truth be told it was at least as much mine. I figured he’d gotten by all those years without his family meddling in his affairs and told myself to keep my distance, which was easy enough given his oft-stated philosophy. Eventually, he started calling again, and once he even called to chide me himself for my infrequent contact. In the most unkind moment I ever shared with my father, I told him I was doing the best I could to raise my children and that I was sorry to disappoint him. And then I added “You know, Daddy, when I was 10 and wondered where in the hell you were, I never once asked why you didn’t call me more.” It was a terribly cruel postscript to a painful phone call and I’ve always regretted it.

***

If you ask about my father to anyone who knows him, the first thing you’ll hear is that he’s smart. He’s also well-spoken. Meticulous. Demanding. Magnanimous. Opinionated. Precise. Generous. Grand. Infuriating. Optimistic. Calculating. Mercurial. Dictatorial. I saw all these sides of his personality and more, and now I wonder why it was so hard to know something more of him than his moods.

On a day he was adjusting to the nursing home and frustrated with me, he reminded me sternly “I’m still calling the shots!”

Later when I told Mr. Mom, he said “You gotta hand it to him, Joan. Bob has always called the shots. He’s lived life on his own terms and I admire him for that.”

***

I’ve traveled to Oklahoma twice since I learned my father has terminal brain cancer. On one visit he was lying down, in pain but uncharacteristically chatty. We were talking about our shared passion — a good meal — and he said “You know what my favorite steak is? It’s . . .”

He trailed off and I could tell he was searching for a name.

“A ribeye?” I said.

“Yes, a ribeye! I love a good ribeye steak!”

“Me too, Daddy,” I said. “It used to be my favorite steak before I became a vegetarian.”

“What’s your favorite steak now?” he asked.

The irony was lost on him and I laughed out loud, delighted by the humor of the moment and the fact that I knew the answer to a question about my father.

***

On another visit he was sitting up, quiet, and obviously in pain. He wiped his head and said, almost under his breath, “You know, sometimes I wonder what this life is all about.”

“Me too, Daddy, me too.” He dropped his chin to his chest and I said “Have you figured it out yet? I’d like to know.”

He paused for a long time then whispered “I think we’re just here to take care of one another.”

I figure we have. In our own ways. Maybe not the storybook way, maybe not the best way, but in a way uniquely ours, in a place strangely more intimate and more lovely than I ever imagined as a possible destination for Robert and Joan-Marie.

Motel Dharma.

Dear Friends,

Neon Motel Sign and Arrow

I met a Buddhist monk last week. The encounter made me laugh, it made me think, it made me feel heart-full.

Like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in “As Good As It Gets,” I believe the highest praise you can give a person is to say he or she makes you want to be a better person. I left my conversation with the Venerable Pannavati aspiring to do so much more in this world, to radiate her kind of warmth and wisdom on all souls in my orbit.

The part that made me laugh: Pannavati was traveling through my town on her way to a larger city for a meditation retreat she is hosting this weekend. I mentioned to you a while back that I recently joined a local Sangha (a sanskrit word for a Buddhist community) and our leader was kind enough to arrange for several of us to have individual consultations with Pannavati at a local motel. The motel is on a busy thoroughfare and is more than a little “tired.” (I’m being kind. It’s the biggest dive in town.) Anyway, I showed up for my midday meeting, dressed to the nines because of an important work engagement, and ended up having to stand outside one of the rooms for several minutes while the monk finished a previous appointment. I’m pretty sure the heavily tattooed man in the parking lot who complimented my sports car and my clothes wondered why the person I was meeting didn’t immediately let me in the room. I’m also pretty sure a drug deal went down in the parking lot while I stood there. And, I feel quite certain at least a handful of townsfolk drove by the cheap motel, saw me standing outside one of the rooms, and felt sorry for Mr. Mom thinking I have a thing on the side. The whole scene was like something out of a Cohen Brothers movie and was NOT the kind of setting in which I expected to seek enlightenment.

On the other hand, it was probably just the kind of place Jesus would have gone to minister to the needy. In fact, I think he would have consorted with the cast of Motel Dharma so — in the words of my favorite Pope — “Who am I to judge?”

The part that made me think: Our entire conversation. I can’t explain it except it was like reading and absorbing five different holy texts in less than a hour. Actually, it was more like chugging all the wisdom in the world, if all the wisdom in the world could be poured into a beer gong and you could gulp it in a matter of seconds. (Disclaimer: I have never drank from a beer gong but I’ve observed the activity in my younger days and can appreciate the “intensity” of the experience.)

I wish I would have taken notes but I didn’t and so I’m still remembering and reflecting on many parts of our conversation. One thread of our discussion that still has its grip on me has to do with the nature of blame and forgiveness. I’ve spent a good bit of my life contemplating forgiveness (what it means, how to cultivate it, how to make it sincere) and yet it never once occurred to me that blame is a necessary antecedent to forgiveness. No blame, no forgiveness.

That little nugget rocked my world for a minute. (Or several thousand.) As Pannavati put it — and I’m paraphrasing liberally here because she was way more eloquent than me but my mind was too blown to capture it all — in any given situation involving two or more people, we each come to the intersection of our encounter with our “stuff” (where stuff equals our fears, anxieties, anger, desires, aversions, etc.) And we may think our stuff is really the other person’s stuff, but it’s not. It’s ours. We can do with our stuff what we will, but we only control our stuff, not the stuff of others. We may think the other person’s stuff is the root of our problem, and that of course causes us to blame the other person and their stuff, but the root of our problem is our stuff. If you own your stuff, meaning if you acknowledge it and deal with it, there’s no need to cast blame. And if you’re not blaming, who’s to forgive?

During a subsequent meditation on this theme, I thought of it this way. Does the flower forgive the clouds for stealing its sunshine?  Of course not! Therefore, can I approach the next situation where I might be tempted to assign blame and instead conclude that just as I am a flower striving to bloom, the clouds of unfortunate circumstance are merely trying to move along their path?

Yeah, it’s deep. I’ll let you know how I fare.

The part that made me heart-full: By the way, heart-full is my own made-up word because there was no other way to describe how overwhelmingly grateful I was. I am.

I live in a small town in a rural part of a flyover state. (Not so different from the small town in the rural part of the previous flyover state I lived in.) How I came to this moment, in this place, with this Sangha, to this intersection of earnest souls and wisdom and love and openness, Lord only knows.

It’s a gift like no other.

With gratitude {for what is},

Joan, who will never be venerable so she’s shooting for practiced

 

 

 

An Easter story.

Dear Friends,

It’s Easter morning and I am up early, drinking coffee and contemplating the day ahead of me. At my age, Easter isn’t what it used to be when I dressed my children in pastels and we hunted for eggs and ate chocolate until our tongues turned a creamy shade of brown. I’m a mother who no longer marks her life in the change of the seasons but in the change of family gatherings and rituals. Now that both Kate and Parker have flown the nest, they can’t always make it home for every holiday, major or minor, so I’m recalibrating what it means to celebrate Easter without my chicks ’round the table. Instead of dying eggs or preparing an elaborate family meal, I spent Easter Eve cooking for a new family that moved nearby. They’re vegans and, having transitioned to a vegetarian diet several months ago, I know how difficult it can be for a family on-the-go to find healthy, meatless meal options in our community. Cooking for others is a small act of neighborliness that perked up what has otherwise been a melancholy weekend.

For me, for now, Easter represents the last holiday I spent with my mother before she died. I still miss her so much it sometimes takes my breath away, and this time of year my mind often turns to our last Easter together. In April 2010, Mom was frail and I knew it, but as I contemplated the spring and summer ahead of me, I had no idea she’d succumb to her final illness on Independence Day and die before Labor Day. I remember in vivid detail the meal I prepared (of course I do!) and her utter delight in my menu and my table. She talked about how talented she thought I was and she said my lemon meringue pie was so good it was “outrageous.”

Mom had asked me earlier in that week if I would consider inviting my sister to my Easter meal. Without much consideration, I quickly declined. Mom came to my house anyway — she wanted so badly to spend Easter with Kate and Parker even if I couldn’t find it in my heart to include my sister, P. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I was so thoughtless. It’s a regret I’ll carry with me forever.

The one thing that cheers me from being too plaintive on what is arguably the most optimistic of all holidays is that I recently had lunch with P. I traveled to Oklahoma to celebrate Kate’s birthday last month and, while there, visited my sister. When Momastery published this post that I wrote about my relationship with my sister, a few commenters asked what became of Kate’s planned visit to P’s house. (P cancelled, saying she wasn’t feeling well.) Another asked about the nature of my relationship with P now. (It’s still complicated but improving.)

I had texted P a few days before my trip to ask if she would join Kate and me for lunch. She gladly accepted but then called a few hours before to beg off, saying she felt bad because she didn’t have a birthday gift for Kate and she didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. I encouraged her to come anyway. I told  her Kate didn’t care about gifts and neither of us cared how she looks. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I possessed benevolence on that day and so few others.

P decided to join us and surprised both Kate and me. She looked well, relatively speaking. (I had braced for the worst after hearing her say she looked terrible.) She was upbeat and funny and generous. Often, her conversation can be hard to follow but, on that day, she was mostly cogent. She was kind and I responded in turn. I can only think Mom had something to do with that. And I can only wish Mom had been present, but then in so many ways she was, moving our hearts even if she couldn’t sit at our table.

P gave Kate a small grocery bag filled with trinkets from her home, a sweet if makeshift birthday gift from a woman who has little to share these days. Because we were going to see my father later, she pulled an old photo from her purse to show us. The photo was of my father and me on a hotel patio. I didn’t recognize the occasion but my father later explained we were on a trip to New Orleans, his favorite destination. I also didn’t much recognize the long-haired young girl dressed in purple. Sometimes when I see old photos, or hear my family tell stories about us, it’s as if I am a victim of amnesia and while I can clearly see I’m the girl in the photo, I don’t know her.  So much of my childhood is lost to memory — a result, I think, of trying to forget the people and their addictions that threatened to swallow me.

When I think of the Easter story, though, I can’t help but contemplate the notion of redemption as it’s played out in my life. I can’t help but think of the resilience of families, even as circumstances threaten to shred any semblance of kinship. I think about how fragile the ties are that bind, and yet still bind. I think about two “half” sisters with different fathers whose mother desperately sought to knit them together and who must have died thinking she had failed at the task dearest to her heart. I think about deliverance, not from evil, but from dissolution, from each other and from God, which is surely as injurious to the soul.

I think about P. And me. And our next lunch.

With gratitude {for sisters and second chances},

Joan, who wishes you Easter blessings in abundance

photo

Easing into the year.

Dear friends,

hand2

I’ve been away from this space for a while.

It’s been nice in some ways, the extra time, a bit of cocooning, figuring out new ways and adjusting to evenings at home alone now that Mr. Mom has gone back to work.

(By the way, despite my invitation to my readers to rename Mr. Mom, I just can’t do it. He may be working outside the home now, but the care and attention he gives our family will always be worthy of the “Mr. Mom” pseudonym.)

I normally launch myself into the new year with a long to-do list and at least a couple of well-considered resolutions. This year — I pretty much skipped it. Or maybe I should say I was a little kinder, allowing myself some time and space to ease into 2015 without rigid expectations.

Part of it was by necessity. I came down with a dreadful upper respiratory bug right after Christmas and spent five feverish days in bed. Then just as I was getting into the swing of January, I threw out my back and was sidelined for another week.

Perhaps there’s nothing as leveling as health issues, even minor ones. I think the universe wanted to remind me that it’s okay to slow down, even when our culture screams “New year, new accomplishments!”

But here’s the thing I really wanted to tell you: I have been meditating regularly. I started back in November after attending a “Mindful Leadership” conference. Then I joined a local Sangha. Now I am taking an 8-week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.

I want to say so much about my meditative experience but that will take time and more than one post. For now, just this: A couple of weeks ago I felt I was having trouble adjusting to evenings on my own. I even chided myself for too much time in front of the television and the laptop. “Good Lord,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to do something more productive with my evenings!”

Then last night, I came home from work and in less than three hours I made a homemade dinner, cleaned the kitchen, completed two homework assignments for my class, read the mail, and sat for a 30-minute meditation. As I readied myself for bed I caught myself thinking “Good Lord, that was a fast evening! I’ve got to slow down and enjoy myself.”

Which is precisely why focusing on mindfulness is a very good thing! Our busy, busy minds play all kinds of tricks on us. One minute Mind is scolding us for being lazy; the next minute Mind is screaming slow down.

The irony of a busy, busy Mind — that quite literally can’t make up its mind — reminded me of a beautiful verse written by Martha Postlewaite:

Do not save the world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead create a clearing in

the dense forest of your life

and wait there patiently

until the song

that is your life

falls into your cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worth of rescue.

With gratitude {for anything resembling a clearing, no matter how modest},

Joan, who invites you to tell her what tricks your Mind has been up to lately

Oh so merry.

Dear Friends,

IMG_2902

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit rigid when it comes to holiday routines. An improviser I’m not. I fastidiously plan all our family celebrations, from birthdays and anniversaries, to major holidays like Christmas, to even lesser holidays like Valentine’s Day. If there’s a celebration on the calendar, you can count on the fact I will have an associated timeline, to-do list, menu, and shopping list (organized by sub-categories for “groceries,” “gifts” and “supplies”) that I carefully create and monitor. I would argue my planning is a hallmark of the diligent, but truth be told, it’s probably just a hedge against spontaneity, which has never been my strong suit.

For some reason, though, this year I threw caution to the wind when I decided to ditch my typical Christmas plan by decorating before December 1. And, gasp, I even decorated before Thanksgiving. Normally I’m a real Grinch when it comes to pre-emptive Christmas displays. And, if you read this post, you’ll recall I have a veritable ritual related to my children’s involvement in tree trimming. But Sunday, November 23, was a cold and rainy day in my corner of the world and – with nothing better to do – I decided to deck my halls a full four days before Turkey Day. Mr. Mom was busy and my kids were at college and it just seemed like the thing to do for a sentimental old woman with time on her hands.

Of course when my children arrived home for Thanksgiving they were shocked to see the tree (in an unusual spot, no less), and the garland, and the bells, and my grandmother’s vintage Santa mug collection, and enough twinkly lights to fill a Target. “Wow, what got into you?” Parker said. “Oh . . .” whimpered Kate, “I was looking forward to helping.” I was stung by an immediate and familiar pang of maternal guilt, which was intensified when I arranged our Thanksgiving table a few days later and contemplated the clash of competing holiday décor on display in our dining room. I clearly had jumped the gun.

Despite my second-guessing, I felt a lightness about my decision and wondered what it would be like to have the Christmas season commence without the most time-consuming holiday chore hanging over my head.

A few days later, I was talking to a new friend, an older lady I recently met, about my early decorating spree. Dixie mentioned she just didn’t have the energy for such things. She said ever since her husband died a few years ago, she found Christmas decorating difficult. She recollected – sadly I thought – that she especially missed setting up her extensive Dickens village that used to bring her so much joy. “It’s just so much work,” she said, “and I can’t do it anymore.”

In any other year, I would have rushed to commiserate with Dixie. “Oh, I know EXACTLY how you feel,” I would have said. “I always feel so overwhelmed this time of year. There’s too much to do and sometimes I just want to skip it all!” But instead of this reflexive reaction that I’ve shared so many times with the similarly harried, a mindless statement borne of a working mother’s guilt and anxiety, I paused to listen to her words and, though I said nothing, Dixie’s sense of longing stuck with me.

I emailed her a few days later and offered to go to her home and do her decorating for her. She was gracious enough to take me up on my offer and that’s how I found myself in the midst of the most joyful and rewarding Christmas decorating spree ever.

Dixie indeed has a beautiful Dickens village, with every building and village amenity imaginable, including tiny carolers and dogs and electric street lamps and park benches and more, each carefully tied in bubble wrap and stored in their original boxes. When I was a young mother, I dreamed of collecting a Dickens village, but I couldn’t afford it. Unpacking and arranging Dixie’s village was like a Christmas dream come true. I felt like an 8-year-old girl who had just unwrapped Santa’s best dollhouse ever and – best of all – Dixie gave me full creative license to display the village however I wished.

While I “played house,” Dixie brought me tea and cookies and turned up the holiday music and told me about her life over the last 30 years in our community. After I finished assembling the display (and promised to return in January to put everything away), I couldn’t help but linger over another cup of tea, enjoying the scene before us and soaking up the unexpected joy of helping a friend, no matter how modest the task. It was a magical moment in time, one I will always treasure, made possible because I dared to step out of my comfortable routine and open my heart to the potential of something even more wonderful.

As this Christmas season offers its joys and challenges to you, as you deck your halls and bake your goodies and wrap your gifts and attend parties and otherwise seek holiday cheer in your own ways, I wish for you a moment of whimsy . . . a sparkling instant in which old expectations melt away and new memories – perhaps tiny but oh so merry – fill your heart with the love and joy of the season.

With gratitude {for holiday gifts of all kinds},

Joan, who loved her some Barbie back in the day

 

Half-assed Buddhist.

Dear Friends,

buddha-lotus-flower-symbol

Today I read this essay by author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage about the Duggar Family and enjoyed it so much I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Fair warning: if you are queasy about matters of sex and religion, don’t read it. Dan is an openly gay man and the Duggars are a conservative Christian family with a reality television show  on TLC (“19 Kids and Counting”), and these two polar opposites mash up in Dan’s essay about like you might imagine. The essay is simultaneously funny and crude and thought-provoking and reminded me that this wild soup we call American culture is indeed fascinating.

As much as I was tickled by the humor in Dan’s essay, I couldn’t help but be bothered by his assertion that families like the Duggars (and, by extension, their beliefs) are “actually pretty scary.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m almost as far removed from the Duggars’ point of view as is Dan, but I’m not frightened by their particular strain of patriarchal theocracy (Dan’s words). I’d just as soon bite off my tongue as advise my daughter (or son) according to Duggar philosophy, but the fact they believe what they believe and live how they live doesn’t frighten me. To each his own, I always say. And, yeah, I get Dan’s point that the family is proselytizing their beliefs, but so is he. Heck, what is this blog but propaganda for my world view?

I could write an entire post about how the temptation to be scared by people unlike ourselves is the root of our world’s problems, but that’s not my point today. My point today is that Dan’s essay reminded me of a season in my life when I spent considerable time examining the issues at play in Dan’s dispute with the Duggars. Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the topic which was published in a now-defunct online forum for female writers, and so I was inspired to pull it out of my archives and share it with you today.

Consider this another fair warning: I write about sex and religion with considerable candor and if that’s not your bag, skip this one. I promise I won’t be the least bit frightened.

With gratitude {for my friends from varied faith traditions — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai, — including those with no prescribed faith, all of whom accept me just as I am, which is exactly what I think Jesus would do},

Joan, who’s been half-assed at far more than Buddhism but hopes you aren’t keeping track

***

Half-assed Buddhist

I first tried my hand at proselytizing the summer after sixth grade.  I had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School sponsored by our town’s First Baptist Church.  Full of the kind of evangelical zeal one experiences after singing 10 rounds of “This little light of mine” and chugging five Dixie cups of Cool-Aid, I announced to my two best friends that they were going to hell.

“Really? Why?” one friend, a Catholic, said to me as the three of us climbed the high-dive ladder at our city’s swimming pool.

“Because you aren’t Baptist,” I replied matter-of-factly.

The thing is – neither was I.  Oh, sure, I had been baptized months earlier but it was at the First United Methodist Church, which I attended regularly under the watchful and approving gaze of my paternal grandmother.  I don’t recall why I was two-timing with the Baptists that summer, but it wouldn’t be the last time in my life I summarily traded teams.

My other friend, a non-denominational, looked really hurt and simply said “That’s not nice.”

“Well, it’s true,” I retorted, and sometime between leaping off the edge of the diving board and surfacing in the middle of the deep end, I forgot the topic entirely – including the fact that I was going to hell, too, by my own definition.

By the time I was 17, I spent considerable time contemplating damnation.  Still a regular church-goer, I had heard enough sermons to realize I was a sinner.  And the worst part was, I enjoyed every minute of it.  My senior year of high school, I discovered sex . . . glorious, immoderate, sweaty, teenage sex.  Usually in a car, but sometimes in the park or even a bed if my boyfriend and I could score an unoccupied house, sex became my favorite diversion.  Such wanton behavior made church attendance a tad uncomfortable, especially given the mere hours that typically separated fornication from communion. Plus, I was still more than a little confused by the seemingly intractable divisions between Christian denominations – divisions that just a few years earlier had led me to declare my best friends hell-bound.

It just didn’t make sense to me that one group of Christians could be so certain that their path to salvation was absolute while their brethren down the street were damned.  If the jury wasn’t in on this thing, why should I waste my time? So, one Sunday morning, I announced to my mother that my church-going days were over.  “Why?” she asked, stunned.  “Because I don’t enjoy it.  And you don’t go.  So I don’t really think it’s fair for you to tell me I have to.”  She said nothing and I went back to bed where I stayed every Sunday morning for approximately the next five years.

My sophomore year of college I briefly contemplated returning to the fold.  I had my eye on a really cute guy in English Lit and I started finagling ways to talk to him before and after class.  It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place. When I arrived, he offered me a Coke and we sat down at a cramped table that served as both his eating and study space.  He shoved his textbooks aside, pulled out a black flip chart, and announced he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told me he liked me a lot, that he thought I was really smart and pretty, and that he wanted to share his faith with me.  I was thrilled.  “He thinks I’m pretty and smart!” I mentally gushed as he opened his guide to the Mormon faith and launched into the most earnest testimony I had ever witnessed.

Somehow – despite the fact that I was imagining him making out with me with the same conviction he was delivering his salvation appeal –his lavishly illustrated flip chart slowly caught my attention.  I wondered how I could have grown up in the Bible Belt and yet never have heard the extraordinary story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets.  I was mesmerized, and more than a little moved by Joseph’s words:  “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was . . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, “I know just how he felt!”  I talked about my lifelong distress over conflicting absolutes.  “How do I know what’s true?” I asked, as sincerely as one could while discussing religious beliefs with a hot new crush.  His eyes gleamed as he continued his story and I was momentarily lost in my imagined future with this guy.  I just might find the remedy to my existential angst and the man of my dreams at the same time!  So eager was I to convert (and cavort!) that I interrupted him before the punch line.   “So where are the golden tablets?” I asked.  “Can I go see them?”  Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were just the kind of confirmation I’d been waiting on and I was ready to sign on the dotted line if I could just glimpse these magnificent and holy relics.

Then my Mormon friend dropped the bomb: the golden tablets had been spirited away by a heavenly messenger.  Faith was required of me to believe Joseph’s testimony and to receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Damn.  I’d been down this road before.  Crushed, I said thanks but no thanks, and Elder Sexy and I parted ways forever.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college and moved as far away from home as a small-town girl could imagine – Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I roomed with two pot-smoking boys my age and explored a fascinating world where old money, new immigrants, and liberal politics were the ingredients for an alluring blend of cultural goulash.  One Saturday night while hanging around Harvard Square, two polite and clean-cut men struck up a conversation with my girlfriend.  I was ready to catch the train home, but my friend was really getting into these guys.  By the time we finally boarded the Red Line back to Boston, she told me she had their phone numbers and had agreed to meet them the next morning.  “For coffee?” I asked.  “No.  For church,” she said.

I would soon learn this was no regular church.  A year later, my family would call it a cult.  Ten years later with a little more perspective and a lot less bitterness, I called it an extremely effective marketing machine.  The Boston Church of Christ (BCC) was the precursor of what is known today as a mega-church.  Insidious, ingenious, infatuating – BCC was a Venus flytrap of spiritual misfits and its church leaders saw me coming.

The Church of Christ claims to be just that – Christ’s original church, free from denominational strife and dogma. This was no “mainline” Church of Christ like the one in my hometown, I was told. This was the Boston Church of Christ – the one true church and a spiritual beacon to the world’s lost souls.

Looking back, I know I was drawn to BCC by its followers. Young and old, American and immigrant, highly educated and blue collar, the 2,000-strong membership reflected Boston’s diverse demographic mix that I so loved.  I worshiped alongside Harvard Ph.D.s and Somerville laborers, all equally fervent in their conviction that BCC offered a panacea for all spiritual ailments.  As much as I had abhorred pat answers in the past, I literally jumped in with both feet, agreeing to a second baptism when church elders suggested my first, administered by Methodists so many years ago, wasn’t valid.  It seemed God wanted me to punch my membership card one more time.  Always a good sport if not a devout parishioner, I said what the hell and gave it a go.  Maybe this one will stick, I thought.  Most religious experience is nothing if not contradictory, so I ignored a personal paradox to satisfy my spiritual wanderlust.

What distinguished BCC from all other churches I had previously experienced, indeed what drew me in, was the devotion of its followers.  Unlike the Methodists I had known back home, these guys were serious.  I once attended a revival service where the faithful contributed more than one million dollars.  It still astonishes me today that some 2000 followers put cash, checks, and deeds totaling seven figures in passed collection plates.  I don’t recall how much I gave that evening but I know it wasn’t sacrificial in the way church elders had been encouraging all week; nor in the way that my friend did when she sold her condo and gave a check to BCC for more than $100,000. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” became a ubiquitous bracelet, the leadership of BCC exploited their version of the concept by encouraging asceticism for the sake of church coffers.  By the time I left the church and moved home, I realized I had mistaken fervor for truth.

In later years, I would approach truth as a human construct that is ever-shifting. I would qualify truth by asking “Whose?”  I quit worrying about the afterlife in favor of the here and now.  Not surprisingly, my focus on “the moment” led me to Buddhism.

A basic Buddhist premise teaches that dualistic thinking – the categorization of the world in black and white terms — is the source of all human suffering.  We self-torment with categories that are sharply drawn and that leave little room for the ineffable. Buddhists see that good and evil are shades of the same color.  We can draw an arbitrary line in the sand if we wish, but perhaps it would serve us well to look inward, to understand why we’re drawing that particular line, grasping for one kind of outcome and afraid of another.

I recently tried to explain this notion to a longtime friend who is as devout and earnest a Christian as I have ever known. I probably seem like a libertine to her  (or worse, a relativist) and she couldn’t understand why – raised a Christian – I couldn’t now continue to play along.  I struggled to provide an answer in her terms, and I finally offered, “I guess I needed a God who’s more expansive than the Christian God I was taught about in my youth.  I needed some new tools and different perspectives to confront and examine the notion of my soul.  And I find that the Buddhist teachings are helping me . . . helping me see myself and all religious thought in a new, more accepting light.”

My friend paused for a moment while she considered my answer, then finally she looked me in the eyes and said with a surprising dose of consternation, “Yeah, but you’re a half-assed Buddhist!  I bet you don’t even go to temple.”

I laughed heartily and hugged her and told her she had no idea how perfect her label is.  My god, what is a Buddhist but one who embraces the haphazard, the unsatisfactory? Her proclamation would be a badge of honor from that moment on, I told her, because it beats the hell out of the skeptical and cynical Christian of my youth.

Yes, my journey inward is sublimely half-assed; but for all its insufficiency and incompetency, it is still magnificently, reverently a journey into me, into the shadows of my heart where I am connected to and commune with both humanity and divinity, in all their definitions. For whatever reason, I never could seem to follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God inside me, but I can’t help but think it’s a good place to end up now and I’m grateful for the tour guide that got me there.

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