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Father Dan Once Again

Saturday morning my friend and pastor Dan Begin died at the home of his sister Donna. This is very hard for everyone who knew him, but he chose—and I emphasize chose—to ease the way for us all by his attitude of acceptance.

Father Dan was a glass-half-full sort of person. His sister Laura always said that Danny got up every morning looking to see how the Creator of the Universe had rearranged things for his entertainment. She also jokingly complained that he used up her family inheritance of serotonin. He was not, by any stretch, a depressive. So it makes sense, doesn’t it, that the day before he died he said, “I hope everyone is learning about dying from me. Don’t be afraid! It’s beautiful!”

And one of the last times I saw him, he asked me to pass on this wisdom: “We complicate life, but it’s really very simple.  It’s all about getting our basic needs met and seeing that others’ basic needs are met. Beyond that, all everyone really wants are family, a meal, playing some games, having fun. We complicate everything, we make wars, and we create drama. But it’s really all about finding joy in each other.”

Before you dismiss these attitudes as simplistic and Pollyanna-like, you need to understand how Father Dan spent his time, amidst more darkness and pain than most of us ever encounter. He sat by countless bedsides of people dying and performed hundreds of funerals—averaging three or four a week in recent years. In his large family, he witnessed debilitating illnesses and terrible accidents. Seven years ago, the diocese of Cleveland ripped away his church, his community, and his home of thirty years. He counseled victims of incest, rape, and other abuse.  He had a special ministry to people with addiction. He endured his own profound losses of parents, siblings, and friends. He himself suffered various ailments, even before the cancer that took his life. He knew and loved way too many people who died of gunshot wounds, suicide, and overdoses. He saw and confronted injustice everywhere.

No wonder that sometimes the good cheer gave way to dark humor and startling bluntness. I’ve heard more than one homily in which he said, “You know those people Jesus healed? They’re all dead now.” He meant that Jesus didn’t come to take away our problems. In fact, if you choose faith, you often choose a harder way. A few months ago, I heard him preach, “Our stories never end happily. It’s always a sad ending.” Of course, he had profound faith in an ultimate happy ending, but he was talking about the end of our lives on earth. “Life always has a tragic ending,” he said, and I thought then he was preparing us for what came on Saturday.

The astonishing thing about Father Dan is not his sunny optimism. It’s that it was so hard won. It’s true he was blessed with a sanguine temperament, but in order to deal with exhausting pain in his life and ministry he dived deep and prayed. He spent hours alone in nature, alone with Scripture, alone with music. He deliberately worked his way through grief and sadness. When I asked him once why he was so happy, he said, “It’s a decision. It’s conscious, and it’s a habit.” He didn’t avoid the dark tunnel. He chose it. He entered it willingly and suffered his way to the bright light at the end.

The Wiz

I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. This one was mostly written a few years back, when this adventure occurred.

    I just decide to give up control. That’s all you can do.

emerald cityFather Dan has purchased and distributed twenty tickets to see a production of The Wiz at Cleveland’s Near West Theatre. This is a small amateur program featuring regular kids from the city in high-quality productions. It’s my first visit to the theater, but Father Dan has taken people to Finian’s Rainbow and other shows in the past. Driving home afterwards, my friend Leanne and I count up all the ways Father Dan has done good in this one evening.

He’s supporting a small, independent arts organization which helps kids and their neighborhood and the city of Cleveland.

He’s encouraging the two young people we all know who are performing in the production.

He’s providing twenty parishioners and friends, a lovely multicultural group, a fun night out at his own expense.

He’s furnished a catered dinner (macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fish, salad, peach cobbler) in the church rectory for everyone before the show, and in so doing patronizes another independent business.

He estimates that the evening costs him about $300. The show’s tickets are only $8.00, a bargain for what turns out to be a great production. Father Dan doesn’t earn much, but he saves for just such evenings as this, which he organizes periodically, and always has more fun than anyone else.

Not that the evening is without its stresses. While we’re eating in the rectory before the show, he fields at least five phone calls from people who are meeting us at the theater (hence not eating the abundant food he has purchased). They all require directions to the theater. It’s on Cleveland’s West Side, terra incognita to many of us East Siders. He cheerfully repeats the address and directions over and over, while he’s eating, to caller after caller, sometimes repeating them patiently many times to the same person.

He hopes to leave early so that he can pick up the tickets and meet everyone at the theater who’s coming, but first the food has to be put away. He calmly begins covering the containers himself before others catch on and begin to help. One of the people who’s riding in our car dawdles. Although anxious to get going, Father Dan–I’m watching him carefully–shows no impatience.

At the theater box office, he chats cheerfully with the staff while collecting his twenty tickets. He passes them out to us who rode in the first car with him and asks that we save places in the theater for those coming up behind. We find seats in the filling auditorium and save a couple around us, and then I move up higher to save some more seats. Our folks begin to arrive, but they don’t stay in the seats I’ve saved. They move to others in order to sit by friends. I’m feeling responsible and anxious. I can’t move, because what if our attendees arrive and there are no seats for them to sit together? I save some more seats, but our attendees continue to scatter hither and yon.

Just as the play is about to start, I move to my own seat, and Father Dan slides into his seat on the aisle. Frustrated with everyone–with their lateness and their darned independence about choosing their seats–I ask him if he ever gets annoyed about all the arranging.

“Yeah, I hate that part of it,” he says matter-of factly. “I just decide to give up control. That’s all you can do.” Then he laughs.

Right away, when the music begins, he turns and focuses completely on the stage. Every now and then throughout the evening, I glance to my left and see Father Dan grinning–not just for a moment or two, but almost continuously. Then, when the music turns serious, and a character is saying something wise, his face gets serious, too, and he actually nods. Unconsciously, automatically, he nods, completely immersed in the show, the music, and the moment.

Yours Truly, Father Dan

IMG_1568So one morning a few years ago I’m meeting Father Dan for breakfast at Yours Truly at Shaker Square and have in mind a paradox for him to consider. In his homilies, Father Dan frequently hammers home that we need to work primarily on ourselves and get out of our heads that we can or should change anyone else. On the other hand, it seems that Father Dan is always helping other people to change their lives. How does he do it? Is it something we should be trying to do? What if our friends and family want to change? How can we help and support them?

He begins to answer my question by sharing some basic Greek philosophy: “Socrates said it’s questionable whether anybody could teach anybody else anything.” And so, Father Dan never approaches people with the intention of changing them.

With everyone he meets, he says, “I have to choose what is.”

He goes on, “If I can model things that I think that are of value or are useful, then they have the opportunity of choosing. The choice is more on their side than on mine. I’m not choosing to change them. I’m choosing them as they are, but I may be modeling something that they find of value.”

Like what? I ask. What would you model? “Our best gift,” he says, “is our brokenness. You have to take your brokenness and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I shine with my brokenness. I realize that when pain, from anywhere, has been dumped on me, I have to deal with it. It has to be used for some purpose.”

Reacting with compassion and acceptance makes you part of the solution instead of the problem, he says, even if you’re a tiny part.  “I really do believe,” he says, “that what we do and say is not all that significant. We’re only just one act of a twenty-five-act show. But the next twenty acts depend in part on us. So I make a difference in my children, and they make a difference in their children, and so on. So we can end up being a part of a solution.”

***************

I learn a lot listening to Father Dan, but I learn even more by watching him. Like so many others, I’ve been changed just by being around him, even though changing me is not on his agenda.

That day at Yours Truly, we had a brand-new waiter, a rail-thin, nervous young man with glasses, who, by chance, had been a schoolmate of my daughter. It was clearly David’s first day as a waiter. He did an effective job, but he was overly attentive, stopping by every few minutes to ask nervously if we needed anything.

I struck up a conversation with David, mentioning my daughter. We chatted briefly, and during our meal, both Father Dan and I tried to make him feel at ease. Then, when we were ready to go, we left him a sizable tip and both picked up a comment card to write something complimentary about David and the service – a thoughtful gesture for a green employee.

Up to now, Father Dan and I were behaving very similarly. I had made an effort to reassure David and left a nice tip. I was planning to write a nice comment. But this is where Fr. Dan and I parted company, and I learned my lesson-by-example for the day.

Fr. Dan lingered over the card. He sat quietly and thought carefully before writing. Instead of just checking off the boxes and writing a quick “good job” in the blanks, as I did, Fr. Dan started writing. I said goodbye and went off to the restroom. I can still picture him sitting, seriously musing over that comment card.

When I got out of the restroom, he was gone, and I paused by our table to sneak a look at what Father Dan had written about our waiter. It said something like this: “David is a conscientious and thoughtful young man. He took very good care of us and made sure that we would enjoy our meal. If today is any indication, he will prove to be an excellent waiter.”

Father Dan’s words and actions are consistent, and, as a rule, his actions provide even clearer advice than his words. How to make a difference in someone’s life? How to be part of the solution? That extra attention and those extra minutes. Those extra words, so carefully chosen.

Change

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

St. Cecilia, Cleveland

I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. A few years ago, when my church, St. Cecilia in Cleveland, was threatened with closing, a friend and I met with Father Dan and asked him to talk to us about handling life’s changes. The conversation went like this.

 

Our parish is facing change.

The “clustering” process, by which some Cleveland parishes will join together and some will close, is underway in our diocese. Hence, it seems appropriate to ask Father Dan about life’s constant: change. Sometimes welcome, sometimes cataclysmic, change is a part of all of our lives. It creates trauma, it scares us, and it’s often hard to deal with. How does Father Dan handle life’s changes? What advice does he have for the rest of us?

“In theory, I can say it’s very easy,” Father Dan responds with a laugh. He reminds us that change is really going on all the time. We just don’t realize it. “Every minute is a death and a life,” he says. “Every minute, every second, something dies, something remains the same, and something’s new.”

This is the way life goes from the moment of conception to our death. But most of the time, we don’t notice.

“I don’t know why that is,” Father Dan admits. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re just so focused on what we’re doing. So, for example, when I was going through school, all I was worried about was getting out of it. Some changes were very dramatic, and I missed them. All these changes were taking place – in my family, in my body – but all I knew was I just wanted to get out of school!”

Such changes go on all the time, under our radar. Then, every so often, we notice. Someone dies, or we lose a job, and we have to make big adjustments.  “When you put it into perspective,” Father Dan points out, “change gives us an opportunity to treasure certain times. When someone dies, for example, their story becomes permanent, like an artwork that’s going to speak forever. The grieving process is a wonderful coming to grips with what is.”

So, in theory, change is both inevitable and positive. That’s in theory.

“In reality, it sucks,” he says with a smile. “It takes so much emotional energy to sort out what’s fact from fiction, to sort out what you think you had before the change and what you really didn’t have.”

We can, he notes, prepare for change by simplifying our lives. Some of our fear of change comes from feeling that we have so much to lose. He explains, “When you don’t have a lot of things, you can move, you can go. When I was in the seminary all the things I owned fit in my pocket. And I still had room, so I could go wherever I wanted. For a long time I used to pretend I was moving every year, so I’d never have all that junk but …the stuff just keeps coming. People keep giving me things, nice things. And they don’t like it when I give them away.” He laughs his wicked laugh.

What we can count on is that change will come. Though change is inevitable, Father Dan points out that sometimes it’s natural, and sometimes it’s forced on us. He says, “Often in our society we push things. We push how soon we know we’re dying.”

In a way, the clustering process is rushing what might be a natural evolution. “What bothers people about the clustering thing,” he muses, “is that they would like things to die naturally.”

He’s seen the consequences of forcing change with those he counsels. Often people in recovery, working the 12 Steps, come to Father Dan for help. The 5th Step, for example, asks that we “admit to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” He explains, “When I do 5th Steps with people, I find that many of them were snatched out of situations that were horrible. And instead of making them better, it made them worse. For example, people were taken out of situations where they were being sexually abused, but it wasn’t their choice, and so they felt even more powerless.” It doesn’t mean they should have remained in dangerous situations, he hastens to add. There just has to be a more empowering way of rescuing.

When the diocese, or clergy, or formal committees take over the merging or closing of parishes, the natural process–which might be the actual “death” of a particular parish–is short-circuited. Painful as that natural ending might be, it might be healthier to let it happen, rather than imposing a formal and bureaucratic process.

Other questions about clustering and church closings relate to the ministry of the Catholic Church in the city. Not surprisingly, after thirty years serving the city, Father Dan has interesting things to say.

“My ministry is mostly not to Catholics. The African-American community can do very well without being Catholic. They don’t need us. They have very fine churches. It’s a sacrifice for them to be part of our life. Every funeral I do, 90% of the people aren’t Catholic.”

Our churches, St. Cecilia’s and Epiphany, offer a home to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and a Hunger Center and serve the urban neighborhoods in various ways. But, according to Father Dan, the Catholic Church needs the city more than the city needs it. The Church needs African-Americans, and it needs people who live in the city.  “The Church,” he says plainly, “cannot be healthy without them.”

And the threat of this particular change strikes home for Father Dan as a priest and as a person. He’s spent almost thirty years in the city. He has sown seeds and seen some of the harvest. He notes, “My problem is I feel the call to the city more than I feel the call to the Church.”

Now, he explains, it’s a little harder to work “sunup to sundown” on the sowing when you don’t know if you’ll be in the city to see the harvest. “People are calling me,” he says. “Everyone’s asking me, ‘What’s going to happen if the church closes? What will you do? Where are you going?’ I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.”

He goes on. “I have to deal with a society that’s demanding answers about what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day. I have to be able to say, ‘I don’t know.’” For inspiration, he quotes the lines often attributed to Mother Teresa: “If they knock it down, build it anyway.”

He says. “If it’s worth building, it’s worth building as well as you can, right now. You didn’t build it for them. What happens to it after is out of your control.”

 

 

 

 

 

Resolutions, 2017!

(someone else’s car)

In 2003, I wrote a New Years column wherein I resolved, among other things, to remember where I parked at the mall, to carry empty coffee cups into the house from the car, and to close the kitchen drawer in front of me when cooking. I have never succeeded in keeping even these minimal resolutions.

In 2010, I changed tack. I wrote, “Now I’m wiser than in 2003, being seven years older. ‘Nothing creates more unhappiness than failed expectations,’ says Deepak Chopra. And so I’m resolving not to expect to do any better this year. That way, if I fail yet again by spilling sugar in my kitchen drawer, accumulating six coffee cups in my car, and wandering lonely like a cloud in the Target parking lot, I won’t create more unhappiness for myself, because I had no expectations. If I succeed in not expecting to do any better, I’ve won!”

In 2017, I resolve to continue the clearest and surest path of success: reducing expectations. In addition, I’m going to try more positivity, basing my resolutions on what I’ll do, rather than what I won’t do.That’s healthy, right? Here’s my list so far: I’m going to pet my dog a lot and talk about her ad nauseam, read, consume sugar, drink coffee, watch TV, and stay up too late. Also leave my clothes lying around and neglect the dishes.

I also resolve to spend time every day looking for my reading glasses.

In order to achieve anything, you have to set realistic goals.

What I Learned Today

Possum. See below.

Possum. See below.

I was looking up Latin words for Christmas songs to share with my class tomorrow, our last regular meeting before the holiday break. For “In Dulci Jubilo,” (commonly sung in English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”), I kept finding Latin lyrics with interlinear German ones, or sometimes English ones. What the heck? Then I discovered that’s how the song goes. It has a Latin verse or two, followed, in its original version, by a couple of German ones.

On a few of the websites, the term “macaronic” appeared, a term with which I was not familiar. I searched it out, mostly because I wanted to know how it related to macaroni. Of course.

I will explain the derivation below, but first the definitions. A macaronic song is one written in a couple of languages. The term can also apply to attaching Latin endings to English words to make what’s called “dog Latin.” If you studied Latin in high school, you might remember this piece of doggerel.

Boyabus kissibus pretty girlorum.

Girlabus likabus, wanta somorum.

Popabus findabus, plenty madorum.

Kickabus boyabus outa backdorum.

Boyabus kissibus girla nomorum.

I always share the following high-school memory with my classes. At some point during the year, a wag would write this poem on the blackboard before our Latin teacher Miss Cope came in the room. I recall her sourly erasing the board and beginning class as usual. By the time I had Miss Cope, she’d already been teaching for thirty years and found her students’ sophomoric (literally) senses of humor beneath contempt.

Now, almost fifty years later, I’ve learned this doggerel is actually macaronic doggerel.

Continuing my search today, I ran across a famous macaronic poem called “The Motor Bus,” written by A. D. Godley in 1914. It concerns the new motorized omnibuses in Oxford, where Godley was studying, and attaches Latin endings to the words “motor bus” in a second and third declension pattern. It begins, “What is this that roareth thus? Can it be the Motor Bus?” I’ll let you look it up if you’re interested in reading the whole thing.  Then there’s “Carmen Possum,” playing on the homonyms “possum,” as in the New World marsupial mammal, and “possum,” a Latin verb meaning “I am able.” We’ll really get lost in the weeds if I start exegeting this one.

Now, for the key question about the derivation of “macaronic.” Macaroni was considered a peasant food, a humble dumpling mixed together from flour, eggs, and butter. Macaronic verse is mixed up, jumbled poetry, humbly suited for high-school sophomores.

 

BPD Questions and Answers

Borderline personality disorder continues to weasel its way into my life—sometimes more or less sought out, sometimes popping up out of nowhere. I had been promoting my book to an online support organization for family members of people with BPD, when the person with whom I was exchanging emails suddenly called me one day. She started talking, fast and furious, before I could tell her I was at Walgreen’s dropping off a prescription. Since she barely took a breath, I ended up listening in a chair by the pharmacy counter, occasionally saying, “uh-huh.”

She was trying to help me deal with my mother by telling me a lot about BPD. Her information, however, didn’t help so much with my mother, who’s been gone for many years, but was very relevant to living friends and relatives who seem to be on the BPD spectrum. She commented that my book was about the only thing out there for children of mothers with BPD. She was thinking how to address this need, wondering how to develop workshops through her organization to help children like me. “What would have helped you?” she asked. “What could someone have done?’

Variations of that question keep arising since my book, Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother, came out, and always make me feel dumbstruck and numb. Those attending my readings ask, Why didn’t you ask for help? Why didn’t you seek counseling? Why didn’t your dad step in and help you? I respond politely, explaining that in 1960’s and ‘70’s Canton, Ohio, people didn’t generally get therapy or take psych meds, or talk openly about their problems. I explain that my family and my home were all I knew, and I would not have been able, then, to articulate what was wrong. I had no idea how to verbalize all this until I actually verbalized it in my book, beginning a few years ago.

leveToday, I’ve been reading Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life, which I picked up seemingly randomly at the library. It tells the horrifying story of a mother with insatiable need and no boundaries. It’s one of those sneaky BPD things that wiggle into my life. Ariel’s mother was worse than mine, but Ariel, like me, adapted and accommodated. She tried to escape but never tried concretely, as a child, to get help. Neither did Augusten Burroughs, who describes his dad’s craziness in A Wolf at the Table, or the novelist Edward St. Aubyn, whose father sexually abused him, chronicled in the Patrick Melrose novels.

Right at this moment, after reading Leve’s book most of the day, I wouldn’t offer my polite answer to a question about getting help. Instead, I might shout, “How do I know?” Why didn’t some adult see Ariel’s anguish and rescue her, and Augusten’s, and Edward’s? Why was it our job as children to know how to get help? How, even now, should I know what could have helped? I was there, and I got through it, and I’ve written a book. The book is the answer to the question. That’s how I dealt with it, and that’s how I got help. I wrote a book.

Latina Vivit?

Titus Livius

Titus Livius

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a column I wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and its online version, cleveland.com, regarding the election. As you might guess, the responses have been very interesting.

I received a weird and bitter email today on my phone, for instance, with the subject heading, “hilda was endorsed be KKK too hack.” [sic] I didn’t know that “Hilda” was a Hillary nickname, but it is. Commenters online used it as well. And I never heard the KKK thing, either. Apparently the Washington Times, a right-wing paper, published a story in which a Grand Dragon or some such official asserted that the KKK had given Hillary money. Not at all clear why the Klan would do this, but nowadays assertions are all you need. Snopes.com has debunked the story. The rest of the email message hardly makes sense, except that I’m a “vile, bigot.” [sic, once again]

My office phone had a long message this morning from an angry man-splainer. At least he wasn’t vicious. Both these people had to do a little research to get my phone number and email address.

They could more easily have joined the commenters online, who largely attack me for teaching Latin. I know, right? Apparently that disqualifies me from having opinions. The commenters inform me that Latin is a dead language. Sometimes they add that “no one speaks it anymore.” Sometimes they add also that it’s an “ancient dead language,” as opposed, I guess, to a contemporary one.

I point out in my own comment that these arguments are ad hominem, meaning toward the person, i.e., me, and unconnected to the content of the column. A few people address real arguments, and some of them, frankly, are hard for me to counter. I think the finances at the Clinton Foundation are kind of skeezy, and I’m not a fan of Bill’s treatment of women. So if more people had focused on those things instead of that ancient dead language, they might have more traction. Because “ad hominem” is, after all, a rhetorical fallacy.

 

On Track?

Last week I taped an interview for the City of Canton (my hometown) TV station. My sister-in-law Penni knows the host, Betty Smith, and Penni did the legwork to arrange my appearance on Betty’s show “On Track with Betty Mac.” I start around 15:15.

It was fun. Betty was prepared and very welcoming. Her questions showed a lot of compassion for not just me, but my mom as well. A social worker, she demonstrated both expertise and wisdom.

Timken High School of old

Timken High School of old

Getting to the studio was a disconcerting adventure. I remember Timken High School as a single, old-fashioned school building on Tuscarawas Avenue, or West Tusc, as we would say in Canton. When I drove down from Cleveland last Friday, I found instead a sprawling campus, with a bunch of spanking new buildings surrounding the original one. Our trips to Canton never take us that direction, so we didn’t know about the renovations.

I just picked a door, any door, and encountered a welcoming security guy who gave me a badge and directed me to the studio. Something like, “Right, another right, then a left, then two more rights, and a left.” I actually have no idea what he said after the first “Right,” but somehow I managed to find the studio.

Students ordinarily run the shows, but last week their class had a speaker, so efficient media teachers managed my appearance. It’s impressive that the kids have their own studio and produce actual shows aired on local cable.

The content will be oh, so familiar to friends and family who’ve heard my stories and/or read the book. Feel free to share, though, with anyone you know who’s struggling with a family member with BPD, or with BPD itself.

A Box Full of Darkness.

The website Psych Central allowed me to contribute another blog post, which they titled “A Box Full of Darkness: Growing Up in the Shadow of Borderline Personality Disorder.” Here it is.