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How to Be Happy, Redux

4000 readers and counting have read Monday’s post about Father Dan. As I posted on Facebook, I can now conclude that people find Father Dan more interesting than borderline personality. Just to provide perspective: I might get around 50 hits on an ordinary blog post, especially when I share the link on Facebook. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

So in honor of Father Dan, laid to rest in a beautiful service yesterday, I’m reposting something from July, 2016. I was moved to share it back then because of Father Dan’s diagnosis with esophageal cancer, and I wanted to reach out to him and start passing around some of the things I’d written. He was having a lot of trouble eating, and this posting about hunger and choices seemed apropos. I think he himself saw it linked on Facebook and “liked.”

The hunger theme applies now as well, because Father Dan’s symptoms returned some weeks before his death. Being unable to eat was an especially harsh ordeal for someone who so loved good food (and the fellowship that goes with it) and good wine. This hard experience  added impetus to his plan at his Bedford parishes to expand their food pantry into a hunger center, offering both groceries and hot meals. He mentioned this objective in lots of his final conversations with people. His family’s obituary listed the St. Mary/Our Lady of Hope Hunger Center as a place to donate in his memory (300 Union, Bedford, OH 44146).

 

How To Be Happy

This is a transcription of a homily delivered on August 3, 2008, in which Dan explored the theme of choice, based on readings from Isaiah and from Matthew’s account of the loaves and fishes. I hope both believing and non-believing readers can find something to appreciate here.

I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.

 

loaves-fishesMost of us have never been really, really, really hungry. Most of us, even if we feel really hungry, have actually eaten very recently. Now here is an interesting thing. In the seminary we had a secret society. We would do subversive things, like read the Dutch catechism. We’d read Jean Paul Sartre.  We’d read terrible underground books. We were going to solve the problems of the world, though, as you can see, we haven’t quite accomplished that. To solve world hunger, we thought we had to feel what the people felt. So we went on a five-day fast.

After about the first hour on the first day, we were already hungry.  By three hours, we were starving, and by seven hours, our hunger was beyond imaginable. By the second day, we just felt blah. Then you develop a headache that you just cannot make go away. On the third day, you still have the headache, and you feel all-over dreadful. By the fourth day, the headache goes away, and you feel kind of high. You hardly think about food, and meal times pass by, and you don’t pay attention. And by the fifth day, it becomes really, really hard to eat, and so when it was time to start eating again, I couldn’t eat a whole piece of toast. It’s hard to get your system to eat again.

Now, this experiment was exciting, because the whole group of us was bound and determined to do this together. We were going to have an experience. Of course, the true reality of hunger is something much different, something we didn’t even get close to.

Around the same time I read an article. I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it, but the author was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He described real, true hunger much better that I ever could. He wrote that the prisoners got only two handfuls of rice every day. After awhile, he said, you lose all motivation. You are totally drained physically, and it’s probably worse to eat a little bit than nothing at all. Eating that little bit is just enough to keep you surviving. You lose all concern for anybody else. You lose the ability to believe in a God or anybody else. Day by day, you just wait for those handfuls of rice.

One day, this man did something that made the prison guard angry, and the guard dumped all his food on the ground. The prisoner just lay on the ground crying, as he describes it, thinking that handful of rice was everything for him, and now it was gone.

Then another man approached and gave him half of the rice he had, half a handful. In that half of a handful, all of a sudden everything came back. The man’s belief in God, his belief in love, his belief in life—everything came back with that gift of only half as much as he was getting regularly. Because of a moment of love, half a handful of rice was worth a whole life. What an amazing thing. Hunger calls us: the only way to survive and make sense out of life, the only way to survive and make sense out of God, is through that sharing of food.

In the Gospel today we hear the story of the feeding of the 20,000. That’s 5000 men plus women and children. You figure it had to be at least twenty thousand, maybe thirty. And notice that the evangelist makes sure to say there are significantly more people besides men in the world. Though the world counts only men, the evangelist says, look at all the women and children—they’re people, too. That was a very profound statement.

Here’s the situation. Jesus’s idol, the person who brought him to the beginning of his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, the one who got the whole ball rolling, the one who Jesus said is “greater than an angel,” not only was dead, but brutally murdered. He had his head cut off at a banquet. What a horrible, horrible thing.

And Jesus was so horrified, and he was so frustrated. He said to his disciples, “I have to get away. I can’t do this any more.” He needed to just be alone. He found his way to a deserted place, but by the time he got there, the crowds had already heard where he was going. Somebody leaked it. And there they were: 25,000 people. He said, “Oh, well. I guess it’s not time to mourn.” His heart was moved with pity. He was hungry for time alone with his God, but he gave up what little he had to share with others, with 25,000 others.

The apostles said, “Send them away. You’re in control. Tell them you’ve cured their sick. Tell them to go away.”

Jesus said, “There’s no need for them to go.” He didn’t want them to go. Though he didn’t want to see them at first, now he didn’t want them to go. He told the disciples to feed them. And the apostles got testy. Understandably so. They said, “What do you expect us to do? We have only five loaves and two fish and thousands of people.”

He said, “Give me what you have.” Now, this story is recorded in every Gospel. The multiplication of loaves is actually recorded six times, because there are other records of feeding the 2000 or 3000. Six times in four gospels, it’s recorded over and over. It was so significant  to the early Christians in the time of the Gospel writing that they made sure it was put in over and over and over again. No other story has six versions.

Jesus was telling them, “You with your very little bit can do anything if you believe. You with your very little bit can change the whole world if you choose. But if you choose to keep that little bit, you tie my hands.”

It was a little boy, as it’s recorded in Matthew, who gave his five loaves and two fish. He came forward, not the apostles. The apostles probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. A lot of people probably had stuff stashed away, but they weren’t going to tell anybody. Some commentators think maybe that’s what the real miracle was. People took out their stashes. First, they thought, “I’m not showing this to anybody,” and then some little boy embarrassed them and said, “Here’s what I have,” and all of a sudden people started pouring out what was in their pockets, and they had more than enough

But in that moment, something more significant than the food happened, just like with that half a handful of rice. Something happened that said to people, “Once again we can believe that our God takes care of our needs. Once again, we believe that together we can make things happen. Once again, we can believe that life is a banquet, even when we’re hungry. Once again, we can choose the life that’s set before us, knowing that our life is the banquet and the gift and the food. And knowing that even in the hunger we may find something so significant, something so much more powerful than anything we can find when we’re full.”

And the message just shouts out loud and clear. Jesus didn’t take a poll and say, “Who’s a sinner here? You need to get forgiven before you can get any food.” He didn’t take a poll to see who’s good and who’s bad. He just said these are people. It’s just like New Yorkers rushing to help at the World Trade Center. There were people in need. Run and meet those needs.

The first reading from Isaiah is also such a beautiful passage. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. It still flows. Whether you think you see it or not, the water still flows. All you who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, come without pain. Come without cost. Drink wine, and drink fresh milk. But don’t spend your money on what is not bread. Don’t spend your wages on what fails to satisfy.”

Institutions, no matter which institutions they are, over and over and over, want to take control of the meal. Institutions say, “You can eat because you’re one of us. You can’t eat because you’re not one of us. We’ll offer what we have to you over here, but not to you over there. Some people are the kind we want. You others are not.” But unlike institutions, families do not choose who is part of their life. Isaiah—and this is before Jesus—says that God has a family. God is this Mother who has our name written on the palm of her hand, and She will not stop being Mother.

Isaiah speaks of a God who says, “Come, come eat of my food, drink of my wine. Come, share the banquet of life.” This God does not make exceptions. This God does not say it’s only for this one and not for that one. Even if your mother should forget you, this God says, “I shall not forget you, because I am the perfect Parent. I am the one who knows you always and forever, who knows you inside and out.” In the last part of this chapter, Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. There’s still time. You can find God. Let the scoundrel turn away from those wicked ways. Let the wicked one repent from his sins and come back. Come back, and eat of the food that God presents to us.” And that banquet is laid out before us right here, right now.

Most of us wake up in the morning, and we look to our Parent who has presented us with a banquet, and we say, “I don’t like that. Get it away. That’s nasty. That’s bitter. That doesn’t appeal to me. It might be all right some other day, but today I want something else.”  And we want to give the Parent of the Universe the directions on what my banquet should be. And, of course, my banquet is all about me. My banquet is healthful. I have my medical covered.  I have my house in order. I have my banquet, and that banquet is the one I choose.

But what about the reality banquet? What about the real banquet? Whether I choose to accept it or not, I woke up today knowing that I’m going to have an eternal life. I woke up today knowing that I have a God who loves me. I woke up today knowing that I have people who love me. I can’t tell you how things are going to work out in my life, and I can’t tell you how things are going to work out today. I can’t tell you if I’m going to be breathing half an hour from now. It doesn’t matter. I can tell you that whatever happens, there is a banquet set before me by a Parent who loves me.

But there are those in the institutions who would try to take all that away from me.  In my mind, I can choose to believe them. Terrorists may make me afraid all the time. And if I choose to walk around being afraid all the time, well, that’s my problem, because they can only kill the body. They can’t kill the soul.

Churches would have me believe that unless I follow particular magic formulas or particular sets of laws, they can exclude me from the love of God.  But St. Paul says, “Who, who can separate me from the love of Christ? Who will separate us? Anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or the sword? No, no, none of these. In all things we are conquerors, if we know whose hand we hold. We are conquerors if we know who we are. We are conquerors if we know what we inherit. We are conquerors if we know that we are sisters and brothers and heir to the same thing as Jesus Christ. We are more than conquerors.”

Instead of believing what others tell us, we need to go to the Somebody who knows, and that’s our Parent. We need to say that beautiful prayer that Jesus taught us: “Father, Abba, Daddy.” We need to recognize that nobody, but nobody, can take this away from us. Shame on us if we believe that they can.

We don’t need all of the things that our country provides for us. We don’t need all the things this church provides. We don’t need all the things that the world insists that we need. We don’t need a ten-year plan. We don’t need to go through our medical benefits. We don’t need to have insurance for this that and the other thing.

I was talking to someone the other day who works full-time and then 36 hours more. He said. “I just crave a day off.”

I said, “Quit one of your jobs.”

He said, “Oh, I can’t.”

“You’re working, and your wife’s… “

“No, to pay all the bills, we have to do this,” he insisted.

Well, I thought, if in your mind, you have to do this, you have to do it. It’s what you choose to control you. You choose what separates you from the love of Christ, from the love of life, from the experience that lies right before us.

And so, we’re challenged today by these readings. We’re challenged to ask, “What did I wake up with this morning? This is the food that God has presented to me. This is what God has given me.” I may seek other things and better ways, and that’s not a bad thing, but I can never say I don’t have enough unless I choose to say it. If I give away moments of joy, moments of peace, if I waste my time in moments of anguish and pain and suffering because things are not exactly the way I want them to be, well, then, that four-letter word “want” needs to get out of my vocabulary. “Want” will just destroy me. I need to choose: This is what I have, and this is what I can do with it.

And then I need to dream. Dream! What can I do with this marvelous gift I have? Perhaps I’m ninety-six years old and can’t do much. Maybe I can talk to some child and give her a little story from the past. I can use what I have.

How can I use who I am, what I have, the banquet that’s laid before me, and recognize that it’s a new banquet every day, that there is always enough, and that in God’s plenty I will never go wanting? In choosing that gift, we find that the kingdom is right here and right now.

 

 

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.