Chains of Memory

The past couple of days I’ve been plagued by memories: guilty recollections of past sins, glimpses of images I never should have seen, bits of off-color or debauched “humor,” lyrics to songs that should not be sung.

Beginning in college, this was my rebellion. I looked at, listened to, and watched whatever I wanted. And in short order, I proved the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” During much of my college years, I swore like a sailor; I told dirty jokes to old friends and new acquaintances, and I made excuses for my behavior—to others and to myself.

“It could be worse,” I said, and I knew I was right. I had a vivid imagination, and worse played out in my mind if I lingered too long on any impure thing.

Thanks be to God, over the first ten year of my marriage to Jodi, I weeded these things out of my life. Little by little I dropped the jokes, kicked my swearing habit, left porn behind, stopped watching racy movies, and cleaned up my taste in music. And beginning with one no-nonsense confession with Fr. Siebenaler, in which he politely but firmly questioned my resolve to actually amend my life and advised me to open myself to Jodi and ask for her help, I left off making excuses, and began instead to apologize.

So here we are, more than a decade later, and the Enemy is at work again: I find myself mindlessly mouthing the music in my head, only to realize it’s some obscene gangster rap fantasy or metal mayhem I laughed at as a younger man. In my mind’s eye I see images I haven’t looked upon in years, like a sin scrapbook I can’t help but leaf through, gazing at memories best forgotten.

That’s the first point of this ramble: you can’t forget. What your brain takes in is filed away for later reference. Every image, every word, is there, tying you to past experience. And those things you subject yourself to again and again, out of desire or habit? Your mind naturally assumes they are important, forging shorter, stronger connections so they can be easily accessed.

I can’t recall yesterday’s discussion with my bride, but I remember every detail of my past sins, with a clarity that repels the spirit and tempts the flesh anew. The Accuser seeks to set me against myself—but I know now I must seek every day, every moment, to purify both body and soul.

That’s the second point: The struggle against sin is noble and never-ending, to be sure, but all struggles are not created equal. The struggle of the rabbit in the snare speeds its demise; it kicks and thrashes against the noose, which only tightens against its efforts.

That was me, in the confessional all those years ago—declaring sorrow for my sins but unwilling to even attempt to remove my head from the strangling wire. The death brought about by sin cannot be escaped by panic, emotionalism, or bodily struggle. It is a spiritual struggle, requiring prayer, persistence, and genuine love of neighbor and of self. At some point, all the plans, safeguards, and accountability measures boil down to a decision: Am I going to stop doing these things or not?

How does one become a saint? Will it.

Finally, the third point: We don’t have to remain bound in these chains of memory, because God’s love is mercy.

This is not the first time I’ve struggled with recalling past sins and feeling old remorse and new temptation. The last time I remember it as strongly as this, our pastor, Fr. Richards, advised that I repeat the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

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At the time he told me this, it didn’t click with me that these are the words of the inscription at the bottom of St. Faustina’s image of Divine Mercy. (“Jezu ufam tobie” in the original Polish, above.)

Jesus, I trust in you. I trust in your mercy. I trust that you have forgiven these past, confessed sins. I trust that you continue to forgive me. I trust that you love me.

We are washed clean in the blood and water that flow from His Sacred Heart. We need not linger in darkness or doubt. He loves us. He forgives us. He saves.

Love Thy Neighborhood

Hello, hello/I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

— the Beatles, “Hello, Goodbye”

Yesterday Jodi spoke with our neighbors across the street, a friendly couple a bit younger than us, with two small children and a dog, and personalities that draw you in and make you want to smile and visit.

They are moving to Alexandria.

As they talked, the husband and father said something telling: “I’ve talked more to my neighbors since we sold our house than in the previous X years.”

This was not a reflection solely on the rest of us: several homes are for sale or have sold in recent years, and he admitted that he, too, spoke more to the outgoing neighbors than those who appeared to be staying. Continue reading

The Right Pomp for the Circumstance

We were at Mass one morning many years ago, at St. Michael Catholic Church in Remus, Michigan, when the local Knights of Columbus Fourth-Degree Honor Guard marched into the nave. I remember our son Brendan—only three or so years old at the time—watching with wide eyes as men in capes and feathered hats processed toward the altar, two by two, ahead of Father. They spaced themselves evenly on either side of the aisle, pivoted in unison to face the center, and drew and raised gleaming swords in salute to the cross and priest of Christ that passed between them.

After Mass, having watched the KCs process out again, Bren asked his burning question: “Why were there pirates in church?” Continue reading

The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Road Trip Review, Part 5: What We Learned and Why We Laughed

Emma, Trevor, and I spent a lot of time together last week — time enough to have learned a thing or two in common and to have developed a few “in-jokes.” We learned, for example, that when you’re playing Score! (a road-trip game in which you count yellow cars for points*), the game gets faster and more furious as you travel south, as sunshine-colored muscle cars, Love’s fuel tankers, and Penske rental trucks take over the highways. Do rental car companies in Florida stock higher numbers of brightly-hued, late-model Mustangs and Camaros? They were everywhere, and more than half were bright yellow!

We learned that, south of Tennessee, drivers have  little regard for posted speed limits, unless it’s to add at least 15. In Georgia, especially Atlanta, and on the return trip through Alabama, I generally drove five or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, even in reduced speed zones, to keep from being killed. We laughed to think that, if I got pulled over, it would be because the police figured they could actually catch up to me.

We learned that Florida drivers are the craziest I’ve ever seen. At least in Georgia and Alabama, the need for speed did not come with rage, impatience, or homicidal or suicidal tendencies. In Florida, I was passed by a car at such a high rate of speed (while I was driving 10 over) that the air around us seemed to split and our own car shook. As I regained my bowels and watched that car shrink toward the horizon, a crotch-rocket motorcycle zipped by even more quickly — like someone removing my left ear in one motion, with a Dremel — and vanished into the distance! I also watched two or three drivers, stopped at red lights, who began inching (or rather, jerking) forward into the intersection mere seconds after coming to a stop; one arrived in the center of the intersection while cross traffic was still advancing and made them steer around him!

But the worst example was a driver who rode my bumper as we were entering a construction zone. I was decelerating, but still over the posted limit; he or she was behind me mere moments before deciding to pass…at freeway speeds…on the right…using a rapidly diminishing merge lane lined with orange barrels and Increased Fines signs!

Of course, I always try to oblige the locals, so I added to the chaos, emerging from behind a left-turning semi in a non-freeway construction zone to wind up headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic in a dusty, narrow lane lined both sides with orange pylons. We laughed in retrospect, once I quickly backed between pylons and pointed us back the way we came, and the kids learned that I am, in fact, prone to frightened expletives in times of stress.

We learned that deputies in the Keys will pull you over for a burned-out headlight (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, sir, I do not.”), but the one we encountered was very friendly, even when out proof of insurance was set to expire at midnight that very night! He let us go with a verbal warning and the admonition to get the light fixed ASAP.

We learned that gators can, indeed, be spied along the highways in rural south Florida. We speculated that the panther and bear crossing signs were posted to drum up intrigue rather than to warn of any actual wildlife present, and again, that the bears were escaped polar bears (judging from the shape of the black silhouette on the signs) from an apparently flooded zoo. This odd thought led to further speculation that behind the high fences and tall grasses, Floridians were breeding armadillos and releasing them along the highways of Tennessee — or at least littering that unfortunate state with their carcasses.

The prevalence of roadside armadillo carcasses made roadkill-watching something of an activity, in addition to license-plate hunting (45 states, all but one from passenger vehicles, not trucks or trailers; five provinces; and the U.S. Government) and the Score! game. We laughed at a term I made up as we passed a particularly unidentifiable critter on the pavement: inside-out-opus. Indeed, inside-out-opus may have been the second most prevalent creature we saw along I-75, armadillos being the first, and easily identified by their disjointed but intact bands of so-called armor.

We learned (or rather, confirmed) that Trevor and Emma have the same dark, though nonsensical, edge to their humor as I sometimes have, as when we passed a dead deer that had been clearly blitzed by a large truck. “There’s a semi deer,” I observed to pass the time. Trevor replied, “That’s exactly what it was: a semi-deer…half a deer!”

Another example: After being pepper by no-see-um bites the first night in the Keys**, we discussed now and again the possibility of chewing off our own limbs to rid ourselves of the itch. Emma was in a particularly bad state the evening we were in Memphis — relieved only by the distraction of eating those exquisite Rendezvous ribs. She railed at Trevor his seeming inability to get the bones clean of pork to her exacting standards, which led to the best joke of the trip: as we left Memphis and my own numerous red spots began to itch with a fury, I asked Trevor to gnaw off my feet (since I was driving and unable to do it myself). Without hesitation, Emma said, “He won’t be able to finish.”

In addition to inside-out-opus, we learned two new words, courtesy of Trevor: froth-tips (he meant whitecaps) and crane-truck (he meant tow truck). We laughed to recall Randy telling us of his late Airedale Sandy, who rode with him everywhere and became something of a celebrity in Wetumpka, Alabama — how, if something caused Randy to say an angry word, Sandy would jump in the back of the vehicle until he said, “I’m sorry, Sandy, I didn’t mean it!” We learned that a manatee on a mission can swim more than 20 miles per hour, and that Hemingway’s then wife, Martha Gellhorn, stowed away on a Naval vessel to be the sole woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.

We learned many other things, and laughed a lot — though much of the humor was born of 60-plus hours together in a car. I won’t share more. You had to be there!

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* As my kids play Score!, when you spy a yellow vehicle moving under its own power, you get two points; a yellow vehicle parked (on land or a trailer) is worth one point. Yellow Hummers are 15; yellow construction vehicles, school buses, and vehicles with fewer than four wheels don’t count at all. It gets a little touchy at times: designating which shades of chartreuse are too green, or which of signal yellow are too orange, or which bucket trucks, dump trucks, or semis are sufficiently vehicular to not be considered construction equipment, or how to handle a Penske rental lot. After many hundreds of points combined, the final score and victory came down to the last two miles of the trip: Emma spied the last two yellow vehicles and beat Trevor by a mere three points. (She also “scored” multiple Hummers, while Trevor saw none — controversially, the first one came with an accompanying gasp from me, which was followed by Rose saying, “Is that a Hummer? Yeah, it’s a Hummer!” Trevor claimed she didn’t know for sure, so it should have counted. That 30-point swing would have made him the victor by a sizable margin.

** We learned that no-see-ums are a plague on humanity that make mosquitoes and ticks seem quaint and tolerable; the sheer volume of tiny red blistery, burny, itchy bites, couples with the intensity of the itch and the week-plus duration of inflammation (not to mention the sheer madness of a bug you can hardly see carving chunks from your living flesh) make it no competition. Emma got it worst; they loved her, and her bites swelled to pea size early on, like mosquito bites. I was bitten second worst, and Trevor least of all, but still plenty badly — his also seemed to take root and flare up later than ours. Wicked. I won’t make the same mistake and trust the breeze and tent screens to keep the bugs off!