Mass Hysteria 

Fabric from an old dress.

I haven’t been to church for a while, and the few recent times have been for solemn services. This Sunday, though, was to celebrate a small friend’s First Holy Communion. It was quite the spectacle. I hadn’t been to a full on social media mass before. And let me tell you, it was quite something.

Each child walked the aisle solo, the next one not to follow until the consecrated bread and wine were downed. There was a literal wall–three deep–of moms, dads, aunts, sibs, godmothers and other amatuer photographers stacked to the right of the altar. Most were filming on their phones. You could tell it wasn’t still photography by the way they held the phone sideways and circled it as if they were casting a spell on the children winding around the pews. I hope that they captured the kids as they hesitantly tasted the wine for the first time and scrunched up their noses and puckered their mouths and maybe even gagged. There was also tagging and filter-adding.  I hope there’s a hashtag, #firstcommunionsofinstagram.

I haven’t been to church for a while, but some things remain the same. Like the priest who has the worst flow I have ever heard. Think of your grandma or her sister rapping, if that would be bad, this guy is worse.

There is a Catholic tradition of chanting and sing-song prayer from the celebrant. There is a rhythm. The fact that the words are less important than the cadence doesn’t usually distract from understanding what’s said. This priest, though, has no pattern, rhyme or reason in his warble. I couldn’t understand his odd and random inflection–both tempo and tone. It was as if he was reading a language that he himself didn’t comprehend and was enunciating sounds that could be words–but he’s not sure. He might as well be speaking Latin. I don’t think he was.

I haven’t been to church for a while, but stepping into the sanctuary I was reminded of being part of this community. This very church community. I walked down that long, long aisle on the arm of my father. We pushed the double doors open with a great flourish and grinned like goofs as we swaggered past friends and family until he kissed me and I joined my partner. There were baptisms and communions and confirmations for my own boys. In between those sacraments, we would spend our Sunday mornings on the left side, toward the front, singing along with the choir.

There may have been an inebriated Midnight Mass or two, Christmas pageants and fellowship–which was code for donuts. We would wish each other peace and hold hands across that long, long aisle during prayer. As a not-so-great Catholic, I was there for the sharing and to scrape out some grace for the week. My typical prayer was for patience.

I haven’t been to church for a while. When my dad died, I stopped. I tried. The first time, when the choir sang a song from his services, I fought back tears. I clamped down on those raw, sad feelings. The next few times were no better. It might be a reading, a song, a prayer or the ringing of the bell that would crush my heart. I couldn’t think about the readings or the prayers or the songs without sorrow seeping from my eyes. My only solution was to think of something else, like snow if it was summer or a crab feast if it was winter.

It pulled me away from the fellowship of Sundays. Spending the time thinking about a shopping list or the agenda for a Monday meeting separated me from the community. That made me sad, and destroyed the value of going. But, if I didn’t keep the lid on my sorrow–the sorrow that was triggered by the going–I would expose what I wanted to keep to myself. I don’t want to share grief. It’s mine to take out when I feel that I can.

So, I haven’t been to church in a while, but I went today. It was chilly and rainy. I chose it to be spring, so I pulled out a dress with blue flowers. As I put it on, I realized that I wore this dress to The Big Guy’s First Holy Communion a long time ago. I went a bit late. I held my umbrella high and walked more around than through the puddles. I was surprised that, in the back of my mind, I was hoping for peace.

When I walked into the church vestibule, I felt the burden of sad. I sat in my old spot on the left side. I saw my friends and their families. I listened to the jarring and discordant priest. It was so unpleasant that I was distracted and almost angry. I tried to block the sound and just focus on the words and take meaning from them. The tears leaked out. I thought about barbeque or one of the President’s jokes about Congress. The water subsided. It was an uneasy peace. It doesn’t get easier, at least not yet.

Princess and the Pea

A chapter of a book that begins, "Once upon a time it was..."

Once upon a time there was a princess. She was lost. Or at least she didn’t know where she was. Or maybe she did know, and it was just too much work to figure it out at this juncture.

She found herself just passing from the state of sleep to the state of wake. Is it night or day, she thought. Did I just fall asleep or have I been sleeping for hours? Or even days? Where am I?

Clawing through the remnants of sleeping, her mind hit the bumpers of all of her senses like a metal ball shot from the chute and making its way down the lane. She waited and then hit the flippers to keep the ball in play.

She didn’t hear any bells, but there was the steady drone of machinery and the recurring squawk of a police radio. That radio was loud. Maybe that’s what woke her up.

It was dark, but there was a frame of bright light that must be from a door that was barely ajar. On the other side, in full light was the sound of the woman’s voice–the dispatcher–repeating the number ten. 10-12. 10-22. 10-23, stand-by. There were tall shadows of nothing or maybe something. On her right was a small round light hanging mid-air. Looking more closely the point was in some box on some type of pole. There was a window just behind her, to her left. She could see it at the furthest edge of her view, but she couldn’t see through it. Not that it mattered because it was dark out there, too. She was in a room. It wasn’t big. But even though the light on the other side of the door was bright, it didn’t illuminate her surroundings by much.

She licked her lips. They were dry, as was her mouth. She didn’t think that she brushed her teeth before she fell asleep. Her mouth tasted a little stale–maybe because of the dryness. Maybe, though, it was because she had thrown up. She wanted some water. Was there water?

A waft of staleness caught in her nostrils. That might be her. It wasn’t like work out sweat, but more like it had been a long warm day. In a ring or two outside of her, she could smell some chemical smell. It wasn’t like the astringency of Pine Sol, but it wasn’t far from that. There was less complexity to the caustic bouquet. It was less like northwest hops and more like laundry detergent with whitener. It wasn’t overwhelming, and she wasn’t either.

She did okay moving her head from side to side. She realized that she wasn’t lying down, more like half way between prone and sitting. She tried to sit up for real, but she couldn’t lift her head. Couldn’t lift her head. Why didn’t this concern her?

The door swung inward, and a shadow blocked much of the light. There was a clock above the door. It was 3:20, likely 3:20 a.m. The shadow pushed the door behind her. The shadow was accompanied by a rolling cart that she steered by a long pole. She approached the princess with a smile. Her greeting revealed her West Indian roots. She placed a cuff around the arm of the princess and put a probe under her tongue.

“Got it!” The princess knew she was in the hospital and was woozy from either the residuals of morphine or the peak of the percocet. The morphine did make her vomit. She remembered now. She asked if she was due for the anti-nausea meds. The shadow was named Carla and she said she would check with the nurse. She was the tech and was worried about the snow that was blizzarding down. She might have to work a double shift if the forecast held.

Carla checked the bulbs that hung from the princess’s neck. The bulbs were glued to two incisions to collect some post operative fluids. Carla was having none of the way they were hanging. She emptied them, after measuring the output and making positive clicking noises. She walked behind the bed and opened one and then another and then a third drawer. She searched in the dark and found some safety pins.

Carla walked back to the princess and pinned the bulbs to the princess’s gown. “This way they won’t pull. I didn’t like how they were.” She smiled again and helped the princess to the bathroom.

The princess felt queasy, so she swallowed to keep things down. “Is there a toothbrush?” Carla handed her one. She brushed her teeth and drank some water. After all that activity, she was tired. Or she was sore. Or maybe she was just high.

She shuffled back the seven shuffle-steps to the bed with her own pole-cart in tow. Carla had straightened her sheets. She backed into the bed and swung her legs up, schooched back and instead of leaning into the pillow her head dropped like a rag doll’s. She placed her hand on the back of her head to prop it up. She then used her hand to lower her head on the center of the pillow.

Her mind was clouded, but at least she knew where she was, now. She felt webs criss cross across her brain, behind her eyes and thought that she fell back to sleep. She wasn’t a princess. 

Down to the River

Nantucket, the center of the world. A compass and mileage directory.

People stay where they’re from. So people who leave are different.

It’s easy for those of us who have left the farm to look back at those rooted through a long lens. They aren’t like us. And we aren’t like them.

We pretend we don’t understand them, but, without much effort, we could. Since they are us, and we are them.

I grew up in what is now a desert of empty boxes of buildings that once housed three shifts. Of wide boulevards that once moved those shift workers and now cracked by weeds pushing through concrete. The factories and roads are being reclaimed by nature.

Then there is the other nature. The nature of expectations. People, most of them men-people, were expecting to fill those three shifts. Like their fathers, uncles and even grandfathers did. The work was a grind, day-in day-out in a noisy factory, but you earned enough money to raise your family, an awesome health package, a little cottage near a lake and a minor discount on next year’s model. You married your high school sweetheart. You went out with the guys after shift. You did your part.

But now, instead of a cold one on your dock, you’re the protagonist in a Springsteen ode.

And even The Boss doesn’t get you, anymore. He lives in Greenwich. He takes his daughter to dressage competitions. Is that a sport? You played hockey, in the neighbor’s backyard that they flooded after you got your new skates at Christmas.

You never or just barely had a chance at those high-paying factory jobs. You stuck around, waiting for an industry comeback. Instead, the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs that came back paid less. So yeah. You’re disappointed. You’re willing to work hard. But jobs moved across oceans where people get paid pennies and there aren’t all the rules about health and safety and smokestacks that drove work away. The import side of the equation? People from countries not where your people are from with a dollop of terrorism and fear.

Crashed expectations crash into reality.

Those who left are judging those who stayed. Don’t lie. We know them. They are us. And we are them.