Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last Tango with the Virgin Mary

     I started medical school at the age of 34, in August of 1997. Nick and Rory had just turned seven, and their father, Jim, and I had re-married one another a few months earlier. We moved from Marietta to Macon, GA, which is where Mercer University School of Medicine is located, and bought a comfortable house with a big yard, in a neighborhood that had a pool and lots of kids running around outside. Our move took place in June, so the boys and I got to enjoy the summer together before I started school. We went to the pool every afternoon. They took swimming lessons in the morning, and we'd return after eating lunch later in the day, just to have fun. There was usually a lifeguard present, often a kid from the local high school, and there was always really good alternative music playing on the radio in the concession area. Macon is hot, like a sweaty armpit, in the summertime and that pool was a real godsend. Our neighborhood had a loosely organized association of elected officials who ensured that pool dues were collected and the property was maintained. That particular summer, the group's president happened to be Violet Grover*, an unpleasant, leathery-skinned older lady who was a terrible gossip. I honestly don't know how she got elected. She would come to the pool everyday, in her frumpy one-piece bathing suit with its little attached skirt. Violet never wore sunscreen, and she would sit on her lounge chair throne, indiscreetly criticizing everyone who walked through the gate to the unlucky person sitting next to her. You really had to mind your p's and q's around her, because she had the power to determine who was "in" and who was "out" with regard to the pool: she was the Pool Nazi. I used to bring a little cooler to the pool, filled with juice boxes and snacks for the boys, and sometimes, I'd throw in a couple of cans of beer, which I concealed with a koozy to prevent Violet from seeing the labels. She was the eyes and ears of our neighborhood, and you definitely wanted to fly well beneath her radar.
     In no time, the boys made friends with many of the kids who frequented the pool. One day, a pretty woman who looked to be about my age, showed up with her children, and she and I began to chat. Her name was Wendy, and her daughter, Ashton, was one year older than Nick and Rory. I learned they would be attending the same school together. Her son, Little Todd, was probably about three years old, and he was a real pistol, his insolence often precipitating a visit to his rump from the dreaded Mr. Spoon. The kids all had a blast playing with each other, and it was nice to have an adult to talk to. We learned that we had much in common, namely the fact that we'd both grown up in very large Catholic families.
     I moved to the South in the seventh grade, and quickly learned that down here, many folks don't consider Catholics to be Christians. The only boyfriend I had in high school was a guy I dated my senior year, and he was a Baptist. We got into a ridiculous argument right right before Christmas about whether or not Catholics worshipped the Virgin Mary, and I quickly discovered that trying to reason with him was an exercise in futility. He gave me a crappy bottle of Avon Sweet Honesty spray cologne for Christmas, and then, I found out he was cheating on me with another girl in our class. What a jerk! Anyhow, Wendy and I became good friends, and when I started medical school at the end of the summer, the boys would ride the bus home with Ashton, and Wendy would keep them for me until I returned home in the late afternoon.
     In medical school, I became friends with a guy named Matt, who had been in the Peace Corps in Benin, Africa, and he impressed me as being very altruistic. I don't remember if he was religious or not, but I perceived him in that light. His tales of helping people in the African village to which he was assigned made me think of Mother Teresa for some reason, and it got me thinking about my own family's religious non-situation. My parents had taken Nick and Rory to Mass with them in the past, but it was not a regular thing. My mother converted to Catholicism after marrying my father, who was a Polish Catholic, and I think she enjoyed going to Mass a lot more than he did. When my younger brothers were small and we lived in Kansas, Dad would stay home with them, building them giant towers out of colored blocks, while my sister, Emi, and I got stuck going to catechism class and Mass with Mom. We were pretty jealous that the boys got to stay home with Dad and build stuff with blocks. Our family went to Mass on vacation, and on holy days, and I swear, it seemed like a new holy day was invented every single week. Neither Jim nor I were religious, despite his Episcopal and my Catholic upbringing, and I guess you could classify us as borderline agnostics. He had studied philosophy at Emory University, and I think he may have actually read the Bible from cover to cover. We used to have some of the most amazing conversations about world religions, and I think both of us felt that, intellectually and intuitively, the teachings of Taoism or Buddhism most closely approximated our spiritual roadmaps. We both knew people who had been damaged by organized religion, and wanted to protect Nick and Rory from a forced system of beliefs.     
     After I met Wendy, I decided to give church another try. At the time, I thought this was a good idea; I was re-defining myself as a budding physician, and I remember thinking that being a church-goer would help me feel more grown up and professional. I also thought it might benefit Nick and Rory to have some formal exposure to religion. Jim declined to attend Mass with us, except for the boys' First Communion, but was overall supportive of my decision. I did enjoy getting to hang out with Wendy in the adult catechism class, which was held before Mass, but found some of the other people in that group a little frightening. There were several converts from various Christian fundamentalist religions participating in the class, and these folks were extremely literal in their interpretation of the Scripture, especially the part about women being subservient to their husbands. I had never really studied the Bible. When I made my First Holy Communion in second grade, I received a children's Bible that had graphic illustrations, and when I got to the story about Abraham and Isaac, I was mortified. The picture showed a boy tied to a rock, with his father holding a big knife over his belly, ready to sacrifice him. After that, I wasn't too keen on Bible stories.
     One of the men in our group was an old codger named Frank, who still lived with his mother. He was a Macon historian, and he gave off an "I'm-intellectually-superior-to-you" vibe, just because he'd had a book published at some point in his career. It was anti-abortion week, and that was going to be the topic of our group discussion. Just before class started, one of the women in group confided in me that she'd had an abortion many years back. She still felt guilty about it, and was looking for absolution. We sat next to each other, and I thought about how tough that decision must have been for her, even though I didn't know anything about her circumstances at the time. Somehow, Frank ended up hijacking the discussion, launching into a tirade about how he thought women who had abortions should still be publicly stoned. He was dead serious, and the room got very quiet. All I could think about was the woman sitting next to me, and how horrible that must have made her feel. I felt disgusted by him, and started questioning just why I had decided to go back to church in the first place. That same morning, the boys were in their catechism class, where their assignment had been to decorate folders in which to contain their classwork. After my class disbanded, they came running up to me, proudly holding out their folders, exclaiming "Mommy, Mommy! LOOK!" On each of the white folders, the boys had drawn a picture of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was saying "Help!" and around His cross were several Chinese yin-yang symbols. In Rory's drawing, a spaceship also hovered nearby. Apparently, one little boy in the class found their artwork blasphemous, and immediately informed them that they were going to hell. The next and last time we went to Mass was in 2003, to attend my father's funeral.
     Yesterday, as I was exercising, I listened to "All Things Considered" on NPR, and heard an interesting piece about how people who are religious report being happier in their lives than those who aren't. The author, Eric Weiner, who considers himself spiritual, but not religious, described how he had traveled the world, meeting people from all types of faiths. In surveying them, he learned that the people who approached their faith with questions, instead of seeking answers, tended to have the most deeply gratifying religious experiences. They pray, they meditate, and they are OK living with doubt and uncertainty. He concluded the story by saying, "I don't care what you believe. What do you experience?"
     I still have Nick and Rory's Jesus/yin-yang folders, and I still love looking at them. While I sat in  religion class, listening to a pillar of the community condemn women for exercising their legal right to abortion, my eight year old kids, who'd had no prior religious exposure, effortlessly distilled the mysticism of both Eastern and Western thought into two simple drawings. Although their drawings are childish and primitive, they convey an intuitive grasp of the concepts of spirituality and compassion, an aspect of faith which I believe we only experience by questioning everything, learning something, and answering nothing.**

*first two consonants of last name changed
**original quote borrowed from Euripides
All Things Considered: A Quest to Seek the Sublime in the Spiritual
Euripides: Question Everything. Learn Something. Answer Nothing.

Rory's Catechism Folder, 1998

Nick's Catechism Folder, 1998
A self-portrait I painted in 1988 of me in my First Communion dress & veil


  1. Kris, I loved much of our Catholic childhood (something that connected us as unique, but together) and especially treasure our job of painting the Virgin Mary for Father ? (can't remember). That was special, the two of us in the little grotto doing our art thing, and great that he asked us to do it, I thought. I enjoyed reading your reflection, sad to hear it when people are so cruel to people looking for kindness and love (that Frank guy?) and wonder why churches often have the most judgmental people, that and neighborhood swimming pools,I guess. Or is it just that we expect more love, more forgiveness and kindness from church goers, and so the disappointment is deeper? I'm not sure, but I personally find that every day, maybe all day everyday, I'm experiencing a feeling of connectedness to a divine presence, and that is what religion means for me, that spiritual connection that changes my life, continually. I also love history, so I try to get Judeo-Christian foundation of knowledge in the children's hearts and minds. I loved learning about the bible, later Torah, I totally loved catechism (talking about lepers and things ---about Magi and mountains where olives grow--all of it fascinates me still). There is so much to learn out there, so much to absorb. Your written reflection is very inspiring.

    1. Elaine, it was Fr. Patrick Shinnick, and he most definitely did not appreciate the fact that we gave Mary cherry-red lips! I remember painting that statue like it was yesterday...