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alec vanderboom

On Monday, I got into a screaming match with Our Lady. A no holds barred yelling and crying bout with our Blessed Mother in the "private" family restroom in a rest stop off of Maryland's East Route 68. To clarify my mental state slightly, I wasn't actually yelling "at Mary." I screamed and cried at a blue tile above my head which caught my eye during my frantic Haily Mary.

I emerged from our crowded PT Cruiser in a panic. I left Jon to deal with the tangle of car seat straps, errant strollers and sleepy kid limbs. I'd spent the last two hours crying into my jacket sleeve after the emotional fog of a visit to my childhood home. Two babies slept on the ride back, but the mentally acute five year old was busy writing her "novel" with a new Hannah Montana pen.

Being careful of "little pitcher ears" sort of put a damper on communication with my husband. For two hours our conversation went in an endless loop.

Me: "I feel like a crushed bug."

Him: "I'm so sorry. Can you tell me about it."

Me: "Well, I'm feeling bad because -----" and off I'd launch into some angry observations which were left sort of intentionally vague and said with names or pro-nouns to protect my listening five year old.

Him: "You cannot say that. I understand how you feel, but you can not say that. I'm pretty sure it's a violation of the 4th Commandment."

Me: "Are you sure it's a violation, because technically I didn't...."

Him: "We're supposed to honor the spirit of the commandment Abby. The spirit..."

At which point, at least my "listen to your husband training" kicked in. "He's here to help me get into heaven," I'd think to myself. "He probably has a point." In a few minutes my temper would cool. I forget and forgive whatever petty grievance I had in the moment.

And then I felt MISERABLE. Without anger or gossip or superiority to distract me, I kept falling back into this giant puddle of goo. This foggy depressive midst that somehow envelops whenever I touchdown in my small hometown with 4 stoplights on Main Street.

"How was your trip? How was your trip?" the kind voices on the telephone will ask me in a few hours.

What do I say?

I was supposed to be posting about how cool it hear small town quiet again. How you can hear distinct sounds while sitting on a front porch on Main Street. The insistent buzz of the sawmill five blocks over, the puncture of barking dogs, the crawl of pick-up trucks that automatically go 25 miles in town, or strange insect noises you can't indentify.

I took some "arty" photos of an old rope swing on our apple tree or a house a block from my house with a weather porch and peeling paint. I never expected to get nostagic about peeling paint. Where I live now, all the houses are new brick or plastic siding.

The problem with going home, is that it's never one thing. It's never simply sweet. Yes, there's the hilarity of watching Hannah turn mental cartwheels over my sisters 30 year old vintage My Little Pony Collection. Maria taught herself how to climb stairs and plunk piano keys. My son told my 92 year old Grandfather that "he loved him" and "he missed him."

At the same time, there's just layers and layers of layers of sadness. There are awful, awful memories I have associated with that environment. Those memories show up in the most innocent moments. Suddenly I'm creeped out that my kids are here chasing humming birds.

Here's an example. Friday morning was the county-wide garage sale. If you planned on having a garage sale in the summer, you chose August 8th. People came from several county's to drive around down-town hopping from one yard sale to the next one. My mom suggested that we take the kids to the Episcopal Church to check out the giant toy sale sponsored by the Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County.

I stood in front of a heap of old, dusty toys trying to help Alex decide between spending his dollar on the broken remote controlled Monster Truck or the no-longer battery operated plastic Christmas Train set.

Then this memory of standing in the same parish hall intrudes. The last time I was in the church was for a funeral of a grown-up that I only knew slightly yet I really adored, who had committed suicide. I was 18 years old. I came to the funeral at the Episcopal Church with my Mom.

The funeral service marked the first time I heard the true West Virginia anthem called "My Home Among the Hills." The service was light and airy. The music sounded gorgous. The light from the stain glass windows were soothing. The pastor said some kind words and quoted some vague Bible Verses.

I sat frightened in that church pew with my uncommunicative Mother and tried to piece my insides back together. The music helped. "It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. Somehow this is all going to be alright."

My mom asked if I wanted to stand in line to greet the young widow after the service. I said yes. My heart felt stronger and more certain after that church service.

I stood in the long condolence line in the parish hall. The line moved slowly. We were there for a long time.

I started look around. There were dozens of pictures of recent parish events. I looked them over distractedly.

Suddenly, I was eyeball to eyeball with the Dead Guy.

"I can't believe he's dead," I thought.

I stared closer. He had glasses. A funny old-fashioned beard. Eyes that crinkled.

"He always looked so happy. He had so much fun. . . "

Then I start staring at the date stamp below the man's face. I do the mental calculations.

They took this picture ten days before his death. Before his suicide.

I had this intense moment of understanding and fear, and disbelief all at once. I couldn't explain it to my Mom at the time. I think I can only hint at it now, at age 34.

Somehow, it hit me that this was wrong. You weren't supposed to be able to be happy at a church pot luck supper and then ten days later shoot yourself. Church was supposed to mean more than that. Church was supposed to protect you. Faith was supposed to "matter."

If my friend who showed up for nearly empty pot luck suppers, who tithed generously, who fulfilled countless community service hours . . . My friend, an actual adult, if my friend could do all the things we were "supposed" to do and still fell off the face of the earth hours later, what hope was there for me?

I'm probably not describing it well. Mental illness is complicated and often tragic. I know that now as an adult. I don't think I'd be as freaked out now if I went to a "happy funeral" where a suicide victim's cause of death wasn't addressed, where no prayers were offered for the dead, where only happy songs of "home" were sung, I don't think it would matter so much.

As a kid, however, I was far more vulnerable. I felt like I smashed my toe against an uncomfortable truth. There are real, real consequences to being in a church that in my language of the time "wasn't real." (Now I'd say, "without valid sacraments"). That knowledge of a disconnect between the familiar actions of 'social' church and a deep interior sense of protective Faith and peace, scared me.

I remember wanting to run away. I remember telling my mom over and over that I wanted to leave. She told me that we couldn't change our minds now, "it would look rude." I remember not having any words for the young widow. I remember being the only one in line who couldn't speak because I kept crying instead.

So that is the memory I had while standing in the Parish Hall, filling out the pro-con list of non-working plastic items with a 3 year old, and suddenly staring at a Yellow Bulletin Board with a mosaic of "What the Transfiguration Means to Me!" I don't remember now what the happy Crayola crayon written statements said, but none of them seemed remotely right to me. "This church isn't Catholic," I thought. Then WHAM. That memory came back in a tangible way. I wanted to leave immediately. It was hard to make myself stand patiently in line to pay for the plastic Christmas train.

So that is what happened to me, 700 times over the short weekend break. There were good things, of course. I found a book of poems written by the Mom of a high school classmate. I found out that a real live children's book series is based on my hometown. I found out that an dear friend is also considering home-schooling.

There were also just lots of sad, sad moments.

Everything added up to a miserable, depressed car trip home.

I got into that restroom, alone for the first time in four days, and starting to wash my grimy hands. In the mirror ahead of me, my eyeballs were pink. "Better pray, while I can."

I started out the same. 'Hail Mary, full of Grace. . ."

I caught a flash of blue tile in the border above me. "She's here. She can hear me."

"If she's here, I'm got something to really talk about!"

And right after "pray for us now," I launched into my angry pray request list. Out loud. With emphatic hand gestures that flung water droplets all over the bathroom.

"Why Did You Send Me On This Assignment! It is impossible!" I listed my long list of grievances. And I complained about the strict code of conduct imposed on me by the 4th commandment. And I plead for grace. Actually, plead sounds to much like a politely worded request in front of a District Court Judge. I demanded grace. "If you going to give me this ridiculously impossible assignment, you better provide ALL of the forgiveness part, because I've got NONE right now."

Again. This was not a mental conversation in the quiet of my heart. There was nothing "quiet" about my demeanor.

This was a spirited discussion, a serious of words screamed at a blue tile five feet above my head on a rest room wall.

At some point in my tirade, I thought "Someone might hear me." I pictured someone breaking down the door and dragging me to the lunacy ward. Then I started having a mental conversation with the lunacy ward captain while still verbally screaming my complaints to Our Lady.

The mental conversation went something like this. "I know this blue tile isn't the Virgin Mary. I don't actually see her. But she's real to me. She's everywhere. She hears me. So I might as well emphatically imagine that this blue tile is Our Blessed Mother. Because she's here. Because she's real."

The answer I got wasn't the patient explanation of why suffering occurs or how my life struggle contributes to the building of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our Mom seems to eschew theological discussions.

Instead, she sent me a little 5 year old who persistently knocked on the "private" family room bathroom. "I need you Mom, I need you!!"

She wouldn't come into my bathroom. She demanded we go into the regular girls bathroom. As I left, my husband quickly filled the empty family restroom with a son who needed urgent bathroom attention. That left me alone with 2 girls for a period of 15 minutes.

After finishing the bathroom duty, we went outside. I slumped over the stroller for awhile feeling miserable. Then I convinced my daughter to study a road map of Maryland and let me lay on the nearby grass and stare at cloud shapes.

Sometime after we were staring at massive geological rock exhibits on the other roadside stop, as we geeky home-schoolers are meant to do.

Mommy Mary's answer sort of floated into me. "This is your cross."

This is my cross. It stinks. I'd much rather sign up for the thrilling adventure of "Bringing Catholicism into the Heart of Mongolia."

Instead, my cross seems at once lame and at once impossibly hard. My family of origin is broken inside. They hang around other, equally broken people. My hometown is filled with a bunch of hyper enthusiastic Christians who are desperately hurting at the same time they think Jesus is as simple as a coloring book drawing. They have Jesus. They have the Church. What do they need with all of this silly mumbo-jumbo hanging out in Daily Mass stuff. They are fine. My visit home are hanging out with the walking wounded who insist they are all "fine."

Meanwhile, my visits home bring this painful awareness of how much I suck at being Catholic. Completely, Completely Stink!

I started a yelling match with our Our Blessed Mother!

I felt a little embarrassed to write the post. I sort of procrastinated telling the truth. I thought of much "better" things to write about.

There is something that consoled me after feeling so foolish a few hours later. "I yelled at Our Blessed Mother! What irreverent girl does that?"

"Honey," Our Lady responded gently in my heart. "You had a real conversation with me because I'm real to you."

So that's all I can say, after weeks of consecration, months of Daily Mass and years spent struggling over the rosary. I'm still a teeny baby Catholic. I still mess up all the time.

At least Our Mom is real to me. At least I've started to trust her with my real emotions. You can talk to her, because she's real. "I believe in the communion of the saints." A line from the Apostle's Creed, I said often as a Protestant but am only starting to understand now as a Catholic.

I love you Mommy Mary! Thanks for calling me. Thanks for handing me grace, even when I forgot to say "please."