loving in the war years: day ten

I’ve long since given up on being Catholic. During the time I needed it, I would sneak into church and sit in the back pews during morning mass and it was so comforting and important to me to hear human voices rise up together in prayer and love and to know that my voice was a part of something. I taught myself the different prayers, said the rosary at night, alone. But taking comfort the whole time. Knowing that out there, somewhere, there were others praying the rosary too. And so we were together.

As much as I needed Catholicism then, I eventually walked away from it. And found my home in Buddhism, where I go to temple rather than church and I am happy with that.

But when times are tough or complicated, I invariably find myself mumbling those Catholic prayers under my breath, most often the Our Father or Hail Mary.

These days, I’ve been mostly saying the Hail Mary.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death, Amen.

All those years ago, when I regularly attended church, I said this prayer without thinking too deeply about the words. I said them, I understood them. But I understood them through the eyes of the male priests or the babysitter with the Virgin on her wall–a desire to be submissive. A desire to be more like this holiest of submissive women. The woman who was so holy, God chose her to be impregnate. A vessel. For God.

But I’m older now and I have learned so much since then.

Like: the definition of ‘virgin’: a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person.

Like: the definition of ‘compassion’: to suffer with.

Like: Mary was an unmarried teenager when she had Jesus, and a woman when he died. She was with him when he died.

Like: Joseph was the man Mary was set to marry when she turned up pregnant, and had to be visited by an angel before he was convinced to marry her despite her pregnancy. He was not with Jesus when he died.

I found out all these things over the course of years. And they all sit with me now, as I go through ritualized mourning. And they help.

Because the thing is, knowing that Mary really actually was a virgin in the sense she was unbound to any man and thus capable of making her own choices, makes me think that Mary was less of the ‘vessel’ so many have made her out to be and much more of a real human being who made an active choice with God to create something beautiful and world changing. She didn’t have to consider the needs of a ‘headship,’ she didn’t need to worry about other children or family honor. She was free. And she made the decision to trust herself and her faith and ‘go with God.’

Thinking about Mary’s free choice as an older woman, and that she chose to follow Jesus through to his death, says that she wasn’t just a vessel used by God–but that she was a real human being, one who made rational decisions, had an active faith, and who could love. Staying by the side of a man struggling through his conflicted relationship with God, the terrible violence inflicted upon him, and then his death are not easy things to bear.  Joseph was not with Jesus or his group during this time. Joseph was not at the cross when Jesus died. Scholars speculate Joseph was dead–I speculate that men have left their families throughout all of history over much smaller things than having a child born of God or seeing a child murdered.

Men see the devotion of women and mothers and assume it is just ‘normal.’ That it is biological. That there’s something biologically wrong with a woman when she’s not a complete martyr that sacrifices everything from food to safety to keep her child happy and well. Some of this is sort of true, those who birth get the hormones that are supposed to bond mother to child. But. There is no hormone strong enough to overturn a human being’s decision once they’ve made up their own mind. And barring societal threats (like marriage or prison), when women are free and supported and show devotion to a child or family, it’s because they’ve made the choice to. Women are not mindless vessels. Men insist that devotion must be biological because they sense the choice underneath. The choice they can’t control. Insisting that devotion be biological is just a way of manipulating the choice they can’t control.

Women are not vessels.

And neither was Mary. She was an active participant in her own life. And her life included seeing her own son murdered (and be reborn, if you believe). This is not a weak mindless woman or the simpering snowflake Mary is often presented as. Mary stayed even during the worst of times. She made the choice to suffer with Jesus when she could’ve walked away, like Joseph and many others did. I imagine her hands to be calloused, her handshake to be firm. I imagine Mary had a direct gaze, firm but not unkind. But a gaze that intimidated many anyway. I imagine that Mary knew before Jesus did that he would be betrayed. Intelligent. Fierce. A fighter.

It was Mary who said I can’t carry the burden you carry for you, but I can help you bear it. Compassion. Not because she was a martyr, but because she knew her shoulders were broad and strong enough to help. Solidarity, rather than martyr.

Which is why even tho I am now a Buddhist (or perhaps because I am Buddhist, we are very big on compassion), I now say the Hail Mary with a whole new sense of awe, a whole new sense of wonder.  And a whole new sense of comfort.

It’s not just that my voice rises in prayer alongside others at Mass or with others across the world who are saying their Rosary. It’s that those who pray are suffering, the same as I am. And we are together praying to a woman who is willing to suffer with us. Who is willing to bear the burden of suffering with us. We suffer together and pray for relief from suffering. Together.

We are not alone.

Holy Mary mother of God, 

Help us to bear this crap now, and when the shit hits the fan, too.

Because we know that you made the choice. To stay with the suffering until they are able to rise again.

Thank you.

It’s not everything. Saying Hail Marys two times or 200 doesn’t make the pain just suddenly go away. But it does help. There are others out there that suffer like you do, like I do. Who have no place else to turn, who don’t know what to do, who are facing the worst moments of their lives, the scariest, the most unknowing. And they are raising their voices too. In prayer. That you and I–all of us sinners together–will find relief.


Oh, the utter holiness of humanity.

This sacred world. Where love does exist.







loving in the war years: day nine

You were born together, and together you shall be forever more.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your
Yes, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be
alone—even as the strings of a lute are alone though the quiver
with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows

– Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet

loving in the war years: day eight

I heard about this group through an segment on NPR. The segment brought me to tears:

The Threshold Choir honors the ancient tradition of women singing at the bedsides of people who are struggling, some with living, some with dying. The voice, as the original human instrument, is a true and gracious vehicle for compassion and comfort. When invited – and without charge – we visit in small groups, welcoming families and caregivers to join us in song or simply to be quietly present.

To not die alone, to die surrounded by singing love, seems to be one of the greatest gifts the universe can bestow upon an individual. But in today’s world, where we’ve seen such incredible violence, that clearly doesn’t happen for all of us. I wonder what peace it can bring families and even the spirit of the one who died, to have singing at funerals/wakes/memorials–singing that lifts the spirit into a new world.

loving in the war years: day five

A day of mothering…


I’ve never been much of a fan of roses. Mostly it’s the smell. Growing up the late 70s meant babysitters and aunts dragged me along to one Avon party or another, and rose candles, perfume, lipstick or nail polish were plastered on me to the delighted coos of the women in the room. Isn’t she adorable? Isn’t she sweet? Meanwhile, I’d see the fingernails that I couldn’t bite or feel the oppressive sweet smell that reminded me of funerals, even at that age.

Rose is a heavy scent. One that stays in the room long after the person wearing it has left. I don’t find the flowers very pretty and the expense of a dozen roses never seemed reasonable or a romantic show of affection.

But when you are a good herbalist, you learn about the plants that are around you. The ones that are plentiful and won’t harm the ecosystem if you remove a handful. Why would you pay the expense, hurt the environment, and possibly take healing resources away from one community, if you have an herb in your own community that will do the same job?

So I decided to work with wild roses, as they are fairly common in my area. To my amazement, it was like they were waiting for me to finally pay them attention. Everywhere I turned, I found myself surrounded by roses, for weeks and weeks. Wild roses in the back of the car after clipping some on a walk. Wild roses in the mail after a friend heard I was interested in them. Wild roses in salves, wild roses in lotion, wild roses in the brandy I had left over from a party. I even noticed for the first time that the massive bush in my neighbors yard was a wild rose bush. I’d always paid attention to the birds rather the branches they sat on.

I don’t know what brought these flowers into my life after I had worked so hard to avoid them. But once they got in, I finally realized why herbalists especially love them.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hard time taking a deep breath. I’ve been tested for heart attacks, asthma, pneumonia, allergic reactions, I even had a frustrated doctor give me an inhaler and told me if it worked he’d give me a refill. Unstated: now get out and leave me alone.

Needless to say, the tight breathless feeling never went away. It got easier to deal with, it got to the point I hardly noticed it sometimes. But then for some reason it’d be back, and I couldn’t take a deep breath and my chest felt like a vice.

As wild roses spent more time in my life, that weird heavy tight chest seemed to ease a little. I barely noticed at first. But then for unrelated reasons, I started taking a tincture of rose. And almost immediately, within about 30 minutes, the chest thing was gone. And for the first time in as long as I could remember, I could take a long lovely deep quiet breath.

I talked with an elder herbalist about how weird this experience was and what it could possibly mean and they shared with me that rose is a wonderful herb for anxiety and stress, which I knew. What I didn’t know, was that rose is great for moving ‘stuck’ anxiety/stress/emotions. So, for example, that stressor that you were too young to have words for? Like, say, a scary or abusive parent or bullying that you couldn’t tell anybody about? The stress from that very often stays stuck in your body if you don’t have other ways to deal with it. Those of us who have grown up in high-stress environments can carry that ‘stuck’ energy around with us not really knowing that there’s any different way to feel or be. It’s just normal.

The only reason I had any idea that not being able to take a deep breath might not be a good thing was because I had seen heart attacks on TV and worried I might be having one. When the doctors gave the all clear and I didn’t drop dead, I assumed it must be asthma or any of the other explanations doctors gave me. But what was more likely going on was that I was having panic attacks that had no place to go except inward. A typical ‘good girl’ response to stress. Keep swallowing it all down until it’s too big to hold anymore.

Taking the rose has not only cleared up this ‘panic attack’ feeling, but has also helped to release just regular old tension from work days or sitting on the computer too long. It helps me to live more in the moment–when I’m stressed and need to cry or yell or ‘speak’ what I’m feeling into existence, instead of stuffing those feelings, I feel them, and then let them go. It’s ok.

And oddly enough, as I’ve worked more with rose, I’ve grown to enjoy the smell much more. When I smell rose now, I anticipate the wave of relaxation that always comes within minutes, sometimes seconds. Life, where oppressive death used to be.

As I continue my time of Mourning, I take just a few drops of rose tincture daily, as a reminder that to mourn, you need to care for and replenish yourself. And also to gently move whatever hurt, whatever loss, whatever tension I’ve been gripping too tightly along. It’s ok to let go. It’s ok.

It’s ok.

Here is a lovely essay to learn more about rose, if your interested. And this is a great herbalist that I get my rose tincture from.


loving in the war years: day three

and it happens again and again and again.

how do you mourn when it just won’t stop?

when our ancestors created mourning rituals, did they account for genocide? or endless war? or mass murderers? or did they assume our world would always account for human dignity? and that just one person would die at a time? from natural causes? or at the worst, some accident?

some days, the only thing that feels right is nihilism. complete lack of meaning. what is the point of being born if you’re just going to be mowed down like ants at a picnic? hopelessness.

but then you see this. amid the threatening clouds and the sprinkles of rain promising a true storm. a rainbow.

deep breath.

it’s not that the hopelessness of nihilism goes away. or that suddenly everything is ok.

it’s that for a second you’re not alone. the universe shares the burden.


and now i share it with you.
may you be free from suffering. you be safe.

may you be free.

loving in the war years: day two

but did it?
did it really start with september 11?

it feels right to say it started then, it feels like what we all agree with. everything was moving along, and then september 11 happened. and then the world stopped and nothing was the same again.

but when i dig around under the grief, under the twisted memories and through the barricaded chest, i see other things. and i wonder, did it start there? or did it start some place else? some place less obvious?

like the time i lost my job? and went a year without work and couldn’t afford to clothe my children? or maybe it was the time my father told me i might have to quit school to work, the family was having a hard time staying afloat. my education would be the price paid for survival. or maybe it was the time i was sexually assaulted, and i found out that people were calling me a liar at work. i had no idea at that time that anybody even knew.

or maybe it was my first christmas after being kicked out by my parents, when i realized really and truly for the first time what it meant to be alone. or the first time i was called a slut while taking a walk, or the first time i couldn’t afford food or the first time i was assaulted at job that i couldn’t afford to quit. or maybe it’s the bigger picture. and it’s the first time a border was constructed or the first time a bullet penetrated that border or maybe it was when hitler was born or that time that some man whose name nobody knows shot some important person that nobody heard of and started the war to end all wars that hasnt ended yet.

or maybe it started with capitalism or mercantilism or the first time a priest called an indigenous person a savage. or maybe it started with the catholic church. or jesus. or the person who figured out how to mold steel into shackles that fit around even the slender arms of a small child not just her mother. or maybe it was the first time a man hit a woman.

does anybody know when this all started? when did that first domino get blasted away, starting the chain of explosions that have never stopped, like it was all meant to be? like there was just no other way for this story to be told?

does it really matter? if we figure out when all this started, will we be able to figure out how to end it? or is the desperate need to put a date on it all, to find a time when it wasn’t like this, more of a way to control the chaos? to make sense of the utterly incomprehensible?

how many religions, writers, artists, have tried to make sense of the incomprehensible? is there a reason we live through this? or are we all fodder for the war machine?

does it mean anything to be human?

i cling to the cold loneliness settled at the bottom of my stomach.
to feel, even something awful,
is to be alive.

i am alive
i am alive
i am alive…

loving in the war years: day one

it starts with september 11.

up early that day, gritty eyes torn open by rambunctious toddler jumping and laughing on my bed. the child that never sleeps, joyful with life.

flipping on howard stern, i groan and creak my way out of bed. pregnant again, my body, heavy with life, is not so joyful as the toddler, who is already prattling in the cupboards of the kitchen, her job with me, finished.

as i brush my teeth, the rumbly voice of howard mentions that a plane crashed into the world trade center. but planes have crashed into the trade center before. nobody is worried. i spit the toothpaste into the sink.

i am in the kitchen cooking breakfast when the phone rings. i almost dont hear it because the toddler is banging pans against the floor and screaming with laughter. her lips are red and her curls bob. i make it to the phone on the third ring.

and that’s when it starts.

turn on the TV, says the frantic voice on the other line.
why? I ask.
just do it! screams the voice.
i remember to turn off the stove before i cross the small kitchen into the living room and turn on the TV.

the screen burns with fire, deep billowing smoke furls into the perfect blue day.

howard stern’s voice is suddenly crystal clear from the back room. they are debating if they should shut the show down. there more planes and we’re under attack and nobody knows what’s going on and my baby’s screaming and i can’t hear anything else.

and then the first building collapses and then the next and i feel my feet fall out from underneath me and my hands go to my belly and life and death and life and death and life and death swirl and mix and then there is nothing and everything and black dust blankets the earth that somehow keeps right on spinning even tho the world has stopped.

remember that you are dust…

it all starts here.