Lamenting the Flood

was born and raised in southern Louisiana, and flooding was a fact of life in our low-slung neighborhood. A summer cloudburst could put us on the five o’clock news in New Orleans, and we’d see our neighbors swimming in the drainage ditches and floating in pirogues down the street. Because I was a kid, this was more exciting than dangerous. School would be cancelled, and my parents would make daiquiris. I used to dream of waking up underwater, the house rocking gently, the window covered in fishing net. Those dreams were never unpleasant.

Now I’m grown with my own kids, and I live 1,000 miles away in Northern Michigan. I watched this summer’s historic flood unfold on my laptop screen. But this wasn’t just a routine summer storm in a neighborhood prone to filling up like a bowl. This was a freak weather event called a monsoon depression, and it dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation across the south of my home state, killing at least 13 and displacing tens of thousands. I watched in horror as one of my closest friends posted video updates to Facebook. Mild concerns about whether the canal behind her house would hold quickly became frantic expressions of disbelief as the water filled her house and she boarded a truck driven by the National Guard.

“Just pray, y’all,” she signed off, her voice shaking. So I, dry and safe in my living room up north, lit my candles and prayed.

I didn’t leave Louisiana for any significant amount of time until I was well into adulthood. Where I come from, you grow up to live around the corner from your momma, but my momma died when I was 14. At 26, I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school. I might as well have moved to the moon.

Those first few months, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake. I didn’t know a soul, and even my language seemed wrong. There were a thousand expressions that suddenly lost all their meaning. I remember asking a deli server for a sandwich “dressed”—Louisiana shorthand for lettuce, tomato, and mayo. “Dressed?” she asked. “Dressed,” I repeated. And then we just stood there in silence across the counter from each other, staring uncomprehendingly.

Read the rest at Christianity Today. 

all that is seen and unseen: scary podcasts

I gravitate toward the strange and gothic—I blame my upbringing on the edge of New Orleans, a place more haunted than most. I like to get good and scared, especially in the safety of my own home, surrounded by those I love. But nothing has captivated me quite like Lore, whose creator—novelist Aaron Mahnke—does little more than collect and retell some of recent history’s most treasured myths, legends, and folktales.

Mahnke’s enthusiasm for the tales he tells—he’s got the fanboy charm of an aging comic book and X-Files geek—is part of the podcast’s appeal (so contagious that Lore is now being developed for television by the creators ofThe Walking Dead). Though he says that he is, above all, a realist, it’s clear from episode one that Mahnke isn’t out to debunk these stories or to prove them as true. Instead he wants to know why so many have believed them and how what we believe reveals our most deeply rooted fears and desires.

Mahnke’s podcast also does justice to the wildness of America, and that ongoing subplot is equally compelling. We may think we’ve paved over any indigenous magic with freeways and strip malls, but here, there be monsters, just as the medieval maps warned. If you never leave the interstate, this country appears deceptively tamed. And yet it is the birthplace of the Jersey Devil, an enormous winged creature that haunts the Mid-Atlantic region; and of flashing lights that lure people into the woods, never to be seen again; and of serial killer H. H. Holmes, whose evil seemed supernatural in proportion, though he was all too human.

“So much of the world is beyond our control,” Mahnke says in Episode 13. “If we were to leave the trail, we’d be stepping into the unknown. Anything could be living out there, anything.”

Read the rest at US Catholic. 

Things Saving My Life

I’m poking my head out of my hobbit hole, where I am so diligently working to finish my feature story about teenage spirituality for US Catholic, to tell you that you should definitely be listening to the Nocturne podcast by Vanessa Lowe.  It’s essay radio exploring every corner of the night, and it blends expert storytelling, research, and Lowe’s lovely voice. Each show is like a meditation, or a dream, or even a prayer. I want to be Nocturne podcast when I grow up. I also want to be this Kurt Vile record. 

Also, I had a transcendent spiritual experience yesterday while not working on my story. I took a walk in an apple orchard and listened to Mahalia Jackson. This isn’t the first time His Eye Is on the Sparrow has has saved my life. Thank you, Queen of Gospel.

Carry on.

come see me at the Festival of Faith and Writing


I’ll be on two panels at next week’s Festival of Faith and Writing.

On Friday at 8:30 am *yikes* I’ll be talking about How Chronic Conditions Challenge and Enrich the Writing Life with Daniel Bowman, Jr., and Ellen Painter Dollar. Each of us lives with a  chronic physical, mental, or neurobiological condition, and we’ll be discussing how our experiences impart hard-earned insight. I’ll be focusing on mental illness and creativity, but this discussion is for all writers invested in compassion, humility, creativity, and the unique ways that our gifts can grow from what we perceive to be our weaknesses. (Covenant Fine Arts Center, Room 115)

At 11:30 am, I’ll present on Memoir as Feminist Testimony with Amy Julia Becker, Alison Hodgson, Katherine Willis Pershey and Rachel Marie Stone. My remarks will focus on why I consider spiritual memoir to be an invitation to communion, not an act of self-absorption. #proudnavelgazer (Covenant Fine Arts Center, Auditorium)

My fellow Sick Pilgrim, Jon Ryan, will be speaking about Weird Fiction as Sacramental Practice at 3:15 Thursday in the Commons Annex Lecture Hall. Otherwise we’ll be going to see The Mountain Goats and hanging out with our pals from The Mudroom and raising several glasses to the forthcoming publication of The Sick Pilgrim’s Dark Devotional. And the forthcoming writing of said book. Gulp. You’ll know us by our matching (temporary) tats.


Make Something Happen

The summer before I got married Dave went away to teach at a program for brilliant young writers and I stayed in Pittsburgh, trying to finish my master’s thesis, which I hadn’t started.

One night, there was a terrible thunderstorm, and my friend Rachael came over to keep me company. We drank mint juleps and she read my Tarot cards while the storm knocked the trees into the windows like a horror movie, the air charged with electricity and meaning. She flipped the first card over with a snap. If the image is upside down, it means something—something about blocked potentiality, abilities and events that want to manifest but can’t. All my cards were upside down.

I was secretly terrified. The words dabbling in the occult came to mind. But I was ashamed to tell Rachael for fear of sounding like some kind of fundamentalist nutbag. I’ve always been excessively religious, and I watched too many horror movies at too young an age. I know from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchboard, Fright Night, et. al that it all starts out as fun and games and then suddenly you realize Captain Howdy is the devil and your neighbor is a vampire.

My older sister was braver. She spent years searching for a way to connect with our dead mother. She sat for past-life readings, trained herself to achieve a hypnogogic state that would allow her to fold space, and meditated in something called a psychomanteum—a form of mirror divination—in attempt to contact her soul. It was sitting before that mirror, in the back room of a hair salon in Dallas, staring at her own reflection for endless quiet minutes, that she says she came to her senses.

“What will I do if she shows up?” she thought. After all those months—years—of preparation, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. So she walked out, got married, had three babies and started teaching aerobics.

I’d begun to feel it was my job to keep the search for our mother alive. If our her ghost was out there wandering the moors, somebody had to keep the window open. I might not be a Bronte, but I could at least be a Heathcliff.

At the time I lived in a duplex on the edge of historic Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, which given my squeamishness about the supernatural should have disconcerted me. I remembered Poltergeist, and Craig T. Nelson screaming, “You only moved the headstones!” Nonetheless I found it strangely comforting. I loved the place. It was a great neighborhood, home to families, not grad students like me who smoked on the porch all night. Our backyard rolled into an expanse of soft green lawn, thickets of trees and crosses and angels and the occasional spray of flowers. At night, hundreds of red votive candles flickered in the darkness like a celestial event.

I watched funerals reflected in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I marked how quickly the grass grew on the fresh mounds. I began to recognize the mourners who came regularly. I watched them stand beneath umbrellas in the misty rain, their maps unfolded and flapping in the damp breeze.

In Louisiana, where my family is buried, you have to put people in crypts and tombs and mausoleums, or they will wash away. New Orleans is below sea level, and the ground is saturated, unstable; bodies decompose more quickly. I used to imagine floodwaters carrying the bones off in the tide, or my mother’s body floating down Canal Street toward the Mississippi River, her hair fanned out like Ophelia in the Millais painting. But in Pittsburgh, only the very wealthy are buried in vaults: the Fricks and the Heinzes and the Mellons. They rest in Millionaire’s Row, Section 14, near the lake. In the summer, a guided tour called “You Can’t Take It With You” takes groups through Section 14 every morning before it gets too hot.

Many mornings I woke to the sounds of riding mowers and men shouting over the repetitive tones of something large backing up: Beep. Beep. Beep. Breaking new ground back there, space for more bodies.

I had to finish my thesis by the fall or join the ranks of the many in our graduate program who never completed their degrees. For three years I’d been researching a book about the women who worked with Andy Warhol. Pittsburgh is Warhol’s hometown, and I’d moved there to work in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, to rifle through his Time Capsules wearing white gloves. I had pages of transcribed interviews with Pat Hackett, his secretary and the redactress of the Andy Warhol Diaries, and I’d just been introduced to Gerard Melanga, the guy who did the whip dance with the Velvet Underground, who agreed to talk to me about Warhol’s relationships with women (for $1,000). I didn’t have $1,000, but the truth was, the more research I did, the less interest I had in Warhol or his women. I was spending more time in church than at the museum, sitting in the dark of Sacred Heart in Shadyside, in the last pew just in case I needed to make a hasty escape. The only thing that really fascinated me about Warhol anymore was that he went to Mass every day.

I spent hours in the psychology and religion section at Barnes and Noble in Squirrel Hill, sitting in a chair by the window overlooking Murray Avenue and wondering if I should have been a therapist. I understand people, I told Dave over the phone during one of our nightly arguments. I’m intuitive. I also wondered if I should have been a high school teacher, or a librarian, or an archivist, or anything besides this. Whatever this was. A grad student not writing her thesis, watching people pass on Murray Avenue two stories below, haunting a graveyard like some teenage goth.

“Give yourself a new project,” Dave said, yawning into the phone. He was in Erie, three hours north of me, teaching fiction writing and drinking wine with a poet who lived next door to him in faculty housing. They played surrealist bocce, whatever that was, on their lunch breaks. Whenever he’d been teaching he had an annoying habit of treating me like one of his students if I complained about writing, and it was really starting to piss me off. I’ll never forgive him for telling me to cover my laptop screen with a towel. But he has always approached writing with more realism and practicality than I have. I have always wanted to be a mystic.

“Well, then. Make something happen,” he said.

I hung up on him and jammed the box fan into the open window and stripped down to my underwear and lay on the bed, on top of the covers, feeling sorry for myself, crushed by the weight of my unwritten thesis and a grief that I couldn’t believe was still so hard to bear, when my mother had been dead for more than ten years.

If I could just find some way to exorcise it, I thought, I might be able to write—if not about Warhol and his women then something, anything. But whenever I tried to write my stomach hurt and I couldn’t breathe. So instead I walked the paths behind my house, memorized the names on the graves, left flowers, and tried not to think about the only grave that really mattered, alone and untended back in Louisiana. I flipped idly through bridal magazines trying to excited about the wedding I was planning, since I hadn’t been able to convince Dave to elope. I took fitful naps and had nightmares.

I dreamed I presented my thesis to my committee. I opened the box where the manuscript should have been, and instead, there was an ornate tomb carved in stone, with a bust of a woman’s head as a sort of finial on the peak. My thesis director carefully placed the thing on the conference table and walked around it several times, shaking her head. “It looks nothing like her.”

When I woke it was dusk, quiet except for the echo of a basketball on the pavement, ticking away the minutes until summer would end and Dave would come home and my thesis would be due and my time would be up.

.Make something happen.

Read the rest over at The Mudroom. 

The Absurd Pressure of Gratitude

Christian women in particular feel an intense and absurd pressure to be full of joy and gratitude at all times—especially when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood and life in the domestic church.

I’m an ardent believer in the beauty of “living faithfully a hidden life,” as George Eliot wrote so beautifully in Middlemarch, but I also want women to know they don’t have to be full of joy all the time to be a light to another. Motherhood is a blessing, yes, a vocation, and a holy work. But it is also a cross. To claim we should be filled with visible joy all the time diminishes the sacrifice that motherhood requires, and it diminishes the power of the cross to be a powerful sign of life.

Motherhood requires our whole beings, and at times it feels we’ve sacrificed everything: our physical bodies, our mental health, our professional ambitions, even our spiritual lives. We give all of this and more, all while risking the greatest heartache and disappointment a woman might be asked to endure. We give birth and devote our lives to creatures who will live and sin and bless and disappoint and, ultimately, die.

Stillbirth in particular is a great taboo of motherhood, but so many of us are carrying crosses of grief and deep pain, and we carry them in shame and isolation. We need stories and art that give us a way to articulate our suffering, that let us know we’re not alone, that we are blessed even when we can’t be joyful. Sometimes letting others see you suffer and sharing your pain and your struggle to believe is what kindles the light that another soul so desperately needs to see.

Read the rest at Sick Pilgrim.

Organic Habits: US Catholic Magazine

Catholic sisters have always responded to the pressing need of the historical moment, whether for hospitals, orphanages, and schools, or for peace, justice, and civil rights. Today we live in a world where, in the words of Pope Francis, “any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” It is in this context that vowed Catholic religious—accustomed to working on the fringes for unpopular causes—have been quietly leading the charge for environmental sustainability.

The “green sisters” are various Catholic religious orders that have integrated Catholicism with environmentalism. Some are contemplatives who run retreat centers for prayer and reengagement with nature, while others are activists who travel the world, teaching and ministering to those suffering the effects of climate change. As the Sisters of Earth—their informal network—they come together for international conferences to share how different regions have been impacted by environmental degradation and discuss how they can work with indigenous cultures to seek solutions.

The green sisters have been doing this work for 20 years. But while Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II expressed concern about the looming ecological crisis and its implications for humanity, it was Pope Francis who affirmed the value of these women’s vocation with Laudato Si’. Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Janet Ryan says, “When Francis writes, ‘We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,’ and when he says that these problems ‘demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,’—well, that’s what we’ve been talking about all along.”

A sense of vocation

Far from fading into obscurity, shuttering their motherhouses, or turning off their lights, the green sisters have gone outside, planted community gardens, and installed solar panels. While the vocational crisis is all too real—the average age of vowed religious increases every year—the Sisters of Earth have found new energy and purpose in the environmental movement, and many of their communities are thriving, brought together with shared environmental and religious commitments.

Read more of my cover story for the April issue of US Catholic magazine at:

Lent 2016: Bring on the Night


square SP

Last Ash Wednesday, my brother sent a text asking what my spiritual goals were. I wrote back, “stay alive.”

I was lying in my best friend’s bed in Chicago, so depressed I could barely move my fingers, but I vividly remember answering his text, then scrolling through the weather app on my phone to see the high that day would be -1.  For the last time, I checked the weather in Louisiana, then deleted it from my locations.

I was pretty much crazy with grief and felt that even a cartoon image of a round yellow sun was mocking me.

My best friend brought me a fried egg and sat on the edge of the bed to make sure I ate it. She took care of my kids and told me to rest, though I couldn’t sleep. I guess at some point we must have bundled against the cold and walked to Mass to get ashes–there’s a picture of us with our foreheads smudged–but I don’t remember any of it. Only the weather app, the egg, and the text to my brother: stay alive.

I didn’t really want to stay alive, but I knew that I had to. Even if I was going crazy, I didn’t want my kids to suffer the grief I’ve lived with my whole life. I didn’t want to perpetuate the pattern that began with my mother’s death, or maybe long before then. Who knows? Some new scientific study suggests that the Old Testament writers were right about the sins of our ancestors being visited upon us. We pass trauma on with our genes. Maybe there’s no stopping it, and we’re all living out stories set in motion long before we were born. But I don’t need science to tell me what the Greek poets knew: we repeat ourselves. Despite our best intentions, we fall into the very traps we are determined to avoid.

Read the rest at Sick Pilgrim….


Wearing Our Lives Lightly


I’m over at The Mudroom today with my first post as a contributor.

“And all the liturgical feasts and solemnities of the season speak of our amazement to find him here among us, in our flesh, in our world. The three wise men find him by the stars. Simeon recognizes Him as the Messiah and says he can finally die happy. John the Baptist watches a dove descend from heaven and hears a voice cry, “This is my beloved son.” And at Cana, some lucky wedding guests witnessed his first public miracle, when he saved the party by turning some water into the very best wine.

Awe, wonder, feasting. I’m pretty good at those Epiphany-type things.

But there’s another story of recognizing God among us, and it’s a story of fear and cowardice. I’m pretty good at those things too.”

Come over and read the rest at The Mudroom.