Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction 

I was one of the twenty-three essayists chosen for this collection of writing about life in Michigan via earth, fire, wind, and water, curated by Anne Marie Oomen.

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle

A story of how A Wrinkle in Time saved my life–twice–is featured in Sarah Arthur’s wonderful tribute to L’Engle that traces her influence on spiritual writers.

Computers Don’t Give a Damn: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence

IBM’s new ad campaign featuring Watson the supercomputer is selling the message that AI has arrived. But consciousness remains a mystery, and a true thinking machine is still far beyond the reach of science.

Lament for Louisiana After the Floods

I 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.

The Spiritual Child: The Next Big Idea in Parenting

“As I read The Spiritual Child, a book by psychologist and professor Lisa Miller about new research on the inborn spirituality of children and its role in long-term mental health, I wondered if my mother’s death, while certainly a pivotal, even shattering experience, was at the root of my struggles with mental health after all. Reading Miller’s research findings about adolescent-onset depression, I wondered if what happened after her death wasn’t far more important to my later diagnoses of complex PTSD, anxiety and depression.”

From Regret to Wonder

“Regret should be a “transitional stage” that ends in repentance, wrote Brother Roger of Taize: “Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, ‘dispels my sins like the morning mist’ (Isaiah 44:22).”

St. Thomas Aquinas Says You Should Nap (A Few Thoughts on Overcoming Sorrow)

“When I was in deep grief, I often had to refer to a checklist in the morning just to summon the will to get out of bed. The torpid pace of depression was an issue, but worse was my overwhelming confusion. I couldn’t remember how to start my day. Making breakfast, showering, getting dressed, brushing my teeth—all seemed foreign, complicated, near impossible. You might as well have asked me to go run a marathon, perform brain surgery and then conduct a symphony. I had no idea where to begin, what to do first, how to order my daily activities into a schedule that made sense. So I would lie in bed, paralyzed, and cry.”

Breaking Bread to Improve Your Relationship

“It’s an endearing story, rich in Eucharistic symbolism. But might it also practical? According to a study by a team of Dutch and Canadian psychologists, “social interactions during a meal were more positive in terms of how people felt, behaved, and perceived others.” Jesus was using the ultimate icebreaker.”

Losing My Depression: Medicating the Religious Mind

“Suffering and affliction do unite us with God, but they tend to remove us from others. Depression seals me in a chamber, makes relationship difficult if not impossible. Even the smallest challenges seem insurmountable: it seems clear nobody can help me, and the idea that I might be able to help anyone else is unfathomable. Depression prevents me from being in communion. And communion, for a Christian, is not optional. I feel closest to God when I’m suffering—that’s truth.”

Saying No to Cheap Gratitude

“Something in me recoiled at the idea of micromanaging my children’s spirituality. I teach them the prayers and traditions of our church and encourage frequent participation in the sacraments. We live the liturgical year. I pray with them and for them. I tell them stories that I hope are preparing them to grow into a life a faith. But I can’t demand that my kids have a religious experience.”

Watching Cosmos With My Daughter

“The irritating potshots “Cosmos” takes at the religious worldview—and there were several—didn’t register with her at all; she still takes the existence of God as a given. In her mind, there is not yet a firm distinction between science and religion. In fact, her religious sense is at least partly what makes “Cosmos” so appealing and accessible to her. Ultimately the show is telling the same kinds of stories we have been telling at home and at church—stories about the hunger for truth, and how the importance of building on established tradition, believing in what we can’t see and being in relationship with each other are all essential to progress toward that truth.”

The Art of Leaving: The Blessings of an Uprooted Life

“As a parent there is tremendous pressure to provide stability and roots for our children, but the truth is, I want it for myself, too. Many of my generation are living at home with their parents for financial reasons, and I often envy them. But are there benefits, too, to rootlessness, to adaptation and change? What are the blessings in the vagabond life? In an effort to make our itinerancy more desirable and romantic, I have clung to certain stories and aphorisms: We are all pilgrims headed elsewhere. Our hearts are restless ’til they rest in God. I’ve sold my children on tales of explorers and orphans and outlaws and restless hobbits who seek adventure.”

A Winter Soul: Breaking Through the Coldest Months

“Fallow is too gentle a word for this kind of winter. This is not a season of quiet melancholy, a few weeks at a slower pace to be savored over a cup of tea. This is months trapped inside with small children. This is influenza and whooping cough. This is getting stuck halfway into the bank parking lot and blocking traffic. This is black ice and zero visibility. This is breaking bones in a fall. This is holes in the roof from the weight of the snow and the holes in the road that swallow your tires. This is what comes before the fallow time. This is a harrowing. A harrow is a horrible-looking farm tool with wheels and spikes and teeth. It breaks up the earth, crushes, pulverizes, plunders. Sound too extreme? Then I’ve captured it perfectly.”

Driving the Dark Roads

“One of my deepest fears is leaving my daughter motherless in adolescence; I sicken at the thought of her navigating those dark roads alone, exposed, without me to protect her. But in the end, there’s nothing for it but trust. I used to imagine God sitting in that chapel at St. Margaret Mary, waiting very patiently for me to notice him. But that’s not right at all. He was there all along, all along those dark roads, even when I couldn’t sense his presence, even when I couldn’t respond. Grace operates even in the meanest little army.”

Light One Candle

“In those moments of life when I’ve felt most powerless, when I’ve felt there’s no comfort at all for myself or a suffering friend beyond a cry for divine help, lighting a candle has made me feel like I’ve at least done something, turned my body and my heart to some purpose, performed an act of faith that has changed the atmosphere of the dark night even for just a moment and lit the room with prayer.”

Slumping Toward the Altar

“Maybe it is a failure of a kind, but I’m no longer ashamed of what my weak flesh needs to live a life of faith. Any lasting reform will require more than endless resolutions, more than sweet words, even The Word. I need physical intervention—strong coffee and bright lights and kids on the bed. I need sacraments, made like me and for me, both spirit and matter. Catholics call confession the sacrament of conversion, of turning around, and it’s there, in the little room in our ugly church, that I wrench my wayfaring body back in the right direction and my soul back to belief.”

Against Gratitude

“Because sometimes laundry is just laundry, and dishes are dishes, and kids whine because they’re kids, and the apparent absence of the transcendent in any of it is what drives us to our knees. But it seems it’s no longer enough to endure or even embrace the endless Sisyphean chores of parenting and life. We Christian parents must enjoy them, and our children must enjoy them, and the key to obtaining this joy—and the measure of our faith—is our gratitude for it all.”

Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum:  Part 1

“I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, and was prone to melancholy and anxiety even as a small child, well before I had any real reason. The trauma of my mother’s illness and death fanned the flames, but the fire was already burning. I started my first bottle of Prozac when I was thirteen. And then I started to write, which is both a burden and a relief. To write is to exist momentarily on a plane where one can make connections, discern patterns, uncover and even force meaning from experience. The relief comes when I manage to write to that brief exhilarating moment when everything falls into place, a satisfaction so rarely felt in life. The burden is everything else about writing.”

Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum:  Part 2

“I took the little pills every day and as the doctor promised, I got well.  I don’t think I realized how sick I really was. I sit here in the dead of the hardest winter Northern Michigan has endured in years, feeling pretty good, mostly free from obsessive thoughts and inane songs from my childhood. I sleep at night instead of tossing and turning, coughing, and dreaming of Virginia. I read Norse myths and walk in the snow and feel like a Viking.”

A Feast of Love

“By Christmas break I was ready to flee. I had the car packed before Dave walked home from teaching his last class. I was worn out from two months of rib-wrecking bronchitis, early frigid cold, and terrible, wrenching homesickness. I couldn’t wait to see my family. For the first time since childhood, we’d all be together on Christmas Eve.”

Signs, Parables, and the Lord of the Rings

In fact it, they are joyful, and also grim and violent, and they have made me, in my reading, strangely happy. I say strangely because the idea that a book could bring happiness seems unreasonably simple after a decade of calling books “texts.” Maybe I’ve gotten too far from reading for pleasure and experience.  But I was surprised to find myself, halfway through The Two Towers, happy, and longing for more.”

My Soul Thirsts

“There is no more seductive promise to me than this Eucharist, the only real shot I’ve got at leaving my sworn enemy time behind, at least for fifteen minutes until I pick up my son from the preschool around the corner. So I can’t quit this church, even if she stubbornly abandons or forgets all the other ways she offered escape from the relentless grind of the everyday that wears all things down to dust. If I loved God better, I fear, I wouldn’t need those transcendent chants, the dead language, the stained glass that obscures the present tense with stories from the swirl of history and the promised, longed for future. But my starved (or is it overfed?) imagination needs help to conceive of a world and a love that is both like what we know and far greater, everlasting.”

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