Variations on a theme
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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006


Editor’s note: “Inspiration” has yielded the most entries of any topic we have offered so far in “variations on a theme.” We didn’t have nearly enough room to print them all. Readers were inspired by a variety of things and people, but the prize for No. 1 inspiration goes to Mom.

Inspiration is my mother. I think this started to dawn on me as early as my preteen years. While other girls’ mothers made monthly pilgrimages to discreet salons, battling gray hairs and sunspots, mine was blissfully unfazed by her grays. Shopping and wrinkle creams were a tedious distraction from her focus on family and friends.

When I was 12, an older neighbor we cared about -- though she was plenty prickly and set in her ways -- underwent a radical mastectomy. We called her “Aunt” Sally, but her only relation to us was a common driveway and my mother’s insistence that every lonely soul needed keeping.

You must understand that Mom’s favorite place was, and is, her kitchen. Her cooking is miraculous. That year, Aunt Sally came home from her surgery instantly old. Too weak for much else, she often sat in our cozy kitchen watching Mom cook, waiting for the meal to come. The meals were inevitably noisy, hilarious, delicious, and usually involved someone spilling something. They were a world unto themselves, a heaven all their own. Even a solitary woman who bore so many of life’s scars could, for a little while, escape pain and desolation in them.

When Aunt Sally went into the hospital for the last time, she failed quickly. Mom and I visited and I cried when we left. I couldn’t believe this was what happened at the end of a lonely life. But as I look back, I see there was joy to her last days, sharing Mom’s family, her abundant food, her easy conversation.

My mother taught me that hunger is rarely sated with food alone. Because loneliness can stab as sharp as hunger pangs, bread must be broken and shared. My mother’s miracle transformation of chicken and rice into love and mercy is the point of every Christian life. It’s harder than she makes it look, to keep my eyes open for those who are hungry and feed them.

West Chester, Pa.

* * *

I have a small home in the desert. It will be where I retire when the time comes. It is a small gated golf community.

About two weekends a month, after Sunday Masses, I make the 90-mile drive to my getaway. It is my place of retreat and quiet, and where I do most of my writing.

There are two “gatekeepers” there, on duty at different times. One gatekeeper sits in the little booth at the entrance of the community, and as the cars approach to get in, he continues to read his newspaper or occupy himself with whatever it is that keeps him busy.

Each driver must roll down his or her window to use the personal card key that opens the gate. He doesn’t look up to see who is coming and offers no sign of greeting.

The other “gatekeeper,” when he is on duty, sees you coming from afar. He leaves his desk, stands by the window, recognizes the car and its occupant as a friend and resident, and opens the gate.

I do not have to roll down my window and use the key card. As I go through the gate, he smiles, waves and yells out, “Welcome!”

This man makes my day. He understands that sitting in that booth is not just a job; it is a ministry. His sitting in that booth is not just about drawing a paycheck; it is about making a better world.

Oceanside, Calif.

* * *

I remember when my dad came home once and said that a little boy put his hand in his at a crosswalk and asked, “Mister, cross me?” He had that kind of face. Even strangers knew they could trust him.

I never minded that he had to go through the list of my siblings (“Mar-Reet-Jean ...”) before he hit the right name. We always used to tease him; he was such a good sport. Of all the family jokes, the one that shocked me, and still does, was the teasing he took for being wounded the very day he landed in France during World War I. “Didn’t even make it to the front,” someone would say, and he would just grin, rolling the ever-present wad of tobacco around in his mouth.

Awestruck by his war experience, I didn’t laugh. I was (and am) inspired by what his grit and determination enabled him to do. When he was told by a surgeon not to let anyone operate again on his severe shoulder wound, he trusted the doctor totally. Walk, and get that arm stretched, was his advice. So he put sand in a potato sack, a little more every day, and holding that bag in his weakened hand, he walked and walked and walked. In time, that arm and hand were almost as strong as the arm and hand on the other side. Then, to thank God for this healing grace, he walked to the shore. Yes, few people believe me when I tell them that on a sultry Feast of St. Anne summer’s day, he walked from Newark, N.J., to the seashore. If that’s not grit and determination, I don’t know what is.

I watched Dad as he stepped up with household chores to help our mother keep her high blood pressure under control, rising at 4:30 to clean the downstairs rooms, then doing the family wash until each of his three daughters was able to help. With pride, I tell whoever will listen that my dad taught me how to soak, scrub, boil and blue our undies!

I am writing this around the time of Dad’s birthday, and I’m glad to relive some of my golden memories and whisk them up to him.

Convent Station, N.J.

* * *

Inspiration can cause us to make life-altering decisions. But I tend to think of it in small terms, in its literal meaning, a breath of the Spirit.

One of my favorite places to go when I’m feeling sad or overwrought is a section of the shore of Lake Michigan known as the Promontory Point. A series of limestone steps and a wall face out to the water. If you look north, you can see the skyline of downtown Chicago; if you look east, you see nothing but water. Sitting on the wall facing the seemingly endless expanse of the lake is comforting to me.

One late summer afternoon, I was feeling bad about life in general. I had just attended the funeral of a friend, and I was feeling overwhelmed at work. I sat on the rocks with my portable radio and stared almost mesmerized at the water. One of my favorite records (a gospel version of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me”) started to play on the radio. As I listened and sang along, all of a sudden a seagull arose seemingly from nowhere and hung in midair for a few seconds above my head. Then it disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. When the song was over, I got up and walked home. My blue funk had disappeared. The Spirit had breathed on me that afternoon, giving me the strength and will to carry on.


* * *

This has been a tough year. I am still feeling tender, vulnerable and sad. May brought the unexpected loss of the companionship of a treasured friend. In August I changed jobs. I was unprepared for the feelings of loss, even as I looked forward to the new position. As I transitioned to the new job, my mother became ill and died of cancer at the beginning of October.

Mom lived in a small town 50 miles away. From the middle of August I drove there almost every day as her health declined and she entered a nursing home. On one of the first trips, a field of milo grain caught my eye. It was lush and green, with only the faintest yellow hue on the tall stalks. It struck me then that the ripening milo field was an analogy of her journey, and of mine.

During the next weeks, that field was a comfort. Each day its colors grew darker, and soon it became a carpet of rich orange, red, rust and finally brown hues. I looked forward to passing it, and I slowed the car to better appreciate its ever-changing beauty. Its beauty, but also its relentless ripening, helped me focus on reality.

It inspired me to be more aware of and grateful for the beauty that permeated my mother’s last days: the dancing shadow of leaves on the wall of her room at sunset; the bright stars in the clear sky as I readied for the drive home; the warmth and kindness of her caregivers; her remarkable humor about the foibles and challenges of life in a nursing home; the time-tested faithfulness of her friends.

That field of milo also inspired me to face the hard reality of her dying. As surely as the field’s hue darkened each day, she was moving toward the end of her life on this earth.

St. Louis

* * *

It was exactly five years ago that my world exploded in my face. The surgeon called who had taken the lump from my neck. He said it was non-Hodgkins lymphoma and I had to be in touch with an oncologist immediately.

I called my husband, and from that moment on, he was my rock, my touch with sanity, my inspiration. He assured and reassured me we would get through this together and beat it.

I went through the chemo and the radiation. Five months later, they found cancer in my gall bladder. Out it came. Then more chemo and radiation.

All this time, my sweetheart was there by my side. He put his life on hold and became my ballast through the storms.

When I lost my hair, he bought me a silly hat to wear. When I was nauseated, he rearranged his schedule and we went to a movie.

The dark cloud persisted. The following year, I found the pain in my back intolerable so spinal fusion followed. Again, my rock, my sweetheart, persisted as well. He was with me night and day, sleeping on a chair by my bed at Jackson Memorial.

I thought I’d run my bad luck course. But, no, the following year I was told I had bladder cancer and back to the hospital for surgery and treatment.

I’ve survived it all, but the doctor visits don’t stop and I am never alone on these visits as my husband makes himself available no matter what.

If I ever get angry with God for all these blights visited upon me, I quickly subdue the anger with thoughts of gratitude for the wonderful husband God sent to me.

Boca Raton, Fla.

* * *

I wrote a poem the other day. You’re probably thinking, “Oh, that’s nice. Good for him,” but I’d never written a poem before. I was always mystified by them. I mean, sure, I could write your basic “Roses are red, violets are blue,” but a serious Robert Frost-like effort was not in my abilities, I thought. I had so given up on the idea that I actually started being contemptuous of poetry, especially free verse. “This thing doesn’t even rhyme! They call this poetry?”

Really, I was jealous. What I didn’t know was that all I needed was the right inspiration. The word “inspire” literally means “to put spirit into” and suggests an outside force giving you the spirit to do something, and that’s exactly what happened to make me write this poem. I had been having problems with stress and anxiety, and people recommended therapeutic massage as one way to help alleviate it. After my first visit, my therapist told me I was so tense that it would take a few sessions to loosen me up before she could do the kind of deep tissue work that would truly relax me. Over time, I did feel looser and for a longer time after each session. Finally, one day, I had relaxed enough that she was able to do a real deep-tissue massage and to say that the experience was inspirational would be quite accurate. I’d almost say she touched my soul.

During the course of the massage, the words to my poem came to me, and I drove home reciting it to myself so I could write it all down (what a sight that must have been). Not only did I write a poem, but I wrote a free-verse poem. Talk about inspiration! What I find even more impressive is that everyone who reads it finds themselves inspired to go have a massage themselves. Curiously, I haven’t written much in the way of poetry since. I guess I haven’t had the right inspiration.


* * *

It was nearly 40 years ago that I walked into a slightly lit basement room of a small church in a dingy part of my city. I was dying of alcoholism and hell-bent on self destruction. I was a haughty, educated woman, whipped and beaten and “hoist by my own petard” of self-will.

There were mostly men in that room, looking a bit disheveled. They were old, bleary-eyed and had nothing to recommend them but the fact they no longer drank to die. There were two women in the room; “sluts,” I surmised. They looked painted and too bright and fancy for my liking. It seemed there was nothing in that room I wanted.

What is this inspiration, this light, that turns all the foolishness in our lives to wisdom, that takes our little self-made worlds and turns them upside down? My life was transformed in that shadowy, smoke-filled and hope-filled basement. I was not transformed by sermons, theology, promises of success and wealth and brilliance. I was not promised anything, really -- a hand held out, a smile of recognition and acceptance, a circle of strength and faith of some sort. In that basement there was a great sense of time and space. There was no punishment in that room, only promise. It was a room full of failures and has-beens, derelicts and once hopeless souls.

I have always quietly believed since that wonderful night in 1966 that power does not come from the kings and princes and CEOs and bishops and presidents and politicians. That’s the pretend power. The real power to change the very face of this earth comes from the bottom, from all those we turn our faces from, all those who wander our streets and die in our alleys.


* * *

Many years ago when I was young, I built a pushcart. It was very simple and crude, but it did the job. I used it to carry groceries home from the store. We did not own a car, so everything had to be carried home by Shank’s Mare, as my mom referred to it. It took me a long time to figure out that Shank’s Mare referred to my legs and me.

Since my mother had to feed seven of us every day, she had to do a lot of shopping and carrying of bundles. We all took turns going with her to help carry the bundles. I daresay that it was better exercise than going to the gym and it had the added benefit of letting me walk and talk with my mom, who was my guiding light and inspiration all through my childhood.

One day I found an old baby stroller that a neighbor had thrown out. I brought it home and took the wheels off. They were still in good shape. Next I searched the neighborhood for a wooden box and two boards. I secured the wheels to the bottom of the wooden box and nailed the boards to the sides of the box to serve as handles.

When I finished, I asked my mom to come outside to see this grand invention.

My mom took one look at my pushcart and exclaimed, “How did you do that? What a work of genius! What will you use it for?” I smiled and said, “I will use it to carry home our groceries and then I will earn some money carrying other people’s bundles.”

Well, you would think that I had just built a rocket ship to the moon, single-handedly.

Leonardo de Vinci’s mother could not have inspired him with any more sense of pride and self-esteem than my mom did for me on that day. Mom has continued to inspire me throughout my life, even though she died on my 16th Christmas.

Southampton, Mass.

* * *

As a newly ordained permanent deacon for the Fargo, N.D., diocese, I was searching for a theme to define my ministry. The life of St. Francis of Assisi, another permanent deacon, always inspired me.

Having registered as a conscientious objector to World War II, I thought my ministry should imitate Francis of Assisi’s by focusing primarily on justice and peace.

When Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was divinely inspired to call the Trident Missile the “Auschwitz of Puget Sound” and acted on his inspiration by withholding half his income tax, I knew God had chosen my ministry for me.

I wanted to imitate the archbishop by withholding half my taxes, but I was an attorney doing tax reports for clients and my parish included several National Guardsmen. What to do?

After an agonizing dispute with my wife, who feared repercussions upon us and our 10 children, and several sleepless nights, I knew Jesus was after me to imitate Archbishop Hunthausen if I wanted peace in my life. So I did it. I found the Internal Revenue Service easier to deal with than my church.

The church came down hard on Archbishop Hunthausen, forcing him into early retirement. I, too, experienced repercussions from the church but I’ve managed to persist in my ministries to shut-ins, prisoners and as spiritual director to the Legion of Mary.

I’m sure Archbishop Hunthausen has no regrets for acting on his inspirational call. Neither do I. I’m now 88 years old, in good health, still active in my ministries and finding time to write occasional letters to the editor on my favorite theme, peace and justice. Most important, I’m at peace with myself and my God.

Devils Lake, N.D.

* * *

Inspiration -- or the lack thereof -- is a subject I could write volumes about.

As a songwriter, inspiration is the wellspring of my creations, received in ebullient spurts, regardless of the fact that my laborious matchmakings of music and words evaporate into the great audio ether of rejected demo tapes.

Inspiration, for me, is the momentary and divine gift of the spirit that prompts creation of an astonishing something from the total nothingness that was.

I wasn’t the romantic fool that dragged us to Nashville, believing we could write songs for a living. You always were the whiny, thin-skinned half of us.

Ah. That would be the voice of Eddie, my intransigent internal editor. You’re early. Usually you let me finish most of a page before making your killjoy appearance.

Please, “received in ebullient spurts”? That’s terrible. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Tell me again why we’re even bothering with this essay? Isn’t there a three-minute ditty we could be writing?

Nashville, Tenn.

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National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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