It All Comes Down to This

It was almost two months ago that the choirs started preparing for Christmas. Two months of late nights, seemingly impossibly high notes and seemingly endless retakes. And it’s all over in a mere 20 hour marathon of masses.

I normally dread the major holidays. Not because of the late nights, or the endless rehearsals. I dread major holidays because for the last six or seven years I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil down on the altar as song leader. It’s not a lot- sing the melody on the hymns, sing the gospel acclamation, raise my arms like a giant bird to cue the congregation to sing along. But I have a bit of a confession to make. As much as I love to sing and feel proud when I get a solo, I hate being the center of attention.

Yes, you read that right. The girl who loves a good karaoke night hates to be the center of attention. Go figure. Actually, I’ll share a little secret: my major stage fright was the whole reason I started doing karaoke. When I first became the cantor for the smaller choir, it took me a whole year of getting up every week and sing the psalm and gospel acclamation by myself before I stopped physically shaking every time. I started doing karaoke as a way to reduce my nerves. It definitely helped, but I still would rather stand in the middle of a bar belting out some Evanescence than stand on the altar alone leading the congregation on Christmas Eve. Fortunately I was only down in front for the first part of the mass. Then I could join the rest of the choir upstairs in the choir loft.

Of course this doesn’t mean that this Christmas Eve was easier. It just means the challenges were a little different. The biggest challenge was my solo during the 5:00 mass. Especially since it didn’t start out as my solo. Just a week and a half earlier another first soprano totally rocked this solo at our Christmas concert. It’s one thing to still feel line I’m proving myself. It’s another thing entirely to feel like I’m not only still proving myself, but that I will inevitably be compared to someone else. It’s a whole different nerve-wracking experience. Ah, the issues of being an understudy.

I admit it, I survived. All four masses. I also slept most of the day yesterday as I tried to recover. It almost feels like it was all just a weird dream. Luckily, Easter is on the later side this year, so I have a brief reprieve before I have to do it all again.

Catholic and Feminist: Being a Bad Catholic

I know, I know… One post on the topic is fine, even two. But now I’m pushing it.

I’m finding that the more I write, the more I have to say. And let’s face it–religion/philosophy/spirituality are the sorts of topics that can lead to really long and interesting discussion and exchange of ideas.

I chose the title of this blog because I wanted to explore the ways that my personal beliefs differ from the formal doctrine/dogma of the Catholic Church. When I take an honest look, there are probably more things I see differently than things I view the same.

First, let’s get the obvious gender stuff out of the way. The Church has made some (superficial) strides toward inclusiveness. I personally believe many of them are silly. I understand God as being neither male or female (or both male and female, if you prefer). But I don’t need traditional hymns revised to tell me this. In fact, I find these sometimes clumsy word revisions to be petty, and nothing but an attempt to placate those of us who feel that women deserve a more equal role within the Church. In other words, no, you can’t be priests, but here, we’ll change the word “Him” to “God” because we’re sensitive to your feelings. Our stand on contraception and reproductive rights all but eliminates your role as an autonomous person, delegated to the role of baby incubator, but we’ll change the second verse of Joy to the World from “Let men their songs employ” to “Let us our songs employ.” Yep, that sure does make me feel better.

But I didn’t start this post to rant about what I don’t like, so let’s move on.

When I was younger, I had a conversation with my father about religion. He used an analogy that I still continue to use to this day. He said different religions were really just different paths up the same mountain. At the most basic core or all religion is a belief in something greater than ourselves and the goal of living a life that is in harmony with the rest of the world. Do not kill, do not steal, help those in need. In the grand scheme of things, the differences between many faiths are superficial. Do you worship “God” or “Allah”? Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, a prophet, or a figment of the imagination? None of these things change the most fundamental teachings of religion, which is about being a good person.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I spent about 10 years trying to work through me beliefs.  By the time I was in college, I had already decided that my beliefs were pretty much Christian, but there were certain ideas and concepts that I had learned along the way that drew me in other directions.  I was always open-minded regarding the supernatural.  I found that astrology described my personality very well in the explanation of my sun sign (Sagittarius) and my rising sign (Libra).  I believe in reincarnation and that each lifetime presents us with different lessons to learn.  I read The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure, shortly after it was first published.  Not only did I love it then, but it’s something I still recommend to people and re-read regularly.  So how could I reconcile all of this with Christianity, and especially with Catholicism?

The first step for me came in the form of a book that I found in a new-age bookstore in Syracuse.  While most of the store was geared toward Wiccan beliefs (the store was owned by a practicing Wiccan), the selection of books spanned almost any religion imaginable and included a wonderfully large assortment of Gnostic Christian texts and writings.  One day I stumbled upon a book called The Nine Faces of Christ: Quest of the True Initiate, by Eugene E. Whitworth.  It was a fictional account of a man who was trained in the old great religions and was eventually crucified.  While it is not about Jesus per se, it demonstrates the relationship be tween Christianity and other great religions.  It’s no secret that Christianity has “borrowed” from earlier religions. For example, we know that Christmas was intentionally set to be celebrated right around the same time as the Pagan Yule/Winter Solstice. All Souls’ Day immediately follows Halloween (also the Pagan festival Samhain).  But this book looked at some of the larger concepts that also became incorporated into Christianity.  For me, this book was the beginning of my journey back to the Catholic church.  Unfortunately, when I gave the book to my father to read, he did not get the same message and actually destroyed the book because he apparently felt it was that bad.

So here I am, over 10 years after deciding to go back to the Catholic church.  For almost nine years I’ve been involved with at least one of the two adult choirs at my church.  For the last two and a half years I’ve been completely committed to both groups.  I sing for two masses every Sunday from September through June.  I generally take July and August off, going to mass a little less regularly (I have two months where I can actually do stuff with my friends on Saturday nights).  I still read books like The Secret or The Four Agreements because I’m okay with the idea that anything that helps me to be a better person is worth reading.  I have more recently been drawn to books that relate to the intersections of science and religion.  I firmly believe that the two can coexist.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a Christian to believe in evolution, because I don’t see science as a threat to religion.  I see science ultimately proving the existence of something greater than ourselves, and I know that I’m not alone in this.

Maybe I’m a bad Catholic.  Maybe not.

 

Catholic and Feminist: Living an Apparent Contradiction, part 2

A few weeks ago, I was leaving the choir loft after Mass, when I was cornered by a parishioner–let’s call her Pam. Pam was one of the parishioners that was always very friendly towards me and told my director that she loves my voice. In other words, not just a random face in the crowd at church. So Pam cornered me, and here’s a brief recap of the conversation.

Pam: So I can add your name to the (Right to Life) petition, right?
Me: Um, well… No
Pam: Oh, is it because you don’t have the money with you? That’s not a problem
Me: No… It’s because I’m pro-choice
Pam: What do you mean?!
Me: Well, I believe abortion is wrong, and I have no problem doing what I can, within legal and ethical means, to present a woman with other options. But at the end of the day, I believe she had the right to make her own decision…
Pam: How can you be pro-life and pro-choice???
Me (debating which way I want to go with this and opting for the explanation less likely to cause a heated debate): Well, I was raped back in college, and it really impacted my views on a lot of things…

The conversation continued for a few minutes after that, with Pam apologizing for prying, and without any further pressure to sign the petition (although I did have to bite my tongue when she made a Todd Akin-esque statement about rape rarely leading to pregnancy because the female body is traumatized- sometimes you have to pick your battles).

As I walked to my car, I was reminded of the tightrope I walk every moment of every day–the delicate balance of being both a feminist and a Catholic. I recognize that I am lucky, in that I am often able to put this constant struggle out of my mind. I belong to a parish where the priest normally avoids those hot button issues that make me so aware of the conflicting parts of my identity. This wasn’t always the case, and I realize it likely will not always continue to be the case. But it’s nice to have a bit of a reprieve, where I don’t have to think about it.

I recognize that many of my beliefs fall outside of the traditional norms and teachings of Catholicism. I support LGBT rights, including marriage. I support real sex education in schools and the use of birth control. I am adamantly pro-choice. I know that I cannot alone in my internal struggle.

For myself, the balance between my seemingly conflicting beliefs lies in a more strict and literal definition of Catholicism. The Nicene Creed is the summary of the most basic tenets of Catholicism. It references the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary. It says nothing of abortion. At its root, Catholicism is focused on the teachings of Jesus, who never once mentioned homosexuality. Everything beyond this is man-made dogma, including even the concept of infallibility of the Pope (although I have to admit that I’m liking Pope Francis so far). It is this distinction between belief and dogma that allows me to reconcile these pieces of myself.

Some might argue that this makes me a bad Catholic. Maybe they’re right. But looking around, the world is full of “bad Catholics.” Just look at the numbers regarding contraception- a full 98% of Catholics have stated that they’ve used artificial contraception, despite the continued ban by the Church. Organizations like Catholics for Choice show me that I’m not alone in my beliefs. And seriously, just look at my choir posts. I think the two choirs cover all seven deadly sins between them, and I’m pretty sure the only Commandment that hasn’t been broken is the one regarding actual murder (and even here I’ve heard some rumblings).

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not trying to say that being a “bad Catholic” is a good thing or something to strive toward. But I know that we all have our flaws and all we can do is try to be good people. And isn’t that the whole point of religion anyway?

Make a Joyful Noise Unto The Lord: Christmas Party Special

This weekend was our choir Christmas party. My parents predicted that the party should be good for a post or two, and they were right.

You know this isn’t some stuffy old party when members of the hostess’s family comment about how out of control things got last year (and pretty much every year before that). As I mentioned in my last choir post, it’s the church choir people you have to look out for. The liquor flowed freely, and the snide comments followed soon after.

I no sooner entered the house when I began to think I stepped into the Twilight Zone. First, I was approached by a woman who has always only had nasty things to say to me. She complimented me on my eye makeup. Twice. WTF?! I told my director about it and he was equally stunned. I’m actually convinced that hell froze over at that moment.

A less than surprising conversation followed a bit later. I somehow ended up talking to a man that I cannot stand (he’s one of the people trying to get into the director’s pants and one of my jobs at choir parties is to make sure that he is never left alone in the same room as my director). So I’m playing nice and said something about how I was having problems with my neck. And “Leonard” starts to ask me what I did about it and then interrupted me when I started to tell him. Then, he asked me what was wrong with my neck and I told him about the multiple bulging discs. Leonard again interrupts and says that I must be wrong because there are only 5 cervical vertebrae. Seriously?? He knows I work in a hospital, but he still argues when I try to correct him. I bit my tongue, rather than calling him a stupid asshole, only because the liquor had not quite flowed enough by then to not have caused a huge scene (however, Leonard will be bequeathed with a labeled and highlighted diagram of the spine at out next rehearsal because I enjoy nothing more than calling out stupid people on their stupidity).

Dinner was finished much earlier than usual this year, so we began the gift exchange at a reasonable hour. The gift giving/entertainment portion of the night always goes the same way. First, we sing a Christmas carol parody written by the director. Then the choir presents the priest with his gift, the director presents the choir members with their gifts, and the choir presents the director with his gift.

This year, we were given the “X-rated” version of the 12 Days of (Choir) Christmas. Highlights included 11 embarrassing erections, 6 spanking sessions and 5 fisting firsts (sopranos). After this, it should come as no surprise that the choir gift to the priest this year was a set of whiskey glasses engraved with the seven deadly sins. I suspect out priest is used to doing the see no evil, hear no evil thing at our parties. After all, last year he heard me tell another woman about my strong desire to punch a woman in the other choir in her head. Of course, to the priest’s credit(?), once I explained who it was that I wanted to punch, he completely understood and agreed that she was crazy. Now that’s how you know someone is crazy–when even the priest can understand your urge to punch that person in the head.

After all the gifts are exchanged, most people leave. Those that remain sing some Christmas carols, followed by a brief, drunken rehearsal of some of our Christmas pieces. Normally I try to stay until the bitter end, but with the impending snow storm, I needed to still do some grocery shopping, so I sadly cannot report on the remainder of the night, although I heard about a few of the highlights. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what happens next year…

Ignorance Really is (Hershey’s) Bliss… And a Tall Glass of Milk

Damn you, Rolling Stone magazine for publishing an article that makes me question my life and decisions (to be fair, Salon.com also deserves partial blame for making me aware of the Rolling Stone piece).
After writing my first post about my Catholic/Feminist life balance, I was looking forward to getting started on the follow-up (AKA, the really juicy stuff). Then I read it. I don’t typically throw this term around lightly, but life-altering would be a pretty accurate description. The resulting cognitive dissonance that I’ve been trying to sort through over the last few hours make my Catholic/Feminist tightrope act look like absolutely nothing at all.
What could possibly turn my world instantly upside down like this? An expose detailing the animal cruelty involved in “Big Meat.” If you haven’t checked it out for yourself yet, I strongly encourage doing so. But be warned that even the article itself isn’t for the faint of heart. I cried while I read it and I didn’t have the stomach to view the videos (http://www.rollingstone.com/feature/belly-beast-meat-factory-farms-animal-activists).
This has led me to the uncomfortable realization that I cannot continue to live and eat as I have been. The new question I find myself asking is, “How much am I willing to change my behavior?”
It just so happened that after I read the Rolling Stone article, I found a link posted on Facebook by a former classmate regarding protein sources for vegan diets. I took it as a sign. When I thanked her for posting the link, she sent me some additional information, which I stayed up to read and start to digest (no pun intended).
My initial thought after reading the Rolling Stone piece was that maybe if I just bought animal products from local farms I would be okay. Then I saw a video showing the psychological trauma that a cow suffered while waiting to be slaughtered- and let’s face it, even pasture-raised cows eventually have to be slaughtered in order for me to enjoy my occasional cheeseburger.
But humans have been eating animals and animal products for thousands of years. Even Native Americans, with their deep spiritual connection to nature, hunted and consumed animals. And if the issue was raising an animal for the sole purpose of slaughter, what about animals that are still hunted in their natural environment? Would wild caught fish or venison be acceptable?
Of course the other consideration is my own relatively picky palate. Can I learn to like tofu, or even beans? And how in the world am I going to give up dairy? There are plenty of foods I could give up without too much difficulty- red meat, eggs, even wheat/gluten. But I drink two things- water and milk. I’ve been out of milk and had cravings so bad that when I finally buy some, I drink a full quart in one sitting. Not to mention that my two ultimate comfort foods are macaroni and cheese and chicken-flavored ramen noodles. No milk, no comfort foods, what am I thinking?
If this wasn’t enough, I read a fantastically cheery piece on Salon.com today discussing climate change. Besides the obvious stand against animal cruelty, vegan diets also have a smaller carbon footprint, making it healthier for the planet. Dammit, why does doing something good for the planet and all of those cute animals have to be so hard?
I’m still not entirely sure if I’m going to transition to a vegan diet. I am lucky to live alone, so I have full control over my own diet. I also know that my family would most likely attempt to be supportive if I was visiting. But, let’s face it, I’m in therapy for a reason. I have issues to work through, and food plays into a lot of those issues, which makes any sort of extreme change in eating very difficult. Fortunately, there are a plethora of books available now on the subject of vegan cooking, and as I sit here in Barnes & Noble waiting out a snow storm, I picked out a few books to get me started.

Music Soothes the Savage Beast

I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember.  I’ve loved to listen to it, to sing it, and back when I was a six-year old, loved to dance around the kitchen to it.  While I still enjoy Top 40 music from time to time, even when I was younger I was usually more interested in the lyrics and the message than in the beat or the bass.  Before I was able to express my emotions in writing, music provided catharsis.  I recognized this even when I was still in high school, as I literally wrote a list of songs that reminded me of different unrequited crushes I’d had.  Even now, certain songs will transport me back instantly, not just to general time periods in my life, but to exact moments in time.  Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” puts me back on the school bus on my first day of middle school, in my fluorescent-splattered blouse and black pleather skirt. Poison’s “Every Rose has its Thorn” transports me to a classmate’s 12th birthday party, when I slow-danced with a boy for the very first time (granted, his girlfriend asked him to dance with me).  

It shouldn’t be surprising that my taste in music became extremely diverse, as no single genre could ever fully capture the depths of my emotions.  I may or may not be bipolar, but my iPod very definitely suffers from multiple personality disorder.  How else could you explain a playlist that includes all of the following artists:  Killswitch Engage, LL Cool J, Billy Joel, Miranda Lambert…

As I mentioned in my very first post (I Suppose I have to Start Somewhere), Tales from Sick and Twisted isn’t just an attempt at a catchy name for my blog.  It’s also the name of the novel that I conceptualized and started (very slowly) writing.  It almost goes without saying that as Tales from Sick and Twisted started to develop in my mind, an accompanying soundtrack also emerged.  I don’t want to share the full list today, because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot yet, but I wanted to highlight a few of the songs and why they’re important to me.

  • Christina Aguilera “Walk Away”

    I have no shame in admitting that, even a decade later, I am still a huge fan of Stripped, primarily because a number of the songs have an amazing vulnerability.  Although this song wasn’t officially released, I stumbled across it at a point when the lyrics rang true in my life.

  • Melissa Etheridge “An Unusual Kiss” 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmAVZuzuET8                                                                                                     This is one of those songs where the lyrics don’t fit per se, but it happened to pop into my head when I was out with someone who eventually inspired one of the characters in my book

  • Jo Dee Messina and Tim McGraw “Bring on the Rain”

    I found this song during my last depressive episode, almost 4 years ago.  I took comfort in the lyrics and the idea that I was strong enough to face any challenge head-on.

  • Theory of a Deadman “Not Meant to Be”  

    This is one of a few different songs on my soundtrack/playlist that talk about the pain of realizing that you can’t force something that just isn’t right, which is something that has come up for me time and again.

  • Bonnie Raitt “Something to Talk About”

     I hated this song when it first came out.  I mean, I really hated this song.  Then my life circumstances started to reflect the lyrics of the song, and I “discovered” it for the first time, only about 20 years after the rest of the world… But this happens with me pretty regularly, where a song will suddenly fit my life and it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time, because it’s finally truly resonating within me.  

So, there you have it, a small sample of the songs that make up my personal Sick and Twisted soundtrack.  Thank you for allowing me to share.  And now it’s off to choir practice…

Confession: I’m a Slacker

Once a year I set aside a weekend to do a marathon cookie baking session. My great-grandfather was a baker in Germany before he came to the United States and I have his family’s German butter cookie recipe. I’m the only person in my immediate family that still makes these cookies and they’ve become my regular contribution to every holiday party I attend. As soon as Thanksgiving approaches my co-workers start asking about the cookies.
So this past weekend was my cookie weekend, except for one small problem. I never made the cookies. I left work on Friday and made sure to pick up all of my ingredients. Then I got home and stared at the mess that was my kitchen and wondered how I could possibly get everything cleaned up (I have a very small kitchen, so cookie weekend requires clearing every possible inch of counter space, plus my dining room table. As I stared at the pile of dishes and random containers, I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “it’s been a long week. I’ll let myself relax and unwind tonight and it will all feel better in the morning.”

But it didn’t feel better in the morning. I could barely drag myself out of bed, and besides dropping off my laundry, I didn’t make it farther than my couch. What the hell was my problem? In a small gesture of trying to get something done, I did all of my dishes and cleared off the dining room table. At least I wasn’t a complete and total lazy bum. Maybe I could mix dough Sunday after I see my parents and bake a few dozen each night during the week…

That particular idea lasted until I ended up spending most of the afternoon with my parents and didn’t get home until almost 6. At this point I’m in panic mode because I realize I have absolutely no time to bake these cookies. And it almost felt like the more panic I felt, the less I was able to actually do.

Of course everyone at work is asking about the cookies when I got in this morning. It was fine, I was busy, I’m tired, I baked about 70 dozen cookies (this is actually about what I bake each year). Then I finally started confessing to my friends. And I looked at the piles of work at my desk and my calendar. And I asked for Wednesday off.