Category Archives: religion

She Had Won

This is for anyone who believes, or aches to believe, in Something More. This is for the girls and boys who almost died. For the ones who wasted themselves away. This is for headaches at three a.m. and hollow stomachs. This is for anyone who’s ever been held hostage by disease so badly it overtakes all the joy, energy, and love you’ve left to give and offers you a shell of a life in return.

This, this story, is a new day.

God smacked into me. I was standing in my living room, holding a remote and turning off an otherwise muted TV. I’d been sitting in the kitchen for hours, forgetting that the TV had even been on, and pressed the power button.

Before it flickered off, I caught sight of a girl onscreen.

Something told me to turn the TV back on. I needed to hear her story.

So I did.

And within 30 seconds, it became clear why.

Mariah Pulice was 19 years old. She had spent most of adolescence chained to the belief that she would never be able to starve herself enough. In high school, she lived on a slice of American cheese a day. She forgot how to love anything. She forgot how to laugh, how to sing, how to experience anything other than emptiness.

And she lost friends. She lost herself. She lost pounds and pounds.

I waited for her sister to say the words that shook me to pieces: “She wasn’t Mariah. Mariah’s always fun all the time and she’s always energetic and goofy and… she didn’t want to do anything.”

Because I knew that girl. That energetic and goofy girl who just got the wind knocked out of her and could do nothing but lie in bed and text her roommate to tell her she thought her heart was going to stop beating.

I prayed she could sing. And she did. Let It Be by The Beatles.

But what broke me clean in half was when they told her she was going to Hollywood and her sisters and her mother and her whole family came running in and smacked into her. Almost knocked her onto the ground. And they were crying because she was alive and because someone believed in her second chance the way she believed in her own life.

And her mother, through inconsolable tears, just falling over her crumbling daughter, could do nothing but thank the judges for this moment.

Because that’s what we do when the people we love make it through unconquerable storms: we get scared, downright terrified, that they will not survive. We play the scenarios in our heads, the really bad options and the good ones, when we’re able. We think about the future as this gift we won’t get to open because life has taken us down this irreconcilable path.

And then, one day, we wake up and dream. We start to let the cracks of sunlight through the slats in our dusty attic of a head. We start to be alive again.

I meant it when I said God smacked into me. Standing there, breath lodged in my throat, shoulders shaking with silent tears. Because she was alive. So am I. So are the hundreds of thousands of others who may or may not ever get a chance to see the sunlight peek through the darkness.

She had won.

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This Thing Called Catholicism

There are two sides to the congregation, and I mean that literally.

When I walk in, I sit on the far side, but the whole time we face each other like two sides of a broken mirror, too busy focused on the other to realize something is happening in the middle.

It’s hard not to be a writer for an hour. To be silent yet engaged, alone yet together. It’s hard to sit and stand and not at least cut a glance to the girl three feet away, coughing under her blanket. The preteen three rows up, her whole body bobbing with the music. The two elderly couples in the front, turning to each other and grinning as if to say, “I have waited all week to see you again.”

I am getting better at it, but it is hard. Most of the time, it feels like I am sitting knee deep in a community that sees me as temporary.

When I was a child, and well into my preteen years, I used to keep my jacket on in church. Not because I was ready to scoot at a second’s notice, but because I was small, so small, and always cold.

Now, though, I don’t even wear a jacket. I set my purse down on the seat next to me, hoping someone might notice this gesture. See? I am staying.

When instructed, I turn to the man behind me, middle aged and Asian, and shake his hand.

“Kaleigh,” I say.

He doesn’t offer his name. None of them do.

And so I stop repeating mine, wondering if you have to earn names like Girl Scout badges, or if mine is just too Irish, too unfamiliar, too softly spoken over the din of chatter encircling our miniature introductions.

I wonder if he even knows I introduced myself.

When I leave, I go to slide the Cather into a shelf, but it doesn’t quite fit and a teenaged boy wordlessly grabs it from me, clutches it to his chest, and fits it neatly into another row. My cheeks burn with irresponsibility.

I start to remark that there is no room, I can see that, desperate to explain to someone that I am capable, but he doesn’t listen.

I wonder, then, if this is about books on shelves.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, it feels a bit like entering the high school cafeteria and watching the automatic reflex of others stretching themselves over the benches, ensuring that there is no room left for you.

There is no room for you.

I can’t see myself in the broken mirror of the congregation. I don’t know how I fit. Just that it feels less earned, more forced, than it has in my entire life. Just that every other time I entered a church not as an outside so much as a good friend, girlfriend, sister, relative of an actively-involved, regularly-committed churchgoer.

This time, I am on my own.

And I wonder if it has anything to do with books or jackets or leaving. If it’s all in my head.

Maybe, I wonder, they know I’m walking on this thing called Catholicism like a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Maybe I am nearly transparent, saying the wrong responses and singing out of tune.

Thanks, Speedy God

It had been nine months.

The span of time in which babies turn from ideas to breathing.

Nine months since I last stepped into a place of worship, bowed my head, and mouthed words with strangers around me on all sides.

Six years since I had bent down on wobbly knees, rubbing them raw on red-colored cushions. A flap of white cloth between my bare knees and the altar.

And I was terrified. I looked around, knew no one.

What am I doing here?

It’s the sort of question I imagine thousands of us ask for any number of reasons: we haul a caravan of rowdy children to the grocery store and wonder why it’s impossible to scan the scribbled list, navigate the aisles and wrestle the children away from the Halloween candy display; we sift through a stack of bills too tall to be ours and wonder what we’ll be doing without next month to make it work; we tuck one ankle behind the other, fold our hands, bow our heads, and wonder whether these strangers in the aisle in front of us are thinking the same thing on a chilly September morning.

For most of my life, church was a place I knew well. My second father who always tucked me into his robe and whispered to be good for my parents this week, don’t cause any trouble now. My mother’s stack of CCD workbooks sliding around in the backseat of her Jeep Cherokee, marked up with the writings of nine-year-olds who just wanted to feel like they belonged.

Like they were ready to stand up with everyone else and march to the front of the altar and bow their heads and accept God into their life.

Like they were not just watching, not the last to be picked for kickball at recess, but maybe not the captain yet either.

I wanted to feel like those nine-year-olds. So I sat and listened and looked around and waited for something that might feel like home.

And I can tell you, because I felt it over and over again, that the scariest thing this world has revealed to me is the truth: that more often than not, things don’t stay the same, but change every single second.

They had changed the responses since I last handed my Sunday to God. And I felt that nervousness, that restless feeling of losing a battle, of failing to be the kind of girl who woke up every weekend and put on her nice clothes and spent hours devoting herself to worship.

It happened when the music started. The same handful of people standing next to the altar, one guy with a guitar, and chords I knew so well.

I felt this warmth of knowing. This warmth of recognizing. That in a world where everything had changed, where I did not know the priest’s name and no one had dared sit next to me, leaving the whole row of chairs to myself, these chords had not. These words had not.

Growing up, I thought we were to whisper, “Thanks, speedy God,” instead of, “Thanks be to God.”

I spent years convinced of this. Now, I know, sometimes He is speedy. Sometimes, He works quickly. In an hour’s time, He quiets your fears.

That Sunday-Monday Feeling

I grew up believing in stretching Sunday mornings because evenings just weren’t so fun to deal with. I’d sit in my church pew, all the way at the front of the congregation, or more likely on the altar, one foot tucked behind the other, and think about all the ways I could mess up. All the people who could etch my mistakes into their brains.

Later, they could cackle over coffee cake and hot tea about how I tripped over that too-long white robe, how I dazed out and forgot to hold the book, how I stood up when everyone else kneeled.

There was this anxiety that didn’t float away like it should have. And it felt like those moments stretched on forever.

The after, the part that came only once I hung up that white robe and slid into the backseat of my dad’s car, still smelling new even when I was in high school, held the moments where I could breathe again.

And then, they’d stand outside the car, chatting about something coming up, and I’d just want to roll onward to breakfast.

My sister and I would be buckled in already, twisting around to peer out the back window as if maybe, at any minute, the car itself might roll uphill across the gravel parking lot. Of course, it never did.

We’d fight with each other because we’d been quiet, so quiet and contemplative, for almost two hours by then, and our butts hurt from sitting on dark-stained wood and our stomachs growled and the car felt like an oven as the sun strengthened and the world buzzed and what were we missing? What on earth were we missing outside those four doors?

We found the answer in the Wawa parking lot, while my dad poured black coffee and my sister swung open the clear plastic pastry doors and tucked a donut or a muffin or anything with icing and sprinkles into it.

And then we’d rumble the quarter mile to our house, up one hill and down another, her fingertips messing the melting icing as she tried to get a pinch of sugar, too impatient to wait.

We’d run inside and use napkins as plates and my dad would come strolling in, The Philadelphia Inquirer in hand, sitting down at the head of the table, the two of us with only morsels and crumbs left on our napkins.

It always started that way, the waiting and worrying and bickering colliding with late-morning breakfast. But the worst was the moment after, when the donut was gone and the fingertips were sticky and the clock held too much time and not enough.

We’d slug upstairs, crashing into our rooms to do homework, busy through the afternoon, waiting for a Sunday night dinner that might make up for school the next morning.

For the first time in sixteen years, I didn’t feel that. No more Sundays stretched with schoolwork. I am not in the backseat of that car anymore. It sits in the second spot outside my apartment complex, waiting for me to trickle down three sets of stairs and into the driver’s side where I’ll coax it on and pray it gets me where I need to go. Where I want to go.

The Girl Jesus Asked To His Middle School Dance

I was raised hardcore Catholic.

No, not the girl in plaid pleated skirts with my button-down twisted in on itself. Not the rule-breaker, the line-walker or the daily devotionalist.

I glared at those who dared to enter the church doors like it was a semi-annual sale at Victoria’s Secret. Like we were selling something for them on those two days they packed into minivans and two-door sports cars and hauled hosts of kids, kids I’d never seen before, into the back pews just before mass began.

Imagine attending someone’s birth and funeral and nothing else. There is no way, I am sure, to know them.

They cannot tell you their stories or tap you on the shoulder as a timid toddler, grabbing hold of your heart so fiercely you forgot you didn’t want to let it go. They cannot coax you out of bed on a Sunday morning when you’d rather face the wall and count the stripes in the wallpaper.

Mostly, though, they cannot help you. Cannot ever be given a chance. Cannot ever be asked for that first dance in middle school with the beat thumping too loud for you to be sure you know what you just agreed to.

Now I know Jesus was not a hip hopper, a hipster kid, a pants-down-to-his-knees type. I know He didn’t call clichés into question or clique His way into the Perfect People Club.

If there had been a middle school dance, though, I am sure He would’ve at least attempted to ask some girl for one measly chance.

He was, after all, human for a time.

For as long—and longer than—some of us ever live. For a quest some of us dare to tackle—to etch our belief, aching in our chests, into someone else’s handprints.

And that little goal, albeit small, is something I can understand.

We coax our smaller selves into something bigger, scarier, newer. We rally our troops for something we believe in. We pound a path into the ground with our tapping feet and twirling toes.

I think Jesus was a dancer. A real crooner.

I think He knew the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re terrified someone won’t believe in the words spilling from your lips and stage-diving onto their eardrums. Knew the anxiety of Us versus Them lined up on opposite sides of the dimly-lit gymnasium.

Us, the Doers.

Them, the skeptics.

He was a little bit nervous, pushing glasses up the bridge of His nose, staring down at His two left feet. But He knew what He wanted. Knew where He was headed. Knew that someday He’d grow up and take this world by storm.

And you cannot help but wish you’d given those Doers a chance. Sashayed to the in-between and offered them a hand. Met them halfway.

Oh to have met them halfway. To have reached five fingers and two feet and a big bustling brain filled with ideas. To be the second Doer, the first Adopter, the first Believer.

Sometimes, it’s not the Doers we need most. It’s the Believers.

And my, oh my, do we have an army of those waiting for a Doer to sweep them off their feet. They are sitting in plastic folding chairs on the other side of your gymnasium, sipping punch and staining their lips red.

Among the red-stained lip smackers I’ve sat, fingers interlocked in my lap, itching to dance. Finally, I am standing up, pushing forward, sashaying into the center of the tiled floor. Letting this wild ride begin beneath someone else’s disco ball and a different artist’s techno beats.