The Pope and Me and What Might Have Been

The Pope is here today, just three miles from my home. As I write this, he is at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with joyful throngs cheering him in the streets and the lucky few joining him inside.

My friend Sylvia has been texting me her updates on Francis sightings, jogging from one place on his route to another. Truly, it’s a great day, made holier by the gift of a cloudless sky and a fall breeze rustling the still-green leaves. Once upon a time, this day would have meant something different to me, as it does to Sylvia, and 70 million other American Catholics.

I am sad that it doesn’t. Some part of me wonders if I left a great party too soon. Other parts tell me otherwise.

As we watched a Pope and a President speak outside the White House, our new Brazilian au pair asked me if I was Catholic. Instinctively, I gave the same answer I have given for the past twenty years:

I was raised Catholic.

I say no more, but even a native Portugese speaker gets the meaning in those four words.

And was I ever raised Catholic. Not the version that my parents were, with angry nuns who never wanted to be schoolmarms rapping their wrists, measuring girls’ skirts and previewing Hell like it was one false move away.

No, I had an awesome Catholic upbringing, in a small parish nestled between Boston and Worcester. From my earliest memory, Sundays (and, occasionally, Saturday evenings, so long as it was after 5:00 so it “counted”) meant the five of us, my family, wedged in a pew at St. Luke’s.

Looking back, I realize that in many ways it was the being there that mattered, that my parents demanded that one hour of us, free of even the 1970’s and 80’s version of distractions. Even as we squirmed, elbowed, and got uncontrollable “Church laugh” triggering a mildly stern look from my mother, we were there. The rituals of Mass moved us through sits and stands, affirmations of faith that rolled off our tongues, and offerings of peace.

We went. We went even on summer vacation, my siblings and I making vocal and, if I may say, compelling entreaties as we were hauled out of a perfect late afternoon playing in Long Pond. My mother was the stalwart, my father likely on our side but too afraid of either Mom or those darned nuns of his memory threatening eternal consequences. Our Lady of Lourdes in Wellfleet was stifling hot, with tiny windows beneath the stained glass Stations of the Cross opened just enough so we could hear kids having what I imagined was the greatest time imaginable as an octogenarian priest mumbled into the chalice.

But St. Luke’s was different, and special – maybe too special as it turned out. We had Father Tom Sullivan, a gifted speaker and soulful thinker who made it his mission to be part of the larger community of a small town. He organized summer bus trips to Hampton Beach, which were open to any tween or teen in town who wanted to come. Busloads did, and we had a fabulous time. For the CYO’s annual fundraiser, called the Rock-A-Thon, half of Westborough Junior High – Catholic or not – filled the parish center with rocking chairs, junk food, boom boxes and sleeping bags, where we rocked for a solid 24 hours. When we were older, Father Tom took those of us who were interested into Boston to see wonderful foreign films, like Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He saw no tension between open minds and faithful hearts.

It made him, and us, no less Catholic that he advocated inclusion and acceptance. I remember a full sermon dedicated to condemning anti-Semitism, which must have been prompted by some incident of which I was blissfully unaware. And one day, out of the blue, processing up the aisle wearing white vestments were. . . girls. Altar girls. It’s hardly radical now, but I remember the turning heads and whispers among everyone over 40 at the time. I’m pretty sure Father Tom didn’t wait for the Vatican, or for that matter the Worcester Archdiocese, to approve. By the third week, it was normal.

This was my Catholic Church, less chosen than it was simply given, handed down through generations of families very much like mine. This was where we mourned our grandparents, celebrated marriages, welcomed new babies. This was part of being Irish, even after a century of assimilation. In so many ways, the Church strengthened my family. That’s an awful lot to leave behind.

I never considered myself a “Cafeteria Catholic” until someone assigned the term to me and my kind when I was in college. I should have pointed out that the better analogy would be trying to order a la carte from a prix fixe menu with no substitutions. Like so many other American Catholics, I was comfortable turning a blind eye to Church positions that conflicted with my own core, and emerging, values and beliefs. I was certain I’d bested my challengers in dorm room debates on whether being Catholic could live alongside advocacy for reproductive rights and support for LGBT equality.

I was certain of all that, until I wasn’t.

In 1996, my friends Chris and Meg were married at the Catholic chapel at Brown University. I was honored that they asked me to read the Petitions, the part of Mass following Communion when individual prayers are offered with the congregation responding to each: “Lord, Hear our Prayer.” They handed me my script a few days before the wedding. I read it, re-read it, and asked them if they were really sure. They were sure. It was the Brown chapel, after all. They could get away with it.

And so, from up on the altar, after the standard petitions praying for those who had died, and the sick and needy, I read:

“We pray today for all couples who love. And we wait in joyful anticipation of the day your Church will welcome our gay brothers and sisters in the same union of your love as Christopher and Meghan share today. We pray to The Lord…”

Even with their heads bowed, I could see my newly wedded friends’ smiles. As for the rest of the congregation, it was a little like that day at St. Luke’s when the altar girls walked in. A few great aunts and uncles looked stricken. There were some shrugs and a good number of nodding heads. This was almost twenty years ago.

At the reception, I started talking with Meg’s aunt about what I had read. She was a liberal feminist, and yet a Catholic, who of course loved this small act of defiance. I told her I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I was tired of living a version of Catholic faith where being true to other things I believed felt like trying to get away with something. I couldn’t reconcile that I was welcomed and comfortable in that pew only by the happenstance of how God made me. I only had so many blind eyes. It was a great conversation and ended in tears. She made a powerful pitch I still remember all these years later: If we don’t stay, nothing will change. I disagreed, and in the end we reached this consensus: Some of us need to stay, and some of us need to go.

I went. In my memory, that was the moment I started saying, I was raised Catholic.

And yet, today is hard. It’s hard for the same reason that thousands like me who no longer practice the faith still don’t have a name for what it means to have left it, or if it’s fully possible to leave it. There wouldn’t be such terms as “Culturally Catholic,” or the dismissive “Recovering Catholic” if there was an easy way to answer my au pair’s question with a simple “no.”

But whether as a citizen or a Catholic, surely this papacy is to be celebrated, even for those of us wondering whether we should have held in there longer. There is an inescapable feeling that this is the Pope so many of us were waiting for, and it is an honor to host him. Let’s face it: he’s the Joe Biden of popes, almost impossible not to like. I love the Fiat, the simple white vestments, the hundreds of embraces amidst untold security threats.

If nothing else, may we never see another Prada Papacy. May this Pope’s example of humility echo across our overheated planet. May his recasting of climate change as a call to conscience move the recalcitrant toward action.

Like many others, though, I fear that Pope Francis is a Rorschach test for Cafeteria Catholics, whose desperation to hear and see what they want the Church to become risks clouding the reality of what it is and what those who control it will fight to have it remain. When that agenda is cast as “core doctrine,” the betting odds are not good that even a Church recommitted to raising people out of poverty will concede the life-saving power of self-determination over whether and how many children to create.

Even less certain is whether a man who famously said of a gay priest, “Who am I to judge?” might look into 1.3 billion faces and ask, “Who are you to judge?” Those 1.3 billion people trace their faith to a man born in poverty, who threatened the establishment, was persecuted for his beliefs and put to death by being nailed to a cross. It shouldn’t be a bridge too far to stop casting people into darkness in Christ’s name.

But for the first time I can remember, I have hope.

I still think about what Meg’s aunt said all those years ago, and I know I miss the sheer joy of belonging. I think of what substitute I have given my children for that one hour my parents insisted on, and I don’t have a good answer. I think of Father Tom and hope he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. From my place on the sidelines, I guess it’s a lot easier to assign hopes to this new Pope than it is to figure out where it all leaves me.

A few years ago, I took my parents to an Easter Sunday service at St. Columba’s Episcopal here in Washington. I assured them that it would be nearly indistinguishable from a Mass. As we waited outside for the earlier service to finish, for no reason I can think of I asked them who baptized me. Their faces fell for a second. Then, as only Dad can, he said, “Well, funny you should ask….”

Of course, it wasn’t funny at all that I was anointed with holy oil and welcomed into the faith by Bernard Lane, who turned out to be one of the most heinous pedophiles in the Boston sex abuse scandal. He was a parish priest in Littleton, where I was born, before he molested countless adolescent boys at Alpha Omega, a school for troubled kids who had already been in the juvenile system. When allegations arose, he was transferred to St. Peter’s in Lowell, then to St. Maria Goretti in Lynnfield; St. Charles in Waltham (where he was in charge of altar boys and catechism classes); St. Anthony’s in Cambridge; and Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea. Finally defrocked in 2005, he was never prosecuted and is said to live in New Hampshire.

As I absorbed this news, Mom put one arm around me, and Dad put his hands on my shoulders.

“Do you want a do-over?”

“No, thanks, I think I’m good.”

I can’t go back. But in that moment, and countless others, I have come to know that what matters is not that I was raised Catholic, but that I was raised by these two Catholics. Surely, the truest sign my life was graced by God were the hands on my shoulders that Easter morning. Leaders matter, and theirs was the moral leadership that never faltered, these two people who taught me that the only anathema is to deny the full dignity of anyone.

I didn’t stand along the street today, but I did call Mom.

She loves her new Pope.

A Farewell to Our Unlikely Au Pair.

For Este.

This weekend, we were treated to the first taste of fall weather. I remember promising you, around this time last year, that the oppressive D.C. heat would pass. Today it did, but you’ve already returned to late winter in Cape Town. Tonight, on our first Sunday without you, I tried my hand at your curried beef recipe. The smell of tumeric and onions cheered me a little, but it didn’t taste the same.

Did you really use a whole can of tomatoes?

And by the way, where do we keep our Worcestershire sauce?

The State Department has a web page describing the J-1 visa available through the au pair program. It reads:

Through the Au Pair program, participants and host families take part in a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity. Participants can continue their education while experiencing everyday life with an American family, and hosts receive reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.

It was with some trepidation that we decided to opt in for the “American family” half of that exchange. We had heard and considered every warning:

You’re basically adopting another child.

Do you really want an extra person living in your house, all the time? Won’t you miss your privacy?

My friend’s last au pair was such a nightmare. Seriously, she [crashed the car] [got pregnant] [left the kids alone for hours] [ran off with Ben Affleck].

Undaunted, I must have read fifty profiles of young women describing their child care experience, driving ability, and reasons for wanting to come thousands of miles to care for strangers’ children. I came back to yours, again and again.

I kept your profile on hold in my “Favorites” as long as I could. We were vacationing at Bethany Beach over July 4th when I squeezed the kids onto my lap for our Skype interview. There was something about you that drew me in from the start. Even with a year of data from which to sum it up, I still can’t. In fact, though my work and personal pursuits both involve harnessing words into service, I don’t know how to put words to the mark you left on our family.

So, for now – since I still cry once a day since our parting at Dulles – maybe that blurb from the State Department is as good a launching pad as any to take the measure of the past year.

…”a mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity…”

As it is, America does a pretty bang up job of exporting our culture. We didn’t need to educate you about Taylor Swift (though the life-size cutout in our dining room did merit an explanation), or Jon Stewart, or the Obama kids. You arrived with a fully-formed crush on Mark Ronson, so one half of the exchange had a clear head start. A few months ago, we had a complete meeting of the minds as we dissected the Ariana Grande donut-licking incident, using it as a springboard for discussion with Devan about fame, entitlement, respect, and just plain tackiness.

I suspect your American education emerged more from the pieces that underscore our enduring struggle. If nothing else, I know you left with a different understanding that America is a study in contrasts, and very much a work in progress.

The exchange I didn’t expect, though, was viewing my country through a visitor’s eyes for a full year. And though you never asked me to, I can’t explain the chronic homelessness we allow to persist, particularly among the mentally ill, like the woman who accosted you with racial epithets at Z Burger. I can’t explain why we tolerate gun violence and mass shootings as a fact of life. I can’t explain how the same polity that celebrated the extension of full marriage rights to all co-exists with the Westboro Baptist Church, or Kim Davis and her jumpers. I certainly can’t explain Donald Trump.

What I’m most at a loss to explain is the shabby treatment that some of your au pair compatriots endured. I will never understand why people mistreat the person to whom they entrust the care of their children. On behalf of my city, my country, and decent people everywhere, I apologize for that host family who ate their au pair’s birthday cake that she had baked, by herself, to share with her friends. Or the family who kept threatening to withhold their au pair’s modest weekly pay. It’s bad enough these people procreated. I’m so sorry they disrespected your friends.

I will admit I indulged in the occasional schadenfreude, such as the host family with four kids, ages 5 to 11, all still in Pull-Up’s.

Like I said, I can’t explain.

As for your part of the bargain, you taught us to appreciate the basic efficiencies and security of American life. The kids shuddered at your description of the daily load-shedding in South Africa, when a nation’s progress is literally stunted as the electricity goes out for an unknown period because the government and its utility operators can’t or won’t construct a 21st century grid.

Your biggest surprise about America was that many people, even in the big cities, don’t lock their doors. In the last few weeks, we talked about your goal of bringing attention to the scourge of sexual violence against young girls in South Africa, which routinely goes un-prosecuted.

On a much brighter note, you shared some awesome exports as well. We will forever be grateful that you introduced us to Suzelle DIY, the South African Lucille Ball of YouTube. Just a few hours ago, Devan and Kian watched her new release, a tribute to Biltong Day. I may yet dress as Suzelle for Halloween and enjoy baffling the neighbors. Thanks to Spotify, from the first night you arrived we all listened to Mi Casa, a soul/house band out of Johannesburg. The Meerlust pinot noir your parents brought us put the best of Sonoma or the Willamette Valley to shame. And I promise you, one day we will join you at your home for a “Bring and Brai,”

“Participants can continue their education…”

You came to us a highly educated and accomplished journalist. Your English was perfect. I doubt that the art seminar (really, an extended tour of D.C. museums) that you took to fulfill your credits was a formative educational experience. Indeed, it’s a shame you couldn’t have checked this required box by teaching classes yourself. I would certainly pay to be in your photography class, and you are a true talent at graphic design, writing, and teaching two weary forty-something’s remedial computer technology.

But you spent your time wisely, and if I had to guess, your favorite classrooms were New Orleans, and Chicago, and New York, and the Rocky Mountains. It was an honor to visit some of those places with you.

Finally, there is that matter of “reliable and responsible childcare from individuals who become part of the family.”

To be perfectly honest, as a caregiver you were not exactly out of central casting. No one would put a guitar in your hands and leave you with the seven kids of a widowed Austrian naval officer, or expect you to descend by umbrella onto a London stoop. But that’s part of what I loved about you: your wry and knowing, but slightly biting, wit; your understated style and cool head.

From day one, when Devan would turn it up to 11, you delivered these deadpan zingers she had no idea how to respond to: “Devan, don’t mess with my stress.” Or: “Just chill, woman – I’m getting to it.” Or: “Devan, no one needs your backchat.” I loved them all.

As best I could, I had warned you that she would be your challenge, and that Kian would be his easy-going, Matchbox-obsessed self. It played out in just that way.

Toward the end of the summer, I could see your frustration level rise and a sense of defeat setting in. I understood the former, but didn’t grasp the latter until my own mother (an Este fan from the jump) said of you, “I think she thought she could make a change in Devan.”

My dear friend, I wish you’d told me so. I should have figured as much when I found such earnest efforts as “Devan’s ‘I Will Not Overreact’ Contract,” drafted by you and executed in her 8 year old hand. I’m sure it was breached before the ink was dry.

Had I known, I would have marched you to the bookcase in our guest room, where an entire shelf is filled with titles such as: Positive Discipline; Parenting The Spirited Child; How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; Is It a Big Problem or a Little Problem?; and, my personal favorite, an oldie penned in a more honest age, The Difficult Child.

A few of them are dog-eared, but for the most part, I skimmed the index or table of contents and found nothing approaching the phenomenon that is my daughter. Amit and I have been at this for eight years. I’d like to think we are pretty smart people, but here we are, with a spirited, difficult, witty, Suzelle-quoting, guitar-playing, Whip and NaeNae-ing girl who excels in having fun, does well in school, and still struggles with self-control. I once told you that parenting a child like Devan is mostly about hanging in there, and embracing the daily triumph of hope over experience. You need to believe me.

In the end, you did your best, every day, on behalf of the two most important beings in our world. That is all we ever could have asked.

So, thank you. Thank you for feeding and clothing them, and for delivering them safely to where they needed to be, and for bathing and reading to them. Thank you for loving them, and us. Thank you for bearing quiet and forgiving witness to every last detail of my working “mum” existence.

And while you’re quite smart about most things, you got one thing wrong. You changed her, and our family, for the better.

I’m still not certain you were meant to be an au pair. But there is no doubt you were meant to be part of us.

Godspeed.

Someone at Bravo Just Made a Wonderful Mistake.

There is a new show on Bravo called My Fab 40th, and all I can say is, some clever intern must have pulled a fast one while all the network executives were in the Hamptons. Or a rogue producer has the goods on someone in the C-suite. Either way, something is amiss here.

We all know Bravo as the home of the Housewives (though, for the most part, there is nary an extant marriage in sight). This juggernaut franchise ensures that on any given night those of us with work-a-day lives can tune in to watch women with too much money drink their faces off, cat fight on yachts, and promote their mythical “lifestyle” brands.

Our parents had Walter Cronkite. So, you know, tomato, to-mah-to.

But while no one apparently was minding the store, in walked Brandy Flores, the featured 39.9 year old subject of a show marketed as the mid-life answer to MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. The concept is simple: a woman, her friends, and a few assorted professionals throw the subject a lavish 40th birthday party.

I hadn’t intended to linger too long, as the teaser on my cable guide described this week’s plot: Brandy, an amateur race car driver and fitness model, hopes her boyfriend will propose at her 40th birthday party, which her friend Bethany is throwing at the racetrack. From that description, my Venn diagram of commonality with Brandy appeared to be that we both like celebrating our birthdays. In fact, had HGTV been running anything but Flip or Flop (I’m sorry, that couple just puts no love into their renovations), I would have missed the whole thing.

I’m glad I didn’t.

Brandy is divorced. She has two sweet daughters, who are featured only in a few scenes, but who seem like nice kids who love their mom. In the cutaway scenes, Brandy talks about how hard it is that they have to split time between her home and her ex-husband’s, and how she tries to find ways to make their time together special.

Huh.

Brandy has a good cadre of girlfriends, who all seem invested in her happiness. If I were to bend Brandy’s ear, I might suggest keeping the one who spilled wine on her head at happy hour at a bit of an arms’ length. But the only apparent beef between these women is the barbecue they’re happily chowing at a restaurant called “Smoqued” as they try to help Brandy figure out her future.

Huh.

This may be implicit in the term “fitness model,” but Brandy is also a knockout. Her arm definition is exquisite. She has a killer smile and clearly follows a sound skin regimen. Did I mention she’s a fitness model? Right, so about that: one scene features her enduring a grueling workout of lunges while she’s holding what looks like cement blocks in each hand. Then she sits on a mat and talks about how much harder it is to book the modeling gigs at her age, and the stress she feels at needing to work twice as hard as she used to so she can support herself and her children.

That’s when it hits me.

God help me, I like this Brandy. I would totally ham it up in the photo booth at Brandy’s Fab 40th.

Then there is Jim, the boyfriend of six years. What Brandy wants most at her racetrack chic 40th bash is for Jim to propose. She has sent him a picture of the ring she wants – a fairly silly move with great backfire potential – but she also sits down with him over dinner in their very average looking kitchen and tells him that being in limbo at 40 isn’t going to work for her. Jim looks uncomfortable, attempts some revisionist Jedi mind trick about how he always told her he never wanted to marry again, and retires to his study where he has been shopping online for a race car to present to Brandy at the party. In another scene, Brandy’s friend gets wind of the race car plan and tells Jim point blank that if he doesn’t buy Brandy a ring, she’s going to be crushed.

Cut to commercial.

At this point, I am certain that I’ve doped out the remaining scenes. Jim messes with Brandy’s head a bit, but in the end, he’s on one knee as the candles on her towering purple cake are lit. He’s brought her daughters along as a surprise, because the moment is too important for them to miss. After all, Jim doesn’t seem like a total jerk, and the fool who would give up Brandy is only second in line to the fool who would make a show in which an $80,000 birthday party for a woman the viewers have come to root for ends with Jim disappointing Brandy in front of all her friends.

And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Brandy’s friends go all out. The party is in full swing, and she looks amazing in a silver sequined dress. There’s an ice sculpture and lounge seating. She is serenaded by her favorite country singer. Out of nowhere, there’s Lorenzo Lamas, who as far as I know hasn’t been seen since Falcon Crest, and he presents her with a cool racing suit. Brandy is radiant, toasting her dear friends who have seen her through phases of life that she didn’t plan for and that have brought their share of struggle. Then Jim brings every single guest outside to the track, gives a speech in which he says “Brandy has waited a long time for this,” and pulls a tarp off a race car. It is wrenching to watch Brandy feign excitement, then get into the car and look around the front seat in the forlorn hope that the ring is there.

I brace for the explosive confrontation. At least fifty of Brandy’s friends have been swilling theme cocktails for hours and have warned Jim in no uncertain terms that he’d better do right by their girl. Jim’s best hope is that the massive party budget included staffing for a medical tent.

Cut to commercial.

We never see Jim again.

It’s a sunny morning, the day after the party. Brandy doesn’t look puffed up from crying, or particularly despondent. She arrives at Bethany’s house to thank her for all the hard work and planning. We learn that Brandy left the party with one of her pals, Lindsey; they went for late night sushi and did sake toasts to the beginning of her fifth decade. No big scene, just great resolve. Our Brandy walked off that racetrack and left Jim in the deafening roar of his own dick move.

Fin.

Bravo’s motto is “Watch What Happens.” Having watched what happened as Brandy turned 40, I got perhaps the greatest shock from this purveyor of all things shock value: a show about a woman who hoped things would turn out differently, but when they didn’t, had to make a hard choice about what was best for herself and her daughters. Her friends stood by her. No one lied to her or gave her false hope that Jim was going to see the light. In the final scene, Brandy and her daughters light candles on a simple plate of cupcakes in Bethany’s kitchen. Somewhere last night’s ice sculpture is melting into oblivion. But this little party beats that one any day. Brandy’s 40th never looked so fab.

As for the race car? I hope Brandy sells it and upgrades to a better model that she chooses for herself. Or maybe she sells it and takes her friends and daughters on a beach vacation. Or maybe she just drives it as fast as her heart desires. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, because she’s already made wise use of its most important part: the rear view mirror.

Happy birthday, Brandy. I don’t have to tell you, but you’ve got everything you need, right there in Bethany’s kitchen.

So I will just say this: Bravo.