Catholic, Mindful Wanderings

Philosophical Tensions

Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange, installation view at Frist Art Museum, 2020

It was in college that I first started to notice and become uncomfortable with seeing the flag for the United States at the front of churches. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable to see them anywhere in a church. It’s at this same time that my eyes were really being opened up to the dysfunctional relationships between patriotism and Christianity in the United States. I was also delving pretty deep into rediscovering Catholicism. I was earning a degree in Global Development Studies at a Protestant Christian college. I had just started to sort out the philosophical contradictions in my life that I think a lot of first generation kids struggle with.  

I had a hard time feeling proud to be from a country that so clearly exploited my father’s home country for its own economic gain. I ended up spending years reading and writing papers about the complicated relationship between the United States, Nicaragua, and the rest of the countries that make up Central America. I knew that I was supposed to be grateful to be living the life that I was, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty at what this all cost. I felt like I had lost out on honoring this culture that had so deeply shaped my identity.

I moved away from the Catholic Church in high school and I realize now that it was it’s own form of assimilation that I was going through. I was drawn to the progressiveness that one can find in nondenominational Christian circles. Where I grew up, this was largely compromised of a whole bunch of white people going on missions trips to countries that were ripe with Catholic history. I was being told that the Catholic Church was not the place for the social justice issues that I cared about. And even though in my gut I knew that I was Catholic, I kept trying to find a way to fit in with hip nondenominational Christians that claimed to be living like the first apostles. This carried over into a missions trip when I was 17 to Ireland and England that truly changed the course of my life. My relationship to Catholicism was something I was still trying to figure out all throughout my time in college and grad school.

The deeper I got into looking into my faith and my politics (by way of my choice in taking the academic route that I did) the more I felt out of place in Protestantism and the more I felt cynical towards the US. In researching for papers and projects about the United States and Central America I naturally started to stumble upon the important (and sometimes contentious) role Catholicism has plaid in recent Latin American history. A simple question of “why” led me to better understanding Catholic Social Teaching, liberation theology, and some badass religious. Why was Saint Oscar Romero willing to go toe-to-toe with the Salvadoran government? Why was Father Ernesto Cardenal willing to have his rights stripped as a priest to administer the sacraments to fight alongside the Sandinistas? So much so that it led to many of their deaths. Why were these government entities seeing Catholic nuns and laypeople as such a threat to their power? 

This red, white, and blue flag standing at the front of churches started to feel like a betrayal to the parts of me that I felt most confident and connected to: I’m Catholic. I’m the daughter of a Nicaraguan refugee. 

I wish I could say that coming back to Catholicism in all of its fullness was the reconciling I needed to seeing those flags at the front of all those churches that I hopped around. For awhile, it did, I suppose. But the reality is that there are times when it feels like the political world of Evangelical Protestants have hijacked the ancient Catholicism that radicalized the likes of Peter Maurin, Servant of God Dorothy Day, Father Ernesto Cardenal, and Saint Oscar Romero. The search to make this all make sense hurts in a different, deeper way this time around.

It has been hard to find Catholics on the world of the Internet and social media that I could relate to in a meaningful way. Back in college I scoured blogs and endlessly Googled trying to find someone who related to my Hispanic Catholicism and my bi-cultural upbringing. The closest I got were finding Catholics that were also passionate about social justice. I settled with that for a long time. Finally, just in the last couple of years I have started to connect with other comadres and it has been life giving. But it’s also made a glaring wedge to some of the ways the Catholic Church in the US has failed to work in solidarity with and for some its most devout. 

Whether we are talking about abortion, civil unions for the LBGTQ+ community, Black Lives Matter, or immigration policy many Evangelicals and Catholics alike are tone deaf to how their words land. The way in which many decide to defend the Church and her teachings end up leaving harm and hurt in their wake. A documentary recently came out with a clip of Pope Francis talking about how we should be protecting our friends and family that identify as LGBTQ+. The Catholic response was so quick to remind people that Catholics “don’t believe in gay marriage” that they missed the whole point: we also need to first come to people with love and compassion. We need to recognize that our obsession with the legality of marriage between certain people have made for rhetoric that is perceived as hateful and unwelcoming. It’s making people feel like they will never be loved or worthy by the Church our her followers. 

This is true, too, for the rhetoric around abortion, immigration, and a whole host of “progressive” causes, is it not? Language calling women murders and splashing pictures of tangled fetuses is not only lacking compassion, it is traumatizing. In what ways could we all be better at entering these conversations not to tell people to not have an abortion, but instead actually be proactive about meeting the needs they identify as most important? Instead of insisting that our current immigration policies are someone else’s fault or assuming those crossing those invisible lines are ruthless criminals ready to take down the integrity of the United States, maybe sitting down and truly listening to the stories about why someone chose to make that journey would do us some good. Something that I have learned from these years I have spent in the nonprofit field is that the most successful and effective programs and policies are the ones that are led by the community that the work is intended to serve. 

I am not totally hopeless when I look around at my fellow Catholics. I do find myself startled time and time again to come across people who understand so much of the faith, but totally miss the mark on these issues. There is a way to defend the faith and share the ancient traditions with those around us without causing so much harm along the way. It’s worrisome to see the blurred lines between our faith and patriotism. I pray that us Catholics start to do a better job of honoring the legacy of social justice in our Church and that we commit to doing a better job in the future. I pray that The reality is that a lot of us shy away from certain movements (ahem, Black Lives Matter, for example) because we don’t agree with all of the tenets of the organizers or the mission at hand. Instead of inaction because you don’t agree with the loudest voices, I encourage all of us to figure out how we can still be moved to action. We cannot use the politics of anybody else as an excuse to sit any of this out. That may mean we pave our own path, but that in no way means we should ever turn our back on the injustices of our time. And that might mean that we hold our Church as our home to welcome all lives into as our number one priority. 

Some further reading and listening that may be of interest to you:

Mindful Wanderings, Personal

What the Internet Has Taught Me About Grief and Mourning

In a conversation with Casey, I had a realization recently: as much as I have become weary of the state of social media and the Internet at large right now, the reality is that social media (specifically Instagram and blogs) has provided me with an opportunity for kinship in some of my loneliest and most difficult times. 

This all came flooding to the forefront yesterday when I listened to a podcast conversation between Leticia Adams and Laura Kelly Fanucci about grief and mourning. I have never met either woman in real life, but I have learned so much from them. Through Instagram I’ve gotten to exchange personal messages with them as well. Both Leticia and Laura lost children and although they lost children under different circumstances, they have taught me immensely about grief. I have learned that we feel grief and can practice mourning not just for people, but also for events or plans go awry. Leticia taught me that many of us are feeling grief over all the cancelled plans and upheaval we have felt from living through this pandemic. It was a social worker while Olivia was in the NICU that allowed me to mourn the postpartum period that I had to let go of when Olivia was in the NICU. Instead of physical rest and snuggles with a newborn, I was thrust into chaos of an intensive care unit advocating for a very sick baby with a tired and healing body.

I recently shared with Laura that it was her writing through losing her twin girls days after birth that helped me enter into grief and mourning when Olivia was born. See, as I’ve shared before, we were initially told that Olivia likely would not survive longer than a month. The information we were given that first night didn’t give me much hope to think she would live through the night, let alone the first few days. In our kitchen that night after we finally got home without a new baby in tow all I could muster to mind were Laura’s words about holiness and grace and mercy and how that is all intertwined and made clear when you see Heaven so close to Earth. See, in our Catholic tradition we believe these innocent baptized souls become saints and enter Heaven. Her words helped me better see past the current situation. Through these women I saw what life can look like on the other side of the pit of despair that you sometimes find yourself lingering. 

One poignant moment in their conversation is when they share a few moments of absurdity and mundane that they found themselves wading through in the days after death. The inappropriate laughing, the misplaced jokes. The person gingerly trying to break news to you that you brace yourself for just to find yourself incredibly underwhelmed by what they had to share. For me, that particular moment, was when Olivia was finally starting recover from a really bad infection that she almost died from and the new resident on rotation sat me down with some news. I was preparing myself for the worst and found myself dumbfounded when all she had to share was that Olivia was likely to lose a toe. I remember thinking, “All of this fanfare cannot just be about a toe?” But now looking back on it, I get it. Every bit of news about prognosis can hit differently based on a loved one’s own hope for the future. I knew at that time that she would still be able to walk, and run, and jump without a toe or two. But not everyone can see that in the moment, right? That resident was trying to be caring and empathetic as a good doctor should be! But in the moment of my own grief, that single little toe felt so inconsequential. My daughter is alive! She is going to make it through this infection. She is going to live longer than we expected! We will probably get to take her home. 

There is no textbook way to grieve and mourn. And as Leticia and Laura have taught me: the more that we can all share honestly and openly about the times we have grieved the more we can normalize it so that others can shamelessly enter into it and experience God’s grace on the other side. This is the same reason I shared openly about my miscarriage. It’s why I think it’s absolutely beautiful and brave that Chrissy Teigen shared about the loss of her baby. As Laura and Leticia have taught me: if we can stop trying to turn away from the hard mucky stuff and instead sit in it maybe we can better sit alongside one another in the uncomfortable hard places. Maybe we can be better neighbors, friends, and family members if we are willing to work through the hard and give one another hope for what life can look like on the other side. And the fact of the matter is sometimes it’s easier to accept these life lessons from complete strangers baring their hearts in the Internet. 

Catholic, Mindful Wanderings

Holy Saturday in Pandemic Lent

Every Lent ends the same way. The altar is stripped. The tabernacle is empty and left open. Jesus is not physically in our churches. It’s always jarring and humbling. This year though, having a picture of it sent through email by a priest made it that much more shocking. I shuttered when I opened this picture of St Patrick Catholic Church in Nashville. This particular parish has been a breath of fresh air many Sundays while we have lived here. It has always been a reverent experience. That’s what makes this scene feel so meaningful. For some, this pandemic has made it easier to focus on Lent, but not for me. I’ve been distracted and things have been disordered and mis-prioritized without the order of the liturgy. I cherish the rhythm of the liturgical year and this year I’m reminded deeply why that is. Tomorrow, we will claim His resurrection. But not tonight. Not yet. Tonight we find stillness in the humility of His death. We are shuttered and shocked to see the altar stripped bare and the tabernacle empty and open. Thank God for tomorrow.

Mindful Wanderings

Know what you know well

What’s one topic or theme you feel like you know really well, but maybe know about this topic so well that you could easily talk about it for 10 to 15 minutes with evidence to back it up. When I say evidence I mean, you can pull some solid facts and background information about it. This isn’t just an opinion about something, but a topic you can actually answer the *whys* and *hows* behind. Okay, do you have a topic (or a few in mind)? The topic doesn’t have to be anything you have formal education around, but maybe it’s something you like to read about or something you have done in the past. It’s probably something you are passionate about – something you find exciting to talk about.

What if these were the only topics we were allowed to comment or engage in on social media? Other people could ask questions and read the discourse, but only people with immediate experience or substantial knowledge could participate. My hunch is that we would probably learn a lot more and maybe get a little less mad at strangers on the Internet. Obviously, we can’t impose these types of things on others, but we can challenge ourselves. We can rise to the challenge and seek to learn and understand and assume that maybe we don’t know everything about every topic. And that’s okay because there’s probably something we have to offer to someone else. We can refrain from uncharitable comments and snarky remarks. We can certainly vow to not purposefully stoke a fire just for enjoyment. The Internet and comment sections and social media have made us all believe that we can be experts in just about anything. And the Internet certainly provides some great resources. But it’s a false confidence. And a false confidence leads to an un-empathetic ear.

For those that have taken the time and energy to invest in a study or a pastime probably has an emotional investment in that thing. We should of course listen and engage with empathy and humility, right? So let’s try to model this by remembering we don’t get to claim space wherever we want. Our age, our race, our educational background, our experiences have shaped us to be experts in certain things, which means we can’t be experts in it all. Let us seek out the experts, even if our assumed opinions tell us we surely disagree, and try to take a back sit and listen with grace. That is my challenge to myself and to you. Actually, I triple dog dare you.

Mindful Wanderings

And I don’t pretend to know what you know…

A fact to agree on before moving forward: there is an influx of people from Central America seeking entry into the United States. It has become a hot button topic and one that is seeped in emotional response, which doesn’t always translate to logical and reasonable discourse. It’s a topic that I have to be careful how I tread because I recognize how close I am to the whole thing. See, my family came to this country as asylum seekers. It is largely because of this familial history that I felt compelled to dedicate the privilege of a college education to US-Central American relations and the role of the public sector in society. And there is a large part of this “issue” that doesn’t seem to be understood: it’s a bipartisan mess. Although I am pretty center in my politics, I tend to lean more left than right. And I am here to tell you that neither Democrats nor Republicans have gotten the Central American question right. The United States has exploited Central American countries for economic gain and intervened in Central American politics way back when the countries were tied under a single federation. In fact, this was happening before those countries were even separated from Spain. And this meddling has always been bi-partisan. The United States has gone to great lengths to ensure that our neighbors to the south are positioned to perpetuate American exceptionalism – interference disguised as rescuing and helping (i.e. spreading democracy and sending aid) with the goal of controlling and having power over these countries. 

I don’t claim to know your position or your reasoning on immigration, border security, economic policy, trade, or capitalism. What I do know, is what I know from familial history. What I do know is what I know from visiting, working, and studying in Central America. What I do know is that the United States has done a lot to influence Central America for US economic gain and it has left most of Central America dependent and vulnerable.  To me, this isn’t just about a human emotional response or a wall or the “right” way to immigrate. This is a call to my fellow citizens of the United States to recognize the complexity of our politics, our economic policies, and our foreign aid practices. This is a call to recognize how our consuming of drugs, clothes, and food has corrupted communities and destroyed ecosystems. We need to recognize that it’s not just the role that our country has played in the current state of countries in Central America, but it’s our individual actions that have played a part, too. And it’s our individual actions that can rectify these sins. Vote. Donate. Sign petitions. Call your representatives. Volunteer. Do all of the things. But remember, this is more than immigration. This is demanding humane and fair international relations, trade policies, business practices, environmental protections, and foreign aid practices. 

Mindful Wanderings

Embracing Weakness to find Healing

#Ichthyosisawareness month is almost over and I didn’t do all the posts that I had plan. But I think this is where I want to end my thoughts for this month regarding a genetic skin condition that blindsided us and hurled our whole family far away from where we thought we should be.

I’m starting to learn that I was letting the fear from other families with ichthyosis cloud my own intuition and judgement. I feel like I’m finally coming out of the fog and realizing that Olivia is not nearly as fragile as I was made to believe. Even though our dermatology team told me from early on that she would be able to do pretty much anything a typical kid could, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. But it’s true. It’s just on her own timeline. Even though we make take a few extra precautions, it does not have to be as scary and extreme as I was made to believe. But of course, I can say this now. And as in now, I mean this week. Or even today.

You know that feeling when you are recovering from an illness and that taste of feeling refreshed makes you realize how awful you felt before? I can relate to this most when a hangover finally wears off 😬 or when I was in denial I had mastitis and I finally took the antibiotics and felt like a human again. Well, for me this goes for my mental health, too. More and more research and studies are coming out linking Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to parents that have experienced a health crisis with a child. And that was the validity I needed that this life with ichthyosis isn’t just “hard.” There has been severe trauma that we are forced to look at face to face and catches us by surprise. An example of this is watching a sci-fi show in which there is a scene where a baby is born with a severe visual defect and is killed immediately upon birth. It took our breath away and caused a river of tears. We paused the show momentarily, only to return to finish it and go on with life. At least we have one another, yes, but it’s hard to help people heal when you still have a lot of healing work that you need to do.

Just this week I’m realizing how depressed I was and what a dark place I was in the last few months. It’s easier for me to run full speed ahead when I can’t figure out what to “fix.” This time around, every little task made me feel like this hole I was in was magically getting deeper and hopelessness was starting to creep in. For anyone who has experienced depression like this, you might be like me and can rationalize the heck out of it, but drive yourself crazy that you still don’t feel right. I don’t know what snapped me out of it this time. I know it wasn’t just one thing. Being on vacation for a week with the family and seeing my mom, sister, and aunts definitely helped. I also have been running again, I was able to receive funding for respite care, and I set up spiritual direction with a priest I really look up to. But reading Shannon Evan’s book Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World gave me the little push that I needed to see a way out. I highly recommend spending the $11 to read it! Since coming back from vacation, I don’t feel like I’m under an avalanche of housework and medical appointments even though none of that has decreased. It just feels manageable.

And that’s how I know I wasn’t okay. Now I see that I was trying to shove my weaknesses and my hurt and my trauma under the rug. I hoped that if I just kept doing everything I needed to do, this would eventually pass. What I really needed was to validate that this hard stuff that I felt was leading me to be a person I never wanted to be, could be places of growth that would help me be more empathetic, more patient, and more loving towards others. Because surely I’m not the only one who feels this way and maybe by sharing this, someone else can start to see that they aren’t the only one who feels this way either. And just like I take extra precautions to protect Olivia and keep her safe, I can take some extra precautions with myself, too. And in the end, my mental health isn’t just about me feeling better. It’s about me being in a better and stronger position to shower my husband and kids and friends and family with the love and support they need right where they are.

Mindful Wanderings

Home: Settling Back In

“Monterey” by Unknown Artist

During our last trip for appointments, as Casey and I drove past the hospital to Family House, we bantered about missing our life during Olivia’s hospital stay. It’s weird to miss a place that we were itching to leave. We desperately wanted our space back. I wanted my family to all be in one room together. I wanted control over our daily schedule. I previously wrote about the beautiful gift that is community at Family House. Since leaving we have been welcomed back with warmth — thanks to Family House we always have a free place to stay when we have appointments. The last two visits have helped me realize how much part of me misses that routine we had created. When we exit the 280 there is a sense of arriving at a familiar home. It’s a mixed bag of feelings — especially for Casey who hates city-living and usually can’t wait to leave after a night or two.

But, the feeling of peace that envelopes my body as we have settled back at home is undeniable. I find myself stunned, still, after being home for two months, at how slow our little village is and how perfect the Spring and Summer lighting is in the early morning in the valley. A rush of nostalgia as the warm light comes through oak trees and wildflowers add a splash of color to the browning California hillsides. A renewed connection to the land as I kick up dirt at Garland Park, my postpartum body struggling to run the trails that I can still navigate with half of my brain while the other half is distracted by fleeting epiphanies. I have found myself in old patterns that have been healing. Patterns that help me remember my core, my self. One afternoon I mindlessly turned down Carpenter and followed the truck route and weaved through Carmel. This particular pattern startled me into the realization of how overwhelmed and sad I was feeling. Both kids asleep in their seats, my soul took me to the beach.

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”

– Isak Dinesen

A rush of gratitude overcame me. This place, my home, has offered a refuge for me for most of my life. The deepest part of me is so intertwined with this place that without any conscious thought it takes care of me. I sat at the beach with my windows down listening to waves crash and tourists chatter wondering how many hurts have been healed and how many relationships strengthened and restored by the side of the massive and powerful Pacific. I used to say that going to the beach was the best thing to do when you have a problem because you are forced into humility as you look into the expanse that holds a hidden world. Little did I know what that would mean to me today.

While I was sitting there by the beach I remembered a picture I had taken in San Francisco when Olivia was still admitted. The day I took the picture, I decided to walk through a different, further entrance into the hospital. Along the hall there was an abstract painting hanging on the wall. I am not one to sit and absorb art, but this piece grabbed my attention long enough for me to translate the streaks of colors into hills, land, and water as I walked past. It struck me how much it reminded me of home. I actually took a few steps backwards to give it another look. As I scanned the painting I noticed the white tag with the word “Monterey” written on it. I did a double take, thinking surely my mind had auto-completed, but it hadn’t. There on that little white rectangle hung the name of the artist and title of the piece, “Monterey.” As I walked away I contemplated home. I questioned how I could so easily associate this painting with a place in such a brief encounter. Is it the pure talent of the artist that the essence of a place could so aptly be captured in a painting? Or does my connection to this place make it so that my body intimately recognizes it through the simple suggestions of ratios of land and sea and the balance of colors.

As I got into the elevator and hit “3,” I could feel my home in my bones. I carried that encounter that rainy morning with me throughout our stay in San Francisco. I actually started this blog post while we were still up there and had written, “It is home and will always be home no matter how long I am gone. I realize how lucky I am that I so keenly have a sense of belonging. And lucky me: I feel I belong to a place that has astonishing beauty. I look around at views that could easily be paintings hanging on walls in far away places. And so often I walk past and forget to observe and absorb it.”

Since being home I have made every effort to absorb it all. To memorize the hillsides and the shadows. To remember the nuances of our coastal seasons. To honor the power of place.



Mindful Wanderings

Dear Nurses, Thank You #nationalnursesweek

In honor of today being both Mother’s Day and the final day of National Nurses Week, I have some things on my mind.

First to my mom who is both a nurse and a mother: it’s like today was made for you! Never could any of us have anticipated a year in which both of your daughters would need you as both a nurse and a mother in such an intense way. But you showed up for both of us with a strength that only a mother could muster.

And I have a confession: Until this experience at the hospital, I really didn’t understand the fullness of what my mom did. I knew that she did a bulk of the work that shows like ER and Gray’s Anatomy would leave you to think doctors did. And now I certainly understand why people felt the need to come up to us at the grocery store to tell me how great of a nurse my mom is. I kind of thought people just said that kind of thing to me as a way to be polite. But now I understand the importance of the social-emotional side in addition to the technical side of my mom’s job. And I mostly feel like a jerk for all of the times I gave her a hard time after a long day at work.

And I can’t help but think about the nurses today that acted almost as surrogate mothers to Olivia. They offered care for her when I couldn’t. They taught me how to love and connect with her before I could see her. Before I could touch her. It is because of these nurses that I am even able to be a mother this baby in front of me today at all.

The nurses cared for her gently and passionately, learning her cues and the subtleties of her personality – much like a mother would in the first few months of any baby’s life. Simultaneously they respected and honored my role as Olivia’s mom.

Although we were trapped in the NICU for 102 days, I was hesitant to leave when the time came. Some days I even find myself kind of missing the hospital now. I joked with one of the nurses before discharge that maybe it was a subtle form of Stockholm Syndrome. In reality, I know that the reason for this is because of the support and friendship that was extended from the nursing staff at UCSF to our family. I knew that it was going to be isolating to go home (it kind of is). I also knew that it was going to be exhausting to have to re-explain Olivia’s condition to every new person we meet, professional or not (it definitely is). But, my joke about Stockholm Syndrome came more from the fact that I actually had grown to really care about the nurses. I’m not even mad about how much we failed to cluster appointments because I get excited just thinking about giving Olivia’s nurses a hug.

Saint Agatha – Patron Saint of Nurses

SaveSaveSaveSaI I I 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I have learned from this season of life and my biggest piece of advice is to get to know your nurses. The nurse that discharged us was a nurse that I affectionately named “Coach” because every time I was having a hard day or trying to figure out how to convince the team that something wasn’t working, I would just troubleshoot ideas with her. Nurses know the system and can truly be your best ally.

So, hug your mom and hug a nurse because there is a good chance they would appreciate a little love to fill up their tank!

– Natalie