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Finis

I had no business looking at houses back in 2010. We had just moved into a little, rental home tucked in between a blackberry alley and the bustling highway. There were several months left on our lease before we could entertain the idea of becoming homeowners. 

But I was on the prowl. I knew the lifestyle I wanted to have and exactly the neighborhood in which I wanted to live. It was the only time I can actively remember WANTING to live downtown anywhere.  And it was all because of the church that I knew would become the epicenter of our communal life.

So when I saw the little yellow house with green shutters and a white picket fence pop up on my search and recognized immediately the location, my skin literally tingled. I already knew. Whether it was God, kismet, or just low blood sugar, the feeling in my entire body was certain that this was the place we would be living. It was to be the first place wherein I could finally put down roots. Our days of always packing up and moving around with the military were at an end now and I was longing to find a place into which I could settle and plant a garden and feel HOME. This was my chance.

Knowing the seller’s agent from church, I asked her to walk us through it immediately. A bit taken aback, but pleased with the immediate attention, she allowed us in. They were still in the staging process and the previous homeowner’s girlfriend was sheepishly trying to get out the door with paintbrushes and overalls when we got there. 

I was in absolute love walking through it. Beautiful coved ceilings and original hardwood floors impressed me a little. But what sold me was the lifestyle of being half a block away from the church, in walking distance to the library, and across the street from the small, community park that was about to get a brand new upgrade. It was an enviable opportunity for the kind of lifestyle that Catholics everywhere often dream of.

We didn’t even have an agent. So we requested that the seller’s agent to find us someone and get us the paperwork quick. Had a home inspection done by our good friend (my now husband) who very quickly realized that I had very little interest in hearing about all the problems the house had (being built in 1905… one can just imagine) because I was already mentally arranging bedrooms, building bookshelves, and serving oatmeal to my children around the dining room table…

I ended up giving birth to two of my babies inside of that home. The lifestyle was everything I dreamed it would be. Imperfect and challenging at times, but gloriously wrapped up in this bubble of an existence afforded to us solely by virtue of where we lived. I would get up in the mornings and wake the children; the boys would walk down to the church by themselves about 15 minutes ahead of me and the babies so they could serve daily Mass. I designed and implemented careful curriculum plans to attend to after our morning devotions. I’d haul laundry up and down the steep basement stairs. We’d eat a basic lunch. The children eagerly waited for the tiny Catholic school to get out so they could join their friends for one of the thousands of pickup football games in the park… it was the kind of thing that has now become an anachronism of America’s yesteryears… we had it there on that particular street because of that particular parish. And I never once took it for granted… it was much, much more than just a home. 

During the vile process of dissecting and dividing up our lives in court during 2017, I lost this house. It was during a very ugly trial and my ex-husband’s attorney was pushing and badgering about how this home was a “zero asset”. They cited all the issues with it and talked about how it would be impossible to refinance or to get someone to buy it. 

And I was exhausted. 

It was the most expensive exhaustion of my life and one during which my attorney at the time failed me greatly by agreeing with me to just let it go and move on. Through an outpouring of love and benevolence of some family friends, I had already been offered a secure and stable housing situation and that was all I cared about at the time. I had been so eroded during the nonstop harassment and legal bullying for the entire year that I just wanted to be left alone and couldn’t even think of the financial implications this would have on my future.

Pushing hard enough and long enough, he won the house in its entirety. 

The injustice of it crept into my awareness over time as the imminent trauma receded just enough to where I could finally eat lunch without being prompted and think beyond the next 48 hours. I took out extraordinary amounts of loans to be able to put myself through grad school. The child support awarded to me was such a pittance that it was critical for me to be able to get a job that would support myself and my seven children. Being out of the workforce for 15 years in service to my husband and family had not prepared me to be in a position to be financially secure without that education.

Those loans haunt me today. And it is a wretched thing to think how they could’ve been paid off twice over by the rightful equity in our home that I deserved to share.

And that gall is mine to swallow.

Lord, I reject this bitterness and pray to be filled with your grace!

In a couple of weeks, this last piece of continuity in my children’s lives will no longer be ours. And yes, I say ours because despite no longer having my name on it, the home has always still felt like it was mine too— on behalf of my children and the life I had tried to preserve for them with such stubborn hope.

The house has been sold. My children will no longer experience that city, that parish community as their home. Just the place they used to live…

The youngest ones won’t feel the significance of it the way my middle and older kids do. They have always called it “Dad’s house.”  The memories of Mom in that space are very few for them. But my presence is still there. I’m there in the high, hallway bookshelves I insisted be put up.

 The hand-painted panels that still got used next to the window AC long after I was gone. The green floral curtains I made still hanging from a bedroom window. The large letters I painted up on the attic wall where I went to write and cry when life was falling apart. “Courage, dear heart…” The Free Little Library sitting on the front fence;
it was the first in the city. And I am in that…

Mostly what aches is that the sale of that home is one last nail in the coffin of the Life that I used to have. And that my children used to have. 

I want to offer all the pious, happy endings now— reference the silver linings and fresh starts and real pockets of joy found in our life here and now. Because that stuff is real. But I would only be writing them for my reader’s benefit… in an attempt to make you feel better because the discomfort of sad tales is too much for many people. 

For me, sorrow is so familiar that it feels like home to me. Not that I seek it or willingly dwell in it or catastrophize my circumstances to bring it on… but just that I am comfortable hurting. 

So I want to leave this grief right here illuminated by the votive candle that words can sometimes be.

I cry with my children.

I hurt with my children.

And I seek the courage to praise God through these tears and forever.

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Proof of (a) Life: The Photography Conundrum

This was written in 2014. I spent a couple days last week, beginning to sort through and organize some hard-copy photos I have printed. It is an enormous project… and life won’t pause to wait for me to catch up. Today, I have over 6,000 images on my phone, most are certainly unneeded. And this makes me feel rather ill. But I don’t have a perfect solution… life IS busy, and I’m grateful for my phone camera even as I battle with it for my presence to the moment. I’m not as disciplined as I’d like to be with my general phone use in the first place. *sigh* But I refuse to stop trying.

Undoubtedly, I value some of these captured images very much indeed. But all the feelings I had in 2014 with this article, are only amplified far more today. I was one of only a very few parents making eye contact and smiling at my son during his Kindergarten graduation singing a few months ago. The others were capturing it on their phones…

Truly, I was meant for another time.

-Ellie
18 Sept. 2022

****

I bought my first Pentax SLR camera when I was 16 years old. I was thrilled to hold that little piece of magic in my hands and quickly enrolled in a photography class at the local community college to learn everything I could. I didn’t start out with much skill to be honest; I had the eye but kept getting tripped up on the technical components of developing and processing prints in the dark room. But with simultaneous enrollment in Video Productions, I quickly picked up what I needed to know about “capturing” a moment. Looking at the world through that lens was a certain kind of intoxicating and I longed for the day when I could get a digital SLR camera to fully explore what I could do.  

In 2007, my husband bought me that camera for my birthday.  His hands were shaking as he presented it to me—we both sensed the significance of taking my photography to the next level and how momentous it was to finally own a camera of such high quality.  And I dove right in. I read that manual back and forth and quickly put ads on Craigslist for cheap portrait shooting in order to build up a portfolio and to gain some people experience. I loved that camera. I took it everywhere. I subjected my children to spontaneous photo shoots all the time. I absolutely HATED when we’d be somewhere or witnessing something beautiful and frame-worthy and I didn’t have my camera with me. I have thousands and thousands of photography files on my computer(s). 

Never before have we seen such a proliferation of photographers and wanna-be photographers in our world.  It used to be a fairly expensive hobby but when film turned digital and costs were driven down—and the novelty of a phone camera burgeoned— everyone got shutter-happy! (Great news for eager amateurs… terrible news for professionals.) I read a very astute observation on the modern phenomenon of taking pictures of EVERYTHING (be it your dinner, outfit for the day, or workout sweat) that said “Proof of a life is now more important than having a life.”  And I see this every day at the park across my house where moms chase their kids around with their phone in hand, trying to catch the happy smile or perfect angle on the slide antics.

So what started happening with me is how I experienced life—not necessarily always savoring it, living in it—but capturing it. Trying to keep “the moments” from running away from me. The wake-up came on a hike through the island hills of Washington a few years ago. The boys had run up ahead and found a really cool stump. When I caught up to them, my oldest was bossing his brothers who were trying to poke at banana slugs, “Stop it! Guys get up on the stump so Mom can take a picture!” I felt startled and sheepish that the camera-happy Mom had influenced her children to such a degree that they now stopped their playing and enjoyment of nature to pose for pictures. Sheesh. Let it be, Ellie.

 I feel something of a disconnect from “the moment” when I have my camera with me. I think part of this is my production training, always looking at the angles and lighting and trying to foresee great shots, so I can be there when it happens. This changes the way you experience something. To me, it seemed like the very act of shooting something became just as important as living something. Pumpkin patch visits?!  A day at the beach?!  Baseball games?! Corpus Christi processions?! CHRISTMAS-TIME?!  All of these found me with  the camera in my hand, frantic to get it on film (err… hard drive).  

Now I say, “Enough.” I want a balance. I want to employ my memory again.  It’s great to look through bursting photo albums (or online files that never get printed) with the children. But more valuable to me is just soaking it in. I get so distracted when I lug my camera around with me… or worse, when I have the ease of the iPhone to quickly snap some shots that I often forget to savor these all-too-short moments. And it takes a lot of discipline to allow myself to do nothing but experience the present.  

Yet, I’m a realist. I recently upgraded to a newer, quicker, sharper DSLR and some accessory items. I’m not going to STOP taking pictures. I just struggle mightily to balance it out. Despite having a fuller, busier life and more children now (read: excellent photo ops!), our camera gets taken out less and less often. I do deliberate portrait shooting with the kids of course as needed. But I’m not concerned about dragging the gear (or whipping out the phone) every time a child does something cute or my dessert looks especially appealing. I love the quote Sean Penn’s character gave in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  As a professional photographer, he was hunting the elusive snow leopard and once he finally found it and had the perfect shot framed up, he didn’t take the picture. Ben Stiller is confused and asks him:  “When are you going to take it?!”  Sean responds: “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

And that’s what I want. I want to stay in the moment. I want to be here. I want to live a rich and full life, not prove I have a rich and full life. And part of that means sometimes leaving the camera at home and being okay with missing a killer shot or sweet moment. I think in the end, it’ll be worth knowing that just because something would make for a great photo, doesn’t mean it should…

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The Hidden Saint

*   *   *

I’ve begun the daunting process of trying to organize my e-life. Part of this is taking on my formidable Google Drive account and deleting irrelevant files and organizing others into safekeeping. Back in late 2009, I was part of the genesis of Soul Gardening Journal, which was a printed quarterly that existed for nearly a decade before I quietly resigned while grappling with an oxygen mask during some of the most turbulent years of my life. Another issue was printed after my exit, and there was some talk of a printed anthology of our work, but I’m not sure if that ever materialized. As far as I know, the journal is either on a serious hiatus, or totally defunct.
But I have found some nostalgia in reading some of my old articles and thought it might be good to recirculate some of those words in no particular order for the first time online.
May some of these thoughts be useful to someone, somewhere…

The Hidden Saint
(2014)

She walked into the empty church wearing some heavily worn, solid-colored, comfort sneakers that are all the rage in elderly circles. She was a tiny, Filipino woman in her late sixties or so and she slowly shuffled down the aisle with an obvious pain in her hip. I watched with curiosity; it was later in the evening and I was glad to be jolted awake during my Adoration hour. This woman was a welcome distraction from my feeble and failed attempts at deep thought and prayer during this time.  

She bowed reverently toward the Tabernacle before heading toward the side altar with a statue of Mary. Once arriving there she didn’t do what I expected (light a candle, kneel down and pray fervently for some wayward child like I often see so many other women of her demographic do). She pulled out a plastic grocery bag from her sweater—Why the sweater? I wondered; it had been a hot day and muggy in the church. (There was no hope of dutifully attempting a prayerful state now; she had all my attention.) She very delicately peeled back the plastic bag to reveal a cheap, spritzer bottle filled with water. And then what she did nearly brought me to tears. She misted Our Lady’s roses. There were a few vases of flowers in front of the statue, that were not quite in their prime and this woman brought them a drink. She very gently moved the blooms and sprayed each flower in a determined but incredibly tender way.  

When finished, she conscientiously put the spray bottle back in the plastic bag, trying to minimize the crinkling sound and she moved back toward the center aisle. After bowing again to Our Lord, she tottered back out of the church and left me alone with my thoughts. I was fully awake now. 

I don’t know anything about this woman, what her home life is like, what relationships she has, or any other facts about her. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing her again at our church either. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. She is how I envision so many saints—living hidden lives of holiness. She simply did what needed to be done with love and it wasn’t the greatness of her act that left me floored (How hard is it to wet some roses?!)… it was the apparent and abundant love with which she did it. This beautiful old woman taught me something very valuable in that hour as she embodied a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that I’d seen before but had struggled to internalize in a meaningful way: “In prayer, what counts is not to think a lot but to love a lot.”  So many of my efforts in dedicated prayer have felt so seemingly dry, distracted and fruitless. But God is not measuring the amount of profound reflections and beautiful sentiments we have—far from it. He is simply measuring our love. In seeing that little, nameless, nothing-of-a-woman offer what she did, how she did, I am certain I witnessed one of the greatest acts of love I had seen in a long time.

 

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Portrait of an HSP

I don’t have more mirror neurons than most of you. Mine are just more active. As screen monitors race for higher and higher definitions of the perfect picture, my brain already has them beat with an amplified, laser-sharp user experience. I perceive and feel subtleties, shifts, and nuances in the environment and in people within seconds of entering a room. Lights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Life is very, very vivid to me. I’m not an empath. That’s different. That’s a pseudo-scientific phrase. Rather, I am part of the 15-20% of the population that is a Highly Sensitive Person— something that can be scientifically measured in brain imaging. And I didn’t know this about myself for a long time. I simply felt like an alien in this life. 

Here’s the thing: I live in a world that is designed for the 80-85% of Others who have typical sensory processing. Additionally, there is a neurological difference in how my brain responds to dopamine (I’m not a fan of being recreationally terrified (e.g. carnival haunted houses), poked, tickled or publicly praised) and how my sensory processing has been impacted by recent, traumatic life events. The acuteness of my HSP trait has increased in recent years…

My gift is that this makes me a kick-a** therapist who is able to identify and name someone’s psychological and emotional difficulties that may not be overtly expressed. I feel their pain with them and for them. I am able to give them a way to articulate their own experiences and assist them in integrating this as part of who they are in a coherent way. The HSP gift also gives me an extremely valuable, social multi-tool to keep in my back pocket when I need to assess a party scene, practice attunement, and be aware of motives and movements that may be imperceptible to others. Some people believe that HSPs are also able to tap into creativity more powerfully than others, which makes sense if we are constantly “above and beyond” (for better or worse) in experiential depth of processing.  

This gift has a shadow side… the side that the world focuses on as a deficiency. The world can be very overwhelming for me. Mothering, in particular, is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do just because of the constant sensory stimuli. My startle response looks like a cartoon cat jumping in the air—I’m not being facetious. It’s extreme. A child can knock a stainless steel bowl onto the floor and if it’s been a long day… the sound will send my heart rate through the roof and I will end in tears. Someone shuts the door with normal exertion, and I might wince. The sound of a chip bag being rustled with too long will feel like nails on a chalkboard. A child wants to sit on my lap and stroke my cheek and it might take all my willpower to not overtly cringe at the frustration of being touched at that moment. I’m constantly asking for voices to be lowered, constantly trying to regulate my autonomic nervous system, and constantly retreating to my interior world because it’s so very loud out there. My hearing is fine; but sometimes in loud or busy places, I don’t register what people are saying to me because I’ve ran so far off-grid into my own mental wilderness. This is not generalized anxiety. This is sensory overload. 

Some days are harder than others. And there are things I can do to improve my own situation, such as exercise (which makes a noticeable difference in my energy and coping skills), keeping my nutrient levels stable, and making sure I have designated moments of solitude/silence to recharge. But ultimately the task is mine to accept that trying to understand the differences in people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not going to be easy for those who don’t have it.  And the task is also mine to remember that just because the inevitable logistics of mothering are inordinately taxing on me, does not mean I don’t love my children fiercely. 

If any of this is useful–if maybe this is something new that helps you name why you are… particularly you— I’m glad. But ultimately, I’m writing this out for me: to validate my own experience. No one else can do that for me. I can’t find a comfortable home in this world, because well… it’s loud. Busy. And probably smells obnoxious. I’m writing this out to come home to myself. To unpack the boxes of my own memories and knowledge of who I am and how far I’ve traveled to get here. To string up lights with a truth that isn’t relative, but that is refracted on a plane that is uniquely mine. And to paint the walls of my soul with the kind of peace that nothing in this world can take away from me.

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In Memoriam…


The story of this death began when I was 17 years old. I was smart and driven, but without any other notable talents that would’ve distinguished me from any other smart, driven teenager searching for college scholarships at that time. I had started working at a young enough age, delivering newspapers on my bike (or out of Dad’s van for those early Sunday mornings) before moving up to selling shaved ice at local festivals and then beginning my “real” jobs in retail. But there was only enough money to pay for my car, insurance, gas, and trivialities. Not college. My family ethic and understanding at the time was that if I wanted to be educated beyond high school, I had to make that happen for myself. And I wanted to go to college more than anything. I wanted to teach… but in some unconventional way.

As a senior in high school, we were required to formulate a year-long project that was supposed to be a sort of capstone to our studies. Despite being an outstanding student and winning some academic awards, my senior project was on the failure of public education itself. Mildly precocious, I must say. Still, I did some community service tutoring an underprivileged kid or two and then presented my thesis which damned the school system in front of a panel of 3-4 teachers and the school principal. I received the highest grades possible and promises of a job down the road if I kept up my passion. Uncanny. But academia itself was still my goal.

My scholarship efforts weren’t yielding a lot so I started flirting with the Air Force. I walked into the recruiter’s office— less than a mile from where I now live— and introduced myself: “I want to go to college and I want to travel.” No problem. I took the ASVAB and scored high enough that the recruiter squashed my “errant” interest in photography and steered me towards linguistics. My subsequent scores on the DLAB settled it: I was going to be a linguist. Exhilarating! I stayed awake at night dreaming of learning Russian or Farsi and parachuting into dangerous territories to translate important, intercepted communications. Which countries could I sneak into? What kind of weapons would I get? How awesome am I anyway?!?! I mean… what else could a girl (ahem… like me) want? This career step would all serve me very well with my ultimate life goal. And what was this goal? To find a man, get married and have a happy, suburban life? Hardly. It was to get multiple degrees and then travel somewhere foreign and exotic where I’d teach the local bush children how to read. So I signed into the Delayed Entry Program, began processing at MEPS, and encountered a medical speedbump when I mentioned something about hypoglycemia. They wanted documentation. I left intending to resolve this.

Very shortly after this, one of my guy friends I had been hanging around with kissed me. Shock. Thrill. New feelings. And it was at this point that my life pivoted with such force as to cause my dream to nearly vanish in the fog. I never went back to MEPS. I got wrapped up in someone else instead.

Fast forward a couple years and I’m now 19 years old, in Port Hueneme, California staring at two pink lines with my brand new husband by my side: “Wow, I guess I’m a mom now.” God was inviting me to vanquish my pride. I needed it.

Becoming pregnant was exhilarating in an entirely unexpected way. I never planned on being a mother. (Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that I never even planned on getting married!) But life is a mysterious thing and there I was. And happy to be there. Most of all, I felt genuinely excited to raise this little human (“Please God, let this be a boy.” It was.) Before he was even born, I welcomed new, domestic dreams to replace the Hollywood Spy Fantasy I had put to rest. My young husband deployed to Guam shortly after our wedding and I grew swollen with cold, fried chicken, salt and vinegar chips, and this child. I planned for the days to come. I knew I wanted to homeschool. I began envisioning what that would be like…

In those early years before kids, I did some things to fill this teaching itch. I volunteered at the Oxnard Public Library as an Adult Literacy Tutor, where I taught ESL adults how to read. It was very meaningful. Then I became a budget counselor with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and taught little workshops to servicemembers on how to create a budget and Plan for Baby. I remember bringing a teddy bear and cloth diapers to one class and showing the group how easy it was to do cloth diapering and excitedly creating graphs that showed how much money they could save. (Most yawned and just waited impatiently for me to finish so they could get their free swag bag of gear.) Then I taught first grade catechesis at the tiny chapel on base (St. Joseph the Worker, ora pro nobis!). After my son was born and doing some volunteer work, I decided to work on finishing my bachelor’s degree. Then Baby #2 was announced (“Please God, let it be a boy.” It was.) Towards the end of this pregnancy, I traveled down to Malibu for several days at a time to do some training on Infant Massage. Got certified. Taught that to a couple small mother’s groups. I began my early learning exposure with my first son at this time, walking around the corner to the tiny library and making sure we were at the bilingual story hours. He used to know a smattering of Spanish. I was intentional about teaching it to him… once upon a time.

We moved back to our home state while Baby #3 was growing inside me (“Well God, I got my way twice so I will accept very happily now, a boy or a girl.” Another boy. Cool!) I began homeschooling in earnest up on Whidbey Island and my husband allowed me free reign on deciding how to go about doing this. I researched and researched. I devoured curricula guides and gorged myself on books about the philosophy of education. Utterly fascinating! I was influenced by all the greats: Charlotte Mason, Dorothy Sayers, John Holt, Ruth Beechik, Maria Montessori, and on and on… I began to formulate ideas on what kind of teaching I wanted to do. I felt so alive and right when I was in this mode of thinking. I knew I was gifted with the mind and opportunity to do this well. And it provided such purpose to my life as a mama.

After I got my BA, my own children were still quite young, so I took on a temporary side job with a particular homeschooling company teaching 11th grade World History, which could be done from my home; papers were sent to me and I graded them. I had phone calls with students on a regular basis. It was fun. During this time, my father began homeschooling my youngest brother in his middle school years. And Dad consulted with me on how how to go about doing this well. This was Ellie’s jam. So, I designed a 7th grade curriculum for him with delight.

But my own children?

That was where I was very eager to begin in earnest.

After my first daughter was born and we moved a bit south, I began to focus in and formalize my free-spirited kindergarten efforts. I joined and eventually led the homeschool group at my parish. I designed a unique curriculum for each of my children every year, carefully noting their needs and styles of learning. I attended conferences and workshops on education. I read books and more books and more books. I scoured internet forums. I grew bleary-eyed reading about pedagogy and reviewing literature. And I was abundantly happy to do this. I was fully alive and fully me during this period. I could teach my children the gentle glory of nature walks and journaling, introduce composers and teach careful copywork, while simultaneously weaving in logic and grammar. I designed entire lesson plans around community events or liturgical feasts and once created an entire tour of the world, using the alphabet and picture books. For a while, I helped the boys produce and publish their own family newsletter. We played games where logical fallacies were identified. I had people send postcards from every state in the nation to my boys. Piano lessons were on schedule for a while. It was brilliant. We allowed the quotidian rhythm to rock us gently. E.g: daily Mass (where a couple of my boys were probably altar serving), coffee, oatmeal, nurse the baby, Morning Basket (mythology, Latin, music, art, or poetry), Math, Writing, Reading, Lunch. Quiet Time…

And my children had the best books. I mean that. I had learned to develop a sharp eye for quality literature (“living books”) and was able to devote lots of time to thrifting around and filling our shelves with beautiful, wholesome books, which as some of you may know, was the whole catalyst for me to start my children’s book blog “BiblioZealous”—which morphed into what you see here today. It was all very good. It was all very right.

Make no mistake, I’m not romanticizing these days. My children rebelled and resisted as any do. I was tired a lot. Second-guessed some of my decisions. Agonized over not doing enough. Dinner was sometimes rushed, behavior issues were a struggle, and the housework suffered. I wasn’t a Pinterest mom. But I was one woman showing up, every day to something noble, meaningful, and true. While my marriage may have been difficult, my identity was very rooted and secure in the virtue of this endeavor.

Many parents choose homeschooling because they want to protect their children from the immorality found in public school. Some do it because they feel obligated to do so for faith reasons. Some want to do it to enjoy an unstructured lifestyle where you can vacation in October and not have it be a problem. None of these were my primary goal exactly, even though all factored in. I wanted to homeschool because I wanted to bring the world to my children and I wanted nothing but the best for them. I wanted to set fires in their minds and hearts wherein they would love learning as much as I did and and I figured that I was the best person to provide this for them. It was as simple as that. Despite the foibles and flaws in my domestic environment and in my own self, I was good at homeschooling. And it was good for my kids.

I struggled a lot during these years… psychologically and spiritually. There were some really dark days with some really clear causes, but that’s not the story here. The story here is about what gave me structure, purpose and meaning through it all: raising and educating my children.

* * *

As my marriage began its most rapid nosedive in 2016, the strain became too much for stable homeschooling. We enrolled the kids in brick and mortar schools (the details of this are another tragedy for another time, but suffice it say that it involves emergency court hearings, splitting of babies, and many tears spilt at initial parent-teacher conferences from pain and jealousy that someone else was teaching my children how to read) and I started working as a restaurant hostess while my baby was forced through weaning at an earlier age than he was ready.

Homeschooling was definitively over; And I was helpless in watching this iteration of my identity breathe its last while other professionals took over in the academic formation of my children.

* * *

There has not been time to fully feel this weight of this; there were dragons yet to slay. For the next 4-5 years it seems. Battles. Crises. Trauma. Court. Devastation after Devestation. And a warrior can not properly reckon with her grief until she is finished fighting for survival, shelter, and security. So the grief waited. Seeping through the walls of her soul. Manifesting as disorganization. Irritability. Numbness. Depression. Confusion. Anxiety. Name-what-you-will…. Grief absolutely must complete its cycle and will show up in covert ways until it’s allowed the time and space to be overt.

Today, I am in a grieving season. My dragons seem to be mostly dead… though the ground still trembles here and there and sometimes I see wisps of smoke emitting from unknown caverns. Like a dormant volcano perhaps…

But in the meantime, it is time to do the work. For me, this means doing a proper memorialization of what was lost.

Mothering has not come natural to me the way it seems to for some others. I am mildly awkward around kids who aren’t my own. I don’t feel a natural desire to snuggle up with other people’s babies. And I’m not a particularly fun and bubbly person that children gravitate towards. Still… I know how to educate. And I have loved my children as fiercely as any parent has. Despite my long list of shortcomings, I have given up so much for my kids to be where they are and have what they have. I don’t take a lot of shortcuts and indeed, my life is quite a bit more difficult than it has to be because of my refusal to capitulate on some aspects of my children’s formation.

So being a divorced, working mom whose kids go to ‘real school’ has not been easy. Just the opposite. There is of course, the hampster wheel of all the driving around (so much driving around) and forced attendance, homework (*shudder*) and balancing their needs with my work, our family’s needs and my own needs—all by myself (albeit with a very loving and present support system here, Deo gratias). But it’s been difficult in existential ways too. In this chapter of my story, reclaiming my joy and purpose as a parent has been very challenging. Homeschooling was the heartbeat of my mothering. It was integral to how I even conceptualized being a mom! And there has not been an intuitive way for me to recalibrate in this life I now live, without a husband and separated from half my kids. These youngest four children of mine are fortunate to attend a private school. I recognize this and am grateful for it. (My oldest three have been mucking through the bowels of the public school system hours away from me and I struggle to find ways to stay connected to their learning. Again… this is another agony for another time.) Still. STILL… this experience is something like watching people feed your kids crackers and cheese whiz when you have an entire cornucopia of nourishing foods which could be offered to them instead. Adding insult to the dusty, injured cornucopia: I am expected to cheerlead my children through the (comparatively) impoverished education they do get. Because that’s what good moms do. So it seems.

My books. Requiescat in pace. I gave away most of our school books and have only kept those treasures of literature that are too agonizing for me to surrender. Some of them will absolutely never be read to or by my children. This is a fact. And the books haunt me from the shelf. But I can’t let them go. I allow myself to be haunted because the alternative feels even more painful. Maybe this is okay. There’s not one right way to go through this. And I sense that I’m trying to strike a balance here, which feels healthy…

I swallow my internal frustrations with our school lifestyle a lot, with the rushed mornings and inane busywork they bring home a lot, but I do try to muster up some encouragement and interest when they demonstrate some glimmer of eagerness about sharing a science fact or art lesson. They’ve each been blessed with good teachers. (I suppose if one is eating saltines and Cheese Whiz, at least it is being served with dedication and love.) And I am utterly thrilled when I catch them staying up late to read for fun… not all is lost.

But it is important for me to name what was lost. It’s only by doing this and properly honoring The Good That Was— that will allow healing to ultimately happen. There will be new connections made. I will broaden my experience of what it means to be Mother and I will eventually settle into this life. I will laugh more, get lost in my own head less, delight in my children more frequently, and allow the grace of God to infuse my vocation with new meaning.

Grief, when all is said and done, is a testimony of love. And above all else, I will continue to love my children in the space where I am entrusted to do so.

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On Annulments

It’s been a few weeks now since the Church has found my marriage to be invalid. My initial reaction was jumbled confluence of emotions. Some friends immediately said things like “Congratulations!” complete with confetti, balloons, and heart emojis. But that didn’t feel accurate. Other people have shared nothing but a silence that maybe betrays the personal feelings they have on the Church’s decision. Somehow… also inaccurate. And I’m sure there are many, who simply don’t know what to say or make of it all. Still. (And this, I understand.) The best responses were those that were tentative and unsure, curious ones like “How are you?” and such. This was right. But it’s taken me a while to know “how I am.”  I found myself scratching out some thoughts a couple days after the decision and shared what’s below on social media. Despite being a logical, rational woman in how I think (most of the time), I often  feel—and subsequently write— in fragments of light and shadow, from a mudbank of memories, colors, and awkward analogies. So this was my authentic response as I began to internalize what it all meant:

𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘋𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯 𝘈𝘯𝘶𝘭𝘭𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘍𝘦𝘦𝘭 𝘓𝘪𝘬𝘦?⁣⁣
⁣⁣
It feels like intersection between sorrow, relief, and disorientation.⁣⁣
The pumpkin at the end of the ball.⁣⁣
Aloe vera on sunburned skin.⁣⁣
And maybe some confusion about the sun’s existence itself.⁣
And who’s skin this is anyway. ⁣⁣
An annulment feels like Oxegyn.⁣⁣
Water in the desert.⁣⁣
Grief over the work, the blood, and the love that was given away.⁣⁣
And grief over what never was.⁣⁣
Grief over what should have been.⁣
⁣⁣It’s a refund offered on a name.⁣
An annulment feels like a confrontation with the words Attachment, Belonging, Identity.⁣
⁣⁣It feels like a lesson in pride. ⁣
And in humility. ⁣⁣
Detachment.⁣⁣
Displacement.⁣
But also Shelter.⁣
A coming home to myself.⁣
It is both Agony for my children. ⁣⁣
And Hope for my children.⁣⁣
⁣⁣A hot shower.⁣⁣
Bleach that burns.⁣⁣
A prayer petitioning mercy.⁣⁣
A prayer of gratitude.⁣

All said, I expected to feel mixed emotions, but with an emphasis on psychological freedom. Instead, I felt an emphasis on grief. But it’s a disenfranchised grief isn’t it? Grieving something that never existed… perhaps similar to the disenfranchisement an infertile woman feels when she mourns the baby that she has been unable to conceive.

Today, the feelings are still mixed, but ordered rightly. And stronger. I think the tribunal made the right decision— the congruent decision based on my experience as a 19 year old consenting to marriage in the circumstances I did.

But the freedom and peace I feel has a much more surprising origin than I expected. I thought I’d simply be relieved to not be spiritually tied to this man as my husband, for the rest of my life. This is not primarily what I felt. What I experience is a freedom and peace in being affirmed as a sojourner here. This world is not my home. Temperament, number of children, marital tragedies, and awkward analogies notwithstanding— I simply don’t belong here. And this is more than okay; it is right. Demographically, I don’t match up to the norm. And even within the beauty and solace of my Faith Community (that blessed hospital for sinners!), I feel a bit like a black sheep. Thankfully, my Shepherd loves me as much as His lily-white others with cleaner stories and more predictable flaws. He pursues me unceasingly. And I know that I am His. Through the very disorienting process of going through an annulment, I am reminded of the freedom available to me by burrowing deep into the humility of His most Sacred Heart (“…within Thy wounds, hide me.”) And I am grateful.
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Getting Real about “Doing the Work.”

Seems like we’ve been hearing a lot lately about “doing the work.” This is meant to invoke personal growth and positive change and maybe even healing from whatever traumas you’ve escaped or dragon bellies from which you’ve managed to emerge. “Do the work.”

But what does it mean?  Sometimes a good starting place for definitions is to look at what something doesn’t mean. Here are some cheap imitations of what “doing the work” might look like:

  • It might look like hardening up, collecting memes and quotes about being a bad a** and demanding respect.
  • It might be sharing articles with titles like “Ten Red Flags You’re in a Toxic Relationship” and thinking yourself informed.
  • It might be using psychobabble in a just effective enough way to sound reasonable. (This will probably include the popular (mis)use of words like narcissist, OCD, PTSD, bipolar and “toxic” for everything a person just might not happen to like.) 
  • It might be surrounding yourself with cheerleaders who tell you how amazing and brave you are and cutting people out of your life who challenge your narrative, then calling it “boundaries”.

Those are all forgeries of what “doing the work” actually is. 

Doing the work isn’t just knowing the red flags of a relationship. Anybody can Google up some information about mental health. But knowledge isn’t change. Doing the work is about testing your thinking and modifying your behavior to protect and respect yourself and others, in order to live authentically in this 

world.

Doing the work isn’t just passively waiting for the healing season to begin and end. Honestly, time does NOT heal all things. Some wounds need prescription strength antibiotics! 

Doing the work means getting professional help—the right kind. Not from someone who is happy to earn a paycheck just by co-signing on the nonsense you’re tempted to spew. Not your friend who took a life coaching class online “that one time.” Get serious. When I was searching for my own therapist, I interviewed a few before finding the right fit. I didn’t want someone who would pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful and insightful I was. I wanted the truth. It’s critical to have experienced and wise help in noticing our own blindspots.

Doing the work means getting your hands on excellent literature, specific to the issue you need to overcome— whether it’s codependency, addiction, abuse, manipulation, or an eating disorder— and reading about it from reputable experts, not journalists or pundits. 

Doing the work means voluntarily exposing yourself to situations that are scary or hard or uncomfortable (provided they’re safe of course) because that is where the growth is. It’s reducing the intensity and frequency of trauma triggers so that they no longer master you but you master them.

Doing the work means not being afraid to challenge ourselves with honesty. It means having a relentless pursuit towards self knowledge and the integrity enough to confront our own flaws. So that when we turn a sharp corner and find ourselves in the dark, seedy parts of our hearts, we don’t run away. We don’t make excuses. No projecting, blaming, dismissing or denying the unsavory things that we find lurking there. We pause. Ask questions. Study the situation. And then pull out the damn sword to begin the conquering. 

Doing the work means having an appropriate estimation of oneself. Being able to confidently name your strengths and weaknesses alike. Having genuine compassion for yourself and all that you’ve experienced, while nudging yourself onward consistently. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and owning your story. Making practical amends where possible and repairing relationships that may need it. 

In short, doing the work requires humility, courage and perseverance. You won’t come out the other end feeling pain-free and drying up all the tears. Rather you’ll come out the other end with an appropriate balance of the head and the heart. You’ll still have issues, cry out in pain and otherwise live the drama of the human story; this is a lifelong process. But attaining ‘happines’ isn’t the moral of the story here anyway (though happiness may be a byproduct of the work). No. “Happiness” by itself is far too transitory to ever make for an excellent aim. The moral of the story is meaning and growth and adaptability. 

Some people may wonder if they are doing enough to battle their demons and correct their dysfunctions. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you can do better. But know that at least. And own it. Ultimately, you will know you’re on the right track if you can live inside of this quote by M. Scott Peck:  “Mental health is an ongoing commitment to reality at all costs.”

 

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2020 in Books

So I was finishing grad school. And taking national exams. Hiring and firing lawyers. Representing myself in court (again). White knuckling a 26′ moving truck down the highway by myself in a household move. Starting a brand new career. And being suffocated by the national disaster that is Remote Learning with my children. That’s all. But I still managed to read quite a good number of books this year! Maybe that was my salvation… books are loyal friends and steady solace for wounded hearts. They also have been and will continue to be the source of much of my clinical learning in this newfound vocation; the expensive education and piece of paper at the end were just the beginning. Literature has provided the most meaningful mentorship in my development as a competent therapist.

I have learned an extraordinary amount from my own life. From my clients’ lives. And from books. Similar to last year, I am only highlighting twelve of the most important or meaningful ones for me personally this year.  (Also… I don’t know which faithful few have actually been clicking through my links over the years but every couple months or so I get like a $13 gift card from Amazon. Joy! Thank you!!)

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johan Hari. I’m only putting this one above his other excellent one: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression because I read it first. But both are journalistic sociology of sorts. And both are absolutely eye opening to understanding concepts that get lost under the weight of politics, business and propaganda.

 Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. I was in the middle of reading this when the George Floyd situation happened. What strange, uncanny, and helpful timing! An extraordinary book that—in Gladwell fashion— is interdisciplinary in its content… I can’t recommend it enough. The audio version is excellent, by the way.

 Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island by Earl Swift. Here’s the thing. Humans need to learn about random things. It’s important. It helps humble our intellect to be confronted with off-the-beaten-path interests, stories, theories or sub-cultures. If you aren’t curious about the the world… I just… can only meet you so far in friendship. This book was just geek-candy. Really interesting perspective here on a disappearing people. My son gave me this for my birthday. 🙂

 The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl. This is something of a follow-up to his more famous (must read) title Man’s Search for Meaning but designed to have more clinical implications. While I can’t advertise myself as “an Existentialist Therapist” without making people think of dim, hazy rooms and aliens— I am constantly working angles of logotherapy in session to help others find some sense of meaning in their struggles.

 The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes, PhD.  This book was superb. I wanted to know more about how trauma bonding and interpersonal exploitation happen, and was blown away by how Dr. Carnes explained this phenomenon which seems to be fairly misunderstood in our world. I’ve since recommended this book to many of my own clients who’ve found it powerful as well.

 Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell. When race relations became front and center in our country, I felt like I needed to get more perspective. I still do. And I will. But I resisted some of the big, popular titles that everyone was pushing (because I have an initial prejudice against “popular” things) and I didn’t have a lot of time to invest. So, Thomas Sowell to the rescue. This book didn’t necessarily do a lot to explain the current state of affairs in full, but it explored some of the really strange relationship “the elites” have had with minorities over the course of American history. Truly eye opening.

 Discerning the Will of God: An Ignition Guide to Christian Decision Making by Fr. Timothy Gallagher. So, if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll see why this book was relevant to me this year. I’ve had some big decisions I had to make and as God doesn’t speak to me in neon signs, I wanted to be very diligent in not letting my emotions or biases get in the way of important matters. This book was instrumental in helping to create peace of heart in some of the choices I’ve made this year.

 The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandyr Solzhenitsyn. I finished Volume 1 and have barely cracked into Volume 2. This had been on my to do list years before Jordan Peterson caused its resurgence in popularity so I bought the set in their hardback, first edition glory and called it “self care.” It’s been more than I hoped for. I expected more dry history, less philosophical triumph. And it’s been something I’m taking my time with because there’s nothing like it. I have long running notes of excerpts and quotes from this book and have found so much solace in my own weak parallels to Solzhenitsyn’s interior life during his exile.

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Each year I like to re-read at least one “old friend” in literature. It’s been many years since I last spent time with Francie in Brooklyn and I swam in the familiar story with a new appreciation. This is among the tops of my list with regards to favorite classic literature.

 The Plague by Albert Camus. The first full Camus work I’ve read since The Stranger back as a teenager. I’ve been flirting with Camus more and more over the years, via his quotes and short excerpts from his works, and was happy to make an excuse to dive into one of his books. Here was an exception where I DID jump on the popularity bandwagon to read this book, this year. I mean… because. It did not disappoint.

 Death in Other Words by Dom Hubert van Zeller. A few years ago, I discovered the Van Zeller is one of My People. And I’ve done what I can to read everything of his that I can get my hands on. This was Lenten reading this year and it was beautiful. “However muddled and unpleasant our affairs may become, we should never doubt that life is a gift from God and a good thing. He does not place us in the world just to be muddled and unhappy. The chief reason why it is a good thing is that it gives us the chance of getting nearer to Him.”

 The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, PhD. Finally. I can make sense of my inner world. I’ve sometimes felt so often on edge for no reason and have an extraordinarily high startle response. The volume of life is overwhelming to me and light fixtures and smells at certain stores make me feel nauseated. I thought I was a freak. Thought I had PTSD that would never go away. Being an HSP isn’t a diagnosis or a disorder. It’s simply a way that certain brains work to process stimuli in this world and it is both a blessing and curse. It’s different from being an “empath”. (While the two sometimes overlap, one is a neuro-scientific construct and the other a pop-cultural construct.) I’m not an empath… I just need you to not yell in my face please. Having the knowledge that I am an HSP doesn’t suddenly “fix” my autonomic nervous system, but it has made me aware of what I need to do in order to feel at home in my own body.

*    *    *

Goals for 2021?

I have a some very specific titles on my short list, but other than those I plan to finish my time in The Archipelago, explore polyvagal theory, and read my very first Stephen King novel… may there be ample moments of stillness for all this to happen. Happy reading!

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Unanswered Questions

Further adventures in a tale told out of order…

I cross-examined the father of my children in the court-room last week. I wonder how many women have ever had to do that. There were lots of objections by his attorney… some were sustained, but others were—gratifyingly— overruled. The most beautiful thing about it was the absolute confidence and freedom I had in facing him alone. So much has been taken from me already, and he has already gotten nearly everything he’s asked for in this particular action. This produces a deep, deep freedom for me in having very little faith in the justice system and thus being able to speak my truth with almost nothing to lose. He can run laps around me by way of having extra money and time to spend on lawyers and litigation. But after appearing in court more than 14 times in the past four years, begging the ear of multiple attorneys, advocates and one especially wonderful paralegal… I’m now able to speak and write in broken Legalese. It’s sometimes filled with procedural blunders and it will always lack the quintessential, smirking dialect typical of some natives. But this doesn’t phase me the way it used to. I am not afraid. Bring me your condescension. Bring me your soured, volatile ethics. Temporal battles don’t scare me anymore; I know where my victory is… and it’s not of this world.

The difficulty is that I was not allowed to “relitigate the past” according to the judge. Bother. As so many damaging precedents have already been set on deceptive, styrofoam foundations, this is quite a blow. I had hoped to shed light on the current issues by highlighting (just some) of the internal contradictions in the history of the testimony presented against me. Alas, opposing counsel objected to this line of questioning under the grounds of “Irrelevant.”

Well. 

I did not realize that Truth was invalid currency here or that establishing Credibility had an expiration date. Be it so.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

At any rate, for the sake of posterity, and even if the family law system isn’t interested in following up on matters of integrity, I would like to leave here some of my “irrelevant” questions that remain unanswered:

1.  In 2017, you testified, under penalty of perjury, that I was mentally unstable and tried to prove to the court that I was crazy:  

  • Why didn’t you seek to ask the court for a psychiatric evaluation? 
  • Why didn’t you seek a restraining order or supervised visits with our children?
  • Why didn’t you go on to inform my university where I graduated, Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling that they were making a great mistake?
  • Why didn’t you warn the Department of Health who licensed me or the National Board who certified me as a therapist that I might be a danger to my clients?
  • What is your opinion of my mental stability now?

2.  In 2019, you testified, under penalty of perjury, that I was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive to our children:

  • Why didn’t you call the police?
  • Why didn’t you seek a restraining order or supervised visits with our children?
  • Why didn’t you try to protect the youngest children from me and only want full custody of two of the older ones?

These are grave, life-altering accusations. 

These are mind-boggling anvils thrown at a woman who had already been discarded into the middle of the ocean. 

Do we live in the world where words no longer matter??

Yet… I am grateful.

Yes, you read that right.

 Without these past four years, I would never have known that I could develop the strength, skill and stability to swim in such storms. 

Thank you sir. May you be well and find peace and growth of your own in this life. 

—Elizabeth Rose, MA, LMHCA, NCC

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Writing to Know How I Think

Some things need to be said. And they will be said. But the time is not yet.

I will not write what is happening, but just pluck through snippets of how I feel. Doing this assists me in moving through All The Things with clarity and completion. If you can tolerate vagaries and shadows of thoughts… rather than a linear narrative, read on. Writing is something I can control.

I feel as though I don’t know how to interface with the world right now. I am in pain. I am wounded. Deeply. And this requires me to show up for myself and look me square in the eye and say “I see you. I know you. I hear you. This is real.” That’s my responsibility. The covert nature of what is happening creates a fog whereby most others are unable to understand. And even if the veil does get lifted soon, many will look away in discomfort. I accept this.

In the meantime, I own my breath. My body. My thoughts. My soul. There is my freedom. There is my peace. No matter the circumstances surrounding me, that interior dimension is beyond a threshold whereby only my Divine Lover is invited to cross. He weeps with me there. But He is also, quite simply— there: embodying the fullness of joy which can only be properly experienced when it was born of sorrow. I can still laugh. And mean it. Thanks be to God.

It is my responsibility to not transmit this pain onto others, intentionally or unintentionally. 

I alone, am responsible for its transformation. For my relationship to the pain. 

There is meaning here.

And I am noting once again, a reset of my threshold of delight. Today I walked—no, sauntered!— to the mailbox halfway down my block alone. It was like a mini-vacation. My office has air conditioning. What good fortune!  I dedicate myself to important work, an honor! My house is appreciated and loved by my children— I am the wealthiest woman in the world! And there are a few who have remained by me in the most tumultuous years of my life and have proven themselves to be True Blue, in spite of myself… a staggering gift.

Having been knocked down, over and over and over again… with no end in sight… I will still move through this. Having an internal experience that is hidden or misunderstood in the bustling world is not something I want to resist. I want to welcome this.

I will kiss the ground in the terrain of my soul and walk with courage down unknown paths.

 

DOMINE Iesu Christe, Fili Dei vivi, miserere Mei, peccatricis

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