Category Archives: Faith

The Last of Human Freedoms: Part Three

 

(Part 1)
(Part 2)

This is the part of my story I don’t want to tell. This is not the time. I have silently borne the weight of a bittersweet pain for a very long time. And it is too soon to give it voice. But now, indirectly, my children were brought into this. I am well aware, it will hit very sour notes for many who choose to read this. I see and bless your pain; these are hard things. I am not seeking your allegiance or acceptance with this disclosure. And the last many years have demonstrated clearly who is willing to do the work to understand, who sees me and accepts me, and who looks away in discomfort or who have, as Virginia Woolf said “… an inability to cross the street.” I don’t begrudge anyone the need to just avoid the drama; it’s certainly not easy to understand. And humans tend to like things to be in clean, black and white categories… they are very uncomfortable with gray.

Unfortunately, here in the land of civilly divorced/canonically married, there exists some gray in actual Church teaching. I get that it would be more ‘comfortable’ for some people if I could just be the pious martyr of marriage and continue to be on my knees begging God for reconciliation with my children’s father. I do not do this anymore. I do pray for the man who has chosen to scorch the earth and destruct our family in his disposal of me, quite a bit. I pray for his own healing journey to happen… and I pray that it happens somewhere far away from me.  I also wish I could say what I want and have it be my own, private truth… and not a story that includes others. But, here on earth, we commune with saints and sinners and not many can live exempt from impacting other people around. When it involves the lives of my children, I will speak up.

This is not a love story, and yet, I have “been in love” with a man for well over a year.  It is a very deep, very old, and very rooted love. The growth of which I resisted for a long time. It descends from a true, meaningful friendship that has existed for longer than my marriage has. We have seen each other through joys and sorrows for 20 years. More salient: we have seen each other. I know him deeply, in his gifts and in his flaws. And he knows mine. We speak each other’s language and are fluent in each other’s silence.

It was a pure and platonic love back when we met in junior college. We connected intellectually and spiritually in a singular way then, and that accompanied us through the ups and downs of our own, respective married lives ever since then. Our families were close friends over the years. All of us shared many evenings of meals, laughter and conversation. I was there in his darkest days (to the degree that anyone could be in my vocation). And he didn’t flinch in mine. He was instrumental in my reversion to the faith and was always challenging me to study, to do my own research, to think clearly and rightly. We have long had a mutual respect for the other. I was so excited when he got married and very happy to meet his wife. She and I became fast friends and became even closer than Justin and I were for many years.

Being her “first Washington friend” there were many shared joys along with the united work of our hands in a mother’s journal we published. It was a good friendship. I trusted her. Respected her. Loved her. And I still do love her today, in her strengths and in her weaknesses. I forgive her for discontinuing our close friendship. And I also forgive her for what can only be interpreted as a willful blindness or willful indifference to what’s happened, to what is happening. 

Initially, when her ex-husband—Justin— was buried in his own pain and darkness, she had my ear alone. While my marriage fallout was fast and hard, theirs had been struggling for years. And I was taken in by the stories regarding her spouse, bewildered at the tales told about my old friend. I knew she was hurting and that he’d made mistakes but… this? Still, I projected onto her something of a sister in abusive marriages once my own fallout began, thankful for the sense of camaraderie in our pain. I didn’t yet know the full story. All the things she said sounded too terrible to be true… they didn’t all add up, considering how well I knew Justin. Still, living through my own unbelievable nightmare, I was grateful to be friends with someone who knew the difficulties and isolation of being in a failing marriage in the small, orthodox Catholic world. She seemed to get it. 

When Justin came back to life and began opening up to me more of what his experience had been, the fuller picture came into focus. I could see both of their mistakes and shortcomings clearly. I loved them both and felt an allegiance to both as a unit. But where Justin was contrite about his errors and wanted reconciliation, she was unable to accept this. Her hurt was too much and my attempts to wake her up were rejected. I pleaded with her to commit to her marriage… being a little bit further along on the divorce road, I was seeing the trauma take place live among my own children and wanted to spare theirs—one of whom is my godson— this same fate. I sent her prayers. I sent her the book Primal Loss. Begged her to do the hard work of humble reconciliation. I did not want to see her family destroyed. It was ultimately ineffective. I was cut off from her inner circle as I was not one of the people willing to co-sign on her decision to break the family apart. She had her own reasons. She felt very alone and unhappy and couldn’t see her way out of it. I understand. I have no shame or judgement for her and I wish her health and healing in her own right. But I couldn’t agree with the divorce and felt pushed away because of this. 

Justin and I supported each other in fighting for our marriages even as they were simultaneously collapsing, for very different causes that ultimately coalesced into the same reason: because our spouses were each intent on ending the marriage. We ached in our own respective isolation, as friends. I encouraged him to keep fighting to save his marriage and he encouraged me to keep extending offers of reconciliation. Our friendship is good and rightly ordered.

His ex-wife and I barely talk anymore, though we are polite, and I pray for her.

When my son called and detailed his surprise and pain over being told by his dad that he was dating this woman a few days ago, my heart stopped. Flat-lined for several minutes, it seemed. I asked him to repeat the words he had said. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know what it means to live in a world where someone I was once so close to, who once knew more of my story than most other people, could turn away, invoking the need for “Healing!”  “Growth” and start “dating” the man who to this day, has never acknowledged nor taken any responsibility for what has happened to our family in the last four years. (… to say nothing of an apology.) I still don’t understand. It does not compute.

That my children’s father could be dating the ex-wife of the man I love. What do those words mean? What do those words MEAN?! I still don’t understand. If you are confused, you are not alone. There are many conflicting narratives swirling around out there. It’s messy. Think. Pray. Question. And walk away if you can’t or don’t want to make sense of us four, strange people. I get it. This is all cognitive dissonance to the nth degree and it’s important to protect your peace. For me, it’s also important to protect my truth. 

I would have borne that shock silently if they had. What my ex-husband does in his personal life and she in hers is none of my business. I don’t know what happened with the first, other woman. I don’t care. But where I kept silent during the years that the last woman existed under a fake, male name on his phone, THIS relationship was intentionally announced to the children and—with that deliberate disclosure— made public in my mind. Jesus, have mercy.

Now, it’s personal.

My son was confused. Asked about annulments.* I told him that his dad and I were still married in the eyes of the Church and neither of us were free to be “dating”, in the way our culture understands it. There is no certain trajectory. There is a more heightened need for prudence, temperance and utter sobriety in the knowledge that any relationship at all, may go nowhere. And introducing this to children who should never have to suffer through a serial string of Dad’s new girlfriends or Mom’s new boyfriends, especially on this side marital validity was not okay. 

I also told my son about Justin. And the reason why I did this matters because it wasn’t a conversation I was planning on having with my children (or the world) until it was appropriate. Until I was free to. But the damage has already been done, and the delicacy and gradualism I had hoped to introduce this other person with—whom my kids have known their whole lives— is gone. There are no good options and my kids are left groping for meaning with what is now overt in front of them with their dad and what had been hidden in my heart for so long. Now, the objective has changed. Inferences have been made. Questions asked. Confusion. 

So, I feel impelled to use the sorrow of this Love that I feel as a lesson to my kids and to my Catholic community (which may very well reject this) on how to hurt in deference to our Faith. I am not free to be “dating” nor do I have any interest in it. I don’t have a “boyfriend” in the traditional sense. I have something far more serious with one of my best friends and I would love it if we could have a future together. But I am not free to be anything more than a “friend” to Justin in practice. And even while in counseling together (his idea!) to try and collectively sort the difficulties we have in front of us, and the traumas we bring from our pasts, we are both soberly aware that we may always have to remain “just friends.” This is a reality we accept and we have tried to infuse as much dignity as possible into our very precarious situation.  

Here’s the thing: I never WANTED to date, even if I was granted an annulment. I am not a “Swipe Right” kind of woman. I had no intentions at all of remarriage after my husband divorced me. God has blessed me with a temperament well suited to soak up the silver linings of the life I currently have as a divorced mother of seven children: I have a strong sense of introversion and fierce desire for autonomy. I have a promising career. Great coffee. And more books to last me a lifetime. I enjoy solitude, sleeping by myself and using my free time to write in journals, wander along salty shorelines or scroll through the memes found in the newest, stupidest Subreddit of the day. Like Oscar Wilde, it seems to be a self-evident truth that “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” I can hire a handyman for any practical needs I have around the house and my large family is now close by for emotional support. A “man” was simply never something I wanted to bring back into my life. Not after the hell I’d been through. *shudder* It would have to be quite the man to ever make me interested in sacrificing my current freedom to enter into a relationship again. And, hi. Here I am. In the same relationship I’ve been in with just such a man for 20 years… only unfathomably deeper. 

Many don’t know him or only know him a little bit, do not like him. Why? Because he doesn’t fit in a recognizable socio-political box, speaks his mind without fear of consequence, and he tends to only reveal small parts of himself to the general public. But those who know him very well— and they are few— tend to love him. 

I never asked for a love like this. I never planned on it and I didn’t seek it. We are extremely similar in many respects and others have commented on our connection for years, including our spouses. And it was always a pure, respectful, and appropriate connection. 

Then, he taught me about selfless Love. And I was an unruly student. Ignoring his messages many times that were simply him reaching out asking if I was okay. I pushed him away, acted aloof and guarded my heart because it had been obliterated in years of abuse and exploitation. Vulnerability was too scary. Not for me. I had no use for it. No thank you. 

He taught me about Respect. He supported my boundaries. No man has ever honored and encouraged my own autonomy the way he has. One of the major themes we kept grappling with over and over in our friendship, was the concept of Freedom and what it means to have the capacity to engage in a healthy relationship. There were many tears spilt as things were disclosed, traumas were shared and security was developed. 

He roots for me and challenges me and he accepts my own cheerleading and chiding back. And I have admired the principles he had in fighting for a marriage long after he’d stopped wanting it. I could relate as I’d done the same. He and I began sharing more of our pains and sorrows. More cups of coffee and walks in Olympia where we’d meet every couple months. I was transparent with and encouraged in this friendship by his ex-wife. We grew close. And we grew deep. Here, in the shelter of the other… we still recognize and genuflect at the sacramental space between us. 

And we know that might be the end of the story. 

Because there is something greater than our feelings that matters here. There is propriety. There is honor. There is obedience to our vocations and teaching of a faith system unto which we have voluntarily submitted ourselves. 

We will always be friends. But I can not currently imagine the insanity for my kids to have to consume this sort of bizarre, wife-swap soap opera.  I’m a damn writer, with a strong (though fallible) intuition about people. And in my role as a therapist, I’m pretty comfortable inviting others’ skeletons out of the closet and demons to tea… but this?! Well, this particular plot-twist has rather knocked the wind out of me— along with any premature swagger I may have been tempted to feel thinking “I’ve heard it all before.” And sadly, without seeing it in person but knowing them both well, I have a pretty confident idea of how it’s playing out: having lived the “phase before the discard” myself, and having researched an enormous amount of material on particular types disorders and their lesser-known phenotypes. I’m not judging. I’m not diagnosing. I don’t need to. But, please pray for us all… and most especially for our children.

Maybe their “relationship” will grow legs. Maybe it won’t. But, either way, I can’t stand by silently while my children are learning that Black is White and 2+2=5, and enter on stage months later where they might interpret this as some sort of cheap mimicry to whatever form of reality those two are living right now. No. 

So, I’m speaking out prematurely so my kids know the true story. That they know it’s okay to love. To have feelings and hopes and dreams. I know what this is like. 

And more importantly, that those must be tempered in light of what our Faith has revealed to us.

And I’m also speaking out because what I have with Justin has been so careful and so intentional, for so long— that it feels wrong to let such an old, deep, discerned, and rightly ordered love be an afterthought to someone’s else’s new, convenient “dating” object today. 

I wish my ex-husband health and healing. I wish her health and healing. But, I am not going to be a silent supporting actor in the relationship being introduced to my children. I am tired of my life choices being limited by others. So, I am exercising the last of my human freedoms to respond to the situation in front of my family in a very proactive and public way, even through my fear of backlash. I apologize for what discomfort this brings to anyone and can only hope that it sparks some thoughtfulness, dialogue and healthy boundaries for all the couples I know.  I will repeat something here that I’ve said many times now over the past couple years having experienced all that I have and witnessing what effect it’s had on my children: I am even more ANTI-divorce now than I ever was before. 

Come what may, Justin and I will still drink our coffee and read our books and think our thoughts and laugh our laughter. We are friends. 

 

(Here is his side of things,  for those who want to understand better…)

 

 

_____________________________________

*In January of 2020, I filed a petition for an annulment. For the previous 2 years, I had been waiting around, thinking my ex-husband would file. He had begun the process immediately after our divorce was finalized, but he never followed through. When I asked about it, months later, he had said that he was busy. I filed. It took a lot of time, research and prayer to be able to do this in good conscience. I had to make sure my motives were pure and that I was being obedient to the (well-catechized) promptings on my heart. I wasn’t looking for loopholes. I wasn’t looking to rewrite my history. But I was and am seeking clarity. Either I was irrevocably shackled to this man for the rest of my life, or I would be granted psychological freedom and peace with a decree of nullity;  either outcome will be a relief. Living in this limbo, divorced but seriously questioning the validity of your own marriage, is intolerable. I want to know what my cross is and I will adjust accordingly. I had stumbled on my very old journals, written during my dating period wherein the constant theme was questioning if I could trust him, my relationship. Everything was so syrupy sweet and perfect… it seemed too good to be true. Yet, I had misgivings that I pushed away. I wanted to believe it was true. And I ignored the warnings my close friends and family gave me. We had no meaningful marriage prep. And most of all… I have a strong, educational, experiential, and clinical knowledge now of certain parts of psychology that could seriously impede one’s capacity to consent to the demands of marriage. So I submit the question to the hands of those trained to assess these matters within the context of Canon Law.  
While many Catholics seek annulments for the sole purpose of remarriage, that was not my objective. Obviously, I have guarded hopes for my future with Justin, but he has long warned me from the get-go that not only might he not accept the results of his own annulment results— that his ex-wife had petitioned for— but that he might not accept mine if he felt that the process wasn’t given its due diligence and thoroughness. I respect him all the more for this. There are things more important than our feelings. I didn’t file for an annulment in order to get remarried. I filed for one to hope for some element of psychological freedom… or at least clarity.  When I let my ex-husband know that I did this, he said he would have nothing to do with it. That this was on me as he had “discerned it wasn’t in the best interest of the children.” (Well… “Curiouser and curiouser…”) He did not participate in the paperwork at all. Interestingly, he chose to review all the papers though. He read my testimony, my witnesses’ testimonies and my therapists’ testimonies. He saw every word written. And he chose to not speak on any of it. This is convenient for the sake of the “having nothing to do with this” narrative… but I am at least thankful that my case will be adjudicated with nothing but honest material. I was told that I should expect to hear the results of my petition late next spring.
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The Last of Human Freedoms: Part Two

The Legal Years

Divine Lover and Heavenly King, have mercy on me, my children, and their father… please don’t let this be weaponized into bitterness and retaliation, but rather make it a piercing, purifying flame of truth that gives birth to contrition and conversion. Lord, hear my prayer…

(See Part One here.)

At the separation hearing, I got my first taste of the American Justice system. I can’t say it’s an acquired taste, four years and multiple appearances later— but hey, some of the security guards were nice and seemed to have a genuine sympathy for me as I’d trudge in and out over the next many months, filing papers and such, especially once I was without legal representation. I bless them today for offering me a touch of humanity with gentle smiles as I came and went. 

Here is some of the language used in that first declaration against me:

    •  “Her behavior is erratic and turbulent, such that the children and I feel confusion and anxiety around her because we are waiting to see what version of their mother we will get.”
    • “This sort of manic behavior has become dangerously normal to our children…” 
    • “She has harassed my friends and coworkers, and all but terrorized me…”
    • “Ellie is an unfit neglectful mother, and she is certainly no housekeeper…”
    • “The incidents of child neglect under Ellie’s watch are far too many to recount.” 

 Words can never describe my horror upon reading this and the blatant lies and distortions that accompanied these words. Jesus, are You real?! Do You see me?! Can You hear me? Where are You?!  But it was just beginning. Herded into the domestic relations docket—the real leveler of humankind, as we all squished like cattle to ogle over each other’s dirty laundry before our own skivvies were put on public display— The Commissioner told me to wean my baby and get a job. A Guardian ad Litem was (understandably) ordered to the case in light of these alarming claims. In addition to these recommendations, a 50/50 parenting plan was ordered, $2200/month was offered by way of support for myself and the seven children, and I was ordered to pay the mortgage and all the utilities on the home. Me. The woman who’d been out of the workforce for more than a decade and had been a stay-at-home wife and homeschooling mother while my husband had been building his career up for years. How is this possible, Lord?Additionally, I was only allowed to live in the home during my residential time. They call this a “nesting” situation and it was a highly imperfect and ineffective attempt to stabilize our children while their family was being torn in half. So, in other words, at this point in time, the children didn’t shift households… the parents did. When my husband was “off duty”, he had rented a private apartment to which he could retreat. When I was “off duty”, I had nowhere obvious to go. I remember scrolling through local campsite availability because I felt too ashamed to be a burden on my friends. But, people reached down into darkness and pulled me up from that thinking. I ended up bouncing between a couple friends’ homes who took me in and gave me space in their spare room. While living this nomadic life, living at home just 50% of the time, I was working as a hostess at a restaurant. I was 35 years old, being trained by a sweet, blonde 19 year old on how to handle customers, bus tables and attend to my apparently primitive eyebrows. (Incidentally, I am extremely grateful for the year spent in the restaurant industry; the life skills I learned there were significant and important.) 

Some nights I would wake up from nightmares and be entirely disoriented, not knowing what was going on. It would take long minutes for me to get my bearings and rack my brain to remember where I was. I would stare at the ceiling numb—yet with a racing heart— trying to make sense of my body, my location, and my reality. In the early days of this arrangement, I would be unable to sleep— afflicted with aching breasts but no baby to relieve me. I tried pumping milk for a while, but the stress and pain had my milk supply drying up pretty fast. I had nothing left to give him and so, he was weaned. These were hard, unreal days, weeks, months, years…

My husband resigned from his position at the church, told me he had “lost” his job, and went back to federal civil service. I grieved for and with him. And it was all my fault. Rumors in our community were like wildfire during this phase, many of them untrue… and some true. Many friends tried to reach out to my husband. Many folks tried to approach him and me to help support our marriage. They were amputated from his social circle. But many, many others just tried to give us privacy and prayer in our struggles. 

During the summer, my husband filed emergency orders to keep our children out of the little private school in which I had enrolled them. It was too closely entwined to the parish where he used to work. He had some very choice words to say about the community and insisted that the children would be in a much healthier place at the local, public schools. The judge split the baby. Two were allowed to attend the private school with Dominican sisters. The other two were sent to the public schools. During the next school year, I had five children in four separate schools on four separate bell schedules. It was a logistical nightmare. In September, I was preparing for a settlement conference… a David vs. Goliath type encounter of inexperienced, trembling me vs. a tenured lawyer in the last months of her career who had a reputation for being The Bulldog of the county. My proposed plan was very fair. His was not. We were unable to settle and the case was headed for trial. 

Meanwhile, that same month, my second son was hospitalized for a stomach issue that had resulted from a previous surgery. I went to the hospital to be with him for a few days while he was in there. An out-of-state friend came to manage my household while I was gone and collaborated with other local friends to throw a birthday party for another child while I was with the infirmed one. I was accused of “abandoning my children”… to be with the sick one.

Throughout this year and into the next ones, so many people supported me financially. I would receive many anonymous envelopes of cash or folks who used the church to disperse a check to me, grocery gift cards stuffed into my purse. The whole community seemed to see the injustice. I felt like I was living in a fishbowl… only my water levels were dangerously low and the world saw it. I was stunned. Embarrassed. Each and every time a dollar was sent my way, I was shocked all over again. I don’t know how I would’ve made it without these unseen angels. I was able to purchase a small, used vehicle to drive. I was able to pay my bills. Stay alive. Family friends gave me a home with cheap rent to live in. I learned to stop blushing when I paid for my groceries with food stamps and begged the school for free tuition. And I clung like hell to my crucified Jesus. You are real. You do see me. Bind me now to Your Cross and never let me go.

During this phase, I reiterated to him that I was willing to reconcile. Willing to work on us. He refused. I had “annihilated our marriage” with how unstable I was. I didn’t understand. 

On November 1st, my father died. He had finally succumbed to years and years of pain and illness and died surrounded by his wife and children. My older brother held his wrist feeling his pulse die out and my hand was on his heart as it faded into stillness. 

I was a shell. Numb. Grieving the father I needed to protect me right then. And also grieving the relationship I never DID have with my father. But there was no time for sorrow. Trial was just a couple weeks later. I had represented myself through the summer but knew I couldn’t do trial alone. I took out a large, personal loan to hire someone for that. 

During trial, he tried to double down on convincing the court that I was crazy. Court was not convinced. A parenting plan was rendered wherein I had custody of the children about 64% of the time. No one tells you how gross it is to dissect a home and make claims on joint goods. All I really wanted was the books, the art and the old vehicle. His lawyer had capitalized on my weariness and naivete and convinced me and the court that the home was a Zero asset, due to its age and condition. I knew it was worth more but God help me, I was so tired of fighting… I just wanted to walk away. 

Not insisting to be granted some financial part of the home was the greatest monetary mistake of my life. I could’ve at least had my graduate studies and lawyer fees paid for instead of being very deeply in debt today. Just give me peace, Jesus. He can have the money; I want the peace. 

Life was supposed to be beginning just then. 2017 had utterly demolished my ability to make sound decisions in my life. I was, in the most meaningful sense, a survivor of trauma in multiple domains. I had been homeless half the year. My husband, God forgive Him,  had been verbally, emotionally and psychologically abusive to me and was quitting on the marriage. I was trying to mother seven children alone. And begged around for childcare while I worked in the restaurant. I had hired and fired lawyers and was under a form of systemic legal abuse that as of this writing, has still not ended. My father died. Father, my father…

2018 was normal— so long as one is comfortable calling a dystopia normal. During these years of my life, there could be whole novels written about the constant and intentionally hurtful messages sent. The acts of violation on multiple fronts. It seemed to never stop. Very many difficult parts of my life will remain untold during these years as this world simply can’t tolerate “But wait! There’s more!” to be played on repeat, ad eternum. Hide my children in your veil, Mother!

I began graduate studies to become a Mental Health Counselor. This forced me to quit my job. To make my life work, I just maxed out my student loans each semester for regular living expenses. Very quickly after the six month waiting period was over from the date of our Legal Separation, my husband converted our separation into a divorce on August 10th, 2018. I didn’t show up to court. I would have no say in the matter anyway. But he was successful in getting the judge to order me to pay his attorney fees for that day. Justice. So, I paid for a divorce hearing that I never wanted, didn’t attend, and fought like hell to avoid.

There were many struggles with my older children during this time. Single mothering teen boys going through trauma was not a particular skillset of mine. And I had no backup from their father, only a lot of undermining and triangulating. I made a lot of mistakes. Life was blisteringly hard. But my mental health studies were meaningful, helping me make sense of what I was experiencing, and I had hope. In the summer of 2019, I was served papers wherein he was asking for a parenting plan modification. He was asking for full custody of two of the teen boys only. Not the five other children. And he wanted the court to grant him this AND 100% of the weekends with all the children. In the State of Washington, to modify a parenting plan against another’s will requires extraordinary circumstances. The extraordinary circumstances he was citing were abuse. He declared that I was “physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive” to our children. He insisted that a Guardian ad Litem be appointed to investigate (again) and we were back in court. Maybe he really believed all the lies. Maybe his (inconsequential) phone calls to CPS on me were made in sincerity. Maybe he is more unwell than malevolent. This line of thinking has helped my heart to stay soft. It’s imperfect and tempts to harden… but I fight hard to keep it watered with humility and forgiveness. Pray for me.

The case dragged on for months. No movement. Everyone knew it was a junk case. He had no evidence and if I was really abusive, court would have been expedited and all my children removed from my care. But here in America, anyone can file anything they want and the court is required to go through the motions of entertaining the allegations at least. So the tension of my children being taken away from me was held over my head for an insufferably long time as I was in the middle of my clinical internship and final year of school. By the end of the year, I had begun serious discernment on moving back to my hometown a couple hours away. It was a painful decision. I knew I would have a job there. I knew I would have family there. And I knew I would have distance from the ever-present interference of someone who seemed always on the prowl for ways to punish me. I needed my family desperately. I no longer had a meaningful sense of “home” in that city. So I spent months in prayerful discernment, feeling the weight of what this decision would mean for my children. 

In March of 2020, I filed for an Intention to Relocate. Prior to this, I had asked to have a conversation about it, wanting to collaborate on a parenting plan. He refused. I invited him to Dispute Resolution. He refused. Predictably, he filed an Objection to Relocation. More court. More money to hire a lawyer for a hearing. More gracious individuals helping me cover these costs. God, reward them! I was denied temporary orders to move so we were headed to Trial. Again. Unable to afford that representation for a two-day trial, I spent a lot of time preparing and studying on my own about what to do. I had all the notes from my paralegal friend who’d guided me before. I had a a capable mind and a foolishly courageous heart. I drove to Montana on a personal retreat to prepare for trial. I stood in wind storms, talked to cow herds, hiked through Glacier and watched YouTube videos on how to represent oneself at Trial. I was feeling pretty hopeless. An attorney who knew about my case stepped in at the 11th hour to help me, pro bono. Hope!

God bless him, but it was ineffective. Hopeless.

Trial went very, very poorly. My ex-husband’s performance was extraordinarily persuasive. And it was a performance. Suddenly, I wasn’t a terrible, abusive mother and it was being pushed that the children NEEDED me in close proximity to their dad! Lies were told. Sometimes directly. But usually, in the most insidious ways lies tend to flourish in our world: by mirroring so closely the truth that the counterfeit is nearly impossible to discern. My situation wasn’t adequately presented.

After his domination at trial, there was a painful interim period where more hearings needed to happen, temporary parenting plans here. Final orders there. I filed to move in March. Trial was in July. Temporary orders in August. I chose to represent myself at a final evidentiary trial in October. It was highly empowering. A decision was rendered in November… there are still loose ends today. 

I wrote what follows this summer and never published it since I was afraid of how he’d use it against me before we had our 3rd trial. I will end Part Two of this saga with these important notes on my move:

(*Note that a very fair parenting plan was ultimately ordered, considering the circumstances. Blessed be God forever! But the financial disparity between us is still an inscrutable abomination. I make half as much money as he does and pay HIM more money in child support than he pays ME (though this will shift as the three oldest graduate high school). Additionally, I am on my own to pay tuition at the children’s school and there are still squabbles over me being forced to pay thousands of dollars for the GaL that he insisted on having to investigate my mothering. Bizarre beyond words. In this too, blessed be God forever! Also, I am grateful that my mother has loaned me money to combine with an offering from a friend to finance a safer, more reliable vehicle for us. Truly, I am blessed.)
(**I can not emphasize enough that this is a man that I have nothing but goodwill for. I have seen enough life and worked with enough disordered individuals to know that any one of us is capable of great evil, given the right situation, anomalies, and context. Please pray for him, and love him, and hope for wellbeing for all of us.**) 

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

 —Solzhenitsyn

*       *       *

August 16th, 2020

Home. A word that hurts very much to me and one I’m still trying to make sense of.

I no longer live in the bustling, shipyard city where friendships were cultivated, babies were born and a marriage was broken. I made a home there for over 10 years and a part of me will always call that corner of Washington State home. Part of Whidbey Island, Washington is home. Part of Ventura County, California is home.

And full circle, I return to the place where that word became incarnate, and where a conceptualization of the word Family was first cobbled together.

Family.
Home.

OuchBoth of those words are now knowingly and deliberately mutated as slurs against me for the sole purpose of causing pain.

So, here at the beginning again… I sift through my emotions in a wire mesh strainer, hunting for something recognizable. While terrible at many things, self-analysis is a strength of mine. Yet these large, stony things yielded in the strainer are foreign to me. Is it Defeat? Relief? Sorrow? Hope? Unsure, but likely an amalgam of these words and others. I suppose they’ll get categorized under Rilke’s “Things beyond words…” Again. And again. And again. 

Hard things. 

I didn’t want to leave.

Even after my marriage was dashed against the salty, jagged rocks in that county, I wanted to continue my life there. And I tried. 

For my children, I tried. 

When he found reasons to stay away from the house more and more, I still hoped.
(Maybe he was really busy.)
When he told me his relationship with another woman was a “non-negotiable,” I still hoped.
(Maybe I just didn’t get it.)
When he told me his marriage vows were a mistake and that he hadn’t loved me for “the better part of 15 years,” I still hoped.
(We all say regrettable things in anger.)
When he said he was no longer committed to me, I still hoped. 
(Maybe he would change his mind.)
When he divorced me, I still hoped.
(Maybe… maybe… )

For my children, I tried. When my heart was no longer into it and it was just an extension of my marital duty, I tried. When reconciliation was denied to me time and again on both sides of the divorce, I tried.

Stepping over the broken olive branches, with a pride too vanquished and a desperation too strong to know better, I tried.

Wading through the gaslighting and the maltreatment that I was willing to endure, over and over again, I tried.

But when the harassment and hostility bore relentlessly into my mind and heart, with no end in sight, I could no longer try. When my very ‘home’ could no longer provide a sanctuary from his invasiveness, I could no longer try. At some point, for the sake of sheer self-preservation, one must close her arms around her mind and heart, stuff them into an iron cage… and simply run like hell. 

Here is the quiet, insidious, nature of psychological abuse: It is hidden. It needs to remain hidden in order to continue. If a woman went about her daily life with the visible signs of physical wounds, people would not tolerate this. The outrage would be immediate. Not so with psychological abuse. The damage is deep and long-lasting in a way that even physical abuse typically is not. But you can’t see it. It alters your reality with others in a way that is common for all abuse to do. Beyond that, psychological abuse also alters your reality with yourself in a way that words here can never do justice. And when you succumb to the isolation and silence, out of fear, the chasm between you and the rest of the world becomes increasingly immense. People on the other side of the chasm sometimes support where they can (my gratitude is immeasurable), even without “getting it.” And there is guidance and advice that is sometimes helpful and sometimes not (thank you for caring). But the chasm still remains littered with omissions and misunderstandings, tin-can laughter and untimely tears, stifled anger and many, many dollars and hours spent in God-blessed therapy.

But the abuse remains as the unseen scourge that it is. Unbelievable: “It’s just so unlikely!”  Especially if you want your perceptions in life to make sense and choose to accept only bits of information that align with the confirmation biases we all have: “People are generally good; how could this possibly be true?!” Malcolm Gladwell has a fantastic book that touches on this phenomenon. Humans deny, deny, deny… until the evidence is incontrovertible. And when the deception isn’t obvious, but comes to the party dressed up in just enough true-sounding facts to fool most people— the danger is all the more real. This is how darkness makes the most gains in life; it stays close enough to the light that the Truth is indistinguishable. 

Screwtape to Wormwood: “Just a loaded adjective here, an artful omission there. A sprinkle of projection. A dash of minimization. Easy does it… subtle now…”

Unless you were there for the conversations, read through the court declarations, and strode through the manufactured narratives and nauseating manipulations that frequented your inbox every, single week for years, (Look the other way, now) I can understand the denial. He is a super “nice guy” in public so how could this be true?! For the average lay person, the dynamic of my situation doesn’t make sense. For those who’ve gone through this or who have the clinical training to recognize it: this is textbook. 

But knowing what’s happening does not inoculate one from feeling the effects of it. And the wounds today are very, very real. 

“I never said that.” (Black eye.)
“You’re delusional.” (Cut lip.)
“That never happened.” (Bruised ribs.)
“You’re unstable.” (Broken collar bone.)
“You’re abusive to our children.” (Bleeding. In. The. Brain.)

Can you see me?!
Can you hear me?!

I know this is not polite conversation.
I am not sorry.

But I weep that Truth comes so often dressed in Sorrow. And is so often misunderstood by those who mean well.

For being alone in Gethsemane.
And then betrayed at the praetorium.
And then crucified at Calvary. 
For begging that this cup be taken from me. Every day.
For the need to choose forgiveness and conversion. Every day.
And yet blessing this intimate connection with the Ones who came before me: The Man of Sorrows. The Mother of Sorrows.

Moving to my hometown was done for my family’s sake. To provide for my children the best, and most secure future possible in profoundly sub-optimal circumstances, circumstances that—despite my very serious flaws and shortcomings—I never chose for them and that I fought hard to avoid. I didn’t want to leave.

And only four of the seven will come with me… the oldest boys left with grief under the protective mantle of Our Lady, Star of the Sea.

Today, I am in my mother’s home.
I am waiting to begin life all over again.
Again for the 3rd or 4th time.

So, I scroll mindlessly through new legal plans proposed to me: the one that suggests my children be entirely without me for a cruel and inhumane length of summer. (Blood flowing from my side.) The one that insist that if I want private school education, I alone pay for it (Damaged spine.) And I scroll blankly past falsely inflated child support calculations. Feeling no surprise that even as I rely on state aid programs, the generosity of subsidized rent, and car tires that compensate for their baldness with a combover of unabashed courage— and before I’ve had a chance to unpack my belongings, catch my breath, or earn a single dollar to provide for my children, there is a proposal to cut his child support obligation by over $1000 a month. (Punctured lungs.) Here. In the middle of a pandemic. Where I will be forced to work limited, evening shifts since I must guide our children’s remote learning in the daytime. Where I am attacked for trying to make adjustments in situations that were unforeseen to me. (Concussion.)

I’ve been entangled in steady court proceedings for over a year now and off and on for almost four years. No surprise and may the merciful blood of Jesus Christ sustain me during this war of attrition.

Please, oh sad, and ailing human… I know there is a soul in there somewhere. Here. Please take my cloak also. And those of my children. I assure you of my prayers. You may be able to buy many legal conquests, but my integrity isn’t for sale and my soul is beyond your reach. 

As such, the ultimate victory is mine.

Will you look away?
Will you plug your ears?
Are you uncomfortable yet?

Blessed be God.
“I will rise.”
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
“Still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Blessed be God in His angels and saints.
“Still, like air, I’ll rise.”

 

—Elizabeth Rose Augustine Clark, MA LMHCA, NCC

 

(See the final, 3rd Part here)

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The Last of Human Freedoms: Part One

I have thought and prayed carefully for four years on how or if I would ever share my marital fallout. There have been bits here and there, pennies of thoughts and pounds of discretion as I grapple with what it means to be authentic and navigate legal battles that serve to stifle my voice on matters of import. I am also mindful of how misunderstood hidden abuse is and have wondered about my role in offering a cautionary tale regarding the public and social institution of marriage, versus… the repugnance I feel about being a poster child for Catholic Divorce Tales Gone Wrong. I never asked for this and I never wanted this for my family. 

So, what I am sharing now is done with grief, and sooner than I had planned on sharing it, even though there are many details I am holding back for the sake of all involved. What you are about to read is a fraction of what has been endured in the last four years. I am uncertain that this world would even have to capacity to understand all that has happened, were I to tell it. But that’s not at issue here. With this, I have just a small platform to honor my truth by giving it voice. What comes after that is almost none of my business. Some will like it. Some will not. Some will shame me. Some will praise me. I pray to be indifferent to it all. This is for my kids.

Know this: ultimately, I want the father of my children to be healthy and holy and happy; I pray for him regularly and forgive him the damage he has done to me and to our family. Whatever circumstances—psychological, social or spiritual— that have happened in his life to contribute to his treatment of me, I lament for him. I am not better than him and I am a sinner in my own right. He is a soul that I care very much about as he will always be the father of my beautiful, extraordinary children. But I will not be doing him nor my family any favors by hiding reality in shrouded vagaries, so in some hard-to-explain way— I will and pray that this serves as a painful wakeup call to take seriously the path to honesty, self-awareness, and healing. Jesus, let this be a medicinal injection of truth! Additionally, I ache to know that someday my children might read this. But my hope is that I can hold space for their pain and heal with them, even while partially pulling aside the veil that hides the wounds in my heart… which bleed onto them. I wish for them truth, and love and faith in honesty.

The need to write my story now has become imminent because I have been made aware of a new, pressing threat of others writing it for me, which will be explained in the final part of this.

Part One of Three

2016

It was early spring when I had a dream out of nowhere. Six months pregnant with my last child, sleep was a fitful thing already, but I shared this dream tentatively with my husband. “You decided to cheat on me with _________.” He was taken aback as much as I was considering that there was nothing to lend credibility to this dream at all. At the time. A month later, I noticed a connection between him and her. Others noticed it too. He’d light up when she came around and their conversation was so light, fun and easy. I felt jealous. Strange. And really, really stupid. 

When they began texting more, I expressed my discomfort. He tried to avoid texting around me to not trigger this discomfort. This led to evasiveness. Awkward conversations. Me feeling even stupider for being bothered by it. We were growing distant. What was my problem? Why was I so insecure? 

When I went into labor with our son in May, I texted him and he came home from work. I didn’t want him there since we were emotionally out of tune but felt bad advocating for myself. In less than three hours, from start to finish, our 7th baby was born at home in the most awkward home-birthing position I’d ever been in… on all fours, with my slightly estranged husband pinned underneath me.

The baby was baptized shortly thereafter and the woman came to our house for the baptism reception. He forgot to tell me that he invited her. I tried to act normal and be accommodating as she held my son and was very pleasant.  Before the end of the month, I had consulted with my closest friend, out of state—too humiliated to bring it up to my local friends— and she advised me to ask him to stop all of the texting and have a professional-only relationship with her. I wrote up a template message for him to send. He agreed and sent it. The next day, he was extremely upset and nervous for how awkward things were at work. How she’d taken it, seeming so aghast at any hint of impropriety. We talked a lot. It sounded like I was clearly just insecure. She rationalized and normalized their friendship in such a way that I felt really, really stupid for feeling uncomfortable with it. And my husband seemed to feel foolish about asking for boundaries. We had never encountered anything like this before and neither of us knew how to handle it

This began Operation-Get-Ellie-Comfortable-with-Our-Friendship. It involved an unspeakable amount of alcohol. (To this day, please never offer me Tanqueray Gin or Fireball Whiskey. Triggers.)  And I tried. I spent time at her house. I tried to get to know her. I tried to like her. She was really fun and charismatic and a great conversationalist. No wonder he liked her! And I felt so stupid for not wanting her around my husband. We spent the entire summer going back and forth on identifying boundaries and trying to back off of the texting and then easing up on restrictions because I didn’t like for him to be upset at me because of the loss of his friend or awkwardness there. I shoveled more and more piles of stupidity and inadequacy upon myself as he spent more and more time at work with her or running errands for her and less and less time at home. I felt neglected and shamed myself for these feelings. Self-loathing. Every time I brought it up, it was met with exasperation and frustration that I couldn’t seem to accept that they were just friends. What was wrong with me?!  She was well aware of my emotional floundering on the friendship. One day I’d tell her that I wanted to support their friendship and the next I’d tell her it was too difficult. She kept feigning surprise that I even questioned their friendship at all. I was growing increasingly “unstable”… a charge he’d later use against me in court.  At one point, he was discussing dopamine rushes with getting her texts and feeling love-like feelings for her, but then he quickly backpedaled and it was that she was just like his sister and I simply wasn’t able to understand.  By August, he told me we would have to agree to disagree on this and he was willing to endure my discomfort to maintain this friendship. God, hear my cries of despair and find me in Your bleeding heart! The isolation I felt was deep as he and she both thanked me for not opening up to my local friends about my concerns.  I felt like I was honoring my husband. Protecting him. Noble. Everything else must have been made up in my head…

During this phase, I believe he at least tried to do the right thing to a certain degree. Maybe he couldn’t help his disordered feelings. At one point, it was proposed in deep frustration that “Fine, I’ll quit my job and we’ll move to Vancouver!”  I begged him to please put that out of his mind. The thought of leaving the life we had so carefully crafted was unthinkable. To take our children out of their wonderful church community and move away was just not an option. Maybe this remains my greatest contribution to the fallout. Maybe I should have agreed and insisted on a move away from the other woman… but I couldn’t believe that it would actually lead to an END of my marriage so a move seemed to be a really disproportionate response. Still, I was not perfect here. There are no maps on how to navigate a marriage fallout of this kind. At any rate, the idea never gained any traction and we continued our struggle. I wanted to believe this was something we could handle appropriately.

By the end of August, he’d turned to ice on me. Rejecting bids for attention or physical connection. We tried to go on a getaway but I kept bringing her up and he’d lash out at me that “No one cares about her the way that I do!” A priest advised him to stop seeing her but he equivocated that the priest didn’t understand. In a profound moment of terrifying vulnerability on our getaway, I asked him to please choose me and discontinue contact with her. He said I was in “too biased of a position” to advise him properly on this matter. The words rattled around in my shell-shocked brain: Too biased. Ellie, you are wrong to make requests of your husbandHe sought spiritual counsel with another priest… who agreed but never followed through on meeting with him. (Father, Forgive that man…) During September, I tried to be extra attentive to him. Bringing him cookies and iced tea at work, he said I was smothering him. When I tried to give him space and distance, he said I was ignoring him. I was paranoid of making a wrong step and didn’t know what to do.

We went to a marriage counselor for 2.5 sessions that year. Session one was all about my discomfort with the other woman. The therapist advised my husband to have a professional-only relationship with her until we could fix our marriage. He was unhappy about this. We didn’t return until after I had written to the other woman, asking her to please stay away from my husband and my children in anything other than a professional capacity. She agreed, at least in word. He was exhausted from the restrictions I kept wanting to put on him and her. I was paranoid she wouldn’t heed my requests. Why was I so obsessed? What was wrong with me?Ultimately, she never did respect my request. And they continued on. In the final session, he disclosed that he was indeed willing to continue a ‘friendship’ with her regardless of my feelings on it. I asked the therapist if there was a point to continuing sessions if we had different goals for our marriage. She said no. We left. It was my fault that counseling didn’t work. 

One day, A local friend came over and confided in me something unrelated that included a reference to this other woman. She noted my extreme discomfort in the conversation. Despite saying nothing, my agitation was evident with shaking hands and squirming in my chair and avoidant eye contact. She probed me gently. And I confessed my discomfort. My friend was stunned. I was horrified that the words had spilled out of my mouth and shamed myself for this ‘betrayal’ to my husband.

I immediately apologized to my him for not keeping it all a secret and begged forgiveness. I asked if I could consult with our priest about it. He refused to bring “his boss” into it. He also didn’t want me speaking to the counselor I had previously seen, as she went to our parish and knew us well. I apologized to the other woman (!) for sharing what I did with this local friend. And she held my hand and stroked it, leaning in and told me firmly that I was being manipulated by that person. I was so confused. Or maybe I had just been poured too many drinks. Either way, I couldn’t breathe… What was wrong with me?!

 I asked my husband in October what he wanted. He said he didn’t know. By the beginning of November, I told him I needed to know if he was committed to this marriage or not. He said he needed time to respond, so he stayed gone until the wee hours of the morning… sleeping in his office. I didn’t eat for 2 days. I walked around in a daze, waiting for his response. I couldn’t sleep. I was horrified. Unstable. I kept prodding him for answers. Maybe I’m being too pushy. Maybe he needed more time. I choked my way through November, never knowing what was going to happen. Forcing myself to eat because I had a nursing baby. Trying to focus on the kids’ homeschooling but failing miserably. We enrolled a couple children in school because I was decreasing in effectiveness. All my fault. After he began sleeping in the kids’ room, I told him that can’t be the new normal. He said it was. I lashed out “Well why don’t you just divorce me then!” And he kind of laughed and said there was a process to this. I said again…  a month after I asked him the first time and a month of dire limbo and sleepless nights and cold sweats of terror… “Are you committed to me and this marriage?”  He looked at me and said “No.” Then he sent a message saying that he was done being “manipulated” by me. Jesus, mercy.

I was stunned. My world was spinning. Shock. Utter shock. Am I alive? Is this real? The next day, after consulting a good friend, I told him that I refused to cohabitate with a man who wouldn’t agree to act like a husband. I asked him to move out. I offered him ideas of where to go. I told him that I loved him and hoped that with space, he would realize that this marriage was worth fighting for and I’d be ready when he was. I still have a copy of this letter. I sent this on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He was livid. And refused to move out. He set up a room in our basement and I agreed that this would be ok for the time being. I had no way of knowing the hell that would follow upon this arrangement… and I begged God to save my marriage.

The year ended with me being told that my marriage vows had been a mistake and that I didn’t truly understand what love is… among with many other unspeakable things.

2017

January and February  were a blur. I couldn’t figure out what was happening or what to do. I would vacillate between feeling like I could just have a white martyrdom via a contempt-filled husband for the rest of my life or wondering if I should take the kids and go live with my parents and hope he’d recommit to the marriage. He rightfully insisted that I was unstable. (Later I would learn that human beings aren’t particularly “stable” in deeply abnormal circumstances. But I had a long way to go on my understanding yet.) My in-laws had stopped talking to me. I asked to have a conversation with them about what was going on but they wouldn’t speak with me. I was blocked from all social media accounts and messages went unanswered. To this day, I still grieve the fact that I lost much more than a husband in this divorce. I lost an entire family.

I begged him to go to Retrovaille with me. A friend sent money for us to do so and I had babysitters lined up. No. I begged him to go back to counseling. No. It was over. I had ruined the marriage with my “instability”, he said. We came up with an informal parenting plan whereby we’d each be in charge of the children on particular days. During his days with the kids, I tried to stay in my room or in the attic. I had moved some furniture and boxes around, plugged in a lamp and claimed it as my own personal space. I painted in large letters on the wall “Courage, dear heart…” and soaked a lot of paper in ink, paint, and tears. Drawings. Paintings. Writings. And writings. And writings. My little garret was a slice of solace in a house where I felt utterly displaced. The atmosphere was extraordinarily toxic when I was in his presence. He made certain to show me how unwelcome I was; communication took on three forms when it wasn’t the silent treatment: sterile logistics about the children, gaslighting about what had happened, or hostile criticisms about my character flaws and how I’d ruined our marriage. It was not easy for me to leave because he would not let me drive any of the two vehicles; I was told I could walk somewhere if I needed to get out of the house… in January… with a nursing baby. Large amounts of money started disappearing from our bank account. He said he was protecting it from me. Searches for “divorce” and “annulment” were found on my computer. My blood ran through my body like ice water. On my days with the kids, he would disappear completely. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to answer my children’s questions about where he was. I was suffocating. Disappearing. Stumbling through a nightmare that I never believed possible. 

Eventually, he asked if I wanted a divorce or legal separation. I said “Neither! I want my marriage back!”  He calmly replied “You lost your chance at that.” Oh God, help me fix this! How had I “annihilated” my marriage as he said? Please God. Teach me how to be better! Don’t let this happen to my children! I was losing a lot of weight, being told I was crazy, and utterly incapacitated to leave a situation where my husband was living a bachelor life downstairs and abusing me on multiple fronts upstairs.

In February, after consulting with a priest, I filed for legal separation. I wrote him an email telling him that I absolutely did not want to dissolve our marriage… but that the situation was untenable and hopefully space would help shake up some particles of commitment. His response was mild surprise: “YOU filed?” On Valentines Day, I had a minor, ectopic surgery. He insisted on being at the hospital, even against my will.  (Suddenly, I understood the need for HIPAA laws…) It was profoundly unsettling to be in such a vulnerable position in front of him, and needing his help as I was trying to get my clothes back on etc. I hated it. To this day, I don’t know why he wanted to be there. To control the narrative? For the pleasure of seeing me in a weak place? Out of a genuine, conflicted goodwill? I didn’t understand. Unstable. Many parts of my story can not be intellectually conquered. Such is the human mystery I suppose. As I recovered at home, the situation did not improve. I was still not allowed to drive anywhere to escape the toxicity. I was still required to turn in receipts for every dollar spent, be it a gallon of milk or pack of diapers… all while some of my skirts were being tightened up by safety pins since no money was allowed for clothing that would accommodate the weight loss. I was still told how insane, lazy and negligent I was. But I was too weak to walk around town huffing a baby along with me. Friends came to pick me up and take me (and baby) to their house. And I tried to make sense of my world…

 

(See Part Two here)

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A Father’s Love

Last night I saw my father on a bicycle. The sunset was fading and he was alone in the park ahead of me. Recollecting that he’s been dead for almost three years, I didn’t call after him. And he didn’t look back. That man will never know the scar he ripped off in me.

Unbeknownst to him, I wept while this father figure of mine teetered north, his flannel jacket softly flapping in the breeze. 

I have many things to say. 900 stories to tell. But a Wisdom invites me— nay, warns me— to wait. In the meantime, I marshal my body forward at a time when the inclination to hide, defend, and protect the soul inhabiting within… is very, very strong. 

Please pray for me and for my family. Thank you. 

God, the Father of Mercy… see me. I call after You. I won’t mistake who You are. I am Yours and within Your wounds, I hide.  You are Love and in this I find my peace. Stay with me.

 

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The Very Last Beginning Again

15 years ago, I waddled with a heavily pregnant body around the corner of my little rental house, past a ditch with a small, crawdad-filled stream, past the scent of tamales and Suavitel laundry soap hanging in the air, and past trees with initials carved into them from starry-eyed teenagers. I was bringing my first-born toddler son, faithfully each week to the story hour at the little library closest to us. It’s there that we discovered the likes of Eric Carle, Jan Brett… finger rhymes and overdue fines. We might’ve packed a lunch and walked a little further to the sunny Californian seashore to enjoy sandy, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and saltwater soaked shoes, before returning home for naptime. He was my world. We did stories, park days, mommy groups, daily Mass… and we did Joy.

Life orbiting around one young child at the epicenter is a marvelously unique and precious time in a woman’s mothering career.

I am here again in the very same and entirely different way. Six of the seven children are all in a place that They call school, where an education is promised even if Real Life must be sacrificed. There are some things I can not control.  And my youngest 3-year-old boy will also begin pre-school tomorrow. Just twice a week for what amounts to only 8 out of 168 hours in a week. He may as well have been conscripted into a foreign army by the way my heart is hemorrhaging for this separation. I never wanted this. I am a mother ripe with jealousy for those given the privilege of educating my own children now. But I digress…

All mothers taste a piece of this on some level. And all homeschooling mothers who resort to brick-and-mortar solutions know the pain more than most. We’ve known Real Life and have steeped our children in the riches of a homegrown education. But circumstances change things, slightly for some and drastically for others. And by loosening the fists that protects our ideals, we open our palms to a surrender that we never wanted, and may even adamantly object to. But such is life. Such is Calvary. 

For now, there will be some days when it is just him and me. Today, we ran errands. We folded laundry. We read stories. He played with blocks and cars while Mama answered emails, paid some bills, wrote to professors, read some textbooks, scheduled appointments, and scratched her temples the way she does when she’s overwhelmed. We ate leftover tacos for lunch and giggled at the sudden rain that came through the sunroof of the car. He told me he loves me “bigger than the world”. And it was such a very different beginning to a one-on-one relationship with this child. My very last, first time. He was not exactly the epicenter of my life that has astounding demands and pressures now. But, like my firstborn… we still did Joy.  

What gives the most extraordinary peace is knowing that the most beautiful thing in the world once came from a place called Calvary if I’m not mistaken. And though on an infinitely smaller level,  I am not the first Woman who has ever had to give up her own flesh and blood…

 

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Everything Does NOT Happen for a Reason

One of the really common lies that gets told over and over by well meaning people is this: “Everything happens for a reason.”  Usually this is the response offered to people who’ve gone through or are going through very difficult times. It is said to offer hope and encouragement to sufferers everywhere. The only problem is… it’s not true. Additionally,  I think that deep down, there is something in the emotional response of humans that senses that this isn’t true. Who has ever drawn great comfort from this platitude? At best, suffering people think that they ought to feel better upon hearing that “everything happens for a reason,” but even the heart knows what the head refuses to acknowledge: things sometimes happen for no reason at all. And I wish people would grow a lot more comfortable acknowledging this.

Evil needs no reason. In fact, since God is a god of order and love, disordered things simply can’t make sense! Psychology and pathology aside, the devil is behind disorder, disunity, bitterness, hatred, and sin. Without reason. Try telling a child who has been sexually abused that it happened for a reason. Try telling someone who watched their loved one commit suicide that it happened for a reason. Try telling anyone who is enduring the scalding fires of sin, broken promises, fear, shame and abandonment that it’s happening for a reason. It’s not true. What’s more is that saying this invalidates the pain a survivor has experienced. The brain will then try to sell this awful distortion: “If terrible things happen for a reason, I have no right to be upset about this. Something is wrong with me.” 

This (ineffective) comforting line reminds me of a couple other truisms that often get told to people who are going through hard times. One being the “Everything is going to be okay.”  And that’s not true either! Somethings things just aren’t going to be okay!  (… and that’s okay) Finally, in efforts to console others we also like to say “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  False. Patently so. People are just very unsure of what to say to people in pain… and sometimes these well-meant phrases can do more harm than good. Here are a sprinkling of more affirming alternatives to say to suffering people; the internet provides more with a simple search, I’m sure.

  • That wasn’t fair.
  • That should never have happened to you.
  • You won’t always feel this way.
  • God will see you through this.
  • I’m sorry you went through that/are going through this.
  • It’s okay to feel weak.
  • What can I do to support you?
  • Life is really hard sometimes. I’m with you.

At the end of the day, we don’t need to feel like our entire faith system has crumbled if we realize that everything doesn’t happen for a reason. This is very compatible with Christianity. God has a master plan, sure. But that includes true freedom that is born of Love. We are not predetermined to choose evil or to suffer evil “for a reason.” Indeed, we must suffer the consequences of our own poor choices and the poor choices of others and the incomprehensible, natural tragedies that no one can make sense of. God doesn’t promise us that there is a reason for these things. In truth… we should expect to not understand everything (Do you really want to be an expert in evil anyway?!). He only promises that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  He is a master, artisan weaver. And our lives will present to Him both beautiful, vibrant threads and the ratty old, ugly threads. He doesn’t just use the good in our lives. He also uses the evil to bring about His glory, and He will weave a stunning masterpiece if only we let Him.

 

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God Will Probably Give You More Than You Can Handle.

They say “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

And not only do I think this is untrue, but I think it can be incredibly damaging. Very often God DOES give you more than you can handle. Telling someone that He won’t, will only cause them to feel inadequate or confused since they wonder why everyone is shouting out encouraging platitudes from a boat while they are drowning in the ocean: “Don’t worry! At least you can handle it!”

So… what if you can’t?

Oh you can’t handle it? Well, God certainly wouldn’t allow that so the problem must be that you aren’t faithful enough, not strong enough, not virtuous enough… etc. etc. etc.

What is left for an overwhelmed person to feel but utter discouragement?!

There is so much I have yet to learn. Each day I feel like I know less and less. Today the stars hide in the night sky. The wind chills to the bone. The very ground beneath me is uncertain. I have been given more than I can handle. Far more. On so many levels. And I rather resent hearing “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” because so very many of my days prove otherwise. What then, is my conclusion?! That God is a cruel and overbearing taskmaster throwing wrenches left and right at me just for fun?! That I’m not ‘good enough’ or ‘strong enough’ or ‘holy enough’ to handle it? None of these is a satisfactory answer. I know my power is in my weakness. My freedom is in my littleness. And my peace is in my surrender.

The only satisfactory answer left is that sometimes God DOES allow far more than you can handle!

But this is okay. We aren’t asked to ‘handle it.’ We are asked to be faithful. Plans might crumble. Hopes might be dashed to the ground. People might fail you. You might get sick. Life may be hard. And suffering may pitch a rather sturdy tent in your soul for a while…

Let it be done unto me.

Let it be done unto us. He never asked us to be strong enough. To carry the cross, perfectly, without faltering. He asked us to be faithful, even when—especially when— He gives us more than we can handle. His grace is sufficient.

“Jesus offers you the cross, a very heavy cross, and you are afraid of not being able to carry it without giving way. Why? Our Beloved Himself fell three times on the way to Calvary, and why should we not imitate Him?”

—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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Worthy

One of the more painful parts of mothering alone is the fact that no one is there to help you sweep out your head trash.  And this happens to all of us. All mothers at some point or another snap occasionally; we lose our tempers. We say regrettable things. We stomp our feet, slam down dishes, yank arms too hard or yell at the children. Even typing this out causes feelings of shame to resurface. It’s awful.

The good mothers recover well. They’ll cry it off. They’ll apologize to their children and beg forgiveness and smother them in hugs and kisses. And all will be well. We are human. We are weak. We are breakable.

(Sometimes pride stands in the way of this necessary contrition and reconciliation. But that is a topic for another time…)

What needs to be addressed loud and clear is the moral MANDATE we have to not let our failures define us. Yes, this is a moral mandate. This isn’t about feelings of self-esteem. This is about taking Jesus Christ at His word when He says that we have been chosen, we have been redeemed, we are His beloved children, and that nothing in this or any other world can ever separate us from the love of Christ. This is not an optional belief. This is a creed given to us by Scripture and to dismiss it, as we wallow in shame and self-pity, is to dismiss Jesus.

When we are confronted with our own weaknesses and failures, we have to remember our identity. For mothers who are going it alone (and alone can be emotional as well as legal…), it’s an extraordinary challenge. In a healthy marriage, where two become one, a husband can reassure his woman of all the good things about her. He can remind her who she is. And that she is not “the sum of her weaknesses and failures” and that he too, accepts her and loves her; today was just a bad day.

But when we are by ourselves, women have a taller hill to climb. We are left to brood alone about all our shortcomings and we’re tempted to allow lies to creep in that undermine our vocation… our self worth. No one dispels them for us when it’s 11 pm and we are crying in our rooms alone.

Yet there is a beautiful irony in this… a silver lining.

Being on your own forces you to cling to your Divine Lover in a much more profound way than many happily married women do. I have never been more certain of my identity and of His love for me than I am now. I spent 15 years of married life looking for affirmation in all the wrong ways, while Jesus waited patiently for me to turn to Him. He was always there with open, blood stained arms ready to hold and affirm and cherish me in all the mess that I am. I just needed my life to fall completely and utterly apart in order for me to internalize this (I’m a slow learner…)

Today, I am still weak. I am still breakable. I am still prone to failures. That hasn’t changed.  What has changed is the deep, searing conviction that I am a daughter of a good, good Father. I have family. I have a home. I am worthy by His blood. He said so.

I scribbled these verses that were singing in my head this morning… if I were to clean it up and try to be official, I’d probably title it “Be a Smart Consumer of Media.” I hope there is a woman somewhere in cyberspace who sees this, who needs this and who knows that she is not alone…

 

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Plan B: Chapter 2

I’m beginning a new chapter of life. One that developed as a sort of plot-twist to the plan I had written out for myself. And it is filled with goblins and shadows. 900 different reasons to be afraid, to doubt and to run away. Starting in early May, I will begin full-time studies in a grad program working towards my Master’s degree and licensure in professional counseling. There has been well over a year of discernment on what exactly I ought to do with my life since it hasn’t gone how I anticipated. So I had to adjust. Per court orders, I had to get a job, wean my baby and find somewhere else to live. I have worked hard at the bottom of the ladder as a restaurant host for a year. It was humble work but I have been thankful for that paycheck… and getting paid to greet people and invoke in them a genuine smile is something kind of on the spectrum of wonderful. I learned a lot about the real world outside my stay-at-home, homeschooling mommy bubble and developed a genuine love for my coworkers. I am grateful it provided the stop-gap for me to make ends meet for my children.

During this time, I have been blessed in astonishing ways by countless people. Childcare that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. Helping hands in repairing one home and setting up another while living with friends in the meantime. Anonymous monetary gifts that appeared at just the right time.  A three hour road-trip to bring my children to me for my father’s funeral. Homemade soup and a bottle of wine left on my front porch, a safe place to call home with generously reduced rent… the list of blessings goes on despite the continual onslaught of challenges during this time of transition. I have never known such kindness. And it hurts in the most painful, beautiful way. Turns out that people can be rather extraordinary…

And now, I am quitting my job and taking a massive leap of faith in God (and in the federal, student loan program), to devote myself full-time to these classes. The demands of solo-mothering seven incredible children and working part-time are already very challenging for me. Adding in a full academic load would make for an unsustainable lifestyle.

So I’m all in.

Regarding the counseling profession: many people go into counseling because they have a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy for others. That wasn’t my story at the outset. I have always found the human mind and heart intriguing… where people come from, why they think the way they do and how their experiences have shaped them. I used to pore over psychology textbooks in my early teens just to feed my curiosity. It’s been a fascinating study for my intellect. But a shift happened when my passion for understanding morphed from a purely scientific interest into a truly more genuine love for others. I have benefitted so much from my own counselor and the healthy thinking that has been offered to me through the past couple years of upheaval, that it has awakened in me a desire for helping others be restored to wholeness also.  Not that I have all the answers now (I don’t) or that I’m the perfect specimen of emotional-cognitive balance (Who is?).  But Peter Kreeft once said something to the effect of “I’m just one bum pointing out to another where there’s free food.”  And I like that thought. I don’t know exactly in what capacity I’ll practice this profession, but somehow, I want to point out bridges to wellness and authenticity for those struggling in their own minds or in their relationships too. There’s a part of me that is able to see and connect and love others through their own trials in a way I wasn’t able to before. I guess counseling for me is a career choice that began in my mind and perhaps only after taking a scenic route through the backwoods of trauma… did it find its way to my heart.

To be honest, what I choose to do to provide for my family is almost beside the point. Because above all else, I simply want to be as available and present as possible to my children. They deserve the best of me, not just me scraping by for the next 20 years trying to hold it together. I can do more for them. And through God’s grace, I will.

There have been many lessons for me over the past couple years… new understandings of what humility, love, mothering and friendship actually mean (and don’t mean) in practice. I know I still have so much to learn. Everything must be held with an open hand… all I can do is the next right thing—which is always providing what is best for my children. If I get the honor of helping others along the way, all the better. And so, this is the door that has opened in front of me that will provide a means to care for them the best way I can. 900 goblins being on the prowl and all…

So, yes; there are fears. Absolutely. But I can’t be a slave to those fears. There is an extremely questionable amount of “certainty” in front of me. Everything may not be okay for some time. However, I know that I’ve survived “not okay” before.  And I don’t expect my Jesus will abandon me now. I’m a great excuse for Him to show off His goodness to an unworthy woman who happens to be in very difficult circumstances. So to be courageous, for me—in this case— is an act of the will. I.e., there are so very many things that could go wrong, it is laughable in fact! But I’m choosing to not let that stop me. I am casting my net out into the deep and committing my will to my God, Whose ways are mysterious and Who can bring good out of even terrible situations. Because He is Love.

I know there is much unseen and perhaps misunderstood in all this. That’s okay. It’s not right to bare all the mysteries of the soul. And I don’t have time to agonize over that in the way I used to anyway. I am simply thankful for coffee, rain, juncos chirping in my yard and being Christ’s littlest idiot. May He do with me what He will.

Thank you all for your love and support.

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An Open Letter To Overthinkers

I know it’s a not a matter of being hard headed. Actually, you probably have an incredibly sharp intellect that wants to believe everything you read in the Gospels so you dedicate yourself to the path of understanding. Brilliant. A hunger for truth puts you in the good company with the likes of Augustine and Aquinas. So why can’t you just get on board with the idea of how simple faith is?  If you could only believe the wonderful promises of Jesus Christ… this would not be a difficult task. I’m sure you’d willingly walk through fire laden down with the cross. Because Jesus said we would not be overcome. Jesus said this was the way to truly follow Him. Jesus said there is merit in this. And Jesus said He was going ahead of us to prepare a place in His Father’s house.

So rise up and go.

Oh, you can’t?  It’s not that easy, you say? I know, because I’ve said the same things. The good intention is there but so is the doubting and the analyzing. “What if it’s all a lie?”  “How can I make sense of a benevolent God in face of all the suffering in this world?” “What if Christianity is a masterful delusion and becoming worm food is the end of my story?”

“Just have faith!  Keep praying! One foot in front of the other!”  These are usually the answers from devout Christians. (As if we don’t want to have faith or move forward in the hope that they seem to have.) But what they don’t understand is that you’re stuck wondering if these characters are part of the fairy tale chasing a fantasy castle or credible, rational, tried beings who simply haven’t thought this issue out as thoroughly as you.

Pascal and Peter have already offered some guidance for those of us plagued with second-guessing. Pascal in reasoning that it doesn’t matter if it’s a worm-destined fairy tale or not… we’ve got nothing to lose by buying in.  And Peter by reasoning “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  Peter was no philosopher. So he hadn’t weighed out the nihilism of Nietzsche or the atheism of Dawkins. But this fisherman did have some business savvy. He knew hope when He saw it. He knew which path offered life and which one didn’t. So he picked his investment accordingly, and unto death, by the way.

Well there’s a third route to faith for non-simpletons, that isn’t as famous. It’s a second-hand, rabbit trail through the woods of your intellect.  And it is good.

If you can’t buy into faith because it’s a smart gamble, and you can’t buy into faith because it is the most attractive narrative explaining human existence (relativism being patently irrational and worm food being patently depressing), perhaps the proper marketing technique is celebrity endorsement.  And I’m not just talking about “Oh look how awesome Mother Teresa was! I want to be in her club.”  There are hundreds of extraordinary examples of saints.  But before going on, I want to preemptively address the devil’s advocate in you that wants to retort “So what? Gandhi was awesome and he wasn’t Christian. Buddhism produces nice people. And my atheistic neighbor is one of the most generous people I know!”

And I say “Good for them!” There will always be exceptions because Truth trickles its way into every human heart, regardless of the straw house resistance we might unwittingly put up around it.  But even you, YOU—the one who prizes science and logic— can’t overlook the data while maintaining intellectual honesty. This isn’t as cursory as “There’s been more admirable Christians than people of other faiths…” because numbers aren’t enough to justify the fairy tale.  However, what you begin to learn… what you begin to experience upon studying the saints of history and by rooting yourself into a life of prayer (even if it’s praying to a God out of a Petrine default, rather than having a zealous belief in Him), is that something changes.  You change. Prayer is always heard. Always answered. But a god of any sort can’t be confined to our finite understanding.  Letting go of the demands we want to make of Him in light of the intricate, stringy mess we are facing, and trusting the Weaver’s Hand to do His work on the other side of the loom will do massive work to you and for you and in you.  It will slough off pride. It will expand the heart. It will inspire true compassion and a beautifully genuine faith.  And you will access that part of your spirit that can’t be counted, classified and filed into your mental hard drive.

And it will be good. You will be good. The kind of good that reverberates through the ages because Love that lives in these changed sorts of people never dies. These are people from every age and from every nation. Universal people. Easter people!  Magdalen. Francis. Kolbe. Bahkita. Miguel Pro. And countless others who’ve lived hidden lives in the shadows of the cross. These are the lives well lived. These are the ones who spilled their blood with a love that lived on far longer than their bodies. These are my people. The ultimate non-conformists who mastered their intellects by subjecting their wills.  When I am skittish about Pascal’s wager… when I lack the devotion and certainty of Peter’s commitment… I think of what kind of person I want to be. How do I want my story to play out? To end?

So I rise up. I pack up my doubts, intellectual hesitations and fears in my rucksack to carry with me through the woods. They are part of my cross as I stumble towards the light. Because who wants a god that can be fully comprehended anyway? Folly or not, the love that the saints had transformed their characters. If they were wrong, I want to be wrong with them— but going down that mental vortex is ultimately a fruitless exercise. Because genuine love doesn’t die and can’t be convincingly imitated. By its very nature, love transcends our mental calculations and understanding. These people were radiant and fully alive. So the idea of believing and living and dying like these saints is enough. And meeting up with them for the greatest after-party we could ever possibly imagine is far too enticing for me to pass up. That’s where I want to be.

How about you?

Very respectfully from my own overthinking, underloving heart-under-construction:

Ellie

 

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