Wined and Dined: A Fairy Tale

Last night a man wined and dined me, treating me to the most sumptuous foods and waiting on me hand and foot. This was our first time out but he was at ease in spoiling me, calling me “My Lady”–the way that British people say it (Mehlady). He had his finger on the pulse of everything this epicure enjoys, from mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and spinach to steaming hot paella chock full of fresh seafood such as lobster tails, scallops, and Mahi Mahi. He anticipated my every need and met it while being so careful not to overstep boundaries, after all, this was only our first time out. He even brought dessert, a selection of six decadent treats from Tiramisu to Pecan Pie of which I chose only one for fear that I would explode in delight with anything more. I exploded anyway. We kept things fairly light throughout the meal but by the end he asked me about what I was reading. I responded in the way one responds when they assume that someone won’t know who they are talking about.

“City of God, by this guy Augustine,” I said. His eyes lit up when I said Augustine and I realized that he knew him as well as I did–or at least as well as I was hoping to know Augustine.

“I recently started reading a book on Plato, even though I haven’t read much of that nature since my theology class,” he responded. I lit up at the sound of the words “theology” and “class.”

“Did you attend a theology school?” I asked, beaming in excited anticipation of his answer, hoping we shared a similar path.

“It was while I was at Xavier,” he said.

Now I was really lit.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. Inside I felt like the 4th of July, all fireworks and Katy Perry singing, “Baby You’re a Firework.”

“I am Catholic too,” the words spilling out of my mouth.

He smiled wide, put his hand over his heart, and extended his other hand in what felt like some secret greeting between people of the faith. I smiled on the outside but inside I was bursting with desire to know this person better, bursting out of desire because I finally found what I was missing, a man who shares my faith tradition and knows a little about Augustine and Plato. All of a sudden the wasteland I had been walking through evaporated and I was in a promised land.

We both smiled at one another and then he excused himself to get something in the back.

He walked away but then turned on his heels swiftly and said, “I’m sorry, I digress, what’s your name?”

As if we hadn’t already greeted one another with hands I extended mine for a chance to meet his again and said, “Nicole.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll see you again so that we can talk about Augustine’s City of God. I’m here every day,” he said in earnest as he walked away from the table.

I smiled at my good fortune on this evening. I wasn’t expecting to be wined and dined and treated like a queen. I expected a perfunctory dinner, but this was different, I was unprepared for this difference. I said farewell to this man and took leave of the place where I was wined and dined, walking past table upon table of people enjoying their sumptuous meals and decadent dessert. I squeezed past large groups awaiting seating and finally reached the doors to the exterior of Seasons 52.

As I walked toward my car I exhaled. I’d been waiting for this feeling, waiting to feel something more real than I’ve felt in a while and I finally felt it. I smiled. I got in my car and exhaled again, reaching into my wallet to pull out my receipt so that I could look at his name. He told his name but I hoped that I’d have more than his first name, unfortunately it was not to be. All I had was his first name and, of course, his place of employment, Seasons 52. Far from being in despair at this Cinderella-like fate, I was hopeful. Not because I was planning to make a habit out of going to Seasons 52–because that’s an expensive habit to sustain–but because that chance encounter restored my faith in something like love even if just for a moment.

I sit here now with the only memento from that night, a symbolic glass slipper that belongs to a Prince Charming-prototype. I wonder if he too feels like his only memento of the night is holding a symbolic glass slipper, a receipt with my signature scribbled on it and the last four digits of my credit card number. If I’m lucky he’ll use those two things to track me down and save me from this evil spell called living in this crazy world without a romantic equal. Alas life is not a fairytale, and he probably gives impeccable service to scores of people at Seasons 52, after all, it is his job.

This is My Confession…

I’m on the verge of becoming Catholic. This is a confession new to many of you but it isn’t the purpose of this post–I’ll fill you in soon on the impetus for this conversion. This post is about an actual confession, my first confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.

I prepared for confession in the way that only a Protestant could, by making a list of my sins and checking it twice. Actually, this makes it sound easier than it was. I actually had a hard time making the list because I wasn’t sure what I thought sin was anymore.

You see, for the last few years I’ve spent time in Christian contexts that didn’t talk about sin, at least not on a personal, individual level. I attended and graduated from a United Methodist seminary, but sin was rarely a topic of conversation unless we were critiquing church doctrine on sin or talking about the fact that we weren’t talking about sin. And for all the church hopping that I did during my first five years in Atlanta, I was hard-pressed to hear a sermon about sin and repentance. So I lost sight of sin and proceeded to live life unfettered by it. I’ll admit it was liberating to live a life not bogged down by the concept of sin. Oh the places you’ll go when sin isn’t weighing you down. Oh the people and things you’ll do too. But the moment I found out that I had to go to reconciliation, the sheen of my so-called liberated life wore off quickly.

As I inched toward the day of confession I was conflicted. I spent a lot of time trying to eke out a definition of sin using the embedded theology of my Protestant background and the teachings of my soon to be faith tradition of Catholicism. I wrestled with sin as “anything that separates me from God” and how anemic it felt to me because of its highly relative nature. I studied charts on venial and mortal sin, even going so far as to access a website that had a checklist where you can quantify which category you’ve committed more sins in. I journaled about some personal understandings of sin that felt generative for me. Finally I read an examination of conscience for single young adults as well as a general examination of conscience and jotted some notes down about the ways I have fallen short before God, myself, and my fellow human beings.

The day of reconciliation arrived and I was jittery with nerves. It was advised that I attend the group reconciliation service where priests from multiple parishes join our parish for a brief service and then offer themselves as confessors for individual parishioners. I was told that the advantage of this service is that one could choose to go to a priest other than your parish priest to confess–in the case that you feel awkward about telling your sins to the guy who sees you every Sunday. I can’t lie, this was compelling to me as a first timer to this process.

The service started with us singing “Amazing Grace” and immediately I felt all of my emotions well up inside of me and go straight to my eyeballs. I was ready for the words “That saved a wretch like me” to hit me like a ton of bricks but it never did. Why? Because in “Lead Me, Guide Me: The African-American Catholic Hymnal” the lyrics are:

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me.

My mind was blown. I was prepared to proclaim myself a wretch and wallow in the guilt and shame of my sins but God wasn’t having it. How am I supposed to feel shamed and convicted?

The scripture reading for the service was Luke 15:3-7:

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The priest’s homily focused on the theology many of us were taught about sin, theology that resulted in us measuring our sins and carrying guilt and shame too heavy for us to bear. He encouraged us to reorient our theology around sin in light of this being the church’s Jubilee of Mercy and he challenged us to shift how we approached the moment of confession. He told us not to approach it bogged down by the sins that we are confessing but to confess with the knowledge that God is merciful and we are forgiven. And to keep in mind the parable which shows us that when the lost sheep was found, there was no moment in which the one who found it then stopped to talk about where it had been and what it had done. No, there was just celebration for its recovery and return back to the fold. “He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” Mind blown again. Truly I walked in that church expecting that, from the top of the service, it was going to be weeping, mourning, and gnashing of teeth and so far none of that happened.

The homily ended and the music minister played a soft refrain as the individual confessions commenced. The priest and the associate priests of my parish were located in the sacristy and behind the altar, respectively, so I knew where not to go, or did I? As I sat there reflecting on the list of sins I made and of this sacrament I was about to partake in I realized that making my confession to one of the priests in my parish was more important to me than anonymity. If I understand nothing else about confession, I understand it as an opportunity to bind myself to a community through the vulnerable act of confessing my sins to someone God has called, entrusted, and empowered to grant me absolution. Given that, I realized how important it was for me to confess to a priest at my parish as a sign of my trust in him and in the community God has called me to. A community that I fully intend to grow in for the next few years. And so I walked to the front of the room, bowed to the cross, and walked up behind the altar.

Bless me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession.

I wish I had spoken those words as clearly as they are written. Instead I stumbled over my words as the gravity of the moment hit me like that ton of bricks I wanted to hit me during “Amazing Grace.” The priest looked at me and smiled and told me I need not confess to stealing cookies out of grandma’s jar back when I was three. We laughed briefly and then I  went to start on my litany of sins until all the salty discharge that was accumulating in my body since earlier that day finally released itself. My already nervous and clipped speech became fragmented and I could only mutter my words. I managed to get out that I’m emotional because I realize the weight of the moment and it feels very intense. He told me to take my time and I calmed myself down long enough to make my confession.

The sin that concerns me the most are the lusts of the flesh.

Yes, I said “lusts of the flesh.” Don’t ask me where I got that language from. I’m sure it was embedded from my Protestant heydays. I proceeded to tell the priest all that fell under the category of “lusts of the flesh” from sexual temptation and overconsumption of material goods to the sin of comparison and not, always, believing fully in the gift of God within me. He listened carefully and patiently and told me to really think about those things I’ve mentioned, particularly, what of them are roots of joy and what are the empty calories. He provided a moment of levity by telling me that if I want a pair of Louboutins I should have them, if it is within my means, and if I would get good use out of them on a variety of occasions. (I’ll admit, I thought this was random because I didn’t say anything about shoes but maybe I look like a “Single Black Female Addicted to Retail.”) He provided me with another example of measured consumption and then he did something that blew my mind again, he converted my language. In moving toward the issuance of penance he told me that “pleasures of the flesh” aren’t all bad but I must think about the role that pleasures of the flesh play in my life. “Now that’s just some advice, here is your penance,” the priest said. Yes, here it comes, the hard blow of a thousand “Hail Marys.”

I want you to list God’s blessings in your life.

“What?!” I thought to myself.

I want you to start a journal and document God’s blessings in your life as you see them.

I thought to myself, “This is penance?” He prayed the prayer of absolution over me and dismissed me.

Walking away from the altar my mind was spinning from everything I’d seen, heard, and felt within the span of an hour. I walked in the church a mess, bogged down with my list o’ sins, and my preconceived notions of how they should be handled and I walked out reconciled with God and more tightly bound to this blessed Catholic tradition and community I’ve found myself in.

 

 

Bread for the Journey: A Mini-Reflection on Life in a Doctoral Program

Clarity comes from conviction.

Thus far into a doctoral program I’ve learned that sometimes the hardest part of it is not the coursework but feeling worthy of the post and feeling capable of doing everything that is required and expected of me. I confess that more often than not I feel inadequate because of the sin of comparison and even because sometimes it feels late in the game to be on such a journey. But hearing the aforementioned quote—and a few other words over the past few weeks—is helping me push beyond those feelings.
The quote came from someone interviewing for a position within the school and he shared it as a word of encouragement to a group of doctoral and masters-level students. He told us that the work is not about having the right answers or all the pieces in place but a conviction and a passion for doing important and necessary work for our communities and the world. This is easy to forget in the midst of all of the requirements and the rigor of a doctoral program but I’m thankful for the reminder because I do have a conviction about this work which leads me to clarity about this vocational path I’m on. It’s hard work, my God it’s hard work. This work seesaws between giving me life and dealing me death in all areas of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I never want to forget what leads me to this work and the blessing or being able to do it in the first place.
So thank you to that candidate for the timely word, thank you to the professor who put the bug in my ear to be present for the candidate’s talk—and to another colleague for the invitation, and lastly thank you to God who keeps finding new ways to keep calling me to this work. I hope this is also a note of encouragement to other doctoral students. We made it this far for a reason, now it is time for us to believe in the gifts within us, trust that those gifts will make room for us, and believe that through those gifts we are bringing something particular and special to the table that no one else can bring. We’ve got this!

And It Begins: The Genetics Journey via 23andMe

As a person adopted at a young age I’ve lived most of my life with a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t know much about my birth mother except for the fact that social workers claimed that she would have made a good mother, she had hay fever allergies, and she was quite pretty–this according to a description of her, I don’t know what she looks like. For most of my life, thus far, I’ve been ok with not knowing much about her but I am growing increasingly wary about not knowing the things about her that effect me such as ancestry, carrier status, wellness, and traits. I’m tired of filling out medical forms and primarily answering “No” to questions about all manner of illness and disease. Tired of telling various people “No” when asked whether I’m Somalian, Ethiopian, or Eritrean. Tired of a general lack of knowledge about where I come from and how that impacts who I am. Hopefully, I’ll receive some answers through the DNA collection service, 23andme.

IMG_115723andme is the first and only genetic service that delivers reports directly to clients through an FDA-approved system. Once they receive this vial of my spit–yes all it takes it a vial of your spit–they will run tests that will yield information about my ancestry, carrier status of certain diseases, wellness, and other traits. I will finally know a little bit more about who I am, what I have, and what I may pass on to the next generation. This feels like the beginning of knowledge. It’s the key that will unlock information about myself that has been unknown for the better part of 35 years, information that I’ve increasingly become interested in knowing over the last five years. I’ve found that in my 30s, the greatest challenge of living with an adoption narrative–aside from the pervading issue of abandonment and being chosen, which are still pretty big–is not knowing some of the intimate details that make me who I am.

I have no problem with my inherited narrative of being adopted at eight months old by a married couple, the woman from New York and the man from Jamaica, who came together to give me a chance at this thing called life. They instilled in me a strong value system, raised me in a religious tradition that has imparted its own value system, and loved me and protected me from the moment they set eyes on me and still maintain that same level of love and protection to this day. I’m thankful they adopted me into their family which is now my family, a family that has made me a cultural Jamaican, a fighter, and a strong lover if not always by word, surely by deed. But at 35 it feels like I need to know more. More about who I am, the science and biology behind who I am. I want to know for me but also for who might be…

It dawns on me that these questions are important not just for myself but for my future children–when I decide to have them. I don’t want them to have the same life of filling out forms in which they answer “No” out of ignorance. This is why knowing my carrier status is so important. I also want them to know where they come from and not just to assume that because their mother is a black woman of Jamaican cultural heritage, that is their story. This is why knowing my ancestry is important. In general I want them to have a rich narrative about their life filled with the love, care, and compassion I came to know through my adoptive parents but also filled out with the knowledge of who they are because I know who I am.

That any of this filling out of a life narrative could happen from me spitting in a vial might be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that I will come at striking distance of fuller knowledge of myself. Stay tuned as I start this journey on the verge of becoming knowledgeable about myself…

PS: A big thank you to my parents for two great gifts; first the gift of adopting me into their lives and now for this 23andMe kit.