Category Archives: Religion

Fewer Presents, More Presence

I knew I was old when my daughter called me last night and said she won’t be exchanging any Christmas presents this year, “except for the kids.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ahh … that’s finally over with,” I thought, supremely thankful that she’d had the grace to announce her intentions on the day before Black Friday, before I’d started my Christmas shopping.

I love my daughters, but trying to guess what gifts would bring them pleasure, frantically wrapping said gifts, cramming them into shipping boxes, standing in long lines at the post office, and paying extra just so they’d arrive by December 25 was something I wouldn’t miss (especially since I usually don’t begin the process until December 15).

And I knew they were probably struggling with the same ordeal: buying (or in many cases making), wrapping, and mailing their usual abundance of gifts, all with tight schedules and limited budgets.

For years, I dutifully trudged in and out of stores searching for the perfect gifts that I imagined would make my daughters’ eyes light up with glee. I baked cookies, knit scarves, and framed my own photos for them. I then graduated to letting someone else make the gifts by shopping at Etsy. It was fun and festive for a few days, and then it quickly became a disheartening matter of settling for things I wasn’t sure they’d even like.

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How they probably looked after opening presents from me.

As bad as that sounds, for the past couple of years our family has hit a new low: the Amazon Gift List, which basically boils down to the following interaction:

Recipient: “I want all of these things on my Gift List! You can buy them right now! It’s so convenient! I’m only telling you this to make your life easier!”

Me: “But these things are not at all unique! Don’t you trust me to buy you something wonderful?”

Recipient: “No comment. And now look: I’ve added even more things to my Gift List!”

Me: “Well … but it seems so impersonal … I don’t know …”

Amazon: “Don’t worry, there’s free shipping! Would you like a gift card with that?”

Me: (Sigh) “Sure.”

(Just kidding. My family isn’t really like that.)

My daughter’s current sentiments (seconded by my other daughter, my stepdaughter, and my husband) have finally allowed me to enjoy the holidays. Yes, I’ll still go a little crazy trying to come up with fun, exciting, and educational gifts for the three young ones in our family (books are always a good choice) but now I’ll actually be able to focus on fewer gifts for a change. Maybe I’ll make some by hand. I could even use my savings to make a donation to a worthy cause.

This is even more appealing when I think of how much I hate shopping. It wasn’t always so. I actually enjoyed shopping once upon a time, when I was about 15 years old. Department stores had fancy window displays and heavy revolving doors. When you pushed your way through them, you entered into a calm, orderly world of carpeted floors, gliding elevators, and the subtle fragrance of expensive perfume.

In high school, I’d ride the city bus downtown to the prestigious Sibley’s to do a little window shopping. The clothes sold at Sibley’s were well-made, and hence, I usually couldn’t afford them (but I liked trying them on). Then I’d head across the street to McCurdy’s basement in search of a bargain.

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How I felt while shopping at Sibley’s.

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How I actually looked.

Finally, I’d have lunch or a snack upstairs at McCurdy’s classy yet affordable restaurant, which made me feel pampered and rich again. Sometimes I’d meet a friend there. Shopping was a social event in my youth. Now it’s an agonizing ordeal for me, at best.

This year, there will be fewer presents to go around, but perhaps greater presence of mind, and more time to reflect on other gifts — such as peace, good will, charity, and light — all of which are celebrated around the world in December. There will always be other opportunities to buy things and mail them off when the urge hits me. I’m just glad I don’t have to do it right now.

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Confessions of a Terrified Child

I was raised Catholic, but don’t jump to any conclusions. Yes, my experience was frightening, but not in the way one might assume. It was a nun who scared the bejeezus out of me.

I was 11 years old and attended public school, but as a member of the local Catholic parish, I was required to attend “religious instruction” every Monday afternoon. (To this day, I’m not too fond of Mondays.)

The “instruction” in those days consisted of nuns forcing us to memorize answers to the questions in the Catechism (something we were too young to understand) while we sat for what seemed like hours confined to wooden desks (the kind that were attached to each other, with little inkwells and fancy wrought-iron scrollwork on the sides).

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I was a good little Catholic. Most of the time I paid attention to what the nuns were saying. Some of the time I stared out the window, and occasionally I just wondered how the Catholic school kids could stand those weird little desks.

I wish I had spent more time staring out the window and less time listening to the nuns, because one thing a nun said had a traumatic effect on me. She was talking about sin, and the right way to go about Confession.

At Confession, we were supposed to walk into a tiny wooden space about the size of a closet, close the curtain behind us, kneel on a hard board, and wait until a faceless shadow appeared behind a sliding door. Pretty scary so far, right? Then we had to tell the faceless shadow (the priest) all of the “sins” we’d committed since our last Confession. Sin had been described to us as black marks on our pure white souls, marks that could only be erased by going to Confession.

We were taught that if we died with sins on our soul, we had to suffer before we could get into heaven. And God forbid we should die with a “mortal” sin on our soul. (Mortal sins were serious crimes, like murder, or coveting our neighbor’s wife, or swearing, and other shit like that.) If we’d done any one of those things and then had the misfortune to die without getting to Confession first, we were doomed to a fiery Hell. At least that’s what we were taught back then. We were taught those things beginning when we were only seven years old, the “age of reason” according to the Church.

It was bad enough having to go to Confession, and to be introduced to concepts of death and suffering at such a tender age, but forcing us to memorize and recite answers to God-questions like brain-dead parrots was unforgivable.

But the worst part, for me, was what one particular nun told us during religious “instruction” when I was 11 years old. She said that if we forgot to tell a sin during our Confession, it totally negated the whole Confession. We would get back ALL of the sins we’d confessed that day. They’d stick to our souls like glue until our next Confession. And then if we still forgot to confess the sin, we’d get all of THOSE sins back, too. In other words, if we made one tiny mistake during a Confession, it was almost guaranteed that we’d be going to Hell forever.

I was terrified. I convinced myself that I’d probably forgotten to tell one of my sins once, but because I’d forgotten it, there was no way I’d ever be able to confess it, and so I was going to Hell for sure.

Hell. Permanent, everlasting suffering of the worst kind. Eleven years old.

I didn’t know what to do. I held on to my fears and was afraid to share them with anyone. I started to worry about every little thing I did or did not do being a sin. For example, when my mother made a minor suggestion, not doing what she had suggested was a sin. When my teacher read chapters of “Tom Sawyer” aloud in class, I tried to shut out the words and think about something else because one of the characters said a swear word, and listening to it would be a sin.

I was extremely stressed, to say the least. One day I broke down in front of my parents. I just wasn’t able to hold it in anymore. Luckily, they realized I needed help. My mother took me to talk to the parish priest, Father O’Neill. I will never forget him.

He was big and round, with round glasses, black hair, and a kind face. I went into the room with Father O’Neill and told him what was troubling me. His reaction was to say this:

“None of this will matter in ten years.”

and this:

“At your next Confession, come to me. Say you’re the girl who is ‘scrupulous’. I’ll make sure that all your sins are forgiven.”

Trusting that he had some kind of magical pipeline to God, I did what he said, and immediately was cured of my fears. About two years later, perhaps I actually HAD reached the age of reason, and I decided that the Catholic church was not for me. I stopped going to church and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt.

Some people say that this obsessive worry about religion is a form of OCD or anxiety, while others feel it’s just a natural reaction to a traumatic event. In my case, I’m convinced it was a natural reaction to a series of frightening ideas presented to an impressionable child by a well-meaning but misguided adult.

I’m thankful to my parents for getting me help, and to Father O’Neill for figuring out a simple solution that worked for me. I know now that I was mistaken to believe that the only way to salvation was through him, but it was the band-aid that helped me heal.

 

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