Friday, September 28, 2012

Life's not fair. Thank God!

I think God truly enjoys it when revelations dawn on us in light of our own, personal experience.  It’s the best way to learn – by internalizing something into your very core.  As long as there’s a good reason for something, we are more likely to accept it, embrace it even.  Before she died, my best friend Rachel and I were kicking around the idea of writing a book together entitled “Thank God Life Isn’t Fair”.  On some as-yet unexamined level, we both knew that there was more to life than just what meets the eye when it comes to the struggles in our lives.

People who, after struggling with infertility, end up adopting their children often point out that they had to have gone through infertility in order for God to lead them to the children that were destined to be theirs.  Many adoptive parents don’t realize that they are being called to adopt until after the gift – yes, I said gift – of infertility.  They recognize that it was thanks to infertility that their hearts were turned on to adoption.

Alex and I are not yet at the end of our journey.  We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight to reflect on and acknowledge the benefits of our having struggled with infertility for all these years.  However, even in the midst of it, thanks to careful discernment, we are starting to realize some of the possible benefits of our struggle.

For instance, the circumstances of our diagnosis have led us to truly consider Alex’s health, realizing that his hypothyroidism may be at the root of the various other health concerns he’s been dealing with.  Especially when it comes to weight, it is so easy to dismiss someone as not being dedicated enough because they’re not active enough, or because they eat too much of the wrong foods.  It’s funny how these are preconceived judgments people make without even bothering to know what really goes on in a person’s diet and exercise routine, especially when there appears to be no such thing as a single, fool-proof “diet” or “lifestyle change” that works equally well for everyone.  

We’ve tried the blood type diet.  A friend of ours insists on a raw food diet.  Everyone seems to think calorie counting is the way to go.  But what I’ve found in my research is that the cause of your overweight is the key to figuring out how to lose the pounds, and what may work for one person will not necessarily work for another person.

With that in mind, we are learning that Alex’s hypothyroidism is preventing him from losing weight NO MATTER WHAT HE DOES.  He has spent the past 4 months working with a personal trainer 3 times per week, in addition to a weekly yoga class or time on a treadmill.  He has been watching his meal portions, eating breakfast, and avoiding junk food.  Yet four months later, he has yet to lose any weight.  It must be so frustrating to be working so hard and still have to deal with naysayers who blame him for his bad health.

Yesterday we got our anticipated copy of The Hypothyroid Diet by Dr. Kevin Dobrzynski, and we are learning things there about nutrition and how the body works that none of the countless doctors we’ve seen over the years, for general purposes and for infertility, have thought to teach us.  And I, for one, have a lot of hope that we may start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Had we been blessed with a child right when we decided that we were ready, we wouldn’t have had the time nor the motivation to keep digging, and Alex’s health would’ve continued to deteriorate.  Hypothyroidism can lead to diabetes, which can lead to blindness and coma, and eventually even death.  This condition is no joke.  Yet without anyone telling us that it was so serious, we never would’ve thought to address it beyond Alex popping the prescribed pills in spite of not seeing his symptoms improve years into his treatment.

So there you have it: one of several benefits of what on the surface seemed like nature’s cruel joke.  Infertility isn't fair.... but if it's thanks to infertility that we will be able to save Alex's life by addressing his hypothyroidism, then that's nothing short of God's grace at work.  Thank you, Lord, for giving us infertility and for preventing us from adopting all of these years, because thanks to this constant nagging longing in our hearts for a child, we have finally been able to address one of Your holy temples - Alex's body - with the care and attention that it, and You, deserve.

Romans 8:28

God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.


Monday, September 17, 2012

On hold from pursuing parenthood

Yesterday, Alex and I were reflecting on the possible meaning of our being "on hold" right now.  We got our initial infertility diagnosis over four and a half years ago, January 2nd, 2008, to be exact, after two years of charting and trying to conceive naturally.  Since that time, we pursued private domestic adoption with 4 birthmothers changing their minds; we inquired about over 50 waiting kids in foster care to no avail; we fostered a little girl we affectionately called VV for 10 months, hoping to adopt her but having that dream crushed; we spent a full year pursuing international adoption from my native Poland before we decided to cut our losses and withdraw from the program (more on that later); and we adopted 4 embryos and gave them a chance to continue to live full lives.  

The latest of these, our "Fantastic Four" (as there were 4 embryos in the batch that we adopted), were the last active attempt we made in our pursuit of parenthood.  I will share the details of our journey, but for the time being, suffice it to say that after over 4 years of "trying", we are "on hold" - ie, not trying.  We - ok, more me than Alex, who's always gone with the flow - so, I am learning to enjoy living life complete for the time being as two.  It has been very refreshing to simply enjoy life, enjoy my husband, enjoy the many other blessings in our lives.

We have been on hold now for four months.  Twenty more months to go.  You see, I was in prayer after our second loss in May when I was drawn to 2 Kings 11.  It’s a strange link, I think, but as I read about Athaliah, Queen of Judah, I couldn’t help but notice certain numbers and ideas jumping out at me.

If you’re not familiar with this biblical narrative, when Athaliah’s son Ahaziah died, she took it upon herself to kill off all the royal offspring so she could rule, but Jehosheba, the daughter of King Joram and sister of Ahaziah, managed to hide Ahaziah’s son, Joash.  I’m not very clear on the whys of the situation (I’m no biblical scholar), so just bare with me.  Six years passed while Athaliah ruled the land. In the 7th year, the true heir, Joash, was revealed.  Athaliah did not take well to this news and started making a ruckus, at which point she was escorted outside the city gates and killed. 

In spite of the fact that I don’t fully grasp the biblical significance of this chapter (I never said this was a bible study!), here is what resonated with me and my current situation at the time:  Athaliah was actively pursuing her own will, forcing the true king to be hidden for 6 years.  In my life, for 6 years we pursued parenthood on our own terms, assuming to know God’s will without ever consulting Him.  We insisted on ruling in our lives. During this time, the rightful heir, the One who ought to be ruling in our hearts, Christ, was waiting quietly in the background. The fact that the name of this book is “Kings” also reaffirms for me that I have not been allowing Christ to reign in my life.  

In the 7th year, the true king was revealed, and instead of accepting this, Athaliah insisted on her way and was killed for it. Here, I see it as a warning that we are in the 7th year since we actively started trying to conceive (read: trying to have it our way), and if we don’t back off and allow God’s will to be revealed to us unobstructed by our own plans, this will not bode well for us.

There were other numbers that jumped out at me, in addition to the 6 years that Athaliah ruled coinciding with the 6 years we had been trying to become parents our way.  Right before this chapter, in the 36th verse of 2 Kings 10, we learn that the previous king, Jehu, reigned in Israel for 28 years – the age that I was when we actively started trying to conceive.  Also, the numbers in the very reference – 2 Kings 11 – spoke to me.  In two years, Alex and I would be celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary.  This is where I got the burden on my heart that we needed to lay low for 2 years, until our 11th anniversary, which is in May, the same month when I had this revelation. 

Since we’ve been on hold, in only 4 short months, we’ve come to acknowledge that Alex’s hypothyroidism isn’t being well controlled by his medications, and that it may very well be the cause not only of various general symptoms such as fatigue or heart burn, but also his sleep apnea (which his C-pap machine apparently won’t cure), and… possibly even the azoospermia that got us on this roller-coaster journey to parenthood to begin with!  

Now, the idea that there may still be a sliver of hope for us to conceive a mutually biological child may have been the initial motivation to turn our attention in the right direction, but in all honesty, we are motivated to help Alex get healthy no matter what effect this may or may not have on the azoospermia.  As it stands, it may cure it.  Not enough research has been done to definitively say one way or another, so we’re looking at our life as a sort of amateur research study to this end.  There’s been studies that show a link between obesity and azoospermia (in fact, 80% of morbidly obese men have azoospermia), and I’ve recently learned that hypothyroid also has been linked with sperm production and quality issues.  Therefore, we truly don’t know what the future holds, but we are committed, for 2 years, to not actively pursuing any route to parenthood other than the one that comes with being married. ;-)

Amazing things happen when we allow God to fulfill His will in our lives, but it is too soon for us to tell what His plan for us is just yet.  Still, we are growing closer to Him and to each other as we wait impatiently for the green light arrow pointing us in the right direction.  I fully have faith that God will still bless us with a child, but I just don’t know when or how He will do so.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 
In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Infertility 101

I haven't written about Alex's and my journey with infertility yet, in part, because we are officially "on hold", and I didn't want my writing about it to stir a renewed desire to plunge head first into the pursuit of parenthood again.  Infertility is a very strange medical condition for several reasons.

First, it's the only medical condition that I'm aware of that directly affects the affected person's spouse.  I don't just mean in the sense that one spouse has to provide care for the other spouse, as in some medical conditions, and thereby both their lives are affected.  I mean that because of the nature of infertility (namely, that it takes two to tango), regardless of whose body is not doing what it's supposed to, both spouses have to undergo medical tests, and depending on the specific diagnosis, both may have to undergo treatment.   

In the case of male factor infertility, while the medical condition lies entirely in the male spouse, the brunt of the treatment that is offered by modern artificial reproductive technology (ARTs) falls on the female spouse.  What makes it even worse, I think, is that if there is anything that can be done to reverse or improve the condition without bypassing it via ARTs, this has to come entirely from the affected male spouse's desire.  In other words, the wife cannot change her diet, her lifestyle, in order to fix the problem, but she's the one who has to go through treatments such as IVF that generally bypass trying to find a cause or cure of the acutal medical condition.

That's another strange factor of infertility.  Most medical conditions, I would hope, are addressed as follows:  symptoms are noticed and reported to the doctor; doctor runs various tests to determine the cause of the symptoms; results of the tests determine the treatment plan; treatment plan is pursued in hopes of a cure; the happy result is the alleviation of symptoms with the dissipation of the cause.  However, it has been my experience that the moment you contact a reproductive endocrinologist, they assume that your goal is not so much to address what's causing your infertility, not so much the cure of your infertility, but instead the end result - a baby.  Most REs will immediately pursue a so-called treatment plan designed to maximize your chances of conceiving a baby, regardless of what is the medical condition that is preventing you from doing so naturally. This may have something to do with the reason why most health insurances don't cover the more advanced fertility "treatments" - because they don't actually treat the problem; they seek to bypass it.

Infertility is also one of few medical conditions that come with serious social stigma. Probably mental illness and physical disfigurement are the only conditions with more social stigma than infertility.  But why?  Infertility is generally not something that a person could have avoided, so it's no one's "fault".  Lung cancer in smokers should be more stigmatized if following this logic.  And yet many people are too ashamed to talk about their infertility.  This becomes exponentially more true if the medical condition lies with the male spouse.

Even though infertility is not something you can "catch" by being around other infertile folks, many people seem to want to get away from the subject as soon as possible.  They offer unsolicited advice based on old wive's tales at worst, or partial information at best, neither being in any way helpful or comforting to the afflicted patient.  So just to clear the air, let's establish a few things right off the bat, before I share any more of our journey.

1. Whatever it is that you have heard may help us conceive - acupuncture, vitamins, yoga, meditation, crystals, whatever -  YES, I've already heard it, tried it unsuccesfully, or otherwise established that it is a bunch of hogwash.

2. Before you try to make me feel better by reminding me that things could be worse, let me tell you that a) I am perfectly aware of the many blessings in my life, and b) this in no way diminishes the pain of infertility.

3. There are many types of infertility, so it is completely inappropriate to suggest any one specific alternative without knowing what we're dealing with.  A sperm donor is not going to help a couple whose problem lies with uterine polyps and resulting recurrent miscarriage.  A surrogate is not going to help a couple whose problem is with sperm production.

4. Likewise, there are a lot of ethical considerations with many fertility alternatives, so to suggest that we should "just" do x, y, or z expresses ignorance in the fact that there may be very good moral reasons why a couple does not feel comfortable pursuing a particular course of action.  In-vitro fertilization, for instance, is condemned by some religions, especially when the traditional IVF is used, which banks on the creation of "extra" embroy that are then cryopreserved and often destroyed when no longer needed. 

5. Finally, we do not live in a hole, so yes, we have thought of, considered, and even pursued adoption.  Yes, we tried domestic adoption.  Yes, we tried international adoption.  Yes, we tried foster care. 

In a word, after 4.5 years of living with our diagnosis, please believe that it is us, not you, who are the experts in our condition and our options. 

That said, there is something you can do to be helpful - just listen and sympathise.  Don't offer advice, just be a sounding board.  Agree when we say it's not fair.  Express your understanding of why we may feel sad, angry, or any other emotion.  Under no circumstances say that we just need to relax, or that this must be the will of God.  The truth is, you don't know what God's will is any more than we do.  Likewise, we were perfectly relaxed at the start of our journey - the stress you may be recognizing in us came after our diagnosis; it did not cause our diagnosis. 

Now that I've gotten all of the preliminaries off my chest, I should be able to go into more details of our journey in future posts. 

Genesis 1:28a

God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it."

(Ehem.  Easier said than done. Sigh.)

Start teaching Sunday school this Sunday

This Sunday I will start my year-long adventure of teaching 7th grade catechism at my church.  I briefly taught 2nd grade catechism for a month or two back in college.  This time, my goal was two-fold.  First, I have been considering a career-switcher program so that I might get licensed to teach ESL or language arts in middle - high school.  But before I make the investment, I wanted to get some first-hand experience with this age group to see if it's a fit for me.  Well, I think I've figured out that this job switch is probably not for me and I haven't even taught the first class yet!  I currently teach adults ESL at a community college, so I deal directly with the students.  It sort of freaks me out to have to go through students AND their parents.  What's more, my co-catechist is supposed to be the parent of one of my students, so I feel particularly under pressure to do a good job.

But the second reason I wanted to do this is to share my faith.  I "audited" my younger brother's confirmation classes when he was going through them a few years ago, and there was a young lady there (they were all teenagers) who declared herself an atheist, said that her parents were making her go through the classes, and yet nothing was done to address this situation, and she ended up being confirmed with the rest of her class.  I always thought that the purpose of confirmation is for us to take our faith into our own hands, no longer the responsibility of our parents.  This is why it's OK to have infant baptism, I thought.  Because come confirmation, we make that final commitment to stay Catholic or not. 

So it is my hope that I can try to share my excitement about our faith with these young people, help them to ask all the inevitable questions now, and fall in love with the faith if at all possible.  I don't remember anyone showing me an excitement about faith when I was growing up.  It seemed that my parents assumed I knew enough thanks to osmosis, I guess, by virtue of living in the same household as them.  We never talked about God, and we never prayed together.  The only reason I knew about God was because we attended Mass weekly, and I went to religious ed classes briefly - in Poland, before emigrating; after arriving in the US in preparation for my First Communion/Confession; and for a few months before Confirmation.  Thankfully, these limited exposures, along with the significant altar my great-grandmother maintained in her bedroom, ignited enough curiosity in me to pursue faith on my own. 

My great-grandmother had a large statue of Mary, fished out of the water by her daughter/my grandmother when she was just 5 years old.  (They had lived on a barge.)  It was never restored, but I never found that to be in any way negative.  There were two small angels at her foot, I think candleholders, as well as a small picture frame with two pictures of my great-grandmother's parents.  She frequently had cut flowers in vases at the altar.  I always felt as if I was in a mini chapel in my great-grandma's room.

But even my Babcia, as I called her, never discussed religion with me.  In my household, religion was something you sort of inherited by virtue of being born into the family.  No one really cared how developed your spirituality was, as long as you were found doing the right thing.  But that's leaving a lot up to chance!

And I know I can't be the only cradle Catholic without an explicit, ongoing family discussion about faith in the home.  So for my students, I want them to truly feel as though they are choosing to remain Catholic.  Because even though I was confirmed at age 14, I ended up lapsing and dabbling before finally reverting back a little over a year ago.  If at all possible, I'd like to be able to help some of these young people avoid the same spiritual trauma I've gone through on my journey.

Maybe that's a high order.  I am getting a little tired of my idealistic attitude, since it usually leads to disappointment.  But if I didn't think I could make a difference, there'd be no point in me getting out of bed in the morning, would there?

Wish me luck on Sunday.  Or better yet, say a little prayer for me!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kto Ty Jestes?

I've been focusing a lot on my faith since launching this blog, but it's not the sole tenant of my mind.  So I thought I'd briefly touch on something completely different that I carry with me as if it were my very skin, something that most people don't notice, but I cannot shake.  It's something that colors my perception of the world, starting with my childhood, extending over my values and experiences, and including my identity and self-perception.  It's something that few people can relate to, at least few people that I've met.  This "thing" that I carry with me is the fact that I am a child immigrant.

Note that I used the present tense with that statement.  I "am" a child immigrant.  Even though I'm no longer a child, my life took a huge turn when I was just 8 years old, leaving me forever with one foot in my country of origin, and the other in my adopted host country.  The remnants of this identity are visible whenever forms ask for my place of birth (Poland), or when they ask for my citizenship status (yes - naturalized), or - though much more rarely - when there's an inquiry about my native language.  Whenever I answer these and similar questions, I am taken back to December 19th, 1986, when I deboarded our plane in New York.  It is these times that I am reminded that I'm not like everyone else around me.

I was born in a country far away, with a different culture and language, history and value system, where I spent the first 8 years of my life.  Yet at the same time, it is not a place where I grew up.  It's as if my "Polish upbringing" was uprooted, incomplete, and I was instead transferred to a sort of "finishing school" of life in the United States.  While my homelife remained somewhat similar to what I was used to "in the old country" - I had my parents, who spoke Polish to me and who maintained all the Polish traditions I remembered and loved - life outside the home steadily became more and more important to my growing up.  Never fully committed to either culture, my so-called "inner child" remains that 8-year-old immigrant girl who left everything she knew behind to stay close with her parents.

Note also that, in spite of having lived in my adopted country for over 25 years now, having served in the US Army, having finally become a US citizen (which was an ordeal in itself), and having come to the realization that my native language is no longer my strongest language, I cannot pretend that I am somehow no longer an immigrant.  I will forever have a dual identity.  I am Polish-American, 100% both.  My roots are outside this country's borders.  Of course, most Americans can technically say the same, but in my case, I don't mean that my ancestors' roots are elsewhere.

I'm well-adjusted enough, so what's the big deal? one might ask.  I think the big deal is multifaceted.  For one thing, I do not neatly fit into any category of people with whom I associate.  I do not share the adult-immigrant status of my parents, who out of their own free will chose to leave their native country and seek a better life in a new land.  I did not get to weigh the pros and cons of staying versus going like they surely must have done, before committing to this life-changing decision. This decision was made for me.  And while I am certainly grateful for it, as life in the United States has afforded me opportunities I never would have had back in Poland, it remains nonetheless a decision that was made for me, without my input or consent.

Nor do I fit in with my younger siblings, both of whom were born in the United States shortly after my mother and I were reunited with my father.  They have the same Polish heritage that I do, but they do not have the same sense of loyalty that comes from lived experiences in my hometown.  While my sister and brother get to sort of pick and choose which aspects of "being Polish" they want to appropriate for themselves, I cannot change my early childhood experiences, which defined me as very clearly Polish and nothing else for the first 8 years of my life.

In a way, I relate a bit with my husband, Alex, who also came to this country as a child.  However, even with him, we do not quite have the same experiences as child immigrants.  Perhaps due to his slightly younger age (he was 5 when he came over), perhaps due to a difference in our personalities (he doesn't tend to dwell on things the way I do), he seems to only have an internalized storyline of how he came over that helps him situate himself in the context of having originated somewhere else.  But he doesn't really have many memories of life in his native El Salvador that would remind him of how he used to belong to one reality, and then he started living in another one.  What's more, his family left due to civil war.  The bits of memories he does have are nothing to be nostalgic about.  On the other hand, my family left mainly for economic reasons; life in Poland was actually quite nice for both my mother and me.  I miss it.

I remember my maternal grandmother seeing us off to the airport, and on that trip, telling me that if I didn't like the new country, in 15 years, I could return to Poland.  I have no idea why the magic number was 15, and I don't remember if I actually verbalized anxiety over being in a new place.  Of course, I was sad about leaving my 3 grandparents and aunt with whom my mom and I lived at the time we made the big move.  But I'm not sure I realized that life would be any different from what I had known up until that point.  Still, some years back, I did the math and realized that the magic 15 years had passed, that I was all grown up, and that I could return to Poland if I so chose.  But this is where it becomes tricky.

Over the years, I've been back to visit 6 times.  The first time, I was 11 years old, and it was easy for me to simply let my grandmother take charge of where we'd go and what we'd do.  I didn't really sense any difference between the Poland I left and the Poland I was visiting.  The second time I visited was for 5 months, as my high school graduation present.  I was 17, and I looked forward to turning 18, becoming an adult, in the very city where I was born.  I planned it out so that the exact time of my birth, not muddled by a time change, would occur when I was alone, in public, on my way to do something "worthwhile".  As it happened, my great-grandmother had passed away the month before I turned 18.  At 11:20am on October 24th, 1996, I found myself alone on a trolley, on my way to visit my great-grandmother's grave.  I distinctly remember looking down at my watch and being aware of becoming an adult.  But this trip was also sheltered, in that I was on vacation, staying with family members, not having to really do anything.

Just a year later, I was back for my cousin's wedding, the month before I was due to report for basic training with the U.S. Army.  Even now, at 19, I felt the usual stares of people looking at me as an American, like some sort of tourist attraction.  I represented "America" to many people, and what that essentially meant was that we had money and that we didn't have savoir vivre. Only upon reflection was I able to realize that I didn't know if people were being nice to me because they were nice people, or because they somehow thought they could benefit from befriending "an American".  It saddened me that they didn't see me as one of their own, a fellow Pole.

On my 4th trip back, this time with my then soon-to-be fiance, came the final realization that maybe I would never again feel at home in my native country.  My shy personality clashed with my role as translator.  Alex was eager to take in as much of Poland as possible, but I proved to be a poor tour guide.  Not only did I frequently not know the answer to a question, I also found myself lacking the correct words in Polish to be a good translator.  When we visited Zakopane, a mountainous city where we would get engaged, I remember walking together down a little street and Alex pointing out in a store window a food that resembled tortillas.  Having previously tried unsuccessfully to explain to my curious aunt what typical Salvadoran food was like, he wanted to be able to make the comparison with what he saw in the window.

Without thinking, I went up to the lady behind the counter and asked her, in Polish, what "this" was.  She looked at me for a moment as if she were waiting for me to add "just kidding", and then, in all seriousness, she replied "nalesniki".  Immediately, I was mortified and turned on my heel and pulled Alex out of the store.  Nalesniki (crepes) are one of the staples of Polish food.  For me to call myself Polish and not recognize nalesniki felt like cheating, like I didn't really deserve the label "Polish".  After this incident, it only became more and more apparent to me that, not having been brought up to adulthood in Poland, I was not in the know about a lot of things.  Even my Polish was limited to the familial, safe, "home" Polish that I used with my parents.  I picked up a little bit of slang from TV and my cousins, but by my next visit, using it only brought taunts, as it had now become outdated.

My 5th trip back was with my mom and my siblings - their first visit of their "ancestral home".  The focus was on family, and I don't recall many awkward moments.  I do remember with how much ease my brother, having never lived in the city or used Polish outside the home, would jump my grandmother's fence and run down to the corner store to buy whatever he wanted or we needed for dinner, making change in foreign currency and communicating as best as he knew how.  He never even flinched.  I envied him.  In those moments, it would seem that he was more Polish than I was.

Then again, it's also those moments that make me grateful that my parents did bring me to the United States.  I don't think I could've survived with my temperament in Poland.  I think I either would have had to develop a hard exterior and become what so many Europeans are accused of - snobism - or I would've been metaphorically eaten alive by my peers due to my social limitations. I don't know that I would've liked the "all-Polish" version of myself.  I wouldn't have had the opportunities to be exposed to a wide range of thinking about the world.  I wouldn't have made friends with people from all over the world.  I wouldn't have had the freedom to come to the conclusion that maybe there is such a thing as too much freedom.

On my last trip to Poland, my husband Alex and I took a quick weekend break to visit with my grandmother and aunt while we were staying in Germany for a few months for Alex's work.  We wanted to take the two women out to eat, and as we were out on the town, I quickly realized how very different our approaches are to, well, life.  Neither my aunt nor my grandmother would use a public restroom, apparently due to cooties, so they refused to drink anything so as not to tempt their bladders.  Of course, in order not to dehydrate themselves, they had to take it easy and not sweat by, say, walking too much.  So we were limited in where we could go or how long we could stay out, which annoyed me, especially since it had been several years since my last visit, and I was only there for a weekend, and I wanted the chance to take in a bit more of my hometown.  But c'est la vie.

It was on this trip that I think I made my peace with never being able to return to the "fully Polish" person I once was.  I walked the streets of my hometown and took it all in, basking in the history, in the very idea of generations of my family before me walking these same streets.  I observed people with the luxury of an outsider, and I had to admit that that is exactly what I was now - an outsider.

And yet, I cannot pretend that I am only an American with Polish heritage, as that would put me in the category of polonia (Poles living abroad) that links to "the old country" by tracing their genealogical lines and not much else.  I cannot put myself in the same category with people who have Americanized their surnames so that they are neither spelled nor pronounced in a way that any Pole would recognize as their own.  I cannot put myself in the same category with people whose only Polish words are "kielbasa", "pierogi", and "czesc".  I cannot put myself in the same category with people who cannot correctly pronounce key places in Polish geography or key Polish historical figures.  Of course, you may be wondering.... why not, exactly?  Why can't I just call myself Polish-American and think of myself as in the same group as all the others who maybe once were Polish, or maybe not even, but who might've been had circumstances turned out differently?

Interestingly, I think the answer is two-fold.  One - I speak Polish.  This is a source of pride for me.  I not only speak it; I am literate in it.  I may have only a 2nd grade education in Poland, but I spent the rest of my youth writing letters to my relatives back and forth in Polish, which proved to be enough to maintain a decent sense of grammar and spelling.  I still make mistakes, to be sure, and this is often met with much embarrassment on my part, but when I hear Polish, I am listening to my mother-tongue.  It soothes my soul to hear the first language I ever heard, I ever spoke, I ever read, I ever wrote.  Knowing Polish is a deeply rooted part of my identity.  So how can I possibly feel any kinship with people who do not share  my love and knowledge of the Polish language?

The second reason I think is much simpler.  I have memories of Poland and emotional ties to certain areas that no one in this Polish-American group does.  They may think it's neat to visit the place where their grandparents came from, but it will never have the same emotional tug for them as it does for me.  Poland was my life for 8 years.  I was old enough to remember it.  When I left, I had already memorized and internalized the famous patriotic poem all Polish little children learn, titled Kto Ty Jestes (Who are you?): 
Kto Ty Jestes?   Who are you?
Polka mala.   A little Polish girl.
Jaki znak Twoj?  What’s your sign?
Lilia biala. A white lily.
Gdzie Ty mieszkasz? Where do you live?
Miedzy swemi.  Among my own.
W jakim kraju?   In what country?
W polskiej ziemi.   In the Polish land.
Czym ta ziemia?   What’s this land to you?
Ma ojczyzna.   My fatherland.
Czym zdobyta?   How was it conquered?
Krwia i blizna.  With blood and scars.
Czy ja kochasz?   Do you love it?
Kocham szczeze.    I love it sincerely. 
A w co wierzysz?   And what do you believe in? 
W Polske wierze!  I believe in Poland. 
Cos Ty dla niej?   What are you to it?
Wdzieczne dziecie.  A grateful child. 
Cos jej winien?  What do you owe it?
Oddac zycie!   To give my life.

 If this isn't enough to convince you that my Polish identity was already well-established when I emigrated, consider one final fact: my faith in God, my religious associations, were first introduced to me in Poland, in Polish.  The hymns and prayers that move me the most are in Polish.  I leave you with links to two Polish religious hymns that envelope my heart every time I hear them.

The first, Czarna Madonna (Black Madonna), is about Mary, in particular referring to her miraculous painting found on Jasna Gora.  I chose this version because it features children close to my age when I left Poland singing this familiar hymn, as well as showing the miraculous painting.

The second, Barka (Bark), I actually didn't come to know and love until our Polish Pope was on his death bed and the faithful serenaded him at the Vatican with his favorite hymn, to accompany him on his journey to meet Our heavenly Father. I chose this version as it shows the faithful masses singing to our beloved papierz.  It should be clear, then, that having been named after The Polish Pope when I was born just two weeks after his election would likewise hold a strong patriotic link for me to my homeland.

I add one more song, Goralu czy ci nie zal? (Mountaineer, aren't you sad?), a song written in honor of our Polish Pope as he inevitably left his native Poland for the Vatican.  I chose this version as it shows the beautiful mountains where Karol Wojtylo came from, as well as images of Polish mountaineers and JPII in his element.  It of course resonates closely with all Polonia, all Poles who for whatever reason have ever had to leave Poland.

Now that I've gotten started, I could go on with more musical associations that tell me that indeed, no matter what, I am still Polish.  Yet, in Poland and among authentic Poles, I can't help but feel uncomfortable, different.  Such is the lot of a child immigrant, forever with each foot in a different culture, forever both and neither at the same time.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Still Catholic :)

My initial research into Orthodoxy has yielded some fascinating reactions on my behalf.  First of all, it occurred to me that the idea of choosing a single "true church" from among many seemingly authentic traditions is like trying to choose "the true God" from among the Trinity.  Is God not at once a single essence and three distinct personalities, if you will?  Does it not miss the point to pray to the Father but ignore the Son or Holy Spirit?  Is it not un-Christian to pray in Jesus's name but not to acknowledge the Father or the Holy Spirit?  Wouldn't it be mistaken to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit as if the Son and Father are irrelevant?

The beauty of the Orthodox tradition, I think, is in the stressing of experience of the mystery of God  - not to the exclusion of scholarship, but with the understanding that ultimately, no matter how articulate the words, one human being cannot explain God to another; God must be experienced.  When I first read about this attitude, I got goosebumps, for it was as if I was reading my own thoughts!

As I proceeded to explore the major differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism - papal infallibility, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene creed, and a few others - an overwhelming thought of insatiability coupled with peace of mind came over me.  There is so much talk of finding "the" church, "the" religion, that I've bought into it as well.  But thanks to this brief exploration of Orthodoxy, I return to my previous beliefs on the nature of the divine in that there is more than one way to experience God, to please God.  In fact, Orthodoxy seems to believe this very thing.  I take the following excerpt from :

"According to the Orthodox, since all men will see God, no religion can claim for itself the power to send people either to heaven or to hell. This means that true spiritual fathers prepare their spiritual charges so that vision of God’s glory will be heaven, and not hell, reward, and not punishment. The primary purpose of Orthodox Christianity then, is to prepare its members for an experience which every human being will sooner or later have." 

A few days ago, after reading well into the night about Orthodoxy and finding myself nodding along in amazement, I was sure that I would eventually become Orthodox.  But the very next day, as I continued my exploration online, I got a small taste of reality when I watched some YouTube videos of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgies.  My observations may not be terribly impressive to the onlooker, but they are what I have to go off nonetheless.

I knew that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches prefer painted icons to statues or stained glass, but I didn't realize until I spent a good deal of time looking at them that this experience was very foreign to me.  I'm no artist, mind you, but I have always had very peculiar taste when it comes to paintings, or art in general.  Realism resonates with me, touches my heart, lifts my spirit.  I get no spiritual, emotional, or aesthetic benefit from gazing at any artwork that leaves too much to the imagination.  It boggles my mind how anyone found beauty or value in Picasso's work.  So when I looked at these icons, I found them lacking in realism, and therefore unable to speak to my religious experience.  I soon began to compare them to the many realistic depictions of Christ and all the other Biblical players I've seen decorate churches and especially cathedrals over the years, both in paintings, stained glass, and statues.  I became very aware of how uniform the icons seemed to me - similar color palate, similar somber facial expressions.  At first, I took it only as food for thought.

Then I realized that while there is much more use of incense in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches - which I looked forward to - the incense burner is bejeweled with what I can only describe as jingle bells, and the sounds of those tiny bells jingling with every move actually annoyed me a great deal.  This was actually when I realized that I had jumped the gun when I assumed that a conversion may be in my future.

Then I paid more attention to their sanctuaries and noticed that, while the altars were always very ornate and separated from the rest of the space, the remainder of the churches was quite bare and minimalist.  Not only this, but the juxtaposition of simplicity on one side and excess gold and adornment on the other left on me an impression of gaudiness, not godliness.  

Finally, it occurred to me that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not tend to kneel as part of their liturgy the way Catholics do.  It was then that I began to think, "so where am I getting this idea of what Holy Mass 'ought' to be like?"  I was taken back in my mind's eye to my childhood experiences in Polish churches, both in Poland and the one we attended stateside.  There was a railing separating the altar and the pews, where the faithful would line up and kneel to receive the Eucharist.  Yet the altar and the rest of the sanctuary were well balanced in terms of the decorations, with stained glass windows, statues, stations of the cross, paintings on all walls.  Immediately upon entering the church, with the dipping of the fingers in holy water, I remember feeling as though I was entering a sacred space.  From watching the set up of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches online, I did not get that same sense at all.

Me being baptized into Christ's One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
What's more, in the Catholic churches of my youth, I remember that the people respected the time and the space as sacred.  There was minimal chit-chatting.  People were there to pray and to worship and nothing else.  Fellowship took place after Mass, in an adjoining room or building.  Mass was sung for the most part, and the responses of the people were predictable and unchanging.  There was a sense of eternity in that space.  Presence in such churches would always predispose me to want to remain there, for I felt God's presence surrounding me.  And I found myself on my knees, where I believe a humble servant of God belongs when contemplating the Immortal One.

The only expression of piety that I've found more genuine-seeming is that of the Muslim prostrations, which I've experienced and witnessed firsthand several times, both in mosques and in my Muslim friends' homes.  However, while the postures themselves may have been more "extreme", the overall effect left something lacking.  In Catholicism, at Mass or during Adoration, we actually have the Son of God Almighty present in not just a spiritual form, but in a physical form, in the guise of the Holy Eucharist!  If we believe this, why are we not on our faces paying Him homage?  The Muslim bows down, but I believe it is symbolic, for it is always in the direction of Mecca, where is housed the Kaaba, which is believed to have been built by Abraham as the first place humanity built to worship God.  The Muslims bow down in the direction of a symbol of their faith; Catholics kneel down before the real presence of God Himself!  But I digress.

Once I realized that the very thing that initially attracted me to Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism - the belief that their liturgy would be more, well, orthodox, traditional... the way I remember it, the way I think it should be - was actually very different, albeit still beautiful and meaningful, I now was faced with no good reason to move towards Orthodoxy or Eastern Catholicism.  

Where does this leave me?  Well, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can't go home again.  I can't turn back time and reverse some of the changes that Vatican II has had on the majority of our Catholic churches.  And some of the changes have been quite positive, I think, as they've opened up options to reach a variety of sentiments and attract believers with preferences different from mine.  It was here that I finally recalled that while no longer universal, Latin Mass was very much still a part of the Catholic tradition.  So that is where I find myself, hoping to find my way to experience various Latin Masses whenever I can.

I mentioned that I remember all the beauty of the Mass from Polish churches, but I don't want to focus too much on the Polish church for two reasons.  #1: My husband doesn't quite speak Polish yet, so it'd be unfair for him to not understand everything at Mass.  The idea of Latin Mass, however, totally turned that notion upside down for me, and I've started to reconsider the purpose and the best way of attending at Mass.  But at least we'd both be on an equal footing at a Latin Mass.  And there's  also #2:  We were not able to find very close fellowship at the Polish church, not for lack of trying.  It is far away, over an hour with no traffic, making any small group meetings impossible.

While my excursion into Orthodoxy did make me question some of the dogmatic differences between the two traditions, I don't think anything taught by the Catholic church right now doesn't have a very valid, solid reason for being taught as dogma.  This includes theology as well as social teachings.  I think what I do sometimes wonder about generally falls under personal discernment and conscience.  

So while I don't think that Catholicism has all the answers, because I don't think any amount of human scholarship will ever grasp the magnitude of God, I do think that there is enough wealth of knowledge there, enough spiritual depth, enough room for mysticism and social justice, to comfortably and confidently proclaim that, by doing the best I can in following Catholic teachings, I am in fact staying true to what really matters, and that's following the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.

Matthew 16:18
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.