Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sometimes Cancer Strikes Twice

Cancer again? Of course that's what you worry about. It's what I worry about. The first time cancer strikes we are just in it--it all happens so fast and it's all new, we just go down those rapids, keeping our feet first and try not to get killed.

Then it's over, or in remission and we take a couple of deep breathes. And then the thought: "What if that happened again?"

So, there are two kinds of "again". One--that same kind of cancer comes back, or Two--you get a new cancer. That's a real bitch, right? Sometimes we have a kind of magical thinking which says, "Well if I got uterine cancer I won't get lung cancer"--as if  there is only so much cancer to go around and if I got my piece, then I get to skip the other variations.

Turns out that is so not true, as completely unfair as that seems.

So what do you do, as a cancer survivor, to keep your odds in shape? Well, according to Jane Brody,
health writer, in today's New York Times, you have to take really good care of your health and be super smart about lifestyle.

Our goal, according to Brody, is twofold--we have to do the same good care as the average Joe or Jane--who never had cancer and we have to be scrupulous about follow-up care, and better than average basic healthcare, because we may have a higher risk.

Her article (the link is below) is very good and worth your time. Of course, if you are a caregiver and you want to share this with your cancer patient/ cancer surviving loved one, tread carefully and choose your timing.

But please, don't use this article to nag your partner. I have been so guilty of that and it's just not cool.

Here's Jane Brody's article called "When Cancer Strikes Twice."


Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Glorious Debris

“Every one of us
 is called upon, probably many
 times, to start a new life.
A frightening diagnosis, a
marriage, a move, loss of a job…
And onward full tilt we go,
pitched and wrecked and absurdly
resolute, driven in spite of
everything to make good on a
new shore. To be hopeful, to
embrace one possibility after
another—that surely is the basic
instinct…..Crying out: High tide!
Time to move out into the
glorious debris. Time to take
this life for what it is.”

 --Barbara Kingsolver, from High Tide in Tucson

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Criticism is a Poor Way to Ask for Help

Diane Sawyer was interviewed on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.

Oprah asked Sawyer about her famously good marriage to Mike Nichols. Sawyer said the best piece of advice she was given for marriage was this: “Criticism is just a very poor way of making a request—so maybe, instead, you could just make the request.”

I loved that. How many times have I lobbed a critical remark instead of asking for what I wanted? Have you ever done that?

Saying, “You are selfish and lazy” is just a very poor way to ask: “Can you help me?”

And, “You never listen” is often a chicken’s way to say, “Could you sit with me and listen to me for five minutes?”

It’s also in the realm of not expecting the one we love to be a mind reader. And, by now we know that “He should know…” is for teenagers and we are grown-ups in relationships that we chose.

Don’t you think Diane Sawyers marriage advice is great? 

“Criticism is just a poor way of making a request.” So, maybe, just make the request.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Holiday Gift Ideas to Brighten the Season for Caregivers

This week we welcome Beverly Nelson from StandUpforCaregivers.org with suggestions to make nicer holidays for family caregivers:  

Caregivers are the unsung heroes of families and the healthcare industry.  They carry a heavy burden when it comes to the care and tending of others. If you have someone on your shopping list who is a caregiver, consider giving an especially meaningful gift this holiday season.  

 Who are the caregivers?  Most of us will be caregivers at some point in our lives.  In 2012, over a third of the American population gave unpaid care to someone with a chronic health condition.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that percentage will steadily increase as the population ages.  Most of those people providing care also hold down other jobs.  

 Caregiver stress.  Caregiving is physically and mentally demanding.  As time goes on, those performing the role of caregiver often experience negative effects from the burden of their duties, developing what is termed “caregiver stress.”  Symptoms include depression, anxiety, a weakened immune system, increased risk for chronic disease, obesity, and an inability to concentrate.  

 Gifts for caregivers.  Because being a caregiver is such a stressful role, consider a gift of self-care.  Encourage any caregivers you know to do something indulgent and good for their mental health.  Experts at The SeniorList recommend gifts “that help the caregivers in your life feel recognized, appreciated and pampered.”  Here are some great suggestions:

Give them a break.  According to some experts, the best gift you could give is an experience or service.  Do their shopping or housecleaning, prepare a meal and deliver it to them, or give them a respite for a day or overnight.

Create gift certificates.  Think through what this caregiver might really need and make gift certificates “redeemable upon demand.”  The Washington Post suggests you could make six certificates for 29 venting sessions.  You can make gift certificates for delivering meals, housekeeping, or that overnight respite, too.

Create a personal treasure.  The Caregiver Space suggests creating a keepsake such as a scrapbook or memory album.  Make it especially sentimental and if the person in care is still able, interview him or her and include the information.  

Photo collage.  Put memories on the wall in a photo collage.  You can always include some handwritten notes in the collage along with the photos.

Food delivery.  Your caregiver might really appreciate a monthly or weekly food delivery service.  Join a food club and make the caregiver the recipient.  The Adventurous Writer recommends clubs that offer baked goods, fruit and cheese, coffee or chocolate.

Spa day.  Consider an outing at a local spa, complete with massage, pedicure and facial.

Two tickets and a certificate.  Give two tickets to an event your caregiver will enjoy, along with a certificate for you to give respite while the caregiver goes out with a friend or significant other.

Aromatherapy.  Put together some candles, room sprays, oils and lotions in a relaxing scent like lavender.  

Gourmet gift basket.  Assemble favorite coffees or teas along with chocolates, shortbread, spreads, and dried fruits and nuts.  

Organizer or calendar.  Select an organizer with a luxurious cover or a calendar with inspiring, hopeful quotes.  Make sure there is plenty of room for writing notes.

Periodical subscription.  Periodicals can be set down and returned to as the caregiver’s time permits.  Consider a magazine relating to a favorite hobby, such as birdwatching or cars.

DVR subscription.  Give the opportunity to record the shows your caregiver is missing.  He or she will enjoy catching up when things settle down.

Journal.  Many caregivers find journaling helpful for reducing stress.  Find a special journal and include a luxurious pen.  

 Celebrate caregivers!  
 Caregivers carry a heavy load and can easily become run down physically and mentally.  Show the caregivers in your life they are appreciated during this holiday season.  Give them gifts that pamper them and are meaningful.

by: Beverly Nelson of StandUpForCaregivers.org

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gratitude Poem

When I write the word “Gratitude”
I think recovery.
I don’t think “cancer”.
I think gratitude for him
for me, for this
     --surely not this?
We are grateful or we are not.
We say Yes! and Thank you!
All around me well-meaning
friends say,
“You can say ‘No’!”
But I say Yes
I don’t No.
Who knew…
“It’s like a relationship on steroids” I
told a friend and
then I realized
that was no metaphor.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Caregiving and Your Spiritual Life

Oh, we pray a lot as caregivers. You may be saying traditional, memorized prayers. You may be talking to whatever is bigger than you (I call that your “Bigger”) in a direct and sometimes desperate way. Or maybe your prayer just sounds a lot like cursing, “Jesus Christ!” and “For God’s sake, come on!” But those also count as prayers.

I’ve been a spiritual director and a spiritual coach for many years. Almost as long as I have been a caregiver. For years I had to explain and explain and almost apologize, “No, not religious”, “Nope, not Catholic,” and “No, I’m not part of a church”…and I got used to the baffled looks.

Now, more and more people understand the difference between religion and spirituality, between believing in God and wanting to connect with something bigger and outside of themselves. And as we get older our need to make sense of life and to clarify our values and beliefs presses on us.

So, I was so happy to see that Dr. Jeff Kane, author of the book, “Healing Healthcare” includes a chapter on spiritual support as an essential component in the healthcare system. In chapter 18, “Help is on the Way” Kane writes about all of the kinds of help a patient and the caregiver need to make the medical experience complete and successful.

He writes about one hospital chaplain, David Swetman, who distributes a flyer to all patients and families in the local hospital that includes this statement: 

You think. You feel. You communicate. You have relationships. You have a style, a sense of humor, and attitude and an approach to life. Perhaps you feel deep religious beliefs or a strong connection to God; perhaps you have none. It is all of these non-physical parts of you that make up your spiritual self.”

Kane points out that while illness may cause pain to the physical body, it is in those non-physical parts that suffering resides, and that suffering also requires treatment.

And so, as caregivers we need to give time, attention and resources to our spiritual health as well. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Caregivers: The Invisible Patients

At a cocktail party last week, the conversation turned to healthcare. Of course, these days, the conversation might also turn to healthcare at the gas station, yoga class, or PTA meeting. We’re all concerned about what changes are coming to healthcare.

But we residents of CancerLand have special concerns—we worry about what will happen to preexisting conditions, the cost of tests and screening, and possible limitations on certain treatments. Patients surely don’t need that extra fear, and as caregivers we take an extra twist in our healthcare worry: we put off our own care.

So often we caregivers forget that we are patients too. We are the “invisible patients.” That’s the term I’ve  
been chewing on this week after reading the book, “Healing Healthcare –How Doctors and Patients Can Heal Our Sick System” by Jeff Kane, MD.

That cocktail party conversation turned out to be a valuable one because one of the people I was chatting with insisted that I get—and read—Kane’s book. And he was so adamant that I ordered one right away and dug in. 

I was expecting economic analysis or demographics or maybe operating room stories but I had a great surprise: Kane’s specialty is compassion. Yes, compassion as a best practice in healthcare and measuring the impact of compassion as a practice in hospital and home care. Yes, wow!

You’ll be pleased too to see how Kane writes about the importance of family caregivers—and he uses the term, “the invisible patient”. He’s a strong advocate for doctors and nurses being trained to include the caregiver in exam, discussion, treatment planning and aftercare—and most radical, he believes that the primary patient cannot get well if the caregiver’s needs are not addressed. And by “addressed” he does not mean a long soulful look and “How’s it going Bob?” moment before the couple leaves his office. He means taking the caregiver’s blood pressure, talking about their sleep and diet, and finding out how much help they have at home.

Kane documents why this is so crucial: the incidence of depression and anxiety in caregivers, how those problems bloom into physical disorders such as high blood pressure, decreased immunity, and cardiovascular disease. If you are a caregiver or are around some you’re not surprised to read this. But look at this from Kane: “Spousal caregivers age 66 or older have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers the same age.”

This smart doc knows that one patient will turn into two very quickly when giving care to a loved one with cancer or other serious, chronic illness.

Kane’s book is well worth a read: for all caregivers, for family members around the caregiver, for healthcare staff too. An idea: Be bold and buy a copy ($1 or $2 for a used copy) and hand one to your doc and mark the pages about caregivers. A little education and honest conversation can go a long way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

When a Woman Writes About Her Life

“If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same thing, he’s describing the human condition.”
--Emily Gould

Emily Gould’s book, “And the Heart Says Whatever” is a collection of essays about what it’s like to be her—and by showing us her one life we learn a lot about –not just other lives, but about how to, maybe, think about our own lives.

She also said--and I love this, “When women are honest about their experiences, it’s destabilizing.”


As I continue to write about cancer and caregiving and love and sex, and about work and clothes and money and fear, I swing between trying to be helpful and being both destabilized and destabilizing. 
So, I also ask: Am I writing one woman’s story or am I describing the human condition?

In some ways, I think it’s not my job to decide, but rather that is yours to discern. As we learn from Alanon, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” My hope—and my prayer—is that by writing about my fears and flaws I can offer you a way to deal here in CancerLand.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Literature of Caregiving: Tom Lubbock and Marion Coultis

It is not often that we have both patient and caregiver as extraordinary writers. And while often sad and hard stories we learn so much by being able to see both sides of a cancer story. Even a story unto death. 

This month I read a pair of memoirs that give us this perspective and some new language and eyes into a cancer patient and cancer caregiver with books by Tom Lubbock who was Chief Art Critic for London’s Independent newspaper. Tom was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died in 2011. His book, the chronicle of those three years until days before he
died, is “Until Further Notice, I am Alive.”

His wife, the artist and writer, Marion Coutts, wrote her book, “The Iceberg” through and after that same time period. Hers is the parallel story of the diagnosis, surgeries, hospitalizations and, for both of them, the heartbreaking complication of raising their baby son, Eugene.

What many of us who love words, reading, books, and arguing our point is the injustice and indignity of Tom’s particular cancer which was situated in the language center of his brain. The wonder and strange thrill of his book is reading him as he is articulating what language means and what it means when a writer is losing language. You would think: “too morbid”. But no.

These books, Tom’s and Marion’s, are slim and carefully crafted. These two are such fine
writers so I encourage you to read both, together and side by side. Do you see how each one describes the same day? What does it look like to him? To her? How they see the world includes what they see, as they see each other, even how they see death.

From Marion: “A palliative nurse came to see us at home in the autumn of 2010. She said, ‘On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate your quality of life?’ There was a long pause while we digested this madness. Tom, slightly absent, lightly bored, said thoughtfully, ‘That’s a ridiculous question. Obviously we go—“Oh God” all the time, at all the stuff to be done. But generally it is wonderful. We are interested.”

From Tom: “Mortal. We occupy a limited patch of space for a limited patch of time. Like the art of realistic paintings: pictures hold an equivalent in the confined areas which they enframe, and the brief narratives they represent…We know the deal. We’re bodies. We are not in our own hands.”

Marion’s life continues. Tom’s life does not. But these books do. And what they “enframe” for us is wisdom, self-compassion and love. And this thing that we all do until death—we try to put life into words.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Grow Your Own Mother

Last week on vacation I read, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride, PhD. It is about healing and growth for daughters of narcissistic mothers. McBride writes about the persistent feeling of never being good enough and the invisibility that accrue to women whose mothers were on the continuum from self-absorbed to full-blown narcissist.

Part of the recovery that McBride suggests is developing an internal mother who is all the things that one’s real mother was not able to be. 

So, at the beach I began to envision what that new mother of mine might be like. I began to imagine borrowing parts of other women—and some men—to grow my own mother.

To be fair I did include many of the great qualities of my own real Mom: passion, curiosity, charity, physical energy and humor. But, as I walked the beach, I began to name the people who I would include as I grow my internal mother.

I added in bits of Georgia O’Keefe, May Sarton, parts of some good friends whom I’d want to have as part of my eternal mom-in-me. I also added in my two grandmothers: Josephine and Sophia. I never met them, but I knew of them.

But could I pass up a grandmother named Sophia—wisdom—in building my inner mother? And Josephine, my maternal grandmother) who was a professional a poker player and the neighborhood “reproductive health advocate” (she helped women in poverty to limit the size of their families.)  As I walked the beach I wrote the names of these woman in the sand, physically co-signing the new mother-in-me.

I picture this mom-in-me growing kind of like one of those pills you drop in water to delight a child. After soaking up lots of water the foamy pill blossoms into a seahorse or dragon. Now, soaked in lots of saltwater—both ocean and tears--I am growing my own mother.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

We All Have Cancer

Yesterday I looked through my Cancer library (yes, I have a lot of cancer books) and I pulled down the book, “Anticancer: A New Way of Life” by David Servan-Schreiber.

Servan-Schreiber was one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and an accomplished neuro-psychiatrist. At age 31 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His book is about what he learned about cancer, and cancer treatment and cancer prevention.

Some of what he has to say is not new: the importance of exercise, diet, alternative treatments etc. But what is new is his description of roles we play in CancerLand-the patient’s role in his/her own care versus the doctor’s role. He also gives great guidance on how to sort medical info, nutritional info and he writes a lot about the physiological impact of stress. And the stress of cancer. He’s got lots and lots of facts.

But here is the fact that blew me away: “One hundred percent of people have cancer cells in their bodies after the age of fifty.” 

100% of us have cancer after 50. We all have cancer. In some people, it develops into tumors or conditions that become life threatening, in others it does not. But after age fifty we all have cancer cells in our bodies.

That’s wild and powerful information to process. It’s significant when you think about what it means to maintain your health but also relevant to cancer screening and tests for cancer. And it is especially a starting point for wrapping our heads around our consistent denial of mortality and death. Because here is the other absolute health statistic: 100% of us will die. 

We all have cancer, and we will all die. That’s not great news, but it’s not terrible news either. There is a lot of freedom—and maybe a path to peace—in those facts.

Knowing that all of us have cancer levels the field: there are not two camps: the sick and the well. There’s just each of us in some stage of living and dying.

This makes me think of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, “Wild Geese” in which she asks,

 “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

Monday, July 24, 2017

Do You Worry About Cancer Coming Back?

You may have discovered this: Most of your role as a cancer caregiver is, naturally, doing the daily care of your loved one—and of course, that brings up a lot of worry about that person. But this week a conversation with a friend brought me up short.

I was asking about her husband who has cancer and we talked about the usual—treatments and surgeries and money and family—all the parts of life that are touched by cancer. But then she said, “There’s something else”, and she looked very uncomfortable. So, I waited
and she said, “I’m worried about me.”

“We’re both worried that his cancer is going to come back”, she went on, “and we do talk about that, but what I can’t tell him is that I’m not sure that I can go through this again.”

Oh, I thought, “Oh, she is voicing the taboo.”

All of this I write about being a caregiver and dealing with the logistics of medical care, and the money, and the sex, but maybe I was missing what you might most need to talk about: the scary, uncomfortable, painful and awful-- often secret--truth, that we do not want to go through this again.

Part of it is that as caregivers we are in a secondary role: The patient is the lead and you, the caregiver, are the supporting actor. But we also get caught in our own “saint” game and can get trapped by being helpful and loving and we fall head over heels into the expectations that we will: roll with the punches; go with the flow; do whatever it takes.

But then, after the first round of cancer, after you come back to the surface, you might find yourself thinking, “I do not know if I can do this again.” 

You are not alone. Part of the stress is the timing. When cancer comes the first time we really don’t know a dam thing about what’s about to happen.

We read the pamphlets and go to support groups but we are caught up in the rapid current of cancer and treatment. We mostly just do everything because there isn’t time not to. The pace of care and the newness and the scariness and the constant adrenaline pushes us along. 

But after a period of time, maybe after you’ve had about a year out of CancerLand, a kind of subtle terror creeps in: What if cancer comes back? Then what? Now you know, now you have a sense of this exhaustion and fear, and in that way it’s harder because the adrenaline of shock isn’t there to help us. And it is also true that there is less help—from family and friends--when cancer goes from crisis to chronic.

So, I told my friend that she is not alone. And you are not alone if you had this worry. I have been there and truthfully, I still go there: “Could I do it again?” I probably would, and so would you. But having that secret feel like shame just makes it all so much harder.

No, I don’t want cancer to come back—for his sake and for mine. You don’t either. But I don't want you to have another layer of pain because you hate what cancer did to your good life.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mindfulness and Meditation for Caregivers

It would seem impossible to add one more thing to the caregiver’s to-do list. But, adding meditation or a mindfulness practice may be the very thing that makes that too long list a little more manageable.

No, doing meditation or yoga or Qigong or another mindful practice is not a remedy to the

stress and business of caregiving, but is absolutely a positive aid and help.

Now documented in many years longitudinal research, it’s been shown that caregivers—of people with serious illness, dementia or a child with a developmental delay—cope better, report more ease, and have fewer physical symptoms of their own when they are engaged in a mindfulness practice.

And mindful meditation, a breathing practice or yoga can become more than just a way to cope with the stress; it’s also a way to fully --and positively--embrace one’s life as caregiver.  

Trying to attend a weekly class may be a bit over the top, but there are many online resources, and podcasts that give basic instruction in Pranayama (Yoga breathing), restorative yoga, mindful awareness, and meditation. And if you are part of a caregiver support group, ask if some meditation or yoga instruction can be added to the meeting once a month.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

There's an APP for that Caregiver

We all need a helping hand when we are a family caregiver, and now there are a variety of social media applications that can go a long way to helping caregivers. 

Sometimes the hardest part of caregiving (after surfing all the emotions that arise) is managing your time. Today we know that—statistically—the typical caregiver is a woman in her forties, married, with children at home, caring for an elderly family member. Add work and economic challenges and you have a tsunami of worry and logistics. 

While the best help for the worry is likely a caregiver support group or a phone buddy who has been through it too, the help for managing logistics can now be on your phone or tablet.

Those logistics center around tasks: who is driving Mom, who is shopping, doing respite, picking up prescriptions or talking to the doc?

Talking itself consumes a huge amount of time and caregiver energy—so a way to outsource or support communication can be a lifesaver. Delegating a single scribe to handle updates to the family & friend communities saves the primary caregiver from call after call every night or every time there is a new treatment or procedure.

Here are a few helpful tools to make your caregiver life a little easier:

Google Calendar: It’s free and many people can use it at the same time. Use it to share info and appointments and ride scheduling.

Wunderlist: a task managing ap for multiple users. You list the tasks and participants can agree in real, online time to take a task and complete it. It also provides reminders. There is a free version for up to 25 participants.

Lotsa Helping Hands: is specifically for caregiver management. You can post requests for help listing specific needs and tasks. Family and friends log in to say yes and take that off your plate. There is also a blog feature where news can be shared out to the selected community all at once.

CareZone: an app for medication management. You can scan the prescription bottles with your phone’s camera and the app creates a list and schedule of all medications and dosages. It also provides reminders and health updates. Medication lists are in one place when talking to a doc or intake coordinator.

There are many more like these that you can find by searching for “technology for caregivers”. Many were designed for care in an elderly population but work perfectly in a cancer care/cancer caregiver situation.

And with any hospitalization --or at your chemo center --ask for the patient relations coordinator—don’t be shy about this-they have the latest news on services at their location and in their networks.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Summer is Coming

Today we did a three-mile walk up and down the hills.  We were huffing and puffing but moving along pretty well. As we made the turn to come back home I said to John, “Do you remember the summer after your first surgery; you could not walk from our front door to the car.” He did remember. It’s a shock still, how that cutting into flesh and being sewn back together took away so much strength. He looked the same but could not walk at all.

Now we hike and do hills and push each other on. We went to the movies at the

mall yesterday, ate burgers for dinner, went to the grocery store together. None of that possible in CancerLand days.

That summer chemo changed so many things. No movies, no malls, no grocery stores. Even the tiniest bit of air-conditioned air caused him excruciating pain as his throat closed and froze. He couldn’t even look in the refrigerator. I had to learn to cook. That turned out to be one of the gifts of Cancer Land—I became a cook.

But the summer when it all began was so shocking and crazy. 

I think about this today as we hike and run and dress for a trip to Tanglewood tonight. So many things changed. We grew from them and with them. It isn’t everyone’s path. Cancer sometimes ends relationships. It can be too much. There is no blame for that. It can just be too dam hard sometimes.

But what I feel today is gratitude and grace, and I’m cherishing every day we get.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

So this is Nina Riggs--poet, writer, Mom, wife, friend, dog lover, cancer patient. And gone.

Left for the rest of us is her new and amazing memoir, "The Bright Hour--A Memoir of Living and Dying". This fine and beautiful book is about living with--and dying from--cancer.

Nina Riggs was a poet, and that facility with language and images, and her ability to see through the world ensures power on every single page.

Riggs writes with great humor--much needed here in CancerLand, and her book is about living with cancer--raising kids, adopting a dog, being in a marriage even while getting ready to die.

With this book Riggs raises the bar on how to die, and how to see the world every single day that you are alive. This will be the most uplifting book you read this year.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"Kindness is more important than wisdom, and understanding that is the beginning of wisdom."

                                                                                 --Theodore Isaac Rubin

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Mary Month of May

I grew up in a Protestant family. My brothers and I went to Sunday school, got confirmed, and later married in the same Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Overall, it was a good experience. But I always envied Catholic girls, especially in May.

Our working class neighborhood was a mixture of Protestant and Catholic families. Kids were divided by schools: Spring Hill Public or Saint Ambrose Catholic. But it was a close neighborhood and we all played together after school. 

We were in and out of each others houses often, and one mother could stand in for another when it came to discipline or first aid. The differences were few but the Catholic girls seemed to have something special.

It was in second grade that my feelings of envy emerged. My Catholic friends were having their First Holy Communion. My friends got to wear poofy white dresses and headbands with flowers and little veils. They were given medals with pictures of saints, rosaries and most intriguing, scapulars.

A scapular is two small patches of cloth with holy pictures on them, connected by a loop of string.  My girl friends told me that it protected them from evil and all manner of bad things, and it was a sin, they told me, to take it off.  The idea of a passionate commitment to something, even a string with holy pictures, was very appealing.

Catholicism offered my friends other comforts. As a kid I would have liked a patron saint or a guardian angel, but the Methodist church didn’t offer any of those. Instead we were counseled, in an ecumenically respectful way, that all that stuff was Catholic and kind of magical. Now, this was at the same age that I was fascinated with writing in code, creating invisible ink, becoming a blood sister, playing with the Ouija board and making up secret societies. I was made myth and magic out of anything I could get my hands and mind around.

The best thing, though, that Catholic girls got was Mary. She was presented as motherhood and sweetness, but Catholic girls got a very clear message that there was a woman in heaven, that somebody understood the female side of things.

For Protestant girls, Mary shows up once a year-- at Christmas --to give birth. She might get dragged out again on Good Friday—but only in the background. No role model, no intercessor, no friend. My Catholic pals had statues of Mary. Some had the plastic glow-in-the-dark kind, and the older girls had painted plaster Marys, dressed in blue robes with big doe eyes like my Barbie. And Mary was always standing on a snake. I certainly did not understand the symbolism, but I knew at ten that this 12 inch woman had some power you could not buy for Barbie. 

Best of all, my friends had May altars. A May altar was basically a table with an old lace tablecloth thrown over it. They put their Mary statues on it with flowers and candles that they were allowed to light when they said their prayers.  It still strikes me how feminine those altars were. The Catholic girls had total permission to identify with the feminine in spiritual matters. But no one gave little Protestant girls such romantic, mysterious things to do or own.

This carried over into all of a Catholic girl’s life. Mary got prayers, devotions, pilgrimages and even architectural consideration: there is a Marian shrine in every Catholic Church. Talk about having a room of one’s own. Mary’s presence meant that the Catholic Church included at least one woman at a high level. In her assumption into heaven, Mary had broken Christianity’s glass ceiling.

We pretty much get the shape of our beliefs early on, and what Catholic girls got was a She and a Her, someone like them, to pray to. And they got all those accessories: medals, scapulars, rosaries, ruffled altar skirts and little white prayer books. Protestant girls got black leatherette New Testaments, Jesus stories, but nothing that said, “We’re glad you’re a girl.” 

Of course, later, Catholic girls ran into, the birth control problem and the brick wall that said, “You can’t be a priest”. But what I saw my Catholic friends get was faith in their girlhood and an image of feminine power. That’s not such a bad way to start out.