This I Believe: MJ LaVigne (2021)

Thank you, Victoria. I am speaking to you today from Dakota Makoce, the homeland of the Dakota, and Mahto Ska Bde, White Bear Lake. It means so much to me to share this with you, thank you.

I grew up the middle of three sisters, a family small by St. Paul Catholic standards. We went to Immaculate Heart of Mary, an ugly church, with all the soaring majesty of a gymnasium. I remember being there for Mass, arguing in my head with the text while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. My first issue, being led into temptation never sounded that bad. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will, be done,” gave me a picture of a guy in the sky swooping down to boss people around. There was a line I liked. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I turned it over and turned it over in my head. Distilled it down to my own version. Meet people where they are and cut them some slack, respect boundaries, yours and theirs.

When I was seven years old my next-door neighbor and playmate Jimmy McCall died. We said good-bye at the alley. He went to put his bike away. The garage door fell on his liver. That’s what I remember being told. I was the last one to see him alive and unhurt. We went to his funeral, and afterward my parents thought it best we stay home so his poor mother wouldn’t have to hear the sound of children. Just a few months later my cat went astray. I found Pierre the next day in that same alley. There was a tread mark through his belly. My grandmother came, she was wearing a house dress and carrying her dish-gloves. We buried Pierre next to the garage. I thought about death after that, how quiet it can be, and how visceral. Alone in bed at night I said my Hail Mary’s, fingering the white beads of my Rosary when I couldn’t sleep.

Awhile after Jimmy died, I asked my dad about heaven. We were riding in the Model T Ford my family had, coming back from the Lake Street Sears. What happens after you die? I asked. No one knows Mare, no one knows. My dad glanced at me as we drove into a shadow, or perhaps it was under a bridge. You don’t believe in heaven? I asked. Well, he said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was nothing. It was hard and good to know what my father struggled with.

My quibble with the Garden of Eden story cast me out of the Catholic fold. I just didn’t get how eating an apple, or seeking knowledge was sinful. And why did Eve get all the blame? At twelve, when it was time for me to be confirmed, I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting in a classroom for hours mouthing things I didn’t believe. It was 1972. My mom suggested I might be taking it too seriously. But she made an appointment and went with me to talk to Monsignor. We met in his office in the rectory across Summit Avenue from the church. If I was so eager for knowledge, he said, placing his elbows on his shiny desk, perhaps I could list the seven deadly sins. The catechism quiz-bowl left me feeling crumby, but also clear-headed. I took the confirmation classes, went through the ceremony, but never was Catholic after that. Tops on my own list of deadly sins is pretending to believe something you don’t.

Still, I am grateful to have come from a church going family, one that dedicated time each week to matters of spirit. I still remember the awe I would feel emerging from a dark confessional. It’s great for a child to have a way to earn a clean slate. I do believe in re-dos.

I came to WBUUC because I was looking for a wedding venue and the Mahtomedi Avenue church had such a pretty façade. It was too small for the wedding I had in mind, but it was fun. The first service I remember was Easter Sunday, 1985. After a reading from the Velveteen Rabbit, the congregation formed a conga line and bunny hopped around the church.

It wasn’t easy to attend that church casually. Bob Stowe would be at the front door, his hand reaching for you like a catcher’s mitt, asking for your name, and if you were new. To get to the basement social room, you’d snake down the stairs flattening yourself against the wall while people made the tight ascent balancing their coffee cups. The place was like a cocoon.

I joined a women’s study group called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. One night a week we met in the basement, maybe a dozen of us, all ages, first in rows on folding chairs, then on the floor in a circle, talking about the feminine divine. I began to pray with female pronouns. This opened a new view of God.

Going to Sunday service was always optional for my kids. We seldom went as a family. That left me free to explore other practices. In the 1990s I attended St. Croix Valley Friends Meeting. Being quietly uncomfortable, listening for the still small voice, the Quakers helped me through a very dark period, mostly without words.

I tried new age stuff, including Theophilus Divinity School in 2001, quirky mix of breath-work and The Course in Miracles. We met twice a week, were assigned affirmations to write, and were told to spend time living in each other’s homes. Full circle from the spiritual rebellion of my youth, I’d come around to a different form of Catechism.

The Divinity School course finished with a ritual isolation. You went to a room and stayed alone for four days, three nights. No clocks. Mirrors draped. Food left for you on a tray. They gave you one book to read. Its title was The Door of Everything, and a notebook and pencil to write your thoughts. I emerged feeling new, and wobbly. I am reminded of this feeling as the pandemic ends, to step gingerly as we re-enter the world.

Over the last two decades my life has taken root in this church. Neither hiding, pretending or being other than who I am and who called to be. That call is as reverent as The Lord’s Prayer once seemed. I cried the first time I heard our opening with the line “touch and be touched” eliminated. I miss weeping shamelessly on ordinary Sundays, and the solemn passing of tissues. I miss middle school kids with sign-up sheets. And the Pledge Drive, I miss the Pledge table.

Most of all I miss how much you helped me hold space for hard things. I’m thinking here of a time just a couple years ago. I was driving our sanctuary family back from an appointment and we stopped at McDonald’s. The little brother went to play in the maze, mother and I ate fries, teen sister checked her phone. I showed them a picture of my toddler grandson. Our guest reached across the table to show me a picture on her phone. The picture was of a girl, obviously dead, fallen to violence or fatal sadness. It blind-sided me. Later I shared it with our Love Lives Here Committee. They helped me hold it, and shared things they were themselves holding.

If you commit to witness, you’re going to have to leave yourself open to knowing about a lot of things which you can do nothing about. This is a big challenge for me. Who was the worst German, the one who knew about concentration camps but had not courage to do anything, or the one who never could stand to look?

Picking up trash is nearly always a right thing to do. There’s a refuge for me in refuse. That could be a hymn. I try to never pick up litter if I’m feeling smug or resentful. I leave it on the ground if I don’t have the heart. It’s a sign I’m low. After the Minneapolis Uprising an army of people came out to sweep up broken glass, and collect exploded tear gas shells. Making it just a little better is the essence of hope. Like confession, the road gets a clean-slate.

The last twenty-two years have been the happiest of my life. I met my mate, raised my children, and found work that I love. I have friends I can call on the phone, and cry into their silence, and feel better without a word spoken. How rich is that? Yet I know too, that how it has been, it will never be again. We’ll come back different. Like a chrysalis, bursting for what’s next.