All of those of the male gender are asleep in front of the fire. So with headphones quieting computer speech, I’m ready to tell you about the conference I attended. the title in the subject may be a paraphrase of the actual title, but Fire of Hope is close enough. A woman named MaryJo Shirwood attended the Christian conference held every fall called Women of Faith. Some big companies sponsor it, and she had a good time there. But she had the idea of starting a conference for Catholic women with many of the Catholic distinctions built into the conference. She hoped for a Mass, reconciliation time , and adoration. None of those things happened this year, but I hope the premiere conference motivates many women as it did for me.
My involvement started with a tweet about it on Friday the 13th of all days. The tweet said there were free tickets to a conference for Catholic women in Downtown Minneapolis — one of my favorite parts of the city. I immediately called the number and spoke to Mary Jo. at that point, a Mass was planned, and I offered to play piano or keyboard for Mass or whatever else for which she needed music. Apparently the person in charge of the music portion had a family emergency and was forced to back out of her commitment. MaryJo had some ideas for music, and I came up with a few. But I said to her that I wasn’t the singer. i just played the keyboard.
On Monday night, I got an e-mail that she’d found a singer, and I was overjoyed! Tuesday the singer named Michele Michaels called me to work out the details. Just one problem (at this point — there were many). Michele was only now gaining her voice back. She said yes to MaryJo and even volunteered her keyboard. When I called, it suddenly occurred to her just how big of a commitment she’d made, considering the circumstances. She was slowly recovering from losing her voice. Then she expressed concern about getting the words in Braille within such a short period. I know a lot of people in the blind community, but I hadn’t met Michele. We quickly established that we were in the opposite and — especially in the Midwest — often opposing organizations of blind people. Michele is orthodox Catholic, and I tend to be more liberal politically. I guessed correctly that she is Black from the slight accent and her categorizing her voice as sounding gospel. I probably don’t have to remind you I’ve been getting into a lot of that lately. Blind Catholics who are musical and within a few years of each other in age are not easy to find. I hadn’t found a person like Michele within the blind community I knew. We talked about everything, and I had the sense we would have talked much longer if she didn’t have to rest her voice and find her replacement to canter. She had made a commitment to perform Friday night, and MaryJo asked her to do one song on Saturday as the last act of the conference before Mass.
Michele found a wonderful canter named Kristin who called on Wednesday. We came up with a basic outline using ideas MaryJo discussed with us both. Thursday was not possible for her, so we determined we’d rehearse on Friday. We exchanged a lot of e-mails, and Kristin sent me to a Web page to preview and buy music or mp3’s of the 2010 Mass of Creation with the new Mass language included. Meanwhile, Michele and I talked about my accompanying her Saturday on her song. She has an accompanist, but he wasn’t available. Michele and I planned to practice, but it was just too cold for either of us to travel — especially given her voice and my dog’s tendency to violently shiver in cold when standing still waiting for buses. We did as much as we could over the phone, and Kristin and i had our practice on Friday as planned.
I think I’ve made it pretty plain that morning isn’t my time, but it was Kristin’s only time. So on the day of practice I asked Phil for strong coffee with hot chocolate in it. It snowed that day, and there were a lot of accidents! Kristin got bad directions to our place from google maps, and with the treacherous driving, she was very late. Still, our rehearsal seemed to go like clock work. I also learned a little about the Intentional Christian Community to which she belongs called People of Praise. They have a big event every two weeks and smaller groups in between times. Kristin and I love Christian contemporary music, and MaryJo asked for some of that during the Mass.
I got a call during rehearsal but got to it after we were finished. It was MaryJo saying the priest who had committed to come to Minneapolis had taken so seriously ill, doctors wouldn’t allow him to get on a plane. She was getting ready to go to the venue and set-up. She had made all the phonecalls she could and said that if we didn’t find a priest, there would be no Mass. I’d invested time in planning the music, the rehearsal, and typing many of the selections, so they could be projected onto a big screen. MaryJo didn’t have time to find a priest, so it was left to me to start searching. I called and tweeted everyone who came to mind. Although some couldn’t help, many either reached for their own connections or suggested another approach. Then I got a hold of a super lady named Lori at the Clergy Services Office at the Archdiocese. She said she wouldn’t leave, until she found someone for us, and she kept her word!
I called MaryJo to give her the priests contact information, and she informed me that there was another problem. Mass wouldn’t be happening after all. I don’t know what that problem was, and it was pretty jarring. My stomach didn’t want to accept food, until we found someone, and my original plan was to catch the nap I missed waiting and rehearsing in the morning. MaryJo said she’d talk to the priest and Kristin, but I felt some responsibility to do it. I felt so physically lousy I almost didn’t go to the Friday night portion. About the only thing that got me there was learning Michele had her bank card shredded in the ATM machine. She was trying to get money out for the weekend when it happened. After that story, I had no right to complain. There were plenty of those icky things happening. MaryJo and many others call it spiritual warfare and attribute those things to Satan or the
Enemy. I am not sure if it’s Satan or just some other unkind spirit/force, but the attribution is less important than the resolution not to let it get in the way.
There were two speakers who were my distinct favorites, and neither occurred on Friday night. One Friday speaker was on looking your best, and the other was a dietitian. Those of you who no me well know I get kind of defensive in those areas. Actually, it was less painful than it could have been. There were many pictures in both presentations, but there was talk of the psychology of color from the fashion/closet organizing consultant. The dietitian gave us a list of foods which looked like a part of the body and were actually good for that part. One quick example, Kidney beans are good for the kidneys. Both speakers went deeper into their own lives than I expected and weren’t these perky people who get on my nerves. I don’t remember which one said this, but I don’t even have to look at my notes to remember the phrase. We have a choice to be humbly grateful or grumbly hateful.
Another reason to have gone Friday night was to hear Glen from Relevant Radio doing his three trivia questions. The one time I tuned into Relevant Radio, someone was on telling people to get their kids to turn away from Harry Potter and read the lives of the Saints. That totally turned me off of Relevant Radio. Just as with my church, I’ll probably hear things with which I disagree, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things on which we do. Many of the questions were about the Daily Mass readings. The Rosary hasn’t been effective for me, and I certainly don’t make it to Mass every day. But reading the Mass readings every day is something I try to do most of the time. I’m constantly learning something about the Bible.
Hearing Michele sing and meeting her after the session were two very good reasons I was supposed to go. She wore a perfume I adored and was as genuine in person as on the phone. We both got the free booklets offered at the upstairs vendors, and she talked to one of the speakers. We wanted to talk to MaryJo about the last song. With no Mass, there was no keyboard, so obviously something had to change. I offered to back Michele up with harmony, and we practiced a little. I thought we sounded fine, but she really didn’t want to do it. Early in the week I said I couldn’t sing, because my fingers would be busy on the keys. Memorizing words is hard last-minute. Finally, I said I’d do it if she could get me the words. With no keys, I could read Braille lyrics. She e-mailed them to me, and I used my notetaker to transcribe them into Braille.
The final reason it was good to go Friday night was to meet MaryJo and to learn from her that the morning’s conference didn’t start at nine thirty but at nine. I had to cancel my metro ride and get a cab. I would have gotten there too late, and MaryJo promised me I didn’t want to miss a word of the first speaker!
I’m not even going to try to spell last names or give too much detail, in case someday you happen to hear these speakers. Most speak for Christian and secular markets. LeeAnne is the co-author of several Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She told us the story of her involvement in lifting orphan babies out of Vietnam during the last days of the war in 1975. That doesn’t do it justice, but I hope some of you will hear the story yourselves someday. Mary was one of my two favorites. Her talk was about some of the “thin places’ — a thin veil between this world and Heaven. She spoke from personal experiences and said things about coincidences, repeating patterns, and signs which I have always attributed to God but never thought it fit into my faith.
I met our third speaker as I was settling into my seat. Naomi is a genuinely nice person and had some big challenges for me. But the little political comments about leaning to the right were distracting for me. It’s no secret to me that most married Catholic women are probably more conservative than I am. After all, I’m the rebel calling herself Catholic who doesn’t plan to have one baby — let alone ten to twelve. Those political things can really divide us.
A change had taken place overnight. As I waited for my ride on Friday, I asked the house manager Jerry if I could possibly sit somewhere else. I was sitting in a roped off area all by myself. This was to give Zane space, and he said the chair without arms (which was more comfortable to me) wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Lo and behold, when he found out I was going to be on stage, suddenly he found a nifty spot right up front for me to sit on Saturday morning. I was still alone, but not nearly as far from people as when I was behind the roped area.
I made three critical mistakes — two from which I recovered — when we broke for lunch. Zane had been very quiet all morning, but when the lights came up, he let me know we needed to boogie! Some ladies asked me to lunch, and oh how I wished I had said yes! but I was so concerned with getting Zane relieved. They were going to the microbrewery next door, and I’d heard the food was bad and they robbed their customers. I thought I’d stroll to a restaurant I knew with a relief break on the way. My backpack felt unusually light as I walked out the theater doors to find Zane a place to park. Then I got disoriented and went the opposite direction than my plan. Zane helped me find a parking ramp, he did his thing, and we went back the way we came. I hadn’t planned on it being quite that cold, and I could barely feel the holes to buckle Zane’s harness. I had lunch in the microbrewery alone. they had a Braille menu, but I had to wait until I could feel something again before reading. the food was fine and within normal price range. The salad was gigantic and especially delicious, but the Mac ‘N Chicken was fine too. I had just enough time to squeak through the hallway connecting the restaurant and the theater and take my seat. A woman helped me fine my seat. I thought I knew where to go, but I was mistaken. Then I sighed with relief as she handed me what looked like a purse to her. I discovered at the tale-end of my lunch that my Braille notetaker was missing from my bag.
Zane had been in such a hurry! I’m glad we were at a Christian conference where it remained where it was.
We saw a funny video about girlfriends, and then another of my favorites spoke. Louise’s approach and talk touched on a number of areas in my life on which I’m working right now. She had us interact with each other, and there wasn’t anyone near enough for me to ask. I had a chance to gently tell her later, and she’s someone I hope I will come to know in the future. Our discussion was cut off by the arrival of my ride.
I heard the first part of Deacon Tom’s talk and learned he not only had print books but an audio program as well.
Then a woman said it was time for me to go backstage. She took me through the inner-workings of the theater. I noticed one of the speakers had a problem with the mike, but I didn’t know what it was until it happened to me. the little earpiece didn’t stay. Luckily, that happened before I was live. they had plan B and set-up a mike stand right next to the music stand where I had my Notetaker with the words. As I said at the beginning, I don’t consider myself a singer, and Phil is constantly telling me that I really need to sing more. With all of the messages about courage and hearing the call, it was obvious I was supposed to sing. I stumbled once, because my Braille display jumped a line. I recovered well and had a good finish. I sang while the baskets were being passed for financial donations — the last part of the conference. I sang “Pass It on” — a song which always seems to pop up in important moments of my life. I first heard it sung by the blind friend who sang for our wedding. I was probably seven, and she was fifteen. She has since gone to God, but her talents were very similar to my own. We didn’t get along well in school, because we were often pitted against each other. Later the friendship ran very deep. I think the most beautiful thing about the song is that very few people were aware it was me singing. It wasn’t a performance, because I was actually in the backstage area. It was just my voice coming through, and while the basket was past, candles were being lit from one another. Deacon Tom and the others who knew it was me were very complimentary. One man said he hadn’t heard it sung that well since someone sang it at his wedding.
My metro driver got me over to church in plenty of time to put the hymns and readings together. I have no idea why we didn’t have Mass at Fire of Hope. But I think I know why I was supposed to attend Mass at Incarnation. I didn’t play piano this weekend, so I was out in the congregation. I heard Spanish speakers setting up something, but I didn’t know what it was. Before Mass started, Father explained that in Mexico, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul is a much bigger deal and is celebrated for days before the actual feast day on the 25th. One means of celebration is to have a huge procession, and it really was huge! It was the first time I can remember seeing more Spanish speakers than English Speakers at the Mass. And this wasn’t a quiet procession. They had drums, something that sounded like a piccolo and lots of shakers. A couple times I felt something hit my forehead or hair and reached up to feel feathers on the clothing they wore. Zane was interested in the kids, and the kids were interested in Zane! Even though much of the Mass was in Spanish, and I didn’t understand the homily, Mass really felt like the celebration it is supposed to be. There were people every where, and English speakers like me leaned in to try to get the melody if not some of the words to the Spanish songs sung. Usually there’s no one around during the sign of piece when I sit in my usual seat. Today they came from all over! Communion wasn’t the usual solemn affair. I could really hear the joy as people went up to receive. I could only participate in a limited fashion, but that was OK, because I was surrounded!
Father warned that the ending procession would take those who chose to do it around the block to the former-school across the street for food and dancing. Zane had a big day, and as much as I was tempted to try this, I also knew we really needed to get home. Zane did his work willingly and followed a ton of different people all over the place. The sand /salt on the sidewalks irritated his feet, and when we were outside, we had to stop to brush it off. The bus wasn’t too far away, and Zane guided me swiftly into our backyard.
A girlfriend of mine called, and we hadn’t talked for a while. She was the only Catholic woman I decided not to approach about this conference, because I just didn’t want to offend her if she wasn’t receptive. It turns out she would have loved to go, and next year, I will be at this conference with at least one other girlfriend — if not a couple if Michele and I stay in touch as I hope.
Rebecca Kragnes and Zane (Black Labrador and Seeing Eye Dog)