My Irish Catholic Family and Me, or, What Has Meaning and What Doesn’t

Karen Kilbane
An Ever-Present Image of My Childhood

“Karen, get dressed. It’s time for Mass.”

“All right, coming.”

I’m seven and tiny. The year is 1968. I’m so tiny, Sister Peter Claver asked me to be baby Jesus in last year’s Nativity Play. I put on my little sailor dress, my black patent leathers, and black veil. I love my lace veil and am thankful to be Catholic and not a Protester like my best friend Tami. Tami’s Protester church is plain and boring and she doesn’t wear a beautiful veil. Of course in a few short years Catholic women won’t be forced to cover their heads and I will learn to use the term Protestant.

I run downstairs, wolf down a fried egg, then dutifully climb into our powder blue Plymouth station wagon, yes, a bona fide Catholic Sports Car. My mom, dad, younger brother and sister, plus my newborn brother pile in after me. There will soon be a fifth sibling, but for the moment it is just us four kids and two parents.

St. Joseph’s here we come.

Wack.

“Tommy hit me,” I shout.

“Karen is sitting in my section,” my brother shouts back, hitting me again for emphasis.

I scream, “I’m not in his section. Tell him to stop.”

“Both of you stop fighting! You can both pray for forgiveness for fighting.”

“I am not fighting, Mom. This is me trying not to get hit. I am not going to confess just sitting in a car, minding my own business, and then getting slapped. It would make no sense!”

“It takes two to make a fight. Now be quiet and be sure to confess this at church.”

Oh my does this make me stew. Tommy is huge. Despite being 17 months younger, he is already much taller and heavier. Every time he hits me I have supposedly caused him to want to hit me.

My dad speeds down Electric Boulevard. As per usual we’re running late. It’s mid-fall and the leaves of our northern Ohio Maples and Oaks glisten in the sun. Piles of raked leaves dot the streets, every tenth pile aflame, the scent intoxicating and familiar. My dad turns into St. Joe’s parking lot sandwiched between Lake Erie and Electric Boulevard. Tommy and I race to the double doors while my mom and dad struggle with the younger two. When they catch up I dip my middle finger into the Holy Water, make the sign of the cross, then climb into the pew strategically placed between my mom and dad so Tommy and I don’t wrestle.

The bells chime, the organ plays, the incense permeates, the ornately frocked priest flanked by altar boys process with a bejeweled Bible. The explosion of sensory stimulation draws our attention to the altar. By age 7, the sensory feast and grandiosity of the Mass ritual seem commonplace due to their familiarity.

And so it begins. Mass lasts an hour, an interminably long time for a kid, but now that I can read don’t mind so much. I like to scramble to follow along with the archaic language of the missalette, kind of a game with me. It’s better to play my game because when I get thinking too much about the information I read and hear in church, I am prone to not believing any of it. This Bible stuff is far-fetched and weird. I’m glad I’m still a kid so I don’t have to deal with the absurdity and can pretend the supernatural Bible stories, miracles, and lives of the saints are real and believable. At age seven I have a deep knowing at some point this stuff won’t be so easy to blindly accept. I do not look forward to that day because believing this God and Bible stuff seems important to my immediate and extended family.

Of course, Catholics don’t mess with the Bible too much. We let the priest wade through that book of rules and revelations. Once I do get around to reading the Bible I am struck by how harsh and menacing a piece of literature it is. The stories and information in the Bible presume I will forever remain a sinful child who is forever in need of a strict, uncompromising, divine parent to keep me in compliance with what is “Right.” I am also struck by how often the Bible contradicts itself. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all are all telling a slightly different story of the Truth with a capital T? How is variation possible when you’re talking about truth with a capital T?

Before reading the Bible for the first time at age twelve I go through an extremely devout phase starting at age nine. With only three TV stations, a mother who lets us watch next to nothing, and zero tech toys, I have lots of time on my hands. Reading becomes a passion. I devour all age-appropriate fiction in my school and town libraries. Needing more, I seek out books about the saints.

Now, let me tell you, the saints didn’t mess around. They lived their utter devotion to God every minute of every day, often while wearing hairshirts. I am struck, hit in the head with a shepherd’s staff if you will, by how watered down my family is about their worship. I have come to learn serious Catholic Christians forsake all worldly goods and dedicate every moment of their waking lives to praising God, praying for forgiveness, and doing good works. It is clear my family are not true Christians. I have all sorts of angst about this and try to ramp up my own schedule of worship. I attempt to dial down my desire for new clothes and toys. Heck, I attempt to dial down my desire for everything except God. I vow not to look at myself in mirrors or care about my appearance. The sins of pride and vanity will not stop me from being as much like Our Lord Jesus and Our Blessed Mother as humanly possible.

During this particularly devout phase I try desperately to be more like my grandmother. She lives in Parma, Italy. Just kidding. My Irish grammy lives in Parma, Ohio, home of Drew Carey and a busload of my cousins. My grandmother’s faith in God is beautiful. She has a stack of dog-eared prayer cards on her bedside table neatly held together with a rubber band. Every morning and night she prays with her rosary and prayer cards in devotion. Her tidy little split-level on Essen Avenue right down from the Parma Show is the most soothing sanctuary I will ever know filled with religious statues and knick-knacks, The Infant of Prague, pictures of the pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus, and all us grandkids. Not to mention brownies, cookies, and candies seem to grow on trees. I desperately want to be like my grandma and to have the kind of faith she has.

Suddenly it is 1978. I am a junior taking one of the hardest courses in our public high school called Western Ideas. It covers the breadth of political, scientific, philosophical, and religious ideas of the western world from the ancients through 1978. This class brings up the monster I knew I would have to grapple with at age seven, that monster being logic.

Thanks to Western Ideas Class I now know most human groups have organized themselves around a wide variety of divinities, sometimes one, sometimes many. Was it a mere coincidence each divinity or group of divinities served at the behest of the most powerful people in each human group? Was it mere coincidence the most powerful people always got to interpret how the divinity or divinities would weigh in on any matter and thereby control the people under them? Is there a dark and unseemly relationship between powerful mortals and the divinities they choose to help them hoard power and resources and keep underlings in obeisance?

Dang, I don’t want to have to answer these questions even though the answers seem all too obvious. After taking Western Ideas I am having more trouble than ever swallowing the stuff of my Christianity and Catholicism, literally and figuratively. As my faith decreases, the dryness of the communion wafer increases. Tonguing wafers off the roof of my mouth while kneeling in prostration becomes an act at once familiar and comforting while simultaneously odd and humiliating. At age sixteen I have a deep knowing this whole Catholic/Christian thing is going to be harder for to me fully embrace than I anticipated at age seven. I make a secret vow to have the whole religion business sorted out by the time I have children. (Ha!)

Cut to 1979. I am a freshman at a small public college in southern Ohio. I am only five hours away from my beloved Lake Erie home, but might as well be in Australia. There is nothing and nobody familiar here. I am not a fish out of water, I am a fish in the wrong water. I grew up with the same friends the whole of my life. I resent being arbitrarily ripped from the people and landscape I love and possibly cannot live without. In other words, I am desperately homesick.

Cut to 1983. I will graduate from college in a month. After my first semester of crushing homesickness, I acclimate like crazy. I make deep, lifelong friendships and am enthralled with my studies. Who knew I would grow to love this place, this place that took me so rudely from everything and everyone I love. Who knew I would fall in love with Pat Callahan here, a man who will eventually become my husband, the father of my four children, and my lifelong best friend.

Who knew the Catholicism I began to rebel against in the safety of my own mind would become a badge of honor in college. Who knew my taken for granted Irishness and Catholicness would start to play a huge role in my emerging adult identify?

You see, being Irish Catholic was as permanent a part of my identity as my limbs. I didn’t think about it other than being super glad I was Irish on St. Patrick’s Day; it meant a whole day of fun for me and my siblings. But in college, my membership in the Irish Catholic Club began to loom large in my sense of identity and my sense of belonging to something greater than myself and my immediate family.

Here’s how it all started. Every parent’s day weekend in college my parents would come, but they would also bring my four siblings. The first year it was embarrassing. Nobody else’s parents brought a whole pack of little kids. And then there was the take no prisoners football we played on the dorm lawn. This also embarrassed me but I was incapable of passing up a chance to best my brother Tommy at football.

After surviving the embarrassment of carting around my entire family all weekend, I got all kinds of compliments from my new friends about how lucky I was to have such a big, fun family.

This was new information to me. I had decided big families, especially mine, were old school and not cool. My senior year in high school I fancied myself destined for better things than sitting around my mom and grandma’s table with a bunch of relatives eating meat and potatoes and telling stories. This was the stuff of provincial lives. I could do better.

But then in college I learn about the erosion of immediate and extended families, the disconnection and loneliness of modern life. I begin to wonder if my Irish Catholic tribe is something to cling to rather than rebel against. One of my best friends in college, John, is also Irish Catholic and a fellow northern Ohioan. We are as proud of being from the North as the Family Stark. John will become very important to me, we get each other, we come from the same place and share the same culture. John LOVES all things Irish and Catholic and something about his enthusiasm makes me more enthusiastic. John and I go to Mass together sometimes and wow, the college priest is so much more intellectually stimulating than Father Dickard or Father Wolnowski from St. Joe’s. This new priest makes me think in new ways. Maybe I will find the faith of my grandmother yet!

John was the one to receive the call of my grandfather’s death.

It is August of 1982. My dad agrees to let me take our beater car to college. We have a co-ed house this year, our senior year, John being one of the guys. John is already at the house when I pull up. He looks pale and beckons me in.

“Karen, your grandfather passed away this morning. I got the call an hour ago.”

Silence.

The little cocoon of my Grandma, Grandpa, Auntie, Unkie, Aunt Betty, Aunt Jean, Uncle Bus, The Gerity’s, and my immediate family have formed the backdrop of my entire life. These people are my safe haven, my constants, my whole world really. I don’t know what to do. I feel nothing. I think nothing. But I have a deep knowing things are gonna start to hurt. I thank John and say quickly, “I’m going to church to sit a while.”

All Catholic churches are different, but mostly the same, no matter how simple or ornate. They are always beautiful, familiar, and a symphony for the senses. I kneel in my little college church, then sit, then kneel. But I can’t seem to think or feel.

The next morning I rise early for the five-hour drive back North to McGorry’s Funeral Home where all west side Cleveland Irish wakes are held. I am late. The relatives have been standing vigil since morning. I park and hurry in knowing I’ll be the last of my clan to arrive.

I had no idea the space between locking my car door and walking into McGorry’s was the last space in which I will have been a child. As soon as I see my grandfather lying there with the Rosary wrapped around his hands, grief wells up in me I was not prepared for. This kind of grief, I know immediately, is not the grief of a child, but of a woman. It is unbearable.

Finally, the last of the mourners leave and it’s just our clan. We sob through the final Our Father. How do we walk out of this room and leave him? How?

Our little clan, tight as can be, is bruised and sore. We cling to one another. And I resolve to make a better effort to believe, to do a better job of being Catholic, to dismiss doubts, to remain a part of these people, my people, because they are everything and without them I will be another statistic, another lonely, disconnected, modern human.

Now it is 1992. I have birthed three of my four children. Sean is five, Maureen three, Kathleen one. I vowed to have figured out my questions about God and religion by now but of course have not. I am still a hamster on a wheel looking for new kinds of answers but only finding the same ones over and over.

So I find a middle place. In this middle place I neither accept or reject God or my Catholicism. I take what I can rationalize and pretend the bizarre stuff away, like the supernatural foundations upon which all Bible stories rest and the incessant and disgusting corruption within the Catholic church. I practice a hybrid. For example, every night with my children I say prayers starting with my own version of the sign of the cross: In the name of the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. I make certain the children make First Confessions and First Communions and we go to Mass, but only sometimes even though skipping Mass is a sin. This middle place is the best I can do. But something is missing in this middle place; something is off, vaguely threatening, gnawingly unsettling.

Now it is 2001. My fourth child, Keara, is born. She has Down syndrome. Everyone and their brother and their Aunt Martha tells me she is a gift from God who only sends angels to those who can handle it. I adore this unplanned baby as do my older three as does everyone else in my growing extended family.

A month after my new baby is born, my husband leaves for a new position in Seattle. When my baby is five months, the rest of us join him. In 2001 we are light years from northern Ohio, my landscape, my people. And my relationship with my husband at this point is terrible. We endure one another for our beloved children.

In this new Seattle home I love being a mom but all my important adult relationships have deteriorated, not just my marriage. The fault must lie inside me. There is something important I am not getting about this thing called life. I throw myself into fixing myself and go into a decade-long period of intensive psychological research about emotional, behavioral, and personality theories and disorders and theories of child development. In addition, my husband and I bury ourselves alive in traditional and alternative individual and couples’ therapies. I of course throw myself into practicing yoga as all desperate modern Americans do. My husband and I read virtually every self-help book on planet earth from the most traditional to the most hippy-dippy woo-woo. We do NOT get along, but we WANT to. No two people could want to find their way back to one another more than we do. It is torture because we never lose our attraction or love for one another, but at the same time we cannot stand each other. Another crappy middle place to be.

In 2006 Keara, my youngest with Down syndrome is five. I take a position in our school district to oversee a unique adapted physical education program. I have a Master of Arts in Teaching and have had a wide variety of teaching jobs, but this new position is super cool. I will teach students with special needs, all grades, and will run classes in all 7 schools in the district. This job will end up changing everything about my experience of being alive but I won’t know this until 6 years in.

In the meantime, I find myself stuck in another crappy middle place professionally. You see, the psychological theories of child development, emotion, behavior, and personality I spent so much time researching are not helping me, quite the opposite. I have never had satisfactory outcomes while applying psychological theories through the years in my classroom management methods, but have always assumed the problem lied in me. I believed I was not understanding the theories or not applying the right ones at the right times. In this new middle place I am forced to accept I am a failure at figuring out Christianity, Catholicism, AND psychology. And trust me, I have also dabbled intensively in all manner of wisdom and spiritual traditions, western, eastern, and alternative New Age stuff. None of it has worked long term to help me out of my crappy middle places. What is wrong with me?

Around 2009 I decide to veer away from the theories of psychology and rely on my own reasoning for how to teach and manage my students. This mental action ends up doing two things. First, it causes me to wallow in anxiety and self-doubt. What if I’m messing students up by not relying on accepted psychological theories and practices? What if I am found out? Second, it causes me, almost forces me, to see completely new patterns for how human concepts, perceptions, predictions, emotions, and behaviors interrelate. I was not looking for new patterns but inadvertently found them! These new patterns will reveal themselves to me all at once in three years time.

Cut to February of 2012, year six and a half of teaching adaptive physical education to students with special needs ages 5 through 18. I have just thrown in the towel. I am done trying to fix myself. I am done trying to fix my relationships. I am 50 years old. If the gajillion things I’ve done to improve myself, my marriage, my relationships, and my teaching methods has not worked for thirty whole years, what will? The answer? NOTHING.

I decide my only choice is to quit looking for the magical SOMETHING that can help me, heal me, improve me. Instead, I settle for coping. I decide all I must do is cope just enough to fulfill my responsibilities as a mother and teacher. At this point, from the outside looking in, my life looks pretty wonderful. But on the inside I am the lonely, disconnected, modern person I was so afraid of becoming.

The obscuring fog of my new rainforest home becomes the backdrop of my disconnected life.

I desperately hope my love for my children will magically help them figure out the things I cannot. I pray my children do not have my intellectual defects because I want them to be more than I am. I am nothing. No, I am worse than nothing. I am irrelevant. Do I even exist in a real way?

Because I have decided to make NOTHING my dance partner and am done striving I decide to file for divorce.

My soon to be ex and I begin the paperwork. My older three are mostly raised up. My Keara is 13. I am on automatic pilot. Every morning I wake up in the literal and figurative fog, dress, put on my metaphorical blinders, and then do whatever it takes to get by.

Then in May of the same year, 2012, on a warm sunny day, I watch my student with a complex thinking style and complex learning needs solve a problem. The way my student solves his problem introduces me to a whole new reality.

Though tiny, the moment I had with my student is just long enough to help me escape my imprisonment.

What I see is subtle. It is conceptual. It is paradigm shifting. What I see causes me to understand my relationship to my own personal brain and body in a way I had no way of accessing previously. And what I see gives me my life back. What I see gives me the ability to sit in the driver’s seat of my personal brain and body for the first time in 50 long years. What I see allows me to repair my marriage and all close relationships. What I see allows me to shoot for the stars as a teacher and actually reach them.

What I see allows me to repair my marriage and all close relationships. What I see allows me to shoot for the stars as a teacher and actually reach them.

What I see seems like what others describe as a psychedelic LSD experience because during the experience I was transported to a different world with a kaleidoscope of new brighter colors, new comforting and empowering insights, new possibilities, and a surge of confidence. But unlike an acid trip, my new and improved reality never went away because my ‘drug’ never wore off. Acting on my brain was a ‘drug’ made out of concepts different than the ones I was raised with.

What did I see to alter my concepts so vastly and permanently?

NOTHING. NOTHING. NOTHING. NOTHING.

I SAW BEAUTIFUL NOTHING FLOATING EVERYWHERE AROUND ME.

The rules that had kept me imprisoned and in mental chains my whole life DO NOT EXIST.

The way I see it, the world in its raw state means NOTHING. The plants, the trees, the animals, the earth, the sun, the planets, the stars, the universe, none of them have inherent MEANING. They all have physical properties, but NOTHING and NO ONE has inherent meaning. Therefore, special experts have zero authority to tell me how to find or make meaning or whether or not the meaning I make is normal or abnormal. How I interpret information and make meaning is the very essence of who I am. If I allow someone else to dictate how I should make meaning in the world, I am nothing but an extension of that person’s brain and body.

The rules from experts on Catholicism, Christianity, Psychology, Spiritual and Wisdom Traditions, Yoga, Self-Help, and Alternative ideologies DO NOT EXIST. Rules are stuff humans have made up, but I never lived a moment of my life without having an authority speak to me as if he or she wasn’t channeling divine universal rules that exist somewhere in the ether. I spent my whole life trying to figure out these ‘rules’ and get things right only to realize at age 50 there is nothing to get right. There is also nothing to get wrong. There is just a big fat NOTHING everywhere.

The world never is or was responsible for imparting meaning to me and then making me comply with its inherent meaning. The world just is. The universe just is. Our brain is in us so we can make meaning out of our moment to moment experiences so we can survive and thrive. Our brains do not exist to help us measure up to some divine ideal fictional divinities and/or universal forces have allegedly set in motion.

Dictating specific rules for how humans are allowed to behave according to alleged deities and divine laws has been thus far the best strategy for organizing and controlling large groups of people since time out of mind. This strategy, or adaptation, is brilliant for group success, but not so much for individual mental health.

Psychologists and spiritual traditions have adopted the same template all religions have in order to control people. This template involves controlling people's thoughts and behaviors by defining what behaviors are normal vs. abnormal and moral vs. immoral by assuming everything has a predetermined meaning attached to it from the rocks and the trees to noncompliant behaviors. I believe it is time to explore new ways of organizing our human groups other than through divine or authority based meaning and behavior control, but that is for another narrative.

In my new reality, I have no more life-bosses. Heck, I don’t even do Yoga anymore if you can believe it! I must comply with the human-made laws of my city, state, and nation and do so happily. But I no longer have to comply with the rules of a god, gods, Freud, Jung, Swami Satchidananda, Wayne Dyer, or even Deepak Chopra! I am a free woman who has been catapulted out of a crappy, purgatory-like middle place. I no longer look to experts to tell me how to live my best life, and I exist as a true equal to everyone and everything around me. I understand in a concrete way I am, indeed, NOT NOTHING. I was BORN into NOTHING.

Relying on ethereal, vague, exploitative, ominous, predetermined rules for how to understand myself and my place in the world made me small, tiny, insignificant, a nothing. Relying on my own brain to make meaning while I am experiencing my life unfolding has made me big, expansive, significant, a something.

Upon researching the brain I have found the only option I have for changing anything about me is to change the concepts I have stored and memorized. When I was relying on concepts I had memorized from authorities and ideologies, I was stuck in an uncomfortable and confusing middle place. Now that I use my own concepts and simply take like as it comes I am free…and very, very happy because I am free to exist as I am, not as someone in history decided I should exist.

I am also much better off knowing the elements of life around me and in me have no inherent meaning, just inherent properties, because this means the sensations I experience inside my body also have no inherent meaning, just properties. This means I am 100% free to interpret my internal sensations however I want to. Furthermore, the idea psychologists can predetermine what all emotions and behaviors mean is a preposterous idea that has seriously misdirected our efforts to understand and promote mental health.

The only hiccup to my happiness is my new concepts make me different than many of my family members. I interpret everything differently now, thus I reach different kinds of conclusions and make different kinds of decisions. My family was more comfortable with me when I was as Catholic as I was Irish. They were more comfortable when they could easily predict what I would say and do. Now I am a bit of a mystery.

I was a pain in the arse when I first happened upon my new beliefs. Convinced I could change every single one of my family members to my way of seeing the world, I launched into a major campaign to do so. You can imagine how that went. But they didn’t shun me.

My family’s superpower, I would say, is that we fight to stay connected no matter how many small or epic battles we endure with one another. We always endure.

My family graciously accepted my changes in thinking even though I was not very gracious to them in the beginning of my conceptual revolution. Eventually I had a “Come to Jesus” talk with myself as my dad would say and decided if I wanted my family to accept my new beliefs respectfully I had to do the same.

“Tommy, I’m driving to Teriyaki Town, move to the passenger side,” I shout to my brother.

“No, Karen, there is no way I am letting you drive. You move over to the passenger side.”

“All right, go ahead and drive,” I say acquiescently.

Some things never change, but some things do. My brother Tommy and I would have argued to the death on such a point in our teens. But we have actually matured, so much so that during family occasions when we all attend Mass together, and I attend out of respect for my family, I can actually sit next to my brother without wrestling!

Karen Kilbane

Written by

My students with special needs have led me to develop a hypothesis for a brain-compatible theory of personality. Reach me at karenkilbane1234@gmail.com

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