Every month, I get to visit the South Pacific, the Caribbean Basin, an offshore oil rig, and the South Atlantic. All without leaving Galveston Bay.
I volunteer as a diver-in-training at a local aquarium attraction. For four to eight hours every month, I scrub tanks and cut up squid to feed the fish, sea turtles, and sharks that live in them.
Because I’m still in training, I haven’t gotten to actually dive. The work on land, however, gives me time to meditate, to reflect. It takes about an hour to polish clean the acrylic tanks of the South Pacific, an hour of watching a rainbow of fish question my presence outside their world… and an hour of smiling at Chloe.
Like me, Chloe is an interloper. She’s not from the South Pacific. She’s a Gulf Coast Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and she’s paralyzed from the turtle-waist down. In the ’90s, she lost a fight with a boat propeller and suffered a wound to her shell and body that left her unable to use her hind flippers. Because she can’t navigate well without those flippers, she can’t live in the wild, so she finds herself here in this little South Pacific paradise.
As I’ve watched her, I haven’t been able to avoid certain (I admit it) cliché comparisons of her life to mine and of her world to that of the Church.
I got hit with my own propeller when I was in my teens. My parents got a messy divorce that left me on my own without anyone concerned about where I’d be going or what I’d be doing. I started college a little early at 16, and by the time I was 18, found myself with no funds, no guidance, and no plan.
Unable to think of a better option when my parents took off for distant cities, I stayed on the West Coast and moved onto a 29-foot sailboat (slips were cheap back then!) and worked the cash register at a marine-supply store.
And I started asking questions. I went to church for the first time, exploring esoteric Protestant teachings, faith healing, and this crazy idea that you could fix things, get help, and find comfort in prayer.
It was all a little bit nuts. Too nuts to rely on or give too much credence to. So I kept willing myself into my future, finding a job coaching sailing, saving money to go back to school, and earning an undergrad degree in Hawai’i. (Hey, I said I lacked money, guidance, and faith — I didn’t say I suffered!)
The whole time, I kept hearing these questions: What’s it mean? Why does it matter? Who am I? You know these questions — I’m betting you’ve heard them, yourself. Probably a lot.
They got louder after I graduated and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to return to coaching and to continue being broke (think early tech bubble + sailing-coach salary — it was really hard to make rent).
When the transmission went out on my car and I couldn’t afford to fix it, I shoved myself into another change: I took the LSAT and applied to law school. I found myself in the Rust Belt after a law-school dean asked me to come check out his school and said a scholarship could make my financial worries go away for a while.
God looked down, I suppose, and saw I was ready to be rescued — to be moved from the gulf where I was swimming in circles because of my busted-up flippers — and put in a safe, beautiful habitat. Fittingly, the move began in the spring.
I spent a lot of time in Hawai’i, but I’d still put money on the Midwest as hosting World’s Best Springtime. It has to do with the depth of color — the greenness of the grass, the blueness of the sky. The flyover states make up for the dirty-white-monochrome of their winters with this other-worldly technicolor processing come May.
One day I somehow got swept into a line of kids carrying flowers to a statue of Mary for the May crowning. Having missed out on the real mother thing myself, I felt a little weird, dizzy. For some reason — one I wouldn’t understand for another couple years — I had this sense of being loved, of having a place, of having… a mom.
Something changed: I found what I was searching for in the Church. It would take those coming years, a lot of reading (from Plato’s Gorgias, to St. Edith Stein on feminism, to the Catechism), and a few patient witnesses, but a little before Easter during my last year of law school, I stood in front of the bishop to complete my initiation.
Even after all the study and soul searching and realizing I’d found Truth, though, it still wasn’t easy — it cost something. My dad later told me that the worst day of his life was the day he discovered I’d converted to Catholicism. That fact alone indicates that this was a hard choice for me to make.
But when that water poured over me, when that oil rested on my forehead at the Easter vigil, I knew. For one quick instant, I was a saint. (If you’re not a convert, imagine receiving all those sacraments at once: baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion — for that tiny sliver of your life, you’re clean.)
It’s been over a decade now, and I still know. Yep, I’m decidedly not a saint, but I have the truth. Like Chloe, I have my safe, South Pacific refuge — a Church of forgiveness and redemption. A home.