Thursday, January 29, 2009


Does anyone, ever again, feel real joy?

I joined Facebook yesterday, and I am already having regrets. It is, so far, a place of almost unmitigated optimism and perkiness. And why not? Within a matter of hours I had 45 "friends," many of them from my high school years, and a membership in my high school graduating class's group. It's a lot of fun to see those faces and engage in a bit of conversation. A gigantic online reunion, at one's own pace.

But this morning I see that a woman I know ~ and like very much ~ has commented that "a week-end away at a friend's wedding always makes any couple overjoyed."

Well, no. It doesn't. We went to our niece's wedding a month after Chicago Son died. I'm glad we went; our presence meant a great deal to my brother, and the evening gave our other two children a break in the relentlessness of the first month's oppressive grief. (They stayed at the reception until the bitter end and went back to their uncle's house for the rest of the night. The Quiet Husband and I were long gone.) But for me? Close to unendurable. And now we are at an age where the weddings of children promise to be a regular feature in our lives. Our niece's was the third in as many months.

There is, I suppose, virtually no public event at which some of the attendees are not burdened by the demand to conceal pain, the expression of which at that time would at best be inappropriate, and at worst completely ruin the day for everyone else. Church is close to one of those. Last year I preached a sermon in my home church and, as I looked out at the congregation, saw Musical Friend, whose husband had died three weeks earlier; another friend who had just buried the father for whom she had cared tenderly for years; a couple whose 22-year-old son had suddenly died, and a man whose wife of 70 years was also recently gone from his life. Musical Friend tells me that she weeps through church every Sunday, but I know that she doesn't wail and keen the way she wants to. I seldom go, because my experience is similar.

When I read that woman's quote on Facebook, I was reminded of a day in church a few years ago ~ the occasion of her third son's baptism. After the service, she said happily to a group of us that she so looked forward to the years ahead, and to her three boys growing up in the church: there would be confirmation, and youth group, and so many other wonderful things
in which they would participate.

My own children having all opted out of church by middle school, I thought quietly to myself that her outspoken pleasure reflected the experience of a parent who had not yet encountered the adolescence of her children. I, too, had at one time imagined the delight that I would take in our family's church experience as our children grew up. Didn't happen.

And now, there she is on Facebook, bubbling over with joy at the wedding of friends. As she should, of course.

Maybe I am just jealous, since I cannot envision for myself what she takes for granted. Maybe I am just resentful at her casual assumption that "everyone" shares her outlook, since I imagine it to arise from an experience of life that has, so far, been uninterrupted by sudden tragedy. And maybe I am just wrong, and her gifts for overcoming sorrow are far greater than mine.

I don't know. But I do see that the world of Facebook presents the same challenges as the rest of the world.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kitchens and Phones

My first stepmother died suddenly, in an accident while she was on vacation. She had gone up to Chautauqua for a week in July with her daughter and youngest son, and her daughter's year old son. My father and brother-in-law were to join them at the end of the week, but she died the first night.

I had just graduated from high school and was living in a Cincinnati suburb with my maternal grandmother, so that I could enjoy a scintillating summer working as a hotel housekeeper. (No summer jobs in my small hometown 25 miles to the north.) My grandmother and her husband had gone to his lake cottage in Kentucky for the week-end, and so I was alone when my father called early on Saturday morning to tell me what had happened. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my white maid's uniform, eating cereal and listening to the radio, when the phone rang.

I changed to jeans and called my uncle who lived nearby to ask him to take me home. That uncle was the brother of my mother who had died ten years earlier. We made the drive in complete silence. At one point he started to cry, and I wondered to myself where he had been and what he had been doing when he got the call that his sister had died. For most of the rest of the morning, I sat in the kitchen of my family house and watched and listened as a neighboring farmer made phone calls. My father and grandparents moved like shadows in the background. I had the eery sensation that I was watching a scene that had been played out ten years earlier and for some incomprehensible reason was being duplicated. Nothing made sense. There was no love lost between my stepmother and me, but only days earlier we had been at the July 4th fireworks and now, her twelve-year-old son had found her body and people who seemed to know what to do were in my kitchen.

As I said in my last entry, I was four hours from home when my son died. A friend and her son came to get me, so that she could drive me back. We got home around midnight, and there were maybe 20 people on the porch and in my house, most of them in the kitchen. They had been there for hours, all afternoon and all evening, sitting with my husband and making phone calls. It seems that kitchens are the backdrop and telephones the props for the drama of loss.

Most of the people in my house had gathered together only months earlier when Musical Friend's Husband had died so suddenly. The additions were my own pastors, my CPE supervisor, and my brother, who had driven four hours and brought Gregarious Son home. For the next several days they would not leave us by ourselves, except for a few hours very late at night.

My grandmother's kitchen was very small. My father's was long and narrow. Musical Friend's is long and wide. Mine is big and square. We should probably keep candles at the ready in our kitchens at all times, so that we can mark them as the holy places of vigil they become when the phone rings with the news that our lives are no longer what they were.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blank Mind

Gregarious Son and I had dinner tonight with good, good friends. The son and Chicago Son were best friends for most of their growing up years. His mom is one of my very best friends. His dad has faced serious, almost impossible, health challenges for 15 years. The kind that remind you every day that there is nothing remotely fair about life.

In the kitchen, my friend and I talked about the day we learned that Chicago Son had died. I was on retreat, four hours from home. She says that I called and, seeing my name on the caller ID, she answered with delight. We had been meaning to get together for weeks. I said, "Are you alone?" and she immediately knew something was terribly wrong. He husband was out back, and so she said, "Just tell me," and I did.

"You were competely calm and articulate," she said. "And you asked me to go over to your house to be with your husband, and I said that I would go as soon as I got hold of my son. And then you just started screaming."

I don't remember that call at all.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Our Hands, Our Spirits

"Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." (Mark 3:1-6, NRSV)

How do we use our hands?

Pray As Yo Go, the website I often use for daily prayer, has been moving through a group of stories in the Gospel of Mark portraying a series of Jesus' run-ins with the Pharisees. One usual look at these stories centers on the debate over Jesus' healing activities on the Sabbath. Having spent six years teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school, in which all of life centers on the debate over how to follow to the letter and in every possible life circumstance and occasion the 613 legal requirements set forth in the Bible, I have a sense of the astonishment and outrage with which Jesus' conduct was met. For the Jewish people, the Torah is God's self-donation, the revelation of who God is and the means by which the mutually longed-for relatinship between God and humanity is effected, just as Jesus is God's self-donation and revelation and mediator for Christians. Jesus' violation of Torah Sabbath laws is serious stuff, going well beyond the seemingly simple question we tend to articulate in Sunday School, the one which implies its own answer: Isn't it better to heal someone than to ignore him?

In light of my CPE summer and our endless discussion of the relationship between physical and spiritual, and in light of my own life, I'm not much interested these days in the ongoing legal debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. I'm interested in the healing, and in this story I'm interested in the hands, in what we use them for and in why the healing of hands is so important.

We use our hands to care for ourselves. If you've ever injured a hand or had an arm in a sling or, God forbid, lost a hand or an arm, you know. The simplest of tasks -- bathroom tasks, kitchen tasks, laundry tasks, LAPTOP tasks -- requires a major investment of time, energy, and problem-solving skills to execute in the absence of both hands. Life for the man with the withered hand must have been a relentless challenge, sapping his own resources and exhausting the patience of everyone around him.

We use our hands to do things for others -- in our work, in our generosity. Office work, factory work. Nursing, baking, surgery, bandaging a skinned knee. Building a fire, vacuuming a rug, making a bed. Our lives in community presume our two-handedness. How many times did someone remove both work and a sense of value from the man with the withered hand by saying, "I'll take care of it?"

We use our hands for relationship. Shaking hands, making love, waving. Pats on the back. Reaching out in shared joy or sorrow. Had the man's withered hand made him more isolated, less able to participate in life with those he cared about?

A withered hand is like a withered spirit. When your spirit has been crushed it's hard to take care of yourself. Hard to care for others. Hard to be in relationship. Healing ~ whether of a hand or a spirit, whether of an injury visible or invisible ~ it's always about the same losses, always about recovery of self, of community, of relationship.

So no, I'm not much interested these days in whether or not Jesus worked on Shabbos. I'm interested in how pervasive injury is and in what healing means. I'm interested in the restoration of life in its wild and all-pervasive wholeness, and in what kind of miracle that requires.
(Image: St. Mark, Lindisfarne Gospels)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Toughing It Out

Be gentle, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.

~ Philo of Alexandria


I had some medical testing, female variety, this morning. I had postponed it for as long as I could ~ one of many appointments cancelled in the aftermath of our son's death.

Lovely, young, vibrant technician:
How many pregnancies? How many children?

Me, in the bathroom between tests, tears running down my face.

Driving home, thinking about the neighbors who became parents of triplets several years ago. Two of the babies died almost immediately. A couple at church lost all three of their triplets. A good friend has three children to show for six pregnancies. Gal, who writes so beautifully of her daughter's short life.

A lifetime ahead of questions. How many pregnancies? How many children?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Balancing Act

I have no idea which thing is the hardest, but one of them, surely, is that life moves on, even when someone we love is no longer here.

And yesterday was a momentous one. I spent much of it longing for Chicago Son, wishing he were here to enjoy and debate it with. (He had become quite the libertarian, influenced far too much by University of Chicago economics.) I wish he were here to discover how Barack Obama's presidency will unfold. I wish he were able to spend a week-end in Washington with me, as he did when he was an 8th-grader working on a bkack-and-white photography project and we tromped all over the city together.

It was a hard day.

I didn't watch the Inauguration at the actual time; I went to the seminary chapel service, for which the local Catholic bishop had long been scheduled to preach for the Week for Christian Unity. Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue being two of my priorities in my former life, I thought the least I could do was show up for his sermon.

And so I watched the Inauguration late in the afternoon, in the company of classmates and professors and, in spite of everything, I found myself cheering when the new President completed the oath of office.

Musical Friend commented last week that every change distances her a little more from her husband. She noted how difficult it was to see 2009 arrive, knowing that it is the first of the years in which he will never live. (In fact, as the ball dropped on New Year's Eve, she and I were sitting at a table in a friend's house, deeply engrossed in conversation. Everyone else was gathered around the tv and began to cheer, and we looked at one another and shrugged. Whatever.) This presidency is another of those changes. All of these new beginnings are so laden with sadness.

But ~ a new beginning it is, and one for which I do have hopes.

Congratulations, Mr. President.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Having Children

It was 25 years ago this month that my husband and I learned that we might be expecting twins.

We had waited awhile. My grandmother had told a friend, unbeknownst to me, that she despaired of my ever having children; she thought I had chosen a legal career over motherhood. Had she mentioned her concerns to me, I could have allayed her fears and, I suppose, added a new one. I was waiting until I turned 29, waiting to be through with 28, the age my mother had been when she was killed in a car accident. Talk about magical thinking ~ but what I did not know was that virtually everyone who loses a young parent thinks of the parent's age at death as a significant milestone, one which the child must pass before beginning to think of her life as her own.

We were in Albuquerque, I was about to turn 29, and I tossed the birth control pills. A year and a half later, the ultrasound depicted two small amniotic sacs, one with a heartbeat. "Don't get your hopes up," the doctor warned. "Often what looks like a second baby dissolves and vanishes." But four weeks later: two strong little hearts. May: two tiny boys. Late August: frantic medical practice. How could twins be overdue? Sepember 1: Perfection times two.

We were so lucky. So grateful. I never stopped being grateful. So sad, for what my mother and I had both missed. So aware of the gift of joy. So happy that we went ahead and welcomed the Lovely Daughter (and would have gone for more had not both my pregnancies been so physically gruelling).

The years did not pass easily. Three children in three years. A husband and father who traveled abroad frequently. You can fill in between the lines. Each of the children with significant challenges of his or her own. Each of them growing into a distinct individual, often apart but always intertwined. Our family.

And now one of them is gone.

I do not understand how this can possibly be my life.

I want him back.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Friends of Friends of Friends . . .

Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing,
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Is Far Too
Dangerous For That.

~ Rumi

I found this on the website of a woman who lost her tiny daughter last summer. She and her husband, a rabbinical student, had been living in Israel for his studies, but headed for California when it was discovered that their unborn child needed extraordinary medical care. She is the friend of a friend who lives in St. Louis. Rumi is, of course, a Sunni Muslim poet of the 13th century. He lived in Persia (today's Iran). I am a Presbyterian seminary student. I live in the midwest.

When loss is profound, boundaries melt away.

Friends of friends of friends.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Just How It Is

Long telephone converstion with Musical Friend this morning, initiated by me because I owe her some money. Some of our friends started a book club this month, and I asked her how it had gone. I was at a bereavement support group instead. Turns out she didn't go either. "No one wants to read the books I'm reading," she said.

At the moment she's reading The Year of Magical Thinking, and I urged her to suggest it to the group. "Maybe it will help them understand, " I said.

We talked about how hard it is to endure conversations in which the most ordinary fragments feel like the twisting of a knife. She has a father-daughter event ahead of her; her son will escort her daughter, and her husband's absence will be all the more painful as she watches the other men and their pride in the young ladies. I reflected on holiday conversations with friends concerned about children driving home. Children who are alive. And of course, we agreed, you can hardly expect people not to live their lives.

I have the weather channel on as I type, and a photo of the White House just appeared, along with commentary on how cold Inauguration Day will be. My heart sank. It was so difficult to watch the Election Night celebration in Grant Park, a place we had been several times with Chicago Son. It has been hard to see photos of the Obama family in Hyde Park. I had managed to block out the Inauguration, and now I see how challenging those images will be, all of them reminding me of a Presidents' Day week-end family trip to DC many years ago when a blizzard was followed by temperatures topping out in the teens. I see Chicago Son bundled up against the cold outside the White House, in line at the Washington Monument, posing for pictures before the Lincoln Memorial.

I hope that I can find a way to enjoy some of the week ahead. But mostly I just want it over.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I am not the most organized person on the planet, and in order to accomodate that unfortunate reality I make lots of lists, and lists of lists.

One of my sets of lists is that of the folders listed in my Favorite Places on my computer. You probably have the same thing. I have four folders for different categories of blogs. I have folders for Presbyterian and Catholic and Jesuit and other spirituality stuff. Folders named preaching and poetry and books and prayer. Travel and icons and health. The only other apparent organizing principal for my Favorites is the alphabet.

I am thinking about this because I just found a website that looks promising, and I added it to the folder I started in September and named Death, because I was not up to subcategorizing that particular category.

Maybe it's time. That folder now has links to 30 websites.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Finally a Sunrise

I am sitting in bed, listening to today's Pray as You Go and watching the sunrise out my third floor window. Purpley-blue clouds have layered themselves above the horizon, but just at its edge, behind the two tall steeples of the church in the distance, the light of the coming sun streaks across the sky in a deep yellow.

When I came to seminary last year, I was assigned a room on the other side of the hallway, which provided me with some spectacular sunsets, visible in fragments through the massive trees out front ~ but those same trees blocked out the light each morning. The first time that I happened to visit someone across the hall early in the day, I realized that I needed to make a move. As a morning and sunlight-affected person, I struggled to get up each day in the dreariness of the western side of the building while, just steps away on the eastern side, my friend's room was filled with light.

And so here I am. When I arrived in December, the first task I accomplished was to move the furniture around into a rather odd arrangement that permits me to see out the huge set of windows from my bed. I thought that even if I didn't feel like moving from the bed, which is usually the case these days, I would still be able to see the sunrise. But then the weather proceeded to defeat my modest goal, offering precipitation in one form or another every single morning that I have been in town.

Until today. As I finish writing, the clouds have largely overtaken the sky and the yellow light is considerably muted, except for the miniscule hyphen that is the sun itself, just peeking over the horizon. But it has been a very good 20 minutes. The sadness never leaves, but the light tries to break through.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Four Monday Things

I hear from a young woman in Chicago, who tells me that another young woman, a former colleague of my son's, is resigning from her job. She says that she is doing so, in a way, for him; she wants to put aside the neatly packaged life she had planned and find what she deeply desires to do.

I venture into church and run into a couple I have not seen there before; she is the secretary at the Montessori school my children attended through eighth grade. I express my surprise at seeing her, and she tells me that she and her husband were so impressed by the funeral service that they have been coming ever since. Their eyes fill with tears as they hug me.

The ground is covered with a foot of snow. Far below, a few bulbs left over from years gone by are pondering whether to shoot upward and emerge when the sun shines again and warms the earth.

My lower back aches and so do my joints. My body has no flexibility whatever, no memory of smooth and graceful movement.

We all respond as we can.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Self Portrait

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong -- or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying "This is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.

~ David Whyte, Fire in the Earth

©1992 Many Rivers Press

(Found this over at Purple.)
(And the image here.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Open to Learning New Things

My last post reflected some of the resistance generally characteristic of my life.

In my CPE program at Famous Giant Hospital last summer, we spent a lot of time talking about whether and how physical ailments reflect spiritual ones. One of the more memorable conversations concerned a patient in the hospital for weeks that expanded into months as his heart disease moved a transplant from unlikely possibility to suggestion to top-of-the-list recommendation to reality. "Listen to his story," urged my supervisor. "Look for the ways in which his heart has been broken." As, indeed, it was, with its pieces littering the last decade of his life.

Another one: a patient in for something else but plagued by intestinal problems of the type faced by many of us whose lower GI tract tends to reflect our emotional lives. "Yeah, his s--t, both metaphorical and literal, is all backed up one minute and the next, it's all over the floor. What do you suppose that means?"

So when I say that I haven't had to deal with the connection between body and spirit on a deeply personal level, I don't mean that I know nothing about it from an analytical and intellectual standpoint. I mean that I have never had to address it personally, or have resisted doing so.

No more.

I want to make a change, and by that I don't mean that I merely want to acknowledge and accept the ways in which my bodily physical life expresses my interior life of emotion and spirit and soul. I don't want to limit myself to gazing at the s--t all over the floor after the fact.

I want to find ways in which to open and extend and expand my physical self so that it can anticipate and support my spiritual self.

I wish that Beautiful Ballet Dancer lived here. Maybe she would know what to do. I wish that the yoga studio in which a friend and I spent an evening last summer offered something less than an NFL-level workout. I wish that I could touch my calves when I bend over.

It's going to be a long process. But I need to move from these cramped spaces, the interior one that makes my brain hurt and the exterior one that makes my back hurt. Maybe trying to reverse the order will help.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Learning Things

Until the past four months, I really did not have a deep personal understanding of how intimately our bodies and spirits are interwoven with one another. Grief brings with it exhaustion, sleeplessness, too much sleep, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches ~ sometimes I feel like my body is 100 years old.

Some conversations over the past 36 hours have cracked open some new possibilities of vision. Three completely different contexts, and yet a unity in what I heard.

But ~ oh ~ the lower back pain is relentless.

Western medicine being of little help in this regard, I decided to google "chakras + lower back pain." The website I surveyed says that the issues connected with the first chakra, located at the base of the spine, are "survival, stability, acceptance, self-preservation, deep-rootedness, perception, grounding, fear and safety."

Of course.


The image can be found here. I rather like its precise depiction of the pain, although I'm not at all sure that that was the artist's intention.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Expressing Condolences

Last night I received an email from a friend, writing to say that the teenage son of business acquaintances had died suddenly in the night. She added that she was astonished by some of the stupid things people have written on the funeral home's website page for condolence notes.

It is not, not for me and not for anyone else willing to think about it, difficult to imagine that first encounter with a beloved son's lifeless body.

My friend didn't ask, but I am a little crazy these days, and so I blundered right ahead and offered her two suggestions, elaborated below for anyone who fears (which should be all of us) doing or writing something stupid at such a time:

1. Make a note on the calendar for three months, four months, five, six months from now, so that you can send a note or stop by when most everyone else is gone.

There is a woman from my church who has written me a paragraph or two every ten-to-fourteeen days for the last four months. Not a pastor, not a deacon (one of the people officially in charge of such things in our church structure), not a BFF. A woman whom I know a little from vaious contexts and who has taken it upon herself to take the time to let me know that she is thinking of us. Often I can't digest the words, but someday I will be able to and, in the meantime, the very fact of her concern and intentionality about it is registering as remarkable and considerate.

2. The words of condolence, whether written or spoken? Say something specific about the gifts or adventures or life of the person who has died, and convey in some way your knowledge, whether first or eighth-hand, that he or she was a joy to the people who loved him or her. Unless you are at least 150% certain about how your words will be received, this is not the time to share whatever convictions you may have about God's plan or purpose or goodness ~ especially where a young person has died, or a person has died after much suffering, or a person has died sudddenly and unexpectedly, or in pretty much any situation at all. Even someone whose life has been an endless demonstration of certitude and conviction of faith may be rocked to the core by the loss of a loved one, and assurances that might have seemed helpful in the abstract can be heard much differently in the starkness of concrete reality.

The very best words I have received, some by email and some in person, have come from college and work friends of my son - filled with stories and conversations, expressing their own doubts and confusion and terrible, terrible sense of loss -- but always in concrete terms, always accompanied with illustrations and memories, both humorous and haunting. Those 20-somethings could teach the rest of us well.

I hope that people remind my friend's friends, again and again this week, and again and again months from now, that their son lit up this world with his life and love.

(Cross-posted at Search the Sea)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Next "Stage"?

Thankfully the theory of rigidly defined "stages of grief," helpful as it was when the study of bereavement was in its infancy, has long since been discarded for a more accurate understanding of what is probably called somewhere the spiral(s) of grief.

Last night, trying to understand my experience of the past couple of days, I tried to subject it to some cold, quantitative analysis. I realized that the terrible, huge, and seemingly unpredictable waves of sorrow that wash over me occur with some regularity, probably every hour or so. I can be doing anything ~ sitting in class, engaged in conversation, eating with friends, folding laundry ~ and suddenly I am completely overwhelmed by a tidal wave of anguish. I would guess that most of the time no one in the my vicinity has any idea. I suppose there are those who notice that I am quieter than usual, but they don't know that I am wondering whether I will survive to the next minute.

Musical Friend, whose husband died nine months ago, says she is just sick and tired of how she feels. I agree with her on occasion, but most of the time I'm not far enough into it yet to see out of it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Epiphany Sunday

(Chartres Cathedral)

It's Epiphany Sunday: the celebration of the journey of the three wise men. I did not go to church today, for a variety of reasons, so I missed the march of the three kings down the center aisle, the ponderous song, the elaborate costumes, the sermons about gift-giving, the reminders that the kings were probably astrologers from the place we know as Iran and that the story, which appears only in the gospel of Matthew, focuses largely on portents of doom in its emphasis on Herod and its funereal gifts. I missed, most of all, the ritualistic end of a difficult season.

But I am thinking about it, and what I am thinking about is Wisdom. What was it that made those men wise, and why are we so taken with the idea that wise men, as well as angels and shepherds, showed up in response to the arrival of the infant Jesus? Whether anything of the sort actually happened is beside the point; the question has to do with the role of Wisdom.

It's a personal question for me this year. Many people have, in writing and speaking to me, made reference to the wisdom that emerges from sorrow. The reality, though, is that wisdom is not a guaranteed by-product of heartbreak. In fact, other possibilities seem more likely: alcoholism, drug abuse, self-absorption, loss of direction, and various other forms of decline. We all know people who in response to great loss have frozen into fear and immobility, or have spent decades acting out the inner experience of deprivation and chaos. And. if you think about it, how many people of deep wisdom do you know? The number is a very, very small one. In fact, to know one or two such people at any stage of life is a great gift.

And so I've been thinking about the wise men, who paid attention to a shift in the heavens, whose curiousity got them moving, who travelled a long way togther, who were undeterred by the politics along the way and unabashed by the poverty of their destination , who brought gifts no mother would welcome, and whose experience altered their route home.

Wherein wisdom? In the initial attentiveness and curiosity? In the experience of hardship in community? In the refusal to succumb to challeges that might have undone them? In the intuitive knowledge of a shadowy future? In the willingness to give? In the recognition that a change in the road home was required? In surviving to tell the story?

Wisdom. Elusive.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Extremes (Two of Them, Anyway)

. . . grace rarely comes as a gentle invitation to change. More often than not it appears in the form of an assault, something we first are tempted to flee.


Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter.

~ Beldon C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (1998)


I don't know whether I agree with either of these two statements or not. I would like to. But I find that everything is up for reassessment these days.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ashes to Ocean (Again)

I waded up to my waist into the warm waters surrounding the Florida Keys last week and scattered some of my son's ashes into the path cast by the sunlight across the Atlantic. An osprey soared overhead and the gentle swells of water carried some of him into the ocean he loved all his life.

After our son's death and the cremation of his body, we had to learn about the disposition of ashes. I discovered that some people, from a variety of faith traditions, are opposed to cremation for religious reasons, and some have no problem with cremation but insist that the ashes should remain together in one container and location. We were in neither of those camps, and knew that we wanted to leave our son's remains in a place or places meaningful to him. In that regard, the most helpful stories came from a woman whose friends had scattered some of her husband's ashes along the his favorite marathon route, and another who has found comfort in taking small amounts of her son's ashes with her to leave in various spots to which she has travelled around the globe. She was also the source of sound advice about how to manage the task discretely when travel is involved. Such were among the conversations in which we were engaged last September, in the funeral home, in meetings with my spiritual director, and around our kitchen table, and they helped us learn how to connect past and present into an unexpected and unwanted future.

We had first taken our boys to Florida when they were three months old. My grandparents had rented a house for the winter in Vero Beach, but my grandfather had become extremely ill. He was alert during the days and was able to spend that one of the last few weeks of his life enjoying his new great-grandsons. At night, however, he would succumb to the predations of dementia, and I would lie awake on the king-sized bed in the guest room next to his, where I was often alert at odd hours, as I was nursing two babies, and listen sadly to his confused ramblings. During the daytime he knew that it was 1984 and that Christmas was coming; late at night he was usually under the impression that it was the 1930s and thought he needed to get up and go to work.

That week was a chilly and windy one, so the photographs of the boys' first outings to the beach show a family of four bundled up in sweaters and hats. The next year we instituted our two decades of annual sojourns to St. Augustine, where we generally had better luck with the weather. A long sequence of photos shows my sons' growth from year to year, in and out of the Atlantic Ocean every spring. Lively toddlers, ecstatic first-graders, serious fifth-graders, long-haired middle schoolers, soccer-playing high schoolers, languid college students. When Chicago Son was a senior in high school, his first serious girlfriend joined us there for an unexpected trip at New Year's, and we took fireworks out to the beach for a midnight celebration. We were last there all together the next summer; after that college and summer job schedules took their inevitable toll on extended family vacations. I had hoped that he and Beautiful Ballet Dancer would meet us there last winter, but that was not to be.

The beaches of Florida are the locus of some of my best memories ~ times with my mother, long gone; times with the grandparents who cared for me so attentively after her death, times with my own children. And so I took my son's ashes there, to the ocean into which he had dashed so fearlessly as a child and to the waves into which he had dived over and over and over again as a young man, and I watched part of him merge with the salt and the water and the sunlight.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Several weeks ago, I told someone that it feels as if I am standing somewhere in the desert wilderness, alone and dwarfed by unnavigable emptiness and windless silence.

Others would no doubt describe the experience differently. I can offer only a little of my own truth about it. I can tell only parts of my own story. I can say only: This is some of what it is like for me in the year after the one in which my son died.

Ansel Adams