Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Return to me with your whole heart. That was the line from Joel 2:12 that I heard early Wednesday morning.

Your whole heart, I thought? What can that mean, when your heart is not whole?

My heart is shattered.

It lies in tiny shards all over the ground.

Its jagged pieces spin into space, floating past Jupiter like lost little pilgrims.

Its dusty bits float on the oceans, bits of ash, sparkling grimly in the sunlight and filtering slowly downward, into the darkness where oddly luminescent sea creatures chart paths we can barely imagine.

One might want to turn to God again. The word metanoia slides off the tongue. It sounds graceful, and hopeful. But if God's desire is for a whole heart, if one can turn toward God only with an intact heart, then one is surely lost.

Late last night I turned to the passage in another version. Return to me with all your heart. Of course, I had known, in some small and isolated portion of my mind, that "whole" meant "all." I had known that in my own broken heart the response to what seemed a play on words but was really a conundrum of translation reflected my own longing for wholeness.

Your heart. In Biblical Judaism, the seat of your being. The essence of who you are.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. So end the readings for the day, with the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:21.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful sermon about the treasure in the field. (The Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew has a lot to say.) The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Why does he purchase the entire field; why doesn't he just dig up the one section? The treasure, she concludes, is scattered in plain sight, glittering all over the field.

Your heart accompanies your treasure and so there it is,

strewn across the field, scattered across the universe, mixed with the salt of the sea.

Return to me with your whole heart.

Return to me with the gift of a heart so cracked open that that in its wholeness it encounters brokenness everywhere.

Return to me with all of your heart.

You will find its pieces in places to which you would never have sought to journey on your own.

It is, indeed, an appalling thing, the strange mercy of God.

Ash Wednesday, Late

Our service was beautiful. Somber. Almost ethereal.

But not, of course. Not ethereal. Our pastor burned a palm branch he had picked up on the Temple Mount two weeks ago.

And then I found that I could not receive ashes. I simply could not do it.

Because I have ashes. Upstairs in my house.

Ash Wednesday Prayer: Even Among These Rocks


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Bless├Ęd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

(from T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Where Love Goes

You cannot conceive...nor can I or anyone -- the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.
~ Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.
~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


Two writers, both of whom in their work explore that portion of the landscape of the Christian religion ignored by those who prefer to pass the whole thing off as a saccharine enterprise of love unadulterated by reality ~ I suppose it's time to stop dabbling and read their entire corpora of work.

The experience of the cross is a bitter and bleak one. The invitation to accompany Jesus there is a window into an unsettling and strangely brilliant universe.


I am working hard on understatement here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I may have mentioned that I had a few medical tests a month ago.

I finally gave in and called for the results today. The doctor has to call tomorrow and tell me what I might do next, but the nurse read the report over the phone and spelled the big words and told me what they meant.

They didn't sound very exciting to me. They sounded like things that should probably be clarified sooner rather than later, and that might require some attention someday.

But I did look them up online. There were the usual medical board postings which included some slightly hysterical posts and some generally reassuring posts.

I find it difficult to churn up much interest in what any of it means.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Wayne has three friends who have recently suffered the deaths of young adult sons. I am one of those friends. He asked about the next one: should he share this blog with her? I told him to go ahead, but that he might want to mention it again in a few months, as she will probably remember little of what he says right now.

I leave out a lot, of course. This is only a little blog, and I write because writing is one way that I process things. But I don't want to scare people with the fierceness of grief. Someone commented on
Kat's blog recently that she has never experienced a major loss. Oh, I thought to myself, she lives in such a different universe. When she sees the moon, or the sun, or a dragonfly, it looks completely different to her than it does to me.

I had known that before. My brother and I talked the other day about how our basic orientation, formed as the small survivors of the automobile accident that took the lives of others, is toward a universe of chaos and treachery. But the last months have been a reminder of just how much courage one needs to muster for the daily encounter.

I am rather musterless. I cannot listen to Vivaldi anymore. I tried Tschiakovsky's Fifth Symphony the other day ~ that's gone, too. At least as I used to understand it.

But (rousing myself again), I did think, after Wayne posted about the most recent death in his circle of friends, that I might share this. This has helped. A Jesuit friend sent me a bookmark a couple of weeks ago. The sculpture is The Creation of Adam, from the north portal of Chartres Cathedral (which he knows to be my favorite place). Think of your son resting on the knees of a loving God, he wrote. Another Jesuit looked at it and said, And you can also think of God re-creating your son. Yes, I said, that occurred to me, too.

You do not have to see it as the re-creation of a young man. You might see instead the re-creation of a young woman, or a baby girl, or a mother or a husband or a sister or an older parent ~ all of them represented by the links on my sidebar.

I don't know whether it helps. I don't pretend to know what might. But to does seem to me that the gentle caress of a loving and infinitely creative and hopeful God is a possible response to the chaos that threatens to engulf us. And so: the Chartres portrait, sculpted by an unknown artist 740 years ago. It's what I have to offer today.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I am down in the southwest corner of the state, where I have come for tomorrow's funeral for my second stepmother's mother. I'm in my brother's living room, using his laptop ~ awake, as usual, long after everyone else.

Earlier this evening I spent about an hour at the visitation. I had forgotten to take into account that it might be difficult to be in a funeral home.

Lots of family there, people I have known my entire life. I had also forgotten to take into account that everyone would look different to me than they did six months ago. It's not them, of course. It's my vision. It's like looking out at a world populated by aliens. But the alien, I suppose, is me.

It's hard to explain. But my entire orientation has shifted. I stood there making small talk with my lawyer uncle and his son, my lawyer cousin, about the worldwide economic situation, and my cousin acknowledged several times, in deference to my new reality, that we need to keep things in perspective. How would we do that? I wondered to myself. My half-brother is also a lawyer, and I am a lawyer. Maybe if we got all of us into one place, we could figure out what kind of perspective we should have.

After the funeral tomorrow there will be a Methodist church luncheon. The last time I went to an after-the-funeral-luncheon-in-a-rural-church was four years ago, after my third-stepmother died. The church ladies had produced dozens of the most amazing pies and cakes.

Banana cream pies after a funeral. I'm trying to figure out what that might mean. And also the economy. And death, the relentless predator.

I wonder how the people who survived the medieval plagues retained their sanity. I'm betting that it was an elusive commodity.

The Orthodox Know How to Do This

No social events for a year? Yeah, I wish that were our rule.

When I taught in an Orthodox Jewish school and one of the teachers couldn't go to any social events, including a wedding, for an entire year after her father died, the practice seemed a bit extreme to me. When I talked to one of the administrators last year after his wife's death, it seemed about right for him as an adult, but awfully hard on his son, a former student of mine, who was not going to have much contact with friends outside of school for the end of his junior and most of his senior year.

Now that I am in this place, a year seems barely enough time. Every invitation is fraught with complications. I know that friends do not understand how it is that an informal Saturday night gathering can seem burdensome, or how we can decide to skip the celebrations of major milestones in the lives of others. How I wish we had an official rule, one that marked at least this first year as off limits, as a time of encasement in a cocoon of grief not to be invaded by either the trivial or the momentous.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

They Swam Away

You should go over to the sidebar, click on A Slow Read, and take a look at the entry about the Midmar Mile.

It reminded me of a piece on NPR several years ago in which a woman reviewed her career as a swim meet mom. During the early years, she said, the moms all sat on the edges of their seats, and each one knew her child's rankings and times to the second. As the years passed, the friendships became much more important than the competition, and the moms visibly relaxed, finding much more to talk about than ribbons and medals, and re-discovering the things that are really important in life.

Now: a new stage. When some children have become ill or been seriously injured, and some children have died, the recognition of what is important shifts again. When there are mothers who look at the water and see only the swimmers who once were, the water changes color for everyone.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ways to Try

The thing about healing is that the waters are always choppy.

(I keep forgetting that I sort of committed to switching metaphors as I switch blogs. It's the other one where the ocean is paramount. This one is desert. OK. I'll start over.)

The thing about healing is that the desert journey is strewn with impediments: slippery gravel and little rocks and huge boulders. Most of them in unexpected places. The big rocks literally drop down in front of you, like meteorites spun off from an unknown planet and appearing out of nowhere, landing with an unwelcome thud.

It has been my great joy to be one of
Michelle's correspondents on her 30-day retreat. The other night, I decided to go ahead and try to reserve space for a week-long retreat of my own next summer. I could go back to Guelph, which I loved two summers ago, but I'm not much in the mood these days for repeating past experiences. I sort of had in mind to try Wernersville, which friends here have raved about, and which would give me an opportunity to meet Wayne and Michelle en route. And Eastern Point, where Michelle is, has long been a dream of mine, but it's a considerable distance away.

Turns out that Wernersville offers no weeklong retreats that fit my schedule and Eastern Point is booked. I went ahead and filled out the registration form for the waiting list, and that about did me in. Big meteorite thudding to the ground:

The emergency contact questions. There are only a couple of them ~ name and phone number. But we all know that we only fill in those blanks just in case, right? We would never actually need to make use of them.

Last year I was on retreat in Michigan when the call came. I had been there since the previous morning, and I had met with my spiritual director twice. It was unbelievably hot that week and so I had spent much of the afternoon in the air-conditioned library, stretched out on a lusciously soft couch which, aranged as it was back to back with another couch, made me invisible to anyone who might happen to glance into the library, as the secretary did when she looked for me after the emergency call came in. Toward the end of the day I wandered back to my room and saw the note on the door. I was disturbed ~ no one would call you, and there would be no notes on your door, not during a silent retreat, unless there was an urgent need to contact you ~ but I wasn't horrified. Not until I reached my husband five minutes later.

And so I was by myself, on a cell phone in a small motel-like room in the silence of a retreat center, when I learned that my son was gone. I can see myself standing there as if I had seen myself in a movie. I can see every detail of that room. I can remember exactly what the air felt like as I stepped back outside.

Little wonder that my hands shook yesterday as I typed my husband's name and phone numbers into the appropriate blanks on the Eastern Point registration form. But I typed them anyway.

I was going to write, just now, that the enterprise of spiritual direction has a lot to do with hope. But then I realized: of course it does ~ because hope is the ground of our spiritual lives.

Completing that form, down to typing in the emergency numbers ~ an act of hope. A kick, however small and ineffective, at that damn meteorite.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ways to Heal

A seminary friend of mine said something wonderful to me this afternoon.

I was describing the process by which I had decided to go ahead and try to take a required homiletics (preaching, for those of you not immersed in ministry-ese) course next quarter. A demanding course that presumes something in the way of optimism. I had had lunch with the professor a couple of weeks ago so that I could explore his expectations and convey a little of the reality of my own situation. (The one in which, for instance, I can't remember anything five minutes after reading or hearing it.)

It might actually help you, said my friend.

Yeah, that's what the professor said, and that's what he said, I responded, jabbing my thumb in the direction of another classmate.

Well, she said, you'll be studying and preparing and giving expression to the Word. How could that not be healing?

If you're reading, thank you for that. It was worth our both being late to wherever we were going.
Cross-Posted at Search the Sea.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Five Months

Tonight I looked over much of what I have written here and on Search the Sea and I thought, Yes, this is pretty accurate. I think that this is what I would have to say if I ever lost a child.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Abode of Grief: Fewer Hours, Condensed Time

I used to live long, wide, and spacious days.

I would often be outdoors and walking three or four miles by 6:00 a.m. I worked hard all day and well into the evening. I was a teacher, I was a graduate student, I was a church committee chair. I was often asked to do things that required advance preparation. (Will you make this quick presentation on Sunday? a friend would ask. I know it doesn't take you any time at all. Look how easy that last one was. And my eyebrows would go up. Those two minutes? At least two hours of advance writing and revising and practice. But it looked so easy, he would say. That's how it's supposed to look.)

And I had three children in college, all of whom filled my thoughts and dreams and hopes, every day, every night. When they were small I would call home three, four times a day, just to find out what they were up to. When they were in college I would glance at my watch and think, it's noon in Chicago and 1:00 in Columbus and 9:00 a.m. in Oregon. Is he in class, is he at work, is she even awake?

And I had energy for myself, and energy for God. Lots of energy for reading and writing and breakfasts with friends. Lots of space in my life for prayer and journaling. Time seemed so full and yet so expansive.

Now. Now it is nearly 9:00 am and I am just getting up. I was awake three hours ago but I knew that would make for too many hours in the day and so I went back to sleep. I will be up late into the night because I won't be able to sleep then.

Now I have to pace myself carefully. I am doing things: going to class, studying, writing papers, working with a couple of people, planning for the future. Each takes so much energy and requires so much recovery time. I forget what I've focused on within five minutes of reading or hearing it. I look at notes and say to myself: We had an entire lecture on that? I lose everything, little things and really important things. I stumble across them later and can't imagine how they landed in the place they did. I write papers and have no idea whether they bear any resemblance to what is expected. I make schedules for accomplishing things and then I stare into space.

I am still writing thank-you notes. The cost of each one is so high. Only a few lines, but each reminds me of something else ~ a relationship, an occasion in the past, someone else entirely whose claim on my time is perhaps more urgent. I did not know, before, that when I received an acknowledgment from someone for flowers or words offered in a time of sorrow, that the note itself might represent a morning's work. Or a week's.

People send me emails and cards and books and little packages. Some of the things written by certain people fill my thoughts for hours, for days. They become little prayers, flickering sources of connection to other people, to the universe, to God.

I think about my lost son all of the time, as I have for 25 years. My brain tissue has grooves worn in it, and I cannot stop thinking of someone just because he is not here at all. But his absence fills every crevice of my life and makes impossible demands on my imagination. I keep waiting for time to go backward so that we can pick up where we left off.

I think about my other children and my son's girlfriend all the time, too. I want to wrap my arms around them all and take care of them forever and in a way that will enable them to heal. What does that even mean? I have a long scar smack down the middle of my stomach, from the car accident when I was seven. (No scans in those days to reveal ruptured spleens, which I turned out not to have.) It was a distraction during my bikini days, it stretched to accomodate a twin pregnancy, and then another one, and now it looks as crumpled and faded as you might expect. I don't notice it. But this jagged scar, the one which all these young people have to carry into adult life? How much time before it fades? There is nothing clean and precise about it; all those jagged edges seem more like tentacles than boundaries.

I have been writing this piece off and on for a couple of days. Not an original thought in it. And yet, like everything else, it has sapped hours and energy. I had not realized that time and energy were so closely entertwined, and not in any way that makes sense.

(Image: Picasso's Blue Nude.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Found Things

Found this on the site of someone I love very much:

The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost.

~A. Schopenhauer