But you know, in the end, it really isn't much about water or walking thereon. It's more about this, as one of the more recent commentaries (that would be Luz) says:
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
But you know, in the end, it really isn't much about water or walking thereon. It's more about this, as one of the more recent commentaries (that would be Luz) says:
Sunday, April 26, 2009
A mystifying act.
It doesn't matter whether the means involves a gun, a tall building, a car crash, a bottle of pills. A suicide is an act of violence against the human body, against the human person, against the universe. An act of opposition to the goodness of all creation.
How does one absorb the reality, an act of violence in and against a life characterized by peacefulness and gentleness, and its relentless invasion into the lives of all who knew him?
As a little boy, my son collapsed, sobbing, into my arms when his beloved box turtle died. His earliest letters reflected his delight in creation ~ the letter to us describing the skunk family crossing the green on which his entire summer camp community was gathered for 4th of July fireworks, the card to his grandfather reflecting his and my pursuit via canoe of a loon haplessly looking for peace on an Adirondack lake.
It hasn't been more than a year since I commented in an email to a friend on what a joy it was to observe his gentle and graceful consideration for his girlfriend, his generous appreciation of her gifts.
A few nights ago, I went to a Survivors of Suicide meeting, which I do on occasion, and the conversation turned to this issue of violence. All of the people there were gentle, loving, and had clearly contributed compassion and kindness to the lives of those now gone. We were grieving deaths ranging from two days to three years old, and every one of us was struck by the sudden incursion of violence into our lives at the hand of a beloved sister, son, or boyfriend.
You think that you would not survive if someone you loved killed someone else ~ shot or pushed someone else off a building, ran over them, whatever. You know that the ripple effect of such an act would alter your entire existence. There are simply no words for describing the effect when somene's victim is him or herself.
The book No Time to Say Good-bye, linked in my sidebar, includes the following quote from one Edward Dunne:
"The death of a significant other by suicide is a stressor of unparalled magnitude in most people's lives, and even the most psychologically mature individual may encounter difficulty in responding to it."
Ay-yep to that rather stunning understatement.. And the violence is part of the reason.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The shock. The suddenness of a loss that blots out your entire universe. I read a couple of weeks ago that only 20% of deaths in the United States today are completely unanticipated. I was surprised, since my personal experience has been so different. My 28-year-old mother and year-old brother killed in a car accident. My 48-year-old stepmother killed in a fall. My 49-year-old aunt dead almost instantly of a stroke or heart attack. My 24-year-old son, dead by suicide.
There is, of course, a sense of shock even when the death has been expected, even when its imminence has been the focus of life. That reality first became apparent to me when I was in law school and my husband's uncle died of cancer. He was at home, where his family had cared for him during the last weeks of his life, and his wife's response was one of such overwhelming anguish and agitation that I realized that even when you know what is going to happen, you can't quite accommodate it until it does. I saw the same thing over and over again during my CPE experience at Giant Famous Hospital last summer. Probably close to 75, maybe many more, of my patients died while I was actually there on the campus, usually with them. I can't think of a single survivor who wasn't visibly shaken, heartbroken, devastated ~ and it made no difference whether their loved ones had been in the hospital a matter of hours or a matter of months. The completeness of death startles and undoes us no matter the circumstances.
As far as I can piece together, in the first hour or so after learning of my son's death, which had happened the night before while while I was four hours from home at a retreat center, I talked by telephone to my husband who was at home and called to tell me, to my daughter's college advisor and then to my daughter in Oregon, to my brother and son en route to our house from the southern part of the state, to a detective in Chicago, to my spiritual director who was at home, to my son's girlfriend in Chicago, to our pastors who were at church, and to a good friend at home. Some of those calls I can remember, some I only know must have taken place because of information I seem to have acquired in the first hours. The only person I knew at the retreat center, where I had been for a little more than a day, was the Jesuit who was my director for the week I had planned there, and so I talked to him off and on through the late afternoon and early evening, as I waited for friends to come for me. He offered his office and computer, and so I sent a few emails to others to whom I am close, knowing that within another few hours I would be unable to manage anything of the sort.
I felt encased in some kind of impermeable shell, into which the faintest knowledge of an ominous reality had somehow seeped, a reality that was gathering the steam that would enable it to crash its way into every corner of our lives and explode that shell into thousands of pieces.
It feels as if that explosion is still reverberating. I guess it will always feel that way.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Eventually, obsessive M*A*S*H aficiondao that I had been been at one time, I was able to recall their origin, understand their senselessness in our new context, and put them to rest. But when I think of that first week of September, I remember the words and tune whirring through my head. "Suicide is painless; it brings on many changes . . .".
As most people have no doubt realized by now, if they didn't already know, our most beloved Chicago Son died by suicide, late on the night of last September 2. Although that fact is a constant companion in my life and although I talk about it freely, I have not blogged about it because I couldn't quite figure out how to do that. Or maybe I couldn't quite figure out whether I would be able to stand the reaction. I don't think that any of us in our family have received anything but loving support from family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances ~ and I include in that group people I know "only" from the internet, which in some cases includes people I now consider to be wonderful friends ~ but we all know that the online world is a place in which speedy and thoughtless comment often predominates, and that it's a place in which some people feel free to zap remarks in your direction which they would never (one hopes) say to anyone face-to-face. So I've been reluctant to expose myself and my family to the potential for even more pain, just in case that might even be possible.
But it seems that the time to be more forthcoming is upon me. I gave a little talk about it last week at seminary, which offered me the opportunity to organize my thoughts a bit. Only a few people showed up, but it was a beginning. I don't see my life becoming centered on suicide prevention, but I know a whole lot of stuff now that I didn't know eight months ago, and I am willing to share it if it is of any use to anyone. I'm going to add a few things to the sidebar, some resources and books that have been helpful. And I'm going to speak more freely, unless someone makes that impossible.
Our son was a wonderful young man. Creative, witty, kind, brilliant, generous. And concealing a murderous depression which destroyed him and shoved the rest of us into the alternate universe we now inhabit. How do we map this desolate and skewed territory? I guess we are learning, moment by moment.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
"Blind gardening, can you imagine? I try. I imagine the difficulties. The struggle. How much of gardening for me is a visual joy? With that gone...
I end up pondering the state of my spirit if I was to lose my vision. Would I become deflated and bitter? What would happen to those things for which I have a passion?"
I thought about this quite a bit after I read it. I'm not much of a gardener, and the tactile aspect has no impact on me. I don't have a sense of smell (really ~ I have never smelled anything), so it's not as if I could plant a garden and enjoy its scents wafting through the air. I don't actually have any concept of scent.
Michelle responded with an entry about her mother, another lover of gardens who lost her sight:
"She continued to garden . . . . Though she had a marvelous sense of color -- she could match colors by memory -- she drifted toward more heavily scented garden choices as her sight dimmed. I remember driving her on an expedition to find new plants for a garden outside her bedroom, holding up various specimens for her to smell."
As I suspected: the sense of smell can substitute, at least to some extent. If one has a sense of smell, that is.
Grief, I have concluded, is like gardening blind. It requires that you reassemble your life with pieces missing and in the absence of the vision needed to accomplish the task. I could plant a tulip garden next fall without bulbs for yellow tulips, but that's because I can imagine the space in question with red and pink and white and black tulips. I can imagine the differing colors and heights and blooming dates, and I can create a garden with that information.
Can I recreate a life? With one of the main pieces missing? You've perhaps noticed I've switched from the word sight to the word vision. It isn't just the piece, the person, missing. It's the entire vision. The entire understanding of what life is.
This is more akin to gardening having never seen anything at all, having no concept of color, no concept of shape or size beyond what can be discovered with the hands.
Because when a child is gone, you are starting all over. In some other universe, some universe in which that child does not exist. It's as if I were suddenly blinded and went out to my garden only to discover that the soil had been transformed into kernels of corn, the hose gushed forth jelly, the seeds and bulbs had the consistency of oatmeal ~ and I was advised that the catalog showed flowers in silver and gold and gray. How would I ever put all that together?
Think about it. Think about trying to plant oatmeal in corn kernels and spraying it with jelly in the hope that an arrangement of gray and gold and silver would emerge in a way that would somehow be pleasing to the eye.
That's sort of what it's like, to reconstruct a life in another universe. Blind gardening with no sense of smell.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Any photographer will tell you that light changes everything. And that often we don’t know quite how to respond to it: where to stand, how to change focus, whether to try a filter on the lens. A bright light, in particular, can be confusing.
This is a confusing Sunday. That’s somewhat surprising, coming as it does so close upon the Sunday with the empty tomb, the celebration of lilies and trumpets, the sense of victory. But here we are a week later and Scripture presents us with a confusing picture, a whole horde of characters who are all over the place in their response to the light of the Resurrection. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising – we, too, struggle to respond to Jesus, this week and into the future, as we try to absorb the light and the mystery of Easter.
We have the disciples on Easter evening, the women and men who have been the closest followers of Jesus, huddled in an upstairs room, hushed and fearful, wondering whether a crowd of Roman soldiers is about to burst in and arrest them, when instead Jesus himself appears among them. Absent from the group is Thomas, a man who has been brash in his confident determination to follow Jesus to his death if need be, intense in his questioning of Jesus with respect to what lies ahead – and now, when the story begins to unfold on a new level, he is not even present. When he shows up he refuses to believe what the others have to say. Still brash, still intense, but now confused and frustrated, he insists that he must see for himself. And when he does, when his beloved leader appears, he is astonished, satisfied, contrite – all simultaneously, all in an instant. Such is the powerful presence of the risen Jesus.
We have Peter, someone whom we have known all along as a bundle of impetuous and contradictory emotions. It was Peter along with his brother Andrew, way back at the beginning of the story, who dropped his nets and followed Jesus immediately upon his first invitation . It was Peter who, when Jesus wondered aloud to his disciples who people thought he might be, responded without hesitation: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And yet it was Peter whose instinct for self-preservation took over and caused him to deny his relationship with Jesus three times in rapid succession on the night before Jesus was taken to his death, and Peter whose heart was broken by the recognition of the ease with which he had put his own survival first and betrayed his companion and lord.
But now look at Peter! The Acts passage we have today is from Pentecost, still a few weeks into the future, and shows us Peter trying to convince a large assemblage that God’s plan and will have been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter, like Thomas before him, has been changed by the events of Easter morning. The impulsive, excitable, self-serving Peter has become a confident and articulate spokesman for Christ crucified and resurrected, so effective that it is reported that 3,000 people were baptized in Christ that day. Such is the powerful presence of the risen Jesus.
What happened to these men, Thomas and Peter? What happened to the people around them? They were ordinary people, people with both great strengths and dramatic limitations, people just like us. What can happen to us out of an encounter with the risen Christ?
The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond the appeal of Jesus as a person, the charisma of personality that drew people to him in the first place. The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond his ethical teaching and compassionate concern for others, both hallmarks of the Jewish community in which he had grown to manhood. The mystery of the resurrection goes beyond the miracles, and beyond the positions he takes that stretch the boundaries established by the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. The resurrection of Jesus brings a light into this world, a light of re-creation and liberation that alters our understanding of all the suffering that precedes it, both his and our own. What can happen to us out of an encounter with the risen Christ?
What would it mean for any of us to encounter life after death, as Thomas and the other disciples did, as Peter did, as Mary Magdalene, the first to see and proclaim the risen Jesus, did?
I had some sense of what that encounter might have been like two years ago, in Lakeview Cemetery, which is three blocks from our house and is one of my favorite places to walk. Lakeview, like all cemeteries, combines life and death in unexpected ways. It’s a place of abundant plant and animal life – although the flora has yet to come back this spring, I saw one of the foxes on Maundy Thursday, and a red-bellied woodpecker called furiously during last week’s Sunrise Service. It’s also, of course, a place where one is constantly reminded of death as the ultimate loss. Having lived here for 30 years, I have increasingly frequent encounters with that aspect of Lakeview, most recently with the death of a dear friend two weeks ago. And sometimes the combination of life and death there is especially striking, thanks to the beauty and uniqueness of some of the gravestones – for instance, the stained glass bonsai tree through which the sun shines with a surprising light on spring mornings.
The Lakeview Sunrise Service is celebrated before a large cross that stands on the edge of a deep ravine, and most years the sunrise behind the cross is preceded by jagged streaks of purple and pink in the eastern sky. Two years ago, I was making a year long prayer retreat through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I had been deeply engaged in the life of Jesus for months. When I walked over to Lakeview in the dark on Easter morning, I was worn out by the sorrows of Holy Week, and very much ready for a Jesus of the Resurrection.
And then, because I had been so immersed in Jesus’s life, I found myself looking at the cemetery in a different way. I found myself imaging Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb on that morning 2000 years ago and I found myself imagining her grief. Her confusion and disorientation. Her anguished attempts to come to terms with the reality that this person she so loved was gone, completely and irrevocably, from the daily interactions they had shared. Many of us have been there; some of us are there right now. I remember so well, when I was a teenager whose stepmother had just died, my own mother having died ten years earlier, sitting out on the back steps of our house on a sweltering July day as my slightly older stepsister wondered aloud at the strange reality that is death as those of us who remain behind experience it. “She was here,” said my stepsister about her mother, who had died very suddenly,“she was completely here, talking and laughing, and now she is completely not here.” Death, she seemed to be registering, is such a complete breach in the fabric of life as to be entirely unfathomable and completely unacceptable.
And so as I was walking through Lakeview to the Sunrise Service two years ago, it was not hard for me to imagine Mary Magdalene, not hard to imagine her saying to herself the words my stepsister had said. “He was here, he was completely here, and now he is completely not here.”
And then it struck me: that as many times as I have walked in Lakeview, and as familiar as I am with its 300 acres, and as well as I have known some of the people buried there, there is one thing I absolutely never expect to see: I do not expect to see a single one of those people standing beside a grave, alive and whole and waiting to greet me. I know as well as I know anything at all that such an event will not, cannot, come to pass. That knowledge is, after all, the foundational knowledge of grief. That is why our sorrow when someone we love dies is so complete, so overwhelming.
And yet: that is what happened. He was there. He was there waiting for Mary Magdalene. So completely there with a newness that at first prevented her from recognizing him, and yet so completely there as himself. So unmistakably there for this woman whose terrible grief we understand only too well that she was completely transformed and became, according to the gospel of John, the first person to express a sense of joy that has reverberated for two millennia. So unmistakably there, then and a week later, that Thomas would abandon doubt for absolute adoration and conviction. So unmistakably there that Peter would abandon fear for the assured proclamation that “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
And where is this “there” to which he has come, this risen and renewed Christ? In the story as initially portrayed in Scripture, “there” is a material place, an empty tomb in a garden that must have surely been filled with a surprising light of its own that morning. A first century version of Lakeview, although no doubt in that era much more a place of abandonment than care: a place isolated and empty, a place where birds perhaps sang, but which most people avoided.
But that “there,” that geographic locale, is not the real place to which our risen Christ has come. The analogy of cemetery terrain helps us try to grasp in concrete terms what happens to our lives when the crucified and resurrected Christ comes toward us, but eventually it must dissolve, as we discover that Jesus comes to us in all the spaces of our lives.
We do not see Jesus as Mary Magdalene and Thomas and Peter did. But we look for him as they did, and he finds us as he did them: people who have been devastated by loss, people who doubt his presence, people who dissemble and betray our relationship with him, and yet also people who long to share his companionship, people who long to make of our lives courageous responses to his call. We are all of them, and like all of them, we are changed by what happened on Easter Sunday. Peter claims that it is impossible for Jesus to be held by the power of death – a power that can seem strong indeed when you walk through a cemetery, a power that seems strong when you have just said good-bye to a loved one or are pondering the thoroughness with which loss has altered your life – but a power that cannot hold Jesus and, therefore, cannot hold us.
God invites us into a mysterious story in which a faltering Peter in a courtyard, a heartbroken Mary Magdalene in a cemetery, and a petulant Thomas in a darkened room are all transformed by the sure knowledge that someone who was “completely not here” is completely here and completely with us. We stand anew as people liberated and re-created by a God who sought to share and enjoy and suffer life as we experience it, and then to open it to dimensions beyond our imagination. We live in the knowledge that death is not the final answer, knowing that the Jesus Christ of the resurrection offers life in a fullness that stretches beyond time and space as we understand them. Let us and see as Mary Magdalene and Thomas and Peter saw, and let us embrace life itself and the people with whom we share it as Jesus does: extravagantly and wildly and gloriously. Jesus calls us to step into the surprising light of Easter morning, and to know that it changes everything.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
I don't think I can do it justice, but I will begin by saying that, a year ago, one of my seminary professors questioned the value of spiritual direction in terms of effective results vis-a-vis preaching, describing the former as "inefficient" in comparison to the latter, by which you can "reach hundreds of people at once."
I have given that remark a great deal of thought in the ensuing ten months, recognizing that the comparison is of the apples-to-oranges variety and yet, wondering what it says about how we spend our time and what our orientation to results is about ~ what the word "results" even means. My initial conclusions had something to do (1) with the fact that both of my spiritual directors (two years each) have been Jesuit priests who preach regularly and are engaged in a multiplicity of large-scale tasks ~ one is a university administrator and professor and the other a parish pastor ~ and yet consider one-on-one companionship with individuals to be a critical component of their ministries, and (2) with the recognition that much of what I am able to do for others is sustained by my prayer life and the opportunity to explore its unfolding dimensions with someone else who has cared for me over a long period of time.
Anyway. This week has been bracketed by a couple of hours spent with my current director last Friday and yesterday morning with my former director, who is in town for the week-end. In between and interwoven with my own turmoil have been a couple of conversations with other people about their suffering and about all of our inadequacies, and about their new insights into their relationships with God. And in the last couple of days: the Tenebrae service in my own church and a Catholic Good Friday mass.
I find that I am not yet remotely ready for Easter Sunday. In the Bible version, the Sunday joy comes much too quickly upon the despair for those of us who are in our own Friday-Saturday worlds to absorb. But ~ but ~ I am seeing things a bit differently this morning.
This endless conversation, this endless listening and watching for God, this careful vigilance to the pilgrimmage of a solitary person ~ whether I am the focus of the attention or the one trying to offer it to someone else, it is a remarkable experience of the presence of God's Spirit.
I don't think "efficiency" is the standard at all.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
A good, longtime friend says to me, "I don't know how you're doing what you do."
What do those statements mean? Do people think I don't love my son enough? Do they think I'm in denial?
I don't think either of those things are true.
I am rather cheerfully pushing my cart through the grocery, thinking that while I feel like shit, I feel relatively ok. Better than a lot of days. Then some piano music wafts through the air. I have no idea whether I have heard it before, whether it is glancing off some subconscious memory. But I want to let the cart go, sink to my knees, and wail a long and piercing cry. I don't, of course. I keep pushing the cart, and wonder how many people we see in our daily lives out there in the world who are silently keening.
Three women in the coffee shop. One of us lost her father a year ago; after she cared for him for months, he died in her arms. One of us lost her son seven-plus months ago. One of us is accompanying her husband through his chemotherapeutic battle against a particularly virulent form of cancer. We are laughing and beginning to plan a college graduation party for four young ladies we know and love.
What does that mean? Strength? Resistance? Oblivion?
I think that mostly it means that I love the women I know.
Oh, and the wisdom thing I've been muttering about? I think I get it. What you learn from this kind of suffering is that you know nothing. I mean: really nothing. If you have reached the age of 50, you are probably already aware that you have never known or understood nearly as much as you may have once thought you did. But this kind of loss clarifies it anew: we know NOTHING.
That, I think, is wisdom.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
A question asked on occasion in spiritual direction, in the context of the Mary and Martha story, to someone who readily identifies with Martha:
What does that mean, that you would ask Jesus to sit on the porch and wait while you finished raking the leaves and spreading the mulch and putting your tools away? What does it say that you would suggest that he go out in the living room and spend time with your other guests while you finish preparing the meal?
And the extension of the question, to someone whose circumstances are more dire: What does it mean, that you simply remove yourself from the picture rather than risk the interaction?
Grief is certainly one of the most, if not the most, self-absorbing of experiences. It strangles joy, anticipation, pleasure in the ordinary. It makes it difficult to listen to a friend's recounting of a daughter-in-law's pregnancy. It makes a church service in which children wave palm branches and shout "Hosanna!" an unbearable prospect.
But what does that mean, that you cannot find it in yoursef to be one of the celebrants? Or even a quiet observer?
If it were 2000 years ago and noisy and happy crowds were thronging the streets, would you be curled up on a bed in a back room, wising they would just move on?
What would it take to get you outside again? Just to watch? And if you were somehow about to manage that, what would you see?
Perhaps a glimpse of the one solitary person who knows what you carry in your heart? The heart that the first reading of Lent reminded you is broken beyond repair and scattered beyond reach?
Perhaps you would see someone who knows about that. Someone who is also enduring the celebratory chaos in the knowledge that it masks a pervasive darkness that has to be encountered in order to be conquered.
Perhaps your vision is becoming infinitesimally more accurate.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Clearly it is you and not I who should be doing the preaching.
I am going to quiet down here for the rest of the Easter season because I am going to be pondering your words.
Friday, April 3, 2009
The shadow of my sorrow? ha! let’s see –
’Tis very true, my grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur’d soul.
There lies the substance.
Richard II, IV.1.291-296
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Perhaps I should be reading Shakespeare.
Iago, too, says, I am not what I am. (Othello, I.1) My own willful evil is not what torments me; I mention Iago only as a further indication of how frequently and thoroughly Shakespeare addresses the conundrum of inner division, of what we purport to be and what we are.
Viola is a little closer, in the sense of donning a disguise to get from here to there. I thought of her, oddly enough, in connection with a Facebook Quiz that a friend did and the onset of Holy Week and the RevGals Friday Five, which asks about where pastors find restoration, strength, and encouragment during the busy week ahead. While Easter does not carry the same weight that Christmas does in the secular culture, for those who are attentive and practicing Christians it is a far more important celebration. It is THE celebration. And I am hiding out. I am not ready to contemplate resurrection. It is easier to disguise myself publicly than it was at Christmas, which required a journey to Key West to put sufficient distance between our family and the rituals that had been meaningful to us, but it is no easier inwardly, to know that I am so out of sync with what surrounds me.
I remember loving Richard II in high school. That "tortur'd soul" of his speaks so well to lost adolescents; I wonder that it isn't read as frequently as Hamlet. His words about external lament being but a shadow of unseen grief ~ well: I am including a bit of my experience in a sermon I am working on for a class. It seemed to me, as I preached part of it yesterday, that there would never be a way to approach the reality of what I am saying, not without sinking the chapel beneath the weight. Most of it I have to reserve for myself.
And Lear ~ he is the one. When I came across that line of his several days ago I thought, No, I am not old enough to be Lear. There are, God help me, more decades of self-delusion and anguish between the woman I am now and the old man he became.
But you know what? For the first time in my life, I feel a slight sense of the deepest affinity with him. Not the intellectual recognition that the student of literature brings to her analytical approach to a text. But the deeply and generously heartbroken recogition of the awesomely terrible disappointments that life inflicts, some of them due to our own limitations and some to the limitations of others. Lear, naked in the wind and rain ~ perhaps who we all are.
No, I am not ready for resurrection.