Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cemetery Yellow

You know, I used to walk in that cemetery three, four times a week.

I've been five times in the last fourteen months. Once with my family to choose the general location for the bench. Once with The Lovely Daughter to meet with The Monument Guy. Once with Musical Friend to visit her husband's place and our son's. And now twice, just to walk. I can stand it again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In All Things

I haven't read the book Heroic Living. It sounds intriguing but I've never had anything heroic in me on my good days, and I sure don't now.

I have heard about Walter Ciszek, though. In fact, I tried to find some material about him last spring, but was unsuccessful. And then, today,
this. It applies, actually, and is consistent with other counsel I've been getting. From Jesuits, not surprisingly, about my own place of imprisonment. And from the other mothers whose blogs are linked on this one; perhaps they will recognize their own heroism in doing what they're doing.

By Chris Lowney

Healthy individuals…focus energy and effort where they can exert influence and control, and they don’t obsess over what lies beyond their control. That mind-set preserves mental health, but it’s also a graceful, and grace-filled, acceptance that the world is not about us. This is not our world, but God’s, and much of it—indeed, much that affects us—lies outside our control.

The Jesuit Walter Ciszek’s life (1904–1983) embodied this wisdom. When I was a Jesuit seminarian, Fr. Ciszek and I dined for a while in the same large Jesuit community. This quiet, self-effacing old man stood about as high as my chest and seemed unremarkable by any conventional measure. Many of us regularly bypassed his company at dinner for that of more entertaining, livelier colleagues.

Now I laugh to myself about it. Fr. Ciszek’s cause for sainthood is wending its way through the tortuous Vatican machinery. I may someday have to explain to friends that I lived with a saint and paid scant attention to him. I suspect that this says something encouraging about the self-effacing nature of true saints and something discouraging about me!

Even though we lavished little attention on Fr. Ciszek, we all knew his remarkable life story, chronicled in He Leadeth Me and With God in Russia. Sent to Russia as a young priest, Ciszek was accused during World War II of being a Vatican spy and was shuttled around Soviet gulags and remote work camps for two decades. Ciszek passed days in a tiny cell that was “about seven by twelve feet, with grimy stone walls and one little window high in the wall. The room was always dark.” But that wasn’t the bad part: that seven-by-twelve cell was home to as many as a dozen people: “At night, we all huddled together on the rough-hewn benches to sleep. If someone turned over in his sleep, he was liable to wake the whole crowd.”

Imagine days with nothing to look forward to beside the next interrogation or the next meager meal. Compounding the physical privations was the frustration that things weren’t working out according to Ciszek’s plans. He went to Russia to do things; how endlessly demoralizing to sit in a prison and chew over the bitter reality that he was doing nothing, day after day.

That is, Ciszek relates, until a personal epiphany dawned. “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ . . . the situations [in which I found myself] were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.” Ciszek’s options were to lament endlessly what he couldn’t control or to fulfill his purpose in the small corner of the world he could control, his cell.

Fr. Ciszek in his jail cell or work camp, praying and occasionally interacting with jailers or fellow prisoners, is a poignant embodiment of a well-known phrase in Jesuit life: age quod agis—“do what you’re doing!” We tend to obsess over what we wish we were doing, or what we might be doing instead of our boring jobs, or what we would like to be doing that someone else is doing, or what we could have been doing if our luck had been better. Such preoccupations distract us from whatever real opportunity lies right in front of us. If we do what we are doing, we focus on the opportunity at hand, even (or perhaps especially) if all we can do is sit in a jail cell, pray, think good thoughts, and treat our captors with civility and kindness.

None of us finds peace or performs effectively without learning Fr. Ciszek’s hard-won lesson, because each successive phase of life brings new circumstances that change what is and isn’t within our control. While we are young, we may have energy, time, and freedom but modest financial resources. In middle age, we may have young families to raise and love but limited freedom to take on other obligations and opportunities. Retirement often bestows the talent of time once more. Our challenge, like Fr. Ciszek’s, is to accept peaceably what we cannot control and make the most of what lies within our control, never losing sight of our purpose and vision along the way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Year Two: Art, Prayer, (Hope), Now What?

A lot of people, people who would know because they are mothers who have lost children, have told me that the second year is the worst. You get through all the anniversaries ~ which for us started with Mother's Day and continued all summer long with the usual holidays plus all five of our birthdays and then the anniversary day ~ and then what? No resolution; it all just starts again and lies endlessly ahead.

At first that seemed to be the case. September was wide open, no end in sight, and some awful and unbloggable things happened. Twice in as many weeks it seemed clear that I would have to drop out of seminary. Most of the time I felt that the key to my survival was that I simply didn't believe in what had happened. As long as it wasn't true, I could put one foot in front of the other.

Now ~ maybe just today, maybe just a few days ~ a little different.

I think it's art.

I started but never finished a post a week or two ago about how I was starting to turn to art in prayer. A bit of an ironic move for a girl who is pursuing ordained ministry in a tradition in which words predominate, for someone who processes almost everything by writing (two or three blogs, stacks of spiritual journals), for someone who has barely picked up even her pocket digital camera in months (although some fall color photos are probably coming soon).

But I had been thinking about how much I longed to go back to Mount Angel Abbey to pray. And wishing there were someplace around here where I could find some icons. And starting to imagine that digital SLR I've been dreaming of for years.

Then, a few days ago, I received a beautiful little package from a blogging friend, which included little icon cards, including Julian with her apocryphal cat, and Brigid, whom I think of as one of my peeps. As I told my friend in thanks, I didn't need to find a store; I just needed to wait for the mail.

And now, this morning, a new (to me, anyway) Annunciation, a link to a whole series of paintings on the themes of The Spiritual Exercises, and a link to an online store with other amazing art, at which I've only just had a look.

When I was on Iona a couple of summers ago, I thought vaguely about organizing some of the photos I was taking around The Exercises. I am probably not together enough to do that yet, but I might be able at least to to think about it again. Right after Josh died ~ and by "right after" I mean, literally, a week or two ~ an artist friend invited me to a show and talk by a photographer who has done magnificent black-and-white work, much of it out of an undisclosed terrible loss in her own life. At the time, I found myself unable to fathom going out in public to a lecture and show, and I've forgotten her name, but maybe it's time to look her up again.

In fact, while I was trying to decide whether to return to seminary, it seemed to me that the only other two realistic options were (1) never to leave my bed, or at least my house, again and (2) immerse myself in photography. I'm not exactly sure how or why school won out; perhaps because I was so well adapted to verbal expression that I thought it was something I might be able to do again, while the idea of trying to make meaningful images was completely overwhelming.

Recently, though, with the end of my seminary career looming ahead and the knowledge that there will probably be a lag of several months between ordination and a call to ~ to WHAT? another dilemma . . . ~ I have been thinking that there is a window for photography in there.

Well, I quite like Robert Gilroy's Annunication ~ not surprising for someone who so likes Henry Ossawa Tanner's painting on the same subject, a painting which has made several appearances in my blogs. But the one I'm really taken with this morning is called Sorrowful Woman, Figures in Flames and The Light of Truth, from Week One of the Exercises.

I don't pretend to understand it much, but one needs to contemplate a work of art over a long period of time. For starters, I would throw out phrases like: Week One (of the Exercises) ~ a time of immersing oneself in God's good creation, in our own brokenness, and in our need for healing and reconciliation. Year Two (of my new life) ~ perhaps a time of some little healing and reconciliation of a terrible, terrible brokenness and of finding a jagged and rocky path back to God's good creation. Flames ~ destruction and terror, light and truth.

For me, it's a good painting to pray with. Maybe on the other side of those flames, in that yellow life, is a future.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Church and Girls and Their Moms

I was visiting another church, and at the end of the service a young-ish couple got up to make a stewardship presentation. They talked about how much the church means to them, and about how involved they are in the church and in its associated school which their three elementary-grade aged children attend. They were attractive and energetic and articulate, and bubbling over with the general goodness of life and their joy in their family and church.

It was pretty painful to watch, if you happened to be me.

I used to be that mother and my family used to be that family. It was hard to watch them as the person I am now. It was hard to think about myself having made similarly enthusiastic presentations in oblivion to their possible effects. It is hard to think about ministry and how to conduct church services in which the pews are filled with people experiencing all kinds of hardships as well as all kinds of joys.

After they stepped down, we sang the last hymn, and then it was time to leave. I was pretty near the front of the very large sanctuary and I wasn't in a hurry, so as I reached the back, few people were left. But among those who were still there was a small group in one pew: a young girl sobbing into the lap of the woman next to her, another girl about her age curled up in a man's embrace, and a couple of other adults looking fairly dazed and disconnected.

I felt as if I should understand the little scene playing out before me, but there was no reason that I would. And then I thought: I wonder if that's the family of the woman who died in a car accident a few weeks ago, leaving twin daughters behind.

If it was ~ how excruciating it must have been for those girls, to see another mother from their school laughing and talking about all the things that she does with her children. All the things their mother will never again do with them. To see their classmates smiling and waving at the congregation.
It was hard for me and I am all grown up and I have had some time.

I wanted to stop and say, I know. I know what it's like to lose your mother in an automobile accident. I know what it's like to grow up without a mother. But of course, I didn't, because I didn't know anything at all about the family sitting there and, even if they were who I think they were, I am a complete stranger to them. But I do think about the family I know of, and pray for them often.

And then I drove home, and thought about a conversation my daughter and I had had earlier in the day, in which she had poured out some frustrations to me and had then begun to talk with delight about something else. And I thought about what it is like not to have those conversations with your mother. Not even to know such conversations exist until you have a daughter of your own.

I hope those girls have daughters someday.

I hope they get to wave good-bye as I did today, to a 22-year-old woman sporting a bright pink wig, off to meet a friend at her Montessori school's Halloween party, eight years after she last attended that party as a student. I hope they get to live as mothers the lives they are missing out on as daughters.

I hope they can someday find a way to be in church, filled with peace rather than with sorrow.

I hope I can, too.

Cross-posted at Search the Sea.

Wings of Angels

Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won't bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints

I lost you on a winter's day
In that cold city far away
A city by a river deep
With promises you could not keep
A place where you had gone to try
A place where you had longed to fly
A city smiling when you cried
A city sleeping when you died

Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won't bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints

In that cathedral by the hill
We stood and smiled in happier days
The fields along the river's edge
You fished and traveled hungrily
Your light burned in that sunny sky
Your voice above the water rang
I'd give it up give all I have
For one more chance to hear you sing

Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won't bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints

Child of thunder in the dark child whose voice was like a lark
Child whose spirits lifted hearts child of many beauties

When the birds flock to the south
When the wind calls to the north
You are in the falling snow
You are beauty going forth
You are heat and you are light
Sun above the mountain's peak
I would give the sun and moon
Once more just to hear you speak

Wings of angels tears of saints
Prayers and promises won't bring you back
Come to me in dreams again
Wings of angels tears of saints

~ Judy Collins

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Listening to the Silence

A few days back I had a little poll posted on this blog. Nothing the least bit scientific about it; I don't even know how many people responded.

I was interested in the answers ~ and I tried to respond to each of the comments, to honor the bravery and candor with which people wrote ~ because for most of the past fourteen months, my experience has been of a profound silence on God's part. Whether God has been absent, I don't know. Some people believe that God is never absent. I don't know. Sometimes I think that I mistook my son's absence for God's. I don't know. Sometimes I think that God has been present in the people who have surrounded me with love and care, both in daily life and online. I don't know. What I do know is that the God I believe to be in all things seemed to have been in no things.

Apparently my experience is not an uncommon one, if my litle poll is any indication at all:

The biggest loss of your life - Did God seem:

Real 13 (18%)
Not so much 5 ( 6%)
Close by 9 (12%)
Far away, but still a reality 27 (37%)
Absent, gone, nowhere to be found 14 (19%)
Compassionate 9 (12%)
Uncaring 6 ( 8%)
Mixture of above 27 (37%)

It has been a little bit of a disjunction, to be in seminary and experience a vast and empty space where God might have been. For months I couldn't even talk about it, except with a very few trusted people. But now I think that it is a good thing to talk about. A friend, suffering a terrible loss, told me some days ago that she no longer believes in a God of compassion. There are not so many people to whom she can say that who can hear her without judgment, without rushing forward to "fix" her. I am very grateful to have a couple of such people in my life. And to have learned myself how much more important it is to listen than to talk.

And I think now that I have been, over the past weeks, experiencing something of a sea change. Perhaps God is simply very quiet, very cautious, very nonintrusive, where grief is so overwhelming.

I have read at least three books on prayer in which God has been likened to the fox in The Little Prince. One of them is Anthony Bloom's jewel of a book, Beginning to Pray.
Here's a similar Anthony Bloom description, from a book I haven't read, called A Spiritual Journey Through the Parables, which I found in a quick google search:

"Have another look at the passage in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery where the fox describes how the little prince should learn to tame him - he must be very patient, sit a little way off and look at him out of the corner of his eye and say nothing, for words cause misunderstandings. And every day he will sit a little closer and they will become friends. Put 'God' in the place of the fox and you will see loving, chaste shyness, a diffidence which offers but does not prostitute itself: God does not accept a glib, smooth relationship, nor does He impose His presence - He offers it, but it can only be received on the same terms, those of a humble, loving heart, when two timidly, shyly seeking people reach to each other because of a deep mutual respect and because both recognize the holiness and the extraordinary beauty of reciprocal love."

I think maybe it is something like that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sucker Punched

From one end of the spectrum to the other.

About 9:00 tonight, I finished up the work I had assigned myself for the evening and decided to walk over to the library. There's a book I need for two of my papers and I wanted to copy the article in the new America magazine about Australian Jesuit poet Peter Steele. He's at Georgetown this year and my former spiritual director, who's also there, had emailed me some of his poems during a particularly rough patch some months ago, so now I am a Peter Steele fan.

It's a beautiful Indian summer evening and it was nice to get outside for a couple of minutes. As I made the two-minute walk, I thought about how nothing difficult had really come up today. The chapel sermon was based on Lamentations and was about listening to people through hardship, an excellent sermon that a year ago I couldn't have sat still for, but it didn't contain anything that you haven't read in this blog -- there was nothing in it that isn't just daily life for me now. So I was feeling pretty content and relaxed, as those things go.

And then, as I was standing at the photocopying machine in the library, a young man in my class came in and announced to the friend of mine working at the desk that his wife had an ultrasound today and it looks like they're going to have a little boy in mid-March.

I was standing there copying my article on the outside, but on the inside I was doubled over in pain.

This man's wife had a miscarriage last year and, of course, I wish them nothing but the very best in this pregnancy and in their lives as new parents.

But I remember some of those first-pregnancy ultrasounds so well, especially the one in May that confirmed two boys. I remember how dazed I was -- we knew about the two, but not about the genders. I remember how excited my grandfather was when I called him. And I remember that being the only couple of weeks during the pregnancy in which I was comfortable. I had finally stopped the all day all night vomiting, and at 5.5 months I wasn't as huge as I would be a month later . . . and all summer long.

It's so odd, and so hard, that that was my life then and this is my life now.

What I would give, to be back at the place where future Snuglis and backpacks and strollers were the topic of the evening ~ to be back at the place where "lamentation" was just a word instead of a life ~

to be back at a place where I could be completely oblivious to the fact that my joyous announcement of impending parenthood might be causing another person some serious pain.

I suppose you're finally growing up, when you're more aware of that possibility.

I don't know what you do about it, though.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Very Very Very Nice

I have discovered that one of the fallouts of grief is, shall we say, a certain degree of cognitive dysfunction.

I forget things. Lots of them and all kinds of them, and when I know I am supposed to remember them, my anxiety levels go sky high.

I have a final exam in one of my classes this term, and today I realized that I needed to ask my professor for some leeway. I probably just need a quiet room and the assurance that I can take extra time if I need it, but I wanted to warn him that I had a complete meltdown during a final last year (although I did well, I was completely unable to assess at the time whether what I was writing was anything close to what was being asked of us), that I have no way of predicting what will happen, and that if disaster strikes I might need an alternative course of action.

It will probably be all right. I got through Hebrew by taking my tests in a quiet room away from the rest of the class. But I just don't know. And while I didn't go into the details today, the fact is that most of my classes raise topics and issues that for me are swampy breeding grounds for PTSD.

My professor could not have been more gracious, which enables me to calm down considerably for the remaining four weeks of the quarter.

The Lovely Daughter suggested last night that I can be, ummmm, somewhat disdainful of how little people know about grief. (Me? Really? Sarcastic and disdainful? Is that possible?) "Did you know, Before, what you know now?" she asked. "Nope," I said.

One of the things I didn't know was that my brain cells would dissolve, or move around, or something. Whatever it is they do, it's not good, and it goes way beyond the usual midlife muddle. If you were reading my other blog a year ago, you know that I kept getting lost. (I have lived in the same city for over 30 years.) I'm much better now, but I do forget entire chunks of things, or I just find myself immobilized in the face of stress..

Sometimes I forget that it happens. In a class discussion on baptism last week, I managed to leave with maybe two seconds to spare before I burst into tears.

It's just one more thing: to know that in addition to all the things you have to deal with, you have to remember to be aware in advance of the possibility for emotional and mental mayhem when you do deal with them.

Anyway. It is very nice when other people simply take your word for it and try to help you out.

A Different Kind of Holiday

I am up and about to leave for seminary ~ a 2.5 hour drive ~ and my 10:00 am class.

In the dream I was having when the alarm went off, our family and
Katie's family and Joey's family and Sarah's family were in a cabin in the snowy Colorado Rockies, having a loud and joyful Christmas Dinner together at 7:00 am because we all had to leave for the airport by 8:00 am to fly to Florida.

All of us. ALL of our children were with us.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Danger Sign: Holidays Ahead

I was looking through some old posts and discovered I had one entitled I Wish I Had A River . . .

I still wish. And wouldn't you know that, while I couldn't find a performance by Joni, I did find one by Allison Crowe, she of my favorite Hallelujah cover.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Just Wondering . . .

Whether any of this stuff is worth trying to publish . . .

I'm thinking that this blog has about run its course. I said I'd write it for a calendar year, which ends in two and-one half months, but it's been more than a year that I've been writing about loss, and in December I'll probably move whatever I have to say over to my Advent blog anyway . . .

And now . . . I have to get on with the business of discernment about The Future, and I get it: I will have to live everything through this filter of horrifying, heartrending loss, but that doesn't mean that I can't live it, whatever "it" is, and that it will be without meaning or value.

Whatever "it" is will be different than anything I could have ever imagined when I began seminary two years ago, if only because my vantage point is so radically altered.

Truthfully, I have no idea what to do next.

PS ~ Subsequent and perhaps mysteriously related thought: I have just realized that after 13.5 months my ability to remember things from one minute to the next is more or less back.

I think maybe I like it better the other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is the text I am working on for my exegetical (interpretative) paper in Hebrew this fall. For those unfamiliar with seminary-ese: we take two quarters to learn the rudiments of a Biblical language, and then a quarter to work on the process of researching and explaining a text ~ the work one would presumbably do before writing a sermon.

I chose Psalm 88 because it is the only of the 150 psalms of unrelieved anguish. Each of the other psalms of lament, of which there are many, at some point finds its way back towards an offer of praise to God, a sense of relief, of thanksgiving, of homecoming. Not 88.

It was the only Scripture I could stand to read or pray with for months after Josh died.

Walter Brueggemann, that famous scholar of the Hebrew Bible, calls Psalm 88 "audacious." I personally find much in the way of hope hidden between its lines; only a speaker who has at one time felt the near and intimate presence of God would cry out in such bold and accusatory heartbreak.

A big chunk of my research is complete, and I'm going to write more about it. For now, this is the translation I think I've settled on. I've tried to arrange it so that much of the literary technique jumps off the page. Or computer. Not sure what Blogger will do with it ~ this may take a few tries. (Nope ~ I can't make it work.)

1. A song; a melody; for a son of the Korahites. To the leader, according to Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil for Heman the Ezrabite.

2. Lord God of my salvation,
in the day I cry out, and
in the night, before you.

3. Let my prayer come before your face;
Incline your ear to my ringing cry.

4. For my soul is sated with troubles,
And my life touches Sheol.

5. I am counted with those who go down to the Pit;
I become like those with no help.

6. With those who have died forsaken,
as with those profaned;
Those who lie down in the grave
whom you do not remember,
for they are cut off from your hand,

7. You have put me in a pit of lowest places,
in the depths of dark places.

8. Your rage rests upon me,
and every breaker of yours knocks me down;
each of your breakers humbles me.

9. You have put those who know me far from me;
you have made me an abomination to them,
one who is shut up,
and I cannot go out.

10. My eye becomes dim from afflictions.
I call you, Lord, in every day;
I spread the palms of my hands toward you.

11. Do you do wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up praising you?

12. Is your kindness recounted in the grave;
Your steadfastness in Abaddon?

13. Are your wonders made known in darkness?
And your righteousness in the land of oblivion?

14. But I cry out for help to you, Lord,
And in the morning my prayer confronts you.

15. Why, Lord, do you reject my life?
Hide your face from me?

16. I am wretched, and
I am one who has perished from my youth;
I suffer your terrors;
I am helpless.

17. Your rage has swept over me;
your terrors annihilate me.

18. They surround me like waters all the time;
They surround me completely.

19. You put far from me friend and companion,
Those known to me –


Sunday, October 11, 2009

A New Poll

I'm not really just curious ~ I'm DEEPLY curious.

And I'll probably write more about it.

But for now, do me a favor and try to jam your complex and paradoxical thoughts into one or more of the little boxes in the poll to your right.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Grey's Anatomy ~ Such a Disappointment

When ER was in its heydey, a friend of mine whose husband suffers from multiple and major illnesses said that it was unbearable to watch.

I'm still watching Grey's, but I'm about finished.

Today, out for breakfast with a friend who has sustained some major hits of her own, I verbalized my feelings for the first time and found that she had already had all the same thoughts.

All having to do with the first episode of the season and George's death.

First, the FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF, intoned in a solemn voiceover by Meredith at the beginning of the episode and used to frame it as a nice little package. Make your way consecutively through each stage, check it off as you finish, and voila! -- you have done your grief work and can return to prime time. It takes something like 42 minutes.

Second, the scene between George's mother and the new doc, who had some very nice things to say about George and left Mom beaming, all resolved and grateful. I think we all know that in real life she would have collapsed, sobbing, into his arms, and gone home to stare out the window for many days and months ahead. Maybe years.

Third, the subsequent episodes. Big merger in the works, people losing jobs, Callie applying for a job in Cleveland, Izzie's hair growing back -- everyone all done with the grief thing.

I'm not saying that the show should have turned into a morgue. But we're talking about their colleague of all these years, Izzie's best friend, Callie's ex-husband, Lexie's ex-crush, Meredith's ex-one night stand and, of course, his mother's son . . . Hello? Not a word? No one having a little meltdown at an inappropriate time in an inappropriate place?

I have sadly concluded that my once favorite show is completely idiotic.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Work We Can Do

When I was doing my chaplaincy internship at Famous Giant Hospital summer before last, I described my adventures to my father a couple of times during telephone conversations.

"I could never do that," he would say.

"Of course you could," I said. "You just show up."

During this past year, I have acknowledged that there was more to it than just showing up and that, indeed, my father could not do what I did.

Several years ago, my daughter asked me, "How do you know so much about other people?"

"I ask," I said.

I'm not particularly nosy. Today, for instance, I asked someone how her family was doing, since she had said last week that there were problems. I have no idea what the problems are and no need to know. But when someone is in my care -- a legal client, a student, a patient, a parishoner -- I am not afraid to ask.

People want to share who they are. A client wants to tell you how she discovered her husband's infidelity. A student wants someone to know that he is gay. A patient wants to say that she no longer believes in God. A parishoner wants to talk about the wife who died and left him with a small child.

I don't know why it is difficult for some people to hear the stories of others, but I know from my father, and from many others like him, that it is. I don't know why I can hear them, but I can. It doesn't much scare me that life is hard and confusing, that solutions are elusive, that loss is pervasive. (It scares me some.) I don't like any of those realities, but they don't motivate me to pretend that things are not what they are, and they don't intimidate or silence me.

In the past couple of weeks I have had occasion to learn something about the misconceptions that people tend to have about suicide. The people in possession of those misconceptions will soon be pastors. In one case, there is nothing I can do, but in another, there is.

It seems that in addition to hearing stories I will be telling them.

Today we heard a terrific sermon in chapel. The gist of it was that God may ask us to feed people when we have nothing but five loaves and two fishes. Do things for people. Help people. Be present to people.

I do not have five loaves and two fishes. I have more like a soggy crust. I can absorb the things people share with me and I can communicate them to others, perhaps at times and in ways that will on occasion make a difference.

That's it. My soggy crust.

At least I don't have to figure out to how fillet a fish.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Common

I would hardly put myself in the C.S. Lewis category (thanks, though, Cynthia), but it does seem that the experience of what Lisa so aptly terms "crushing" loss does generate universal responses.

Probably the best book I have read, several times over, in the past thirteen (Oh God, soon to be fourteen) months is Nicholas Wolterstorff's Lament for a Son. It was recommended by several people, and given to me by others. My Greek professor (yes, a friendship had developed out of my interminable struggles with that miserable language) said that she had thought to give it to me a year ago but felt it was too soon. By that time, I had already devoured it. Those of us who read incessantly tend to find what we need, sooner or later.

It's not a book applicable only to those who have lost young adult children, but neither is it for the faint of heart. Wolterstorff, an emeritus professor of theological philosophy at Yale, lost a 25-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident, and does not gloss over either the concrete, bodily details of death and burial or the desperate questions of heart and faith that follow such a tragedy. The vignettes are poignant and honest and brutal; in fact, I think that the book served as a model for this blog.

Sadly, I have had occasion to recommend it to the priest who is my spiritual director, as a consequence of three sudden deaths in his parish a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned last night that he had followed my suggestion to purchase several copies to have on hand, which caused me to return to the book for another perusal, after several months away from it. In light of what I had just written, I found this passage arresting:

"Don't say it's really not so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it's not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. .... To comfort me, you have to come close.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. ... But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It's those who think it's not so bad that need correcting."*

I recall a similar passage in C.S. Lewis as well, which I believe I have also quoted here. (Found it ~ in my other blog, here. Not quite the same, but always worth reading.) It seems that the experience of feeling oneself not heard, of sensing one's feelings being glossed over or ignored, of seeing that others are afraid to stare death in the face as you have been compelled to do, is a common one, and one that demands a forceful protest.

Interestingly, one of my most vivid memories from an early reading of Lament for a Son is of a passage in which Wolterstorff learns of a friend's son's death by suicide. He thinks that that must be easier, to discover that your child did not want to live, and discovers that he is wrong. I myself had thought that it would be easier to lose a child who died doing something he loved, and I was wrong as well. There is no easier. And we all, even those of us who are here in the midst of it, struggle to be present to the rest of us.

* Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1987) pp. 34-35.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Breakfast Part II

I've been mulling over another part of the breakfast conversation.

My friend said, more than once, "All you can really do in this life is choose whether to be happy."
Or something to that effect.

I don't believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. Happiness is a nice side effect, and one that probably a majority of Americans experience much of the time.

Of course, a lot depends upon how you define happiness. But I think it's safe to say that in a world filled with wars, violence, starvation, deprivation, and disease, an awful lot of people do not find happiness in any conventional sense of the word.

The Presbyterian Church teaches that our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. The Catholic Church, that it is to know and love God. My friend St. Ignatius, that it is to praise, reverence, and serve God, or (in more contemporary language), to live with God forever.

Thus those of you who are not religious and from time to time dismiss faith as a crutch or a false source of comfort might see that the purpose of our lives, as stated in major Christian creeds and confessions, is often at odds with comfort.

I can assure you that is not much of an opiate to be told, in the face of the loss of a child, that glorifying God is the chief end of your life.

But as I see it, to say that the point of life is "to be happy" renders our existence virtually pointless, while the alternative, "to know God," offers us dignity and significance.
If all that is available to me in the face of the death of my child is "to choose happiness" ~ well, that seems to me to represent the epitome of triviality. However, if knowledge of God ~ which would also mean knowledge of love, knowledge of ways to remain present to those I care for, knowledge of my life having some purpose ~ remains a possibility, then there is a point to life.

I'm not saying it's easy. And I'm not saying we should seek out misery for ourselves, or view life as a grim narrative of pointless toil or senseless suffering.

But the hard reality is that to know God in the context of Christianity is to know sorrow.

It might seem, then, that it would only make sense to choose the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of knowledge of God.

But really ~ if the choice were placed in the stark relief drawn by the worst kind of scenario, would you choose trivia over dignity and value? And perhaps it is in choosing the latter that genuine happiness lies.


Cross-posted at Search the Sea.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I wrote this in my original blog four years ago. I entitled it "October Is The Cruellest Month," because as of then September wasn't.


I could fill reams of paper with stories of a family under seige, a family marked forever by that relentless stalker, grief. I could write about growing up without a mother, under the twin shadows of loss and alcoholism.

But for today, I simply want to do the events of October 5, 1960 the honor of recording them.

It was a perfectly ordinary day. Everyone says that, according to Joan Didion in the recent Sunday Times article in which she explores the staggering grief she has experienced since the death of her husband. Everyone begins the narrative of sudden and unexpected death with the same preamble. "It was an ordinary day." Even Joan Didion begins with those words, despite the fact that she had spent the earlier part of the afternoon on which her husband suddenly died visiting her daughter, who was in the hospital in a coma.

It was for us, however, really an ordinary day, exactly 45 years ago. I was late to school and missed the bus. I almost always missed the bus, because my mother wanted me to eat breakfast and in second grade I was never hungry that early. As she did almost every morning, my father's mother waved to us from her dining room window as we drove down the hill past her house.

A little later, as she would tell me when I was grown, my mother's mother, who lived a mile away, in town, walked into our house, calling the name of her daughter. Dishes had been left on the table and a load of laundry was running in the basement.

"Carol! Carol?" she called. It was an ordinary morning and she was going to spend it with her daughter and grandsons. She had begun to clear the dishes when my father's mother walked in.

"Oh, Dorothy," she said, in a pained voice that barely emerged from her lips. The two grandmothers looked at each other and thought, This is not happening. This communication that is about to pass between us cannot be.

After she had waved to us, my father's mother, still in her nightgown and robe, had turned back to her kitchen from her dining room. Before she had taken more than a few steps, she heard a thunderous crash from the road below the hill. She grabbed the telephone and called for an ambulance, saying urgently, "I think my family has been in an accident." Then she took off down the hill, running at breakneck speed down the drive and a quarter of a mile down the road.

My mother was already gone. My baby brother died a few hours later, having been transported to Children's Hospital with massive brain injuries. I lay in the ditch, screaming for my mother.

My other brother, who was four and has no real memory of ever having had a mother, is the only one left who has any recollection of the moments before the accident. He says that our mother glanced into the back seat where we were located, and then there was darkness. Apparently we swerved just over the center line as an oncoming car crested the hill in front of us.

When my brother woke up in the hospital four days later, his skull fractured and his elbow shattered, I had been lying there conscious for 48 hours already, weighted down by my full leg cast and abdominal stitches. And by other things. The adults wheeled my tiny brother out of the room to tell him what I already knew, and the hallway stiffened against a child's wails, just as it had two days earlier.

And then we began, my brother and I, murmuring in our hospital beds as the leaves outside the window turned yellow and red, to build our lives anew. We were children, and so we were brave and did not know that we were small.


We are older now. My brother has called me almost every day since Josh died. We are still brave, but now we know that we are small.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Breakfast Break

A good friend and I spent some coffee shop time together yesterday morning.

She asked me if I had found any bit of happiness yet, and was herself unhappy with my answer. We talked about it for quite awhile.

I really like and trust this friend. But she has two daughters who have children, a son just married, and another son (a former boyfriend of The Lovely Daughter!) to be married next summer. And two other wonderful girls. And so I do not expect her, between stints as Mother-of-the-Groom, to have any idea what my life and thoughts are like.

But her (admittedly gentle) exhortations reminded me of something my fellow friend and blogger Joan Calvin said recently, in commenting on the penchant family and friends have for insisting that someone suffering from a serious illness will feel better if she has a positive attitude.

"It will be easier for the family and friends," she notes.

Just added to my little pile of Wisdom Notes:

If someone honors you with a frank revelation of her struggles, try to accept her words as the gift they are, and refrain from telling her how she could be doing it better than she is. She probably isn't burdening too many people with her reality.

(Chuckle: Unless she blogs.)