Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Five Ws

Remember learning the five Ws in elementary school? Who? What? Where? When? Why? And then sooner or later a teacher would add How? to the list, destroying whatever incipient leanings toward alliterative skill you might be developing.

Perhaps those words still constitute the basis of a decent story. I've been looking over some of the blogs I read, and I see that people are beginning the end of the year routines, looking back and looking forward. I have no idea how to do that this year. I don't know whether I will ever know how to do it again. I have no sense of the who-what-where-when-why-and-how of my life. They all run into and pour over one another, and there are holes where smooth transitions should be. I can't make an intelligible narrative out of my life.

The death of a child is so disorienting, so destructive of all that has been and might have been expected, that end-of-year reflections and new-year resolutions seem ludicrous, at best. My life is an odd and confusing mixture of before and after. I still have two beautiful, loving, living children, badly bruised but nevertheless lights of hope in my life. I have returned to my classes and been invited to participate in events that matter to me, and I am proceeding in the ways that I can. I sense that my priorities are shifting in drastic and unpredictable ways, and that perhaps my sense of what matters and what doesn't is being refined in a manner that will enable me to focus the rest of my life in meaningful ways. I struggle mightily to come anywhere close to what six months ago I might have regarded as a reasonable day's work, and I still find large group interaction oppressive and unmanageable, but at least now I want to be part of things again. The letters and cards I receive almost daily remind me that I am surrounded by extraordinarily kind and giving people, people who in this most un-ordinary of times have risen to exceptional levels of generosity and sacrifice.

I suppose that, in the end, the narrative will be about that irritating sixth word, that How? How do you navigate a life that in the course of one phone call was transformed from still water into tsunami ? How do you start all over and create life out of dust and ash?

Some months before our son died, I had begun to wonder whether Search the Sea had run its course. The insistent sense of "search" seemed to have faded and been replaced by a sense of assurance that I was indeed launched into the channel that I would follow for what I hoped would be many, many years. I didn't expect it to be without twists and turns, and I knew that sometimes it would be glassy and smooth and sometimes more akin to the perfect storm, but I was confident in the way itself.

Now: Who knows? Not me.

I don't know whether many people read my Advent blog, but tomorrow I am starting a new one for this next year. I'll keep Search the Sea for now, but I'm going to write about the difficult stuff, to the extent that I can, over at Desert Year. I'll cross-post when it seems appropriate, and maybe everything will end up there eventually. Chalk it up to a life too fragmented for me to comprehend or weld into coherence, at least for the present.

Key West in No Particular Order (2)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Key West in No Particular Order (1)

"They will kill you!"

When I was a little girl and we lived for part of the year in Vero Beach, we viewed Portuguese men o' war as jelly terrorists. Lying in wait on the beach after the tide receded, they would whip their 50-foot long tentacles into the air and snap them around your legs, causing you to gasp for breath and writhe in pain as you succumbed to a slow and tortuous end.

I don't know how we expected them to consume us, or why we thought that they would have any interest in trying. I suppose that logic is not a component of childhood drama.

These days, I view them with a good deal more equanimity.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Gannet's Christmas Recommendations . . .

for those years in which disorientation is an optimistic descriptor:

Not recommended:

A Christmas Eve sermon offering as its theme, "Jesus came so that you could have a better life." Don't even get me started. (Move over, Joel Osteen.)


An afternoon walk through Gulf waters of blue and green followed by a long nap.

Highly recommended:

A Christmas Dinner of grilled shrimp-scallop-and-pineapple kabobs out on the deck.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Not a Usual Christmas Post

I have been thinking a great deal about Mary during this Advent season. A woman who also must have felt uncertainty and dread in those months prior to the birth of Jesus, a woman who also spent Christmas among strangers in an unfamiliar place, a woman who also would experience motherhood as a sword that would pierce her heart.

Last week I received a note from a Presbyterian minister whom I had just met ~ I believe I've mentioned the extraordinary things people have written to me in the months since our son died ~ in which she said that she, too, knows what it is to live on what seems like another planet, one on which the rules of gravity differ from those we thought we understood. I suspect that Mary felt that weight as well.

And yet, she remained loyal to the gift of radiant light entrusted to her. Denise Levertov's poem Annunciation ascribes to her "courage unparalleled" in responding with dignified assent to the life to which God invited her.

Perhaps it is the paradox of Christmas that we are invited to both. To the extent to which we welcome and participate in the life of Christ, so we will enter into the weight of suffering that pervades our world. And perhaps the reverse is true as well: to the extent that we absorb that suffering, so we will encounter the astounding love of our Creator that makes God's donation of self to us possible, a gift offered in our own form, as one of us, through one of us.

This year, unable except on rare occasions to glimpse anything beyond my own grief, I can only speculate. But perhaps, if we wait, in the mysterious paradox of Christmas we find hope and confidence and joy as well.

And so. I wait.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve List

Duval Street Shopping
Frigatebirds over Gulf
Key Deer
Midnight Episcopalians
It looks easier than it is.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I am typing on the deck, surrounded by the tropical vegetation and blue skies of Key West. The image (from a tourist site; you'll have to wait for mine) is what it's like at night. So much for Christmas tradition.

A number of posts today have brought to mind the contrast between Christmases Past and Christmas Now. RevGals talks about how churches handle Christmas traditions, and PresbyOpia picks up the theme with a post on letting go.

For two decades, our home was the Christmas Dinner destination for our friends and, sometimes, parents who ventured in from out of town. QG's post about holiday hostessing got me counting and remembering: for a number of years, there were 11 families, meaning a minimum of 22 adults and 23 kids. There was the year we decided to go Mexican (hence the two pinatas). There was the year that Gregarious Son threw up hot chocolate and another dad and I dragged the dhrurrie rug up to the bathroom to try to wash the stain out in the tub (we failed). The kids remember a hallway light crashing to the floor in response to the joyful tromping of little feet upstairs; if that incident actually occurred, I blotted it from memory immediately.

Year after year, the same families brought the same chairs, the same extra silver, the same food (except for the Mexican year). Musical Friend, sometimes with other women and girls, sang O, Holy Night! as our grace. The tables were always decorated with holly and very cool candles from North Carolina, the piano was always out of tune, and we always sang the same songs around the fireplace after dinner.

It was different only once: the year that Chicago Son spent in France and we joined him there. That December, the Christmas Dinner migrated to Musical Friend's and. from what we heard, she actually got the kids to act out a nativity pageant ~ something I could never under any circumstances have accomplished.

This year, we decided that we could not bear it. We have so many traditions asociated with Christmas, and several of them are particular and personal to our beloved Chicago Son and me. He was always the one willing to respond with a "Sure, Mom, I'll go with you" whenever I came up with a new idea that caused the others to roll their eyes and hunker deeper down into their reading chairs. Without him, I could not imagine any way that it could be Christmas unless, perhaps, Christmas happened somewhere else and in some other way. And so the Christmas Dinner has moved, with four of us in Key West and the rest at the home of our group's own Hostess with the Mostess (who is still going to pull off the usual New Year's Eve gathering a week later, as she has done for two decades as well). In two places we will mark the loss of Musical Friend's Husband and Chicago Son. We will be sharing the same readings across 1500 miles, and we will talk on the phone, and we will acknowledge that almost everything is changed ~ and some of us will hope that one thing has not.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas 1960

This past month, I have been thinking a great deal about my maternal grandmother. Perhaps wondering, rather than thinking, would be a better choice of words, as I never got to know her well. Although she and my grandfather lived only a couple of miles from us, in a small ranch house on the edge of town, she worked as a secretary in the city thirty miles away and had little time or energy for small children. She was always edged out by my paternal grandmother, who lived on the same hillside we did, out in the country, and was able to offer my brother and me endless hours of her own time along with books, card games, art supplies, and a creek.

She was perhaps also edged out, I now think, by the solitude imposed by the grief in which she dwelt, a grief that her natural reticience and the dictates of the culture would have prevented her from sharing with the small children who might have benefitted most from her companionship in loss.

Summer, 1960. Her son, in his mid-20s, was home from the Navy, not yet married, seldom in evidence. Her daughter, my blonde and vivacious mother of three, was the joy of her life. My mother didn't sing in the church choir anymore ~ it was too much on top of managing the children on Sunday mornings ~ but she often stopped by on the week-ends and sang snippets of songs as she helped around the house for a few minutes, until our rambunctiousness propelled us all back into the car. It was a delight to go out to our house as well. Our family had spent the winter and spring in Florida, and my grandmother must have been lonely. But by late summer the gardens that had lain dormant during my mother's pregnancy the previous summer were in full bloom, and my mother was always ready to sit outside and talk, lemonade on the wooden picnic table and the baby sitting happily on a blanket on the grass while the seven (that was me) and four (my brother) year olds ran around in the grass.

I wonder how, or whether, my grandmother even got out of bed on Christmas morning a few months later. I don't remember anything about that first Christmas without my mother and baby brother, which probably means that the adults united in a massive effort to carry it off as usual. My own physical injuries from the October car accident had healed by then; my brother's shattered arm was no doubt still in a cast, but that was part of the new normal for us and did not keep him off his tricycle or away from games. I suppose we plowed through Christmas Day as we did all the others.

But my mother's mother? I imagine her standing in her kitchen that morning, sipping a cup of coffee and staring vacantly out the window overlooking the backyard. I imagine her sitting down at the table and sighing, knowing that she needed to wake my grandfather, wondering whether she had the energy to get dressed. I imagine her dread as she considered her imminent arrival at our house, peopled by two small children bubbling over with Santa excitement, but no daughter to greet her, no baby to hold. I imagine her standing in our kitchen an hour later, reaching out to touch my father's shoulder, wanting to collapse into his arms and sob, but leery of shattering his own carefully constructed facade of well-being and turning the entire morning into a disaster.

My grandmother lived another twenty years, and she lived them all without her daughter and youngest grandchild. I wish so much that I had had the slightest inkling of what that might have been like for her. I wish I had sat down with her at every opportunity and asked her to tell me about my mother and about what it was like to have lost a 28-year-old daughter. I wish I had asked her about their mutual dreams for my baby brother. I wish that I had given some time to that every Christmas, each of which must have been a fresh trauma for her as she watched other families gather and other daughters come by with pies and ornaments and time for visits.

I wish that she had lived long enough to enjoy my own family before tragedy came our way again. Maybe it would have been some solace for her, to have heard my daughter's beautiful singing voice at Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tanner's Annunciation

This might be my favorite painting in the world. All over the internet this time of year, it remains fresh to me. In the past I've liked it because, frankly, Mary looks a lot like I did as a very young woman, and her puzzled expression confirms the likeness.

This year, I've noticed other things. The messy bed. The worn surroundings.

The uncompromising light.

Is that what we pray for, when we are so bruised and fragile that the flames of the advent candles threaten to engulf us in sorrow?

A birth that can lead only to Good Friday, because it is only there that we can be sure that God knows us?

Uncompromising, indeed.

(Cross-posted from Advent blog.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another Advent Meditation

Mosaic of the Nativity, Serbia, Winter 1993
by Jane Kenyon

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking: I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

How can it can be that I've never encountered this poem before? My immediate source is; the print source is Collected Poems (Greywolf Press, 1995).

Friday, December 19, 2008

What We're About

If you've been over to the Advent blog today, then you know that I now count this piece in Quantum Theology as among the loveliest and most compelling of Advent meditations I've ever come across.

It's also been a great impetus for googling "nativity icons." If you click on this one and enlarge it, you'll see that the details are very cool.

16th century Greek Nativity


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Balancing Act

Little Lakes in Winter

It's hard to figure out what the balance is.

I've been back in seminary for three weeks, kept up with the reading, written two papers, missed some meetings, gone to chapel, avoided chapel, hung out talking to people in the library. Most people have no idea what to say to me, some feel compelled to offer the most appalling platitudes, and a very few seem to know how to be present to someone who feels as if she is wandering around on a planet in a distant galaxy. My first real venture outside my protective cocoon of family and friends, and it wasn't easy.

I spent some time one evening with the committee that oversees the ordination process for our Presbytery. Everyone was supportive and encouraging and did what they needed to do to mover things along. In my former life, I tended to exude tremendous zest and stamina, and I am self-aware enough to recognize how steeply that level of engagement has declined. I suppose they must still have seen a spark of the old Gannet, and I am grateful for that, and for their willingness to hang in there with me.

I am exhausted. My estimate is that the grieving process, day in and day out, takes about 500% of the energy required for a normal day in life as usual. Every few hours of effort requires many times over that number to recover. Every encounter with a baby, every strain of Christmas music, every symbol, whether liturgical or secular, is another invitation to the practice of endurance. Our mail carrier is out sick and the substitute has not deigned to come by all week (I finally called the post office tonight), which may be a good thing. Fifteen weeks, and condolence cards are still arriving (well, they were) but now now they are mixed in with those for Christmas and Chanukah. A lot to take in.

The Lovely Daughter is home from Oregon and the sound of her laughter from the living room is a very good thing. My father was supposed to come and visit for a couple of days but decided that the weather was too risky, so we have a clean guest room, if anyone wants to stop by. We have a little tree, mostly decorated. And we have reservations for Key West starting on Sunday, where we are going to continue our efforts to come to terms with lives far outside the orbit of the ones we had planned.

I guess we are all right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thank You, Stratoz

This suncatcher arrived in the mail several weeks ago, a generous one-of-a-kind gift from my friend Stratoz, who sought to offer healing in one of my favorite forms.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of sun to catch, and the window screen doesn't add to the photographic presentation. I think I'll take it back to seminary with me after Christmas, where I may have more luck with both.

But I wanted to make a public thank-you. And the quality of the photo can never match the quality of the gesture of kindness, anyway.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Awhile back, some folks got a little upset with me when I said that one of the least comforting things you might say to someone who has just lost a loved one is, "I can't imagine."

And now I find that I could not have imagined anything as difficult as this Advent.

I can't describe it, not in a public forum. Maybe in another year I will have found words suitable for general consumption. Maybe.

For now, I'm putting some music up on the Advent blog. Not that it helps.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I would go back, if I could. I would go back to August, when I was worn out from my CPE summer and looking forward to a weeklong silent retreat. I would go back to anticipating my second year of seminary, an exciting internship, and more time at home than I had last year. I would go back to being the mother of three living children ~ irritated at one of them for not making it to his cousin's wedding, sorry that another could not join us in North Carolina, curious about another's new romance. If prayer offered magical solutions, I would pray to go back. That life we had ~ it didn't seem that we were asking so much. No boat, no vacation home, no fancy cars; not even the needed plumbing repairs. Three healthy children and the prospect of their futures to enjoy. That was enough. Everything else could have fallen away and that would still have been way more than enough.

But prayer is not magic. Prayer is God with us, us with God. Prayer is listening and noticing. So we don't get to go back but, maybe, in the light trying to break through in December, I can notice some things.

And here is what I have noticed this week. I have, as a consequence of my son's death, received what I think must be some of the most extraordinary missives ever written. Emails, cards, letters -- the form of transmission doesn't matter. The words do. Some are about my son, some about those of us left behind, some about God. There is apparently something about magnitude of loss that drives ordinary people to eloquence.

I literally carry some of this writing around with me. There are moments, many of them, when I think that I will not make it to the next one, and then I read what people have sent me. I read them as prayers, regardless of how they were intended. I look for what God might be saying, in a phrase or a paragraph, and sometimes I see them, small clues to the mystery that binds us together, whether the people who articulated them knew what they were doing or not.

If you have a friend who is longing for someone else this Advent, especially someone who died in the last year or two, sit down this week-end and write a note, or send an email. It might be the most important thing you do this month.

(Cross-posted from Advent blog.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Advent List, Week Two, Year One

1. patience

2. wilderness

3. calm

4. mountains

5. insight

6. valleys

7. vision

8. road

9. memory

10. desire

(Cross-posted from Advent blog.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

RevGals in Real Life

My first RevGals meet-up! ~ it was my pleasure to get to know Joan Calvin over a hot chocolate (mine, of course) and a latte this morning.

We took the requisite shoe portrait, despite the obvious fact that both of us were going for pre-Solstice practicality over fashion. I'm the one with the contorted ankle and the Elphaba socks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More on Attire ~ and Continents

When I told Gregarious Son about the Clothing-as-Identity Discussion, he said,
"Mom, maybe you and Wonderful Friend should stop buying and returning clothes, and accept that you are still yourselves and that your existing wardrobe is just fine."

The problem, I suppose, is that our lives are not fine. And so, neither, are our clothes.

I suppose, though, that we are still ourselves. I have said before that it seems that we grieve as we have lived. Wonderful Friend organized another Wonderful Friend's newly remodeled kitchen the other night. I pour over poetry sent my way by Jesuits. I could not find my way around a kitchen and she would not want to wade through this poetry. We each do what we can.

We are going to Key West for Christmas. "As long as you know that we will not feel any better," said the Lovely Daughter. I do know. What I think I am going for is the outer-edgeness of it -- the edge of the continent cracking and flattening and floating into islands, islands broken off from the mainland and almost submerged in the ocean.

And there I can wear soft t-shirts and my ancient and frayed khaki shorts and be the woman who walks the shore ~ the woman, perhaps, who I most am in a place whose geography will reflect my own.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Do Clothes Make the Woman?

Last night I spent a little time with my group of close women friends. I had looked forward to the evening for a couple of weeks, but in the end I couldn't manage more than about half an hour or so. The day had been a pretty rough one ~ not that anything had happened; I had just been feeling lost in a huge sea of sadness ~ and even a group of six or seven of my closest friends seemed a bit overwhelming.

Two of us there have been paddling the same ocean, and my dear friend who lost her husband last spring mentioned that she has bought more clothes for herself in the past several months than at any time in her life.

"I've been doing a lot of that, too," I said in surprise. "And then I take most of them back."

I thought about it for a minute and then said, "Do you think it's an identity thing? We are not who we were, and we can't figure out who we have become, and so we can't figure out what to wear?"

My friend looked at me and said, "I think you're exactly right."

I mentioned a couple of -- for me -- bizarre examples. A month or so ago, I went off to J. Jill, one of my very favorite stores, and spent quite a bit of money, came home and looked at what I had purchased, and said, "Nope - not me," and took it all back the next day. The night before, I said, I had discovered a website dedicated to Michelle Obama's wardrobe and spent quite some time looking at it. "Maybe I'm Michelle?" I wondered. "No, you are not!" said another friend. "Well, I think she's fabulous, so I guess I've been insulted?" I wondered. "She IS fabulous," said my friend, "and so are you, but you are not her."

OK, I am not tall and lean and athletic, I do not have two little girls, I am not moving into the White House, my skin is surprisingly fair given my dark hair and eyes, I don't really know what The View is, and no one will ever ask my opinion on a state dinner or perhaps anything else ~ true enough, I am not Michelle Obama.

But who AM I now?

Later last night I read a piece in Newsweek by a young woman who, despite a long series of medical challenges ~ disasters, really, in the eyes of most of us ~ insists upon identifying herself as a healthy person. There is a lot to learn here, I thought. Am I a healthy person? Am I a survivor? Can I be those things without losing my connection to my child? Can I be a person at peace in the middle of this huge sea of sadness? In a few years, will I be a minister and/or spiritual director who has learned to balance joy and sorrow? What does such a person look like?

For now, I am going to go out to breakfast with my friends, and then I am going to come home and read Tillich and Torrance and respond to a few more of the condolence notes stacked up in the sunroom. For now, I am going to put on my black corduroy pants, my black clogs, and a baggy turtleneck sweater. For now, I am going to put on clothes that don't work and do things that don't work and try not to wonder too much about my interior evolution, which seems to have a will beyond consciousness.

But I do wonder about that earthshaking question: what do I wear?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Five - Advent Longing

"This space is with me all the time it seems. Sometimes the empty space is so real I can almost touch it. I can almost see it. It gets so big sometimes that I can't see anything else." - Arnold and Gemma 1983, 56I

"It is frequently said that the grief of bereaved parents is the most intense grief known. When a child dies, parents feel that a part of them has died, that a vital and core part of them has been ripped away. Bereaved parents indeed do feel that the death of their child is "the ultimate deprivation" (Arnold and Gemma 1994, 40). The grief caused by their child's death is not only painful but profoundly disorienting ~ children are not supposed to die. These parents are forced to confront an extremely painful and stressful paradox; they are faced with a situation in which they must deal both with the grief caused by their child's death and with their inherent need to continue to live their own lives as fully as possible. Thus, bereaved parents must deal with the contradictory burden of wanting to be free of this overwhelming pain and yet needing it as a reminder of the child who died."


In today's Friday Five, Sally suggests that we list five Advent longings:

"Christ is with us at this time of advent, in the darkness, and Christ is coming with his light- not the light of the shopping centre, but the light of love and truth and beauty.

What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today?"

Five? 100? One. I only have one this year, and that is to learn to live in companionship with the empty space accompanying me all the time, the one that compels me to protect and guard this terrible grief as my connection to the child who is gone while at the same time nurturing its metamorphosis into memories that will renew life for those of us left behind.

Advent is a place of similar incongruence: the infant of light we want to embrace will become the man in the garden, alone and abandoned, with whom we are called to align ourselves completely. Perhaps it is some faint recognition of the agony of that journey that causes us to arm ourselves with the frail weapons of wrapping paper and electronic gadetry. Most years, our culture of advertising and consumerism enables us to pretend that we are not in the wilderness, but some years ~ some years the force of the desert wind flattens everything recognizeable in its landscape.

With all landmarks gone, I long to learn to live within that empty space, that crushing but perhaps vast space I imagine might be filled with the love of the One whose own experience of anguish and transformation creates the pathway winding through it.


(Quotations found

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Getting Back on the Horse

I was so tired of every single day being so damn hard, and the first day back at seminary was another in that long line of days. There were wonderful hugs from people who literally held my hand and put their arms around me when I needed those things ~ when, for instance, a classroom lecture veered into the appallingly insensitive. But there was also that carelessness on the part of a few individuals, there were some of those astounding remarks people make about God's will that tell you that they would be better employed elsewhere, there was my own effort not to suck up all the air in the room in the two small discussion classes in which we introduced ourselves to one another. There was the reality that again and again and again the burden was on me to take the initiative, to be straightforward and open so that others would know that they can be, too.

And then the second day was ~ finally, amazingly, after three months ~a day that might be called a good day. Administrators and faculty put their heads together and put a lot of time into coming up with a creative and generous resolution to some of the scheduling problems created by my having missed a quarter. A faculty member sat down and listened for half an hour, and another walked out of his classroom to give me a hug. A stack of poems arrived by email from Georgetown: Maybe these will help you. And that was all before lunch.

I made it. I made it through all my classes and two lunches and a dinner and some well-meaning but poorly conceived conversations and some wonderful but exhausting conversations. And I sat down afterward and thought: I had no idea whether I should try to go back, no idea whether there was any future for me in ministry or anywhere at all. And now, thanks to countless people who in one form or another said, "We're so glad you're back ~ let's see what we can do to help" ~ now I think that possibly the answer to those questions is something like yes.

So. I'm going back for another try, maybe one that will be a little less tentative, next week.

Monday, December 01, 2008

In the Mail

I just drove the two-and-one-half hours back to seminary and made four or five trips from the car to my room. I didn't bring much stuff, because whether I can actually stand to be in seminary three months after the death of my son remains to be seen. I may say the hell with it by tomorrow night. But for now there is still bedding to put together, and books, and some food.

Opened my computer ~ and here is a summary of the email that arrived while I was en route.

From my Presby church: Announcement of the Christmas party for the folks in my general age-range. Canned food and white elephant gifts desired. I don't want to go to any Christmas parties.

From Best Western: Holiday travel deals in Biloxi, Mississippi. Surprisingly, I don't want to go to Biloxi. (No offense to anyone already there.)

From two Jesuits, from two different cities: Notes and encouragment and prayers.

Have I ever mentioned how lucky I am to have these guys in my life?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Advent: Funeral Ikos

As I was driving home tonight and listening to a CD, I was captivated by the haunting quality of this music. I've heard it hundreds of times but never paid much attention when I have, as the piece is nestled within others far more familiar to me. I don't know why, but tonight it suddenly became very important to me to find the title and lyrics and context. It took quite some research, as I no longer have the CD case or insert, but eventually I came up with the title and composer ~ Funeral Ikos by John Tavener ~ and then the lyrics here, and finally some context here, as follows:

"Despite the fact that the Resurrection of Christ has displaced 'death' as the nexus of human anxieties, it still remains for us, "the" great mystery. The burial service of the Orthodox Church, despite its "assurance of things hoped for" and constant pleas for rest for the soul of the departed, gives voice to our anguish. A series of hymns (Troparia) attributed to John of Damascus (c 675- c.749 ) has been incorporated into the burial service of the Orthodox Church. The anxiety revealed is profoundly real, and engulfed in painfully human queries: Where do they (the dead) go? What do they do? Will we recognize them; and they, us? Will we speak with them? Where is their former beauty? What will become of us? Where is glory?; Where now is status? And to each set of queries, there remains only to proclaim the refrain: Alleluia ! The sequence ends with the single affirmation that, if we could but hear that there is eternal life, then our anxiety would turn to ecstasy. And with hope in Christ, we proclaim yet again: Alleluia! John Tavener (b. 1944) has always produced religious music as an important part of his output. This has accelerated since his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1977. He has explored the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church and filtered them into the mainstream of Western choral and orchestral music."

If you already know this music, then you will understand why, after months of being battered by well-meaning friends and acquaintances, eager to assure me that my beloved son is at peace, will still be present to me if I just wait with enough patience, is in the excellent company of other of the departed, I am relieved to have found a text which delineates the real and anguished questions that all those facile assurances seek to veil. And if you don't know it, give yourself ten minutes or so and listen with the lyrics in hand.

Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren,
which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon, and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not,
neither what shall become of me yonder;
only God who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song:

But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn,
but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them
and make the song:

We go forth on the path eternal,
and as condemned, with downcast faces,
present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us,
but only to say oft the psalm:

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man,
that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
the same shall there deliver thee from want,
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee shelter there,
and sing the psalm:

Youth and the beauty of the body
fade at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely,
and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
and the other parts have become numb,
nor often say:

With ecstacy are we inflamed if we but hear
that there is light eternal yonder;
that there is Paradise,
wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, Enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Twelve Weeks: Endurance

It's sinking in with a heavier weight than ever before.

The Lovely Daughter is in the air somewhere, coming home for Thanksgiving only because her oldest brother is not.

Last year, he did come home, with The Elegant Girlfriend. And for the several years before that, we joined him in Chicago.

Thanksgiving has come to mean the snow falling in front of Marshall Fields' windows, the view from the top of the Sears Tower, the narrow streets of Hyde Park, and the University of Chicago's gargoyles. It has meant hope, as our family's young adult children reunited, reconfiguring relationships and bringing new partners into the fold on the cusp of the much greater hope of Advent.

Now it means endurance.


Late this afternoon I went to the Carmelite monastery, because a Montessori mom of long ago was having the Mass said for Chicago Son. Just as the prayers began and his name was read, another Montessori mom -- and the Lovely Daughter's first and second grade teacher --tramped in from the slush. She had never been to the Carmelites' before, but today for no reason at all she chose to arrive just in time to wrap me in her arms. I had thought that I would be all right, but I wasn't. Thank God for her decision tonight.

Afterward, a few people offered what they thought were words of comfort.



I look around town and around the blogosphere and I see that, ready or not, the holidays are upon us. Thirty-eight days until January 2. Seems like a long time until this season comes to an end. I thought that maybe I would try to write my way through Advent, but now I think not. The metaphors that come to mind to describe my outlook are too raw for public consumption.

Lent cannot come soon enough for me.



And finally, for those of us for whom Advent this year will be a constant reminder of the hope that we long to find in its fullest meaning, I offer this, picked up on The Mercy Blog:

Give me your failure; he says I will make life out of it. Give me your broken, disfigured, rejected, betrayed body, like the body you see hanging on the cross, and I will make life out of it. It is the divine pattern of transformation, and it never seems to change.

We'll still be handicapped and terribly aware of our wound, but as St. Augustine says, "In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me." Our wound is our way through. Or as Julian (of Norwich) also put it, at the risk of shocking us, "God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honours… For he holds sin as a sorrow and pain to his lovers. He does not blame us for them." (Chapter 39, Showing 13, Revelations of Divine Love) We might eventually thank God for our wounds, but usually not until the second half of life.

Richard Rohr, from
Everything Belongs

No Changes in Desolation

I usually think that I understand something when I read it. Unless maybe it's Aquinas, in which case I know that there's no hope. (Actually, with respect to most philosophers - the truth is, I have no idea what they're talking about.) But in general, I read something and I get it.

Except I don't. Living through something is always so different.

"No changes in desolation," Ignatious tells us. Or, more precisely,

"In time of desolation we should never make any change but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision that guided us the day before the desolation...".

People have been dissecting the Ignatian Rules for Discernment for centuries. There's a lot of subtlety to them, which means that they are trouble for a person like me who thinks that she's understood something when she's read it.

Let's just say again: things are always harder in real life.

What it boils down to: if you've made a good decision, one that has been confirmed many times over in all sorts of ways, then you don't give up or run away or turn back or completely change your life in a time of turmoil and darkness.

Soap opera plot lines, I think, turn on violations of this rule. Their characters are always impulsively entangling themselves in situations (usually involving sex) in times of desolation, thereby offering the writers material for decades to come and endearing themselves to the rest of us, whose inclinations for self-destructive behavior parallel theirs exactly.

In real life, I am watching from the periphery as someone I know is making (yet again) a big change in a time of desolation. It seems that one of the tell-tale signs of a decision made in turmoil is oblivion to its effects on others; apparently, tunnel vision is a hallmark of desolation.

In my own life -- well, as I said, it's hard. It would be a lot easier to let my impulses carry me. To skate away on that river. I can't skate and I hate being cold, but it would still be easier.

No changes in desolation. The words, printed or spoken -- they look and sound so simple.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I wish I had a river . . . I could skate away on . . .

When she's asked about how she's been doing in the past year, she's silent for a very long time. "I guess it's always changing," she says. There's another pause. "What else can I say?" Her voice is breathy and fragile, and she takes a few gulps of air. "I just wake up each day in a slightly different place—grief is like a moving river, so that's what I mean by 'it's always changing'." She stops again. "It's a strange thing to say"—her words unravel slowly, her eyes tear up—"because I'm at heart an optimistic person, but I would say in some ways it just gets worse. It's just that the more time that passes, the more you miss someone. In some ways it gets worse. That's what I would say."

Michelle Williams on Heath Ledger, in Newsweek.

Or it could be Gannet on Chicago Son, in general.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mysteries of Language and Context

"When Schoettgen scored, the Bearcats had just eight rushing yards on seven carries. Adjustments in blocking assignment and timing helped WU enter the locker room at halftime with 121 yards on the ground, including 107 on seven carries by Horne. Leslie ended the half 7 of 12 passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns."

I don't know what the terms "rushing yard," a "carry," a "blocking assignment," or "yards on the ground" mean. Consequently, the above paragraph, from an article about The Lovely Daughter's college football team's success in its first playoff game yesterday is, like the rest of the piece, virtually unintelligible to me. (I do know what Willamette bearcats are, since we all have t-shirts depicting them. And I know that they won, because I can read the score. That's about the extent of my personal football IQ.)

It's my own fault, of course. Football has never been of much interest to me. The Quiet Husband and Gregarious Son are at a pro game as I write, but I wouldn't have wanted to go even if I hadn't been as miserably sick with some kind of virus as I am. To me, football is a bunch of (usually) guys running back and forth and back and forth in a decades-long pursuit of an odd-shaped ball with an enthusiasm that utterly mystifies me. To tell the truth, most of the time the location of the ball in play is also a (complete) mystery to me, which might explain the speed with which I relapse into stultified boredom as soon as I settle into the stands at a game. The Lovely Daughter had a lot more fun at that playoff yesterday than I would have.

And why am I writing about this? I think it's because I'm trying to figure out how to reclaim my life, and the language and context have changed. Whatever a rushing yard and a locker room might have been for me three months ago, they aren't anymore. I read the article on the game and I thought, "Oh, this is just like my life. Completely incomprehensible."

So. I'm going to go back to school in another week or so. I think it might be easier to make an adjustment in a blocking assignment.

Whatever that means.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tomorrow: Christ the King Sunday

Giotto, Christ Entering Jerusalem, 1304-1306.

My experience of the past twelve weeks has been one of unimaginable loss. And the idea of the unimaginable has become something of a theme of this blog, as some of us have tried, in posts and comments, to wander around in it, exploring and bending and stretching and pushing against it, trying to fathom that which is not, in the end, fathomable.

Those are pearls that were his eyes . . . .

I have been trying to imagine Advent under these circumstances and I can't ~ not unless it, too, means something beyond ordinary human comprehension.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am so taken with Christ the King Sunday, the last one of the liturgical year, in that it touches upon that mystery. We know the story about to unfold again; we take it for granted: strange dreams and visitations, an ordinary birth, and a child who will become a king who rides a donkey, the same beast of burden which carried his mother toward her labor in an obscure cave. He will eventually be honored around the world as a king in representations reflecting our more usual understanding of the title, but he will be the kind of king who offers himself to those who mourn, who are hungry, who are impoverished, in every sense of the word.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Five

I had been thinking that I might do the RevGals' Friday Five today, but it's about cooking and baking and kitchen appliances, so I have virtually nothing to contribute. And I have a bad cold, so no one would want me to produce anything relative to food even if I could.

Herewith, then, five (or so) things on today's to do list in lieu of contemplation on the subject of food processors:

1. Some laundry.

2. Wash last night's dishes and clean up the kitchen.

3. Watch
Into Great Silence and 4. try to figure out way to become Carthusian monk in French Alps.

5. Go and see spiritual director.

6. Sleep a lot.

7. Send {{{{{virtual hugs}}}}}to Jennifer and others who have shared their stories of loss over the past months.

8. Find today's art: Antonia MacGregor, Stained Glass Abstract of Sea, here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Window into Grief: The Holidays, Round One

People tell me that the holidays and celebrations the second and third year are the worst. You are somewhat braced for the first round, they say. But then you look up and say, All right, I survived ~ and what do you get? Another year of celebrations, along with the knowledge that this is, indeed how it will be from here on out. He will not be back.

But we are only coming up on the first season. And I've been reading the advice to the newly bereaved: Stay out of the stores. Cut back on the decorations and other household traditions. Know that everything will remind you of everything. Go away.

The Lovely Daughter is coming home for Thanksgiving, something she did not do during her first three years of college, and we are going to the Quiet Husband's parents' home for a day or two. Gregarious Son announced that he and his sister had vetoed what he described as "a pathetic dinner at home with the four of us and a microwaved turkey." "Forget the turkey," I said. "Our point exactly," he responded."

And then comes Christmas. For awhile I was loathe to abandon our 20-plus year tradition of hosting many of our friends for a sit-down feast and conversation late into the evening, but the same son pointed out that I am only just now up to a dinner out on occasion. And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do not want to be here at all. Christmas has long been a time of deep religious significance for me, but memories of the last 24 of them are completely intertwined with joyful memories of our children, and many of those memories are specific and individual to Chicago Son.

What to do? Where to go? Where can we flee from Christmas? Pakistan? offered the Quiet Husband. Baghdad? suggested a friend.

Of course, one cannot flee from Christmas. One cannot flee. One can run away from the commercial trappings, from the traditions, from what now register as oppressive expectations. But not from Christmas itself. The insistence of the calendar means that it will come, whether or not we are ready. And the readings at our son's Memorial Service - Psalm 139 and Romans 8 -- take on a new layer of meaning.

I don't know yet what we will do for Christmas. I don't think that it will be here, but the decision will only come after much family discussion. It may involve palm trees, or a desert, and candles at midnight in a place we've never been. I just don't know.

For myself, the lone religious voice in our household, there will need to be something more. Advent in past years has been a time of quiet reflection for me. This year I am not going to be looking for cosmic significance. This year I am going to try to look for a moment of peace in each day. Such a find would be momentous indeed. This year the hope resides in one of the readings from our Lessons and Carols service last year: Will you come into the darkness of tonight's world?


(Image: Stained Glass Window by Barbara Joyce,
here. )

First Try (Eleven Weeks)

I am writing this from, of all places, seminary. I drove over last night for a meeting; today I need to pay my six month old bookstore bill and try to see a few people.

The meeting was fine; I was fine; I was a participant; I made some great connections in the local community of spiritual directors. (Sorry, Stratoz.) If you've been reading, you know that as little as a week ago, none of that would have been possible.

Fine is a relative term, I suppose. The whole place seems surreal to me. How odd to walk around with a body, mind, and heart that have been completely shattered in a context that remains unchanged.

I still have no idea whether I can return to classes for the second quarter, which begins after Thanksgiving. Minute by minute, I guess, and eventually the minutes pile up into a day, and then another one, and another one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Page 56 (Spiritual Direction)

Well, a few intrepid souls were willing to face down that snarling dog in my previous post, but I figure it's time for something a bit lighter.

The most recent meme making the rounds: pick up the book nearest to you (no cheating; you can't replace Danielle Steel with Dostoyevski), turn to page 56, and copy down the fifth sentence.

When I read that challenge, I was in bed with the laptop and three books tossed around on my cozy red fleece blanket. From page 56 of the closest one:

"The first point to be made is an obvious one: It is not finally helpful for prayer or Christian living to base it on a delusion."

The book is
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J, Connolly; the context is their discussion of the relevance of modern scriptural scholarship to spiritual direction.

There must be many novice spiritual directors who have come to adore the work of William A. Barry, S.J., perhaps starting with
Letting God Come Close: An Approach to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I have so many page corners turned down in that one that I might as well go ahead and memorize the whole thing.

It's a lot better than memorizing Greek paradigms.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grief as a Vicious Dog

Head of snarling Dog by Mr. Wood in Charles Darwin,
Expression of the Emotions

A Dream:

I am in Chicago, in the long and dark hallway of an old house, trying frantically to dislodge the teeth of a small black dog which has bitten into my middle finger and refuses to let go. A few people walk through the hallway, but no one knows how to separate the dog and me. They shake their heads and mutter unintelligibly to themselves and move on.

Hours go by. In a fog of pain, I doze off, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. At some point, half-awake and half-asleep, I realize that the dog, too, has fallen asleep and that its lower jaw has slackened, its teeth slipping out of my finger. Careful not to awaken the dog, I pry his upper teeth out and put the him gently on the floor. I look curiously at my throbbing finger, now colored a deep bluish-purple and grotesquely swollen and misshapened. There is nothing to be done about it. I get up off the floor, and walk out of the house at sunset into a vast residential neighborhood I do not recognize.


Various pertinent scraps of information I've found:

If you see dogs as loyal companions and friends in real life, a dog biting you in a dream might symbolize a betrayal of love and loyalty. The middle finger may represent practicality, hard work, committment, or maybe potency and strength. (Think of it raised in a defiant or menacing gesture.)

I suppose it speaks for itself: a dream of almost complete desolation. Maybe a shred of consolation in the fact that I am able to walk out into unknown territory. Path and destination unclear, but walking.


As it happens, this dream is a few nights old, and does not reflect my feelings today. This morning, with a wintry sun forcing its way through the clouds to light the inch or so of snow on the ground, looks to be something of an up day. But I'm posting the dream anyway. Now what intrigues me is how gently I put that dog down. And I don't think that my response has anything to do with liking dogs in real life.

Perhaps the significance lies in how we respond to pain or, rather, the memory of that which has caused us pain. Accepting, honoring, absorbing ~ not resisting ~ our experience ~ that may be what propels us through unknown neighborhoods toward uncertain destinations.

It is a sign of health, of course, to try to disengage from a potentially rabid dog. But it does not necessarily follow that one should then kick it down the hallway.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


If you've been around much, you may have noticed that I've been fiddling with my blog. I can't do much of what I want within the confines of blogger templates -- not enough color and font and sizing and layout choices. I think I've conceded defeat and concluded that the best I can do is change the colors to reflect the reality of winter.

I finally got with the rest of the world and signed up for bloglines, which so far has only worked about 30% of the time. There are a lot more blogs on my account than on the spiffy list here, the one that offers hints of what folks are writing about, but there isn't room to list them all on the blog. Since bloglines is down more than up, I am still making frequent rounds. And I haven't gotten everything onto one list or the other yet, which means I am still missing some blogs I love. All in due time.

And no, I never did figure out Big Pictures. Apparently the key is a flickr account, but the last thing I need is something new to keep track of. There are some Big Pictures showing up here when I link from other sites, but I have no idea how that is happening.

Blogging has turned out to be something of a long term activity for me. I like the variety of stuff out there. I like making friends whom I would be unlikely to encounter in real life, if for no other reason than that they live in Tennessee and Oregon and Texas. I like being able to process my own life stuff with a little feedback, and I'm amazed by the commonalities some of us uncover despite different experiences, politics, theologies, and values. I'm often sorry when I read and comment on a blog for awhile with no return visits, but then it's kind of interesting to speculate (for a minute anyway) why someone whose writing and/or life I find intriguing finds mine to be of no interest whatever. On the other hand, the support extended to me in the past months, some from bloggers I've known for years and some who have just shown up, has been moving and much appreciated. I have felt surrounded here in the virtual world as well as out there in the concrete world.

I've been self-censoring a lot during this time period. There are a couple of posts coming up that veer close to reality, which tends to lurch back and forth between despair and hope. But much of what I have to say these days would melt my laptop into a little heap of smoldering metal. When I think of the word housekeeping, it seldom refers to cute little redheads wielding umbrellas against the rain. Marilynne Robinson's novel of family disintegration and survival skills is more like it - once the train plunges into the depths of that icy lake, all bets are off, and chaos and tenacity vie for supremacy in the life of the human family. Yes, that's closer.

But for today, changing the colors is the best that I can do. And the redhead is sweet. I might have been a little like that at six.

Friday, November 14, 2008

College Retreat

Jesuit Retreat Center
Guelph, Ontario
August 2007

People often ask me what spiritual direction entails. In my own Presbyterian tradition it's pretty much an unknown -- unheard of, actually -- practice, and people who have heard of it tend to associate it with spiritual disciplines and lists of "must dos," with therapy, with "some kind of wierd medieval Catholic stuff."

Spiritual direction involves helping someone with her prayer life, with her unfolding relationship with God: helping her to see God's self-communication to her in her life, and to grow and respond in that relationship. In the technical books, spiritual direction is identified to as a form or subset of pastoral care. Sounds kind of dry and mechanical. But in reality, there is nothing dry or mechanical about listening to and supporting a person who is engaged in a growing consciousness of her encounter with God. I am constantly in awe of the process, and decidedly aware of the privilege and responsibility of accompanying someone on this particular journey.

This past week, the students who signed up for the college retreat were committing themselves to some time in prayer each day, which I'm sure they managed with varying degrees of success, and to an hour a day with a spiritual director, for which I think all of them did show up. Materials had been prepared for them, and included various readings from scripture and from lives of people who have made a difference in the world, along with questions for them to consider each day. They were free to use the materials or not, to address the prescribed questions or not, and to raise their own questions about their personal challenges and dilemmas. As directors, our tasks were to listen, to help them explore the materials, to listen, to suggest other possible avenues of focus for them, to listen, to suggest ways of praying, to listen ~ all of it with the goal of helping them learn a little more about prayer, about how they themselves might look for and listen to God.

College students are just like the rest of us. They love the discovery that attentiveness to God as they walk across the campus consitutes prayer. They love the substance of prayer that emerges from a leisurely perusal of a text, stopping every few phrases or sentences to ask how what they've just read is reflected in the concrete events and activities of their own ordinary days. They love that another person is willing to listen closely to them and to take seriously the growth of their relationship with God, honoring their struggles and noticing their successes and tailoring suggestions to their needs.

I love all those things, too, especially the part where someone listens to me and takes seriously my own life of prayer. And so it seems to me to be a profound gift, this chance to share and foster, just a little bit, another individual's life with God.