Monday, September 29, 2008

Four Weeks: One Turns to C.S. Lewis

It occurred to me last night that perhaps Lewis's A Grief Observed would help. Of course, I couldn't find it. So I went to Amazon and extracted the following quotes, which seem to me to reflect the universal experience of anguish in grief. Your mileage may, of course, differ, particularly if your experience is one more of observation than immersion. Many of the Amazon reviews note that the tone of A Grief Observed, written in the aftermath of the death of Lewis's beloved wife, differs considerably from the detached, scholarly (and, one might say, clueless) tone of his much earlier The Problem of Pain.

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."

My version? Dozens, maybe hundreds, of the cards and emails I have received have assured me of the comfort God provides. In the past few days I have found some relief in opening cards from two friends in which they tell me how long the cards have rested on their kitchen windowsills as they have stared at them, wondering what to say, until finally they concluded that there is nothing at all to say beyond the much longed-for "We are here." (Of course, I accept all the other mail in the same vein. We are all doing the best that we can.)

"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy . . . if you remember yourself and turn to [God] with gratitude and praise, you will be - or so it seems - welcomed with open arms. But go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you feel? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside . . . ".

My version, as expressed to my spiritual director, was far less eloquent and a good deal more profane.

"The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"


There is, of course, more. But I am only on the threshold of this journey.
From today's Inward/Outward:

The Deepest Levels of Being
~ by Edward Farrell

Prayer is a waiting. It is hunger; it is love. Prayer is a relatedness, and prayer is a stillness. A primary dimension of prayer is receiving, is learning to listen.... Prayer is a growing; it is a discovering; it is a communion.... Prayer is an inscape, a totality of the universe experienced in the most minute atom. Prayer, rightly understood, is an expression of the deepest levels of our being.

Source: Prayer Is a Hunger

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I keep thinking that it did not happen. Any minute now the front door will slam and he will call, "Hi, Mom!"

A friend whose husband died in a biking accident in the metroparks says that she thinks the same thing. "I imagine him standing in the doorway and saying, 'Hey, I've been lost in the Park for four years ~' "

I wonder how we can ever move out of this house. If he comes back, he won't be able to find us.

My friend says that when she sees changes around town ~ a new paint job, or a new building ~ she thinks. "He won't recognize where he is."

There is an article in today's paper about a woman who lost her 28-year-old daughter a year ago to a sudden wave that washed her out to sea from a spot near Manarola on the walk at the Cinque Terre. We walked that same walk as a family on our 2000 trip to Italy. The mother, who was ordained to ministry a couple of months after her daughter died, notes that the experts says it takes four to seven years to recover from the death of a child. I have watched my father for what in another week will be 48 years. Obviously the experts are clueless. I assume that by "recover" they mean reaching the state the mother's blog reveals today, a blend of hopeful joy in life and anguished sadness and distress in loss. Or maybe they don't mean anything at all.

At the root of Ignatian spirituality is the conviction that God is to be found in all things. Yesterday I began to wonder, for the first time and in the most tentative way, where God might be found in this. A beginning, I thought.

And in the afternoon I accepted my CPE supervisor's invitation to sit out on the beach with her at sunset and I talked nonstop for more than an hour. In May I thought that I was doing CPE this summer to meet a Presbytery requirement. And then in July I thought that I was doing it so that I would discover the work I would want to do for the rest of my life. And now in September I think that maybe I was doing it so that I would gain a friend who can look death directly in the eye, because I would need her only a few weeks later.

Last night I paged through the guestbook from the funeral home. People from California, from New York, from North Carolina, from Arkansas. Rabbis, priests, nuns, ministers. People I have met once or twice in person via the internet. People I have known my entire life. Our son's teachers and classmates from Montessori preschool through middle school, from high school, from college, colleagues from work.

One person said that night, "I thought you said that Montessori school was small. Is the entire school here?"

A phone call from France. "I am so sorry I cannot come; it is just so far...".

We asked that memorial contributions be sent to the summer camp he so loved as camper and counselor. Word has come to us that the camp directors are responding to every gift with a personal note.

Just the thought of God's grace at work is disorienting and exhausting. But perhaps it is there ~ in the friend who sits at the kitchen table sharing ash-scattering stories, in the people who drive or fly for hours to share a few minutes with us, in the evening light over the beach.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Starting Again

This morning I thought that maybe I would try to start to pray again.

It seems such an improbable task, one requiring such courage, to seek Presence in the vast emptiness that lies endlessly and silently before me.

What came from today's music and text
here was too raw to process here.

The wind goes round and round.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On Another Topic: Mad Women

In the past few days, I have watched the entire first season of Mad Men and most of the second. In my need for something to take my mind off the life I have been handed, I have become completely addicted.

As I have mentioned, the rampant sexism of the early 1960s is on display as an overarching theme and in every detail of this brilliant production. I've been thinking a lot about the women characters:

Betty (Bryn Mawr) ~ childlike wife of ad genius Don, with her intelligence and sexuality simmering rapidly toward explosion.

Helen (Mount Holyoke) ~ scorned by the neighborhood housewives due to her status as a "divorcee' " and her job in a jewelry shop.

Joan (Radcliffe? BU? I tend to think perhaps the latter on the basis of her roommate's reference to having seen her on the first day of college walking across the "Common" rather than the "Yard," but maybe the writers thought the former allusion would be more accessible to viewers) ~ the office manager with a figure that seems to grow more pronounced with every episode and a pragmatic desperation that enables her to keeps tabs on every type of temperature in the office.

Rachel (Brandeis? Barnard?) ~ exotic (to Don, because she is Jewish) and adult, a businesswoman whose mind gleams with ambition.

Peggy (no college, no husband) ~ whose quixotic combination of innocence, intelligence, and drive are pushing her out of the secretarial pool and into the no-woman's land of copywriting.

The fashions in this "Marilyn or Jackie?" world (one of the running metaphors of the series) highlight both the narrow path each woman walks and the barriers she seeks to circumnavigate:

Betty ~ form-fitting bodices and full skirts, breasts and waist accentuated and hips hidden under the petticoats of a little girl, the madonna of her era.

Helen ~ pencil skirts marking a return to the dating world and cardigan sweaters a nod to her status as mother of two.

Joan ~ full figure molded by armoured undergarments and poured into her clothing, exuding her own confusing and distracting blend of office professionalism and blatant invitation.

Rachel ~ elegant suits and elaborate hairstyles, the businesswoman who longs for genuine love.

Peggy ~ the wardrobe of a young adolescent trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs, hiding the reality of a pregnancy she could not believe in and an ambition equally mystifying to her.

Who would I have been?

Peggy, I suppose. When we were a year into Mount Holyoke, one of my friends and I decided we should drop out and go to Katie Gibbs, where we might learn to type and thus become actually employable. We harbored no dreams of finding husbands in the cool elegance of Boston office buildings, however; our plan was to make enough money to head for British Columbia and some kind of adventurous outdoor life. Like Peggy, we were somewhere in the middle ~ uncertain about who we were, dissatisfied with the role models of the past, unsure about how to create a different kind of future.

Three years later, I was in law school. I hope Mad Men remains a success so that we can watch how its women veer out of the roles the 1950s seemed to have preordained for them.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Like This

You get out of the shower and put back on the pajama bottoms and t-shirt that you slept in and crawl back into bed and the phone rings and it's the coroner two states away and you talk to him and then you sit in the middle of your heap of sheets and blankets with your hair dripping wet and you stare at the wall for awhile.

You watch five episdoes of Mad Men in a row because the storyline distracts you for five or ten consecutive minutes at a time and the rampant sexism opens the door to a new understanding of what you were once up against as a young female attorney and that gives you something else to think about for another five minutes.

You try to frame an email to the church where you are supposed to be working but you can't figure out how to do that.

You stand between two Jesuits in their kitchen and realize that even the people who know more about prayer than anyone else on the planet are not going to be able to do anything at all except accompany you through this because even they cannot produce the only thing you actually want.

You spend an hour on the phone with your seminary advisor and realize that some other part of you that isn't you anymore longs to re-engage intellectually and go back and take the class on Tillich and you realize at the same time that the past four months have rendered you incapable of sitting through lectures on pastoral care any time in the near future so you can't figure out what to do about seminary either.

You realize that all those vases your grandmother had must have arrived with flowers after your mother and brother died because now you find yourself emptying and washing vase after vase after vase.

Your other son goes off to his new job for the evening and it occurs to you that people still go out to restaurants to eat.

That's sort of what it's like, but not really.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sea Change

My friend Lisa writes about the ordeal of sharing in someone else's grief, and about trying to find appropriate words.

There are none.

I am not so unacquainted with grief, you know. I was seven when my mother and baby brother were killed in an automobile accident, seventeen when my first stepmother died after a fall, in my mid-twenties when my aunt got out of bed one morning and collapsed and died. (She also left behind a seven-year-old, as well as two teenagers.) It's only been a few years since I held a beloved stepmother's hand as she succumbed to cancer.

During the one day I spent on retreat at the end of August, I spent my entire time with my spiritual director talking about my summer CPE and realizing that, much as I had loved it and begun to suspect that I might have found my deepest calling in life, I had also been traumatized by a summer in which I watched people, usually at least two or three, die almost every single day, and in which I tried to create some space for an encounter with God, recognized or not, for the devastated members of their families. The deep sense of loss that I have carried with me since I was seven widenened into a vast lake, encompassing the reality that eventually washes over all of us.

I have no platitudes. No words of comfort. No certainty. My faith has always been more about doubt than conviction. I have been showered with great gifts and graces throughout my life, most of them marked by laughter and love and joy, but among them I must number a knowledge of a darkness so bright that I can barely look at it sideways.

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange....

The Tempest, I. ii.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Some weeks ago, I said to someone dear to me, "So you are 78 and I am 55. What have you learned in the last 23 years that I need to know?"

And he talked about three things, one of which is memory ~ the importance of its role in shaping our understanding as we grow older. The particular example he offered had to do with how his own understanding and appreciation of his mother has developed and changed as he has sifted through memories that reveal much more to him now than they did some years ago.

I have had occasion to think a great deal about memory in the past two weeks - in a confused and fractured kind of way. And then someone sent me the homily from our son's memorial service, which at the time I had had little ability to grasp. Here is the first paragraph:

"At the conclusion of the great Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov, a group of boys is standing at the graveside of one of their deceased companions, Ilyusha. Alyosha, the adult at the gathering says this: 'I want you to understand, then, that there is nothing nobler, stronger, healthier, and more helpful in life than a good remembrance…you often hear people speak about upbringing and education but I feel that a beautiful, holy memory preserved from early childhood can be the most important single thing in our development. And if a person succeeds, in the course of his life, in collecting many such memories, he will be saved for the rest of his life. And even if we have only one such memory, it is possible that it will be enough to save us.' "

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Two Weeks

1. A friend of mine who has been through this experience says that she believes that it changes you at a cellular level. I think she is right.

2. I went to mass again tonight. I should have taken a look at the Catholic lectionary for today first. I left in the middle.

3. I did a lot of other things today, including making a six-hour round trip drive with my other son to pick up some things from his apartment. He is going to live with us for awhile.

It's hard to remember the life we had two weeks ago.

Monday, September 15, 2008

About Something Else

Perhaps I should not even post this. Perhaps I will regret it and take it down. After all, I haven't yet come up with a way to get out of bed today.

But ~

I have been vaguely aware of national politics for the last week or so. And I have been reading my usual smattering of blogs, which cover a wide political and theological spectrum.

What I am really struck by, in the starkness of life as I now live it, is the unhappy reality that there are, indeed, two sets of views that are almost completely irreconcilable. In the church and in the nation.

I have read some religious posts so at variance with what I know and believe of God that I can hardly believe that they were written by people in my very own denomination. And they are always roundly applauded by a host of commenters. The adjectives that I would use are quite different, but I know that I am in no shape to respond with a modicum of decorum, so I will limit myself to saying: I finally get it. I finally get it when some say we simply cannot be in the same church.

And Sarah Palin? I had a great deal of respect for John McCain the man, if not for his politics, but that's evaporated. Again, I think it prudent to limit my comments, other than to say that if the Republican ticket is elected I will, for the first time, start thinking about my father's idea of moving to Canada. And yet -- I have friends, people whom I like and admire greatly, who are enthusiastic about her nomination. How does that work? How can we be so completely at odds in our respective visions for this country?

Perhaps it has been ever thus.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mass with the Carmelites

That's where I've gone the past two Sunday mornings. I can't go to my own Presby church, full as it is of celebratory beginning-of-the-year-ness. I need a mass that is a sacrifice. For those of you familiar with the Ignatian Exercises, my life now is an immersion in Week 3. Week 4 looks light years away. And I need a place where I don't know anyone.

So today, of course, an acquaintance of mine, mother of former classmates of my children, was there, and came up and asked me whether I knew any of the sisters. "A couple of them," I said. "Would you like to be introduced?" "No," I said. I tried to soften it. "Another time."

Of course, there are things I miss. The celebrants are always male and, so far, not trained in preaching Protestant-style. It is often difficult to follow the homilies. They seem to be thoughtful and well-prepared, but the delivery somewhat misses the mark. Nevertheless, I get bits and pieces. From last week:

Know yourself. (Socrates)
Be yourself. (Cicero).
Give yourself. (Jesus).

And from this morning:

Sometimes people are under the impression that faith is like being covered by a huge electric blanket. But it is much harder to believe than it is not to believe. (Flannery O'Connor).

I have no idea what the point of either homily was, and the quotes are unlikely to be accurate. Close enough, though.

I did go and speak to one of the sisters this morning. I suppose it is of those degrees of separation things. A couple of years ago, my former spiritual director had preached there (and he is, in fact, a brilliant preacher) and referenced my photographs of Chartres Cathedral. She had talked to him about it, and he had asked me to call her, which I did. We never did get together to talk about Chartres, but we did meet, walking around the Little Lakes one day, and so today I re-introduced myself and told her a little of the circumstances of my being there.

The Carmelites pray all the time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Not for Prime Time

In my comments, people write that my entries are "raw" and "authentic."

In reality, I am filtering and censoring every thought.

My interior truth is not for a public forum.

Prayers are still appreciated. I have seldom been one to find much in the way of comfort in my experience of faith, but I suppose anything is possible.

Stratoz found that his imagination took him a long way here. Quite different, but the same.

The days are so long.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ten Days

A lot of people, dozens of them, possibly hundreds, have said things to me that begin with the phrase "I can't imagine...". In case you are wondering, that is not a phrase of comfort. It is not reassuring to know that others cannot put themselves in your shoes. And I do not say this with rancor. It's just a useful piece of information. To tell the truth, I can't imagine it either.


There was a movie, some time back. It came to mind when I was on the retreat that wasn't, before the horror of the last ten days. I don't remember why it found its way into my prayer, but it did.

The movie is about a young man born blind who is given the opportunity to see, thanks to a radical new treatment or surgery. In the end, his vision fades and and he is left blind once again, with the added burden of knowing what he has lost. If I recall correctly, it is in that final circumstance that the main point if the movie is found: that deprivation is all the more terrible to the extent that we know and understand what it is that we are missing.

What I suddenly remembered about the movie last week, an out-of-the-blue memory of a movie I haven't thought about since I saw it -- what? 25 years ago? -- is what happens to the young man when he is first able to see:

Jagged and seemingly unrelated fragments of light, of color, of shape, of dimension. He thinks that he is going insane. Having never seen anything at all before, he has no capacity for the organization of visual stimulii. He does not know what a tree, or a street block, or a person, looks like. He does not know what it means for something to "look like." Bombarded by all that sighted persons unconsciously filter and coalesce into wholes that make sense, he is almost overcome by confusion and anguish.

That's what this exerience is like.

Trying to find a way to absorb the unexpected, the unthinkable, the unknowable.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is the hour of lead or, Things that come to mind

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

~ Emily Dickinson


There are truths that can only be discovered thorugh suffering or from the critical vantage point of extreme situations.

~ Ignacio Martin-Baro, S.J.

Faced with death of those they love, these characters of mine don’t seek some vague afterlife. What they seek, what they demand, against all reason, is the return of the loved one in all his or her familiarity, ‘the profile and the grace,’ as Lorca called it, ‘the answers quick and keen, the honest look,’ in Millay’s poem. My characters, my fictional Catholics, understand the Church’s promise of eternal life, but nevertheless find it lacking. For what they really want is life returned to them in all its magnificence and love and heartbreaking detail. Life uncompromised by death, death utterly defeated. Anything else is unacceptable.

~ Alice McDermott

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Week One


"The house looks like a cross between a florist's shop and a food court," says my father.

There's a wideness in God's mercy. The beautiful version from the Episcopalian hymnal, not the impossible one from the Presby hymnal.


Cards, flowers, emails, phone calls from across the country and two other continents. College students and recent graduates from the west coast to the east appearing in our church and on our doorstep.

Oh Lord, hear my prayer. Oh Lord, hear my prayer. When I call, answer me.

Crematorium. Gratitude for the book Here If You Need Me, which I had just finished. Not, as I had thought, because I needed to read about someone else's experiences after my own CPE. It seems that I read it because I needed to know how to accompany my son on his last journey.


People people people. Family and friends of twenty years taking care of everything. Going with us everywere. Bringing everything we need. Planning speakers and music. Being the speakers and music. Pastors completely at our disposal. A spiritual director who comes for hours. Jewish and Christian clergy from across the spectrum showing up at the funeral home.

John Bell/Iona music:

And wherever you go I will meet you,
Till you draw your last breath in the birthplace known as death;
Yes, wherever you go I will meet you, saying, "Here am I."

A church filled with people who care for us and nurture us and grieve with us. A church that causes me to shake my head in disbelief at those who would criticize or deride or dismiss us because we come together as Jew and Christian, gay and straight, believer and atheist, because we truly and deeply believe that it is impossible to be separated from the love of God. A Christian service which causes Jewish and atheist friends to say, "I love being in church." A service in which humor and sorrow blend in acknowledgment of reality.

A surprising number of voices saying to us, "I have walked in your shoes. Call me."

Psalm 139. Not Psalm 23.

And every once in awhile, a jagged crack in the numbness.

The first week with this terrible hole in our family, in our home, in our lives, in our hearts.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Our Heartbreaking Loss

For anyone who might be confused by the sudden number of comments, I will post what has been posted over at RevGals:

One of our sons, one of the joys and lights of our lives, died Tuesday night in Chicago. He had turned 24 the day before. He leaves behind his devasted parents, twin brother and younger sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, all of whom who have surrounded us and filled our home with food and companonship and love, but cannot bring him back to us.

I have read the many comments here and elsewhere and for now, I simply thank you all for your presence and prayers.

"If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gone on Retreat...

Five days of silence, and so I offer you your own mini-retreat:
Moonrise Over Prince Edward Island
August 2005

North Carolina V

Triple Falls
DuPont State Forest
August 2008