Saturday, December 29, 2012

Holy Moments & Sacred Friendships

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning --So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past."--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
This Christmas was unlike any other, in this way: a small gathering of good friends, with only four of us at the table.  (Another had succumbed to the local germs, one child was napping, another in front of the TV.) 
As we passed the plates, condiments and wine, our conversation began with some quick catch up: our host had lost his father on Christmas Eve the year before; his wife had just lost her grandmother days before.  Both were sudden deaths.  The shadow of Newtown lingered for me, with few to talk about it here in Georgia.    
We knew our hostess had been grappling with anger, guilt and remorse: she had missed an annual phone call, and never been able to say goodbye to her grandmother.  However, ironically, she had been quite involved accompanying a complete stranger to his death, with guitar and song (and she is not a hospice worker).  She showed us his photo: a handsome, elderly gentlemen, with a halo of gray hair, smiled serenely from it.  He emerged from his coma as she visited and sang.   
An apt carol played in the background--“Radiant beams of God’s holy light”--to describe his black face with its faint smile, on a white pillow.  In fact, all one saw was this serene face, swathed in the whites of sheet and pillow.  
"I'll never forget it," she said, marveling again at the serenity, the mystery of the moment--the ‘thin time’ as the Celts call it.  
And as these conversations do, memories of personal loss surfaced.  For me, it was my father’s death.  Eleven years later, the memory is bittersweet: one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, one of the most sacred.  I shared one anecdote. 
We batted around the old question: which is better, easier, preferable: the shock of a sudden death or the excruciatingly drawn out death by wasting disease, and/or with dementia?  No easy answers. 
All this brought tears to the eyes of the fourth person, our friend who entered the conversation for the first time with “And then there’s me…the odd one.”  We looked at her, perplexed.  
“I’ve never experienced deep loss of any kind.”  She recounted the circumstances surrounding the death of three people close to here, one also fairly recently, which might have caused deep grief, but didn’t.  It was indeed odd, for she was 70 years old. 
“I feel like I’ve missed something, hearing you talk,” she concluded, and we nodded.  No easy answers, but we agreed that the experience was not to be missed, in spite of the paradox of it coming in deep emotional pain.  The paradox of serving a stranger, while a family member has needs too--the angst of living at a distance from family.  A sense of awe held us a moment as we considered the mysteries.  
We returned to more anecdotes, interpretations, theologies of heaven…finally ending inexplicably with a sense of gratitude: for the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable--these lives we had known, these experiences, as well as the lives we continue to enjoy, with each other.  
Grateful even for the conversation, which, strangely enough, was not morbid or depressing in any way.  Certainly not superficial, chitty chatty, or filled with holiday or political rant.  Quite the contrary: strangely holy, infused with memories, gratitude and friendship.  We chuckled a bit at the tenor of the conversation, but in appreciation of friends who could stay in such a conversation on Christmas.
Finally we fell silent.  As if on cue, the littlest member of our party, a full-of-life four year old, bounced out from her nap, and stirred her life and energy into the mix.  Perfect.  Time for dessert--chocolate bars freshly arrived from Europe!  We opened gifts, poured coffee, and let the conversation turn more Christmas-like.    
A Christmas unlike any other.
For we too believe in the orgiastic Light of the World, and so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Stop All the Clocks

It's just past 9:30 am, Friday, Dec. 21.  For one minute, Connecticut and beyond stopped for one minute to honor the children and families of the Newtown tragedy.  Clocks didn't stop, but hearts and minds did, just as lives stopped one week ago.  For the many grieving families, Life stopped, deviated, and took an unthinkable route through darkness none would wish for.  In the homes of these families, time has stopped, though clocks continue to tick.

Last weekend was a depressing one, as I watched the newsfeed on Facebook from my Connecticut peeps.  Although I know no one who lost a child, I know many who are helping: churches, friends of the families in grief, pastors, teachers or daycare workers.  The torrential rain of the weekend didn't help my mood, nor did the cold/flu bug I was recovering from.  A good weekend to huddle under a blanket and grieve with my friends; Christmas movies just weren't the order of the day.     

Finally I pushed myself out the door Sunday evening, in the driving rain, to hear a friend play oboe in a Christmas cantata; within minutes, depression was peeled off like a wet newspaper, and a warm fire lit in my heart during the piano solo, the Gloria,  the hand bell choir.  Lessons and Carols.  A 60-person choir, a children's choir, and an orchestra.  Piano and organ.  Classic architecture decorated like a fairy tale.  Candles, boughs, wreaths and bows. 

Then it came: the grand finale, Handel's Messiah, and I was bellowing the words with the best of them, a friend beside me, arms raised, with an entire congregation belting out words of truth: "For He shall reign forever and ever."  This darkness will pass; though it strike a devastating blow now and then, it will not reign.

Other artists have brought healing relief  with their responses: a single image, a music clip, or a poem.   W. H. Auden's Song (aka "Stop All the Clocks" or "Funeral Blues"), which he wrote for the actress Hedli Anderson, riveted me when I first read it on the London Tube many years ago--part of the Poems from the Underground project.  I've pulled it out often in times of grief, or time-stopping tragedies like Newtown.  It gets me every time; though I do not agree with the last line, it is how I feel in grief.    

I continue to choke up as I read the newsfeeds, though Facebook grief is giving way to Facebook silliness as Mayan-end-of-the-world jokes multiply.  Americans check to see if Australians are still on the planet, and Oreo cookie cartoons are proliferating.  This non-event will soon slip under the cultural avalanche of things to look at for 15 min., ridiculous in light of Newtown, but Life, going on.   

There is less light today than the whole year: it's the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Make it count.  For He shall reign forever and ever. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Waves of Sorrow

The Island

Wave of sorrow do not drown me now.
I see the Island still ahead somehow.
I see the Island and its sands are fair.
Wave of sorrow take me there.

Langston Hughes

In memory of those who lost their lives in Newtown, CT this week.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Showing Up

Hoo boy...dealing today with perhaps the most common limitation of all in trying to write: sickness! 

And I am pretty sure this is not the result of too many Christmas cookies, lack of sleep or stress.  It's that law of the universe I cited last week: "Something seems to signal the universe when you're about to do something great...limitations fly in from every corner of the galaxy, conspiring to thwart your project." 

What great thing am I about to do?

I met with a friend/writer earlier this week and we were asking each other about our individual writing practices, grimacing at our lack of productivity.  What could we do to challenge ourselves?

We decided to hold ourselves accountable by writing a blog post once a week, due by 9 pm each Sunday. If one of us failed to post, that would trigger rewards and consequences, which we're still toying with.  Possibilities are swirling around the principle of 'loser provides an artistic or creative reward to the one who meets the deadline.'  We hope to not only keep accountable with one another, but actually nurture one another's creativity.  (Any ideas for this consequence/reward system welcome!)

We also talked about a financial limit of $5 or $10, because we are on austerity, non-existent writer budgets.  And we probably need a second limit of time, because creating is expansive and absorbs gobs of time.  

One day from deadline, the Universe interfered.  Instead of leaping off cliffs of motivation, enthusiasm and creative flow, I am trying to stay semi-vertical, drinking massive quantities of fluids, a pile of tissues growing at my elbow. A post is due, and I haven't given it a thought all week.  And at the moment, thought feels like plowing through steel wool.  But writers need to write.   Everyday. 

This might not seem like such a great thing, but following through on a commitment is, especially when it's a commitment to vocation.  Especially when it involves others.   

A blog is not such a great thing, but it represents discipline, the finger exercises of writing; by writing today, that superlative poem lurking in my subconscious may emerge tomorrow. 

And it's an artificial deadline, sort of, but I'm going to meet it.  Last Sunday I was at a book signing for a story I wrote during one bout of the flu.  Who knows where this post might end up?   I don't always need to be eloquent, but I need to show up. 

And a funny thing happens then in the Universe.  When I do show up, the Universe tends to reverse gears, capitulate, and toss me an idea.  Threshold Guardian becomes ally.  Another reason to show up, even when the evidence suggests retreat.

Not that I believe that the Universe is impersonal...but that's a post for another day.  In the meantime, here is my post.  Limitations and all.    

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Limitations abound in boat-building.  If it isn't a fiscal cliff, it's time, weather, illness, name it.

Depending on the climate you live in, a hurricane might whip through, or a tornado.  An arctic blast, blizzards, earthquakes or blistering heat--all stop you in your tracks.  This is true for a lot of creative work, although maybe the writer has the least to contend with (other than computer crashes, or a broken finger...).  Still, larger than life events sap time and resources for creative projects.

Limitations.  It's a fact of life, of humanity.  How do you keep your motivation, creativity, hope?

The work on our boat came to a halt over and over.  We kids didn't always know why, or care; we had bigger fish to fry--there were trees to climb, crabs to catch and baseball cards to clip to the wheel spokes of our bikes.  We didn't realize why an adult might come home from a 12hr. work day in Manhattan and not want to pound a few nails in the hull of a boat.  Nor did we realize that money ran out sometimes (prompting an increase in the regular lecture entitled "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees"). 

Pesky things, limitations.

Something seems to signal the universe when you're about to do something great, even if it's overcoming a hurdle to create a Christmas card; limitations fly in from every corner of the galaxy, conspiring to thwart your project.  It's the opposite of synchronicity.  That little voice in your head starts screaming at you why you can't.  The basement floods, the water heater goes out, the kids come down with colds.  Your spouse is diagnosed with cancer.

A limitation hit me this week.  I hit a wall, and picked up a book to read, instead of write in my normal writing time. was on limitations..."embracing the gift..."  WHA?! 

I was startled into writing: what is possibly 'gift-like' about a limitation?  It took surprisingly few brain cells to come up with a quick list:
  • They cut me down to size;
  • They enhance interdependence and collaboration, and counter individualism;
  • They perfect humility in me.
Humility.  Not exactly the driving engine of our culture. 

My father was the typically complex human, who could be arrogant and humble, critical and affirming, all in the same afternoon.  He had his faults, but his humility was not to deny them, just keep building a boat.  Maybe he was nuts ("Where's my hammer?"); maybe he was selfish ("Pass me the nails.")  Maybe he was Don Quixote in Suburbia ("I can't right now--I'm busy.")  Some said he was stubborn, some called it noble.  He didn't stop to figure it out, at least to my knowledge; we didn't discuss it around the dinner table.  He wasn't asking anyone's opinion; he just built his boat. And there was something beautiful in that--a freedom, a uniqueness, something that demanded more of us than, say, "Let's build a birdhouse!"

It is not easy to attempt great things, while almost everyone around you is telling you you're nuts.  You might fight fear of failure; you might not live up to expectations.  I think I've asked this already elsewhere, but why start something you probably can't finish?  Is it worth the effort? 

Exploits like these can be pretty shaming adventures, and who wants that?  Better to keep head in the sand than raise it and get a whack. Or so goes conventional wisdom.

"Humility is eliminating facades and embracing vulnerability--allowing ourselves to be seen without social convention, and presenting ourselves in all of our nakedness...being comfortable with ourselves, our true selves, and being who God calls us to be because we have let go of living up to the expectations of others...

"As creatures, we were made in the image of God, which imbues us with profound dignity.  The reality of our nature, too, is that we each carry a brokenness that affects how we deal with others.  To deny this truth is to perpetuate the suffering that comes as a result of our limitations."  (The Artist's Rule, Christine Valters Paintner)

Expectations and Limitations.  Profound dignity and brokenness. 

Here's to the stubborn and noble in all of us.