Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Grief--some reflections

How to measure my 40 years?  January 30th marks the 8th anniversary of my Mom's death. This year the shadow of my Dad's death eclipsed my yearly remembrance.  This year has been one of almost wordless grief.  I spoke haltingly of the love that bound my Mom and Dad together.  Of the way in which they were able to make a crooked little farm on the backroads of Buckley, MI a place of grace.  Yet, life, in its terror and sterility, mostly undid me this past year.  How to pay the taxes on this little farm?  How to find money to fix the roof?  Underneath, and beside, and within all this struggle has just been deadened grief.

How to speak meaningfully about any of this?    When my Mom died... . it was like the universe spoke to me everywhere I turned.  She was gone and yet I saw her everywhere.  Inflected through the poetry of my own heart.... and sinew;  She was there is my own sense of beauty and goodness and justice.  Now that my Dad is gone it is just this ever-expanding distance....  I feel like I am hurtling through time and space--the distance between us grows deeper each day.  I don't know why these experiences of loss are so different.  

In my dreams my Dad would come to me and tell me that I needed to fix the house.  A few nights ago I had a dream so overwhelming real of meeting my Dad in the living room of the house in Buckley that it cast a glow over my entire day.

Our love was a love of few words and little philosophy.  It is hard to imagine what it means to go on without his body, without his voice....  

It is hard to know how to go on without the little everyday sacraments he was always providing.  In my cupboard I still have a "just add water" Mocha that he bought me a month before he died.  He knew I didn't like the instant Maxwell House coffee he made every morning and he wanted to find something that I would like....  

Indeed, when he came to our house the Christmas before last he bought us a new coffee makersbecause ours had gone caput.  I still have one brown mug left that he bought me three Christmases ago.  I don't know if I should use this mug or put it away.   What will I do when the coffee maker he bought breaks down?  It is a stunning thought!  

(I can imagine that there are poets who are skillful enough to help me understand what it will mean when that little electric heart in my kitchen stops beating.  For now, I cannot bear the thought.)

For most of my life, I have tried to live into my Mom's world--it was a world of words (I didn't understand), her almost mystical depths of illness and brilliance.  Certainly her world was resistant to me;  I cannot encompass what her life meant--and yet, I could gesture towards a meaning.  And now, here I stand-- trying to comprehend the world my Dad loved-- and it remains a bit out of my reach.  What meaning is this?  Meaning that is caught up in rightly placed nails, in webs of loves spoken through anxiety, in a joyful over-acceptance of the physical, and practical, and day-to-day.   

I suppose it might all boil down to this: when I was a baby it was my Father who would wake in the middle of the night to feed me.  My Mom had told him about her post-partum psychosis (with previous pregnancies) and so my Dad took up the long and lonely task of comforting me in the middle of the night.  I only learned this when I was in college and it helped to explain a theretofore unexplainable mystery.  I noticed when I doodled--in the margins of my notebook--or wherever--that I would mindlessly write "Jodie is a good, good girl."  This was the cause of a kind of fervent sheepishness for me.  That is... until, just after Johanna was born.  When my Dad first met Johanna he took her into his arm and began to sing to her:  "Johanna is a good, good girl;  good good girl; good good girl;  Johanna is a good good girl" (to the tune of Mary had a little Lamb.) 

So here was the  source of the words that lie deepest in my sub-conscious.  

How do we cope with the loss of the ground of our being?  Not the ultimate ground, but certainly the proximate one?

There are only so many ways to speak about our lives--say that it is a journey and that we must leave behind our fellow travelers on the way.  Say that it is a trial...  Say that this sojourn doesn't count  in the ultimate scheme of things.   And yet, there simply aren't words powerful enough to encapsulate what one life means to another. ... and certainly words cannot describe what it means for one life to be held and sustained in its first darknesses by another.  Word simply fail us.  

This silence.  This silence that renders me speechless-- speaks --I suppose-- to that love that I can't name because it precedes me--forming my form, identifying my identity.  It is no wonder that in grieving its loss that I feel like I just might be undone.  

Friday, December 15, 2017


I have never before had such a broken heart at Christmas.

I tend to look forward to Christmas all year long.  When I am dealing with hard life stuff in--let's say in late August--I often look forward to Advent.  In the last several years as I have dealt with grief over the loss of my vocation, or the death of my Mother, or a general sense of malaise--I have looked forward to these weeks in December.

This year Christmas keeps ripping the scab off of my soul.

When I was a child,  I never experienced big family Christmases.  My Grandparents were all gone.  My parents were estranged from their brothers and sisters or geographically removed.  My half siblings never came for Christmas Day.

Christmas was about my Mom, Dad, me, and for many years my brother Blake.

When I was young there was almost a ghastly amount of presents.  My Mom was poor as child and my Dad always tried to make it up to her at Christmas.

My Dad's love language was "gift giving."  I know, I know, consumerism is one of the many vices of Christmas, but my Dad made gift giving ebullient.  He would buy so many presents that the bottom of the tree would become invisible. We wouldn't be able to use the front door.  My Mom would receive this packaged love with all the delight of a child.  She would  wake us up at the crack of dawn with a cow bell to open our presents.  She would delight in the jewelry, the art supplies, the underwear.

There were always presents  from Santa, and the cats Fats and Skinny, and from Mom and Dad.
Three of the last four years my Dad has spent Christmas with us.  Last year it was all sort of desultory.  We were struggling a bit with money.  We were overwhelmed a little by all the new demands of the pastorate.

But, all-in-all, these years were magical--especially Christmas four years ago when my Dad arrived to Chicago by train.  He was in such good spirits!  When he arrived the toddler Sam guided him to the Christmas Tree and he remained for 10 days, making pies, preparing roast beef, shopping for presents, watching endless re-runs of Gilligan's Island and Matlock with Simeon.  It was all so utterly beautiful. Last year had its hiccups, but it ended with a lovely drive along Lake Huron where we made plans to spend the night in Marine City the following Christmas.  There was a little theatre downtown playing "Its a Wonderful Life" and a ferry to Canada.

I can hardly put words to my sense of loss this Christmas!

Earlier this week I attended the funeral of the ideal Mennonite man and Father.  It was beautiful.  He was exemplary.  Yet, in the context of my faith community, I keep struggling for words to describe my Father.   I keep struggling to find a way to describe how loved he always made me feel, how safe!  I struggle to find words to describe how much he loved my Mother.  How his faithful love allowed her to live with a terrifying mental illness.  I struggle to find words to describe the quality of delight that he took--in stories, presents, exploration and novelty.  I have been trained in my faith community to see the love my Dad provide as so fleeting--so many trinkets and baubles, at best as a kind of holding it together despite bad circumstances.  

I would not be able to claim him as the upstanding Gentleman so revered.   Somehow this just makes the grief worse.  I was able to find the words to affirm aggressively what my Mother meant to me--some how I cannot find the right words for my Father.

I do not know how to speak adequately of either my love or my grief.

I enter his Advent genuinely needing something that I cannot provide for myself.  Needing something that I am not entirely sure that my heart can bear.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Holy Saturday (10/15/2017)
I walked the trail by my house
on the day between being with you
and returning to you.
It began to rain and the gaps
between the trees were wide
It was early Spring 
And so I was startled by
a wild turkey. 
To come so near
this skittish creature.
You always delighted to see them in the fields 
you always spotted them before me.
Did this mean something
or nothing?
I don’t remember 
Though it stared back at me like
a prophet.
I came upon
a non-Evergreen tree filled with
Christmas ornaments
 I plucked one 
holding the points against the tenderness
of my palm
anticipating Christmas coming
without you.
When I arrived at church
I served myself communion
having missed Good Friday
traveling from you.
It was quiet in the church and empty.
But it was not cold.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

and I am the only one left

Almost 40 years ago--to the day--my Mom and Dad drove a moving van filled with furniture and
chickens out to a small, blue farm house on 10 acres in Buckley, Michigan.  My Dad was almost 50 with two failed marriages and a drinking problem.  My Mom had only left the mental hospital a year before.  I was weeks old.   In the earliest pictures I was red and enraged.  Sometime during that first Spring and Summer on that little farm I would grow improbably plump and blond.

There is a place in the narrative of the book of Job where, after the destruction, three servants come to tell Job of all that has been destroyed and in sequence they proclaim "and I am the only one left."

People age and die and so I am not experiencing a general cataclysm, but that feeling of being one of the  last witnesses has echoed in my head these last few weeks as I contemplate my parents' death.

Sometime in the first years my Mom wrote the following poem:


The blue and white chipped
Stood erect, but meek.

Enclosed in an aging bush.
    Green grass at her feet.

She seemed so out of place there,

 But then I had to pause

Love is everywhere. . . .
         And backyards can be the
                                                 Holiest of all.

Somehow on that simple farm, love brought life to barrenness--love shifting, moving, turning over, and making fallow.

When Doug held me in the room where my Father died he whispered in my ear "you were redemption's child."

This had turned out to be an identity as weighty and overwhelming as it sounds.

At times impossible to bear, really, as it is an identity that is made possible by the unreform(able)ed past.  Yet, it seems to me a betrayal not to continue to witness to that love.

I remember my Mom telling me her favorite book of the bible was Ruth.  At the time it irritated my evangelical sensibilities.  My Mom would pick the most boring book in the Bible-seemingly so devoid of God's definitive action in history.

Hesed is often translated as "steadfast, loving kindness"  it is redemptive and transformative love, and it is distinctively divine love.  And while Boaz becomes "the kinsman redeemer" in the story of Ruth and Naomi, it is Ruth, the Moabite stranger, that becomes the agent of redemption.   It is Ruth, the Moabite stranger, that demands that love is enacted through justice for her Mother-in-law; it is Ruth who bring forth new life for the bitter Naomi making impossible possibilities possible.

You can imagine the story of Ruth and Naomi occurring in dust bowl America, or almost any Refugee camp in the world. As such its placement in Holy Scripture should reminds us that divine love sanctifies those little human redemptions that are made possible through everyday faithfulness and love. We all know that real life is filled with impossible situations.  It is astonishing grace when things are set to rights.

Sometimes backyards are the holiest places of all.  

Friday, January 1, 2016

Pete Seeger and Vocation

I don't know when I first heard the name Pete Seeger.  I suspect he was mentioned on Family Ties.  Seeger, like everything loved by Elise and Michael Keaton was made to seem a tad quaint. The Keaton's 60's radicalism was to be taken alongside a bracing dose of (materialism) Mallory, (capitalism) Alex, and sports (Jennifer.)

Anyway, about 10 years ago I watched a PBS documentary on Seeger and determined afterwards that I wanted a vocation like Pete's. I certainly didn't mean that I was going to become a protest singer or learn the five string banjo.

But, there were several things about the life that Pete lived that I find exemplary:

(1)  His profoundly democratizing vision of his art. This is a self-evident claim --folk music as an art  is axiomatically democratic.  Yet,  he lived this impulse out in so many profound ways--I think of his work with the Highland School which was so connected to the Freedom Schools, union organizing, and the creation of a vision of grassroots organizing;  however, the most stunning and perpetual sign of this democratizing vision was his capacity to get people to sing whether the stage was small or the stage was large.

Studs Terkel expressed it better than I am able to:

 Before we hoist one for Pete, let's also remember that he's one of the best choirmasters in the country. He may not have the technique of Robert Shaw, but the result is just as explosive. Imagine an audience of thousands as Pete sings, say, "Wimoweh." As Pete waves his arms gently, the audience reacts as a professional choir might. I've seen a wizened little man, who obviously is somebody's bookkeeper, at the command of Pete become a basso profundo, reaching two octaves lower than Chaliapin. This is the nature of Pete Seeger, who reaches out toward the further shores more effectively and more exhilaratedly than anyone I've ever run into

(2) His Earnestness:  I have come to realize that what distinguishes earnestness from sentimentalism is faithfulness.  A sentiment is fleeting.  It is easy to be patronizing towards sentiments, but people who live lives of deep fidelity to their sentiments become beyond disdain.  Fred Rogers proved this--his show would be little but feel good rot if he hadn't embodied those values daily.  Peter Seeger lived out a fidelity to his sentiments for 94 years.

(3)His Faithfulness:  He didn't just add the "shall" to "We Shall Overcome," he was there singing the song faithfully at Highlander School when MLK was there. And, more to the point, he was there singing the song as a dirge when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered in Mississippi.

(4) His Courage:  It wasn't for no reason that the FBI tracked  him or that J. Edgar hounded. He was willing to risk tangibly for truth and democratic values.  He realized that these values don't demand some sort of "once-and for-all"  sacrifice, but a daily fidelity to the hard work of letting every voice be heard, of listening to the some times strange songs that other people sing, and training others to not only listen closely, but also to sing out boldly.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent and Good Old Charlie Brown

When the little tree falters and droops pathetically
under the weight of that innocent-looking
but fatal ornament, and Charlie Brown wails,
I’ve killed it, everything I touch gets ruined,
I feel for the guy: I know the sad prison
his heart’s doing time in.

-Troy Jollimore

This year watching the Peanuts movie I had a personal revelation. I am likely always going to feel this way. But what is "this way"? It is easy to diagnosis Charlie's "sad prison" as depression or perhaps as generalized anxiety disorder:

Lucy: Do you think you have Pentaphobia, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: What's that?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That's it!

This all might be true, but then there is the context of Charlie Brown's frustrations. Despite the fact that he is known for being a loser and failure he is often shown occupying positions of prestige. He is after all the pitcher on his baseball team and the director of the Christmas play.

Charlie Brown refuses to withdraw from life. Indeed it is his stubborn persistence that is the immediate context of a good portion of his suffering. Most sensible people would stop trying to kick the football, or sending Valentine's cards, or attempting to woo the red-headed girl. Indeed in the full version of the Troy Jollimore poem excerpted above he imagines Charlie Brown in a bar, taking a stiff drink, potentially an embittered middle-aged man undone by his succession of losses. Yet, this is emphatically not the Charlie Brown that Charles Schultz portrayed.

Charlie Brown cannot stopped striving and herein lies the source of his suffering. One might like to offer old Charlie Brown a bit of Buddhist wisdom and remind him that maybe he shouldn't expect so much out of life. However, this doesn't seem to be possible because Charlie Brown (or rather Charles Schultz is a Christian.)

There is no doubt that Christians can learn a great deal from other religions, or that there is a steep and sturdy tradition of mortification of desire in the Christian tradition. However, I think in Advent we are especially forced to remember the "sad prison" our collective hearts are "doing time in." Like "Good Old Charlie Brown" we are prisoners of our hope. Or to cite another theologian of hope:

Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope

Hope isn't a very urbane or sophisticated vision of the world and it certainly isn't entirely comforting, but it is the only option left for us when we cannot accept that the promise that "each will live under their own vine and fig tree" applies only too a small minority of people capable of living out some sort of Jeffersonian, agrarian American dream.

...or when we cannot accept that the "lion laying down with the lamb" can only ever amount to a kind of non-tested, sentimental good-will between closely related neighbors.

...or when we cannot accept that the baby lying in the manger is a sign that God not only "so loved us" His enemies, but also that God "so loved" our enemies.

I guess this isn't the most optimistic post--my connecting Christian hope to Charlie Browns constant attempts to kick that darned football--but after 2,000 years of turning, ever turning in the widening gyre, of unconsummated consummation, it is better than nothing, or better than nihilism, or better than not suffering because we no longer desire something better.

Christian hope: the strange prison our hearts are doing time in...

Thursday, May 28, 2015

For Matt

I guess I am lucky.  I got to tell Matt what I wanted to tell Matt.  I got to tell Matt when he was living what I would like to say at his Memorial service.

. . . . .  but I don’t know. 

Within hours of finding out about Matt’s death it became very clear how suicide demands unrelentingly to be answered—asking its nagging questions--did I do enough?  Did I do it right?  … Did I say the right thing?   What if had…. ? What if I hadn’t?

So, that I said to Matt once--- while we were walking together on an early summer day entirely like this-- what I’d like to say now-- this is something that I am thankful for….

It takes a weight off, but it also places another weight on my soul.

Matt had recently shared really heavy parts of his childhood history…
… and as we were walking on that early summer day, he was telling me what a failure he was…..
and how there was no hope and he kept trying to do better and couldn’t  and I said something like:

You know I really think you are one of the best people I have ever known.

His love of Rachel had implanted in him a deep love of theology and apologetics and at this moment I appealed to a passage of C.S. Lewis’s in Mere Christianity. In it Lewis is making a case for our great surprise on Judgment Day. 

Lewis goes on to argue that

Some people that we take to be the very best kind of people.

Our extraordinary moral athletes….
They will shown to be morally average.

Their virtues really more the product of good luck, good upbringings, and good temperaments—more God’s gift to them than their gift to God.

I re-read the passage that I referenced that day this morning.

Lewis goes on to write:
But if you are person-poisoned  by  a wretched upbringing  in some house full of vulgar jealousies  and senseless quarrels-saddled,  by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion-nagged day  in and day  out  by  an  inferiority  complex  that  makes you  snap  at  your best friends-do not despair. He knows  all about it. You are one of the poor whom
He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying  to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can. One  day (perhaps in another  world,  but  perhaps far
sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you  may astonish  us all-not least yourself: for you  have learned
your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be  first and some  of
the first will be last.)

On the day I told Matt that the rest of us at Junia House were really pretty morally average.

And that he was pretty morally extraordinary and that was just the fact of the matter. 

We all have to pick ourselves up after some devastating loss or another…. 

….pick ourselves up after some failure that makes us doubt that we have much to offer the world….

In the brief time that I knew Matt I witnessed him rising from such devastations 20-30-70 times.

Sometimes it seemed almost daily.   

I simply don’t know anyone who tried so hard or struggled so much.

I can’t really blame him for not being able to pick himself up one more time. 

But, I really, really, really wish that he had.

He was such a good friend.

Matt was with me every single day in the months after my Mom died. We planted a small tomato garden and he helped me take the kids to Simeon's soccer games (pulling Jo and Sim in the wagon).

We frequented the local thrift shop.  Matt would buy so many clothes.  I can’t even estimate how many pairs of Black shorts he owned. 

He was fabulous with our kids.  When he played with them—-- he always reminded me a wee bit of the Cat in the Hat. 

It is hard to imagine that this world is no longer blessed with all that wonderful, anarchic energy. 

That Matt will never approach our kids with another good game that he knows. ….

Or Doug with some new scheme. 

That he won’t ask me one more time what I think about the “problem of evil” 

Or some other theological question dripping with so much real world pain…..

God, I hope that is all resolved now for Matt and better than either Matt or I could have imagined….

better than Lewis imagined. 

That he has been flung into a world pulsating with endless possibilities, pulsating with that incredibly thrilling gift for newness and new beginnings that he had.  

The kind of world that Matt so desperately needed and so deeply deserved.