More than a decade ~ that's how long I've been blogging, under various names and titles in a couple of different places. And now? Now I'm making another move. Ten years ago? A joyful life. Three teenagers, two of them mostly through their first year of college and the third busy with soccer and theatre and singing. I thought I'd already made my own dramatic life change, from the practice of law to middle and high school teaching. I was well aware that no one is immune to heartache and, in fact, we as a family had already known plenty of it, but I had every reason to think we might be able to avoid any recurrences for another decade, maybe even two. But as life has evolved, my blogs have chronicled the Spiritual Exercises, seminary, a spiritual direction certificate, a child's suicide, ordination, breast cancer, college teaching, and various venues of ministry. It's been a harrowing six years. My son's death has overshadowed everything. In some ways, it always will. I've been reading more than writing recently, and about the experiences of bereaved parents in particular. Five years, ten years, twenty, a lifetime. The anguish is a like a Yellowstone geyser, always bubbling under the surface, always on the verge of erupting into the sky. The ground underneath your feet is always unstable; one innocent remark by a friend, and the fire singes your feet. As far as I can tell, if you put some effort into it, you can develop advanced skills in silence and in changing the subject. You don't progress in a straight line, though. Surviving children, if you are lucky enough to have them, can save your life by living theirs. Work helps. So do grandchildren, I am told. God, for some people. That said, I am ready to direct my writing down a new path. I miss some things. I miss Chautauqua, I miss photography, I miss the wilderness, I miss travel. Not the way I miss Josh. But I do miss them. The new blog, not yet ready for prime time, is called Savor the Sacred, because that's where I want to focus. If it becomes something intolerably saccharine or sentimental, I'll give up. But I think it's worth a try. New url coming soon.
For the past several years, I've made a silent retreat of several days, usually at the rural Jesuit Center in Wernersville PA. Last summer, still pastoring at Tiny Rural Church, I decided that I'd like to make my next retreat in a somewhat more populated locale. I started thinking about whom I knew, in person or by reputation, in places like New York and Boston, and then remembered that Spiritual Director Emeritus is at Georgetown! Although my plans for a winter retreat were derailed by the broken ankle episode, I did get there in April. For whatever reason, I've been thinking about that week today, and so here is my usual pictorial replay:
I stayed at the Jesuit Residence (the JesRes) on campus, an elegant building in which an incredibly hospitable and kind community of rather amazing men resides. I stayed mostly to myself, and they all honored my retreat time, but it was a lot of fun to look around at meals and recognize faces from book jacket photographs. (I think I was probably the only Presbyterian in the building all week, and one of very few women. Some weeks my life is more unusual than others.)
My car, sadly, spent several days and a lot of money on its own retreat a local service station. It had started to sputter as I approached the campus, and the next day was utterly silent and still. Some kind of transmission line thing.
The first couple of days it was really warm, so I stayed outside as much as possible.
Early morning prayer view:
I spent a lot of time curled up with my foot elevated and wrapped in my ice pack, probably because I persisted in exploring the campus at least a little bit.
Trinity Chapel Courtyard ~
My story ~
Crypt chapel ~
Dahlgren Chapel ~
Iggy, of course ~
Michelle and her husband came down from Bryn Mawr for a production in which their son was involved and stopped by for a late night visit:
And a certain spiritual director refused to cooperate for a Serious and Spiritual Selfie.
It's difficult to articulate the results of a week of intensive and silent prayer ~ in this case, relaxed and only relatively silent. I have a sense, though, that the results of that retreat are starting to seep into my daily ministry and to sort themselves into a slight and much needed alteration of perspective.
I first became acquainted with a Christ Pantocrator icon at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. It probably means something that I ran into another one on the other side of the country during a week that might turn out to have been somewhat significant.
Some seeds flower into the most astonishing color.
This morning I received an email from Josh's girlfriend's father, to whom I had written apologizing for having to leave his wife's memorial service early (previous post). He filled me in on what we had missed, which included this video as his final farewell to his wife in honor of their cross-cultural romance.
It is worth attending to for the entire five minutes. And, of course, it speaks to all of us in our losses.
Our relationship with this family is tenuous and unusual. But I think that many families who have lost children find themselves briefly and intensely connected to those who have in some way shared in those losses.
I am extremely grateful that six years later this video has come my way because of one of those connections.
There's a scene in an early episode of the most recent season of Downton Abbey that goes something like this:
One of the recently widowed Mary's suitors has come to dinner. At the end of the evening, her mother-in-law Isobel, for whom the event has been excruciating, shakes the young man's hand and says, "I hope that we'll be seeing more of you." Isobel's nemesis, the Countess Dowager, says in an aside to someone else, "One hates to admit it, but that was very well done."
I think it's something to which to aspire, that people say that we have done well when circumstances seem to dictate that we would not.
Yesterday, the Quiet Husband and I attended the memorial event for Josh's former fiancée's mother. In a strange twist of fate, it was held here; several members of the far-flung family live nearby, and so they decided that all would gather here. A's father and I have been in very occasional communication, which meant that he told us when his wife died, and welcomed us to the event.
We debated until the last minute whether to attend and, if so, for how long. In the end, we decided to go for a bit of the gathering time and stay through the lengthy program (which, finally, we had to leave before its conclusion, since I had another obligation).
I am so glad that we went.
We have not seen A in nearly six years, not since the day she joined us to clean out the apartment she and Josh had once shared in Chicago. We all learned a great deal about one another and about Josh's death on that day, one of those days that burns itself indelibly into your mind. She and I corresponded frequently for a year or so, but in the ensuing five years she has built a new life, become engaged, and moved to a new city. While I wish that her life were with my son, it was a tremendous relief to see her doing well and talking animatedly about her work and family.
I don't know how A experienced it, but our conversation reminded me of one many years ago. Our daughter had flown into Chicago from her semester abroad in Prague, and the two girls and I lingered all morning over breakfast. A told us about her decision to drop out of her academic graduate program and focus her life upon dance; I remember the excitement I felt for her as a young woman finding her authentic path in life. I felt some of that pleasure for her again yesterday, knowing full well the life-changing terms of the interruption we had all experienced.
Insofar as the memorial event was concerned, it had been engineered by A's father to tell the story of his marriage, beginning with his life in the Air Force in the waning months of the Vietnam War, and the young Vietnamese woman who told the cousin working in the officers' club that she wanted to meet an American. Slides, videos, photos, memorabilia: the story ~ of 20th century Vietnam, of a young woman whose girlhood had been marked by devastating loss and hardship, of a young officer, and of a family life spent criss-crossing the country in a peripatetic military career ~ was spell-binding. And A spoke beautifully about her mother, their relationship, and her loss.
I still don't really know why we went. To see A. To honor the mother with whom I had once thought I would share the role of mother-in law but in the end never met. To honor the father who was a support to me in ways he probably knows nothing about. To recognize the small and tenuous and yet striking connection between our families. I don't know. But I am grateful to have witnessed what I did.
Since Josh died, I have often thought of Eleanor Roosevelt's words: You must do that which you think you cannot do. At first, those words applied to getting out of bed. Now, to other things, but still often. I find, though, that I am usually grateful in some way to have done whatever it was that it seemed I could not. I am grateful for this.
When I was a little girl growing up in the country, wonder was an everyday experience. The caterpillars we watched morph into butterflies, the birds we spent days trying to catch, the creek we wandered for hours, the snakes we actually did catch and keep in jars on the stone wall out back until we tired of them and let them go.
Today they say that children experience grief in spurts, moving quickly back and forth between moments of intense sadness and periods of play and humor. That rings true to me, and it also explains why otherwise intelligent and perceptive adults fifty years ago believed the professionals who told them that children do not grieve. Those moments of intensity come on quickly for children, and disappear almost as fast, rendering them invisible to people who don't want to see them anyway. And children are quick to sense the latter, and learn to keep their sorrows to themselves.
Thus I could roam the countryside, play sixteen-inning games of softball, and splash in summer camp brooks and waterfalls, finding wonder easily despite the airless density of childhood loss.
For adults, it's somewhat different.
A couple of summers ago, I heard myself saying to a spiritual director, "I was, quite simply . . . completely enchanted by my children. And then . . . one of them was gone. And thus enchantment evaporated from my life."
I've been reflecting on that statement this summer. Perhaps my capacity for wonder, if not actual enchantment, is making a comeback. Or, at least, tapping on the door. This summer has already ushered in its grueling moments, with more predicted ~ most of them having to do with pretending to enjoy myself so that others are not burdened. But I find that I am longing for some genuine joy.
Interesting, isn't it, that this surge of hopeful anticipation should accompany my renewed ability to walk short distances? Yesterday I walked a mile around my immediate neighborhood early in the morning, and another mile in the opposite direction in the evening. It's such a pleasure to see the world on foot again, to notice faces and dogs and gardens in ways that one can't from a car.
In her poem When Death Comes, Mary Oliver, who has certainly experienced her own deep loss, says:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Regretfully, I will not be able to say that of all my life. Or, perhaps, I will. Perhaps the black hole of the last six years, sucking all the gravity into a huge and heavy space of darkness, will someday reveal itself as its own venue of wonder.
But for now, I think I would like to return to the more conventional forms.
A member of my congregation waits for me in the parlor just outside the sanctuary today. She is a quiet woman, probably absent more than present in worship, and has never initiated a conversation with me before. I nod ~ "just a moment" ~ as I am deep in conversation with our finance chair, and she waves me off ~ "no big deal" and retreats.
I track her down in the kitchen a few minutes later. It turns out that she wants to understand our denomination's new decisions about same-gender marriage. After I explain the new situation in which we find ourselves, with pastors now able to perform same-gender weddings in states in which they are legal, and a vote ahead on changing our constitution to define marriage as between "two people," she gets to the real question: What do I think?
"Entirely in favor," I say, and add that I believe that God created us as we are and created us for loving relationships. "And you?" I ask.
"Me, too," she says. "I mean, I could never understand the problem, and now there's my grandson . . . ". Her voice trails off, and I realize she is still anticipating my disapproval. Her grandson, it turns out, lives in a nearby city, and is in a relationship, and, well, you never know.
"Not in Ohio," I say. "But they can go to another state, and they can be married by a Presbyterian pastor."
"Even better," she smiles.
Last year, in Conservative Small Rural Church, one of our members was liturgist for the day, which means that he was the reader for various portions of the service. He decided that the hymn singing between the Call to Worship and the Prayer of Confession would be a good time to lean over and divulge his concerns about a grandson who had recently broken up with his male partner. We had had many conversations, but this was the first I had ever heard of either grandson or partner.
He was not concerned about his grandson being gay. He was concerned about his grandson's broken heart. And he wanted to tell me at a time when no reaction on my part was possible.
After church, we had a longer conversation. "How are you doing with this?" I asked.
"I'm fine," he said. "It was hard at first. It certainly wasn't what I was taught, or grew up with. But I'm sure that God loves my grandson, and his partner. I just wish that they could work it out."
There's a lot of public response to our new possibilities. Exuberant celebration and strident anger.
And then there are people quietly living their lives and hoping that their loved ones can work it out.