Tuesday, September 29, 2009

background noise?

"And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice" (1 Kings 11-12).

(yes, it's the king james version. because that's how i roll.)

i hate very few things more (perhaps that's an exaggeration, but it's genetic, don't you know) than discovering upon my arrival at the gym that my ipod battery is dead. i am nearly incapable of exercising without a heavy beat driving my steps.

last night, i plugged my headphones into the elliptical so i could listen to the news on the overhead television in an attempt to compensate for my ipod-less-ness. this solution, i hardly need tell you, did not do the trick. that was the longest two and a half miles i've run (walked? jogged? ellipticall-ed?) in a long time.

which got me thinking about soundtracks and the sounds--music and otherwise--that fill my head. i've often blogged about the soundtracks for my travels around town (like here and here and here). but i haven't really thought all that much about what i'm listening to all day. maybe the sermon in church this past weekend got me thinking, too; our pastor preached about shame and at one point mentioned how many times more difficult it is to speak words that build someone up than words that break them down. what is being spoken to, sung to me over the course of my day? and am i listening? what am i internalizing? there's a reason, after all, that i listen to different music when luke is in the car with me than when i'm alone: i'm careful what he hears, knowing what a sponge his little mind is. but beyond music with luke or otherwise, what am i absorbing?

in my office this morning, thanks to my chris rice channel on pandora (oh, how i love pandora), i heard these lyrics (sung by someone other than chris rice, though i don't know who):

what heights of love
what depths of peace
when fears are stilled
when strivings cease

when strivings cease: peace. why don't i hear that more often? does any of us hear that?

too often, our strivings are rewarded with progress and productivity (good american values, of course, and if you know me, you know i'm all about productivity), but even more so with encouragement and validation. if what earns us words of affirmation--words that build us up--is striving, then learn to strive we will. but what if learning to be quiet and still were rewarded? what if listening and patience were valued?

oh, right: they are.

i almost forgot the still small voice. as i fill my head--with conversation, music, reading, words, sounds, noise--i am reminded that there is One who values and rewards my stillness above all. my quiet listening. my patient seeking.

a friend encouraged me a few weeks ago to go for a walk alone every day. no friend, no ipod, no cell phone. just to be quiet, to listen and think and hear and pray and be. i haven't done it once. i've walked plenty...in the company of friends, with music, and always with my phone. what is it that keeps me from that quiet walk alone? not enough time? sure. but i make plenty of space in my life for lots of other things, and with the perfect trail right behind my house and fantastic fall weather upon us, that's hardly an excuse. striving? there's so much i want to get done, so much that gives me a tangible reward or earns me affirmation and encouragement right here, right now. fear? if i'm quiet, and i listen, and i open my heart to the still small voice, what will i hear? what will i think? what will i say?

because if i don't keep up the background noise that i have chosen, i might hear something i don't expect. something that i didn't choose. and when i'm honest, i know that i am loathe to cede that control.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

why i love hallmark

(my new favorite card)

Friday, September 25, 2009

colorful thoughts

as i drove home from dropping luke off at school today, i passed a group of six people out for a morning walk. what was unusual about this group was that each one was wearing a single-colored shirt. no stripes, no logos, no patterns. the shirts were all different--one wore a tank top, one a t-shirt, one a long-sleeved shirt--and they were not some kind of team or group who planned what to wear for one reason or another. the colors were different, but all colors, bright or faded: no white or black or gray among them. it was like a walking rainbow.

is it strange that i noticed them, and even stranger that i suspect there's a reason i did?

maybe i have colors on my mind because i went to parent night last night at school. luke's teacher told us that they have been talking about colors this week, and she shared with us some books they have read about crayons and colors. or maybe it's because luke was supposed to wear his favorite color to school today, and when i asked him what it was so i could help him pick out his clothes, he said, "i don't know. you'll just have to choose my favorite color for me." (really, dear child? mr. independent?) maybe it's because i left the house this morning--in a rush, rush, rush, as seems to always be the case these days--in brown sweatpants, a gray t-shirt, and a black bandanna. (that's some variety for me, by the way, from my usual just-plain-black or brown.) colors aren't really my thing.

is it too much to share here that i haven't noticed many colors lately? probably so. i'll leave it at that, then--think of it what you will--and I'll just be grateful for the gift of that group of walkers this morning.

(in case you were curious, i refused to choose luke's favorite color for him. he chose green. but he told me later that, having thought about it, his favorite color was in fact pink, which he was embarrassed to admit. and anyhow, he doesn't own any pink clothing. so he went with his second favorite. and so it begins. sigh.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

parabolically speaking

she suggested we try to write a parable this week.

in my women’s bible study this semester, we’re studying Jesus’ parables. i’m itching to get started, to tell you the truth. an entire semester studying the amazing stories Jesus told sounds a little more exciting than laboring through the wrecked families and tragic heroes of genesis, as we did all last year. don’t get me wrong: i learned lots in that study, and i’m very grateful for having done it. but, well, i’m just a little more enthusiastic as we start this year. i love a good story, and this semester promises discussions of some life-long favorites.

so when our leader suggested in her introduction to the study that we try to write a parable, my interest was piqued. at least one pair of eyes rested on me, one pair that knows my sometime-closet-writer self. that thing i mentioned here about telling me i can’t do something? well, that’s pretty much what she did. of course, i don’t think i can write a parable worthy of any notice, but if i were to write a parable, what would it be about?

which got me thinking, as you might have guessed, about the Writer of all life and just what story He is trying to tell with mine. if a parable is a simple story that teaches a truth or a life-lesson, why can’t my life be one? if Jesus told parables to teach his disciples and contemporaries how to live, couldn’t the Author of my life be using my story to demonstrate some truth?

i’m sure now, having failed to figure out even how to start, that i cannot write a parable. but if i’m being “written” into one, what is the truth being taught? the soundtrack for my week has been “fear not,” a choral piece written by carl nygard that we’re singing in my ensemble in church on sunday. i didn’t really choose this soundtrack, as i have in past weeks, but as i’ve sung along with my cd in the car all week (rehearsing my new alto part), the words have started to sink in. “my love will surround you and hold you for you are precious to me, dear to me.” precious. like the lost coin, maybe, in the parable in luke 15. or like the lost sheep in that same place. or maybe the prodigal son. precious. if i’m the lost thing in the parable that is my life, do i really believe that i’m precious, that my finding could be cause for rejoicing? what would i be, and lost where, and found by whom, and celebrated how, in my parable?

Jesus’ parables aren’t true stories. He made them up, presumably, to demonstrate some principle or truth for His followers. is my life--my true story--created similarly to demonstrate something for those around me? to teach others not to fear, to trust, to understand what it means to be precious and dear? if God is using me as a parabolic lesson, am i a willing participant? am i filling the role for which i am intended?

i don’t suspect that, were they real, the characters in Jesus’ parables would ever have known their importance to the story. that’s the beauty of the parables: they related everyday experiences and assigned cosmic importance to them. would the victim rescued by the good samaritan have understood his fame, or would he just have been glad to have his life spared at the hands of a stranger-who-would-have-been-an-enemy ? i don’t expect that i’ll ever understand just exactly what God is up to in my life or what His purpose is for me. but i am determined not to fear His purpose, and i hope and trust that, even as i am surrounded by His love, i am being used for His good work. may it be unto me as He has said, or in this case, as He is writing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

relatively speaking

i'm cleaning off my hard drive. a recent s..l..o..w..i..n..g down of function around here has me living in fear of losing all of my un-backedup stuff. i have never backed up anything. none of my millions of photographs. none of my children's ministry work. none of my editing work. none of my writing. so i'm backing it all up today. ask me how much i'm enjoying sitting in front of the computer for hours on end when i could be outside on the just about the most perfect fall day i've ever seen. (on second thought, don't ask). but i live in fear of murphy's law, so back up i will.

anyhow, as i was sorting through all the pictures--which are very poorly organized, i might add, much like the rest of my life--i came across this picture, taken on september 12 last year.

i remembered posting it here once upon a time (did you recognize it, faithful few?), and went looking for the post. interestingly--but unrelatedly, i might add--i posted it on sam's and my anniversary this year. which is not when it was taken at all. but i didn't explain, in that post, when it was taken or why, because that post was about something entirely different. i promised i might explain it someday. well, as if you've been holding your breath, here is the long awaited explanation.

i spent much of eliza's life trying not to get too used to her being around. does that sound terrible? it's not exactly that i thought i'd jinx it if i got comfortable, but i just didn't want to find myself too unprepared for the inevitable. a morbid way to live your child's life, i know. i didn't admit this to myself very often, but i realized from time to time that it was true. like if i kept expecting it, the unexpected could never happen. i'm afraid that even in my most faithful moments, i can fall victim to magical thinking. can't we all? didn't you grow up wishing on birthday candles and eyelashes and coins tossed in fountains, after all? i remember thinking, when eliza was barely clinging to life in the hospital in her first few weeks, that i couldn't admit to God that my biggest fear was neither that she would die nor that she would live but that she'd end up somewhere in between for just a little while. it didn't help cure me of my magical thinking that, having admitted that, i got pretty much just what i feared most, as if God heard me and tried to give me the biggest challenge He could come up with, just because i told Him that was it.

all that is to say that it took me a long time to adjust to the idea that eliza might long outlive the doctors' predictions. but sometime around the spring of 2008, when eliza had already passed her second unexpected birthday, i began the very, very gradual shift from crisis mode to long-term mode. sam and i had conversations about how we could sustain the pace we had been keeping indefinitely, about the state and future of our family, about how to live life with eliza in some sort of "everyday" mode instead of moment to moment. to that end, i began the unbelievable process of looking for nursing help with eliza.

if you know me, you know a few things about me: 1) i don't like to admit i can't do something, 2) if you tell me i can't do something, i'll definitely do it, 3) i'm pretty sure i can do anything. (i credit my parents for both my stick-to-itiveness and my foolhardy confidence; thanks, guys.) so when people who saw my life with eliza told me things like, "you've got to get some help," and "you can't keep this up indefinitely," and "you can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself," they unknowingly drove me to further determination to do it all, and to do it better, too. with that background, then, you'll understand why it took me as long as it did to accept the idea that i might need a little help...which everybody else seemed to know long before i did.

that's a very long introduction to say that sometime in the late spring of 2008, i decided to get some help from a nurse aide. little did i know how long it would take to find one. first there was paperwork upon red tape upon paperwork for medicaid and insurance and nursing agencies. then finally in the fall, there were nurse aides...yikes! from one who smoked to one who helped herself to my computer and journal to one who never showed up to one who quit willy-nilly and had no contact information--yes, there were some doozies. i was ready to give up many times; how could i trust some unreliable stranger with my daughter's care when i barely trusted my own husband with her?!?

(insert deep breath here. sigh. but i'm getting ahead of myself.)

the first nurse aide, one of many who did not work out, made her first visit on september 12 of last year. i forced myself to leave the house, even just for an hour, which took all i had in me and much prayer. when i returned home, exhausted beyond belief from worry about whether eliza was okay without me (pride, pride, i know!), i was relieved to find out that everything was okay (i would later find out about the computer and journal, but as for eliza, all was very well). as i walked the nurse aide out and watched her drive off, i saw the rainbow in that photograph and ran for my camera.

in the story of noah's ark in the book of genesis, God uses a rainbow as a sign of His covenant, His promise that he will never again send a world-rending flood (genesis 9:13). in the book of revelation, God's throne is described as ringed by a rainbow (revelation 4:3). and in the book of ezekiel, God's glory is compared to the rainbow's appearance (ezekiel 1:28). i decided to take my rainbow that day as a sign of God's promise to care for eliza, as a covenant with me that she would indeed be okay in the hands of a nurse aide, as a confirmation and encouragement of my decision to hand over some control.

i had completely forgotten, until i sat at my computer today backing up files, that my rainbow appeared on september 12.

you see, september 12 this year hit me particularly hard. exactly nine months since eliza had died, i was struck afresh by the relativity of time. nine months. if you're a woman who has ever given birth to a child (or a man who has lived with such a woman!), you know how significant that amount of time is. nine months is an eternity. with both of my children, born a week and two weeks early respectively, i thought i would be pregnant forever. forever. i remember telling my mother a week before luke was born that i was convinced he was, in fact, not a child but a tumor with which i would have to live forever. nine months is so very, very long.

but here, nine months had passed as if in the blink of an eye. my daughter, who had taken nine months to be knit together in my womb, was gone nine months already. nine months is, in fact, no time at all.

which, as you might have anticipated, got me thinking about the nature of time. about the fact that what to us seems like an eternity is but a blink of true Eternity. paul simon sang, "a man walks down the street, he says, why am i short of attention? got a short little span of attention, and, oh, my nights are so long."

if you'll be my bodyguard, i can be your long-lost pal...i can call you betty, and betty when you call me, you can call me al...

ahem. sorry. i do love that song.

we have no idea what a "long time" is. i remember telling a friend shortly after eliza died that i was glad she was free and healed and couldn't wait to see her as such...but it felt like such a long time to wait. Lord willing, i still have a lifetime ahead of me, a lifetime that i can't imagine passing waiting to see eliza again. yet now this nine months has passed, and i've barely noticed. meanwhile, my first baby is losing teeth it seems he just got yesterday; as i sit in the carpool line at school, i realize it will be just another blink before he is driving himself. and time keeps on blinking by. but i can barely stand how long it is taking to back up these pictures--at my computer all day!--and i've barely scratched the surface.

we have no understanding whatsoever of time or its significance. someday, the book of revelation promises, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (revelation 21:4). but we cry out with the psalmist, how long, oh Lord? ecclesiastes 3 not only promises that there is a time for everything but that God "has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what He has done from beginning to end" (ecclesiastes 3:11-12). past tense. He has done it already. eternity is already complete, and is in our hearts, and we can't understand it.

how long, indeed. we have no idea.

("somewhere over the rainbow," anyone?)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

of the end of summer weeks and priceless week-ends

there's been much ado about the end of summer around here lately. yes, my boys have been back at "real life" now for weeks, but we have managed to pretend like the summer wasn't quite extinguished yet these past few weekends.

(by the way, if you visit this blog for deep thoughts, profound insights, carefully-crafted writing, and the like--thanks; i'm blushing!--but this post is not for you. if, however, you visit for pictures of luke--which means you're likely related to me--read on.)

first, thanks to unceasingly generous friends who are owners of a fantastic beach condo in south carolina, we escaped for a couple of glorious days last weekend, just the three of us. it was lovely. here's luke on the patio, to give you a sense of how very much on the beach we were staying.

and here's luke...well, being luke and resisting yet another beach picture. oh, but he's so cute. i won't be deterred so easily.

then this past weekend, luke and i took off for unseasonably rainy, chilly hot-lanta for a too-quick family gathering. we spent six hours driving, just the two of us, on friday afternoon, through alternately torrential rain and monsoonish rain. this was...well...mostly not fun for either of us. we did the same on sunday morning, torrents and monsoons included. ask me why again? oh, i remember...

the georgia aquarium? priceless (okay, pricey, actually, for my very generous aunt, who treated us; but priceless for former jacques cousteau wannabes like me and wide-eyed people like luke. really, this might be the second coolest place i know...to disney world, of course. and yes, it's fully full of real fish-and-all-things-that-swim and very few walking-around-stuffed ones...but i was too busy oohing and ahhing to take pictures of those).

gaffney, south carolina's james-and-the-giant-peach-esque water tower? priceless (especially when your five-year-old can appreciate it because he loves loves loves the book so much, which has not been ruined in his imagination by any silly movie version. and yes, i took this picture while i was driving. in a monsoon--thus the raindrops you see on the windshield.)

a good book and chicken nuggets? priceless (especially for the quiet they afford the lone driver, who was at this very moment navigating a torrent...and yes, taking a picture of the backseat while driving. don't ask. the book, by the way, was because of winn-dixie, by kate dicamillo, which he also loved.)

great-grandparents spending time with their eldest great-grandson? priceless (and so worth all it took to make it happen...even if only for a one-day visit!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

upon which she writes a post that is much too long in response to a book that is arguably so (or, lost in translation)

i just finished slogging through--ahem--reading the brothers karamazov for my book club. our discussion leader last night suggested that maybe some of us had done the work to read it because we felt like it made us better people; indeed, i do feel like an important gap in my literary experience, shameful english major such as i am, has been filled. i can check that one off the list, as it were.

but have you read it? it's hard, hard work. most of us agreed that we wished we had been reading it for a class, led by a no-doubt brilliant professor through the famous "grand inquisitor" poem (poem? really? i didn't notice) or ivan's devilish apparition scene. we all agreed it is in no way beach/airplane/vacation reading, and those there last night who hadn't read it didn't seem eager, at the end of our conversation, to plunge into it.

so why, our leader asked us, does it endure? why is this monster of a book considered a classic and read by high schoolers and college students year in and year out?

why, having barely survived it the first time, do i find myself thinking that i'd like to learn russian and have another go at it?

because i want to know how he did it. dostoyevsky, that is. how did he do it? how, in an eight hundred page work of fiction (and that with rather small print and rather large pages, i might add--who writes that much, anyhow? boys howdy!) that does not ever really describe anyone, just how did dostoyevsky create characters who were so real?

and therein lies the reason i suggest learning russian: because it is about the words. i have experienced this timeless, monstrous masterpiece, this work of incredible words, filtered through someone else's understanding. it was when we compared translations last night--for example, the chapter called "sensualists" or otherwise "voluptuaries"--that i realized how much is lost just in the translation of the words. never mind my utter lack of familiarity with or knowledge of russian culture, which would certainly inform my understanding of the connotation of that russian word for "sensualists" or "voluptuaries"; in english, i would argue, those two words are at least used to mean different things. are you fluent in another language? i can remember speaking french well enough to know words that i couldn't quite translate to my native english without losing some essence of their true meaning. how many such choices over the eight hundred pages did the translators of just my edition make?

you see, some books are about a brilliant plot, a riveting twist, fantastic visual imagery, or heart-rending emotion. i love many of the books i do for just those reasons. but no one loves the brothers karamazov for any of those reasons. this book is about the words. the crushingly long monologues (a seven page paragraph?), the dialogue between a brain-feverish man and the devil only he hears, the novella-length life story of a deceased elder--these moments are the ones that stick with me from this book. i can't tell you what those very characters looked like, where they were, or what these passages had to do at all with the plot, as it were. but they were powerful evocations of apparently-real fictional people.

and i read those people filtered through someone else's understanding. i can only imagine going to the source...

which got me thinking about The Source and the power of words to create. the Lord Himself spoke things into being, and in His image, we create with our words, too. what are we doing when we're writing or speaking or thinking but creating? it's a power that, too often, is corrupted by our sinful desire to maintain the glittering image, to borrow from susan howatch (have you read it? oh, do read it). we're busy creating who we think we want to be or need to be--at least i am--every time we open our mouths, pick up a pen, or sit down at the computer.

do you use facebook to create a profile--favorite quotations, status updates, wall postings--and when you do, who do you make of yourself? do the emails you send to your boss at work look like the ones you send your sister? (does an editor--read here grammar-and-puncutation nazi--write a blog with no capital letters?) who do you envision reading what you write as you pen the journal-that-one-day-may-be-a-memoir?

sweet luke asked me the other day out of the blue--as he is wont to do--why adam named the sandwich as he did, since there's neither sand nor witches in it. our words have power to create and shape, even as adam's words completed, as it were, what God had spoken into being. it's a corrective, i think--at least for me, for whom both work and leisure revolve most often around words--to be careful what i create. someone asked rhetorically last night how long it took dostoyevsky to write this, his ultimate work; and imagine! there was more to come had he lived to complete it. each carefully chosen word to create his masterpiece...do we choose carefully the words we use to create?

aside from the few songs i know from my peace child days, i do not expect i'll ever learn russian. as i'm still recovering from the first go-round and really never, ever reread a book (there are so many more good books to read!), i do not expect to venture to skotoprigonevsk with the brothers three (and a half?) again, though i've barely scratched the surface this time. but i will persist in marvelling at what dostoyevksy managed to create, and i will take to heart the reminder of the power of words. (and i will never, ever--and here i'm quite serious--see the movie, which is perhaps a topic for another post).

(and now, having agonized all day over what i've created here and having reluctantly judged it fit for consumption, i'll publish it. but not without concern about what i've created...and in fact, as you may have noticed, deliberately without any quotations from dostoyevsky's masterpiece, for two reasons: 1] i wouldn't want him rolling over in his grave on my account, and 2] i'm not opening that book again.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

elliptical tears

he brought a knife to class.

i was an early-twenties community college instructor, teaching an 8am developmental english class in a computer lab. my students were of all sorts: young people getting started on an associate degree and hoping to transfer to a four-year college, older folks getting a new degree or certification in pursuit of a career in nursing or automotive technologies, immigrants getting their feet wet in a new world. they all came through my class because they needed some extra work on college writing. i was wet behind the ears, enthusiastically green and chomping at the bit to join these students in their pursuit of a whole new life.

and then, that morning, my slightly mysterious, quietly confused, small boy in a big man's body of a student brought a knife to class. a hunting knife, big and serrated, carried casually in a pouch on his hip. i didn't notice, wrapped up as i was in the joys of proper grammar and punctuation, thesis statements and topic sentences.

halfway through the two-hour class, around 9am, we took a break. the students left the computer lab for a drink, a snack (breakfast?), a smoke. they came back atwitter. several reported to me, quietly but not so casually, that the aforementioned student had a knife. indeed, there was no mistaking it: the poor, sweet, wouldn't-harm-a-fly student was carrying a weapon. was i supposed to know what to do about this? in all my twenty-three years of life, all my nine months of teaching experience? i talked to him quietly about the knife, asked him to leave, told him to meet me in my office after class ended at 10am. i'd explain then. he was clearly clueless and harmless, but he was also confused and very concerned about missing class. i'd fill him in later, i assured him, and (as i assured myself) i'd have my boss with me, just in case.

the rest of the students were atwitter with rumors flying through the hallways: there had been a plane crash in new york city. "aren't you from new york, mrs. jackson?" a plane crash was not high on my agenda for the morning; and anyhow, it was 9am, halfway through my class, and there was much left to cover. and i was myself distracted by the knife-wielding student. we plunged back into our work.

class ended at 10am, and i headed quickly for the adjacent building, which contained my office, my dean's office, and, among other things, the president's office and the college's main conference room. as i entered the building, i found the conference room door open, which it never was, and the big-screen television on, surrounded by many colleagues and students, including my dean.

not grasping what had happened as i had spent the last two hours in grammar-induced bliss, i hurriedly filled my dean in on my situation with the armed student; my immediate boss was herself teaching a class, and could my dean accompany me to meet the student who was no doubt waiting outside my office door? she did, tearing herself away from the television and quickly filling me in on the news.


there are six televisions on the wall in front of the exercise equipment of the gym where i work out. this morning, on the eighth anniversary of what we have all come to know simply as 9/11, i showed up at the gym around 9:30, climbed on my usual elliptical near the center of the room, plugged in my earbuds, and started jogging. was i aware of the date before i looked at the televisions? i'm not sure. but on the screen in front of me to my left was playing the footage from that very hour eight years ago; and on the screen in front of me to my right, the live memorial being held in the rain at ground zero.

the elliptical in the center of a gym full of people is not my usual spot of choice to break down. but as i watched, i was flooded with grief and memories.

memories of my beloved dean--she who tore herself from the footage eight years ago to come to my rescue--who passed away last spring from skin cancer.
memories of frantic attempts to find out the whereabouts of many city-dwelling college friends, including one who was just a block from ground zero and whose story from that day and those following still sends shivers up my spine.
memories of my sister-in-law's story of watching the smoke billow from the twin towers from her hoboken apartment as she wondered about her friend's husband, who worked on the top floor. he had been running late for work that morning, and hadn't arrived yet.

sure, those stories can choke me up sometimes, in a private conversation or a quiet moment. but on the elliptical? never before.

but the pump is primed, as it were, and i understand loss. that's the long and short of it. eight years ago, i had no idea what it meant to grieve. i had no idea what it meant to live in the inexplicable physical pain of tragedy. i did not understand fear or loneliness or mourning. sure, i cried along with the rest of the country as 9/11 unfolded, but i didn't know why.

today, on the elliptical, i did.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

on re-placing and becoming

the “trick” to blogging, as it were, or at least to this blog according to this blogger, is to write something that anyone can read and understand and appreciate and learn from. but, as at least one of my blogger friends agrees, a really good post must simultaneously be available and rewarding to anyone but revealing and comprehensible on a whole nother level to those who know the blogger and her story. (let it be known that i here officially launch my campaign for “a whole nother” to be validated as good and true and right english. and this from a die hard traditionalist king’s english type. it‘s just such a useful phrase that even i, the exceptionless one, here call for an exception.)

the other “trick” to this blog, if you can call it a trick, is to explore the extra-ordinary implications of the ordinary. not extraordinary in the frequent connotative sense, that is, wonderful or amazing or fabulous. but extra-ordinary as it is defined, that is, beyond or outside the ordinary. like this post or this one or this one. i think that there’s usually more to the everyday ordinary occurrences in our lives than meets the eye. at least that's how i think.

new to my blog? well, now you know.


i've always sung soprano. that is, whenever i have sung, it has been as a soprano. the thing is, until about this time last year, i hadn't sung in a long time. i mean a long time, like since the days when everyone--even the boys--was a soprano. so when i joined our church's fledgling choir about a year ago, i signed on as a soprano. as musically un-talented (to say the least) as i am, this made the most sense: i would almost always sing the melody, and i knew i could at least swing that, at least most of the time.

the problem is that i'm not a soprano anymore.

i could hang with it most of the time, except for the really high notes. i was challenged enough by the music to be relieved to sing the melody, sure as i was that if i had tried to sing another part, i would never have succeeded. but my voice had changed in those ahem-many years since middle school chorus. plus, i had no wind anymore! it was challenging: fun and rewarding and life-giving, but a struggle to fit many weeks, no doubt.

i could blame some of it on months and months of very poor health. i could blame some of it on years and years of sleep deprivation. later, i could blame some of it on days and days of mourning and grief. but, when it came down to it, i could blame just about all of it on not being a soprano. i just wasn't.

so i finished out the year as a soprano and really loved it. the music was beautiful (especially the melody), the fellowship even more so. and then we took the summer off. i think i speak for all of us when i say that we were itching to get back at it tonight. i was for sure, but there was just one thing: i was getting back at it...as an alto.

i had my reservations. could i keep up with the music if i wasn't singing the melody? my music-reading skills are rusty at very best. would it be any fun? everyone knows the alto part tends to be sort of dirge-ish. would i enjoy making music that just doesn't sound all that good?

so i rehearsed as an alto for the first time tonight. i was surrounded by good, solid altos who dragged me along as we learned our new music, and i sometimes found the right notes and other times laughed when i didn't. the thing is, it's not beautiful and it's not easy, but it's not so hard as i thought; in fact, it's not so hard as singing soprano. i can reach all the notes, and, lo and behold, i have some wind after all. when our choir director asked me tonight how i thought it went as an alto, i answered, "it doesn't hurt me, and i can breathe."

it doesn't hurt me, and i can breathe.


there's something to finding a place that gives you comfortable room to breathe. finding a new place when the old one doesn't fit anymore and only takes your breath away. there's the extra-ordinary in the ordinary: being willing and able to find a new place, as challenging and unattractive as it may be. and the thing is that it might not be beautiful on its own. but the thing about the alto line is that it makes the soprano line that much more beautiful. and the thing about a new place, then, may be that, while it's not beautiful in and of itself, it can point to something more beautiful, enhance the beauty of someone or something else. and i'm pretty sure that if i can do something that encourages or contributes to true beauty, mundane or lifeless as it may be on its own, i'm happy to do it. it certainly doesn't hurt me, and i can breathe.

Fear not, for I am with you.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you and loved you, blessed you and called you by name;
You are mine.
Fear not.
Fear not the threat of the fire.
Fear not the threat of the water.
Fear not when troubles surround you and trials confound you.
Be not afraid.
I am your God.
Fear not, for I am the Lord God.
My love will surround you and hold you; for you are precious to me, dear to me.
I have called you by name, called you by name,
Most precious child, you are mine,
I am the Lord God.
I am yours.
You are mine.

"Fear Not", Carl J. Nygard, Jr. (the music we learned tonight, from Isaiah 43:1-4)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

wisdom from elder zosima

i'm struggling mightily through the brothers karamazov. i know, i know: it's a classic, everyone loves it, etcetera. but, wow. i think i used to be smart...but sometimes i wonder.

these bits, however, got me thinking today:

elder zosima speaking about isolation:
That which is now reigning everywhere, especially in our age, but it is not all concluded yet, its term has not come. For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.

and the elder on hell:
Fathers and teachers, I ask myself: "What is hell?" And I answer thus: "The suffering of being no longer able to love."

Monday, September 7, 2009

these days

said francis bacon, "God Almighty first planted a Garden; and, indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures; it is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man."

we've been busy these days with my dear watermelon knife friend and her incredible family. more to come, but for now, here are a few lucky snapshots from a weekend trip to duke gardens, one of the most beautiful places i know.

(postscript to my dear sister, who apparently has no faith in my talent as a photographer: believe it or not, i took the pictures!)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

out of the mouths of babes

my dinner conversation tonight with luke--who recently has had many more deep thoughts and questions about his sister--went something like this:

luke: usually you only have the throwing up sickness for a day or two. but eliza had it for her whole life.
me: well, honey, remember that she didn't throw up all the time because of germs, like when you get sick. remember, it was because her brain didn't work right.
luke: why did God make her brain like that?
me: that's a good question. i don't know the answer, but i wish i did.
luke: maybe He made it that way so she could go to heaven sooner because He wanted her to be with Him.

thanks for the reminder, my sweet boy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

i just saw a pirate in the library (or, how our kids change our perspective)

i just saw a pirate in the library.

i hope the gentleman with the eye patch, no doubt recovering from some injury or surgery or vision trouble, will forgive me for my first thought when i saw him. luke wasn't even with me. nor was he with me when i left the library and passed a fire truck and barely stopped myself saying out loud, "look! a fire truck! and it's blue!"

i think i used to be a compassionate person. i'd like to think that, before i had kids, if i saw someone with an eye patch, i thought about how unpleasant that would be (and at the library reading, with just one eye!) or i thought about the eye patch my mom once endured. i suspect that, before i had kids, if i saw a fire truck, i wondered to what emergency it was racing or whether anyone was hurt (or probably whether a traffic hold up was in my very near future).

but now, six years after (after, you know, my whole new world), a man with an eye patch is automatically a pirate. a fire truck is excitement (is it a pumper? a hook-and-ladder?).

they (who are they, anyhow?) say having kids changes you. and how.

when i read the reports of the toxic drug cocktail that likely killed michael jackson, i know well every single one of those drugs and its side effects. when i hear of a dear friend's father having breathing trouble, i understand intimately the weaning process from ventilator to c-pap and the important statistics of pressure support and oxygen percentages. and when i see a friend in the parking lot at school who also lost her baby girl and she says she's doing well--having a good first week of school and so on--i know what she's not saying. what we're both not saying.

having kids changes you. indeed.

changes your friends, for sure. (don't have kids yet? you'll see.) changes your priorities, no doubt. (my new job this time around? no sweat. don't like my work? okay, i've got more important things to do anyhow.) changes your habits, certainly. (for dinner? whatever it is, it'll include carrot sticks all around.) changes your heroes. (kindergarten teachers, pediatricians, mommy-friends...and dump truck drivers, sanitation workers, and airplane pilots, too.) changes your hobbies (i remember when emailing used to be work. now it's my salvation...ahem, my connection to the outside world.) changes your love language--have you read that book? (make me a meal or do my laundry or clean my house? you're also my hero, and i know you love me.)

i like to think i'm a better person for those changes, though perhaps my pirate friend would disagree. i like to think i know better what's important: why swimming lessons trump editing work every time, why an excellent picture of a wriggly child is worth oh-so-much more than a thousand words or many dollars, why a comfy chair in a messy living room is so much more appealing than a stiff chair in a tidy one, or why chocolate chip cookies taste even better when eaten sprinkled with tears.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

the gap

this is an excerpt from an article called "the gap," written by michael crelinsten after the loss of his daughter. a friend who lost a daughter in many ways like eliza led me to this...it's the kind of stuff that makes me think there's nothing new under the sun to write, as it's all already been said so well.

The gap between those who have lost children and those who have not is profoundly difficult to bridge. No one, whose children are well and intact can be expected to understand what parents who have lost children have absorbed, what they bear. Our daughter now comes to us through every blade of grass, every crack in the sidewalk, every bowl of breakfast cereal, every kid on a scooter. We seek contact with her atoms--her hairbrush, her toothbrush, her clothing. We reach for what was integrally woven into the fabric of our lives, now torn and shredded. What we had wanted, when she so suddenly took ill, was for her to be treated. We wanted her to be annoyed that her head had been shaved for surgery. We would have shaved ours an then watched her smile as we recovered together, whatever the nature of that recovery. "Recover" is no longer a part of our vocabulary. Now we simply walk through the noise and debris of our personal ground zero.

A black hole has been blown through our souls and indeed, it often does not allow the light to escape. It is a difficult place. For us to enter there is to be cut deeply, and torn anew, each time we go there, by the jagged edges of our loss. Yet we return again and again, for that is where she now resides.

This will be so for years to come and it will change us, profoundly. At some point in the distant future, the edges of that hole will have tempered and softened but the empty space will remain--a life sentence. It is not unlike a dog who, suddenly hit by a car, survives. The impact is devastating and leaves the animal in shock, confusion, and despair. In time the animal recovers adequately to spend the remainder of its life on three legs. It is not that he is unable, eventually, to function or even to laugh and play. The reality, however, is that on three legs from here on, every step he takes, every action, virtually every breath reminds him of what he has lost. We are that animal.

Our community of friends will change through this. There is no avoiding it. We grieve for our daughter, in part, through talking about her and our feelings for having lost her. Some go there with us, others cannot and, through their denial add a further measure, however unwittingly, to an already heavy burden. This was not a sprained ankle or major surgery that we suffered. Assuming that we may be feeling "better" six months later is simply "to not get it." The excruciating and isolating reality that bereaved parents feel is hermetically sealed from the nature of any other human experience. Thus it is a trap--those whose compassion and insight we most need are those for whom we abhor the experience that would allow them that sensitivity and capacity. And, yet, somehow, there are those, each in their own fashion, who have found a way to reach us and stay, to our immeasurable comfort. They have understood, again each in their own way, that Alexis remains our daughter through our memory of her. Her memory is sustained through speaking about her and our feelings about her death. Deny this and you deny her life. Deny her life and you have no place in ours. That's the equation. How different people have responded to our loss, or not, transcends a range of attitudes and personal histories. It is teaching us much about human capacity and experience, albeit at a searing price. Parents' memories of a lost child sustain that life. It should be the other way around.

We recognize that we have removed to an emotional place where it is often very difficult to reach us. Our attempts to be normal are painful and the day to day carries a silent, screaming anguish that accompanies us, sometimes from moment to moment. Were we to give it its own voice we fear we would become truly unreachable, and so we remain "strong" for a host of reasons even as the strength saps our energy and drains our will. Were we to act out our true feelings we would be impossible to be with. We resent having to act normal, yet we dare not do otherwise. People who understand this dynamic are our gold standard. Working our way through this over the years will change us as does every experience--and extreme experience changes one extremely. We know we will have recovered when, as we have read, it is no longer so painful to be normal. We do not know who we will be at that point or who will still be with us.

There will come a time, quite some number of years down the road, when the balance between the desperate awareness of what we have lost when our daughter died will be somewhat balanced by the warm and joyful memories of what we had with her when she lived. I neither long for nor cringe from that time. It will simply come. We will recognize it--though now it is beyond us.

So, yes, our beloved daughter is gone--a light in our lives gone out leaving blackness for us, left behind, to stumble through. And, while we understand and deeply feel the meaning of our phrase, "Now we are lit by her only from within," we hope, desperately, that she is wherever the light is. We are trying to understand what this means, as we seek our own way, for the remainder of our lives, to some kind of light. We love our son and are trying to breathe.

We have read that the gap is so difficult that, often, bereaved parents must attempt to reach out to friends and relatives or risk losing them. This is our attempt. For those untarnished by such events, who wish to know in some way what they, thankfully, do not know, read this. It may provide a window that is helpful for both sides of the gap.