When I suffered the traumatic loss of my husband, a line was drawn straight down the middle of my life. The girl who read mom blogs and made homemade play dough, the one who stayed up until three am making tissue-paper pom poms for her daughter’s first birthday- and the one who received and read so many home catalogs in an attempt to create a beautiful home, seemed- ridiculous. The sight of the catalogs, in particular, made me nauseous. It was months- maybe a year, before I could even flip through one of those. They were a physical reminder of the meaninglessness of all I’d been trying to create before my husband died. Those carefully staged photos of non-existent homes with perfectly set tables and seasonal dishcloths were not reality. The real world was dark and mysterious and demanded my attention.
I felt sure, and perhaps vowed, that though others might be waiting for me to join in “life” again- to busy myself with my own small projects and weekend plans, I would not. I could not. It would be easy, too easy, to just let life carry me forward in that flow of to-do lists and holidays and plans. Instead, I chose concentration. As though life were a poem, I kept my head focused on the page of words- meditative, dense, symbolic. I would not be sidetracked by fleeting things in the margins. I read books on existential theology and memoirs of struggle and loss. I wrote and sat and thought.
Of course, as a mother of a toddler, there were still regular things that needed to get done. I cooked, cleaned, shopped. But I found that I was not “in” them the way I once was which was in some ways, quite liberating. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the author of “Lament for a Son,” detailing the sudden loss of his son, and a Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale, writes of the shift:
The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them…The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone…What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for.
I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong anymore. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.”
But then one day, I purchased a new, natural laundry detergent with a soft scent that I enjoyed and even brought it up in a phone conversation with a friend. I was excited about the smell of laundry detergent. Could I be so superficial, knowing what I knew? Knowing how all of this disappears in an instant. Knowing also that even as time brings me further away from my own moment of chaos, there is still darkness, evil and suffering permeating the world I live in. That someone, right now, while I feel delight about the scent of my laundry detergent, is having their moment of impact. Their moment at the doctor’s office, or receiving the phone call, or burying a loved one. And beyond the middle class American world I know, what completely unknown worlds of darkness lie there? How dare I go back to caring about the scent of my laundry! The very thought of it was as perverse as it was comforting.
As my daughter grew there was the indelible pull of adding more and more to our routine. There was preschool, and then kindergarten, homework, and more activities- piano, swimming, Girl Scouts. There was less time to concentrate in my cocoon of grief, less time for the reading of philosophy.
I’ve read that sometimes people think they’ll be immediately changed by tragedy. But in actuality, you still have to do the work to change. That comes after. Though my perspective had changed instantly, though my nausea at the sight of the catalogs was genuine, I, myself, had yet to change. That has been happening slowly now, over the course of years, and it has taken work. And emerging from this work- I discovered a desire to do more than merely the kind of surviving one does after traumatic and complicated loss. But how does one move from surviving to thriving with the knowledge I have, the intimacy with mortality, while in a middle class suburb? What does that look like?
And what does it matter if I make my home warm and cozy, while so many others are homeless? What does it matter if I work through all of the personal issues I have with a therapist if there is still in the larger world so much that has not been worked through? And even, what is the use of my giving 110% to parent my child- brushing her teeth twice a day for her, teaching her manners, helping her with that piano phrase over and over? What does it all mean in the often dark setting of this world where disease is raging and killers are beheading small children? Don’t open the furniture catalog, I tell myself. Don’t respond on Facebook to some silly posting. Don’t get lost in your cozy middle class world and numb yourself to the darkness again. Hasn’t loss taught you anything? Concentrate! I am like a small child having a tantrum, crying in her room, but feeling the catharsis has quite passed now- and interested in a toy, but still manufacturing the sobs and moans until someone notices- until the parent comes in.
The Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, suggests that we must “surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive the light and spread the light.” We must “recognize what is, in fact, darkness and then learn how to live in creative and courageous relationship to it.” He says that most people find release for the tension of living in darkness and light two ways- either by pretending there is no darkness, or, as I was, standing so “angrily, obsessively against it, but then you become a mirror image of it.”
My renewed interest in the small things, like the scent of laundry detergent, or a good cup of coffee, or a pretty shade of lipstick, didn’t necessarily mean that I had lost the new perspective. In fact, my appreciation of all of these has been enlarged because of that perspective. And I don’t think it means I’m betraying the kinship I feel with all that is broken or suffering in the world. That kinship is born of real tears and in the furnace.
“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are,” I read in a collection of readings for Advent by writers like Thomas Merton and Annie Dillard. This quote comes from a priest named Alfred Delp who was imprisoned and later hung by the Nazis.
It will not help a suffering world if I sit in darkness. I can not carry light if my sole kinship is sharing darkness. But if I clear out my own corner of the room- and decorate even- not ostentatiously, but simply, comfortably, I can design a space of hospitality and rest for the weary, both literally and figuratively. I can stand in a secure place from which I can love the hurting and do my part. Mitigating the chaos in my own life, working through the dark places in my psyche, even doing laundry- these are the only candles I have to light right now. So, I light them.
I’ve heard it said that hope is really just a love of life. I pack lunch for my daughter at night, boil water for oatmeal in the morning, and gently wrap a scarf around my six year old’s neck before we walk to school because I believe her life and my life are worth something. Even amidst shadows and gloom, life is still precious, being alive – still miraculous. To fully engage with life, I have to acknowledge darkness and light, and even doses of frivolity which are usually just human reactions to scary things. “Here is life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” says Frederick Buechner. I let the tension hold. I cry with those who cry, but also celebrate with those who celebrate, and even laugh with those who are laughing. This is not going back to the way things were before my personal tragedy. This is not returning. Some call it resilience. I call it living in hope.