Signs of Spring

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“Hope . . . is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist.” —THOMAS MERTON, “THE NEW MAN”

While the world tells us we must work hard for our security, that we must make ourselves bigger, and more visible, hope comes, as Thomas Merton says, as a gift. It comes when we are small and unseen because that is when we need it most.

Last week, Audrey and I read a story from her Easter compilation which I mentioned last year in my post called “Small Steps Towards Incarnation.” Like “The White Lily,” the story I paraphrased last year, this one, called “The Golden Egg” is rich with symbolism and full of hope. The story is about a poor little girl in London whose father is in debtor’s prison. He had borrowed money when her mother was sick and was all ready to pay it back when it was stolen. One of the wealthy landowners is having an egg hunt and one special golden egg will be worth a large sum of money for whoever finds it. Winifred, the little girl, goes into a church and prays that she might find the egg, but a friend of hers actually overhears the landowner saying where it will be hidden and tells her. At first, she thinks God has answered her prayer, but then she realizes it would not be honorable to find the egg since she has this inside information. Still, she does not lose hope. She goes back to the chapel where she prayed and says, “Dear Lord, I am giving it up. I cannot ask you for the golden egg now, but oh Lord, please help me somehow.” Later, when she takes her little brother to the egg hunt just for fun, the wealthy landowner sees her and asks her why she’s not hunting for eggs. In tears, she tells him the whole story, and in the end, he frees her father from prison and sends her entire family to the “New World” where he has land.

It was well-written and Audrey started to sob at the end. We talked about how the little girl didn’t lose hope despite the fact that what she thought was her hope, disappeared. “We will go on hoping,” says the girl’s mother, who never knew anything about the egg. “And I will go on hoping too,” Winifred had replied. In the end, even what she hoped to receive is different- new. She had been hoping to leave the debtor’s prison housing and go back to the green fields she remembered when she was a baby. Instead, the landowner sends her to the “New World.” He does more than fix what was broken, or return her to her old life. He gives her a completely new one.

In any kind of loss or struggle, we often have to “descend into nothingness” as Thomas Merton calls it. We cannot go back to our previous life; we are unsure of what life lies ahead. But at the end of ourselves: our resources, our knowledge, our network of friends, our talents and our plans, there it is: true hope. I think this is what Jesus means when he says those who lose their lives, will find it. Anne Lamott, in her book “Help, Thanks, Wow,” puts it this way: “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…”

Like Winifred, we “go on hoping,” and we act out that hope. In her case, she goes back to the same church and prays again, “please help me somehow.” As we approach Lent, it seems like a great time to surrender, to be “stripped of our confidence,” as we await Easter hope.

Click. Send.

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Now we’re e-mailing and tweeting and texting so much, a phone call comes as a fresh surprise. I get text messages on my cell phone all day long, and it warbles to alert me that someone has sent me a message on Facebook or a reply or direct message on Twitter, but it rarely ever rings. Susan Orlean

“Mom?”

“Are you still there?”

Audrey asks me this when she’s trying to fall asleep and I’m sitting in the kitchen near her room doing work and drinking a cup of tea each night. She’s afraid of the dark and gets an “uneasy” feeling at night. She thinks about things- serious things, and she feels generally lonely lying there in the dark, well, alone. I confess I’ve sat in her room for years waiting for her to fall asleep because it was so difficult to get her to sleep, so it’s possible that I’ve enabled her. So in the last year I’ve at least moved outside her room into the kitchen. Small steps.

“Yup, I’m still here.”

“OK…just checking,” she says.

Our brief conversation resonates more deeply though on this particular night.

I admit, I’ve been following daily the murder trial of my dear friend, fellow widow, and writer, Helen, who I wrote about here. I think about her every day, and I want to see justice done on her behalf. Reading the court notes from an ocean away doesn’t accomplish very much, but it feels sacred and important to me.

What I often get stuck on when I’m thinking of her, is how I thought she was still alive for so long when she wasn’t. I assumed she was there drinking her PG Tips as I was, (and am right now) writing her book, and ready to offer me encouragement and advice when I got to mine. Only she wasn’t.

“Are you still there?”

One of the last emails she had sent me had the subject of simply: “Just checking.”

There are people in our lives that we take for granted because they are too close, our immediate families, spouses, children. Then there are the people who are far off, the minor characters in our lives I often call them, but no less important. We might rarely see them, but we are comforted just knowing that they’re there.

Helen was one of those people for me, but when I went to reach out to her, she was no longer there. And hadn’t been for some time.

“Are you still there?”

Just checking.”

There is a lot I haven’t fleshed out yet in words about how the online world and technology plays into all of these relationships. I met Helen via the Internet and our blogs. She lived in another country, but was only a click away. Facebook and social media have made it easy to have a network of people from your entire life in one place—your first grade crush, your high school teacher, your college friends, parents’ friends, friends’ friends, PTA moms,  and on and on. We watch their lives play out online and feel as if we are with them, as if we see them and know them when in reality we haven’t spoken in years.

Perhaps that’s why when they leave us, we try to connect with them in a similar fashion. After my husband died and I was dutifully checking his email and Facebook accounts, I read the messages from close friends and from strangers too who’d read about his death—trying to reach him and connect, saying the final words they didn’t get to say in real life—these strange, phantom messages that are never read by the intended recipient. I did the same and still do every now and again—shoot him a quick email, tell him we miss him and I love him. And I’ve written Helen at least three emails since I found out about her, just to let her know that I’m sad and that I’m praying for justice. In writing, sometimes without our bumbling bodies, our clearest, truest soul-voice speaks. So, I write. But also because there is no other option.

“My dear friend, the world is so different now- just knowing you’re no longer there…I keep thinking about it daily. I know we hadn’t corresponded in some time, but in my mind- you were there…”

“All my love- my witty and wonderful friend…I cannot believe it’s true and I am tearful as I write…what would you say of all of this- I keep thinking that…what would Helen say? You always had the words…”

“thinking of you always- drinking pg tips and eating my digestives…but always. your friend until we meet again.”

Click. Send.

Are you still there?”

I came across a shattering but beautiful piece on This American Life this past fall. It describes how after the tsunami in Japan, people who had lost loved ones who were never found, started coming to an old, non-working phone booth that wound up standing outside someone’s home. They go in the phone booth, pick up the receiver, and speak to their lost loved ones, mostly about very everyday things, “Have you been well?” “Are you eating?” “I’m taking care of the house.” They break down often. If you can take a few moments, and listen to it, you will cry, but you will also hopefully pick up a real telephone and contact someone you love, or someone you just love knowing is there and tell them so.

How about you? Have you ever left a voicemail, or sent an email or message to someone you’ve lost? 

Things We Remember

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“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… simple acts of kindness and love.”  Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

A month or so ago, I was in New York attending a workshop for artists on one of those pouring rainy days where an umbrella doesn’t even help much. As I was walking the 10 or 15 blocks north of Penn station, I thought of a kind East Asian man that I met about 17 years ago on the streets of New York City. I don’t know his name or anything about him, and I don’t really remember at all what he looked like.

I was commuting back and forth between my parents’ home in NJ and Times Square every day working at Random House at that time. It was at that job that I would realize I’m not really cut out for the more corporate world- even book publishing. I was the assistant to a woman who had quite a reputation in our department for being difficult. Her presence back and forth from the file cabinet near my cubicle made it hard for me to breathe. She yelled at me numerous times as I tried to navigate the world of book production: purchase orders to printers, creating bar codes, checking book covers for color. Every morning as my bus went through the Lincoln Tunnel and I drifted in and out of sleep, I would in my mind cry out desperate prayers, mostly just “help me God!” because I was so afraid of this woman.

Once at Port Authority, I would walk to the old RH office building on 45th and Broadway through the densest pockets of Times Square. I would cut through Schubert’s Alley, between 44th and 45th, which I also named “The Wind Tunnel” because on windy days that’s what it felt like. Between the rigors of the daily commute and the tension I had in the office all day, those were difficult years for me. They took a toll on my physical health until I eventually quit to go back to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, but mostly just to leave that job. On one of those morning commutes, it was pouring, a really windy, bone-chilling kind of rain. Crammed into the moving crowd of umbrellas, I was making my way along 8th Avenue when I stepped on one of those big metal grates and suddenly found my feet out from under me until I landed on the ground, quite hard, stunned. It was so slippery on that grate that it was hard to even get up from my position, but a middle-aged East Asian man stopped in the crowd, put out his hand, and helped me up. He added in a fatherly tone, “Those metal parts get very slippery when it rains; try to stay away from those.”

Now, I don’t know if the same thing had happened to him, or if he was just trying to ease my embarrassment, but 17 years later, I think of him every time I’m in the city and it’s raining, and I’m stepping around those metal grates. I’m thankful for the gentle way in which he stopped amidst the huge moving crowd, none of whom even seemed to notice my fall, and helped me though he must have no recollection of this day.

As January nears its close, I’m thinking not about the grand resolutions and goals we set for ourselves, but about the small ways that we can effect change, in ourselves and in others. Since Christmas, my daughter’s been leaving me tiny little notes hidden around the house. They are small, but they bring me so much joy. I think it’s hard as a child to always be on the receiving end of things, and she longs to give in our relationship. This is one way she’s discovered to do it.

In the realm of tiny, I also want to mention a free one week course I took online two weeks ago based on the research of a Stanford psychologist. It’s called “Tiny Habits.” The idea behind the course is to attach tiny habits to anchors, or established habits you already have. The key is to keep them very small at first, less than 30 seconds in fact. So, for example, I added 1 push-up after brushing my teeth at night. Two weeks later, I’m up to five and haven’t missed a night. In the morning, when my feet hit the floor, I added a sun salutation to the “Our Father” prayer. What surprised me most about these “tiny habits” is that you don’t have to have everything else together to start them. As you start, they begin to carry over into other areas of your life and the tiny really builds into something substantial and long-lasting, and it doesn’t even feel like work!

If you’re running out of steam for your new years’ goals and sweeping declarations, maybe you were thinking too big. Small and simple acts are powerful, and sometimes remembered long afterwards: just one push-up, tiny little notes reminding me to be joyful, and on rainy city days, I will always step around the metal grates thanks to the kindness of a stranger in a difficult period of my life.

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Shadow and Light

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“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” -Charlie Brown

 I enter the season each year with great hopes of quieting my spirit and reading daily Advent devotions, but by the end of it, I admit I’ve been racing around buying gifty presents for crossing guards, teachers, and relatives. The Christmas music becomes grating, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” I notice people driving more recklessly than usual in more traffic than usual. In Trader Joe’s last week, I witness a woman berating an elderly woman, with a hearing aid mind you,  to move her cart and get out of the way. “It’s the happ, happiest season of aaaalll.” By Christmas Eve, I admit even the Christmas story at church feels a bit like the Mona Lisa. I’ve just heard it so many times. Like the Mona Lisa, it’s mystery wrapped in humility, but it’s also ubiquitous. I wish to hear it and know it for the first time the way I’ve always wanted to hear what the English language must sound like to the non-English speaking. But how? No efforts of my own afford me this privilege.

A month or so ago, I realized that I was starting to fall into a depression. Strangely, I found myself watching “Family Ties” reruns on Amazon Prime after every chore or errand had exhausted me. Something about Alex P. Keaton before Parkinson’s, before even “Back to the Future,” was comforting to me. The Cold War the characters refer to seems almost nostalgic in light of today’s political landscape. Sometimes you need a day or two to lie in bed and feel what you feel, but it’s always a slippery slope—especially if your thoughts start veering away from “the blues” to the existential absurdities of life.  So I found myself one afternoon turning off Family Ties, cleaning up my bedroom and repeating this aloud: “I choose life…I choose life…I choose life…” Christmas too contains both light and shadow, life and death, though Christmas marketing tells us (and Charlie Brown) how we’re “supposed to feel.” Only when we acknowledge both, are we granted the ability to choose. Christmas is not all merry and bright. It is also the inherent homelessness of the child and holy family, the stench of the stable, and the foreshadowing of danger and death that his birth would bring.

In his closing prayers at the Christmas Eve service yesterday our pastor prayed about all of the shadow and light for people at this time of year. He listed the people who would be happy celebrating this year, but also the people who find themselves alone or out of work, or grieving a loved one. He talked about the general emotion we all bring to the holiday- all of the “accumulated Christmases.” If holidays do anything, with all of their traditions and spiralling around year after year, it’s accumulate. Childhood memories, family dysfunction, romantic memories, your own child’s first Christmas, second, and third. It’s a time full of accumulation and therefore much emotion, much light, and much shadow too.

Grieving someone, as you do forever, you never really forget about the shadow part anymore, but I’ve been surprised that once I get busy with all of the month’s activities and tasks, the shadow recedes to the background and then often I end up feeling a bit like Charlie Brown…or like my daughter says she feels when she feels like crying, but she’s not sure why and she can’t get the tears out. Then, I think, it helps to call to mind the shadow, the accumulated Christmases too, and give them their due.

On the longest days of winter and darkness, we light candles and decorate our homes with lights. But it is cold…and dark. I take out our decorations from their bins the first weekend of December and see the four stockings I’d had custom-made incase I couldn’t get another matching one once we’d had our second child. I hold the heart-shaped ornament that says “First Christmas Together” with a black and white wedding photo inside.  Already there are so many other ornaments of nostalgia—my daughter’s first Christmas, the reindeer she made in preschool, the ballerina she picked out after her first time seeing “The Nutcracker.” While we decorate our tree, I stop and stare—suddenly remembering the smell of the chicken and vegetables roasting in the oven that day in December when he came back from his first European tour. I had a tree up then, and wanted our apartment to feel so homey when he returned. It was snowing. He came home…he came home that December. That last December. Shadow, light.

December 14th, my daughter runs to her Advent Calendar and says, “Let’s see…what day is it? The 14th! It’s a present!” The words ring in my ears as I make the morning’s oatmeal. Sandy Hook, December 14th—so many presents that were not opened on that Christmas day four years ago. “Have a holly, jolly, Christmas…it’s the best time of the year…” Shadow and light…shadow and light.

As we count down the days until Christmas, I always think of a dear friend’s own countdown to the day her husband and father of her three children, a Dr. serving in Iraq, was killed on Christmas Day. Today I text her a heart and she blows back a kiss. Shadow and light, shadow and light.

I am thankful that this year we make it through the last week of school without catching the stomach virus going around like the one she caught three years ago, two days after her dad’s birthday and one day after her grandfather died. I am thankful that she is healthy as I listen to her talk excitedly about how many days are left until Christmas. Meanwhile, on the Facebook group I follow for a little girl dying of cancer named Ava (Team Brighter Days), her mother posts the video of this beautiful seven year old girl who can barely stand singing “Silent Night” at her church Christmas service. It boggles my heart-mind and makes me pray and cry. Finally I go off Facebook, because I have to turn away. But I keep praying, and I keep telling my daughter—though she doesn’t understand why, “We have so much to be thankful for.”  Shadow and light. “And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”  “I choose life…I choose life…”

At Christmas, my tribe reveals itself. The people I hear from aren’t the happy revelrors on the professionally printed Christmas photographs that hang in my house on tiny clothespins. It’s a young widow sending me a photo of the small gifts her children picked out at the school holiday boutique for their dad and will leave at the mausoleum. It’s the recently divorced friend and mother of three who is going to spend Christmas alone for the first time while her children spend it with their father and his girlfriend in another state. It’s the friend who recently lost her father and is in a state of survival mode caring for her three children, one who is severely developmentally disabled. We talk on the phone and laugh about how good it feels to finally take a shower sometimes when you haven’t had a chance.  She also tells me how she’s been helping with her church’s youth group and how screwed up they are. “But I was screwed up too so I’m just happy to put my screwed-up-ness to good use,” she says deadpan. Shadow and light…

All December, at night before I tuck her in, we have our “squinting moment.” We sit in the living room with the lights off, except for our tree lights, and squint our eyes together. After she’s asleep, I hide the elf, water the tree, and step outside on the cold porch to unplug the white lights and Christmas star I hang each year. The nights are very quiet for me. These tasks, I think, are particularly lonely to do alone. This year is at least the fourth year doing them and they’ve lost their novelty and feel more onerous than usual. This year we don’t even bake sugar cookies to leave for Santa because I’m too tired and because I’m learning how to let things go. Instead of rolling dough, we “elf ourselves” online and laugh a lot. She decides Santa eats too many cookies anyway and leaves him an orange and a banana and is quite pleased when he leaves behind a note, “Thanks for the healthy snack!”

Today was a truly good day. Presents were opened. Good food was eaten. But just for a moment, I saw my husband just naturally walking into the room to join us, surprised that he was so much younger than me—still so boyish. It was good to see him walk in so nonchalantly in my mind’s eye, and it was really, really sad that he was not there. I had a sink full of dishes to do after we got home at the end of the day. But still, before she went to sleep, we danced to the lights of a disco ball, one of her presents.  I think the shadows make those moments more otherworldly. We twirled and dipped each other, colored lights swirling around us on walls and ceiling, until we were breathless. I think this is probably closer to how we’re “supposed to feel,” Charlie Brown, with all those accumulated Christmases—a bit broken-hearted, a bit euphoric, but choosing life, choosing life. Because it is, after all, the celebration of a birth, and there is nothing more life-affirming, than the birth of an infant.

Elie Weisel, in his book, “Open Heart,” says that “Jewish law teaches us that death is not meant to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.” And in a similar way, I think, despite the strong presence of shadows, we celebrate and choose life today. Because God so loved the world…we love it too—even in its brokenness and even in its pain- right up til the very end. That mother, posting the most bleeding but true words about her beautiful daughter as she watches her die, is choosing life. My friend, using the painful and truly messed up things she’s gone through in life to help the youth she works with, is choosing life. I think maybe, I too, going out to plug in and unplug the white Christmas lights on my cold porch each night, am choosing life.

“I can’t believe it, it’s over…all of the festivities and Advent…Elfie’s gone…” my daughter said as I tucked her in tonight. But the shadow and light will go on when the merry and bright marketed to us has had its day. So I decided to sit down and write some of this out because that also is my way of choosing life. And from her darkened room, as I started to type here in a dark hallway with only the light of this computer, I heard her singing to herself, in a whisper, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her king…”

At the Window Pane

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“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.”― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

The first Christmas after my husband died, I went to Arizona with Audrey and my parents to stay with family. “Do something different,” seemed to be the advice we got. I moved around in a sort of daze then; the pain was the same whether amongst the desert cacti or back home in the snowy Northeast suburbs. On Christmas Eve we attended a party at a cousin’s, and I found myself outside on the patio where a lot of the refreshments were, when my little barely two-year-old, sitting near a Christmas tree in a red knit dress, excitedly talking to my parents, caught my eye through the glass window of the house. I walked over to the window. Audrey likes to say her dad sees her at important moments through “the window in heaven.” That night, I too was observing from heaven’s window. The whole scene seemed to be taking place in another dimension; the noise of the party on the patio behind me muted as I stepped up to the window with the tears that constantly seemed to sit in my eyes starting their silent descent. I was an unseen observer looking in at a life I felt entirely disconnected from, yet through that pane of glass was all of the beauty and pain of my past, present, and future in one silent, moving scene. In that crystallizing moment, I saw the remnants of my life—a beautiful toddler at Christmas—and even as I grieved for her loss, and mine, I understood—that, right there, is my life now.

Last December, a few days after Christmas, I went out to our porch to plug the outdoor Christmas lights in for the night one evening, when I caught a glimpse through my own window pane. I stood still, befriending the cold air. From behind the Christmas tree branches in the corner of our living room, I saw my daughter playing the piano, her head tilted slightly to the side in concentration. I could hear the notes just faintly. She did not see me. The house was warm and serene inside. It was a beautiful scene to me, so beautiful that I took a photo to try to capture it. I stood there for many minutes, time intersecting with the December five years earlier—meeting at Eliot’s “still point”—not linear time, but the physics notion of block time. I stood with her, the grief-stricken young mother, 34, in the desert at Christmas.

** I share with you these two window pane memories because they offered me a transcendent moment to step outside of my own life and see it from another perspective. I did not have to travel far to see a vastly different point of view. If you are starting to make resolutions for the new year (I do not), here is a good exercise, if not a resolution: stand outside of your home and peer in through a window every now and then, preferably when there are people you love inside. You may be surprised at what you see there, looking from the outside in.