Digging for Star-holes

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“So strange, life is. Why people do not go around in a continual state of surprise is beyond me.”  William Maxwell 

“First it’ll be September, then the holidays, then you’re half-way through the school year, then done, and before you know it, you’ll be back here again.” These were the unusually deep and philosophical thoughts from my cashier at J-Crew when I was back to school shopping a couple of weeks ago.

Time warps and bends in strange ways when you lose someone, especially the parent of your then-baby. Instantly, you envision all of the milestones and years ahead that she will have without him. Those moments line up in an obedient row. Each occasion, each year you live through—the cartography of your loss, but also life magnified.

Last night at bedtime— first day outfit laid out, nervous excitement in her restless limbs, I read George MacDonald’s account of a little boy named Diamond who visits with angels who are digging for stars with pickaxes:

And every time a star was dug up all the little angels dropped their tools and crowded about it, shouting and dancing and fluttering their wing-buds.

When they examined it well, they would kneel down one after the other and peep through the hole; but they always stood back to give Diamond the first look. All that Diamond could report, however, was, that through the star-holes he saw a great many things and places and people he knew quite well, only somehow they were different—there was something marvelous about them—he could not tell what. Every time he rose from looking through a star-hole, he felt as if his heart would break for joy; and he said that if he had not cried, he did not know what would have become of him.

I am surprised by my tears this morning when I drop her off. She was two, then three, now four, five, six, seven, eight…”She started fourth grade today,” I will tell him like I always do. This morning I remember how she told me on her first day of preschool that she had heard her father’s voice the night before in her crib, when she was alone, wishing her a good first day. I wonder why that was possible then and not now—that star-hole.

I wish for a way to slow things down and sort things out. Maybe if I write, or walk, or pray. But this is all part of it too, so it’s probably best that we just bear it—the bittersweet, the wonder, and the surprise.

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Helping My Daughter Celebrate a Father She Doesn’t Remember

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I know I have quite a few readers here that have followed my writing since it was published here almost seven years ago. Last year around Father’s Day I wrote a piece that in some ways seemed to continue my thoughts from that NY Times article. That piece was published this week.

As my daughter gets older, I often think about whether or not to share these writings, and at a writing seminar I went to two weeks ago at Princeton Seminary this topic came up a lot with regards to nonfiction/memoir writing. I really liked how one of the writers, Vinita Hampton Wright, described her thinking process on it. “I follow the rule of love,” she said. Would my daughter possibly one day enjoy reading this piece? If, in the words of another writer there, Mihee Kim-Kort, we write to become more alive and make others more alive, would this also contribute to “aliveness” in that way? That is my hope.

“Love, like loss, doesn’t reside in memory. It doesn’t reside in words or even in story, though those come a bit closer. I know because I’ve watched a little girl grieve and love a man she has no real memory of.” 

You can find the full piece here.

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Hidden Arrogance and Loving Your Neighbor

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Sometimes a neighbor whom we have disliked a lifetime for his arrogance and conceit lets fall a single commonplace remark that shows us another side, another man, really; a man uncertain, and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves. Willa Cather

“You think you’re shy? You hide behind being “shy” so you don’t have to contribute to the class discussion. Don’t tell me that you’re shy. That’s just arrogance.”

When I was getting my MFA, one of my writing teachers, Vivian Gornick, made this comment one day to no one in particular during our writing workshop. She certainly wasn’t one to mince words, and these in particular caught me off guard. While I had never considered myself “shy,” I certainly wasn’t the chattiest student. I subscribed to what I realize now was the Biblical notion of being quick to listen and slow to speak, and that being overly talkative suggested foolishness rather than intellect or knowledge. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent,” says Proverbs 17 and many other verses like it. I had always listened attentively during classes and waited until I felt I had something of genuine merit to contribute. In fact, I remember one of my college professors writing in my letter of recommendation that because I spoke selectively, my peers seemed to respect what I said more. I valued that comment.

Surely I wasn’t arrogant just because I was thoughtful about when I responded or contributed to class discussions? But Vivian Gornick’s comment stayed with me because, as is often the case when words stay, there was truth to them. When I was silent, I wasn’t solely listening and reflecting on the conversations; I was subtly judging those who were speaking. I was also refusing to risk sounding foolish by speaking when I didn’t have something that I considered fairly brilliant to say. Yes, I was (and still am) arrogant. I’ve heard it said that writer’s block is really just that: a refusal to write poorly.

Other kinds of arrogance…

A few months ago, I met with a good friend for brunch, and we were talking about her recent decision to change churches and the ensuing “church shopping” that she and her family went through as a result. She confessed that she had been hesitant to commit to any one church because she wasn’t sure it was “right” or “good enough.” Later, she realized other people had committed and were participating in the life of the church and her lack of participation seemed arrogant, as though she considered herself above those other people.

Like my first example, a refusal to participate or commit to a community can also be a somewhat disguised form of arrogance. Staying on the outskirts, we keep ourselves from getting entangled. Our high standards keep us safe, but isolated. As a highly critical person myself, I know this well.

Finally, a third form of arrogance that has come to my attention does seemingly the opposite but with the same origin. Rather than hold back involvement, it becomes overburdened by the concerns of this world, and believes itself the solution. Like the first two forms, this kind of pride masquerades as virtue because it is a do-gooder, the “Elder brother” version of self-importance and egotism. Sometimes helping others is less about serving and more about being needed. Grown up giving means giving anonymously or with absolutely no expectation of return.

In Madeline L’Engle’s “A Ring of Endless Light,” one of the characters, Vicky, is discussing how she plans to help another character with her grandfather. “The thing is—he needs me,” she says. Her grandfather answers, “But there’s a kind of vanity in thinking you can nurse the world. There’s a kind of vanity in goodness.”

I think the reason what Ms. Gornick said has stayed with me all of these years is because of the way it surprised me and took something I had considered a virtue and showed its underbelly. It seems important to turn our supposed virtues inside out now and again and see the stitches on the underside. Not only will it help us to interact with the world in a more balanced way: neither disengaging or over-engaging, but it will also guide us in our own “becoming.” “An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person,” said Tolstoy.  We shift from our differences to our commonalities when we remove ourselves from the outskirts, or the center, and walk among. When we acknowledge that we are all a bit “uncertain, and puzzled,” as Cather says, we have the hope of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

 

Patience, Vulnerability, and Road Rage

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Life is precious. Not because it is unchangeable, like a diamond, but because it is vulnerable, like a little bird. To love life means to love its vulnerability, asking for care, attention, guidance, and support. Life and death are connected by vulnerability. The newborn child and the dying elder both remind us of the preciousness of our lives. Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful, and popular. Henri Nowen

I am prone to road rage. Driving is incredibly aggressive in the congested area where we live, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get honked at for not making a left turn (into oncoming traffic?) fast enough for the person behind me. Sometimes I feel like getting out of my car and going back to ask the person behind me what they are asking me to do. Of course, I don’t. I am also, though, prone to getting almost equally irritated when someone is driving very slowly in front of me. A few weeks ago, I was driving with my daughter and said under my breath, “What is this person doing?” to which she answered, “Well, you never know, maybe they’re having a bad day—you don’t know what’s going on with them right now, so don’t beep.” I thanked her for the reminder, and was happy to hear something I’ve at least tried to model some of the time, reflected back.

You know that “Baby on Board” sign in the yellow triangle that parents often have in their minivans or SUV’s? I’ve always been a bit baffled by that sign. Are people supposed to allow you to drive more carefully or beep at you less if you have one of those? What about just “vulnerable human” on board? We’re fond of quoting, “Be kind; everyone’s fighting a hard battle” online, but what about in real life? What if we could cue in to that vulnerability, not only of babies, but of all human beings, more of the time?

The truth is, much of the time we have little idea of what’s going on in the inner lives of those we do know, let alone those we don’t. Sometimes I remind myself that at one point, I was newly widowed driving around with a toddler. There was nothing that would’ve clued other drivers in to my situation, and I know that now, as I’m driving around there are also people in their cars who may have just lost a loved one, a job, or be returning from a test at the hospital. When I picture them at their most vulnerable, I hold back on beeping. I wave them in. I let them cross. (at least sometimes!) Mr. Rogers apparently used to carry around a little piece of paper in his wallet with a quote something like this, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” Maybe patience is love, and just imagining someone’s story can make them more lovable, even in the face of slow driving or tween tantrums.

When I lived in the city and took the subway every day, I had a little exercise that helped me to remember, (without making eye contact of course) that everyone on the train with me was a vulnerable human being just like me: I pictured them buying a pair of shoes. When everyone was literally all bundled up in winter and had their protective stances, arms crossed—imagining a large man with piercings all over trying on shoes seemed to bring him down to a level that I could relate to. It didn’t matter what race, size, or style of dress; we all need a pair of shoes to walk in and at some point had to try them on and see if they fit. In a similar way, when I walked by the homeless people I saw every morning near my office, I remembered that at one time, someone gave birth to that man or woman and held them, a baby, crying in her arms.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with another mother and mentioned that I’d been losing my patience more than usual with my daughter.  She shared with me a similar tool to the ones I used in the city to keep from hardening my heart. I thought it was brilliant. “When I’m losing my patience, I have one image that I bring to mind of each of my kids…” she told me, “at their most vulnerable.” For her daughter, she chose an image/memory of her standing on the side of the road half dressed after a horrible bout of motion sickness required a change of clothes. It helps her to remember how little her children still are. Oftentimes we see our children so much and they hold up their end of the conversation so well that we simply forget that they’ve only been alive for seven or eight years. My friend’s visualization exercise reminds her again.

To remember our shared vulnerability, whether it’s with your child, on the train, driving, or even online, allows us to extend the grace to others that we wish for ourselves. Perhaps, more than a reactive tool, it is the best and first answer to our own lack of patience or self-preoccupation. “The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self, where we mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescences out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils, instead of issuing to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe,” wrote George MacDonald.  We are all humans on board…and as Anne Lamott often quotes Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.” It helps to remember that.

Tiny Deaths, Tiny Resurrections

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“The world…is full of resurrections… Every night that folds us up in darkness is a death; and those of you that have been out early, and have seen the first of the dawn, will know it – the day rises out of the night like a being that has burst its tomb and escaped into life.”  George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish

When I visit with my 94-year-old spiritual director, I sometimes hold my breath while she speaks because I know she has a lifetime of wisdom to offer. She’s raised seven children, was widowed in her 60’s, still lives on her own, does yoga, and is writing her own book. The last time I visited, she paused and said, “You know, the truth is—all of life is really just transition.” Even, she said, when we decide something in our house decor just doesn’t feel right anymore, and we move things around just a bit—it’s all transition.

All of life is transition. Movement. “Our lives are full of tiny deaths and tiny resurrections,” the pastor at the church we attend said a few weeks ago during Lent.

Sometimes we plan those changes, and sometimes we don’t. We plan graduations and weddings, not bereavement or job loss. Sometimes they are dramatic, and sometimes subtle. “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different,” wrote C.S. Lewis, and sometimes change is like that. Like the way you look back at videos from just a year ago of your child, and realize she is gone. Someone wearing her first pair of heels on Easter Sunday has replaced her.

Transition can even show up in the form of anxiety or depression. When we medicate or numb ourselves, we often miss what our emotions are telling us: it’s time to change. This isn’t working anymore. Evolve to the next level. Rather than going into fight or flight, we can pause and just listen to these restless guideposts.

When my husband died, I thought people expected me to progress like someone in a Hollywood film. I would one day get a new haircut, the music soundtrack would pick up, and I’d drive off to a new life- the camera panning out as my car crossed a bridge. That kind of transition felt cheap and perverse. Thankfully, real life mirrors nature more than films. It is paradoxical, but anything but cheap. Not resuscitation, but resurrection. It is long: sticky cocoons and hiding. It is ephemeral: sudden blossoms, seemingly out of nowhere—gone in a few days. It is dark and holy. We go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.

While some of life’s transitions are marked with small ceremonies or acknowledged in some way, most are not. Most happen in our dimly lit interiors, with only small outward signs of the change. Sometimes we’ve been in the tomb for so long, we need someone to call us out by name. Like Martha at Lazarus’ tomb, we may even resist the resurrection. “But Lord, … he has been there for four days.” If we’ve been in survival mode, hiding in a foxhole, the light of day is blinding.

Richard Rohr, in his book, “Falling Upward,” talks about a custom in post WW II Japan that helped Japanese soldiers returning to their communities to reenter society more smoothly. In a ritual the soldier was publicly thanked and praised for his service and then it was declared over him, “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now.” Rohr calls it “discharging your loyal soldier” in his own work with men.

All of life is transition. Living a life of tiny deaths and resurrections, in a society lacking rituals of almost any kind, I think we must start to create our own. They don’t necessarily need to be communal, but they do need to be acknowledged. When they are not, depression and anxiety will take that place, relationships and marriages will be strained, and we will go on alternating between numbing and striving: consuming and lengthy to-do lists, and seeing how we measure up to everyone else on social media.

Is there a transition that you’ve failed to acknowledge? Is it time to discharge your “loyal soldier?” Pause and listen to your relationships, your depression, your anxious thoughts at 3 am. Do the work and take the risk of moving the stone away no matter how long it’s been or how comfortable you’ve become in your foxhole. “Come out!” you might hear. “The war is now over!”