Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Love in a time of Sorrow

Suffering doesn’t have tact. For some reason, though we’d like to think otherwise, the holidays are not immune to sorrow, which makes facing them--for those who suffer serious losses--all the more difficult.

For years I have thought about those who have touched my life who have suffered through death and loss when everyone around them celebrates something joyful, mostly because I have come to know what this burden is like, and partially because I have always felt a pang in my heart for stories like that of my mother-in-law, who lost her 25 year old daughter to leukemia, and nursed her through the grueling chemo come holiday or not. For people like her, the world falls apart a little bit, and trying to piece together anything of a celebration becomes an Olympic feat. She finds great joy now in her grandchildren, simplicity in play with them, maybe some of that silver lining we want to look for, we force into platitude, but she’s come upon this honestly and genuinely.

As for me, I have experienced loss, particularly inexplicable loss, on or near holidays that gave some meaning, however painful, in context. I’ve talked about this before--and find myself talking about it again: miscarriage.

My first was at Christmas, the worst of it during Christmas Eve. A completely heart changing thing, put in the context of the Christ-child born. Of the hope that brings.

The second was on Good Friday--THE day Christians commemorate suffering which has meaning.

My third comes now, as Thanksgiving approaches. At eight or nine weeks, during an ultrasound, my technician pronounced to me that the baby had no heartbeat, and that she was so sorry. The sound went out of my ears, and I only remember covering my face, fumbling. Marching on through the mundane of life--grading and laundry and cooking.

Since then I have been waiting in the completion of this death, this loss, in the midst of a season of anticipation, one of gratitude, and I can find no gratitude for this loss. I am seeking the silver lining, trying to understand this, to which everyone can only say there is no fault, nothing that could be done, nothing to conclude. No closure.

I can find grace in the little things: the way Isabella’s little spirit cheers me, the way my husband cares for me, supports me, knows and understands this loss, feels it himself. I pray those who, like me, have lost loved ones, suffer through illness, or had an experience similar to mine, have such souls in their lives, people who will share the burden, who will give it meaning insofar as love can give meaning to death.

But I, like many who do suffer when people gather to share a feast or string lights or prepare for a season of treats, know that the path is lonely, to some degree. We are better off sharing it, but I know there are many who go it alone, and because I know how excruciating the emotional side of this is, I can only pray for peace and sustenance for those who face some of life’s greatest fears. Even for those who have support, ultimately, the path past sorrow is single-file, and the only thing left to do is embrace it, to see what joys may be wrought from what seems like emptiness, a something from nothing miracle. I know it’s possible.

I await it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Platitudes as conversation stopper--as a way to make the ambiguity stop, to put an end to discomfort and fears arising from the sufferer. Reading about this recently made me pause and consider my culpability and experience with it.

The idea here is that someone listening to your grief seems to think some one liner can help. I know I try to relate by telling my own story, and in some cases this may not be appropriate, in another may be the best thing--to forge solidarity, not try to find a solution, or wrap up the messiness as if you were clearing someone’s floor of your child’s detritus.

I think of the ways telling my story has begotten this--first, trying to express my anger and anxiety about Isabella’s feeding and cleft issues, about the insurance debacles, about the stressful scheduling of appointments and negotiating or understanding the feedback we’d receive, the way we personally dealt with it all.

How I just wanted someone to listen. To that mess. To the mess of my current dealings with miscarriage, of trying to find supportive doctors for a simple trial of labor, of not being told to suppress my desire and instinct to mother, to nurture, to just be what God made me to be. Not to feel guilty for any of these things. It’s hard to find just a listening ear, and I have found a need to ask, to request it directly, even with my husband, who sometimes falls into that trap of wanting to solve and in the case he cannot, bouncing his frustration back at me--and once I told him how that made me feel, he made such a giant leap to change his behaviour lovingly and thoughtfully. My communication of the desire coupled with the wish for support, and his willingness to listen, was what did it for me there.

The platitude deliverer--often unfortunately those who do mean so well, or are simply so self-centered they have to see themselves as delivering answers and solutions, and not just stopping everything to dispel the loneliness--stifles.

The platitudes are insincere at heart and soul. They’re things we mouth off without thinking about what the person who grieves before us is asking of us. I am striving to stop this myself now that I have been on the other side. I can feel it in me when I enter a group discussion, or even deal with my class: this desire to think ahead and envision the appropriate answer, instead of just allowing someone's words about pain or confusion wash over me, sharing that moment with that person. That’s what I want for me.

There is a time and a place for solving problems, and I am paid to mitigate everyday discussions about literature and culture (just as people of faith tend to the spirit, and counselors or doctors to the mind and body), but I know, I can see, on the spiritual side of things, a need for stillness. For silence. For solidarity. That silence and stillness is too much for some, not enough for others, and just right in so many situations we cannot explain away, or console, except with time. That ticking away of time, in the moments where the clock seems like torture, when overnight seems an eternity, when healing seems so far away, when the divide between is a chasm--somewhere in those moments is that silence and acceptance, that voice soundlessly calms, reveals itself slowly, sometimes painfully, but reliably. With the reliability, with the certainty of death and taxes, and with the balm these bring: a passage from suffering and assistance when it’s needed by the neediest or the craftiest.

Judgement need not apply.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Of Fire & Mercy

There’s nothing like being in survival mode to get you sober, off that high of life that can be misleading, detaching you from the mediocre, the material. I can only really attest to my personal experience with this, and feel sheepish sometimes talking about it, but lately my writing obsessions have turned to ways I can share my life with others--with those I love and those who don’t love me back, per se, but maybe need to hear a message of hope or change or destruction, and what comes of it.

When I start writing about other people’s survival, I get on shaky ground, but here goes.

At 5 am on a recent September morning, my husband woke me and gently said we need evacuate--our next door neighbor’s house was on fire. The panic that welled in my chest was a surprise even to me--and hours later, sitting and writing about this, I wonder what I would have done had we been the ones fire had chosen this particular moment. This reaction I pushed down to put on a straight face for Isabella, rouse her from her warm little bed, snuggle her against her father’s shoulder as we went out the door, prepared to care for our neighbors' children, to distract them.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw--for the fire’s proximity, its ugliness, its sheer terror. Smoke pouring out of the front rafters, flames licking high up into the air on the right of the house, where the garage and kitchen were. The noise and lights of the fire trucks. Half hearing our neighbor say the only reason she woke up was because of the doorbell ringing. Not knowing still who rang it, or if this was an electrical shortage. Feeling blessed. Shell-shocked. Praying together spontaneously.

The flames reaching for the sky, grasping for air.

A few things became clear without prompting: that adults are meant to protect children physically and mentally from harm; that the randomness of suffering leads us down paths we’d rather not follow; and that regardless of circumstance, we’re called to respond. However small our acts (of mercy, of courage, of hope) might be, they are responses to the reality which shapes and gives our lives meaning.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lists--Or, What I Did This Summer

I make lists. Of all sorts. Grocery lists, academic lists, chore lists--things to do and be done. but I also make lists about my hopes and dreams and maybe I’m weird that way, but I’ve found over the years that mindfully, thoughtfully considering my dreams has helped me make them reality. Some took longer than others.

Finding a home we could afford took a little while and a lot of doing, but putting it on my list created a conversation between my husband and I about what we really wanted, what we agreed and disagreed on. Of course this list begat lists but created in us a unified front in the search. The same was true of Isabella’s cleft palate surgery: we rose to the occasion together, we learned what we needed, how to ask for it, what did not work for us and how to say no. We attained each measured goal and let go the parts we couldn’t. The measure of that list was our daughter. We would move mountains for her.

Then there are the lists that seem impossible, perplexing. The growing lists of concerns about pregnancy and miscarriage. Bargaining though pieces of it (“O God, if you could please spare me a third miscarriage...”). Knowing that most of that list is out of my hands--wanting health is something I can influence but not completely control--is maddening. Shared goals get skewered and tested and we become pressed to use the virtues we’ve been given, to not only meet but greet and accept the failures as well as successes along the way. To find some balance between what we desire, even what we think we need. Because of the way I live my faith, that means taking into account God’s will for me, and working some humility into my life, knowing when to ask for help as simple as a compassionate ear.

I can barely keep up with some of the lists, they grow maniacally sometimes, but I know when I take the time to meditate on what has come to pass, I see immeasurable strides from some distant start, a place where and when I may have despaired at the outcome.

My favorite lists, though, are the ones I scribble on the back of another list--often a multiple purpose one, like a grocery/end-of-semester/packing list. I found this one at the bottom of my bag (of course), and it read of all the good things I did do: have quality time with siblings; go to the beach (as often as possible); get some New England creamery goodness and Portuguese cuisine in your gaping maw; get to know your little nieces and nephews; go to a favorite restaurant; reconnect with friends you haven’t seen in awhile; go and be quiet in sacred spaces; celebrate milestones with special gatherings; stop in a garden; run in the rain; listen. Wonder.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Burden of Hate

There is a need for kindness. We need to be kinder to each other, to listen just a little but more, show just a bit more compassion, even in the small things, the everyday things. In the smiles we share, or the burdens--respecting that someone’s burden is as heavy as she thinks it is. Respecting that someone’s outlook matters in the moment, that this too shall pass, that there are realities and then there are realities. That there are violent people in this world as much as there are peaceful, but that peace trumps violence when it comes to resources: there are so many ways to love. The tools we’re given to love are masterful, mysteriously appear when we need them, surprise us, delight us. I am looking for that delight in every glimmer of sunlight, the coolness of moonlight, every face and touch and hope.

There is fear, and war, and injustice. These things, too, do exist. There is an ugliness we have wrought which can bear down mightily on the most hopeful of souls. That can tear apart families, break hearts, and destroy community. And with this we must bear with one another's burdens, bear with one another in love, become humble and gentle--to beg for these gifts, for these tools, is my prayer. For those who suffer loss. For those who grapple with life’s cruelties. And for those who seek that wisdom beyond understanding.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


It’s funny how idiosyncrasies strike me as life lessons--maybe I’m protecting myself against the harshness of reality by locking on to simple things, ways of grasping the all-too-real. I’m glad to have a trusted group of friends with whom I can discuss the ins and outs of the spirit which I know moves me. A recent topic was patience, and long-suffering that comes with it, sometimes, as fruits of the Spirit. (In a way, patience isn’t something you can develop all on your own--it’s a gift to pray for, meditate on.)

The stutter start of life’s transitions has become a source for me of great frustration and doubt, tests of my will. At best these become bumps in the road, at worst real detractors that present an unearthing, a recreating that can be painful, mostly because what you’d hoped for yourself can get pulled up with the weeds, and patience becomes a required element to be able to step back and look at what to do, what the next step is.

The discussion brought to mind a seemingly incongruous technological snafu, one I know many deal with anyhow: not being able to access something on your computer that normally you could. After going back and forth with tech support, the answer was obvious: clear your cache.


In humans we develop this memory that stores in layers and senses and emotions, that we can access in so many different ways. Computers have this auxiliary ability, and a cache, by definition, is actually about the inaccessibility or hiddenness in the storage. And I’d forgotten, as I do, how to tap into that, how to care for the spiritual gifts I’ve been given (or how to find the darn clear history button on my computer!). It would be nice if human suffering were this easy to deal with: remove the past, move forward with the future. Deal with hopes and dreams achieved or dashed with the click of a button.

It’s not necessarily that easy, but thankfully others can prod our memory and our better selves into perspective. That’s not to say I don’t still struggle with not being able to access that patience, to deal with harsh reality, but I seek to surround myself with those things which will help me pull through. Reboot. Make space for new memories and sensations and emotions, and voilĂ ! You have access. To something bigger, something more beautiful. Or at least the webpage you were expecting.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Enter Under My Roof

When I create centeredness on the Spirit in my life, I find I’ve made room for seeing purpose in everything from conflict and petty arguments, to old habits and disagreements, strife and suffering and pain. I know I have done it before and can do it again, and in retrospect see how all the goodness came about in spite of chaotic human existence.

When you’re in the midst of any conflict, it’s often hard to see and understand; our wills battle against what’s alien, especially when we’re somewhere--literally and figuratively--we’ve never been before. This place, this state of mind or being prepares us for more, nerves us, shores us up, bonds us with steel in the face of the worst life can and does bring.

All this thinking came about after a trip North and re-acclimating myself to my now home-base, sitting on the front porch and observing. We recently got a new roof, and my husband and the contractor yabbered one day about some young engineers on their crews going to Georgia Tech (gasp, Bulldawg Nation, gasp if you must--but I live in a house divided). They’d razzed the kids as construction workers do, for having soft hands and being too brainy about some things which needed plain old experience. There’s value in both intellect and experience, of course, but what I'm getting at here is that understanding the art and science of engineering a roof is different from physically dealing with it--the contractor spoke of his young guys gaining perspective from the problems an awkward angle on an old roof might cause, or what it meant to have to work around inclement weather, to work judiciously and measure your pace given the situations that might be out of anyone’s control at any time.

Is this really so unlike what we engineer ( check out the roots: contrive, devise) in our lives daily?

It made me think of the moment at Mass when I respond in prayer with words from a Roman centurion who asked Jesus for help, and evokes a desire for mercy, a humility: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Regardless of what you believe, the very concept of becoming worthy, this valuing of humility, is a plea in this moment from this man for the mystery of grace, for simple relationship, for being able to clear out one’s own dust and cobwebs and mess so that there’s room for the other, for love, for the real. We create, each day, a sound roof and a clean space in which to harbor those we love, those we greet, and our own selves, evolving with each experience. How much of it we contrive and how much experience is the hallmark, oddly, of a vast sea of disagreement and concord and equal parts love and grace we do not ourselves only control.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Nature of Nurture

When I think about mothering and motherhood too many things come to mind I can't address here: all the things I do now for Isabella amplify my appreciation for my mother and put into perspective what's gotten me here to this moment, when I realize and appreciate what it means to be a teacher, (strive to be) a role model, watcher of cognitive development and wiper of nose boogeys (my husband calls our daughter "Booger Butt," so nothing's sacred). Maybe what stands out most about what it means to be a mother is the sense of humor you HAVE to have to do these things and more--that long list of "duties as assigned," which includes everything from talking down a toddler from filching someone else's (cooler) bike, to conferring with teens about their next big steps in life.

It's some kinda learning curve.

While the tough times can be tough, as I am sure they were for my mother and the many mothers I have known, the quality of self revelation rising from the rubble of daily discipline is par none. Every day I have to cultivate patience (and often lose) both with toddler tantrums and with my own inner tantrums (toddlers I guess have the sense to get those emotions out regardless of who's watching). That discipline alone has been a mighty challenge for me, but in the process I'm finding little spots of gold amongst my tarnish: I know I am capable of teaching a little one some of the ins and outs of becoming human, and of rethinking what it means for me to become more humane, more compassionate (to myself and others), and to relish discovering this in the process.

Along with my personal experience of motherhood, though, I find that turning my eye out to others--to the many mothers who have mothered me by example and guidance--opens me up to what I should and should not do, about what's possible when it comes to nurturing in the way we all think mothers should. It doesn't all look and feel the same, and cannot be packaged simply in a Hallmark card (though God Bless it, there are QUITE a few cards out there to honor Mom). Instead of the platitudes I'm cherishing the absolute creativity women bring to the role of mother, the melange of styles. Thank you to all those who have nudged me along--I stand with you in solidarity as we change the world, one little nose wipe at a time.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why do I see what I see at this angle?

It's funny how to me, sitting in the passenger seat is discomforting--if your spouse drives *ahem* assertively like mine does, you'll find it especially discomforting--but I'm realizing that in this and other situations, point of view is the thing. Perspective--what seems faster from a different angle, but is not (looking at the speedometer I realize he's going as fast as I ever do)--changes my attitude and makes me anxious. Not being in control is part of it: I am not the master of my destiny in that situation. Then again, who is?

When I realized how this lack of control works on me, I found in other situations the same sort of thing. The duality of control and chaos, its communion, is what seems to make our world go round. Everything from relationships to illness to world peace seems to revolve around who gets to control and who must surrender.

It's both a despicable and desirable thing, surrender. Just depends on perspective. When I surrendered my body to the fact it had miscarried, I was able to carry through, to see my body do what it was supposed to do. I did experience pain, and sorrow, and regret, and still do, but the actual act of surrender in this case taught me to consider what's out of our hands. It forced me, really. It was reality to face. Surrender led to my being made new.

That's the funny thing about reality: when it hits you in the gut, you sit up and take notice, fight back, take stock, and ultimately consider what's precious. Getting knocked off my feet always does that to me. I know different people have different reactions to suffering, and resist surrender, and sometimes justifiably grapple with the Almighty over the whys. I do too. In the end, there's always something that crawls out from underneath the mess and surprises. There's no telling what you might learn about the mysteries of least, once you've given into their care, once you have seen the power of good and love rise up against the burden of sorrow.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Waiting for Joy

In a waiting time. In a holding pattern. A perfectly round, empty sac within my womb. A quiet miscarriage, with little of the external drama, but plenty of internal angst, which I have found I can only sooth by talking some, writing a great deal more, and maybe eating more than anything else.

Because of the upheaval of this experience, I have broken and recovered over and over all sorts of Lenten promises and disciplines, and continue to pick myself up, with the words of many of my confessors in my mind: keep on. Continue as you would, in spite of failure. Giving up is not an option. Be compassionate to yourself as you would others--one gives way to the other.

I am still waiting--for the end of this trial, for what lessons it holds, for what lies ahead. I have hope for what lies ahead, but am ever-wary of my limitations, of the noonday demons which weigh me, drown me in self-pity. I’m shaking them off. I’m looking for the silver lining, as they say. For the joy that I do have in my life. I’m still apprehensive of the pain to come, but I have at least made peace with it, and not with a platitude kind of joy--not cheap joy.

Cheap joy is too empty.

In the meantime I see many women beautifully round with child, expectant for something joy-filled, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I envied this. Tempered with reality and mercy, serendipity comes my way in the form of a *young* couple, homeless, with a six week old. I held this little boy, this little bit of warmth and wriggling, tending to his comfort and alleviating his mother during our IHN host week. In a way, this little man’s vulnerability was like mine. We sheltered him and his young parents, but I wondered what would become of him in the long run, and prayed over him as I fed him his bottle.

I guess in a way I prayed over my uncertainty, too. Sometimes we’re forced to live with ambiguity. In it, we might find the strangest joys--bittersweet, unexpected, but certainly NOT CHEAP.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Today I went to the wake of a 42 year old Japanese man who leaves behind a gorgeous family: a lovely wife who has made strong connections in our neighborhood, and two daughters, 4 and 8. Having experienced this kind of thing before in the loss of my uncle, I don’t have to tell you how sobering it was when this man’s little 8 year old wove her way through the line of people waiting to pay their respects, and looked for or gave hugs.

She both sought and gave comfort, this beautiful child.

It nearly broke my heart in two--I held her as if she were MY child, and prayed to God anything I might say or do could be a source of comfort to them.

Life is odd, in its contrasts--today is Mardi Gras, a kind of odd celebration of life and in some ways a precursor to understanding different kinds of death. Lent reminds us of this--Ash Wednesday with its mark on us shows us that our paths all ultimately end, and how we choose to work that path, how we see the other side, massively affects us to our very souls.

I am shaking thinking about this, about this man, who was younger than my husband, who lived well and cared for his family, having met his maker--and knowing that someday my children will grieve for me. It makes me want to live--to seek the beauty and love and perfect grace we offer each other each day, if we can look past the messy, chaotic snarl that everyday living can be.

So I seek and choose love, in all its forms--join me and go ahead and love on someone today.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


We bless what we touch. Think of that when you hug a child, complete a project, or place one palm against the other in prayer and thanksgiving. We bless our hopes, intentions, responsibilities, and souls. I’m really cognizant of this lately, especially as I get to this existential freefall of middle age. I'm worrying less about this vanity as I realize that time simultaneously does and does not matter--we need cherish it and let it go at the same time.

Even though daily living can be a trudge and even horror for some, and a joy for others, every soul finds a need for touch, be it physical, mental, or emotional. That should be enough incentive to reach for each other, or to take great pride and care with our daily work, with what gives us purpose and lifts others up. That touch can make or break, create anew or even destroy. It’s our intentions that make the difference.

Where our hearts find purpose is where the Creator deconstructs us and creates anew. If you can imagine it, that’s where God meets us, in that infinite touch. It is my hope that in some way, regardless of whether you believe as I do about anything--but most certainly about matters of faith--that I have touched you, that I have been some kind of instrument for good in your life. And that you are the same for others.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

To the barricades!

The prayer I have often cited as my best one goes like this: God, help me to see things as they really are (and not the way I want to see them). I’ve often turned to it when I know I’m getting in my own way, tripping and fumbling over life’s challenges. What's left out of the prayer, however, is something I didn't realize could or would be a problem until recently: what do I do with those realities once I "see" them? What if I don't know what to do? The patterns of life and human frailty have me considering sometimes unaccountable realities: specific neuroses, family tragedies, habitual behaviors. Human beings are such flawed creatures who paradoxically can be strongest when weakest, but it’s one thing to deal with your own shortcomings--quite another to deal with someone else’s.

If I cannot "do" anything more than be patient about these, work through them, knowing these are long haul problems and not quick fixes, then what can I do when I am weary or wary of the snarls in my life, ever watchful and suspicious that their ugliness will rear its head in fear and anger and trepidation?

Seems a hopeless cause sometimes, especially when I am caught in the middle of someone else's dark hole, or stymied by my own. When it seems hopeless is when I pray, because I know I cannot do it by myself. There isn’t always an answer or remedy, and sometimes what I have to see with the eye of my soul is acceptance, or humility. The acceptance might be status quo, and I may not like that, but I find myself called upon to be humble in the face of a long-term solution. The hope for a solution, even. It’s hard in a world of immediacy (I want my facebook, iPad, instant download, yadda yadda) to understand or even accept this kind of slow boil.!

I know that in my lifetime I’ve experienced the joy of prolonged answers over and over--I know their sweetness, and I can’t quit the idea that somehow, there’s a better plan than what I wrought. This kind of thinking gives me the fortitude I need to get through the rough patches, and that’s a good start. In the end, it’s up to me to take up that newfound strength and use it properly, wield it like a sword, and stand up instead of cower at my own conjured and real fear.