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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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What Bears the Light

What bears light best is broken—
sea-glass, sand-scattered,
mica fleck-pressed into stone,
tessera tile bits glinting under plaster.
The shattered mirror throws a thousand
faces through the air.
What bears best is broken—
Light spills, splinters, wanders
through wave-crest, in ripple-riven
surfaces of lakes disturbed by wind.
What bears best is broken—
the heart, broken. The bread.
The robin-blue shell and crocus bulb
bear beauties, and every spring renew
their breaking open.

—————————-

Found via my friend Kari, who shared this poem on Instagram. It seems particularly fitting for this Good Friday.

You can listen to the poet reading this poem aloud, or read more of her work at her website.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year.

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There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

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On Sunday morning, I put on a striped dress, brewed a travel mug full of spicy black tea, and got in my car to drive to church.

This is not so different from what I’ve done for the past eight (or 35) years, except that my destination is different, and varied, these days.

I have been a part of several church communities in my adult life, and mostly, once I found them, I have plunged in, swift and sure. I visited Highland as a college student, and several months of Wednesday night meals in the fellowship hall, a cappella singing and welcoming faces convinced me that it was where I belonged. I stayed there for six years, singing on the praise team and joining a small group, walking through more than half my twenties with people who are still family to me.

On my first Sunday in Oxford, 15 years ago last month, jet-lagged and overwhelmed and excited, I walked into St Aldates. I fell in love at once and forever with the joyful music, the ancient liturgy read with fresh eyes, the vibrant international community and the way they welcomed me: a stranger, an American, a young woman just learning to question so many things.

Nearly nine years ago, my husband and I walked into Brookline three days after we arrived in Boston, exhausted and grubby from a cross-country move. We found welcome there too, and music, and later, a place to serve. (Eventually I found another quiet, anchoring community on weekday mornings at Mem Church, where I still show up as often as possible.)

Last September, for reasons that I won’t go into here, we lost our footing at Brookline, at least for now. And I have felt, perhaps not surprisingly, unmoored.

I grew up in church, almost literally. My parents and sister and I spent countless Sunday mornings sitting in the pews of a handful of Baptist churches scattered across Texas. When I go back for Christmas or a long weekend, I join my parents in the same sanctuary they’ve frequented since I was eight years old. There are unnumbered Sunday nights and Wednesday nights in there too, hot meals eaten around folding tables off plastic trays, mornings studying the Bible and evenings singing with the youth group, learning so many songs and Bible verses I still know by heart.

Even when I am mad at the church, I crave church. I need to be among the people of God, to hear the words I have heard my entire life: words of grace and love and redemption, the hope (however slight) that God is working, making all things new. Like most people, I picked up a few messages from my childhood religious experience that I don’t want to carry around any more. Like a lot of us, I have spent time raging at church people who have gotten church wrong. More recently, I have hurt and been hurt in ways I’m still struggling with. I believe we are called, ultimately, toward reconciliation, and I also understand that it is not instant, and not guaranteed.

Since last fall, I have spent Sunday mornings all over the place: eating brunch in a friend’s spacious dining room, or watching another friend’s little boy run around the soccer field. Sometimes I’ve slept late and headed right for the river trail, or walked with my husband to a restaurant in our neighborhood. Some weekends, I’ve traveled or entertained guests, taking a break from a place and a rhythm that had come to cause me pain.

But on some Sundays, still, I go to church.

I go because I need to hear the words: The Lord be with you. Christ is risen. The body of Christ, broken for you. I go because I need to say the words out loud: And also with you. Christ is risen indeed. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom. I go because I need to sing, not only alone but as part of a community: Be Thou my vision. Holy, holy, holy. Alleluia. 

I wrestle and question. I doubt and grieve. Sometimes I stay silent, and sometimes I cry. I have come to believe I need all of that, and that church is a place where that can happen. I am not sure yet when or if I’ll find a new community to call mine. I am not ready, yet, to decide one way or another.

I have been grateful, in this city, to find welcome in every church I have visited so far: with screens and folding chairs in a community center, or the box pews and crimson-covered hymnals at Memorial Church. My heart tugs at the mixture of old hymns and more recent praise music at a church I’ve visited in the Fenway, and my soul relaxes into the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer in almost every place.

While I believe God is present throughout the world, I also know that, for me, one place to find God is church. So I keep going, keep seeking, keep wiping away tears. I keep doing my best to show up, when I can. I keep listening to the words I know so well, and saying the words I am given to say: Good morning. Peace be with you. Help us, Lord. Thank you. Amen. 

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Harvard yard November light trees fall blue sky

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.

[…]

Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

—from “Heavy,” Mary Oliver

I read this poem in Thirst a few years ago, but heard it read aloud this week at Morning Prayers. I listened to the words and thought, not for the first time lately, that gratitude—along with courage and books and yes, grief—can be a heavy burden to bear.

For me and for many of the folks I love, this has been a year of coming close to grief: closer and closer until we are right in the middle of it. We have navigated trauma and transition; we have wept, sometimes privately, sometimes together. We have been sustained—never doubt it—by friendship and sunshine, hot drinks and fresh flowers and occasional blinding joy.

geraniums window red flowers kitchen

But I cannot come up to Thanksgiving without first pausing to acknowledge: there has been so much, this year, to carry.

Even the good gifts this year have sometimes felt prickly, as my friend Micha put it years ago. My new job at Berklee, where I am glad to be, came at the expense of leaving Harvard, which I love. My husband has seen the end of one nonprofit he runs and the beginning of another: a professional success, but a stressful one. I have multiple friends who have navigated moves, loss, job changes, seeing their lives upended and rearranged. Sometimes it comes by choice; often it is a product of circumstances. Always, it requires summoning courage.

We carry our griefs, like other burdens, as best we can; we shift and strain and sometimes we ask for help. And alongside the heartache is the constant reminder: there is so much, in this world, that inspires thanks.

I am grateful for—among other things—the vivid sunrises out my kitchen window, and the cheery red geraniums that turn toward the light as I do. I’m grateful for pleasant workdays at Berklee, and the snatched hours I still spend in Harvard Square. I am grateful, in both places, to have found home: the one I am working to build, the other I am determined not to lose.

I’m grateful for countless long runs on the trail, for Monday night boot camps with Erin and company, for yoga in a green-walled studio, for the chance to step into my own strength. I’m grateful for good books and thought-provoking articles, and the connections I’ve made via both, online and off.

Most of all, I am grateful for the stalwart loved ones who have supported me through another year of challenge and change. Some of them are bound to me by blood or vows, but all of them are family.

If you are celebrating: I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving. If you are carrying grief: I see you. And if, like me, you are doing both, I wish you joy and strength for the road ahead.

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Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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dinner list book stripes bench shoes

June means diving into the first stacks of summer reading, amid work and life craziness. Here’s the latest roundup:

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, Sarah Smarsh
The American class divide is in the news a lot these days. But Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansas farm girl who comes from a long line of teenage moms, has lived it. A searing portrait of one family in the rural heartland, a timely meditation on economic and social chasms, and a fiercely loving story of one girl’s struggle to embrace and escape her roots. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 18).

A Storied Life, Leigh Kramer
Olivia Frasier has fought hard to build a life apart from her banking family, opening her own art gallery. But when Liv’s grandmother announces she’s terminally ill and appoints Liv her chief decision-maker, Olivia is forced to confront both her family dynamics and her own issues. An engaging, thoughtful novel about grief, love and living life on your own terms. I’m so proud of Leigh, a longtime Internet pal of mine. She sent me an advance copy.

The Dinner List, Rebecca Serle
It’s a common question: who are the five people, living or dead, you’d love to have dinner with? When Sabrina shows up to her birthday dinner, she finds not only her best friend, but a beloved professor, her estranged father, her fiancé, and Audrey Hepburn. Serle’s novel unfolds over the course of the evening, spinning out a narrative of romance, regrets and the complicated ways we love. Funny, sweet and unexpectedly moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 11).

The Masterpiece, Fiona Davis
Today, Grand Central Terminal is a New York City landmark. (The ceiling alone is stunning.) But in the 1970s, it stood in danger of being torn down. Davis’ novel tells the intertwined stories of Virginia Clay, a recent divorcée who takes a job at the station, and Clara Darden, an illustrator who taught at the terminal’s art school in the 1920s. Richly detailed and compelling. I especially liked watching Virginia take charge of her life. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Aug. 7).

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution, Julia Alekseyeva
I picked up this graphic memoir off a table at the library, and read it in one sitting. Alekseyeva narrates her great-grandmother Lola’s life story: growing up Jewish in Kiev, surviving several wars and the Holocaust, working for the government and the Red Army. Interwoven are scenes from Alekseyeva’s own childhood in the U.S. (which are frankly far less compelling). Lola was a fascinating protagonist.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Kathleen Rooney
Lillian Boxfish, longtime New Yorker, former darling of the advertising world, decides to take a long, rambling walk through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. Since I love walking, NYC, and whip-smart female narrators, I expected to love this book, and I did. It dragged a bit in the middle, but I adored Lillian. I’d walk with her any time.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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