Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘grief’

tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

candle books snowflake peace

We are nearly halfway through Advent, the quiet, candlelit season leading to Christmas (which is often beset by the noise of daily life, on all sides). While I’m usually eager to step into Advent, this year I stood waiting at the door, so to speak, for days.

I am exhausted after the rush and press of a hectic fall, distressed by the news headlines, worried and saddened by the heaviness of the world and my own heart. As Rachel Held Evans observed recently, the usual ethos of Advent – the stillness and hope – has not felt quite right, this year.

We still showed up at church on a Saturday morning, though, to drape pine garland around doorways and ledges, to fill window boxes with cyclamen and green boxwood. That night, I finally pulled out the tiny coat-hanger tree that my friend Tiffany made for a Secret Santa exchange, twenty years ago. Every year, I hold my breath as I plug it in, hoping the colored lights will still shine. Every year, they wink out at me from the blue-green branches, the wires and foil held together by masking tape and hope.

kitchen stove kettle tree

The next day at church, we sang the hymn that encapsulates Advent’s longing for me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I rubbed my fingers across the pine wreaths my friend Sarah had brought, and inhaled their sharp green scent. It smelled like Advent: like the promise of something fresh and bracing, even as the world outside grows quiet and dark.

Later, I stood behind the pulpit to welcome everyone, and borrowed a line from another Sarah. As my husband lit the first purple candle, I talked about how Advent is for the ones who grieve; who long; who hope. This year, maybe more than ever, we are stumbling forward in the dark, unsure whether we will find our way. But we believe that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That afternoon, I took a long walk on the river trail, along paths that have grown familiar, past benches and bare trees and slender, waving reeds. The morning’s sunshine had all but disappeared: a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. As I turned toward home, it was rapidly growing dark. Yet the edges of the clouds still held a faint glow: I knew there was light behind them, even though the day had grown dim.

We hauled the tree up out of the basement that night, and unraveled eight strands of lights while listening to the King’s College singers. It sat in the living room, unadorned, for an entire week: the ornaments waited in their boxes for an evening when we had the time and inclination to unwrap them. The tree looked a little sad to me at first, but I came to enjoy its quiet glow, its patient waiting.

christmas tree lights snoopy

Advent is about acknowledging this difficult truth: not everything is as it should be, not yet.

I keep thinking of Nichole Nordeman’s words, which I wrote about after Thanksgiving: surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid. They mingle in my head with a line from “O Holy Night:” a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Somehow, at the same time, both of these things are true.

We are tired and thirsty, weary and fearful; we are not sure how, or when, or even if God will come. At the same time, our hearts quicken with a hope we can’t explain or understand: a quiet undercurrent, a bubbling thrill of joy.

Advent is about these contradictions: walking forward in the darkness, clinging to the promise of the Light. It’s about acknowledging the hurt and the fear, the injustice and the gaping need, the despair that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is choosing to believe the words we read again every year: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Behold, I am making all things new. 

We choose hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. We sing, even when the words feel make-believe rather than true. We wait and watch, together in the darkness, lighting candles and looking for the light that hovers just behind the clouds. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

Read Full Post »

autumn sunrise window view trees

I say this every year: I can’t believe it’s nearly Thanksgiving. But the weather has turned seasonably chilly, and the signs – including turkey stickers at a wine tasting I went to last week – are everywhere.

Every year mid-November, I perform a few annual rituals: I buy sweet potatoes and chop pecans for the casserole-cum-dessert that is my favorite Thanksgiving dish. (No marshmallows for me, thank you.) I double-check the sign-up list for Turkeypalooza, our annual potluck celebration in the church basement. I shiver as I hurry down the Cambridge streets in my green coat, watching the golden leaves dance and fly off the trees. I queue up the Friends Thanksgiving episodes. I reread W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks” and hum Nichole Nordeman’s song “Gratitude.”

This November, I’ve been doing a few new things, like listening to Richard Blanco discuss Merwin’s poem in a recent WGBH segment. I’ve been thinking about how some of my best friends, who moved to Idaho this spring, won’t be with us to celebrate Thanksgiving, for the first time since we all moved to Boston. I’ve been trying to come to grips with the realities of the last year: many things have changed, or been thrown into sharper relief, since the 2016 election. And I’ve been thinking about Wendell Berry.

The title of this post is a line from Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It captures my own struggle over the past weeks and months: how to choose joy, find the silver lining, set my face toward gratitude, while looking steadily at the sobering and often horrifying realities of this world.

It is easy – so easy – to become sad and overwhelmed and terrified by the headlines: natural disasters, infighting and cruelty in Congress, so many stories of horrific sexual violence in this country and elsewhere. Closer to home, I have friends and loved ones who are navigating bad news every day: surgeries, budget cuts at their workplaces, losing beloved pets, struggling through breakups, depression, job hunts. Sometimes it’s a battle to get up and face the day, to consider these facts without becoming paralyzed by them.

ankle boots leaves

I forget, sometimes, that the bright parts of life are just as factual as the tough parts: that the blessings, like my florist’s smile and the taste of Earl Grey (served with good cheer by my folks at Darwin’s) and the arc of a bold blue autumn sky overhead, are as real as the worries that tug at my heart. They are all part of this life, the beautiful and the terrible, the joyous and the disheartening. Sometimes the weight of the darkness threatens to pull me down. But the goodness, the light, is also always there.

“Ask the questions that have no answers,” Berry urges his readers. “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.” Like all the poets I love, he urges me to pay attention, to keep up the hard and honest work of taking care, to look for and celebrate the sharp, sudden beauty of these days. “Laugh,” he says. “Laughter is immeasurable.” And again: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

This is the challenge, as Lindsey wrote so eloquently last week: to acknowledge the sorrow, sit with the grief, call out the wrongness and work to change what we can, while actively seeking the “glimmers of joy” in our days. To be joyful, though we have considered all the facts – even the ones that make us cringe or roll our eyes or weep. To give thanks for what we have, what we enjoy, what (and whom) we love. For the blessings we have worked for and for those that come unasked, unbidden.

I am finding gratitude, like so many other things, complicated these days. But I also find it important, even vital. This week, before (and after) the turkey and the pies and the hours in the kitchens (mine and others’), I will be choosing to give thanks.

If you’re celebrating, I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Read Full Post »

candles ashmont vigil

Metal and glass, granite and flame: I snapped this photo at a small vigil in Dorchester last Sunday night, in the wake of the awful events in Charlottesville.

I’d seen a list online of vigils in the Boston area, so the hubs and I hopped on the trolley to the Ashmont T station (about a mile from our new house) to join about 50 people in a quiet show of solidarity and peace.

I wasn’t sure whether to go: I am wary, in these uncertain days, of doing anything just to make myself feel better, when none of this is about me at all. I didn’t go so I could tell people I’d gone; I was shy even about introducing myself to others who were there. But it still felt important to show up, to stand with other people in our new neighborhood who care about justice and peace, and who understand that we are all culpable in this long story of hurt and hatred and injustice in the country we love.

We chanted Heather Heyer’s name; we sang a verse of a song about peace and carrying burdens together; and afterward, a few of us stood around chatting, learning each other’s names: Patricia, Johanna, Orin, Rachel, James, Lizzie, Kathleen. I left feeling still heartbroken, but quietly buoyed up.

It felt so small, hardly worth mentioning – but worth doing.  I share my experience here, in case you are wondering if the small things you’re doing are worth it, or in case you need an idea of how that might look. Because showing up – however that looks – always matters. I have to believe that.

Read Full Post »

birds art life mug

“I found myself with a broken part,” Kyo Maclear writes in the introduction to her luminous memoir, Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation. During a year of dealing with her father’s illness and other challenges, Maclear found herself unmoored. “I had lost the beat,” she writes. Struggling with her responsibilities to her father, husband and sons, she found herself with no words: a troubling state of affairs for a writer.

Searching for a way to relocate herself in the everyday, Maclear met a musician whose passion was urban birdwatching. Birds Art Life chronicles the year they spent watching birds in and around her home city of Toronto.

I’m back at Great New Books today talking about how much I loved Maclear’s quiet, gorgeous memoir, which I picked up at Idlewild Books in NYC this winter. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

Read Full Post »

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

Read Full Post »

crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »