Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How It All Felt Today

There's a photograph of me in a yellowed picture album, sitting under a backyard maple tree in the dirt, my legs folded at the knee so that I make a "W". I'm holding Boots, my grey-striped cat with white stockings, in my lap and I am looking down at her, not at the camera. The left side of my face is vulnerable, my fuzzy hair pulled together in a braid behind my ear. On the other side my braid has fallen out and I'm making the long blonde cloak of curls into a shroud.

That afternoon Boots was laid to rest by lethal injection, in life labeled with "distemper" for biting a boy when he dangled her by the tail; in death, a peace offering to irate neighbors. After the camera clicked I held Boots up against my face and cried into her fur in big, body heaving bursts.

There is a similar photograph of my little brother in the same album, several pages later. He is five or six and his face is puffy and red. He's holding a wild bunny that we fed with milk from an eye-dropper after our lawn mower upset a nest and put his mother on the run. As with Boots, this is a farewell picture, snapped just before we drove to the end of the street, crossed the creek at the back of Grandville Cemetery and watched Thumper disappear into the brush. Sometimes I would look long and hard at these pictures, reaching out with my index finger to stroke the glossy finish where a patch of fur showed.

I was ten or eleven when my mom took me to the store one evening to buy me a shirt. As a family of six, paying private school tuition on one blue-collar income, none of us expected new clothes. But this shirt was on sale and my mother wanted me to have it. It was a small checkered plaid pattern, long sleeved, button down, with a white cotton collar, croheted around the edges. It came in maroon and aqua blue, and I tried on both colors to see which I preferred. I stood there a long time, squinting my eyes so that my face became a blur and I could see the thing objectively. I wondered which color my school-mates would like. I didn't know if it was stylish, and wondered if the girls would laugh when I wore it to school.

"Which one do you like better?" I asked my mother. I was hoping she'd say aqua blue but she said maroon, instead. She waited for me to choose a color until the store closed, and in the end we drove home with a maroon shirt in a white plastic bag.

The year I went to public high school, my best friend was a boy who lockered next to me. When I met him he wore baggy drawers in fierce prints, silk screen logo tee shirts and a shock of blonde hair over one eye. He smelled of strong cologne and had a ready smile. He flirted with me and made me laugh and a friendship formed between us. I counted on his asking me out at least twice a week and he could always count on my saying no. We talked for hours on the telephone, we went to Campus Life and football games. That spring, I told him to ask me out again. And I said yes.

It started to go bad right away. I had never kissed a boy or had a boyfriend and everything was new to me. He stopped talking and took up acting shifty. One night he phoned me while I babysat and told me we were better off as friends. The next day the gossip was all over school: he had met a girl from my math class at the beach on Saturday, and they were the new hot item. I never really talked to him again. By our senior year we were exchanging "hello's" in the halls and he had started calling me "Roach", again. But it had become a nickname without anything behind it.

I get nervous when people tell me to look to the afterlife for joy and beauty, because I want to affirm what I see, here. Still, there is so much loss. We are all running around grasping at things and little bits of eachother, but we are only grasping at straws.

[Dorothy] Day liked to quote a retreat master who told the people in his care that they should start stripping themselves of worldly cares as soon as possible, because, no matter who we are, in the end "we shall be stripped"- stripped of health, wealth, body, breath, and, finally, of life itself.

-from "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" by Paul Elie

Just before my wedding my childhood best friend turned nasty. She accused me of being unfair, she complained that she wasn't chosen above another friend to be my bridesmaid, even though we'd grown apart after the seventh grade. One evening, in the middle of her driveway, she screamed at me, "You're just going to get married and run off to Chicago, and I'll never see you again."

We hugged and cried, and for the moment we were ten year old girls, again.

Yesterday I pushed Ethan in a stroller and walked with my mom. We passed the first robin either of us has seen this spring, dead alongside the path. "It sounds so silly," she told me, "but I could just cry at that."

She said she's been wanting more time to pray, more time communing with God. My mother cares for cancer patients at Butterworth Hospital, where I was born. She teaches "end of life care" to groups at her church. She visits the sick and sends cards in the mail to the elderly. She has close friends with mighty hurts, and she takes them all upon her chest. She told me she feels a growing cloud of sadness, as she ages, an "accumulation of all the sadness of the years".

The August I turned seventeen, I spent in bed. On July twenty-first I gave birth to a son, in the same hospital my mother birthed me, and on July twenty-third I put him in a nurse's arms and went home without him. My mom brought me garden fresh zucchini with melted cheese and toast, and on the days I ate it, I began to cry with the first taste, and I had to choke it down.

That fall I started school in a jungle-print jumper. In my student ID picture, I look like the social butterfly my friend Jeremy liked to call me. I started dating Scott that fall, and here I am, fourteen years later, a mother of four with perpetually empty arms.

I have suffered losses since. I have lost dreams, beauty, innocence. I have lost dear friends. Today I went to get my boys from school with red eyes and a swollen face. Today, loss caught up with me, entered, and ran out my eyes. Today, Ethan fought me when I told him "no", and flung himself to his bedroom floor, feeling loss of his own. I sat there on the blue carpet, my legs spread out in a "W", with Ethan's head on my lap and tears rolling off my chin.

Like my mother, I've felt a kind of sadness lately. Still, when she said it I wanted to say, "Yes, but what about the accumulation of joys?" But the two are connected, mysteriously, paradoxically.

Last month Ethan played with toys at the coffee table while I folded laundry beside him. He stopped playing, abruptly, looked me full in the face and said, "You have to die, to live." Then he said it again. I thought of Jesus' words in Matthew 16:

Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

And that, again, is the paradox.

What we love, we lose, and yet we love again. I wept today, because life hurts and is beautiful, all at once, and because beauty slips through our fingers like sand, and only reaches us, mingled with loss.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This afternoon as I dressed Ethan in his snow clothes I pulled him close to me and kissed his neck and his head.

"I love you so much that I just want to keep you forever and ever," I told him. "Can I keep you forever?"

"No." he said.

"No! What do you mean,'No'? Aren't you going to stay with me forever?"


"But where are you going to go?"

"I going outside, Mommy."

Friday, March 03, 2006

Peace on Earth

I nearly saw death on Wednesday afternoon. Two ground squirrels chased each other over leaves and twigs, up and down trees. They raced, one on the tail of the other, up a small tree about fifty feet from where I stood. The surrounding area grew restless as half a dozen spectator squirrels gathered near; standing still, receding, turning again. I watched along with them, as one grafted in.

I hadn't known squirrels could make so much noise. One trapped the other on the highest, most extended branch of the tree, and held him there with loud warnings, periodically lunging at his ribs. The branch bent, quivered. The top of the tree stands lower than the aged oaks surrounding it, but it is high enough that a fall could kill.

At a school board meeting tuesday night, discussion turned heated. The school board and the administration stand on opposing sides of a financial question. At one point, an important finanical donor stood up. "I'm not going to let you use my money for blackmail!" He said. The next day one of the teachers shouted in the face of a parent who tried to broach the subject with her.

This week, a lengthy discussion on a religious web-site got heated, too.

"You are afraid to stand up for GOD and you will regret it," wrote Anonymous. "God will not put up with this kind of behavior from people like you..."

Someone else wrote, "When you stand before GOD he will make [the issue] quite clear. Good luck!"

Still another had this to say: "You will find out the hard way...And he will cast all of you into the lake of fire for your actions."

The other side didn't possess much more luck or skill in the game of kindness, in spite of their stand on the side of love and tolerance.

"God will punish you more than other people" said one.

"Who the hell are you to judge like that?" said another.

And then, the most ironic statement in the whole dialogue, "I love God with all my heart and my soul and I love my neighbor as myself, and I have nothing but hatred for you christians who think YOU are better than I am".

When Thomas Merton visited Alaska, in the last year of his life, he talked about peace.
"It is terribly important that everything we do should be done in a ground of peace within us, rather than in a ground of contention. So much that goes on in Church renewal tends to develop in an atmosphere of conflict where people are too keyed-up about what is right and what is wrong and are trying to prove that they are right and somebody else is wrong. This is not God's way. Naturally this conflict is bound to arise once in a while, but we must always have this deeper ground of peace and confidence and trust..."

I stood in one place as the squirrel drama unfolded. I saw that the underdog was not going to get on top again and would soon fall to his death. I spent what seemed a very long time captivated, in something like fascination or interest. I was watching a key turn in a door and I wanted to see what was behind it. Each time the victim's fall seemed imminent, one or another of the squirrels watching from the ground moved forward or backward, chattering. I expected to witness death at every moment; I dreaded it, I feared it - and all of a sudden I realized that I could stop it.

We are beginning the Lenten season of the Christian church, which I have chiefly understood as a time of repentence and renewal. It is a time to uncover in ourselves the arrogance and hatred which led to the greatest act of violence in the history of the human race: the putting to death of our very Creator. It is a time to reconcile ourselves to God and to one another. A time to put right what we can and fall on the grace of God for what we can not.
"Our Lord came to overcome death by love, and this work of love was a work of obedience to the Father unto death- a total gift of Himself in order to overcome death."
Says Merton.
"That is our job. We are fighting death, and we are involved in a struggle between love and death, and this struggle takes place in us...The work of creating community in and by the grace of Christ is the place where this struggle goes on and where He manifests His victory over death."

I moved toward the squirrels slowly at first, clicking my tongue. Then I moved faster and with greater noise. The pursuer backed down the tree and scrambled up a larger one. I waited, then stared, dumbfounded, as the squirrel whose lease on life I had just renewed exited the tree of death and scurried up the other one, pursuing his enemy. I had not stopped death; I had only delayed it.

The next day school started two hours late because of an ice storm. Micah and I were playing a card game on one side of the house when I heard angry voices on the other side.

"What IDIOT broke this?"

I arrived on the scene to find Marshall assaulting Eliot with words and a level of anger disproportionate to the offense. And it wasn't Eliot's offense. Marshall had left out a toy, and I had stepped on it the night before.

I didn't know I was angry until I opened my mouth. "Go to your room NOW!" I shouted in his face.

Listen to Thomas Merton, again:
"Never has the world been so violent and in many respects so insane, and so given to pressure and agitation and conflict. Although men have made brilliant technological advances, they cannot handle them or use them for good... In such a society there have to be specialists in inner peace and love."

Luke 2:8-12,14
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord...
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Lord, have mercy on us all.