Don’t be enticed by the promise that things will be okay. If only you simplify, or eat better, or pray more, or work out more, or are kinder, or fairer things will work out like you think they should. Yes, these things are good, but we do not live in an economy of reward, where doing the good and the right things yield to you what you long for. We do the right thing to do it, not because it will make us happy or make things easier, but because it is the right thing. It will always be hard, if you are living well you will be struggling, you will be aching, you will be longing and loving and failing and getting up again. It is messy out there, beautifully and excruciatingly messy. The sirens of simplification, of accumulation, of trying harder, of being more worthy, of being nicer – they call to us, but they are false promises. Life is in the mess, the ache, the joy, and baby steps forward and the big steps backward and it is here that we must find what we long for.
I’ve been in the ICU with my mom since Monday when there was bleeding on her brain. When I arrived, she lay there like a blob, mouth agape in that terrible way that older sicker people look in the hospital. She had lost consciousness not long before I arrived, although as she was fading in and out (mostly out) her eyes met mine and she knew who I was and I saw her in her eyes. And I told myself to hold on to that and I loved it and held it.
Although we are not out of the woods by any means yet, she is now awake and herself, and I do not have to cling to what I thought might be our last shared glance. Save for some confusion and forgetfulness that is common with such trauma, she is here. She has a stint in her skull going into her brain that drains out the spinal fluid that is backed up.
I read the numbers and glowing green graphs like a little crystal ball that might let me see something about how she is. I jump up when the machines beep, answering them like sirens calling for me to come hither. I devour medical journal articles on NASAH (nonaneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage, for those of you not in the know) like a fifth grader who just discovered Harry Potter, learning so quickly the lingo and the protocols as if me knowing them will somehow make it more likely that everything will be okay.
This life, it is so precious, we say over and over again like a little mantra to ourselves to remind our hearts and our minds to appreciate the beauty and fragility of it all. We are in an impossible bind where we must plan for a long-term life of financial security and safety and at the same time little quotes tell us to be present and in be in the moment and live as if it was the last day of your life. It is all impossible and broken and yet we must go on and find a balance and a way forward, more subject than we would like to be to our histories and the years of established synaptic patterns.
All the little noises of the ICU – the beeping and the cuffs inflating and deflating and the nurses giggling in the hall and the water flowing for the oxygen machine – they become familiar so very fast.
And, in the end, I think that there is little to be said. Over and over again our hearts break and we lose our breath and we feel the shaking of our hands as we long for a life of stability and love and comfort. And over and over again, it does not come and we try to love and we try to pray and hope and wish and stumble our way to something that makes this all worth it.
And so I just pray. For me and others who might have the same prayer.
God of all,
We come to you tonight, out of ideas.
Out of ways to make it better or easier.
We long for peace and stability.
For a safety that we’ve been chasing for so many years
That never comes.
I do not believe in an interventionist God.
I am afraid you are not up there with some sort of control board,
watching over my mother’s inter-cranial pressure or
Tim Tebow’s football games or the Egyptian referendum.
And so, we are left only to ask
that we are open to your Love
That I am told
Is already there.
Washing over us
Day and night.
In the ICU.
Over my sweet mother.
On our tongues.
In each heart ventricle.
With each beep of those machines
And click of the nurses’ shoes
May we know of the preciousness of this all.
The moments in the ICU
and a thousand other imperfect moments
of pain and hope and joy and tragedy
All we have in this little tiny slice
Of time we get on this spinning planet.
Help us live into the awareness of your Love.
And the Holiness of all of this.
It must be holy, God,
It must be. Right?
God, so many of us have run out of ideas
about how to make this work.
Be with us as we try to let go of the trying
And the fixing
Of the feeling sorry for ourselves
And the mental and verbal reviews of the Injustice Of it All.
May we practice presence.
Awareness of the power
of what we can do in those seconds
To love and be kind and speak up
To do things differently
To move closer to Right.
These moments and moments.
For it is, we remember (and then forget), all we have.
Amen and Blessed Be.
When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.
It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.
I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.
Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.
I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.
These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.
Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?
I am sitting in the parking lot at McDonald’s while my little three year old magical wild child sleeps his rare sleep in the car seat. Our cousin Nancy Jo has died and I am driving to see family. She lived a hard life with too much pain and many ill-fated attempts to numb that pain. She also lived a life of giving – she was a craft master, always dreaming up something thoughtful and sweet to give even second cousins like me. She had three amazing adult children, now left with their own complexities of various sorts not the least of which is the sudden death of their mother.
I am always struck by the swiftness of death and the fine line between the beauty and wonder of this insane world and the pain and horror of it all.
People we know are dying all the time, these days, it seems. Uncle Carl and Uncle Ollie. Nancy Jo and Uncle Bruce’s brother Bill. All those people on the news and in the newspaper. In Libya and Syria and Louisville and down the street and on facebook.
I hate how damn mundane it is. Like, it happens and the world just keeps on going. People still go to McDonalds to get their french fries and I still have more deadlines than I can manage and all the while all these souls are slipping away and lives are upended and we just march on.
It makes me want to cry at the beauty of things like my silver coffee cup sitting next to me and the curve of the steering wheel where I prop my computer, the pure magic of this world that we are thrown into. I want to go to the people streaming in and out of this McDonald’s and stop them and hold their shoulders and look into their eyes and say, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget dear, beautiful person that this is fleeting. Nancy Jo has died and Bill has died and we will not be far behind. Kiss your babies and your dog and your wife and sip your bitter coffee more carefully and lick all that salt off your fingers because this is all we fucking have.”
But I don’t. I sit here smiling at my own cliches, look back in the mirror at my sleeping baby, remind myself how precious this all is and say a little prayer for all of the hurting and loving and dying and living people of our world.
After carefully picking an age-appropriate book about Jesus (Easter story! – not just the cutie-pie Christmas story which was way easier) and adjusting the book’s version of the story to make sure the history and theology are right, my three year old sweetie looks at me sincerely at the end of the book and says, “So there are not going to be monkeys in our house?” “Um, no, sweetie, no monkeys.” Sigh. Will try with this one again in a bit. I guess resurrection is just a bit much for him right now. #theologyfail
Even though my blogging has slowed from a trickle to little, rare droplets, I still write posts in my head and long to reenter blogging both to have a place to work out my own thoughts and to rejoin the rich conversations of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere. I am at South Station preparing to take the commuter train home after my first full day of teaching where I rambled rambled rambled. I so much prefer working all of my thoughts out in written form, reorganizing, editing, and proof reading again, sending out in a careful and safe email where at least my attempts at humor fall flat later, where I do not have to see the lack of laughter.
I am several months into being the president of our congregation, a role that I treasure and, at the same time, wonder what exactly I was thinking in terms of time management. Such is life though, ehh? We follow our callings and our passions and try to fit as much into life as we can. I am lucky in that our congregation is gracious and supportive, and amazing in that there is minimal bickering, so I am learning a lot, and loving church life even if it was not the wisest choice in terms of being careful not to over-commit.
And, painfully, my general exams for my doctorate are coming up in October. It is my hope, at this point, that I am prepared enough not to fail or at least almost prepared enough not to fail. But I wish I felt solid about them rather than sickly and worried.
And our boy. He is a little person now, not a bundle of baby. He has is own baby doll which we have creatively named Baby. He loves his frog boots and insists on listening to Fat Boy Slim all. the. time. Which was cute, but now I am tired of Rockafeller Skank and Not From Brighton. When I try to put on Natalie Merchant he says no no no nonononono. It is such a joy, though, that he can say what he wants. Cracker. Baby. Mama. Dada and so on. He is at a daycare with goats and chickens, several bunnies, cats and a dog, and he loves loves loves the animals. And there are five other children that love him and rub his head and say Eli Eli Eli Eli. Which still scares him, but it is sweet none-the-less.
My parents, who are now, primarily, The Grand Parents, visited and doted on our boy and cuddled him and read him endless books and put the rocks in the bowl and out of the bowl and in the bowl with him 201,883 times. He ran to the guest room this morning and said, “Where go?” So we miss them.
I have more thoughts. I think about vegetarianism and animals and our recently rescued cat that I don’t really want, and how to handle/think about our fish tank at church and our mouse problem at church, and then more generally, about the 1001 moth larvae I recently killed in my pantry and the ants I kill that crawl around our living room and the spiders that live in our house that I want to move out but I feel really bad smooshing yet I do not have the time to lovingly transport each one of them outside. How to love the earth’s creatures, even little tiny ones that seem gross to me, and still have a house and church that does not crawl with such creatures. How to balance the beautiful look of a fish tank and swimming little magic animals, with the fact that I think they really don’t like it in there and would be happier in the ocean or a lake. I think about the exceptions I make when I eat eggs and the little chickens that suffer quite the life of misery for my breakfast sandwich. I want to do less harm in the world. But it is hard.
I think about how sad I am about all the fear and unkindness and hurt and harm and injustice expressed around the Muslim Community Center near the site of 9/11… How naive I was about the public’s understanding of Islam. And how easy it is to express outrage at such things from my comfortable little life – how little it costs to feel bad about such things and how I somehow probably think that Feeling Bad and Knowing Better somehow at least a little bit absolves me from my complicity with the injustice in our world. It is so easy to write blog posts of lament, preach to the choir, sign petitions and repost things to facebook…. Yet, my middle class, pretty-easy-relative-to-most-lives is contingent on cheap oil, using too much of my share of the world’s resources, and accessing my white, class, pass-as-heterosexual, have-a-Christian-heritage privilege which is all wrapped up in the U.S.’s history and present that produces/reinforces the sort of hysteria we see around Islam, immigration, and race politics around the presidency. I don’t write this to be all dramatic – oh what shall we ever do – but simply to put it out there. I struggle with it. It seems to easy to let me off by just saying we can’t solve everything and do everything, even though I know we can’t, I guess I still feel called to be with the impossibility of living a life of comfort that I want while it does violence, albeit pretty indirectly. My partner and I talk about this all the time – if you are somehow more removed from the harm you cause, are you better than those closer? Or just more easily able to distance yourself from seeing and doing with your own hands the harm that is done for you, from a distance, for a price. I’m not sure there is a terribly good answer. I was touched by someone in one of my classes who is writing a paper and he wrote that he would like to explore thinking about humanity “in ways the depend less on ‘agency,’ ‘autonomy,’…and more on malleability and incomprehensibility – a wounded soul that is also the site where God works.” Maybe I just want to make sense of my profound sense of woundedness and all the woundedness I see, but somehow it feels like a relief to me to give in to the incomprehensibility of it all and hope that God can work there.
This is not meant to be a “downer” post. My life is so wonderful and so rich in so many ways. But I sit with these questions a lot. Especially as I lead in my congregation and in teaching and in raising our little cuddle bug, I am even more aware that my responses to these struggles aren’t just for me, but that they will influence others. I want my life to match my desires for love and justice. It is so much harder than it seems.
So, I was never really one of those moms who was like, “And, the second I saw him and held him in my arms, everything changed. My whole life was different and new and I would do anything for my baby.” This is not to say that I did not love my little cuddle bug A LOT when he was born. I did. I was thrilled to have him and I still am. But, for me, I was pretty much the same person before he was born as after he was born, except with an adorable baby and sleeping much less.
I am also not a mom that is totally awed by all the amazingly wonderful and brilliant things my baby does. Yes, he is really quite cute. And seems to be a bright little bee. But I am pretty low key about him and his magic. I think in a pretty good and healthy way.
I say all of this for two reasons. First, because sometimes I feel like maybe a sucky mom because I don’t run around saying how wonderful life has been since he has been born and how it has changed everything and the sun rises and sets differently and all. I think there is this cult of motherhood that tells women that you have to just love your child and have him or her change your world and it will be immediate and like magic. I think this sets people up to feel pretty terrible when they are in month number six (or in my case, 14) of not sleeping through the night and all of a sudden your house is chaos all the time and you only see your partner in passing while one of you is changing a diaper and the other is… oh, I don’t know… studying for her general exams in October. Anyway, so on Mother’s Day when everyone is crooning about how magic mothers are and how much they love mothers and flowers and roses and all of that, I guess for whatever reason I felt inspired to bring it down a notch for all those moms out there who sometimes wonder if they are doing it right even though the fireworks of love and peace and perfect joy didn’t/don’t go off like they “should.”
The second reason I wrote about all of this is so that the next thing I am about to say about my little toddler boy doesn’t sound like the ultimately cheeziness. That is, it isn’t my style to go around crooning about the boy, so when I say something like how he taught me a really profound lesson, it doesn’t get lumped into the pile of 101 profound and beautiful things my baby did THIS MORNING.
Geez. I did too much lead up to this. I do this in my papers too. I go on and on in the intro setting everything up and then I have two and half sentences of substance to say.
Anyway, our boy loves to drink out of glasses. Sippy cups are okay, but he really prefers to drink either water or apple juice out of the big glasses that are obviously too big for a one year old. But we’re pretty flexible, so we do it even though it often means that when he is done he pulls the glass away pretty fast and the juice or water gets on him or us.
And he has taken to insisting on sharing his drinks, and then tonight, his strawberries. He is insistent – he takes a drink, and then puts the cup to mine or my partner’s mouth in a very insistent way and we take a drink and then he takes another drink. He mushes the strawberries up between his fingers and sort of shoves one in into my mouth, with such a pleased look on his face, and then squishes one up and puts it in his mouth. And somehow this led me to “get” communion in a way I never have before. Regular readers of this blog know I have a highly ambivalent relationship with Christianity and can never decide really if I am Christian or not. And for some reason I have always loved communion – there was something that was so special about it – like this thread that went back throughout my life and childhood and then back throughout time. It felt like a very connecting sort of ritual. Like I was part of something really special. Yet, for the last few years, I never take part because I just feel like I can’t do it until I know more where I stand. This has been sad for me.
Yet, somehow through sharing my apple juice and strawberries with my boy – I got something. This idea of table fellowship. Communion not as some ritual that we do in church – that marks us as in or out – but as joyful sharing of nourishment, in communion with each other. It is an intimate thing to feed and give a drink to someone else. This is why the bread and wine is not sat out on a table for each person to go up and get themselves, but we give it to each other.
I think with a lot of things, the meaning of a moment can’t quite come through so well in words. The sweet smell of my little boy and his juice. His pre-linguistic self knowing that there is something important about me taking a drink and then him and then me and then him. The clear joy and satisfaction he gets from making sure that we are sharing – that we are a team, that in many ways we are one.
It helped me better understand why I am so drawn to communion and miss it so much. Yes, yes, I know there is that whole bread/body, wine/blood thing. But that is for another post. For now, I will commune with my little one, and appreciate what he has to teach me about life and love and faith.