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.
Regular readers of this blog know that have mentored a great group of young men since they were in elementary school (going on 17 years now!). One of the young men and his partner of 7 years and they have three boys ages 10, 5 and 3. The oldest is the mother’s son from a previous relationship, but the young man I mentor acts as his father and treats him like a son. Both the young man I mentor and his partner lost their minimum wage jobs this year and became homeless, losing all of their possessions because they had no where to put them. They are both now working – the young man since summer and his partner since October and are trying hard to get back on their feet. They rarely ask of anything of me except moral support, but I told them I wanted to help with Christmas. They have good hearts and are defying many statistics – no drugs, no arrests, no abuse, raising children together – but they still face a lot of struggles. I’m working with them and friends to try to get them into a house where they will pay rent, but the owner is willing to work with them on a rent to own plan the next 20 years which is an amazing thing for them and we are also working on GEDs so that they can try to get better jobs – she would like to be a nurse and he loves to cook and would like to work his way up in a kitchen somewhere. They desperately want to provide a better life for their children. I told them I would take care of Christmas (they protest every year, as they are proud, but I insisted). We’ve covered a lot of it and also tried to get donations from friends here who have boys the same age and have extras to give to them. However, since so much was lost in being homeless (they are currently in a precarious, overcrowded situation with extended family) they have a lot of needs. I made an amazon wish list for them here http://amzn.com/w/1D8EO82EXCGS3. There is no pressure AT ALL, however, if you’d like to help out and buy a little thing for them, they and the boys would be very appreciative. I’ll try to deliver everything to them by December 15 or 17.
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.