The World Keeps Turning

The World Keeps Turning

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When I was twelve I developed an obsession with dragons—the monsters of European legend—full-winged, long-snouted, fire-breathing mythical beasts. When I say obsession, I am not speaking in hyperbole. I had books about dragons, and posters of them. I had dragon necklaces, earrings, candles, statues. I had an incense holder shaped liked a dragon, mouth open to let the steady stream of smoke issue forth. Grandma cheerfully and enthusiastically bolstered my dragon collection, surprising me with tiny figurines, beautiful decorative candles, and many other dragon-y things. One weekend in eighth grade I visited a bookstore in Sacramento with a friend and her dad. Browsing a table of shiny new paperbacks, my eye came to rest on a book that would change my life: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Intrigued by the title I bought the book, brought it home and started reading it in slow spurts, flipping through to find parts that attracted me, skipping much of it. It was a dense tome of historical fiction—no dragons to speak of—about the reign of medieval King John and his relationship with the princes of Wales.

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The writing was beautiful, and the book remained a treasured item, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready for it. Over the next few years I often thumbed through it, seeking out the passages I’d come to enjoy reading, revisiting parts that sparked my imagination. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally finished reading Here Be Dragons cover to cover. By then my obsession with dragons as literal creatures had faded, but Sharon Kay Penman had fueled a new passion—dragons as people: the Welsh people, who proudly fly a red dragon on their country’s flag. The sweeping, epic tale told with Penman’s signature meticulous historical accuracy was the single most entrancing piece of fiction I had read (except perhaps, for Harry Potter). A few months after moving to San Francisco and settling into my new room at Grandma’s house, I bought a language book (we had no internet) and taught myself Welsh. Actually, I taught myself Welsh pronunciation to the best of my ability. My intent was to decode the mystifying Welsh words and names scattered liberally through Penman’s book—“cariad,” “Adda” “Llewelyn,” “LLanfiar,” “Gwenwynwyn,” “Powys,” “Tangwystl,”—or to make sense of long proverbs the characters sometimes utter (“Y mae dafad ddu ym mhob paridd”). How on earth does an English speaker make sense of these bizarre strings of consonants?

So, I taught myself. I taped words for the days of the week, colors, and numbers on my wall like in a child’s bedroom. On the computers at City College (where I had enrolled in a Culinary Arts program) I began planning a solo trip to Wales, mapping out all the places of historical significance I wanted—no, needed!—to visit, the places “my friends” had touched and built.

Because you see, I had read this book so many times now that these people (who called out to me that day in the bookstore when I was twelve), were my friends. They made me care about them. They taught me things. They weren’t just names in a textbook. They were people with faults, hopes, dreams, loves…such is the magic of well-written historical fiction. Not only did I consider these historical figures my friends, I had begun to devour more books about their lives, and about medieval Welsh history. In a local bookstore I found the next two books in Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy—Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, both equally engrossing. I celebrated Welsh victories, I cried over Welsh tragedies. I held the land of Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) close to my heart, valuing their unique culture and language, lamenting their centuries-past conquering by English king Edward the First.

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In early 2012, after I had moved out of Grandma’s house and into an apartment with my husband, Grandma had a series of significant health crises that would culminate in her never returning home. Otherwise alone in San Francisco, I was run ragged for weeks visiting her in the hospital, helping move her to rehab facilities, staying with her…only to see her slide back into acute illness (she developed life-threatening C. Diff in the hospital) and enter the ICU. This was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with Grandma’s mortality, and the experience traumatized me. I remember the three-month span as agonizing. Unfathomable. Exhausting. I almost never stopped crying. There was a period when we believed her death was imminent, so I kept my cell phone next to my head in bed as I waited for the call I was certain would come any moment, to give me the worst news I could imagine. Up until this point, I had understood Grandma’s mortality as an intellectual concept only. I knew she would one day die because all living things die. But I hadn’t understood it emotionally, and I couldn’t bear it.

Coupled with this trauma was the immediate necessity of cleaning out her home of fifty years and preparing it for the rental market. Gutting a place that had been my home, that contained some of my most cherished childhood memories, was agony. That’s the only way to describe it. I turned to my literary friends for comfort.

I re-read The Reckoning, which tells the life story of Llewellyn the Last, the final Welsh prince who was conquered (and murdered) by Edward the First’s forces in 1282. His death was of extreme significance. It signaled the end of Welsh independence for all time. He was profoundly mourned. His death wasn’t merely the fall of a beloved leader, it signified the fall of Wales. Penman deftly retells the aftermath, including a true anecdote of a bard named Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch who wrote and performed an elegy for Llewelyn in the days that followed. The elegy is long—this was an era that revered spoken poetry as entertainment—and conveys a grief so raw, so painful, and so haunting that it instantly resonated. I felt the bard calling out to me from the page, speaking to my unexpected grief at the devastation of life as I knew it, especially in one particular stanza:

“See you not the ocean scourging the shore?

See you not the truth is portending?

Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that world is ending?”

See you not that world is ending? Grandma was dying, something I couldn’t understand, and her house (my house!) was being packed up and disposed of…and my world was ending. I thought at the time that if I could have tattooed the entire elegy on my body somewhere I might have (an impossible feat). They were the only words that spoke to my pain, my confusion, my seemingly inconsolable grief and despair.

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But you know what’s funny? For a poem considered to be one the greatest examples of Welsh poetry and European literature of all time, the entire elegy is almost impossible to find. In those dark days, I scoured the internet, finding most of it in an ancient e-book someone had scanned and nowhere else. Even today when you Google it you might only find pieces of it, or articles dedicated to its historical significance…but not a translation, end-to-end. In the years following, I tried to revisit it several times, but it was difficult to track down. This piece of poetry had been my one comfort in my darkest days, but it was elusive, and I felt like the only living person on the planet who cared about it.

God works in mysterious ways. Grandma didn’t die in 2012. She stabilized, and then moved to assisted living in Roseville, improved and lived another five years. We occasionally talked about that terrible time, how upset I was, how horrible it had been…and how transformative it had been for me. After some time had passed, I realized I could now conceive of a world that didn’t contain Grandma. I had been abruptly forced to consider that reality, and never having considered it before, I had believed the world was ending. But I now knew what it was to feel the worst grief and pass through it, and I told her more than once while discussing her eventual passing that I knew I would be ok when the time came. I wasn’t saying it merely for her sake, but because I knew it to be true. I would be ok. I knew that day would come now, and I understood that life would move on.

So it has. Painfully. Sometimes with despair and lamenting and disbelief. But it has.

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In 2016, my husband and I traveled to Wales. My dream trip to the land of Y Ddraig Goch became a reality. I wanted to hear with my own ears the language I had stumbled through alone, never having heard it spoken by a real person. I was elated and humbled at the prospect of visiting the graves of “my friends,” the places they touched, the views they gazed at, the craggy mountains they loved. That spring Grandma was healthy, and we kept up a steady correspondence of written letters and phone calls, sometimes several of each per week. Leaving the U.S. on my first international trip was exciting and daunting in equal measure…what if something happened to her while I was so far away?

We started in South Wales, in Cardiff, the capital. While the signage of the country was in both Welsh and English (which delighted me), I heard almost no spoken Welsh. No matter. I’d heard that Welsh was more widely spoken in the North…and that made sense. The North, Gwynedd, was home to my friends—Llewelyn the Great and his wife Joanna, his grandson Llewelyn the Last, and countless ladies and men who lived and changed the course of empire. We took the train to Conwy in North Wales and after checking into our motel, walked to the center of the beautiful, ancient walled village.

Turning into the little square, he appeared just like that. Right in front of me, like he had been waiting for me the whole time—Llewellyn the Great, perched atop a column, painted in vibrant color, beardless but with a mustache in the medieval Welsh fashion. My friend. Crown atop his head, sword and shield at his side, he looked every inch a prince. My prince. I carried the words that spoke of his grandson’s death in my heart—a heart now bursting with happiness, longing, the joy of reuniting with someone you love. I had cherished the story of his life and was comforted by the elegy for his grandson’s death. I might have been one of few people that cared about the elegy, but his homeland loved him as I did—certainly more so!—and I was thrilled to be there.

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We visited many lovely places on our trip, and our last day in Conwy we took a final walk around town, window shopping and enjoying the sunshine. On a whim, we stepped into visitor’s center that we’d missed our first day. It only contained a few rooms but was beautifully maintained. Husband veered left immediately to gaze lovingly at some maps, and I wandered into the far rooms, gasping with delight at detailed timelines depicting the lives of so many of my “friends.” The last room was dimmed, and I stepped into its silence alone, sitting myself down on the bench in the center. My jaw hit the floor. My eyes filled with tears.

On a series on silk banners in white lettering atop a deep purple background, spangled with the nighttime sky, was the elegy. Huge, the banners took up an entire wall, and were lovingly lit like a precious treasure in a museum. In the dim silence, the room felt like a chapel. Indeed, it was a holy place for me. In both Welsh and English, the elegy was displayed in its entirety—the lament of a nation, a people, a way of life…a lament because their world was ending. I read each word as silent tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that the world is ending?”

But it didn’t end. Almost a thousand years later I was here, visiting these words. Hearing Welsh. Seeing Wales. A year later Grandma would pass, and I would remember this lament and reflect that it did indeed feel like the world was ending. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And it won’t.

There is a Welsh word with no English translation that I’ve treasured for a long time—“hiraeth.” The literal meaning is something like “nostalgia,” or “homesickness,” but the common understanding is deeper. It’s used to indicate missing a time of life, an era, or a person, while being grateful for their existence. It’s a bittersweet concept, the merging of gratitude and loss. It’s hiraeth I feel now, remembering Grandma. The days of inconsolable tears and frantic, panicked grief have dimmed, the hole she left remains. What fills it is the missing. The gratitude. The loss. The remembering. Hiraeth contains sadness, but it hints at containing joy, for what would we be wistful for if not for joyful places and times? Why else do we miss things? How else could I be homesick for her…homesick for a person?

In a few weeks I’ll be in Conwy again, looking up at my friend, the Welsh prince. I might visit the elegy, if it’s still there. My inner twelve-year-old will revel in the abundance of dragons, my inner thirty-year-old will remember the letters I wrote Grandma on the last trip, heart brimming with hiraeth, knowing I can’t write to her this time. And so passes the world, though it does not end, even if it feels like it might. I’m looking forward to this new adventure with people I love in a place full of friendly ghosts who remind me–

“Have you no belief in God, foolish girl?

See you not that world keeps turning?”

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One Year Later

One Year Later

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It has been a year since I last saw your face, felt your arms around me. It might as well be at once a moment and a decade. A lifetime. The person you last hugged goodbye, twice, is gone. That person hadn’t experienced the loss of you.

It was a strange year, putting aside the wound that was your absence. The effects of grief are unexpected, unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable. My sense of time was completely altered. I experienced strange lags in my perception of time passing. In May I kept thinking we were still in March, and that only a week or two had passed, just to be jolted into the present abruptly each time I needed to know what the date was. In August my mind was still hovering around late May. In October, I was discussing something that I had experienced a few weeks prior with Husband, only to realize that six months had passed since that event. I was constantly caught off guard by time’s passing. I lived in a bubble, life happening around me. It wasn’t until November came, and with it the anchor of the holidays that my subconscious began to live in the present.

I’ve been taking comfort in the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay—

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.

There are a hundred places where I fear

To go,—so with his memory they brim.

And entering with relief some quiet place

Where never fell his foot or shone his face

I say, ‘There is no memory of him here!’

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”

Sometimes only poems will suffice. I am often prone to dramatics, but I stand by this sentiment. Time doesn’t bring relief. It has brought me the strength to expand my capacity for pain. It has brought me the ability to think about it less, think about you less. The pain stays the same.

I wept in the bath last night, a place that’s now a refuge when I want to cry but don’t want to disturb Husband…not even for his sake, but for mine. I often want to cry without the added burden of telling him that I’m ok, of thanking him for his generous comfort, of engaging at all with someone else when I honestly just want to be privately miserable for a while. I laid in the hot water, a little too hot, and savored that particularly sharp sensation around my heart, an awl being run through my ribs, and I reflected that when you first died it was like getting an anvil dropped on me. I imagined Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, the anvil smashing me comically so that I am flattened like a piece of India rubber.

At first, the anvil was way too heavy to move. Impossible. I just assessed my injuries and screamed for help—no help could fix the problem, but some help did provide a lot of comfort. Such loving words from family and friends and their support in my darkest hours I never expected and cannot express adequate gratitude for. I have the most wonderful friends. I have the most wonderful family. I have the most wonderful spouse.

And after a while, I got used to the anvil—I got strong enough to carry it through my day. It didn’t get lighter. I got stronger.

And life does go on. My days are full of laughter, often. They are full of trivial problems, and mindless minutiae that is both important and utterly meaningless. I enjoy what life brings me—good food, good friends, perfectly ordinary days with ordinary happiness. Most of the time I’m really well, and I am content in my heart with everything that has come to pass. How could I not be? Your death wasn’t unfair. It was a picture of justice—that we will all, each one of us regardless of merit, be consigned to the earth once more. Or, from another perspective, that some good and loving people get to live long, long lives with relative health and much happiness. What could be more just? But there is a hole in the world that you once filled. I will (and do) remember you with joy, but…

The transformative process called grief isn’t done with me yet. I wouldn’t feel half so bad if it had only taken you from me, but when you passed it also robbed me of all the spiritual certainty I had cultivated specifically for times like this. The rug was pulled from under me, and suddenly everything I was so sure of—everything I shared with Husband—was gone. Ideas and beliefs long held flickered out, having once been so comforting, now only filling me with bleak horror. Unable to hold them, another pain emerged…that of spiritual separation from Husband as I realized that I’m no longer certain of anything at all. I’m certain of the existence of God, and that Christ is his Son. Beyond that, I am going through motions with blind faith, hoping beyond hope that God approves. At first, this fall from grace was almost as agonizing as the pain of your absence, but now…

I’ve settled into an almost-apathy, a patience that comes from believing God will show me the way in his own time. I’ve learned that this too is part of the process, that I am still in the MIDDLE of this, not the end. C.S. Lewis, in his brilliance, puts it so succinctly:

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

I’ve come to almost envy the certainty of atheism, and the irony therein—that they often accuse people of faith for believing because it is comforting at the hour of death. If only they knew! I have found exactly zero comfort in the complexity of the afterlife, the many possibilities of where you could be now, where your consciousness has gone. The complete and total silence from you does nothing to make me feel you’re “watching over me.” Eastern thoughts once held have crumbled into ash, because I cannot fathom the cruelty of having to do this more than once, or that you’ve reemerged somewhere to be recycled ad nauseum. The consolation of the familiar in Catholicism is a meager but distinct comfort…even if, as I said, I’ve been marooned on the island of “I don’t know.” My heart, my intuition, has shut down. I am fumbling through the wreckage of my spirituality blind, led by logic (which is a poor guide in matters of faith, but better than none when all others have abandoned you). And logic brings me to Aquinas (or perhaps Aquinas, in his Aristotelian logic, leads me to his own theology) , but it doesn’t ignite my soul. My heart is not moved, for it is broken. How lucky I was at one time to ever have had my soul ignited by spiritual certainty, and what I wouldn’t give for that now. I hold on, knowing only that God is guiding me and that I must trust in Him.

So, this is where I am a year later. I am no longer stunned. I am moving around, I am searching for joy. I’m attempting to redefine who I am without you to fill one half of me, my darling soul-twin. I am making plans for the future—happy plans! I am experiencing happy things. And I’m dragging the anvil of your absence behind me, uphill and over dale, without the map of spirituality I had crafted for myself, that loved ones had helped me to create. I am moving, I am gaining ground. And I though I am lost, I shall be found. That is my one prayer these days—“Lord, help me to know what you want for me.” He is as silent as you. He works in mysterious ways.

I love you. I am thinking of you always. I hope one day we shall see each other again, my best of friends. I used to believe that we could. Now all that I know is that creation is vast and unknowable, and that you are somewhere in it. May I find you again, so I can tell you how much you have been missed.

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Hello Lent.

Hello Lent.

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“Lent is a time to renew wherever we are in that process I call the divine therapy. It’s a time to look at what our instinctual needs are, look at what the dynamics of our unconscious are.” –Thomas Keating

I’m scheduling this post to go up early, before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, to give any readers who want to participate in Ash Wednesday/Lent fully but weren’t aware it was upon us (hey, you never know!) a heads-up. Mardi Gras will be celebrated by bringing doughnuts to my team at work, and an early Valentine’s Day dinner at home with Husband. Hope you all have a wonderful run-up to Ash Wednesday!

Lent. Where to even begin? Lent is my favorite liturgical season. It resonates. It’s powerful. The secular world feels it too—lapsed, or cafeteria, or wholly secular Christians go to Ash Wednesday services and give things up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation, and yet masses are often standing room only. What is this phenomenon?

People who have never encountered Lent often think of it as a time of somber misery and self-sacrifice, and in some ways that’s true. It certainly can be. What they don’t understand, which is indeed a profound and resonant irony, is that we CRAVE this time of reckoning. I think one explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that the human soul craves a memento mori in a world that bombards us with the lie that immortality is achievable and suffering is avoidable…that life is about looking and feeling good, so we should chase those things forever on a nihilistic hamster wheel.

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The thing is…our souls know these messages are false, and like cleaning house after a raucous party, we crave the harsh soul-scrubbing and deeply personalized asceticism Lent offers us. It’s the antidote to the slow-acting poison of an “I’m ok, you’re ok,” culture, a materially driven culture, a nihilistic culture that leaves us, even subconsciously, cringing interiorly at its crass falsehoods.

There is nothing in the secular world that does this. No time or holiday or event that grabs our shoulders, stares into our eyes and says, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering you can’t escape. You’re going to weaken, and die, and decay. And that’s ok. Your suffering isn’t for nothing. The arc of life isn’t a tragedy. You don’t need to be a slave to your body’s desires and cravings. You don’t need to be a slave to your heart’s desires and cravings. You can do the hard, good thing and in doing so, you’ll sanctify yourself and the world. Now go do it.” There is nothing in our culture that does this, because this message is inherently counter-cultural. To be told to lay down the transient material to free ourselves to choose the good– an objective, not subjective, good– that is counter-cultural.

I was so pumped for Lent last year. I had prepared very consciously, had a list of spiritual practices I was going to adopt, things to give up, things I was going to begin. Lent began on March 1st. On March 13th Grandma died.

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It was such an interesting experience—having to put down the mantle of self-imposed discipline and symbolic mourning, and pick up the mantle of actual mourning. Actual death. Every single goal, every single plan, every single hope and idea went directly out the window. I ate ALL the sweets—cake, chocolate, doughnuts…I spent a fortune on eating sushi for dinner almost every night for literally weeks. I didn’t pray. I didn’t talk to God, or Grandma. I just sat in my house, first in a stunned shock and then in an agonized bereavement. At the time, I thought my Lent had been a total failure. Looking back, it was the most real, painful Lent I hope I ever experience. I had thought I knew what I needed to do to temper my soul, but God had other plans, and I was swept along by them as in a current, with no choice but to yield.

I didn’t want to make too many plans this year, but it’s always good to decide on concrete goals rather than general, wishy-washy ideas so that you have something measurable to hold yourself to. Many of my goals are going to be tucked away in my heart, where only God can know them, and likely I won’t even share them with Husband. Husband has these too…silent promises known only to him. These goals aren’t secret, rather, they are sacred…kept safe in quiet corners of our souls where they can germinate in this winter cold, and hopefully bear fruit by Easter.

I can tell you a bit about them, though: I always try to do the hard-and-fast traditional abstinence from meat (not just Fridays!), desserts, treats of various kinds, and expensive or indulgent meals. We don’t eat t a lot of meat, so I’m expanding this to include dairy for myself. I often begin new spiritual practices, or dedicate myself to old ones that have fallen away. Husband and I try to prioritize charitable giving in ways that are most feasible to us. Bad habits get tackled and extraneous demands on our attention are pruned.  Not everyone’s sacrifices and penances look like this, and that’s ok. We do what’s calling us, what is placed on our hearts, and despite what it might look like from the outside, there isn’t a hierarchy of holiness determined by self-imposed suffering. It’s not about suffering– it’s about a quiet transformation.

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A few final thoughts on Lent:

We love Lent the way we love having a sparkling clean house. Scrubbing the toilet isn’t fun, but the result is always worth it. To put a more nuanced point on it, Lent shows us that the process of scrubbing– the sacrifice, the painful, un-glamorous, tedious, hard part– is the part that does the most good. The clean toilet, or whatever metaphorical object you care to replace it with, is just a pleasant addition to the value you gain inwardly in doing the hard, good thing. In the end, you want to be a person to whom “keeping a clean house,” comes naturally and without constant struggle. Practice makes perfect!

Lent is a time for personal retreat from the things the world wants to inundate us with, distract us with. The world wants all of your spare time to be spent on Netflix, and Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter, and bad food, and anxiety, and obsessions, and lies. Lent offers us a retreat from these things, because these things aren’t spiritually enriching, and they don’t define us. It is weird to say to my Facebook groups “I’m checking out for Lent, see you in six weeks!” but it feels so good. And if that’s too much retreat from any given thing, that’s ok. Sundays are mini-feasts and technically don’t “count,”so if you care to observe them traditionally by revisiting whatever it is you’ve put aside for six days a week, that’s fine! The one exception to this is if you are trying to break or build a specific habit, in which case Sunday indulgences could compromise the overall goal.

Despite all this talk about tempering ourselves during this time, Lent is a really profound time to think about the world, and to orient our perspective so that we no longer appear to be at the center of it. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. At least two of these direct our attention to the world outside our own heads, outside our own experiences. All three do, in fact, but if you’re new to fasting I can tell you that you think about yourself A LOT while hungry. But even this type of self-focused thinking can help us to reflect on the world around us– how many people in the world feel hunger all the time, and how lucky am I that I only feel this way if I choose to?

St. Benedict warned his sixth century monks that during Lent, they shouldn’t be taking on anything that is truly burdensome or harsh. This isn’t about setting ourselves up for failure or pain. This is about reevaluating our place in this cosmos, our relationship to God, and what we need to do to bring about order from disorder.

Keep an eye out for my next post, “20 Thing To Do For Lent,” a short list of ideas for preparing your home and your heart for the upcoming season, as well as ideas for things to take on this year.

Whatever you choose this season, whatever you take on or give up, whatever changes you make, whatever resolutions sit nestled in your heart, may they all be graced with guidance, love and mercy. May you have a blessed Lent!

 

 

*Photo credit in this post goes to Senior Airman Jensen Stidham for his beautiful photo of a little girl receiving ashes at the Shaw Air Force Base, February 2015.

 

 

 

 

Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

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Hey guys! This post contains descriptions of a dead body. It’s not gory, and isn’t over-the-top, but it’s real. Just letting you know, in case that kind of thing isn’t for you. 

For the last few months, I’ve been meditating on and wrestling with what we do with bodies after people die. With what happens to them, and how we feel about them. I’ve wanted to discuss my experience with your body for a long time, but I keep avoiding writing this, because its painful and real, and I don’t know where to begin. I wanted it done in October, though, and as October is almost over I’ve run out of time to continue putting this off.

You died on March 13th.

I drove the two hours to your assisted living center in shock, sometimes weeping quietly, sometimes tearlessly resigned. Mom and Uncle were with you, we talked on the phone. They needed to go out, so they timed returning with my arrival.

Uncle was sitting on the love seat, crying quietly. Mom gave me a hug, kissed me, also crying. I turned the corner and saw you, in your bed.

You had your cream sweater over your nightgown, but you were under the covers. You had been sleeping, after all. As I approached you, I was shocked at how little you looked. So little! I couldn’t comprehend that your body had become this…this little thing. The second thought hit me like a train, and has stayed with me ever since. I remember almost laughing as I thought it— “This isn’t you!”

This isn’t you. I almost scoffed. Looking down at you, your skin was so yellow (we would eventually conclude that your liver must have been shutting down at least a day before you left), your hair was almost blueish, and of course, you were so small. This isn’t you. It came home to me so intensely. You, the woman I loved, the woman who loved me, who occupied this body…isn’t this body. It was the first mysterious, inexplicable comfort of that difficult afternoon.

I sat in a chair next to you, leaning on the hospital rail of your bed. I touched your hand, grasping it, clinging to it. I clutched your forearm, forcing myself to remember how the bones in your forearm felt…running my hand up your arm over your sweater, remembering the outlines of this body that would soon go away from me, these arms that had wrapped around me so many times. Your skin was cool, but not cold. In the movies, they always say corpses are cold, so you imagine a coldness like ice. You didn’t feel that way. Even when I kissed your cheek, it wasn’t cold. It was just cool.

Under the thin blanket, I could see the outline of your legs, your feet. The exact way your toes pointed in a little, always, as they did in life. I wanted to crawl into bed with you, cling to you. I would have except the railing was in the way. So I leaned over the rail, and held your hand. We stayed that way for a while, not as long as I wished we could have in retrospect, but as long as I really could stand it in the moment. Mom and Uncle didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. None of us knew what was going to happen now, what life was going to look like. None of us could have prepared our hearts to make this less painful.

Uncle left, and Mom and I got lunch. I’d had a letter you wrote me in my purse that I hadn’t opened yet, and I read it at the table. I smiled, not tearing up at all. Mom asked how I could read it without crying. I just could. I was just in shock. It wouldn’t hit me for weeks.

Mom had arranged for your body to be picked up while we were having lunch, but we forgot a piece of paperwork in your room, so I told her I would get it. She told me that when Poppie died, her father, she had seen them remove his body from the house and it was very upsetting to her, so she didn’t want to see you removed. I understood. Besides, they should have come already.

I entered your room, but I heard movement around the corner from your entryway. I tiptoed around, without being noticed. You were on a gurney, and you were wrapped in thick, white plastic. It came up over your head, and a man in slacks, dress shirt, tie and gloves was pulling straps over you, to keep you secure.

It was an odd moment— I knew you were dead. I understood that you weren’t occupying your body any longer. But there is a frightening and unique pain at seeing someone you love wrapped like meat, and an odd non-sensical aversion to seeing a body wrapped so as not to breathe. I knew you weren’t breathing, but it’s disconcerting just the same.

I whimpered and backed away. “Excuse me,” I said. The man turned around. “Oh!” he said. “I’m her— her granddaughter.” “Oh! I’m so sorry.” He came up to me, folding his hands behind his back and leaning in with a slight bow in greeting. He stood in front of me, I could tell, with the kind intention of shielding me from what was happening with your body. He had a kind face, and offered his condolences. I asked him about the paperwork, and he gave me my answer. I’ll never forget how subtle his movements and posture were, and how they were clearly intended to protect me, to help me. I was struck by his professionalism, and I was grateful. I went downstairs, got in the car with Mom. The truck he was going to drive you away in was parked at the back entrance, the one Sister and I used every time we’d visit. We sat for a long time, talking. As we drove away, I saw that van pull out of the parking lot behind us, and I couldn’t comprehend that you were in there, and that I would never see your body again.

Three months later I was opening a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. They had received it a few days before. Next to a bundle of paperwork was a heavy urn rolled in bubble wrap. I cut through the wrappings and slid the urn into my lap. It was surprisingly heavy. It looked like something you would have chosen— a beautiful cream color with a dark brass lid— though I don’t think you did. I unscrewed the top. Inside was a plastic bag, sealed with thick wire, filled with the fine, white, gravelly sand I remembered from when we scattered Poppie’s ashes in the Bay. The bag had a sticker on the front that said your name, date of death, date of cremation (eleven days after your death), and the crematorium that handled it. Wired around the top was a metal tag that I later learned was a tag that had been attached to your body during the cremation process. It contains unique numbers that identify the crematorium and your body, so if ashes are forgotten about, they can be identified. It means those ashes are really you.

I dug my hands down into the urn, on the outside of the plastic bag, to feel the weight of the remains in my hands. I remember thinking— “This contains your forearm that I clutched, your hand, your arms that held me. How strange it is, that I hold in my hands, the hands that bathed me, that fed me, that rubbed my back, that loved me up to today.” How unbelievably strange death is. I have come to terms with it, but I will never understand it. Never.

About a month ago, I discovered a YouTube channel hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a woman who runs a funeral home in Los Angeles who does outreach and education about death, because she feels our culture is really death-phobic, and would benefit from being more educated about it. I agree. I watched her video about cremation a few times. She explained what the process is, and what happens to a body during the cremation process. I started the video a little nervously, but facing the reality of precisely what happened to your body— your beautiful body that I loved so much— was actually incredibly healing for me. It was honest and real, and I found I could accept it with peace.

It isn’t easy to picture the remains of your loved one going through that process. And I have many, many times. But there is comfort in shining light into dark spaces. As Caitlin says, being present with your dead (emotionally and physically) can be painful, but the reality of what happens when a person dies is nothing compared to the nightmares and macabre fantasies the human mind can think up when they don’t quite know what happens…when they hide from reality in fear.

Looking back, I wish we had had much more time with your body. If we had it to do over again, we might have asked your friends if they wanted to say goodbye to you. We might have let you stay in your room for a day or two. We might have just stayed longer. I have been in the presence of two corpses in my life, yours and Poppie’s, and both times I felt enriched for it.

Your urn sits in our living room, atop our bookshelf near the ceiling. We’ve decided we will inter it in March, around the anniversary of your death. In the meantime, I asked to have it. I want to be near those bones that held me tight. Sometimes I take it down and open the lid to read the label, to pick up the bag and feel the weight, to look at the tag that ensures this was you…to be with my dead, because it helps.

This is the time of year that we remember our beloved dead. Thursday we hold the requiem mass, in honor of everyone who has died this past year. I will be there, clutching you in my heart. Remembering your warm embrace, the feel of your cheek on my lips, the smell of your hair, the color of your lipstick, the way you drank your coffee. I will be there, and your body will not. And I’m beginning to feel ok with that. I’m beginning to feel ok.

A Trappist Retreat

A Trappist Retreat

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It’s finally, finally Summer vacation!!

Husband and I took just over two weeks off of work and headed north to the Sierra foothills to spend time with our families, and to get some much-needed nature therapy. I’ll be posting some of the wonderful adventures we’ve been having in future posts, but for this post, I wanted to share what I did the first four days of my vacation— a wonderful retreat with my mother to the Trappist monastery The Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in Vina, California.

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My mother and I had the pleasure of doing a three-day retreat to New Clairvaux last January. While it was restorative and peaceful, our hearts were heavy and rather than being spiritually fruitful, it was largely just a rest for us both. Time away from our troubles. Grandma had been very ill and unhappy, and she had been put on hospice care the week prior, which was both a blessing and cause for sadness. After Grandma passed, my mom decided to treat me to another retreat in the warm summertime…and boy, was it incredible! 

The Abbey of New Clairvaux is home to some amazing Trappist monks who have traditionally supported themselves by growing prunes and walnuts. Within the last ten years, however, they have branched out and began growing grapes and making award-winning wines, as well. Located just north of Chico, they are really in the middle of nowhere…and the peace and quiet of their abbey is unparalleled.

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Their four-day weekend retreats are self-guided, meaning you determine what to do with your time yourself while at the abbey. There are many lovely things to do!

There are plenty of little nooks and crannies in the lush garden to relax with some devotional reading or in which to pray:

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You can visit the beautiful koi pond behind the visitors center:

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You can visit the St. Cecilia Chapel, where I had the pleasure and honor of praying for many dear friends, near and far:

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You can visit their fantastic library, stuffed to the gills with Catholic books on all kinds of topics (an additional two big bookcases not pictured):

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You can visit their sweet bookstore and gift shop:

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You can visit their beautiful rose garden:

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At mealtimes, you can get a simple, wholesome, vegetarian meal prepared by the monks in the guest kitchen (pictured– a mid-day snack of salad, homemade wheat bread with cheese, home-grown prunes and sliced melon):

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You can even choose to eat in the silent dining room, if you decide to do a silent retreat:

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There are many outdoor tables, including this awesome table made out of a huge slab of stone that reminded me very much of The Stone Table from Narnia:

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You can take a walk on the paths surrounding the orchard and vineyards:

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One of the days we were there, we visited their tasting room. We got to enjoy a taste of six of their incredible wines! If you are a wine drinker, I highly recommend joining their wine club (info at their website). In the Trappist tradition, everything they make is excellent.

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A must-see is the chapel that they are re-building, which was originally a medieval chapel deconstructed and shipped to the U.S. by William Randolph Hearst:

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This is a monumental task, and they have been at it since the early 1990s, I believe. The stones were shipped over, and then unceremoniously dumped in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when the Hearst estate decided not to use them. As a child, I played on these huge stones in the park! Thankfully, after petitioning the Hearst estate, they were given the stones and are using them to construct this chapel, set to be completed this year.

One of the most enriching aspects of visiting the abbey is getting to attend the liturgy of the hours with the monks. Vigils at 3:30 a.m., Lauds and Mass at 5:45 a.m., Terce at 9:00 a.m., Sext at noon, None at 2:30 p.m., Vespers at 5:45 p.m., Compline at 7:35 p.m., after which begins Great Silence (no talking until Mass the following morning). Visitors don’t have to join the monks for these short periods of chanted prayer and contemplation, but it is SO worth it to join them. It creates structure during day, and keeps God on your mind while chanting the ancient psalms to ancient melodies.

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I went for many long walks, and was blessed with much insight into spiritual issues I had been wrestling with. It really goes to show that when you take the time to listen— to slow your pace, to quieten your mind, to do nothing but speak with your Creator— God will answer you. It can be such a revelation that it isn’t God who refuses to speak to us, but us who refuse to listen for his Voice.

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In January, I had been facing sadness, anxiety, and stress. As uncharitable as it is, I felt envious of the monks. They chose a life that renounced all of the complications that I had, seemingly foolishly, bought into. All of the things that had been driving me crazy, I had to go back to. There was no escaping them. I wanted to stay with the monks, and I was filled with a hopeless anger at myself that I’d done the things I’d done to build this life of complicated worldliness. I regretted having to return home so much.

Yet this time, I didn’t feel that way. I’m happier and less anxious about my life, for many reasons. Grandma passing is one of them, in a strange way, because the anxiety of her suffering is over. This time around, I found such calm, peaceful happiness. I felt so enriched, so blessed. I had so many little encounters that were placed before me with such clear grace and wisdom, and my heart swelled in gratitude many times.

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I am so grateful to have had this time to visit with them again, and that it was so spiritually nourishing. I sincerely hope everyone who wants to may be given the opportunity to visit them. While most of us do have to return to the hustle and bustle of regular life, the wisdom of the monastics can direct us, guiding us in even the most hectic of times, reminding us to invite peace and silence into our daily lives, no matter where we are.

Abbey of New Clairvaux website: http://www.newclairvaux.org

 

Pool of Grief

Pool of Grief

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I’ve always thought of grief as a pool. Not a swimming pool, but a large body of water, dark and cold and full things mysterious, lake-like. Each of us will someday drink from the pool that is grief— interact with this mysterious, uncomfortable, yet inevitable entity that laps at our heels our whole life long.

When you think about it, you can observe the different ways that people do this, and the circumstances unique to each individual that make their time at the pool their own. Some people stand in the shallows for a while, confusedly, finding their way out with little struggle. Some people wade into deep water, tragically, and begin to drown. Some people sit on the shore, sipping grief as from a chalice, little bits, its bitterness measured carefully by a benevolent hand. Some wade into the pool of grief and never come out.

When she died, a very specific image came into my mind in my most emotionally exhausted moments that I yearned for, almost physically. I imagined, as I lay in the stillness that came after hours of tears, my face red and swollen, refusing to believe that my waking reality was indeed real…I reflected that I wanted to fall into a deep pool of cold water and sink to the bottom.

This image came to me many times. Enough that I shared it with a supportive friend. To be specific, I didn’t want to die— it wasn’t manifested thoughts of suicide. It was, strangely enough, an image that described what I already felt was happening to me interiorly. I already felt that I was in this deep, still, cold pool, sinking with closed eyes to rest on the bottom for a while. Perhaps for a hibernation? I’m still not sure. I always knew I would come up for air eventually…but not right away. The image appeared again and again, as I lay motionless, tear-tracks streaked from eyes to ears, staring at my popcorn ceiling.

I imagined my time at the pool would be so different before her death. It’s so easy to try to prepare oneself, to develop expectations for one’s experience. None of the things I believed I would feel, things I expected and even took for granted, came to be. I wrestled with the shock of that dissonance for months— the grating of expectations on reality. Eventually I realized I was less in control of my experience at the pool than I planned, and I learned to accept it.

I had planed something beautiful. Sad, yes. But not so sad as to lack faith, to lack all the things I knew and believed to be true about the afterlife. My pool originally contained floatation devices. It wasn’t deep, it was shallow. Something I would wade into and splash around in, in safety, until it was time to get out.

This linear concept of the grief experience influenced my shock, when my time at the pool actually came. There’s so much more dipping in and out than I thought there would be— wonderful moments all the time where the ache doesn’t find me, then at the recollection of just one memory, one song, one idiom, one image, I am pushed roughly as from a great hight into deep water to wrestle my way out, gasping from the pain and shock that the pool is even still there! Still so cold, and still so huge, and still present in my life. The time will come, I know, when I will have wandered away from it…far enough away that maybe only intentional journeys through memories will find me standing at its shore. In the meantime, I am learning to swim. I am learning to navigate its waves. I am becoming comfortable that I am not alone in this place, but that every one of us turns up here eventually, and I’m blessed with many lifelines to pull me back if I forget.

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

Teeth and the Journey of Grief

“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” C.S. Lewis

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Through good genes, much fastidious parenting, and a healthy dose of good luck, I managed to carry out the first 24 years of my life without a single cavity. I was told that my great-great-grandmother, Nonnie, (who had immigrated from Tuscany in the early 20th century) lived her entire life without a single cavity, though this claim is impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, knowing this tidbit of my dental genealogical history always made me feel smug. So smug that I actually stopped going to the dentist. While I continued to brush and floss (often carelessly, as I had always done with no apparent consequence), I simply felt that visiting the dentist was both a waste of time and energy for someone who clearly had genes that would enable her to live a lifetime without cavities. Six years later, sitting in my sympathetic dentist’s chair and experiencing for the first time the exquisitely distressing experience of having six teeth drilled and filled, I concluded that forgoing the dentist for so long wasn’t the most prudent thing I had ever done.

My teeth ached for months afterwards. My dentist, a profoundly gentle and supremely over-qualified woman of national dental renown (that is a thing, really!), regrettably informed me that some people’s teeth just hurt for a really, really long time after fillings. Even after the edges of the fillings are smoothed, and carefully reshaped again and again to perfect the bite. Even after desensitizing varnish is applied, and Sensodyne toothpaste employed. While all of my co-workers remarked that they never felt a bit of pain after a tooth was properly filled, I ached. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on anything more solid than cooked pasta, and it took months to crunch a firm vegetable. Eventually the nerves in my teeth settled down some from their trauma and I’ve been able to eat more normally, favoring my right side that has fewer molars filled, and always feeling twinges of discomfort with my meals.

The most surprising realization during this strange and new experience, was the realization that I had known my teeth for 30 years. For 30 years, I had run my tongue over their grooves, their ridges. I knew what they felt like, I knew who they were, and what they were capable of. But now, after their time under the drill, I realized that these old friends will never be the same teeth again. I can never get the old ones back. Now they are covered in strange, smooth porcelain that interferes with my ability to really chew (too smooth in some places), and they shock me with their on-again-off-again fussiness— sensitive today, perfectly unbothered by anything the next. My teeth are healed, mind you, but my life with them is different. It’s uncomfortable, and it will always be lesser than when I had my original, uncavitied pearly whites.

About a month after I sat in my dentist’s chair and received six unwelcome, surprise fillings, my grandmother died. She was ninety-four years old. It’s no tragedy when a woman of ninety-four dies in God’s time, and without undue or prolonged suffering. But she and I shared what can only be described as a very special bond. She was perhaps my dearest friend, certainly my greatest champion in all things whether I deserved it or not, and perhaps a true soulmate.

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It has been almost four months to the day since she passed. I had experienced death before, with acquaintances, friends, and family. I believed I was as prepared for this grief as I could be— indeed, I was as prepared as I ever could have been. But entering into my grief for her was a totally and completely unexpected journey that I could never have anticipated. It has challenged everything I thought I knew and expected about death, about my faith, and about God. Many aspects of this experience have been profoundly painful, and some have been beset with graces I can hardly deserve.

I quickly realized, though, that I’m on a journey of healing, this road called grief, and that when I emerge on the other side I’ll probably feel a lot like my teeth did. New and unfamiliar, never again to be as I was, perhaps even (morbidly) still in pain, never functioning as well as I did before her death. It is too soon to tell. I hope to be able to share some of my thoughts about grief, healing, and my life with this blog as a way of helping myself move forward. I don’t intend this blog to be morbid, depressing, or solely focused on the death of my grandma, but to be a place where I can share thoughts, memories, and many other tidbits from my life, with the understanding that this profound experience will inform much of what I share. I appreciate your reading any of what I have to say, and all of the thoughts you care to share.

Incidentally, my next dentist appointment is penciled in for next month. A cleaning. Every six months feels too soon, but I know everyone will agree it’s a vast improvement to every six years. It’ll be better this time, I know it. Despite all the twinges, they really do feel so much better these days.