One Year Later

One Year Later

beach

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.

IMG_8055

Hello Lent.

Hello Lent.

lent

“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.

ashes

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.

ashes2

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.

IMG_7814

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.

 

 

 

 

A Trappist Retreat

A Trappist Retreat

vinagrapes2

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.

vinabike

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.

vinagrapes4

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:

vinagreen2

vinagreen1

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

vinapond

vinapond2

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

vinachapel

vinachapel2

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):

vinalibrary

You can visit their sweet bookstore and gift shop:

vinabookstore

You can visit their beautiful rose garden:

vinaroses

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):

vinakitchen

vinafood

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

vinakitchen2

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:

vinatable

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

vinagrapes

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.

vinawinery

vinawinery2

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:

vinastones

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.

vinagreen3

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.

vinagrapes6

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.

vinagreen5

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

pond2

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.