Talking with Stones

Talk about pressure! Choosing a marker to represent the life of someone you love brings a whole new set of challenges in the grieving process. What symbols do I use? What verse from scripture would be best? Do I include Ron’s titles? How else do people know what his passion was? So many choices. I am paralyzed with uncertainty.

After all, these words ARE written in stone. The inscriptions encapsulate a lifetime of stories, experiences, and memories. A person’s headstone leaves a more or less permanent record that someone you still long for was here – lived and breathed, laughed and cried, found love and knew pain, but most importantly, is remembered. The challenge is to choose wisely.

What if I get it wrong?

I know many say they avoid the dilemma by choosing cremation and having their ashes scattered. Good for them. Not for me, thanks. Actually, Ron was okay with that approach – with burial for both of our cremains in one plot with a marker if desired. But we couldn’t agree, so we made a pact that the one left got to choose. And I’m the one still here. So he is buried in one space near my mother, and I will someday lie between them. The thought selfishly brings me comfort. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t matter, but humanly, I have a preference. And I live in a time when that preference is still possible. That burial decision is already made. I had a time limit on that one, so I got it done.

Now I have to choose a headstone. Why am I dragging my feet? I think I procrastinate because it’s so final. After this decision, what else will Ron need me to do? And so I keep exploring the options, rethinking the possibilities. And that’s okay. For awhile.

Maybe for some who lose a partner the struggle comes over getting rid of clothing or repurposing a room. Those were not so difficult for me somehow. However, this decision over headstones I’m agonizing over. “We each grieve in our own way,” folks are fond of saying. I guess, then, this choice is my opportunity to have a little dramatic hissy fit over having to do this alone. Ron was always my sounding board, my option explorer, my whetstone for sharpening my focus. And he’s not here. And I miss his wise counsel. And that pisses me off. Strange how we devolve to toddler-level temper tantrums when we grieve.

The reason I didn’t have his help with this decision was because we agreed to disagree and left the decision for the widow or widower to make. After all, the final arrangements exist to comfort the bereaved. The departed one is on to new adventures. Besides, Ron wanted the stupid flat stones that he thought would be easy to mow over – even though I pointed out to him that grieving family members still stuck urns with flowers or other mementoes at the graveside that made it impossible to mow over with the lawn tractor. And how could you find the spot without something to see from a distance? And besides, I’d argue, the grass has to be dug out or it grows over the stone and covers up the name. Ron saw no disadvantage in that, figuring once there was no one to tend the memory any longer, it didn’t matter if the grass took over. He was so logical. Gee, I miss that.

But I’m a passionate romantic. And I believe he misses that. Or maybe he is made perfect now and has achieved pure balance. Perhaps, then, I can look forward to that equanimity of spirit that was so frustratingly his. Sweet speculations. Whatever will be will be. And it will be good. Just as our life together was good even though we were not perfect.

So how do I resolve my struggle? How do I get off dead center and move forward? The way Ron and God have taught me to resolve every other inner conflict I have ever discussed with them – you choose, Anna. Even if you decide later it was wrong. Just do your best because, you see, nothing is really written in stone. Everything comes to pass. The only unchangeable force in the universe is God, yet God’s mercy is new every morning. So fear not. Choose.

It’ll be fine, Anna.

Maybe that is what I should put on the tombstone!

What Gives You Pause?

Before he studied to be an industrial engineer, my dad taught in a one room schoolhouse. Sometimes he would remember a favorite lesson and try to teach it to me. Once he asked me to read a sentence he jotted on a 3×5 card:

All that that is is all that that is not is not

Without punctuation, not knowing where to pause, the words were nonsensical, a jumble. Then he added the missing pauses and asked me to try again.

All that, that is, is; all that, that is not, is not.

This tautology always made Daddy smile, especially when he could share his puzzle with the uninitiated. I can still see him seated at the 1956 gray Formica kitchen table, white shirt sleeves rolled, the slide rule in his shirt pocket nudging a pack of Lucky Strikes. I can still hear his soft chuckle. Of course the statement was silly, an unnecessary repetition of the obvious. However, knowing where to put the pause gave the reader power over the text, allowed her to make the reading meaningful. That was my introduction to the importance of punctuation – and the pause.

Life can seem like an unpunctuated sentence at times. Days follow days like laundry hung on a clothesline. Where is the meaning in that? Of course, our work and our culture offer us some interruptions from monotony – the “weekend,” the “vacation” However, interruption and pause are not quite the same thing. One is happenstance; one intentional.

The pause that matters most – I believe – is the moment of chosen reflection, the drawn breath of gratitude, the recognition that life is a gift. To be aware in the present is to experience the IS-ness of life. The Biblical story of Moses and the Burning Bush (one most notable pause) teaches us that God’s name is I Am. As a result, for those who subscribe to the faith story that we are all the children of God, we know our name, too. We are the Am Family.  And if all that, that is, is; and, all that, that is not, is not, then we better make sure we IS!

I don’t know how you make sure you IS, but I find that I reflect best by reading and writing.  Through the power of story I can discover if I am being who I intend to be or if I need to make mid-course corrections. Reflection is a powerful tool.

The South Bend Tribune recently published an article about the Reading for Life program in which a juvenile offender is paired with a mentor to read a book with significant themes and strong heroes who must make important choices.  Other communities have implemented similar programs with equal success.  Why?  Because a story allows humans to pause their narrow focus on themselves long enough to make connections with another, to consider our similar frustrations and pain, to entertain new possibilities for making life more meaningful.

That result is what everyone wants more than anything else in life – meaning.  And that understanding happens when we struggle with the text of our own lives, when we put the pauses in the best order to make sense of what IS.  Not what we pretend, not what we dream, not what we desire, but what IS.

I hugged a fellow widow at church yesterday who asked the usual question, “How are you doing?”  I gave the usual response, “I am fine! How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, too.” We exchanged knowing looks.  “What are the options, right?”

Right.  Except there are other attitudes to choose from.  To choose to face life as it really is and yet to be grateful, to remain aware of the gift life represents, and to work through grief in hope I think represents the best path.  But I must insert regular pauses to keep that awareness, to help make that meaning clear.

In life, it is not the pause with Coca-Cola that refreshes, but the pause in the Presence of I Am.  Punctuate responsibly.

 

Firsts

And so begins a series of “firsts” in the grieving process. Today is Ron’s birthday – the first since his death on March 11th (my birthday). I am teary. Not surprising.  At first I was tempted to give in, to begin this day filled with reflection on my loss.

However, Facebook popped up a “year-iago-today picture” for me this morning. The image caught me by surprise, fluttered briefly on my screen, and then disappeared into my news feed before I could decide whether I wanted to repost it. The photo was from Ron’s birthday party at Summertrace rehab center on Sunday, July 13, 2014. We were all wearing mustaches. Ron was trying to play “Drop-the-Ring-on-the-Birthday cake.”

Of course the picture brought tears to my eyes, but it also reminded me of the burden Ron bore every day – his paralysis and pain, his cough (he tried to eat rice pudding Dean made for him, but couldn’t), his tired smile (he wanted to enjoy the children, but needed to go back to his room to rest).  So much weariness and struggle – for both of us. How could I wish him back for another birthday like that?

And so I choose to celebrate his re-birthday today.  I rejoice that he no longer has to compromise with physical life, a dynamic spirit trapped in an uncooperative body.  He did his best.  He stayed as long as he could.  The tears are for me, not for him.  Yet I should not weep.  This is a day for the first celebration of his legacy – to be glad that in this life he did more than exist, he lived by faith, he made a difference, and he loved me.  How fortunate we both were. How fortunate we both still are.

So I will dry my tears today – again and again, if necessary.  I will embrace the day and its gifts  I will remember that the longings I feel are reminders of the eternal nature of love.

The only defense against grief is life.  To live in sorrow is a selfish indulgence of my own needs that helps no one and has no power to transform.  That attitude is the antithesis of Ron’s legacy, a disservice to his memory.  So today remember with me what Ron stood for in his life:  letting the needs of others set our daily agenda, understanding that our gifts are meant to be shared, holding ourselves to a standard of excellence, but knowing God’s grace holds us secure in our striving.

May every “first” celebration remind me of Ron’s approach to living.  This year will give me lots of opportunities to practice.  In fact, this coming July 18th would have been our 34th wedding anniversary.  So now I can just reread this post to regain my focus.  I’m sure I will need to.  The process of grief is not linear, but recursive.  That’s why the “firsts” really never become seconds or thirds.  Time does not dull grief; we must let time change our use of grief.

 

 

 

What’s in your bucket?

I have long loved the story of the “Woman at the Well” found in John, Chapter Four of Holy Writ. The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus always seemed to me to be the practical illustration of John 3:17 (not quite so famous as 3:16) that says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  I’ve always read the woman-at-the-well story as a “Jesus-rescues-the-fallen” tale.  I’ve even performed the story publicly that way.  But recently, the UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotional opened my mind to a new reading of that familiar passage.

This viewpoint asks readers to see Jesus as the one who’s needy.  You see, he’s the one who’s thirsty, and she’s the one with the bucket.  I never thought of the encounter from that perspective.  Interesting.  And then it occurred to me:  “What if all of us saw our experience of religion that way?”  What if we truly believed God needed us, more than the other way around?

You see, I think far too much we believers perceive ourselves as sinners pleading for redemption, as beggars hoping for heaven, not as God’s children equipped for meeting the needs of others.  In other words, we create religion to be all about OUR needs, not God’s. We go to church (the well) to get our own cool drink, not anticipating that Jesus will ask us to draw forth an offering for him.  Or we don’t bother to go to church for reasons as equally focused on ourselves:  “I don’t get anything from church.  The sermons are boring.  I can feel just as close to God on the golf course.”  Why does it never cross our minds that WE might be needed to do something for God, rather than the other way around?

You might take umbrage at a viewpoint t,hat proposes God might ever be needy.  Surely the great God of the Universe can manage without the likes of us.  Yes, of course.  However, don’t good parents show their children how to behave by saying, “I need your help, Johnny, to bake this cake.” Or, “Please hold the door, Sarah, while I carry in this bag of groceries.”  The goal is to include children in the tasks of living in order that they might be useful, that they not grow up expecting life to serve them, and that they might know their own value.

Granted, the story does affirm God’s power.  Jesus does offer “living water” of the Spirit to this Samaritan, a woman of questionable moral credentials.  He sees her spiritual need.  He makes it clear that she should ask him for a drink that would quench her existential thirst forever.  They banter about the proper place for and nature of worship, and he makes it apparent that he knows more about her than she knows herself.  Then she runs away to evangelize her village and brings them to meet this new-found messiah.  But nowhere does it say Jesus got the drink he asked for.

Now, sure, you can tell me that the whole “draw me some water from the well” request was a ruse on Jesus’ part to save her wayward soul.  We figure she’s a big sinner. Why else would she be going to the well in the noonday heat except to escape the judgment of her neighbors regarding her previous five husbands, or to avoid the other women’s gossip about her current sinful living arrangements?  She needed saving in our perspective; perhaps that was her perspective as well.

But consider an alternative reading:  she wasn’t the needy one – Jesus was.  Abundant, thirst-quenching life was already hers for the asking, no strings or salvation conditions attached.  What if in this storyJesus communicates to US that humans are the ones who are missing the point:  God reveals through this woman that – while God knows everything we need – it is our job to recognize what God needs.  Each of us has a bucket.  The well is deep.  We need to be about the work of drawing upon the resources granted to us in this life.  God is thirsty for what only we can share.  God needs us to get on with the work we are capable of doing.  Instead, we argue about what is the best way to worship.  We discourse about what is the “Truth.”  We are quick to try to get others to understand our experience oF God so we can feel important. Meanwhile, Jesus stands around thirsty.

Can you envision him shaking his head at the senseless response of humans?  His incredulous look when we fail to see the problem? His dumbfounded shoulder shrug inspired by our philosophical wrangling when we could easily honor this simplest of requests?  Sadly, I can.

Yet there is a bright spot for us in this story.  Jesus seems to forget about being tired or thirsty as he shares God’s hope for humankind with this woman and her friends.  He draws on the very Living Water he tells her about as he reveals to her the nature of God’s promise to accept us as we are – male or female, privileged or outcast – of God’s ability to level walls of separation and mistrust between those who claim to be followers, and of God’s power to draw us together despite our differences.

The Good News is also that (1) we have everything we need to be helpful to God on earth. That (2) we are welcome to come into God’s presence even before we get everything straightened out in our lives, and that (3) God invites our participation to bring God’s story to a happy conclusion on earth.

We know the way to the well. It’s our everyday path of life. We have a bucket. It’s the tool we use to dispense compassion and justice to those who thirst for our help.  The question is — Will we be distracted by our “religious agenda,” or will we be the ones attending to Jesus’ request to share what has been freely given to us?

Each person brings a bucket to the well of life. The point is not to let it remain empty.  Others thirst and we can help.  It’s that simple.

When Love Isn’t Enough

My mother always said, “When love fails, double the dose.” As a teacher, I often quoted her wisdom. I think the concept works in the classroom, well, with all humans really. The only flaw is in our misapplication of the word “love.” As a widow, I find myself grieving over love’s labors lost. I see folks squandering opportunities and I want to shout, “We have such a short time to love one another! Get it right!” It’s not enough just to say “love you” and then do as we please. We need to evaluate what kind of lover we are. But there’s no pill to pop to improve our love dysfunction. We need to love fiercely. But we also need to refine our understanding of the word. It seems to me we have three applications – “apps,” if you will – that we learn to use when we say we love another.

The shallowest love we employ is a selfish, love-myself-INSTEAD-of-others kind. But before we start pointing fingers at those we consider examples, we must confess we all start there. At birth, we cry to get what we want. And we “love” those who do our will. Sadly, some seem never to outgrow this form of ego-centric, need-satisfaction-based love, a strictly utilitarian application of affection. What’s in it for me? Romantic lovers are often accused of loving in order to get sex, or security, or children, or – you name it. But face it, we have all used the Love Hook to get other needs met, as well. An acquaintance I once knew was outraged when the family she “adopted” one Christmas failed to be sufficiently grateful for her charity. Suddenly, the poor children she loved so much as she wrapped their presents were the target for condemnation. Her expectations were not met. In other words, she didn’t get what she wanted from the transaction. We learn that selfish form of love early. However, we can learn to go for that app less often. When this kind of love fails us – and it will – we have an opportunity to go deeper, to discover that putting a hook in love keeps us infantile. We can do better.

A second “app” that gets a lot of use – even though it misapplies important principles of love – is the “Love-others-INSTEAD-of-yourself” application, one that masquerades as the Christian understanding of love. In this approach to loving, the person places him/herself last, thinking this is the self-sacrificing action required to be authentically loving. At its most perverted, this kind of lover loves others because she believes herself unlovable and/or he feels undeserving of love. So everyone else’s needs come first, and I must serve because others deserve it more than I do. And if I totally focus on the other, maybe I can trick this one into thinking I deserve to be loved, even though I really don’t. Again, this approach is certainly a more positive choice than hating others and seems more constructive at first, especially to the ones receiving the love gift. However, love applied in this fashion is not healthy – either for the recipient (who usually senses there is a hook called “guilt” in that bait somewhere) or for the lover (who eventually will feel put upon and Unappreciated). This behavior when identified is usually called the “martyr complex.” And, while there are many noble Christan lovers who are admiringly labeled “martyrs,” their sacrifice of blood did not come from a place of low self-esteem or from a place of manipulation and control. This form of “buying” love with our behavior is another form of love that fails time and time again. Parents often get trapped in this format. They expect children to be grateful for the sacrifices they have made – yes, out of love. But what kind of love is it that feels disappointed when the return on the investment wasn’t as anticipated? I read once that we don’t love our children in order to get them to love us, but in order to teach them how to love others.

Which brings us to the third love “app” – the application that, I believe, is the healthy, joyful, best use of the word “love” – the loving-others-AS-OURSELVES” approach. In other words, I am instructed to love myself authentically – to recognize my needs and act appropriately to satisfy them, to have the understanding that I am lovable and capable and important – just like everyone else. Jesus never asked anyone to give up what they didn’t already possess. Before I can “lay down my life for a friend,” I must first truly possess a sense of my own value. There are those who see the Jesus message in the light of martyrdom, of sacrificing self for a “cause” in order to accomplish something. And that application is certainly there. But what they miss is the sweating blood moment beforehand. Jesus didn’t really WANT to die. He CHOSE to – even with the uncertainty of whether others would get the message he was delivering or not. Counseling folks who found marriages crumbling, I have often heard desperate pleas to get the estranged loved one to stay or to come back. Generally, that marriage has been the result of love application #1 or #2. For, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Him that I love I wish to be free – even from me.” That is truly love without a hook in it.

God knows the condition necessary for human beings to grow is the freedom to choose. That God-given freedom is what life in this world provides – not freedom from limits, but freedom to choose our responses within them. How to love is one of our choices. I believe we employ God’s gift best when we seek to offer unconditional love. Yet we continue to choose other cheaper versions of the love concept because app #3 is so costly. God has completely demonstrated perfect love for us. Did God chose the path of sacrifice to seek our love in return? No. Jesus’ sacrifice was God showing us how to love others.

Maybe my mother’s favorite saying should be modified slightly: “When love fails, examine the Source, then double the dose.”

In Dis Life

Though I never expect to experience space travel, I understand – in general – the concept of reentry. I comprehend that the resistance of the atmosphere and the strength of the earth’s gravitational pull make coming back from orbit a tricky maneuver. I have, however, experienced the “other worldliness” of the life of a caregiver, and I see the comparison. Caregivers feel detached from life as we knew it, as though we are traveling through space and time in an alternate universe. But then when the loved one dies and we leave the defined orbit of caregiving to return to life as an ordinary earthling, there’s this pesky problem of reentry. How do we find the proper trajectory and velocity to protect ourselves from the frenzied self-immolation of doing too much (or doing too little)? How do we develop enough “compressive strength” to withstand the pressure others place on us to “get over it” and “get on with life.”

Why is the answer to such philosophical questions always the same mysterious, unquantifiable proof – “you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” The secret is always in finding the balance, in recognizing what’s enough. No formulas exist, yet we can find some recipes to guide us as we develop some philosophical muscle memory.

One of the easy-to-remember planning guides I used when I worked with students on a daily basis was the question “How much gum to how much chew?” In other words, how much information to how much processing time? Imagine filling your mouth so full of gum you can’t move your jaws. Impossible. Yet you don’t need much time to exhaust one chiclet. Boring. The gum analogy works for lots of problem solving situations. Asking the question in terms of something simple like chewing gum can help us be wise about how much we take on and help us think about how much time we need to work through any challenge. Even if the challenge is grief work. How much sad can I deal with? How much time shall I give myself to work that sadness through? I can trust myself to know when it’s enough. And – unlike space travel reentry – it’s okay if sometimes I miscalculate. Like sometimes when I don’t even remember the grief is there.

For example, while I was avoiding the necessity of reentry by vacationing in Hawaii, one of our bus drivers played a song by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole called “In This Life.” It’s a beautiful melody that enchanted all of us as we rode along the back roads of the Big Island, hot pink orchids growing wild along the way. But then the refrain came, and it was more gum than I could chew. “Let the world stop turning/let the sun stop burning. Tell me love’s not worth going through. If it all falls apart/I will know deep in my heart/the only dream that mattered had come true. In this life I was loved by you.” The tears streamed and I was in free-fall reentry. Fortunately, tissues and sunglasses helped me regain composure and the proper public trajectory. (You can listen to the song on YouTube, but if you’ve lost someone, keep a hanky handy.)

But now I’m home. Much of the work of transitioning out the detritus of health care equipment and supplies and returning the house to “normal” is done. It’s time to resume life on my own. Time to create the “new normal” – whatever that turns out to be. So one of the first re-entry maneuvers is to help with this year’s Vacation Bible School program at church. I mean, making Bible stories come alive with children – what better tonic for me than that? Right? And it will be good for me. But I’m feeling some of the initial turbulence of reentry. A whole week of resuming a schedule – out there, in the world? My grieving spirit has enjoyed great quantities of quiet and solitude, floating gently beyond the atmosphere known as “daily life.” I remember teaching VBS. Not so quiet. Not solitary. But very daily. I guess it takes a lot of thrust to overcome inertia. The challenge is to take charge of the controls of my own life – one stick at a time.

And so the countdown to reentry begins. I may have to chew on this for the next few weeks. Code word: Bazooka!

Memorials Worth Remembering

I once drove into a cemetery to attend a funeral and was greeted by a lopsided, handmade sign with scrawled words in black paint: NO ARTIFICAL FLOWERS! Sounding out the misspelling in my mind – “arti-fickle” – brought the giggles during what was supposed to be a solemn memorializing of someone’s life. I admit it. I’m a spelling snob. And a fake flowers snob – well, as memorials anyway. I have lots of fake flowers in my home since I am poor at remembering to water real plants. Fake ones don’t have to be remembered. And that’s my point. Fake flowers as memorials make no sense. Why bother putting a memorial that can be forgotten. So while I made fun of the sign, I am in sympathy with its intent. No ARTIFICAL flowers at my gravesite, please. And that’s the promise I gave my mother, now extended to my husband.

Perhaps our culture is more comfortable with memorials that can be forgotten. We don’t embrace sacrifice easily – well, who does? – maybe it’s that we don’t accept the NEED to sacrifice as part of life. And we don’t welcome having to remember the reality of suffering and death. Much better to keep the remembering to a minimum at least. Bring out the hotdogs! Run cars fast in a circle! Have another drink! Open the pool! Those rituals affirm life. They are much more fun! Such good distractions from hardship and struggle.

Yet remembering death and sacrifice affirms life as well. Clean up a grave. Send a package to a soldier. Visit a battle site. Share memories of loved ones who have died. Make a new ritual of remembrance that will serve to balance our memorializing – because all lives matter, because history deserves our attention.

Athos and I pulled grass from the myrtle at my mother’s grave last evening. Well, he chased birds as far as his leash would allow. I pulled weeds. Someone had gotten most of the mess out before I got there. Whoever that was – thank you. The last two years of shoulder surgeries for me and of Ron’s stroke and debilitation made my grave tending virtually nil. It felt good to be doing the work again. Ron’s grave with no headstone or plantings looked so bare, so fresh a wound in the earth, and in my heart. Somehow the veterans missed him, so not even a flag to commemorate his service. But I remember his life of sacrifice and duty. And that counts. Next I must plan how to memorialize his amazing life in the headstone we design.

Of course, he would not choose to make a fuss. Something simple, tasteful, if I must do anything at all. And I must. Remembering is good. Those of us still tethered in this life need to remember that the tether is temporary, that others have broken free and we will too, that we make memorials for ourselves so that we will not forget the preciousness of life – our own and everyone else’s. And then we can enjoy the hotdogs, cheer on the fast cars, raise a toast, and dive into good times with full abandon because we have taken the time to recognize how brief and uncertain is this gift of life.

Athos and I went to Dairy Queen for an ice cream treat once our cemetery duty was done. A new ritual we may include in our annual Memorial Day ceremonies. Maybe even oftener. Grass has to be remembered and pulled more frequently than once a year. No ARTIFICAL turf for us.