Days like this

Gloria and my daughter, Anna

I feel like I should write something about Gloria. Today is the first anniversary of her death. It was a good death – no, not a good death, a good dying. Her family was gathered around her. She was alert through the day. We told stories. We expressed our love. We shared memories. We laughed and wept. We were together.   We were there with her. The hospital was gracious. The nurses helpful. It was a good dying.

But it was still death. She never came home to us. We watched her last breath and walked away alone. Now it was plans with the funeral director and the pastor. Now it was conversations on how to remember and celebrate her life rightly. Now it was looking in her files for notes on what she wanted. Now it was going through her closet and deciding what to do with things. Now it was emptiness and sorrow.

Death will always be death. Yes, it is a reality of existence, but I disagree with the sentiment that “it’s a part of life.” It’s an end of life – this life, anyway.   Yes, all those things about being made of stardust are true. The elements of our bodies will return to the soil and arise in the grass and trees. But the thing that we are – the thing that is more than elements and neurons, the thing we call spirit, person, self – that thing has slipped away.

There is memory. There is legacy. There is that echo of her living presence that rattles around in the house touching our memories, our hopes, our emotions. But she will never guide me as I dig for her in the flowerbed. She will never make her myriad trips to various stores, each its own best place for some particular ingredient for dinner. She will not delight in going to lunch in some new fast-food restaurant – or pull out a small pile of coupons for places to try. She will no longer kindly assert that she loved it all when we tell the stories of a houseful of boys playing pranks on their father and keeping every snake and bug caught in the words.

I do not want to move too quickly to any of those attempts to soften our loss or obscure the ruthless reality of death by promises of life to come. It doesn’t seem fair to me. Too easily such talk invalidates our loss, our grief, as though we should not be sad because “She is with God, now.” Maybe. But she is not with us and that loss is definitely real.

That talk about “It’s part of life” seems to do the same thing to me, as if death were not really death. But we are not leaves falling from the trees in the fall and returning to the soil to be taken up again. We are vibrant, strange, loving, hating, believing, trusting creatures that like some flavors over others, some flowers over others, some fabrics over others. We choose. We feel. We hope and dream. We weep and regret. We are. And then we are not. And those who remain, hurt. Something is lost, not just to us but to the world.

So let us linger there for a moment. Let us stand at the graveside and feel our loss. Let us tell the stories and weep the tears. Your job isn’t to make them go away. You job is to see that a real person lived whom we loved and who loved. Your job is to stand with us in the sorrow. Your job is to honor life and lament death. And, when we are ready, we will speak of what is to come. But don’t count on us to stay there. Days like this will take us back to the graveside.

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Her legacy of kindness will remain

My stepmother would have been 87 today. I called my Dad to let him know I was thinking of him, of her.

There was not much else to say. We talked for a while about any number of things. But Gloria was the one on our minds. I wish I could have been there so that he didn’t have to live this day alone.

They were married 60 years. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be alone after all that time. This is his first Christmas, her first birthday, since she died last January. My brother was there until Christmas Day. I flew in that night and spent a few days. My daughter and her husband came. We had one of our special Danish lunches and I made a Danish dinner one night.

It was all very nice. But Gloria was not there. It was still her kitchen, but knives and dishes are migrating to other drawers, other cupboards. Her way of keeping the kitchen is fading. We didn’t have fresh fruit every morning, as she would have insisted. I wasn’t sure which were the right towels for the guest bathroom. The ones I picked didn’t quite match, but at least they were the same color – more or less.

That sense of fading presence bothers me the most. I tried to put things back in their right place in the kitchen, but there were things I couldn’t remember. I did find the special cleaner she used for the stovetop, though. And the drip that frustrated her if you didn’t turn off the kitchen faucet in just the right way is still there. But she wasn’t there. And she won’t be there. And her presence will continue to fade. Memory slips away like sand through your fingers – but her legacy of kindness will remain.

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We come to kneel

File:Guido Reni - São José.jpgThis is the message from our Christmas Eve service.  Links to the texts for the evening can be found at the blog post: Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

Every time I sit down to work on my Christmas Eve sermon I think of my daughter Megan who lives now in New York. Pretty much every year on Christmas Eve she sends me an irate text message about the sermon she has just heard while going to church with her husband’s family and asking me to send mine. I think, too, about my daughter Anna’s observation about the preaching she heard in another church that she described as three stories from Reader’s Digest and a “Yea God!”

I feel a lot of pressure on Christmas Eve to get this right. And while it’s probably true that as long as I don’t say something offensive, you would go home happy for the chance to light candles and sing “Silent Night”. But there is more to this night.

President Trump has taken credit for allowing us to say “Merry Christmas” again – which I find totally comical – but maybe his comments provide us the opportunity to make a distinction between the mid-winter cultural holiday of American society and the mystery of the child who is born this night. There is a difference between Santa and Jesus. There’s a difference between the gifts under the tree and the gift in the manger.

There has been a conversation going on among the staff about the length of the worship services in Christmas. A piece of that argument is the statement that “People have things to do.” And while I understand and respect that reality, my gut reaction is that this is what we have to do. Dinner is important. Family is important. Present are fun. But worship is what we have to do.

Our worship tonight and tomorrow and through this season is not just one of the baubles on the tree that makes up our holiday; it is the tree.

If Christmas doesn’t involve us coming to hear the story and to kneel before the Christ child, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t have at its center some sense of the majesty of God’s kindness and mercy and love, then something is deeply wrong. If Christmas doesn’t invite us into a greater kindness and a deeper compassion, then something is deeply wrong.

We have seen Nazi’s marching by torchlight this year. At the center of our response to that must be the lighting candles and singing “Silent Night.”

We have seen an immense greed grab for the wealth of this nation, this year. At the center of our response to that is the worship offering and the gifts to the children at the family shelter, and the gifts to the children at the Fisher House, and the gifts to help Iris’s family’s congregation in Puerto Rico, and the work of the ministries we support among the Kurdish people in Turkey and the education of children in Rwanda. Where there is greed, the core of our response is generosity.

We have heard an endless stream of lies and falsehoods this year, and the core of our response to that is the tell this story of the one who comes to us “full of grace and truth.”

We have seen a stunning hardness of heart this year, and our answer to that must be to tell this story of sacrificial love.

We have seen bitter battles for power this year, and our answer is to tell this story of Herod who would kill all the children of Bethlehem to preserve his power – and of the Christ child who will wash feet and lay down his life for the sake of the world.

We have seen way too many weapons of war this year and our answer to that must be to tell of this prince of peace.

We must answer all the ugliness of the year by kneeling before the Christ child. We must find the Christ of Christmas and not just the Santa of our cultural celebration. We must see the Christ who enters the world as a fragile child – and we must lift up this truth that God chose to come to us as one of the most vulnerable in life.

God doesn’t come as a strong man. God doesn’t come in the courts of Herod or the palaces of Caesar Augustus. God doesn’t come to the home of the High Priest. God comes to us in a vulnerable child in a vulnerable family. God comes as a peasant child at a time when most children won’t make it to adulthood. God comes to us in a peasant child in a country occupied by foreign troops. God comes to us in a peasant child whose parents have been dislocated from their home by the greed of empire. (The census isn’t about keeping track of people; it is about keeping track of what everyone owns so that Caesar can take what he wants.)

This is where God chooses to show his face – in the weak, in the poor, in the vulnerable. And so Jesus, in the last week of his life according to the Gospel of Matthew, will use that vivid image declaring that when the Son of Man comes with the holy angels, “all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them from one another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And he will say to those at his right hand:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)

And when he is asked when they saw him, he will say “as you did it to the least of these…you did it to me.” Or, “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

God chooses to show his face in a child, helpless, poor, lying in the manger of a peasant home when they are, for all intent and purposes, refugees.

And yes, this is about politics, but it’s not about political parties. It is about the body politic. It is about the way we live together as human beings – not only in our country but throughout the world. It is about the values and the ideas that shape our understanding of the heart of human existence. It is about what we worship, what we trust, what we treasure, what we serve.

The most important thing we do this night is to kneel before the Christ child, to say this is who we worship, this is who we trust, this is who we treasure, this is who we serve.

We gather tonight not just to light the candles and sing “Silent Night’ but to tell the story and bear witness that the heart of all existence comes to us in a child, in the most vulnerable of all people.

We gather to remember and declare that God’s arms are open to all who are vulnerable – and to us in the places where we are vulnerable, where we are weak, where we are poor. God’s arms are open to the grieving. God’s arms are open to those in pain. God’s embraces us when we feel far away, when we fear, when we despair, when we fail.

God embraces those living in the pain and devastation of war. God embraces those where food is used as a weapon. God embraces those bound in North Korea or sold into slavery in North Africa. God stretches wide his arms – God stretches wide his arms – to embrace the world in all its sorrow.

And God’s arms are open to us also in every moment of joy and sweetness. In every moment of delight. In every act of kindness. In every moment of intimacy. In every experience of beauty.

God comes with open hands not a closed fist. With an open heart not a closed heart. With and open mind not a closed mind. With compassion not judgment. With truth not ideology.

God comes to save.

This word ‘saved’ is important. In the third chapter of John, Jesus says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There is so much about this verse that is important. It doesn’t say that only those who believe in him will be saved through him. It doesn’t say only those who do the right things will be saved through him. It doesn’t say that only those with the right Christian label will be saved through him, but that the world might be saved through him.

And this Greek word ‘saved’ – it means to be healed and restored. So when someone is healed from a disease, they are saved.

The creation story is not a tech manual about how God made the world, it is a confession that the world was made a garden – and we messed it up. Deeply and profoundly, we messed it up. But God comes to mend what we have broken, to unite what we have divided, to raise up what we have cast down, to heal the wounded, to open unseeing eyes and hardened hearts. God comes to restore the human community and heal every human heart.

This is why we are here tonight. This is why we light the candles and sing the songs: to give voice to this truth that the creative power and eternal heart of the universe has come to us, has entrusted himself into our hands, has opened the path and shown us the way back to our true humanity.

We brought my daughter, Megan, home from the hospital on this day in 1983. Her two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Anna, wanted to hold her. We wanted to let Anna do this, but we also knew how vulnerable Megan was, how important it was to hold her properly, to hold up her head. It is a scary thing to trust your newborn child into another’s hands.   But God has entrusted himself into our hands. And he has entrusted us into one another’s hands.

He is trying to tell us how to hold each other properly. He is trying to tell us how to forgive one another fully. He is trying to tell us how to love each other truly – as he has loved us.

We must find this Christ child.

We must come to kneel before him.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGuido_Reni_-_S%C3%A3o_Jos%C3%A9.jpg Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Christ is entered into the world

A post on Watching for the Morning from 2014 & 2016

Watching for the morning

File:Simeon with the Infant Jesus Brandl after 1725 National Gallery Prague.jpgThis is a lightly edited reprint of a posting in 2014

Thursday

Luke 2

28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God

Christmas lingers. At least it should linger. Not because of the twelve day ecclesiastical season, but because the Christ is born. The Christ is entered into the world. The Christ of God, the anointed one, the embodiment of God’s Word – the embodiment of God’s self-expression, God’s communication, God’s voice that creates all things, that reveals God’s own heart and will and passion, that calls all creation into a living relationship, that gathers the creation to himself – is incarnate in this infant/child/man of Bethlehem and Nazareth, this infant/child/man of temple and town and wilderness, this infant/child/man of cross and empty tomb.

The Christ is entered into the world. The true and perfect son, who honors the Father with his every breath, is come. The son…

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In our weakest member

File:Viejita.jpgThe Christ Mass, the worship service celebrating the nativity, echoes with the gathering of God’s people throughout the ages. The anthems and carols, the prayers and lessons, the breaking of the bread and, above all, the nativity story from Luke of the pregnant mother and her husband dislocated from their home by imperial decree, laying their first born in a manger to be greeted by lowly shepherds, yet heralded by angelic choirs and royal words like “savior”, “messiah”, and “lord” – these have been sung and read in nearly every language and place.

It is not “bleak midwinter” in all those places. And in very, very few of those places is it accompanied by advertisements of Santas hawking luxury cars or lingerie. But the story is told. The mystery is celebrated. Heaven has come to earth in the form of a child, a helpless infant.

What shall we say about this truth that God’s manifestation in the world is in its very weakest member?

Do we see the connection with the words of Jesus as he drew near to that violent and brutal end when he said “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it [or not done it] to me?”

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to raise a child from her deathbed, to free a woman from her infirmity, to answer the cry for help of a blind man at the side of the road?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to deliver a wild, naked man, living among the dead in a cemetery?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to respond graciously to the woman whose tears fell upon his feet and scandalously took down her hair to dry them?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus to treat the outcast woman at the well as a daughter of his own house?

Do we see the connection with the deeds of Jesus who had compassion on the sick and was willing to place his hand upon a leper? Or the lame man who had no one to help him into the healing pool? Or the family absent the social support that should have provided wine for their wedding?

Do we see the connection with Jesus inviting himself to dine at the home of a despised man?

Do we see the connection with Jesus feeding the crowd who had gone without food for days?

And do we see the connection with the weak and vulnerable of our own age? Do we see the open arms welcoming the despised of our time? Do we see the courage and grace that protects others at the cost of his own life?

It all is there in the reality of a fragile child. Here is where we will meet God. Here is where God will meet us. And it will be our salvation – our healing, our transformation, our new birth.

The child of Bethlehem profoundly transforms our understanding of God. It transforms our understanding of the way we should live towards one another. It transforms the world.

What happens at this mass of the Christ is not warm-hearted entertainment or family tradition, it is awe and wonder and kneeling in the presence of the holy. It is joy and radiance. It is peace and healing. It is a vision of a new world – and the call to live it.

God grant us eyes to truly see the child of the manger. And to see every neighbor, every stranger, every creature, reflected in his eyes.

Originally published in the January, 2018 parish newsletter of Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AViejita.jpg By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Of skorpa and hope

File:Cardamom bread.jpgI can’t fry an egg anymore without thinking of my stepmother and a conversation we had not long before she died last year about how best to cook an egg over-easy. I am going to make coffee bread today and it will remind me of my grandmother who brought this bread as dinner rolls for every thanksgiving dinner. I will think of Grammy and Grampa in their little kitchen having afternoon coffee with slices of these rolls dried in the oven to make her version of skorpa.

I’m not making a turkey this year, but just the thought of it brings back memories of thanksgiving dinner with the girls, the cats meowing underfoot, demanding a taste, and grabbing it aggressively when offered. I will think about the table set with my good Dansk dishes and blue “crystal” wine and water glasses received as wedding gifts. I will think about the girls’ glasses filled with “white wine” (milk) and all of this will remind me of my own childhood when my cousin placed black pitted olives from the condiment dish onto every finger and them popped them serially into his mouth.

Food is memory. Aromas take us places. Certain dishes link us to our past. The cranberry salad is the story of our family. It was not something I made with the girls, but my sister made it when I visited her one thanksgiving in Dallas. So now it links Aunt Evelyn’s table with Kathy’s.

Food is memory. Even when the memories are less than delightful – like getting sick after too much pumpkin pie so that now I can’t bear the thought. But the memory remains.

There is a reason our central act of worship involves food. Worship is memory. Remembering what God has done. Remembering what God has said. Remembering the true nature of the beating heart of the universe. Remembering judgment and grace. Remembering steadfast love and faithfulness. Remembering mercy immeasurable. Remembering dying and rising. Remembering blind eyes opened and hearts made true. Remembering a Spirit given and lives that are sent. Remembering the promise that holds us of a world reborn.

With the bread and wine all of this becomes living memory. The past becomes present; tomorrow touches today, and today is reshaped and renewed. We are not children of a dying world but children of a world being born. We are not sons and daughters of greed and bitterness, but citizens of the city of God. The winter of the world marches towards spring. And though today the light seems dim and the world cold, the trees bud. The crocus stretch forth. The ultimate and abiding truth of the world is light and life.

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACardamom_bread.jpg By Julia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Feeding of the 5,000 window at Los Altos Lutheran Church, photo by dkbonde

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Neither death nor life…

File:Ruger AR-556.jpg

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.” (Psalm 89:15)

My eyes fell on this verse as I opened my Bible this morning. I have been reading news and am deeply discouraged over the cruelties, sorrows and follies of the world. The shooting in Texas lies heavily upon my heart. It calls to mind a time when I had to warn our ushers to lock the doors and call the police if a certain individual arrived. Such an action is against every notion of what it means to be church. I struggled, recently, when the fire marshal made us change the lock on our front door. The proposed solutions bothered me for days until I figured out why: they required turning a handle to enter the church instead of our current door that had a simple handle needing only to be pulled for the door to swing wide.

The doors of the church should open wide. But that particular Sunday morning I was telling the ushers in no uncertain terms to close them. It felt like a betrayal of all I believed. But there was also fear. The possibility was unlikely; but the risk so terribly high, the consequences so troubling to imagine.

Now here are those fears on the national news.

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

I heard Michael Lewis on Fresh Air yesterday and read his article Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White Housein Vanity Fair last night. The headline will probably keep some people from reading it, but you shouldn’t let it stop you; it’s important. We have belittled government for so long, we have forgotten how important governance is. No one wants to pay for it. We have been told the government is “them” who want to take away “our” money. But I am grateful that there were firefighters in Santa Rosa last month when my mother and my brother and his family had to flee their homes in the middle of the night. The roads were crowded with those in flight, but I am grateful that “we the people” had paid for roads that were public rather than private. The news this morning included information that insurance companies had provided private fire fighters to protect wealthy homes. I understand the economics of that action – but it reflects our failure to be a true democracy where the ‘demos’, the people, are equal in their rights as well as responsibilities. And, perhaps more burdensome to me, it reflects our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

Apple is in the news with the revelation that they are holding $250 billion offshore on the island of Jersey because they don’t want to pay taxes on it. I understand the economics of that, too, but I don’t understand the abandonment of the social contract. They thrive because of the freedoms, creativity and scholarship of this country. There would be no Amazon without UPS and no UPS without the interstate highway system – not to mention the Arpanet, the public universities and defense contracts – that “we the people” paid for. There would be no Google if people couldn’t drive on public roads, make us of public water and sewer, create products in a society where innovative ideas would be recognized and protected by public laws, and live in safe communities because fire inspectors came to check the front doors.

I was irritated that our door had not been a problem to any of our previous inspectors. And I was irritated that we had to give up the candles that decorated the alcoves in our sanctuary. But “we the people” decided that we didn’t want another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Chicago, you remember, once burned to the ground. So we pay the taxes that allow us all to thrive. Companies used to think of themselves as good citizens. People used to think of themselves as good citizens. Now, it seems, it’s all about me. My right to own an assault rifle, 15 magazines, and 450 rounds of ammunition. My right to march with torches in the night, chanting Nazi slogans. My right to keep “my money” (that I was able to earn because of public roads, utilities, schools, and on and on).

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

Disconsolate as I am, my Bible falls open to this verse. There is lament in this psalm, to be sure. The poet cries out against all the suffering, shame and loss they have experienced. We hear the bitter question: “O Lord, where is your steadfast love?” But back towards the beginning of the psalm is this verse whose voice lingers:

“Happy are the people who know the festal shout.”

And that little verse pushes me to remember the shout of Easter morning, “The Lord is risen”, and the congregation’s response: “He is risen indeed.”

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

PS Our front door is actually damaged in some way so that, even when it is “closed”, it stands slightly ajar. It won’t be great when winter comes. But I rather like it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARuger_AR-556.jpg By SenseiAlan from Muscle Shoals, US (Ruger AR-556) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The day will come

File:Dülmen, Wildpark -- 2015 -- 8871-7.jpg

The number of people I remember on All Saints’ Day continues to grow. It is the burden of life. My father, 96, read me the names of those being remembered in his church. Again and again the names he read were friends and neighbors of his, long time residents of that community, some I knew or knew of.

And then there was my step-mom.

That’s the most raw, the freshest wound, in a list that includes my daughter, my uncles and aunts, my cousin, my grandparents, my brother. I hear my father speak of losing all his friends. I understand something of which he speaks.

And then there are all those whose funerals I have conducted over the years. Some dear friends. All whom I loved. Tragedies I walked through with loved ones. Bodies I helped identify. Children I laid in the ground.

The list is long.

Tragic deaths. Peaceful deaths.   Murdered children. Suicides. Their names begin to run together and slip out of memory. There was someone we buried in the rain. The ground was too wet for them to dig the grave, so we did the committal at a fake site near the road. The family panicked when they went back and couldn’t find their loved one. I had to explain.

And who was it that was buried in that tiny cemetery in East Toledo surrounded on three sides by the clanging roars and smells of a refinery? And what was his name who went home after we buried his wife and reached up into the closet to find the gun hidden there. We buried him on Good Friday.

I wish I had kept a better record. I wish I knew all their names. I wish I had recorded the site of every burial. There have been a hundred or more. But they deserve to be remembered.

And there have been children. Infants. Young men. Murdered and murderers. Too much blood. Too many tears. Sometimes the names come to me. Vince. Ricky. Rebecca.   But oh so many are lost. Lost to me – they are not lost to God.

That is what this day means to me. They are not lost to God. He plays with the children. He laughs with the young men. He holds the infants in his arms. He sips sherry with my grandmother and throws the ball for my grandfather’s dog. He has coffee – which means sweets my grandmother has made, whipping the cream by hand with bangles flying and the cigarette ash dangling from the tip never to fall into the cream.

They are not lost to God. By now God has taught Rebecca to walk. By now Anna is dancing a perfect ballet in a field of daisies. By now Farfar has found a comfortable porch on which to sit, and Kecko, his dog, is no longer murdered by the farmer on the next slice of land.

By now, Ken has found his voice. By now, Irvin is free of his epilepsy. By now, the lost children are found and the forgotten elders treasured by all. By now, even the gerbils and turtles and hamsters we buried in our back yard are scampering through fields of joy. By now, the whole great chorus of heaven is ready to sing with us this Sunday, “For All The Saints…” and all creation will grow still to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

By now, Hanna is reconciled to her father and drinking wine at the table of heaven. By now, John has laid aside his episcopal crozier and is gossiping about those yet to come.

By now.

But for me the scars remain. Hidden, of course, but there to be seen when the light shines just so. They show their face on this day. But though all these know no pain, I hurt. I regret. I wish I could hold them just one ore time.

But the day will come.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AD%C3%BClmen%2C_Wildpark_–_2015_–_8871-7.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Wildpark — 2015 — 8871-7” / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The value of the exceptional

The pricelessness of the ordinary (2)

Once again, in the stillness of the early morning my mind roams. As I gaze out the window, the radiance of the morning light reminds me of the wonder of the exceptional. I attended a play with my daughter last night and thoughts linger about the talent of the actors to convey a person, a place, a story, a mood, a mystery of human existence – and of the playwrights and songwriters and musicians and all those others hidden from view whose work with light and sound and stage call it all to life.

But it is not just these extraordinary talents that prompt my thoughts, it is also the coffee I had that afternoon with a perfect cardamom bun. Or the two lions, Patience and Fortitude, who keep watch over the New York City public library. Or the display of Christopher Robin Milne’s worn and well-loved stuffed animals in the children’s library that gave birth to the Pooh stories. Or the artists of the children’s books I read, whose work sparks imagination and joy.

I do not minimize those whose job it is to cook ordinary food and do commonplace tasks; it matters when these are done well and with care. And I do not idolize those whose skill and good fortune have brought them to the top of their fields. But just as there is something priceless about the ordinary, there is something priceless about the perfect pearl and the cut diamond, and the flash of brilliant work be it science or architecture or compassion.

We need the exceptional. We need its power to call us to wonder. We need its ability to inspire, to lift us beyond the ordinary, to raise our eyes to see what might be.

Watching Steph Curry shoot a basketball is like watching ballet. Full of grace and beauty, it amazes. It excites a crowd. It showers joy. But more importantly, it stretches the imagination. It makes the impossible possible. Dreams become reality. A child goes home and practices. We are advanced as a people. We can be more. We are more.

So perhaps it is possible to love more deeply. Perhaps it is possible to make peace where it has long been lost. Perhaps it is possible for wisdom to govern. Perhaps it is possible for kindness to rise. We need not settle for the world as it is. We need not be limited by what we’ve been told are the givens of the “real world”. We can be better.

We need the exceptional. We need the exceptional sacrifice of firefighters who save others while their own homes burn. We need the musicianship that creates community among strangers. We need the charity that opens hearts and saves lives. We need the beauty that makes us see the pricelessness of the ordinary.

PS The evacuation order for my brother has been lifted and they have been able to return home. My mother is with them until she can return to hers.

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The pricelessness of the ordinary

I think many thoughts in the early morning. About the beauty of first light even on an urban neighborhood. About the wonder of birds wheeling in the sky. About the pricelessness of the ordinary.

My mother has been shaken, this week, by her flight from the fires in northern California. The 2:00 a.m. call from the managers of her senior living center in Santa Rosa, California, warning of the need to flee and summoning them to be ready to evacuate. The apartment is pitch dark; the electricity has failed. Unable to see, groggy in the night, she misses a handhold getting out of bed and cracks her head on the bureau. It isn’t serious. Blood and a black eye.   But it is the kind of moment that seems to foretell the day.

My brother and his family also had to flee in the middle of the night. Neighbors pounding on the door.   The smoky air and darkness but for the glow of fire. The long stream of brake lights fleeing their neighborhood.

They went to his office at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He found Mom later that day in the evacuation center at the county fairgrounds and brought her to them at his office. As the disaster grew, my sister-in-law brought Mom and their daughter down to the south bay where her parents lived.

We watched the news. Searched for friends. Wept for those now homeless. Watched disbelieving as pictures came of whole neighborhoods razed to the ground. Tried to comprehend the enormity of it all.

Numbers can’t tell the story, but that’s what we got. Buildings destroyed. Firefighters on the scene. Speed of the winds. People displaced.

My mom has trouble remembering she’s not at home. She thinks of something and goes to reach for it and it’s not there. “Oh,” she says. “Darn it,” slapping her knee, “I keep forgetting.”

I take her to lunch to distract her with something ordinary. We go to Target to buy some basic clothes and makeup. I bring some comfort foods. Somehow the salt and crunch of a potato chip calls us back to the simple pleasure of the moment.

She is safe. Her house may not be, but she is. My brother is allowed home and gets to shower. Another delicious piece of the ordinary. The power comes back on. Simple pleasures. But then the winds shift and he must flee again in the night. Blaring bullhorns and flashing lights, intrusive, demanding. Anxious.

I am at my daughter’s home. It is early morning and I see the sunlight on the next building. I watch a mother escort her child to the school bus. I see the first signs of a new day. There are car horns, and planes overhead, and trees ready to turn for fall. A gentle morning alarm chirps. Stillness turns to footsteps. The pricelessness of the ordinary.

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