Here and Now

When I was working on my undergrad, I stumbled by chance onto a play by Beth Henley. I (shamefully) can’t remember exactly which of her plays I read first, but I directed a scene from the play for my senior directing class as a final project. I then performed a scene from Am I Blue as a reader’s theatre piece for a forensics competition and, by that time, Henley was listed high among my favorite playwrights, a place she has occupied since.

I recently found a copy of four of her more famous plays on Amazon, and knew immediately I had to purchase the book. Somewhat fitting to the fact that I recently lost my grandmother, the first play in the collection is The Wake of Jamey Foster, a play revolving around the tragedy of losing a loved one and the dark comedy that tends to play out within the context of the morbid. What stood out to me as I read the play was each character grasping for something beyond the death by which they are surrounded, grasping for the Divine (in imagery that is at times unmistakable), but succeeding only in adding to the darkness of their circumstance. They are existing in a dark moment, but they are inhabiting it fully, clinging to whatever life they can in an effort to maintain a pulse.

I can relate in an offbeat way in the surrealism of grandmother’s funeral, now a few weeks in the past, during which everything seemed to be so detached from me that I couldn’t feel anything until over a week later. I think it was because I was holding back from it, not inhabiting the moment completely, not engaging the life that was persevering despite the observance of her passing.

I earnestly believe that the shift from immanence to transcendence was an unfortunate move in theological thought, because the rift that we place between ourselves and God is, at least in my mind, false. We’re forever grasping for Him “up there” during these times, when He is fact very present, standing with us in our grief, our pain, our joy. I think He wants us to find the life that, like Henley’s characters, we are desperately reaching for.

I missed it when I finally grieved. I lapsed into anger at myself for all of the things I didn’t do and say with my grandmother and would now never have the chance. When my grief finally set in, it was very real, but very ugly. I was reaching for that life, but all I could find in that moment was pain. Perhaps I was reaching past God as He was sitting there with me, just as I turned my face away from Karen as she attempted to be there for me. At least, though, I was finally inhabiting the moment, finally experiencing the reality as everything that it was and is. Until that point, I was only using evasive maneuvers, and, in doing so, I evaded God as well.

Among the lessons I’ve learned from my grandmother’s passing, one of them has been to recognize the truth that God is immanently in the situation with me, not relegated to being “up there” looking down. I think, also, that He much prefers that I engage, even if it is messy, because not moving forward, be it because of uncertainty or numbness, is stagnation. And stagnation, if we are honest, is not living at all.

Party Like Its 1999…

I’m in need of a good celebration.

Well, first thing’s first, I suppose…I should get down to the business of being as sad as I need to be, but have been putting off, and then get down to celebrating.

There’s been a mishmash of emotions traveling my neural pathways for a bit now, really since my grandmother’s funeral about two weeks ago. Because our society pushes death to arm’s length and sanitizes it by bathing it in useless ritual, I was too busy the entire time I was with my family to mourn. Granted, I was in a very missional mindset of being helpful to my parents in the time of loss, but throughout the entire process everything seemed so surreal to me…so detached. Almost as though I was watching a play, wondering what changes I would have made if I had been directing. Emotional involvement was minimal on my part. I felt as though I would have been forcing anything further, and that would have been not only fake but an unhealthy rushing of the grief process, so I just existed through it, tolerated the flurry of activity, and moved on.

I experienced my first real grief days later. Psychologically speaking, that’s actually not all that delayed, but I’m glad to be getting it out of my system.

On another front, I was working through my personal study of Mark’s gospel this morning. I walked away with this heavy feeling, a sort of weight that comes with a perception of a God that doesn’t have my best interest at heart. Not the sort of God I believe in at all, but its just that I spent so many years of my life steeped in a tradition of religious practice that the pleasure was taken out of my faith, and what pleasure there was existed in a very forced half-life, as though there was to be only solemn recognition of God…that worship and happiness were mutually exclusive.

So now, in my “next life” (I use that sarcastically), I enter worship services every weekend that rock out familiar songs, and I still just don’t feel as though I can unwind. Part of it, I think, is that I’m really beyond sick of the popular sub-culture that thrives in American churches (more on that later), but a huge part of it is that I just really need to loosen up my obsessive-compulsive personality and have a good time. After all, the Christian faith is about life, not death, and life is to be celebrated, not mournfully observed.

I think the most spiritual thing I could do right now is to have a good party. Well, moving out of the “Bible Belt” would help, but, until then…pass the wine and give me some karaoke. I’m looking very forward to the house-warming party that will follow our moving to our new apartment in a couple of weeks, but, until then, perhaps I will make progress in my continual effort to shake my slightly melodramatic tendency to be a bit too weighty and sullen. After all, sun has returned to Virginia, and if surely that is a sign of life.

Celtic Contemplations

I’ve always been a science fiction fan (I bookmarked an interesting piece on the literary nature of science fiction on my delicious page if you’re interested), with a little fantasy thrown in. Karen and I have always tried to “sell” our favorite authors to each other since we’ve been married…every now and again the sale is successful, if only for one book, and we find a treasure…there’s just nothing cooler than stumbling onto a really good book.

My latest adventure at Karen’s request has been back into fantasy fiction: fantasy based on Celtic mythology, to be specific, in the form of Stephen Lawhead’s The Paradise War, a re-release of his 1991 book that I bought Karen for Christmas. I find the nature of the story reminiscent of Narnia in some ways (though I’m only halfway through, so if you’ve read it, don’t argue me there yet). Lawhead’s prose flows smoothly, and his descriptions are beautifully and vividly painted as he sets a scene. A chapter that I read today involved the protagonist listening to a bard sing songs of life: wars and defeat, kindness and love. The character mentions that his entire world became the singing, that he discovered in that moment what it was to be truly alive, and that he slowly forgot his life in the “real world” (he had been transported into The Otherworld for some time as we come upon this scene). The correlating point to this is an earlier description in the book of the noise of the city constantly around him, and the sudden and complete tranquility (defined as the absence of the sounds of an industrialized culture) he experiences upon arrival in The Otherworld.

The striking description of the character listening to the bard sing is that he realized “what it was to be human.”

This evening, shortly after arriving home from work and as the sun was descending for the evening, I was making my way through the apartment to close the blinds. I walked through the kitchen to its single window without turning on the light, and stopped. I was suddenly in a serene moment of sorts, standing in the dark with a cup of hot apple cider in hand, watching the tops of trees move in strong and freezing wind, with just a hint of pink left in the dusk sky to make their bare branches a silhouette. They were reaching up to that sky as it became grayer and grayer, and, as the show ended, faded to black.

Coming full circle, this is what the Celts would call a “time between times.”

There was a huge period of my life in which I was too busy to notice these sorts of things. Thankfully, that period stopped short a few years ago. Like the memory of Lawhead’s character fading of his previous life, I have difficulty remembering the hyper-busy schedule I once kept, not noticing events like this evening’s dusk long enough to even pause. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still incredibly busy, but I’m glad that I’ve learned to slow down and soak in moments like this evening’s brief encounter with the time between times, a moment when God was no longer as much “up there” as He was “right here.” Because, like Lawhead’s character, it was in that moment that I felt truly alive, that I remembered what it is to be human.

Inheritance

My reading time is generally split between fiction, non-fiction, and plays…typically in that order. I enjoy occasionally spending time with poetry, though…I just don’t read as much poetry because it is just that: time-consuming. The time required to unpack the meaning of a few lines of carefully crafted verse can be daunting.

I (like most Americans) wasn’t familiar with the Danish poet Inger Christensen who passed away on January 2nd, even though she was frequently a contender for the Nobel Prize. This afternoon I listened to some of her work read, both in its original language and in translation. I had a much better feel for this person after listening to her work, and reading a few lines as reproduced in the New York Times obit.

We’re hard-wired with a desire to leave a legacy, a work that immortalizes a piece of ourselves in the material world, that leaves a snapshot of our soul for those who continue in life after our crossing over. For someone published as prominently as Christensen, this is obvious to see: her poetry, as well as her other written works, are her legacy. By reading the verse she crafted, we are privy to the thoughts and musings she experienced at the time, to her vision of the world she shared with us, even if at a distance. In short, we know Christensen at some level by engaging in the work she left behind. She lives with us still through her words.

I have a great deal of creative impulse in my family. In most cases, it took the form of artisans and craftsmanship: my father, for example, is a sculptor of wood, an artist in his own right when sitting in front of his power tools. For my recently deceased grandmother, the creative channel was quilting.

Quilting, an all-but-lost art existing primarily (in my experience) through various parts of the Appalachians, is an exercise in visual creativity and specific craftsmanship combined with a cultural heritage all its own. The time required to meld patterns together into a unique creation is astounding, and the precise care required for each stitch (all of which would be identical in my grandmother’s quilts) was a labor of love. Throughout my childhood, I recall her sitting in front of a quilt suspended on wooden saw-horse-shaped supports, needle and thread in hand, a singular focus on her face. Each quilt produced from her hands was a unique combination of pattern and design, not dissimilar to the way I later used composition, color and depth to design shows for the stage. Quilts were of enormous value to my grandmother, and were the most valued thing she could leave behind. I received more than one customized quilt through my childhood. Karen and I discovered after her funeral last week that she had sewn a baby quilt in anticipation of our future family. A quilt was my grandmother’s way of giving a part of herself to someone. She loved through her quilts. She connected through them.

Karen had not known my grandmother well prior to her death, having only met her a few times. Yet, as she remarked this week as were returning home from the funeral proceedings, she felt as though she grew to know my grandmother more after encountering her quilts as we sorted through personal affects early in the week. My grandmother had left a legacy, and Karen had experienced it. Similar to Christensen, and the connection I felt to her vision in reading and hearing her work, Karen began to experience the world from my grandmother’s perspective after seeing and touching quilts that had been born of my grandmother’s hands.

Perhaps our desire to leave a legacy is one of desperation, a desperation to be known by succeeding generations that may otherwise forget us. Perhaps it is a way for us to keep storytelling alive, to pass on to those who follow us. Perhaps it is a cry in the wilderness to make our perspectives known. Whatever motivates this inherent drive, it is easier to recognize in the artist, perhaps. My legacy will be the words others read, and the stories I have brought to life on stage. More than anything else, that will be what others use to discover who I was as they peer back from the future.

To say that the longing for legacy is limited to the artist, however, is shorting everyone else. Regardless of our inclinations or occupations, we long to leave a work that will be a lens through which others can view us retrospectively. Whatever our trade, whatever the avenues we explore and in which we thrive, we are all nearly desperate to craft the masterpiece of our lives for which we will be known, the defining work that reflects who we truly are.

This week I was struck by how critical it is to identify and achieve this in our lives.

I wish you the best as you discover and pursue yours.

When Words Fall Flat

I’ve had a whirlwind of a weekend to contemplate mortality.

My grandmother passed away last week, and Karen and I were subsequently away to be with my parents for the funeral and related events. I was surprisingly numb during the proceedings…I didn’t cry during the funeral service itself, or internment, which was reduced to mere minutes by freezing weather and snowfall. To be honest, I was disturbed at my ability to remain clinically detached from the entire event. My only near-tearful moments were during the initial Skype call last week when I received the news, and the day after the actual funeral while I joined the family in sorting through my grandmother’s personal effects. The absence of her in her own home, the same home she had lived in throughout my life, was striking.

I did receive a hard education, however, in our culture’s detachment from death. Of all the hands I was forced to shake and the countless transparently forced pleasantries I was forced to endure for my parents’ sake, I was astounded that Karen and I were offered genuine condolences only about 3 or 4 times, out of what must have been a hundred greetings, conversations, and handshakes. I also failed to understand the point of morbidly drawn-out ceremonies that stretched from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon: a viewing that was four hours of nihilism with bad music looping in the background, the afore-mentioned funeral with internment, and reception at my parents’ community of faith that, while extremely well-intentioned, was ultimately vacuous.

I fail to understand the honoring of a shell, the morbidity of forcing family members to re-state and acknowledge their loss over and over. There is nothing cathartic or therapeutic about this. Grieving occurs while the family is with each other, supporting each other. There is no point of public ceremony here. What had happened with her soul had already happened. Nothing that occurred prior to the actual service and internment offered any sense of closure. I found solace only in the fact that honoring words were spoken by the minister presiding, and that the brief internment (abbreviated by exposure to northern weather) actually did offer closure to our loss.

Now, I’m left to ponder the darkness of the entire event, the confronting with loss when it seems to me we should be celebrating an end to pain, a continuation of grandmother’s soul with Christ, the nature of which we can only speculate.

Perhaps most memorable about the weekend was a passing conversation with my father about moments in which the failing of language to express condolence is so palpable. He described one person simply shaking his hand in silence and conveying compassion with his eyes. That, I think, is so much truer than trite expressions or verbose wishes that do nothing but leave the grieving emptier after they are said.

And, of those who also offered similar silent condolences to me, I learned that my only response could be “thank you.”

I find it amazing that, as one who loves to craft words, I could find none more poetic than that in that moment, and yet, that those were far more cathartic and effective in their simplicity than the emptiness vocalized repetitively by so many.

I resolve after this weekend that, in the future, when I don’t know what to say to comfort someone, I will say nothing, because to attempt to encapsulate that moment with words reduces the moment to something flippant, and is the cruelest of affronts to the grieving.