Funerals: Beauty in Shades of Gray

The color black is symbolic of funerals, representing everything from the heavy grief that overshadows the bereaved to the most common color-choice for attire.  How strange then that the decision on whether to attend a funeral isn’t always as clear as the delineation between black and white.  Many people fall into a gray area of not knowing the deceased well, but still wanting to support the grieving.  It can feel like an awkward palette from which to draw — blending the darkness of death with the comfort of light.

Last year, I attended several funerals.  It felt unnatural to lose the people that I lost.  Too young.  Too loved.  Too unbearable.  Too many.  At this point, I have decided you don’t move on from grief you carry it with you – this incredulous realization that you will never see someone you love again. The reality folded up reverently and tucked away in the gap created by the loss in your heart.  Every now and then, you unfold it, look at it in disbelief, and weep for a love that was once tangible.  Then, if you’re lucky, you wipe away the tears and find the smile that acknowledges the best parts of your loved one you’ve kept alive by the illogical, eternal merits of love.  You breathe out, fold it back up, and carry on.  The losses from last year were close to me.   The black I felt was as dark and as empty as a galaxy without stars.  I never thought twice about whether I would attend the funerals.

Sometimes, it’s not that clear.  We aren’t always close to the deceased.  We aren’t sure if it is appropriate.  If we are being honest, we aren’t certain we want to go.  Generally speaking, they are not a lot of fun.  There is nothing to me so private as grief, so I understand the feeling of not wanting to intrude, pry, or feel like a gawking voyeur during moments of another person’s certain despair.  I also know what it meant to me when I lost a close relative and friends who did not know the deceased showed up.  They weren’t there for the dead, they came for the living.  Seeing some of the people who were there for me was so touching that momentarily I didn’t feel grief, I felt love.  It was a beautiful gift.  I don’t know how much vacillating they did between black and white before deciding to go.  I just know in that gray area of uncertainty they chose to come, bringing me a moment of mercy that was as restful as the color white on tired eyes.

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Out of the Ash: American Heroes

I remember exactly where I was when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It was a profoundly sad day. It changed lives and an entire nation. I will never forget the unthinkable, unimaginable horror as I huddled around the television watching the ash of innocence unite a country in anguished grief. As the morning went on, the plane crashes went from one to four, each one an almost unrecoverable blow of terror, multiplying devastation into exponential heartache.

A new commitment to patriotism rose like a phoenix out of ashes on that pivotal day. We were less naïve and more united. A surge of civilians stepped out of their air-conditioned offices and into the desert heat to join our military. They traded the comforts of civilian life for the trials of war to ensure freedom.

I don’t doubt the urgency of the call to serve that those newly converted soldiers felt. I was almost eight months pregnant with my first child on 9/11. Things that mattered to me before that day—the décor of the nursery, the name I would choose, decisions about going to work afterward, and finding a pediatrician—were suddenly inconsequential. Somehow, life as we knew it was in jeopardy. My body was full of the promise of life, and the sky was falling. Read more

In the Mess: Easy Like Sunday Morning

I know songs have been written about the ease of Sunday morning, but I wish someone would write one about the angst of a Sunday evening. That’s the twitchiest night of the week for me as I transition from the charms of the weekend to the schisms of the work week. I feel like the amiable comic book character, Pig Pen, created by Charles Shultz, traveling in my own dust storm with all the to-do’s swirling around me making a filthy mess of what was once a peaceful mind.  The more I do, the more I realize how far behind I really am and the dirt cakes on — further muddying my panic.

I sort through emails.  I make piles.  I do laundry.  I boss children — an echo of repetition.  I try to remember what I needed to talk to my husband about.  I usually can’t.  I make lists.  I pick up abandoned glasses and clip close half-eaten bags of chips laying carelessly on the counter.  In all my busying, I only seem to find more to do.  Each task leads to another – a maze in the making.  I scatter about in the dusty swirl of tedium past bedtime – past reason.  My son asks me to review his cover letter for an internship he is applying for and I stop.  In that instant, where I was given one more thing to do– when I was already so done, I would have envisioned being buried under the muck of a mudslide.  Instead, I felt the clarity of grace.  I felt its calm and its cleanse, as I realized I belong in the middle of the mess.  It’s there that my independent, almost adult child asked for my input.  It’s there that the mess suddenly stopped choking me and I breathed into the precious moment of mothering.

Our to-do’s will never be done and life will always be messy no matter how much tidying we do.  Serving others in the midst of it is the grace that makes life meaningful.  It gives order to chaos.  It realigns priorities and it reinvigorates efforts. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16).

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Everyday Heroes and Popeye the Sailor Man

When I was little, I loved to watch Popeye the Sailor Man. There was something so good about the one-eyed spinach-eating sailor.  He was gruff and marbled his raspy words.  His body was disproportionate with massive forearms, and legs that bowed out in curvy clumps.  He had a tattoo on his arm, a pipe in his twisted mouth, and Olive Oyl, his waif of a love interest, on his arm.

Wearing a white Navy outfit, he embodied the everyday hero.  Maybe that was the draw to him.  He wasn’t polished and refined like a prince.  He wasn’t movie-star handsome.  He didn’t speak eloquently.  He ate food from a can.  He was mostly bald.  Occasionally, he even sported a bit of stubble as if he couldn’t bother with the vanity of beard-grooming.  After all, he had bullies like Brutus to fight.  In every episode, Popeye ensured that good triumphed over evil.

I grew up believing that people were good.  Bad guys were just television entertainment to enforce the seemingly universal truth that we all want the same thing – for the good guy to win, order to exist, and happy endings to prevail.  We certainly couldn’t accept the havoc brought by bullies such as Brutus. Read more

Practicing What I Preach

Sometimes I look at my life, and I don’t know whether hypocrisy or irony is screaming louder.  I write about mercy,  because I believe whole-heartedly in its power to change lives and, in a broader sense, the world.  That is not hyperbole.  It is a truth that exists regardless of whether we acknowledge or believe it.

Despite my enthusiasm, doing works of mercy sometimes feels like a struggle.  You would think in my zeal, I would embrace them with a “Woo-hoo! Here’s another opportunity for me to serve!”  But often my “woo-hoo” sounds more like, “woe is me.”

Frequently the service we are called to do is organic, and, like the produce in the grocery store, organic always costs more.  It has always felt easier to serve when I plan for it, choose the capacity, and have had a shower.  When someone else’s misfortune interrupts my plans or to-do list, it can be frustrating.

Recently, I took my mom to the doctor, because she was sick.  I tried to be peppy about it despite my manic Monday mentality.  My mom was pleasant and chatty on the way to her appointment, and, instead of gratitude for her attitude, I begrudged it for being better than mine.  After all, I was the healthy one.  Why wasn’t I bubbly and bright?  Maybe she should have been driving me around! Read more

Freedom to Serve

When I was a child, I considered freedom to be something grown-ups enjoyed.  They can eat what they want, stay up as late as they want, watch what they want, buy what they want, and do what they want.

Little did I know.

As a teenager, freedom meant breaking rules, rebellion, and choosing for myself.  As a young adult, it meant not being tied down, buying something I couldn’t afford, and a readiness to explore my place in the world.  As a new mother, freedom meant I had three hours when my children were in preschool to go to the grocery store, exercise, pursue an interest, shower, or do dishes.

Those remain the quickest three hours of my life.

Now I think about freedom not as what I can get away with, spend, or get done, but who I am meant to be.  What was I created for?  What’s constraining me from that?

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Homelessness: a Foggy Issue

While eating breakfast in a quaint French café in San Francisco with all the clichés of lace curtains, marble top tables, and chocolate croissants, I watched a homeless woman rummage through the trash outside.  She had plastic bags stuffed in the holes in her shoes, and she didn’t appear much older than me.

I grabbed my son’s half-eaten breakfast sandwich off his plate wrapped it in a napkin and ran outside.  The homeless woman was walking briskly down the sidewalk, and I had to run to catch up.  The travel books never mention what to do when you encounter homeless people in other cities, but it’s probably poor manners to chase them. Read more

Spring Christmas

A friend of mine confessed on a recent girls’ night that her Christmas tree was still up.  It was past mid-March. New Year’s resolutions had already been forgotten, Cupid already shot his arrow, leprechauns already spent their pots of gold, and cumulus clouds were already forming April showers in the skies, so I didn’t really know what to say.

She seemed relatively nonchalant about it, and I told her I didn’t know whether she had become fully liberated or if she had simply gone over the edge.   There seems to be a fine line between those things. Read more

Dog Days of Mercy Work

Reunited and it feels so good,” are lyrics from the 1978 song by the vocal duo, Peaches & Herb.  But upon returning a stray dog, the lyrics that played to the song’s melody sounded more like, “Reunited, and it feels like crud!”

It was far from peachy.

When I found the elderly dog, he was thin, filled with fleas, and uncharacteristically aloof for his breed.  After twenty minutes of convincing him I wasn’t a serial killer, he reluctantly succumbed to my coaxing him into the backyard. Within minutes he escaped and sat stubbornly in middle of the road.  I directed cars to drive around us while begging him to follow me.  Perhaps, the dog binge-watched Criminal Minds before running away, because he clearly knew the finer points of stranger danger.  After getting him into the backyard for the second time, I  jammed logs in the passage in the gate he eluded, creating fine fence folk art that I am sure would become the envy of my neighborhood.  Then I went back inside to post his picture on lost-dog websites. Read more