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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Wrinkles in His Will (and some tips on boiling corn)

I was talking to Jesus one night before bed and told him that his will for my life appears fairly willy-nilly.  What are we really doing here, God?  This?  That?  Does it even matter?  It’s as if he thinks I can read the signs he sends.  I can’t even read a map much less fold one, so why he thinks I can discern his will is a mystery to me.  Still, I come back to that longing to know.  It’s like a kid the night before their birthday trying to figure out what their gifts will be.  It’s a sleepless mix of exhilaration and anticipation and longing for the relief of just knowing.  What a gift the knowing would be.

The next morning, my son had an appointment to have his high school senior pictures taken.  I had reminded him the night before that mama doesn’t iron and he needed to have his clothes ready.  When I saw him half-dressed in a half-ironed shirt, I was wholly annoyed.  He explained that he had ironed his shirt and the wrinkles weren’t coming out.  He said he was going to wear it a bit and that would make the wrinkles come out.  Lord Jesus, I am supposed to send this child to college in a year?  I told him to give me the shirt and I would iron it.

It’s not that I am unwilling to iron, it’s just that most things that have to do with domesticity fail me.  The day before I texted a friend to ask how long to boil corn (10 minutes).  It’s frustrating to do things that we aren’t good at.  When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a stay-at-home mom.  I know in today’s world that is terribly lame but that was my wish, my will.  While I’ve been able to do that and mostly love it, I can’t say I am particularly good at it.  So, there I was ironing the already-ironed shirt wondering why the heat and the pressing and the willing weren’t working.  Since we were running short on time, I called a friend for advice.  She reminded me she was in a different time zone and still asleep.  I explained my domestic emergency and necessary disregard for her slumber.  She suggested that I spray the shirt with water.  It turns out the spray bottle under my sink is a mix of soap and water so when I sprayed the shirt it bubbled up like a wound doused in peroxide.  I just can’t imagine things like this happening to June Cleaver.

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Mercy at the Bus Stop

I was doing my teenage Uber driving duties and thinking about the advice that encourages parents to talk to children in the car.  After all, they are a captive audience, don’t have to make eye contact (because God forbid, we have any of that), and both parent and child are physically restrained –that might not have been among the reasons listed but it does seem worth noting.  We were on the return portion of our journey into silence and I was lamenting the misery of it when I looked out the car window and saw a man sitting on a bus stop talking to himself.  Our eyes met and for a moment he silenced.

He was smoking a cigarette in the mid-day Florida heat.  I checked the temperature on my dash and it read 98 degrees.  I considered my relative comfort in the air-conditioned car and the ice cream in my freezer I planned to eat when I arrived home as a consolation from both the heat and the unwelcome hush of angst that tormented my drive.  I recalled the smoking man in the intolerable heat, sitting in solace, speaking to himself.  I thought of that moment our eyes met, and how for the first time that day I felt seen.  It mattered not to me what I was seen as or how I might have looked or what he might have thought of me. The moment reminded me of the universality of God’s mercy at a time when I felt somewhat desperate for connection.  I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me, but through him, I saw a reminder that suffering is not the only thing that is universal, God’s mercy is too.

While I consider my circumstances are likely better than his – the reality was at that moment, I felt as miserable as I perceived him to be.  It’s easy to compare ourselves to others.  We have standardized what we consider justifiable levels of loneliness, pain, emptiness, and grief, and if it doesn’t fall on the spectrum of horror or woe that we heard on the latest podcast then we feel like we need to buck up and go write in our gratitude journals.  Before I understood the mercy of God, I would have thought the same thing.  There were so many times that the pain and challenges in my life became a wedge in my relationship with God because I didn’t think I had the right to seek his mercy.  I didn’t bring God what appeared to be trivial and trite by the world’s definition of suffering because it felt too small and I had been given too much.  The problem with that thinking is that it separates us from God and from the mercy that heals, comforts, and forgives the wounds in our heart.  We may not be worthy of God’s mercy or deserve it.  Regardless, it pours out of him – a gift of unfathomable consolation that we choose whether to accept.

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You’ve Got Talent

Growing up, I was never in the talent show.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  I could barely pass math, so the notion of talent seemingly passed me by.  Life felt too narrow to think of talent as anything other than singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument – none of which I could do.

As I grew, so did my broadening of what I consider talent.  The last several summers I attended a talent show for special needs campers as part of Catholic Charities Camp I Am Special program.  My son is one of the teenage buddies responsible for a special needs camper for a week.  It’s impossible to convey the scope of what this entails, the way these teenagers empty themselves in the compassionate care of their camper, and how this emptying fills them in ways that their social media feeds never do.

I don’t know if that’s considered a talent by the world’s standards, but Camp I Am Special culminates their week-long activities with a talent show featuring buddy and camper.  Sometimes this entails a lightsaber duel, a song, or for more limited campers the simple twitch of their foot to music.  It’s humbling to watch.  Each time I vacillate between joy and tears. The tears aren’t of pity but rather for the purity of love embodied.  Appearing limitless despite what physical or mental limits exist, this love is enveloping.  The talent show is an expansive experience that broadens how I think of differences, gifts, and abilities to give.

This year, I not only witnessed it, but I was also an unlikely participant.

Mid-way through the talent show, a young man was singing and dancing to Y.M.C.A. by The Village People.  He knew how to engage the crowd getting them to clap, sing, and spell letters with their limbs.  He bounced off the stage and jaunted down the aisle of spectators high fiving them as he passed.  On his second trip down the aisle, he whisked me out of my seat and before I even knew I was standing, he spun me under his arm.  Never letting go of my hand, he pulled me towards the stage where I joined him for the remainder of the song.

I thought about being self-conscious, or how silly I might look, or how I might mess up the timing of my letters to the lyrics (which I did).  Yet, as I stood on stage in what was my very first talent show, I realized it wasn’t about doing it perfectly or being the best or shining in the way gold sequins under the spotlight do.  It was about the gift this young man had to bring joy to others, to remind us to abandon worldly standards of beauty, value, and contributions and consider that loving one another is always going to be the show-stopper.

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Fishing: Moments to Catch

Summer feels thick right now – the heat, the ebb and flow of vacationers, and the realization that its end is looming like the swarm of mosquitos that emerge at dusk.  I am kind of in a funk about it.  Thinking there are only a few short weeks of summer left, I feel panic rise like the scorching mid-day heat.  For three straight weeks, my family will be scattered in different places.  The final weeks of summer stained with talk of orientation, school schedules, and college applications.  Family time is back to being carved out like the mocking triangle eyes and jagged mouth of a pumpkin. I might as well get the Halloween decorations down from the attic.

When my husband asked me to go on the boat with him one weekday evening, I reluctantly agreed.  I figured it would remind me that summer is still here, in the now.  He likes to fish and I like to read.  Off we went, him with his poles, and me with reading glasses, a stack of old newspapers, a half-read magazine, and book. (I figured if we were stranded the reading material would be a good diversion.)  Within fifteen minutes, he caught three speckled trout.  Each time, I put my newspaper down and took a picture of him with his scaly trophy.  After comparing all three pictures I couldn’t tell a difference – same man, same fish.

 

 

 

 

 

The third fish he caught was the largest.  He kept the other two so I was surprised when he threw this last one back.  He said we had enough and then immediately cast his line again.  Baffled, I didn’t understand why he bothered casting when he didn’t intend to keep any more fish.  Putting down my paper, I looked up at the ease of the summer sky which was oblivious to my end-of-summer angst.  I thought that maybe my husband is onto something.  Maybe life isn’t about what we keep but moments that we catch — or even better moments that catch our breath. Read more

Sunburn and Silver Linings

The last day of vacation I woke up with a tingling feeling on my lips.  When I looked in the mirror, even through the blur of twilight I could tell they were noticeably fuller — like the fairy godmother of plastic surgery had visited in the night.  I checked different body parts to see if she had generously waved her wand in other places too.  Sadly, it was just my lips.

As lucidity set in, I realized that my pink pout was the result of a sunburn from a long day of scalloping with friends and family.  I had taken the necessary precautions to protect my skin.  I wore a sunscreen shirt, a hat, and covered my face in so much SPF that I looked like a geisha on holiday.  Although I remembered the SPF lip balm and even reapplied it along with my milky white sunscreen, it was not enough to protect me from hours of swimming and sunshine.

I cringed thinking of the resulting sun damage and started down the long twisty road of lament and regret I know so well.  Then, for the love of mercy, I had a thought that I have considered often recently.  It framed itself as a question in the highlight reel of my mind:  Why would you ever think you would get through life unscathed? 

Life is full of losses.  We lose money.  We lose jobs.  We lose time.  We lose things that are dear to us.   We lose people we love.  We lose. No one likes to lose either.  We live in a world that tells us life is all about the win.  We are encouraged to minimize cost and maximize gains.  While that makes good sense in a lot of sunny scenarios, the reality is, sunburn or not – none of us get through life without experiencing a burn.  Accepting this as part of our humanity somehow dulls the sting of it.  Perhaps, so much of our suffering is exacerbated by our resistance to it.

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Waiting at Red Lights

The other day I was rushing to get somewhere when I was stopped by a red light — a very long red light. Heart-pumping, brain-whizzing, grip on the steering wheel clenching, I felt certain the world would end if the stoplight didn’t turn green that instant.  I watched enviously as cars whizzed by wondering when it would be my turn, wondering if the light was broken, wondering how much longer I could possibly wait as all of humankind seemingly passed by at an unimpressive 40 miles per hour.

That’s what it feels like with God sometimes – an agonizing, monotonous wait. “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).  Certainly, God’s timing is not my own.  I have known this for some time and while I try not to begrudge it, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel the same urgency I did that day at the stoplight.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” (Matthew 7:7).  Stop at a red light and it will turn green.  Presto.  Prayer answered.  I feel like that scripture should come with a bible-sized addendum outlining exceptions, exclusions, and caveats to explain the time gap between asking and receiving.

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Discernment: Yes, no, or know

By definition, the word “no” has a negative connotation.  It conveys restriction, refusal, and denial.  It’s a flashing red light blinking a warning to stop.  It’s a shut door.  The end of a discussion. A command to pause.

I grew up in the eighties when war was declared on drugs, and the best-known weapon was the three-word slogan, “Just say no.”  I heard it from Nancy Reagan.  It was espoused on popular sitcoms like Punky Brewster and Diff’rent Strokes.  I read it on bumper stickers and posters.   Just. Say. No.

Easy peasy.  No was encouraged.  It was advocated. It was celebrated.  Like some algebraic equation, a negative turned into a positive.  But like all ad campaigns, it ran its course.  There was a new decade, new millennium, new drugs, and of course, new wars.  “No” is once again true to its definition.  It’s for the slacker.  The one who refuses to lean in.  The people who have limited constructs and little ambition.

Yes has become the world’s drug of choice.  We are encouraged to go all in, have it all, and do it all.  All for what?  At what price?  This 21st-century spin is blurring priorities.  Everything has become important.  Everything has to be done.  It’s encompassing, egocentric, and exhausting.

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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

Whale of a Summer: the Good Life

I got the new Vineyard Vines catalog in the mail.  One of its pages teased:  92 summer days ahead.  I couldn’t help wonder if whoever wrote that sent their kids to Catholic School.  I checked my own school calendar for accuracy and calculated we only have 68 days of summer.  How’s that for a penance?

I don’t know why this struck me anyway.  Maybe it was all the crystal blue water splashed on the pages selling pastel-colored polo shirts for $85 a pop.  But, I couldn’t stop thinking of that number.  It was so finite.  So, use it or lose it.  While summer has not officially started, I can’t help but feel a little panicked about its inevitable passing.  It reminds me of how fast all of life is passing.  I wonder how many whale logo purchases it would take for me to slow down and have some of those carefree moments like the people in the catalog.

I was grateful to Shep and Ian for reminding me to embrace the days ahead that sprawl out like a bath towel on the beach.  Too short.  While I don’t love lists because I can never find them after I make them, I made a plan for summer that would make any whale smile.

Forget about being mindful:  Lord have mercy. There is so much pressure to be in the moment.  I lost a great bulk of my mind during childbirth and what’s left of it doesn’t want to focus on putting a fork in the dishwasher.  Most of what I do is just not that interesting and I know that would probably make Oprah sad for me.  However, the season of life I am in is hurried and hectic, mundane and meaningful, and relies heavily on mercy and grace.  So, I don’t have a lot left for mindfulness.  Instead, let your minds wander.  We use to do this as children — boredom would breed great imaginings, inventions, and undiscovered places.  Let your minds drift away to a happy memory, a hope for the future, or a childhood dream.  This makes putting a fork in the dishwasher so much more pleasant. Read more