Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up
Heartsick we nursed along the way we picked up
You may bot see it when it's sticking to your skin
but we're better off for all that we let in.
~ The Indigo Girls
Grief has a way of shutting me down. It can suck all the energy out of me and my day. These holidays feel so darn tender this year and my grief feels like it is front and center. Hours of most everyday it feels impossibly hard when I try to stay connected. Holiday traditions. Holidays carols. Holiday gatherings. All bring memories that just feel so very raw this year. And yet, the holidays here and so are we.
God bless the Indigo Girls, Emily and Amy. God bless them for their singing and their spirit, for their creativity and passion, for their courage and justice-driven legacy. And God bless them for this song, "All that we let in." This song resonates with my grieving spirit. This song names it, claims it and nudges me on.
These words meet me where I am. When my grieving brings me to a place of "sitting this one out," of not having the energy to engage with the world for one more minute, these words enter in. There is something so very powerful about letting the world back in. I don't know if it's my woundedness, or if it's self-preservation, but when I am grieving I watch myself only building walls, shutting myself off from what is happening around me. And here comes this song, inviting me to take another tack. What happens if instead of using all my energy shutting everything out, what happens if instead, I let more in? What would shift for me?
I remember back in 2004 driving Mom back from the oncologist. We'd just been told, "There's nothing else we can do." I remember gripping the steering wheel, wishing there was something that I could say to her. Out from my mouth came, "Mom, I want you to read Psalm 139 three times when you get home, but not verses 19-22." And after a minute or so, Mom started laughing. I looked at her and asked if she was laughing about not reading verses 19-22. And she said, "Is that the `fearfully and wonderful made' Psalm?" I nodded yes and she said, "Oh honey, I've got clubbed toes, a new hip, stenosis in my back, my gums are shot, I'm blind in one eye, you girls keep saying that I can't hear and now this lung cancer. The `fearfully' part, I got. I'm interested in the `wonderfully' part."
And she did just that for her nine months, Mom stayed interested in the wonderfully part of the remaining days of her life.
Mom got it. She understood. Even in, especially in the middle of her deepest grief and fearful places, Mom knew in her heart of hearts that she was, that we all were better off for all that we let in. These words are not a decree, we can't be ordered to open our hearts up to what is all around us. These words are a simple invitation. Mom knew deep in her bones the preciousness of moments and she wanted to drink deeply from that well. Her final lesson to me returns when my heart is hurting. I can still feel how tightly my hands were gripping the steering wheel, how I was afraid to cry because I thought I would not never stop. I still remember...and her words continue to hold my heart. Thanks, Mom. Today I'm going to be intentional about being interested in the wonderfully part.
Five hundred years ago I went to seminary. Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. There I met the most remarkably gracious, generous, kind, talented and funny people. Many I continue to treasure as friends. At Candler my faith was broken wide-open and it was brought home. There I came to know the One who created and is creating still. The One who is creating still in you and in me. That understanding alone brings hope when I am deeply in this tender time of waiting.
At Candler I learned how time can be experienced differently. We don't always mark time the same way. It's not that time is fast or slow, it's that there are different ways of measuring how we experience time in different moments of our lives. There is the notion of chronos time and of kairos time. Chronos time is the time we keep track of on our watches. It is the time we rush through or hold on too tightly. In times of grief, chronos is the time that is endless or time that there is never enough of. Kairos time is said to be "God's time." Kairos is planting a seed in the ground and waiting for the sprout to show after you've tended to it and done all you can do. Kairos is the time when the egg hatches, or the baby takes her first step. Like chonos time, in times of grief kairos is endless or never enough.
In times of grief, many of us can mark the moment of loss. "It was a Saturday morning at about 1130 when the world began to turn differently and I knew nothing would ever be the same." A deep loss comes and we can mark it on our hearts as well as on our calendars. Sometimes I wonder if my mind holds on and somehow looks for one specific moment. I wonder if my mind enters the moment on my life-calendar and by doing so has some sense of control. This sense of control then in turn marks and measures the time that has passed since. What always feels true is that no matter what the day or the hour this deep loss happened - my whole body remembers and knows that my life won't ever be the same.
When we were little we would open windows on an old family Advent calendar every year. Each day, my sisters and I would turn back a door and behind it would be a picture of some part of Jesus' story. This was a small way of marking our way to Bethlehem, but that memory stays with me decades later. This activity taught us to be mindful of counting the days, as well as opening our hearts as each picture brought together a bigger story of what was yet to come.
During these December days we wait with and wait for our grief ... to settle...to heal...to transform into something that makes meaning in our lives. We wait for restoration. We wait for an easing of the pain, a relief from the weight of this loss that so often feels just too much to bear. We wait with hope for peace to come. We wait with faith enough to sustain us in these tender days, to call on the One who promised that we would never wait alone. Mind and heart. Emmanuel. God with us.
Our life-guides come from expected and unexpected places. When we are going through times of grieving, guides can help us find our way. As you are moving through these tender days this may be a good time to think about who your guides and companions have been all along. Who are those who check-in with you, who watch out for you, who abide with you? Who are those that remind you that life won’t always be like this? Who remind you that change comes, ready or not sometimes, change comes? Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the folks who continue with us, especially in the midst of our deepest times of grief.
For this day, I am mindful of ways that nature's four seasons can be helpful guides. As we are moving soon into winter, the changes of the coming season are slowly making themselves known. The air feels different, crisper. The blowing of the wind is colder, stronger. The leaves that not that long ago were beautiful shades of yellow and red and orange, are now letting go and falling to the ground. Most days it's impossible to walk very far outside without hearing the crunching of those fallen leaves underfoot. Each day, each week shifts come. Colors and textures merge and are subtly altered. The season is shifting and turning into something different, something new. Inviting us along. Guiding and showing us the way.
By paying attention and journeying with them, nature’s companions can invite us to be aware of changes within ourselves as well. Shifts and transformations, holding on and letting go. What is changing in the outside world, is changing also in us. In the tiniest ways, we can also observe changes happening within ourselves. We are alive. We are here, journeying to Bethlehem. Perhaps as we look back over our shoulders, we’ll see that already there have been shifts along this December journey. Perhaps we have put down some of the baggage that was only proving to be cumbersome. Perhaps there have been small changes in the words we are using to talk about ourselves and how we are feeling. Perhaps we are breathing differently, perhaps we are aware that a little bit of what was is no longer here with us.
Winter is my favorite season for tree-sightings and observing. Here in the winter you can see each tree for who she really is. Without the leaves, the branches can be seen more fully -- reaching out, reaching up. Limb by limb, tree by tree, day by day, change by change.
I’ve always wanted to pay attention to one tree for a year. I’ve never done it, only thought about it. Maybe this is the year. Maybe now is the time to begin companioning a tree through a year of seasons and changes. Paying attention to what happens. Observing what happens to and with it, what happens around it.
So as part of this Advent journey this year, I will find a tree, and begin. I will try to pay attention through these coming-on winter days. I’ll watch what happens with this tree as she moves from this tender December time on into January to February and on through the year. Maybe in my paying better attention and by being mindful of witnessing change, I will be better able to pay attention and see some of the life-changes that are also taking place in myself.
Our whole lives the seasons have been teaching us about ways of living in and through our grief. In the winter we see the particularity and vulnerability of each tree, if we are really looking. When spring comes, we begin to watch the buds on the branches take on shape and color. Summer brings us shade trees, full and mighty. And circling round to fall when the leaves change color and begin to let go. Leaves falling only to return again – differently in the coming season. Holding on and letting go. Leaf by leaf. Branch by branch, down to the roots. When our hearts are open to see, our guides are all around us.
My sweet cousin, Lisa was telling me about a workshop she loved recently. Well, I love my cousin and I've learned over the years that when she tells me about things, they are gifts in the making. At this workshop they were learning about journaling and were introduced to the idea of the three “S’s:” Seeing. Savoring. Speaking. Alone and then together, they can become places of focus to perhaps be differently in the world.
Don’t know if this ever happens to you, but sometimes it takes just a small seed, just a phrase in a conversation and my muse is "all in." Just a glimpse and (somehow) something opens a door inside me and makes a home. These three “S’s" are gifting and helping me pay attention in these tender December days. They offer just a possibility of a nudge and I am invited in a new direction and sometimes with grace, a shift from what has been, moves to what may be. Sometimes it is the act of letting something in that invites my heart to open up – if even just a bit.
Spiritual practices are faithfully experienced ways of welcoming in the Holy. Spiritual practices are ways of moving away from being in the audience and reclaiming a space as an active participant in life. Spiritual practices are actions taken to shift-things-around just a bit. They are regular [insert some your verb here: journaling, listening for, praying for, meditating, walking] which can move us from here to there.
Advent’s clarion call is to Stay Awake! From Sunday’s gospel reading we are told that especially in our waiting, we are called to pay attention. It would be easy in our grief to drift off and drift away. It would be easy to disconnect from this season and everything it holds. OR we can choose to see it, to witness it, to pay close attention to it. We can choose to be awake in the midst of it all. Even in times when our grief feels all-consuming, it isn’t all of who we are. Advent’s call is to stay awake to the places and spaces within us that are still here, still alive.
This day my spiritual practice is to be awake to what I see. Be awake to who I see. Be awake to what is familiar and to what is brand new. When I feel consumed by my grief, it’s not unusual to go for a walk as though I was blindfolded. I could walk for 5 minutes or an hour and have no memory of having seen anything. In these times of grief, I can look at what's around me and no see anything. Today's spiritual practice is to be just a bit more mindful and to open my heart to what may be healing by seeing.
Seeing. Visioning. Spotting. Picturing. Witnessing. Appreciating. Noticing. Honoring. There have been some remarkable sunrises in the past four days. Pictures of them are included below. Stopping. Seeing. Watching. Sunrises can be symbolic moments in our lives, "Mourning is for a night, but joy comes in the morning." (Psalm 30:5 ). It matters that everyday holds the possibility of something new, something possible, something not yet. It matters almost as much that I witness this. Seeing the colors, and seeing into and through the spaces. Trying to see what is alive all around me and coming to believe that I am alive to all that I see.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high
and order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of Knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
~ “Veni, veni Emmanuel” from text of 15th century
Songs for the Heart
My sisters and I were raised in a family of music. Music surrounded us all the time, most all places and occasions. Dad was playing, we all were singing. One of my fondest growing-up memories is of Dad playing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "Mountain Greenery" into the wee hours as we drifted off to sleep every night. Music has forever been a part of my DNA. And so, of course music holds a central place throughout Advent and companions me in this grieving time. There are so many songs of and for this season. Songs that delight, that teach, that comfort. They are woven into the fabric of this December journeying.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel was said to have first been sung by congregations late in the 19th century. This verse that asks for wisdom to come wasn’t part of the original piece. It was said to have been translated and added in 1918. These ancient words were offered to worshippers during the time of the first World War. What must it have been like then? How in the world did they make sense of the killings that were happening and the fear of the killings that were still to come? And it is in these fearful, unchartered days that this verse joins this old Advent carol.
In most every grief experience of my life there has come a time when I have felt the need to cognitively reason it through. Why? Why? Why did this happen? How could this happen? What brought this here? Times of demanding answers that never will come. In this time when absolutely nothing fits together, when my world is turned inside out and upside down, I keep trying to figure things out. What continues to baffle me is somehow I believe that knowing why will explain everything’s that’s happened. Somehow knowing will make sense of the nonsensical. The truth is knowing why this great loss came into my life, does in no way impact this great loss. Sometimes it just muddies the waters. It’s as though I believe that if my head gets involved and tries to reason through this all-engulfing pain, my heart will be able to rest for just a bit and maybe have a chance to catch up.
This verse from this ancient Advent hymn calls to me and resonates with me in this tender season. It calls on wisdom and knowledge. Not necessarily the same thing. Not nearly the same thing. Knowledge about grief at best gives us tools for ways to cope. Knowledge can give us practices for starting over again. Perhaps these ideas can at some place become companions for us along the way. Perhaps.
When I am grieving, I call upon the wisdom of the saints. I long for the presence, the stories, the understanding of the ancestors who have gone before. Not so much seeking specific words of instruction, but instead yearning and watching for the human grace and mercy that comes from having lived through something similar and somehow having made it through.
So for this first week in December, I’ll call on the wisdom from on high… In the chaos that is grief, may there also be the possibility of restoration, reclamation, and perhaps re-ordering that feels almost as soothing as what can come from a Balm in Gilead.
December is the darkest time of the year. Every December I am surprised by just how dark and long these nights can be. Every year it's as if I learn again what has always been true. There are logical reasons for this deep darkness, of course. The tilting of the earth, the coming of the Winter Solstice. Maybe this is a head / heart thing for me. It’s as though what I am physically seeing around me, is what is happening inside me as well. Shorter days, longer nights.
December holds so many stories for me. Times growing up back in Illinois, I remember the cold, crispness of the December nights. The light of the moon and stars overhead even in the darkness somehow seemed brighter on those cold, December nights than at any other time of the year. Walking home and seeing a porch light up ahead. Times in church where the lighting of the candles always played a part in the praying and the singing. Beauty and hope entered with the light into the midst of the deep, deep darkness.
Yet it is far better to light the candle
than to curse the darkness.
~ W. L. Watkinson
Advent is the season for lighting candles. For generations before us our ancestors and now we bring light to the darkness. Here in this darkest month, there is a shift, a lift that happens in a room and in a heart when a candle is lit. “More light is coming.”
What can the lighting of this candle bring? What can it represent for us? Lighting a candle can be a literal or symbolic act. This light that comes from just one candle transforms moments in and around us:
· The light that shines in the darkness can come from a graceful touch or hug that reminds us that we are physical beings;
· The light that shines in the darkness can come from a stop-us-in-our-tracks sunrise or sunset;
· The light that shines in the darkness can come from a warm mug of coffee or tea;
· The light that shines in the darkness can come from being seen when we feel like we’ve been too long in the shadows;
· The light that shines in the darkness can be heard in laughter that comes from the inside-out.
Grief can find us so often in the dark. Quiet and shaking, we are wearied by the pain of loss. Lost and wandering we can find ourselves stumbling in the darkness. Lighting one candle certainly doesn't fix it. Grief still companions us; our pain is still as close as our next breath. But / and the lighting of just one candle shifts things just a bit. More light is coming, see? There's a little light shining now where once there was only darkness. Can you hear that song you learned long ago that you've known your whole life, "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine"?
Grief can be so disorienting. When we lose something that is precious, the world feels out-of-balance, off-kilter. It’s as though we’ve been dropped in another country where we can't speak the language and we have no map. And so, we try to keep moving, even though all we want to do is to curl up in a little ball. For me, there are often times of feeling numb and muddled. Times come when I’m so deep in my grief that I feel detached from everything around me. Other times when I feel as though every nerve is on maximum alert, an intensity where even the little inconsequential things are magnified. There’s no rhyme or reason for this ebbing and the flowing. Feelings shift, back and forth. Sometimes subtly, sometimes with a jolt. All I know is that I wish I was anywhere but right where I am.
Grief can make it so easy to feel lost. Literally and figuratively. Getting lost can come when I’m not able to concentrate and pay attention. I get lost when I’m in an unexpected place. I find that I get lost when landmarks change. It doesn’t take much for me. Grief can bring all of these things into play, sometimes more than one at a time. When I am lost in grief, it is so difficult to concentrate and to hold any of my thoughts together. This sense of being dis-placed can be so exhausting. It’s so easy to lose my way.
A compass isn’t a big thing, really. It can fit in the palm of your hand. Mine fits in my pocket. It’s easy to even forget that it’s even there. Until I need it. And then, it can make all the difference.
My son, Sam is a thinker. I go to him every time I need something explained with patience and grace. Sam has explained to me how compasses work more than one time, and I still don’t understand. This little disk in my pocket is all I need to make my way in the world; it’s what I need to bring me back home. Sam says it’s something about magnets and pullings and opposites attracting and being drawnin a direction that is always true. It’s probably as much as what it symbolizes for me as what a compass can actually do for me. But, somehow, having this representation is enough to bring comfort.
In this Advent season we are held in symbols. Objects that can mean much more than what we can immediately see. These symbols can serve as guides for drawing us in and drawing us closer to what we are seeking. For me, pulling a compass out of my pocket and holding onto this little object reminds me of a force greater than what I can see – this act alone can sometimes be enough.
Waiting in the Midst of Grief
My best understanding of grief is that it is circular, not linear.
In 1972 when Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross wrote On Death & Dying, we were invited into a new language around -- and insights about -- grief. In this book, Dr. Kuebler-Ross gave us hooks and resting points for understanding and communicating with one another in our seasons of grief. She described grief in stages: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness/depression and acceptance. Although I am forever grateful for this work of opening doors to help us in our understanding of grief, this image of stages hasn’t always felt exactly true. It hasn't been enough. Stages of grief implied that we were to engage grief as a linear exercise or as a check list. Over my life, grief has not been like that. Places and moments of grief come around and back again.
Loops of two or three or even four stages can sometimes be circling round me at the same time. These cycles are never really measurable or orderly. In no way predictable, rarely if ever do these circles feel very manageable. Sometimes, when I’m able to pay attention, these loops can be seen as who and what they are. Just circles. Other times, they feel all-consuming. Somehow, it's as though these loops swallow me up and become my identity, become all that I know myself to be. One place or stage leading into another. Sometimes stopping and staying, sometimes feeling like a whirling dervish, round and round again.
This current looping place where I have been grieving is bargaining, anger and sadness. One loop feeds or dumps or belly-flops into the other. Bargaining. This unrealistic time of wishing, believing, hoping beyond hope that something will change. This bargaining with the universe that this awful, life-changing loss didn’t really happened. Bargaining can even be the emotional exercise of hoping myself into believing that what has been lost will be found again. But what has been lost cannot be found. It does not, it will not return. Next is anger. In this place I find myself revisiting this impossible-loss that hasn't/that won't be changed and what is now truly my reality. In facing this stark, ugly truth I can become immersed in rage. When the energy runs out of being consumed by anger, what is left for me is only sadness. And somehow, somewhere along the way an impossible, unrealistic hope returns and then the grief cycle begins again.
Advent has found me ready for a new season. My wounded and weary heart feels similar to these growing-darker days. AND I believe in my wounded and weary heart of hearts that just by entering into the season, there are songs and rituals that can bring a loving, resting place for this old, suffering spirit of mine. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
This journey to Bethlehem is not one that can be experienced by looping round and round. Staying on this merry-go-round will not bring peace or healing. A merry-go-round won't take me anywhere. It will only go round and round. It won't lead me where I am praying to go in these coming days. There is a star to follow. There are hills and valleys to cross. Left foot, right foot I am invited, called, bound to step out into the story that is greater than my pain. Left foot, right foot I am seeking the One who created and is creating still. I seek to follow the One who knows me and my story as well or even better than I do, the One who calls me by name.
“We often find ourselves in the dark-- good or evil or in between, of our own or another’s making.
Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us: whether it is darkness
that asks for justice to bring the dawn of hope to a night of terror, or for a candle to give warmth
to the shadows, or for companions to hold us in our uncertainty and unknowing, for a blanket
to enfold us as we wait for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.”
~ Jan L. Richardson from Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas
Before we step out into this season of Advent it may be helpful to stop for a minute or two and take inventory. It may be helpful to stop before we begin. In this time of stopping, let us be mindful of what has brought us to this particular time and place in our lives. We know well our brokenness and pain. We know the grief that is ever with us.
But / and have we thought about what else is here in this moment and time? What do we carry that might be too much for this journey? Is there anything that we can unpack, and perhaps leave behind for these coming days? Are there loved ones who are holding us close and maybe even holding us up? Can we invite them along for these next steps, these next days?
Jan Richardson is a dear friend. Poet, preacher, pilgrim who I have been graced to know since our seminary days at Candler. Jan’s words from Night Visions invite us to take stock as we begin this Advent season. She tells us what our work may be in these coming days, “to name the darkness and to find out what it asks of us.” Tenderly, mindfully, prayerfully we are invited into this soul work. I hadn’t really thought about what my grief is asking of me. By doing that perhaps a shift may come. By beginning a dialogue with my grief, I am invited in in a new way. I am invited into a new way of experiencing it, of interacting with it, of companioning side-by-side with my grief. This is no longer a passive time in my life, but instead a time of turning and entering into (what has always been) the heart of the matter.
In her poem “Wild Geese” Mary Oliver has a beautiful phrase, “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” I wish I could do that now, with you. It is in speaking and hearing the small and great parts of our stories that we truly hear one another’s hearts.
By sharing and reading this blog, you too may be going through a time of loss and grief in your life. Whatever it is – the loss of a loved one, a relationship, vocation, or dream, may this Advent bring you a season of remembering what has always been true for you as well as a deep welcoming of God’s faithful promise: Emmanuel, God-with-us. In our despair and brokenness. In our wanderings and wonderings. God’s promise is to be with us in those moments, especially those moments. By sharing this journey may you be reminded that truly, more light is coming.
This year's Advent finds my spirit in a tender, grieving place. This year promises to be a different season than maybe anytime in my life. I know that I'm not alone in my grief. Dear friends have lost loved ones recently. Friends and families are experiencing deep, deep sadness from loss. This year grief is companioning of us into the holidays. Always we are learning. Each season, each year we are learning in new ways. But some learning seasons are easier to enter into than a holiday season feeling overcome with grief. Changes have come to my life that have left me feeling disoriented and lost. What was up is now down. What was clear is no longer so. And in the midst of all of this, Advent comes.
For this season, I hope to write daily blogs. As we make our way to Bethlehem, I am especially mindful this year that my heart awaits the promise of more light to come.
Many of us enter into this year's Advent with heavy - yet - perhaps more than ever - expectant hearts for what is yet to be revealed. If you are also going through a time of loss, or if you know someone who is, I hope that these daily writings resonate from the inside-out to you. I hope that these words can remind you that you are not alone. None of us is alone We are not alone because God journeys with us. Emmanuel, God-with–us sharing with us this Advent journey.
For this Advent journey, my intention will be to weave together seven different themes, threads for each day of the week. Beginning tomorrow and continuing through Christmas morning, we will be walking with these seven companions:
Sundays - (wisdom that holds us in our) words,
Mondays - waiting in the midst of grief,
Tuesdays – light that comes in the darkness,
Wednesdays - songs,
Thursdays - (following our) compasses,
Fridays - (three) spiritual practices,
Saturdays - (being tethered to) guides.
For those of us acquainted with grief in this holiday season, this Advent may be especially difficult. And here we are, entering in. Left foot, right foot we begin this journey. One by one and two by two we begin this journey. In our gatherings and in our carolings, in our expectations and intentions as we make our way on this December journey, I wish you peace and hope ...and most of all I wish you lovingkindness along the way.