loss

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Angel Excerpt of the Day: Obituaries

As Stuart talked about his thoughts for the service, Paul thought about obituaries. When a person you love dies, the obituary takes on an outsized importance. It is the community record that this person lived; she was here; her life did not pass without notice. Yet obituaries are also almost always flat and disappointing. They consist of a dry list of job titles and accomplishments and official connections. But what about the unofficial connections we have in life? Where are the teachers who changed our whole perspective; the mistresses; the dear, dear friends; the ones who worshiped us with unrequited love? What about the ones who got away? The ones we pined for who never returned our affections? Where do they fit?

Obituaries are written in shorthand, sketching out a biography but leaving out all of the context that creates a full life. Marital status is a shorthand, but a misleading one. You can be a devoted spouse or a disinterested spouse, an abusive spouse or a supportive spouse. You might have married for love or social status. It is all marriage. Career titles are a shorthand. The deceased held a job, but was it his main sense of pride and identity, or something he dragged himself to every day to pay the bills? You will never know from a death notice.

Even seemingly straightforward words like “mother,” “father,” “daughter,” and “son” are shorthand. Was your brother “like a brother” to you, or were you distant or rivals? Was your father the constant presence who taught you to play baseball and took you to Cub Scouts, or was he the man who had sex with your mother and disappeared? Was your relationship with your mother loving or strained and difficult?

The shorthand of obituaries is meaningful to those already in the know—but then, they don’t really need the biography. Our obituaries, and our biographies in general, are a show for those who know us the least. Paul thought he had stumbled onto the very definition of what it means to be intimate, to know someone well. It is to understand the meaning of those shorthand words for a particular individual, to understand the ambiguities of a life, the parts that do not fit neatly into boxes.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

Angel Excerpt of the Day: “Special Friend”

When Mary Adams died at age eighty-one, it came as a surprise to no one. The end came after years of slow decline that took her motor skills, memories, and sanity. Then there was the long death watch. She held on, uncomprehending and in pain, for weeks. She finally slipped into a welcome unconsciousness, where she remained for several days before finally letting go. “At least she is not suffering anymore,” people usually said.

Through all of it, Stuart Briggs was at Mary’s side. Mary was Stuart’s first and only love. They had met in high school and hit it off right away, but for whatever reason, Mary never was attracted to him. They never dated. Stuart waited in the background as she dated other boys. He was a guest at her wedding to another man. When her first husband had died, Stuart was there, hoping for his chance, but it never came. He waited through a second marriage, which ended in divorce.

After that, Mary came to rely on Stuart’s constancy. He was the person she called when she needed someone to go with her to the movies, to help her with an errand, or just to talk. They became regular companions, but as far as anyone could tell, they never had a physical relationship and it was never a romance, at least not for her.

When Mary became ill, it was Stuart who cared for her. He took her to church on Sundays, pushing her in her wheelchair even as walking became a challenge for him. He was calm and patient with her confusion and mood swings. He visited her daily in the nursing home long after she had forgotten his name. He stayed with her every day she was in the hospital and then in hospice. He was there when she died, holding her hand. Now he was making the funeral arrangements because Mary’s children were scattered across the country in California and Colorado.

He now sat before Paul holding a small scrap of newsprint. It was Mary’s obituary, a short notice mentioning her career as a teacher and her long membership in the church. It named her first husband (“pre-deceased by….”) and said she was survived by her two children and their families. Stuart was identified only as “special friend.” He had loved Mary longer than her husband; longer than anybody. The center of his world was gone, and yet he had no official title to acknowledge his status. When someone says, “I lost my wife,” everyone understands the magnitude of that loss. “I lost my friend” is different. Unless you know the person well, it has no meaning at all.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

Angel Excerpt of the Day: Paul Liked Funerals the Most

OF ALL of the parts of his job as a minister, Paul liked funerals the most. Of course, “like” isn’t the right word. No one “likes” having to perform a funeral. Yet ever since his wife, Sara, died, Paul found funerals, and only funerals, truly satisfying. Though he was an introvert by nature, he had always been a compassionate and thoughtful minister. Even as a young man just starting out in his ministry, he intuitively grasped when to offer comforting words and when to allow a silence. He had a stock of memorial prayers that made people cry and smile with private memories in the right balance. You could say he had developed the craft and had a good funeral technique.

After Sara died, however, Paul felt the full weight of performing funerals. He became part of a fraternity of grief and understood all the emotions of the person in front of him. He remembered the small gestures: the offers of food, the shared memories, the shoulders he cried on. He came to believe that he could give sermons for the rest of his life and it would never have as much meaning as holding a recent widow’s hand and letting her cry for as long as she needed. It was the one time he still felt blessed to be a minister, to have the opportunity to know he was making a difference.

Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press Release: September 27, 2011

Losing My Religion

“It is an age of nervousness… the growing malady of the day, the physiological feature of the age,” said a New York Tribune editorial.  “Nowhere are the rush and hurry and overstrain of life more marked than in this much-achieving Nation…  Inventions, discoveries, achievements of science all add to the sum of that which is to be learned, and widen the field in which there is work to be done.  If knowledge has increased, we should take more time for acquiring it…  For it would be a sorry ending of this splendid age of learning and of labor to be known as an age of unsettled brains and shattered nerves.”  The article was written in 1895.

There is one thing that you can count on throughout history.  People are nostalgic for an earlier age, one that was less busy, one in which young people took the time to read books, and when people still believed in that “old time religion.”

As for reading, that golden age in America, when every person had his nose in a book is as much a myth as the memory of an age when no one felt pressured and rushed. 

“If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent,” Paul Collins wrote in Sixpence House.  “There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel – what readers they were! But were they? Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly pro­claims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.”

Which brings us to that old time religion.  I was reading on the blog Made in America today an article by Claude Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  His article, Faith Endures, opens with a scene from 1907 when a group of ministers met with president Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the crisis of declining church attendance.  Yet church attendance did not decline, and was booming in the 1950s.  Fisher describes a complex history of Americans relationship to church-going from the nation’s founding- the good old days when most of the founding fathers were “unchurched” to the present day.  The history is not a straight line (oh but we love to see history as linear!) Rather church attendance has waxed and waned.

“Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that ‘old time religion.’” Fisher writes.  “Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed.”

The article presents a graph that shows a surprisingly consistent level of church attendance throughout our history.

Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.

Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers…

Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not.  Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.

So the loss of those old time values and a simpler way of life have always been and will always be decried even as things remain, to quote that great thinker David Byrne “same as it ever was.”

Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime by hushhush112