Death and Life, Earth and Heaven

My dear friend Rod has just lost his father in the way that all of us want to lose our fathers someday – after a long and fruitful life, amid the company of family and friends keeping watch over his bed, in a peaceful home, blanketed by prayers. His words are so full of holiness and wonder that you owe it to yourself to read them. But they got me thinking, as they often do.

We kept a vigil of our own just days ago, as my sister brought the next generation of our family into the world, and in reading about my friend's adieu journey, I’ve been struck by many similarities between the beginning and the end of earthly existence. Waiting for a loved one to be born is just as joyful, just as frightening, just as sacred as waiting for his death. Endless uncertainty, at the mercy of medical professionals who (for all their education and experience) have to admit in the end that they, too, are baffled by the amazing and absurd things our bodies can do. And then can't anymore.

Watching, wondering, trying to reconcile the flood of emotions with daily existence. This person is in such terrible pain, but I need a cup of coffee just to stay awake with him. Time becomes malleable, now compressed into a tumultuous blur of moments and now elongated so that every second is agony. You can’t truly empathize with the experience of your loved one in the hospital bed, and you wonder, guiltily: what is it really like for her? What would it be like for me? To give birth? To die?

I’ve always felt a connection with the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and not just because we share a name. From the other side, she looks back at the world, and is filled with true nostalgia – the pain of nostos, of returning home. It is excruciating:

Mr. Webb: Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?
Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. She breaks down sobbing. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. She asks abruptly, through her tears: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
Emily: I'm ready to go back.

A sprinkling of salt on a chocolate pie, a spoonful of honey in a spicy vinaigrette: both are better with a swirled-in bit of their opposite to intensify and prolong their beauty. The line between joy and sorrow is such a fine one that neither can be experienced without a touch of the other. You greet the squalling child with a shout of exultation, but hovering behind your beaming eyes is the realization that she will know loneliness and want. She will live a life full of pain, but also full of Emily Gibbs’ ticking clocks and hot coffee and the lovely, terrible moonlight. And someday she will be right back on the edge, and her descendants will gather around her and weep, but in the distance they will feel a thrill of delight for her, on the verge of entering back into the eternal bliss to which we are all called by that still, small voice.

From death to life, from earth to heaven, this existence is a blessed mystery.

The Top of the Mountain

Numbers have never been very close to my heart, but during Great Lent I find it encouraging to track the days with the help of Fr. Thomas Hopko's 40 Maxims. Today is Day 10, which means we are already one-fourth of the way through the fast. While preparing some music for this weekend, I discovered something else: this is also the halfway point in the period of the Triodion, which begins several weeks before Great Lent itself and continues all the way to Pascha. So if this period of spiritual struggle were a mountain, I'd be standing on its peak this afternoon.

The rich irony, however, is that absolutely nothing about this afternoon feels like a peak. If anything, I feel like I'm at the bottom of a pit (something like this, actually.) Since the New Year I have heard more bad news than I know what to do with, and I'm talking really bad, heartbreakingly bad. My professional life is in shambles, too. I just learned that that word, "shambles," actually refers to a slaughterhouse -- so it's sadly appropriate. My curriculum is bleeding to death slowly on a floor of wintry weather: delayed openings, early closings, canceled events, and students who believe the entire world stops for a snow day, or should. Amid the abandoned plans and crises and unmade beds, literal and metaphoric, that clutter my path, I just can't seem to find that place of deep spirituality that Lent is supposed to usher in.

So I'm going to focus instead on the bright spots I've encountered in recent weeks. Things like this book that I read during a recent snow day and cannot stop mulling over, which taught me so much about the ways that sin and selfishness creep into our lives but left me with nothing but hope and inspiration to do better at rooting them out with God's help. Or this priest, who served the church so faithfully he was killed returning from Vespers last week: thousands of ordinary people, friends and strangers alike, have banded together to support his family, raising nearly half a million dollars and counting in the last two days. And above all, this Scripture, which our deacon quoted in a homily last Sunday in a foretaste of what we will encounter on Holy Saturday. Sometimes God delivers us from the furnace; sometimes He throws us in. Our job is to pray. Just pray. So I'm sticking to that. 30 days to go.


Me: Are there any questions?

(Student raises hand.)

Me: Yes?

Student: Is that your other earring out in the hallway?

(I checked, and yes, it was. So much for dignity.)

Student: How would you ask where the bathroom is?

Me: Well, there are several ways, but the simplest is probably "Ou sont les toilettes?"

Student: (dreamily) Even toilet sounds beautiful in French!


Student: I love poems! They're so much easier because they don't have to make sense!

Me: Hey, cuff your socks so the logo doesn't show, please.
Student: Why?
Me: It's the dress code. Also, I've heard it's a sign of gang activity.
Student: I plead the first!

Me: What are you doing?
Student: I need to jump to my death from that chair.
Me: . . . ?
Student: I'm playing Aegeus.

Forward, Onward, Upward

I didn't want to look back on this year. I'm not sure why. It was very difficult in a number of ways, most of which I can't talk about here (and even if I could, I wouldn't really want to.) But there have been more difficult years, and I have always been able to highlight the bright spots and gloss over the rough patches and sculpt the whole thing into a chatty, upbeat Christmas letter. This year, I just didn't want to, and I guess I'm at the point in my life at which I've realized I don't have to keep doing things I no longer enjoy.

It has been a year of growth; I thank God for that. I have learned a lot, sometimes at great cost. After my first wretched few days in a grad-level French language pedagogy course, I told a friend how strange it felt that none of these people really knew me as I am, or rather, as I like to think I am: Intelligent. Driven. In control. 

(My classic anxiety dream is not my teeth falling out or forgetting to wear pants or being chased through the woods: it's traveling with my cat. Sometimes I'm at school, or in church, or shopping. Once I was walking through Paris. The common thread is that I have my cat with me, and she's trying to get away, and I'm trying to contain her, and I almost always lose before I wake up in a cold sweat. That is literally my worst nightmare: losing control.)

But, at the same time, I told my friend, it was strangely freeing to be someone else for a change. The me who always knew the answer got to stay home with her feet up, while the other side of her -- the side who tried not to get called on, who enjoyed listening for listening's sake, who flushed with pride when she understood enough of the joke to laugh at it -- that me got to climb out of the cellar, squinting at the sudden brightness, and explore the world for herself.

So here I am looking back, after saying I didn't want to. What I really want to do is look forward. The Church Fathers reduce the spiritual life to three very simple maxims that sound suspiciously Zen, and I believe this is because Buddhism was, like Judaism and paganism, awaiting the fullness of spirituality that would only come with Christ. Still, there is much wisdom in the simplicity of their advice: don't resent; don't react; keep inner stillness. It is only when we are able to "lay aside all earthly cares," as we sing each week in the Liturgy, that we can hear Christ speaking to us. I'm chipping away at the crippling mountain of resentment I've allowed to rule my life, but at the same time, I'm trying not to focus on it, but instead to look over it -- to see the beauty and goodness all around me and to be inspired by it. 

For instance: last weekend I got to chant Matins with a friend who is talented, charismatic, thoughtful -- one of those people I just can't be around enough. Joy pours out of him. He invited me to sing with a smile and an open heart, even though I lack much of the experience and skills needed to keep up with the others; he drew me in toward the music even though I couldn't understand most of it; he cracked jokes that only I could hear to make me more comfortable; in short, he helped me feel like I belonged. That is something at which I am terrible. My extraordinarily high expectations keep me from making those kinds of adjustments and concessions, the kind that are necessary in order to show love truly and freely. But instead of looking inside, when I look outside -- at him, at the light of Christ shining through him -- I don't feel fear and disappointment, but hope and inspiration. I want to change, to grow, to become more than I have been thus far. 

I think that's a good way to end this year.

Sixteen to One

Twelve-hour days are really killer. I don't know how nurses do it. There's really only one a year for us: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when we teach five hours of classes and follow that with five hours of parent conferences. In the lull between the two, I squeezed in an impromptu gathering of my French Club officers to plan an upcoming outreach project, wrote the last of my college recommendation letters, and got to use the bathroom approximately three seconds before I exploded. 

The meetings fell into a comfortable rhythm after an hour or so, and there were lots and lots of moments worthy of the Secretary's Report. The first mother had made an appointment and come to school just to tell me how much her daughter appreciated my sympathy after she had become emotional in class over a sick family member. Others told me how much my students loved the class, loved me, even loved the tests I gave (I promise I would never make up something that absurd!) They had discovered an unknown passion for the French language or American literature. Some of them were hoping for higher grades next quarter, but they were inspired by the online resources I suggested for extra practice, impressed by the detailed syllabi I provided each quarter, supportive of my high standards and desire to challenge my students to take an active role in their own education. They thought I was doing a great job.

Buried among sixteen wholly productive exchanges, however, was one laced with frustration and negativity. Sixteen to one. In baseball that would be a massacre. In craps it could win you a small fortune. In the grand scheme of things, you can't please everyone, and because one student is just not up to par in one class, one family is clearly not pleased.

So why on earth was I so haunted by the one? When my principal came by to ask how everything had gone, I shared this with her -- and even though it was late, she sat down and commiserated, and reminded me that sometimes there's just nothing you can do. I remarked that because teachers (for the most part) care so deeply for our students and feel each failure and triumph so acutely, it's even more painful when parents imply that we haven't done enough to help their child succeed. It's hitting below the belt. It's kicking us when we're down. It's a guilt trip down a well-worn mental path. Because really, there's a grain of truth in what they're saying: we probably could have done something more, and if we'd thought it would end like this, we would have found a way to.

Finally I promised my principal I would let it go and rethink the situation in the morning, and we said goodbye, and on the way out she promised to say a prayer for me and for my student. I stacked up my papers and turned off the lights and bundled up against the cold and stepped outside into the night, twelve full hours after I'd stepped in.

On the way out in the darkness, the convent chapel was a beacon, flooded with light, and through the window I caught a glimpse of a lone figure in white, kneeling before the altar.

The next morning I received an email of apology. A promise to work harder on communication. A step toward a positive resolution. Why was I so shocked by this development? I'm not sure. There was no reason to be. Sixteen to one is pretty fabulous, but seventeen to nothing? That's nothing short of a miracle.

Good, Existential Spookiness

There is so much I want to say. So why don't I just say it? 

Time, thank God, is plentiful. There are plenty of days when I can sit, as now, listening to the rain fall, resting one elbow on a pillow and the other on a sleepy dog, and just reflect. But when I have those opportunities, more often than not, I consume the minutes one by one -- an article, a video, a recipe, or two of each in quick pell-mell succession -- constantly absorbing information without allowing it to sink in, let alone formulating a response. There is so much I would like to respond to. Things that provoke and incense me, that paint my hours and days with sunshine, that grip my heart with sadness and won't let go.

Right now, reflecting on all that the last few months have encompassed, I keep coming back to a truly life-changing moment, when I sat at the feet of this holy man as he "told me everything I ever did:" 

If you live only for the now, and temporary life that the world preaches today, how are you going to resolve the inner conflict in the very depth of your being? Because it’s wrong to run away from the mystery you can’t find. . . Sometimes you stay up at night and you wonder what that mystery means. Sometimes you look at your husband and say, “I love him, but I really don’t know him,” after 22 years of marriage. (And now I’m spooking you – in a good, existential, way.) And that’s because there’s something in you that wants to remain true to the mystery you haven’t found, about who you are. You have to remain true to that mysterious center of primary value, which, even though anyone else can’t see it, you know it. And without the Resurrection, you won’t find it. 

Take the time to listen to the whole talk, and you may have your own woman at the well moment. Maybe, like me, you'll even struggle with putting more words into the world, when there are so many to think about already.

Helicopter Confessions

Cheers to Judith Newman for her charming honesty about who really does her son's homework:

“Listen,” I hiss. “People pay me to do this. I have a master’s in literature from an Ivy League school.” I continue, pathetically. “I write for all the major magazines. I write for The New York Times, for God’s sake.” Oddly enough, this doesn’t mollify him.

How I found myself justifying my career to a 12-year-old was this: I wanted him to ace his “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay, and I was nervous. I am always nervous; you might be too, if your son’s highest intellectual aspiration involved beating his friends at their daily lunchtime poker game. He usually won’t let me near his homework. But this time, after much pressure, he did. Because, as I calmly explained, I knew just what this essay needed.

I read the whole piece with a knowing smile. One of my favorite things to watch when I taught piano lessons was parents, while their children were engrossed in an activity. Take, for instance, the aptly-named Solitaire. The child is patiently making stacks of note and rest cards, building down on the bottom and up on the top. If he makes a mistake, I will correct him in time -- that's the way he learns. But while he dithers, or if he misses a move -- oh, my, how the mothers squirm, knowing they should keep quiet but unable to avoid a "Honey, look carefully, now . . . " and the fathers tend to just blurt: "You've got a sixteenth note there!" I would give them my best Patiently Suffering Teacher look and they would sheepishly zip it up.

On one hand, as a recovering perfectionist / control freak, I totally understand why it must be hard for parents to allow their children to miss something -- a comma splice in the essay or a key move in a card game. But on the other, it really isn't missing anything; it's simply learning naturally. Somehow the child will grasp the concept in her own time, using her own methods. When I'm tempted to intervene with that process, I remember the thrill of working something out on my own -- tying my shoes in elementary school, or using a table saw in college -- and I watch the student calmly, waiting for the moment she figures it out alone. A triumph.

Summer Begins

Oh, summer. How I have missed you.

Summer vacation for us is usually a whirlwind of travel and activity, but this year we're taking it easy: a fun little jaunt last week to say goodbye to some friends who are moving far away, and a French-language course in Montreal just before we return to school. Between that, six solid weeks of NO PLANS. 

This week I cooked up a storm -- cherry recipes at the forefront, as I had picked 15+ pounds of them last weekend, but I also made dinner every night. Vegan dinner from scratch. Uh-huh.

I took advantage of two cool mornings and spent many contented hours weeding, though there are plenty more where those came from.

When two friends called on different days, needing rides from the train, I was able to drop everything, share a meal and catch up with them.

Finally, as a summer gift to myself, I spent 99 cents on a New York Times subscription so I could enjoy reading at my leisure. And on the first day of enjoying it, I ran into what might be the best news story of all time:

It’s hard to talk about Yo. The app is so simple (it lets users send the word “Yo” to each other) that even to mock it feels like taking it too seriously — come on guys, it’s just Yo! Luckily, hackers have made things easier on all of us by making Yo do some new tricks.

Pre-hack, critics had to evaluate Yo on its merits, which was somewhat difficult, since it has so few of them (and so few demerits, for that matter). Nonetheless, some rose to the challenge. At Yahoo, Alyssa Bereznak said the app’s one message “might be succinct, but then so is throwing a brick through the window.” 

An app that exists solely so you can "Yo" your friends. Man, if only we could expand it to include other words as well . . . and pictograms . . . and photos . . . and maybe even a feature that would let one user talk to another user! That would really be something.

What a gift: time to enjoy life's exquisite ironies. I wish you the same!


The Animals That Serve Me

I would rather read a hundred pages than go for a walk, but I would rather go for a hundred walks before preparing for confession. Health of any kind depends on regular, beneficial habits that are difficult to form, because those habits involve tasks that are not, on the surface, enjoyable or easy. Go to yoga or watch a movie? Movie wins. Wash and chop vegetables or stop for French fries? Fries. Spend time in prayer or reorganize the linen closet? You can see where this is going.

So I put off making my list, again and again, until I had to be at church in an hour. I sat down on the couch with paper and a pencil, recited the customary prayers, and settled into thoughtful silence. In less than five minutes I was in tears.

She appeared at the edge of the room when she heard the first sob. Ears pricked, gait cautious, she approached. Strange noises normally meant anger, and anger meant a scolding and maybe a swat, but curiosity and apprehension were too potent a combination to overcome. She took a few steps forward, eyes fixed on me, and paused to sniff the literal and metaphoric air.

I looked up at her eyes, which seemed to hold so much understanding. I knew -- knew she was only taking cues from me, the dominant animal in the room. But those warm amber pools seemed to bore right through me, and, coupled with the furrowed brow above them, they simulated such sympathy that I cried even harder. There was something deeply satisfying about the empty house, the lack of inquisitive glances and pitying pats on the back, the freedom to let my mascara melt onto my cheeks with no one to see it.

She continued her journey toward the stairs, but paused about three steps up, still watching me, ears flattened slightly now. I realized she would not leave the room without some form of reassurance.

"It's all right." I spoke to myself as much as to her. Neither of us responded. I repeated my words: "It's all right. I'm okay." This time, in answer, the slightest of swishes in her lowered tail. My words had not convinced either of us. I kept crying, and she stayed put. Finally, I patted the couch next to me; she skittered down the stairs, sprang up, curled herself up against me with such force I knew my feet would be asleep soon.

But I didn't move her, and it occurred to me as my breathing began to even out: this is why people love dogs.