Light Rafts for Flagging Spirits: Thanks Given
On grief, grace, and other things that show up with the turkey and cranberry sauce
As many of us gather around tables and in kitchens, at restaurants and in AirBnBs, in the company of strangers, family (biological and ‘logical,’ as Armistead Maupin puts it); family who feel like strangers, or if we’re on our own, by choice or circumstance, on this day we in the United States call Thanksgiving, a lot of emotions are bound to present themselves, not least of all grief. It might be triggered by something someone says, but more likely by a smell, taste, or glimpse that summons the memory of someone we love who’s not here this year.
Be gentle with yourselves when grief suspends the time-space continuum and takes you by surprise. It’s OK to feel it, it’s never inappropriate, and it’s proof that love never dies.
Below is something I wrote recently (it began as a Twitter thread, in fact), followed by something else I wrote about grace 15 Thanksgivings ago and brought to mind this week when a dear friend shared the wonderful news about selling his first book (which was the unnamed good news mentioned in Appogiatura below.)
May you have all that you need most today.
May you be thankful for your life, your loves, your family and friends.
May you feel the grace that envelopes you in grief no less than in moments of great joy.
Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. I am grateful for you.
Grief is weird.
In the 27 months since Mom died and the nine years since Daddy left this side of the veil for the More, sometimes seemingly random things trigger big emotions that catch me off guard.
A few days ago, it was baked potato skewers. But it started with a meat cleaver. Let me explain.
On a long table in the carport (which we’ve used as an auxiliary living space during these plague years) are three pillar candles on a wooden stand. Last week, the middle candle began melt-listing to one side.
I like things to be balanced (Libra), so after passing it at least a dozen times, I became obsessed with fixing it. “If only I had a meat cleaver,” I thought, which is when I remembered the lime-green bag under the kitchen sink.
The insulated zippered picnic bag has been there for 26.5 months, ever since my husband drove a U-Haul full of my mother’s belongings the 900 miles from Idaho to California (with her canary, Sean, riding shotgun in his cage strapped into the passenger seat.)
Most of the stuff—her sewing machine, some artwork, the full set of Irish crystal, her massive collection of Vera Bradley bags—went into a storage unit nearby, which I planned to tackle after a period of mourning. (That was before COVID descended. To date, it remains un-tackled.)
A few things came straight to our house—her framed wedding portrait from 1963, the large, geisha doll handmade in Japan she’d carefully kept in a glass box for 60 years, and the lime-green zipper bag.
On the day we moved the last of her things out of the Boise house where I’d cared for her in home hospice for the last few months of her life, I stuffed a selection of utensils from her well-appointed kitchen into the keep-it-cold-keep-it-hot green bag she’d undoubtedly purchased to carry something homemade to a church gathering or the weekly Bible study she led for a few octogenarian and nonagenarian neighbor women.
Among the hodgepodge of kitchenware was the cake server and an errant fork from her silver service, a porcelain Japanese soup spoon covered in gold enamel and white cranes. A bright yellow lemon press, an OXO zester, and a short-handled steel cleaver.
In the rush to resettle back home after months of living in Idaho and Mom’s death, I recall clearly my husband standing in our kitchen in California, holding up the unzipped lime green bag, and asking me what I wanted to do with it.
I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the thought of having to make one more decision about her stuff, her life, her memory and legacy — and just tossing it in the cabinet under the sink, behind bottles of Lemon Pledge.
When I went to pull it out one recent Sunday afternoon, it was buried behind sacks of Sean’s bird seed and bags of millet sprays, stacks of Cesar’s dog food for Elaine “Stritchie” Stritch (our 6-year-old fur baby), and the old wall clock from Mom and Dad’s kitchen in Connecticut, where they’d lived until his death in 2012 and her subsequent move to Idaho to be closer to my brother.
The bird clock is round and plastic and has different birds in place of numbers. On the hour, instead of chiming, it chirps with electronic birdsong of whichever bird represents the time. Eight o’clock: tufted titmouse. Nine o’clock: northern pygmy owl. Ten o’clock: whip-poor-will.
Daddy loved it. Despite being an avid birder, Mom hated it and soon relegated it to the wall of the TV room where he watched CNN and the Weather Channel, while she blared FOX News and various dodgy televangelists on the set in the living room.
I really need to find a place to hang Daddy’s bird clock in our house. Maybe my office. Or perhaps in the upstairs powder room where his mounted Jackalope head hangs above the commode.
So anyway, I grabbed the bag, unzipped it, and located the cleaver. Then I decided it was time to empty the whole bag and put everything away. Finally, after more than two years. It wasn’t momentous. I’ve just been on a tidying jag of late.
As reached the bottom, I found a couple of tiny teaspoons, the two bamboo straws I’d bought for Mom to sip the coffee ice cream shakes she loved and I’d make her daily to try (in vain) to keep some weight on her bones toward the end. I sighed and placed them in a container on the kitchen window ledge with the metal straws that have replaced the fun bendy plastic ones that are terrible for the environment and get stuck in recycling machines.
The last thing left in the bag made my breath catch in my throat: Four metal skewers about five inches long, dulled and worn from being thrust into countless potatoes and spending hundreds of hours in a dozen ovens over more than half a century’s use.
They were a present from my mother’s bridal shower, seemingly insignificant ephemera but one of many quotidian artifacts of a marriage, of a home and a life built and maintained lovingly and imperfectly; of my childhood, of the simplest things that made me feel safe when things were less than perfect—after school, Dad still in his teacher’s clothes, busy in the kitchen making dinner before mom got home from the office…
London broil in the oven or pork chops in a pan on the range, boiled broccoli or green peas, and if he had a little extra time, baked potatoes. Never wrapped in foil. Always with those metal skewers. He’d reach into the oven and turn them by hand. Without a potholder.
“Ooooo, hot,” he’d shout, swearing under his breath and blowing on his fingers. A ritual. As was his adamant answer when I asked to pull out the skewers when the potatoes were done.
“No, they’re too hot. Gimme that—you’ll burn yourself,” he’d say, faux gruffly.
I asked anyway. Every time.
When I pulled them from the green bag, they were safe to touch, having sat unused and forgotten under the sink. So, I was shocked when the pain registered.
Not my hand or fingers. My heart. Not a burn but a deep, primal ache. An open wound that felt as fresh as the day he died, years after Alzheimer’s had stolen his memory but not his sense of humor.
I held those four potatoes skewers in my hand and walked toward the living room where my husband was half-heartedly watching football and editing a manuscript in his lap. “Look,” I croaked, holding them up.
I was going to explain but my voice broke and words escaped me, replaced by a sudden torrent of tears. I didn’t have to explain. He knew what they were and what they mean and how heartbroken I still am, almost a decade later, and how heartbroken I’ll always be, about my sweet dad, who I Ioved more than anyone, and how much I miss him, so much that sometimes I can’t quite catch my breath.
A poet friend says there is no end to grief and that’s how we know there is no end to love.
Yes. And grief also has the power to create meaning where there was none and make magic that can transform a piece of bent metal into a sacred talisman, a key to that opens a portal in my heart/spirit to the place where love exists undiminished, outside of space and time, growing stronger in absence, more vivid in memory.
“Be careful. It’s hot. You burn yourself.”
“Eat something, you’ll feel better.”
“The last time I saw my father, he was sitting at the dining room table, steps from the kitchen where he spent so many hours, pouring love into his family through food. He still knew who I was, but wasn’t able any longer to find many words.
“Daddy, I’m leaving—I have to drive back to DC now,” I said.
He turned and looked at me, expressionless at first.
“I love you!” I called, locking eyes with him.
“You love me, too,” I added, a little smart-assily.
A mischievous grin spread across his face, and he winked at me. And that was it. Except that it wasn’t.
He’s still smiling at me, still winking. It just takes different forms now—a whiff of Old Spice, an owl hooting outside my bedroom window, and long-forgotten kitchen utensils rediscovered on a Sunday afternoon.
APPOGIATURA: An Introduction
From Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace by Cathleen Falsani (Zondervan, 2008)
Because some days, it's the only thing we have in common.
Because it's the one thing I'm certain is real.
Because it's the reason I'm here.
Because it's the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me, “Without it, religion will surely suffocate you.”
Because so many of us are gasping for air and grasping for God, but fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious.
Because you can't do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition, but you can get closer by describing it with music and film, pictures and stories.
Trying to explain or define grace is like catching the wind in a cardboard box or describing the color green. For instance, by way of explaining how Martin Luther defined so-called “common grace,” the esteemed Christian Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, in his book Systematic Theology, said such grace “curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”
That's helpful intellectually, I guess, but for most people it does little toward explaining the experience of grace when we're in its presence. Such a heady definition, while eloquent, isn't something we can exactly wrap our hearts and souls around.
For centuries, theologians have defined, parsed, and categorized grace. Some say there are different kinds of grace. Depending on which flavor of theologian you look to there are two kinds of grace, or maybe three, or seven or nine. There's common grace and special grace. Divine, irresistible, and prevenient grace. Convicting grace, saving grace, growing grace; protecting, keeping, and dying grace.
Some theologians argue that one kind of grace is better than another, and that some people think they're experiencing “divine” grace when it's actually just “common.”
To me, that's like bickering about what color God's eyes are. (They're hazel, in case you were wondering.)
Such arguments remind me of a scene from Woody Allen's movie Manhattan, where a group of people is talking about sex at a cocktail party and one woman says that her doctor told her she had been having the wrong kind of orgasm.
Woody Allen's character responds by saying, “Did you have the wrong kind? Really? I've never had the wrong kind. Never, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”
Grace works the same way.
It is what it is and it's always right on the money.
You can call it what you like, categorize it, vivisect it, qualify, quantify, or dismiss it, and none of it will make grace anything other than precisely what grace is: audacious, unwarranted, and unlimited.
This is a book primarily for people who say they've never experienced grace, that it doesn't exist, or at least they don't believe it does. It's also for those peculiar folks who relish trying to figure out whether the grace they're experiencing is common or divine. (The answer is, Yes.)
Turning that particular theological lens on my own life, I have attempted herein to describe grace as I have experienced it—in relationship with others, in nature, in my own backyard, and in its most feral state—startling, staggering, and wholly bewildering. In that vein, I embarked on a series of new adventures to see how grace would turn up in travels, in experiences with new people and exotic creatures, in strange lands, and in ways I could not have anticipated had I tried.
This book is meant to point out grace when and where it happens—and I'm an excellent pointer—to show folks what it looks like, tastes like, sounds like. Because everyone experiences grace, even if they don't realize it.
It's kind of like Moby's music. You could ask your average sixty-something-year-old retired banker in Connecticut if he's ever heard of Moby and/or his music and the response you'd receive more than likely would be a resounding, “No—what's a Moby?”
But if you say, “Remember that American Express commercial where Tiger Woods is putting around New York City? Remember the song playing? That was Moby.”
“Oh, then, OK. I guess I have heard Moby,” our theoretical retired banker in New Canaan might say. “So … what exactly is a Moby?” That's like grace. Not that grace is a pretentious vegan techno-rocker, but you get the idea. Grace is everywhere, all around us, all of the time. We only need the ears to hear it and the eyes to see it.
It is much easier and, I would argue, more helpful to describe what grace feels like through stories and images that illustrate the varied ways grace is experienced when encountered in the wild than it is to attempt to define it conclusively, to trap it or cage it.
Maybe that's why Jesus was so fond of parables: Nothing describes the indescribable like a good yarn.
So, let me tell you a story …
When I left the newspaper office here in Chicago on the eve of Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, it was sleeting sideways. I had neither gloves nor a handheld windshield scraper thingy, but I did have writer's block, a screaming headache, and a zit between my eyebrows.
Mired in the self-pity ring of my own private Inferno, I was feeling anything but thankful. The worst part of what could have been dismissed as a simple preholiday funk was that I knew exactly how ridiculous I was being for not feeling grateful for the blessings that have come my way—and they are many.
This unpleasant realization plunged me into the quicksand of self-loathing, which manifested itself most festively in waves of vehicular-induced misanthropy. By the time I arrived home, more or less without incident, about ninety minutes later—a commute that usually takes twenty to thirty minutes—I was so foul of spirit, I had to put my head down for a few minutes and then locate some emergency comfort carbohydrates.
Hey, no judging.
If recent news reports are any indication, apparently even God has the occasional need for comfort food. Why else would God and/or the Mother of God appear on grilled cheese sandwiches, fish sticks, and tortilla shells? (Have you noticed that the Divine never seems to turn up in a mixed-green salad or a nice plate of heirloom tomatoes?)
While my take-out lasagna was warming in the oven, I flipped on the TV and found Bruce Almighty on one of the 129 HBO channels we get. Sure, I'd seen it before—about a dozen times—but it had just started, and, well, familiarity is comforting, or the devil you know is better than the one you don't, or … fine! Jim Carrey makes me laugh. I'm not proud, but it's the truth.
After a few silly scenes, I walked into the other room, leaving Bruce (Carrey) to have his meltdown on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls while I checked on my comfort food.
Not cooking fast enough. Figures, I grumbled to myself, storming around the house, scaring the cats.
Then it happened. The cosmic chiropractic.
I checked my voicemail at work, and there was the message I'd been waiting for.
Good news. Great news, the marvelous, expectation-blowing sort that catches you off guard. By the time I put the receiver down, the pall had lifted. I could see clearly now, the … um … sleet had gone.
In fact, the sleet had turned into big, fluffy snowflakes dancing on the other side of my window, decorating the street outside with the first snowfall of the season.
It was beautiful. And the lasagna was ready.
Life is beautiful and I'm an idiot who doesn't deserve any of it.
But that's the thing about grace.
And that's why grace is what I was most thankful for that Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving—every moment—for that matter, but sometimes you just see it more clearly than others.
People regularly ask me why I believe in God. The simple answer—and it's MY answer, i.e., it may not be YOUR answer and that's OK—is grace. As I understand it:
Justice is getting what you deserve.
Mercy is not getting what you deserve.
And grace is getting what you absolutely don't deserve.
Benign goodwill. Unprovoked compassion. The unearnable gift.
Scads of writers and theologians have tried to describe grace, but I think musicians usually get closer to capturing it, sometimes with words, sometimes not. Two of the best attempts I've ever heard are both found in songs. The first is from Bono of U2, in the song he titled “Grace,” lest anyone be confused about what he was getting at.
“Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain,” he sings, in a simple tune that sounds almost like a nursery rhyme. “She travels outside of karma … Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”
Yeah, he nails it. That's grace.
But so is what is described in this short lyric from an old Indigo Girls song that may or may not be about spiritual rebirth. It's my favorite idea of grace: “There was a time I asked my father for a dollar,” they sing, “and he gave it a $10 raise.”
So on the night before Thanksgiving, I moved back to the couch and the TV with my lovely, cheesy lasagna and my spiritual $10 raise to contemplate the recent happy turn of events. The movie was almost over and Bruce was lying in a hospital bed, having just been snatched from the clutches of death by a team of doctors and a pair of defibrillators. Bruce, who literally had been playing God for a few weeks, looks up at a bag of donated blood being pumped into his veins, and we know what he's thinking.
Earlier in the film, he mocked his girlfriend—her name is Grace (played ever-so-graciously by Jennifer Aniston)—for organizing a blood drive.
Bruised, bloodied, and realizing the irony of the situation, Bruce hears a voice and turns to see his long-suffering girlfriend standing in the hospital doorway.
“Graaace!” Bruce says, smiling weakly as tears begin to fill his eyes.
Exactly, I thought with big fat tears running down my own cheeks.
Grace has a way of sneaking up on you like that. When you least deserve it.
That was Bruce's way of seeing and, I suppose, saying grace.
This is mine.
THE MANY SOUNDS OF SILENCE
Earlier this month, I hummed a few bars for Sojourners about the time I’ve spent over the last few years among the remarkable monks of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur and Paula Huston’s wonderful new book about the community’s history, The Hermits of Big Sur. I’ll share a brief excerpt with you here and if you’d like to keep reading the whole thing (and I hope you will), the link to take you to the essay on Sojourner’s website.
AFTER 20 MONTHS OF SOCIAL DISTANCING, WHY DID I CRAVE SOLITUDE? (LINK)
…New Camaldoli is about as off the grid as you can get in North America. There is neither cell phone service nor internet access; the nearest Wi-Fi is miles away, overpriced, and spotty. The stillness is palpable. It vibrates — a rich ecosystem of songbirds, raptors, owls, animals, cats (I encountered a stunning lynx, at a safe distance, on an early morning hike) and other creatures, thrums serenely with life, particularly at dawn and dusk, along the edges of the day.
This quietude at New Camaldoli is different than the imposed silence that accompanied the global time-out wrought by the pandemic. That silence descended like a pall when humans retreated, social distancing in the hopes of slowing the spread of a deadly virus. At the hermitage, the silence is chosen. In that choice there is a freedom to hear, see, and feel more of the natural world as well as our place in it. Such silence-keeping allows us to experience human community in a more deliberate and ultimately transformative way.
'I HOPE THIS GRIEF STAYS WITH ME’
In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the actor Andrew Garfield spoke about grieving the death of his mother, who passed away recently. His thoughts about grief and love, grief and art, and how we can (and art can) help “sew up our wounds” is beautiful and moved me to tears. I’m sharing it here in case you need to hear what this sweet man has to say, too.
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Thank you for reading. #LuxInTenebrisLucet
I am thankful for each of you.