Sitting with despair

Eagle Creek fireI woke up at 4 this morning, with a telltale sinus headache, and never really went back to sleep.  The sky was a weird beige, punctuated by a deep orange sun, and as I opened the gate to take the dog for a walk, I noticed a thin layer of ash on all the horizontal surfaces.  My head does not do well in this hazy air; my heart is so full of worry and sadness that it’s not doing well either.

The fires in the Columbia Gorge, possibly started by some dumb-ass teenagers setting off fireworks.  The floods in Houston recede to the new reality of loss, mold, mildew, loss, cockroaches, mosquitos, loss, snakes, ants, loss.  Hurricane Irma is on the loose.  Hundreds of thousands of people in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have their lives washed over by more horrific floods.  And the president seems to think that now is a good time to end DACA and send over 800,000 children to lands they have never called home.

I’m finding it hard to grab onto any hope today.  You?

But maybe it’s too soon for hope.  Maybe I am supposed to sit with this despair for a while, let it sink in deep, let it foment about in my gut for a while, create some more compassion, work up a little more urgency.

Hope is found in the tiny things, maybe, in those bits of ash that will be great fertilizer for the burned forests that will eventually regrow.  Hope is found in the tiny acts, maybe, the people who call their elected officials and make some signs and protest, or take in folks so they don’t have to leave.  Hope is found in big things, too, like people being generous with their clean up, fix up talents, or generous with their money.

But hope eludes me today, so I greet today’s companion, despair, and wait with it.

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Grief

You wake up and for a second don’t remember.  Then you blink your eyes once, and it all comes back.  The grief, the loss, the heaviness behind the eyes that feels three feet deep, the bags under the eyes that feel full of lead.

But still you get up, and make your coffee, and put out your kid’s vitamins.  Comfort in the quotidian, I suppose.  The dog comes bounding down, bringing the first smile of the day.  You get dressed, even though your heart is still in bed under every blanket in the house.  You find the leash and the bag and the treat, and the delighting dog comes bounding over.

You feel like crying or keening, but instead the morning chill braces you and you notice the oblivious hummingbird, the obnoxious crow, the neighbor’s new poem, the few remaining patches of snow that have miraculously stayed white.  You smile and nod at other people who are not crying, whose faces are not puffy with evidence of recent tears.

You do everything you can to avoid that chasm of emptiness where joy and light and gratitude once lived.  You eat, knowing you really can’t afford to put on one more pound; you watch reruns of The Golden Girls; you make lists and lists of Things To Do, to occupy the void without filling it.

And maybe at some point in the day you stop and sit and look outside the window and wail. But you’re afraid that if you do that, you’ll never stop, and you can’t get anything done if you grieve.  The solitary hours are the hardest.

You make a plan which you know is ridiculous.  You call a friend which you know is a lifeline.  You stay upbeat for appearances’ sake which you know is fraudulent.

And you remember you are not alone, that all of us lose someone or something that we can never get back.  You remember that other people and other things will come that bring joy and love and delight.

You remember that waiting is terrible, even more terrible than grief.

Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“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.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“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 it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

elephant mettha