Beauty > Sadness

Being a pastor, I am invited into the sadness of people’s lives, often.  As a pastor, I working on developing both empathy and boundaries; empathy, so that I can come alongside them and let them know they are not alone, and boundaries, so that I am not rendered undone by all of it.

But still.  Oh sometimes, I just want to stop everything, grab a box of Kleenex, get comfortable on the couch, and weep and weep and weep.  A parent with young children losing a battle with cancer.  A mother, on the verge of deportation, telling her children to be brave.  Estrangement for no good reason.  Violence for no good reason. Random accidents.  Mistakes.

The easiest boundary to create is shutting down, turning off the feelings, setting the empathy aside. Depending on what’s going on, I might find busy work for myself, or clean a drawer in the kitchen, or listen to the zippiest, happiest, most innocuous musical I have on my playlist. But that only works for so long.

When melancholy made its arrival yesterday, I began to think hard (another boundary – thinking instead of feeling.)  What dispels sadness, or at least alleviates it?  For this past day I’ve been wondering about that.

I know that for some, prayer alleviates the sadness, that somehow sharing the burden with the God who loves them lessens it all a bit.  I find prayer just makes me a little mad. Why isn’t God doing something about it?  Why can I not see or believe that God is doing something about it, that I have no idea how much worse it would be if God weren’t doing something about it?

I know for some distraction works, whatever the distraction – work or play, food or booze, sleep or medications.  They distract, but they don’t take away the sadness.  When the work is done or the play is over, when you’re full or hungover, when you wake up or the meds wear off, the sadness is still there.

In the brilliant movie Inside Out, Joy learns that she cannot be without Sadness.  The two need each other in order for their human to be whole.

I need sadness, then, I suppose.  Sadness doesn’t hurt, but it aches.  It’s like a constant sore muscle, or an inflamed gum, or arthritis.  It’s not a sharp pain but an unyielding soreness that acts as an incessant reminder that all is not well, that someone is going through something horrific and I am powerless to stop it.

And then I think about beauty, beauty as a counter to sadness, not as an eraser of it.  There is beauty all around, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Sometimes when I am sad I do some coloring, because the intentionality of choosing which pen to use where, and seeing all the colors together, makes me happy and for a moment creates some order in the midst of chaos.  Sometimes when I am sad I go back to a familiar book or poem.  Often A Wrinkle in Time will get me right again.  There is a beauty to the words that people put together in such a way that I am inspired and hopeful.  Music is the strongest of the beauties for me.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings feels like salt in the wound at first when I am sad, and then heals me in a way I cannot explain.  Appalachian Spring will do that too.  I love the beauty of a Chagall painting, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, and the shades of blue in my daughter’s eyes.

So I draw or read or listen and I am reminded that as thwarting as it is, sadness is not the strongest thing.  Beauty wins over sadness.  It does.  There is joy in beauty, and sadness too, I think, and perhaps in that which we find beautiful, we understand at a level way beyond our rational thinking that joy and sadness really do need each other.

marc-chagall

Bleak Midwinter

rainIt rains so much in the Pacific Northwest. Although our little family usually doesn’t put up any Christmas decorations until the first or second week in December, this year has been so rainy and so dark we decided to hang the outdoor lights on the day after Thanksgiving.

There are those years when “In the Bleak Midwinter” is my favorite Christmas carol, that or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  This year the bleakness wins, and it’s not just the weather.

We’ve lost some dear saints in the congregation this year. I look out in the pews on Sunday morning and I see their spouses and their children and their friends sitting there without them, and melancholy descends.  It’s their first season without this person who brought light or warmth or laughter or kindness to their life.

Then there is the bruising left over from the election season, and the uptick in hate crimes since November 8.  There’s Syria, and refugees, and poverty that never, ever abates for some people.  There is the reality of aging parents.  On some days if feels as though Yeats was terribly prescient: the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world.  I too am slouching towards Bethlehem.

If my sweet little family’s Christmastide celebrations began on December 24 and ended on the 26th, I would be happy.  But my daughter loves Christmas.  It’s her favorite holiday, and it has nothing to do with Santa or presents.  There’s nothing she really wants for Christmas – except to be with family, which is hard with two clergy parents.

When I ask her why she loves Christmas, this is what she says.  “Everyone is so joyful, and everything is so pretty and decorated.  There are so many lights, and people sing.”

I’m not sure where she picked this up as I’m usually a bit crabby during Christmas, failing miserably at being mom, spouse, and pastor all at once.  She sees through that, or around it or beyond it.  She sees the big picture: we celebrate Light coming into the world.

So perhaps this month, as the rains pour down and it’s hard to tell if the sun has risen yet; this month, as the news tells more terrible stories, and people tell stories of grief and fear; this month, as I once more fail at being a cheerful pastor/mom:

I will look to my daughter, so happy for this season.  I will look at her with hope for the joy she will carry into this month and the years that lie ahead.  I will look to her with a gratitude that goes beyond words, gratitude for her presence and her life.  I will look to her so that she can show me the way, even through the bleak midwinter.

For a little child shall lead them.

Mortal, after all

Yesterday I led a memorial service, a celebration of life, for a two-day old.  It was excruciating, as you might imagine.  It was also stunning and beautiful, as you might not imagine.  Pain was real and evident, but more present was the love that surrounded these two parents and these three grandparents.

That service came on the tail of four other deaths in our congregation, all women in their 90’s.  Those deaths were sad, but not unexpected, and really, not tragic. My colleague’s husband finally succumbed to the cancer he fought bravely and vehemently.  That was awful, too.

A long-time friend of mine – would I call him a friend? – lost his battle to ALS.  We went to junior high and high school and college together, but we didn’t run in the same circles and we never really hung out, except for long drives across Texas to out-of-town debate tournaments.  Still, his death has hit me hard.  Maybe I’m facing my own mortality.  Maybe I’m owning up to the fact that we are mortal, after all.

Add to that the violent deaths in St. Paul and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and Baghdad and Nice; aging parents and more cancer and random car accidents and plane crashes: mortality is announcing itself, loudly and proudly, and I want none of it.

My daughter is fed up too, maybe not with death but with the professional call of her parents to deal with death and dying.  It feels like all the time to her.  Evidently there is some sound I make, some short expulsion of air, and a way I say “oh no” that makes her look up from her book or computer screen and ask me, “Who died this time?”

That’s a question I never asked my parents when I was ten.  My grandparents were alive and healthy, as were my friends and their parents.  No one I knew had cancer; no one I knew got shot.  A cousin I didn’t know died in a motorcycle accident, but that’s it.

Why do we have to die?  I know the answer to that, and I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know that getting each other through the grief of death while we’re still this side of the grave is one of the highest callings we have, which doesn’t mean that it’s all pretty and lovely and tied up neatly with a sweet little bow.  Grieving and sitting with the grieving is most often awkward and inconvenient, messy, full of swear words and uncomfortable silence and wadded-up tissues and casseroles that will be reheated for the week.

But then sometimes the light breaks in, through the stained glass window of a sanctuary, or across the row of crosses at a cemetery, or glistening on the water where ashes are scattered.  Sometimes laughter sneaks in, in gallows humor or a hilarious memory. Sometimes some a minuscule thing happens, and the grief is eased an iota, and the future shimmers for a moment with hope – a mirage in the desert of sadness while we wait for the real oasis.

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Dream/Reality

A-dreaming-person-008Last night I had a weird dream.  It wasn’t a nightmare, but it wasn’t a good dream either.  I dreamt that all the oxygen was running out, and soon everyone in the world would die.  Neither my husband nor my child was in the dream (thank goodness) but our dog was.  I remember wanting him to be near me when I died.  In the dream I was a little frantic and very, very sad, not only because I was going to die but because everyone was going to die.  And soon.

I woke up from the dream around 4am and was able to fall asleep again.  In that time between waking and falling back asleep, I started thinking about what I would do if the oxygen really was running out of the world.  Would I panic?  Would I break into a hospital or doctor’s office or scuba shop and steal oxygen?  Would I try to get on the good side of some conspiracy theorist who had a bunker stocked with oxygen just in case this scenario played out?  I went back to sleep and this time dreamt about being in NYC with college friends, so evidently my subconscious wasn’t too scarred by the oxygen deprivation.

The dream has stuck with me today.  Where did it come from?  We recently were watching some procedural crime show in which the victim died from asphyxiation, but that was over a week ago.  The dog was curled up at my feet, which is probably why he made it.  But someone once advised me to pay attention to the emotions that stay with me after a strong dream, so I’ve been thinking about low-level frantic-ness and deep sadness.  My best guess is that this dream was about the world running out of something.

Unless you’ve been off the grid with your head in the sand lately, it’s hard not to notice that there is a lot of bad stuff going on right now.  Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, and since they’ve been gone, eleven of their parents have died.  Seven were killed in a Boko Haram attack; four died from health-related issues.  We lament the disappearance of these girls half way across the globe while we wring out hands over what to do with the refugee children flooding into Texas from Central America.  An airliner was shot down, killing hundreds of people, many of whom were involved in the vital work of AIDS research.  More planes have crashed.  ISIS is now requiring that all women and girls in Mosul undergo genital mutilation.

And I have no words about the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Maybe my dream was about the world’s loss of capacity to breathe in something – peace, maybe, or patience, or reason.  Or maybe I’m a little frantic and very, very sad because it feels right now, at both the conscious and subconscious level, as though we are running out of hope.  And we will all die without hope.

May we catch our breath soon.hopeless