Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 Poetry Review: Setting the Mood for Lenten Reflections

I plan to post a poem or two each Sunday during Lent to signal the season and also to remind myself and others that the gift of good poetry is that is gets to the heart and soul of an idea with perfect words and not much persiflage……………  I begin with this review to kick off the season. 

It’s All God, Anyway. Poetry for the Everyday
   by Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann
2016, Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications

Jinks Hoffmann’s everyday poetry is the perfect mix of earthen and mystical. As I read Hoffmann's poems I was reminded of Jewish memoirist Etty Hillesum’s wisdom about scraping raw reality down to the bone before one can dare to be mystical.

Jinks Hoffmann is a spiritual director and the poetry editor of Presence, an International Journal of Spiritual Direction. She was born in South Africa and has lived in Canada with her husband Alan, to whom she dedicates this collection. The poems are organized into five sections: A Way of Being in the World, Mysticism, The Work, Family and Friends, and Roots> The collection is like a psalter—intimate and profound enough to sit on my bedside table.

Etta Hillesum died at Auschwitz on 30 November, 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. She wrote: “I am sometimes afraid to call a spade a spade. Because nothing will then be left to the imagination? No, things ought to be called by their proper name. If they can’t stand it, then they have no right to be. We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.” (An Interrupted Life, Diaries 1941-1943)

Hoffmann and Hillesum are spiritual soul sisters. In Hoffmann’s words: “Everything is God: sunsets and a baby’s death; the stillness of a mist-clad lake at dawn and a hurricane; joy and gratitude, grief and despair; kindness and ‘schmutz’ (messy humanity).”
Reading Hoffman's  poetry, I experienced the deeply sacred quality of all life—with no overt religious doctrine or academic aridity. Like writing, prayer, and the keen observation of minute details revealed in their varied elaborations, Hoffmann’s poetry exposes the profound oneness of all life—and all religions, in fact.

To my delight, I learned many Hebrews words—one of them schmutz, a perfect descriptor of the human condition without reference to sin.  That there are seventy-two names for God in Hebrew delighted me.  And we Christians are picked on for having a mere three?  “Love” is the name Hoffmann uses to address God, as in: what now, my Love?

She does not mean, or imply, that God causes everything that happens, but rather that everything that happens and exists is in God. God is transcendent and also intimate. Is this a particularly female perspective? Maybe, yet it reminds me of the biblical Paul’s insight: “In God we live and move and have our being.” This is what Hoffmann’s superbly crafted poetry accomplishes.

The best way to get myself out of the way and let Hoffmann’s poetry speak for itself is to share a poem, my personal favorite.

 I Don’t Believe in God.

My wife complains a lot.
Mind you, two small children,
my working all those hours,
I don’t blame her. Once,
I was driving along the Don Valley,
and a mattress was laying
right in the middle of the road.
I guess the young men driving
the other car didn’t learn
good knots in Boy Scouts.
Mind you, I shouldn’t talk.
My parents couldn’t send me
to Scouts. I needed to help
in the store. I’ve done better
than they did. I almost own
this cab. When they came
from Pakistan they had nothing.
They don’t have much, even now.

It was a bad winter this year.
Lots of snow. Icy too.
Once my car slid all over
the highway and ended up
in the opposite direction.
I don’t believe in God, but something
saved me. My passengers too.
They were nice, didn’t yell or shout
or anything. My parents came to Canada
with nothing. Look at me now.
A Wife. Two kids. She complains
a lot. It’s hard with small kids.
I get to work seven days a week.
Almost own this cab. Sometimes
I even bring Swiss Chalet
home for a treat. Maybe God
believes in me.
You see what I mean. Buy this book, available on Amazon the “almighty” or from the publisher Wipf and Stock, my own publisher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 HIstory on Trial

Recently we watched an intriguing—also superbly well done—movie called “Denial.”  It sounds as if it’s about addiction or the common and dangerous psycho-emotional defense called denial, however that is only true secondarily. 

“Denial” in a 2015 film about a legal trial which took place in the UK in 1996 in which David Irving, an historical writer filed a libel suit against American history professor (Emory University) Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher Penguin Books for publishing the British edition of Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust, first published in the US in 1993. Lipstadt called Irving a Holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot, and said that he manipulated and distorted real documents. Irving fought back with the libel suit.
The fascinating dynamics of this trial are the subject of the movie. We have watched it twice, each time marveling at the intricacies of the British legal system in which the accused is guilty until proven innocent. In our American legal system the accused is innocent till proven guilty. This assumption has always seemed ethically right-minded to me, yet seeing another system work justice from such a different starting point kept me riveted—in awe and admiration really, especially watching the attorney and an on-high judge in all those top heavy white wigs.

Another difference is that the UK court has two attorneys, specialists, simultaneously at work representing one defendant. The solicitor is the attorney who, with a team of able trainees, researches the data on the case, gathering relevant data to use to prepare the case. The other attorney is the barrister—the one who actually tries the case in court. This latter is the one with sharp legal skills, a steel trap mind, eloquence and calm persuasive presence under stress.

These differences alone make this movie worth watching. What is on display at all times is the value of teamwork, each member, including the defendant herself, bringing individual gifts and passions to the same case for one purpose alone: to win.

Some of the questions raised seemed eccentric but are tragically relevant today: what IS a fact anyway? What IS history anyway?  What kind of data helps most to make a case without direct witness testimony? What is on trial in this movie is the integrity of history itself. How do we tell the truth, swear on Bibles to speak the facts and nothing but the facts, without slant? Is that even possible? What about perspective? What about perception? How do you prove that something happened you know happened but for which evidence, except human testimony, is scant if not absent?

David Irving, the plaintiff, claims to be a Hitler historian, having invested much effort in exculpating Hitler. Annoyed by Lipstadt’s book and her accusations against his manipulations of facts, Irving represents himself, claiming the Holocaust never happened.” He goes on to say: “Why more people died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquidick than ever were killed in the Holocaust.”  He calls attention to the arrangement: he—as “David” (chosen of God of course)—stands alone, while she is surrounded by her team—the mighty Goliath. The visual is telling. The solicitor at one point quotes Goethe: “The coward only threatens when he feels secure.”

What needs to be proved is that Irving manipulated data that proved that Auschwitz was “a killing machine.” And further, that he did not make honest mistakes of commission or omission in his own case against the historicity of the Holocaust, but that he deliberately falsified data in support of his own antisemitic bias. Freedom of speech is a human right. Lying is not. Neither, for that matter, is hate speech.

Lipstadt is aware throughout of her intense desire to have a voice, to exercise her conscience. It is all she has besides her own scholarly research. She is an historian, a Jew, and a woman in pursuit of justice. She wants the voice of suffering to be heard. She wants this hearing desperately, desperately, but not enough to go insane. She keeps her stability in part by running. She runs a regular route through the city, stopping before a large statue of Boadicea—both to lament and to thank. Boadicea was a woman who led a Celtic tribal uprising against Roman occupation in the middle of the first century in the British isles.  Lipstadt could be a modern Boodicea—well, an American one. 
It was painful for me, as a woman with a Jewish grandfather, to watch Lipstadt’s silencing. It made me cry, as well, to see the tender sensitivity with which the older barrister persuaded  her that silence was the best strategy: “Stay seated. Button your lips. Win by an act of self-denial. What feels good is not always what works best,” he tells her.

And then he persuades her that Irving would relentlessly mock the testimony of survivors and outdo the intelligence of jurors unschooled in their history. This case will be decided by a single judge, another piece of a brilliant strategy.  Lipstadt’s superior intelligence kicks in and she knows her lawyer is right. It helps that he is also kind and humble, because one needs these qualities to cement relational trust and hold it secure. 

There is no gore or grim torturous scenario with screams in this movie. It is silent horror. The view of miles and miles, or so it looked, of millions of shoes gathered and left in caged enclosures at Auschwitz, was witness enough. A necessary visit to Auschwitz was part of the barrister's investigation. He had never been there. He carefully walks the bounds and stands to stare at the empty chambers. “This is what I do,” he says. “It’s forensics. How could Auschwitz be just another brief.”
Small details, which are many and carefully orchestrated, make this case. It is often said that the devil is in the details. I think it is more often that God is in the details. “We will box him in with the truth.”

Dick and I were very silent watching this film—twice. Gratefully so in fact. No one got up to get more cookies. We were stunned into awe—not a bad thing at all. It’s not as if we needed the outcome which was obvious really. But we needed the process, the process of viewing history on display and watching its integrity speak for itself by the skill and passion and yes, appetite for good, that motivated the principals.

Oh, did I not relive the trial of Jesus as it is told in the New Testament gospels? I know it by heart and I do not know it at all. The elements were all there in this trial: loud and quickly changing crowds, glacial deliberations, clever questioning, prayers, terror, a clear portrayal of injustice, and then the pungent question right in the middle of it all posed by Pilate to Jesus: What is truth? 

I think I have always wondered about Jesus’s silence, saying I understood it, refusing to accept any stupid ideas that God planned it this way, but really not fully understanding it at all. Seeing such a precarious legal strategy, which could as easily have failed as succeeded,  in which a people’s integrity was at stake, was daunting. Would the discipline of history done honestly prevail? 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 A Different Kind of Valentine Out of Left Field From the Right Brain

We have been engaged is a difficult task on this gloomy dark day. We are trying to plan something that isn’t really plannable: death. What do we want? What do we not want? Who will serve as health care agents when we are unable to make decisions for each other or ourselves? What kind of burial? 

We are using a document called The Five Wishes. It is a legal document intent on assisting people to die with dignity by allowing them to have some control over end-of-life care choices. It’s thorough and specific, including spiritual needs, even hymns for a funeral.

We have been postponing this for all kinds of nonsensical reasons, all of them labelled denial or fear. We started out in a mood of “let’s get serious” and ended up laughing our heads off. I mean, how many appendices can one add to such an already thorough and elaborated document with plenty of room to add personal notes to clarify?  Can we really control how we are remembered? Is it possible to specify that no burial liturgy have any atonement theology in it at all? You see when you have an opportunity to control a few small things, you suddenly want to be running the universe. We made a few clear decisions then dumped the project for today—choosing life, as the biblical book advises.

This kind of planning is halting and predictably vulnerable to total emotional regression and hilarity, or fits of sorrow. It’s altogether schmutzy. To expect smooth and rational end-of-days planning when there’s no urgency, except that it’s sensible so to do, is like putting a tutu on a hippo and expecting Swan Lake.

We love life too darn much to imagine not being in it anymore. But then on the Writer’s Almanac arrived this valentine kiss to life-in-death by Emily Dickinson.

Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord,
Then, I am ready to go!
Just a look at the Horses —
Rapid! That will do!
Put me in on the firmest side —
So I shall never fall —
For we must ride to the Judgment —
And it’s partly, down Hill —
But never I mind the steepest —
And never I mind the Sea —
Held fast in Everlasting Race —
By my own Choice, and Thee —
Goodbye to the Life I used to live —
And the World I used to know —
And kiss the Hills, for me, just once —
Then — I am ready to go!   

NOTE: the use of the title Lord to refer to God, or Christ, was first used in the first century by early Christians who discerned the work of God in Jesus and used a mantra to invoke the divine presence they saw in Christ: Maranatha, which means Come Lord or Our Lord come was the cry of the early church. The word is actually two words in Arabic: maran atha. It does not mean overlord or ruler, but rather protector. Paul used the expression in I Corinthians 16:22 as a prayer for the early return of Christ to confront deniers. In the Book of Revelations 22:20 it is translated: Come, Lord Jesus.

To call on Christ the Lord to escort her at the time of death, the poet anticipates a swift rough ride with a strong escort as she goes, assured that her Lord will kiss the hills for her, “just once.”

This poem is a prayer, a wish, a hope, a metaphor of the spiritual imagination. It soars above duty and fear, leaving behind any left brain temptations to theorize or make it reasonable.

It’s my Sixth Wish: Tie the Strings to my Life, my God!!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 What About The Children?

“And WHO will take care of the children?” The very tall bishop towered over me, looking down at me— and on me. His query was not curious, but aggressive. I cringed. The national church had just voted (1976) that women could be ordained priests. I wanted to be a priest in the Episcopal Church and this bishop put me in my “rightful” place: mother at home with kids. (I promise I did not fuzzy-up the photo.)
The Rt. Rev. Warren J. Hutchens, Connecticut
His question would prove my undoing. It would prove as well to be the Church’s rationale of choice for turning women, especially mothers, down as they tried to enter the ordination track.

This question is not unusual, or new, or over and done with. It’s loaded with patriarchal assumptions about the fixity of gender roles, many of which were not justified, not to mention sexist. Yet this question is alive and exclusively addressed to women, please note.

It’s now some forty years since that question froze me in my tracks. I pursued my vocational calling and have been an Episcopal priest since 1988. Besides being a priest, I am a mother, a counselor and spiritual director, a marriage partner, and yes, a writer—delighted to have read in Poets and Writers Magazine (March/April, 2016) an article “A Residency of Her Own” by Melissa Scholes Young. She ran into the same question I’d encountered in the church, but in a secular context. (To be honest, I think the categories “sacred” and “secular” are far less oppositional than people assume.) She was planning a month away from her family to get some time to write. Writing is her job, her income, and, yes, her soul-quenching passion.

What about the kids? Here is Melissa’s take:

“The problem with the question ‘What about the kids?’ is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choice, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia (Woolf) say to the “what about the kids" question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother, And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again, She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.    . . .

I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

Now I can think of a million arguments against this action, as well as much praise for it. Choice is choice and it has consequences no matter how right or wrong it may seem to oneself or to others. It’s not so simple. It’s also rarely either/or.

No one asked Virginia Woolf this question when she sat alone in her study composing A Room Of One’s Own—not to mention the fact that Virginia Woolf had no children  and took her own life.

What about the kids?  (Here are children when I began my midlife breakout:)

The question haunted me all through the ordination process. To be a mother and a priest was not doable—a “dual vocation” the church committees and bishop called it. Nothing about fathers and not to mention the sexual orientation of some of the male interrogators who made these judgments.

I admit that when I made my choices my soul suffered much shame. I broke the sacred cultural rule about childcare and the centrality of mothering. It was Betty Friedan’s fault, and secondarily Godde’s, I told myself. But it was my choice. I handled it clumsily—with help from my then husband who fled the scene in his own way. I broke all the rules my mother ever taught me. Sins beginning in “a” were my favorites: adultery, alcohol, and abandonment. I hurt myself and those I loved most: my four children. I’m neurotic, so it took years to heal my shame. It was apparently less of a problem for Godde who supported and strengthened me all the way. Self-forgiveness, however, is easier to preach than to inwardly digest.

What about the mother? Few people ask about the well being of the mother, even today as abortion debates rage on. The choices are still framed as either/or although they are a complex blend of messiness one navigates with as much prayer, compassion and good council as possible. I did not choose against the children. I did chose the well being of the mother, and tried to balance things as best I could.

Change that matters, and, I dare say, such change is divine, always hurts. It hurts more for mothers and women because of cultural expectations and, yes, a womb. I broke away from the shell of my role as wife and mother—shattered my own comfort and my children’s. Humpty Dumpty affair.

“What about the kids?” lingered in my flesh for years.  (Here I am ordained priest by ten years:)

It took a very long time for me to stop apologizing. One of my daughters got fed up one day and said: “Mom, stop apologizing!” This same daughter later said, amidst tears: “Mom, religion took you away from us.” The other daughter called me a wimp, and we used up a whole box of Kleenex together in a therapist’s office. My sons were easier, don’t know why. Maybe because at the time of my breaking- out they were microscopically intent on managing their own social standing.

The only people qualified to answer the question: “What about the children?” are the children. Mine answered it with their own resilient lives, by hanging in with each other and with both parents, by establishing satisfying work lives, by tolerating all my apologies, by therapy and recovery meetings, and by making their own series of not-so-great choices and keeping on. None of us ever stopped loving each other. I never stopped being their mother. There is no way I can thank my children enough. 

I have answered this question by not asking it any more, and by living my own life and thriving in it.

 P.S. Just as I was composing this post I read an article in the Boston Globe (February 4, 2017) about self-care outranking childcare. Genevieve Shaw Brown, editor and reporter with ABC News, recently authored The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the Last Thing You Do.

Well now that is too either/or. Still, there’s a reason why airlines instruct people traveling with young children to put on their oxygen masks before helping the kids put theirs on.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017.01.29 Doucement Chérie

Doucement chérie is French for Slow down or Take it easy —more literally, Go sweetly. In Arabic, it has a lullaby lilt—phonetically, Shwaye, shwaye. In Spanish, cuidate or, tellingly, vaya con Dios. In English we might today say, Breathe!  None of this suggests falling asleep.  How can we remain alert and awake and still go doucement?

I have no friggin’ idea.

Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and quite intense himself, wrote recently in the New Yorker (Jan 23, 2017) about the nature of heroic intervention in medicine: “Tell Me Where It Hurts?” Heroics is the paradigm for surgeons. They set people free and send them home happy, glowing with health and new life—sometimes but not always.

Gawande became fascinated with the work of primary care medicine. How did it work—this unglamorous, long, hard, slow, attentive work of caring over time? Such physicians, it should be noted, are underpaid and overworked.

Interventionist miracle-medicine is excitingly dramatic, but Gawande discovered that the long slow steadiness of incremental treatment over time had better, if less immediate, results: greater longevity, faster healing, more willingness to trust doctors and seek treatment early, just plain happier. Why? Well, duh (an adverb meaning obviously:)!  It’s the relationship that warms and continues to fuel the well being of both physician and patient. They connect. They talk. They communicate. They are not afraid of each other. They get to know each other. Topics other than medicine are not taboo. Really?? Yes, really!!  This is relational medicine. 

There is theological resonance in Gawande’s wisdom. Theology is my own favorite discipline of thought and soul. I mean really who gets orgasmic over theology? I do! How God is and what God cares about matters to me. It’s my spiritual juice.

I remember a New Testament professor in seminary who once practically screamed at us students, “You want to know God’s agenda?”  (I held my pen poised and ready. Now at last I’d know God’s will.)  "It’s Micah 6:8.”  What? Not even Jesus? Not even New Testament?

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Slam bang, that’s it, O mortal. How does one do this and also maintain some kind of slow steady  doucement spirit to the process?  How do you do this and, at the same time, allow for incremental theology, aka primary care spirituality? Hint: you have to be a good juggler.

Here’s some wisdom I keep on my home altar from French Jesuit scientist/theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Please note the three factors that come into play over time— evenly and equally— while we try to live according to Micah 6:8: divine grace, your own good will, and circumstances. No single factor of influence is consistently dominant.

Patient Trust in Ourselves and The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
     We are quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
    without delay.
     We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
     something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
And that it may take a Very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—
      let them grow
let them shape themselves,
  without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting
on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017.01.22 Breakdown/Breakthrough?

Often a breakdown is a necessary precursor to a breakthrough.

We know this in personal experience, and we see it in the Biblical stories, in which there is a regular pattern of breakdown and breakthrough. Remember Peter, the putative “pope”?  He denied knowing Jesus, let alone following him. Jesus predicted this,  signaled by the old cock crow, cock-a-doodle-do times three. At the cock crowed Peter broke down. Peter was a disciple who thought he had solid faith and did not.

Judas Iscariot, on the other hand, thought he had no faith, abandoned the Jesus movement, and left.  After Jesus died and stories arose of his resurrection, Judas discovered faith. He was a disciple who thought he had no faith at all and did. In one account he took his own life in remorse. 

Both men had a breakdown to have a breakthrough. Both of their stories live on; both  characters live in each one of us; both are integral parts of a whole gospel proclamation of divine love ever-evolving toward cosmic wholeness. 

I am assured that the story of Jesus lives on, and that its message is still heard today by people who think they have faith and don’t AND by those who think they don’t have faith and do.

Peter’s breakthrough took time. He experienced visions, wept himself back to life, and joined with Paul to use his gifts to make sure that what Jesus had envisioned did not die. One could argue that the institutionalization of the gospel was not such a good thing. OR . . . one could grin and realize that that’s the way things are preserved—until the next breakdown and breakthrough.

Are we now living in breakdown/breakthrough times?  The irony is that what looks like breakdown to many feels to others like breakthrough into light.  In the time of discerning directions, I look to my Christian faith. I also look for small lights.  

Our new president in his inaugural address called America a wasteland of carnage —a harsh assessment. Is there anything good here? The speech was a set-up for Trump to step in and offer himself as the savior. What upset me the most however was that he guaranteed that God would protect America (that means North America, note…) ALWAYS—helped by the people and the military, just in case. America first and only as a sign of divine will is idolatrous, painfully exclusive, and a sign of patriotism run wild. Where is humility? Where is grace?

Still, this culture was on the way to such self-idolatry anyway with its consumerism and its win/win/me/win attitudes.

    I did see some bright spots in the inaugural events.
    -I noticed that Melania Trump quietly went over to Hillary Clinton and gave her a small box nicely gift wrapped. I could not help but see this as a woman-to-woman gesture.
    -And then good old W. Bush got Hillary laughing with a hug and a chuckle—a very compassionate in-house gesture.
    -At the luncheon Trump did invite the Clintons to stand, and they got a standing ovation. I just wished he could have said something in his campaign-ish speech.
    -The Rabbi who offered a closing benediction used a phrase that stood out: “Any nation is blessed by its values not its vaults.” Amen. I pray that our “vaults” of corporate wealth will be opened and shared.
    -The January 22 Women’s March was enacted all over the world in cities. It was a massive demonstration of solidarity in favor of equality for ALL. To me it felt like a return of second wave feminism —this time as a tidal wave with potential to sweep away patriarchal assumptions and rank-ordering systems of social organization that defy our constitutional principles. A breakthrough.

Do you remember the movie Awakening?  It was based on a book by Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), a physician who had a deeply traumatic childhood, predictive of many painful physical and emotional effects. The miracle is that there are always sound medical and psychological predictions and some come true, but there are no prescriptions for what the human soul will do. None.

Sacks made schmutz of his medical career as a lab researcher. They told him to get out. “Go see patients. They matter less.”  A breakdown!  He also bumbled at his writing, until the poet W.H Auden suggested to him that he be “metaphorical, mythical, whatever you need.” ( Not such a bad approach to holy scriptures.) Sacks began to see illness as metaphor and myth. It lead to his taking risks with catatonia and a new medication for Parkinson’s disease. The medication gave some life to the all-but-dead. A breakthrough.

Watching the movie, I was entranced at what happened when these zombie-like people awoke. It was resurrection. One scene sticks in my memory. Sacks was tossing a ball to catatonic patients, hoping that someone would wake up to its movement, when suddenly a woman lifted her arm and caught the ball. Sacks tried it over and over and each time the woman caught the ball in her right hand. “Mrs. XX you caught the ball!” Sacks began to dance about with joy. Eventually, so did Mrs. XX.  An apparent near-complete breakdown became the breakthrough for at least partial return to health—new life. For Sacks as well. Resurrection.

What was required was close and careful observation, listening to all the patients first, the ones deemed by the research labs to “matter less.” It took intense empathy,  devotion and creative imagination. It took a passionate awareness of what it was like to feel destitute, terrorized, alone. It took enormous faith, hope and love. And then, as Sacks wrote in 1973: “To use a biblical term, I would ‘bear witness’ to their condition.” Is that not holy scripture? 

All it took was daring to follow a new idea.

What are your own new ideas? Do you voice them or keep silent? Do you deceive yourself about your own worth? About God’s love? Do you give up as Sacks might easily and expectedly have? 
In times of breakdown where are your breakthroughs?  How do you bear witness?

I confess to a kind of catatonia in the face of the crisis of culture we are in and the denial about its depth. The death throes of patriarchy are painful and necessary. It hurts me to listen to a leader who styles himself as THE savior, the agent of breakthrough. Yet that too is necessary.

At a recent meeting of our deanery clergy I said something about needing a breakdown to breakthrough, and a colleague replied a bit cynically, “Yes, but sometimes there is a collapse.” Isn’t that what a true breakdown is?

Blaming and shaming keep me paralyzed and negative—catatonic. Holocaust memoirist Etty Hillesum wrote to God: “Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”   (Essential Writings Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2009 p. 59)

Theology calls this perspective, this practice, deep incarnation—deep reaching into the soul. 

The only way this works for me is to get brutally honest with myself and with God. Like Etty did about God’s nature and her own. Sacks, too, didn’t kid himself about the state of his patients. Abraham didn’t kid himself about his advanced age, his sexual impotence, and Sarah’s. He said:  Well, let’s get food for these angels and listen to what they have to say. Sarah, bless her, laughed at the idea of a pregnancy. And Jesus didn’t play games with the conditions of his time. He knew the risks of bearing witness to limitless love without condition versus limitless power without condition.

We may have to maladjust, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to Trump’s  ME # 1/AMERICA FIRST/GOD-BLESSED ALWAYS vision. Exceptional in some areas we may be. Superior in all areas we are not. This vision goes beyond jobs, education, healthcare immigration reform. It wraps our souls up in a hubris that is disastrous—a spiritual breakdown.

Our new president could be kidding himself, and us too, but he can’t kid God, whose Love within us breaks through—no matter what.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

2017.01.15 Victor RCA

This is Victor RCA. He will always be a hero dog in our family. Victor saved the life of John Brakeman who in turn had saved Victor’s life. Victor died just before Christmas, 2016, at seventeen. 

Victor, a white Jack Russell with black patches over both eyes, a charmingly cocked-head pose, and a big barking mouth came into John’s life at the suggestion of his sister Jill the family animal lover. Victor was only a year old and living in a situation which was “plain no good.” He needed a loving home and good care.

John, just 30, was then living in a rented apartment, working as a teacher of fifth grade, and in the midst of managing a life-threatening medical situation that would end up requiring six surgeries, months of recovery, a frightening stint in the ICU, and all the grit John could muster. It was hardly the time to take on the responsibility of a pup, let alone one as noisy and needy as Victor. But the two fell in love instantly, and John took the dog into his home and named him Victor RCA.

During John’s hardest most painful times Victor was a constant companion, eagerly present to greet John when he came home and swift to cuddle up, lending his warmth and affection to John's every day and night. Victor loved to ride with John in the car often licking John’s neck and face from his perch between the front seats. And Victor would respond to John’s commands to, basically, shut up. He knew his master’s voice.

One of the “tests” of a good marriage partner for John was: could she manage to love Victor as well as John? Emily Hotchkiss Brakeman and Victor bonded quickly. The couple married and soon Victor occupied the space between them in bed. He was a dog who managed to worm and weasel his way into everything— even the love space.

Once Victor, who behaved most of the time as if he’d never been fed, managed to hop onto a counter and retrieve a box of chocolates, which he consumed with relish and then walked with his chocolate-covered paws all over a new beige sofa. Chocolate is supposedly toxic for dogs. Not so for Victor whose intestinal system was ironclad.

Victor got along with the more aloof standoffish cat and together they did food tricks. The cat cold execute the the far reaches of kitchen counters from which she would use her paws to bat food down off the counter to the eager Victor.

The family expanded to include a daughter Phoebe, now eight, and a son Dylan, two-and-a-half. Victor licked both children into the family with doggy kisses. John had been fearful that Victor might feel jealous, but not our Victor. His favorite perch soon became the infant seat.

Victor with Phoebe when she was his height.

Grampy Sim adored Victor. The attraction was mutual, including of course forbidden treats when possible.  Once on a visit we were going out and left Victor alone to guard the house. Believe me his incessant bark would scare off any break-in artist before he or she got in. We, however, had a new alarm system. It was as hypersensitive and hypervigilant  as Victor RCA. We set the new alarm and were walking to catch the red line subway for a day in Boston when the police called. Our alarm had sounded its harsh repetitive warning. John and I were puzzled, but Grampy Sim knew immediately what had happened. Victor was moving about, seeking the best bed after he’d given up hope that the door would open to reveal John, and set off the alarm which is movement-sensitive for the ground floor. Grampy sped home to rescue poor little Victor who was not only hoarse but aquiver with terror. It didn’t take long to silence the alarm but it took some time to quiet Victor. The two went for a leashed walk to the park and spent a man/dog day together.

The decision to put Victor down was heart-breaking. Compassion often is. Victor was not only quite old but had a condition that made it increasingly difficult to breath well. Veterinary care had been exhausted. John sent this text on December 21st to the whole family: “He was truly struggling. Last night we were scared for his life. I could almost tell by the way he was looking at me that he was saying, 'It’s time.' Em and I had to make the difficult decision to put him to sleep. It was the hardest thing I have even done because I love him so much. I’m hanging in there but am a wreck. Say a prayer for him. He will miss all of you.”

Victor’s death was sad and peaceful.  John held him and told me later amidst sobs: “I felt his little heart slow down and slow down and then it stopped and he was gone. He’ll never be back.”

Thank you for your life Victor RCA. In the spring we will have a proper burial with shared memories, blessings and prayers as we bury your ashes. Right now they are in a special container with your name and dates on it— and your paw print. You will never be forgotten, beloved dog.

P.S. Let no one in my presence dare say that there is no resurrection for animals—not just pets!!