I’m fortunate that, early in my 8th decade of life, I’ve had few people close to me die. The most significant loss has been of my father. Besides that, it’s mainly been aunts and uncles, acquaintances, and distant friends. Should I live another couple decades, during that time many people who have been important in my life will die. We don’t just lose spouses or other family members; we also lose friends, mentors, neighbors, co-workers, community members, and many others who make up the fabric of our social life. We grieve all these as well. How do we come to terms with all these losses—the ranks of the now-departed whose images and voices still populate our psyches?

I’ve been reflecting on this question after finishing Virginia Wolff’s novel To the Lighthouse. The first half describes a day at the summer residence of a middle-aged couple, the Ramsays. We learn a good deal about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and their house guests. The next ten years are described only briefly, and that largely in light of the decay of the abandoned summer house. During that interlude, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. Finally, after ten years, Mr. Ramsay, the two youngest children, and a few of the guests return. The final section of the novel, titled “The Lighthouse,” describes the two children and their father sailing to a lighthouse visible from the house, while simultaneously Lily Briscoe, an artist and one of the house guests, sets an easel on the lawn to work on a painting she had started there ten years earlier. The story is not so much about a sailboat ride or a picture, though; it’s about the Ramsay children coming to terms with their remote and unaffectionate father and Lily  coming to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily’s struggles illuminate the process of grieving friends.

Lily revisits numerous memories of Mrs. Ramsay. First, she thinks of how Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly helped her connect with Charles Tansley, an arrogant and opinionated guest proud of ‘his poverty, his principles’ who had opined to her that women can’t paint and can’t write. Unexpectedly, she and Charles had an enjoyable time together on the beach, something than she now realizes Mrs. Ramsay facilitated:

“When she thought of herself and Charles throwing ducks and drakes and of the whole scene on the beach, it seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters…. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rages; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter III)

As a painter, Lily appreciates those who can successfully sculpt social interactions to create works of beauty much as artists do. Making peace with memories of those who have been part of our lives includes appreciating the blessings they brought to us, the ways they did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves..

Coming to terms with the dead is not just about appreciating their gifts but also about accepting their limitations. Lily thinks of a couple (the Rayleys) whose relationship Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged but who ended up in a disappointing marriage, and of Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to pair Lily with another of the guests, William Bankes:

“….oh, the dead! She murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them. They are at our mercy. Mrs. Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us…. For a moment Lily, standing there, with the sun hot on her back, summing up the Rayleys, triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay, who would never know how Paul went to coffee-houses and had a mistress; how he sat on the ground and Minta handed him his tools; how she stood here painting, had never married, not even William Bankes.” (The Lighthouse, Ch. V)

Only those who idolize the dead can think they were right all the time. It’s more healthy, and by no means disrespectful to their memories, to recognize their shortcomings and mistakes as well as their strengths and successes. By so doing we release their power over us.

Lily wishes to express the complexity of her memories to someone. She has the impulse to engage Mr. Carmichael, another guest on the lawn, but holds back:

“Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. ‘About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay’—no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low.” (Chapter V)

This inability to connect with another produces a sense of emptiness, which brings her back to Mrs. Ramsay’s absence:

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! She called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again.” (Chapter V)

There’s in her yearning a sense of wrongness about death, which she imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael could rectify:

“For one moment she felt that if the both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” (Chapter V)

She cries in anguish, then feels relieved, and with it senses Mrs. Ramsay’s presence:

“And now slowly the pain of the want, and the bitter anger…lessened; and of their anguish left, as antidote, a relief that was balm in itself, and also, but more mysteriously, a sense of someone there, of Mrs. Ramsay…” (The Lighthouse, Chapter VII)

All these things—the urge to say what’s inexpressible, the thought that the person could be brought back if only one did the right thing, the alteration between feeling the person’s absence and their presence—are part of the complexity of grief.

A few chapters later, Lily is still working on her painting and still thinking of Mrs. Ramsay. She still feels that something is missing, both in the painting and in her emotions. She tries to resolve the impasse by thinking of how others viewed Mrs. Ramsay. There were those at the house who disliked her—who thought she was too given over to activity and not enough to thought. Lily thinks about the Ramsays’ marriage—how her husband offended her, how she responded, how they eventually made up. Lily seems to be filling in her mental picture of Mrs. Ramsay. She’s making sense of the person, distilling disparate memories into a coherent essence.

At the same time she is trying to solve what is missing in her painting. As she’s thinking of how to view the objects she is painting, she’s thinking simultaneously of how to view Mrs. Ramsay:

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XI)

Someone moves inside the house, changing the scene, which throws Lily suddenly back into her desire for Mrs. Ramsay:

“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! She cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the chair, with the table.” (Chapter XI)

After one’s memories and feelings about a loss have all been reviewed, one must wait and pay attention. Something will happen—in this case, movement indoors—that will change the vision, the picture. Then one sees two realities simultaneously—the chair and table that are also a miracle. In the emotional realm, she still has the same desire for Mrs. Ramsay, but that becomes no longer (or perhaps not only) a horror but part of ordinary experience. It’s interesting that the term “miracle” is used to describe this dual awareness, since neither Wolff nor her character seem to believe in divine intervention. The absence of God or an afterlife is for many of us a necessary horizon for coming to terms with the death of a close friend or family member. Perhaps Wolff has some sense here that successful grieving requires awareness of the transcendent, though she doesn’t make that explicit.

Eventually, Lily concludes that Mr. Ramsay has reached the island. She’s relieved. Mr. Carmichael appears beside her and she realizes they were not as disconnected as she imagined:

“He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: ‘They will have landed,’ and she felt that she had been right. They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XIII)

So, connection to another person is an additional element in coming to terms with the loss of someone who has been important to us. This is the final piece that Wolff gives us, along with appreciating the blessings we’ve received from them, accepting their limitations, desiring to bring them back, experiencing both a sense of the person’s continued presence and their absence, pulling together a more coherent or complete view of the person, and waiting for the shift from tragedy to recognition that grief is part of normal human experience. It’s a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of grief, though I think it’s incomplete since it omits any notion of God or an afterlife and is skeptical about our ability to communicate our experience to others.

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Playing Pool While Old

“Ya got trouble folks,” sang Professor Harold Hill, the con man in The Music Man,

“Right here in River City
Trouble with a capital ‘T’
And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

Professor Hill convinces the town that forming a band will save the youth of River City from the depravity sure to result from them spending their days playing pool. I’m afraid that I was once one of those youths that took up pocket billiards, though in my case that didn’t require frequenting a pool hall. I just had to go downstairs.

For years, my dad ran his accounting business out of the basement of our home. When his business moved to a different location, the basement became home to a pool table. I was in high school at the time, and worked to convince my parents that a pool table was just the thing to put there.

It was quite a challenge to get the table downstairs. A carpenter had to remove most of the stairs and several of us stood the table on end and lowered it to the floor. It just fit the space; some shots required use of a junior-sized cue since the walls were too close to the table to use a full-sized stick. My friends and I were the ones who made most use of the table. I eventually got proficient enough to at times sink a half-dozen or so shots in a row.

The table was used quite a bit for perhaps a dozen years, but it fell into disuse once my brother, sister, and I moved away from home. Eventually, my parents’ grandchildren were old enough to play an occasional game. When I returned home to help my parents in 2012, the table was still there, used only as a flat surface for temporary storage or for wrapping presents.

Last fall, I decided to play pool again, and have regularly done so now for the better part of a year. Most evenings shortly before bed I go downstairs, rack the balls, and shoot at them until the table is empty.

I find myself looking forward to this nightly ritual. Partly, it’s because I’m reminded of the countless games I played a half-century ago in that very spot. I’m connected to my younger self and to the friends that came over to play with me. The table shows signs of wear: the cloth is threadbare in places and there are dead spots in the rail cushions. As such, it is an old friend: timeworn but still stalwart, welcoming my attentions.

Playing pool is not just a matter of nostalgia, though. I like the sensory aspects of the game: the smooth barrel of the cue stick as I slide it forward between my fingers; the sharp crack of the break, balls scattering as if in panic; the playroom-bright colors of the balls as they lie on the cloth like Easter eggs waiting for a child to basket them; the click of ball against ball; and the satisfying clunk as each ball is holstered in a hole, followed by the rumble of its run down the ball return and thunk as it tumbles into the collection receptacle. A pool game is a well-balanced world of sight and sound, of stasis and movement.

It is for me a calming world. Most of the day, I’m prone to what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” which is to say that my thoughts are unsettled, restless, and inconstant. I jump between past, present, and future, from one topic to another. I would prefer that my mind be more steady and focused, but that’s not easy to achieve. Playing pool puts the monkey mind to sleep. I’m paying attention only to the table and its contents. I think just of the physics of the shot that I’m about to take, or at most of that shot plus what I hope the next shot will be. I have to concentrate intently on where I want the ball to go, and get immediate feedback (in the form of a missed shot) if I let my concentration lapse. For me, pool evokes mindfulness better than reading, yoga, or breathing exercises–it’s about on a par with meditating on Scripture or an early morning jog.

This settling effect of pool is more pronounced for me than it was in my teens and twenties. Back then, I was focused on improving my game, and would be unhappy with myself when I missed easy shots. Now, I’ve accepted that I’m at best a slightly above average pool player. So a missed shot is useful feedback as to whether I am concentrating, but is not an occasion for judgment. For me, a pool shot matters sufficiently to absorb me in the moment, but matters not at all afterwards. It’s useful for all of us to have something like that in our lives.

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The Christian Communist

I’ve been writing recently about stuff–our tendency to acquire too many things, our difficulty letting go, our need to simplify as we get older. Recently I ran across a quote on possessions and spirituality by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. As befitting someone who gave up personal possessions in order to enter the monastery, he doesn’t consider possessions all that important. What is interesting is how he suggests that serious, mature followers of Christ handle the possessions they do have. He writes as follows:

“A man cannot be a perfect Christian–that is, a saint–unless he is also a communist. This means that he must either absolutely give up all right to possess anything at all, or else only use what he himself needs, of the goods that belong to him, and administer the rest for other men and for the poor: and in his determination of what he needs he must be governed to a great extent by the gravity of the needs of others.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 178

The book containing these thoughts was published in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War. To advocate for communism at that time was to be deliberately provocative. Merton wasn’t referring to the capitalized Communism that characterized the totalitarian state founded by Lenin in 1917, though, or even to communism as public ownership of a society’s means of production, an alternative to capitalism. He’s not suggesting the abolition of personal property. Instead, he’s suggesting that followers of Christ not withhold any property from the realm over which Christ reigns. He seems to suggest two forms that such a renunciation of control over possessions can take. One is for us followers of Christ to give up all possessions and own nothing–and that’s what’s been done through the ages in many monastic communities and intentional Christian communities. The other is to retain possessions but to not regard those possessions as our own, to be disposed of as we wish. Instead, possessions are to be administered–stewarded might be a good equivalent here–to meet not just our needs but the needs of others.

Frankly, I would prefer to regard the things in my name–a house, the contents of that house, a car, several bank accounts–as mine. I’m pretty good at managing them so as to have money left over at the end of most months. I’m not extravagant. I have made some purchases recently–buying a house after selling another one and getting a new couch and kitchen table for that house. They were sensible purchases. And I do make charitable gifts to meet the needs of others. But I haven’t fully adopted the view that Merton is proposing, which means to take the needs of others as seriously as I do my own needs.

What does it mean to take the needs of others, especially those who are quite needy, that seriously?  Is it to do something like mid-twentieth century thinker Simone Weil is thought by some to have done–refusing to eat more than residents of Nazi-occupied France while herself seriously ill? That was a costly choice, contributing to her death at age 34. I can’t imagine that degree of self-denial, and I don’t see how those in whose name she sacrificed were materially improved by what she did. Taking others’ needs as seriously as I do my own probably does mean, though, to be well-informed about poverty in our world, to live quite modestly so as to have extra resources, and to share generously of those resources. It’s to remember as well that poverty isn’t just material. It’s also social, emotional, and spiritual. Some people I pass on the street have ragged clothes; some have ragged souls. I could do much better than I am doing now at being aware of both sorts of need, and sharing of my resources to try to help with both. To do otherwise is to be miserly. I want to be a better communist, seeing my resources as not mine alone but as available to whatever members of the human community can benefit from them. I’ve been blessed, and it is only just to try to bless others as well.

 

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When Fraility Arrives

Recently, David Sedaris wrote an article about his family, in particular his elderly father, who fell on the eve of his 95th birthday party. When family arrived he fell again and was disoriented, so he was admitted to a rehab facility and eventually to a long-term care facility. David visited after a few months. A few days later, while spending some time at his beach house, he reflected on the marked change in his father:

“It was strange being at the beach without him, but we didn’t yet have the proper equipment: a walk-in shower, bars beside the toilet, and so on. A year earlier, he hadn’t needed those things, but that’s the difference between ninety-four and ninety-five. The day before his fall, he’d driven to the gym, not knowing that it was his last time behind the wheel of a car, his last night in his own bed. There would be a lot of that in his immediate future: the last time he could dress himself, the last time he could walk. I worried that he had entered a period when it would be one thing after another, death by a thousand cuts….”

This passage resonated with me because of recent events with my 93-year-old mother. She started having difficulty breathing right after the first of the year. Her feeding tube, which had been replaced less than a month earlier, started leaking, soaking her clothes. She was having to do quite a bit of laundry and was feeling overwhelmed. She had an X-ray that discovered fluid around her heart. I was out of town at the time, finally getting back January 9. She had had a bad day and my brother had taken a half-day off work to come over and help her through the afternoon and evening. She had just reached the end of what she could do, she said.

She was only a little better the next morning. I sat in on her appointment with her PA that day. He had prescribed a diuretic and a steroid taper, which helped some with symptoms. Still, he was concerned that she might be developing heart problems. He consulted the following day with a cardiologist, and finally decided she should go into the ER for further evaluation. The X-ray there showed pneumonia. She was admitted, but came home after only one night. They prescribed an antibiotic. The leaky feeding tube was replaced. A few days later she developed diarrhea, apparently from the antibiotic, and came close to her breaking point again as she tried to deal with this additional problem. I went back to the pharmacy to get Imodium. Thankfully, this helped quite a bit. I noticed, though, that she had trouble processing changes such as having to take the antibiotic and Imodium. Since she can’t take anything by mouth, making changes is admittedly more difficult than it would be for most of us. Still, she struggled more than she used to. She became more emotional when things didn’t go well, I think because she lacked confidence and feared that things would get worse.

Mom had a nurse coming to monitor her and for the first time agreed that it would be best to have a caregiver help her when she takes a shower. This extra support seemed to help her rally. She returned to some approximation of what’s been normal for her over the past year or so. She was even able to cope well with her house losing power after an ice storm and having to stay with my brother for four days. Still, episodes like the one in January are reminders that for an “old elderly” person, the dividing line between coping and not coping may be closer than any of us imagine–in mom’s case, just an infection and some extra loads of laundry away. We the family of the octogenarian/nonagenarian/centenarian need to be both attentive to the possibility that the dividing line can easily be crossed and responsive when that happens. It’s also important to have compassion for their struggles. In a couple decades, maybe less, we’re likely to be where they are. The least we can do is treat them as we would like to be treated when we reach that point.

Mom at home, reading.

 

 

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The Changed Lines of Generational Power

Atul Gawande. Image from the New York Times review of Being Mortal.

I have been reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a Harvard Professor. He’s a busy guy! His book explores how medical advances have changed aging and death, not always for the better. He starts by discussing traditional ways of living and dying. He notes that the deference and subservience shown to the elderly in traditional societies has changed:

“The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. it demoted the family. It gave people–the young and the old–a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.” p. 22.

I hadn’t thought of modern intergenerational dynamics in quite this way. I knew that for most of human history up until the industrial revolution property constituted the greatest store of wealth and the oldest generation in families held title to property. This left their children and grandchildren beholden to the parents as they worked on the family farm and waited to inherit the property themselves. With the growth of factories and the towns that supported them, the young had new options. This diminished the power that the family head could exercise over his (or in some cases her) offspring. Gawande is suggesting that when this happened it wasn’t so much the parents who lost status and significance but the family itself. Older adults gain in freedom what they lose in power. His assertion makes sense, if only because those with power are always constrained by it. That’s because power isn’t permanent, and there’s always the possibility it will be lost. The powerful thus have to devote their energies to surveillance and sanctions. Losing power over others is liberating both to those who exercise power and those over whom it is exercised.

Gawande suggests that instead of venerating either age or youth, we now venerate the independent self. That’s the self free of constraint, the self freed to embark on journeys of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Culturally we see that elevation of the independent self in the teenager striving for autonomy or the young adult who leaves familiar haunts so as to have maximum opportunity for self-expression and self-exploration. As Gawande suggests, such valuing of independence and self-discovery can also be found in many middle-aged and older adults also value independence and self-discovery. Certainly that’s one reason why there are significant numbers of people in the second half of life who move to retirement communities in distant states or travel in an RV full-time. They’ve broken (or at least stretched) the ties of family and community to pursue self-focused goals.

In my work as a therapist, I tend to see the disadvantages of societal trends more than I see the advantages. As to the tug-of-war between self and family, I still have clients in families that are too confining, where the patriarch or matriarch exercises excessive control. More often, though older adults and their adult children are too disconnected. The parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, while the children are adrift, lacking the direction and affirmation that they could receive from a structured family setting. And even if both parent and child enjoy independence, that’s not a durable arrangement. As Gawande puts it:

“There remains one problem with this way of living. Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible.” p. 23

I have always been a rather independent person. Over the past several years, though, I’ve moved away from autonomy and towards connectedness. I came back to my home town to help my parents in 2012. I’m still helping my mother, and, in 2018, I bought a house near my son and his family, with plans to move there when my mom no longer needs me. I had plenty of years to appreciate my independence. Recently, I’ve appreciated social and family ties much more. That runs counter to cultural trends, but, for me at least, it seems the better way.

 

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Save the World? Don’t Look at Me!

Earlier this year I read Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (San Francisco: Harper One, 2016) by D.L. Mayfield. Mayfield is a young woman of faith who spent much of her early adulthood volunteering with refugees (and their children) who were trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced from their homes. She started out with high hopes that she could convert them to Christianity (most were Muslim) and help them succeed in what was to them an unfathomable culture. She eventually came to see that she could make at best a modest difference in their lives. She also realized that her efforts to help others were more about her than about them:

“Once I thought I was going to save everybody. Through Jesus’s love and homework help, art projects and good literature, church activities and the sheer force of my goodwill. This way of framing life points to the dangerous thinking of the savior complex: I am the sun, and everybody else is just a moon. But of course, I don’t shine so brightly in anyone else’s eyes, and I am learning this slowly.”

I’ve had limited experience volunteering with refugees, but in other ways I’ve been tempted to develop a savior complex. In my 20s, I was trained in psychology, one of the helping professions. Like Mayfield, I was interested in helping everybody–in making them feel better, in changing the way they thought, in teaching them skills that would improve how they functioned in life, in assisting them to find purpose and meaning. I had a toolkit of strategies to use, a store of goodwill towards others, and boundless confidence in my own abilities. Like Mayfield, my interest in helping others masked another interest–in proving myself, in demonstrating how knowledgeable and skillful I was.

I would have eventually figured out I couldn’t save everyone. Thankfully, that realization hit me sooner rather than later. My first full-time therapy job was in a prison–the State Prison of Southern Michigan, now closed but at the time the largest walled prison in the world. My responsibilities included group therapy with sex offenders and with aggressive inmates. Being charitable towards my younger self, I think that my efforts were helpful for a handful of group members. For the majority of them, though, I was no more than a passing breeze, momentarily rippling the psychic surface but having no impact whatsoever on the depths of their dysfunction.

State Prison of Southern Michigan, 1949

I moved on to other jobs after a few years, including a few where I think I made some difference for a substantial portion of those with whom I worked. Still, I’ve always remembered that my best efforts are insufficient in themselves and that people change not because I’ve performed some magic but because I helped them figure out ways to make changes they were already motivated to make.

I also have learned, like Mayfield, that when I focus on proving myself I do a disservice not only to those with whom I work, but also to myself. For I am then living a lie about who I am and what I need to make me whole. Mayfield says this about herself:

“I am poor, in that I do not know how to love people just as they are. I am poor in that I do not know how to love myself if I am not actively giving something. I am poor in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out.”

I have always been poor in the same way. Paradoxically, the times I’ve been the richest spiritually have been when I’ve been able to recognize that poverty. When I partly retired, I experienced the loss of importance and recognition common among those who leave professional-level jobs. Perhaps, though, it’s better to look at this post-retirement era not as loss but as opportunity. I have the opportunity to accept the crumbling of the foundations on which my false self based its sense of worth. It would be a mistake to bolster that false self by desperately trying to be useful to somebody somewhere. Instead, I have the opportunity to accept the limitations of what I can do, to admit like Mayfield that I don’t do a very good job at loving either myself or others. I have the opportunity to be poor. May I have the courage to do just that.

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Cold Comfort at the Church of the Dancing Girl

I have mixed feelings about attending unfamiliar churches. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see the worship practices of various faith communities and meaningful to join with them in the majestic, never-ending stream of praise that, if the book of Psalms is to believed, flows from and through all creation. On the other hand, I get frustrated trying to follow an unfamiliar liturgy and feel awkward introducing myself to strangers.

Thus, I had mixed feelings as I headed recently to the “dancing girl church”–so dubbed by my daughter-in-law after a visit there a few years ago during which a prepubescent girl danced in the aisles during congregational singing. My daughter-in-law didn’t find that impromptu liturgical dance particularly edifying, and she and her family never went back there. I recently bought a house in Missouri near where they live, and the dancing girl church is near my new home.

I decided at the last minute to attend church that morning. I almost stayed home since I had come down with a cold the day before and hadn’t yet been able to staunch the flow from my nose. I still spend most of my time several hours away, in Michigan, and I already have a church I like there, so one part of me thought I shouldn’t bother looking into churches in my new locale. Perhaps it was mainly habit that pushed me out the door that morning, or perhaps it was my awareness that I’m likely to feel an inner void during the week if I don’t attend a worship service on Sunday. Anyway, I went.

I arrived only a few minutes before the scheduled start time, but the sanctuary was mostly empty when I shuffled in and found a seat on the aisle near the back. On my way in I had been handed a flyer containing the order of worship, and I perused that as congregants slowly dribbled in, coming to rest in the pews. An older woman, perhaps in her mid-80s, slid into the far end of my pew, sat down a couple feet to my right, and introduced herself.

“Hello, I’m Marilyn,” she said, offering her hand.

“I’m Bob,” I replied. “I’ve got a cold, though, so I won’t shake your hand.”

I didn’t want to expose her to my germs, but having an excuse to not take her hand was also convenient, a way to keep a little distance.

The service eventually started with a greeting by the pastor. The musical ensemble off to his right cantered through several songs while the congregation sang along. I knew about half of the songs; I find comfort in such melodic familiarity in a mostly unfamiliar environment. There was no dancing in the aisles; dancing girl must have either been away or retired from dancing. Between songs the pastor delivered a brief meditation about finding God in the midst of our busy lives. Consulting my bulletin, I saw that we had arrived at the “Quiet Minute,” though I noticed that this so-called minute lasted well over 6o seconds.

Before long, we were at the “Talkative Ten Minutes,” a time in the service when the congregation was invited to “take intentional time to risk saying hello to one another.” As soon as this was announced, Marilyn got my attention. She had something to say to me.

“I’m so sorry about your cold,” she started. “When I have a cold I take this product that really helps. It’s called Cold-Ease. I thought I might have some in my purse, but I looked and I don’t. Could I write the name on your bulletin, though?”

Then she did, misspelling “ease” and drawing a box around the name to emphasize it. I thanked her, more appreciative of her evident concern than for the specific suggestion (I was already on Zicam). I talked to a few other people and even found a room upstairs where I could get a little hot tea to soothe my throat.

There was a sermon, a good if a bit redundant meditation on a passage in Proverbs about the destructive and constructive potential of our words. Then the service was over. Marilyn thanked me for coming and encouraged me to get something for my cold; I again expressed my gratitude to her. She had done what the faithful are supposed to do: she welcomed the stranger, offering what succor she could. I probably will return to the church of the dancing girl when I’m in town. For me, though, it deserves a new name. “Cold-ease church” doesn’t sound quite right, but the name should make some reference to how Marilyn reached out to me. I’ve come up with this: “Church of Shelter from the Cold.” I rather like the sound of that.

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Another Grandparent’s Day

Three years ago I wrote a post about visiting my grandkids’ school for Grandparents Day. Last week I went to Grandparents Day again; had gone last year as well, though I didn’t post anything about it on WordPress.

I have three grandchildren who live about 8 hours away from Grand Rapids, where I spend most of my time. Calvin, my oldest grandchild, is now in high school. Last spring I was in town when his middle school had its own Grandparents Day, but Calvin felt uncomfortable with having a grandparent accompany him to classes. Awkwardness is very much a middle school thing. Fortunately, the school administrators had anticipated this possibility, and told the kids that they could take the morning off to spend with whatever grandparents were available. Calvin and I went to Starbucks, where I ordered coffee and he had hot chocolate. He becomes uncommunicative when plied with questions, but converses quite well otherwise. We had a nice talk.

My other two grandchildren are still in elementary school. Theo is a fifth grader, while Willa is in first grade. Unlike Calvin, they were both eager to have Grandpa Bob at school. The activities started with an assembly. Grandparents were seated in sections arranged according to the grade of their youngest grandchild. The children were then escorted one grade at a time from their classrooms to the stage at the front of the auditorium. Each group sang a few songs, then were sent down to sit with their grandparents. Willa’s class sang a patriotic song and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” an American folk song. Willa clearly enjoyed the song, and would sing it again and again over the next few days, changing the lyrics slightly to amuse herself. She had difficulty finding me when the first graders were sent to sit with their grandparents, looking terribly woebegone after a minute or so of searching. I left my seat to retrieve her, then all was well.

Willa and I watched for Theo, and it wasn’t long before he appeared on the stage with a large group of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They performed a number of songs, including the school anthem, which, after several Grandparents Days, is becoming familiar to me. He found us at the end of the assembly, and we headed off to the next activity.

Our instructions directed us to either the Spirit Shop (where school apparel is sold) or the Book Fair. It wasn’t difficult to figure out why this was on the schedule–some administrator must have figured that parading grandchildren and their grandparents in front of merchandise the grandchildren would like to own is an effective way of extracting grandparent funds for the school coffers. It worked in my case; I bought a book each for Theo and Willa. Willa picked a book that she liked, Theo one that he liked AND that was expensive. Good economic sense, Theo.

After that, I visited each of their classrooms. I met their teachers and a few of their classmates. Willa had some art she had done in preparation for the big day, and the teacher had supplied a couple worksheets for grandchildren and grandparents to do together. Theo had a page of interview questions for me, many of them about my experiences when I was his age or things that are different now than they were then. It was a nice opportunity to talk about how the world has changed over the course of the last 60 years.

School was dismissed before noon. Theo, Willa, and I went to their house, and my son, who was working at home, joined us for lunch.  We spent more time together the next two days, at which point I left for Michigan. I’ll be back often, though, since I’ve bought a house fifteen minutes from where they live.

Whereas Calvin no longer has interest in Grandparents Day (fortunately, he still likes to hang out with his grandparents), it’s as much fun for me as ever. The day is ceremonial in nature–a socially significant event in which the actions of the participants are imbued with special meaning. It’s a celebration of several things–the child’s academic successes, the grandparent’s investment in future generations, and the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. We and they are near opposites when it comes to our place along the human lifespan, but our affection for each other transcends that difference. I am a fortunate man, for I’m a grandpa.

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Recovering From Loss: Giving Back

In his book Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP Books, 2017), Russ Ramsey, pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of his encounter with a life-threatening illness. Ramsey developed a persistent fever caused by a blood-borne bacterial infection that attacked his mitral valve. He spent his fortieth birthday awaiting the surgery needed to repair his heart. The surgery saved his life, but beat him up rather severely:

“When I woke from surgery I was a mess. I had a broken sternum, a dead left foot, a malfunctioning brain, gallons of medications pulsing through my body, a puncture wound in my chest from the drainage tube, and the thick fog of sedation still hovering over me.” p. 79

Ramsey details his recovery from these and other afflictions. By the end of the book, two years after his surgery, he has recovered sufficiently to climb a fourteen-thousand foot mountain peak. It was quite a struggle to get to that point, though. Nearing the one year mark, he described the losses he had sustained. His relationships were affected–though others gave support, he felt isolated from them. His body didn’t function for a time. His short-term memory and mental acuity were affected for quite a while. He lost for a time the roles that defined his identity.

Ramsey felt an affinity with a friend whose life was also severely affected by illness. Barbara had been dealing with cancer for five years. After a period of remission, the cancer had returned. In between their respective treatments, Russ and Barbara would meet to compare notes. Barbara had been determined to beat the cancer, and did for a time. Not only did the cancer return, though, it metastasized. Barbara died at home under hospice care. Ramsey worked with her husband John on the funeral arrangements. He had been asked to preside, and assuming that role helped him regain what he had lost:

“Barbara was honoring my life by calling on me to officiate the celebration that marked the end of her suffering. It had been a while since I had stood on such sacred ground, and it occurred to me that her funeral marked a certain milestone in my own recovery. I was now returning to the work of bearing the burdens of others–work I had been unable to do only months before.” p. 126

The experience was one of being restored or healed. For Ramsey, the climax occurred at the graveside, while John was lowering Barbara’s casket into the ground. In a sense, while her body was descending, his soul was being lifted up, as if they were on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. He writes,

“I felt a hibernating sense of purpose come awake. As I looked at his family and at the crowd that had gathered, I considered my role as the officiate of this unfolding drama and I remembered who I am. I am a pastor. I shepherd people’s hearts. This is what I do.”

Ramsey then makes an important point regarding the way in which we move beyond mourning our losses:

“Healthy mourning eventually requires us to not only receive acts of compassion but also to give them…. I had spent the better part of the year mostly on the receiving end of help. This funeral, one year after my affliction, was a significant part of my healing.”

When we see others struggling with loss, we want to come aside them and help them in some way, and that is a good impulse. After a time, they may offer us something in return. We’re often tempted to turn down their offer, encouraging them instead to just focus on their recovery. What we may miss is that helping others as they’ve been helped is part of their recovery. Let’s accept what they offer with gratitude, knowing that in this, too, they are being restored.

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Living in an Age of Accumulation

George Carlin may be right about a house being a place to keep our stuff, but, nowadays, we’re less inclined to leave home in order to get more stuff. That’s because more stuff regularly appears magically on our doorsteps while we lounge around the house. Online shopping is so easy! In America and other first world countries, this is an age for accumulating stuff. According to a recent article by staff writer Alana Semuels in the Atlantic, Americans in particular are amassing stuff with tremendous ease:

“Before the advent of the internet, we had to set aside time to go browse the aisles of a physical store, which was only open a certain number of hours a day. Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping. We can tell Alexa we need new underwear, and in a few days, it will arrive on our doorstep. And because of the globalization of manufacturing, that underwear is cheaper than ever before—so cheap that we add it to our online shopping carts without a second thought.”

And shipping is often free. Online retailer Amazon currently has over 100 million Amazon Prime members, who, among other benefits, pay nothing for two-day shipping. It can even seem frugal to order more stuff to take full advantage of that $119 per year membership fee.

Reading Semuels’ article made me think of a post I wrote a few months ago about the capital vice of greed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Desiring more than what is needed certainly seems to aptly characterize we 21st century American consumers. Here’s what Semuels has to say about our spending habits:

“In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion—twice as much as they’d spent in 2002—on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted those numbers for inflation. Over that time, the population grew just 13 percent. Spending on personal care products also doubled over that time period. Americans spent, on average, $971.87 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s 20 percent more money than they spent in 2000. The average American bought 7.4 pairs of shoes last year, up from 6.6 pairs in 2000.”

I’ve been trying to imagine a scenario in which someone needed 66 new garments a year, and I can’t, except perhaps an infant quickly outgrowing one size after another. As for 7.4 pairs of shoes, I picture someone with pronated ankles training for a marathon, but how often does that happen? Most of us just want ever-increasing amounts of stuff–all kinds of stuff, stuff we don’t need. Our closets are full, our landfills overflow, and storage-unit rental is at an all-time high.

Paradoxically, as we gain possessions we lose that which is of much greater importance. As I pointed out in the earlier post, greed impoverishes us spiritually. We seek to be self-sufficient, relying on ourselves for everything and on God for nothing. As a result, our relationship with him atrophies.

A few months ago I sold the house I had for 12 years with the intent of moving nearer one of my sons and his family. I had donated quite a bit of furniture, clothes, and the like in preparation for the move. Still, as I packed up my things and put them in storage, it seemed like I had lots more stuff than a single, 70-year-old man has need of. When I then looked for houses in the area to which I hoped to move, one consideration was how big a house I should buy in order to accommodate my possessions. Houses less than about 900 square feet didn’t seem quite big enough. I ended up making an offer on a house with 1,250 square feet–about 500 square feet less than what I had had before, but still rather big for one person. I’m hoping that, once I move in, I’ll only buy what I need and will in fact continue to prune away what I’ve accumulated over the years.

Ridding myself of the material things I don’t need is a sort of spiritual discipline, an emptying of that which might preoccupy me in order that I can become more receptive to what I do need. I’m hopeful to continue the process of material simplification, yet also mindful that I’ll have to swim against the cultural current in order to be successful. I promise to update readers about how I’m doing!

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