C & JL

Mr. Gay wrote this on a little piece of paper at her funeral: Bonne nuit joli petit oiseau – Goodnight pretty little bird.

We’ll see you on the other side.


Crawfish guy

Well. I realized two things today:

1. No matter how many years I’ve been doing this, or how many stories I’ve heard, or how many hurt kids I’ve seen, or how well-trained I am, or how supportive an agency is: some days will just be hard. There will always be thirteen-year-olds committing suicide. There will always be live-in boyfriends beating little kids up. There will always be caregivers dying and overwhelmed teachers flying off the handle. There will always be anniversaries of deaths and seven-year-olds whose first response is to stab someone with a crayon. Kids will always make fun of other kids’ teeth and shoes, even if their mother has just died. Even if the kid is an excellent singer. There will never be enough resources. I will never go home and feel okay about it.

2. In New Orleans, sometimes a crazy guy will run after you with a boiled crawfish and say, “Good mawnin! Good mawnin!” moving the crawfish’s little mouth up and down like a puppet, and you won’t know it at the time, but at the end of the day, you’ll feel overwhelmed and discouraged and crawfish guy will make you smile.

Katie B.

This is strange, I know. But I have been thinking about Katie lately, and can’t NOT mention it… Also, I think things are cyclical, and most of the time we realize things internally before we process them mentally. Almost one year ago exactly, after bawling my eyes out over not getting accepted to UNLV, after plans for moving to California fell through, Lisa and I had our first conversation about me and Belize.

What a year.

There are moments here, in Santa Familia, when I am the happiest I have ever been in my whole life, almost like I was born half Belizean and raised with an invisible compass pointing me here.In those moments, I look around and think: how did I get here? How did I cross the bridge from—well, maybe I should go to Belize—to actually quitting my job and moving here?

It had always only been a threat. Like, when I got so fed up with life or work in Fort Wayne, I’d say, I should just move to another country. My mom has friends in Belize, you know. I could work in the schools, paint, teach—whatever they need.

But then I would get wrapped up in things like Taco Bell and Grey’s Anatomy and the GAP and would totally discard the stirring until the next time I felt bored or useless or unmotivated or overspent.

I only knew one girl personally, my age, who had actually picked up and moved to a developing country. Katie in Haiti. The tagline on her Myspace was: My heart belongs in Haiti. I always wished my heart belonged anywhere besides the Target dollar spot.

I have done lots of short-term missions trips—built churches, visited orphans, constructed wheelchair ramps for disabled seniors; I did a three-week stint with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina and loved it—but I could never figure out how to cross the bridge from vacation pay to unpaid leave to actually quitting my job and starting a new life. I didn’t even know how to take the first step. And the not knowing scared me into complacency.

Whenever Katie came in town, I would sigh and say, I wish I could do that in Belize. And she would say, “You could.” Then I’d shrug and keep eating my Molten Chocolate or Cookie Monster thinking I could never make it in Belize without hot flowing chocolate at my fingertips.

A week later, she’d go back to Haiti, and I’d go back to entry-level social work (which I loved, by the way) but I paid attention to her updates and support letters, and I began emailing little questions like: But what did you do with your car? What kind of phone plan do you have? Do you live with a family or on your own? How do I defer my school loans?

Those easy little questions and answers nudged me to a logistically comfortable place. It was always important to me to have a plan.

The great news is, a couple years earlier I had been run over by a semi.

In the hospital, the nurse looked at me and said, “God must have something really important planned for your life.” And though I was humbled and inclined to roll my eyes and insist it was just coincidence (I do believe my greatest fear sometimes is that God actually does believe I am valuable and capable of something very important), I nodded and whole-heartedly believed her.

Then I thought I should probably get on with things—figure out how to do something important and extraordinary with the life I’d been lent. So I explored a bunch of crazy interests I’d always wanted to pursue. (You can never know where God might use you, okay? It could have been in the theater classes at IPFW or at The Paul Mitchell School in San Diego, or in an MFA program in creative writing. Who’s to say? The important thing is I looked.)

And, actually, that 14th rejection letter from UNLV last February led to my first consideration for Belize Team 14—almost one year ago, exactly. The rest is history. I said goodbye to the MFA and Paul Mitchell school, put myself on spending freeze, and used the summer to prepare.

I remember how amazing my last day of work felt in September. Remember the crispy white Anne Taylor pants story? I could feel it in my bones—something great was ahead. Something important.  And it HAS been, both great and important.

In October, right after my first trip to Belize, Katie died in her sleep. In Haiti.

It was a terrible shock, and heartbreaking for all of us. I felt like I had just burst into the room excited with my brand new Belize, thinking it could be friends with her Haiti, and she was gone.
Not to mention the fact that she was gone.
It was just hard to understand.

So hard, in fact, I flew home in the middle of a six-week trip to Germany, ready and prepared to never leave Fort Wayne again—to skip Belize, defer grad school, hang on the couch with Sprinky for life.

But sometime later, I wrote this:

The miracle, I have realized—the exception, not the rule—is that we are alive. That our skin comes together and holds everything in. That our blood flows and our hearts beat. That we breathe in and out and are given a certain number of days to complete a certain task in the world, and that we think somehow all of this is our doing. That our lives belong to us. We are created, and we exist so long as our creator continues to breath life into our frail, fragile, pile of bones and skin and muscle. Each time we breathe in and out, we are experiencing a tremendous, fantastic, unbelievable miracle.

When I am here, I feel like God’s finger is on my pulse. I feel him breathing life and purpose into me.My heart belongs here, in Belize. And I can’t tell that to Katie, but God knows, and all he has to do while I am riding in the back of a pick-up truck with a bunch of Belizean kids sucking limes, is nudge her and say, “Look, Kate.You helped plant this seed.Well done.”


Take Two

Things I learned this week:

When you don’t really know what to do or where to go, the best thing sometimes is to just go home. And if you don’t have a home, you could just go to the last place you felt completely happy and useful and competent and loved, and if that happens to be on the couch with your decade old tie-dyed sheets, a stack of books and your best friend, in your old apartment in Fort Wayne instead of Europe, then fine. It’s not the end of the world.

If you begin to have fleeting moments of worry that maybe “home” is some guy popping the question with a ring from Zales in front of a fire next to the Christmas tree, or two kids and a house instead of grad school and Europe, you’re probably just homesick and approaching 30 in the Midwest at Christmastime, and home can actually be chili with your best friends or lunch at Las Lomas or Starbucks when it snows for the first time or even Wanda Sykes standup comedy and chicken noodle soup.

Someday in my life, maybe God will speak to me directly in the form of Morgan Freeman or a burning bush, but for now, I can only make the best decisions I can with what I have at the time, and trust that God will meet me there. My prayers at night usually go something like this: helphelphelphelp…sorrysorrysorrysorry…helphelphelphelphelp… thankyouthankyou.

The miracle, I have realized—the exception, not the rule—is that we are alive. That our skin comes together and holds everything in. That our blood flows and our hearts beat. That we breathe in and out and are given a certain number of days to complete a certain task in the world, and that we think somehow all of this is our doing. That our lives belong to us. We are created, and we exist so long as our creator continues to breath life into our frail, fragile, pile of bones and skin and muscle. Each time we breathe in and out, we are experiencing a tremendous, fantastic, unbelievable miracle.

When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry. And when someone tells you they’re sorry, you forgive them. We have this crazy weapon, this powerful tool against all the ugly and darkness and hurt in the world, called redemption. Hardly any of us use it, and it’s our one chance in the world to actually undo something. To undo something. An excuse to stop hating someone, and to offer someone else the same chance. Did you guys know about this?

We have to protect each other. We always have to protect each other, and I am the worst at remembering this, but it’s so important. I am doing my best to make the list of people who hate me in the world shorter, to become less harmful and more protective.

There is no timeframe for how life is supposed to go. Deferring is okay. It’s not a race and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I can do whatever I want whenever I want to.

Things happen, and we adjust. I am going back to Germany tomorrow.
Katie’s funeral was beautiful.
We are heartbroken.

avelut: mourning

Excerpts from Mudhouse Sabbath
Lauren Winner

…What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While the mourner is still bawling her eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocabulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

Mourning, maybe, is never easy, but it is better done inside a communal grammar of bereavement. Christianity has a hopeful and true vocabulary for death-and-resurrection. It is Judaism that offers the grammar for in between, for the mourning after death and before Easter.

Judaism understands mourning as a discipline, on in which the mourner is not only allowed, but expected, to be engaged. Rather than asking the mourner to paper over his grief, the Jewish community supports him in mourning. (My priest, who is always urging me to pray the despairing Book of Psalms, says that Judaism mourns well in part because Jews understand lament. “Christians,” he says, “do not know how to lament.”)

Jewish bereavement marks the days, and then the months, and then all the years after a death. The first space, called aninut (literally “burial”), comprises the days after death and before burial. During these days, mourners are exempt from the other requirements of Jewish law—they are not obligated to attend prayer services or visit the sick or welcome guests, because they are devoted entirely to the one commandment of preparing the dead for a funeral, and that preparation is all-consuming. Rabbi Margaret Holub says that mourners are exempt from other commandments during aninut because only the living are obligated by God’s law, and in those first days after a death, mourners “border on death themselves.” The community is not obligated to visit or comfort or feed the mourners, explains Rabbi Holub, because until the burial, “the death is still happening,” so the work of comforting cannot yet begin.”

Then the counting starts. The next demarked days are shiva, or “seven,” the first week after burial. In that first week, mourners “sit shiva.” The expression to sit shiva is enacted literally—after the funeral, you return home to sit on low chairs, as Job’s friends did; “they sat down with him toward the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him.” All the mirrors are draped in black, and the mourner lights a memorial candle, and she does not wash her hair or wear perfume or put on lipstick. Mourners do not have sex, or listen to music, or wear shoes. They do not leave the house the whole seven days, except on Shabbat. Their neighbors bring food. At the first meal after the funeral—called the seudat havra’ah, or the meal of recovery—the mourner is meant to eat an egg, whose obvious circular fertility is to begin the slow work of reminding the bereaved that she will live.

The next unit of mourning time is shloshim, thirty, the first month after death. After thirty days comes the full year of mourning, a period designated especially for those who mourn their parents.

This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate. Long after friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, the mourner is still in a place of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing of intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning rituals create—the harrowing shock of aninut, the pain of shiva, the stepping into life and world of sholshim. (The rabbis would be quick to point out that we do not observe the calendar of mourning because it is psychologically beneficial, but because it is commanded—and that is true, but why should it be surprising that God commanded something that therapists might now applaud?)

Whenever I have paid shiva a call…what has always struck me is the sheer crush of people. People in the den, people in the kitchen, people crowding out on the terrace and pressed into the hallway. The mourner who wants to weep in his cups alone is out of luck. On those days when he desires nothing more than to crawl back under the covers and shut out everything that breathes and has three dimensions, people pack into his home.

Not only is the community present for one’s mourning, God is present too. God is ubiquitous in Jewish bereavement because of the Kaddish. Countless commentators have observed that the Kaddish is a curious mourner’s prayer, because it says nothing about mourning. It is rather a prayer about God, describing Him as magnified and sanctified and worthy to be praised. It is not a prayer of rent garments and commemoration, but rather simply four verses of praise to God. “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, beyond any blessing or song.”

Even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise. This is not to say that the mourner should not fee what he feels—anger, disbelief, hatred. He can feel those things (and shout them out to God; God can take it.). You do not have to feel praise in the intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.

I can still number in single digits the funerals I’ve attended, and only one of them really mattered to me, the funeral of my nearest and dearest in England, just shortly after I became a Christian. Her name was Clementine…and she was driving on those swirling roads outside of Oxford and was killed by someone who later admitted to drinking seven or eight highballs before he got into his car.

It was sudden, of course, and horrible, and Clementine’s friends and family and all the people who loved her bricolaged their way into grief. We prayed the rite for the dead. We held an all-night vigil. We sent checks to Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. We sang her favorite hymns, and wore the sweaters she had loaned us and not yet reclaimed. And we put our pictures of her in picture frames, and were sad.

“Like all mourners,” I wrote to my friend in New York, “none of us who mourn Clementine really know what to do. It is all so shocking and unexpected and ridiculous and awful.”

I was not blood or marriage kin to Clementine, so according the particulars of Jewish law, even had I still been a practicing Jew, I was not a mourner, one who would sit on a low stool or say Kaddish. But I was reminded of the rhythm of mourning. I found, in the weeks after Clementine’s death, that I did not want to listen to music, that I could not, in fact, tolerate celebration of any kind. I even found it faintly annoying when a passerby whistled or hummed. Then, perhaps three months after Clementine died, some voice in my head told me that I was overdue, that I had been sitting sackcloth for far longer than the thirty days of shloshim. So that night I went to hear the choir performing at St. John’s College.

I have not said Kaddish. On the anniversary of her death, I will send another check to MADD. I have purchased a yahrtzeit candle and closeted it away in my linen closet, and on October 19 I will pull it out and find some matches and remember my dead.

For Katie and Chase, for their families, for our friends, for all of us:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26

Four Skinny Trees

Four Skinny Trees

They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here. Four raggedy excuses planted by the city. From our room we can hear them, but Nenny just sleeps and doesn’t appreciate these things.

Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.

Let one forget his reason for being, they’d all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.

Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street

Our good friend died. I came home.