Mortality

(Un)Holy Saturday: A Community Lament Psalm

dark cross

It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.

There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.

On (Not) Minding Mortality

Yesterday I was reminded by two different folks of my blog, which is the first item put on hold when life gets really busy. Blog writing–reflective essays, really–is my favorite kind of writing, and I always mean to do better about not neglecting it. If I could do this for a living, I believe I would. So here’s something for today.

When I opened the page to start an entry, I found the following two paragraphs that I had begun last year. Let me tell you, I was in a really different place then than I am now, so it is not the same entry I would do today. Still, as I read it, I thought it was important to show the contrast and reflect on that for a minute. The original title was Minding Mortality. I felt like that needed to change too, so I changed it slightly as you can see.

One unexpected realization of practicing mindfulness has been that I am more mindful now of my own mortality. That’s probably due to my coming to the practice at this particular age; I’m fifty-five. I used to tell people that weight, not age, was my worrisome number. There have seldom been days in my life when I did not think about how much I weigh. Still do. I am happy to report that with the discernment that has come with getting older–and with having a generous life-partner–I now have a more peace-full relationship with my body. I have healthier reasons for wanting there to be less of me. But, age. I didn’t mind turning 50; in fact, I was proud that I didn’t mind. I was traveling, meeting people, enjoying life. That year I had an extended episode of cognitive dissonance–a mid-life crisis, if you will–about the meaning of life. Not just “the meaning of life,” but the meaning of my life. That is why the title of this blog is so important to me. It indicates a moment at the crossroads when focused, deliberate thinking was imperative. I remember distinctly the day when I took a different path that led to here. I didn’t know then that it had to do with thinking about mortality, but I see now that it does. If I had been content that my life had been meaningfully well spent, the dissonance would have been a lot less jarring.

Three years later, at fifty-three, I began grappling with the awareness of not having as many years left as I have lived. I started expressing my consciousness of it in small ways at first~making joking references to being put in a nursing home by my kids as my parents had done. Confirming my beneficiaries. Then one day I told Sarah that I would really like to get a diy project done so that I could enjoy it before I was dead. And it wasn’t a figure of speech

So that was last year. Since then, some imbalances have righted themselves after a good deal of grieving, and I had a bit of re-adjusting to life to do. Once again, I felt like I was emerging from a cocoon to a new day of opportunity that beamed the question, Who do you want to be? Except this time, the question was not out there alone in the universe for me to orchestrate a response to it. The question that settled on me like a warm sweater is, Who does God want me to be? I gotta tell you–when a question like this is put in the way it was put to me–well, I commenced to find the answer. Trust me, I’ll work through more of it here; the way the path opened up is, at least to me, fascinating–sometimes a little scary.

What is a good ending for the post from a year ago? As with most things, age and one’s location on the continuum of birth-to-death depends on how you frame it. And for me, it’s the difference between the two questions, above. Lived for myself, each day, each week, each month would be “one less.” On the other hand, resting–existing, thriving, living–in what Marcus Borg might call the more-ness of God illuminates the moreness of life.

For Tracy. Remember:
Marty Robbins The Master’s Call

God Laughs, or Fun with Bell’s Palsy

You make your plans, and God laughs. That’s what happened to me over the weekend. Let me go back, though, and start with discovering the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which I wrote about here in November 2014. I recollected how finding the band made me realize how much I had missed making music, marching in parades, performing in concerts. How after more than 30 years, finding the AFB was like discovering a new, yet long lost treasure. Last year, I marched my first season of parades in various Atlanta community festivals. It was wondrous. And at Christmas, I performed in my first concert playing French Horn in 35 years. Last Saturday morning, I marched mellophone with the AFB in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade. Afterwards, members of the band had lunch and drinks and fellowship at a local restaurant, which is the custom with this group.

Saturday night, kept waking up with what felt like a neck cramp. When I woke up early Sunday my speech was slurred, which I chalk up to needing a little more sleep, so I went back to bed. When I woke up again, I couldn’t blink my left eye. I ended up Sunday at the emergency room in Marietta. After they have ruled out a stroke, which was probably the best news I have ever received in my life, they told me I had a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. After a lot of googling I found out that it’s caused by virus, kind of like shingles. Likely because I had the flu, and that virus was in my system, it ended up attacking my facial nerve, causing it to be droopy and paralyzed. Like shingles, it was likely triggered by stress. In addition to facial paralysis–a word, like biopsy, fills me with terror–I have heightened ear sensitivity in my left ear, so loud noises, including my own sneezing, amplify like I’m standing in front of a Bose speaker. By all accounts, I will (should?) regain use of my facial muscles. Most well-wishers report success stories. It is totally unrelated to a stroke, and contracting it one time does not mean I will get it again. Those are the things I know. The worst part is that I can’t blink, so my eye gets dry and irritated. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. I have to keep eye drops in it and wear a patch. Having only one eye affects depth perception and means I can’t drive. I can’t whistle or smile or buzz my lips. And buzzing one’s lips is essential to playing a horn.

Even though I realize I am very blessed in that this could’ve been so much worse, I’m still having to learn to deal with it. There are lots of adjustments I’m having to make pretty quickly. I’m learning how to have meals with straws and napkins. I’m learning how to turn my head in order to see better with an eyepatch. I’m learning to enunciate words using one side of my mouth. I’m learning how to encounter other people whose first response is to look away from me. I tried to go to the office yesterday, and by the end of the day I was exhausted from having to compensate physically in order to get from point A to point B, or participate in meetings. Talking and looking took a lot of energy that I had taken for granted. Part of the dealing with is going through my own stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Sunday and Monday I was in denial. I jokingly made a list with Sarah of one eyed characters for costume parties. We go back and forth with one-eyed jokes. In case you didn’t know, there are many one-eyed one liners. Believing the doctors that taking the meds would speed up recovery by months, I thought, Well if I can’t play horn, I’ll just break out the old flute and play that! I tried for half an hour to form the embrasure to blow air across the mouthpiece.  I waited to blink at any minute. I planned to go to choir. Tuesday night begin my descent into anger. I kept a dinner engagement with some visitors to campus, old friends from my curriculum world. When I entered the restaurant, Marlows Tavern, which I had been to so many times over the past few years, the hostess looked at me and then looked away. Same thing happened when the waitress came to take my drink order. I realize now that I do the same thing automatically–probably most of us do.  The next day, I mentioned choir to Sarah, who slowly turned and looked at me and said, Honey, you’re not going to choir. When I looked back at her in one-eyed disbelief, she started singing a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus, which we’ve been working on for a month. I thought my left ear would blow out. No, I wasn’t going to choir. When she dropped me at the office,  just walking from one building to the next took all my energy to keep my eye covered so it would not dry out. I had two meetings where it was very important that I be able to speak, and that was extra energy. My colleagues, wonderful people, tried very hard to look at me in a normal way–and for that I will forever be appreciative. Nevertheless, I feel different, I talk different, I look different. And that was psychological and emotional energy spent that I wasn’t used to spending.

I’ll let you know when I’ve moved from anger to bargaining. Till then, in order to work through some of that anger, in order that something generative and therapeutic might come from it, I decided to pick up the blog again. It’s always been my favorite, preferred mode of writing. Academic work is important, but it isn’t accessible, and it limits my flow of thinking since I have to measure my tone and phrasing as well as the thoughts themselves. Here, I can have a conversation, if only with myself. Plus, Sarah approves of it since it will help keep me out of trouble–like trying to do home-improvement projects with one eye that doesn’t need to get dust in it. Most important, this is all helping me put my life in perspective and put the parts of my life in priority. It isn’t an overnight revelation, but I realize that stress is counterproductive and can be harmful. I reaffirm that life is always already about the people in it. That being present and being mindful is living. I am intentionally choosing hope and happiness. Hope and happiness are not default properties, and being intentional about them makes a difference. As I think about it, coming to this place is a kind of bargaining. I will trade impatience for writing, frustration for processing, sight for insight.

Band friends at Sr. Patron’s
Mellophone

 

A mello-photo bomb
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