Sixty! ~ that was the birthday celebrated several days ago by a blogger whom I read regularly. Her birthday celebration was quite simply wonderful ~ she was surrounded by all of her children, including a couple of them who had traveled quite a distance to surprise her. She remarked upon how her life has gotten better with each decade and how she anticipates the same continuing. A wonderfully generous and expectant attitude in our youth-driven culture, a culture in which people bemoan turning thirty as if that's one of life's worst curses.
Her experience will not be mine. I was startled to realize that for me the thirties, two decades past, will always be my best one. My late forties brought some sad and difficult challenges and my fifties, begun in such joy and anticipation, have brought with them one of life's greatest sorrows. I can, and do, look forward to many things in work and in love, including most especially the possibility of my surviving children's marriages and their own children, all of which, should any of it occur, will bring me tremendous joy. But there will always, always be the reality that Josh is not here to share it, or to add his own wife and children to the mix. The girl he was hoping to marry is beautiful and brilliant and gifted and sensitive, and the loss of her as the daughter-in-law of whom I had dreamed is another facet of this endlessly turning prism of sadness.
And so I was greatly pained, in an envious and angry kind of way, to read of my friend's happiness on her birthday. (Charming, yes? Envy is such an attractive personality trait.) And then I thought, as I have begun to on occasion (RARE occasion), that perhaps my experience harbors another kind of blessing. The invitation to accompany Jesus into this kind of wilderness is an offer of tremendous friendship, in the sense that we long for our friends to share and understand our experiences. And when I think about it ~ with whom do we share our most searing pain and our longing for wholeness? Very few people. I know that as a spiritual director I am often awed by what people entrust to me, knowing that it is a great privilege to receive some of their hardest and saddest experiences ~ because I myself offer mine to only a very few and deeply trusted individuals.
Flannery O'Connor says that the Christian life involves taking up one's cross everyday. Well. Here we are. I cannot think of a single more unlikely or ambivalent candidate than myself. The idea of embracing suffering has no appeal for me, none whatever. I have no interest in being brave or strong or an inspiration to anyone. I am pretty sure that most anyone who reads this will be fairly convinced that I have lost my mind or gone over to the far side of religious extremism, but let me assure you: I would be quite willing to embrace a perfectly ordinary suburban life, all sparkly with grandchildren and puppies. I have never, thanks to my childhood, taken for granted the grace of ordinary hopes and expectations fulfilled in ordinary ways.
But ~ it's gone, that ordinary life ~ at least the wholeness of it is. And with it, any chance of my engaging in a relationship with God without being profoundly drawn into the matter of human suffering and ultimate hope for release and healing. No ~ I go there and I want to know what that cross is about and what that bread and cup are about. I want to know what is shared with us and what is healed, restored, recreated. I want to know what God's friendship really means, what it means on God's side and what it means on ours.
And so I wonder these days about another of Mary Oliver's poems, the one ~ I think it's called "The Uses of Sorrow" ~ in which she says,
"Someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift."
Perhaps someday I can report back on what the exact number of those years is.