Friday, June 29, 2012

Flip Side

On a cheerier note, as I head out at the crack of dawn to hang out with lots and lots of Presbyterians:

The news a few minutes ago included a weather report (the heat!) from Atlanta.  "Look!" I said to my husband.  "Those kids are playing in the Olympic circles fountain, where Josh is standing in that photo we have!"

I remember the Olympic summer; as we were dropping kids off at camp in North Carolina, many of the counselors, half of whom are international, were talking about plans for going to the competitions on week-ends off.  The photo, which just happens to be in my sidebar, was taken several years later, when Josh himself was a counselor spending a week-end in Atlanta.

It gave me a lot of pleasure tonight, thinking about the good times he had during those North Carolina summers.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Days That Are Harder

Most days are terribly difficult.  Some more so than others.

Such an ordinary Thursday.  Picked up the photograph I'd had printed especially for this particular couple, bought a frame and some wrapping paper, wrapped the gift, wrote the card, drove to the groom's house, wished him well, and left with a face full of smiles.

He was Josh's best friend from kindergarten through 8th grade.  He's an ornithologist; I taught him to bird, on a trip our families made out west together when the boys were twelve.  He's finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where Josh was an undergraduate.  He and his fiancee' live in Hyde Park, blocks from where Josh and his girlfriend lived.  They're getting married Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where we spent hours with our kids.

Really, it feels as if it just happened last night.  My skin feels the same, as if it were being pierced by a thousand knives.  

I am going to spend Saturday at the Presbyterian Church's bi-annual General Assembly.  I'm going to spend Sunday with my congregation.  

There are not enough distractions on this planet.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chapel of St. Ignatius - Seattle University

A church is not a building, or a sacramental space.  A church, or the church, is community being formed and shaped by Jesus Christ for transformation and witness.

Such were some of my thoughts this past week of vacation ~ when I finally got around to thinking about anything at all.

Nevertheless, I am passionately interested in sacred architecture.  And I wondered why I like this version so very much.  We all know that, to my way of thinking, Chartres Cathedral is the pinnacle of  church design and artistry.  But out here, here in north-central Ohio where I pastor, there are a number of nondenominational and semi-megachurches that might best be described, from an outdoor vantage point anyway, as verging on barn-like in design.  And so I have been required to give some thought to  a certain form of church architecture which I can most charitably describe as entirely without promise.

So why do I like this little hodge-podge of a chapel so much?  It possesses its own barn-like elements, along with a flavor of Zen and an intentionality toward the light and dark of spiritual consolation and desolation, none of which entirely converge. Although all things that rise must, according to Flannery O'Connor.

I suppose the pleasure I took in our visit there goes back to the matter of community.  I took one look at the IHS window and knew immediately that I was at home in a community shaped by Jesus Christ, a community whose 450-plus year old spiritual tradition has played a big part in the shaping of me.  I am apparently intrigued by and willing to accept almost any creative expression emerging threfrom,  because I feel the embrace of God when I stand in a space of its making.  It's the community and its prayer which endow the building with meaning, rather than the other way around.

(And yes, Ignatius of Antioch was a different Ignatius.  In case you were wondering.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Spiritual Exercises in Glass: Seattle University

People have engaged in interpretation of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for over 450 years. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Exercises remained entirely within the purview of The Society of Jesus, and were presented to Jesuits in formation via a rigid program of daily preached sessions, in which the young men were instructed as to how and what they were to pray and how they were expected to respond.  Meetings with spiritual directors were rare, brief, and often uncomfortable.

I did not know any of this when I asked an older Jesuit to become my spiritual director and guide me through the Exercises.  I did not know that fifty years earlier he had been one of the men in the forefront of a massive re-thinking of the Exercises, of the rediscovery of the individual retreat -- one director, one retreatant, and a series of quiet meetings in which the retreatant does most of the talking, the director, most of the listening, and the Holy Spirit, all of the directing -- and of the opening of the door to the prayer of the Exercises to all sorts of people from all walks of life.  I did not know until much later that what I experienced in my Year of the Exercises would have been entirely off limits to me only a few decades earlier.

The reinterpretation of the Exercises has not been limited to the written page or spoken word, however.  Much of it has emerged in various artistic forms, forms which include the windows of the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University.

When we stopped by, my initial goal was to view the panels of St. Ignatius's life, painted by Dora Nikolova Bittau.  I have a set of postcards of the panels, given to me some years ago by spiritual director emeritus.  Once I had looked up directions to the university and chapel, I was also curious about the building, which has generated considerable controversy for its architectural style and its openness to interfaith expression.  I also discovered a brief reference to the Steven Holls windows depicting the four-week sequence of the Spiritual Exercises, and thought that I would like to see them as well.

I couldn't even find the windows at first, although they are on the wall to the left as you enter the building.  They didn't look anything at all like what I had expected.  Actually, once I figured out that they were, indeed, the windows, I still had no idea what they were intended to convey.  I stayed there a long time, staring and thinking my way through the four weeks of the Exercises, and finally came up with an interpretation that made sense to me.

As it turns out, the artist's own views differ somewhat from mine ~ but then that's the joy and challenge of art, isn't it?  You put your work out there, and people attach to it what significance they will.  I offer below my understanding of what I saw.  I'm sorry that the images are so poor; it's a difficult setting for photography, and the rain outside did not enhance the lighting.

Week One: Having spent preliminary time in what Ignatius calls the Principle and Foundation, a period of immersion in God's creative love, in Week 1 we pray over sin and sinfulness and their manifestations in our lives and in the world.  The jagged gash down the middle seemed to me to be representative of that week's focus.

Week 2: We encounter Jesus through his birth and life.  I saw the crosses, symbols of Jesus, as moving in and out and among of the circles, as indicative  of life and its many different episodes and encounters.

Week 3: Passion and Crucifixion.  This window is set high in the wall, and the sense it gives is one of everything falling apart and toppling downward.

Week 4: Resurrection.  An opening tomb?  An opening world?  The opening of the lid captivating human history to human sinfulness?  The breaking apart, opening up, and debunking of the old as all things are made new? 

Needless to say, I was entranced.  I'll add some photos of the chapel itself in another post.

Invisible Children

The Dads, and the view from which Karen writes.

Karen Gerstenberger and I did not fall into one another's arms in tears. We spent a couple of hours together wandering her hometown and the beautiful beach on which she lives, chatting as any two women and their husbands might.  Well, almost any two women and their husbands. I suppose that we were on such easy terms because we both know intimately the deep sorrow that forms the backdrop of our lives, and have no need to explain ourselves to one another.

At one point, we talked about how grateful we are to have been able to give our children wonderful lives for the very short time that they were with us. I mentioned that a friend once criticized me for the time and money we invested in family travel when the kids were small.  "They won't remember it," she said.  My criteria had more to do with the joy of exploration and family cohesion in the then-present than with memory.  It would be beyond my capacity for words to express my gratitude for those trip and times together, now that I am left with some memories that are mine alone.  

Karen nodded and spoke fiercely when she said that she has told her husband, "She had the BEST childhood!  No regrets on that count."

A few minutes later, she noted how alike our families had been in our closeness.  "It's difficult to keep that alive when one of the members has become invisible," she added.

"I hadn't thought of them that way," I responded.  "But I suppose that that's what they are. Invisible."

A couple of years ago, while I was on retreat at Wernersville, I told BSSJ, my spiritual director, about a dream I had had in which the rest of us encountered Josh at a construction site on a Cleveland street corner.  He pushed back his hardhat, which revealed how very sunburned his fair skin was, jangled the work belt of tools that hung on his hips, and said he needed to get going.  Josh was always fascinated by architecture and building construction; the dream was so real that I spent several minutes after I woke up trying to get back to sleep, and to him.

B smiled and said, "Perhaps he's at work on some of those many mansions."

And I have to admit that, in that gentle response, he offered me the smallest sliver of hope concerning the continued life and activities of my invisible child.

Go back another year.  I was over at the Jesuit residence in Cleveland, talking to HGSG, spiritual director emeritus, and as I was leaving I asked if he would pray with me.  Among his words in response was a prayer for Josh, and a prayer that "Josh pray for his mother."  Now that would be a Catholic prayer.  Protestants tend to be leery of intercessory prayer by or for The Invisible Ones. Perhaps to a Catholic such words would be unremarkable, but  I thought, and still think, that it was one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard.  A quiet expression of confident hope that my invisible child lives to pray for and with me.

I suppose that many of my conversations have, in fact, veered out of the realm of ordinary. On the beach, at a retreat house, in a Jesuit sunroom: the Invisible Children are almost tangible.

Intrepid Gerstenberger Beach Kitty

Friday, June 22, 2012

We're Back!

Seattle . . .  Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo . . . the Gerstenbergers . . . Father's Day luncheon with the bridal party . . . Vancouver . . . Happy Birthday to the Quiet Husband . . .  Birch Bay . . .  whale watching . . .  and today we celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary by getting up at 4:00 a.m. to drive to the airport!

I have a lot of photos, some of which will no doubt make their way here.

I managed to give virtually no thought whatever to the church in any form until about Wednesday night, when I began to rummage through the past eight months in hopes of creating some form or shape for the next eight.  Some of those ponderings will no doubt make their way here as well.

All in good time.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Life Unexpected

Trying out an iPhone post:

Yesterday morning The Quiet Husband and I and Karen West and her husband walked a quiet beach encrusted with barnacles and concealing clams that squirt upward through the sand when you step on their territory, an experience we would not have had but for friendships created across cyberspace between parents who have children who, as Karen put it, have become invisible.

In the late afternoon, we visited the gracefully contemporary chapel at Seattle University where, as happens more often than you might think, the Presbyterian pastor found herself explaining The Spiritual Exercises to some other folks. (Hey, they asked.) None of that would have been within the scope of my imagination seven or eight years ago.

This afternoon we'll celebrate Father's Day with The Lovely Daughter's friends from Bellingham, thanks to her years at Willamette University, which were a direct consequence of Hurricane Katrina.

And in a couple of days, Gregarious Son is boarding a French naval surveillance ship in the Indian Ocean to observe an anti-piracy exercise.

I'm not sure which of all these events would have been the least predictable a decade ago.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Off to Seattle, with plans to meet an already dear friend, visit with a college classmate of The Lovely Daughter's, explore Vancouver, look for whales, and spend a couple of days on a quiet beach.

We might come back and we might not.

Ten Questions (Thanks to PFO)

A few days ago I posted a bit about my struggle with a post on my one my favorite blogs. ( I think that the original post generated some other responses, as I have noted a few words quietly written by others addressing the value, or lack thereof, of extreme suffering.)

Yesterday, I had the opposite experience -- and it's only fair to give credit and offer gratitude where due.  Yesterday's People for Others post offered Ten Questions for our consideration.  The first two are "Lord, what is your desire for me?" and "Lord, where can I serve you today?"  (Head on over to the site for the remaining eight, and for the conversation the questions provoked.)

As I was skimming the internet yesterday morning, I was also pulling together the final pieces a funeral service after nearly a week during which much of my time had been spent with a family reeling from an unexpected loss.  At such a time, it's easy to become distracted:  What does this or that person want?  What's appropriate?  How many bulletins do we need? What's behind that person's behavior?  What about the children who are going to participate?  Will it be elegant and beautiful, solemn and meaningful, gentle and consoling? Will I be able to direct the grieving congregation's attention to God? What on earth happened to the candle-lighter?

I am so grateful that those ten questions popped up on my computer screen and provided a focus that stayed with me all day. 

Monday, June 11, 2012


Clearly, this is something I should be planning for.

The day before Easter, a 90-something lady, formerly of our congregation, died; Sunday afternoon, after our three Easter services in eighteen hours, I met with her family for the first time, and Tuesday afternoon conducted the graveside service.

Last Wednesday, the wife of one of our elderly members, who has himself been the source of much consternation and many visits as he has been in four medical facilities (often far away) for the past several consecutive weeks, suffered a massive stroke; she died on Saturday.  Her service will be on Wednesday.  We leave for vacation on Friday, so I had already been planning to cram two weeks of work into this one very short one.

I'm not complaining.  This is work I love to do.  And I'm remembering my home church pastors with particular gratitude this week; our son died on a Tuesday and his service was the following Tuesday, and in between was all the celebration and hoopla of the church's opening fall week-end.

I'm also watching family dynamics with tremendous interest.  (This was my favorite part of being a family lawyer.  Maybe, as my daughter suggests, I SHOULD have been a psychologist.  But I liked Shakespeare so much more than Skinner; I loved the language of poetry and not the language of diagnosis.)

And I'm remembering my own father who, when pastors and friends arrived for the planning session for our son's service, held forth for a solid hour on the subject of his own life losses (terrible, to be sure), and how hard I had to work to steer him back to the topic at hand so that other people did not have to spend their entire Saturday with us.

I'm tired.  And it's not even 9:00 on Monday morning.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Josh in College

The other night I received one of those longed-for and seldom delivered gifts: an email from Josh's best college friend, containing a story about their lives in those days.  I hope he doesn't mind my posting it anonymously.  

I so enjoyed the glimpse of Josh as a young man in college, and I got a good chuckle from the last sentence.  University of Chicago students are notorious for their capacity to intellectualize everything; Josh was no exception.  One of my favorites of his U of C t-shirts says, "That's all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?"

From another terrific young man, now working in Australia:

"Recently I've been . . . looking to learn new skills, improve existing skills, and enrich the quality of my day-to-day life. Back at U of C I first started reading things about . . . being a more social person . . .   .

One night Josh and I were at the campus pub, and over a pitcher of beer I was regaling him with a long-winded discourse on the best ways to approach women, effective things to say, etc.

Josh listened patiently, and then drew my attention to an attractive blonde girl standing on the other side of the bar. Josh said, "V, I'll believe everything you just said, if you go and talk to that girl right now."

I have always regretted not doing it. As I continue to work on consistently taking action in all areas of life, rather than just intellectually theorizing about them, I have repeatedly come back to that memory."

Tee Hee (Breast Cancer Humor)

I wrote a profoundly depressing post this morning, a continuation of the past one.  I thought better of it, clicked on "save," and hopped into the shower.

I had two appointments, one for spiritual direction and the other for which I had set aside four hours to spend in the dentist's chair.  As I was dressing for the latter ~ jeans and a comfortable t-shirt ~ I was interrupted by a phone call from the dentist's assistant, who needed to reschedule; the building is doing some maintenance and there is no AC, making dentistry both miserable and ineffective.  It took us quite awhile to find another date (six weeks away!), and so I had to hurry to finish dressing.

Now, you need to know a bit of the back story: as a result of my mastectomy, I decided to have reconstruction via implant, which was finally completed at the end of February.  The implant side is not a match for the real side, and so I am now in possession of what is called a "partial prosthesis."  A blogger whom I read refers to her prostheses as her "FOOBS" ~ fake boobs ~ so I guess you could say that I have a partial FOOB. You may interpret the "F" as you please.

(As an aside, my partial foob led to an angry and humorous exchange with an insurance company representative.  The anger?  He told me that I was entitled to only one prosthetic device every two years, and the "inside one" was it.  I reminded him of federal law, and insisted coverage was mandated for the "outside one" as well.  The humor?  By the time I finished, he was so rattled that I had to spell the word "breast" for him.)

Anyway, you've probably guessed it.  I went off to meet with my directee and, as I unlocked the door of the office in which we meet, I glanced down and ~ !!!!!!!!!! ~ I had just walked confidently across the John Carroll campus in the beautiful sunshine wearing a t-shirt with, yes, only one side of my chest intact.


I raced to the bathroom for some tissues, it turned out that my directee had written down the wrong time, and I headed back to my car, purse held over my front.

As I left the campus, several young mothers were walking across the parking lot, little daughters in tow.  Some kind of camp program, I'm sure.  They all looked so sweet and innocent.  I'm sure they all aren't (see previous post). But they did make me long for the days when going out in pubic was a good deal simpler.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Suffering Without Value

A couple of days ago on one of my favorite blogs, the discussion centered on the value of suffering: on how much of value we learn from it, on how it changes us for the better.  An excellent discussion, complete with the oft-quoted Leonard Cohen line about how it's the cracks through which the light breaks in.

I wanted to run screaming from the room.  

So, what I did instead was, I didn't enter.  

I didn't want to interrupt the glorious conversation about the gift of suffering.  There were people there whom I admire tremendously, with whom I am friends, and they said some true and eloquent things. I didn't want to interject my own story, from another little universe, and  I didn't want to feel that condescending glance, that raised eyebrow, that "Oh, she's just not there yet; someday she'll know."

When someone whom you love from the inside out dies of suicide, you learn that there is a degree of suffering that goes beyond value; that is pointless, useless, and evil in its depth and capacity for alienation and despair.

And when that someone is your child, whatever gifts of insight, wisdom, and availability to others that might be ascribed to your own suffering are but minute drops in the vast ocean of sadness to which you have been exiled.

And then this morning, going through past blog posts, I found one in which I had reflected upon words reportedly said by parents whose children had died to other parents who had already embarked upon that walk:

"I realize now that I had no idea what you were talking about."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My Girl Sarah Linden

My favorite characters are all the brilliant, determined, dark, and flawed ones.  And Sarah Linden on The Killing is the best of them all.

So insightful about her cases, so blind to her own motivations.  So dogged in her pursuit of her goal, so oblivious to the cost of the damage she leaves in her wake.  So on top of her game, so helpless to stop herself from plummeting out of control.

Two weeks ago, we saw her locked up in a psych unit as part of a grand scheme by we-know-not-whom to get her off the streets and off her case.  Her psychiatrist, who has no idea that she has been duped, is skillfully gentle as she questions Sarah.  And we see that Sarah, for whose success we have been rooting for nearly two years, is incapable of self-reflection and assessment when her doctor asks her whether she notices any connection between the two murder cases that have sent her off the deep end and her own childhood story of abandonment.  She looks genuinely baffled when she is asked to link the pieces together.

And then, just as we are completely fed up with the psychiatrist and her naivete', and cheering for Sarah, in a state of disorder or not, to get the hell out of there, the doctor points out that Sarah is NOT fine by noting that in the past couple of weeks she has lost her fiance' to a break-up, her son to his father, and her job to the ashes of her case.  Our girl Sarah really is a mess.

And now she's back on the street, officially off the case but doggedly fighting to solve it.  Whether she can retrieve any of the pieces of her personal life remains to be seen (and would appear to be highly unlikely), but she and her partner ~ a masterfully flawed man himself ~ are going to find out who killed Rosie Larsen.  

What will be left of Sarah once she has accomplished the one thing for which she lives?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Television Suicides

Well, that was some kind of evening on AMC.

On The Killing last night, the (apparently) idealistic young councilman running against the (probably) evil ensconced mayor on (theoretically) a platform of reform, announced to his supporters the night before the election that he had lied about his whereabouts on the evening of the murder of the sixteen-year-old girl on which the series is based. He lied because where he had really been was jumping off a bridge in a suicide attempt.  

We, the audience, already knew that, but this was the first time that he had talked in detail about the sadness that led to his impulsive jump. He then deftly twisted the story into one of near-heroism, stating that while he had been no icon of courage on that night, he had found the will to live on the way down, and had become possessed of a will to fight, for himself and for the people of Seattle.

We always wonder.  After someone has taken an irreversible step, are there seconds of regret?  We cannot know.  But we wonder.  Every day.

About an hour later, one of Mad Men's partners in the advertising firm was found hanging from his office door. That one was easy to foresee; he had been caught embezzling from the company and fired, and was unable to confide in the wife whom for three years he had misled about their financial situation and who had just purchased a Jaguar for him in a misplaced desire to celebrate what she believes to be his most recent success.  There was no outlet for his humiliation and despair.  

Don Draper, the partner who had recognized and acted upon the fraudulent financial transaction, stands in stark contrast to the beaten and destroyed Lane.  In demanding Lane's resignation, Don had told him that he would be able to reinvent himself; Don has done so many times.  But now, Don has been instrumental in the suicides of two men, as well as the demise of his own first marriage; the repercussions of his reinventions have left bodies, literal and figurative, strewn all over

We always wonder.  What might have been said or done to alter those final steps in an individual's journey?  Who else might have intervened, might have  influenced a change in a course of action? We cannot know.  But we wonder.  Every day.

Both of these series explore the vast, opaque gap between appearance and reality, The Killing through the genre of murder mystery and Mad Men through the artifice of the advertising world.  That they are highly regarded shows tells me that we are all drawn to an exploration of that edge, that brink of horror at the darkness of the human condition.  

Watching it is one thing.  The living of it is another.

Image: Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden, now my all-time favorite television character.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer (Friday Five)

Today's Friday Five asks what we're doing this summer.  Here goes:

1.  Two Sundays ago The Lovely Daughter graduated from her master's program; that was a Great Day.  Most of her counterparts have an MSW; Case, as one of the oldest programs in the country, awards an MSSA.  I think that Columbia, which is the oldest, also uses an unusual string of letters.  At any rate, she is now MCW, BA cum laude and with Honors in Sociology, Phi Beta Kappa, and MSSA.  Her brother died at the beginning of her senior year of college and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of her second year of her master's, so I feel great joy in saying that the girl has triumphed!

2. In  another two weeks we head for Seattle.  Marissa is in a wedding there (since she went to college in the PNW, many of her closest friends are out west) and we decided to go, too.  I don't know how much of her we'll see, but we do plan to meet Karen Gerstenberger (!!!), explore Seattle and Vancouver or Victoria, spend a few days on a quiet beach in Birch Bay, and maybe see some whales.

3.  I am going to continue my quest for good health.  I am walking 3-4 miles a day now; pretty good for someone who could barely make it down the block in March.

4.  I am hoping to have The Book in the hands of an agent or editor or publisher ~ someone whose hands are not mine ~ by the end of the summer.  

5.  I am going to take a two-week staycation at the end of the summer, a week of study leave to plan through Advent and a week of real vacation.  My basic goals are to create a wall of solitude around the fourth anniversary and not to get behind the wheel of a car for fourteen days, although I suppose I'll go to the beach one morning in pursuit of my annual anniversary  ritual.

Bonus:  What I'm not doing?  Our son Matt is clerking for a judge in The Seychelles (an island nation in the Indian Ocean, sort of near Madagascar) and working on piracy cases.  I did fantasize about going there for a vacation, but the time and expense of flying are prohibitive.  So I've told him he needs to land a post-law school position there, and we'll all go for Christmas.