Saturday, March 28, 2009
I am trying to wrap my mind around you, all these years later, and that too brief encounter in which we were present, together, in the same place and at the same time. Name your child, insisted our doctor at that very first appointment, our doctor with the conviction that from the get go you were a person worth acknowledging and claiming; we called you Lucy.
Your brother, Elijah, was but a toddler when I discovered, by way of a violently nauseas reaction to the smell of my morning coffee, that you were blooming in my abdomen, wreaking havoc on my hormones. Who else but an expectant mother could take such pleasure in her own discomfort?
I was never much of a planner, never one to map out my life from month to month, year to year. I was surprised, pleasantly so, but not shocked by your arrival; I was ready, from the very second I knew of your existence to become a mother all over again. What’s in my tummy? I’d ask your two-year-old brother, who’d jab at my soft but not yet bulging stomach and answer every time, to my delight, the way I’d trained him to: baby, baby, baby.
It is hard to explain how immediate that bond is. I day dreamed about you. I relished in my awareness of you, of you being with me throughout every menial task I performed, every errand I ran and every chore I completed. It could have easily been argued that we hadn’t the space, the money, the time for another son or daughter but my joy and instinctive devotion superseded any misgivings regarding the logic of bringing yet another child into this world under our current, perhaps less than “ideal,” circumstances.
In my head I had already built up a life, a long life, one in which you and I would be forever more inseparable. I jumped ahead of myself because the kind of adoration felt by a woman for the miracle, the individual forming extraordinarily within her body, being fed by her body, taking on, even while the size of her thumb, her characteristics, cannot be tempered. There is no choice but to love hard and with reckless abandon.
Pregnancy is a real faith stretcher, because the stakes are always higher when people, or more specifically, our own flesh and blood are involved, are all entwined in the uncertainties too haunting to ponder without one’s breath being taken away by the enormity and apparent permanence of our inescapable mortality. Whenever loss is a possibility, there is a danger of our gladness, our gratitude, or our intrepidity becoming contaminated by doubt and fear.
It is precisely this universal vulnerability, this lack of say in who leaves us and when, that prompted Christ to weep for all of humanity when at the tomb of his friend Lazarus before so boldly revealing His omnipotence and then conversely, death’s constraints. He understood then, as He understands now, that it can be awfully distressing and agonizing to have to wait on this side of eternity for a “one day” reunion with our resurrected friends and family members.
It’s not your fault, they all assured me after hearing my theory about how the plane ride I’d taken was to blame for your sudden departure, which I had anticipated for several disturbing hours before the actual miscarriage took place because I’d woken up that morning feeling indescribably, inexplicably … I don’t know, just different - a little less alive than before. I was desperate for an answer that could explain such an abrupt emptiness. I was so full of you and then, just like that, you were gone.
I like to imagine you as nine-years-old, your freckled arm linked affectionately in the Prophetess Anna’s – my patron saint and my child, united. When we gather as a family to say prayers, attend the Liturgy, stand in the bosom of Christ’s Church where earth and heaven intersect, I like to think that you meet us there, worship with us there the same God, our merciful God who promised, Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Sweet Lucy, I haven’t forgotten you and now I’ve that much more incentive to keep on plowing through the distractions, the disillusionment, the despair, to reach that other side of glory where the curtain will part and I will feel you, hold you, stroke your hair, kiss your face. Pray for me, darling.
I love you,
Several weeks ago, I began this letter to Lucy, the baby I miscarried in 2000, inspired by the stories of grief and hope shared gracefully and candidly in the pages of a brand new book entitled, Naming the Child - Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Still-birth and Infant Death by Mat. Jenny Schroedel. It was quite challenging, to be honest, revisiting my own past experience. I procrastinated, I think in part, because I felt guilty about not having made the effort earlier to forge a connection with a soul I knew was thriving and yet was so insulated from my own limited understanding. It was good and healing to finally give myself permission to recognize my miscarriage as a legitimate and significant encounter with the mystery that is God’s incomprehensible wisdom, to reach out and spiritually, emotionally, embrace my child.
For both parents who have lost their children so heartbreakingly early in life and for those friends and family who don't know what to say or do - how to just be there for them, Mat. Jenny offers a tangible resource full of tenderness and compassion. With eloquence, warmth and courage, she explores thoroughly and with sensitivity a topic more often than not tip-toed around or spoken about in whispers.
For mothers and fathers whose grief remains palpable despite the years that have gone by, the subsequent children born of them, the diminishing support as everyone else, not directly affected, moves on, Jenny has provided a safe community empathetic to the unique struggles of these parents bearing quietly an ache for their babies who have passed on from out of this world and into the next. The chances are pretty good that every one of us will at some point, either personally or through someone we care about, be touched by the tragedy of infant death. I encourage you to visit Jenny’s website, http://namingthechild .com, where you can find articles, letters, poetry and ideas on how to help, as well as information on how to order her book.
During this season of Lent, as we ponder upon Christ’s voluntary sacrifice on the cross, let us remember these hurting families in our prayers and anticipate with expectancy, bravery and longing His (and our) Resurrection.
Friday, March 27, 2009
I'll be back soon!
Friday, March 06, 2009
On our good days, I am sitting on the couch, under an afghan, sipping coffee while one of my children reads to me from our book of saints. I hear the bus drive by and breath a sigh of relief because this year, Elijah is not being manhandled in the back row of it by peers who are in his grade but are not necessarily his age with their already creaking voices tossing out language foul and crude, not to mention factually inaccurate and demeaning. We marvel together at the resourcefulness of homesteaders, the love and courage of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth surrendering her royal title for the sake of Christ and His Church, the ferociousness of a starving crocodile. On our good days, I am a geyser of warm, erupting satisfaction. I am a proud, fanatical, “never look back,” brand of homeschooler.
There are other days, however, many, many other days when if you asked me, would I recommend homeschooling, I would lean in real close like, grab you forcefully by the collar and whisper, Run away! Don’t even think about it! It’s a harebrained idea- teaching your own kids. And then I’d smooth down your shirt, pat you amiably on the shoulder and just smile as benignly as can be, like that whole dangerous exchange never happened.
Less than a week ago, Great Lent began. In preparation, I cleaned out the refrigerator, bought a freezer full of hummus, falafel, and veggie burgers from Costo, subscribed to an even wider variety of Orthodox Christian podcasts, printed out Lenten Sunday School lessons, wrote the service schedule on our calendar and then braced myself for the emotional soreness that follows an increase in spiritual activity. It’s true you know that distracted minds are hardly a threat to devilish schemes. A lukewarm anybody is much more likely to be left alone. But cease for just a second with self-absorbed musings or frivolous undertakings in order to turn even slightly more heavenward and WHAM the gloves come off; you’re beaten down.
What’s wrong? Asked my husband when he called from work – when I, who am usually all too willing to spew forth haphazard thoughts and anecdotes until he is forced to interrupt my captivating ramblings by reminding me that he does have a job to get back to, reacted to his inquiries with one word answers. Responses like, downtrodden, drowning, suffocating and tragically, woefully behind, seemed a tad heavy, a bit dramatic for a quick, mid-morning, “just checking in” type of chat. So I went with the generic “I’m really tired” excuse, which described as well any other despondent term I might have chosen the malaise strangling my joy and crippling my hopefulness.
Suddenly and inexplicably, I had no tolerance, whatsoever, for the bedlam - the same mayhem that for years has hovered around our household like a dense but relatively harmless fog I’d learned over time to pretty effectively grope my way through. The substantial burden of my responsibilities – to handle solely the education of my kids, to feed my family healthfully, to makes our house look a little less like a landfill, to be a loyal friend, a more consistent disciplinarian, etc., etc., (My gosh, the list goes on and on; it’s like I cannot catch a break!) was wearing away at my usual optimism like dripping water slowly but surely eroding a boulder. And now here it was Lent and I was adding to my already gargantuan load a desire for true repentance, for communicating to my children the importance of preparing for Pascha by way of increased prayer and almsgiving and fasting. I had turned off our television, simplified our diet, decreased our access to secular influences and yet my annoyance was steadily increasing. I growled at my loved ones like a cranky, hungry dog instead of speaking to them with kindness, calmness, respect.
Church was the last place I wanted to be and for the first twenty minutes or so of Saint Andrew’s Canon, I struggled hard to pay attention. I was a million miles away in “feel sorry for me land” where all you haven’t accomplished whines and complains with cruel persistence in your ears making you deaf to Christ’s invitation to cast all your cares upon Him and find rest. But I sang, I prostrated, heck, I showed up – it took all I had in me to silence the taunting for just a moment and listen, to actually swallow the penitential refrains that up until that point had just been sitting there in my mouth. I strained to stay focused and own the sentiments being offered to me by God through His servant, Andrew, as a means of breaking through a toughened and calloused exterior. Alongside my fellow parishioners I cried out with all the genuineness I could muster:
I have adorned the human shape of my flesh with the many-coloured coat of shameful
thoughts, and I am condemned.
Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.
I have cared only for the outward adornment, and have neglected what is within - a body
bearing the divine likeness.
Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.
Like the harlot I cry to you: “I have sinned, I alone have sinned against you.” Accept my
tears also as sweet ointment, O Saviour.
And then, to my surprise, the tears did come. I’d been pried open and exposed as a wretch and as a betrayer, as a hearer but not a doer of the Word. My regret at having become numb to the sacrifices of God, the Son, became more palpable than my stress. For once His holiness felt less like a soft and fuzzy blanket and more like a scalding, searing, flame engulfing my trite and lackadaisical approach to the Faith - reducing my vanity and perceived competence to ashes. In this state of remorse and pliability, I went to confession. Weeds embedded deeply within my heart had been painfully uprooted and with my priest as a witness I handed them over with every intention of beginning anew by praying incessantly for both the strength and the alertness to nip their efforts to re-implant themselves in the bud. Having been humbled by the realization of my nakedness and then purified, fortified, vitalized by forgiveness, I left for home.
Recently, I got a fascinating letter from a friend of mine who lives in Australia in which she relayed to me many details regarding the everyday goings on in her far away country. She wrote about what they eat (lots of Vegemite), what they fear (poisonous spiders) and gave the following description of the Australian Bush, one I found to be rich in symbolism:
The Australian bush – except for in the very North of Australia - is very dry and flowers are hard to come by. Australian forests grow very old and don’t really generate new trees until a bushfire destroys it – because only a bushfire is hot enough to crack open the seed pods. So bushfires are an interesting paradox for Australians. Often the National Parks do controlled burning to generate the bushland.
Like an unrestrained blaze can become quickly, wildly, unmanageable producing destructive and lethal effects which far outweigh the positive aspects of its life-regenerating potential, so can igniting one’s soul with asceticism cause more damage than good when unsupervised by the Church and Her holy wisdom. To fast on one’s own, without the sacraments, without attending the prescribed services, without the guidance of a spiritual father, is to set oneself up for certain pride or despair. But to participate fully in Great Lent, to cooperate with this Holy Spirit controlled burning, to bear as a community the uncomfortableness of having our own stubborn wills crushed and leveled, is to unearth the fragrant fruit too often encapsulated by worldly cares.
Had I not gone that night, had I attempted to self-medicate my infirmities with reason, another organizational plan or an anesthetizing diversion, I would have stalled the healing process only mid-way through and gone on for who knows how long taking random and frantic stabs at trying to pinpoint the origin of my disgruntlement. I have learned that when I am anxious to avoid services, Scripture reading, confession, morning prayers, it is a sure sign that I am in need of them more than ever. The Church has laid out before me the cure to my empty and wholly unfulfilling selfishness and yet so often I respond with a big old “no thanks” by putting my schedule, my priorities, my lust for what is most convenient ahead of everything else, including God. And then I scratch my head and wonder why my life feels so chaotic and disappointing.
I’ll tell you what I don’t have and that is any confidence in my ability to make it all the way through Lent without grumbling or forgetting what the point of it is or heeding the nagging and ruthless voices in my head suggesting I’m not pious enough to complete the Fast. What I do have, however, is this one day right here in front of me to offer up as a sacrifice. I have the tools at my disposal to help me stay attentive and vigilant throughout it. I have the awareness that we are all in this together and I have plenty of first-hand experience confirming a half-hearted approach to following Christ is as effective as training for a marathon by simply buying new fancy tennis shoes and a sports bottle – it’s one thing to look like a runner and another to put in the necessary, sweat inducing, muscle stretching, endurance building labor to become one.
My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then, and, be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things. – Kontakion from the Canon of Saint Andrew.
Sunday, March 01, 2009
Thy grace hath risen, O Lord, the illumination of our souls hath shone forth. Lo, now is the acceptable time; the season of repentance hath come. Let us cast down the works of darkness, and put on the works of light, that we may pass the great tempest of fasting and reach the summit of the third-day Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls. - The Aposticha for Forgiveness Vespers
Imagine, I told Elijah, if I never stopped Mary from gorging on sweets - if, when every time I caught her with her hands in the brown sugar bag, with mouthfuls of sugar dissolving on her tongue and dripping from her lips like syrup, I did nothing but stand by and watch her attempt to feed an insatiable desire for that which, in the long run, will make her sick. Part of loving her is enduring her protests, her disappointment at being separated from passions empty and addictive. I know that it is very difficult to understand, at your age, how a parent saying 'no' and 'not now' is, believe it or not, an act of mercy.
This afternoon, after Liturgy, we gathered again as a congregation to bow before one another, to ask forgiveness of one another, to begin, as a community, to take part in Great Lent. We will fast from meat and dairy, we will remove from our daily routines distractions loud and numbing, we will attend services breath-takingly, hauntingly, beautiful in preparation for the Feast of Feasts, for the Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
If you knew me, how impulsive I am, you'd understand how very trying, how very necessary is this period, this gift from God, this deliberate separation from my greedy, forgetful, self-centered spirit passions empty and addictive. You'd know why pausing, why emptying my mind of frivolous stimuli, my stomach of foods heavy and rich, will inevitably bring me to my knees in frustration in despair over my own lack of discipline. I will be forced to come to terms with my dependence on Christ's compassion, to face head on truths I usually push away: my lust for earthly treasures, my obsession with comfort, my mortality.
Yet even in the midst of intensive repentance, we, the Church, anticipate with renewed zeal, the moment when Life will conquer sin and hell - our victory over death through the sacrificial love of the Holy Trinity. We wait and watch for the Bridegroom so as not to be off flitting and fretting about when at last He arrives in all His splendor and glory. By stretching ourselves spiritually, emotionally, physically, we'll find the joy at having arrived at the empty tomb (finally!) that much more satisfying and triumphant.
Quiet now, quiet. I ask for your prayers and forgiveness. For my haughtiness, my vanity, my apathy, my laziness, I am truly, truly sorry. May God bless you and keep you in His perfect, His redemptive, His incomparable peace.