Not like one of these

Hello, I am 45 years old. I hurt my ankle three months ago, and it’s still not completely well. The stupid part is, I hurt it doing nothing whatsoever. It just randomly swells up from time to time, and then I have to ice and rest and medicate before I can hobble around; and it will probably never be completely fine again.

Sometimes I forget how to sleep; and there are two pills I must take every day if I wish to live. Little bits of my teeth fall off every once in a while; my digestive system is ridiculous; and my eyebrows are slowly disappearing.

I am, in short, starting to get old. Not terribly old. I haven’t lost my marbles yet, and I go running several times a week. Not that you asked, but I could probably even still get pregnant if I really wanted to (which I do not).

I’m reasonably energetic and capable, more or less. But 45 years are certainly enough to cast a faint but undeniable shadow over my days. I am, as they say, over the hill. There’s lots left to do, and I intend to do it, but I can’t deny I’ll be doing it on a downward slide.

I was grumbling about this state of affairs not long ago, and a reader chided me for my fear and weakness. She said that she was not afraid of getting old. She knew that old age led to death and death was the door to Christ! And she loved Christ! So what was there to fear?

What indeed! She wasn’t wrong. But she was, as I suspected, 22 years old. That is why she had no fear of getting old: Because she was young. I wasn’t afraid of getting old, either, when I was in my 20’s, because I was in my 20’s. Nothing easier than bravely facing something you’re not actually facing.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image: Illustration from “A natural system of elocution and oratory : founded on an analysis of human constitution, considered in its three-fold nature–mental, physiological and expressional” (1886)From via Flickr 

A view of the mountain

Last month, my siblings and I worked out the final design for my father’s gravestone. We opted for a single stone with both my parents’ names on it, thinking forward to when my mother will die. I remember being glad that at least the part with the names was straightforward: one husband, one wife, one last name.

But even as we arrange to have that name carved in stone, I cannot help thinking about how transient it is. That name, my maiden name, is French, but our family is certainly not. My shtetl-born ancestors fled their home on a French boat, and some overworked Ellis Island official made the switch, either translating the name or just not listening very hard, Vito Corleone-style. Our true name is lost, and my family name is less than a hundred years old. So when I gave it up for my husband’s name, I was not giving up much.

And when we gave my husband’s last name to our children, that was not much to give, either. The auspicious name of “Fisher” came into being when my husband’s great-grandfather did something regrettable and had to flee the country quickly. When he came back, his name was “Fisher,” and that is all we know.

What is a Fisher? Some combination of whatever we cannot shake and whatever we decide to build, just like everyone else in the family of man. Trace anyone’s ancestry back far enough and you are almost guaranteed to hit a question mark or a lie or else an idea that may not sit well: that the family we really belong to is the family of man.

Most of us have a history of going back and forth across continents and oceans, whether we were dragged there or seeking fortune or fleeing oppression or escaping justice. Back and forth, around and around we go, taking on and shedding and making up names as we go. I do not say that history does not matter. But individual family names matter less than we like to admit; and eventually they will be taken away from us.

Shortly before he died, my father said that God was taking away more and more things from him: his health, his ability to visit my mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home, even his ability to walk. He told my sister it was good, to lose these things. He said God was getting him ready for death. He had a clear view of where he was headed . . .

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine.

Sincerely, Horace J. Schmiddlapp

The other day, my therapist said, “How are you? The last time we talked, your father had just died.”

And I answered, “Well . . . he’s still dead.”

This is totally a dad joke, and he would have laughed. Every time a celebrity died, he would rail against the 24-hour coverage on the news, as if there could be some update. Still dead! And I’m finding myself doing more and more things in tribute to him. If you care to play along, here are some things you could do in tribute to my father:

1.Sign something ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’. I forget how this first got started. I think he got tired of having to sign endless, useless permission slips for his eight children, so he started signing them ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’, and no one ever questioned it. Now that we’re going over legal documents and working through thorny issues of his estate, we’re glad he only took it that far.

2. Bring fancy cookies to the people who work at the post office and bank. This was a recent development, but apparently he used to do this every Christmas. I was amazed to hear it. When I was growing up, he cultivated a reputation as a curmudgeon. I guess it goes to show: Just because you used to be one way, doesn’t mean you can’t start bringing people cookies.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Words about death

We buried my father a few weeks ago. He and my mother had bought plain Trappist coffins for themselves years ago, to spare us children the trouble. But my father’s house, even though it had many rooms, was short on space, because it was so full of books — books to sell, books to read, books to just . . . have. And the coffins were also full of books. Books everywhere. Think of all those words, words, words.

Some years ago, when my sister lived there for a while, her little son took a marker and scribbled on the side of the casket, as kids do. I think he must have been pre-literate, because it almost looks like a letter, but maybe not. Who knows what he was trying to write. Whatever intentions the child had went down into the grave with my father’s body.

If this sounds grim, I’m telling it wrong. We all thought it was hilarious. That’s something my father would say: “You’ll go to your grave not knowing,” with a satisfied wiggle of his eyebrows. He loved having a secret, and he loved having a joke. And he loved talking about death.

At the cemetery the rain dripped off my hood and onto my virus mask, down my rain jacket, off the lame bunch of flowers I had bought at the supermarket, because I didn’t know what else to do. So lame.

When my father died, I had to ask my friends how I was supposed to respond to people who had sent Mass cards. I wanted to know if it was all right to thank them via email, or if I needed to send out paper cards of thanks. The part of my mind that wasn’t crying for my father was fascinated by the flourishing of social problems that sprung up overnight surrounding his death.

If someone I don’t know expressed sympathy on Twitter, was it weird to “like” their sympathy? Would it be offensive to tell a mutual friend of my brother that he probably wasn’t ready to receive any casseroles? I was afraid I’d have to come up with something to say at the burial, and I didn’t know what to say.

Was it okay to tell a little joke as the coffin was lowered into the grave? I could hardly help myself, so I whispered it to my husband, who laughed; and then I worried that the laugh might have been caught on the livestream that my brother’s girlfriend was sending to my siblings who couldn’t be there because of the virus.

It occurred to me, nobody knows how to do this. Nobody knows what to say or how to act. This is true any time anyone dies, because there is nothing more unknowable than death. How we love to talk about death. But the ones who can still talk are the only ones who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The only people who understand what it means are, by definition, not telling! So sue me, this makes me laugh, and I know my father would find it funny, too. He spent his whole life talking about death. I wonder what he thinks now.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

NH: call to oppose ableist physician assisted suicide bill HB1659

NH is again considering passing a physician assisted suicide bill. HB1659 will get a hearing on March 4. It says:

“This bill allows a mentally competent person who is 18 years of age or older and who has been diagnosed as having a terminal disease by the patient’s attending physician and a consulting physician to request a prescription for medication which will enable the patient to control the time, place, and manner of such patient’s death.”

Sounds compassionate. Those who argue for physician assisted suicide often paint an emotional picture of a dying patient who’s unable to escape immense pain, and who’s simply looking for release and relief.

But statistically, that’s not what happens.

Rehumanize International reports:

From a study of the results of Oregon’s 2013 Death with Dignity Act

91% of patients cited “loss of autonomy” as one of the concerns that led to them requesting assisted suicide. 89% cited a fear of being “less able to engage in activities.” 81% cited “loss of dignity,” 50% cited “loss of control of bodily functions,” and 40% cited “feelings of being a burden.”

We should not simply accept that fears of disability are driving people to suicide. Everyone deserves suicide prevention care — including those who are ill or disabled. 

The NH bill mentions broad concerns like “loss of independence” and “embarrassing indignities” as reasons to seek suicide. 

As NHCornerstone points out, “By making assisted suicide part of the discussion and a treatment ‘option,’ especially when someone has a chronic illness, it’s only a matter of time before personal choice becomes a ‘duty to die.’” 

Assisted suicide bills are driven by ableism that preys on the vulnerable. They tell people who are already in distress, “If you can’t do everything an able-bodied person can do, your life isn’t worth living. It would be better for you and for everyone else if you were dead.”

We don’t talk this way to people. We don’t tell them, “It would be cheaper, easier, better for everyone if you didn’t exist.” Instead, we try to make vulnerable people’s existence more manageable — lessen their pain, relieve their distress and depression, bring services to them, keep them company, reassure them that they are entitled to be alive in the world, just as much as the strong and healthy and productive.

This is, in fact, what NH is allegedly already doing, as it struggles mightily to decrease the state’s suicide rates, which have increased an astounding 48% from 1999 to 2016, significantly higher than most of the country, especially among teens. How can we say we have a goal of zero suicides while also telling vulnerable people that suicide is part of normal medical care? The bill is dangerous and offensive in itself, and also opens the door for even broader legislation that will encourage and even bully people into believing it’s their duty to remove themselves from the world. 

The Diocese of NH sent a good letter to the House Judiciary Committee laying out what an offensive and dangerous bill it is.

NH residents, we have a duty to reject discrimination, including the ableism that disguises itself as compassion. Please take a minute and contact your state rep and ask him or her to vote against HB 1659. You can use this site to find out who your representative is, and click on their name to get contact information. 

Feel free to copy and paste anything from this post. If you call, you just have to give your name and that town your calling from, and say that you’re calling to urge your rep to vote against HB 1659 regarding assisted suicide. My state rep was out of the office for the week when I called, so I left a message saying I strongly urge him to oppose this bill, because it’s a form of ableism and is totally at odds with any efforts to reduce suicide in our state. If you have a personal story to tell, that’s probably a good thing to include.

I know it’s hard to take time to stop and make a phone call or send an email, but we are a small state and our voices really do make a difference. Tell your rep what you want! 

Further reading: Pro-life Even at the End of Life: What the Catholic Church Teaches about Care for the Dying

Not lost forever: On miscarriage, grief, and hope

In the movie Gladiator (2000), the victorious but homesick general Maximus carries with him tiny, crude statues of his beloved wife and son. They are a reminder of home, but he also prays to them and for them, tenderly cradling the figures in his hand as he endures the pain of separation.

The figures become even more precious to him when he discovers that his wife and son are dead — tortured and murdered as political revenge.

Some Romans believed that the spirits of the dead were literally embodied in the figures, making them so much more than keepsakes. After he dies, his friend buries the statuettes in the sand of the Colosseum. We see brief, otherworldly scenes of Maximus returning home, of the three of them rushing together again.

I thought of those little figures as I read ‘The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage’ in the New York Times. The author, Angela Elson, says:

According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma. But Jizo, a sort of patron saint of foetal demise, can smuggle these half-baked souls to paradise in his pockets. He also delivers the toys and snacks we saw being left at his feet on Mount Koya. Jizo is the UPS guy of the afterlife.

Elson bought a Japanese Jizo figurine for herself when she had a miscarriage. She says:

A miscarriage at 10 weeks produces no body, so there would be no funeral. “What do we even do?” I asked the doctor. She wrote me a prescription for Percocet: “Go home and sleep.”

We went home. I didn’t sleep. I spent a week throwing myself around the house … I was itchy with sadness. I picked at my cuticles and tore out my hair. I had all this sorrow and no one to give it to, and Brady couldn’t take it off me because his hands were already full of his own mourning. We knew miscarriage was common. But why wasn’t there anything people did when it happened?

So they bought a Jizo. She carried him around for awhile, kissed him, spent time crocheting a hat and jacket for the figurine. “It was nice for us to have something to do, a project to finish in lieu of the baby I failed to complete,” she says.

Oh, Lord, how I understand.

When I lost our own very young baby a few years ago around this season, it was so terribly hard to have nothing to do. No birth, no ceremony, no body to wash, anoint, and clothe, no grave to dig. We could pray and cry and rest, but it was so hard. We want to have our hands on something. We want to know for sure that the world acknowledges: Yes, the child was here. Yes, the child was real.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dear friend Kate had felted a beautiful little dog for me. Just a few weeks before the miscarriage, our puppy Shane got overexcited by the snow falling, and he went and ran in the road, and he was crushed by a speeding car that didn’t even slow down. My husband and son retrieved the dying dog and brought him to the vet, where they gently put him down, then burned his body and sealed the ashes in a carved box.

The felted dog that Kate made is perfect, a brilliant, lively bit of work. But before she could send it to me in remembrance, my baby died, too – and she knew how terrible it would be to acknowledge the loss of a pet, but not the loss of a child. And so Kate’s daughter made a felt baby for me, sweetly embroidered and cuddled in a little hand-sewn pouch. They sent them both along, the puppy and the baby, with sympathies and assurances of prayers.

It was so good to have. So good. Even when looking at it made me cry, it was so much better than the pain of looking for my lost baby and finding nothing.

After a year or so, I thought we might use my little felt baby as a Baby Jesus in our nativity scene. I took it out, but then hastily put the little one back again. It was still too raw; and besides, this baby wasn’t Jesus. This baby was someone else, with a name and a human soul, a mother and a father and siblings. Hell, for six weeks, the baby was even sort of the owner of a foolish puppy named Shane.

My little felt baby wasn’t just any generic baby figure, but a specific baby, my baby. So back into the pouch the little one went. Back to the work of simply quietly existing, eyes closed, so that I wasn’t empty-handed. This baby does this job very well.

I forget it is there, most times. I keep it on the windowsill in the kitchen, where it gathers dust along with other little keepsakes, statues, and trinkets people have given me. But I went to check in on it one day, and couldn’t find it, and the panic almost knocked me off my feet. (I had moved it to the other side of the windowsill last time I cleaned. Oops!)

Does it really matter what happens to my felt baby? Not really. Certainly not spiritually, eternally speaking. We are not ancient Romans, superstitiously locating dead spirits in wooden figurines; and we are not Buddhists, clinging to a heartbreakingly vague hope of our children sneaking into blissed-out extinction.

As Catholics, we know that all the bodies of the dead will be resurrected and transformed when Jesus comes back. We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognized and called by name back home by their Father who made them.

Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths. Doctors and nurses, be gentle with women who have lost a child, even one too small to bury. Husbands, be patient, even if you don’t understand the depth of grief. Priests, take the time to acknowledge what happened, and do not be cavalier when answering spiritual questions or inquiries. Friends of a grieving mother, make it clear that you know the child she lost was a real child, irreplaceable, unlike any other.

Even as Catholics, we are one and the same with the fictional Maximus, because it gives us strength and hope to be able to touch and hold something connected to our dead. God made us with five senses, with hearts that reach out and seek comfort from earthly things, because these senses and these hearts can help remind us of what is true: That our lost children aren’t truly lost. They were really here, and they haven’t vanished forever. God willing, we will see them again.

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Rebecca Jemison makes polymer clay baby loss memorials for free or donation. You can contact her at facebook.com/beccajemisoncreates.

This article was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in January of 2017
 
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine. 

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

***

Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

Everything will be lost. Eyes on Christ.

Maybe I’m just feeling dire, but I’m impatient with people asking how God could let this happen to our beloved Notre Dame, with people asking “What does it mean?” We know what it means. It means the same thing it means when anything dies: That this will happen to the whole world someday. Every relic, every painting, every window, every stone, every body, everything we love. Jesus Christ was immolated. Why should His Father spare a building?

Don’t learn the lesson that, through our will and our strength, we will rise again from this fire. Learn the lesson that death comes for everyone and only Jesus saves.

I wrote those words yesterday, while Notre Dame was still in flames. Today it seems that more than we thought can be saved. Some of the windows are gone, the roof was staved in by the tumbling spire, but the main structure and towers are almost miraculously intact. The Crown of Thorns and other relics were saved; the Blessed Sacrament was saved. No lives were lost.

But even as our panic and horror is quieted with a measure of relief, the loss leaves a mark. It’s normal and human to suffer under the blows of loss. Holy Week is the right time to let ourselves feel that loss without shying away from it, without comforting ourselves too much with reassurances that we can rebuild and repair — not only because 21st century artisans can’t hope to match the brilliance of the past, but because all things will pass. Every rebuilding is temporary. Every loss is practice for the inevitable loss we were born to face. It is good to face it, to feel it, to know what it is. To remember why it happens, and to remember what the remedy is. 

It’s not ironic or especially dreadful that such a thing should happen during Holy Week. On the contrary, it’s the best possible time for such a thing to happen, if it must happen (and it must). This is the week when the universe lost the best thing she ever had. If you will not look loss in the face now, then when?

Here is an essay I wrote just over two years ago. It focuses not on gargantuan, iconic cathedrals full of treasures and relics, but on little things — baby shoes, toddler art. The details are different, but it’s the same story. Loss writ small is loss all the same; and the answer to every loss is also the same. 

***

There was a pile of papers on the kitchen island, and I finally sorted through them.  Along with paid bills, cancelled checks, and warranties for products long since broken and thrown out,  there were reams and reams (yes, I realize a ream is 500 pages.  That’s what I meant) of drawings of birds, ballerinas, flowers, and clouds stuck together with stubby little rainbows.  I smiled at each one, and then, feeling like Satan incarnate, threw them away.

Sometimes when I sort, I save a few representative samples; sometimes I am ruthless. But of course saving everything is not an option.  Even if I had the space to somehow neatly and un-hoardishly preserve all the hilarious and charming pictures my kids draw, when would I have the time to enjoy them?  I have some fantasies about old age, but even the most unrealistically golden ones don’t include spending years of my life looking at thousands of pictures of rainbows rendered in blue pen.

And yet it cuts so deep to throw them away.  Same for sorting through baby clothes.  It’s not that the little purple onesie is so precious and unique in itself; and it’s not as if I actually want my child never to grow out of size 3-6 months.  It’s just the act of leaving things behind that hurts.  I get better at making it happen, but I don’t get better at not letting it hurt.

People are always saying, “Store it in the cloud!” Give it to the cloud rather than cluttering up my poor overworked hard drive:  my pictures, my music, all the words words words that I churn out.  It’s only the price of ink and the shoddiness of my printer that keeps me from printing out everything — every cute kid story that goes on Facebook, every draft of every half-baked idea that never makes it all the way home, every well-turned phrase of love or encouragement I send to my husband at work.  I want to save it all, and never let it go.

It’s not that I hope for fame that outlives me:  “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” and so on.   It’s just that I want it all to last — somewhere, somewhere, all the things I love and have poured my life into.

It’s a terrible anxiety, the fear of losing things that are precious — terrible because it hurts so much, and terrible because of what it means about me and my disordered loves. When the fear of loss is bad, it drains the joy out of my treasures even as I’m holding them.  My little baby smiles at me with such a direct, melting simplicity:  two perfect teeth, tiny and fresh like little bits of shell, her mouth pops open, and she lunges like a jack-n-the-box, so unthinkingly in love with the world that she wants to eat it all.  On a bad day, her happiness gives me pain, because all I can think of is how it passes, how she passes, how I am passing away.

I feel better temporarily, less existentially bereft, if I take a video, to capture the tricks and charms which are uniquely, adorably hers, which will never be repeated by any other baby, which must be remembered, must be saved — mustn’t they?  But saved for how long?  Technology is outmoded.  Today’s cutting edge video capture will be tomorrow’s wax cylinders.  Today’s acid-free photo paper will last only in the same way as “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”

So much has been lost, irretrievably. Does it matter? My kids want to know what their first words were. I remember a few. Some I wrote down, but lost the book. Moved away, left it behind to be discarded by some overworked landlord or U-Haul maintenance man. Does it matter? I still love them now; I listen to what they are saying now. Does that mean that what I’ve lost doesn’t matter?

Remember how poor Ivan Karamazov saw all the pain in the world — the brutality against children, most of all, was what he could not abide.  He did not want to be able to abide it.  He understood that, in the light of the Resurrection, all would be made new — that Christ would return and reconcile all things to Himself, and the pain of innocents would be subsumed into a peace and justice that passeth understanding.

Ivan did not want this to happen.  He could not bear for it to happen.  He did not want outrageous injustices to be all right:  He wanted them not to happen in the first place. This is how I feel.  I don’t want it to be okay that they are lost.

Still, I know that if I try to save, save, save, then in most cases, what I’m really doing is burying them.  I’m not doing anything useful, not respecting their value by agonizing over preservation, any more than the workers in that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark were doing a good deed by packing away that precious crate among tens of thousands of nameless, dusty crates in a warehouse that stretches on for dreary, nameless acres.

So I try.  I do a little saving, just enough to make me feel human, and then I inwardly send the rest up “into the cloud,” hand it over to Jesus, who has infinite capacity to keep every drooly smile, every first word — if that’s what He wants to do. 

I don’t really, in my heart, want Heaven to be a retirement village where all the saints have endless hours to pour over memories of the good old days back on earth!  So I uproot and uproot these things from my heart, and I tell myself I’m cultivating virtue. 

But this disease of affection, this pathology that makes me love the world, and ache as I love — what is it?  And am I sure I want to be healed of it?

That’s the problem, right there. Lose it all or save it all: either way, it’s wasted. Either way, it’s lost. That’s what we mean by the Fall: loss. Everywhere. Everything. Our very mode of being is defined by loss.

Well, it’s Lent. And I am not Ivan, because I have tasted God’s love. I am not a government flunky, senselessly sealing up treasures, because I’m the one giving orders here. I’m not a dragon sitting on my stinking hoard, flying out in a jealous frenzy when some trinket goes missing.

I am fallen, but I have been saved, am being saved, and I will be saved. Nothing is lost, not even me. But now is the time to look loss in the face. What will come back to me? That is in Jesus’ hands — Jesus who was, himself, lost, and who himself “knew the way out of the grave.”

Eyes on Christ. Weep if you will, but eyes on Christ. I must not look to save. I must look to be saved. 

***

Image of Notre Dame by Edgardo W. Olivera via Flickr (Creative Commons)

No words

Sometimes it strikes me as hilarious. I fight down a wild giggle as I recall requesting an interview, scheduling a time, doing some research, writing up questions, talking for an hour, and then, as I sit down to transcribe it, bustling so purposefully into a dead end. I feel like a video game hero who just can’t figure out how to get out of a corner, but keeps walking and walking and walking forward, bump bump bump bump bump into the wall, while his life force drains away.

Sometimes it strikes me as less than funny.

“I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk,/ I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk,” murmurs death.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: photo Silberstein, L., Dr. from George Eastman Museum via Flickr; no known copyright restrictions; words added

Happy new year! You’re going to die.

[This essay was originally published at the National Catholic Register in 2015.]

Happy new year! You’re going to die. And my five-year-old can’t wait.

It’s possible that this eagerness comes because I did a little bit too good of a job of helping her get over her fears about death, which were coming to haunt her every evening when she got tired. But when you’re dealing with a weeping kindergartener, the right choice is to err on the side of reassurance.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, when our kids worry about death. We want to comfort and reassure them (and stop the howling!), but at the same time, we don’t want to lie to them, and give the impression that there’s a guaranteed happy ending on everyone’s final page. Death may be a beginning, not an end — a doorway to eternity, not a trap door to oblivion — but it’s still an evil thing, something which was never meant to be in the world.

So to my daughter, I spoke mainly about the joy of the Second Coming; about the glory of our resurrected bodies; about the rejoicing as every wound will be healed, every sorrow erased, every loss restored. She and her sisters now hold enthusiastic conferences about how great it’s going to go be to see their grandfather again, to never get a sore throat again, to be able to stand on their hands as long as they want to. As long as no one’s going to go marching off to the crusades to hasten their entrance into heaven, I’m not too worried.

Soon enough, she will figure out soon enough that if death is a door, it’s still a fearful one. She will understand that yes, it really is possible for people to decide to irrevocably turn away from the good, to shut out forever God and all the good, true, and beautiful things that proceed from Him.

And she will figure out that, even if we don’t choose Hell, the end of our earthly life is often an ugly thing.Those commercials showing old men and old women ending their lives in a golden glow of comfort, security, and contentment? They are lying, trying to sell something. Almost nobody ends that way, and most of us die surrounded by pain and sorrow (if not our own, then our families’). Death is not the final word. But it is evil, all the same.

My daughter will realize this soon enough, in her own time. In the mean time, I’m telling her the brightest version of something that is true, and something that we all need to remember: that the best way to deal with death and the afterlife is to remember, always, that it’s our behavior right now that decides which path we’re on. It’s a good thing to spend some time thinking about death, not to terrify ourselves or to revel in dark things, but to shed some light on our present choices.

This is what the Pope was saying in his New Year’s homily, which he used

to stress life’s fleetingness.

The spiritual leader said, “How we like to be surrounded by so many fireworks, seemingly beautiful, but which in reality last only a few minutes.” …

New Year’s … is a time to reflect on our mortality, “the end of the path of life.”

A few secular folks will no doubt snicker over this dour, killjoy message that only a Catholic could love; but even most secular people should know better. What better time than New Year’s Day to remember that there’s really no point in making merry now — no point in making resolutions now — unless our future matters? And why would our future matter if our present life isn’t significant?

In other words, there is no gross, unfathomable divide between who we are now and what eternity holds for us. The very first thing we learn about ourselves from the Catechism is why we are here. I remember the sweet, profound formula: we are here to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. It’s all part of one continuous story.

Death is an evil chapter, but it is by no means the final one. And so it makes good sense, while we are alive, still thinking, still choosing, still setting our course, to write the story of our lives like a good author: with some plan in mind. The details and the characters need to work themselves out, but the major plot points ought to be settled ahead of time.

***

Image: AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons