As a child, I sensed God’s presence in everything. This was not a learned perception but an innate one, evident in my earliest memories from the crib and the playpen (indeed, the sense of God’s universal presence formed the essence of my earliest memories–felt, of course, not understood) and surely predating those memories (by how long only the neurobiologists might say, and they are hedging their bets). As I grew, this intimation only strengthened. I felt God in the light and in the dark, in the vastness of the sky and the sea and the closeness of the puddle and the mud, in the succulent milkiness of the plucked dandelion stem and the brittle dryness of autumn leaves tossed skyward, in the wriggle of the worm and the prance of the stallion, in the mass of the whale and the fragility of the butterfly, in the caress of affection and the bark of admonition. There was both simplicity and wonder to this sense of God’s universal presence. Most of all, there was safety–I never had to worry about being apart from God for God was everywhere, in everything. Oddly, I never thought to wonder if God was also in me.

Then through adolescence and early adulthood, in a gradual evolution that lasted perhaps a decade, I sensed God’s presence slowly but resolutely withdrawing from the world around me, like the soul exiting the body, leaving the lifeless shell behind. These seemingly random departures–sometimes isolated, sometimes clustered–were revealed through images of war and violence broadcast on television and printed in magazines, in the greedy and short-sighted destruction of woods and swamps and fields to make room for shopping malls, highways, and housing developments, and in the acts and words of cruelty and malevolence witnessed first-hand. I still saw God in some parts of his creation–in the sun’s rising and its setting, in the moon’s silver glow on a frost-tinged night, in the howl of the wind or the crack of thunder, in the ebb and flow of the river to the sea. But God’s presence was growing steadily more ponderous and remote, his nature more abstract. Gone was the wonder of God in the puddle and the mud (tainted now with oil and salt, ugly with human pollutants), replaced by God in the endless and inscrutable stars of night.

Then in adulthood–in due time and over years–God came close again, this time as love. This new approach of the divinity began as an abstraction, or rather as an ideal. If only I could find this perfect love or when I find this love were expressions of hope for the return of God’s proximate presence, for a lifelong purpose and calling in a particular person or, lacking that single mate, in a group that would come to define God’s intimate presence. Over time, and to my enormous blessing, this hope became a reality–in individuals, in offspring, in community: God again close by, not in a particular person or group but in the sharing and formulating and commitment to a common vision and cause, as family, friendship, communal effort. In short, God came back as selfless love.

And stayed with me for a long time, at least long as measured by the span of my rich life.

But now God seems to be changing again, not fleeing as in those indelible images from adolescence, quitting the proximate and hiding out in the remote reaches (or non-reaches) of the cosmos, but taking the brightness of selfless love and receding into a darker chasm, like the green crabs of my childhood jetties, slipping from the sunlit water into the dark and forbidding crevices of the jagged and barnacled tidal rocks, daring me to follow, risk tender fingers, thin-skinned wrist.

Like God’s previous changes, this recent retreat has evolved over a number of years. At first it was met by shock and denial–This isn’t happening. How could love be withdrawn, God absent? This was followed by resignation–I don’t know how or why. I just know it is. But somewhere down in that dark chasm–Was I really brave enough to follow? Was my following a choice?–I seem to have found God again. Or at least I sense God’s proximity in the darkness.

But God’s nature has changed once more. She is no longer love but suffering, and not just any kind of suffering but the suffering that is the inevitable product of love. She is Jesus on the cross and Mary at the base of that cross. She is the seafarer’s wife looking out over the water, the teenager’s mother waiting up in the dark, the feverish child’s father applying a cooling cloth. She is the brother beside the hospital bed, the addict’s sponsor on the phone all night, the minister clutching the newly widowed man’s hand. This suffering God is present in any boy or girl, man or woman who sets aside personal need and comfort to suffer with or on behalf of another out of love. There’s nothing noble about such sacrifice. But there is everything divine.

Or so my present and proximate God is currently telling me, somewhere down here in the dark.

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Soothe

Your song washes over me as

Elemental water, the rains

Of Earth’s birthing, life flowing through,

Over, around, dissolving me

Bit by bit, cell by cell, into

Your goodness, the bounty of your

Heart, to be disseminated

Across everything—all love, all loved.

*

for Jill Andrews, on the release of her new album

Katherine Summer

Mark this visit made on your second birthday:

April 29, pale Tuesday, clouds gathering,

cool. I wandered through a day plain as

mud—early waking to chill rooms unwarmed

by sleeping sun, spare breakfast (tea,

English muffin), three futile hours at the

desk, then slow trudge to trudging library

job. Not a bad day but hardly good, average at best.

Till this—your sudden arrival

as I walked home through late-afternoon

shower. The rain was expected, came on the

heels of darkening sky, thunder, lightning.

You were a surprise. I’d seen you only

half-a-dozen times and not for months. Any

one of several nearer guards might’ve risen

to carry me home. But they didn’t; you did.

Came to me like this—tottering after

the dog on uncooperative legs threatening

collapse, your face alive, framed by loops

of feather hair, caught in perpetual pause

between shriek and utter smile: perfect gift.

Offered to me, here, molded from cold

drops of gray rain. You stayed for the half-

mile to my steps, didn’t speak but remained

close radiating warmth, tangible heat flowing

like a stream murmuring “Revive. Revive.”

Safely delivered, freshly born, I paused at

my door. The rain stopped, you disappeared,

and a rainbow rose against brightening sky.

That fervent arc ends only where you are,

everywhere you are. I follow it still,

sufficient cause for hope.

May, 1980

You know the scene: family and friends gather from near and far to scatter the ashes of a dear departed loved one.

The wide availability of cremation has transformed the logistics of planning funerals. No longer is it imperative to get the body, safely ensconced in its expensive coffin, lowered into its expensive cemetery plot as quickly as practical. Funerals can be scheduled weeks or months after the death, at a time that maximizes convenience and attendance by family and friends scattered across the globe and with calendars booked months in advance. No more prompt funerals in freezing rain attended by only the spouse and resident daughter and pastor. And while certainly a radical departure from funerary traditions throughout history, where public health as well as propriety were of paramount concern, why not schedule a funeral at a time of maximum convenience if current practices allow? Why not include as many people as possible? That’s a good thing, right?

To which I would respond with an emphatic “Yes!”

Not that numbers matter to the deceased. Years ago I attended a session on funeral planning and practices where the presenter’s mantra was “The deceased doesn’t care!” So who does? Well, the survivors. And why do they care? On behalf of the deceased? Some may say so, to which I would repeat “The deceased doesn’t care!” No, it matters to the survivors. And why does it matter? I think because an opportunity to grieve and support and remember and share, and perhaps celebrate and socialize, to partake collectively of all those vital human activities is a bold declaration that death doesn’t have the last word. And if this is the central purpose of a funeral or memorial service (now that disposal of the body has been streamlined), why not maximize attendance? Why not make the shout in the face of death as loud and vibrant and irrefutable as possible? Let dozens shout it out, hundreds, thousands (that latter might be a logistical challenge for most churches or memorial gardens–so rent a pavilion, put up a tent in a field, tell death it isn’t the last word!).

Over this past weekend, I was witness to the aftermath of such a collective shout. Family and friends had gathered from across the United States to scatter the ashes of the family matriarch in the town of her birth and upbringing. And though I wasn’t witness to the actual service at the cemetery of the matriarch’s home church, I could see in the eyes and enthusiasm of the four generations of participants the glow not only of love–for the deceased and for each other–but also of the best kind of victory: of the endurance of the human spirit through the pain and trauma of death. And in this victory, the deceased does care, does share.

Now the real question behind this post: What happens to that love, to that victory, after those gathered depart and return to their lives scattered across the country or the world? Are all those uncommon expressions of vulnerability and support and love dispersed like ashes by the wind, diluted like ashes on the waves? Is the victory short-lived, the shout in the face of death fading to silence, leaving death–alas–the real final word? Or, if by some chance in some remote corner of the globe, the shout isn’t silenced, the victory not forgotten, what form might that enduring victory take? How much effort and sacrifice might be required to maintain that spirit, that thin thread of elemental human emotion and hunger? What would preserving and furthering the positive energy of a funeral gathering look like in our lives?

This is the question asked but left unanswered at the end of Angels Unawares, as the tacitly related yet disparate participants in the last days of Joshua Earl say their final good-byes. Or maybe the question isn’t entirely unanswered. Maybe the fate of the diverse group assembled in that cemetery is implied by what has gone before.

If you have any ideas, let me know.

The other day I stumbled on The Beatles’ Abbey Road medley “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.” Or, more accurately, the mix pushed its way into my ears as I unearthed a long forgotten playlist of Beatles and Doors favorites while I did some weed-whacking in my yard (those ear buds tucked up under the hearing-protection muffs can make a task go by a lot faster, as long as you don’t try to play “air guitar” with the weed whacker–that could get dangerous, to you and your shrubbery).

Anyway, the closing line of this medley, which is also the closing line (if you ignore the unlisted “Her Majesty” P.S.) of Abbey Road–the last Beatles album recorded and, according to many, their best (my vote for this auspicious designation would be Sgt. Pepper’s)–these closing verses are Paul McCartney’s oft-quoted lyrics: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. 

And that sentence stuck in my mind through the rest of the Beatles/Doors mix, the completion of my weed-whacking for that day, and on through the weekend and beyond. It’s hardly the first time I’d reflected on the verse. I’d practically wore out the vinyl of the album when it was first released, playing it on my parents’ console system with the turntable and the speakers built into the furniture-grade cabinet in the corner of the living room, blasting out the songs on Saturday nights when everyone else in the family had something better to do. And I continued to reflect on the verse when it found its way into every other (or so it seemed) high-school yearbook picture epigraph, though these latter reflections were more in derision than awe as my classmates seemed to be yearning for the bygone flower-child era of peace and love (that was rarely if ever peaceful and loving).

Because that’s the thing about this verse–even now, forty-five years after its initial release, it seems to define a moment in time and an ethic when one was called to reflect upon and honor a cosmic balance: that love received equaled love given. The implications of such a balance are obvious: the more love you “make,” the more love you “take.” And whether referring to sexual love (the jet fuel of the late sixties social movement) or romantic love (the driving energy behind most rock lyrics–indeed behind most lyrics of any sort) or platonic love (a mainstay of philosophers) or agape love (what Christians mean by “love thy neighbor”), more love is good. Isn’t it?

But in all my previous reflections on this ponderous sentence and the ethic (whether sincere or ironic) underpinning it, I always focused on the cosmic scale aspect–does love given always, or ever, equal love received? But in this narrow focus I missed entirely a larger question–can love be either created (“make”) or consumed (“take”)?

And it seems to me now, forty-five years older (if not wiser–indeed, perhaps dumber, in a good way I hope) than that kid dropping the vinyl disc on his parents’ living-room record player, that love cannot be created or destroyed, that there is a constant and infinite supply available to us at all times, in this realm and beyond, and that our only challenge if we wish to partake of this infinite resource is to find it in our own lives and hearts, and share it once found. To use McCartney’s language, the finding could be considered “taking” and the sharing could be considered “making.” But it’s dangerously narcissistic and self-aggrandizing to think that one could either create or consume something as precious and elemental as love. The opposite approach would be more appropriate and, in my experience, productive–to humble oneself before the beauty of love, and in that humility, find the blessing, or be found by it. And once found, rejoice in the gift by sharing it.

This is, in essence, the narrative movement of Angels Unawares. At the start of the novel, all the characters are lost. They’ve been humbled by life–by their choices, their mistakes, their pride, their unfulfilled longing. And in such a state of emptiness and emptying, they stumble on love, or are found by it. And once found, they share–love and themselves, one and the same now.

What’s the word family mean to you?

It’s a word that gets kicked around a lot in public discourse, and I mean kicked! It’s been so overused, misused, and abused it’s a wonder the word can even stand up on the page. With a hacked up “l” and a torn off “y” our beat-up word becomes fami, then you add a new suffix and you get famished. That seems an appropriate linkage, though one wonders if it’s the concept of family that’s famished or all of us out there craving family but finding none.

I came across a line recently (probably the seed of this post): In the South, family is who you are. And I thought–well, O.K., one more cliché to add to the pile. But then somewhat later in the article the author of that line divulged that she was adopted and didn’t know her birth family. And suddenly that earlier cliché took on many shades of possible meaning. Was the original statement meant to be ironic, or even more incisive? Was the writer’s adopted family who she was or the missing birth family or neither or both? Was she defined by what she knew or what she didn’t know, firmly grounded or endlessly searching? And then what of the regional implications of the statement? Is family really more important in the South (of the United States) than in other parts of the United States or the world? I guess it all comes back to what one means by family.

[When I first visited the upper South in the 70s, I immediately noted two differences from the North (of the United States) where I’d lived till then. First, most of the houses, regardless their size or value or upkeep, had large front porches with well-used rocking chairs and a swing or two. Second, behind many of the “newer” brick ranch houses or contemporary bungalows, beyond the vegetable garden or a screen of trees, the old homestead still remained, its windows and doors boarded up in mute witness or testimony–but to what? These regional characteristics have been diluted in recent decades by an influx of outsiders and the accompanying development, but they are still apparent in many rural areas. (There was a third observation I made on first visiting, an observation that shaped itself into the following parallelism–In the South there’s a church on every street corner and the bars are hidden in the woods; in the North there’s a bar on every street corner and the churches are hidden in the woods. But that’s a subject for another post–or maybe not!)]

What does family mean to you? Ultimately, stereotypes and generalizations, and the expectations that insidiously accrete around them, become obstacles in our search for an answer, to the point where some of us give up looking. It’ll take care of itself, we sigh in resignation and frustration.

Yet identifying the meaning of family, and finding one’s way to fulfillment within that meaning, seems central to a person’s happiness and peace–a fact confirmed, usually by negative example, in much of the world’s literature down through the ages, an understanding that only makes the question that much more urgent.

Perhaps an initial step in answering the question is to realize that family is first and foremost an individual need, a longing for the right mix of reliable companionship and comfort and support. And this need, and its fulfillment, will be unique to each person. The key to the search then is not what the world says you need but what you say you need, what your heart longs for. But that too is only a step toward an answer. What is your heart saying you need for a family?

In Angels Unawares all the rules regarding family commitment and responsibility have been thoroughly destroyed by the characters’ choices and actions in the past. But on this blank slate, the characters ever so slowly begin to sketch the outline of a new kind of family, not by trying to mend old wounds or redress past failures, but by trusting their hearts’ instincts, and following where those instincts lead, even if they have no idea where they are going or exactly why. It’s a radical approach to family. But it surely can’t end any worse than the former one; and it might, just might, provide them with the family they need, one that will last.

What does one do with a regret when there’s no time left to fix it?

We think of this as an end-of-life question, right–someone lying on his deathbed thinking of the time he threw his child out of the house or betrayed his best friend or was too busy to go see his ill parent. And in fact the question arises here in the context of serializing my novel Angels Unawares on the website Reading and Recipes, a novel in which the main character, Joshua Earl, is in the last days of his life, determined to die in his house, tended by his (formerly) long estranged ex-wife Laura.

But while Josh has several large regrets that he shares with Laura, in a strange turnabout he is the one most at peace, as he slides back and forth between reality and someplace else, and Laura–who thought she had her life in careful order–is the one tormented by regrets and doubts.

And with this not so gentle prod, we’re forced to reconsider if the matter of unfixable regret is strictly relegated to end-of-life situations. Perhaps many of us are like Laura, with regrets lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness, locked away long ago but never gone, waiting to suddenly resurface if events–most often some shock or tragedy–jar them loose, tear away the emotional scar tissue encasing them.

Sounds painful, doesn’t it? Sounds downright awful! What the hell you bring that up for anyway, Jeff?

I could be coy and say “Read the book!” (Or listen to it–the segments are in audio as well as text format.) But to escape the accusation of being a shameless tease, I’ll share a few mitigating–and hopeful–ideas to go along with this downer subject.

Then tell you to go read the book!

First of all, every day is “end-of-life” when it comes to regret, especially those involving other people. This is certainly true in a literal sense–you could die today or the subject of the regret could die today and in either circumstance the regret would be left unresolved. But I think this point is even truer in emotional terms–each day the regret goes unaddressed is a kind of death: a day lost to healing, a day “dead” to reconciliation. Now, in the early days of the fracture, one might accept the loss of that day of reconciliation as the price paid to avoid the pain or awkwardness or suppression of pride needed to mend the injury. “I’ll let Hell freeze over before I’ll speak to that asshole” we say in self-righteous anger, gladly burning up the days, weeks, months to fuel the fires of our indignation. O.K., O.K.–I get it. You’re pissed. You’re angry at the other person or at yourself or at the world. You’re just angry, and hurt. I know. I know!

But what about when the anger finally cools–months later, years–but the regret remains, lodged there in your heart, festering? Isn’t each day lost at that point a small death for you? And if it is for you, then maybe it also is for the other party. And now two people have each lost another day to regret, however deeply buried. Each day is end-of-life when it comes to regrets.

The flip side of all this is the liberation that comes with the unburdening of a regret. Whether a repairing of the breach with the estranged party occurs or not–and let’s face it, the other side may not be open to mending the injury at the moment you are–in any case you can say you tried. And suddenly the regret is no longer a regret. It may be a sadness; it may be a loss. Or it may be a totally new opportunity. We can live with those. Can you live with a regret? Truly?

Now–Go read the book!