Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Time to Mourn

Last Sunday afternoon I went to the memorial service for the husband of a long-time colleague and friend. He and she were and are self-professed atheists, having abandoned any faith practices of their youth, Jewish and Christian, respectively. They had been married for 40 years and had a wonderful loving relationship. I know her as a social worker with great compassion and integrity, and I saw him joyful and just beaming any time he came to work to pick her up—they were so close. He was an English teacher, who cared about his students—obvious from the number of them at this service, and a political junkie who cared about what was going on in the world. Because they have no religious affiliations and a small family, at this memorial service, she led the service, rather than a minister or rabbi. It had only been a week and a half since he died, and frankly it was very painful to see her, I don't mean her grief and tears, but to watch her try to hold it together in this public setting, leading the service.

One of their friends got up to talk, and the friend started by saying, "You know, we atheists have a harder time transmitting our values to our children than people who are religious." I thought then that another thing that atheists are missing is someone to lead community rituals. My friend's role should be only to mourn, not to lead a public service.

But it is not only atheists who are getting short shrift. I think perhaps as a society we are forgetting the communal nature of mourning, and the community's responsibility to those who mourn, while trying to speed up and expedite the period of grief. My agency gives five days for bereavement, but many workplaces allow two or three days or have no formal policy—you have to take vacation. And even those who are religious are beginning to blend the roles of the funeral and the memorial service and the roles of the mourners and the ritual leaders. Last fall I went to a graveside service for a colleague who had become ill and died within a month. Her son is an Orthodox rabbi, so the funeral was held the next day, and he led the service, while he was in shock and a mess. They were a small family and he had just moved back here in the last few years, so it wasn't clear to me that he had any other support system. But I came away thinking that he had done himself and us a disservice. As pastoral caregivers we need to know when to give and when to receive, when to hold on and when to let go, when to speak and when to be silent. It was his time to receive care, his time to let go and grieve, and he couldn't quite do it, and he couldn't really do the work of leading the community through the rituals of mourning either when he was the chief mourner.

This winter I went to a funeral that turned into an open mike memorial service. I would guess that those who were mourning would have loved to hear what people had to say, but I doubt if they could listen and take it in at that point in their numbness. But any kind of service is better than none, I believe, having listened to a friend whose controlling father died specifying no funeral service. She's wiser than that and created in the house a memorial space with the urn of ashes (he wanted his ashes spread at sea) and pictures, and they had a time together as a family, talking, and individually grieving in this space.

People need time to mourn, time to wail and cry if they need to, time to be held close by someone who cares. But, for most people, within the first week or two after death is not the time to be articulate in public about your own loss and grief. I think that the old Jewish rabbis were great students of human psychology (and sanitation) when they called for a funeral within a day or two. A funeral is a time to cry, to tear your clothing, and to have closure and know the finality of death. The mourners' job is to mourn. A community needs a ritual leader to guide the family and friends through a community time of mourning. Then those who grieve go home and in the ancient Jewish tradition, they sit shiva for seven days, while people come to the house and pay their respects, to bring comfort, and to bring them food and remind them to eat. After that, people are encouraged to begin everyday life again, and but to stand as a mourner with others who are mourning loved ones and say the Kaddish prayer each week at synagogue for the next year. Thereafter on each yahrzeit or anniversary the mourner stands to say Kaddish and the names of the dead are read aloud. What a sane rhythm this is for the community to maintain to honor both the dead and the grieving.

During my field education year, I wrote a series of lessons, and led an adult Sunday school class on the dark side of love, peace, joy and hope for those who needed to acknowledge their fear, anger, grief, and despair, during that season when all is not merry and light, and we also held a "blue Christmas" service to give space to those were mourning particular losses. As communities and pastoral caregivers we need to remember with those who grieve and mark those anniversaries—the week, the months, and the years, as well as celebrate what those lives have brought to our communities. At my workplace and home church I also wrote and led a series on spiritual exercises, including grieving, that I documented in this blog: Exercises for Spiritual, Mental, and Emotional Health.

As a chaplain in a continuing care retirement community this past year, I had occasion to participate in a number of memorial services as a leader and eulogist. The wise thing about these memorial services is that they were usually a month to six weeks after the person's death. This allowed people to be able to speak, to be able to listen, and for those in the community to hear about people's lives, and to mourn not only those whom we were remembering, but other grief and losses. As chaplains we made note of losses and made a point to check in with the surviving spouse—regularly at first, then at three months when they were coming out of numbness usually, and at six months when they were ready to become involved again with their regular activities. Grieving is not over with a service and neither is the community's responsibility.

As a friend, I can reach out to my colleague in her grieving. It was clear that she and her husband had loving friends and family. What remains to be seen is how that community takes up its responsibility for supporting her and her daughter in their grieving. Will people, including me, just get too busy? When time comes for dinner parties will they want to keep the numbers even? I think as ministers and friends we may need to use those reminder features on our calendars to better purpose, and to remember that grieving is not a one time event.

May those who mourn be comforted, and may our grief be acknowledged--or perhaps, as Emily Dickinson puts it, may our grief be measured.
I measure every Grief I meet
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –

There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call "Despair" –
There's Banishment from native Eyes –
In Sight of Native Air –

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they're mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like My Own –

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Travel Reading: Music, Madness, and God

I just came home from a week of travel and mostly the vacation part of the trip was in books. I recommend the following:

The Soloist by Steve Lopez
This is a powerful encounter by journalist Steve Lopez with homeless schizophrenic and Juilliard trained bass player Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez first sees Ayers on a corner in Los Angeles playing a two stringed violin. Lopez goes beyond journalism to friendship, using his newspaper column to campaign for better services for homeless people in general and for Mr. Ayers in particular. It's a bumpy road, and a fascinating read.

It's also a movie—I don't know if it does the book justice, but the website is promising. The movie tagline is "No one changes anything by playing it safe." The soundtrack to the movie by Dario Marianelli is Beethoven inspired and at least the snippets I found on iTunes are lovely and moving. Music and madness come together and come apart.
As I leave his apartment one day shortly after he moved in, he calls me back and holds out his hand. It's a long, firm handshake, followed by a smile. I look into his eyes and see the man he's always been behind the racing, spinning madness. The son who lost a father. The musician who lost a chance. No, we don't have too many so-called normal conversations. But what's normal? I hold his hand in mine, and neither of us needs to say a thing.
By Heresies Distressed by David Weber
This is the third in this series by Weber, just released in hardcover. Teaser available from Baen Publishing. If you like thoughtful examinations of the consequences of the combination of religion and power, read this whole series, starting with Off Armageddon Reef, continuing with By Schism Rent Asunder. Can religious fundamentalism keep humanity safe? Can one person change the course of a world's history? Can creativity and innovation be controlled by religious hierarchy? Can religion not be corrupted by power? The quest for power is assuredly one road to madness, and Weber offers several portraits of those who succumb to power's madness vs. those who do not. If you liked Sharon Shinn's Archangel series, you'll like this series by David Weber too. If you haven't read Shinn's series, read it as well!

Song of the Beast by Carol Berg
"How much is required of a man chosen by a god?" One man hears the gods through music, and must be silenced by those in power, because what the gods want is to be set free. After seventeen years of torture, including seven years of silence, the protagonist leaves his prison to find out what his crime was. This book was a find in a small town Colorado library, by a Colorado author.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
This is a love story, about the passion, madness and disappointments in love and music. Beautifully written. Here's the final paragraph:
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music – not too much, or the soul could not sustain it – from time to time.
The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell
This Swedish crime novel is a true psychological thriller—not much in the way of music or God, but much of madness.

I was going to read Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett on the flight home, but instead my daughter finished reading and laughing, then handed me Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar, required summer reading as she enters high school. This is a story of how one high school freshman keeps his sanity by maintaining his sense of humor. As we returned from the annual pilgrimage to the town where I went to high school—a place that is no longer my home, I think I might be able to add to narrator Scott Hudson's list of
Things That Happen So Far Apart That you Forget How Bad They Are:
School dances
Dentist appointments
Hernia tests
Award shows
Chicken goulash in the cafeteria
My additions:
Middle seats on airplanes
Airport security lines
Continental breakfast in most motels
Conversational attempts with some relatives

Nonetheless, my reading and travels reminded me that music can be glorious, madness is relative, God is evident in all creation, and most people in the western United States tend to be 1) more friendly than most easterners, and 2) more afraid of coming east than easterners are of going west.

This afternoon I went to a memorial service for the beloved husband of a long-time colleague. He loved to read and was quite a joyful and special person. This poem by Emily Dickinson was printed on the memorial service program leaflet. It seems an appropriate cap for my week's worth of reading.

He ate and drank the precious Words—
His spirit grew robust—
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust –

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book—What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings -

Back to work tomorrow, preaching this coming Sunday—we'll see how the books and travel will loosen my spirit and inform the week ahead.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Couch, a Sofa, or a Daven-port?

I sing the sofa! It had stood for years,
An invitation to benign repose,
A foe to all the fretful brood of fears,
Bidding the weary eye-lid sink and close.
Massive and deep and broad it was and bland—
In short the noblest sofa in the land. …
See the rest of The Last Straw by R. C. Lehmann

Like the subject of this poem, my old sofa had stood for years. So the big news at my house this week is that, after 28 years, I got a new couch. I am marveling at the possibilities that a new couch might bring, prompted by a little bit of internet searching:
Poetry on the Couch: Depressed? Try beating the blues by writing a poem.
Could a new couch lead to poetic flights, freedom from stress?

But then I began to wonder whether it's a couch or a sofa, or maybe even a davenport. And why do we have all of these different words?

Couch comes from Middle English, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, "as a noun denoting something to sleep on, and as a verb in the sense 'lay something down.' Couch is from Old French couche (noun), coucher (verb), from Latin collocare, 'place together.'" Fans of seventies pop music will remember what may have been your first naughty French language lesson, "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" When I heard that song when I was young, I certainly did not realize that the couch in our living room and coucher were related. I spare all of our blushes.

Sofa, according to my Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, comes from the Arabic, suffah, meaning long bench. It is a long upholstered seat usually with arms and a back and often convertible into a bed. That is why we can buy sofabeds, but not couchbeds, I guess.

My grandparents referred to this same object of furniture as a davenport, although few people call it that these days. The Free Dictionary online told me that Davenport might refer to "A city of eastern Iowa on the Mississippi River opposite Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. It grew rapidly after the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was completed in 1856. Population: 99,500,"
or to Davenport, John 1597-1670: English Puritan who fled to America in 1637 and helped found a colony at New Haven, Connecticut.
Or it could be either
1. A large sofa, often convertible into a bed.
2. A small desk. [From obsolete davenport, a small writing desk, probably from the name of the manufacturer.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved, clarified that davenport is a noun and 1. Chiefly British, a writing desk with drawers at the side but
2. in Australia, US & Canada a large sofa [sense 1 supposedly after Captain Davenport, who commissioned the first ones]

and the Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006 third definition for davenport is a large sofa usually convertible into a bed, and gives synonyms:
chesterfield - an overstuffed davenport with upright armrests
sofa bed, convertible - a sofa that can be converted into a bed

But then I wondered if daven-port might be a useful name at times. Daven (with an "ah" sound for the first syllable rather than the flat "eh") comes from the Yiddish meaning to recite the Jewish liturgy of prayers. A port is a safe harbor. So then would a daven-port be a safe place to say one's prayers?

One of the Jewish liturgies of prayer comes with the ceremony for ending the Sabbath called Havdallah, meaning distinction. It marks the return to the week. While this would occur on Saturday evening for Jews, I think that this prayer from The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness by Rabbi Rami Shapiro (p.47-48) is a wonderful prayer as we begin any new week, and perhaps I can infuse and support these prayers on my new daven-port or couch, where I lay down my burdens, and rise up refreshed.
Blessed is the Source of Bliss who offers me a path to bliss. May this be a week for setting aside expectations and surrendering to the simple truth of what is, that I may find my way to what may be.

Blessed is the Source of Wisdom who offers me a path to wisdom. May this be a week for heeding the intuitive voice that whispers within. May I be open to what comes my way, trusting in Life and the One who manifests it.

Blessed is the Source of Understanding who offers me a path to understanding. May this be a week for cooling my desires and seeing things more objectively. May I seek first to understand and only then to be understood.

Blessed is the Source of Restraint who offers me a path to restraint. May this be a week for holding back and making room. May I uplift others and find in their success a bit of my own.

Blessed is the Source of Grace who offers me a path to grace. May this be a week for reaching out to help and reaching out to be helped, for offering love and opening to it when it is offered.

Blessed is the Source of Balance who offers me a path to balance. May this be a week of self-correction, listening to my needs and fulfilling them.

Blessed is the Source of Receptivity who offers me a path to receptivity. May this be a week for patience. May I resist the desire to change what is that I might first come to know what is.

Blessed is the Source of Victory who offers me a path to victory. May this be a week for overcoming obstacles, remembering that some walls need not be toppled, only walked around.

Blessed is the Source of Transformation who offers me a path to transformation. May this be a week for doing things differently. May I seek out new ways of encouraging mutual fulfillment, joy, purpose, and growth.

Blessed is the Source of Grounding who offers me a path to grounding. May this be a week for slowing down and settling in. May I attend to what needs doing and do it with fullness of body, mind, heart, and soul.
May we all be so blessed this week.