Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No Other Prayer

To Be Near Unto God by Abraham Kuyper is a series of devotional reflections on Psalm 73. Today I read number ten, "Seek Ye My Face," in which Kuyper meditates on the various ways and depths of experience of knowing God. He distinguishes between knowing God in a doctrinal and in a mystical way.

In looking at the language that we use to speak about knowing God or knowing another person, Kuyper says, “The face, the countenance speaks; speaks by its entire expression, but especially through and by the eye. The eye is as a window of the body through which we look into another’s soul, and through which he comes out of his soul, to see us, scan, and address us.” It follows, he suggests, that the “face of God” is a prominent image in our seeking Him and his seeking us: “…our walk with God could not be illustrated otherwise than by the privilege of being permitted to meet God face to face.”

In the sweaty, selfish, rude world that I inhabit, a world of physical realities like dirty dishes and sore knees and the smell of urine on the bathroom floor, I have to bring myself to a full internal mental stop before I can change gears and find meaning in metaphorical and anthropomorphic language about God. God does not look like George Burns. I get that. “The imagery which here must lend support remains wrapped in mystical dimness,” Kuyper wrote. “A visible face exhibits what is corporeal, and God is spirit.” We are merely using the image of a face.

Kuyper urges us to employ this image to put ourselves in the way of being close to God, close enough to see His “face”—so that “he looks at us and we at him”:

“The main thing is that we no longer satisfy ourselves with a conception of God, a scientific knowledge of God, or a speaking about God, but that we have come in touch with God himself; that we have met Him, that in and by our way through life He has discovered us to ourselves, and that a personal relation has sprung up between the Living God and our soul.”

In my reading and in my prayer, in my spiritual life, in every aspect of my life at this point, I am all-consumed with grief. I mostly cannot care deeply about anything else but about how much I miss Aidan. I find moments of delight with M. Peevie and Mr. Peevie, and rarer ones with C. Peevie because he’s not at home and often out of touch. But those moments are fleeting, and the minutes and hours in between are filled with either longing for Aidan and missing him, or intentionally trying to push that ache to the background so I can concentrate on something else. Trying to push the grief away is like trying not to notice that Benedict Cumberbatch just walked into the room. It's just not going to happen.

So when I read Kuyper, and remember that God is here, God is All, God is personal, and God offers me a relationship with Himself—I think to myself, I should try to act like I believe this, instead of behaving like a practical atheist. If I take this heavy burden to God in prayer, if I seek God’s face, maybe I will find some comfort there.

My prayers are so selfish and self-centered. Really, pretty much 98 percent of my thoughts, actions and words are selfish and self-centered. I’m just trying to get through the day without breaking up into a million Aidan-missing pieces.

Kuyper concludes this meditation with these words: 

“There is a moment in the life of the child of God when he feels the stress of the inability to rest, until he finds God; until after he has found Him, he has placed himself before Him, and standing before Him, seeks His face; and he cannot cease that search until he has met God’s eye, and in that meeting has obtained the touching realization that God has looked into his soul and he has looked God in the eye of Grace. And only when it has come to this the mystery of grace discloses itself.”

This makes me wonder, and hope, that perhaps if there is a God, He is somehow available to me, and that I might actually find comfort and relief by seeking His face. It does not make sense to my troubled, messed-up mind, which only wants Aidan and misses him and cannot fathom the egregious wrong of his sudden, traumatic, and premature death. It does not make sense that anything but Aidan can salve this wound—but I do believe, or at least I want to believe, that this is what God wants to do for me, and can do for me.

Maybe these words can be my prayer, because I have no other.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Flies, Fairy Tales, and Shakespeare

Somebody left the screen door open, and now our house is overrun with flies. I keep killing them with fat insurance envelopes and a TCF Bank flyer printed on sturdy coated stock. I wish I had a fly swatter, but thank gooodness we still live in a world where there's junk mail.

C. Peevie has killed a few flies also, and likes to brag about it. 
Brooke's Brave Little Tailor
He walked out of the bathroom and said, "I just killed another fly."

"Me too," I said. "I added three more notches to my belt this morning."

"You put the notches on your belt?" he asked. "I put them on my knife." I pictured him throwing a Bowie knife and pinning flies to the wall, their tiny legs flailing. 

He is apparently unfamiliar with the Grimm fairy tale, The Brave Little Tailor--so I sent him the link.

"Read it," I told him. "Clearly, your education has been sadly neglected."

"OK," he said. 

We both know he won't. You might want to re-read this clever story, however. It's more entertaining than I remembered.

The flies, however, who understood no German, would not be turned away. 
When he drew it away, and counted, there lay before him no fewer than seven, dead and with their legs stretched out.
His heart wagged with joy like a lamb's tail.

I could go on--but I'll just let you read it for yourself.

There are good reasons to read fairy tales even beyond the fact that they're entertaining.  Albert Einstein is questionably credited with saying, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Whether he actually said those words or not, the essence of the quote -- that developing the imagination is key to an educated mind -- correlates with his belief that "imagination is more important than knowledge." Others have extolled the value of the imagination for learning, success, and life as well. 

Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night. --Edgar Allan Poe
Imagination rules the world! --Napoleon Bonaparte

You can find dozens of pages of quotes on BrainyQuotes, ThinkExist, and similar sites--but the chain of proper attribution on these sites unreliably begins and ends at "I read it on the Internet!"

I don't know how I got from a fly infestation to Shakespeare, but I leave you with these words from Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, 
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt;
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heavne to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Not Yet.

"Made his final transition."

"Crossed the river."

"Passed on/away."

"Went to be with the Lord."


A euphemism is "the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant" (Merriam-Webster). This website offers more than 200 euphemisms for death.

It's still hard, a year and a half later, to say the words, "Aidan died." They stick in my throat like a cinnamon challenge. When I say them, I have to clench my jaw and swallow to hold my facial muscles in place. I don't mind the tears one little bit -- but I hate my lack of control over the ugly, contorted facial expressions of grief.

But I refuse to make this unacceptable death more palatable with euphemism or spiritual platitudes. I don't want anyone to get the impression that there is anything right or OK about the fact that I have to live the rest of my life without seeing, touching, or hearing my son. Aidan, a fourteen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood, gentle and kind, enthusiastic about learning, funny, quirky nearly to the point of diagnosis--this child died a sudden, harsh death; and we are left with memories, photographs, and flashes of PTSD.

Both C. Peevie and M. Peevie dreamed about Aidan recently; and both of them woke up sobbing into the reality that Aidan is gone. Euphemizing this death does not make it easier. In fact it makes it harder, in a way, by minimizing the harsh reality of our future without him.

I recently attended a funeral where the euphemisms, especially the spiritual ones, were on everyone's lips. There seemed to be a conspiracy to substitute spiritual bromides for real emotion and authentic grief. 

"He's in a better place," they said. "He's still with us; I can feel him."

At one point I offered my condolences to a relative of the deceased. He said, "It's OK. Everything is OK." 

I looked at him in disbelief. 

"No," I said, "It's not OK. Nothing is OK." 

Mr. Peevie echoed my words: "It's NOT OK," he said. 

I saw him two more times that afternoon, and both times he reiterated, "It really is OK."

I realized in retrospect that this was a coping mechanism--but at the time I felt so furious at those words I wanted to have a temper tantrum and say fuck a lot. 

I am still -- almost exactly one year and nine months later -- in the place where every death is Aidan's death, and every funeral is Aidan's funeral. Every grief, every sorrow, every loss is connected to Aidan in a way that I don't really understand. When the grieving relative said, "It's OK", it felt like he was telling me that I should feel that Aidan's death is OK. 

A few days ago the New York Times printed a letter in Philip Galanes' Social Q's column from a woman whose 18-year-old son died a year ago from an undiagnosed heart condition. She said she and her husband 

find it extremely distressing when people we haven't seen in the last year rush up to us at social events to tell us how sorry they are and how they 'just can't imagine' our loss. We know they mean well, but it makes us overwhelmingly sad and ruins festive occasions...What can we do to stop people from launching into their grief for us?

Mr. Galanes suggested a line to divert the conversation--but then took it one step further.

And for the rest of us, hold back, even though our hearts are pure. Sending a condolence note or even an email allows the bereaved to deal with our sympathy in their own time. Let them bring up their loss in conversation, not us.

All of this is very upsetting to me. If I see someone for the first time since Aidan died, I expect and hope that the first words out of their mouths are,"I'm so sorry about Aidan." Because guess what? This is in the front of my mind. All. The. Time. Someone expressing their condolences doesn't make me overwhelmingly sad because I'm already overwhelmingly sad. It doesn't ruin festive occasions because for me, there is already a damper on every occasion, festive or otherwise. We are never without the presence of Aidan's absence.

I find myself avoiding festive occasions not because I dread people bringing up our loss, but because I resent it when people avoid the subject. 

And this whole business of 'let them bring up their loss' is for the birds. I'm sorry, but it is. I will gratefully accept your sympathetic concern and your fond remembrances of my son. But I am not going to hijack the conversation at a social occasion by bringing it up myself. 

The letter writer, of course, gets to deal with her grief in whatever manner feels most helpful and appropriate to her. But please do not take Mr. Galanes' advice about avoiding the one topic that is foremost on the mind of any bereaved person. Say your words of condolence--and then follow her lead. Respect her choice if she says, "Let's talk about this another time." But chances are, she will be grateful you took the risk. For a brief moment, you will have given her a gift, and you will have made her sorrow a mite less lonely.  

Eventually, I hope, I will be able to keep my own grief separate, and allow others the comfort of their own coping mechanisms, rituals, and euphemisms graciously and without judgment. But not yet. Not yet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Unabashed: Five Shopping Days to Go

My birthday is a day when I unabashedly receive all sorts of love and attention and presents from my minions, as well as from my friends and family.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'm unabashed about receiving love and attention and presents every day of the year. But especially so on my birthday, and during my birth-week and birth-month.
Aidan in costume. Can you guess who he is?

Last year was the first year since 2008 that I did not post a birthday wish list. I only wanted one thing last year. I still want Aidan back. But now, after spending a year and a half figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other--which is essentially what grief is--I have found that I can find moments here and there of peace and joy and contentment, even while my heart is broken.

So, with no further ado, and with a mere five shopping days to go, here's my 2014 birthday wish list:

1. Say Aidan's name to me. This is very simple. You don't have to have a script. I was texting my friend Soap about some assorted topics, and then suddenly I get a text from her that just read "Aidan today." I texted back "Aidan today what?", and she said, "I am thinking about him and wanted to say his name to you." I loved this. 

2. The recovery of the 200+ Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorists more than a month ago. I just heard that they've been located.

3. Diet Coke. I know, I know--it's bad for me. So is pollution, but I'm still gonna breathe.

4. A hanging flower pot for the backyard. It doesn't have to be this elaborate.

5. An agent or publisher for my almost-finished novel.

6. Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I despise and eschew our selfie culture, but I took a selfie anyway with my friend The Generous Listener (TGL) at #FFWgr because James McBride was signing autographs in the background. His book sounds like a delightful and completely new take on the John Brown story.

OK, that'll do it for this year. Happy shopping!

[Update: Apparently James McBride's people do not allow unauthorized use of James McBride's image on wildly popular personal blogs with upwards of seven loyal followers. OK, whatever.] 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hashtag FFWgr, Part Two: The Reading List

In case you missed part one, you can read it here.

I promised to put together a reading list based upon the books and authors I heard cited at the Festival of Faith and Writing 2014. I've organized the list list into four categories: books about writing, works of fiction, books about faith, other non-fiction, and poetry and poets.  The list that follows is only partially annotated because there were SERIOUSLY a LOT of books and authors mentioned. I got tired of annotating and linking. Sorry.

Books about writing

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction
--This is a college textbook. Interestingly, Amazon only offers an option to rent the book for a semester; it's not available for purchase new. You can buy a used copy on Amazon for $43.98, or on EBay for $52.89.

Kenneth Burke, Permanence and ChangeA Grammar of Motives.
--the latter work offers the dramatistic pentad, a model for analyzing narratives to understand human motivations and predict behavior. The five rhetorical elements include act, scene, agent, agency (or method or means), and purpose (or motive). 

A]ny complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)." -Kenneth Burke

Annie Dillard*
--Mr. Peevie presciently gave me The Writing Life for Christmas, so I will be starting there.

Sol Stein, On Writing
Just reading the description of On Writing from Stein's own website makes me want to drop everything and read it, and while I'm reading it, start revising my novel-in-progress.

Works of fiction

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
--I think I need to read more Margaret Atwood.

Raymond Carver*, Cathedral Stories,*, especially the short story A Small Good Thing; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
--Carver's name was invoked at least three times during FFW.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
--I'm embarrassed that I have not read this yet, and I just downloaded it to my Kindle for zero dollars and zero cents.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
--If it took Harold Bloom three times to make it all the way through Blood Meridian, I don't hold much hope for my own ability to do so any time in the next century. But it's on the list anyway, because Bloom says McCarthy "has attained genius with that book."

Flannery O'Connor*, the short stories Good Country People and Revelation
--I have the complete short stories downloaded to my Kindle and ready for my summer beach reading; and I just read Good Country People for free here. Read Revelation for free here.

William Faulkner, Barn Burning, A Rose for Emily
Read Barn Burning for free here. Read A Rose for Emily for free here.

Ernest Hemingway, The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber

Khaleid Hosseini, The Mountains Echoed

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
--Here's a switch: instead of reading it, listen to it!

Barbara Kingsolver

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Guy de Maupassant, The Necklace
--You probably read this one in high school, but in case you want to refresh your memory, you can read it online here.

John Steinbeck, The Chrysanthemums

Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

Mark Twain

Anne Tyler, The Beginner's Goodbye

Books about faith

Walter Brueggemann
--There are 68 publications listed on his Wikipedia page; where is a beginner to begin? That's not a rhetorical question, Internet.

George Herbert

--You can (sort of) read The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations online--but you may need a stronger prescription in your glasses when you're done. It might be worth it. 

Julian of Norwich
--Read the complete Revelations of Divine Love online here, as well as excerpts from the Revelations.

Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism
--From the Amazon book description: Turner "argues that the distinctiveness and contemporary relevance of medieval mysticism lies precisely in its rejection of 'mystical experience,' and locates the mystical firmly within the grasp of the ordinary and the everyday." A quick look tells me I'll need to read it with my dictionary at hand.

Karth Barth

Frederic Buechner

Andrew Krivak, A Long Retreat

C. S. Lewis*, The Screwtape Letters

Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

Walker Percy*, The Second Coming

Eugene Peterson

Jan Richardson

Teresa of Avila

Other non-fiction

Henry David Thoreau
--I read Thoreau's essay The Last Days of John Brown because FFW speaker James McBride's new book, National Book Award Winner The Good Lord Bird tells John Brown's story from a brand-new perspective. I was delighted to see Thoreau refer to his neighbors as pachydermatous--which he used in reference to the thickness of their heads, not their skin. Awesome.

Mary Karr, Lit, The Liar's Club
--Stephen King wrote this about Mary Karr's writing: "I was stunned by Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality--she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years."

Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life
--Interesting. The Rural Life is a weekly column in the New York Times about life on a farm and boots getting stuck in mud and stuff. Some people think it's a little pretentious and condescending.

Michael Perry

Poetry and Poets

Maya Angelou

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Mary Oliver

Ron Padgett, Center of Gravity 

Lucy Shaw, The Crime of Living Cautiously


So now we have a reading list for the next two years--until FFW 2016 gives us another one.

Which of these books and authors have you already read? Which are you going to look for the next time you head to Myopic? (Shout out to M. Peevie--that's her favorite bookstore.)

I'm starting with Flannery O'Connor.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


I had a dream that I got to church and suddenly found out that I was supposed to get up front and give a testimony. I was not prepared, and I wondered, "What would my testimony even be?" 

A testimony is supposed to tell the story of God's work in your life. If you google "Christian testimony" you will get almost 17 million hits. You'll encounter a page called Christian Testimonies on the official King James Bible online website, or "Amazing Stories, Christian Testimonies, Healing Miracles, and Inspirational Stories" on the 700 Club website. (I'm not linking to that one. Sorry.) 

All of them, if the sample I read is representative, tell stories of healing and forgiveness and change. They all come from the perspective of having been through the fire, and come out on the other side in a place of transcendental hope and joy.

"...the Lord took my dad dying, took my worst nightmare and showed me how he can make it into the best thing that's happened to me."
"All the chains that held me captive for so long have been shattered!"
"J. surrendered to God and hasn't touched drugs or alcohol since."
"All I have to do is live and love in the grace God has given me, and I just stand there and let him do what he loves best--and that is make my life perfect."

After I woke up, I kept thinking about this testimony business. I am in such a broken, desperate spiritual place--I definitely don't have a 700 Club-type testimony. I mostly can't worship; I can only grieve. I can barely praise; sometimes it's hard to be thankful. I can only grieve. 

I can't sing the words to hymns that proclaim 

"I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, tears lose their bitterness.Where is thy sting, death? Where grave thy victory?"

...because I do most definitely feel the "sting" of Aidan's death, and the grave has an excruciating, if temporary, victory. 

I especially can't confess, because my only sorrow is the constant presence of Aidan's absence. I can, however, sing the parts that ask God's help: "In life, in death, Lord, abide with me." This is the only part of worship that I can do these days, most of the time. 

But maybe we need more testimonies that don't have a happy, feel-good conclusion, in which the believer testifies from the other side of suffering. We need testimonies that come from right in the middle of pain and suffering and inadequacy and sin and despair--because that's where we live. 

Even if you're on the other side of your own worst troubles, you are still in this world, and the people around you are suffering; so you must, if you walk with Jesus, feel their sorrow and pain. That should be the place where every testimony begins and ends--rather than beginning with sin and sorrow and ending with the theme song from The Lego Movie.

The wife of a person I know suffered from a dangerous, life-threatening health condition; he was by her side for more than a week, watching the doctors try to diagnose and treat her, watching her sometimes seem like she was getting better, sometimes seem like she was dying.

I emailed him, "You must be exhausted and scared. Hope you get a restful sleep."

He replied: "I'm NOT scared. Why would I be scared? God is in control of space, time, and place. He is in charge; and I and my bride have placed our trust and lives in Him. Because He Lives, I can face tomorrow."

All I can see when I read that are huge flashing red letters: D E N I A L.

It doesn't ring true. If he had said that he did feel fear, but he prayed, and now feels comfort and peace--that would be more believable. But to not even admit the presence, ever, of fear? I'm not buying it. It's definitely not the kind of testimony that buttresses my own feeble faith because it is so far from my own experience.

We need to hear stories from people who are STILL struggling with sin, who are STILL afraid, who are STILL sad, even though they are believers. Trusting in Jesus does not mean we no longer feel normal human emotions like fear and sadness. It doesn't mean we no longer experience the hold of sin on our lives. Rather,the beauty of Jesus is that we are invited to bring these normal human experiences and feelings and struggles to Him, and He will meet us right where we are.

That's my testimony. I mostly can't worship or confess because I don't have it in me. I guess that's Gospel 101. I don't have it in me. But if I do have moments when I can worship, moments of faith or joy or thankfulness, it is very clear to me that those moments come directly from the hand of God. God supplies grace to allow me to cling tenuously to faith and hope; and God provides comfort from other sufferers, other doubters, others who don't have all the answers.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Poem in Your Pocket Day

For Poem In Your Pocket Day, here is my selection:

A Warning To My Readers:

Do not think me gentle 
because I speak in praise of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace 
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I 
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.

--Wendell Berry

It's not too late for you to grab a poem, print it, and put it in your pocket. Then it's ready for you to pull out during the day and read to a friend or to a stranger on the train.

What poem did you put in your pocket today?