Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith

I am loafing in an enjoyably warm, peaceful summer. Were it not for politics, war and my awareness of the inequity and poverty in our own neighborhoods, I would say I was content. But how can I be grateful for status or the wealth of my choices without the guilt that so many others suffer? There is no end of the need for us to be doing as much as we can to influence or correct these ugly realities.

The balance is very difficult to keep. Since Jan. 20, 2017 we get no help from a president who daily cries wolf. Nor freedom from wars and rumors of wars. In an “all hands on deck” mode, who is selfish enough to think our desires could come first?

And for us whose sympathies lie with the least, the last and the left out, who may also be tired, aged, ill or disabled so that, regardless what we do in our prime or what our lasting true gifts are, we do not have energy for the fight against the outrageous, heartbreaking need all around? My heart truly aches for the suffering. I do name them in my prayers. But is that enough?

Eventually, even the best known activists among us take time out. Some shift to mentoring, urging our younger, abler sisters and brothers to find their own passions among those who lack necessities like clean water, healthful groceries, ethical police, and children on our streets day and night.

We can do only what we can do, whatever it is, with God’s help. We plant seeds, water them, and every day, do what we can to lighten these burdens. We cannot “fix” homelessness, but we can decrease its numbers and improve our services. We cannot “fix” the juvenile justice system but we can continue to lobby for compassion and restorative justice. One of these priorities may exactly be your call.

We can imagine the realm of god, what it could look like, and talk about it, pray for it, and nurture faith and hopefulness. But we don’t have to work until we drop. Thomas Merton counsels us not to commit [ourselves] to too many projects, and thus succumb to violence….He continues, The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander]

Discerning between our rush to help and our need for nurture is our primary, ongoing call. Not to decide is, of course, ironically, to decide. But to rush in every direction at once is to stall immediately. To put ourselves forward as helpers when we don’t have the mental, emotional or physical resilience, is to offer little.

Let’s lighten up and take in some love, friendship, summer laziness, sleeping in or staying up late, and visit the Science Center or a museum or two…not to mention parks, before this gorgeous summer again turns to rain. The world, the nations, and difficult people are always with us.

Cathy Fransson

 

Forever Saying Farewell

If you’re just waking up to the reality that loss is central to the human condition, you must be in dreadful shock. If you’ve experienced two such shocks within a year, you may be thinking your world is ending. Where is God? Isn’t “He” supposed to protect you from pain? Sorry, but death is a part of life. “If we live long enough,” James Hollis writes, “we will lose everyone for whom we care. If we do not live long enough, they will have lost us. As Rilke puts it, ‘So we live, forever saying farewell.’” [Swamplands of the Soul]

If this is your first season of loss, of your peers and their young spouses or children, vanishing summers and beloved homes, it may become only practice for more of the same. We live with sadness and grief among our seasons of joy.

There are means, however, to walk through even these seasons. Sitting at dusk in a comfortable chair, or in a patch of noon sun, may allow the tears to flow, pause, and taper off. Tears have an end of their own. Tears are in charge of how much they need to flow and when to stop. Taking an aimless drive may let the mind wander forth and back over a reverie that will never end. You can visit it at will.

Begin watching PBS Masterpiece Theater. Read a gripping best seller. Walk–rain or shine. Work out. Nap. Feel the empathy of other people’s losses and the world’s pain, and weep. It takes only hearing a song two of you loved to be transported immediately to the scene where you first heard it together. Eat a favorite meal, sense a familiar fragrance. We can cherish these gifts, these pain and joy-filled flashbacks, even though they ended too soon.

Singer Diana Krall’s latest album, “Turn Up the Quiet,” is her last album with her champion, the producer Tommy LiPuma, who died in March. “Though the shock hasn’t worn off, Ms. Krall has come to see ‘Quiet’ …as a testament to the values Mr. LiPuma embodied for her….‘He took such joy in life,’ she said. ‘He had a tremendous sense of humor, and he taught me the importance of taking the time to be with my family.’ As Ms. Krall has dealt with the losses in her life, she comments that “’It gets to the point where you need to laugh….we had so much fun making this record; that’s what I hope comes through.’”

Have I said, laughing? What to do while living through great loss is also to laugh, to continue a life that seems to, but does not stop. Of course we must laugh. A good wake includes laughter and tears, so closely related that we cannot tell when the laughter so easily turned to tears.

Be among good friends. See a therapist. Forget reaching anything like “closure.” We can’t shut doors on our losses. The experience of the whole person will always be with us, and our relationships continue. Back in the day my mother thought that flying saucers were angels flying in close to watch over us. Although she died in 2002, she still makes flybys today. My dad, who died in 2005, is less talkative, but he is a presence to me regardless, shyly smiling from his favorite chair.

Follow Wendell Barry’s advice: “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” [Emphasis mine] Don’t worry about making a beeline to some politically correct goal. Nor about knowing where you’re going. Or what other people expect you to do, except this: …create life in the midst of grief, create love in the midst of loss, create faith in the midst of despair. Resurrect us from our big and little deaths….The only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.                                                                                                                                            [Barbara Brown Taylor]

Cathy Fransson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting in the Middle

After a long hiatus from my blog, where do I begin? How do I discern the central point I’d like to make? Or where find a pithy or poignant jumping-off place?

I have been writing my heart out, pulling together a memoir of the last years of my parents’ lives. Who knows whether these 345 pages will meet the trials of today’s book market. But never mind. I have said all along that I want to writeIMG_0040 this—to write it, period. To feel as if I have captured my mom and my dad as the three of us negotiated the seven years between their independent living in their home and their deaths.

Mom died before Dad. And Mom and I got along well, pretty much in sync. So when she was gone, I needed to face my rigid, distant Norwegian father. How many men born in 1904 change their personalities in their late nineties?

The answer is in my manuscript. It takes willingness and work. Getting along with my dad after Mom’s death was something akin to loving my enemies.

With the manuscript now in the hands of an agent, I miss working on it because it has been part of me for some 15 years. But too many slips between pen and print can, and often do, occur. So I’m not holding my breath. The theme of the book is the more we try to wrench our agenda into a vision of holy peace, the more peace eludes us.

So now I read, read, and read more. Scott Malcomson, Kathleen Dean Moore, Brian Doyle—I just loved Mink River. Soon I’ll turn to Donna Leon’s next book for a change of pace.

But the heart of my life is to stay at peace with myself, at peace with the others in my life, and at peace with—yes—the state of the world. Because of the myriad tragedies unfolding all around us, both distant and close, and the tragedies in our own lives and in the lives of those we love, it would be easy to despair. It is not as easy to find peace when we are full of pain, deep sadness at the wounded world, its peoples and the Earth, and perhaps even sorrow for God. Long ago Karen Armstrong in a touted webcast on God commented in a sympathetic tone, “Poor God.” For sure: poor God, putting up with our failures, persistent anger, and soap-opera lives as if we were children while ignoring the needs of children worldwide.

I have learned that trying to wrench my agenda into something more peaceful just worsens the problem. In order to be wise, practical, and compassionate for others near and far, I need to stop, practice what I know opens my heart to myself and to others, and let in the peace I already have.

Seizing the Day

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I had forgotten how tall the firs were as I plunge deep into the forest conveniently close to the highway and very near Stevens Pass. Once out of the car and down the trail, I could not see the tops of the trees without sitting, leaning against the granite to steady myself to see back that far. The canopy is bright green against the blue sky. How quiet the forest is next to the river as it pretends to be ferocious and yet no doubt, in this drought, is only a fraction of its strength. Still it pours clear then rippling, frothing through the bed against which it sands and smooths the rock in its path.

 

As I draw closer to the bottom of this glen a pause in the density of trees reveals a deep pool quietly lapping the surrounding boulders it has already beaten to apparent silkiness. Stillness here. Ageless duff under my feet, worn branches worked into rails and seats for short gazes into the water and across it to forest on the other side, occasionally a bridge that leads over and back if one doesn’t prefer to stop in the center and imagine floating down in the icy, constant flow.

 

What a relief this is, to walk into the woods, the rough places, sudden drops of the trail, and then rising again, my footsteps balance between fir, hemlock and alder, and then toward the river. It’s been at least two years, maybe more, that I have waited, wondering how long healing a knee replacement would take before I could take to the woods again. Sun streams onto the river, splashing into the trees and my slow, steady gait balanced between two trekking poles. A big smile on my face.

 

The moss! Strings, shreds and draperies of it from tree to tree, bright and green. Lichen, small black knobs and then shells of white studding the blunt and torn ends of trees that have fallen and been cut to make way. A huge, wide cedar stump with cuts left by the springboards of foresters bent on laying the forest low sports a very tall, very thin hemlock that, in this muted light, may never grow to more than fragility.

 

I take in the light, the trees I can name, the trail, the bridges, soaking in the rich detail that simply doesn’t exist in neighborhoods like mine where at least a number of cedars still stand, six of them in my own back yard, and one Douglas fir. What a gift to be alive on the earth. Not that many years ago I would have been consigned to my home, if not to my room, with a branch cut to fit for hobbling through the house.

 

Now I am returning to the trails, beaches, and woods I have so missed in my convalescence that, at my age, takes longer than expected. Seize the day! Lest you let it pass without the wonder and respect it deserves.  “And we shall be like trees planted by streams of water, that bring forth fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither; and in whatsoever we do, we shall prosper.” Psalm 1:3

 

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Such a Time as This

“Courage and optimism are your best traits,” reads a fortune from a Chinese restaurant years ago. I’ve kept it so long because it speaks to my best self. Even so, on my dark days, I despair. I know you don’t need me to list everything that sends me to the depths because I think you feel them as well as I do. They’re like tall ghouls laughing at our puny hopes and futile attempts to bring order to the chaos in the world.

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Be still. Stop. Breathe. Look out the window. Remember whose world this is, and how you came to be in it. We have been in a near constant state of war for years now, so imagining a different approach to global problems seems impossible. But that’s what God calls us to do: imagine a different way for events to unfold, for people to engage with others. What is the faith that makes this possible? Waiting and walking with God. When we wait upon God, God draws near to us.

 

Clarissa P. Estes emboldened many with her 2004 essay. She said, “We were made for these times….do not lose hope….Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul…will help immensely.”

 

While the talk of walls and hate preys on our fears, I watch a robin’s nest outside my window with three hardy babies straining to fly. The strongest one is jumping and trying to flex his wings while his siblings still sit with their mouths wide open for the parent’s next visit. Yesterday a murder of crows was flying about, gathering strength and calling for others to join forces. I went out with a broom to ward off any attack that might come to this nest tucked on the joist beneath our deck. Only one or two robbers flew over the house, but I was at the ready to wave them off.

 

This is a time for the courage to imagine different ways to engage with the world far beyond us, or right in our back yard, with our friends and allies. This is soul work. Soul work requires that we rely on God’s promises. If we wait upon the Lord, we will renew our strength, even fly like eagles. [Isaiah 40:31] How can we resist? It may be our only way to refrain from spreading the gloom.

Recovering, All Over Again

I can’t quite make myself get going. The haunting horror of the killings at the Pulse gay club in Orlando hangs over my head so that I can hardly look to the heavens to see beyond it. How do I bring light, not to mention love, to others if my own heart is dark and afraid?

Some say, “This, too, shall pass.” But it seems to belittle the tragedy. I scour the New York Times and Facebook for ideas, projects, and movements that will limit people’s access, particularly to AR-15 machine guns. What group action can I join? Could churches across denominations, or associations like Faith in Action turn their corporate power against the gun lobby? Do we have that much power?

Why do things like Orlando happen? Why are they impossible to thwart?

William Hazlitt said, “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” So we experience the mass shootings that mount up in our current history, wringing our hands, feeling powerless.

A character in Herbert Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game laments: “…if only it were possible to find understanding….If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anymore….Isn’t there any truth?” [1943]

Well, yes. There are truths. There are commonly held truths. People of faith—of whatever kind—find meaning in their community held truths, a chosen understanding of how darkness, some say “sin,” comes into the world. And when darkness overwhelms the light of our privileged lives here and now, we gather together, march in solidarity, hear or read uplifting, motivating speeches and homilies and prayers, and then pledge energy and money toward new, more stringent guidelines for guns and mental health in our city, state and nation.

But inevitably, disaster will come again. James Hollis says, “To experience some healing within ourselves, and to contribute healing to the world, we are summoned to wade through the muck from time to time. Where we do not go willingly, sooner or later we will be dragged.” I find that each such dark experience teaches me something. And so does scripture.

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Mt. of Olives; Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem

In the farewell talks in John, Jesus says, “Do you really believe? An hour is coming—in fact, it has already come—when you will all be scattered and go your own ways, leaving me alone; yet I can never be alone, for Abba God is with me. I have told you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.” [Jn 16.31-33] We will suffer in the world. But we are not alone.

Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Music so loud dancers couldn’t distinguish gunshots from base notes. No one could be heard if they tried to speak. So dark splashes of blood seemed at first like roses or swirls of color on white shirts or bare backs. Slowly, knowing and horror dawned together in the dark pre-dawn hours. Then the blast of the beat lessened, shouts must have been heard, people rushed to aid those who had fallen, and still the ghastly scene ran on for two or three more hours until the law was able to overpower the shooter.

Who would do such a thing? Intentional, well armed and well timed. Alone—without friends. Others so different from him, he believed they were wrong and he was right. They did not befriend him, so he rejected them. His religion empowered him. Strangers ought to be more like he was. But he wasn’t recruiting. This scenario blossomed in his brain. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. So cool. So chilling.

What is it that causes a person to hate so intensely he or she builds anger into fervor. Hatred so pure nothing modifies or lessens it. It has to explode. The perpetrator sees nothing but death for those so free they’re dancing mindlessly and drinking and enjoying themselves, something he doesn’t allow himself. Or she has buried her own attraction to just this thing so deeply she hates those who can freely choose it. Hates to the point of murder.

In the aftermath, stunned, we eagerly need to know who the perp was. We know now he declared he had pledged to ISIS. He killed everyone he could to disrupt our ways and thus—this is the part that puzzles me—raise the flag of his religion. Really? His “religion” demands he kill? How unlike the major religions of the world, at whose heart is a law of love—especially for the stranger in our midst. How vulnerable we are to such ghoulish motives. How can laws ever protect us? We see ourselves in school rooms, theaters, dance halls, and malls, even churches, now vulnerable, now fearful.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. This is a human problem—the work of an angry man, a bully to his former wife. Any political or cultural or race group convinced it is right may force its “faith” on everyone. Even if it is part of such a group, no one is to blame. All are to blame for fomenting hate over love. For not welcoming the stranger, as all ancient faiths believed. It is a desert commitment.

In this world there are many reasons to hate and many reasons to love. It’s a choice. We who don’t shoot—even if we hate—have made choices. All of us share normal feelings that range from love to rage, wrath to laughter. Emotions move through us every moment as we interact with others and share our lives. Feelings move through us. And we recognize, evaluate, and express them as we can in safe places, or seek out safe people to share them with. We need to try to understand them, and to understand ourselves.

Pick up a stone to throw at an enemy. Or resolve to wait, to withdraw to think about why you’ve made an enemy. St. Paul writes, Every marvelous thing you may do with your life, if you do it without love, you’ve gained nothing. [1st Corinthians 13.]

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep scores of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [The Message 1 Cor. 13]

The Orlando shooter knew nothing of love, knew nothing of a death that is not the last word, but an opening of the gates to greater love. In fact I believe that a movement—not of death—but of love and solidarity can rise out of Orlando, out of Florida, out of states as well as cities, and out of rich and poor, young and old, GLBTQ, religious or spiritual and everything in between. We who love need to be smart, strong, and vigilant. The world is too wonderful for us to shrink to being so afraid we build walls instead of bridges. To work toward the sister and brotherhood we all crave, to do Tikkun olam (repair the world), we need to trust steadily in the Holy One, hope without ceasing, and love extravagantly. The greatest of these, is love.   [1 Cor. 13.13]

 

 

 

 

Legacy

I was just 12 when my beloved piano teacher Bernice died of brain cancer. Since the fifties were years when children were kept from the traumas of life, I felt shut off from telling her I loved her, even saying goodbye. I remember one rainy Sunday afternoon waiting in our parked car in Seattle at Virginia Mason while my parents left my brothers and me to visit Bernice. When they returned sober-faced, we stopped at St. James Cathedral to pray—unusual practice for us American Baptists. Awed by the space, the silence, the candles, I was drawn to prayer. I missed Bernice at our lessons and was frightened for her. And when she did lose her life, my parents would not take me to her memorial.

In a family much given to seriousness and not a little fear of doing the wrong thing, Bernice brought me laughter and joy, not to mention piano technique. Her vivaciousness prompted smiles even in my dad. When she and her husband Jim visited our home, making an uproarious entrance, it was usually Saturday night. We shared our pancakes. Mom scrounged for the coffee pot (my parents drank only tea) so that the fragrance of coffee accompanied the boisterous laughter in our kitchen—a wondrous visitation.

One of the four great truths is that there is suffering in life. And since most of us at my age are dealing with this reality every day, we need to help one another cope with the losses that come, rather than feeling singled out or badly treated, or that God is looking the other way. Quaker Parker Palmer comments, “The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death.” Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Jn 10.10

 For years after I had become a competent pianist and organist, each time I began to play I dedicated my music to Bernice, not so much to my mother, a soloist whom I spent hours accompanying as she sang at memorials and teas and worship services. I had not heard all of Bernice’s music. Her song was cut off. I felt more bonded with her who championed my growing musicianship and my inner need for appreciation. Of course my talents were to be offered to God through others. But my parents saw to it that the gifts were given without having acknowledged the musician.

Whenever I remember Bernice, she is perched at my right hand on a small chair with one hand on the page of my music. I was eight then, warmed by her joy and inspired by her faith to live with hope in spite of the losses to come. In place of the darkness of her absence, she brought me delight that lasts to this day.

 

 

Here’s the Deal

My cat Sugar’s presence often invites petting—because I need a hug. She’s a 10-year-old tuxedo with elaborate white whiskers and silky thick black fur. Sometimes she tries to ignore me. Sometimes she accepts me with stillness, then purring, other times a tail warning that she is not available just now. Often, in the evening she comes near eyeing my lap, testing my tolerance. It is a balance. We are respectful of each other’s being, listening inwardly both to ourselves, and then to each other. When Sugar comes seeking togetherness, she is pure gift, the soul of our home.

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Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

 This belief of Parker Palmer’s is the wisest advice to those wanting to help others. We have many, many other skills, such as attentive listening, and reflecting the emotions we detect behind the words, but the basic gift to be offered to the sacred being of another is our attention. I experienced the touchy-feely 70s and the needy 80s, encounter groups, trust exercises, and probably too late for some, boundary lessons. We experimented with hugging everyone, then giving others distance, then asking permission to hug, which today, comes fairly naturally to most. I learn when I meet someone what her preferred distance is.

I learned to pay attention at home. I paid attention to my dad who ruled the roost. I paid attention to my mom because she had a lot to share and considered me her best friend. That first obligation, to listen without any limits, led me into a world of unbalanced relationships. When would I have the time to be heard? How would I know?

I hadn’t learned to listen to myself.

God asks us to love the Holy One with our whole heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is this last clause that we too often overlook. We reach out to those who suffer without asking basic questions: how am I doing right now? Do I have what I need for myself, or am I reaching out reflexively from an old habit of doing for others what I, myself, need—a certain route to self-denial.

To be honest, we all do a little of both. But as long as we’re aware of our balance point, and not exceeding what we know we can afford to give, to sacrifice, even, for our neighbors, then the joy of giving, of listening to a friend who needs to share with us, will replenish the energy of our giving.

 

An Afternoon of Writing

I was ready to write when I came home from lunch last week. I had a great opening line and confidence that more would follow; my mind was alive with images. Not something a writer ignores. On the way to the house I wondered if aphids were still after the perennial hellebores. I’ve been spraying them with dish soap and water, but I saw aphids still ruled. I’d also forgotten to clean out last year’s old leaves lying dyspeptically on the ground underneath the new, moldy with rot and now covered with the insects. I was dressed casually enough that I didn’t need to change clothes, so I dropped my purse inside the study, grabbed the spray from the garage, and headed out front.

Writing could wait a few minutes. This exercise would be good—as well as a fresh break from staying indoors too long with good books.

I sprayed, noticing the various developmental stages of the tiny white nits, light green eggs (maggots?) and winged predators. Some of the darker leaves were so sticky with aphid poop I had to wash them by hand. That took longer than I thought, but there were essentially only three plants to focus on, so I kept at it. These hellebores and two newer hosta spent so much time in the shade of the coral bark maple and dogwood, not to mention the neighbor’s huge camellia, that surely other shade-loving plants were not as infested as these. Blended chartreuse, lime and celery-green leaves nestled along the stone walk that wound its way to the front door. They were fine.

Who knew a hellebore could grow so large! I had to hunt for an old bamboo stake and pound it in with the back of a hatchet to prop up a mature, tall branch. Some of the wilted bottom leaves refused to be pulled out and crumpled by hand, so I went back to the garage for a pair of clippers, the kind with gears that protect my joints—not that these juicy stems needed that much strength. As an afterthought, I grabbed the white 5-gallon bucket I use for yard waste to stow what I pulled out from under and within the plants.

I had a line or two in mind for the article I planned, but for a moment I let it drift. It would come back to me. Scoping out the larger area where I was working revealed that the pebbled slab where the birdbath stands was three-quarters covered with dirt. I would need the rake and then a whisk broom to spiff it up. While I was at it, it would help if I raked over the mulch after everything else was done.

Back to the garage for the rake and whisk broom and then, pleased by the fragrance of freshly-turned earth, I surveyed this half of the front yard, pulling out several more dying leaves, shaking off the wilted blossoms of the crabapple tree that had fallen on the plants below. As I had suspected, more sun kept those hellebores freer of aphids.

Finally I stood up, straightening my tired back. Following the sounds of calling crows, I looked up to see a murder of them harrying a young eagle who led them on a chase around the east side of the adjacent cemetery behind fir and cedar, his white tail gleaming against the azure sky.

What time was it? I had started this project before sitting down to write. It was not yet two. Now it was four. Satisfied, I had still to finish the overall raking, toss my clippers, gloves, spray bottle and whisk broom into the bucket with the detritus of hellebore and hosta, bundle up the rake and a stake I had not used, and head for the garage.

Now, what was that line I had in mind?