Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Premieres and Promises

Earlier this month I went to my first movie premiere (in New York City!) to see The Fault in Our Stars, the film based on that book author John Green dedicated to my daughter, Esther. But you knew that. Beforehand, I wondered, would some of our story –our love- be on the movie screen for all to see? There’s a bigger story here because that day was also the celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary! On June 2, 1984 Lori and I said “Yes!” for better or worse and there’s surely been a bit of worse (mostly self inflicted) and a lot of better (also mostly self inflicted).

I married a fascinating woman with amazing integrity, an engaging personality and we both had 20-something bodies, believe it or not! I loved that woman then and I love the one I share my life with now. The gift I was given has only grown richer and I am grateful. But you know that, too. Here’s the thing. The poets urge us to remember that love is not love without an object and can find itself only in its giving. Love cannot be hoarded. I signed up then for this lifetime of loving but I’ve since learned that there’s an agony to intimacy, a terror in this twosome. You can’t get close without hurting each other. Pain should be written up in the vows: “You’ll feel betrayed; you will be betrayed. You will feel devastated and you will be devastated...” Yeah. Every successfully married couple speaks of this mutual dying.

When we first read TFiOS, Lori said it was like the “love story Esther never got to have.” That took my breath away!  And recently our beautiful and gospeled Evangeline (her name means “one who brings the good news”) wrote that John’s story seemed a kind of sequel to Esther’s interrupted life. As I sat in the theatre at the premiere, I was worried that I would see Esther again and I was sure it would be impossible for me to know her as resurrected only to once again lose her with the lifting of the lights. A second death is a forever death. But there, in that packed movie house with my beloved wife and daughters by my side, my heart said okay and so it was that, yes, I saw her there. Many, many moments and places were familiar to me, and to us.
As I watched Gus work his magic, I remembered Wayne-the-young-man and recalled how hard I had to work to win the affection of Lori-the-teenager. And then, one day as I stood in our college parking lot and stared at her, it happened. Uncomfortable with my staring she said, “What? What are you looking at?” (Forget John Green the teen whisperer -he’s a Human Whisperer! All love is unique; all young love is alike.) I then asked her to “turn around, turn around slowly” which she did, thankfully -though reluctantly! “Why? What are you doing?” she said as she turned slowly and perfectly, smiling at me, playing along. “Why?” I said, “Because you’re beautiful.” I really said that! I was already in love and, in that moment she said yes to my love and willingly offered her own. (The wedding was just the telling-everybody-else-part of our love story.)

I think TFiOS has resonated with so many not because of engagement with existential questions about life and death but because it focuses on questions about life and love. Someone once said that we miss our dead because we loved their bodies and that’s why it hurts so much to lose them. It’s an unnatural ripping of the flesh. I used to think it maudlin to read of an earlier time when lockets of hair were kept and worn as mementos, specifically because of the physicality. The dead brought close through morbidity seemed a bit ridiculous to me, even absurd. I wish I had a bag full of Esther’s hair now.

We lose the body of the other in death, or divorce, and a myriad other lesser losing’s and we eventually lose our own bodies and ourselves as well. (Those who’ve given birth must understand this at a level I will never comprehend.) Personality can be kept, captured seemingly forever in amazing digital images and one’s beloved embeds even deeper in the neural pathways of the brain, but nothing is more enduring (spiritus-infinite?) than loving another with an open heart, and choosing to receive in kind. I think that’s the message of Fault and, for me, it's worth a second 30 year, I Promise. So “catch my hand..." But coupled or not, romantic and otherwise, all our loving will include a measure of “weeping in the night” as the Hebrew Scripture says, and along with the tears a promise of temporary orphaning for, “Joy cometh in the morning.”

“Our love was made for movie screens”? No. Something bigger. But, then you already knew that.
"Newly Engaged!" Idyllwild, CA Summer 1983.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Everyone Knows That

Yesterday, between bites at Five Guys, Graham said to me, “God knows about heaven.”
Surprised by the introduction of divinity into our conversation, I responded, “Well, tell me then. What is God?”
“The one who made all this stuff?” He responded matter-of-factly, emphasizing his point with a wave of his one, free unburgered hand.
“And where did God come from?” I asked accusingly, with an appropriate scowl and upraised eyebrow.
Staring blankly through me, he answered matter-of-factly, “No one. God just always was.” Adding with a tinge of exasperation, “Everyone knows that, dad.”

On this Easter weekend, which, in our culture, functions as a kind of celebration of fertility and/or reminder of grave-deep resurrections (and how are they different?), the ancients wondered, “If a man die, will he live again?” and we wonder, too. Many are certain that we live beyond this life and fall deeper into another life that cannot finally die, at least in the way that we understand dying. Still, I have seen that change is constant and suffering, too and that illusion often has headliner status in our comings and goings (or does it?). I am told that we ought to focus on The Oneness that keeps it all humming or trust in intimacies of the Spirit, comforted as we slide into inertia by an idea of the good or some permanence (and that’s a good thing?).

It is true that we originate in the earth but this so-called insignificant thing beneath our feet will one day dance over us, everyone of us, in every way. There is no question we return to dust and this fact alone is enough for many; a blessed sleep at last! No snooze button, no rising, rest evermore. Others find they can hardly bear this existence and so live daily to escape it, whether by chemical inducement, withdrawal and seclusion or through an intense immersion into pleasure or irrelevancy (and how are they different?). Long lines of those who preceded us thought deeply about all this, mused that with all the sweat and beauty that is most of what we call living, whether this one life couldn't be sufficient, fully enough for anyone. It is a good point and, as any parent knows, one long day at the carnival or amusement park is quite enough, thank you very much.

There are, of course, those among us who live to uncover Justice wherever she may be found and still others who walk humbly, reverently upon the planet (and thankfully there are times when these are the same people! We need more of them). This is because we admit to evil, that it is real and ever present and we are witness daily to much evidence of its cruelty. For example, many watched helplessly this week, as a beloved Wichita Lineman descended deeper into the shadows. All of us fumble impotently with dying and its younger incarnations such as disease and despair. Most of us will one day fade away... Can such a wrecked and ruined temple rise up, not to a former glory but to something More? Spring says yes. The heart hopes so. Still, as She said, “I do not know. I do not know.”

Among the unclaimed debris of devastations large and small, a few still ask where and whether real and lasting goodness may be found. For a remnant, there remains a confession of Hope, prayers directed outward, or inward (and how are they different?) and sometimes it is voiced through screams, -or whispered, or in the silence- but always with a view that the heart may remain open, that Love and its twin Mercy may endure to the end, unsoiled. Certainly not, I say! If love takes on all that is its opposite, all that is prodigal, all that is hopeless and lost, then it must surely be spoiled. But its "magic is deeper still" as Lewis wrote. All despairing must end with them, swallowed up in Them.

On this Easter weekend, Graham’s irresistible confidence has disarmed me. So I choose to stand with him. Everyone knows that.

"You cannot bury love; one day it will break forth with singing!"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

For What Happens After

A few days ago, I awoke with this phrase, “For what happens after” on my mind and before brushing my teeth, I went looking for its source online. It sounded like a tag on the end of an insurance commercial for repairing the damage after a tornado or earthquake; certainly someone had used it in a marketing campaign? As of this writing, I haven’t located it (though it’ll likely show up as an ancient slogan once used by the Medes and Persians to sell rugs and golf clubs). Anyway, that’s not why I’m here. I wanted to share a very personal moment and I do so because I think it might be helpful for some.

The day after the Esther’s amazing book signing, Lori and I met 14 of Esther’s friends (all from Catitude) at her gravesite in Medway. For most of them, this was a first visit. After some time, I gathered these cats at the foot of Esther’s grave and read from her words. I reminded them that she had instructed us about how she wanted to be remembered.

I do think about dying a lot, but I don’t know. I feel like I’ve finally like, grasped that I’d no longer live on Earth. But I’m working on the actual progress of death and the people missing me part, you know?
Maybe, (or maybe not.) you’re interested in hearing “my” heaven? My heaven would be this all green hill-side with a really blue sky, and lots of pink and colorful flowers, that’s completely calm and serene, that I could run and run and run through – without oxygen. It’d just be really nice.
Maybe one day I’ll get to do that : )  I don’t even remember what I thought about anything even a year ago. Maybe you don’t either. Maybe brains just forget what they thought earlier or something.
I do hope that when the day comes, whether in 1, 10, or 100 years, I don’t want you to think of me and feel sad. Even now, while I’m alive, don’t think of me and say, “Poor girl. It’s sad she’s sick”. Not that you do that. Think of me and think of the sunshine, and how I looove animals, and drawing something nice. (Esther Earl, TSWGO, p 126-7)
I read the passage twice, and both times I couldn’t get through it without tears. It was the first time that weekend that I had cried. Imagine, these gathered and still grieving friends and family members, facing down death with a message about the triumph of a beautiful life well lived, bravely celebrating this person who was, and is.

Borrowing the ancient practice of visualizing a meal with the deceased, I asked them to imagine that they were now with Esther on that sunny hillside and that she had arrived with a picnic lunch to share. “What did she bring to eat and to drink, to share in this communion with her friends?” I asked out loud. In that somber moment, someone mentioned pizza and then one of the cats added, “She brought chocolate-flavored poop!”  Not exactly the answer I expected!

And on that sloped cemetery lawn in the middle of winter we remembered our friend and daughter and we wept and laughed and smiled knowing that she’d brought us together, aware that, though her own work was now “resting in awesome,” our work in her name had really just begun.

After that, we went to get something (normal!) to eat and we all managed to fit around an unusually huge table that seemed to be placed there just for us. I told a woman nearby who was staring at our large group (a true “starer”) that, “Yes, they are all ours” and I think she believed me! But they do all belong to us, these friends of Esther, these Children of Awesome.

So, where do you go after the crash, after the movement of the ground under your feet, on this so-called stable planet that was meant to hold you up, but which has now betrayed and leveled all that matters, rendering you unable to stand, or even to crawl? What do you do when those whom you have treasured are no more? Just maybe, you gather with the ones you love, around a table perhaps, laughing and crying together, eating and drinking and remembering the inspiring WORDS that have been left behind. Then you might consider what needs healing, what good remains undone and get about doing it, in the name of the one who is no longer here. What is left is not better but it is also not less. How can love be less?

As we took up our croissant and coffee, our biscotti and our tea, we found ourselves a new family, this fellowship of the Star, and we gave thanks.

Grace: For what happens after.
(photo Arielle Roberts)


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Love is in the Lifting!

A few nights ago I dreamed I was flying. I ran along, arms extended –though no flapping- and, like a kite, I caught the wind and flew. There were people watching and they were enthralled and I was overwhelmed with elation (elevated and elated!). I repeated, “I can fly! I can fly! I told you I could fly!” I did not only feel joy, but seemed to become it!

Not everyone has had such a dream, though I used to fly a lot (in my dreams) when I was younger.  Such dreams appear to be a universally exhilarating experience, widely interpreted in positive terms (compared to having trouble staying afloat, being chased, falling from a great height or being attacked by someone or thing –all of which are understood symbolically as a negative and anxious response to some waking reality).  So, why did I glide so effortlessly and joyfully above the onlookers? I suppose it could be related to what I ate before I slept? Maybe something to do with becoming a New York Times best selling author?!!

Earlier that day, while collecting my ten year old from school, I was instructed to “keep my head down” and “walk quickly to the car.” “Definitely,” my son said, “do not look at that girl with freckles." “Why?” I asked, looking back in her direction. “Dad! Because she likes me.” Safe in the car, I asked him how he knew that she liked him. “Because she told me; she said, ‘I like you.’” A fourth grader finds love or something like it. That’s pure soaring.

True, Esther’s book is climbing and we’ve attached ourselves to it so we’re paying close attention to any change in altitude. And that’s okay. I’ve given up trying to decide if my present life is ascending or descending. Like anyone, I’ll take a gradual incline but I know that we must all land one day, whether hard or soft. I wrote to Esther yesterday about this, concluding that it doesn’t really matter either way. I am ready for whatever.

I still don't know if it's almost daytime -or deepening night.
But I will take it.
You taught me that.

My Abigail and Evangeline were here for the Book Launch. They are super-star beautiful people! They read from Esther’s book and charmed everyone, beginning with their parents. After a few days and a few hugs, they said goodbye and set off to continue their mutual hero-adventures. But their hugs stayed with me. (My father-daughter embraces will always be counted three.) The admiration and affection of these women –these daughters of mine- makes my heart lift. “Accio Dad!” Love is in the lifting! There is no flight without it.  

It’s surreal to hear someone who has never met Esther, say, “I feel like I know her through her book.” I respond like an actor in a play who does not quite know his lines. I understand the dialogue. It makes sense to me. The script then directs these players not to talk so much about the book but rather about its impact on them. Out flows their pain, maybe a renewed desire to write, or resolve to accomplish some beautifully impossible thing, or endure a hardship more patiently and with a greater appreciation for what remains. The book permits them to dream again. And with the dreaming they are Spirited up and... away!  I don’t have to say anything, do anything. Just smile, shed some tears and watch them soar.

One day, I will die and I will fly. Really! You may not hear it but I will be shouting, “I can fly! I can fly!” I will look down and then up and I will say, “I told you I could fly!!” But I do not live my life for that day, rather, for this one. I want to rise now, for the good, here, in this place.  And I cannot bear the thought of aviating solo. Dreams are realized in the sharing. Ask any pilot: we were not meant to fly alone.  

Accio Paul!” Catitude raises Paul DeGeorge of Harry & The Potters at the This Star Won’t Go Out Book Launch, Natick, MA. on February 1, 2014 (Boston Globe photo used with permission).