She’s Never Been Asleep

 

“What is love?”

She asked me in all earnestness.

She was singing the question first, dueting with Sinatra, his expressive legato soaring well above her 94 year old voice. It has grown weak from her heart condition.

She never stops singing. If the music is on, she is singing. She still has her bright south Boston accent. Her 70 years of life in Texas never quite altered it.

I had to answer her question. She expects to be heard and answered, despite two decades of dementia. (I did my best.)

She was not asleep.

You can’t ignore a wakeful person asking you a question. Many will ignore the odd, mixed up communication that comes with years of neurological decline, but good luck ignoring her. She will insist on answers, and persist if you are slow to respond. If you do ignore her, you will hurt her feelings. Of course you will. She’s human.

And she’s never been asleep.

We know this because of music. She sings songs she’s always known, like tokens of her obscured past, and they are an extraordinary solace to her endless present. She loves it, always commenting on how she should have been a singer, but God didn’t give her a voice. She smiles. She dances in her way – one waving finger, up in the air, or clapping a little off the beat.

She’s never been asleep.

We know this because she had a few very good days in these last years. Her mind flooded with lucidity. We rightly called it a miracle.

On those days, it was as though she had not missed a moment, as if she had stepped back fully in to the world, back in to time. This woman I remembered from my childhood reappeared unchanged: well dressed, who bought us little ice cream cups, who couldn’t cook, who let me watch Belle over and over and over again, and who couldn’t help feeding her dogs from the table because she loved them. Twenty years rewound, relocated, opened back up.

At the time, we said she woke up.

But she’s never been asleep.

We know this because on those days, she remembered. Everything. Not the long past, but the recent past. We thought it had been two decades of forgetting, losing her thoughts every few minutes, but that’s not the truth. Those supposedly irretrievable moments of life and love were clearly remembered. Her looped reality extended back across the decades and we saw, we heard, we knew that she remembered.

She remembered everything.

In the monotony of repetition with her, I can forget that she once remembered. I can think it hardly matters that we come, because she won’t remember we were there a minute after we leave. I can despair of watching her decline and, on bad days, wish none of us had to see it. It is all so very sad.

She wouldn’t know it if we didn’t come. She wouldn’t remember.

But she remembered once. Everything.
My brother’s wedding. My Mom’s devotion (and occasional fussiness), her constant worry over her care. My Dad’s bad jokes. She remembered us being there, how we were when we were there. She remembered people and events she didn’t know before her illness: the death of her brother, the birth of her great grandchildren, that one was named after her mother, that my sister had bright red hair once.

She’s never, ever been asleep. How could we think she was? How can we believe these twenty years have no meaning to her? I know it’s a fear we all have for ourselves. We don’t want what she has lived. But why should we, of all people, believe her life is only forgetting? She once remembered. We witnessed that. She likely remembers still.

She’s fading. We know. Much has changed, and yet it remains the same. She waits for one of us to come each evening, mostly my mom, to settle her in her bed and turn on her music. She sings herself beyond sleep, catching a word or bit of the tune, always humming long past losing complete consciousness.

Tonight she sang “Singing In The Rain”. She hummed the tune and couldn’t stop.

I started it over twice because I love to hear her sing.

She’s never been asleep. I hope I can remember that for these long last days, weeks, and months.

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Heartbroken

To my friends on Facebook:

I love you. You’re wrong.

Your hearts have darkened. You are losing yourselves. You are growing insolent toward your political opponents in dangerous ways. You’ve grown small, petty, and mean.

Yes, you.

You speak publicly to friends and neighbors with a tone of moral superiority, blinded to your own hypocrisy.

Oh, but you can see your opponent’s so clearly.

You shame. You mock. You’re cynical. You don’t recognize your speech as slanderous, just everyone else’s. You can’t imagine your speech is the moral equivalent to the speech of your opposition. You love to vent your outrage. You are chomping at the bit.

In a sense, I feel you’ve all gone a little mad. You would think the whole nation was full of sleeping sheep, given the number of people shouting for all of us to to wake up, and the accusations that so many of the mindless are perpetuating the status quo. How dreadfully pedantic and unoriginal you all are. How arrogant you’ve grown. Do you really believe no one else can think differently than you?

But the most laughable, lamentable thing I’ve seen is the sheer number of you who have reframed the Presidency in terms that better fit the definition of a monarch, or worse – a savior.

Whichever candidate you are screaming about, whether in support or critique, you’ve endowed them with influence and unilateral powers that do not exist in the United States of America. (I’m not sure how so many people do not understand policy making.) I think you simply forgot about the balance of powers, or perhaps the memory of it has been drowned in the riptide of your own hysteria.

Your rhetoric is wild and childish, on both sides, with educated people trading in hyperbole, propaganda, sophistry, and demagoguery. How shameful we’ve all become.

You’ve forgotten why higher education was created in the first place. You don’t know how to spot basic logical fallacies and cognitive bias. You assume the worst of your ideological opposition and dehumanize them. You debunk all media as biased…except your biased media. That stuff is okay.

This is lazy, indulgent, and entitled behavior from a population that has forgotten how rare and precious even a tenuously peaceful transfer of power is in this broken world. Yet we’ve managed it for over 200 years. It’s a miracle you are taking far too lightly whenever you hit the share button.
Stop. Take responsibility for the havoc you have participated in via your own naïveté, and stop blaming everyone else around you. This is not the millennials. This is not the boomers. This is not the two party system. This is all of you. This is all of us.

Me too. Mea culpa.
And apologize. Right now. Human beings are more than the political caracatuers you’ve made of them online. You know who needs to hear from you. And if someone apologizes to you, accept it with grace and humility. Admitting you’ve been foolish is hard. Don’t make it harder for someone. And for the sake of our future, forgive. This is harder to do than anyone ever admits. Be a strong enough person to apologize and to forgive.
Those of you who have grown silent for fear or apathy, that’s fine for your own private comfort. At least you aren’t adding to the problem. But if you are able to be a voice of reason, now would be a good time to serve your fellow man. Make a kind arguement, a reasoned response, and demonstrate courteous discourse. Offer a loving rebuke where an argument between friends has become a flame war. Blessed are the peacemakers, after all.

And we do want peace, right?

If you called anyone dumb or sick for their critique of your candidate, or their support of another, you have done harm to your democracy and a fellow human. It is a precious right of every American citizen to be able to express their opinion and vote their conscience. Questioning your fellow citizen’s morality is cheap. Yes, even if they did it to you first. (Goodness, I can’t believe I need to add such a caveat…double sigh.) Empathy, and a well reasoned and mindful response, takes personal discipline and time. It won’t happen if you think yourself the moral and intellectual superior of everyone who disagrees with you.

I may critique the morality of a candidate, or their suitability for office, without slandering my neighbor’s credibility and intelligence. I may vote my conscience without your consent. I may express my concern without your permission. But as a citizen, you should want me to do both with your blessing.

I delight that so many of you do care enough to speak out. There’s hope in that. But a right to free speech is not the same thing as the responsible and dignified exercise of that right.
We cannot survive without each other. We cannot survive with each other like this. We must respect each other. That’s not a platitude. We will not survive without civil discourse. Ask a sociologist. Hell, ask a historian.

The thrill you get from playing the “woke” voice is not worthy of any of you. I know that because I know you. I love you. Dearly. I also know the people you are slandering. I know you are painting with too broad a brush, oversimplifying their complex experiences in this life. Those are my friends and family you are insulting. Those are precious, precious people who matter more to me than I am capable of expressing. As do you.

My life is deeply engaged with communities that represent both sides of the political spectrum in this country. I love all of you, and see such humanity and grace in you in the real world. To see you wreck your character online – be it anger and disillusionment from broken ideals, or to indulge in cynical mockery of a changing cultural landscape you seem determined to fear – is heartbreaking.

I love you. All of you. If I have not acted in a way that shows you that, I’m sorry. Let’s have coffee. If you hear it from me in person, you aren’t likely to disbelieve me.

One more thing, and it might be the most important: Tolerance, without disagreement, is not tolerance. It’s just agreement. You cannot expect to be tolerated if you insist on not tolerating anyone else. (Yeah, even that jerk.) We must grow wiser on this point.

Tim Keller is right: a tolerant ideology is not defined by the people groups it seeks to include, but by the way it enables you to treat those with whom you do not agree.

Remove the plank from your own eye. I’ll remove mine as well. Only then will we be able to see one another.

With all my love, to all of my friends,

Jamie

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The Branching Man

He once was sleek and simple,

Pruned and shapely,

Bearing fruit and branching in ordinary forms.

 

His heart betrayed normal understanding:

Contentment, kindness,

Speaking words of truth, so naturally unadorned.

 

Now he branches wild, overgrown,

Needlessly complex,

Thinking he must fill this orchard on his own.

 

Born down canopy that bends with sudden winds,

Burdened, Unresting,

Branching in fear; his significance overwhelms him.

 

But the farmer who first planted him,

Beside the living stream,

Did not intend this over-complication and extreme.

 

His salvation is in reduction,

Cutting, pairing down,

Main and plain restored and complexity overthrown.

 

Then his fruit will come again,

From all his trees, in Spirit light,

For his smallness is his usefulness, his hope, and our delight.

 

 

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The End of Grief

Child, you should know that grief can be obscene.
It presents as terrible commonplace:
Typical and predictable patterns,
Triggered by dreaded and familiar circumstances,
Dark yet well worn paths that need no clearing.
You will feel as you might expect and fear:
Shock and sadness overwhelm,
But happy times will be recalled,
And gracious friends will ease the horrid newness.
For some, those first comforts are a feint.
In its natural symbiosis, grief gives solace:
Yes, indeed, love was here,
And is missed,
Shadow of beauty in the midst of pain,
(The stories are not lies.)
How a man is made noble in his deepest sorrow-
But child, that nobility can fade:
A reverse chrysalis grows a worm,
And grief overstays;
Grays each day, passing drear and lifeless to its close.
Some will never shed its parasitic form.
It needs an amputation.
This grief-begun malformation that whispers to the bereaved:
I’m all that remains,
The rest has turned to dust.
Kill me, if you must,
But they will never rise again.
Beware the end of grief.
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Verdi

 

He was a master of tension and release,

If measured by his medium –

No lilting songwriter self contained,

But a loud, unwieldy confluence of music, art, and stage.

 

He had his softer voice:

Refugees in unison would fly on wings of gold,

Or genuine affection chirp in pleasing thirds,

Two notes might hint at jealousy unseen,

Or three of love long held and long unknown,

And then a worldly woman sings of virtue at a writing desk.

 

Subtle moments that build the grander tale:

A lost daughter is found alive,

Friends like brothers die in sacrifice,

Murderous Kings in orchestral fits,

As plots reveal love’s betrayal and twists,

That all might yield to a cello, warm and solitary.

 

You will never hear a silence so surround a melody.

 

The nighttime storms that break to silver day,

Greens that show most true against cold grey.

 

 

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Triptych

Wisdom

Grey and shining thing,

Tentative only at its origin,

Always given,

Freely –

Born of humility and time,

Upon the self, casts cold light,

Upon another, the warmth of understanding.

 

Calls out in the street,

Not coy nor proud or not itself,

But Bold –

Between reluctance and haste,

Stark truth and comforting grace,

Always the softest eyes.

 

 

Judgement

It is the great sin of this day,

A scarlet J.

 

Planks and specks blind us more and less,

Still, we are certain we do not transgress.

 

We shout unspeakable words:

Judge not lest you be judged.

 

Who do we think we are?

 

To say them is to transgress them –

Is to cast the first stone and,

By its casting, condemn ourselves.

We speak them to condemn them.

Never us.

 

So how could he say them?

How could he avoid hypocrisy?

(And these: your sins are forgiven.)

The Pharisees were right to ask the question:

Who does he think he is?

 

Romans

Paul said:

A transformed heart and mind,

Can test and approve,

Can be unconformed and renewed –

Can see what eyes by the world made blind may never see.

 

There is a word for such a thought.

 

If false, a waste of life and time, or worse,

A mangled soul built on a lie,

Ideology weaponized.

 

It is insane to claim to know the mind of God.

 

Look, at where he said it,

Look, at when he said it,

Look – please.

Don’t say you did and don’t.

 

He said it after:

After creation’s condemnation,

After loveless hypocrisy,

After all have sinned,

But now –

 

After Justified and how –

Righteousness,

By grace,

Through faith,

So vital that its free,

And why –

Humility.

 

After old Adam woes and divine sorrows,

After steely Providence blinds with hope,

After Potters and Clay,

Grafted branches,

Doxology –

A turning.

 

Therefor. Since. In light of.

Reason.

If all this, then that.

So sharply drawn, to be the scribbling of the mad.

What follows should be like Jeoffery the Cat.

A flight from reality,

Cosmic or eternal pedantry.

 

But his argument concludes on ordinary terms:

Meekness, service –

How one should act at dinner –

Kindness, gratitude,

And Love.

 

We should prefer the madness,

Faulty synapses in an epileptic brain…

Easier to explain.

 

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Extraordinary People

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…”gaping hole in the World Trade Center”

Those were the first words I heard that day, on the radio, when my alarm went off.

I remember standing in the living room with one of my roommates, watching live as the second plane hit, and we both screamed. I remember the eerily quiet skies from grounded planes, barely any students on campus, how the music building had turned on televisions in every hall so people could hear the latest news.

I remember the “helpers”, as Mister Rogers would call them, most of all. Images of ordinary people, called to extraordinary action that day. People longed to help, were eager, despite how little they knew about what had happened, what might happen next… It was amazing to watch.

The men in those planes were also ordinary people doing something extraordinary, in a strict sense, and some called them heroes for what they did. That was their truth – and it was ugly, deadly, and futile. Ordinary people murdering ordinary people, leading to decades of death and war. Futile.

Human beings are capable of incredible evil and incredible good. That contradiction, that bizarre truth, was indelibly written in to my heart that day, embodied by both the terrorists and the “helpers”. People don’t like that notion, tend to think we are all basically good, or they make black/white distinctions between the “good” and the “bad”. But I can’t agree with those too simple explanations. Life argues violently against both a humanist point of view and that wretched false dichotomy of the “good” and the “bad”. It points, rather emphatically, toward a tension or contradiction instead, where we each have a serious potential for harm or good resting in our hearts…and the harm is far more potent than anyone is comfortable admitting.

To know this reality is to know something about the world which can thoroughly alter how you live in it. You stop seeing people as good or bad, including yourself. I think it softens your eyes, as you understand the fight happening in the hearts and minds of ordinary people dealing with a complicated world. We choose, almost hour by hour, paths that lead to degrees of evil or enable degrees of good, and those incidences can be small to start. But they can grow, and in either direction.

I think we all see the anger and divisions growing over domestic politics and contrasting ideologies. Some avoid it, others are right in the thick of it. Be careful, y’all. And think…please.

We are a pluralist society. We will have to choose each other, commit to living with one another, even as our differences grow, to survive. If you want to see that, then look first to your own heart. Avoid cheap insults or hyperbole always. Think; stop reacting. Edit these words from your vocabulary if you are only capable of using them as pejoratives: Liberal, Conservative, Gay, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Communist, Capitalist, Immigrant. Find common ground with people you don’t like, which is a time consuming and messy business, as you will have to bother to talk to them (the horror!). Get in that mess, take the time. Work through problems as much as you can; don’t dismiss or run away. Strive for empathy like your life depended on it. Because one day, it might.

The surest way to walk a path that is evil is to see yourself as the hero and someone else as the enemy. Heroism is something you are called out to do, something thrust upon you. The “helpers”. It makes someone move towards people, not away; in to clouds of debris and difficulty, not away. If your “good” alienates, divides, or hatefully slanders* others – yes, including those whose view of the world you hate, especially them – then your “good” looks more like the terrorists and not at all like the “helpers”.

That day taught me that the ordinary can be moved to the extraordinary, whether for good or for ill, and that such an experience would not feel or look like a movie, where the music swells for the good guys and the violins screech for the bad. And that my heart, like all hearts, is not immune to the bad.

Be mindful of your hearts, y’all. For you never know what the day will bring.

* Slander and critique are not the same thing. One does incredible damage, and is usually done away from the opposition. The other invites response, dialogue, relationship, and can make forward progress.  

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