Shell Shock or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

I continue my February posts where I draw from files (my early book drafts never published, correspondence, study notes, my journals).

Why would I do this? Because it’s February, and our Parker, gone at 18, would be 27 next week. I’m paddling (with the muscle of deliberate joy and the oars of gratitude, most days) against the familiar downward suction.

As much as for Parker,  I’m here because I’m not done sharing with you what I’ve learned. And I would never want you to leave any interaction with me (in my books, my interviews, my public addresses, even my social media presence, talking on the street) misled to believe that major loss is either a dead end – you’re captive in this killer swirl forever – or a hurdle you can spring over. Bungee jumping over the valley of the shadow of death.

No way.

Grief gets its way in my writings. It’s an Orc. Raging, violent, terrifying, devastating. Ugly.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

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But grief, as I’ve experienced it, is mostly something else. It can be this:

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What I’ve learned is that it does no good to share the first image without some promise of the second. You’d discount me as hyperbolic, melodramatic, dark-spirited.

And it does no good to share the second image without some acknowledgement of the first. You’d incorrectly believe that the entirety of grief has fluid lines and feathered shoulders. Knowing grief yourself, you’d maybe discount me as a prettifier. Or not knowing grief, you might, from my writings, be poorly informed when you face others’ grief. “Uh….It wasn’t supposed to be this messy,” you’d think, when your grieving friend acts like he’s stalked by Azog the Defiler.

So I give you both. Here, I continue in the ICU, where our son lay in a deep coma:

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 11:30 a.m., Friday, July 20

By late Friday morning our other three children arrived, brought by loving family and friends. The waiting room was overflowing. I didn’t go out there, though, but once, I think.

Claire I kept close to me while Kristiina [Sorensen] and Sharon [Leigh] sheltered Dalton and Luc in a waiting room far down the hall, away from things that hung in suspended animation. I cannot write about Claire. It’s beyond painful. She and Parker were soul mates, our inseparable two from Norway’s barnepark, the team that then confronted French together, shared the same friends, understood one another on a level I’m sure we parents never even approached. We’d sent Parker a care package two days earlier–candy bars, funny dollar gifts, love notes, laughing and joking, imagining his reactions – and now we huddled, whispered, stared at the side of his gurney. Slumped into one another’s arms, we half-reclined in a shared vinyl recliner, arms wrapped around our shared human furnace of horror.

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 20

Randall landed at the Pocatello airport and his brother brought him straight to Portneuf. Pallid and panting, he burst through the doors. I first embraced him, then braced him, and then he cried out softly, “Parker. Oh, sweet, sweet son. . .”

My relief was immediate. My sorrow compounded. My heart, having raced to this instant, now skidded to a standstill. This father, squeezing his eyes closed, carefully placed his hands on his son’s exposed ankle then slowly walked those hands up the sheet over the calf and thigh. I zeroed in on those hands, wide and thick, like his son’s, hands which now rested delicately, tentatively, on the son’s lower back. He spread his fingers on that sheet then took his son’s limp hand with its half-opened fist and slipped his own fingers in between Parker’s. His shoulders drew up as if to hold the horror weighing down his head. His face seemed over a hundred years old. And he then turned that face, eyes now closed, upward. Then those eyes, mirrors of devastation, opened to meet mine.

Some things are simply too cruel.

I’ve heard people describe “shell shock.” The traumatized are obliterated, rendered incapable of reason and normal function, stunned into catatonic silence. They fold in on themselves like inexpensive, soaked pocket umbrellas, or go rigid and blank, chalk-like. They splutter and mumble and rock violently back and forth. They heave an armchair or themselves through a window.

“Shell shock” was part of what we felt. No question. We were shocked. Scorched. Thunderstruck. In the weeks and even a couple of months that followed, in fact, we would bear medically diagnosable signs of being mildly concussed, of having had our nerve-endings singed, their pathways rerouted. We routinely asked what year we were living in. What month. What world.

But being “shell shocked” was not all we felt. We felt “shelled,” too, encased in holiness. More electrified than obliterated, enclosed in a sanctuary suspended between two vibrating realms – here and there, earth and heaven – in a small ICU space where we were buoyed up by a rare liquid luminosity.

There was, in that protected realm, also a slight opening, a pinpoint in the center of my closed-eye, closed-ear world. It was very still and very light. I concentrated on that spot. It was warm and steady and streamed forth love and safety. When I felt my way there, I sensed how the entire room filled, like with a rising tide, with that love. With that tide came understanding, a brief glimpse into the crystalline, high-resolution Big Picture. Such love and understanding released rays of purposefulness, which rose like basement light through the planks of an old floor, illuminating things from all angles, crowding and cradling the room.

(To be continued…)

ICU: Things I’ve Never Shared About Losing Our Son

It’s taken eight years, two books, several live interviews, and multiple public addresses on the topic. I think I’m finally ready.

For February, our son Parker’s would-be 27th birthday, I’m going to share some heavies. It’s like doing daily isometrics. That means  that  grief’s vortex tends to pick up in pitch and suction near his birthday, making me long to sink into deep, silent retreat. But I’m not giving in. I’m resisting. Instead of going limp and lifeless, I’m sharing myself every day in person and in print.

One channel of sharing is the hands-on refugee work I’m blessed to be able to be involved in here in central Europe. (If you want more descriptions about that, you can dip into my Facebook, or my MDBglobalmom Instagram and Twitter accounts.)

The other channel of sharing is what I’ll now do here on the blog. Over eight years I’ve written steadily on major loss (journals, early book drafts, study notes, correspondence with wise friends, etc.) Now I want to share some of the more personal – and therefore powerful–pieces with you.

A few of these I’ve been posting on my @OnLossandLivingOnward Facebook page. (Click on that title.) But because some of those texts are long or of a delicate intimate / spiritual nature, I’ve been thinking Facebook just isn’t the right place for them.

So to the blog. Note: I’m not necessarily following any linear progression over the next few posts. I’m pulling what grabs my heart and what I feel might be of most value to my readers. I know some of you want a community of solidarity in your own grief, and I know others want to understand the contours and texture of major loss so that  you can help others in acute need. Your needs are a primary reason I share so openly.

The following piece I wrote within the first month after Parker took his last breath in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to which he’d been life-flighted and was being kept “alive” on a ventilator. I had driven alone and through the night to find him there, comatose.

IMG_4792Pocatello, Idaho: 3:30 a.m., Friday, July 20, 2007

There, in one of the first rooms, under greenish lights, poised impossibly flat and facedown on a gurney was my big boy. More silent and still than if he had been asleep, and propped with a neck brace was this, my oldest child, tubes snaking in and out of his nose and mouth making gurgling sounds, a stiff white sheet covering the length of his long, firm athlete’s body from waist to ankles.  I longed to wrap my self around him, but hardly dared approach his form. I dropped the black overnight bag I’d packed in a frenzy when I’d gotten the policeman’s phone call , and stepped to where I could lean very close to his profile, close enough, even, so that I could feel my own breath coming back to me off his left cheekbone. For an instant I was fooled: Is he breathing? But there was this big white laminate and stainless steel ventilator mocking that hope.

The upper edge of the cotton sheet – I could see it had a Portneuf Regional Medical Center stamp in fine gray font – was crisp, barely outlining Parker’s form beneath. His shoulders I traced with my eyes. I’d known this one mole from birth, these four tiny freckles since that sunburn from the Jersey Shore, I’d bandaged that small purplish scar when he was six. But these fresh gashes like an animal’s claws, where were they from? Parker’s newly-stilled shoulders kept expanding, lifting and dropping evenly, mechanically. I studied that hulking, uninvited machine standing on the other side of the gurney, I surveyed the other strange machines at his side and the stark fluorescent lights and the odd blue woven blankets and my unfamiliar blue fingernails, blue feet. It was a bluewhite coldness I’d never known, a cold that had lethal contours like the iceberg that took down the Titanic.

I reached for his shoulder. It was warm. His forehead and brow were badly gashed. I bent down within inches of the left side of his face and examined the metal scalp staples. His eyes were blackened, bruised, swollen and were slowly oozing a delicate trickle of blood. I froze. His mouth, oh that sweet mouth with its full bottom lip. I traced his hand. My body folded like damp origami.

“I Am Here, I Am With You”

I took his left hand in one of mine and steadied myself in a chair I had pulled as close as I could next to the gurney. Then I found and unzipped my black leather-bound set of scriptures, the first thing I’d thrown into my bag. I opened and began reading in half a voice into his left ear: “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, And my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and profit of my children.” Parker knew these were my favorite verses from the Book of Mormon, so I chose them instinctively for our comfort. From somewhere within the room – or was it in the room of my soul? – I heard Parker’s familiar low voice, “It’s all right. It’ll all be all right. Thank you, Mom.”

I scooted the chair so my knees were now pushed under the gurney and I could almost rest my chin on Parker’s shoulder and resumed my reading, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.”

There were other people in the room, some I hardly knew, but I didn’t have the energy to ask them to leave. A perceptive nurse ushered them away and for a few minutes, I was allowed to be alone in the room. “Parker,” I asked inwardly, my chin to my chest and my eyes closed from distractions of light and ambient sounds, streaming tears down my face and onto the front of my shirt, “My darling, darling sweetheart, what is this? What has happened? Please, can you hear me? Where are you? I know you hear me.”

“I am here,” came the answer. “I am with you. I am right here, Mom.

I could breathe. I supported the weight of the moment with my elbows on my thighs, the heels of my hands over my eyes, my fingers up over my forehead. My scriptures lay open, flat across my knees.

“You must not leave me, Parker. You must not leave us. Oh, sweetheart, I am so sorry, so sorry for this, so sorry.

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”portrait

Encompassed About

 Looking up for an instant, I was confused that his voice was so clear yet his body so utterly immobile. His mouth closed. His eyes leaking those perfectly steady drops of blood.

I pulled my scriptures up to my eyes. I continued, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works. . .”

Another nurse came to adjust a machine and verify some numbers on a chart. I made eye contact with her, but even that quick glance was an unwelcome distraction for me, as I was trying to care for my son. And we needed to be alone, he and I. I reached up and barely touched his face as I read; “Yes, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about. . .”

Then there was activity gathering all around me, some people were moving in front of or beside or behind me, people were asking me questions, trying to be solicitous, interrupting my concentration, and I wanted to cry out that they needed to go far, far away. I was unable to form the words or use my energy for anything outside of my connection with Parker. Just to carve out a private, protected space, I closed my eyes and recited what I could by heart from my favorite passages: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth. . .nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

I hungered to stretch out alongside my child on that gurney, lie down and breathe with him. For him. Give him my breath. Life support. Life support? Wasn’t that supposed to be me? Hadn’t that always been me?

Life Support

“My God hath been my support,” I kept reading, rocking lightly, rabbinically, my tone flat while tears plopped freely on my onionskin scripture pages. “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”

During those hours that I pleaded with God and cradled my head in my hands, dampening my scriptures with my tears, I felt the hot friction of fear and faith chafing against each other.  I wept quietly but continuously while I fought to breathe for Parker, whose tubes gurgled with air and fluid. I talked at times with those who kept vigil with me. But I primarily talked within myself to my son and to God.

(To be continued…)

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Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

 

 

 

Refugees in Germany: Must-Read Latest Feature Article

We stand at the crux of history in the making. Under our feet, the ground is groaning, convulsing under the weight and roil of a crisis— or better yet, a quaking pileup of crises — unparalleled in recent history.

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

What is our moral responsibility? Should we aid the growing millions of our displaced and distressed brothers and sisters? If so, how? Who, as winter encases this saga in ice, should generate the needed human heat that could save the exiled? And how can we keep our and others’ hearts from freezing over with fear or suspicion, especially given the chaos, premeditated violence and sexual assaults of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany?

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

==

This is the introduction I wrote for my latest feature hot off the press at Inspirelle. I beg you, friends, click on those last underlined words to read every word and to leave some of your own words here in my comment box, or in Inspirelle’s comment thread. Or, ideally, in both places.

These are historic times we inhabit. Get involved.

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December 23rd with Kayra (front left in black), visiting refugees at camp in Frankfurt

The Cello Lesson: 9 Points Toward Unlearning Perfectionism

Recently, I played the cello in front of a couple of hundred people.

Which statement probably doesn’t nudge your pulse up a notch or two, but that’s only because you don’t know the cello.

And you don’t know me.

First: The Cello

It’s difficult to play at all. It’s a crucible to play well.

Second: Me

I’m a striver. I like to reach far and push myself into discomfort. That’s on my best days.

On my not-so-best days, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, the personality type marked by the “setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”

Thank you, Mr. Webster, for that brisk insight.

(And while we’re here, your dictionary was really never all that perfect, either. So…)

Third: The Cello and Me

Did I mention that until a month ago, I hadn’t laid a bow on a cello string in thirty years?

Four with my first cello.

Four with my first cello. All photos David Dalton archive ©

Fourth: What the…?

Oh, I grew up playing the cello, sure. Thanks to professional musician parents, we kids all sang and played instruments. The result is that all four adult children— everyone but myself, that is — still are, to one extent or another, hardcore (lessons began at the age of four), trained (by the world’s best and in the best conservatories), professional (professors, performers, pedagogues), classical (does solfège mean anything to you?) musicians.

A blessing and a curse. Because that kind of upbringing can cause one to have certain standards regarding music, you know? Like, I know how a cello should sound. No – I know how a perfect cellist should sound. Which gets complicated when you’re to play the cello and remember you can’t do it perfectly. Or really all that well.

Or really at all.

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Fifth: Calluses and Panic

For background: When the musical director in our congregation wanted this lovely cello solo performed during the holidays, she asked if anyone played. I waited for someone else to pipe up. No one did. I waited longer. Still no volunteers. So in a moment of forgetfulness, I said, “I do!”

Forgetful, because I used to play. I really did. Never brilliantly, and with varying degrees of commitment and artistry, but I played for many years. Still, as with tightrope walking or karate chopping through stacks of reinforced concrete with one bare hand, if you haven’t brushed up on your technique recently, best to not volunteer.

Not, at least, unless you expect some pain, both physical and emotional. Physical: aching shoulders; cramped hands; blistered, then bloodied and then peeling fingertips in order to develop calluses. Emotional: nausea; what-have-I-done midday panic attacks; what-were-you-thinking night terrors; tears. Shingles. Hives. Scratching and oozing.

Real cellists have callused fingertips. But calluses don’t necessarily guarantee beautiful playing. And as I kept practicing, finding the notes again, massaging out my jackhammer vibrato, I was increasingly aware that no callus in the world was going to be thick enough to protect me from myself. Here crept those unrealistic demands again. There was the faint whip-whip-whip of self-flagellation. In my lower back was the clenching of a vise grip of not achieving my goal, and– oh brother – that neon blinking “sign of personal worthlessness.”

 Failure. Submediocre. No Yo-Yo Ma.

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Sixth: Oh, No Ya Don’t.

I’m too old for that stuff. I was working through that mini psycho-drama when something shifted one chilly late morning. I was sitting in my bedroom wrapped around an old borrowed cello, running scales and arpeggios. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. Not out of pain (although my fingertips are still recovering even as I type this), and not out of anxiety or despair. I was suddenly moved to near-tears by the pure intoxication of making music. The melody thrummed through me in all its amber-toned cello-ness, making me sway with the sensuous drag of my bow arm. And while the sound was warbled and scratchy to be sure, the basics still worked! The tune was recognizable. Not gorgeous, and a Mahler symphony away from perfect, but just fine. Adequate. Okay. Good enough.

(My Inner Perfectionist winced and smacked her flat hand on her forehead. How she hates those ^ words.)

And then, before the Inner Perfectionist could roll her eyes or pretend to stick her finger down her throat in disgust, a thought swept in:

 “The fear of flaws is not going keep me from sharing what God has given me to share.”

Maybe an obvious thought for you, but a mini-revelation for me. And with it, release, liberty, a trampoline flip of delight.

And then came a whispered little P.S.:

“Play badly. Go ahead. But at least do so lovingly.”

I nearly crushed the cello into splinters as I hugged it like an old friend. “We’ll do this,” I mumbled, “You and I. I loooove you.”

The wooden instrument didn’t talk back. Not because it couldn’t, but because it was wise enough to know I was actually addressing myself.

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Seventh: Stressing, Impressing, Blessing

Perfectionism is exhausting, stressful.  Author and lecturer Brené Brown calls it “a hustle.” It’s also a waste. It wastes not only time and energy, but robs you (and potentially those within the reach of your influence) of everything from a good night’s sleep to creativity to ambition to true success. Perfectionism is linked in research to addictions of all sorts and to a lack of true intimacy in relationships, either with others or with yourself, and even, if you are a believer as I am, to a lack of connecting with God.

Why does perfectionism block intimacy, even –or especially – with God? For obvious reasons. Do whatever you want, buddy, to impress others. But you can’t impress God. Furthermore, perfectionism throws up these Plexiglas walls through which you think you are seeing the real thing, or, conversely, through which you think you will be seen. But from a distance, please, because being known implies breaking through walls and being exposed as you really, truly are. Throw up all the walls you want for thick protection, but God wants you as you are, you in all of what I call your irresistable flawfulness.

The unrealistic demands a perfectionist makes on herself often fill her with shame and an unwillingness– a fear, even– to share her sludgy, tired, incapable, at times unpleasant, always utterly human self with others. She’s convinced that only the perfect version of herself is lovable; that perfection in whatever form it assumes is the only version deserving of love.

And so the perfectionist will run herself ragged trying in vain to attain an unattainable standard in order to “earn” adulation, which she mistakenly thinks is love, but which in fact is no more than a cheap and shallow quick-fix facsimile for the real thing. Re-cognition is not cognition, or knowing in the truest sense. Knowing is real contact with the real thing, and the root of true love.

To my point, perfectionism keeps us from being happy and good and plain, or just plain good ‘n’ happy. Who out there is not a little (or a lot) threadbare, floppy, sloppy, but a basically good soul? Who’s not rough on every edge and fractured in parts, but basically means well, wants to do good things? Like playing the darned Christmas cello solo in church, for heaven’s sake?! Then we must learn that…

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone prince not shown. (All photos David Dalton archive ©) 

Eighth: Le Mieux est le Mortel Ennemi du Bien

The best is the mortal enemy of the good. (It takes Montesquieu, a Frenchman, to nail it. Like so many of the French I know, he knows perfection! ) Always holding out for the ultimate best –for “le mieux”, for perfection – we pass by the daily, hourly, ravishing yet fleeting opportunities to grasp and luxuriate in what’s given us. To take full part in the everyday, mysterious, generic, supernatural human condition.

  • We don’t say the simple, kind phrase because we were hoping to write it up in an Elizabethan sonnet.
  • We don’t call on Dad’s birthday because we really wanted to send him an ice sculpture of Genghis Kahn.
  • We don’t kiss our lover because he has Gandhi’s sandal breath. Or we’ve got shin stubble. Or someone is jet-lagged, crusty, non-glam.
  • We don’t raise our voice to make the comment in class because it’s not brilliant, worthy of general stunned awe, or up for the Nobel.
  • We don’t commit because the man that flips our switch doesn’t have a PhD. (Or condo. Six-pack. Life all figured out. Eyes like Clooney. A list of accomplishments. The perfect background. The perfect anything. Except love, good humor and all else, maybe. But…meh.)
  • We don’t pray because God doesn’t approve of us anyway. (Honestly, who would?)
  • We don’t dive in the ocean because we don’t want anyone to see our stretch marks or that we put on 10 kilos since last time (was that 1993?) when we dove in the ocean. Wearing a full length terry cloth cover-up.
  • We don’t laugh because, what if someone thought we were actually happy and content and not seriously pursuing something grand and unattainable, because underneath the thick lamination of harried ambition, we don’t want others to see that we’re just as much an average slouch –tired and overdrawn and messed up – as the next tired, overdrawn and messed up slouch?
  • We hold back. We keep quiet. We side-step by open doors. We shut ourselves down. We agonize over errors. We live tiny and tortured.

 

In short, perfectionism paralyzes us, as Brené Brown writes, and locks us into a glove box of smallness, or, as Anne Lamott says, “cramped and insane your whole life.”

A writing guru, Julia Cameron, adds this:

“Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly–and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, “Good try,” or “Job well done.” The critic does not believe in creative glee–or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter.”

 

When reflecting on the iterations of perfectionism that used to plague my life (the teen years when I nearly died of eating disorders; the spells of anxiety-induced depression that took me to teetering emotional ledges; other forms of the beast…), I mourn.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello weighed more than I did.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello was much bigger than I was and weighed more, too. (All photos  David Dalton archive ©)

But I don’t stay mourning very long. I quickly remind myself that those years, they were practice shots! And hey, life itself is one epic practice shot. I can learn from those mistakes and redirect my now-mature energies and gifts and garden-variety normalcy to playing whatever song I can play– not perfectly, maybe awkwardly, and at times outright badly– but at least I’m playing.

Ninth: Play Lovingly

My ear for intonation and harmony and my gut for rhythm and phrasing run through me like my DNA. My eye for beauty, my mind for language and cadence and lyricism in literature are equally strong currents. My passion for people, for the spiritual webwork that connects us all, for the mystical and the unseen that throbs through humanity and propels us forward, upward –these are the drivers I want at the center of my life, not  some “voice of the oppressor,” as Anne Lamott calls perfectionism, “which [is the] enemy of the people.”

No. I want a friend – a loving, merciful, forgiving, magnanimous, all-heart, all-in Friend, or even a couple of friends – at the center of my life. Shouldn’t one of those friends be myself?

These ideas sort of coalesced when, on your average pre-Christmas Sunday at church I took a borrowed cello to my heart, pressed it there lovingly, and then with all the tender self-embracing I have in my bones, I let. that. baby. ring. In that moment, I couldn’t suppress thinking through the text as I played:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Who can ruin such beauty? Well, to be honest, I might have. It was pretty average cello-playing on all counts, I think, and there might have been some outstanding flubs of intonation. But you know, I was so good with that. No one saw the alchemy as it lay total siege on me, but I swear my whole body and soul resonated. As I write this, they’re resonating, still.

 

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Christmas Music: What’s on Your List?

One word —Christmas — and I start humming.

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

In my internal cinema, I’m sitting cross-legged on my grandparents’ moss green velvet carpet, my back sweating against a snapping fire while watching Grandma Belle with her lavenderish silver halo of curls list from side to side on the embroidered cushion atop the walnut piano bench.

Belle’s back is to us. I watch her fingers romp and caper up and down the keyboard while she cranes her head back to us —cousins in plaid, uncles in red vests, aunts in flouncy blouses— and while she lips the lyrics, coaxing from youngest to oldest more volume than you’d expect from a couple of dozen full-bellied folks. But no one —not the stiff uncle with a starched hair piece or the sullen fourteen-year-old with an extreme Toni permanent (me) slacks off or slips from the rhythm.

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At some point, we’re all shouting, “You better watch out/You better not cry!” and then we’re pa rum-pa-pa-pumming (even the teenagers) in unison. We’ll all be hoarse by the time the candles on the mantelpiece have wax pooling at their bases. Belle turns “Good King Wenceslas” into rag time, chords hopping and slapping in the left hand and embellishments tinkling like tinsel in the right. Her legs are jigging beneath the keyboard. She switches gears and makes “I’m Dreaming Of a White Christmas” into a tearjerker with the longest cadenza known to man. No one, not even Bing Crosby himself or my trained operatic soprano mother can sustain Belle’s last note, that over-the-top “whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.”

Belle played like that every Christmas Eve until well into her 90s.

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It’s Grandma Belle I recall every Christmas. Belle, and all the pianists, organists, choirs and soloists, instrumentalists, quartets, trios, orchestras, street accordion players or subway pan flute artists— all the music makers who, over my half-century of Christmases, have made my holidays ring.

Now you understand why, although I don’t really get into accumulating stuff, I do collect Christmas music. I have to. I listen to it (in secret) all year long.  (Officially, only from Thanksgiving until January 1st.)

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And that’s why I want to share with you my CD titles.

A word about this list: it’s alphabetized (not in any order of preference); it’s incomplete (I haven’t included my dozens of digital files, and I note with a gasp!! that I don’t have enough jazz and what’s this? No rap, country or reggae?); and it’s eclectic (From Thurl Bailey, a hoopstar-turned-crooner to Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.)

So I need your input. Can you post your musical treasures in the comment thread? Titles, please, of single songs or whole albums, and maybe include a bit of background as to why. Why this recording? Why this version, this instrument, this language, this key, this style?

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  • Amy Grant: Home for Christmas
  • Andy Williams: We Need a Little Christmas
  • Anonymous Four: Wolcum; Celtic and British Songs and Carols
  • Barbara Hendricks: Chante Noël
  • Barbra Streisand: A Christmas Album
  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (von Karajan): A Christmas Concert
  • Burl Ives: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Canadian Brass: The Christmas Album
  • Celine Dion: These Are Special Times
  • Choral Arts Northwest: A Scandinavian Christmas
  • Christmas Music: Christmas Peace; Piano, Guitar, Angels
  • Concord Jazz: A Concord Jazz Christmas
  • Curnow Music: Holiday Favorites
  • Dave Brubeck: A Dave Brubeck Christmas
  • David Archuleta: Christmas from the Heart
  • David Tolk: Christmas
  • Diana Krall: Christmas Songs
  • Die Wiener Sängerknaben: Ihre Schönsten Weihnachtslieder
  • English Heritage: Spirit of Christmas
  • European Jazz Trio: Silent Night
  • Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Album
  • Garrison Keillor: A Prairie Home Christmas
  • Garrison Keillor: Now it is Christmas Again
  • Harry Connick Jr.: Harry for the Holidays
  • Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas
  • Helene Fischer: Weihnachten
  • Ingolf Jentszch (festliche Weihnachtsmusik): Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen
  • James Taylor: At Christmas
  • James Wilson: Holiday Favorites on Guitar
  • Jim Brickman: Peace
  • Jim Brickman: The Gift
  • Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas
  • Johnny Mathis: The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis
  • José Feliciano: Feliz Navidad
  • Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration
  • Kelly Clark Parkinson: Romantic Christmas
  • Kenny G: Faith; A Holiday Album
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas Volume One
  • Kurt Bestor: One Silent Night
  • La Chorale de Saint-Pierre: Les Plus Beaux Cantiques de Noël
  • London Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikovsky Nutcracker
  • Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas Extraordinaire
  • Mel Tormé: Christmas Songs
  • Meryl Streep: The Night Before Christmas (Rabbit Ears Series)
  • Moore Light: Christmas with Bach
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and the Canadian Brass): A Christmas Gloria
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Hallelujah! Great Choral Classics
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Handel’s Messiah
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Noël
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Once Upon a Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Rejoice and be Merry
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Ring Christmas Bells
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Spirit of the Season
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Great Messiah Choruses
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: This is Christmas
  • Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  • Now That’s Music: Now That’s What I Call Christmas!
  • Osmonds: Christmas Album
  • Patricia Carlson: Christmas; A Creative Harp Collection
  • Reader’s Digest: Merry Christmas Songbook
  • Robert Shaw: Handel’s Messiah; Favorite Choruses and Arias
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Glade Jul
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Norsdisk Vinternatt
  • Skruk: Stille Natt
  • Sony Music: The Best of Christmas Vol. 1-4
  • Steven Sharp Nelson: Christmas Cello
  • The American Boy Choir: On Christmas Day
  • The Boston Camerata: Noël, Noël! (Noël Français)
  • The Cambridge Singers: Christmas with the Cambridge Singers
  • The Choir of Christ Church, Oxford: A Tudor Christmas
  • The King’s Singers: Deck the Hall; Songs of Christmas
  • The New Christy Minstrels: We Need a Little Christmas
  • The Piano Guys: A Family Christmas
  • The Roches: We Three Kings
  • Thomanerchor Leipzig, Dresden Kreuzchor: Silent Night
  • Thurl Bailey: The Gift of Christmas
  • Tim Slover: The Christmas Chronicles (Radio Drama)
  • Time-Life: Treasury of Christmas
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Bergweihnacht
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Europäische Weihnacht
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories
  • Vanessa Williams: Silver and Gold
  • Vienna Boys’ Choir: Christmas Joy
  • Windham Hill Christmas: The Night Before Christmas
  • Wynton Marsalis, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade: A Carnegie Hall Christmas

And to everyone, I wish you a blessed and harmonious holiday season.

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Word Count: How Brevity Blesses

What about this piece makes me thankful?

Its brevity.

Brevity is a tough delight. It disciplines, tugging out of my clutch the hem of billowy, airborne ideas, all those tendrilling side references, sumptuous metaphors, scintillating footnotes, twinkling asterisks.

Brevity demands I pack that whole scope into a kernel.

One bright, firm kernel.

The problem is that I’m a word-glutton. I balk at brevity. I hunger for 75,000 words to work with —a book, for Hemingway’s sake! —not 750 or 500, which are just perfect for the pieces I’ve linked here, but are so much more difficult that the long form, believe me. I crave pages where I can sprawl spread eagle, face down, drooling across my private prairie of expression.

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It’s how I write. It’s how I live.

When writing, I want to say it all. At once. It’s my greatest challenge. I begin with one thought, it blossoms too quickly into 20 pages, and then I agonize for a week, whittling to 200 words. Honestly: 200 words. Can anyone even answer the phone with 200 words?

Yet word counts like those in the articles I’ve linked you to are prime training, excellent toning. They make me write better. I’m forced to trim away my “pretty darlings.” Those are the twirls of a phrase, references to research, curves of storyline, the U-turns into fascinating asides, even the mouth-watering words that, okay, might be gorgeous in isolation, (like under museum glass), but which, in the end, don’t drive home my point. In fact, they veer me and my reader from it.

(Tell the truth, though. Who can resist “pellucid”? or “efflorescence”? or —my heart!— “syzygy”?)

As I said: word-glutton.

And world-glutton. Because living, I also want to do it all. Be it all. At once. At least that used to be the case. I’ve learned the hard way that life stories, like the literal pieces we write, also have a word count — a “moment count,” let’s call it—and that numerical count is a mystery. We call that transience. Admitting this makes all the difference. You reduce to what matters.

But hold on, you say. Reduction feels risky. It’s scary to say a sweeping “no” in order to say a focused “yes.” To trim away the peripheral from the central, the optional from the vital. What you get, though, when you do that in writing is the polished bullet: precision of word, clarity of thought, stinging and ringing and substantial prose. You might even get a masterpiece.

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(Photo: David Dalton archives ©)

And reduction with living? If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

Brevity reveals genius. It also breeds it. And it happens to be part of what makes mundane stories into poetry or even scripture. In the moment we recognize that the story we are writing with our lives (focused, concentrated, even consecrated) is more than mere meandering, earthbound jangle, that the narrative is bigger than its lined-up words, larger than any string of moments, and moving both from and toward something outside the bounds of brevity, then we’ve really found something. Maybe it is a sacred script we never realized we were writing. Maybe it is our very selves.

 

 

 

 

Poem: Sailing to Manti

Manti LDS Temple, SAnpete County, UT. Photo archives David Dalton ©

          Manti LDS Temple, Sanpete County, UT.                              Archives David Dalton ©

 

SAILING TO MANTI

by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

(To my husband, on the anniversary of our
 December marriage in the Manti temple)

 

We sail the vein:

Perforated, gray southbound highway

Down

From dawn’s perch

We approach,

Splaying this languid stage of sagebrush

In two

Vast contours, undulating,

Old rocky chronology seeping left to right,

Largo to sostenuto . . .

Bending beyond peripheral vision

Curling,

wrapping,

enfolding

Heaven,

Her mist-mottled crepe curtain

Whispers,

Torn,

As ragged hem reveals enough:

Mountains, their triple depth in

Slate then ash then dust

Hang an ageless opaque canvas.

Drawn, we aim.

 

Trusting, we offer

Hands stretched through a veil.

 

We sail.

 

==

 

 

A year after I composed the above poem, tragedy struck our family and I wrote a companion piece, Thistle Valley, describing a different drive southward to Manti. You can read that poem in this post.

 

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I know.  I vowed I’d be the dutiful blogger and complete in tidy fashion my series on swimming in the digital ocean. Rest assured, that ocean’s not going anywhere so I’ll get to it.  But that might take a while.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

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Photo: © pretoperola/123RF

My change in direction has something to do with  this. (Go ahead a read there after you’ve let me have my little say here, please.) It’s the first of my pieces for Inspirelle, a white-hot new webmag based in Paris, which is a “woman’s guide to life in Paris and beyond.”

(I believe in Paris, in the beyond, in women, in guiding, and in life. So it’s a great fit.)

So … back to oceans, back to life:

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those words, (meaning “tossed but not sunk”), are glowing right now at the base of the blue-white-red illuminated Eiffel Tower. They shine in bold response to the terrorist attacks in Paris this month.  We can also apply them universally, to all acts of terrorism — Beirut, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria … a catalogue that can, if you’re not steadied, unhinge your sanity.

I also apply those words to the many terrors broad or private that punctuate the human experience. I’ve known some directly, and am observing all sorts in others’ lives, in your lives. Our voyages are different, but the ocean that holds humanity is the same, and none will cross without being thoroughly — and sometimes violently — shaken.

Major recent events in the world at large and in my immediate sphere have struck some deep plates. “Upheaval” doesn’t fairly describe it; “cataclysm” comes closer.  These strikes have accentuated divisions between nations, whose boundaries I can trace with my finger and whose leaders names I’ve memorized, as well as among real friends whose names and faces and stories I know by heart. Peoples — and specific people — have been struck and destabilized.

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Painting: Joseph M.W. Turner; “A Disaster at Sea”

That Sinking Feeling

In all this, there’s a temptation to claim we’re sinking, en masse, and with one inevitable glunk-glunk-glunk. But that mindset can breed hysteria (not good on the deck of any ship), or the slump of torpor. It can even increase violence.

Though fractures crack across the planet and through the core of my community, and though I often feel I’m straddling chunks of Pangea, her landmasses groaning and shifting, plate tectonics making a wild ripple ride of the face of things, I’m choosing (albeit sometimes shakily) to fight to stay afloat.  I know I can’t merely float.

Floating (false bravado, whistling in the dark, pretending immunity, retreating in a bubble, or following popular tides including those of nihilism and cynicism) — they all make us much more vulnerable to the ferocious downward suction of our times.

Reaching Deep, Reaching Up, Reaching Out

Is there a way out of that downward suction? Here’s an idea: Reach deep, reach up, and reach out. Elsewhere on this blog, and subsequently in my second book, On Loss and Living Onward, I’ve described these three reaches with different descriptors (steadiness, illumination and love), and how reaching in all three ways helps when our private world is in turmoil. These times we inhabit are volatile, requiring a far richer, more stable inner life than ever before necessary. I sense I need devotion to something larger than my fickle, earthbound, egocentric self. And I need increased service and compassion to my fellow passengers with whom I share this turbulent voyage.

Where do I start? Here. I start right here with writing. And while at times it’s fitting to write about the landscape of the digital ocean (screen time, filters, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet), other times, like right now, I only want to write about the ocean writ large. When terror roils and the earth moans, when fear rules and humankind grieves and keens, compartmentalized themes feel irrelevant, even irreverent.

So here’s to increased reverence. Thanks for allowing me to reach deeper in the next posts. With luck, we’ll remain buoyant together.

 

 

 

 

 

More Digital Safety: When Your Flood is a Leak

Not all damage to our house originated at an external source, and not all of it came from what could be called a “flood.” We found an internal leak.

Somewhere in the middle of ripping out the bathroom, the workers found within the walls of the house itself fissures in pipes. Slow, steady, trickling at a rate that could cover the floor in under a minute’s time, water was entering the house behind its own walls. Experts who assessed the problem told me those leaks alone could have filled up a basement in a matter of hours, maybe a day. Which is why, in spite of having stanched the outdoor leak, having run industrial fans for weeks on end, and having essentially stripped the basement to the bone, things remained soggy.

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr.

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So back to our metaphor pointing to digital safety: As a parent, you’re lucky if you can identify the immediate source of digital danger. Your child tells you she has been cyber-bullied. You search the computer history and find a link to a porn site. You trace what seems at first blush like an innocent conversation between your twelve-year-old and an online pen pal, only to find the trail leads to a lewd chat room and a sexual predator, a stalker. Lucky you: at least you’ve pinpointed the source of your flood.

But the truth is that the digital world makes for more leaks than for sudden, discernible floods. Digital information is running throughout our walls all the time — through ceilings and floors, through our fingers, across our laps. This is why it is absolutely critical that parents, teachers, and other adult role models are alert, savvy, and totally engaged in directing kids toward wise digital citizenship.

hartschools.net

hartschools.net

In other words, parents have to be there. By that I don’t necessarily mean literally sitting elbow-to-elbow every time little Hannah switches on her gadget, or little Milton flips open the family laptop. Although, hmm, in the earliest years, why not? I’d suggest you be physically close-at- hand discussing, directing, and modeling responsible cyber presence. You do that just like you do when Hannah memorizes her multiplication tables and Milton practices his arpeggios on the cello. You are near, encouraging, talking it through, sharing the experience.

As children grow older, being there means being interested in, communicative about, and up-to-date on what is happening in the world your child is navigating. I mean being actively alert, not passive and resigned to whatever floats across the screen. Like you, maybe,I’ve heard one too many times from parents that they have no right to check their child’s history because that child “needs her privacy”, and from certain school administrators (aware of rampant sexting among their students) I’ve heard that, well, hmmm, “this is simply today’s world” and “we’ve got to leave these kids their right to choose.”

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr again.

With that kind of rousing support, you might feel that you’re on your own. Don’t be defeated. Don’t shrug or resign.  Be there watching out for potential leaks within what is admittedly a whole world of wildly cool stuff.

dailymail.co.uk

dailymail.co.uk

Maybe you’re relatively new to parenting yet old to the digital world. Or you’re old to parenting, but relatively new to the digital world. Whatever the case, it is vital to rid yourself of any denial (“Never my child!”) and shake yourself into reality by being on the lookout for some of the many leaks that are inherent to our digital world. Here is a sampling of some of those leaks I’ve learned of in my years of parenting, volunteering with youth, talking with the best parents and mentors, and researching digital trends:

(Check the underlined words for links giving you much helpful — thought sometimes disturbing — additional information)

Harassment and Extortion

Bullying and Threatening

Sexting and the exchange of provocative/pornographic texts or images

Spamming, stalking, scamming

Pirating and plagiarism

Gang recruitment

And the encouragement of eating disorders, suicide, drug abuse, self-harm, and other forms of violence toward both self and others.

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I can recommend this resource for parents, teachers, counsellors, and youth regarding digital safety. In spite of its Americanness, which limits somewhat its application on a broader scale, (it refers to “school districts” and presupposes the user’s familiarity with US legal norms),  it offers many high quality, ready-to-use tools like video coaching and external links.

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What “leaks” have you noted in the lives of youth you care for or work with?

What resources have you turned to as a parent or other adult role model to train youth in healthy digital citizenship?