Succor and Mourn; Console and Comfort

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On this Christmas day, one thought overwhelms all others in my mind:

He came.

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Knowing that God came, that He descended from His heaven to our heaviness – and below it – fills and unburdens my heart.

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The truth that He descends alongside all humankind’s sorrows including my own bears up my grief…

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Lightens it…

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…Shining light into its hidden corners, crowding out absence.

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He came, as He promised He would.

“I will not leave you comfortless,” He promises today. “I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

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So the pattern is clear: If we seek to share in His comfort, if we long to mediate God’s love for others, then we must come to them.

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Today I bow low in thanks to a God Who came…

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And to all those who, as mediators of His holy and healing presence, have come to us.

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From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

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The original meaning of succor is to run or dash to someone’s aid. How soon we go, how easily we drop everything to help, says something about our esteem for the person in need. Zeal sends one message; hesitation another. The best time and most eloquent way to succor is to do so when need arises. After all, service is seldom convenient.
—Wayne Brickey, Making Sense of Suffering, 104

A physician who lost one of his own children says that before his loss, when he would hear of a child’s death, he would send a card; now he sends himself.
—Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 233

To show compassion means to share in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 67

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One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
—Sophocles, quoted in To My Soul Mate, ed. Gary Morris, 59

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Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear—
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?
And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow,” The Poetical Works of William Blake, 75–76

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I am not thinking clearly. But I am thinking. I am trying to think.
Our friends arrive shortly after 2 a.m., in one car. Susan and Ron, Jeanne and Dan and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lily whom Ray and I have known since her birth. When they step inside, and embrace me—it’s as if I have stepped into a violent surf.
Though our friends remain with me until 4 a.m. most of what we said to one another has vanished from my memory. Our friends will tell me that I behaved calmly and yet it was clear that I was in a state of shock. I can remember Jeanne on the phone, in the kitchen, making calls to funeral homes. I can remember my astonishment that a funeral home might be open at such an hour of the night. I can remember explaining to my friends how Ray died––why Ray died-––the secondary infection, the fact that his blood pressure plummeted, his heartbeat accelerated––these gruesome words which I have memorized and which, even now, at any hour of the they day, along with my final vision of Ray in the hospital bed, run through my mind like flashes of heat lightning.
My friends are extraordinary, I think. To come to me so quickly in the middle of the night as they’ve done.
For the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling. The widow inhabits a nightmare-tale and yet it is likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help. We loved Ray, and we love you.
Let us help you. Ray would want this.

–Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story, 80, 81

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So many other relatives . . . and even close friends—stepped forward and were there for us when we needed them so desperately. . . . These are the people who went with us to the morgue; they brought back personal belongings from the accident scene; they selected caskets; they phoned people, made food, drove us where we had to go. . . . We will never forget all they did for us.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 57

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One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it need only a second to be born.
–Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 72

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No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
—John Donne, “Meditation XVII”

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It is natural, in sorrow, to be consoled if a friend shares our grief. . . .
First, sorrow weighs one down; it is a load which, of course, one tries to lighten. When therefore a person sees others joining him in sorrow, it feels as if they are helping him carry the load, trying to lessen its weight on him; so the burden weighs on him less heavily, just as in the case of carrying physical weights.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Eileen Geller, “The St. Thomas Guide to Surviving Grief,” Consoling Grace

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What is the difference between grieving and mourning? Mourning has company.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning, 39

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If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, 331

The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”). After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.
—Jennie Hildegard Westenhaver, “Pictures of the Dead,” Beehive and Birdnest (blog)

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Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”

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Do not assume that she who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. Her life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, she would never have been able to find these words.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Say Hello, 4

A simplistic sounding answer to the question of how to help families face tragedy is that, paradoxically, there are no “right things to say,” nor is there even a need to say anything that speaks of the intellect at a time like this. The need is for sincere human love, reaching in its own unique, spontaneous, fumbling way with a “built-in” message: “Though I don’t fully understand how you feel, I care enough to come to you and to try to share your hurt with you as much as I can, and as much as you will allow me to at this time. I’ll leave you alone if I get any vibrations from you that you prefer to be alone, yet I’ll leave with a readiness to come back when you give the signal you want me to come back.”
—Vern Albrecht, quoted in DeAnna Edwards, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise, 130

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The reality of grief is the absence of God—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away” [Lord Byron]. . . .
That’s why immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.
And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.
—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58;
Sloane, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

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The test, then, of our soul’s greatness is rather to be sought in our ability to comfort and console, our ability to help others, rather than in our ability to help ourselves and crowd others down in the struggles of life.
—John A. Widstoe and Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 265

She used to rock me in her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that if I had not been able to bear the society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me into forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
“Tell me about Deidre and Patrick,” and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, “Cease to grieve,” but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
—Isadora Duncan, quoted in McCracken and Semel, A Broken Heart Still Beats, 218;
Duncan’s two young children, Deidre and Patrick, drowned in the Seine.

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We need people who most sensitively mediate God’s love for us.
—Wayne Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 12

When our pain is so deep and real that we can’t see or feel anything else, we need the witness of the saints about us; saints who, on the basis of their own experience of life’s pain, can assure us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth. In all our pain, and beyond all our pain, always is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies, and which will never allow us to die.
—Jeffery J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 130

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
—Sonnet 30, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1754–55

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Holy Days, Hard Days

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From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward:

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Christmas morning, I flailed. I was as restless as I had been peaceful just a few days earlier. My grief was acute, stabbing. I had lost my mate; it was a primitive animal feeling. I was not depressed, I was simply overcome by waves of sadness. Such fizz and delight as I had had with life seemed long ago and bound to Richard. Richard is not here.
I want my husband back, I chanted yet again to myself. I want my husband back. It was a flat recitation that did not relieve the quiet terror. It didn’t have a prayer.

—K. Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same, 159

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Since Jesse died, I have felt joy. I have even laughed until tears came to my eyes. I have written a book and essays, I have acted on television and in film, I have hosted huge family parties.
But, full disclosure: I have taken to my bed for the entire day sometimes, on Jesse’s birthday, and on the January date I found him dead. Because what makes more sense to me, the actual person who has suffered a loss, are the words C. S. Lewis’s character speaks in the film “Shadowlands”: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

—M. Leone, “A Mother’s Grief—Without Time Limits,” The Boston Globe online

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I have had five Mother’s Days without Grace now. . . .
This Mother’s Day, I lay in bed feeling that strange mixture of grief and joy. Down the hall, I heard [adopted daughter] Annabelle’s high, squeaky voice. . . . I picture Grace in her smudged glasses, her tangled hair, her wry smile. I feel tears building in my eyes. . . . Then there are footsteps, and Annabelle is at the side of the bed, clutching a pink rose.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” she says, grinning.
Annabelle lifts her arms to me, and I pick her up.
“Mama,” she whispers.
“Daughter,” I whisper back.

—A. Hood, Journey Through Grief, 180–81

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I still struggle with depression every August and September.
I think about him every day.
And on those days when my thoughts rest for awhile on some accidental memory of us together, I have a hard time remembering what kind of mother I was to him. I don’t see me clearly in those moments, only Michael—laughing, walking through a room in his green plaid pajama bottoms, eating peaches out of the can. Covered under a pile of blankets on his bed, asleep. Playing his guitar. And even though in my mind I seemed to be always laying foundations for what was to come in his life—college and career, mission, marriage, the stuff of his maturity—I don’t think of myself as the mom who lived more in my son’s future than in his present. I hope I wasn’t that mom. I didn’t want to be.
But then Michael would never let me get away with that.
Thank Heaven, he wouldn’t let me.

—Cheri Pray Earl, “My Grief Observed,” anthologized in Dance with Them, ed. Kathryn Lynard Soper, 183

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Grief strikes at the most unexpected times. Just prior to the beginning of the academic year I had occasion to go over to the school. The first room I went to was the first grade. Johnny would have been in first grade. The desks were neatly set up. Books, place cards, lots of bright shapes and colors. I read the names: Paul and Catherine and Stephen and Genna (Johnny’s cousins); Joe, Annie, Andrew, Gregory, Stephanie, Robbie, Walter. These were all the names we’d been hearing for the previous three years. Like an earthquake filmed in slow motion, I felt the bricks of my soul coming apart. I tried to find a place to go to escape or at least to ease the pain, but in that moment all that existed was pain and there was no place to go. I could only hope no one was watching me. I gritted my teeth as hard as I could and told myself, “Not now! Not now! Wait till later, when you’re alone.”

—G. Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 118

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Some friends had come over to help us, including a family that had recently lost their teenage son in a drowning accident. Their surviving younger children, Abby and Eli, were among [our daughter] Lily’s closest friends. The kids were understandably solemn and the adults measured all our words under the immense weight of grief as we set to work. . . .
[Another friend] and I compared notes on our teenage daughters—relatively new drivers on the narrow country roads between their jobs, friends, and home—and the worries that come with that territory. I was painfully conscious of Becky’s [mother of the deceased teen] quiet, her ache for a teenage son who never even got to acquire a driver’s license. The accident that killed Larry could not have been avoided through any amount of worry. We all cultivate illusions of safety that could fall away in the knife edge of one second.
I wondered how we would get through this afternoon, how she would get through months and years of living with impossible loss. I wondered if I’d been tactless, inviting these dear friends to an afternoon of ending lives. And then felt stupid for that thought. People who are grieving walk with death, every waking moment. When the rest of us dread that we’ll somehow remind them of death’s existence, we are missing their reality. Harvesting turkeys—which this family would soon do on their own farm—was just another kind of work. A rendezvous with death, for them, was waking up each morning without their brother and son.

—Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 229, 233

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Tomorrow, starting at dawn, at the hour when the land turns white,
I will leave. You see, I know you are waiting for me.
I will go through the forest, I will go past the mountain,
I cannot stay far from you any longer.

I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
seeing nothing else, hearing no sound,
alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
sad, and day for me will be like night.

I will not look at the gold of the falling evening,
nor at the sails in the distance going down to Harfleur.
And when I arrive, I will put on your grave
a sprig of green holly and of heather in bloom.

—“Victor Hugo: Tomorrow, as soon as it is dawn,” (Demain dès l’Aube).
This piece Hugo wrote near the one year anniversary of his daughter Leopoldine’s and son-in-law Charles Vacquerie’s deaths from an accidental double drowning in the Seine.

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On November 14, 1970, a plane crashed in the rain in Huntington, West Virginia, killing the entire football team of Marshall University, along with team supporters and crew members. . . .
After nearly 30 years, the pain still is fresh each morning, . . . almost as if it renews itself overnight, culling from the darkness new power to hurt. “You don’t forget it. You don’t. It’s something that happened and you can’t do anything about it. I have to accept it.
“I have my bad moments. I do.” He paused. “I get in my car and I ride. I ride out to the cemetery and visit his grave. I have a cry.” He paused again, longer this time. “Sometimes I can’t talk about it.”
[Jimi Reese, 72, mother of Scottie Reese] “I think about him all the time,” Jimi said. “Sometimes it seems like he’s still around somewhere, like he can’t be gone. When it gets round close to that day again, I start to think about it harder. Along about that time of (that) month, it gets pretty heavy.
“It ran through my mind the other day, how old he’d be, where he’d be.”
Indeed, Scottie—and all of the young men on the Marshall plane—have now been dead longer than they were alive.

—Julia Keller, quoted in “The Marshall plane crash, remembered thirty years later: ‘It’s always with you,’” Consolatio online

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Everyday I’m with the child
She walks on my dreams
Every place I go she’s there
And in the spaces in between

Unfinished business
Keeping us sleepless
Unfinished business
You and me.
—One Night the Moon, Rachel Perkins, dir., 2001

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Grief On The Sleeve

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It was here in Vienna where I learned my first lesson about loss.

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This was the late ‘70’s, meaning World War II was over thirty years hidden in the past. In Vienna, however, the war still loomed, omnipresent. I couldn’t walk the streets without passing graying and legless men in wheelchairs, others who limped along on their one prosthetic leg, those whose empty shirtsleeves brushed up against my arm when we stood next to each other on the streetcars.

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Neither could I miss all the women. They were bent to nearly half my height and hobbled along on legs bowed from hardship and malnutrition, their hands clutching canes like birds of prey grip a bough.  How many times must I have trailed only inches behind them, studying their hunched shoulders, staring at their hulking orthopedic shoes, with their one sole inches thicker than the other, black blocks of cement with ties over the arches.

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And so very many of them, women and men, wore black armbands.

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That thin strip of fabric worn around the sleeve of a heavy wool loden green coat was, as my Austrian friends had to explain to me, a vital token of the times.  It said: “Ich bin Kriegs Trauernde”.

I am a war mourner.

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As an adolescent, I found the armband and mourners fascinating – mythical, nearly – but also hard to truly understand. While the sight of them struck pity and something akin to respect in me, those mourners also sobered me.  Those bands wrapped around arms chilled me more than the absent arms did.

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Furthermore, they seemed a little morbid.

And they made the ultimate loss, death, so . . . I’m not sure, so public. Who, I wondered, if touched by death would want to advertise it? Invite conversation? Drawn attention?

And. . .still? After thirty years?

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Thirty years. To my fourteen-year-old mind it was a literal eternity.

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I would come to know Vienna intimately over the subsequent decade when I would return to live there. On the next occasion I was a university student.  Then I lived privately with an Austrian family. Then I served as a full-time missionary for the LDS church.  Then as a newlywed, I was back in Vienna with my husband while he and I were faculty members, German instructors, with a foreign study group.

With each visit, I saw fewer vestiges of war, and always fewer armbands. Their last surviving wearers had finally died themselves, I suspected, rejoining elsewhere those beloveds for whom they’d mourned and worn the armbands in the first place and kept wearing them perhaps (this thought disturbed me) until their last breath.

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It’s doubtful I could have ever foreseen during that first trip to Austria just how intimately I would one day become acquainted with Vienna.  And it’s certain I could have never imagined how intimately acquainted I would one day become with the black armband.

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This week I’ve been back in Vienna.  It’s hard to believe that over thirty years have passed since my teens and that year that gave me my first lessons on loss. It seems a whole life has passed.

And indeed, one life has.

An eternity.

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So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve been instinctively albeit surreptitiously hunting everywhere for armbands.

There are none, of course.

But how I wish there were.

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I wish there were mourner’s armbands this week in particular because I’ve come here in mourning.  I’m mourning specifically the 27 lives taken savagely just a week ago in the Newtown slaughter.  And I’m mourning generally all the tragic deaths to which this scorching mark in history points my heart. There are so many.

Children at the live manger scene set up in front of Karlskirche

Children at the live manger scene set up in front of Karlskirche

There are, God knows, far too many.

Banner at Karlskirche: Jesus Was Born For You, Too.

Banner at Karlskirche: Jesus Was Born For You, Too.

As it happens, this week I’m also mourning with my family the tragic death of our oldest son. It has been exactly five years and five months since that date, and Vienna seemed like the right place to mark that passing that is so sacred to us.

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I want, in this post, to recreate for you as best as possible the hours I’ve spent walking through the streets and shops and crowds and contours of Vienna.  I want you to see what my mourner’s eyes have seen as we’ve walked and talked hours on end as a family, wearing, as it sometimes feels to me, thin black ribbons around the fullness of our hearts.

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You’ll see in my pictures that much of Vienna is grand, opulent, scintillating.

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What is not visible, though, unless you know her well, is that she’s also one tough city.  She’s known centuries of suffering.  She’s a survivor.

In World War II alone, she survived over fifty bomb raids. Tens of thousands of her homes were left as craters. Her magnificent opera house was all but decimated…

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… And her most recognizable landmark, St. Stephansdom, barely missed annihilation in the war, and its Gothic roof collapsed when, during the Russian occupation, fire raging out of control ignited the structure.

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There are smaller, less visible signs of damage.  If you’re looking for them, you’ll find pockmarks of shrapnel and artillery in the facades of buildings, haunting fingerprints of a shadowy, diabolical giant.

And there are losses buried far beneath the layer of time I’m strolling you through because she’s a city that’s survived death many times over. Before world wars there were plagues, sieges, floods, occupations, uprisings and eruptions. So that today, street after street, there is grandeur shoulder-to-shoulder with loss.

The Pestsäule (Plague Column) commemorating the lives lost to the bubonic plague of 1679

The Pestsäule (Plague Column). which commemorates the scores of lives lost to the bubonic plague of 1679

Artistic and architectural beauty from ashes.

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Along with my images of Vienna, what follows are just a few of the hundreds of quotes I’ve compiled in a copious anthology, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them.

In offering both images and words, I’m inviting you to look carefully at what it means to be mortal, to be part of the flawed and mysterious panorama of humanity, this procession we all share that wears the wounds of life’s everyday warfare.  I hope you’ll not step away or step past this very quickly. In stepping slowly and close to the subject you might be lucky enough to feel a strange absence brush up against you, and like an empty shirtsleeve, it might incite a tenderness towards your own and all of mankind’s many visible and invisible losses.

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**

On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them

All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence…It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.
–Joseph Smith, in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; 6:50.)

Widow and Orphan Society

Widow and Orphan Society

What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
—Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 34

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The English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described [the] rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 60

Our American culture boasts many virtues and several strong suits, but grieving—collectively or individually—isn’t one of them. Unlike older societies, we have few formal grieving rituals in place to guide us. So, we try to tackle grief in our typical American way—as if it’s a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured, an unnatural, machine-gumming breakdown that needs to be fixed, ASAP. . . .

Perhaps more phobic about suffering than any society in history, Americans tend to start the clock ticking early in “managing” grief. While solicitous and caring of the newly bereaved, we encourage heartbroken mates and parents to medicate themselves so they can “keep it together” through the funeral.

This ignores the fact that wailing and keening and “losing it” are a pretty accurate rendering of what humans inside feel like when someone we love dies or leaves us. But, in our culture, public wailing and keening are considered bad forms; they are seen as unwelcome reminders of pathology among “healthy” people. . ..

Even the most devastating loss—that of a child by a parent—seems to carry an unwritten statute of limitations on grief.

—Stephanie Salter, “The myth of managing grief,” San Francisco Chronicle

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Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has “got over it.” But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again…

How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss until this moment?” the same leg cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.

They say “The coward dies many times”; so does the beloved.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 52–53, 56–57

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In a few weeks she will have been dead five years.

Five years since the doctor said that the patient has been unable to get enough oxygen through the vent for at least an hour now.

Five years since Gerry and I left her in the ICU overlooking the river at New York Cornell.

I can now afford to think about her.

I no longer cry when I hear her name.

I no longer imagine the transporter being called to take her to the morgue after we left the ICU.

Yet I still need her with me.

–Joan Didion, Blue Nights, 150–151

When I ask [author Joan Didion] if this grief [at her daughter’ death] is different from what she has so carefully described in her book [about her husband’s death], she says, “It is and it isn’t. I recognize a lot of the things I’m going through. Like, I lose my temper a lot and I become unhinged and kind of hysterical. Like if someone calls to update their Rolodex.” She laughs. “I recognize little things like that as being part of the process, so they’re not quite as frightening. But on the other hand, it’s a whole different level of loss.” She stops and stares at the table again. “This is the part I don’t want to talk about.” She takes off her glasses, sets them down, and her eyes are flooded with tears. …
–Jonathan Van Meter, interview with Joan Didion; “When Everything Changes,” New York Books, October 2, 2005

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[A bereaved mother enumerates the things her young adult’s son’s untimely death has taught her:]

1) that having “learned” does not take away the pain or provide an adequate reason for the death; 2) that love is stronger than death—there is a communion of spirits that is real and reaches across death; 3) that the failure to reach out can cause great suffering; 4) that God is real and more than an idea; 5) that fear keeps us from doing so much good in terms of being gifts to others; 6) the limitations of a psychology that ignores spirituality; 7) the importance of humility…
My faith has deepened … but it has not been an easy road. It has deepened because of profound experiences of connections with God and with my son.
—Kay Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 180

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If the internal griefs of every man could be read, written on his forehead, how many who now excite envy would appear to be the objects of pity?
—Metastasio

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“Blessings may break from stone,” wrote George McKay Brown. “Who knows how.” Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why…

“Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,” wrote Graham Greene. Grief is at the heart of the human condition. Much is lost with death, but not everything. Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love. There is grace in death. There is life.
—Kay Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same,181–82

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The way we resolve our grief is a process. Timing is everything. What is inappropriate at one time is a lifeline at another. At the beginning, it is necessary for the one who has suffered loss to admit the pain and feel it deeply. No one can ever resolve grief without doing this. To deny that the experience of death is the experience of the absence of God is a pious lie that disqualifies anything else one might say. But once one admits the reality of the emptiness and despair and meaninglessness of death, one is also ready to admit that there is something else present in the darkness as well. Something that at first seems only a hint of light on the horizon, but in time becomes a warm glow bathing everything: There is also love; there are also happy memories and gratitude; there is also God. A simplistic life based on despair is no more adequate to the human condition than a simplistic life based on rose-colored theology. In the end, only contact with the living God satisfies.

—Jefferey J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One,ed. Bush, 129

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Grief and Grace

In this Monday's newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas market square in Strasbourg, France

Monday, December 17th. Newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas Market square in Strasbourg, France

In light of the dark events of this past week, I can’t bring myself to write or post for you what I’d promised, a colorful whirlwind travel trek through the first half of our family’s 2012 and then the shimmering coziness of our first Swiss Christmas. All that unscathed comfort and plush intactness would be grossly misplaced here.

I’ve tried for a few days, I truly have, to direct my thoughts to those tidy little post outlines I had all lined up for you, to all my lovely accompanying photographs.

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But I cannot. I will not. Those posts, the very thought of them, sicken me. Writing these sentences, in fact, also sickens me, and has made my hands go icy and my stomach reel, my head’s been pounding since first hearing the news, and I haven’t been sleeping. I imagine the effect has been similar for you.

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So why, then, not escape the horror, you and I, escape even virtually into some exotic locale, some breezy narrative I could so easily offer with its pleasant, bloodless images? Isn’t right now the perfect time to relieve ourselves from pain, not relive it?

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Why willingly submit ourselves to more sorrow by venturing deeper into it? Why dwell there? Why dwell here? Why dwell, as I plan to do, for many posts – for as many as I can write, which, by the way will never be enough – why dwell in the dreary and draining landscape of loss and sorrow, and why now during this, our long-awaited Season of Light?

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Why in our lightness dwell in the reality of another’s – a stranger’s – darkness? Why dwell in the darkness of grief and loss and agony and in a sort of loneliness that defies description when with just the turn of an inch or two, the click of a key, we can escape into merriment and togetherness and safety, where we can refresh our heavy hearts?

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The answers to those questions should be obvious.

But I don’t know. Maybe they’re not.

Wisdom and life experience tell me that what I’m getting at is perhaps not all that obvious.

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And so, without apologizing for this shift in the direction of my blog, I do want to explain my rationale for doing so.

I’m going to dwell on death, the ultimate passage. And I’m going to dwell on it for as long as it takes.

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This will lead to posts and, I hope, discussions with you on many related topics, including the nature of grief, the singular complications of parental grief, the necessity and problematic of communal mourning, the duration and contours and reasons beneath “complicated” grief, the outdated and perpetuated though erroneous theories versus current studies on traumatic loss and adjustment.

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The gamut. Or as close as I can get to “gamut” on our computer screens. Now is the time, a friend told me this weekend, to share the contents of my other book, Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. I’m grateful for that nudge, and am glad to do be able to do so here, but hope my motivation for doing so won’t be misunderstood, that turning in my blog to that book (which is sitting in the approval stage with another publishing house), is not about promoting that book. That is certainly not my rationale for turning our conversation here toward the realms of death and other major losses.

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My rationale is simple: It would be morally irresponsible – even reprehensible – and untrue to my personal experience and most profound convictions to do anything but share all I know and feel about these realities.

I am a mother who has buried the child of her heart, a gorgeous son lost to sudden and tragic death.

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And contrary to the glib and exasperating psycho-babble sound bytes perpetuated today, I am without question defined by that loss.

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I am defined – all my human and spiritual interactions, my values and aspirations, how I talk and write and sing and walk and drive my kids to go sledding in the mountains and how I greet the postman and how I buy my groceries and chat with the cashier – all I am and will ever be is defined by this major, still-unfathomable loss.

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Whether this agrees with whatever you have absorbed from the pop psychology running through western media or not is immaterial to the fact that you, too, are – we all are – defined by what and whom we have lost.

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Or what we will lose.
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Because of this great loss in my small life, the losses of 26 families in a distant town in Connecticut has throttled my core in a way I can scarcely share in words. It’s as if everything I see and hear and touch and taste takes me to them, these families who are complete strangers to me. I see them today in their homes where they’ve stumbled upon gifts bought last week for the now-dead-but-not-yet-buried, gifts they’d hidden under the rafters.

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What happens when they find those gifts? Can we even imagine? How does one howl and gasp for breath when huddled under rafters? And without letting the rest of the county hear?

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These are the same homes from which just last Thursday they sent out annual family holiday cards, the ones with pictures of smiling children with their smiling parents, cards arriving today in other happy homes of friends and family around the world, some of whom have flown in to be close. Some of whom have remained paralyzed in their corner of the universe, unable to find a way to reach out in word or in deed. This, because they cannot themselves reach around the vastness of what has happened. Who can? Or because they want to wait until the worst is over, which, they mistakenly think – we all mistakenly think – is the funeral, after which moment they’ll try to take contact.

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But how? What should they say? Do? And so, some of them, they’ll do nothing. Others, thank heavens, will rush in and do anonymous, beautiful and saintly much. And still, according to studies, most onlookers will take a guess that some months down the road (always months and months too early in the process) things are back to normal.

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Which they never will be.

There is no more “normal”.

And that’s the clencher.

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These are homes where gifts sit unopened under a tree whose glinting lights seem to mock the lightlessness this mother or that father feels from head to toe. It is a corporeal eclipse whose obscurity is experienced in measures of weight, in ounces, pounds or tons: It weighs on every emerging thought like an anchor pulling to frozen tautness the buoyancy of a floundering boat. These strings of lights only add to the indecent flashes of the paparazzi lurking everywhere in the streets of a town that is now more foreign to them than the moon.

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The mother yanked out the string of lights that second night after sitting for hours looking into the blurry, numbing depths for three hours straight. Maybe an hour too long, her husband dared to suggest.

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“Please, don’t plug them back in,” she cried at her visiting mother-in-law, who only wanted to just add “the teensiest bit of festive cheer,” she said, her voice stiff and useless like an old picket fence on the beach, hedging back a tidal wave of tears.

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“Please,” the mother whispers, gaunt and listless from no food or drink for five days. She’s growing weak, suppressing an unfamiliar, frightening rage. “I can’t take it. I can not take the light.”

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Under the tree small, fancily wrapped boxes sit, a mockery, too, with a six-year old’s name which, when uttered, sends blood engorging the throat, rushing to the cheeks, draining from every limb. The taste and smell of blood. The taste and sight that awakens the mother every time she tries to lie down. She is resting on her six-year-old’s bed. But there is no rest. Not there. Not anywhere.

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And there are those other boxes. She’d wrapped them with her daughter herself, the child the media has now appropriated as their own and has renamed an “angel”.
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But she has a name.

Somebody say her name!

And everyone, please do not ever stop saying her name. She was real. She is real. We named her to pin her into this world. Her name binds her to us, to the living. She’ll always remain here.

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These are homes where, if I dare write this without also “appropriating” things myself, every human capacity is strained beyond anything anyone can fully imagine. What has happened – The Event – is already moving into the historical realm for those who produce and consume what’s “news.” But the truest story, the one of soul-stretching grief and vertiginous absence, is only scarcely taking seed. The families themselves, if uninitiated to tragic loss, don’t even know this. They cannot begin to envision what lies ahead…

After the funeral…
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After the holidays…
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After the soothing circle of co-mourners uncoils and life must continue as it, in its cruel benevolence must. . .

The real story will last beyond the next news story. And the next. And far beyond the next. It will, in fact, outlive all of our collective attention spans placed end to end for years to come. It will last for the rest of all of the survivors’ living days and into generations.

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Let me pause here and be clear: In case I give the impression that I know something about this specific terror, I do not. I want to acknowledge quickly and definitively that I know only a fraction of the smallest part of what these families of the slaughtered in Newtown now know and will yet learn. The circumstances of my loss are so utterly unlike those of these losses, they should not be uttered in the same hour, let alone in the same breath. It’s dangerous to print them in the same post. This terror stands alone and brings me to my knees.

I do, however, know something about life after death, meaning the life of survivors after the sudden, violent and tragic death of a beloved, and after five years of living and researching in the depths, I feel confident I can speak with a particle of authority on the topic, if only generally. If you’ll let me.

So back to my original point. Such dizzying, catastrophic loss as we feel enshrouds us is not the sort from which we turn and easily flee. We cannot, if we’re serious about our covenant to mourn with those who mourn, walk out of this tragedy the way we walk out of a cinema after a violent movie. After entertaining ourselves with cinematographic bloodshed, the movie ends and we stride into the light, into reality. Hearts maybe still pounding, maybe blinking a bit, we shake our heads and fumble for our keys. We scan the sunny parking lot for our car. We climb in, buckle up for safety, and drive away, humming. We drive neatly away from the nightmare.

We mustn’t, if we’re serious about apprenticing as Saviors to others in this case and in any to come, drive away. What we must do is dwell longer than we think is needed and might be comfortable or convenient, right there, in the victims’ darkness. And while it’s a warm sentiment and a good start to compassion, we must not become mere beneficiaries of another’s catastrophe – “I’ll hug my children so much tighter tonight, thanks to your devastation,” – not, at least, without responding, also, in some visceral and practical way to their suffering.

And we must not, at all costs, encourage a gospel of fake fluorescent strobe lights forced into the eyes of those already blinded by horror. This is not a time to tighten our grins, clench our grips, and insist that the decimated rejoice in all things, rejoice and be merry. ‘Tis the season!

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That tendency, above nearly all things, is antipathy itself – anti pathos –not compassion, which feels with, and is the essence of Christianity itself because it is the nature of God Himself. It is the power of active imagination that enacts the power of the atonement. To this, to the passionate core of this painful life, is where we follow God, where He calls us to fix our hearts.

**

The images that accompany this and my coming posts are, like the pictures from my last post, taken from my life, my immediate surroundings, by me. Through my lens I invite you to see what I, a bereaved mother, see. Wherever I might be in the coming weeks, you can be sure that’s also where my camera lens will be.

But my mind will be in Newtown.

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Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.

So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read.  But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas.  We’ll always refer to it as that.  At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.

Despite those details, we did know we’d  be sending Parker off to college in June.  So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.

At least euphemistically so.

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about.  For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation.  Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.

But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening.  And something did whisper.  And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed.  She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum.  Her eyes she kept firmly closed.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.

The holly bears the crown. . .

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. . .

Kitchen sounds.  A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there.  Noises she simply wanted to escape.

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did.  She was retreating into silence.  She was sending a loud signal.

“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now.  “Please, don’t do this.  Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired.  So bone-deep tired.

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

This is when he tapped her right shoulder.  And then he left his hand there.  The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor.  How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“Why don’t you say something, Mom?  What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first.  But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out.  Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of its edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne.  And she pulled the purple up over her head.

Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above. . .

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above. . .

“Hey.”

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s.  And heavier.

“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay?  And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

And still their heavenly music floats o'er all the busy world. . .

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the busy world. . .

So, so tired. And so emptied clean out.  All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

The oldest son made a sudden move.  His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.

Then the son knelt.  His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

“Come on, ” now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come in here with me.”

Close by me forever and love me I pray. . .

Close by me forever and love me, I pray. . .

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family.  The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer.  We’re going to turn things around here.  So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders.  They knelt for a moment in silence.  But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was. . .

This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. . .

He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And it truly is.

002

**

“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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Friends for the Long Road

If you ever take an extended family trip into a wilderness area, may I offer one bit of advice?
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Take another family along with you.
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Try to find a family that’s a good fit for your family, people who’ll tolerate graciously your own family’s peculiarities – who even like your peculiarities – who like you and love every one of your children.

All of them.
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Meaning that they’ve been a central, unflagging support in the heaviest trial of your life, feeling the absence of your one child whom they, too, enjoyed so much and love still.
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It helps if you have known each other in that way.

And if you’ve known each other nearly your whole lives.
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(Does “since kindergarten” count as one’s whole life?)

If, for instance, the husbands have known each other since they were five years old, and if the wives have known each other’s husbands since high school, and if the wives themselves have known each other since college.
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If you all grew up in the same four-mile radius.

That kind of knowing. Then you’re probably on the right track. Try, if possible, to find folks with that kind of shared history.

Then one more thing.

Make sure they’re geniuses.
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Because if you’re not excessively bright yourself, it helps to have someone in your group who is. They’re there to explain stuff.

You see, they’ll bring a whole library full of guide books. Insect guides.
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Flora/fauna guides.
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Bird guides.
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Mammal guides.
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Worm guides.
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Arachnoid guides.
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And those are just the books implanted in their heads. Unlike you, they haven’t done a crash course to be ready for the wilderness. They’ve been storing up knowledge for decades.

It could just be that these lifelong friends happen to be scientists. And if they are, they can turn your wilderness trip into several running episodes of Through the Wormhole.

You’ll benefit from such friends if they’re not only scientists, but are specifically doctors of medicine. In case you’re attacked by charging rhinos, elephants or swarms of tsi-tsi flies.

Or if you’ve stepped on a thorn.
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And if on top of all this these doctor-scientist friends of yours are respected skin cancer researchers, you’ll be assured sunscreen reapplication breaks every hour or so. (Of course, the melanoma specialist is the only one who’ll get the burn.)
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This family you’re thinking of traveling with? It’s great if some of their children are close to the ages of some of your own. And if possible, be sure they’re easy going, inquisitive, non-bratty, adventuresome, incredibly droll, and delightfully photogenic children.
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And check first to see if they’re fun. Because it is great and all to be a smart, skin-savvy, walking guide book. But you’ve all come a long way to this wilderness. So it should be fun, too.
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But not just fun.

Funny.
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Inhale-your-lentils-whole, split-a-gut, outlaugh-the-hyenas kind of funny.

It’s good if your friends can make everyone — your children, your selves and the grazing water buffalo –– stop cold in their tracks, snorting and guffawing pawing the ground with laughter.

These smart funny friends might also be the sorts who’ll be eager to get up a couple of hours before dawn to drive way out into the savannah just to wait in complete silence while the sun slowly rises in order to catch a brief glimpse of this one majestic creature:
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They’ll trudge anywhere following the Masai guide. . .
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They’ll treat the local culture with respect and good humor.
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They’ll make friends easily.
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They’ll canoe blithely with you in hippo-inhabited waters.
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They’ll dance with you well into the night.
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They won’t burp or jerk around, flip rubber bands or throw spit wads when you’re sitting five feet from these guys. . .
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And they’ll ooh and ahh at every last ohh-and-ahh-able detail of this earth’s creation. . .
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So much so, that when your wilderness adventure comes to its end, you’ll be as sad to leave them as you are to leave it.
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**
Next post, let me introduce you to Albert and our other fabulous guides. They saved us from being washed away when a river suddenly flooded and took us to the boma (family village) of one of the Masai guides.

Please leave your comments:

Do you have a special travel memory? Did you share it with another person or family? What makes good travel partners? Where are you longing to travel still? Have you ever been in a decidedly non-Christmasy location for Christmas? What did you do, then, to celebrate that holiday in a meaningful, reverent way?

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African Pied Beauty

I doubt Gerard Manley Hopkins ever made it to Africa.

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In fact, I’ve checked. He didn’t.

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But his poetry could have been inspired by the rhythms of the continent, by its dramatic landscape, by its preposterously diverse (read: deliriously kooky) wildlife.

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Out in the middle of the Serengeti, bumping along in a camo-colored jeep, I found myself reciting Hopkins as a backdrop to the vast and dappled (a Hopkins word) canvas surrounding me.

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Glory be to God for dappled things –

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For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow: . . .

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I wondered: Who thinks up creatures like the flamingo? Honestly. Hot pink? Double jointed?

That loopy neck thing going on?

Who dared submit that design to the board?

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And the warthog? We’re serious?

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The dung beetle? (Read that one again.)

(Slowly.)

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Did no one want to test it before just putting it on the road?

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All things counter,

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Original,

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Spare,

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Strange;

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Whatever is fickle,

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Freckled (who knows how?)

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With swift, slow;

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Sweet,

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Sour; 

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Adazzle,

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Dim;

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He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

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Praise him.

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Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Tanzania and Juvy

How do you land a job as an assistant warden in a Tanzanian juvenile detention center?

Entrance to Arusha, Tanzania Juvenile Detention Center

Entrance to the Juvenile Detention Center in Moshi, Tanzania

Approximately the same way you end up serving as a full-time LDS missionary in southern Italy.

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You prepare yourself. You apply. You close your eyes, open up a letter, then open those eyes to see where you have been assigned.

And you ratchet up your Swahili.

(Or Italian.)

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Since her childhood, Claire has had this fixation on African animals. And since her youth spent in Paris with its dominant francophone-African population, she’s felt a keen interest in all things African. And so during her junior year at University, (where she studied Humanities with an English emphasis and French and African Studies as her double minor), she began inquiring seriously into different service programs that would take her for a semester as a volunteer to the Big Continent.

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Clinton Foundation?
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Gates Foundation?
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Peace Corps?
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Green Peace?
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Kenya? Sudan? Ghana? Cameroon?
Mali, Malawi, Botswana?
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Working with endangered animals?
Endangered women?
Endangered children?
With entire populations endangered by AIDS?
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After months of research and telephone interviews, we settled on a reputable program based in Arusha, Tanzania, in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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As is required for an LDS mission, Claire had to have a certain level of preparation and stability and a strong endorsement in order to be considered for this program. She filled out lots of forms, submitted letters of recommendation, and was finally accepted for the fall 2011 program.
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What she did not know on the outset was precisely what her assignment in Tanzania would be.

She could have been placed to work in a hospital, or in one of the many shelters for battered women, or could have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha.

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

But. . .our girl was assigned to juvi.

I can’t say her initial reaction to the whole juvi idea was effusive. And just between us, I had my reservations, too, of course. Teaching delinquent male teenagers (some in for serious crimes like murder, I was told, and some for minor and trumped up infractions like disrespecting their elders) in a caged environment? Every day? So I asked: uh, so, any chance my daughter’s going to pack some heat? Wear Kevlar? Who gets to be her body guard? Because she’d never be left alone with felons. . . right?

. . .right?
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After less than a week teaching her twenty or so charges at juvi, Claire had fallen fiercely and irreversibly in love.

Next post, I’ll tell you more about the young men my Claire calls her “Boys”, the ones who call her “Teacha Claira”, the boys-made-men who won my daughter’s heart, the ones who, that last day in late December when we came as a family to pick her up and take her away into the wilderness, were silenced with respect, motionless on their low, dilapidated wooden benches. Sad and adoring. Concerned and apologetic when they saw their “Teacha” was wiping tears.
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These boys were the same “criminals”, by the way, who showed their depth of love for Claire in a most visceral way.

They begged and insisted she come back the next week after Christmas. “A big party for you,” the leader boy named Prosper told her, his eyes glinting with pride, yet weighted as if he were forty. She must come back because all of them wanted to give her something “very special.” And so Claire managed to come back.

She left well before dawn from where our family was camping out in the Serengeti and by means of three modes of transportation driven (or flown) by the kindest locals, made it back to her juvi where the boys were waiting, she told me later, all lined up, shy, sober and smiling.  Practically happy with themselves.

Prosper escorted her into the courtyard on whose walls they’d painted a mural together that fall.  He was eager to show her their extravagant gift.

“Please. For you, Teacha Claira.”

And there is was, fresh and bright, a most luxurious offering.

The boys had slaughtered her a goat.
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