Peace: The Christmas Message

They were wholly preposterous words.

“On earth peace, good will toward men,”(1) sang angels hovering over a land heaving with political and racial tension, ruled by a degenerate despot, choked by Roman oppression, crowded in on all sides by competing foreign powers — a land, which in just one generation would collapse under revolt, its temple razed to the ground.

Gustav Doré, Empyrean Light

Yet it is precisely into the heart of such a conflict-rife setting that the shimmering, pulsating words “peace” and “good will” spilled down the conduit from God’s presence. Like pure water, they gushed into this murky sphere, sending bright, ever-expanding ripples across the thick Judean night. Peace, proclaimed the angels. Peace on this harsh, hostile earth.

The word “peace” makes us pause, shake our heads. Can reasonable people really believe in, let alone strive for peace? Can we, knowing what we do of human nature and of mankind’s history of soaking this earth’s crust in fratricidal blood — can we hope for peace?

Let us proclaim without reservation that not only can we hope for peace, but we must. At Christmastime especially, when we kneel before the Prince of Peace, we renew our covenant to hope for peace, to claim and proclaim peace, and to proliferate His peace.

One can hope for His peace only because it is independent of outward circumstances. His peace begins internally, in a heart aligning itself to truth and light, and once cultivated in that heart, extends ever outward to touch and embrace all of mankind.

IMG_0526

Such was the LDS General Presidency holiday message to the church in 1936, where members were urged to “manifest brotherly love, first toward one another, then toward all mankind; to seek unity, harmony and peace … within the Church, and then, by precept and example, extend these virtues throughout the world.”(2)

Like the original angelic annunciation, that plea for peace came at a time of escalating global tumult. The Great Depression was still ravaging the USA; the Spanish Civil War was surging; Stalin was executing his own; Mussolini was forging an “axis” alliance with Hitler; and the latter was promoting a devilish political agenda, which became official when he proclaimed himself the head of the German armed forces. This timing means that, five short years following that December Christmas message, untold numbers who had heard that call to peace would be called to the front lines of the bloodiest and longest conflict of history. On the beaches of Normandy, in the rice paddies of Okinawa, and in the rural jungles of the Philippines, perhaps those soldiers remembered that, despite the weight of the rifles strapped on their backs and the sodden camouflage uniforms stained in mud and blood, their covenant was then as always to manifest brotherly love and seek for peace.

IMG_0534

Modern conflict both global and intimate — whether originating in Pearl Harbor, Korea, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Libya, or Washington D.C.; whether due to joblessness, chronic or terminal illness, abuse, abandonment, addiction, the death of our beloved, the death of our faith — “mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men.”(3) Yet our gentle God rejoins all of this sharpness with a soft call to partake of His peace.

IMG_0532

It is this kind of peace that both opened and closed his mortal mission. The peaceful greeting angels sang at his birth He repeated in the hours prior to his death. Before the Roman guards would barter for his last bit of clothing, press thorns into his flesh, and hammer iron spikes through his hands and feet, He taught His followers that “peace on earth” would not mean peace in this world, but peace above and beyond it. “Peace I leave with you,” He said, “my peace I give you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(4) In the face of all that He knew would surely come of torture, betrayal and blood (His own and His disciples’), “peace” surely seems a wholly preposterous word.

Or a holy, preposterous word. A blessing.

IMG_0533

When those angels blessed the quaking shepherds with a portion of holy peace, those same shepherds in turn took that testimony to what might well have been a quaking Joseph and Mary, who themselves perhaps needed reassurance that God’s peace, in their tiny Child, had indeed come to earth. Simple shepherds were among the first witnesses who heard and carried the blessing to others, thus revealing one of the secrets of God’s peace: it is always to be shared.

It must also be dared, wrote anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment… Battles are won not with weapons, but with God.”(5) Internal battles, Bonhoeffer seems to be saying, are won, and peace claimed when we do “the works of righteousness” receiving the reward of “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”(6)

IMG_0524

From a modern-day prophet comes wise counsel:

“No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of what is right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.”(7)

This season, will mine be the soul into which His sweet serenity enters? Into whose unsuspecting life will I dare to carry His gentle greeting? With which family members, friends or even strangers will I share His gift of peace that “passeth all understanding”?(8) And when this Christmas has passed, will we each have experienced something new about His peace? Will we have believed, received, and gifted to another that holy, wholly preposterous peace?

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.(9)

IMG_0535

###

1 Luke 2:14
2 Greetings from the First Presidency,” Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 22 Dec.
1936, p. 315
3 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Henry W. Longfellow
4 John 14:27
5 Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Eric Metaxas, pp. 81
6 D&C 59:23
7 David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1938, p. 133.
8 Philippians 4:7
9 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876)

Christmas Music: What’s on Your List?

One word —Christmas — and I start humming.

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

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

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

IMG_8801

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

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

IMG_8804

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

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

IMG_8802

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

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

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

IMG_8803

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

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

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

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

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

images (2)

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

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

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

images (1)

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

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

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—(John 3:16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

download (1)

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

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

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

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

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

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

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

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

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

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

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

IMG_1274

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

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

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

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

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

My Christmas Sermon, given December 2014, in Frankfurt, Germany

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

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

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

images (2)

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

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

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

images (1)

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

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

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—(John 3:16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

download (1)

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

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

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

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

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

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

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

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

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

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

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

IMG_1274

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Days, Hard Days

IMG_0944

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

IMG_0947

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

IMG_0850

IMG_0922

IMG_0928

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

IMG_0918

IMG_0967

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

IMG_0847IMG_0965

IMG_0752

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

IMG_0778IMG_0858

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

IMG_0796IMG_0787

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

IMG_0971

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.

IMG_0769

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

IMG_0959

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

IMG_0945

Grief On The Sleeve

IMG_0663

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

IMG_0744

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.

IMG_0745

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.

IMG_0622

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

IMG_0617

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.

IMG_0645

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.

IMG_0614

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?

IMG_0716

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

IMG_0706

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.

IMG_0664
IMG_0665

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.

IMG_0601

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.

IMG_0710

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.

IMG_0634IMG_0692IMG_0695IMG_0613IMG_0623

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.

IMG_0589IMG_0630

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.

IMG_0625

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

IMG_0702IMG_0685IMG_0684IMG_0703IMG_0717IMG_0721

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…

IMG_0719
IMG_0725

… 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.

IMG_0714

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.

IMG_0668

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.

IMG_0726

**

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

IMG_0643

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

IMG_0592

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

IMG_0735

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

IMG_0729

[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

IMG_0636

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

IMG_0673

“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

IMG_0677

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

IMG_0637

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.

IMG_0568

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.

IMG_0543

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?

IMG_0561

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?

IMG_0475

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?

IMG_0473

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.

IMG_0544

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.

IMG_0565

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.

IMG_0537

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.

IMG_0542

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.

IMG_0534

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

IMG_0524

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.

IMG_0527

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.

IMG_0532

Or what we will lose.
IMG_0536

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.

IMG_0515

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?

IMG_0518

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.

IMG_0579

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.

IMG_0583

Which they never will be.

There is no more “normal”.

And that’s the clencher.

IMG_0124

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.

IMG_0143

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.

IMG_0127

“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.

IMG_0130

“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.”

IMG_0142

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.

IMG_0114
IMG_0101
IMG_0103
IMG_0104

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”.
IMG_0492
IMG_0490IMG_0493IMG_0491IMG_0488IMG_0469

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.

IMG_0089

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…
IMG_0577IMG_0548IMG_0575IMG_0520
After the holidays…
IMG_0539IMG_0477
IMG_0141IMG_0569IMG_0564IMG_0572IMG_0573

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.

IMG_0504

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!

IMG_0507

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.

IMG_0511

Swiss Christmas

DSC_6614

From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

IMG_0063IMG_0049IMG_0059

. . .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

Friends for the Long Road

If you ever take an extended family trip into a wilderness area, may I offer one bit of advice?
DSC_6399

Take another family along with you.
DSC_6401

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.
DSC_6130

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.
DSC_5860

It helps if you have known each other in that way.

And if you’ve known each other nearly your whole lives.
DSC_6330

(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.
DSC_6391

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.
DSC_6686

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.
DSC_6001

Flora/fauna guides.
DSC_5970
DSC_5930

Bird guides.
DSC_5952

Mammal guides.
DSC_5935
DSC_6364

Worm guides.
DSC_5681

Arachnoid guides.
DSC_5562

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.
DSC_6194

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.)
DSC_5561

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.
DSC_6148DSC_5801DSC_5570DSC_6069DSC_6081

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.
DSC_6084

But not just fun.

Funny.
DSC_6077

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:
DSC_6152DSC_6173DSC_6174DSC_6175DSC_6176DSC_6177

They’ll trudge anywhere following the Masai guide. . .
DSC_6334DSC_6914DSC_6890

They’ll treat the local culture with respect and good humor.
DSC_7064
DSC_7100

They’ll make friends easily.
DSC_7224

They’ll canoe blithely with you in hippo-inhabited waters.
Tanzania (Dec 2011) 012Tanzania (Dec 2011) 007

They’ll dance with you well into the night.
Tanzania (Dec 2011) 060

DSC_6662

They won’t burp or jerk around, flip rubber bands or throw spit wads when you’re sitting five feet from these guys. . .
DSC_6804DSC_6814

And they’ll ooh and ahh at every last ohh-and-ahh-able detail of this earth’s creation. . .
DSC_6754DSC_6388DSC_6065DSC_6578

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.
DSC_5519

**
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?

DSC_7262

2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

DSC_6489Tanzania (Dec 2011) 076DSC_6420DSC_5657DSC_6175DSC_5759Tanzania (Dec 2011) 054Tanzania (Dec 2011) 047DSC_5814

Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

DSC_6607

As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

DSC_7006

So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

IMG_8726IMG_8385IMG_8696IMG_8776IMG_9195

 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

IMG_0443IMG_0653IMG_0673

When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

vienna market

Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

wiener sanger knaben

Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

strasbourg market

Take the TGV with us to Paris

champst elysees

Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

Back Camera

And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

IMG_0056