My Deceased Son’s Answer to What It’s All About

photo (2)Headstone still fresh on his grave, my eldest son showed up in the middle of the night with the key to the meaning of life. In this dream where Parker appeared, I was guiding my three surviving children through a city I knew well. It was evening, I was sad and wrung out and felt pressed to get to my car, to get back home.

Suddenly behind me I heard my youngest, Luc, (seven years old at the time), squealing like a newborn. Call it my Mother Bear, call it my short fuse, I swung around to snap the head off of whomever was bugging my boy.

The instant I spun, lip curled and neck tensed to snarl, instead of a “Hey! Cut it out!”, I snagged on the “ow” of “out” and gasped. There, in shorts and his favorite blue t-shirt with his trademark cropped hair was 18-year-old Parker, as unscathed as the last time I’d seen him alive, the day before he died.

He was playfully dangling his youngest brother over a trash can.

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Luc on Parker’s shoulders.

You know that full body-and-soul whiplash that yanks you from nearly biting through someone’s jugular to buckling to your knees and kissing their feet? Melting, I lunged toward Parker, and he, (with a look that said, “Oh, Mom, you know I was just kidding around,”) handed his little brother to his sister and reached for me.

His shoulders were familiar, as was his smell. Desperate, I pled, “Tell me, honey. Tell me everything you’ve learned.”

He pulled back a bit. That mini freckle on his nose. That scar on his eyebrow. That one steely fleck in his right iris. It was my child’s face, only seasoned. Slower.

I waited for words.

Bending down, he whispered, “This is it,” and he took a small breath. He searched my eyes, then:

“Every relationship is to bring us to God.”  

I strained.

He stared.

“That’s … that’s it?” I gaped, “There’s nothing more? Nothing else?”

His soft eyes remained fixed.

And the dream closed.

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The boys, July 2007

Every Relationship Is to Bring Us to God

Since that dream it’s been my mantra. And like most mantras, it slips out too slickly, sounds cliché, yet has more layers than the Himalayas, more depth than the trenches of the Pacific. It risks oversimplification, and yet it will take my whole life to comprehend. But here’s how I’ve broken it down up to now:

Every relationship.

Every.

This means the obvious: all my bona fide biological ties, my family. Then my family through marriage. Then my besties, my closest friends. Then all ranks of associates and regular contacts like teachers, students, classmates, work colleagues, teammates, neighbors, congregation members, parents of my children’s friends, the lady who delivers my mail on her yellow bike even in the snow and rain, the commuters who share my daily ride on the bus, the blue-haired widow who waves as she walks her Dachshund past my window evenings at eight.

All are people with whom I share different degrees of blood and intimacy, experience and history, all people with whom I share space, time, ideas, efforts. All people with whom I share myself and who share with me something of themselves.

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Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Iranian German Students

Family, Friends, Strangers, Followers, Foes

Everyone.

In addition to these ^ relationships, there are interactions with those I meet sporadically or even just once. Like the guy loading my mulch on a cart at the garden store. And the lady who cut me off on the freeway exit ramp this morning. Or the infant who cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the parent who slept with his headphones on while his infant cried all through that transatlantic flight. And the crew on that flight. The passengers on every side. The pilot, whom I never saw and who never heard the infant, but whose voice we all heard and whom I trusted to take me “cruising safely at 37,000 feet.”

I interact, most of the time mindlessly, with all of them.

Then there are those I’ve never actually met, but with whom I’ve had some sort of fleeting or superficial interchange. The rabid politician in the news, the celebrity whose fifth marriage is material for a trash mag I leafed through at the doctor’s office, the musician whose song I wail along with in the car.

And the virtual relationships, the FB acquaintances, Instagram posters, Twitter commenters. Blog followers.

And the people on either end of history; my ancestors, my progeny.

Or people on either side of the globe; my countrymen, my political foes.

Relationships. Every last one.

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Every Relationship Brings Us To …

All this social interaction, all this mortal jumble? It’s more than learning about teamwork, or an effective way to get stuff done. And it’s also more than learning tolerance and compassion and patience with crying infants and drivers on the Autobahn.

“Every relationship is to bring us to God,” maybe, has to do with this:

Author Toni Morrison, in an interview, remembered having been the young mother who, when her kids walked into the room, scanned them up and down looking for faults. She’d be thinking, Tuck in your shirt, or Comb your hair. She felt that her critical stance meant she was caring for them, which I get only too well. It is what I was doing in my dream when I wanted to ream out the thug behind me who was, I thought, evidently hurting my youngest child. I was set for censoring.

Morrison then offered another approach. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says ‘I’m glad to see you’. It’s just as small as that.”

There Are No Neutral Interactions

An approving glance. An encouraging smile. A forgiving shrug. A step forward. A brave nod. This is how we move ourselves and others toward the best in humanity and toward deity.

A whispered judgment. A punishing glare. A jealous glower. A turned back. A swift dismissal. A spin around to bite through a jugular. This is how we move ourselves and others away from each other, away from divinity.

What if I were to enter all my social encounters not perched to swoop in with criticism, or stiffened behind all sorts of false boundaries (like a difference in race, religion, political grouping, jealousy, shame, whatever), but poised, instead, radiating one primary thought: “I am glad to see you”?

I believe it would change me, the other person, the encounter, everything.

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I know.  You’re saying, “I’m glad to see you” is easy when you really are glad to see someone. And in my case in the dream I was more than glad. I was unzipped, liquefied with love and longing for my son.  Let me say the obvious: when there’s been no bad blood, and you see your absent beloved again, every minor critique you might have stockpiled during mortality vanishes in the hot flash flood of love.

But what about all the other relationships? What about most of them, the ones that exact superhuman effort from us? The ones where we’d rather say, “I’m glad to see you … go“?

That’s where Parker’s advice really gets traction. While most great mythic traditions and even modern pop spirituality claim God is found above and outside of the messiness of human interaction, maybe while sitting solo and contemplating a snowflake from atop a lone peak, I’m saying that God is found in the trenches. God is down here in the grit. God’s in the mix.

And so, too, say the experts. Harvard professor Michael Puett comments on what ancient Chinese philosophers would think about modernity’s going–it-solo attitude, and why our personal relationships are what mortality is all about:

They [Chinese ancients] saw each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us.

 For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. [Can I get an amen?] That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

In other words, there are no neutral interactions. All of our actions and reactions send vibrations into a vast webwork that either brings us and others to God (or to wholeness, light, love, healing, The Source of All Meaning, whatever you call The Best Thing You Dare Imagine), or drives us and others from the same. Every thinkable link I have to every last human being plays not just a part in how I grow and experience meaning and joy, but adds in some (major or infinitesimal) way to others’ wellbeing. And that truth is why relationships are what it’s all about, and why they are at once so infuriatingly hard while being so immeasurably valuable.

Every Relationship Brings Us to an Understanding of God

Yes, there are those few relationships that flourish without a lot of effort, and therewith offer a glimpse of what godliness might feel like. But more often relationships are plain old spiritual work. They grate on us. Leave us blistered. There are those, too –– and we’ve all had them––that don’t just pumice us. They skin us alive.

And how do those relationships bring us to God? In my experience, they bring us to an understanding of God’s nature. They let us learn of Him.

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Him. Let me take license and talk specifically for a moment about the God I worship. The Being I strive to comprehend and hope to emulate responded majestically in all relationships, but particularly in the most injurious ones. Herod, Pilate, Judas, Peter, Roman centurions, mocking Sanhedrin, ungrateful lepers, and the centuries’ long saga of modern scoffers and arrogant erudites –– before them all and for them all Jesus Christ stands blameless. No figure in history, no God of any other myth possesses the dignity, selfless love and self-mastery in human relations that Christ embodies. No other being I know of has not only withstood betrayal, exploitation, usury, abandonment, cruelty and hidden agendas but has gone so far as to absorb abuse in all its forms and transform those evils into healing for all, including the abusers.

Like everyone, I’ve known a small portion of those injuries I just listed. When I have, (like recently, when a close friendship took a turn I never expected into an unmarked dead end), I had to fight to muzzle my Mother Bear, retract my claws, and swallow my snarls.

And right then, in rushed Parker’s words. They helped me breathe through what felt to me like lovelessness directed at me and my family, but just as important, they showed me how far I am from mastering The Master’s manner in response to hurt and betrayal.

What have I learned, then, from what my son taught me in a dream?

That all relationships –– including the ones we might have to step out of for everyone’s wellbeing –– are gifts that help us approach God.  By reflecting on His exquisite response to even the ugliest human tendencies (others’ and our own), we see how far we mortals are from His standard of loving-kindness and perfect compassion. In the end, then, every relationship brings us not only to God, but also to the God within each of us.

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(Portrait: Courtesy of Jennifer Quinton ©)

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What do you think? Which relationships have taught you the most? Tried you the most? Are those two kinds of relationships one and the same?

What have your best and richest relationships taught you?

Taking the definition of “relationships” a step further, what other interconnections besides those with humans “bring us to God”?

And to the basics: What does “bring us to God” mean to you?

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

We Are Risen: 10 Personal Easter Meanings

Every Sunday, I write a letter to our 20 year old son, Dalton. He’s serving for two years in England as a full time missionary for our faith.  Normally, because he has limited time to access, read, and respond to letters, I compress my messages to bullet points. (Hard when I want to spread my heart across the page with an industrial sized ladle .) 

Here is this week’s letter. You’ll forgive that I’d condense what’s most precious to me into a cheesy Top 10 List. And I know you’ll understand that this is only a fraction of a fraction of my reflections on what Easter means to me.

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With Dalton traveling in Poland at Easter time

Dearest Dalton-

With a russet colored puppy at my hip, and soft rain drizzling on the bright suede daffodil heads in the garden, with a gray morning splintered by streaks of platinum and blue over the spindled forest,  and with my scriptures and favorite sermons piled on the table in front of me, I’d say life is more than good. It’s reborn.
Christ rose so that we will rise too. But we rise in a manner more immediate and proximate than a distant, some-day promise of standing up in our graves. Yes, all humankind will walk with glorified bodies into Glory’s embrace. I don’t doubt that. But what does the resurrection mean for us in this moment? What does “He is Risen” say to my soul right now, right here, on my couch this Sunday morning ?
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10 Meanings of He is Risen
1) “He is risen” means that He descended below and rose above every pain, betrayal, indignity, alienation, misunderstanding, sin, hurt, illness, separation, mistake, plaited crown and pounded nail. He did this for me. He did this for you. He did it for the perpetrators and the preoccupied Roman guards. He rose for all creation.
2) In every instance he rose high above humankind’s pettiness, vulgarity, brutality, obliviousness, indifference, and self-obsessed numbness. He calls on us to do the same. We are to rise and not return shrug for shrug, evil eye for evil eye. He urges us to fight darkness with light, coldness with warmth, crassness with refinement, indifference with engagement, ignorance with enlightenment, fakery in all its forms with pellucid truth.
3) He is still risen. His resurrection wasn’t some quaint myth, some poetic concoction, but a reality in bone and sinew. If the women’s sighting at the tomb and breaking bread with apostles doesn’t prove it, the Book of Mormon account with its many detailed pages and its multitude of eyewitnesses (and all the visions given modern prophets, i.e., D&C 76), are proofs worth considering. He lives now. I know this.
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4)  I know this because I have my own, intimate proof. “He is risen” has been enacted in our little family life, after having been struck dead in July, 2007. You can say, as I can, that by some power outside of ourselves we have been brought back to life, to life in abundance. We are risen!  Honestly, I trusted his historic rising more than I believed possible our future rising from grief’s grave. But…here we are, my love. Who can deny that? Who can question something or someone hasn’t poured iron down our spines and molten force into our limbs once lined with death’s lead? Resurrection, wrote Reverend Laura Mendenhall, is for both sides of the tomb. We are proof of that.
5) “He is risen” means that he has conquered death. Not just death of the body. He conquered all death, including the death of hope, of dreams, of innocence, of union, of belief, of love. “He is risen” means that he can draw all of us upward from every iteration of death that we might have to experience. As I wrote in On Loss and Living Onward: “And so once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.
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 6) That he rose for us means we are called to help others rise. This requires an alertness and compassion few of us have naturally. As our egos swell, they eclipse the face of The Other. And what’s worse, with that swelling sense of self, we might sometimes feel others deserve to stay low, lying flat, suffering nose-in-the-dust for their sins or circumstances. I’m ashamed to say I’ve felt that indignation tighten my jaw more than once. (“She made her bed, she’s got to lie in it. And I’m not fluffing her pillows.”) But Christ asks us to do as he did: rise to help others rise. All others. No exceptions, no lepers.

7)“He is risen” points to a supernal communing act. It means the most concrete, physiological communing (the reunion of body and spirit, cells and fibers, tibia and fibula.) It also means reuniting anything lost and buried with the found and living. We’re given through him, I believe, the capacity to live with our heads and hearts united. Beyond that, HIs example tells us to unite with our marginalized, forgotten, lonely brothers and sisters. We’re charged to stretch our arms as far and wide as we can and pull those out on the rim close to our center, to our heart. We are one. Division is demonic.

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8) He rose through priesthood power. I’d not learned that truth until late in life, but the resurrection was a priesthood rite. This tells me something about the ultimate life-giving power God has allotted to mankind through priesthood. We are to use it not to elevate ourselves in any way, but to help others rise to greater life.

9) “He is risen” means that though we have no need to fear existentially, we have no excuse if we are complacent. Christ rose multiple times before he rose definitively, and by that I mean that he rose in response to those crushed by sickness, poverty, sin, evil, and death. He drew everything heavenward in his warm updraft. He knew everything would ultimately be renewed, but those timely losses –– of sight, hearing, health, sanity –– were worth his immediate attention anyway.

10) His resurrection was the vanishing point, the spot in time and timelessness where every agonizing question, loss, doubt, weakness and evil was absorbed and converted by some splendid alchemy into possibility and joy. All will be well, if not instantly, in time. And indeed. All is seen and known in his Eternal Now, all is taken into consideration as part of his creation, which is a continual re-creation.

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And you have risen, too, Dalton, as you’ve followed Him. I can tell. I can feel it in your letters. When we follow him, we’re promised that, even if we’re required to traverse dark and alien terrain in the interim –– and we will be asked to trust through unspeakably dark places –– we will rise at last.

In all love, forever!

Your Everluvin’ Mum

Come Together Right Now Over Me: Funeral Remarks for My Son

[Note: I wanted to share with you my lightly edited transcript of the remarks I gave at our son Parker’s  funeral in July of 2007. I’m telling you they’re lightly edited because you have to understand: This was our child’s funeral. We were speaking. We had not eaten, drunk, slept, or walked but in ragged spurts for a week. In addition, the day of the viewing, my mother had been raced to the emergency room with kidney stones, and our two youngest had been convulsing on the bathroom floor, vomiting and panting, hours on end. I had no computer. I had no resource material but my scriptures and a soul gouged raw. So I’ve corrected some inconsistencies and repetitions and tightened a turn of phrase here and there.

Otherwise, this is the manuscript I managed to scratch out from where I hunkered on the laundry room floor listening to my two precious living sons moan with nausea an arm’s length away. I wrote with a broken pen on a yellow legal pad I’d grabbed from my Dad’s desk. I’ve carried that yellow paper, folded, in a front closure of my scriptures ever since.]

Rite on the Oslo Fjord

Ten and a half years ago, eight-year-old Parker was baptized in a chapel in Sandvika, Norway.  In preparing for that important rite in our religion, Parker told us that he had a couple of particular wishes, foremost of which was to invite everyone. Inviting everyone meant drawing together people from neither our national culture nor our religion to witness and participate in an intimate ritual.

His baptism was intimate, because there were sermons and musical numbers directed just to Parker, and because Randall, Parker’s father – not the congregation’s priest or pastor – performed the baptism himself. Parker thought it would be the perfect chance to get everyone together. This boy just loved bringing everyone together.

What a sight it was on a cold February day in Norway to see clusters and streams of “everyone” arriving at that little chapel on the banks of the Oslo fjord. His eight-year-old friends and their families, some dressed in Norwegian traditional costumes, gathered as if for a national celebration in our modest Mormon meeting house. The event was pure joy.

 

Rite in the Rockies

You, too, have been personally invited by Parker to gather from around the globe and in clusters and streams today. And what else would Parker have ever wanted, but that everyone from all over be with him, even if it is a closing rite for Parker.

I know he’s wanted you here, because all this week I’ve heard a specific Beatle tune looping in my head. Now I’m not sure, but if I knew the Beatles any better, I’d guess the text is probably all about drugs or something. Still, the chorus has not left me, not once. Parker has even been singing to me: “Come together right now over me.”

Come together. Right now. Over him.

Because of your love for him, you’ve come here on Parker’s behalf. Our Parker was a true friend to those who were in distress or need. People found comfort and solace in his presence because he was so closely in tune with the Spirit that his path was clearly lit, and he drew others onto that path with him. He wishes today, above all, that people come together, and in coming together, that we will participate in a sacred spot in time.

What is a sacred spot it time? Let’s visit, or revisit, our Bible for a moment. It’s full of sacred spots in time – rare, potent pin points where people come together and share in learning the most important truths. For me, one of the most meaningful examples from the New Testament has been a personal guide to me for many years.

It’s a story about a heightened moment.  It’s marked by anguish and hope, death and life, grief and joy that meet at a sharp edge of an hour or so. You might remember the story in John. It is an account of a family – two sisters and a brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – all devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.

The scene filled my mind  just over a week ago as I was racing alone and in anguish for nearly five hours through the middle of the night from my parents’ home in central Utah where I had just arrived on vacation to a regional medical center in southeastern Idaho where Parker’s comatose body had just arrived via medical helicopter. In my life I’d been in Idaho exactly one time previously, just the day before. I’d visited Parker at his college apartment to spend three hours with him on the afternoon of Wednesday, had then left him with an extra firm hug,  and caught a glimpse of big, happy Parker drumming a beat on his thigh as he disappeared in my rear view mirror.

Martha, Mary, Lazarus

As you might recall from the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. But when Jesus got word that Lazarus was ill to dying, instead of coming right away, he abode two days still in the same place, and allowed this close friend to die. In fact, Jesus stayed away until the fourth day, which, according to Jewish custom, was the day of official death. The day grievers stopped visiting the grave.  The day it was too late.

When Martha, torn open with anguish, learned that Jesus was finally arriving in Bethany where they lived, she ran out on the road to meet him, pleading, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, but I know that even now, whatsoever thou will ask of God, God will give it to thee.” Martha saith unto Him, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day;” and finally, “Yea Lord, I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.”

In a rented Dodge Durango SUV on Interstate I-15 in the deep black of the desert, I was Martha. In desperation and steely faith I was rushing to grab the Savior by the shoulders and plead with Him. “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”

In the Intensive Care Unit in the Portneuf Regional Medical Center in Pocatello, where many also came together over Parker, we experienced a sacred spot in time.  Death and life hung in suspended animation. I felt it, many there felt it. It was as if we stood before a tomb, and there, amid many attending to Parker, I continued calling out in my mind to my God, “I know. I know. I believe that thou art the Christ, and I believe that thou wilt save my son.”

This Martha, the one of the Bible, saw the full healing of her beloved Lazarus. And that miracle offered everyone present a sacred spot in time.

This Martha, however, [pointing to myself], did not. Are we not, however, also standing in a sacred spot in time?

Here, we might be asking ourselves some questions: “Isn’t life cruel, random, indiscriminate?” Or, “Does wishful pleading ever make a bit of difference? Are such pleas even heard?” Or, “If pleas are heard,  what failed here? God Himself? Did this Martha’s faith fail?”

What is the Greater Miracle?

I feel to answer those questions with yet another question, one whispered into my ear by the wisest woman that I know. She asked me this as we stood side by side in the hospital over the beautiful, strong, but comatose body of my precious boy. “Which,” she asked me, “is the greater miracle; healing or comfort?”

More than her own life, that Martha like this one wanted her beloved’s healing. More than anything, both Marthas knew healing was possible. That Martha got her healing, her brother. Lazarus rose to new life.

I, however, am left with this cold casket.  And in more ways than symbolically, l have died. I can feel it in my limbs, my heart, my cells, in my struggle for breath. I am in as great a need for healing as was Lazarus. I will need a miracle,  a new life, resuscitation.

So maybe the question is not what is the greater miracle, healing or comfort. Maybe the question is is there a difference between the two? Are they not both gifts of God, sprung from love, against all odds, and toward new life? As one minister wrote: “Resurrection is for both sides of the tomb.” I – we all – will need to be resurrected from this emotional death just as Martha’s Lazarus was brought out of the tomb.

Sacred Spots in Time

And now as I stand here before you I find that I am the other sister. I am Mary, who days after Lazarus’ miraculous rebirth, and only days before she knew that Christ was going to be crucified, invites her Master into her home. They come together. Over Him. She falls at His feet and in this thick, dense compression of life and death, death and life – of Lazarus revived, of Jesus on the cusp of crucifixion, on the brink of rising from death – she recognizes she’s part of something rare. We’re getting the smallest hint of what that feeling is like right here and now among us. And because she knows that feeling is rare and fleeting, Mary blocks out all distractions in order to learn important truths. She pulls that moment to her heart, bows her head at the Savior’s feet, focuses in full concentration, and takes it all in in simple, intimate, symbolic ways.

Do you recognize this is where you are right now? Do you recognize that you are being soaked in something divine; that you have been invited quite personally by Parker to come together over him, to be here and to feel heaven so close? Or do you resist that Spirit and lose the chance to feel the beauty and the light and healing warmth that is only to be found through the Spirit of a living God?

Parker knew and recognized that Spirit, and he wants us to come together right now over him. But he doesn’t want it to be only about him, only about this moment. When we leave this place, this spot in time, how will we retain the gift of having been here? I have a suggestion of which I know Parker approves. It’s simple.

Par Cœur

I’ve known Parker longer – in mortal terms, at least – than anyone here. He grew within my body and for nine months as a  loud,percussive presence. I remember being in a graduate seminar where I had a book perched on my eight-month pregnant belly. We were studying Eugene Onegin I believe, I don’t know, and in the course of that lecture the book popped off my stomach – was catapulted, let’s say – and scooted across the table. My son always had and still has a forceful beat.

With that beat in mind, consider that in French, Parker’s name is pronounced, “par cœur,” which means “by heart.” The essence of his spirit and the symbol of his name is an invitation for all of us to feel the pulse, to feel our heart, and in the stillest of moments to recognize the intensity and love that was his heart. As we feel our own heart beating, we can be reminded of this boy, who was maybe somewhat impulsive, but whose impulsiveness drove him to do some of the most beautiful things. One of those things – a fatal flaw or a godly gift – was to plunge not once but twice, headlong into troubled waters to try to save a boy he’d known a mere week.

My friends, we will leave this place. We will all go away from this incubation place, this sacred spot with its golden hum and heightened meaning, this holding place where we are sitting now. It is up to us to listen to our hearts and to know that we weren’t changed for just a moment, but that we are changed forever because of the great love of the boy who invited you personally to be here today.

Parker, you know my heart. It is hardly beating, my son; it has been pulverized. But I believe – I know, I know – that every construction requires first a deconstruction, that this falling apart over you invites me to come together over Him. I have great faith in the living Savior of this world, I give my shattered heart to Him. I ask that He take its brokenness – all our brokenness – and work His miracle of healing comfort.

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Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

In a comment thread elsewhere, a thoughtful reader asked me, “What is sin?”

Nothing like three little syllables–nine letters and a fishhook at the end–to get you right in the craw! For the last two weeks (if not for my whole adult life) I’ve asked myself this same question. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sin, in theory almost as much as in practice, has occupied both the minds and hearts––and even the best minds and hearts––for … oh, forever.

Who am I, though, to answer this kind of question? To define points of doctrine? In response, I’d rather describe than prescribe, would rather share what my life’s passage has been (and what sin has meant for me), than talking hamartiology, theology and philosophy. Besides, those -ologies can quickly get thick, inaccessible and even explosive––a mine field of semantics.

Instead of going the route of theoretical theology, I’ll break up our discussion on sin into a few simple parts, each post built on a parable taken from personal experience. Then I’ll try to offer a loose definition of some aspect of sin. I hope you’ll come back to leave a comment. I think the comment thread will be better than the posts. (Come back, at least, to hear some great stories.)

Age six

Age six, with ponytail

A 50-Cent Parable

I was six. Laura Nieminen, my friend upstairs in our apartment building, had a fifty-cent coin. It lay there, unattended, on a windowsill in her bedroom while we two sat on her floor playing dolls.

Trying to play dolls, that is. I couldn’t concentrate on a single one of her many Barbies, (I had none, by the way; she had a whole Rockette line-up, so I was feeling deprived,) I was too distracted by that flat silver disc glinting in my peripheral vision. It was magnificent. Magnetic. 

So much so, that when Laura left to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t resist. And why should I resist? I thought. I’ll never really take it. I’ll just touch it for a second, feel its weight, its slick surface, its shininess.

I took it in my hand. It was warm, having lain in the sun by the window.  The heat made it more magical. There it was, solid and glossy in my palm, with that impeccably chiseled JFK profile.

And something in me gave in, stopped resisting, took a step. Quickly, I wrapped the piece in a teeny yellow Barbie doll rain slicker Laura had told me I could have, (“Oh, I’ve got lots others,” she’d said. And that, I said to myself, meant she wouldn’t miss some stupid coin, either. She had more of everything. I had less. Taking it would be justified.)

I slipped the hot wad in my pocket, and took off.

In a dead sprint, I ran out of Laura’s room, out of her apartment, down the hallway, down a lightless stairway, down another hallway, into our apartment, and straight to my bedroom at the end on the right. I shut the door behind me. Panting, and swallowing a surge of something new and electric, I stashed the coin in its shiny yellow packaging way back in a drawer under some cotton underwear. Then I flopped on my bottom bunk, sweaty-palmed and a bit queasy. I was stiff but shaky as I closed my eyes to stare into the dark, swirling pit of what I’d just gotten away with.

Age six, contemplating a bigger heist

Contemplating a bigger heist

Weeks and months went by.  Laura never asked for her coin. This was a relief, because that meant she hadn’t noticed, and if she had noticed, she hadn’t cared. I thought. In my mind, if she didn’t missed it, and no one caught me, then I was off the hook. I’d really not done anyone any harm. I wasn’t bad.I of course never gave the coin back to her. But I never spent it, either. Honestly, I’m not even sure of whatever became of the fifty-cents.

But I know what happened to me. At first, I could think of little else but that coin. That little disc of metal clouded—or better, eclipsed—my other thoughts. And I felt not only less light in terms of luminosity, but I felt less light in terms of weight. I was heavier in spirit—my spindly little six-year-old self—no matter how much I tried to whistle in the dark or how much I smiled as I skipped on the playground.

Skipped, by the way, right past Laura. Because besides taking away my lightness of mind and lightness of spirit, my dishonesty eventually distanced me from my friend. In fact, although I got her yellow Barbie slicker back to her somehow (probably confecting some fib for why I’d run home that day, so stacking another untruth on top of the deceit of stealing) I never went back to her apartment. Never played with her again, in fact.

What’s more, I felt awkward—ill at ease—just looking into the eyes of my parents, my sisters.  Could they see into my eyes? Know what I was hiding in my room, in the back of a drawer, in my thoughts?

This preoccupation meant I was also ill at ease with myself. Because when I did look into my own eyes, (I climbed up onto the cool white enamel bathroom sink to get a good look of myself in the medicine chest mirror rimmed in metal) I thought my eyes looked. . . different? My act split me from myself. I felt regret. Worry. Guilt. I became redefined in my own mind: A girl capable of that.

In so many ways, still that little girl

In so many ways, still that little girl

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

***

Sin, for me, is any deliberate action (and I’ll include thought patterns as actions) that is in opposition to what our most vibrant conscience tells us is right, good and true.  Sin is also stepping over divinely ordained guidelines. Sin leads us away from light, wholeness, peace, and joy. Sin, unresolved, impedes our growth. It is real, omnipresent, and causes misery and death. Avoiding sin eases life. Abandoning sin can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But doing so gives life, and that life is both more abundant and freer than any life we’d ever imagined possible.

***

What about this 50-cent Parable rings true or familiar to you? What doesn’t?

What from the concluding “definition” of sin works for you? What does not?

How would you describe or define sin?

Interview: Claire (Sorella) Bradford, Returned Missionary

Claire, our daughter, returned just three weeks ago from eighteen months of full-time service as a volunteer representative for our church in Italy. Taking some liberties here by ignoring my usual separation of church-and-blog, I want to report on her experience. I’ve captured her attention for a whole afternoon, and the following is a frank and detailed interview about her experience.

If you have any questions––any questions––Claire will respond to them here in the comment thread. Please don’t hold back: ask away! She will do her best to respect your sincere curiosity. As you’ll see, she’s used to answering all sort of questions. (And if for some reason you want this whole transcript in Italian, we do aim to please.)

Rome, St.Peter's Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Rome, St.Peter’s Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Claire, tell us about your decision to serve as a full-time missionary for your church.

I think I kind of always grew up thinking I would go on a mission. I’d always planned on it, and since both my parents went, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I prayed about the decision, talked to a lot of returned missionaries to hear about their experiences, and then knew it was something I had to do.

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You say, “had to do.” Did you feel pressure?

Well, yes, sort of. Maybe. There was one point, yes. I remember coming back from Tanzania, [where I had spent a semester working as a volunteer assistant warden at a juvenile detention center for boys] and not being sure at that moment if going on a mission was the right thing for me, at least not right then.  I voiced that hesitancy, and I think it surprised you and Dad.  So it made me think. You really hoped I’d have this experience.

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Can you describe the difference between your service in Tanzania and what you did in Italy?

Missionary work of the sort I did in Italy is not about working in orphanages, shelters, detention centers or building huts, digging wells. There are missions of my church meant just for that, for doing humanitarian work. They are all over the world and they do much good. But Italy was completely different, except for the fact that you’re giving 100% of your time to a cause bigger than you are, to something that should help others. As was the case with my Tanzania service, there’s really no quantifiable “gain” from going on a mission, except, I guess, that you could put in on a CV if you wanted to. But that was not my motivation, not at all. And I gained more than one could ever write up on a CV.  Also, I thought my internship in Tanzania would help me on mission.  But the work in Tanzania was different from what I did in Italy.

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You chose to go to Tanzania. But did you choose to serve in Italy?

Right. I chose one, the other was an assignment. If you’d asked me beforehand where I wanted to serve a mission, Italy would have been toward the top of the list. But I never told anyone. I kept that hope a secret. It was one of the places I wanted to go, and not every single missionary gets that answer or feeling right away that their location assignment is right. I remember that I’d prayed about it, and thought, well, I’m studying Humanities at university, and I don’t know if studying Humanities is the right thing, or the most practical thing, so it would be nice if getting my mission assignment would be an indication that my studies were heading in the right direction.  But I opened up that letter and ecco, Rome, Italy!  So, yeah, I realized that I should be studying Humanities. But I read that first line [ from the letter a missionary gets, declaring the mission assignment for 18 or 24 months] and the thing that got me emotional was not that I was called to Italy specifically, but that I would be called as a missionary. Period.

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Was Italy as a culture anything like what you had imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. I’d lived in West European countries, I knew many cultural aspects of Latin Europe. There weren’t any big surprises, like I wasn’t surprised, as some other American missionaries were, maybe, that Italians built their cities up on hills, that there were strong and distinct dialects, huge 4-hour long meals, stuff that looked sometimes a bit chaotic. Most things for me were not that shocking. What was actually surprising was how much I loved Italy more than any other culture I’d ever lived in. I didn’t expect anything to pass up France or Norway or others places I grew up. Yet I felt so connected so quickly.

Ribs, anyone?

Ribs, anyone?

What do you ascribe that to?

I wonder if it’s the fact that I was serving 100% of the time while I was living there. I loved the people so much. Their quirks (others missionaries on occasion would criticize these things), just all made so much sense to me. They were endearing! They are such a loving people, but they didn’t feel fake or salesy or superficial.  When they trust you, they bring you into their home and treat you like their own child. They are extremely loyal and passionate and yes, some things they do don’t always make sense to outsiders. Look, it’s not really a country run on practicality, hyper organization, some mathematical spreadsheet. It is a culture that is driven by a love for the arts and architecture, painting, the language, the food, passion. And not passion of a sexual nature. How do I say it? There’s a HEAT. Italian culture runs on HEAT. Fluid, flowing, warm and Mediterranean heat. It’s not uptight or antiseptic. It’s more like doing yoga instead of doing punishing crunches and push-ups.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

Roman countryside

Roman countryside

Gelato

Gelato

So, was a mission anything like what you had imagined it would be?

No. I think I thought the things that made me a good university student would make me a good missionary. I think I thought, okay, I’m organized, task-oriented, goal-driven, I’m good at getting things done, I’m a hard worker, I’m a rule-keeper.  I thought those qualities would make me a good missionary. In school, I could master the system. I could control it. At university, if you do this and this and work really hard, you will have success. You can get a certain grade. It was a straightforward formula. But I don’t think any missionary can ever say they have “gotten” or “mastered” the work.  No missionary ever “masters” it. You don’t master some formula then you can do anything, and you learn very quickly that that’s not at all the reality. Some missionaries are great with language, some are gifted socially, some are deep and sincere, but none of that can control other people’s lives. Nothing you do can control how people will act or react to your message about religion, especially about Christ. I wasn’t expecting that.

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So that sounds hard, not being able to see quantifiable results even from a lot of effort. Can you share other things that were hard?

Being tired emotionally and physically. You want to give your best, and sometimes you want to be all there, but you are totally exhausted. I felt limited by my energy. It is hard to constantly be thinking about other people, all day long. Not just the people you are teaching and working for, but also the people you are working with. If you are in a leadership and training position like I was, ( for many months I trained missionaries newly arrived from America), you have to be thinking about a lot of other missionaries and their needs. That can be exhausting, though always rewarding, with time. Also, it is hard to follow all the rules.

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Please tell us about the rules of being a missionary.

Well, I just mentioned that Italy is a culture run by heat. But as a missionary, you can’t get too close to people either with the language or in touch. In European languages, like Italian, you have the formal and informal form [the lei form and the tu form]. As a missionary, you are supposed to only use the formal form, although in some missions with other languages you can use informal form. To keep relationships professional and to guard an emotional distance (important as a missionary) you’re asked to be formal, socially distanced. Spiritually close, but socially distanced, if that makes sense.  All you want to do is love them, and for me, especially in the south where I served on the island of Sicily for many months, it felt sometimes strained and unnatural to be in such a warm and loving environment but hold my arms at my side.  Not hugging my many friends was hard for me, but the rule was to help me remember the dignity of my calling.  I said to myself more than once, “For the sake of my name tag I will restrain myself.”

During your mission only platonic relationships are allowed. That goes for interaction with those interested in your message, members of the church, other missionaries you work with. There can be no romances, no dating, no flirting, no interactions beyond the strictly professional. Friendships are very encouraged. But they have to be wisely balanced, keeping things non-romantic. This encourages an environment of mutual support and safety and total focus on your work.

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Some rules were a challenge, but I understand that not all rules were hard for you. What else was not hard?

Italian wasn’t really terribly hard for me. I had to study, but I was lucky that I loved to study, and I love languages, and that I loved, loved, loved Italian more than any language I had ever learned. I even loved the grammar. (I’d hated French grammar.) But Italian grammar! I’d sit and look at grammar book for hours and hours. I became known as the Queen of Conjunctivo. (or the subjunctive case).

Being away from family was not so hard. Italians would always ask, “How long have you been here? Don’t you miss your family?” The very idea of not being with family for 18 months was shocking to them. They live at home for 30 or 40 years, sometimes. Much more immediate family cohesion than I’d seen elsewhere, especially in the US where people move apart from parents early on. Not in Italy!

Not being paid was not a problem. Not dating, not going to movies, concerts, not reading the newspapers or literary books, not surfing the Internet. That wasn’t really that hard, neither was keeping a strict daily schedule . . .

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Strict schedule?

As a missionary, you’re required to be up at 6:30 a.m. to exercise until 7:00, then to do different kinds of study (alone and as a companionship) until you leave the house at 10:00. Then you leave the house and work until 1:00.  Then you have lunch and language study until early afternoon, then you are working (out on the streets talking with people, or visiting and teaching people in their homes, and we also taught a popular English course) until 8:00. From 8:00 until 9:00 pm, you have dinner, then until 10:30 you study again and go to bed.

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Sounds regimented. And this was every day except Sunday, 18 months straight? When did you relax?  And visit the Vatican?

Every missionary has something called a preparation day, or P-Day. In my companionships, we spent very few P-Days inside, just lounging. Sometimes, we did a spa day.  We soaked our feet, did facials, painted our nails, got our hair cut.  Most often, though, we went to interesting cultural sites, went food and/or clothes shopping. In all of this, we always wore our name tags. We’d called it a tourist P-Day, but we always wore our name tag, so we could be identified and so we acted the part.

Missionaries on their preparation day

Missionaries on their preparation day

How about never being alone, and always being with a companion you did not choose, but were assigned to?

Oh, that was okay. I served with 9 different Sorelle [sister missionaries] including when I was in the Missionary Training Center.

You didn’t know anyone of these young women before being assigned to work with them?

No, not a one. That’s hard for some people, I guess, but it was not hard for me, although I had prized my alone time before becoming a missionary. I’d had my own room at university, my own car, I was a very independent person and loved doing things my own way.  But I can count on one hand the times in my mission when I needed to sit alone on a little balcony in one of our little mission apartments.

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You lived in how many places/apartments?

I lived in three different apartments, three different cities, two different zones. I lived in Ragusa (Sicilia), Roma 3 (Roma), and Palermo (Sicilia).

And you trained missionaries, right?

“Trained”: You get a brand new missionary that has to be taught the ropes and the language. Yes, I trained four different new missionaries, new “greenies” they are called.

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What did it mean to be an STL?

A Sister Training Leader is an assignment given by the mission president. It means having responsibility for the emotional needs of the various sisters under your stewardship. There is a chain of command within a mission, and it is so stressful being the president of a mission (in our mission alone covering all of southern Italy, there were almost 200 young missionaries. You can imagine the needs that keep coming to the President and his wife.) So, the missions are divided into zones and zones are broken into districts. District and Zone leaders try to handle what needs arise, but if it can be dealt with on local level, (homesickness, language frustrations, health concerns, problems with a companion) you can do what you can as a Sister Training Leader to influence that part of the mission. Sister missionaries would sometimes call the president asking for help, and the Mission President would ask me to take care of it. He would say, “Sorella Bradford, you’re my ‘guy’ for this issue, okay?”  I served in this capacity for 9 months, so the whole second half of my mission.

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What did you learn from sharing messages about Jesus Christ?

(Long silence. Thinking, thinking…)

I found that a lot of people had a kind of memorized or scripted concept of God or an impersonal relationship with Christ. Not that I am any better than anyone else, but it really struck me that few understood that Christ was their personal Savior. They’d  heard things, maybe, from their parents, from school, from sermons, or rumors from grandparents, some truthful but some untruthful things, that they had heard and  memorized.  How many times did I hear, “I’m devoutly religious and I practice my faith,” but in a deeper conversation about the New Testament, for instance, this good person had little idea about Christ’s life, His miracles, parables, they had based their belief, it seemed, on a cultural norm or tradition, but hadn’t gotten much deeper than that.  Then I think we surprised them. They were taken aback that a young foreigner believed in Christ and would then express these very personal feelings about Him.

What did you learn further about teaching others about faith?

To teach simply. Especially going straight on a mission from college. There was a bit of a temptation to use complicated words and teach complex concepts and just blow people out of the water with major gospel knowledge. But the best lessons were when there was a conversation and we spoke simply.  Then I felt something powerful and special. We all did.

Claire and Martina

Claire and Martina

Can you give an example of teaching and having that special thing happen?

Martina. Normal, Roman through-and-through. Married. It was amazing from the very beginning. It was incredible to see someone so prepared for what we had to teach her. She had zero previous knowledge of or background of the church, she had no concept of certain doctrines. She was just, oh what’s the word, someone so normal, just a very normal woman who had some normal human questions and needed someone to just explain certain things, and she did her own research, and came to church and loved it. She was, ah!, incredible, It was incredible to see her progress and learn and become happier. Honestly, I went out of every lesson thinking, WOW.

As missionaries, we want to serve and help anyone who will listen to our message to live happier, more stable and productive lives, have happier families, better health, all that. When they progress and desire more, then we invite them to be baptized. When we invited Martina, she said yes. Her husband, who said no at first, later changed his mind and now both have become members of that congregation in Rome.

How are they doing?

Incredibly.  They are the strongest members in that little congregation.  I’m going to go see them next month. (Big smile. Little squeal.) I hope I know them forever.

Martina at her baptism

Martina at her baptism

Sounds like you miss it. A lot. Was it hard to come home, back to civilian life? Um…to…us?

Yeah. It’s hard to be home. A mammoth let down. For a lot of reasons. I had developed a strong identity that I don’t feel I brought back from my mission. It’s hard for me to be feeling like I’m not the person I was. I can’t demonstrate that I was a responsible leader in my mission, that I was entrusted with decision-making power by my president, I also feel far less on-the-go; the next day as a missionary was always planned and full, now that structure is gone. I really miss a culture that is loud and spontaneous, and so I feel a little lost, floating. I was so needed as a missionary. And so challenged. And I had so many people to love, who needed me.

Even if you’re busy at home doing all sort of good things, nothing will compare to the importance of the world you were in as a missionary. I just loved watching people change all the time. That is a satisfaction I’ve never experienced  doing anything else. It’s just such a dense spiritual experience, and life feels. . . a little superficial right now.

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Is this why you wanted it to last longer?

Yes. I begged to stay longer. But to tell the truth, I was so exhausted in the end. I don’t think the body or the mind is made to live with such intensity permanently. Still, maybe two years would have been the best for me.

If I can insert myself, Claire, I’ve often told you and others that the greatest blessings of my life have flowed from my opportunity to have served a full-time mission (in Austria in the ‘80’s.) The person I married, what I studied in undergrad and graduate school, where and how we have raised our children. Can you speak to that?

No question, this mission will have a huge impact on the rest of life. I can’t say from here what the long-range blessings will be, I can speak in theory. I want to live at some point again in Europe, probably Italy and probably long-term, not just a vacation or semester, but live there. That is my dream.  I won’t use Italian in my remaining two semesters of university, but I have no idea how it will affect my masters studies. For sure, I’ve gained countless life skills, tons and tons of life skills. What I hope is that my mission refined my good qualities, and showed me weaknesses I didn’t know I had. I feel like you can’t go through a process like a mission without being transformed.

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And since coming home as a transformed person. . . you have been keeping weekly email contact with another missionary still serving in Italy, someone you met at the very end of your service. Am I right?

Yes.

Can you ––?

Um. . . This is all new, so I am still not sure of how to––

Would you care to­––?

Let’s just say it’s pretty serious.

But can you tell us about hi––?

He is incredible. He is Italian. And I am committed.

Sounds like it.

(Interviewer and interviewee smile.)

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Any last thoughts?

It is not easy approaching people all the time, trying in the very few seconds you have to convey all of the joy and love you have for this gospel, for the message you are sharing. It is not easy watching people make great steps in their lives, seeing people make such progress, seeing them be happier, and then letting it all go. Letting all of it completely go. It is so hard watching that, and knowing that our job is not to force anyone, not to convince them. So you don’t. That is up to them and their God. You try and communicate why you love your mission, why you love what you are doing, and hope that they will feel that love. All of that difficulty is worth it, however. I have found my best friends in my mission. Some are missionaries, some are members of our Church, but not all of them. I have incredible friends that, for some reason or another, decided to not take our lessons, or decided to not be baptized members of our Church. But I love them so much anyway. You just get to be part of all that love, and it is so rewarding. So worth it.

 From an address Claire gave at a recent youth evening, where she spoke about her mission:

“Many of our missionaries begin their missions thinking they are going to repay Heavenly Father for His goodness toward them by serving Him for 18 months or two years.  But before long they learn an important eternal truth: you can never do more for the Lord than He can do for you.”

––M. Russell Ballard

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Poland (March 2013) 048

Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Warsaw, Poland: Wesołego Alleluja!

This week promises a daily post on Global Mom’s week spent traveling with her family in Poland.

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Why travel to Poland at this time of year? There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to stand with our two youngest, our two teenaged boys, in the sites made infamous by the Holocaust.  In two posts from now, I’ll return to that part of our journey in detail.

Another guiding reason for choosing wintry Poland over a sunny place to the south, was because Poland, as you might know, is a predominantly Catholic country. And this was Easter. And I’d researched how elaborate yet reverent the Polish Easter celebrations are. This drew me.  So much, actually, that I began practicing the Polish equivalent of “Happy Easter”; Wesołego Alleluja!

But, you ask, isn’t Italy also Catholic?  And warm? Wouldn’t you find an Easter celebration there…or two? With the Pope, maybe?

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Actually, Italy is officially 80% Catholic, while Poland is nearly 90%. But you’re right that Italy is a good 20 degrees warmer than Poland when an unexpected Noreaster sweeps down from the Baltic Sea, shizzes through Poland’s primeval forests, crackles over the northern lowlands, and drops a major snowstorm on Warsaw just as the blossoms and pussy willows are being gathered for the holiday bouquets that worshippers gift each other or bring to their neighborhood cathedral. Poland’s Easter is usually brisk; this year it was glacial.

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Still, I think you’ll see in the following gallery that cold temperatures did little to freeze Polish devotion.  Cathedrals full to overflowing. Easter flowers and offering baskets sold and toted everywhere.  And that one little fragile Babcia (grandma), who, upon leaving St. Anne’s cathedral on Warsaw’s Old Town square, stopped, set her basket on the stone floor, unwrapped the shawl around her chin, and leaned forward to kiss the wooden feet of the Christ statue on the entry cross.

(No, I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – get that shot.)

But I got others. So enjoy, and feel free to share.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

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Standing room only at an evening service in the middle of Easter week.

Standing room only at an evening service early in Easter week.

Every cathedral we visited was like this.

Every cathedral  we visited was like this

Street - as - refrigerator

Street refrigeration

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, or the royal gardens, Warsaw

Lazienki Park, Warsaw

Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

Monument to Polish son, Frederic Chopin, Lazienki Park

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Besieging God

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In the scripture story I read aloud to my nine-year-olds in Sunday school class two weeks ago, a man had prayed all through the day and into the night, and into the next day. “Look right here,” I pointed to the page for the kids, “he even says he ‘wrestled’ in prayer. Sounds like it must have been pretty urgent, don’t you think? Sounds as if he really beseeched God.”

Beseeched?” Camille asked, wriggling between Annie and Claire. Nothing gets past these kids, even if sometimes their feet can’t reach the floor when they’re in the grownup chairs. Claire’s eyebrows sloped and pinched together; “What’s beseeched?” “Yeah, what’s that?” Annie asked, curling her lip.

I rattled off a few synonyms: supplicated, pled, importuned.

(More wriggling, sloped brows, curling lips.)

William, wise beyond his nine years, patted his hand on the table, calling everyone to order.

“Besieged,” William said. “What she said was he besieged God.”

That was last Sunday, and this Saturday morning I was still replaying that moment – that word – in my head. Besiege. William had hit on a brilliant thing. In fact, John Donne and Tertullian would have agreed:

Earnest prayer has the nature of importunity. . .We press, we importune God. . .Prayer has the nature of impudence and more. Prayer has the nature of violence; in the public prayers of the congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God prisoner, and bring God to our conditions, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.

-John Donne, in The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, ed. J. Tobin. 347

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With that excerpt scrolling through my thoughts, I moved in and around the clusters of visitors in the Cologne cathedral – Cologne, which in World War II had been a Militärbereichshauptkommandoquartier, one of those confounding German compound words which means a central command station for military purposes.

Prayer as besieging. Cologne as a siege center. The Cologne cathedral as a symbol for besieging prayer.

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When I was a child like Annie, Camille, Claire and William, life was fresh and uncomplicated, my heart was unscathed, my mind all chirpy canary yellow with splashes of robin’s egg blue and the floating fluff of clouds. I realize now I was lucky, as are these four. At nine, I knew nothing of what far too many nine-year-olds in this world do; that life can be harsh, even hostile, often brutal. And in that innocent world it was sufficient to “say my prayers.”

I was taught to say my prayers as soon as I was taught to recite the alphabet. These weren’t rote prayers, but were the simple expressions of a little girl: “Hemly Fader, we sank dee fow dis day. . .”

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I was taught that prayers were heard, and that they were answered. I could trust that God was a loving Father, who would respond with blessings, even if sometimes those blessings might not necessarily come, as I began to learn in my teens, when, how, or in the form I might expect them. But He would hear. And He would respond. This is what God was there for. To keep things under control by answering my prayers.

I was taught to pray both in English and in German, since my parents, who weren’t German but loved things German, wanted us to speak that language. With my head bowed and arms folded reverently across my chest, I would say, “Lieber Vater im Himmel. . .”And our family, at the dinner table after the amen of the prayer over the food, would all hold hands and sort of tug up and down on each other’s hands, chanting, “Guten Appetit-teet-teet, let’s eat!”

God, went my logic, provided for our material needs, including every meal. And He was German.

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At the start of the day with my family next to our dining room table, we often knelt. And I knelt alone, mostly at my bedside at night. When there was an exceptional or acute concern – someone was in trouble, there was a war in a foreign country, a president was being impeached, a church leader was sick, the boy down the street was hit by a train in the night, or Mom was having life-threatening surgery – we circled, knelt, and prayed.

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It’s no exaggeration that I can’t imagine my life up until five and a half years ago void of prayer, which had always been a vital enough element of my intimate connection with my Father in Heaven. Prayer, I experienced as I matured, had consistently opened up channels of strength and understanding that were beyond my natural capacities. Prayer had guided me, had guided things to me, had helped me even have specific things: my husband, for instance, our four incredible children, employment, a place to live every time we moved, health, sanity, answers, wisdom,forgiveness, words for writing, lost keys, lost cameras, lost credit cards and even my lost youngest who’d toddled away in a public park in a seedy part of Paris.

You might call that personal revelation. I do, too.

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Prayer also softened things. The bite of stinging betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness, homesickness, disappointment, anger, rage, indignance.

And it sharpened things. It alerted me to physical and spiritual danger, made me a lot smarter than I actually am in those many moments of dire brain need, and helped me on many occasions discern truth from fraud.

Prayer recharged me. It generated some remarkable healings in other’s lives as well as in my own. My life was literally saved at 14, as a matter of fact, and while doctors and medication and treatment and family support were absolutely central, I believe prayer (and God) facilitated them being so.

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Prayer broke me down. It opened me up for inspection, corrected me, blowtorched some real crusty grime and grit from my moldings, blew the wool clean off of my own sight of myself.

And then prayer hid me. In prayer, I found I was understood, and experienced that I was already known to a caring God, who is (this should be no surprise given that he’s God) always an eternal step ahead of me. He knew my needs long before they even became my needs.

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Many years ago, lying flat on my stomach, face smushed to one side, I’d explained my feelings about prayer to a massage therapist, Vickie. She pummeled me regularly over my childbearing and child-on-the-hip-carrying years, trying to treat the debilitating lower back spasms that used to hit without warning and landed me many times on a stretcher, in a hospital, and always in bed and on mega muscle relaxants for a couple of weeks each time.

“Vickie, it’s like this,” I said. “I petition the Lord, and the response is immediate, almost, as if he’d been anticipating my question. The answers and blessings come so freely. All these wonderful, undeserved blessings. They’ve really built my faith.”

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Vickie, who could not have known that in a few weeks from that hour she was going to be diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer, kept kneading my muscles. She sighed at my comment. Lately, she’d been feeling much more tired than usual.

“Yeah,” she said, planting her palms on either side of my lumbar vertebrae, sending heat. “I guess so, Melissa. But that’s not where it ends. I think it’s when you don’t get the FedEx online-shopping-cart answer to your prayers when you really find out what you know.” She lifted her hands to sweep her hair from her face. “It’s when you don’t get your wish list that you see God really, really clearly.”

Massage therapists. They’ve got some special thing.

Vickie’s words came back to me in full timbre when I heard of her diagnosis.

Was prayer going to whonk this one for Vickie, steamroll it? I prayed for major whonking. I trusted in prayer-as-steamroller. Last I heard, Vickie’s still in remission.

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Then Vickie’s words came back again in July of 2007. The summer of implosion. It was through implosion that I relearned prayer, much like I relearned breathing. In fact, prayer became my essential breath. It was also then I started seeing things, including God, much more clearly.

Saying my prayers wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Neither was mere beseeching.

This was the besieging season.

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“Kids,” I said last Sunday in our little church class, “I know what it’s like to be this man in the scriptures.” I reported this with studied dispassion, like a journalist. No need to frighten the kids. No need to share sacred emotion. “I know what it’s like to go somewhere and stay there praying all day, all night, all day again. Did you know, friends, you can pray without words? Mm-hum. You can even fall on your face and cry and, ta-da!, it’s a prayer! Or you can groan, pound your fists, and maybe even yell up into the sky. All prayer.”

Annie’s large blue eyes grew larger, bluer.

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“So. . . what was it?” Claire asked, “What made you pray like that?” She looked like someone from the New York Times perched in the front row of the press corps.

Camille popped up on her knees on her chair and shook her light brown hair around her shoulders, singing, “Didn’t you have a son who died?”

I looked at William, inches to my left, his soft smile unchanged. Exquisite. When I dream of Parker, strangely enough, I so often dream of him at age nine.

“I still have a son,” I corrected her, smiling, “And yes, he died.”

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Those words felt unnatural – spiky and metallic – in my mouth. I could still tongue and taste them nearly a week later while meandering through Cologne’s cathedral.

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Besieging God with prayer. I know the taste of that, too. Broken capillaries in my eyes. Bruises on my palms from pounding on the tiled kitchen floor at 3:00 a.m. Scuffling through Munich’s English Garden in a downpour, talking to the wretched leafless branches. Behind the steering wheel for hours and hours in a loop on the Autobahn. Head tucked into my sternum to avoid banal contact with the public, draining tears and whispers into my lap in the back pew at church.

And head thrown back, staring at the highest point I can focus on, way above the mountains, out there where hope lies. . .

. . .Trying to sing a hymn to myself, but finding sound log-jammed below my heart.

All through the night. The day, The night again. And weeks, months. These years.

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Besieging prayer isn’t about external drama. God can see through hypocritical audience-targeted theatrics. Let’s face it: those prayers have their mortal hearers. The prayer I’m talking about can happen entirely within the ribcage, even while sitting in a public space like, say, a cathedral.

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In that case, it might not bear a single toolmark of outward pathos. But the inward soundtrack could shatter glass.

This prayer wants to pierce and penetrate what might sometimes feel like an opaque canopy stretched over our earth and our minds, keeping us from the big – biggest – picture. That kind of prayer isn’t tidy and toothless, in fact it hardly has anything to do with “saying one’s prayers”, but is jagged-edged in its raw and dynamic vertical groping and yes, it’s not a one-off stab at “the prayer thing.”

If rendered in stone, that prayer would probably look something like the Cologne cathedral, and might take a long time to reach its point.

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This cathedral? A mere 600 years.

All those spires. Aspiring. Besieging for inspiration.

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From pastor and author Dennis Lennon, who describes in Turning The Diamond George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer”:

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. . .[It] even ‘changes’ God, in the sense that a captor ‘changes’ his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineer’s construction for siege and assault, his ‘engine’ to batter the enemy’s defenses, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of this fortress.

–Lennon, 44-45

You find intimations of this from John Donne, both soldier and poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

– Divine Meditations, 14

In a verse like that from Donne, as Lennon writes, there’s no trace of “over-familiarity with the Lord” (like the guy who chuckles, saying, “Hey, when I get to those pearly gates, boy I’ll tell you am I ever going to give the Boss a piece of my mind!”) Instead, there’s a “healthy and realistic awareness of [our] frailty, of life hanging by a thread. . .It suggests a mountaineer pressed up against a rock-face, holding on, just, by the tips of his fingers.”

Or the tips of her fingers.

The man from the scripture story and my Sunday school class experience was not Jacob of the Old Testament. But he resembled him. Jacob, as you probably know, “wrestled” with an angel. His is the story I’ll end with here, because it resonates – it booms – throughout the whole cathedral of my soul.

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Jacob was in a desperate life-or-death situation, in “great fear and distress”, but was hanging on to a promise God had given him long ago, and was ready – in the middle of the night, all alone, with death breathing down his neck– to “wrestle” for that blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

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Lennon describes this:

We know ‘the man’ was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I saw God face to face’ and lived to tell his story. . .What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank of the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-man. . . .At some point Jacob said to himself, “O my God! It’s God!! I don’t know what’s going on here but now that I have him I’ll show him, how desperately I need him for myself, my family, and my future people. If this is God, I’ll prove to him that I believe him with every scrap of energy within me. Everything I have known about God – those amazing stories, the traditions, the prayers, the history (all words, words, words) are now in my embrace and I will not let go until I have the blessing’–something along those lines? – 49,50

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Jacob, in the throes of besieging prayer, had a life-changing experience. How life-changing, you ask? Well, God changed his name to Israel, which means “he is ruled.”

From that point on and forever more, the man ruled by God walked with a limp.

Could God have chosen a more unambiguous way to indicate his pleasure at Jacob’s tenacious, tough-minded, audacious faith? The new name tells the world this man wrestled with God and over-came. The limps tells the world – look at the weakness of this man’s strength. – 51

When I finished taking all these photographs, I slung my bulky camera bag on one shoulder and made my way up the nave toward the massive cathedral doors. Before pushing out into the glittering drizzle, I hoisted the weight one last time, thrusting a hip out to one side for balance, which made me list. Or even limp.

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Pontifigation

Avignon, runner-up to Vatican City for being the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, epicenter of Catholicism. For over a century, this fortressed city was the seat of seven Popes and two anti-Popes during what is known as the Great Schism or the (Second) Babylonian Captivity.

(For a more detailed history lesson — and trust me, this infamous stretch is as convoluted as history gets — google any of the above capitalized words.  Except for the title. I haven’t notified Google about my fig puns.)

Our Sunday afternoon we spent in this auspicious setting after having attended morning meetings with the modest (30 members?) congregation of our LDS church which meets in an unremarkable building on the outskirts of town.  We didn’t visit either just for the contrast, but if contrast would have been what we were after, we couldn’t have chosen better.

“Outskirts”, in Avignonese, means anything outside the huge, intact walls encircling the whole medieval center of town, which is dominated by this, the Papal Palace.

Well, that palace, yeah. But also a few restaurants that didn’t do so much business, I don’t think, during the Plague.

When Pope Clement chose Avignon over Rome as his home, the Western Schism in church leadership/doctrine/politics/even musical preferences got enormous traction.  Avignon was a breeding ground for secular (or popular) music — like the love tunes crooned by the Provençal troubadors, medieval equivalents of Elvis, Frank, Mel and Nat — and it was here over a couple of centuries and thanks to the tastes of a couple of Popes in particular, that secular music merged with the sacred. Something called polyphony — “many voices” — flourished during and as a result of what we otherwise call the Crisis of the Middle Ages.

Historians call that new wave of multiple merging voices ars nova, and what we get from that centuries later is every bit of harmony you’ve ever heard. In other words, thanks to crisis, schism, division and a fortressed city like Avignon we have The Beatles, The BeachBoys, Styx, Foster the People, Pentatonix, Racal Flats and, of course, MoTab.

(For a more detailed music history lesson, see David and Donna Dalton.  My parents.  Growing up, I never learned how to tell score for football, tennis or golf.  It crippled me only slightly as a teen, as did some other black holes in my knowledge, many of them — but not all — numbers-related. And totally due to my own laziness.  Like telling score. But wanna talk musical scores? Chat polyphony? I’m all over it.)

So, why am I lecturing you from this polyphonic pontifical pulpit? Is it all about Popes? And Dark Ages? And Schisms? And newfound harmony?

Nope.

And yep.

Avignon, to me, is a monument to all the good that can grow out of disaster.  Those who witnessed firsthand the messiness of papal estrangement, captivity, separation and divorce, (and the Great Schism was the greatest divorce Christianity had known, surely capable of having taken out the church for good and forever), those witnesses wouldn’t have been able to foresee, I don’t think, what beautiful harmony would eventually emerge from that period of catastrophe.  Music as we know it — from the contrapuntally weaving majesty of symphonies and choirs to our simplest hymns — rose from a widespread and profound split.

Majestic harmony from cataclysmic disharmony.

Avignon put its name on the map not only as a launching pad for all modern music, but as an important outpost during the French revolution. In 1791, the massive gothic Pope’s Palace with its 18 feet thick walls, made a perfect and unassailable prison and garrison.  Once again, it was the one fortressed spot on a tattered map.

And for the rest of us that afternoon, it was the one perfectly unassailable shady spot on a Sunday.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

House For Rent

The title of today’s post might be a bit misleading if you are one of those who is following this blog and has just come from reading “Finding Home”.

Today’s post, in spite of its title, is not about rental properties.  At least not literally.

Nor is it a continuation of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  (I will return to that list, have no fear.)

It doesn’t even have a logical link to my forthcoming book about the in’s and out’s of international living and raising our children to be global citizens.

It does, however, have to do with raising.

Or razing.

Today’s post is a poem, a poem about the razing of a house, a poem with which I wish to introduce to you  Melissa The Poet.

(And does that ever sound heady.)

I have kept that Melissa over there in the corner all the while I’ve been spreading rather personal prose across your screen. I have kept that Melissa private, sitting in the shadow on her satin pouf, quill and parchment in hand. Sipping mint juleps.  Wearing whatever you imagine a poet wears. All white, maybe? Or an ochre-colored velvet waist coat? Pantaloons? A Tibetan robe?

Or maybe a purple and orange tie-dyed muslin tunic with Mao trousers made of hemp and a large, macramé peace sign hanging around the neck?

I am, in fact, a poet who writes in all sorts of apparel, very often in my bathrobe, or in comfies on airplanes (which should be no surprise, knowing me as you now do), on the backs of napkins in cafés, at 3:47 a.m. on Post-Its kept in my bedside nightstand, in the several neat little notebooks I get as gifts from my husband and other friends. I write literally everywhere there is a flat surface and a source of ink or graphite.

Or lipstick. (Once, yes.)

I need silence to write poetry, since the delicacy of poetic language does not mix well with ambient noise. Even my own breathing gets in the way sometimes, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath for too long as I work through a phrase. (It occurs to me only now that the breath-holding might be behind the hallucinatory effects of my writing.)

When I write poetry, it is often because I have experienced what I call a poetic moment.  Something big or miniscule or multilayered is going on, symbols align, there is a sudden simple clarity, and, well. . . I know it when I am in it.  It stings me then spreads out like the swell of sweet venom, and with that swell, images or clusters of words come all at once. When they come like that, I find I have to grab something quickly to pin them down in this world. Like planting them on the page. Then they start to bloom almost on their own.

(Almost, I said. This is not magic or Chia Pets we are talking about.)

Other times, I write because I am overcome with an emotion, or undone with the beauty of things, or unhinged with outrage.  Or I have a question grating at the underside of my cerebellum, and I hope weaving together a poem will help me see the pattern inside of which an answer might glisten. Like the one white silk thread in a tan linen cloth.

I write in black or blue pen, then I always return hours or days or months later with a red pen and make changes, condense, strike thorugh completely, or encircle the word or turn of phrase that I feel is true and necessary. And start again.  Poetry —to make it vibrate — generally requires a great deal of work.

Often — alright, always — the finished poem surprises me.  It comes up with its own references and connections that I could never have thought of myself. They somehow found me.

And then I send a copy of what I have come up with to a friend or two who know and appreciate poetry, and ask them, “Is it just me, or does this make any sense to you?”

Or, “Too wordy again, right? :-)”

Or, “This I wrote for your sweet mother. It might not be so good, but I mean it from the heart.”

Or, “Does this ring to you?”

Or, “Should I try tossing this into a contest? A poetry journal? The trash can?”

Years ago, when I realized my husband was the man for whom gift-giving was tough, I decided to write him an album of poetry for Christmas.  Then on Christmas Eve, I rolled up each poem which I’d printed on white paper, tied the scroll with a red satin bow, and placed each one between the branches of the tree. I had additional copies made and printed them on thick, sensuous, handmade paper, which I then had bound in a book. I boxed the book and placed it under the tree.  He seems to have loved this personal gift with all my irreplaceable love poems to him. And what’s more, he could not return any of them for another size or color.

The first Christmas after we buried our Parker, that brittle gunmetal winter of 2007, I was burning with poetry —poetry of outrage, of evisceration, of longing, of amazement, of revelation, of gratitude, poetry of The Void — but had no energy to print it out.  Or roll it up. Or put it in a tree.

I had no energy, in fact, to have a tree at all that year. No energy for a single, thumb-sized decoration. I had no energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos my oldest son had helped me open only twelve months earlier.  I could not for the life of me — or for the death of my son — generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.  As I considered the birth of the Savior, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the Son with glory round about 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!!

But I had no energy for wailing.

I did have energy, though, to write the following poem. It has already been published in the literary journal, Irreantum, and has been anthologized in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, where its peculiar — and necessary — line spacing can be found.

(The exact format cannot be duplicated in a blog, unfortunately. But you can see it if you get your hands on that anthology.)

Since you have made the trek all the way here, I offer you a private reading.

HOUSE FOR RENT

To George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

(Response to MacDonald’s “living house” allegory, as quoted by Lewis in his Mere Christianity)

 

Imagine, they suggest.

Imagine yourself as a living house

and God comes in (here comes the allegory),

God comes in to rebuild that house

and to rebuild, He destroys you.

Splits you wide open.

Knocks you down to shape you up.  Blows you away to bring you forth

as mansion, His dwelling.

 

Imagine?

Imagine: a structure well beyond any

apt literary construct;

Imagine the literal natal invasion,

factual inhabitation, indwelling, the magnifying internment;

this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,

nautilus of distended tension,

gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,

an incubation for cumulus nimbus,

spirit under my ribs

or cosmos

in the veiled universe of my belly.

What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house

but what woman need never imagine?

Tell: can you conceive of it?

I am the aquarium,

have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,

fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis;

sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan

stomping inner tympani,

boom-boom-blooming to omega.

Four times nine moons—

(a moon myself, pneumatic,)

holding that glowing orb

or the finest delicacy:  shrimp-on-wafer hors d’oeuvre in salty brine

burrowing in our shared cell.

Most intimate inmate.

I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate

(most real of all states),

a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,

placental planting , deluxe plumbing, organic annexing for the increase.

I am that natural habitat for humanity,

an address for razing and raising,

strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)

birth.

Now, that’s some moving day:

Nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out

trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)

in bloody wash,

the old self eviscerated, inverted, and that

humanangel image (past imagining)

multiplying  upon itself forever

ever

ever

ever. . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,

Rise to rule and risk life!

At such risk.  At such risk as one can never. . .

 

Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered

when son-brother-cell mate—

(the one who moved within,

then out of you,

your heart still raw in his hold)—

when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,

Is ripped        (with               that                 riiiiipping                   sound)

away?

Hard, benevolent wounding, whose frayed fibers hang,

sodden shreds post-rupture ,

and you, true house, are rent

the cloven enclave,

rent in two, or into

two billion splinters:

tattered scraps of love’s sabotage.

Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted in its

boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind

and you are apart-ment

living house split leveled:                                                                                         he there,

you here,

fetal-curled in your own basin;

or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;

or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;

or a lean-to:  whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.

And now. . .

God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here;

only rubble round the crater,

wreckage ringing the hollow.

But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)

comes inside (the side, gashed)

to silently,

sacramentally

recreate from laceration Lazarus

and is at home.

 

**

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.