The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”

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As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

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I guess it all adds up to joy in the end…

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Joy to Marseille

I stole the title of this post from the talented Josh Ritter. It’s from a song called “Joy To You Baby”.  It’s a breakup song; more accurately, it’s a post-breakup song. But it popped into my head while I was in France, since joy was what I was feeling most of the time.  I remember walking around Marseille with the line, “Joy to the city, the heat wave and all…” on repeat in my brain.

Out of fairness, I should probably share the lines that precede the one above, since they are also relevant:

“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon. If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone. But then I wouldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been. I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.”

And that sums up how I’m feeling, sitting here, the day before I return to work, reflecting on the past three months of my sabbatical and trying to distill some wisdom from the experience. This time has been about the dichotomy of things gained and things lost. Beginnings and endings, meetings and partings, anticipation and memory, exploration and introspection.  Balancing the risks – lost professional opportunities, missed events, things undone – with the benefits – restoration, adventure, friendship, growth. And not just balancing, but understanding. Understanding what I’ve chosen and what, then, cannot be chosen. Understanding – knowing  the “pain in whatever we stumble upon”, but accepting it because we also know, or trust, the joy in the end.  

Really, that’s what it’s all about, right?  Life, that is. We move between, and try to balance, the joy and the pain, the bitter and the sweet, the struggle and the triumph. And what you hope for yourself and those you love is that in the end, when you weigh the sum total of your days and years, your experiences and adventures, the scales tip towards joy.

Recently one of my youth group alums, a well-traveled young woman wise beyond her years, shared this quote from writer and professor Miriam Adeney:

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I love this, and I know it to be true. I felt it first for Haiti, a place I have known for 15 years, where I have friends and colleagues and a deep sense of connection. As life has taken me and friends onward, parts of my heart have gone to California, Connecticut, Amsterdam, Rwanda, Paris, Seattle, Prague, Memphis, Chicago, and now Germany, Australia, Nice, Canada, and of course, Marseille. In my own travels, I’ve left parts of myself in places, like breadcrumbs dropped in the hope that they will one day guide me back.  Or better yet, like seeds, which have the potential to take root and, if I do return, to surprise me with what they have become in my absence.

One of life’s challenges, of course, is getting comfortable with the feeling of never being completely at home. It is unsettling, and can lead to restlessness or shallow and hollow attempts to fill that part of your heart.  But what I’ve learned throughout this time is that the restlessness can be a gift, if we’re willing to listen to it and learn from it, instead of trying to drown it out.

On occasion, I’ve been accused of being a bit flighty, fickle, jumping from one activity to the next, as if I am trying to fill a void or find the thing that will finally be “it”.  At times I’ve felt the truth in that charge. Why aren’t I satisfied with the comforts of my life as it is? Why do I always want to have something on the horizon, something to look forward to, something new to try, or some new place to go?

My friend Wolfgang shared a beautiful poem recently with this line that, for me, starts to answer my questions:

“Only he who is ready to journey forth can throw old habits off…”

Yes! It’s only in response to the feeling of being not-quite-satisfied that we can free ourselves from the things that fetter us, and seek out something new.  With the help of words from other, smarter folks I can begin to build a defense for myself. My seeking and all that comes with it – the restlessness, the sense of not being completely at home, the hunger to see new places and try new things – these don’t arise from a desire to replace something lost but rather to give more away. The other places and other people I love don’t diminish me, they expand my life. They make me more curious, more generous, more fully myself. Who wouldn’t want more of that?  And if the unease, the not-at-home-ness, are the price, I’ll accept that because the reward, the payoff, is joy. Always more joy.

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This will be the last time I post here, at least for now. My intention was that this blog would last as long as my sabbatical.  Since the sabbatical is at its end, I think now is a good time to, as we’d say at the Institut, “prend une pause”. I may offer a post-script about my return to work, but otherwise I’m going to take a break, and wait and see what happens next.

When I started this adventure, I emailed a group of exactly 43 people and shared my blog address with them. According to my stats , I’ve had 1609 views (not visitors), from 24 countries, from the US and Germany and France to Belarus and India and Israel. Which means that I likely don’t know most of the people who visited my blog.

It’s part of the weirdness and wonder of the internet that strangers would take an interest in what I had to say, but I’m grateful for it, and for all of you. Thank you to everyone who visited and read, who shared my blog, who commented (either publicly or privately).  I am so thankful that you joined me in this life-changing adventure.

Wishing you joy on the journey, and in the end.