Contours of Capacity

I landed in Phoenix seven days ago with a quote from Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings framing my arrival: “Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.  It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.”  Enduring gifts of family, companionship, place, years and memory invited me to trust my emptiness as the markings of capacity.

For decades my brother Jerry made sure my sister-in-law had a fresh long-stem red rose on the coffee table. This was my first visit since his funeral in July so there was a boatload of apprehension about his absence. I arrived at Marilyn’s house on the first morning with a fresh red rose from the same Safeway that was Jerry’s source. We shared a tearful embrace in the family room within eye-shot of Jerry’s recliner, his mantra fresh in my ears: “Life on life’s terms.”

How proud he would be, and I am, of his sons! On Sunday evening, in the side yard of the home where the boys grew into men, 39 y/o Matt leapt with sweeping command of airspace tossing a football to a jumble of Jerry’s grandkids – unknown to Matt I recognized his father’s athleticism and good-looks flashing across his face. We had just returned from the zoo where the kids were strategically preoccupied with all-things exotic allowing this godfather to savor with approval stories of a godson’s incessant juggling of parenting, profession and priorities. What is “success”? How is its definition different at different times in our lives? Quantification, calculation are so inadequate, deficient. Marilyn had previously presented Jerry’s walking stick to me. I was grateful to lean upon its sturdy base while we made our way through the elephants, camels, flamingos, jaguars and macaws!

Before dinner Chris garnered an uncle’s unspoken praise and admiring attention when he dismissed his choice of ice water as a matter of Lenten abstinence. His eldest would later share her frustration with “giving up candy” but failing to “make it through Ash Wednesday.” She quickly shifted to excitement at the prospect of her fourth grade class being able to enact the Stations of the Cross at church on April 12. With an inward smile I commiserated with Ella’s frustration and delight – of course we fall short with even our best intentions. Perhaps the point is not our success or endurance but our need for God and enduring providence.  Enacting the Stations of the Cross will serve her well – hopefully a far distant time from now – when life inevitably presents them to her in a myriad of forms. But that avuncular wisdom should surely wait another time. We had a multiplicity of blessings before dinner as numerous children vied for the prestige of leading our family prayer. What goes through a grandparent’s heart at a moment like that?

My mind remains awash with the prospect of Ella’s class enacting the Stations of the Cross. I was reminded all too well throughout the week. Staying with a dear sister is a precious gift but provides yet another lesson in letting-go and moving-on. Claudia and her husband share a love strengthened by having grieved the loss of their first loves. Dean is an absolutely marvelous man! Thankfully, love is not a zero-sum game and he and Claudia have no need to disguise an enduring love for Carol and John. News on Saturday of a sister-in-law’s uterine cancer weighs heavy as another cross to bear with a tenacity only hope can inspire. The prospect of a favorite nephew’s move to Boston comes with the sobering reality of seeing much less of him, and his objectively adorable pre-school daughters. A weekend retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center imprinted a resonant image of Moses – a man of privilege as a member of Pharaoh’s household whose fidelity to his core identity transformed him into a poor desert nomad with leadership and authority of a very different sort.

Lenten wisdom even sprang from the utter devastation ten and twelve-year-old grandnephews expressed after Creighton’s collapse in the NCAA basketball tournament. Their dad, another godson, used the occasion to introduce them to one of life’s hardest lessons: Very, very few people ever win their last game! Do the math… 68 teams, single elimination, only one team wins the championship, on that team perhaps only four or five are seniors for whom this is their final game.  So many compete, so very few finish with a victory. Perhaps the greatest lesson parents can teach children is the fine art of losing and that life is ultimately about loss, letting go… Lenten themes, Stations of the Cross, paschal mystery, emptiness marking the contour of our capacity.

I never shared Jerry’s athleticism and actually hated football. Perhaps now I can finally catch the wisdom he wanted to pass on to grandchildren. I leave PHX today with Jerry’s walking stick firmly in hand, grateful to lean on its steady base, with his mantra echoing still… Life on life’s terms!

Even more, as he never tired of saying… Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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