Monumental

Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!

I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?

My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.

There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.

Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.

Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change.  For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!

If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.

Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.

Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.

Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.

Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.

To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.

The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.

Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.

My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”

My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
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Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

Dumb Luck

That’s all it was… dumb luck! Desperate to get a gift in the mail for a dear friend, I simply happened upon an obscure reference to For the Time Being by the distinguished 20th century poet, W.H. Auden. I’d never heard of it and concluded its very obscurity would appeal to my erudite friend. Besides, he is really smart and works at a prestigious university — my gift would make me look smart by association!

But that, too, may be post factual reconstruction. My initial motivation had little to do with erudition or even personal insecurities beneath my need to look smart. I was inspired by the fact that this famously gay poet had in midlife returned to Christianity. After the death of his mother and breakup with the man to whom he considered himself married, Auden dedicated this Christmas oratorio to his mother and wrote as emotional catharsis as much as testament of faith. Seemed like a good read for a long winter’s night!

It was not personal genius that led me to Auden’s oratorio. Rather it was dumb luck — what some might call grace! And, Auden far exceeds my mundane expectations. Nowhere does his probing and provocative rendition of the Christmas story settle for sentimentality or trite piety. His is the tempered faith of one who has struggled with life and whose own journey to Bethlehem was harsh, long and fraught with doubt.

We say that Christmas is for children, and that’s true. But there is nothing childish, cuddly or cozy about the original story. It must pass the test of time; its truth must endure through turmoil and trials that assail us. In this it must surpass any question of historicity and reveal an even more timeless truth. Few of us risk looking beyond the caricature of a sweet, unassuming, adorable babe. Auden takes the plunge!

And plunge we must — again and again. Hardly a child any longer, this Christmas marks my 67th journey through the season (and I’m counting on many more). Dumb luck led me to discover Auden’s oratorio — the unimagined, graced vehicle revealing Christmas as fresh, true, wondrous, here-and-now despite my 67th journey over the terrain. A few examples suffice…

Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are patently patriarchal, some would say stiflingly patriarchal. But is the real problem with the text or with our blind, sterile reading? Without premeditated agenda or argumentative intent Auden holds in bold relief the voiceless, befuddled, slow to catch-on Joseph in what even the Gospels cast as a secondary, supportive role. Mary, then as now, holds center stage.

Add to this the “silencing” of Zechariah when he dismisses even the potential for his wife to give birth in her old age. With fresh insight these Gospel narratives are hardly paternalistic. Rather they cast Mary and Elizabeth with the lead roles in a drama featuring what only women can do — give birth, bringing forth a savor. Patriarchy is set aside and assigned a supporting role! The text has been there all along. Why haven’t I recognized this?

The shepherds and magi are similarly flush with fresh meaning in the poet’s telling. Shepherds readily personify the settled ones, those who express the best of the past, keeping the home fires burning. The magi are persistent seekers, quick to leave the safe and familiar to discover what is beyond. Both have a place.

Neither is better. Each expresses our human capacity — indeed, our need — to recognize in this vulnerable, innocuous infant the incarnation of God-With-Us, Word made Flesh. That is the perennial invitation, to see the child for whom it is. Yes, to sit right down in the incredulity of it all. To say yes to the inconceivable.

We come to manger-like places all the time; asked first to actually see what is there, then to affirm that which we see as sacred. Never meant to resolve the mystery with tight, conclusive answers. Rather, we are invited to inch ever more deeply into the the truth our lives and the sometimes messy world which enfolds us.

The most we can offer is our intent, mustering a resolve to seek, follow and love the Mystery we recognize but cannot comprehend.

Such is our dumb luck, not genius, utter grace.
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For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden. Introduction and edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2013.