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.
__________________

Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

The Paradox of Parents

Mom and Dad had tough lives! Married in 1931 as the Great Depression and drought was overtaking their Nebraska farming community, they wouldn’t leave the farm until 1945 at the end of World War II. I’m the youngest of ten kids and how they managed to feed, clothe and educate us all in Catholic school remains one of the great miracles of our family history. Naturally, my parents and the life they passed on conjures special memories at Thanksgiving.

Dad dropped out of school in the 10th grade because Grandpa needed help on the farm. Grandpa was known to have said, “After you have reading and can work numbers, what more do you need?” Cultural norms presumed that every girl was destined to become a farm wife. These values precluded Mom from even beginning high school despite earning the top score in Cedar County on the standardize 8th grade exams.

There was a time while pursuing professional and advanced masters degrees that my parents lack of formal education was an embarrassment. I lived in fear that if my “sophisticated”, upper class friends really new of my humble, uneducated heritage they would see me as the fraud I was. Clearly, my exaggerated ego and fragile self-image was a powerful force in all this pretense and hiding of factual truths. No more!

This weekend I’m savoring The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life by William Martin. It’s been news to me that Lao Tzu is said to have been the teacher of Confucius more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Unlike his much more prolific student, Lao Tzu left us only about five thousand words. Most of these are in his Tao Te Ching. His is not esoteric, academic “book learning” as my Grandpa might have said. Rather Lao Tzu passes on practical wisdom, the sort of genius I now recognize my Mom and Dad had in abundance.

Today’s a case in point. I’ve been mulling over #52 of Tao Te Ching‘s ninety-one brief teachings:

The world has said

that those who do the right things,

choose the right careers,

work hard,

and avoid mistakes,

shall satisfy their desires

and be at peace.

The sage knows

that this is an illusion born of fear.

Great accomplishments do not bring peace.

Massive failures do not bring despair.

The choice between peace

and despair

is an inner choice

that may be made at any moment.

***

I see much despair among the aging

that is so unnecessary.

Our history does not determine our present.

Peace is always available to us.

It is a matter of choice.

William Martin’s new interpretation in The Sage’s Tao Te Ching is masterful for the way it captures the nuanced polarities of our lives some sevenhundred generations after being composed. He captures the perplexities and paradox of success and failure, gain and loss, love and fear, sickness and health, life and death embedded in Lao Tzu’s genius.

Mom and Dad probably knew very little about Confucius. I’m certain they had never heard of Lao Tzu. But they seemed to have known every bit as much when they’d pass on such aphorisms as, “Life is pretty much what you choose to make of it!” or “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be!” Yes, their lives where tough! Yet, their lives were distinguished by generosity, love, faith, determination and hard work. Circumstances didn’t often lend themselves to having fun, but they even indulged a bit of that from time to time.

This Thanksgiving weekend, kicking back and relaxing as we are able, I am immensely grateful and proud to have been raised by ones so learned and wise. Mom and Dad passed along the best education I could have ever received.

Letting Go

Those who love me do so despite my over-sized ego, propensity to confuse my considered opinions with objective truth, and a dogged commitment to “my way” of doing things. This is not a new insight and some especially good friends have been able to reflect back to me some of this truth, if ever so cautiously.

At 67 I’m trying to accept a certain “fixed-ness” about my personality. I’m trying to live with a turn on the popular phrase, “What I see is what I get it!” On this Thanksgiving weekend I am increasingly aware of and grateful for those who look beyond my faults and failings to love me for the jumbled mixture of good and bad that I am.

For awhile now, my “sacred word” in a sputtering practice of Centering Prayer has been rapha, meaning to be weak, to let go, to release. Given my challenge outlined above, there should be no surprise that its grounded in “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). Some more learned than me suggest my “sacred word” might better be translated as “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak”.

Many days I struggle (a more honest verb might be avoid) fitting in my 20 minute meditation period. While the house is quiet this Thanksgiving morning and my husband makes pies for our family feast this afternoon there are no distractions from climbing the stairs to my prayer “cave”. As always, Jeb the Dog dutifully follows and positions himself on the rug behind me.

Rapha … rapha … rapha … settles my breathing as I attempt to be still, let go, release from my over-sized ego-self. Thoughts and distractions vie for attention much like frenzied fans yell, “me, me, me; here, here, here” to the stadium attendant tossing wiffle balls into the stands before a game.

As my iPhone timer silently ticks off the assigned 20 minutes, more pious thoughts wedge their way into an array of flashy images being cast onto the scrim of my ego. From Philippians 2: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped [now there’s a huge ego distraction for you!] but humbled himself.” The Annunciation… “Be it done unto me according to your will.” Or Jesus in the Garden… After expressing his opinion to the point of sweating blood, it was not his ego-self mustering a reluctant “But not my will but yours be done.”

Rapharapharapha … soon even such piously occluded projections fade as the distraction they are from a much needed nudge to become weak, to truly let go, to actually release my 67 y/o ego-self to the One who is truly God.

Rapharapharapha … as the iPhone chimes gently invite me back after the assigned minutes it is not the psalmist, Mary of Nazareth, or even Jesus facing crucifixion that grounds my consolation. Surprisingly, but ever so graciously, May Sarton’s AutumnSonnet gives voice to that which is anything but a distraction: “cause yourselves to let go”; “let yourselves become weak”.

With the suggestion that “my ego” be substituted for “you” in the first and last lines, I offer her words to you…

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

———————-
AutumnSonnet by May Sarton, from “Selected Poems of May Sarton” 1978.
John J. Parsons provides a marvelous reflection on “surrender” and more fully explains the Hebrew origins of rapha. I encourage you to take a look at:
‪http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Be_Still/be_still.html ‬

A Place for All

“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”

I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.

An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging  tenaciously to their language and religion.

On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.

That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.

On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.

Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.

Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.

Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).

What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.

Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:

Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.

And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
__________________
The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.

Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).