Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Descending Theology: The Resurrection" - a poem by Mary Karr, for Easter Sunday

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

by Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Christ's Passion": a poem by Mary Karr, for Good Friday

I shared this poem, "Christ's Passion" by Mary Karr, here on the blog a couple of Good Fridays ago -- but I like it so much I thought I would repost it.

I like how Karr plays with the ideas we might have about Jesus' death: that maybe He didn't "really" feel it so much because He wasn't "really" human; or that lots of worse things could happen (or have happened) to a person than happened to Jesus. But if Jesus experienced everything humanity has experienced in a moment of time, the suffering must have been acute.

I'm also moved by her last line, how she puts us in that in-between time after Jesus has died, but when no miracle of resurrection has yet happened -- and all we can do is hope.

Christ’s Passion 

Sure we’re trained to his suffering, sure
the nine-inch nails, and so forth.
And the cross raised up invoked

the body’s weight so each wound tore,
 and from his abdomen a length of gut 
dangled down, longing towards earth.

He was a god, after all.
An eternal light swarmed in his rib cage
no less strong than the weaving nebulae that haul

this dirt-speck planet through its course.
Surely his flesh mattered less somehow, less
than yours to you. He hung against steel rods

with his whole being, and though the pain
was very pure, he only cried out once.
All that was writ down. But what if his flesh

felt more than ours, knew each breath
was a gift, and thus saw
beyond each instant into all others.

So a morsel of bread conjured up
the undulating field of wheat from whence it came,
and the farmer’s back muscles

growing specific under this shirt
and the sad, resigned pace of the mule
whose opinion no one sought.

Think of all we don’t see
 in an instant. Cage that in one skull.
If Christ saw in each

pair of terrified eyes he met
every creature’s gauzy soul
then he must have looked down from that bare hill

and watched the tapestry teem
till that poor carcass he borrowed
wept tears of real blood before they

unhooked it and oiled it and bound it
round with linen and hid it under a stone,
to rise again or not, I can only hope. 

-Mary Karr Viper Rum, Penguin, 1994

Friday, March 18, 2016

Faith in the Dark: listening for God's voice

Last year I read Addie Zierman's memoir When We Were On Fire, which is about her years growing up in 90's Christian culture and her journey through alcoholism, depression and faith lost-and-found. I enjoyed the book very much, and I love everything Zierman writes on her blog because it is so truthful and heartfelt. This week she released a new book which I'm also looking forward to reading: Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. To commemorate the book launch, she's hosting a synchroblog on the topic "Faith in the Dark." This post is my contribution.


 Today I had coffee for the first time with a new kindred-spirit friend. (What a gift to receive at midlife, when it might be tempting to think we've probably made all the friends we're ever going to.) We plan to read Dallas Willard's book Hearing God and meet periodically to talk about it. Today we didn't spend too much time on chitchat but just dived right in by talking about whether we've ever heard God speak directly to us.

I realized that while it's not a common occurrence for me, I actually have.

In the summer of 2014 our family's world tipped on its axis when my mom started feeling seriously ill, was hospitalized, and received a terminal cancer diagnosis days later. Richard and I and the kids were there at Mom and Dad's for our regular summer visit at that exact time, so we were able to be present to support Dad and keep other family members informed of what was happening with Mom.

It was a great relief when Mom was hospitalized because although she didn't have a real prognosis yet, we knew she was getting the care and treatment she needed. We'd had many anxious and sleepless nights up to that point, but now we could all go to bed with easier minds and get more rest.

One night, I heard my name being called and woke up. It was somewhere around 3 a.m., that deepest and (if you believe the rumours) most "spiritual" time of night. I thought it must be my dad at the door, calling me -- that perhaps the hospital had phoned to say Mom had taken a turn for the worse.

But I could hear Dad snoring all the way down the hall. Richard was asleep beside me, and Jonathan was quiet in his bed on the floor of our room. No one in the house was awake, except me.

I realized it must have been God who had called my name, and I lay awake in the dark for a long time, waiting to see if He had anything else to say to me. But there were no more words -- just the powerful feeling that He had awakened me to let me know He was there with us in this stressful and frightening time.

Over the next several days, two of my brothers arrived from the U.S. to add their help and support. One particular morning, my youngest brother and I drove to the hospital together. I felt lighthearted and encouraged -- the natural result, I suppose, of knowing the burden was being shared. We had a couple of errands to do first and did them in no particular hurry; there was no set time we had to be at the hospital.

But when we arrived at Mom's room, we instantly knew we had come at just the right time. The curtain was drawn around the bed, and Mom was sitting up alertly against the pillows. Our oldest brother was there as well, and the doctor was sitting on the side of the bed.

This was the first time we had met Dr. Rogerson. She shared a hospital practice with Dr. Ellis, who had been present for the past two weeks and whom we'd come to rely on for her daily phone calls and bedside visits. Dr. Ellis was the one who had told Dad and me that Mom had liver cancer as well as a blood clot in her lung; she was the one who had had the frank talk with us about Mom's "code status." I liked her reserved yet straightforward demeanour. Now, in keeping with the schedule of their practice, she was taking a couple of weeks off. I understood that, but -- because you always cling to what you know -- I missed her and wished we didn't now have to deal with a different doctor.

I needn't have worried. In a warm, gentle voice, Dr. Rogerson began to review Mom's case with her, and with us. She told Mom she had multiple cancerous lesions on her liver. "We can't cure it," she said, "but we can give you the best possible life now." She explained how a physiotherapist and occupational therapist would get involved to help Mom regain some strength and mobility. When she mentioned "palliative care," she said she understood those words could sound ominous, but that they meant Mom would have support and help throughout the whole process, whether she was at home or in hospital. I can't remember everything else she said, but I remember the warmth of her voice and the way she conveyed both the gravity of the situation and a sense of comfort and reassurance.

The doctor asked Mom if she had any questions. Mom said no, and then her eyes welled up with tears and she said, "It's just so good to know."

I never asked Mom if God had said anything directly to her about what she was going through -- if He'd called her name and reassured her that He was there with her. But at that moment in her room, I could see the depth of her faith in her calm acceptance of what was happening and in the way she embraced the truth. And a month later He would call her name, take her hand, and lead her over the threshold into the next world.

I don't think faith in the dark -- or in the light, for that matter -- is something we do. It's not a set of pious feelings we manufacture or statements we affirm. It's listening for the voice of One who loves us.

Maybe sometimes, faith means we wake up to the sound of God saying our name -- although I can't say from my experience that that's a common thing. (Perhaps there are others who experience that all the time.)

Maybe sometimes, faith means we shake our fists at God, challenging Him to show up and give an account of Himself in this broken world.

Maybe sometimes, faith means we wrestle with Him out of our desperate desire to be blessed by Him, like Jacob in the Bible did.

And maybe sometimes, faith means we accept the circumstances of our life with serenity and calm, like Mom did -- hearing Him in the solemn-yet-reassuring words of truth spoken by a doctor.

What matters is that we keep listening.

To me, that's faith.

Monday, March 14, 2016

March 2016 "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit", in which we write short-and-sweet reviews of the books we've been reading:

 The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew (nonfiction). This memoir focuses on Kinew's challenging relationship with his father, a Catholic-residential-school survivor and respected Anishinaabe chief. Kinew writes of his father's painful childhood and residual anger, how that affected his relationships with his family, and how Kinew himself walked a troubled path as a young man before getting his life back on track (he is now an aboriginal educator, activist, broadcaster, and politician) and renewing the bond between himself and his dying father. A beautiful book about forgiveness, reconciliation, spirituality, and family.

Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me: What My Favorite Book Taught Me About Grace, Belonging and the Orphan in Us All by Lorilee Craker (nonfiction). This lovely and touching book interweaves episodes from Craker's favourite novel, Anne of Green Gables, with her own experience as an adopted child and as the mother of an adopted child. Craker is a funny, warm writer who will have you laughing at her goofy, Anne-like foibles one moment and getting misty-eyed about her heartbreak the next.

Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You by John Ortberg (nonfiction). Written in Ortberg's usual straightforward and honest style, this book discusses the importance of understanding the soul and what it needs to be healthy and connected to God. Ortberg draws heavily on the teaching and example of his mentor, Dallas Willard, throughout. I found it very helpful and practical.

 A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (fiction).  I've been a fan of Tyler's ever since I read Saint Maybe, and I've read everything she's written since. Her last few novels have been just okay at best, in my opinion. This latest one has a broader scope than usual, covering several generations of the Whitshank family. I liked the sections about the first Whitshank ancestor, a social climber afraid of being held back by his much-younger girlfriend, but the modern-day sections felt like Tyler retreads: ditsy mother figure, stoic father, assorted kids and in-laws that you can't keep straight, odd anachronisms (a baby named Susan in the 1990's??), and potentially explosive secrets that seemed to fizzle. Tyler has always done quirky characters really well, but here she can't seem to pull them together into a compelling plot. I hate to say it, but I think Tyler peaked 20 years ago and her readers have been settling for just okay ever since.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Downton Abbey, Jane Eyre, and the mad wife

(Warning: post contains spoilers)

 Downton Abbey ended last weekend after its sixth and final season. Like millions of other fans of the show, I loved it, and I'm going to miss it. Yes, I still have my DVD's, but it's not the same.

The grande finale episode was very touching and satisfying. Still, I'm left with this feeling that the Crawleys and their staff are going on with their life without us, and we're missing it!

In most cases I enjoy thinking about the characters moving on in life. It's fun to envision the three Crawley children fussing over Baby Bates and, in a few months, Baby Talbot; and to imagine Andy and Daisy's youthful romance unfolding alongside the possibility of Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore's not-so-youthful one.

But it's a little sadder to think about other characters -- like Lizzie.

If you don't remember a character named Lizzie, that's not surprising. She never appeared on screen, and she was mentioned only a few times -- only once, I think, by name.

She was Michael Gregson's mad wife.

 When Edith Crawley noticed London editor Michael Gregson showing a romantic interest in her, she picked up the phone and called his newspaper office to ask about his private life -- only to find out he was married. When she confronted him, he admitted he was married, but that his wife had been in an insane asylum for many years. 

The "mad wife" trope is, of course, best known in Jane Eyre. But at least in that novel, the mad wife's existence caused the characters some genuine moral misgivings. When Jane found out on her wedding day about Rochester's tragic secret, her choice was clear: he wasn't free to marry her, and she couldn't live in sin, so she fled to avoid temptation and reassert her own strength and dignity. And even Rochester had done the noble thing by taking his wife home and ensuring she was cared for, even though he had been tricked into marrying her.

But in Downton Abbey, the mad wife is just a plot device. Edith never shows one iota of sympathy or pity for Lizzie Gregson and never offers to distance herself from Michael to ease his moral dilemma. In fact, for him it barely is a moral dilemma. He does say, "Lizzie was a wonderful person. I loved her very much. It took me a long time to accept that the woman I knew was gone and wouldn't be coming back." But by the time we meet him, whatever struggle of acceptance he might have gone through is done: Lizzie is now just an annoying obstacle between him and Edith. I cringe at the scene in Season 3 when Gregson is fishing with Matthew and whining about his fate:

"Of course it's a lot to ask [that Edith get involved with him knowing he's married], but what else can I do? I'm prevented from divorcing a woman who doesn't even know who I am. Does the law expect me to have no life at all until I die?"

The practical Matthew replies, "You've been misled by our surroundings. We're not in a novel by Walter Scott."

Or a novel by Charlotte Bronte, either, apparently. Edith falls in love with Gregson; he tells her that if he moves to Germany he can divorce Lizzie ("You'd do that? For me?" Edith says meltingly...); then he disappears and is found dead, leaving Edith with a baby whose identity she must hide. The Edith-and-baby plotline comes to dominate the last three seasons.

Finally, in the end, Edith achieves true happiness: she finds love with a new man and gains a title of honour. I'm glad for her. 

But I feel very sorry for Lizzie -- because if we imagine the characters we know and love having an ongoing existence beyond the grand finale episode, then we have to imagine her having an ongoing existence, too.  And in 1925 it would have been a pretty bleak one. 

I know, I know: it's just a TV program with fictional characters, and with so many subplots the writer can't be expected to do justice to every single thread of the story. But it's still sad to see a person with a devastating mental illness treated as meaningless and invisible.

So I just want to say: Lizzie, I wish you well. I hope you've found a little bit of happiness in your life and that somehow you know you're more than just a speed bump in someone else's plotline.