Friday, June 28, 2013

Signs and Omens (I Miss You)

The week before you passed, a lily plant appeared in my front garden bed that wasn't there last year and that I did not plant.

The night we picked up Kaitlin, before we went to get her, I stood in my shower and bawled my eyes out that my friend was finally going to the hospital, but I was filled with terror that something was going to go very wrong.

The morning I received the call from Emily, our friend who is a nurse who happened to work that night, our cat Porter ran around the halls yowling like a cat crying out in severe pain. He knew something was wrong.

As we walked out the door I noticed the lily had bloomed (this photo was taken later). 

 The next bloom I plucked and took with me to Charleston to lay on your casket.

This was the last bloom, which opened the night after your memorial service.

I don't know how to process your loss. When Emily called me that morning I knew what it meant, and I couldn't find my voice to tell her to hold on, that I was getting Kaitlin. My voice was constricted. Like those nightmares where you know you need to say something but you're frozen. But somehow I stumbled and got the phone to Kaitlin.

I'm grateful Emily worked that night. I'm grateful Kaitlin was with us, and not at her apartment alone.

But I'm not grateful you're gone. How could I be? I am sad, I am angry, I am paralyzed, I am numb. All those things at once.

I am angry at you for not seeking help sooner, and then I am angry because I wonder what good it would have done since the ailments you had been having weren't related to the blood clot that took your life.

I am angry at my county for subsidizing unhealthy food and getting a generation of kids addicted to it, making it more difficult for you to do the things you needed to be better.

I am angry at our severely fucked up healthcare system that left you feeling like you had no options and recourse. I am angry that we live in a country that made you worry about cost when it came to protecting your health.

I am angry that you're gone and that there's not a single goddamn thing I can do about it.

Please come back, I scream at your facebook page. I scroll through the photos and notes often so I can hear your voice in my head again, making jokes, being insightful, schooling one-dimensional thinkers.

I miss you fierce.

You can't come to me, but one day, I can go to you.

I hope you know how much I wish the resurrection is real.

Because I need to see you again, and the world won't be right unless we all get to see the ones we want to see again.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

When You Can't Save Them All

In rescue you hear the phrase, "You can't save them all, but you can save some."  It's more easily uttered when the life you're trying to save is more of an abstract idea, perhaps a kitten you'd like to donate to but you've never met. You say it to express the reality of your human limitations.  But that same phrase is much crueler when it comes through tears and ragged breaths as you look at the life literally on your doorstep.

A friend has found an animal. Can I help? I direct them to the resources I know. But there is no room at my inn, my budget is stretched to the max, and my heart is with the refugees at work who I see day in and day out and the 10 family members who I feel I never get enough time with.

I literally am with animals 24/7, and I can't feel it all, because I would go crazy. You have to maintain some amount of detachment. There are the ones who tug your heartstrings, the ones you get close to, but then there are the ones who you give a quick pat to and off they go to a new home. But sometimes I want to feel it all. Someone should miss that nameless hound that was dropped off after being overbred for years and is now no longer profitable in the way that heartless humans define profit. The hound that's going to be euthanized in 5 days because it looks just like all the other hounds who have been brought to the over-loaded county shelter. And I don't even like to use the term euthanasia in this instance because it means "good death" and there is nothing good about dying because no one wants you.

I can't save them all, and that phrase is not some form of comfort. It is a statement of surrender. Against the tide of human cupidity, stupidity, cruelty, narrowmindedness, and neglect, I raise a white flag. I can't save them all. But oh God, I wish I could. 

I think of the people I know who are rescuers. Not people who fell into a job at a shelter by happenstance and will go another way in time. I mean the people who live and die each day for animals, even if they're not paid employees at a shelter. If they were given a million dollars, hell, a hundred thousand dollars, most if not all of that money would go to help more animals. But rescuers are usually not rich in the conventional sense, and I can't wait around for my fairy godmother to drop big money in my lap. I only have the resources I have. I can budget better, spend my time more wisely, trade that Starbucks latte for $5 donated to pulling another kitten from the shelter, but I will always be limited. And I can't strip my life of all the niceties and pleasures that make life worth living either. No rescuer can live a life that's 100% rescue, with no leisure, sleep, good food, friends, hobbies or treats. That's a quick ticket to burnout and a nervous breakdown. I've met some of those people, and they've saved a lot of lives but at the expense of their own. I rescue because life is worth living.

So I can probably guess at what you may want to tell me. You might want to say, "But look how much you've done!" I've been the direct cause of 15 animals not meeting an early death, and the indirect cause for dozens of others. At this point I've cared for a little more than a thousand animals that have come through the door at our shelter. And I'm happy that I've been able to do it. But I hate, and I am allowed to hate, that I can't do even more. I hate, and I am allowed to hate, that this situation exists. It is normal for this to make me angry. It is normal for this to make me sad. It is okay to have these emotions and to work through them, write through them, cry through them. I am not a robot, and animal rescue rests on the foundation that humans have empathy and understanding for them, so yes, I feel. A lot. It is okay to grieve this situation; someone has to, after all. This situation exists because people aren't grieving for these animals. Grief is healthy. Stuffing down your feelings is what will kill you.

But for the sake of those same animals, I can't wallow in the fury and helplessness that sometimes courses through my veins. I have to scoop one more litterbox, fill one more bowl, give one more pill, donate one more dollar, open my heart a little wider, in order to turn this tide. But for all the eyes I look into that I cannot help, I am sorry. I am trying. For your sake, I will channel that rage into something tangible for those that I can help. And for your sake, there is no way I will ever give up.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Light, The Dark, Both Running Through Me

Navigating a world that is equal parts beauty and ugliness is thrilling, exhausting, nauseating, hope-giving. Today I learned about a demon who abused an animal. Today an angel came through our doors with a donation of wet cat food just as we ran out. Life is made up of such strange juxtapositions of goodness and evil. How we take in all the beauty, how we cope with all the grief, is a testament to the will of the human spirit. God knows I can't feel it all, I would go crazy. But the pieces I am privileged and burdened to feel, and the people and animals I do give my heart to, are worth it. AA Milne wrote, "“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” And how lucky I am to have something that makes saying hello so wonderful.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Faith Is

Heterodox (no one has it all right)
A Whisper
Cruci Dum Spiro Fido
Liberal (in certain parts)
Conservative (in other parts)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

One Week

It's been one week since you left us on this Earth without you. It's not that you had a choice in the matter, of course. Death claimed you that night and there's nothing any of us could have done about that.

What I wish I had done was gone to the hospital earlier in the day Tuesday to wish you well, to pray with you, to say I love you. It wouldn't have changed your death, but maybe it would have brightened your day, maybe it would have left us with more peace and closure.

I squeezed your hand as I left the room that morning. I wanted to know. I have been afraid of death for years now, and it was good for me to be near your body, to feel your skin, to watch as the Priest performed the Last Rites, to see your wife hold tightly onto your hand, to be there for her in that terrible moment. Death is too distant from Americans in the 21st century. We need to be near it. Memento mori. 

The Saturday before your passing St. Perpetua came to me in a dream. She descended from a staircase made of water over a bridge on the Ohio River and I walked up the stairs into her arms. She held me tightly and told me everything was okay and to not be afraid.

I had no idea what was coming for me a few days later. But that night, my faith returned. I went to Mass at a Catholic church. The sermon was lousy, but the music and liturgy and the church were beautiful, and that's why I go to Catholic mass: to feast on the beauty of the Lord (I also find a lot of the theology very beautiful).
"One thing have I asked of the Lord
That I will seek after; 
That I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life
To behold the beauty of the Lord
And to inquire in His temple."
~Pslam 27

I keep crying at work. I cry a lot of places. I forget and then I remember, and when I remember it's like being punched in the gut, or the throat. My throat gets parched and no amount of water helps.

I've been trying to treasure the relationships you left me. I need to respond to letters, emails and calls. I need to be near them. You never gave up on any of us, by your example help me to not give up one any of them. 

You are teaching us about the importance of relationships. You are the origin of so many of mine! And I refuse to use the past tense about you. Like Catholics and other liturgical traditions, I believe in the communion of Saints, and that God is not a God of the dead, but the living. You are more alive now that you've ever been (O Lord I believe, help my unbelief). Your life on this earth is past tense, but you are not past tense.

I don't know what privileges God grants to His children in Heaven, but I hope you can see us and the impact you're having. I hope you can hear me at night when I sit out on my deck and look up at the stars and talk to you. I hope you can see us gathering around your dear sweet Kate as we sit Shiva with her.

"This can't be happening," is the phrase I repeat to myself a lot, but it is. It is reality, and we are mourning you. Heaven is a bit closer to all of us because you are there. 

I don't know how to end this. No one ever does, I suppose.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Heart Is Not a Boundary

I had the privilege a few years ago of speaking with a recent convert to Catholicism. The person willingly corresponded with me about various issues of the faith. They* were certainly a theologically conservative Catholic, with conservative political leanings, but the content of their faith and writings was the person of Christ, as revealed in the Sacrament, not the advancement of a particular political agenda.

And then I saw this person become increasingly more political. Their writings were less about the mysteries of the faith and more about their anger at certain political occurrences. Their words, once soaked with grace, were now soaked with vitriol towards the perceived "enemy" of the left.

I was taken aback. This was not the only Catholic I knew who had made this turn. The advent of this shift was news of the HHS mandate about contraception.

It was around the time I was taking confirmation classes. But my fragile faith, already reeling from years of fundamentalist Baptist culture wars, and 4 years at an American evangelical college, cracked.

I couldn't take it any more. The us versus them mentality. The idea that Christ was about "our side" winning and "their side" losing. Faith as a battle for control of a government and a media, not as a battle for the body and soul to have union with God. I stopped attending confirmation classes and sent a brief note to the RCIA director saying that now wasn't the time. The mentor who had been appointed to me sent me a concerned email, and I thanked her for her concern, but said I had certain issues going on in my life that led me to believe I could not convert in good conscience at this time.

I didn't know these people very well, so I didn't wish to explain the deep well of anger I was experiencing with Christendom: evangelicals, fundies, Catholics, the Orthodox, liberal Episcopalians, conservative Anglicans, etc, etc. In fact, I couldn't explain it. The debate over the HHS mandate was the catalyst that caused my anger and doubt to erupt. Attempts to explain it to my husband always ended with me in tears, sobbing incoherently about politics, culture wars, gender issues, gay marriage, how to interpret the God of the Hebrew Bible in light of the person of Christ, the problem of evil, the reality of death, and the tasks of my everyday life. Inside my head, every single issue was linked to the other, and for the life of me I couldn't determine truth from the lie, fact from fiction.

My reaction, at this time, was to go in the opposite direction of my upbringing and of  the political conservative Catholics who I felt betrayed me. I began tweeting snarky liberal statements, things that may have had truth to them but were so drenched in anger that I doubt they could have done anything to start a meaningful conversation with someone on the right. I became what I hated, just in reverse. And I gained some notoriety for it. It was fun at first, and I certainly enjoyed the virtual high-fives I received from like-minded individuals, but I didn't like what I had become. And an echo chamber of affirmation is not good for anyone. My bitterness and cynicism were on display for the world, for total strangers. Gone was the girl who wrote poems about trees; she had been replaced with a political pundit. If you tried to talk with me during this time and I was brusque, I apologize. I deleted a lot of people on facebook around this time because I didn't feel like debating with them about my faith, the childishness of which is so apparent now but was oblivious to me at the time. I thought I was protecting myself, when really I was alienating others.

I realized that I was dealing with the same angry, black and white, us versus them mentality, only on the other side. I didn't need to find a safe haven of militant liberals, I needed to find men and women of peace on both sides of the fence. But I didn't know that at the time.

For a time, I lost my faith. I could enumerate the specific contents of my doubts, but that could take hours and I'll spare you those tales for now. What did happen was that I deleted the twitter account and an adjoining blog, and the woman who was so keen to share her opinions on the internet suddenly had nothing left to say. I stopped attending the Anglican parish I had been a member of since 2007, because on an ideological level I felt displaced (the people there are extremely loving and open; I just felt at odds with the theology).

I read Rachel Held Evans, George MacDonald, and Christian mystics. I read the Bhagavad Gita. I read poetry by Oliver, Rilke, Whitman and Donne. I read about neo-paganism and eastern philosophy. I read about animal ethics and rights.  And then I stopped reading anything deep, and feasted on television, entertainment news, fashion, memes, and pop culture (there is nothing wrong with any of those things. There is something wrong when that is all that you consume). My excuse was that my work took up a lot of my energy and emotions, which it did. But I was starving intellectually and spiritually, because I didn't know what to eat.

I couldn't pinpoint the moment my anger subsided, because it was gradual. I spent a lot of nights in absolute torment, sobbing for hours. But I began to piece together something of a belief system, something that looked drastically different from what I had ever believed before. Gone was my insistence on having all of my theological ducks in a row. I learned to listen to myself: if something felt abhorrent, turn away from it. This was such a drastic change from the radical idea of depravity I had been sold as a child. It was always taught that we are so depraved that we couldn't trust our intuition. Emotional intuitions about truth were not reliable, so they couldn't be a guide in our quest to understand the world (Rachel Held Evans' essay The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart describes this issue better than I ever could. And please note that I said "a guide" not "the guide").

It all come together the other night when I mentioned to my husband that a certain perspective of how to develop a theological system annoyed me, and I shared that my system was shaped differently. I didn't even know until I spoke that I even had a system, but I did. I had developed a rudimentary framework, and lo and behold, it looked remarkably Catholic. I had come full-circle.

I don't know what the future holds for my faith journey. I couldn't tell you what my next steps are. You might be wondering if I plan on becoming Catholic, and my answer is a firm, "I don't know."  I really and truly don't know what the future of my faith will look like or what denominational shape it will take. But the beauty is back in my life.

There is bad everywhere, in every system of belief, in every church, in every political party. If you wait around trying to find the pure camp that won't tick you off, that won't break your heart, that won't tear you to pieces, you'll always be sorely disappointed. But if you focus on truth, beauty, grace, forgiveness, mercy, love and peace, it's possible you'll find yourself feeling comfortable going anywhere God leads, because you know God will be there to get you through the good and bad of communal life, and that will be enough.

*I find using the third person plural pronoun "they" clunky when trying to avoid using gendered pronouns, but it was my only recourse.