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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Waiting for Something and Not Writing About It

Over the past two months I have sketched out many blog posts.  I have put down some notes about things I'd like to write.  I've even started writing what I thought would be one post, but later decided I needed to divide into about four different posts.  That one was really convoluted and complicated (I know, that's my style sometimes).  I thought of many things while driving to Texas and back at the end of October and beginning of November.  I have done a good bit of thinking about the current public outcry about the treatment of blacks by police and society, and wondered how much I should say and how much I should listen.  And I've been busy with teaching, reading papers, grading, and completing reports at work.

But I have come to see this week that one big barrier to writing here on this blog has been a kind of fearfulness about what is happening in my life.  It started to hit me when I read one of Denise Levertov's poems over a month ago.  So I've decided this is where I need to start.

The poem that I keep coming back to is called "Terror."
Face down; odor
of dusty carpet.  The grip
of anguished stillness.

Then your naked voice, your
head knocking the wall, sideways,
the beating of trapped thoughts against iron.

If I remember, how is it
my face shows
barely a line?  Am I
a monster, to sing
in the wind on this sunny hill

and not taste the dust always,
and not hear
that rending, that retching?
How did morning come, and the days
that followed, and quiet nights?
I bought the book of poems, having read lines from her in a post from The Plough, the publishing ministry of the Bruderhof communities.   Specifically, it was The Daily Dig, a daily email with a reflective quotation and a simple bit of photographic art that comes to me each day.  I looked for further information on the poet, and found that she had written poems about her own process of grief, so I rounded up copies of some of her books from used booksellers.  I've just finished reading the first one, which has the title of one of the poems about which I have posted before, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads.  The poetic imagination and profound grief work have not disappointed.

About halfway through the book, I came to this poem.  The title put me off, and at first I could not see the link between the title and the poem.  But as the words rested on me for a while, I started to recognize that potential for terror.  The crux is in the first sentence of the third stanza:  "If I remember, how is it my face shows barely a line?"

The poem flows from an experience of utter desolation, face down in a carpet, engulfed in anguish.  The particularities of what is heard, what is smelled and tasted, the reaction of feeling the rending and retching, are not very specific.  But they portray the totality of the pain that the narrator has in memory.  It's not so far away.  The sensory remainder is conjurable.

But it is also not immediate.  The poem ends describing morning and the passing of days and quiet nights.  It expresses shock or dismay at singing out in the wide world.  And thus the "terror" at stake is the narrator's wondering if her ability to live on after such wrenching grief means that she has lost her humanity.  "Am I a monster?"  That is the terrorizing question.  It is stated in the extreme.  Maybe others might find ourselves asking more urbane questions such as, "Have I gotten off track?", or the common adolescent query, "Is something wrong with me?"  Still the heart of the question is the same.

The poet understands that going through something so terrible tears one apart, and the intense grief and pain are the human responses to the loss, the injury.  And so much of what I have written in the past two years has been in the midst of that intense pain.  I've reached out for solace, for understanding, for companions, for salve.  I've dug deep into the history of living a life with Everly.  I've marveled at her complex and expansive goodness.  I've imbibed the faith and faithfulness of my formation as a follower of Jesus, a child of God, a participant in the life of the Spirit.  And the smell of those hard days stayed ever present in my nostrils, the sounds, the images ever in mind.

I turned to everyone who would lend an ear and a kind word, trying to think of how I could go on.  I made pilgrimage to places where Everly and I had gone, to people whom Everly and I had known together.  I thought about what she and I had cared for and how we hoped to live our lives in the world.  I remembered the ways it had gone right and the ways it had not.  I sought to care for our children as she would do, always knowing I could offer my best, and at the same time never be what she was for them.  And I tried to discern what my life should be on the path that continues forward from her death and her absence.

As you know, I concluded that I should continue to teach at Shaw where I have now completed twenty-one years.  To do so, I determined it would be best to relocate back to North Carolina.  Because so much of our lives and view of the world have been shaped by Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, I bought a house just down the road from there.  In August, I moved to Durham and started setting up household, with the added blessing of having Naomi with me while she is attending graduate school down the road.  And having gotten back to being in town and on campus every week, rather than just a few weeks each semester as during the Texas sojourn, I started trying to become a more complete member of the faculty and participant in the work of the Divinity School.

Those efforts met with many successes, and some struggles.  I began to see emerging some of the characteristics that I remembered in myself from earlier days, and I believe they are also characteristics that Everly admired in me.  My life was taking new shape, and I was finding myself investing in my work and academic life in ways that I have not for many years.  A number of close friends and colleagues invested the time in me to engage my thinking and encourage my efforts, awakening a confidence I did not remember feeling for some time.

And thus, I arrived by increments to the place and time Levertov's poem describes.  Everly is on my mind daily.  I speak of her whenever I get an opportunity.  I have pictures of her in all the places I go.  But no longer does each day bring wrenching sobs.  I don't mean they never happen, but they are not so frequent as they were.  I am more likely to think and speak of her in pleasant memory and timely insight, without it always shifting into sharp pangs of grief.  So when this poem sank in, I thought to myself that I was somewhere along a path of change that put me in the midst of one of the grief tropes--that of the person who is noticing the change of intensity or even wondering if he "will forget her face" as the time passes.

I tend to resist almost any sort of classification system for human personality and behavior, including the so-called "stages of grief."  Yet there is little denying that over time the human mind and emotions can find a path of adaptation to the new circumstances of loss.  As I have mentioned before, fellow widower David Forbes calls it "renorming."  I'm adapting to the new normal.  And the new normal now includes my trying to make something of my life without Everly walking with me.  I've written this many times now, yet it can be a troubling thought.  Am I being unfaithful to her love and her importance if I am no longer so intensively feeling the pain?  This is the question the poem asks so harshly, "Am I a monster?"  It is the question asked in the Psalm of terror, "How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?"

And so the poet faces the very same dilemma.  How can I sing?  And I think even further, how can I sing out in the world where people can see me?  I remember many times in the past year, and it still happens, when I seek to sing in church or I play music that I love, tears begin to flow and the words get choked up in my throat.  But sometimes I can sing.  And I might even feel like cutting loose a tune in front of people now and then.  Yet it contradicts a way of being that had become my standard.  It had become my characteristic way for some time to be the grieving widower, the pitiful, sad man.  Somewhere along the way, I have become less comfortable in those clothes.  I notice myself carrying on work and participating in groups without bringing all things back to my loss of Everly.  I wonder how this is possible, knowing how rough it has been during this season of life.  I find myself telling people, as I get to know them, about Everly's death without getting choked up.  I wonder if that makes me seem cold, even though my inward gaze still sees the time of weeping as present.

Once in a while, not every day and not even every week, I may find myself overwhelmed.  It may be at home, in the office, on a drive, or just about anywhere.  I've borrowed a term from Kate Campbell for those times:  "fade to blue."  It's from one of her songs, and it describes well the sort of drift into a sorrowful place that seems to have to happen now and then.  But those times have become rarer, if not less intense when they do come.

So this week I realized that my frustration over not having written for this blog in so long had somewhat to do with this poem.  Upon first reading it, I thought that it would make an excellent jumping off point for describing part of my journey of grief.  But perhaps subconsciously that nagging question was pressing in the other direction.  I was not sure I wanted to put a public face on how things have changed.  Is something wrong, that I don't feel the same pain the same way?  I don't believe that to be true.  It is not wrong.  It is next.  It is different.  It is walking another step.  It is living.

The change came from a whole lot of intentional work, of striving to keep on living, of discerning the particulars of a life I hope will be well lived.  Yet with all the effort, it also "snuck up" on me, as we say in these parts.  It came as something waited for without waiting.  It makes sense, but it was not itself the goal.  The goal was to live an honorable life that holds on to all that I have received from knowing Everly.  One outcome was to begin to find meaning and purpose in that life that offers its own rewards, even without her to share it.  I don't call it moving on.  Thank you to bob and mj patterson-watt for teaching me that we don't "move on."  That implies leaving Everly behind to go do something else.  So all of you friends of those who are grieving, there is another cliché to drop from your vocabulary.

If it's not moving on, and it's not monstrous, what is it?  You won't surprised if I say that it is a form of grace.  It is grace to live on in the face of unbearable loss.  It is the superabundant possibility of the grace in which we stand, wherein waiting (suffering) produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  It is an unexpected life, partly undesired, yet bursting with grandeur, with "the dearest freshness deep down things."  Therefore, it may be moving, but without the connotation of being finished with something past.  It is a continuation of walking with a changed presence of my beloved.  And as I let myself think of what might come of the life we have thus far shared, I'll agree with the Indigo Girls, "When you're learning to face the path at your pace, every choice is worth your while." 

Out of this comes my Advent meditation.  Waiting for the little child who will lead--God the baby entering our world, and now each year waiting again.  In this season, I wait to see what this new life will be.  I wait to write, partly because I fear what it might mean.  Yet as Everly would assure me, I don't need to fear.  Her message, like that of the angel on that blessed night, "Don't be afraid, for there is good news of great joy."  Don't postpone it.

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