Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A book for Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.

When I read the Rev. Kate Braestrup's memoir, Here If You Need Me: A True Story, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it in the context of the Ash Wednesday admonition. Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has found a vocation as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. She is charged to bring comfort to families and the wardens themselves when the Maine wilderness claim victims, some ignorant of the hazards of the wild and some too intoxicated to use whatever brains God gave them. The job can be pretty gruesome.

But additionally, this book is about Braestrup's own trajectory from the sudden accidental death of her beloved partner, the father of her children, to seminary, and then to a new career of service. That is, it is about knowing that death is comes … and going on to live beyond death.

Her deceased husband, Drew, had wanted to go to seminary. She wrestled with whether her own choice to take up ministry was somehow an attempt to hang on to her dead partner and realized the answer was yes -- and no.
I do not dismiss the notion that I might have been trying to keep Drew with me by doing his work. Drew and I, as a long-partnered pair, did in some sense become intertwined elements of one richer whole. Together we made a family; together we chose our church and entered into the life of our faith community; and together we made our commitments to it. When we discussed his plan for the future, therefore, we had actually been discussing our plan. And I would cheerfully admit mine to be a hand-me-down calling -- I, a mere understudy for this God Gig -- were it not for an almost guilty self-awareness: I studied for the ministry because I wanted to be a minister.
Along with her children, she visited Drew's grave site, each time bringing a new stone to add to the marker. And then, eventually, she came to understand it was time to stop bringing the stones.
Drew's body went where all bodies -- my body, your body -- will eventually go. … we will all go into the dirt to become the dirt that welcomes those who come next.

…Faced with a significant loss, we might spend years piling and repiling stones, grooming the grave, contesting the will, making rooms, houses, whole lives into shrines. I suppose at some point this becomes unhealthy. It is an unnecessary waste of a human life to fling it onto a funeral pyre or to make of it a stone.

…Someday, the last stone must be placed, and we must walk away, but when? I think if I were my own minister, I would answer that question this way, and I won't pretend it isn't hard: Go ahead. Arrange and rearrange the stones on top of your beloved's grave. Keep arranging those stones for as long as it hurts to do it, then stop, Just before you really want to. Put the last stone on and walk away.

Then light your candles to the living. Say your prayers for the living. Give your flowers to the living. Leave the stones where they are, but take your heart with you. Your heart is not a stone. True love demands that, like a bride with her bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it.
This book was suggested to me by a dear friend who several years ago lost his longtime spouse and admired best friend. I feel as if I'd been admitted to a window on how he has sought to come to terms with a grief whose depth I can only shy away from. Here's a little bit more from Braestrup on how she goes on:
Death alters the reality of our lives; the death of an intimate changes it completely. No part of my life, from my most ethereal notion; of God to the most mundane detail of tooth brushing, was the same after Drew died. Life consisted of one rending novelty after another, as anyone who has lost a spouse can attest. Still, as time went on, some of those novelties proved to be blessings. And, like anyone who has survived the death of an intimate, I had to learn to live with a paradox. If Drew had lived, I would not have gone to seminary, would not be ordained, would not have become the warden service chaplain. There are places that would have gone unvisited and friends I would never have met, friends I now can't imagine doing without. So while on one hand there is my darling Drew, whom I will never cease to love and never cease to long for, on the other hand, there is a wonderful life that I enjoy and am grateful for.
This seems a good starting point for the self-examination of Lent; what am I doing with the one life I have the chance to live?

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