Widow’s weeds

There is an old custom of wearing black while you are in mourning. Some people would wear all black clothes, while others would just wear black armbands. People still wear black clothes, but it isn’t just for grief. They will wear black just because they like wearing black.

So the meaning is lost. People don’t know if you are grieving, or just fashionable.

The purpose of wearing black to indicate grief was to warn others to be a little more gentle with you. You had your leave time that you were allowed from work, and now you are back. Whether it was three days or a week, it isn’t ever enough, especially if it was someone close to you.

Wearing black while you are grieving is a bit like wearing a “trainee” tag. It tells other people that you aren’t quite all here yet, and to go a little more slowly. It is a kindness to them and to you, to not expect much out of you for a while.

But perhaps we should all do that, all the time. Perhaps we should all treat each other with a little more kindness and cut each other a little more slack.

Everybody we see is struggling with something. Everybody has suffered a loss or has a problem. “Dysfunctional” is the new normal for families, don’t you know? We all are faking it, and we all aren’t making it. We are just getting by as best we can.

Now, problems can also come in when we think we are the only ones who are suffering, or that our pain is worse than anybody else’s.

I remember a time where a patron said that she wanted to get on disability because she had migraines all the time. She went on and on about it. Every time she came in she told her tale of how hard life was. She was really wrapped up in her own problems. So I decided to share. I told her that I’m on medication for the rest of my life for three different chronic conditions.
I wanted her to understand that we all have our burdens to carry. She got it, and softened.

Buddha told a story about a lady whose young son had died. She went to every person in the village, carrying her dead child with her. She refused to admit that he was dead and begged each person for medicine. One kind person directed her to the teacher, Buddha, who lived in the village.

When he saw her, he understood exactly what the real problem was, and how to address it. He told her to ask for a mustard seed from every person in the village who had not ever grieved. She was to then come back to him with the mustard seeds and he would make a medicine for her from them.

She went from hut to hut, and every person she talked to had experienced grief. Every person had lost someone they loved.

She had no mustard seeds, but she had the medicine she needed. She understood that she was not alone in her suffering. Her life was not harder than anyone else’s. At that moment, she finally was able to accept that her child had died, and bury him. At that moment, she was able to rejoin the community.

May we all be kinder with each other.
May we all understand we are equal in our suffering.

Eulogy for a young mother who died tragically. (Be open to grief)

There are no words for our grief. We are here together, wordless, numb, and hurting. We cannot make sense of this senseless loss.

But we are here. We are here to pay our respects to Hannah. We are here together as a testament to our love for our friend, our coworker, our wife, our mother. We are here searching to make sense out of a senseless thing.

Let us comfort each other in our grief. Let us take this time now to cry with each other, to hold each other, to wail with each other. I invite you to do this now.

In some traditions there is something known as Passing the Peace. You do it by shaking the hand or hugging all the people next to you, one at a time. You say “Peace be with you” It is done as a sign of reconciliation. It is done right before communion, because it is important to approach the Lord’s table with an empty heart – one that is free of the burdens of grief and anger. Those feelings keep us away from our true nature, which is love.

When we are angry or grieving we are closed off and cold. The purpose of reconciliation is to make us open and warm. When we are open we grow. When we are closed we die.

Many of us are angry right now. We want answers and there aren’t any. Why did Hannah have to die? Why did someone we love get taken away from us, so soon in her life?

Many of us are angry at God, and that is alright. Be angry. God can handle it. We are the ones who can’t handle it if we hold it in.

I’m not here to explain any of this. I can’t tell you why she died the way she did. I’m not here to tell you that it will all make sense and it is part of God’s plan. Because it will never make sense. And I don’t believe that God plans for us to feel pain, certainly not this kind of pain.

I believe that God is crying with us, is wailing with us, and is holding us right now. I believe that each time we share our grief with each other, God shares our grief with us.

God is there, acting through us. God is in the arms of the person you hug in your grief. God is in our arms as we hug them.

I invite you to be open. I invite you to open yourself to these feelings and to let them out. Cry. Wail. Talk about Hannah. Talk about how you love her.

Notice I said love, and not loved. There is no past tense with love. Love doesn’t end with death, it just changes shape. Where before the shape was the size of Hannah, now it has to expand. It has to get big enough for us to include each other in it. Every person here has a tiny bit of Hannah in them. When we share our grief with each other, we are also sharing Hannah with each other.

Open up. Don’t close yourself off.

Our society teaches silence and stoicism. Our society teaches us to have a stiff upper lip and that big boys don’t cry. Our society is full of it.

Cry. Let it out. Let it out because that grief will hold you back from life. That grief will hold you back from love.

That grief, locked up, will hold you down under the waves for so long that you’ll stop being able to breathe. That grief, locked up, will kill you. Maybe not literally, but you’ll be dead just as certainly as you would be if you drowned. Grief, locked up, leads to a certain half-life, a certain zombie like existence. Grief, locked up, only delays the pain, it doesn’t get rid of it. Let it out, and live.

Let it out because you have to. Let it out because you must, because you love Hannah.

Talk about her. Celebrate her life. Celebrate the time she spent with you and everything you did together. Do something in honor of her, something that you both enjoyed doing together. Donate to a charity in her name. Plant a tree. Paint. Write. Dance.

Many people say that to show joy in grief is to show disrespect to the person you are grieving for. I say that to not show joy is to not show the love you have for her.

We grieve deeply because we love deeply.

Be open. Be open because you love Hannah.

Peace be with you.

(Written as a eulogy for a young mother who died tragically.)

A study of suffering, and a call to love it.

Something I’ve gleaned from reading Buddhist texts is that the way to move past suffering is to study it. Don’t avoid it. Go to the source of it and really dig down. Ask yourself “Why do I feel this way? Where does this feeling come from?” Find the source and root it out. This is opposite how the Western world thinks. We are more into the idea of not talking about it and it will go away. Sometimes we think we’ll be better off if we deal with it another day – and we think that every day. In that way you never make time to work on the problem so it just keeps getting bigger.

The idea of reincarnation that is offered to us in Hinduism tells us that if you don’t fix it you will live it again. Every new lifetime is the sum of all the past lifetimes. If you live selfishly you will not have a very good rebirth. Another way of thinking that they offer us is an aspect of the Divine called Ganesh. He has the head of an elephant. He is known as the remover of obstacles. He doesn’t walk around the problem – he goes right through it. By going right through it, he makes it possible to have a better rebirth. We are to follow his example and not avoid problems.

What if your next life is really tomorrow? What if instead of focusing on an afterlife, we use these ideas to work on the current one we have? Heaven isn’t a proven thing. But this life is – so it seems useful to try to make the best of it here. We are told that those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it. Why not study your own history to see if there are any trends that keep popping up that aren’t helpful?

This is totally not the Western way. It also seems counterintuitive to turn into our own pain and our own problems. It seems like human nature to turn away from pain and seek pleasure. But what if the turning away ends up creating even more pain in the future? Scientists have shown that all the foods we crave when we are depressed actually make us more depressed. To get out of that rut we have to fight against part of our hard-wiring. Instead of reaching for potatoes and macaroni and cheese when we are down, we are better off if we go for a walk and eat an apple.

Jesus said to love your enemies. What if that also meant to love what is dark about yourself? Look at what you turn away from. Study it. Go into this with the knowledge that you are loved and forgiven – you are not alone. Whatever you find there in those dark spots may be scary at first, but if you stay with that feeling and really study what you find there you’ll find it isn’t as bad as you thought. Ignorance isn’t bliss. The more you do this the easier it gets. It creates its own energy. It is like cleaning house, but for your soul.

One great way to study these dark places is to journal. Julia Cameron talked about the idea of “morning pages” in her book “The Artist’s Way.” She says that you should write three pages every morning, without fail. Write about anything. Write about how much you hate to write. Write about what you see jumbled around you in your bedroom. Write about what you hope the day will be like. But just write, and write three pages. This exercise really shakes things loose and gets things started.

Writing a few pages every day is one of the most helpful ways to really dig into things. It is also a great way to see trends. If you are constantly writing that it is time to start that project, then you will notice that you need to put a little more energy into it. If you are constantly writing that your friend is always lying and stealing from you then it is time to find a new friend. Journaling is a good way to unwind and a great way to plan ahead. It is good for stress reduction and stress prevention.

Another way to work on problems is to doodle. “Praying in Color” by Sybil MacBeth introduces the idea that you can pray while drawing. Praying is a way of connecting with Truth. Praying is a way of understanding things in a deeper way. It is a way of getting outside of your own head and connecting with something a lot bigger. Praying is about digging deeper.

MacBeth says that you don’t have to be an artist at all to do this. You can take colored pencils or markers and just start making marks on the paper. There doesn’t have to be a plan for it. In fact, it is better if there is no plan. This isn’t about what you draw, but about what goes on in your head while you draw. The lines are not a map so much as the vehicle itself. Just think about the issue. Hold it in your head. And start drawing. Doodle around. Let the lines go where they will. Pick up another color if feel like it. See where the lines and your thoughts go. If you notice that you are going off from the subject, gently draw yourself back. One helpful thing is to write the intention in the center of the page and doodle around it. Something will come to you that will help you.

Walking is helpful too. I’ve learned that often things sort themselves out while I’m walking. This has to be walking that has no other distractions. Listening to an iPod is a distraction. I’m starting to think that reading fiction or watching movies all the time is also a distraction. It feels like they are ways to avoid dealing with what is here right now.

Nothing solves itself instantly. There are very few sudden insights to be found where the problem is instantly solved. But this is more like water working on a stone. The problem has grown over the years due to inattention. It will take a while to dislodge. But the more you work on it, gently, consistently, the more it will get smaller and more manageable. It is worth the effort.

Broken? Perhaps it is an opening.

I’ve read that the Japanese like to take an old clay pot or cup that has chips and cracks and “aggrandize” it by adding gold to the cracks. This doesn’t hide the cracks at all – but it certainly makes the pot or cup stronger. It makes the item more beautiful as well. I’ve also read that they also have an idea called “wabi-sabi” where things that are a little “off” are seen as more beautiful than things that are perfect. The idea is that old, worn, slightly unbalanced or otherwise imperfect items have more charm than mass-produced, exactly similar items. I’m totally going by memory here on these things, so if you want more info, please look it up.
And I was also thinking about “Ephphtha” – “Be opened” that Jesus said to a blind man.

I feel that our burdens are the way for God to get in.

I’m reminded of the story of another blind man, one who was blind since birth. Jesus healed him, and his disciples said “Who sinned, him or his parents?” and Jesus said that “No one sinned. He was born blind so that God’s will
might be made manifest in him.”

I’m intrigued by the idea is that this guy’s weakness/disability/burden turned out to be a way for God to get in and show how awesome God is. Sounds a little weird – this guy suffered with blindness, and in those days most likely social ostracism, just so God could show off. This is something I am still working on.
However, where I’m going right now with this is that it also shows that weakness can be what gets us to ask for help.

I’ve read recently “When our burdens bring us to our knees, we are in the perfect position to pray.”
I’ve realized that we usually call for help when we are over our heads. We call when there is a big storm coming – a tornado threatening to tear down our houses. We call when there is a diagnosis of a chronic disease – that too threatens us in the same way. Our well-laid plans for our futures are looking a little shaky. Our goals and dreams that we built as walls against boredom and obscurity are about to be swept up like so much drywall and vinyl siding in a Tennessee summer storm.

We are really good at calling for help when we feel threatened. We often make promises while hiding in the basement during the storm, or laying on the hospital bed in the ER. I promise to be nicer to my neighbors. I promise to stop smoking and start exercising. I promise to be more generous.
When the storm passes and the diagnosis comes back to be not so bad, do we remember those promises? Do we honor them? How many of those conversations are we going to have with our Creator/our conscience that don’t result in change?

Then I see people who are really burdened. It looks like the weight of the world is on them. Obese, reeking of alcohol, angry at their children and spouse. Some people just seem like they walked off the set of Jerry Springer. I used to look at them and think “why can’t you just pull yourself together? “ I saw their “sins”, their weaknesses, as signs of a lack of willpower.

I had a lot of the same problems. I was not just overweight. I was obese. I smoked pot up to three times a day. I’d gotten to the point that I couldn’t fall asleep without smoking. I smoked clove cigarettes too. I ate fried foods and if I ate vegetables, they were fried too. Exercise? Hah! How could I afford that? How could I do it, when my knees hurt so much?

Then something happened. I’m going to say it was the grace of God. Somehow, in the middle of all that mess, God woke me up and showed me a new way. I discovered water aerobics at the Y. I figured out that if I ate 2 frozen dinners a week at work instead of eating lunch out, I’d have the money to afford to go. I decided to have organic vegetarian dinners, so that added to the benefit. Then I realized that the extra time I got from not driving to a restaurant meant I had a longer lunch. I started walking for 20 minutes at lunch. I’m grateful there is a nice little park just out the back door of my work. It has always been there – I just never took advantage of it. It is as if I didn’t have eyes to see it. I was blind too, in my own way.

Now I see the burdens people have as their way out.

They aren’t stumbling blocks, so much as stepping stones. They can trip us up, or raise us higher.