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Thank God!

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I’ve noticed something lately that I wish I’d noticed a long time ago.  Maybe if I’d been listening in church as a kid I would have learned it then, but I was too starry eyed– staring at the blues in the stained glass, dreaming about all the things there were to dream about.  That’s what church was for me:  a time to dream.  And believe.  And feel tucked into community between my loving mother and father, to harmonize on good old fashioned hymns, and to take the Holy Eucharist and really believe I was having a feast with my other loving parent:  The Big Guy.  Who somehow could make himself small too, wafer and wine-sized that fit into the cup of my soft little girl fingers.  I was always so thankful for that.  It was the thing that stood out for me Sunday after Sunday:  God could be bigger than the night sky, and small enough to rest on my tongue and be swallowed down with sweet communion wine.  I learned to be grateful because of the Holy Eucharist.

Somewhere along the line, I started expecting things to happen.  And I lost much of my gratitude.  I guess they call that entitlement.  It’s a highly unattractive quality, and one to skip at all costs if you can.  I started to get easily angered when the smallest hardships would happen.  Not the big things– those I took in slowly; piece meal.  I had faith that the Big Guy would handle that stuff.  I just had to pray for grace and for God’s “will” to be done.  That was what my sister, mother, and grandmothers told me, and I listened.  It was a much easier prayer than, “Gimme gimme gimme.”  But the small things…were another ball of wax.  I’d stub my toe and fling the F word.  I’d lose my place in line and want to make “a federal case” about it, bringing in words like “justice” and “fairness” and “wrong.”

Maybe it was because my parents had been brought up during the Depression and wanted my life to be light and blithe, but I don’t remember being taught the lesson that life is not fair.  There is no such thing as “fair.”  And if you think there is, you will suffer.  When people were mean to the little guy, I’d barge in and try to come to their rescue.  Or at least sit with them at lunch if I didn’t feel so brave.  When a kid would cheat in class and get an A to my B (especially when they cheated off of ME), I would fume in my diary, and fume in the school halls, and fume in general.  Sometimes I’d take it out on my Bichon Frise during our obligatory after-school walk around the block.  I’d tie him to a tree, and climb it and hide from the world.

Somewhere in the mix, my very best friends’ lost a sister and a father to cancer, and I realized that the safety I felt standing between my mother and father at church was not the rule.  It was the exception.  I was mad at the world.  Life wasn’t fair.  I did not feel grateful at all.  I felt duped.  The Communion wafer only worked in church.  So that meant…I was mad at God.

I brought my anger to a teacher in high school.  He said, “Well if you’re angry with God, that means you believe in Him.”  That really pissed me off.  I didn’t want to believe in a Creator who would be unfair.  And I took a long break from the whole mess.  I was mad at God, period.

I travelled around, studied other religions and spiritual texts, asked a lot of questions, and started writing books as a way to sort things through.  And somewhere after the birth of my first child, when everything was so pure and full of wonder and mystery and total surrender, gazing into the miracle of birth and new life, I realized…I wasn’t really mad at God.  I was mad at institutions:  school, family, church, society.  I felt like I’d been lied to.  Things didn’t all add up if you showed up a certain way in life.  They just didn’t.  There are no promises, no matter how good of a person you are, or how bad of a person you are.  Life happens.  Life is daily.  And life is painful.  And beautiful too.

And the only thing that made any sense at all was something that glimmered and winked at me from my past.  The Love message.  The Final Commandment.  So I took it and ran.  I wanted to forget about unfairness and suffering.  I just wanted to know what it was to live that final commandment.  I wanted to Love God, and my Neighbor, and maybe even in-so-doing…I’d learn that last little piece:  I’d learn to love Myself.

By and by, I had another child, and both of them grew, and I started to see them raging against a stubbed toe, or a mean girl comment to the underdog, or an injustice in the classroom, or a bad call on the soccer field,  or any number of “unfair” things life dished up.  And I sat them down and said, “I wish I’d have learned this a long time ago:  Life is neither fair.  Nor unfair.  Life is just life.”

They looked at me like I was an anarchist.  And maybe living into the Final Commandment renders a person just that.

“Stop expecting things to go a certain way.  Just love.  Be love.  Forgive.  And love some more,”  I said with the fervor of an Evangelical.  Maybe not the best way to sell a teen on something.

It fell flat.  In a kid’s mind, there’s no muscle in that way of thinking.  Because school teaches us that life is structured and the structure keeps us safe.  We get rewarded for certain behavior, and punished for others.  If we work hard, there are rewards.  If we look the part, we will be rewarded.  If we have certain types of friends and excel at certain types of activities, we are rewarded.  There is no Worst Student award.  There is no So You Had a Bad Year award.  There is no You Sat on the Bench award.  There is no You Eat Lunch Alone award.  You Didn’t Get Into Any of the Colleges You Applied To and Yer Going to the Community College award.  And yeah.  That sucks.  And the very best mothers, and teachers, and aunties will tell you:  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

But I want to teach something different.  I want to say that there aren’t lemons and there isn’t lemonade.  It’s all in your perspective.  That’s all.  For that I can breathe deep.  Feels good, doesn’t it.

So what does that look like in daily life?  Here’s how it played out last week and why I’m driven to write this post this Saturday morning in Montana, with the kids still asleep and no one rushing yet to get anywhere, on time, in uniform, to perform, to “battle,” to win…  Even when I say that it’s not about winning.  They hear Blah blah blah.  For now they are just quiet, and breathing, and warm in their beds and I’m on my second cup of tea, in my pajamas, with nowhere to go.  These are the moments to really receive what the week may have taught in the way of lessons.  And I got served up a good one.

I was having lunch with a friend and she was telling me about her divorce settlement.  She’d just finished her last mediation and she said it was the bravest she’d ever been.  They didn’t have the money to hire lawyers, so they negotiated the Parenting Plan, and all the division of assets, including the house, stock, back taxes…all of it…without any real legal counsel.  Just the mediator making sure they didn’t decapitate one another in the process, making minor suggestions based on who was crossing their arms in front of them and sneering.  “It was terrifying,” she said.  “But I got everything I wanted.  With the exception of my marriage.  But I guess that’s been over a long time.  It’s like a death, though.  You have to grieve.  You can’t skip steps.”  She sighed.  “But I think I came out okay in the settlement.  The mediator seemed to think so, anyway.  And my mother.”

“Thank God,” I caught myself saying.

She looked up at me with a sharpness in her exhausted, cried-out eyes.   “You know…why do we only thank God when things work out the way we want them to?  You know what I’ve learned in this whole divorce experience– watching my kids lose their core family, watching them have to accept another woman into their lives, watching them feel embarrassed in front of their friends, watching the break down of what was for years such a strong foundation…like trying to hold water.  Impossible.  You know what I’ve learned watching that water drain through my fingers no matter what I do to be a better vessel?  We don’t learn from the good times.  I didn’t learn anything from nice vacations to the tropics or years of perfect Christmas card photographs, or theme birthday parties all recorded for posterity’s sake to show what?  That we had something precious and beautiful and powerful and unshakeable?  No.  It didn’t end that way.  And what does that mean?  That we’re all fucked now?  That nothing from the past was real?  And that nothing in the future matters because the water fell through our hands and we couldn’t do a damn thing about it?  No.  No.  No.”

Her face was red and her breath shallow and I wanted to hug her, but I was sort of scared of her.  I’d never seen her so strong and present.  So I just sat there, waiting.  I knew I was about to learn something big if only I had my mind open and my heart wide.

“I’ve learned that the best Thank God we can utter is when things DON’T go the way we want them to.  When life serves up total and utter SHIT!  That’s the time to drop to our knees and say, Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.  Because that’s where the lessons are.  That’s when we grow.  That’s when we can really understand what it is to love in its most pure and simple way.”

I could feel myself resisting it.  Why don’t we want this to be true?  What are we so scared of?  I remembered the last night’s sunset and how it yielded to star after star popping into sight like, “hey– I was here the whole time, you just couldn’t see me.  Maybe you could remember a thing or two about holy mystery and all that dreaming at church you used to do.”  I had felt gratitude that night sitting there, parked by the meadow, watching night come.  But being grateful for divorce?  Or cancer?  Or death?  That takes a master.  Doesn’t it?

I gave it a whirl.  All week when things came up that I didn’t like or that felt uncomfortable or dangerous or just all wrong…I mouthed, “Thank God.”  When the toilet, dishwasher, and hot tub all broke in the same day, I mouthed, through clenched teeth, but still:   “Thank God.”  When I found a pack rat nest under the hood of my truck and black smoke billowed through the tail pipe, I screamed, “Thank God,” but it kind of sounded like a swear word.  Still.  When my kid threw up at school, I said, “Thank God,” and stocked up on chicken broth.  When I tried to release a mouse into my yard rather than snapping its neck with a conventional trap, and my dog attacked it…I whispered…”Thank God,” but with a question mark.  I decided there is no right Thank God.  It’s just an openness to the flow of life being exactly as it is, and even exactly as it should be, if you believe in should.  Or design.  But even if you don’t, gratitude busts through suffering, and I think we could all use a dose of that.

I’ve decided to try to get back to that little girl in church who didn’t necessarily need things to go a certain way.  In those days,  I had the safety of my mother and father and this Creator called God that the minister promised existed and on top of that, loved me.  That was all I needed.  That kind of blind faith is what I want back.  I don’t know who or what God is.  I’ve had hundreds of ideas about this subject for years.  When I was little I used to say, “But who is God’s God?”  I don’t want to have questions like that any more.  I like the mystery.  I often say to my kids, “If we’re supposed to know, we would.  Just receive the message.  Just love.  That’s hard enough.”

But does it have to be so hard?  I think the way to it being easy is in the spirit of what my friend taught me this week.  If we can find gratitude for EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING, and receive it as a holy gift…well, I dare say, with tears in my eyes and the tea kettle telling me there’s a third cup for me this fine Montana morning…that holy gift is the gift of freedom.  May you have thanks for everything that makes up this day.  And may you feel free in it.

 

 

 

 

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Breaking Point: #10

I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain.  My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone.  Thank you all for your bravery.  You are helping the world to heal.  

yrs. Laura

Today we have two Breaking Points.

One of desperation…

Submitted by: Victoria, in London

Sitting in the hall way of my small modern flat.  Just me.  Although the walls were bright, it was dark with no natural light.  The walls were moving in.

What were my choices, there must be choices.  Swinging my straggly hair and becoming aware of an odour I wondered when I last had a bath.  Did I need to do something?  It didn’t matter.  I could not do anything.  I would sit and wait.  And wait some more. Something would happen, it always did.

I could hear the buses in the road and was aware that life was carrying on outside.  Buses, bikes, cars, people bustling, on the way to and from the shops, the bus stop, the park, the library.  But nothing was changing.  It was still the same.  No one was coming to rescue me.  No one was going to knock on the door and solve everything.  If the phone rang I would not be able to ask for help, again.  I cannot ask.  Who would understand?

And what if I tell?  The look of pity and incredulity at my words would be the last pebble that made the earthquake begin.  And it may never stop.  Not ever and this may be the end of the world. The world which is my world which is the only world that I can know.  How am I supposed to know another person’s world, how is that possible?  Which brings me back to here.  And the walls and my bad hygiene because I have no energy to go the bathroom not 3 steps away.

Get the clothes and bury myself, pile them on myself and hide in them so that I do not exist, no one could see me if anyone was here.  Finally, I am not here I am sorted out and I am just a blouse, or a towel or a piece of fabric and no one can tell that I am in the pile of things so I can stay here forever, un noticed.

But no one is here.  And there is no one to see that I am not here.  I know that I am here and I still feel the same.

Nothing has changed, nothing is better and I cannot do this any longer.

And one of healing

Submitted by: Merris Doud

God helps us in times of need even when we want nothing more to do with Him. In my case, He used my dogs to help me through the days following the death of my daughter, Sarah.  I never blamed them, never questioned their love for Sarah or me, never felt anger towards them. They were the perfect instruments for God to use. In the split second that it took my brain to process the words “Sarah took her own life,” my world lost all meaning.  My husband, Mike, had taken the dogs to be boarded.  When I was able to move – to speak, I asked him to bring them home.  As I lay on my bed, feeling a brand of pain that I could never have imagined, the dogs ran in and excitedly jumped on the bed. They immediately sensed that something was horribly wrong and quietly settled, lightly molding their bodies against mine.   Soon they slipped into their afternoon routine, gently snoring as they napped.  They didn’t move; they didn’t speak; they didn’t cry.  They were just there, warm and alive and touching me. And it was comforting, so much more comforting than being told that Sarah’s death was God’s plan, that time would take the pain away, or that Sarah was now in a better place.

Throughout the months that followed, I moved through my days vowing never to love anyone or anything again.  The dogs were always there, either laying on the bed beside me or collapsed like speed bumps on the floor beneath my desk where I tried to work.

I begged anyone who would listen for an explanation, and it infuriated me when they shook their heads looking through me – offering nothing. I felt no such rage towards the dogs.  I asked them no questions; they gave me no answers.  I didn’t expect that from them.  They looked at me in the same way they always had – no pity in their eyes.  Nothing had changed in our relationship, no awkwardness – no impatience for me to get up and carry on.

One morning I woke up to find Maggie, the abandoned pup that Sarah had brought home, standing over me.  She cocked her head to the right then to the left. I swear she smiled as if to say, “There you are. I’ve missed you.”  And I felt something other than pain for the first time since Sarah died. Encouraged, Maggie bent over me, wagging her tailless backside with such vigor that she nearly toppled over. Then she began showering me with wonderful, wet kisses, her sweet puppy breath warm against my skin – awakening my capacity to love. Watching this action from the foot of the bed, Annie, who Sarah had rescued from an animal shelter, jumped up and joined in, happy that we were kissing again.

I believe that was when I started to heal.  Not then, but now I see that in that moment , God revealed to me that there was still joy in my world – not joy as pure as before,  for it would always be filtered through the pain of losing Sarah, but it was there, nonetheless. Both Maggie and Annie are gone now, their purpose fulfilled.  They were special dogs whose lives began as unwanted strays and ended as the esteemed channels that God used to touch me and give me a glimpse of hope.  For without hope – without love, we’re just passing time – waiting for the lights to go out.

For Annie and Maggie

I miss you guys

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Stop the Clocks

clock
Stop the Clocks
by Laura A. Munson
(for Erin and Caden)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

People die here in ways they probably don’t where you live. To grizzly bear. Mountain lion. Horse…mountain bike…mule pack…off a cliff, launching their humans, avian, for one last adrenaline rush. An avalanche. A capsized river raft or kayak and a class four rapid and a rock or a log jam. A tipped canoe too early or late in the season on a frigid lake. Tractors, chain saws, timbering trees in the forest, no wood for winter for the ones back home. Deer, elk, moose on the lightless almost-empty country roads…right through the window shield into suddenly pulse-less laps. It hurts to think of all the dead in those moments that go so readily from brave to gone. But we like to call these, somehow, good deaths.
People almost die here all the time, and there are hero’s tales at the bar every night that end in toasting and another round and bragging and laughter, like little boys who have stolen something from the school gym. What doesn’t kill you here, does not necessarily make you stronger. It makes you lucky that you got away with being so brave.
Sometimes it makes you a voyageur. Journey-man. Rich in maybe not moral compass, but clairvoyance when it comes to the ways of mountains, creatures, waters, trees, wind, snow, heavy machinery. But still, even with intuition and bravery, in this country, there is an element of dumb luck to your survival. Put it this way: An agoraphobe doesn’t last long in this neck of the woods.
However you choose to describe us in death, there are a lot of ashes sprinkling the forest floors here, sent from not-so-brave, not-so-unlucky hands. Grief hits hard in our little valley. So many ways to live. And die trying.
Shocking then, when the mountains, lakes, rivers, and creatures and trees and machines seem unimpressed. Cold. Cruel. They didn’t ask us to be here. It’s we who came to them. We who invented some things that made it possible to go where we weren’t supposed to go in the first place. Helicopters. Boots. Polypropylene. But they don’t always save us in the end.
You fool.
You beautiful brave unlucky fool. You had a good death. You died with purpose. Doing what you loved. Getting after it, people like to say around here. We’ll say that about you. We’ll need to. We’re getting good at it.
But what will we say about the lives we lost this last day of winter? What will we possibly say?
The Jehovah Witnesses knock at my door and I hide and am glad I’ve got requiem blaring from my stereo. I might not be the only house today that is playing funeral dirges. I hide, still in my pajamas, still without breakfast or clean teeth, and hope they don’t get stuck in the icy steep of my snow-bermed driveway. Again.
Last time I had to spend an hour with them waiting for the tow truck to talk their sedan back from the ridge where it had attempted to jump, head first. I felt like my angle on Jesus might have embarrassed them a little. Trespassing against us, such as they do.
Today the flyer that prowls though the crack in my door has a strapping, well-fed on red meat, Jesus on the cover holding an immodest glass of wine. Blood. Lots of blood in this Jesus.
A car scratches down the driveway without snow tires. I peer out the door at my golden retriever, wagging his tail after it. He liked the man in the long wool coat with the shiny leather shoes. But wonders why he didn’t lean down for a quick good dog and a pat on the head like the UPS driver, the propane guy, the Culligan guy, the FedEx guy, the neighbor who delivers the eggs, the teenager who brings wood with his buddy, mid-winter.
And I wonder if the Jehovah Witness thinks he’s brave. All those doors and dogs. And today, all the dirges. Maybe doors will fling open today, and weeping young people will lift fists at his shiny shoes on their winter-strewn front stoops. Rage at his red-blooded Jesus and all his wine.
There is nothing that helps us with these deaths. They’re deaths we aren’t used to. We have nothing to frame them by—no sense to make of them– nothing that will gather us at the side of a mountain or have us huddled in the woods, somehow thinking about good ways to die. People who didn’t believe in God, are mad at God. People who did believe in God are mad at God.
We reach to out-of-towners for solace and understanding– who live near highways…busy highways…highways that bear commuters and constant chains of serious voyageurs—people who know that there are weak links every day in that chain. It’s their common practice to expect the ringing phone to bring them news they dread…but will swallow…eventually, or maybe even at once, as the way of the world. There will be a proper burial with just family and close friends. They’ll gather in churches, in black, ashes to ashes in a little urn. A party afterward where people will drink wine and plenty of them will get drunk and cry, but no one will talk about a good death. It’s a normal death. A normal tragedy.
Not this.
This was no regular death. This was no normal death. Not to us. Just because it happened on the busiest strip of highway we know.
So I’ll refrain from telling you for a moment more, how she died. They died. How our pregnant she and her thirteen year old son died. On the last day of winter. Here where we live. Because I can’t bear your reaction: Well, accidents like that happen. Dime a dozen. Still, tragic.. And then you’ll launch into all your people, lost on pavement.
I don’t want to feel so normal.
I don’t.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

I’ll add to Auden because it’s the only way I can imagine being brave right now, hiding from the solicitors in a snowstorm on this second day of spring:
Pack up the machines. The inventions.
Bring out the bears.
Wake up and beckon us.
Make us come naked. Without boots.
Make us see how far we can get. And watch us stop and cry.
Because it’s not so very far without boots.
Then comfort us where we fall. By wandering past us.
Sniffing our punctured, leaking bravery. And what’s left of our luck.
Tell us you don’t have the appetite for fools. Even beautiful ones.
Make us listen to the shivering birds.
Who’ve come back, knowing there would be snow and little food.
Make us listen…to the shivering birds.
And mourn now. Normally.
Shivering in the woods.
Knowing that spring will unravel now.
Whether or not we join it.

For however else can we understand a head-on collision on the highway? When a purportedly suicidal sixteen year old, in a fight with her boyfriend, catapults her Pontiac Grand Am into oncoming traffic, and hits a Subaru Forester, holding a pregnant woman, and her thirteen year old son, coming back from a band concert on a Thursday night. In Montana. mother and babe

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