Memorial garden

After more shifts than usual last week doing hospital chaplaincy, I have a few days off. I woke to spring sunshine and went for a walk in Nelson Woods — the woodland that adjoins our house. Last year I began a memorial garden there. The space is where I lay rocks or pine cones or other natural objects in my own ritual to honor patients whose deaths have particularly affected me. When I do that, I also symbolically release them. I turn the burden of sorrow into the blessing of memory. 

Mind you, I no longer remember all the names except the most recent ones or the ones that really stand out. I do remember RB, who was my age, grew up in my Chicago neighborhood, and whose cousin I knew. That patient inspired me to begin this garden. Another stone is for R, who died in the pediatric emergency room on a night when I had to respond to three children’s deaths. 

Today I lay a snail shell I happened to find in the woods to memorialize a patient who died of Covid-19, the first such death I handled. Many will remember that person, who functioned in a large network of people. Now I am a part of that group who mourn their passing.

I have never forgotten John Donne’s famous reflection that “any man’s death diminishes me” since I first read Donne decades ago. He wrote that in 1624 after recovering from an illness that was affecting fellow Londoners. As a chaplain who regularly meets people at the end of their lives, as well as their families, I am regularly diminished. Yet I have also learned that I am not called to cry for every single person. The psychological skill of boundary-setting has been challenging for me, a lifelong bleeding-heart liberal, but life-saving. 

I can only read so many stories about people dying of Covid-19. I want those who have died to be mourned rightly by those with whose lives they are intertwined. But I also have my own business to attend to. In the hospital, I am called to another patient whenever the pager rings. 

Another poem I read at the same time I studied John Donne’s devotional thought was Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, written in 1938 as Europe was sliding into the global conflagration of WWII. Reflecting on the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the poet observes how in the face of a disaster — a boy falling from the sky — “dogs go on with their doggy life” and a ship at sea near the fallen figure “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus.jpg

We can mourn. We can remember. We can be diminished. We have somewhere to get to and are sailing, not always calmly, on.

Quaker query: How can I balance my diminishment with my need to sail on?

Handy term

Interbeing sounds like an abstract term, but I saw it in action at the grocery store yesterday. Interbeing is a concept at the heart of the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat’s Hanh’s teaching. It means that everything is interconnected and interdependent. Interconnection is a lot easier to see during a pandemic (the Greek root of “pandemic” means “all people,” so there’s a hint).  

For the first time ever, I used one of those sanitary wipes on the shopping cart I took. I kept my gloves on to touch certain things. What somebody else touches, I touch too. What somebody else needs, I do too. The shopping cart handle connects us. So does our need for extra nonperis image.pnghable goods. So do door handles of retail shops, and the handles on sinks in public bathrooms after we have washed our hands.

This could easily become an anxious list of what we literally hold in common. But I choose to think of it as a reminder of interdependence, common goods, and common good. Somebody else’s hands were on what I use. Somebody obviously made the goods I purchase. A lot of things in daily life are hands-on: made by hands (which often operate machines that make), taken up by hands. 

Interbeing is both simple and profound, one of those Zen koan things for these stay-at-home times. We’re all in this together. 

The Still Days

After the service of Holy Thursday, lights dim to shadowMichelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Entombment_-_WGA04148, and sound ceases: no organ, no bells, no singing. We mark the three-day passion, death, and entombment of Jesus in silence. In earlier times, these were known as the Still Days. No sound until Easter morning, when we, like Mary, will discover that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Yet until we learn that, time is interminable and still. The three days that mark the nadir of the liturgical year for all Christians are days of betrayal, agony, suffering, death. How could that be? Jesus’ followers must have wondered at the terrible turn of events: a close aide betrays him, his frightened friends scatter and hide. The man whose words drew crowds is tortured and crucified, bearing a painful and humiliating punishment that brazenly trumpets the mightiness of the Powers That Be over the lowly people to whom Jesus gave bread and hope.

We reflect on this on the still days, in the quiet. We are alone; where is the Lord? They have seized him, they have murdered him. Stillness is the frame for tears, anxiety, fears, despair. The minutes of the still days stretch on. The sun will not set; sleep will not come.

As a follower in mourning, what would I have done? Walked, I think, down dirt paths and byways, trying to hide, in order to be alone and weep, trying to somehow run fast enough to run back into the past, before the horror happened and the world was not rent, like the curtain in the temple. On the still days, sorrow muffles any feeble words that might offer consolation but utterly fail.

We wait in the still days for the time to pass, the air to move. We wait for nothing, hearts broken, numbed, dazed, cried out.

What next? No answer. Only stillness.

These Shoes Are Made

The Buddha was asked, “What do you and your disciples practice?” and he replied, “We sit, we walk, we eat.” The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats.” The Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh*

I think about shoes a fair amount. I don’t collect them like Imelda Marcos, the Philippine dictator’s wife, did. I don’t have room nor do I really follow this year’s shoes or clothes or handbags. But in my calculus, shoes are a little different than the average consumer possession. My shoes have to fit me well and comfortably (my feet are narrow), they can’t be made by teenagers in Asia who don’t make very much money for their work, and I prefer nonleather because I’m a vegetarian. I will also confess to some vague fashionista sensibility, albeit Quakerly; I avoid sensible shoes that proclaim just how dowdy and eco-friendly they are.

I always look around carefully when I need a new pair, and have over time become flexible. It’s hard to find nonleather shoes that meet the other two criteria, despite diligent hunting. I recently took an ethics course at the seminary I attend, which has turned out to be very useful for everyday life. Through it I learned how to analyze what good things were at issue (all three of these criteria) and what my choices were (leather or cloth, more or less affordable), weigh all that, and then choose.

I took the course at a graduate school away from my home, and for my trip I brought along three pairs of shoes: boots (the day I left the snow and cold were so awful they closed the interstate); flats (pretty, practical, and made of expensive leather); walking shoes.

The walking shoes belonged to my late older sister, Barbara. When we sorted through the clothes she left (and she didn’t have many pairs of shoes either), I had a clear memory of these on her feet as she came to my house for a holiday dinner. The shoes made me imagine her being alive and able to walk into my house again. So I took a few pairs of shoes and shirts to keep her close to me in a sense and to walk a mile in her shoes. Literally. They were free, they were made of cloth and quite gently used, and they were comfortable. Perfect. I snagged them, cried the first time I put them on, replaced the flimsy black laces with neon pink ones, and wore them.

They’ve held up well, and I’ve walked miles in her shoes through several seasons, a few different cities, and a couple seminary courses. Most recently I wore them while studying in Puerto Rico. I figured they would be good hiking shoes for El Yunque National Forest, lighter to pack, and an irrational yet convenient way of bringing her along to share the adventure. El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the US forest system. It rains a lot (an average of 120 inches a year), and so the ground is usually wet, and mucky-muddy at its wettest. I liked the feeling of nimbleness the shoes gave me on sometimes slick paths. But they weren’t the best choice to negotiate off-path diversions – let me see, what is THAT flower? – unless I was willing to risk treading in the mire.

Lured by exotic blooms, I eventually succumbed to temptation and plunged in to the mud to inspect the flora more closely. The shoes may be ruined, I reasoned, but why not sacrifice them to the gods of El Yunque, one of whom is Yuracan, the god of hurricanes. At journey’s end, the mud clung stubbornly to my shoes, and I decided to bring them home to see if they could be saved by diligent cleaning. To my surprise, they cleaned up well, and now await new destinations.

Have I baptized them in mud and made them mine? At what point do memories fade or mutate? Do these shoes remind me of my sister? The mud and flowers of a tropical rain forest? Or are they just shoes, with neither memory nor meaning attached?

I have done walking meditation in the style of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh around my neighborhood and at a Buddhist retreat. You wouldn’t think it could possibly be challenging to put one foot in front of the other, step after step, something people have a lifetime’s experience of doing. But walking with conscious awareness is different and can be difficult.

Breathing in, I breathe in memories;

Breathing out, I let go.

Breathing in, my sister walks with me;

Breathing out, she is with the communion of saints.

Breathing in, I can remember the blooms of a rain forest;

Breathing out, I see the sidewalk beneath my feet.

Breathing in, I walk to a destination;

Breathing out, I walk with God.

*Source: The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996