Lost at the maul

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I’ll date myself with this reference, but remember that time you couldn’t find your car in the mall parking lot a few days before Christmas? Yes, kids, there was a time in a suburb far, far away where humans drove to a large shopping complex to purchase things. Anyway, you older species know the feeling I’m talking about – wandering around helplessly certain that your car is in the next row. Only it’s not.

It’s maddening and frustrating and can even make you feel a bit panicky. You just want to find your damn car and go home. Well, that’s how I’ve felt since early Monday morning when I learned of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I want to stop rambling around lost.

My dear wife and I turned on the Today show at 7 AM as we most often do on weekdays to see the ominous crawl on the screen – BREAKING NEWS. That term has become so overused – especially in the age of Trump where almost every cockamamie tweet is considered BREAKING NEWS. But this BREAKING NEWS was so big that they had to give it a name like a movie title – DEADLY LAS VEGAS SHOOTING – and a dramatic background score – as if the horrific news of someone mowing down innocent folks with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons at an outdoor concert would not get our attention.

Today show

Matt and Savannah had their game faces on – it was all grim news with no amusing repartee with Al about the weather or Hoda with a feel-good story. This was grisly – the largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States – surpassing last year’s largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States in Orlando.

I watched the first twenty minutes or so of the broadcast and then looked at my phone to check Facebook and Twitter. Before the sun had come up on the dead in Las Vegas, people were already posting rants about stricter gun laws. People always post those types of things after a mass shooting but Monday’s posts seemed different to me – they were angrier and many contained the phrase – “save your thoughts and prayers.” And this was all before I had even brushed my teeth.

Throughout the day I continued to see this sentiment expressed on social media – bag your thoughts and prayers and work for stricter gun control laws. The wrath felt personal to me because I felt like that’s all I had to offer – my own thoughts and prayers – which I pretty much kept to myself all day.

Midmorning, my church sent out an email letting members know that the sanctuary would be open all day if we needed a place to sit and pray and that there would be a Liturgy for the Violence in Las Vegas offered later in the evening. It comforted me to know that there was a place to go to mourn communally. I strongly felt the need to be with others – to be with the living – but then I kept seeing the barrage of posts on social media decrying over and over that “prayer doesn’t change things.”

It made me sad, and honestly, a little mad.

Well, no, prayer can’t change 59 dead and almost 500 wounded. Prayer isn’t a do-over – or a naïve pass on the horrors of this world. Prayer alone doesn’t have the power to change things. God knows, if it did, we’d need a lot more churches. I only know that prayer changes me. For starters – it makes me shut the fuck up – which is no small thing. It makes me be quiet and consider the absurd possibility that I might not know everything. Prayer makes me be still and listen – to myself and the world around me. Sometimes prayer makes me feel better – other times it leaves me empty and confused. I just know that it rarely leaves me unexamined.

I get it – this backlash against the rote sentiments of “thoughts and prayers” – especially when they are offered by the same elected officials who bank roll their campaigns with blood money from the NRA. But for me, there has to be a place for prayers in all of this babel. What is the alternative? The purgatory of never finding my car?

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Photo credit: Jayme Lemons

My friend Kevin is an Episcopal priest and I found a lot of comfort in his Facebook post on Monday. I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing it – I’ll ask for forgiveness if he does.

The moment we decry prayers and remembrances for the dead because those acts won’t change things is the moment the dead, wounded, and their families and friends stop being people and become political objects. Can we at least wait until tomorrow before we strip them of their humanity? Besides, sometimes, mourning and praying have to change us before we are ready to change the world.

Amen, Kevin. Amen.

I’ll no doubt soon return to ranting on Facebook – I find it to be therapeutic – like a cyber wailing wall. And I’ll work on changing the world, too, but today I’m tired and weary and feeling a little hopeless. And I think it’s okay to stay there for a bit.

I also think poetry can be a form of prayer and I often turn to it when I am grieving. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and I ran across the poem below that says just about everything I wish I could say in a prayer. I offer it to you simply as nothing more than a map.

Lead

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

 

loon

 

 

 

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Rendezvous with grace

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Last night I met a rock star. Well, not in the traditional sense of the term but in my world, a supernova.

I met the author Anne Lamott. She was speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of their Visiting Writers Series and before the program began, she simply walked out into the audience – no introduction, just started strolling down one of the aisles, shaking hands, signing books and posing for photos.

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Anne Lamott. I love this face. Illustration by Jillian Yamaki, The New York Times.

She was in the section reserved for VIP’s but my friend, Lyz, and I broke ranks and slipped in for our close encounter with grace. There I was standing right in front of one of my very favorite authors and I, the clever one with all of the witty retorts, just froze.

Actually, I melted – into a puddle of salt.

Before you write me off as a post-menopausal ninny or worse, a literary stalker, let me give you some context for my emotional tsunami.

I’ve known about Anne Lamott since 1994 when I read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s an amazingly personal book about, well, writing, of course, but so much more. She shares her approach to writing but she also writes about her life – warts and all – in a remarkably honest and often wickedly funny way.

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My well-worn copy.

She says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

I do hope a few of you are squirming nervously now.

No, really, I don’t hold grudges. (Insert Muttley laugh.)

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Be kind to your writer friends.

I dreamed about being a writer back then and I was mesmerized with her words. Mesmerized but not motivated to really write. I was in my late 30’s in a long-term relationship and had a loving and supportive family, premium cable and a good job that I liked a lot. I was leading a happy but seriously unexamined life.

In short, I didn’t have much to write about.

Be careful what you wish for.

A decade or so later, after losing my parents and my partner and perhaps a bit of my mind, I returned to Anne Lamott. And there she was – just like a trusted bestie you would share your heart with over coffee at the kitchen table.

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Oprah loves Anne, too.

I picked up her book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, and it was a balm to my scabby soul. I kept that book by my bedside and read it and reread it as I navigated my way back to myself – and to God.

I clung to her nuggets of wisdom like a seagull to a Cheeto. Pearls like this, “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.”

And this, “I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.”

Yes. I remember reading that passage and thinking that that’s exactly how I was feeling. “Me, too.”

And last night, this was Lamott’s advice to writers – to write what you would like to come upon. Write what is the best medicine for you and maybe through a little grace, someone reads your words and says, “Me, too.”

This was certainly the case for me and her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. This book taught me how to pray. Maybe taught is not the right word. This book gave me permission to pray in my own way – my own messy unorthodox way.

Disclaimer: I’m an Episcopalian and we don’t really talk much about praying. That’s why we have the Book of Common Prayer chocked full of liturgy to follow. We don’t go rogue.

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This became my book of uncommon prayer.

Lamott writes, “You might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, ‘I hate you, God,’ That is a prayer too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you have had in months.”

I read these words and thought, “Me, too.” And my aching loneliness seemed bearable in that moment.

Her words made me feel heard and there is no possible way to teach that in a writing class.

So when I found myself standing before this dear friend who I had never met but who had been with me through some of my darkest ugly cry hours, I crumbled. It was like having a reiki session in front of 1500 people, only Anne Lamott and I were the only ones in the room.

I really did panic for a moment when I couldn’t get my mouth to form words. She took my hand and I think I managed to gurgle out, “Thank you.” She looked into my eyes and smiled sweetly and held my hand for what felt like a long time. And then I felt my other hand raise and gently touch her cheek.

To her credit, she did not scream for security, she just softly nodded like she knew exactly what I was thinking in that moment.

It was as if she were saying, “Me, too.”

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When Addy met Anne.