Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

Archive for the category “thoughts”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bad movies and honesty. Oy Vey.

So this week, for my Christian Ethics class, we were asked to watch one of three films about the Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was obligated to go for the only one that was free, on youtube, titled or found after a search labled as Bonhoeffer.

Here is what I was asked:

What is the most salient part of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought for you? How would you see yourself sharing this with your community of faith?

Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this question. Having watched Bonhoeffer, my first moment of total disconnect occurred when his Jewish relatives were grousing about ‘deception’ in their false papers to leave Germany. The next occurred in the (however brief) ethical struggle Bonhoeffer appeared to have over A) lying to the government and B) assassinating Hitler. By ‘disconnect’ I mean yelling at the movie and pausing it to search for the other films on option for this week (I was unable to find or view them). And the disconnect involved some spontaneous, if not necessarily kind, dark humor.

Jews trying to flee Germany were trying to flee Germany. Lying to the Nazis, I would respectfully argue, was not even a tertiary concern for someone who needed to escape that kind of genocidal insanity. It would not have been a concern at all for me and in fact I hope I would always have the spine and the facility to lie to any human being seeking the death and destruction of other human beings be it in Nazi Germany, Peru, Guatemala or South Africa. My only priority would have been to lie effectively. And while I agree with the combat veterans who have nurtured and protected and taught me all my life, that I have no way of knowing what I would do in a killing scenario, I would volunteer to kill Hitler any day of the week. This includes any eventuality of having to actually do it myself. Could I? I cannot say 100%. Would I try? Hell, yes.

I am an ethnic Jew. I am alive today, and my family is alive today because while we descend from Prussian Jews, my grandmother was born in the US. Here is, from my compiled understanding of a variety of sources, what would have happened if she had been born in her grandmother’s native Prussia.

  1. Declaration under the “racial purity” laws that my great grandmother and grandmother were Jews.
  2. Various penalties on my great-grandfather (Episcopalian) and my grandfather (Roman Catholic) for marrying and producing children with Jews.
  3. Deportation of my grandmother, my Aunt Carole—a toddler in 1939—and my mom, either a newborn or “in utero” as it were (Mom was born in 39) to a concentration camp. Possibly deportation of my grandfather and great grandfather but that is a murky area.
  4. Immediate ‘selection’ upon arrival at death camp. As a pregnant or nursing mother with a second small child that (almost always) meant instant execution, either shooting, primitive gas chamber, or an ‘advanced’ gas chamber and crematorium system.

And I would not be here engaged in the pursuit of ministry. I would not be here trying to work past what I must confess as a sort of dismissal of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would never have been born at all, nor would my cousins, or my uncle.–And if my husband had been born 15 years earlier, he would have been murdered at birth because of his heart condition.

I have debated posting this particular response. I understand that hindsight is 20/20. I also understand that Bonhoeffer stood up for what he believed was right (please forgive my massive and shameless simplification) and died a painful and humiliating death for it. I do not want to dismiss him, or undervalue his contributions to Christianity. I find myself with a great deal of respect and humility towards a man who, at least in his portrayals, tried to live and die as Christ would have—which was different from the way that many Christians survived World War II in Germany.

And, I truly beg forgiveness for belaboring this: I am not a Christian. As a pagan, as a woman, as an ethnic Jew and an ethnic Celt, I think I might well draw more ‘salient’ figures and their example before my congregation some day—some of them Christian, some of them not. Hypatia of Alexandria, Harriet Tubman, the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Hannah Sezenes who parachuted behind axis lines as saboteurs, spies and resistance fighters—few of her compatriots survived.1 Yet, as a Druid, and a UU I have a joint obligation to remember and share Bonhoeffer’s story because both those hearts of my religious belief place enormous importance on preserving history, sharing history, the right of conscience, and the inherent worth and dignity of every soul. So how would I ever be right in dismissing or belittling Bonhoeffer’s stand on opposing Hitler and the Nazi’s? But how do I fully relate to his moral compunctions because while I respect them, lying and assassination would have been acceptable factors with me in terms of resisting Hitler?

So I feel conflicted because especially when viewed through a modern cinematic attempt (at what, I think remains debatable; this was not a good film), the most salient aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life is both incredibly profound and appreciated—standing up to Hitler at the cost of his freedom and life. Yet in comparison to what even Anne Frank and her family endured, in comparison to resistance by the enslaved or marginalized before World War II and during, I know there are other stories I would almost always share with a congregation before Bonhoeffer’s.

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Szenes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

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Jesus and Poop

So recently I commented on a friend’s Facebook post about our Illustrious Congress, particularly Michelle Bachman: “Jesus would respond to people who say things like that by administering an enema.”

My friend and I had a very forthright discussion about it and their reasons for asking me to take the comment down were valid and because this person remains a respected mentor and friend, even if their stance had NOT been valid, ‘it’s on my page I do not like it it is going down’ was all they ever would have needed to say.

The whole thing, however, got me thinking. Snark, after all, is my life. I depend on it to keep my blood pressure low, plant subversive ideas into the public consciousness, and get attention –what, reader, you think I would not admit it? So had I just indulged in the most shocking insult in my (no caffeine 8am) arsenal or did I really think Jesus Christ would administer an enema to many, MANY Christians I have come across personally or who regale us with their  vapid (and blatantly un-Christian) vacuous rants in certain public venues. And I realized that yes, indeed, I had not been going for the shock value as much as it may have appeared.

The fact is, I’ve grown up in a world populated by doctors. By stories of ancient Roman and Egyptian medicine, by stories from or set in the pre-Christian and medieval world, where gargoyles and images of explicit Last Judgement agonies are carved on Cathedral facades–to scale no less, and renaissance Crucifixions that make modern slasher movies look bland. And so I’m used to people who, while I have and never will meet them, looked at the world in a very different way–including their approaches to medicine. And while I will freely admit to not having time to research this specifically, I bet Jesus would give Michelle Bachman and those who follow her platform an enema. Absolutely!

First of all, why? Better theological minds than I have demonstrated extensively, exhaustively, that most of the vitriol, most of the ideas about ‘the war on Christianity,’ homophobia, racism, economic freebasing etc etc that right-wing ‘Christians’ and ‘Christian Groups’ claim that they embrace as followers of Christ is…groundless. Of course there are many other words I could apply  besides merely ‘groundless’ but that’s obvious enough. So yes, I believe that Jesus Christ, the historical man who may indeed have been the son of a God (pagans have a lot less problems with the idea of Christ than many Christians ever want to admit) would have taken one look at a huge percentage of the Christian population of 2013 and said “Dad…these people are nuttier than a sack-full of cats. We need to get them to a doctor.” (Of course I have projected this statement as an authentic translation of the Aramaic/Coine Greek that Jesus used word for word. Snort.)

So…compassionate medical care for the mentally ill….Jesus, as a young educated Jew of the early Roman Empire might well have grown up believing in the importance of bowel health. Roman medicine was advanced, but the Mediterranean world seems to have had a decent amount of focus on keeping the internal workings of the body healthy. Concluding that people who spouted such vitriol in public might be suffering from painful and traumatic constipation may not have been such a great leap.

Had Jesus been alive during the era where Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of Europe, it is highly probable that he would believe an enema was the most humane and effective method of helping Michelle Bachman, the Romneys, the Rush Limbaughs, the massively uneducated and bigoted congressmen and senators of the world to balance their ‘humors’, cooling the irritation of their bodies that was leading to their insanity.

So while I enjoy mocking, lambasting, and doing my best to rake the realm of Conservative Idiocy over the coals, I think I might really have been onto something with the original idea. I think Jesus would have kindly, politely taken certain fanatics aside and escorted them to a physician and given them support and encouragement in pursuing the proscribed treatment.

The next question I have is: Where do we draw the line between respect of Christ and embracing his relationship with the physical world–which included poop?

More Conversations Across the Mighty Chasm of the Valley of Death…Whatever…*

Steve: So you do know that you just made six references to ‘being in cemetary’ instead of ‘being in Seminary’ right?

Me: Yes, whatever.

Steve: You watched the entire documentary about the space shuttle program?

Me: Yeah, all the smart engineering types in plaid shirts and glasses reminded me of you.

Steve: Aaand yet, you did not catch the presidential debate.

Me: Do YOU want to spend that much time listening to Mitt the Twitt, let alone watching him furtively adjust his Jesus Jammies  whenever he thinks the camera isn’t angled on his mighty MWASC?

Steve: Huh? You mean ‘Mwaaasc’ like ‘mask’ with a supper snobby accent?

Me: No. Mighty White Anglo Saxon Crotch.

Steve: You’re weird.

Me: that’s why we remain such a good match, Dear.

Steve: Yeah. Fair enough.

Me: So every time I see some things I think about you.

Steve:  I know. Still can’t watch that movie we liked so much? Even the part with Robert DeNiro in drag?**

Me: Nope.

Steve: Oh. I was afraid I’d hurt you when we got together. Because of my funky heart.

Me: Yeah. You’re still worth it though.

Steve: You know I’m with you.

Me: Yes.

Steve. OK, Behave yourself.

Me: Honey, you’re the one who said ‘I always behave, the question is more HOW’.

Steve: Evil Grin that would intimidate Voldemort and Megatron combined.

*I write down conversations that I might have with my late husband. Opinions expressed originate…in anybody’s guess.

**Stardust, Neil Gaiman

Please…Just…Think? For a Second or Two?

I really do not want to make this post an angry one. I’m certainly capable of rolling out the scorn and slight regard. (Thank you Exeter and  Henry V.)  I just don’t want to make this blog about rants…or not entirely about rants. I’m not sure my inherent make-up isn’t naturally fused to a ranting drive,

But this is important, at least to me. In the face of Stupid Unjust Bigoted Acts of Petty Cruelty Behind a Good Facade–that we are seeing in a lot of news stories these days (pass the chik fil-a), I just think we need to remain aware. We need to remember that an ethical business takes that ethic all the way through, not just to the table in front of the customer. I’ve worked at so called liberal organizations that treat their employees like garbage while trumpeting their  virtues to anyone who will listen. And people do listen, and give these organizations money and yes, these orgs in turn do some good with that money–and use that good to justify the great harm they do that stretches from health and safety to cultural sensibility, to educational and moral ethics out into the environment. The video on this link didn’t surprise me, it just made me terribly and deeply sad.

If the Children’s Museum you think pioneers early education and great values pays its employees terrible wages, refuses to make their employees’ workplace (and therefore your kids) positive or safe, ignores cultural obligations, and treats working mothers unethically, are they still really champions of those liberal, oh so uber-ethical, multicultural values?

If the all-green, all eco-friendly town bans vegetable gardens while plastic garbage litters their streets are they succeeding at anything but hypocrisy?

If a historic preservation site lies actively about which buildings are original and which were fabricated fresh from the ground by eccentric rich people in the 1930s are they practicing an honest or ethical preservation program?

–you can see what I mean about rants.

Anyway. Somebody shared this on facebook a month ago. I can’t verify the claims in the video, but maybe the examples I’ve mentioned above will shed some light on why I have no trouble believing that insanities and inanities like this go on.

So please…just…Think? For a Second or Two?

None of us have all the answers. I certainly do not. But until we learn to hold everybody to a standard–a consistent standard–and everyone has to follow it or they don’t get support, no matter how much we think what they advertise or advocate is good…what will actually change for the better?

http://www.upworthy.com/why-that-fancy-organic-meal-is-about-as-ethical-as-a-big-mac-dipped-in-tar?c=fb2

 

This link may work better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LZEUwvIHdSs

Targets-Becoming-People

This is an open letter to entities unlikely to respond. Having said that, I hope some of you find it some day.

Dear___

I don’t know you, and I may never meet you. You are many people and one at the same time. You’re the little girl wishing you could convince your parents that you were sick enough to stay home from school–and the kids who either turn away from you if you make eye contact on the playground or scratch your glasses or humiliate you any way they can. You’re the 13 year old cringing behind one of your grandparents’ Readers Digests, because your mother has spent the past hour berating you in private and now she’s the gracious life of the family gathering. And you know you’ll start and flinch and answer in monosyllabics which will just convince your cousins that she’s a wonderful long suffering single parent with an abnormal daughter. You’re the kid who’s probably straight and gets called every filthy gay slur for years–before you realize that if you had been LGBT they would have hurt even more. You’re the veteran skilled employee sitting in front of the HR rep whose smile never reaches her eyes, whose wardrobe could dress you for a year. You know she’s got some petty, semi-legal nastiness in mind today, and you also know that you can fight her…and then find another job.

We’ve all gone through life with a target signal on our back. One of those people, one of those bullies or crazies or sadistic asses put it there.

Oh, and yes, absolutely, some of us go through so much worse than what I’ve laid out already. Girls are getting raped and married to their rapists. Boys are getting set on fire. Executions, bombs, torture.

Here’s the thing: I believe we have the right to judge our own pain on its own terms. I used to go for long walks with my dog and tell myself “Hey, this happened today/tonight but how can I complain? I have a dog. I live in a house. I’m literate and healthy.”  And I’m not suggesting that the right to acknowledge that something is wrong is synonymous with the right to evolve into whoever is gunning for miss social-mega-bitch  (you know: she exists on many planes simultaneously, in several credit brackets. When the Incredible Hulk runs into HER, he probably wets his pants–if he has ’em on–and runs away sobbing).

Here’s my other thought: I also believe we have the right to be people. We have the right to stand up, rip the damned bull’s eye off our backs and say “I am not a target, I am a person.”

I think, possibly, I made an important step in that resistance this morning. I couldn’t sleep, so I lay there, remembering something unhappy, and thinking about the bull’s eye. Then, I went to each part of myself, the little girl, the 11 year old, the high school student, a particular Christmas Day in my early 20’s. And to each of these I said the same thing. “I’m sorry this happened. I wish I could undo it. I can’t. I can’t stop it from happening to you, at this time on this day. But, at this time, and on this day I am here with you. I love you. I love you as me then and I love you as me now. So someone truly cares, and truly loves you and they are there with you and for you.”

I have no idea if this will help in the long run. I have no notion of whether this will be useful to anyone who comes across it. I certainly would never market it as a strategy–and not just because I am marketing kryptonite. All I can say is that after I did this, I felt better. The memory hurt less. The part of me caught in that moment was not gone, but felt as though for the first time since that moment, she could get some rest. She could peel off the target sign and be me, then and now.

So in the chance that this may be helpful to someone else, I’ve typed up the idea here.

We are not targets, damn all of you who tried to make us play along on the range. We are people and every time we remember that, a part of your hatred and your awfulness dries up and blows away with the dust.

On a snarkier note:  I almost missed that I had written ‘the Inedible Hulk.’ Imagery I truly regret.

Censorship and Persian Eunuchs

As a child, I was lucky to attend a small summer camp in Vermont. There were things about the camp that were wonderful: three to five weeks of focusing on horses, riding skills, free swim periods in late afternoons. There were aspects of life there that were a little austere: one piece of candy, one soda, one ice-cream cone on sundays IF you attended Methodist services in town. Ultimately, camp was an escape into the green leaf-lit canopy of trees, animals, dirt and cats that I loved. One July day, when I was about twelve, I had come to another tent looking for my friend Kay and found it empty. On the floor near the older girl’s bed was a book I hadn’t seen before, The Persian Boy, but I knew the author; my mother had given me another book by Mary Renault that year. I sat down on the damp and age softened wood floor of the tent and opened it.

The hot summer day and the green and blue tent shadows in sunlight vanished. I was with the boy, Bagoas, in the high mountain country of Persia, then the sordid eunuch slave markets of Babylon. I had no idea what the word ‘eunuch’ meant. I didn’t care. I crept through the cool, dark corridors of the ancient and exquisite palaces of Ekbatana and Susa and watched the sun flash on the gold fish tiles of pools and fountains. There was a lot I didn’t understand. I could see that Bagoas suffered shame and loneliness with Emperor Darius and that he loved Alexander the Great with all his heart. Still, Bagoas spoke to me, not just drawing me into his world but transcending the barriers of time, of place and even my own sheltered ignorance until what he said made sense, not necessarily in every detail, but in what he heard, felt and saw, in what he tasted and smelled, in his sadness and fascinations.

Suddenly I was jerked back into the reality of the warm tent and the green-laden air of the Vermont forest when I heard my friend exclaim “Oh God, what are you doing? I have to read that book for school. It’s absolutely disgusting, all about gay sex and prostitution and harems! If anybody catches you with that I’ll never hear the end of it for letting a younger kid read it-“ or something to that effect. I had no idea what she was talking about and needless to say, Kay never enlightened me beyond repeating her initial torrent in a gentler voice.

The Persian Boy remains one of my favorite books today. I love it for the empathy of Mary Renault’s words, the bridge she built between me and a young man dead for over two thousand years. I value the book for the memory of how I first found it. That moment taught me that beautiful things can be censored, by prejudice and hatred for the unknown. Because I felt the loss of Bagoas’ story in my heart, and the pain of separation from his truth, his experience, I learned that even if this censorship came from the kindest intentions, that it was not something I could accept.

It would be years before I found my voice on Civil Rights, Freedom of the Press or Speech and began fighting for them and for the Humanities as well. I didn’t realize at the moment the book was pulled out of my hands, that I had any recourse but the sadness of not knowing the end of Bagoas’ story. I didn’t understand that that moment made me as much of a rebel as Bagoas himself was, in refusing to tamely accept his fate. What I did understand, both then and now, is that everyone’s voice, everyone’s story, can change lives and worlds, and as an aspiring minister, I can imagine few lessons as important to hold in my heart.

The Search for Color

Your eyes were different.
Most days I remember them
alive more than dead.

They named Color.
They were the hidden secret
of aquifers
Set deep in the coastline of your face.

Your gentleness has remained your strength.
Your laughter has carried your brilliance
beyond world’s end.

You could always cry for a friend.
You could always walk upright through the tides
that bent and broke the hale and powerful.

You are my hero
and you made me yours in turn.

Since your eyes closed
Blue has lost a part of its nature.

Yet I remain here
Bound to the journey
Seeking to re-name that which has shed the truest form it ever held.

The moment before we begin walking forward

Today is October 17. In two hours, or a little more, it will be eight and a half months since the night and hour that my husband, Steve, died. I am not going to tell the story of what happened, beyond noting that at five pm he was alive, alert, talking to me and improving slowly from a cold. At about five-thirty he had what appeared to be a violent seizure. It was his heart going out of rhythm. And before seven he was dead, and I was sitting in a room of the ER with his body.

I could try to explain what that is like, as a truth, as the truth of my existence.

I could repeat what I said to the ER nurse who asked me if there was anything she could do for me once I couldn’t scream anymore.
–I asked her to kill me, please, if she wouldn’t mind, and of course she said no, and I explained that I had fully expected her to respond that way; I simply had no alternative in that moment but to ask, to see if there was any chance that I was wrong–

I could say that I was consumed by envy by the story of a woman who threw her body across her young sons, saving their lives from a Tornado, costing her her own mobility for life. I understood exactly what she meant when she said in her television interview that she would never have done anything else. The deep burrowing grief that I couldn’t have done that for Steve has become the blind and ancient dragon gnawing at the stem of my world tree. It chews at my heart and my guts every day, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for hours. Use of my legs would be a perfectly acceptable trade in exchange for my husband.

I actually hate telling people I’m a widow. I think I haven’t shaken the dreaded conviction that anyone I mention it to will suddenly see me cue a chord to the tragically draped minstrel behind me, raise a trembling hand to my temple and declaim “Alas..” Of course that’s ridiculous. Of course nobody who knows me would dream of thinking that I was scouting for some good Victorian Gas-light and Pantomime action. I don’t want this loss to define me, and I know Steve wouldn’t want it to either. I do not want to begin the story of my journey with his death. But I am journeying now, and I would never have embarked in quite this fashion if Steve had lived.

I am here writing this because it happened.

On Cats, Part One: The Absolution of Lady Madeloone

I am sitting in bed this morning, and even though I have a double mattress, I am on the outer edge. This is primarily because a ten and a half pound animal, curled into a furry, tight crescent measuring one foot at the most, is asleep in the center of the bed. Her forearm is crooked over her face; she is not receiving petitioners just now. A low, eldritch, thin, rubbery hooting sound, like an eraser pushed against smooth paper, or a muted owl sneeze echoes up from her middle. She is snoring.

I have not always had the favor of cats. I spent my early childhood in a city, and it took me a long time to understand the difference between what animals like to do in cartoon-worlds, or when they’re stuffed toys on a shelf and what they prefer as living, breathing souls. My early experiences were not malicious but involved more error, through trial, than success. I eventually learned that cats do not like to wear doll clothes, ride in scoop nets, or have anything to do with a sand box that is not their litter box, especially when it’s wet. Dogs, I think, understood and forgave more quickly; cats took longer.

The 4H club kittens my camp raised every summer seemed to like me as a substitute mom/nursemaid, whenever there wasn’t anything better to do. One year a little grey male spent every chance he could asleep in my arms, sucking on my finger and purring. Adult cats, however, needed more convincing. The fact that dogs liked me, and frequently demonstrated their affection by trying to wash me, covering me with fur and leaving scent marks on my clothing (no, not the kind distinguishable to humans) did nothing to advance my cause with the feline population.

By the time I was ten years old, children my age had made it clear; they were not my friends. They were people who taunted me, got me in trouble, bullied me and made my life hell for reasons that escape me to this day. My mother and I had moved to a prosperous suburb of Boston just before 4th grade. She had fantasies of my playing kick the can with neighborhood kids and going to the movies downtown on weekends, (to be fair) just as she had during her own childhood in the mid to late 40s. (Dear reader, I think you have just spotted the intergenerational disconnect here.) Instead, since apparently I couldn’t play soccer, assist with amateur petty crime, condone cruelty to animals or stop liking books, I was fish food in that town from day one.

My dog Shadow became my best friend, my second mother and in some ways my first child. I would have run in front of a car for her, and I think she knew it. In fact, I think she started passing this on, because not only did I feel that way about any dog not trying to bite me, most of the dogs I run into to this day seem to understand that it’s still true. If they needed me, I would fight to the death for them without a second thought. They very graciously gloss over the fact that at 5″6, as a dumpy uncoordinated person in my 30’s, this death-defying chivalry, while utterly sincere, is worth about as much as the Oxford English Dictionary is on a daily basis to Sarah Palin.

I had, nominally, a cat but she lived with my father. He moved her to his summer-house in Maine and while she enjoyed hunting small animals of every description there, and occasionally suffered to give him affection, she had dismissed me. I was too big to hunt, too stupid to adopt as a surrogate kitten or family member and a dead loss as a good quality servant.

A week after my 20th birthday, my dog Shadow died. I returned to college for my sophomore year, relieved to be away from the town we still lived in and its utter dearth of friends and the house I had grown up in with her. I knew it would be years before I would be able to adopt a pet of my own.

That Thanksgiving, I couldn’t face my house. My relationship with my mother had been deteriorating rapidly, and my father was off to his third wife’s family for the holiday event. A very kind professor invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at her small farmhouse in Western Massachusetts. She had a few pets but, all these years later, only the Empress of her household remains in my memory. The august ruler was a brown mackerel-stripped tabby with a white belly and feet. She was a lady of mature years, with long dignified whiskers that curved down gracefully and yellow eyes. Her name was Madeloone. It should be said that I am not spelling her name right; my only defense is that cats generally rise above such petty distinctive notions like alphabets.

With the exception of the kittens I had helped to tend all those years before, cats had always reacted to me by turning the other way. Usually with emphatic attitude. Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Swanson are rank beginners compared with the artistic flair in the plumpest, least prepossessing cat’s ability to walk away in disdain.

Madeloone gravely sniffed my fingers, as my hostess asked me about family pets and I explained that my dog had died in August. Then I felt something indescribably light, warm and velvety against my hand. Maldeloone was pushing her densely furred ears into my fingers. She started to purr. Gently, I picked her up and she sniffed my shoulder with the attitude of a dowager duchess inspecting a batch of snails destined for the escargot platters. She continued to purr. It’s difficult to remember the exact progression of events now, but Madeloone continued to make concessions. She sat on my lap willingly. She wove around my legs. She accepted any and all petting or appropriate forms of homage.

The next cat I encountered belonged to a friend. Instead of the usual dismissive glance, I received a thorough finger inspection and rub. The neighborhood cat near my dorm decided to fall asleep in my jacket on cold nights. An ex boyfriend’s cat deemed me lap worthy faster than anyone in his house would have prefered. And so it went.

Madeloone’s philanthropy did not have the obvious result that it would have with dogs. Cats are different. Their domestication appears much thinner, a veneer over the ancient bush and desert felines that wandered into granaries, looking for mice and lizards. In my experience, they look at humans as a threat, as potential Staff, and in instances of great fortune, as companions, or rarer still, surrogate family. Since my Thanksgiving audience, cats have stopped turning away and started making overtures of the kind they specialize in.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the continued friendly approaches by tongue lagging, tail wagging happy furry souls that dogs still gift me with. But Madeloone opened a door into a world of soft-footed steps, wild hunts for killer catnip mousies, strange operatic songs and the outboard motor rumbles of a purring belly. She also gave me something even more dear.

Years after I met Madelone, I went into a small Humane Society shelter in Virginia, originally looking for a kitten. Then I saw a small, black-sand shaded face with enormous jade green eyes and a flaming orange blaze stretching up from a spotted nose. It belonged to the young mother of the last kittens remaining in the shelter; only her babies had been adopted. (Really more of an unwed teen pregnancy case, as she had delivered them before turning 1 year herself.) I asked to meet her and sat down in a rocking chair in the cat-room. The caretaker put her on my knees and the little cat stared up at me. Then she turned herself around and fell asleep in my lap. Now she is asleep in the center of my bed. She is as surely a gift of Madeloone’s largesse as the original blessing of that great lady cat. Lady Madeloone, you should have lived in 12th century Aquitaine as a lovely noblewoman surrounded by adoring minstrels. Perhaps you were. In any case, wherever you are today–and given your age I’m sure it’s somewhere metaphysical–thank you.

A Short History of Pain

My husband, and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pain, but there’s one short conversation we had on the topic that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I have no idea what we were doing, or where we were, but Steve happened to mention a procedure he underwent when he had a tube inserted–a more innocuous, but perhaps less accurate word than “shoved”–into his chest to either drain fluid or facilitate some other form of vital plumbing around the time of one of his heart surgeries. I don’t recall the reason that he couldn’t have anesthesia. I’m sure, knowing Steve’s doctors, that it wasn’t about saving money or hyper callousness, but still, he was wide awake for it.

Steve told me that it was excruciating. He had to have it done at least twice. He had a lot of scars on his chest, one looping around under an arm, the badge of his membership in what he called “the zipper club” down his sternum and a couple of utterly smooth narrow, oval patches, whitened with age on each side of his torso–entry and exit, for the tubes, I guess. The image that stays with me most is the expression on his face as he talked about it with me. His eyes were wide, his feathery eyebrows faintly up. Steve always looked younger than he was but at that moment it was something more. He was the boy, the young man in his teens who had suffered this procedure, yet another in what must have seemed an unending line. He was also in complete earnest as he said to me “but it’s always harder on a patient’s family. It was always a harder thing for Ma than it ever was for me.” He meant every word.

Some people say that sort of thing because it’s expected, or at least I think they do. I think they do because if I had been in that situation, I might have said something similar out of duty. Some people would say it as a front to gain more sympathy for themselves. Steve said it because he loved his mother and because for him, it was true.

It’s possible that I attach more weight to this than I should, but that moment has always stood out for me as the greatest demonstration of my husband’s strength. Steve was quiet, in his daily life and in his rare anger. He was tall and so thin that he had to bore extra holes in his belt and had almost no discernible muscle. I outweighed him by at least twenty pounds for the entire time that I knew him. Physically, he was still strong; he was a steel bridge cable and once someone checked in to his death grip, they rarely checked out. I could out-wrestle him but only if I used my legs.

Strength takes many forms. So does courage. Steve was the bravest person I have ever known. I actually have to stop after writing that and stare at the sentence–do I mean that? Really? Am I sure I’m not sliding further down the slippery slope of exaggeration and the usual conventions of the surviving bereaved?

He wasn’t perfect: that’s not what I’m claiming here. He could settle into a pattern that became a rut, and it was hard for him to break out of those. He was the Lord High Celestial Grand Poo-baa Royal Emperor of Procrastination (and considering that I have the permanent Tiara for Ms. Procrastination USA, or would if I ever got around to picking it up, that is saying something). We fought about who should haul trash and do dishes.

So no, he wasn’t perfect. And perhaps he was also not the single bravest person in the world, but I do think he was forever in their ranks. He earned his place among the bravest of people in a very unobtrusive way, but I belive one of the only ones possible, which has nothing to do with career choice, gender or faith. He took great pain and looked through it with love and empathy at the people he cared for the most. He did this without deliberation, and with honest sincerity and compassion.

I wish I had a sweeping conclusion to draw up, nicely framing that truth. More to the point, I wish that I, I and the world still had him. Most of the people who share that gift of strength with Steve do not make the nightly news, write inspirational life guides, discover and broadcast “the secret” or become famous. One of the greatest aspects of their power is that they go on using it in all its wondrous simplicity, regardless.

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