Bruins and Trojans

“It’s so nice to see you!”

I smile and reply, “It’s nice to see you, too!” That’s the transcript of our entire conversation. The dog and I continue on our run, but the smile and the connection stay with me.

This woman is like me, out walking her hapless dog, and she is also, like most everyone I know, someone to whom life has dished out some big-time-heart-break. Politically, we have – shall we say – divergent views, and I almost wish I didn’t know this about her. It might be easier to offer a smile and a hug. Ignorance is bliss, after all. But does it have to be so hard?

I reach into my UCLA Bruin heart and say hello to a lot of USC Trojans. I send quite a few Christmas cards to Trojan friends, I host several of them at my own table, and I even have one on speed-dial. Trojan-provided scones blessed my family’s breakfast just last week. On one notable January First in recent Rose Bowl history, I personally donned the cardinal and gold (you will have to ask my Trojan bestie for the photos) and encouraged the team. I do believe that Fight On is the greatest college slogan ever. Make no mistake, I am not a fan. It’s just that life is bigger than the teams that play. I reach into my Rice Owl heart and sport a sincere “Sic ‘em!” for my son’s Baylor Bears and even the occasional “Hook ‘em!” for my friend’s daughter at the University of Texas.

Kindness and compassion and beauty are bigger than the teams on the field. They just are.

In a Christmas sermon, the priest says how amazing it is that God came to us in the vulnerable form of a baby to bring His light into the world. Herod was so afraid of being de-throned by the baby king that he killed all the infant boys to secure his own power, and the wise men wisely skipped town so as not to lead Herod to the The King. See how wonderful God is to bring light into the darkness? And all this holy hoohah landed on me completely askew. All I could think was, What about the mothers of all those innocent children? Would she have preferred the dark world so long as her son was spared? I would.

I don’t need a God who justifies the loss of life for His win. We have military generals for that. I don’t think God calculates and plans. I believe in a God whose heart breaks with any child’s death, the shepherd who saves the ninety-nine and the one. I admire the Father who doesn’t keep score and certainly doesn’t divide His own children into camps of winners and losers. I believe we have much work to do to bring that sort of existence to life, but that’s the light I would like to contribute to the world. Regrettably, this means opening my heart to…, well, everyone, even Trojans.

I do not believe in a Divine One who closes his heart to the suffering of a family – or any single person – for the sake of the greater good. Likewise, I don’t think closing my heart is the answer. Closed hearts fester; they become suffocated with bitterness, resentment and fear. Broken hearts heal, open to each other, vulnerable enough to love and to be loved. Yes, there is a time to protect the wounded heart, to stay safely in the cocoon, gathering strength. And then comes the time to open, to connect, to shine. We need more love, not less.

We were at a concert the other night, and the conductor explains, “This piece contains the emotional history of humanity. Music is where we connect with each other beyond language and time, and each one of us – composer, performer and audience – plays an integral role in this holy trinity of music. This,” and he holds up the sheet music, “cannot be erased by the victor.” And all I can think is, Yes, this is the kind of power I can believe in. A Divine Music beyond the confines of time and space and out of the dynamic of winners and losers. A God who wears every single color – or the whole entire rainbow – and who shows up and says, “It’s so nice to see you.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And more love.

Competitive Suffering

I love to cozy up in my favorite chair with a good book more than almost anything else in the world. This morning there are several books within arm’s reach, one on parenting teenagers, Anne Lamott’s latest and my kindle. I could cocoon here happily for several hours. That’s not going to happen, but the idea that I wish it could makes me smile. It took me several years to get back to my bookwormish self, but I did.

After Sam’s death, I lost my interest in reading. I barely had the attention span for the caption under a photograph in the morning paper, let alone an entire magazine article. A novel was out of the question. Apparently this inability to focus is common among those who have recently suffered a significant loss. One dear and well-intentioned friend brought me a legal treatise on retirement plans and spousal rollovers. Seriously. Even without the grief-induced brain trauma, my eyes roll up in the face of phrases like “defined contribution plan” and “minimum required distributions.” I would need a more compelling reason to curl up with the Internal Revenue Code. Needless to say, I never finished reading the Great American IRA Debate. I barely even got past the title. Nonetheless, I was grateful (astonished, really) that my friend had faith in my capacity to focus and read, and I left it at that.

Several friends (knowing that I am an avid reader) recommended the book A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which chronicles the year following her husband’s fatal heart attack. She was sitting down to dinner with her husband one evening and the next moment he was dead. As I recall (and I could be wrong about this — in addition to inattention, I suffered from grief-induced amnesia), it was the only book I actually finished in that first year following Sam’s suicide.

You might think her story would resonate with me, that I would appreciate the perspective of a fellow traveler grappling with the fact that her entire world turned upside down overnight. But I didn’t. I thoroughly resented it. Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking The man had a pacemaker,  for crying out loud. How surprised could you have been? My husband wasn’t diagnosed, medicated or even in therapy. Your daughter had graduated from college when her father died. My youngest son just finished kindergarten!

I couldn’t take her whining. I had way too much whining of my own to do.

Around that same time, the boys had some friends over to play. One of the kids was pretending to host a game show he called “What’s Your Tragedy?” He was standing on the stage (the bed), talking into the microphone (his curled fist): “Helllloooo Cincinnati, you’re on live with widows and orphans. Tell us (as he extends the microphone to the contestant), What’s your tragedy?”

Whatever you say in response to his outstretched fist will be pathetic. To play the game is to lose.

I wish I could say I didn’t get sucked into playing my own version of What’s Your Tragedy. I did. At least for a while. Honestly, marinating in the misery of a painful loss can be a vital part of the healing process. It can be helpful to visit that place, but I didn’t want to take up permanent residence there. It’s the competitive practice of suffering that is counterproductive. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was trying to convince myself (or worse, somebody else) how much worse my own life was. Or my sons’ lives. Because they were young, or because I was. Or wasn’t. Or whatever.

I did not want to become one of those people who engage in competitive suffering. There is no room for gratitude in that space. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of Sam’s death, even though suicide is messy. I didn’t want to identify myself primarily or exclusively as a widow, even though I have been widowed.

Ultimately, it’s neither accurate nor productive to compare death by cancer, suicide, heart failure, accident or homicide, to pit divorce against death in a misguided abandonment contest. This path does not lead to the Sweet Sixteen, only madness. I know more than one friend for whom the loss of a faithful pet would create more significant grieving than the death of an absentee or alcoholic or abusive parent. I cannot even contemplate how painful the death of a child must be. There is no path toward meaning in the What’s Your Tragedy paradigm. No two people suffer the same. It all just hurts.

At the end of the day I became an expert on my own grief. Like the well-drawn antagonist in a novel, my grief has forced my own character growth. I don’t know that this was strictly necessary —  I was already a character. Some days my grief took my legs out from under me, grabbing an ankle like an imp, laughing when I fell to the ground flat on my face. That little beast needs attention. Some days my grief spewed its toxic, fiery dragon breath in my face, and I learned to stand patiently, calmly, while the brute exhausted its venom, eventually curling up like a sleepy kitten. Some days it sat like a weight on my shoulders or in the pit of my stomach. Gradually, I grew less afraid of its heft and more tolerant of its presence. Some days grief whispered its discouraging messages. Sit here. You can’t do this. Just stop. Eventually, I recognized its voice. I have come to know the facets of my own grief, not exactly as a friend, but almost like a trusted mentor. And my heart softened toward the phases of my grief, creating an inner strength and the capacity to extend compassion toward another’s suffering.

The crux of healing is to find a way to incorporate the fact of the loss — not to ignore it or to become overwhelmed by the loss — and still to keep moving. I learned to reach a caring arm, first to myself, and then toward others suffering their own unique losses, without the need to compare and contrast my own travails. Their grief is not about mine.

I had found my way out the What’s Your Tragedy gameshow and back toward living a life. With love, with joy, with compassion. And even with a renewed attention span for reading.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the inspiration to get out of the game.