Thursday, December 27, 2012

A curious juxtaposition

I haven't written anything here in a while. The reason is that I've been struggling to get through the holiday season, which holds so many memories of traumatic events from last year, and I just haven't had the energy. Today I reached a kind of closure with the first anniversary of Barbara's funeral, and I've decided to take a few moments to pause and write a final blog post for this year.

What I want to write about is the deeply ironic juxtaposition we've all just witnessed of two completely opposite world views. From a Christian perspective, I would simply describe them as heaven and hell. Yes, I do believe in hell, and I do believe that a powerful spiritual struggle is going on around us in which we all have a stake so important that we can't afford not to recognize it.

Let me take a few minutes to review the nature of that struggle. In doing so, I am going to use terms that are widely used by religious writers but that I'm convinced few people really understand, since we put so much unnecessary emphasis on their literal truth that we forget to ask about what they mean. In Karen Armstrong's terms, we privilege the logos or kerygma over the mythos or dogma of religious discourse, to the extent that both "myth" and "dogma" have become terms of derision.

Take the virgin birth. It is very clear to me what it means. Something happened two thousand years ago that impregnated the world with divinity, raising the entire human race to a new, previously inconceivable level. Such a thing cannot happen naturally. Its very reality defines it as something that occurs, as a medieval hymn writer put it, "praeter rerum seriem:" outside the natural order of things. What happened is often described as the birth of a baby under precarious circumstances: the father barely sparing the mother a life of disgrace; the birth taking place among lowly animals because the inn had no room; the king jealously striking out against all newborn boys, with the miraculous baby surviving only by another miracle. All the powers of this world—the social, the political, the military—were arrayed against this fragile birth, and yet it survived and flourished. Such things can only happen against all reason, and can only be recalled by extraordinary faith.

That miraculous baby, we are told, grew up to be an adult who turned his back on the powers of this world. He did so by completely rejecting the terms of imperial control by which his world was organized and making it clear that there was another way to live. That way involved rejecting coercion or violence of any kind. It is this complete refusal to play by the established rules that led to the events of Good Friday that we will acknowledge in the coming months.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What I want to stress is the utter contrast of what I have just described with the story that dominated the news in the week before Christmas. In that story, we seemed to be learning that our world is controlled by random violence. Then, just four days before Christmas, we were told by a leader of a prominent national organization that there is a way to respond to that violence and assert ourselves in its wake: the way of violent resistance. We must solve the tragedy of violence in our schools by putting more guns there and arming more and more people, so that we can live in this transient life with the illusion of control, no matter the spiritual and moral cost.

Or, to put it in religious language, Wayne LaPierre, the Vice President of the National Rifle Association, laid out for us all to see exactly what it would be like to live in hell. He seemed to actually relish the opportunity to describe a world in which our own delusions of grandeur have exploded to such horrid proportions that every classroom is dominated constantly by the prospect of armed violence, which can be deterred only by the fear of further violence used against it. It is easy to imagine this nightmare vision expanding and engulfing our entire world, to the point that the prospect of random violence anywhere is matched by the much more terrifying prospect of planned, retaliative violence in every corner of our lives. America, in Wayne LaPierre's vision, would be transformed into a real, living hell in which all of us would be imprisoned any time we venture out of our front doors.

So let me repeat that this Christmas season has laid out two completely, radically opposing visions of how the world can operate, and has placed them next to each other so that the contrast can be clearly understood. They are, quite simply, the hell of endless retaliative violence on the one hand and the hope of miraculous, heaven-sent transformation on the other. I am writing this because I want my readers to understand that we have a choice which way we are going to go. As I venture into the new year I will do my best to speak for the side of the angels.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas Dinner

As we prepare for Advent and the new church year, I am trying to figure out the best way to get myself through a season that now bears painful as well as joyful associations. It is usually difficult enough for newly bereaved people to make it through their first holiday season, but I will have a particularly challenging time of it for two reasons. My wife died last year shortly before Christmas. What’s more, her fatal stroke occurred on my birthday, whose proximity to Christmas has always brightened this season for me. Now I need to figure out how to mark those occasions so as to recognize both the joy and the horror. 

I’ve decided to start with the lyrics to a song that has moved me deeply the past few years at this time: Noel Paul Stookey’s “Christmas Dinner.”

And it came to pass on a Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
Outside standing, a lonely boy-child
Cold and shivering in the night.


This, of course, is the paradox of Advent. A young boy comes into the world, yet it is not in the midst of plenty but in a poor and meager place because the doors of those who could give in abundance were shut and barred to keep strangers out. It is a strange kind of joy that must stand cold and shivering because the night envelops it, the taint of death ever-present even at birth. But note that it is of this child that we long to hear, because his predicament touches our common humanity.

On the street every window
Save but one was gleaming bright
And to this window walked the boy-child
Peeking in saw candlelight. 


Why did the boy go to the one window that was dark: that seemingly had the least to offer? Yes, he may have felt himself unworthy, but perhaps there is also something about darkness that draws us as no mere light can do. Darkness is deep and rich and welcoming, and the faint glow of candles warms the heart.

Through other windows he had looked at turkeys
And ducks and geese and cherry pies
But through this window saw a gray-haired lady
Table bare and tears in her eyes.


Why, we may wonder, is this lady alone? Has she no children, no grandchildren, no family at all to make this night a time of laughter instead of tears? Or have we simply all missed her, all in our mad rush to the turkeys and pies whose richness dulls our senses to the truly lonely, to the ones among us for whom any special day will yield only a bare table and candlelight? To her the child is instinctively drawn, for he has no abundance to distract him.

Into his coat reached the boy-child
Knowing well there was little there
He took from his pocket his own Christmas dinner
A bit of cheese, some bread to share. 


Where, I wonder, did he get that food? Someone in pity must have reached out to him as he, instinctively, is about to reach out to someone else. The gesture is so universally human that we may be ashamed to have forgotten it. He who has so little has had no time to forget.

His outstretched hands held the food and they trembled
As the door it opened wide
Said he "Would you share with me Christmas dinner?"
And gently said she "Come inside."

 
In the question and the answer are stored all the mystery and holiness of the season. The young boy and the old lady are strangers and opposites, yet they complete each other. She has the home without joy or sustenance. He has the food without company or the nurturing presence of another. An old lady should have grateful children, and a young boy should have loving parents. By reaching out to each other, both acknowledge their need.

The gray-haired lady brought forth to the table
Glasses two and her last drop of wine
Said she "Here's a toast to everyone's Christmas,
And especially yours and mine!"

 
How many others, we wonder, had toasted that year to everyone’s Christmas? In all the houses with the turkeys and ducks was such a toast ever heard? Why is it the lonely old woman and the poor shivering boy who alone (in both senses of the word) share such a Christmas wish?

And it came to pass on that Christmas evening
While all the doors were shuttered tight
That in that town the happiest Christmas
Was shared by candlelight.


And now we see the point of the story. I imagine that the old lady had been mourning the loss of her family, either to death or to its spiritual cousin, indifference. She had been crying because this Christmas, for her, was a time of heightened pain and grief. The boy must have either run away or been, inconceivably, cast out. In their dinner together, loss and rejection met and embraced, and the result was the magic chemistry that produced happiness from out of nothing at all: no turkey, no presents, no beloved children or loving parents, death from cold and starvation a mere step away.

This year I will acknowledge that my birthday is a time to honor both birth and death, because the two are always and inextricably bound together. I will acknowledge that Christmas is a time to celebrate both joy and loss: the blessing of family at hand and the deep and lyrical grief of a great love that now lives only in the past, but whose memory paints hope and comfort on the unknown canvass of what is yet to come. I will step into that vastness with gratitude. I will live to begin another year.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A multiple choice quiz

A good friend—a college roommate with whom you've stayed close over the years—comes down with cancer. Because that friend is single and quit his job after a midlife crisis, he doesn't have health insurance, so he waits too long to seek treatment for his ambiguous early symptoms. By the time he finally seeks medical help, the cancer has metastasized into his bones and his diagnosis is terminal. He cannot afford the treatment required. You:

a) Express sympathy.
b) Express sympathy and offer to help with his medical bills.
c) Decide to pay all of his medical bills so he can have the best care possible during the final months of his life.

Most people, I imagine, could find a choice on this list that they are comfortable with, even if it is likely to be a). That's why I didn't include

d) Savagely tell him that he has brought his suffering on himself and mock him during his final days.

So when Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a column last week about his former roommate from Harvard, to whom the unspeakable events described above had actually happened, I figured he was making the strongest case possible for why we need nationalized health care, or at least a makeshift system like "Obamacare" that is designed to bring more people into the ranks of the insured.

That's why I was taken aback yesterday when Kristof published a followup column expressing shock at the number of readers who had been "savagely unsympathetic." It doesn't take much effort, after all, to say "your friend has my sympathy; sorry for your loss." (Kristof's friend did in fact die on Monday morning.) Instead, readers lambasted him for making a foolish decision—whether it was the one to quit his job or the one not to seek help earlier isn't clear. It appears that all Kristof's column accomplished was to fortify the battle lines between those who support the Affordable Care Act—which is what I will insist on calling it from this point on—and those who are desperate to repeal it.

I am writing this because I still want to believe that most of those people, if it were their friend whose life was at stake, would at least choose option a) above. Sympathy is famously inexpensive, but at least it is a human and moral response. Mockery of the dying is not. So when Kristof is deluged with messages from people who are "not sure why I'm to feel guilty about your friend's problem," I'm not sure what I'm supposed to think, but I do know what I feel. I feel something akin to the disgust at humanity found in the satire of Jonathan Swift.

To me and many others, the Affordable Care Act, for all its imperfections, is quite simply the best thing that has happened to this country since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is an expression of the very best in our nature: the mutual sympathy with our fellow beings that binds us together as a society. It shows we understand that when we extend a helping hand to others, we are sewing the fabric of civilization together, so that we know it will be there when we or someone we care about needs it. It shows we know perfectly well that we are not savages living in relentless competition with the clans of our neighbors, but an advanced society in which all are interconnected.

That's why this presidential election matters so much to me. If Romney and Ryan win, and if they succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act, I will be forced to conclude that America's best days are over. I will be forced to conclude that I do in fact live in a country controlled by people for whom sympathy is not an option and shared responsibility is not a concept. I will be forced to conclude that the majority of my fellow citizens would choose "none of the above" as the best answer to the question that I posed at the beginning of this blog. As someone for whom not caring is simply not an option, and who understands grace as all-encompassing and all-forgiving, I will despair.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

More on Romney

Every once in a while I post something to this blog that takes off in a way I don't foresee. I've never had a post go "viral," if that means page views in the millions, but I occasionally have one that gets way more hits than usual. Such a post was last week's "Romney the bully," which, at 589 page views, is now at four times my average. Since that average includes some other posts that have been read even more widely, the reality is that "Romney the bully" has been read by about six times as many people as normally read one of my posts.

The reason is clear: It was shared repeatedly by friends who agreed with it, many of whose friends shared it in turn. Many, but not all, of those friends were women. Some clearly thought I had articulated something particularly important, and said so in their forwarding messages. I can thus confirm what I said in that post: I am far from the only person who found Mitt Romney's behavior at last week's debate to be personally abusive. Many others read what I wrote and said: "Yes; that's exactly what I thought." We may be a small group or we may represent a broadly shared opinion - it's too early to tell - but the fact that we shared the same experience means that that experience was real.

A few comments on the blog shares were also revealing. One person said that personally, she considered Barack Obama to be one of the biggest bullies she has ever encountered, and that by contrast she finds Mitt Romney to be a compassionate leader. Another said that my reactions, and those of others, were clearly dictated by emotion. The implication was that all of our reactions were somehow not valid, while those of more rational thinkers are.

I want to take this occasion to clarify that I know my reaction to Romney's performance was based on emotion. THAT WAS THE POINT. Watching Mitt Romney in action set off emotional responses that harked back to the years of bullying I endured in school, while it reminded others of abusive partners. All of us realized that, for personal reasons that have nothing to do with his policy positions, we profoundly do not want to have this man as our president.

Since I have never seen Barack Obama bully anybody in person, I suspect that those who see him as a bully are reacting to his policies and the way he has enacted them. Yes, asking religious employers to include birth control in the health insurance they offer employees can be seen as abusive if you are so inclined. Passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote can be seen as an abuse of power by those who opposed its passage.

Such actions, though, are not bullying. Bullying is something that happens at a personal level between individuals, and it is a matter of style, not substance. Mitt Romney could have spent the entire hour and a half talking about chewing gum and toothpaste and his behavior - if he had pushed the other two participants around in the same way - would still have struck me as abusive. This is a man who apparently terrorized one of his classmates at school and who, when reminded of that behavior earlier this year, said: “There’s no question that I did some stupid things in high school, and obviously, if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.” This is a lame, conditional statement with no substance. It shows no contrition, no awareness of wrongdoing beyond the usual run of youthful indiscretions, and notably, contains no apology.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the bullying persona is still very much in evidence. An unrepentant bully has no business being president.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Romney the bully

What's worse than getting a bad grade because you "don't play well with the other children," when it's the other children who refuse to play with you? Seeing the biggest bully of all elected class president would probably come close.

As I watched the presidential debate last night, I thought to myself several times: "Mitt Romney is being a bully." I didn't say anything, though, because I was afraid I would be accused of overreacting to a performance that was simply long on assertiveness. Today, though, I have seen numerous women say that Romney's performance reminded them of abusive former husbands and boyfriends. So I now believe I'm in good company when I say that by effectively walking over the debate moderator and the President of the United States and running the debate entirely on his own terms, Romney was exhibiting classic bully behavior. What passed as effective debating in the dysfunctional world of the Republican primaries, where audiences cheered the idea of letting someone without health insurance die in the gutter, is now revealed more clearly for what it is.

I'll try not to comment on what was said in the debate, since the fact-checkers have been busy and may actually have some impact on the spin this time around. I want to single out, though, Romney's repeated statement that President Obama refused to work with the Republicans in Congress while, as governor, Romney willingly (i. e. out of dire necessity) worked with a legislature that was 87% Democratic. As anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention for the past few years knows, it is the Republican Congress that has refused to work with the president. It was the leaders of the Republican Congress who proclaimed, publicly, that their primary objective was to deny Obama a second term. It was the rank and file members of that Congress—including, I'm embarrassed to say, my own newly elected Congressman—who strapped on suicide vests last summer and threatened to blow up the country if they didn't get everything they wanted. (I borrow the metaphor from the NYTimes's Joe Nocera, who was later bullied into retracting it.) For Romney to try now to score a debating point by blaming Obama for not playing well with that kind of children is beyond shameful. It is the tactic of a bully.

During the debate last night, Romney repeatedly refused to be silenced either by Jim Lehrer or by the president. He made it clear that he considered himself the one in charge, and unfortunately Obama played along, smiling sheepishly every time he was humiliated. A lot of people have asked, in effect: "What happened to the president last night?" As someone who was bullied to within an inch of my life as a teenager, I know the answer. It's the same thing that happened to Jim Lehrer. They were both bullied into silence. They are both strong, experienced men who know better, but bullying works because it is so effective. Ask Rush Limbaugh. Ask Glenn Beck. Ask Mitt Romney.

And please, don't vote for a bully for president. You might be startled to know just how many of us you would be condemning to four years of PTSD.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nine months

Today is nine months since my 56th birthday, which means it is also nine months since my life fell apart. I set in my living room tonight listening to Obrecht and watching Barbara's and my Marriage Encounter candle flicker and burn for the fourth time since the visitation last December, when I awakened it from its long slumber. On the way home today I stopped by the cemetery and wept. A grief observed takes many forms. Today I want to recount some other significant dates in our all too brief history together.

May 17, 1988—I have my first date with Barbara Elaine Hutter Sellers. I take her to a nice restaurant, even though I'm not sure I can afford it. We eat rack of lamb and share a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Afterward she tells me about the brain tumor diagnosed on her 23rd birthday that she barely survived and the first husband she lost in a tragic accident. I tell her about my history with depression and my ongoing struggles to find a job. We instantly bond, and so begins the love of my life. We are both 32.

Jan. 14 1989—We are married in the same small Lutheran church in Pomona, California in which she had been baptized nearly 33 years earlier. I am unemployed, but she has just received a large financial settlement over her first husband's death. This allows us a memorable honeymoon, even though it is plagued by uncertainty about my future.

Dec. 1 1991—After a series of medical interventions for infertility, we complete a successful pregnancy and our first child, Jennifer, is born. For most of the next two years I will be her custodial parent while Barbara supports us through her work as a home health nurse.

Feb. 24 1994—After further interventions, our second child, Jeremy, is born. I am still under-employed, although I now have an adjunct teaching position that provides enough income for Barbara to take an extended maternity leave.

May 1994—Ten years after receiving my PhD, I am finally offered a tenure-track teaching job at Converse College in South Carolina. Our family, launched amid uncertainty and conceived on faith, will move cross-country that summer to a new home and a bright future. We are both 38.

February 1999—After four and a half years of professional fulfillment and administrative purgatory, I am awarded tenure. At 43, I have finally achieved my professional and personal goals. I have a secure job that I love, two children that I adore, and a devoted wife who means the world to me.

March 2000—While I am attending a regional meeting as President of the Southwest Chapter of the American Musicological Society, Barbara suffers a stroke: the first sign of complications from the massive dose of radiation that saved her life exactly 21 years earlier. For a few months her vision is seriously impaired, and she retains a lingering visual aphasia that will baffle and frustrate her for the rest of her life.

July 2000—Barbara wakes up and is unable to hear out of her right ear. She gets out of bed and falls flat on her face. The hearing never returns, and the balance only returns gradually and with great effort. The diagnosis is six months in coming, but it is grim. She has suffered another stroke, this one in the small capillary that feeds the inner ear. All of the blood vessels in her brain were damaged by the radiation, we are now told. In order to postpone or minimize future complications, she is put on Plavix, a blood thinner. She will take it for the rest of her life.

June 2003—On the very day that we plan to travel to Texas and look for a house in Waco, where I have just gotten a senior appointment at Baylor, Barbara suddenly loses the hearing in her left ear. With no warning, she has gone completely deaf. This is a devastating experience that completely dwarfs everything either of us has been through previously, and it casts a pall over what should have been one of the happiest episodes in our life together. Two weeks later, we dutifully go through the motions of the house search while barely able to communicate.

Nov. 2003—Barbara receives a cochlear implant in her left ear. A month later, on my 48th birthday, it is activated. The results are disappointing, and a long period of retraining now begins in which she will struggle to learn to hear again.

Dec. 2004—Barbara receives an implant in the other ear, and it too is activated a month later. We now know not to expect too much, but we are tentatively encouraged by the improvement in her hearing. We are confronted, though, by the stark realities of advanced hearing loss. Among the things we will never be able to do successfully: hear a concert, attend a movie, attend a public talk of any kind, participate in a group discussion, talk on the phone without struggle, carry on a family conversation. At the dinner table, the kids talk to me and largely ignore Barbara. In the car she can't hear them even when they do talk to her. We make furtive lunch dates simply to find a quiet place where we can talk to each other. We continue to hold out hope that her hearing will improve, but it never really does.

Sometime in 2007 (the dates seem to be getting less clear as they grow closer to the present)—After several dental procedures and a tooth extraction, the increasing pain that Barbara has been experiencing in her right jaw is diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia, an inflammation of the main facial nerve that is known to cause the most excruciating pain that a human being can experience. (The condition's nickname: the suicide disease.) The only effective treatment for this debilitating condition, also likely caused by the radiation, consists of large doses of anti-epileptic drugs, which make Barbara's balance problems much worse. She now begins to walk with a cane, and the rest of her life will be a trade-off between her compromised ability to walk and the attempt to attain a respite from the unbearable pain. Repeated surgical procedures bring only temporary relief.

Dec. 19 2011—As we are preparing to go out to dinner to celebrate my 56th birthday, Barbara suffers a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Because she is taking Plavix, nothing can be done to stop the bleeding, which pools around the base of her brain and chokes off not only her consciousness, but her ability ever to regain it. A little over three days later, in the wee hours of Dec. 23, she dies.

We were together for a little over twenty-three and a half years. For thirteen months we had it all: a secure job for me, children, health, prosperity. The rest of it was lived under the shadow of financial insecurity, career frustration, infertility and, finally, declining health and dire suffering. Every minute was precious—and, I now see quite clearly, snatched forcefully from inexorable fate. We loved, and we gave of each other in ways that are hard to describe and precious to remember. I have now completed a gestational cycle of grief and mourning, and I know that it is from the hard times that the most lasting memories were forged. So much joy, so much love. Life so fragile that there is none of it to waste. Tears that sting and memories that burn in my heart. Every moment is ours, Barbara's and mine. Every moment we love, and the loss follows as does the fall that will now turn to winter. It was in the spring that we met, and in the winter that we were parted. The winter will now come again, followed by the spring, and it is only love that continues unabated through it all.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The cartoon liberal

Every day, it seems, somebody posts a statement affirming that hard work and success are honorable things, and greatly preferable to depending on handouts. The message, whether stated directly or not, is that there are people who disagree. It is also clear who those people are supposed to be, and who they are not. They are liberals: the people who allegedly denigrate success and think that everybody should depend on government handouts. They are not conservatives: the right-thinking people who know better.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Nobody I know in either political party, whether liberal or conservative, thinks that hard work and success are not good things. Nobody I know of either persuasion thinks that it is desirable to make people dependent on government handouts. Nobody. That position doesn't exist. It just keeps getting attacked in a classic straw-man argument. It's easy to score points for your cause, apparently, by demolishing what you think your opponents believe, especially if others are predisposed to see it that way as well. It's easy to attack a cartoon liberal. I'm a real liberal, though, and I'm not going to take it lying down, so let me once again explain, briefly, what I do believe.

As a liberal, I believe in freedom: the maximum amount of freedom compatible with a just and decent society. I also believe that freedom is threatened in a variety of ways, most of which do not come from government as commonly perceived.

The common perception of government, though, is part of the problem that liberals seek to address. The fact, as Howard Zinn and others have convincingly established, is that the United States has always had big government and always will. It could hardly be otherwise, given that we are a bafflingly large and diverse society. Such a society cannot run by itself.

We do, however, have a rational choice to make. We can choose to be governed by largely open and transparent institutions whose avowed purpose is government, and which are answerable to the people, or we can choose to be governed by shadowy corporations and people of great wealth whose operations are opaque and who are accountable to no-one.

As a liberal, I believe that our precious freedoms are slipping away at an alarming rate and are being replaced by the power of the moneyed corporate behemoth. As just one example among many, that behemoth, operating in the supposedly free market, has devised a strikingly inefficient way of administering health care that maximizes profits and disempowers individuals. Until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, somebody who has had a serious and chronic illness - somebody like my late wife - could have his or her freedom taken away by the need to appease the arcane, self-serving requirements of corporate health care. The Affordable Care Act, by empowering people with "pre-existing conditions," has made all of us more free.

I have lost another significant personal freedom over the last few months. I can no longer go to a public place and relax without at least thinking about the possibility that a madman armed with military assault weapons will open fire and kill me and those I am with. As a society, we seem incapable of doing anything about this loss of freedom, since we are in the thrall of arms manufacturers, the NRA, and other representatives of corporate power. As a liberal, I think this is a horrible state of affairs, and we would be much freer if the government transparently regulated who can own such weapons and under what circumstances.

Notice that I haven't said anything about giving handouts. The fact is, I do give them. I recently gave a significant amount of money, for example, to Lutheran Ministries and Social Services of Waco to help fund its Legal Assistance Project, which provides low-cost paralegal services for those in the community who cannot afford them. This is a handout, and like all such handouts, it is intended to get those people back on their feet so they can gain a modicum of self-respect. When I sat on the Board of Directors of LMSS, it included both liberals and conservatives and we all agreed about this without question.

So please, let's stop attacking the cartoon liberal. That success-despising, handout-loving, anti-American figure of so many conservative imaginations simply doesn't exist in real life. It is a lie. Therefore, any argument directed against it is inherently dishonest in substance, if not necessarily in intent. For the record, I don't care what time Paul Ryan says he ran the marathon in. He may have been mistaken or her may have been lying, but it doesn't really matter because the issue is a trivial one. I do very much care if Ryan or anybody else attacks the cartoon liberal, because such an attack is dishonest at the core, and it matters deeply.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hard truths


I’m writing this because the time has come to make some hard choices. I know the readers of this blog expect me to level with them, and the time has come to stop ducking the choices and instead spell out what we need to do. It is not enough, after all, to just keep talking about it. We’ve been doing that for a long time—and I’ve done as much talking as anybody. The time for talk is gone. It’s time to make it clear what we need to do.

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to stop talking and start making some tough choices. I’m going to be very clear about this, because making tough choices isn’t easy, and spelling them out is even harder. It’s much easier to just avoid them, and that’s what we must not do at all costs. We can’t avoid the hard choices. We have to make them, and make them clearly.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You live with the results of choices every day. Those choices have been made for you or by you or despite you, but they have unquestionably been made. That is hard. It is much easier to duck making choices and to talk about them instead, until people begin to believe you’ve actually done something, or have a plan to do something, or know what you’re talking about. So I’m here to tell you that I’m not going to duck any of those choices. I know you expect me to level with you about this, so here’s the truth: Hard choices need to be made. Hard truths need to be heard. That’s the truth. It’s hard. But it’s also true. That’s the thing about truth. How hard is that?

You all know people who don’t level with you. I know you do. When things are going well, that might be OK, but things are not going well, so you need people to level with you. You need them to stop talking and tell you the truth. That’s the truth. Then you need them to make choices. Hard choices. You need them not to duck those choices, but to make them, even though they’re hard.

That’s what you can count on me for. I’ll never duck those choices, and you’ll always know I’m not ducking them because I’ll tell you about them. Just like I’m doing now.

Trust me.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Barbara's Gift, Part 2

It poured cats and dogs yesterday, and today was that rare August day in Texas when the sun shone bright and the temperature never rose above the high 80s. Classes start tomorrow, and since one child is away at college and the other is at work, I took a 5-mile hike by myself this afternoon in Waco's Cameron Park, in the shade along the Brazos and Bosque rivers. I felt truly good and in possession of my life—more so than I can remember at any time since Barbara's stroke tore my world apart exactly eight months ago today.

Our trip to Hawaii last month was definitely a watershed. We packed as much of life and  renewal as we could into the seven and a half days we were there, and that was surely an important thing to do. There was something else going on, though, and I will try to write about it impartially, even though it is the most personal subject of all.

Barbara and I went to Maui for our honeymoon in January of 1989. Her lawsuit over the death of her first husband had just been settled out of court and she received a payment of nearly a quarter of a million dollars a few weeks before we were married. We had money to burn, and we also packed as much as we could into that week, including a day-long private plane tour that took us to all four major Hawaiian islands. I watched in astonishment as we flew directly over the active volcanoes on the south end of the Big Island, then savored lunch on Kauai, at a restaurant with covered outdoor seating around a central courtyard. We enjoyed mahi-mahi burgers at Kimo's in Lahaina, then ate dinner at Chez Paul, the five-star French restaurant down the road. We snorkeled and swam and savored a relaxed dinner cruise on calm seas.

I decided to go to Kauai this time because I had been there for only two hours and had few memories to distract me. Nevertheless, I puzzled the whole time we were there over the location of the outdoor dining site I remembered.  On the final day, I was craving one more dinner at a fine restaurant with the kind of food you just can't get in Waco, and Jennifer located one using a mobile app that sounded perfect. We phoned in reservations and showed up at 5:30, our rental car vacuumed and ready to return as we tried to prepare for the red-eye flight to Los Angeles and the two connections that would land us back in Texas the next afternoon.



It was **the place,** and it seemed for all the world as though Barbara had led us there as a final blessing on our week of catharsis. I returned with a deep inner peace that has never entirely left in the three weeks I've been back.

I don't want to claim too much here. Barbara told me that a few weeks after her first husband died, she distinctly heard his voice saying "It's OK; I'm happy." Knowing how much that meant to her, it is easy for me to suggest that she led us back to this place so I could have a similar moment of preternatural closeness with my departed spouse. Skeptics will scoff, of course, and I don't blame them. After all, we crave such revelations, and are all too eager to read purpose and meaning into chance events.

Still, I will say this: I have kept with me a strong sense of Barbara's inner peace, which allowed her to trust and slough off the burdens of stress and uncertainty through circumstances that would have brought most people to their knees. Her deafness and her profound difficulties with balance, both of which I have written about on this blog, were the ongoing symptoms of the radiation damage that ultimately led to her death. How does one maintain trust and faith when visited with such perverse afflictions? How does one find the strength to continue through the daily round of petty challenges and victories that makes up the better part of most human lives?

I don't know the answer, but I do know that in the wake of Barbara's death I have internalized that strength in a way that I had never been able to do before. In the face of bereavement, I have treated myself to spiritual calm, and have let the stresses and worries fall away from me as that source of unknown strength, latent within my inner being but too rarely tapped, has slipped from her shoulders onto mine.

Monday, August 6, 2012

We Beat the NRA in Texas

They said it couldn't be done. Session after legislative session the NRA-backed bill to create a legal right to carry fully loaded weapons into college classrooms had been stealthily blocked by a handful of sensible Democratic legislators. Now all of those legislators had gone down to defeat in the Tea Party bloodbath of 2010, and the bill was coming up again. It was a foregone conclusion that it would pass.

I really don't know why we did it. There was no chance the bill would be defeated. We might as well just accept that it was inevitable and go on and do our best to adapt. Some of our students were probably bringing guns to campus already. They could be hauled into court if they were caught, but they were never caught. That's what concealed means.

Still, we couldn't let it go. Somewhere in the great ledger book in the sky, it would be recorded that we had tried. It might not be remembered as our finest hour. It probably wouldn't be remembered at all, but we would at least know that we had made the effort.

So we began the writing of letters. We began to contact our colleagues and ask them to join us. The letters flowed, and soon they turned into petitions, and the signatures mounted. We would at least be heard. It would be known that there were people in Texas classrooms who really didn't want guns there among the already volatile mix. It would be remembered that we had gone on record with our belief that the answer to the possibility of violence was not the threat of more violence.

Nobody thought we could win. This bill was a bad idea whose time had come. Nevertheless, we persisted. We watched the legislature's moves carefully. We drove to Austin on multiple occasions to wait in cramped committee rooms and speak our minds to stubborn politicians who were legally obligated to hear us. We told them why what they proposed to do was wrong; why we wouldn't stand by and let common sense - which we made our living teaching and defending - be trampled to death. Increasingly, we were joined by students and administrators. Some had had experience with violence before, and wanted no more of it. Some simply wished to lend their support. Our numbers grew.

We made phone calls, and we made them again. We argued with staffers, and we left messages of gratitude with the occasional legislator who changed his or her mind. We received new lists of new people to call, and somehow we made the time to press the phone once more to our ears and speak our convictions into the broad void of indifference.

We wrote Op-Eds. Mine in the local paper provoked a storm of protest, which I ignored. I briefly wondered whether my home was safe, but I knew where such fears could lead and I dismissed them as distractions - temptations from a source that had spawned countless paranoid acts and raised the death toll ever higher. I could not let myself worry. Now more than ever I needed the strength of my convictions.

So we persevered, and again and again it looked like time had run out and the terrible idea was about to triumph. The NRA was behind it - they were there in the hearing room trotting out the usual arguments - and politicians bowed to their will. This was Texas, and there was no way we could fight the NRA here. Ours would go down in history as a lost cause, and we would lick our wounds in defeat and wonder how we could have been so foolish as to hope.

Ultimately, it was the politicians who squashed the bill. As usual, they didn't take the lead; they waited to follow. Only after they saw that our numbers were growing and that we were in dead earnest about our convictions did they start to show signs of wavering. State Senator Jeff Wentworth, who seemed to regard passage of this bill as his life's work, tried every trick in the book to keep it alive, and time and again we thought he had won. But he lost, and, in a crowning irony, he was defeated in his re-election bid this year by a Tea Party challenger.

Of course, the bill may come up again next year. Someone else may step up to the plate to take Wentworth's turn at bat. Rick Perry, no longer running for president and watching the national polls, may decide to give this bill more attention. But we will be there too, because we did the impossible, and we know it can be done again. Whether in Texas or in any other state, the NRA can be defeated, if only the people who care will make their voices heard. The politicians will not do it for us. They will only follow once they hear us loud and clear and realize that we are not going away.

We beat the NRA in Texas. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. We are not going away.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Heads I win, tails you ...

It was a wonderful week. After a few days in California visiting my late wife's family, my two adult children and I took off - as many of my Facebook friends know - for Kauai, Hawaii, where we spent the better part of eight days treating ourselves to a relaxing, healing vacation after one of the worst years in our lives.

The mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, happened the day before we flew out, and I tried my best not to think too much about it and about the inevitable political mudslinging that followed. While I was in Hawaii, the flap over Chick-Fil-A began to develop, and it later exploded into the festival of name-calling we've all been witnessing this week.

I have so far avoided commenting on either event, and I've largely avoided obsessing over them either. As the dust begins to settle, though, two things stick in my mind and won't go away:

• The statement from a Second Amendment supporter that any attempt to limit people's ability to buy enormously large magazines of ammunition restricts our freedoms.

• The claim by various people that calls to boycott Chick-Fil-A threaten our First Amendment freedom of speech.

What is so appalling about both of these claims is the complete failure to recognize the corresponding freedoms of those on the other side: the right of those who abhor violence to live without fear of armed vigilantes on the one hand, and the right of those who don't like Chick-Fil-A's president's views on gays to exercise their free market prerogative not to eat there on the other. The clear message in both cases is "I demand that you respect my freedoms, but forget about yours."

And this is a problem, because when freedom only applies to me and not to you, neither one of us is free. I'm not free because I don't have to listen to your views or your concerns, so I am never challenged to emerge from the prison of my preconceived ideas and interact with you or with others. You're not free because I have no respect for your personhood, even though I'm willing to disguise that lack of respect as promoting "freedom." So we are all in prison together.

As we prepare for the endgame of yet another presidential campaign, I greatly fear that we will see a lot of lack of freedom on display. What we seem to have lost is our sense of community - of all being in this (whatever "this" is) together. So I would like to suggest that everybody back off a bit and acknowledge that if any of us is not free, none of us is free. If any of us demands rights that deprive others of theirs, those rights are the antithesis of freedom. If we really want to affirm ourselves as Americans (and all the cheering for our Olympians this week suggests that, at some level, at least, we do), then we must affirm that America is a community: a frighteningly diverse community, perhaps, but a community all the same. In a community, nobody wins, and if hyper-partisanship prevails, we all lose. It's about as simple as that.


Friday, July 13, 2012

My favorite Mozart for piano

I didn't want to leave for vacation on a downer, so I'm posting a link to video I just made of Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K. 511, which has long been my favorite Mozart keyboard piece. I recorded it using the new camera I bought to take to Hawaii with me.

I wrote on Facebook earlier this week that there is more depth of emotion in Mozart's music than in that of almost any other composer. Many have tried to make up the difference by being louder and more obvious, but few have ever gone this deep. This piece exemplifies that. Please enjoy, and if you're wondering, I did look at the camera a few times just to make sure it was filming me - if "filming" is the right term any more. I'll be relaxing next week far away from here. I am thoroughly ready.



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The only other choice

Sometime in March: My son receives an offer of financial aid from Baylor. He has already been admitted to the Choral Music Education Program in the School of Music, and he signs the offer and returns it, indicating his intention to enroll.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave behind.

In April, having filed my federal tax return, I go back to Jeremy's FAFSA and update my Adjusted Gross Income. Shortly afterward, a letter arrives from Baylor stating that, on the basis of new information, Jeremy's financial aid offer has been revised downward. He is once again asked to sign and return the letter.

I call the Financial Aid office and tell them that the extra income I reported, which came from Barbara's disability payments, is no longer available, since she passed away at the end of last year. That's OK, they say; they can do a "verification" of the FAFSA that will certify the reduction in my income, and Jeremy's original offer can be reinstated. All we will have to do is fill out some paperwork.

You think you're doing well until ...

I would rather not do that, I tell them. Filling out those forms to begin with was difficult enough in the wake of Barbara's passing. Having to revisit them will, I am sure, come at considerable emotional cost. I am reassured that the required paperwork is quick and easy. Although Jennifer's financial aid status has not changed, I might as well do it for her as well. She might be able to qualify for more subsidized loan money, and at current interest rates ...

You think you're doing well until something happens.

The paperwork comes; we fill it out and return it.  I receive an email from the Financial Aid office saying that they still need two copies of each of our federal tax returns. No problem, I say; I have those on my computer. Can I just email them?

The email goes through, but Financial Aid is unable to open the files. I should have anticipated that. They were done using H&R Block's proprietary program. Undaunted, I print all three returns and, one morning before class (it's now June), I run them by the Financial Aid Office.

These are the federal tax returns, I am told. Isn't that what you asked for? What we need is the transcript from the IRS. What difference does it make, I ask. The returns have all the information you need. Sorry, they say; it's just the law. We can't proceed without the official transcript from the IRS. Call this number and request it.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions.

To my deep shame, I almost break down. I don't want to have to call that number, I say. It was painful enough for me to go this far. Revisiting my tax returns and FAFSAs repeatedly in order to prove that my wife is dead is an agonizing experience. I am astonished by the amount of pain that surfaces each time I am forced to return to the issue.

They are very sorry, of course, but that's the law. Can I just stop the whole process, I ask. I'll happily accept the revised financial aid offer if only you don't force me to go through any more verification. I have their deepest sympathy, I am assured, but no I can't. That's just the law. They have no control over it.

I call the IRS number and respond to a long series of automated prompts. I enter my social security number, confirm my address and request the official transcript of the tax return. After what seems like forever, I am finished and get to hang up. The copy will be sent in 5 to 10 days. It will cost me nothing (except my heart).  Then I have to make the same call two more times, one for each child. I wasn't sure I could get through it. Resuming my teaching less than three weeks after Barbara's death was a walk in the park compared to this.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave.

A week and a half later the forms arrive in three separate envelopes from the IRS. It is now July. In barely over a week I will leave for a long-anticipated, desperately needed vacation. I take the forms to the Financial Aid office hoping there will still be time to complete the "verification" process before the bills for the fall semester are due at the end of the month.

Oh no, I am told. The IRS did send the tax return transcripts for both children, but in my envelope they sent the account transcript. It might have been their mistake. On all three calls I responded exactly the same way to exactly the same series of prompts. But unfortunately they cannot accept this form. They need the return transcript; without it, they can't process either child's financial aid application.

This time I come even closer to breaking down. I raise my voice. I rest my head in my hands, struggling to hold back tears of agonized frustration. Do they have any idea how painful it is every time I have to revisit this process—how having to call the IRS again, and probably suffering an interminable wait to speak to a human being who can correct the problem, will cost me emotionally? They are truly sorry, they say, but they can't use this form. That's just the law.

On the drive home, Jennifer, who was along for the ride, berates me for my emotional immaturity and the embarrassment it caused her. When we arrive, I proceed to demonstrate, at considerable length, just how deep were the emotions that I hadn't yet expressed—the emotions that I had so far managed to hold back despite being pushed to the brink of human endurance. When it's clear I'm not going to be able to manage to cook, my sweet but uncomprehending daughter offers to treat me to dinner. We talk.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave behind.

Tomorrow I will get up and call the IRS again. It is going to cost me, but what choice do I have? We mourn in bits and pieces, and just when we think we're making progress the ground drops out and the depth of what is beneath becomes apparent. We swim, because the only other choice is to drown.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

And he spoke to them in parables, saying...

I have a new hero: John Roberts. That's right; our chief justice has shown that, despite some shaky performances elsewhere (see Citizens United), he actually understands what is meant by judicial restraint. I never, ever expected him to stand up for the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while Kennedy voted against it. Nevertheless, this is a great day for America. A truly great day. I know how to be grateful. Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.

I feel too good about what happened today to be really bothered by minor distractions, but I still wonder why so many of my fellow citizens seem to be living in an alternate moral universe. It's the universe of "I got mine, so you get yours." I think I can illustrate it with a story. Call it a parable. It goes something like this:

"A man was born under a lucky star. He was poor, but he worked hard. His family supported him, and he found a job working for a sympathetic boss who rewarded his efforts. He prospered. Soon he was wealthy, and bought himself a large house. He married a beautiful and healthy woman who gave him lots of bright, talented children. Every one of them excelled in school, and none of them ever got sick.

"In this man's old age, he was able to retire and live off of the money he had made during his long and successful life. Whenever he needed anything, his children showered him with gifts, and his wife loved him dearly. His life was truly blessed.

"One day, a poor beggar came to this man's door. 'I am poor,' he said. 'Get a job,' said the rich man. 'I am crippled,' the man said, 'and I cannot do manual labor.' 'Get a desk job,' said the rich man. 'I am dyslexic and cannot do paperwork,' the man said. 'Tell your boss, and he will find work for you,' the rich man said. 'I did tell my boss, and he fired me and gave my job to somebody else,' the man said. 'Now I am dying of an incurable disease, and I cannot afford treatment.' 'You have made poor decisions,' the rich man said. 'You deserve nothing from me.' So the beggar went forth, with only the rags on his back, and soon he died.

"Later that year, the rich man also died, old and full of years. God, who is loving and compassionate, asked him why he had turned the poor beggar away from his door. 'He was a freeloader,' the rich man said. 'He wanted handouts, and expected to get everything for free. He wouldn't work.'

"'Actually,' God said, 'that man worked 14-hour days for 20 years without complaining, until he finally crushed his legs doing a job nobody else would do. That's why he was crippled.'

"'But he could have gotten a desk job,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' God said, 'he did work a desk job for the next 20 years, and because he was dyslexic he worked twice as hard as all his co-workers. But it wasn't good enough, so he was fired and a young man with no experience was put in his place.'

"'But his boss could have found other work for him,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' God said, 'his boss then assigned him to be his personal driver. He had a special car that he could operate with his arms alone, and he worked harder than anybody had ever worked before to make his boss happy. But one day another driver ran a red light and crashed into the car, destroying it. His boss had fallen on bad times as well and wasn't able to replace the car, so he had to let him go.'

"'But he could have gotten another job as a driver,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' said God, 'he did get another job, but he was soon stricken by a progressive disease that destroyed his muscle coordination and made him nearly blind. He was so sick that he could no longer work. The treatment for his disease would have cost far more money than he had ever had in his lifetime. That was why he came to you for help.'

"'Then he obviously made poor choices,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' said God, 'you are the one who made poor choices. I gave you parents who loved you, and you took them for granted, and never gave them anything in return. I gave you a sympathetic boss, and you took his money and never appreciated his generosity. I gave you a wonderful family, and you assumed it was your due. I gave you children who were willing to take care of you in your old age, and a wife who did the housework for you every day without complaining. You only worked about a third as hard as the old beggar you turned away from your door, nor do you have any idea what it is like to live with chronic illness and disability. If you had lived this man's life, you would have died in the gutter 30 years ago.'

"'But that's impossible,' said the rich man. 'I worked hard for everything I have, and never asked for handouts.'

"'You never had to,' said God, 'because you were given everything you needed.'

"'I bore illness without complaining,' said the rich man.

"'That's because you never had anything worse then a common cold,' said God.

"'I never asked anybody else for help,' said the rich man.

"'That's because your parents, your wife and your children made sure you never had to,' said God.

"'So what are you saying?,' said the rich man. 'That I should support some kind of European socialist health-care and welfare system so beggars don't have to work and a bunch of whiners who can't take life's hard knocks can come to my door and take the clothes off my back?'

"'No,' said God, 'but when you're ready to join me in heaven, let's talk.'"

There seem to be a lot of angry people out there today who are convinced that everything they have is the result of hard work and stubborn resolve, and that "Obamacare" is just opening the door to a bunch of pathetic freeloaders who want to milk the system. They don't seem to realize that success in life is about more than making the right choices and pulling their own weight. They seem to believe, in all good faith, that what they have is theirs by right, and that anybody who has not done as well as they have has simply made bad choices. Bad luck and poor health don't exist in their world.

Fortunately, I believe God is patient, and will wait a very long time until those people are willing to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the meantime, at least we now have a decent health care law. Deo Gratias!



Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Waiting

There have been a few times in my life when I have felt completely disconnected from the rest of America - a man without a country. It's not that I have changed (although I certainly have). At those times America has moved away from me. I myself am the steady gauge by which I measure its departure.

It happened first in the 1980s. As I've written on this blog before, I grew up believing in the ability of our country to rise against great evil and put it right. I saw that happen during the Civil Rights movement, which defines my moral core to this day. The 60s were a blessed time to come of age, but a cursed one as well: blessed because the potential seemed limitless; cursed because those of us who grew up on that rich food were bound to be disappointed.

And disappointed I was by the ongoing war in Vietnam, which defined my high school years and ended as I began college. Disappointed, too, by the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, and by his re-election four years later. Still, though, I believed in America, and when Watergate broke it seemed like vindication. America, I told myself, was good at heart, and right would eventually win out. The proof of this was that I knew somebody as extreme as Ronald Reagan could never be elected president. It was simply inconceivable in the America of my youth, which made mistakes but knew how to back off from them and reaffirm its true self. The California cowboy made the news from time to time, but he did so as an outside voice - one that was ludicrously beyond the mainstream, and would remain so forever. Such was my faith.

When Reagan was elected I thought my world had ended. For most of the 80s I seemed to be living in a parallel reality that mocked the country in which I had been born. I could barely stand to turn on the news, because I knew I was likely to be confronted by the "great communicator," who always seemed to me to be delivering bad throwaway movie lines that showed only a minimal understanding of reality. It is my firm belief that Reagan's reckless brinksmanship with the Soviet Union prolonged its life - that communism would have collapsed much sooner without the excuse that confronting Reagan and the US provided. Then there was Reagan's determination to destroy everything else I had come to regard as good about America. Several times in the 80s I simply broke down and wept at what I saw happening in the country I still loved, but that had so clearly rejected me.

As soon as Reagan was out of the White House, I immediately felt some degree of normalcy return. Bush I wasn't my favorite president, but he wasn't an idiot either, and I took considerable consolation in that. Clinton, too, had his faults, but I recognized the country under his leadership.

Then, of course, came Bush II, and things once again went off the tracks. It wasn't so much his "election" by the Supreme Court, in defiance of the popular vote, that convinced me that my country was once again gone. It was the leadup to the Iraq War, in which I could see clearly that we were embarking on a fool's mission that would cause incalculable human misery. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and I thought it should be clear as well to anybody who was paying attention. Late 2002 and early 2003 were probably the loneliest period in my life. There was virtually nobody who seemed to agree with me, and I watched the country skating into insanity with a different kind of detachment than I had known in the 80s. There were no more fits of weeping, but there was intense prayer and desperate isolation. The country had deserted me again.

Then Barack Obama was elected and, against all odds, he managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Yes, it was a desperate compromise, but I still believe it was the most important legislation passed by Congress since the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The fact that it had finally been approved made up for an awful lot, and even consoled me during the Tea Party rout of 2010. The Republicans might have won back Congress - and in a darker, more extremist incarnation than I had ever seen before - but universal health care was here to stay.

Anybody who has followed my writing here knows why this is so important to me. My late wife Barbara, who died last December, was a long-term cancer survivor. She was fortunate enough to be married to me and thus to have insurance that paid for the truly extraordinary medical expenses she ran up during the last decade of her life. If that life had gone a bit differently, she could have been denied coverage because of a "pre-existing condition," which is a brutal way of saying that she had survived a disease that was supposed to have killed her, and no insurance company would voluntarily take her on. The fact that people like her have been routinely denied access to the care they need is the kind of situation that simply should not exist in a civilized country. No other advanced country in the world would allow it. And the US had finally caught up.

If there was ever a silver lining for me to Barbara's sudden and premature death last year, it was my knowledge that under the new law, nobody like her would ever be turned down for insurance again. That thought has kept me going during some very difficult moments.

Thus, I am awaiting Thursday's announcement of the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act with genuine dread. I fully expect the same partisan judicial activism that put Bush II in office and defined money as speech to undo this vital, desperately needed legislation and return us to a state of savage indifference to our fellow citizens. I will be pleasantly surprised if that doesn't happen. If it does happen, though, I will feel personally injured, since the memory of my late wife will have been disrespected in clear, cold terms. I hope I don't find out on Thursday morning that the country has once again deserted me, but I'm bracing for the worst. It hurts.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I'll Cry If I Want To

It had been an exceptionally pleasant birthday. My grades were turned in, and I was done for the fall semester and almost ready to write some very belated Christmas cards. Jennifer, as a Baylor student, was also finished, but Jeremy had to catch the bus to school, so at 6:45 a knock sounded at the door and cards and gifts were presented. I then went back to sleep and woke up when I was truly ready. Barbara later claimed to have slept through the whole thing: an ominous sign, perhaps, because she always remembered these early morning intrusions.

When I finally got up for good, I found several dozen birthday greetings on Facebook. I resolved that this year I was feeling so good to have recovered from two abdominal surgeries in a row that I would respond to each one individually. I kept that resolve until after 5:00.

Later that morning I had to go up to Baylor to deliver a few things, and Barbara, Jennifer and I went to the Clay Pot (a Vietnamese restaurant near campus that I love) for lunch. Returning home, I responded to several dozen more birthday greetings and watched Barbara make peanut brittle - the latest installment in her annual marathon of Christmas baking. The plates were already being assembled to deliver to friends and neighbors, and the German chocolate cake that she had baked twice for me the day before (the oven was accidentally set too high the first time) was waiting for us to devour it after dinner.

At 5:00, Barbara had put on the cashmere sweater I bought for her a few years ago and a nice set of earrings that were much older than that. Her perfume and lipstick had been applied, and we were ready to go out for dinner together. The long-delayed Christmas tree that we had bought the day before was ready for the kids to decorate while we were gone. Then we would all eat cake and perhaps drink some eggnog while watching the lights around the familiar ornaments, the skirted angel blinking white on top.

Barbara had gone downstairs, and I lingered to finish dressing. When I walked down a few minutes later, she was sitting on the bottom step changing her shoes. She was suddenly feeling dizzy, she said, and had decided to opt for more stability.

Sudden attacks of dizziness were nothing unusual for Barbara, so I took that in stride and took her arm to help her out to the car. She was having so much difficulty, though, that I decided she needed to sit down on the couch for a while. I felt her forehead and it was clammy, even though she complained of being hot, so I asked Jennifer to bring a thermometer. It showed nothing unusual, but she was now complaining of feeling nauseous. Making a quick decision, I decided to play it safe by bringing her to the emergency room. This time I got her to the car, and with the kids along for moral support, we set out for Providence Hospital, a five-minute drive away.

Gentle reader, please understand that we had made this trip many times before. I had brought Barbara to the ER so many times, with such a variety of complaints, that it had become simply a ritual of life. Sometimes the results were benign, and we returned home. Sometimes they were catastrophic, as when she suddenly lost her hearing in her one remaining good ear (also accompanied by serious dizziness). Always we returned home and life went on.

As we drove to the hospital, Barbara (so typically for her) apologized to me for ruining my birthday. She was sensitive on this point, since her own birthdays had frequently been marked by disaster (her 23rd birthday present: a brain tumor diagnosis), and her first husband had been killed the day before her brother Scott's 25th. It was OK, I assured her. After we figured out what the problem was, we would go out later in the week.

As we pulled into the parking lot in the ER, Barbara asked Jennifer to find a wheelchair for her, as she wasn't sure she could walk steadily. Jennifer works at Providence as a transporter, so she knew just where to look. We arrived at the desk and filled out the requisite paperwork, and I dutifully presented my debit card for the $50 copay. Because of Barbara's medical history, I insisted that she be seen as soon as possible. "Oh, that breeze feels good," she said as Jennifer wheeled her into the waiting area. She was still feeling hot.

We did get taken back quickly, and Barbara described her symptoms and answered a few questions. It was only at this point that I began to get inklings that this ER visit would not be like the others. Her responses were becoming slurred and confused, and she complained of numbness in her tongue. Because of her nausea, the doctor in attendance decided she should be placed under anesthesia so she would not be at risk of choking on her own vomit. The children and I were ushered from the room and into a family waiting area.

As we sat there nervously, I told them that I was now reasonably sure their mother was having a stroke. Jennifer said she was certain that was what was happening. It had happened before, which was why she took a blood thinner every day. I was trying to imagine what kind of impairment would result from this one, and whether it would be permanent. Just some more data to crunch in the seemingly endless stream of disabilities and setbacks we had encountered over the previous dozen years.

The first sign that things would be truly different came when, nervous from our prolonged wait, I found my way back to the ER proper and encountered a neurosurgeon looking at the results of her CT scan. (She couldn't have an MRI because of the cochlear implants.) There was a lot of bleeding from her right cerebellum, he said (the exact spot of her tumor), and a large clot was accumulating around the base of her brain. She was, in fact, having a cerebral hemorrhage - and, irony of ironies, the blood thinner intended to save her life was preventing the blood from clotting until it puddled around her brain stem and gradually choked off all hope that she would ever regain consciousness. By the time I even realized what was happening, the woman I had loved and cherished for nearly 24 years was gone. She would linger for three days on life support, but her peaceful-looking form on the hospital bed was just a hollow shell, all essential brain activity having ceased that first night. I never had a chance to say goodbye.

In ten days it will be the half anniversary of that awful night, and I will be 56 and a half. I am writing this because I am going to have to start thinking about how I will handle my next birthday, and I need all the help I can get. Every time I log onto Facebook or open the calendar on my phone, I am reminded of whose birthday it is, and I constantly wade through the endless stream of birthday messages to friends and the pictures of happy couples enjoying blissful, special days together. And I am reminded that even 25 years after her first husband's death, Barbara could easily be consumed by depression as the fateful anniversary approached.

So I am wondering, wistfully, if I will ever have a happy birthday again. I hate to say this, lest it make me sound shallow, but the thought torments me. I lost my wife and my special day all at once, and the two losses will be inextricably bound together for the rest of my life. That makes it so much worse.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Anaheim, Azusa and the Quest for Closure

I am in Rancho Cucamonga, California, at a hotel a few miles from the Ontario International Airport, in Southern California's Inland Valley. This is an area that I associate exclusively with Barbara, who grew up here. Every previous time that I have come in low over the San Bernardino Mountains to land at Ontario, Barbara has either been on the plane with me or waiting for me on the ground. Five months ago, coming back here without her would have killed me emotionally. Now I am experiencing a strange inner numbness that represents the latest stage in my journey of grief.

I am here with Jennifer because my mother-in-law, Barbara's mother, has taken a sudden turn for the worse. One of her major heart valves has failed, and she is too weak to endure surgery. We had planned a stopover of a few days in July on our way to a Hawaiian getaway that I planned with the kids back in January, when our loss was so fresh that we desperately needed something to look forward to. Now it seems doubtful if she will survive that long. Jennifer and I were able to make it out on short notice; Jeremy is on a school trip to Washington, DC with his choir, which will sing at the National Cathedral tomorrow. I would much rather be there to hear them than here surrounded by reminders of the past and, yet again, of death.

The familiar spots are still all around me, although as always in Southern California, growth has altered them. I was able to find the Marie Callender's near the airport for lunch. I told Jennifer that I remembered walking her around the restaurant when she was a toddler, as Barbara remained at the table to finish her dinner. I don't think I had been back since then. On the way to the care facility where my mother-in-law is staying, I passed by Lutheran High School in LaVerne, where I taught for two years when I couldn't get a job anywhere else. I gave up that job twenty years ago to be Jennifer's custodial parent. On the way, we passed a Baskin-Robbins that used to be a Burger King, a KFC that used to be a health food restaurant, a McDonald's that has remodeled to look like the classic golden arches design, and many other reminders that change comes to everything even as life marches on.

I am now resting back at the hotel, since I had to get up this morning at 4:00 Texas time, which is 2:00 in the morning in California. I am too tired to feel strong emotions, or even to wonder too deeply why I am here. My mother-in-law knew who Jennifer and I were today, but she didn't seem to remember much else, and we had to leave after less than an hour to let her rest. I think my grief is resting, too. That's probably a good thing, since it woke up and ambushed me earlier this month as soon as I turned in my grades for the spring semester. I tried to be patient with it; it gave me little choice.

Next week, my family will converge on Waco to see Jeremy graduate from high school. Jennifer and I will both begin summer term, and I will once again have my teaching to distract me. Then we will be back here in July, and I will see these familiar landmarks, along with the unfamiliar ones—and at least some of Barbara's family—again. I will be two months closer to whatever is down the road. I don't know where my life is taking me, but I know I'll soon find out. I'll have to settle for that.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Post-Christian World?


It’s been a long time since I first saw the world we live in described as “Post-Christian.” It is perhaps a sign of the times, though, that many Christian leaders are now embracing this description. The notion that 21st-century Christianity will be largely defined by how Christians live out our role in a Post-Christian world is becoming broadly popular. Unfortunately, like most such cultural memes, it is also being used uncritically.

The argument goes something like this: “In a Post-Christian world, it is the role of the church to act much as it did in the first century: as an outside voice, a counter-cultural movement, a small group of people whose job it is to show the rest of the world how to live life according to a higher standard.”

I have no problem with being seen as counter-cultural. When any religious movement stops being opposed to the dominant culture, it risks sacrificing a part of its soul. There are many who believe Christianity did exactly that when it became the religion of the Roman Empire, and that it is necessary to rethink from the ground up the Roman meta-narratives that have become part and parcel of the church ever since. Often this also means discarding a lot of Greek baggage along the way, and attempting to recover views of God and human nature that come from Jewish culture and that Jesus and St. Paul would have recognized.

But there is also a sense in which our world is fundamentally different from that of the first century, requiring us to understand the term “Post-Christian” in a very different light. We are Post-Christian by virtue of the fact that over two millennia, human society has been profoundly transformed by the moral tenets of the Christian religion, which in turn reflect the Jewish culture from which Christianity grew, with its prophets and ethical teachings.

Without those Christian and Jewish roots, our world would be very different. Most of what we are accustomed to seeing as virtuous in modern life—our respect for the rights of others, our sense of justice, our aversion to violence, our need to set a positive example—stems directly from that Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. In that sense, Christianity no longer needs to be a counter-cultural movement. It needs to be, instead, a guardian of what is most precious and true in the culture at large.

The fact that it often fails to do so was documented in Bill McKibben’s 2005 article in Harper’s titled “The Christian Paradox.” America, McKibben wrote, “is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” I would like to make the modest—and by no means original—suggestion that the reason for this is that elements of American Christianity have long been fiercely and unreflectively at war with what is seen as the dominant culture, however that culture may manifest itself. Note that I said “elements of American Christianity.” There have always been Christians to stand up for progress as well. Civil rights, the abolition of the death penalty, the promotion of peaceful solutions to international conflict, the rejection of violence as a means of self-defense, the responsibility of society to take care of and support the less fortunate—these are all positions that are derived from Biblical ethics, and to the extent that our society promotes and values them, it is Post-Christian in the most positive sense. The fact that large numbers of Christians oppose the extension of these moral milestones, and in many cases seem to want to turn back the clock, demonstrates that a reflexive, uncritical reaction against modern society has come to define what it means to be Christian for too many of my fellow citizens.

I am writing this simply to point out the absurdity of such a position. We can’t go back to the first century, and we wouldn’t want to. Anyone who chooses to define religious faith in opposition to the modern world will inevitably collide with and end up opposing much of the moral progress that Christianity has wrought in the two thousand years since then. That moral progress is now part of the dominant culture, Post-Christian though it may be. There is no good to be achieved, and much harm to be done, by standing in its way in the name of a supposedly higher virtue.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Highs and lows


I’m almost done. I have one more exam to give, one more set of paper grades to finalize and post, and I’ll be finished with the semester whose end I never thought about when it started—an infinity of grieving now behind me whose vastness I sensed and feared. At first, I went in to teach each class and then went home and drew back within myself, carefully conserving what was there so that I could muster up the strength to repeat the act the next day. And an act it was: a kind of kabuki theater in which I knew the lines and the roles and the cues and the responses, my onnagata self carefully concealed behind a mask that hid me even as it revealed me. I was living in public, yet I was hiding in private, nurturing a grief whose intensity is matched only by its essential solitude. There can be no more lonely pain than that suffered over the death of a spouse. No-one else in the world shared the same relationship with the departed, and so those who survive must live entirely through their own strength, knowing that others who reach out are doing so through the smothering waters of the deep end of the pool, lifting you up only to breathe the strangling air that yields seductively to the power—the black, comforting power—of those fathomless depths. As life goes on, you learn to tread in the depths, and they only awaken to overwhelm you when you grow tired, your confidence spent blithely on the illusion that you have found solid ground. Eventually that illusion becomes more and more complete, and it becomes your new life, and the water grows lighter and somehow sustains you.

That’s where I now am on my better days, and it seems appropriate to review the highs and lows of the past four and a half months—much as participants in a group are often asked to describe the highs and lows of the past week, month or year.

Highs:

• The group of at least half a dozen people from our church and Baylor who showed up in the ICU waiting room the day after Barbara’s stroke and sat with us non-stop until my family began to arrive. The membership shifted, but they were there all day, and what would have been unbearable blackness and tension was lightened by their presence.

• The long series of friends and students who brought over food when we were still too dazed to do much cooking for ourselves.

• The Spring Break getaway with the kids. For a few days, we withdrew to the Hill Country and breathed some fresh air. The blackness began to recede.

• The sympathy cards that continued to pour in, even months after the event.

• The incredibly warm response to my many blog posts about my loss.

• The Good Friday Requiem at St. Matthew. Intense and tear-inducing, but a high point nonetheless.

• Grace

Lows:

• Conflicts with my publisher (now tentatively resolved) over the completion of the textbook I’ve been working on since forever. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten much done anyway.

• The day when, still morose over the above, I went to the dentist for a routine cleaning and he pointed out some suspicious spots on the X-rays of my gums that he wanted checked out by an oral surgeon. By cancelling everything else that afternoon, I was able to get in and see one before the day was out. False alarm, but for three or four hours I thought I was going to die too.

• Our anniversary (Jan. 14), Valentine’s Day, Barbara’s birthday (March 16), Mother’s Day (still to come), the anniversary of our first date (still to come, four days after Mother’s Day).

• This seems petty, but the grating realization that I will never have my birthday back, because it will always be the day on which the unimaginable happened.

• The realization that the previous point seems petty, but grates on me nonetheless.

Those are just a few small points of what has been a day-to-day drama of highs and lows, often stacked close together and sometimes nearly indistinguishable. As I had feared, with the end of classes and the approach of a three-week break before I begin teaching summer term, I have begun to relax the ceaseless effort to tread water and the depths have begun to tug at me again. All I know for sure is that I am a bit bigger than I was at first and my feet are that much closer to being able to stand on the bottom of the pool. What I still don’t know is how deep it is; as you notice right away, there are no markings on the side.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A chance meeting



The man parked on a different side of the large square of cemetery ground from where I had left my car, but it was soon clear where he was heading. Head bowed, he stood next to a fresh grave site that I had first seen last December. I walked over and stood next to him.

"Was that your son?," I asked. He nodded. "I'm so sorry," I said. "That was my wife."

The fresh grave had borne a temporary marker with the name Scott Abel, and the dates 1984-2011. When I chose the adjoining plot for Barbara, I wondered if I would ever know the story behind this premature death. But fate operates in peculiar ways, and it was sometime in February when I found out the answer. A former student came to play at our church, and she asked me afterward if it was my wife who had been buried next to her old friend. They had grown up together, she said; her father being a Baylor faculty member, she was a lifelong Waco resident. Scott was killed in a traffic accident last fall. It was devastating. Of course Barbara's grave now had a temporary marker too, so she had noticed the proximity.

Then last Sunday I noticed the dedication of one of the Easter lilies at church. Given by the family of one of the deans at Baylor, it simply read "In memory of Scott Abel and Barbara Wallace." Scott had been a Baylor student as well.

Now I shook hands with his father, and as we both fought back tears I mused about the fibers that connect all of our lives in often invisible ways. Death, of course, is seen as the ultimate dividing line, but while it severs some connections, it is just as likely to bring out and reinforce others. Barbara and I never met Scott Abel in life, and except for this strange coincidence (there were hundreds of other empty spots in the cemetery I could have chosen), I would probably never have known who he was. Death has now revealed two connections that already existed, and today it opened up a new one.

Life, as always, offers mixed messages. As though to reinforce what I wrote on Saturday about the futility of looking for a religious "high" on Easter, the rain clouds burst on Sunday afternoon and it once again poured for hours. I had gone to the cemetery right after church because Easter is one of only four occasions when they let you leave artificial flowers. The reason I went back today was to see how they had come through the storm. Beautifully, as it turned out, and I can now leave them for another two weeks. Oakwood Cemetery during that time will be a little brighter than usual. The web of life, in all it artful complexity, goes on.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

...but joy comes with the morning

It has been a long six weeks, this Lent, this penitential season that comes every year just before springtime (Lent comes from the same root as the German Lenz, meaning spring) and ends as the bluebonnets and azaleas are blooming and the world is awash with wonder. This week, of course, is Holy Week, and the penitential season goes into high gear even for those who have so far been ignoring it. Not everybody gives up something for Lent, and not everybody goes to church on Good Friday. Some prefer just to wait for Easter and skip the preparation. As full as the church was for our Good Friday Requiem cantata last night, it will be more than twice as full tomorrow. Welcome back, everybody, to joy.

Of course, it's not really that simple. We live in a relentlessly upbeat culture, in which the expectation is that you can be happy all the time, or at least most of the time, and that if you can't, there's probably a pill you can take for it. How carefully we guard ourselves against our emotions - unless, that is, they're happy ones. I've been reading one email after another on the Yahoo grief support group from people who have lost loved ones recently - many more recently than I - and who are being told on all sides to "get over it" and get back to work. Take off the ring, give away the clothes, move on with your life; that seems to be the gist of it. Above all, be happy again. That's a language we all understand.

So having gone through Lent and an even longer season of mourning that stretches back to the week before Christmas, I want to share something I've learned. Just as grief is not the same thing as depression, so is joy not the same thing as happiness. Joy comes unbidden, in the midst of tears. Joy reaches into the depths of our souls and signals our yearning for what might be, but is not yet. You can be happy and not know joy. You can be sad and know it deeply, and wait patiently for it because you've seen it before and know that it will arrive as a gift of grace, at precisely that moment when you let go of any attempt to pull the strings.

That's why those who go to the Easter service tomorrow hoping for a religious "high" are likely to be disappointed. Sure, they'll sing some happy songs and smell some flowers, and the colors will be bright and encouraging. Maybe they'll watch their children go on an Easter egg hunt, and the famous bunny may even make an appearance. What, you don't believe in the Easter bunny? Actually, I would submit that that is exactly what a lot of people believe in. If you think you can have joy without penitence - rejoicing without mourning - then you believe in the Easter bunny. It's a nice fairy tale, but it's not how life is.

I already knew this, but my mourning over the past months has reminded me of the deep link between grief and joy. Those who have known the most adversity, suffered the most hardship, borne the most grief, are precisely the ones who learn to cultivate joy, who make a habit of inhaling deeply and waiting for the sounds and smells and surprising kaleidoscopic variety of grace.

The other day I stepped outside from my basement office for a breath of fresh air and found that the world was alight with springtime. We had had a pounding rain and hailstorm on Tuesday night that nearly outdid anything I had previously witnessed. Now in my brief respite I saw that the world itself was a breath of springtime freshness, the air pure and fragrant, the familiar paths of Baylor's campus welcoming and inviting, and the pressure of my teaching obligations fell off my shoulders as I walked for half an hour of pure joy, barely knowing or caring where I went.

I've been through some real emotional depths this winter and spring, and I've shared them unstintingly because, as someone suggested to me, I hope to cauterize the wound that the sudden devastating loss of my wife of 23 years inflicted on my soul. While it will be a long time yet, I'm pleased to say I've had inklings that the wound is healing as it should, and that joy, always a silent presence behind the darkest moments of my life, will indeed come with the morning.