book review, Madeleine L'Engle

Book Review: Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle has long been one of my favorite authors, but not for the book her name is most associated with; A Wrinkle in Time. I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Like Madeleine on her 40th birthday, I was at a point in my life where I sometimes wondered if I was wasting my time by choosing to write every morning, when my husband worked so hard to pay bills and I wasn’t making any money with my writing, outside of the small checks I was getting for some freelance work  I did for a local newspaper. Mostly, I identified with her need to write. I couldn’t imagine a life without writing. I still can’t.

A few years later, I would pick up The Irrational Season. I read her Two-Part Invention during my husband David’s cancer treatment in 2006. I vividly remember sobbing on the couch as I read about her husband’s death. Two-Part Invention was one of the first books I read (again) after David died in 2012. Glimpses of Grace and Reflections on a Writing Life, written with Carole Chase, are prominently displayed on a shelf in my bedroom.

And it was L’Engle’s Friends for the Journey, written with her dear friend Luci Shaw, that served as inspiration for my co-written Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink.  (NOTE: available for a special holiday price of just $6 through my publisher right now. Click on the title for more information)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena Roy, was kind enough to endorse it.

lena

For all these reasons, I was thrilled to get my hands on a new edition of Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine, originally published in 1980, the year I gave birth to my first child. It was only when reading it, I realized Lena was the granddaughter of Madeleine’s that had been hit by a truck when she was a young child!

walking-on-water

I was instantly enthralled, reading these words;

“I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.” (page 2)

And this:

“And then there is the time in which to be, simply to be, that time in which God quietly tells us who we are and who he wants us to be. It is then that God can take out emptiness and fill it up with what he wants and drain away the business with which we inevitably get involved in the dailiness of human living.” (page 162)

I’ve so rarely allowed myself that special time of just being, particularly during those years of raising young children. There was no quiet in a house full of babies and toddlers, much less time to just sit and be.  Yet, despite a distinct lack of time, I wrote daily back then, even it was a letter or a journal entry. Now, my youngest is thirteen years old, and while I enjoy more quiet, reflective time, I also have an office to go to every weekday.

I’m working on the manuscript for a grief journal that will include my short essays along with quotes from other authors who have walked down the path of grief, including L’Engle. I was slightly dismayed when I found myself admitting in one of the essays that I occasionally missed the slow paced days of those early months of grieving, and the quiet stillness of mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere or go anyplace. I wrote my way through much of those mornings.

When I signed a contract for this journal, I was well aware that this would be the first book-length project I would be working on without the luxury of the morning writing hours I had counted on for more than 25 years. So I’ve learned to utilize my weekend mornings and snatched moments here and there, just like I did as a mother with young children. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet to write while toddlers splashed in the bathtub, pull over to the curb and write when an infant fell asleep in the car seat. Once again, I do not have the luxury of waiting for the perfect time to write.
“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (page 140)

In Walking on Water, L’Engle shares these words of Rilke’s from his Letters to a Young Poet, words she’d jotted down in her journal:

“You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether if is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

Must I write?

In this wonderful book, L’Engle wrote that she would have answered in the affirmative.

Just another thing L’Engle and I have in common. Me too.

NOTE: I am excited to report that Lena Roy and her sister, Charlotte, are working on a biography of their grandmother. Read more about that by clicking HERE.

David, death of a spouse, grace, grief, love, marriage, wedding

On this day…

I didn’t expect to wake up crying the day after my daughter’s wedding, but then there are many things that come as a surprise in our journey as a mourner, things we are not prepared for, or cannot comprehend until we experience them. I remember those early days of grieving a spouse when I would wonder; is it normal to feel like this? Am I going to be okay? Even a seasoned mourner can be sideswiped by a tide of grief at milestone events such as weddings.

August 13, 2016. More than four years after the death of my husband David, a daughter was to be married. This would not be the first marriage in our family after David’s death; son Daniel got married in the summer of 2014. The mixture of joy and grief was expected then, but perhaps tempered by the fact that the wedding was extremely small; just the couple’s parents and siblings, in the back yard of my brother’s house, officiated by my dear friend Cecil Murphey. I cried then, too, but joy overshadowed the tears. At the time, I lamented the lack of a reception where we could celebrate with others. Now, I believe it might have been too much to bear then, a wedding reception following on the heels of yet another loss; that of our little Jacob, my grandson who passed away from cancer the year before.

dan and lydia wedding

I had a hint this wedding experience would be different than Dan’s wedding. Emily would be the first daughter to get married after David’s death, the first daughter to walk down the aisle without a father by her side. I expected this absence to be keenly felt by my daughters. As a symbol of our female solidarity and in homage to David, we cut hearts out of one of his shirts, using Velcro to attach the heart inside each of our dresses.

shirt hearts
None of my impending sadness as the date approached had anything to do with the marriage. I whole-heartedly approved of Emily’s choice. Hugh was a devout Christian, and he’d asked for my blessing on Thanksgiving. The young couple began a Bible study together shortly after their engagement. I had no qualms about who my daughter was marrying.

Nor was it about the wedding itself. Hugh’s family, having experienced two daughter’s recent weddings, took charge of the majority of the work involved in planning and decorating.

It was always about the missing man, the father who’d loved his sons and adored his daughters. The man who’d fought cancer and won, who’d smiled indulgently at this daughter who’d taken to hugging him repeatedly and daily in those three months before his death. Privately, he’d wondered at her hugging. “Do you think she’s okay?” he’d asked me. “She’s hugging me over and over, and telling me she loves me.”

Emily had wondered the same thing.

“I don’t know why, but I keep feeling like hugging Dad,” she’d confided.

Only after his death would we marvel at the timing of this compulsion.

What had I wanted for Emily, for me, on this wedding day?
I desired, more than anything, to feel the presence of her Dad. I wanted a sign that he was there with us, a message from the heavens. I yearned to see a rainbow in the sky, a blue butterfly landing upon her wedding dress while her brother Dan took photos. I wanted piles of shiny pennies to appear in the pews, white feathers among the rose petals little flower girl Amy dispersed from her basket.

After all, anyone who reads my blog or has read my book, Refined By Fire, knows I’ve experienced this kind of thing before; little messages from Heaven, proof that there is so much more to everlasting life than we here on earth can possibly comprehend; that our loved ones live on, not just in our memories, but with God. So, why wouldn’t I expect more of the same on such a momentous occasion?

The wedding ceremony was beautiful. My heart was full, as I did the one thing I have not been particularly good at since David’s death; I lived in the moment. I reveled in the experience of a daughter getting married. The circle of blessing, when Hugh’s parents and I got up to circle the couple and pray together was especially moving. The reception was lovely. A cozy after-party at the new in-law’s home included a first dance between the couple. Memories captured on camera, and inside my heart.

But throughout the day, I found myself searching for that elusive sign; a message that David was near, that God would gift us with a message that he hadn’t forgotten our loss. I went to bed inexplicably disappointed.

And woke up crying.

It was this morning, as I sat alone and sobbed, that I thought to pray the prayer I should have prayed yesterday with my daughters as we did our make-up, or with Hugh’s mother or grandmother during the wedding party’s hurried lunch.

God, let me see YOU.”

Not David. Not Jacob. Not my mother, who had passed away in 2010, or my father who has been gone since 1986.

God, let me see you. Let me feel YOU.

As I sit alone in the front pew of the church and watch my daughter get married, let me feel you. As I stand alone watching my daughter dance with her new husband and remember dancing with her father, let me feel you. When I catch a glimpse through my camera lens of his parents leaning into each other as they watch the couple, let me not feel such a sharp stab of sadness at what I no longer have, at what I have lost. Let me feel gratitude instead, for what I once had.”

Emily and Hugh wedding dance.jpg

In the moments after I prayed this morning, little snippets of yesterday’s events flitted through my mind’s eye. I reflected on those moments that will remain with me forever;

My daughter’s delicate, slightly shaking hand as she clung to my arm when I walked her up the aisle.

The hugs from Emily and Hugh after I affirmed that I was the one giving away the bride.

The emotional blessing Hugh’s father gave, and my sudden realization that this man would be a father figure in my daughter’s life, would look out for her best interests as if she was his own daughter.

And after the ceremony, when I was so desperately searching for a sign from David, I won’t forget the appearance of his brother walking out the door of the church into the foyer where I stood, and the lurch I immediately felt in my heart. His brother, Keith, who David had loved so dearly. Keith’s wife Margie, who has experienced tremendous loss in her own life. Their hugs were followed closely by hugs from David’s two favorite sisters, Linda and Susan. Members of David’s family always remind me of David, are part of David.

The tears in the eyes of my friend Lois as she hugged me. The look in her husband Ron’s eyes. Ron had been David’s friend. They keenly felt his absence too.

My sister-in-law Cindy hugging me, and her whispered “I know,” because she did know, intimately knows what it is to face these kinds of milestones after a husband’s death.

The presence of my friend Mary, the friend who’d wisely advised me to live in the moment.

And a young boy, my nephew Andrew, who might never have hugged me before yesterday, hugging me and hanging on tight, with a tenderness I couldn’t comprehend at the time. How could he know? How could he possibly know? That hug meant the world to me.

My beautiful daughters and handsome sons. My siblings who came to share in our celebration.

The sister and brother-in-law, who invite me to share grilled hamburgers at their campsite tonight, knowing the day after might be difficult.

Today I see God, how he uses these people to grace me. His signs; the hug, the knowing look, the clasp of the hand from someone who has experienced this same thing, the heart-felt prayer of a father who loves his son and welcomes his new daughter, the love I felt in that room as two young people began a new life together.

In the book I picked up to read today, Love Lives On, by Louis LaGrand, PhD, the author writes about his study of “extraordinary encounters” that the bereaved experience. He mentions dreams, the sense that a deceased one is present, or unexplained happenings, the kind of thing I was searching for yesterday. He writes in his book how messages are received through touch, smell, a third party who is not a primary mourner, or with a variety of “informative symbolic signs.”
“The mourner has not actively sought these responses from the deceased. Furthermore, they are not products of magical thinking, nor do they involve the intercession of a psychic.”
“To the recipient of an Extraordinary Encounter, there is no doubt that it is the loved one or an Intelligent Power who had provided the riveting communication; the signs or visions emerge unbidden from an enormous reservoir of wisdom and insight far beyond our earthbound comprehension.” (page 5)
Intelligent Power. I call that God.

cancer, faith, Jacob

When the Light Went Out~

From a November 8, 2012 blog posting:

“The small light in the kitchen has been on for seven months now. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. David always shut it off before he went to bed, and now I leave it on all the time. When I come downstairs in the morning, there it is above the coffeemaker; glowing and greeting me in the darkness of the house.”

‘That’s one of your rituals,’ my friend casually observed, as if it were perfectly sane to leave a light on for seven months.”

I never did shut the light off, and at some point, it seemed as though I actually couldn’t. I fully expected it to go off on the one-year anniversary of David’s death. When it didn’t, I got close to shutting it off myself, reaching behind the coffee maker twice during the day, and then, inexplicably withdrawing my hand.

The light began flickering wildly on the afternoon of June 24th, my grandson’s 8th birthday.

“The kitchen light is going out,” Dan announced in the doorway, and I got up from my desk chair and joined him in the kitchen. We just stood there for a moment in silence. I considered the timing.

Why this particular day after more than 450 days of burning brightly for twenty-four hours a day?

“Stop it. I know what you’re thinking, and it doesn’t mean that Jacob’s light is fading, or anything like that.” my son Dan warned as we stood together, staring at it.

In the week since his eighth birthday, Jacob has been experiencing pain in his chest and side, and some difficulty breathing. Yesterday the doctors prescribed morphine and oxygen for him. They advised against draining the fluid in his chest since it would inevitably return, probably within a week.

I can barely stand to type these words, imagining the pain that inhabits my daughter’s heart. I could hardly breathe when Elizabeth called to tell me that the doctors weren’t going to drain the fluid. “Jacob is asking questions,” she told me. “He knows that something is different.”

Each question brings her fresh pain. I imagine Jacob’s questioning brown eyes, the same eyes that can light up an entire room.

“Is Jacob going to die?” my grand-daughter asked me yesterday while I babysat for her.

“We’re all going to die,” my thirteen-year-old next to me blurts out, and there is the undeniable truth in her response.

Each day, each hour, a child somewhere dies; from cancer, from hunger, with injuries suffered in a car accident, in a horrific fire, at the hands of an abductor, from a gunshot wound in their safe classroom. Firemen die bravely fighting a fire. A beloved husband and father dies, sitting in his recliner three days after he came home from the hospital following a heart stent surgery.

And then there are the everyday miracles, the against-all-odds stories; the woman whose pancreatic cancer disappears, the sole survivor of a plane crash, the child who escapes the clutches of a maniac, the man who sees heaven when he is clinically dead and is brought back to life, a young father whose doctors told him he would not survive a brain tumor, still alive years later.

Am I delusional or unable to face reality if I stubbornly continue to pray for a miracle for our Jacob? I acknowledge that all things point to the outcome the doctors have predicted, and yet I cling to this unreasonable hope, the knowledge that our God is bigger than this; whatever this is. Fear? Worry? Sadness? Cancer? I feel a dim, flickering light in the darkness that threatens to overtake my soul. My recent past experience tells me that light remains, that there is a meaning behind all this that I cannot even begin to understand, that I don’t need to understand.

Psalm 27

Of David.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”

This morning, in the still quiet of a house full of sleeping children, I searched for answers. I prayed. I picked up the library book I’d set aside a couple of nights ago. Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott. I opened it to the page I’d discontinued reading, book-marked with a cash register receipt, page 15, and I read:

” Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through…

…There are no words for the broken hearts of people losing people, so I ask God, with me in tow, to respond to them with graciousness and encouragement enough for the day. Everyone we love and for whom we pray with such passion will die, which is the one real fly in the ointment, so we pray for miracles-please help this friend live, please help that friend die gracefully- and we pray for the survivors to somehow come through.”

and then on page 16:

“In prayer, I see the suffering bathed in light. In God there is no darkness. I see God’s light permeate them, soak into them, guide their feet. I want to tell God what to do: ‘Look, Pal, this is a catastrophe. You have got to shape up.’ But it wouldn’t work. So I pray for people who are hurting, that they be filled with air and light. Air and light heal; they somehow get into those dark, musty places, like spiritual antibiotics.”

I ponder these words, contemplating all that has transpired in my life in the last two years. I think about the woman I was two years ago, and the woman I have become. I can clearly see how God has worked in my life. I know without a doubt, he still has work to do in me. I remember my husband’s words the day before he died:

“Why would God allow a little boy to have cancer?”

A shake of my head was my only response, and David’s next words;

“If I could go, and he could stay, I’d go in an instant.”

And my prayer this morning becomes:

“Dear Lord, I had hoped when David died you were honoring his wish; that Jacob would then be able to stay with us. And now, when all things point to that not happening, I cannot help but feel disillusioned with your ways. You have repeatedly shown me this past year that you are there, in the smallest of things. I ask that you continue to show us the same in this very big thing. Hold my daughter and the son of my heart in your arms as they navigate this journey that no parent can face alone. Hold our dear Jacob close to you. Please allow him peace and comfort in the days to come. I thank you for the people you have brought into our lives through this. I give thanks for the opportunity to speak your word even as my heart aches. And, yes, Lord, I continue to ask you for a miracle of magnitude for this little boy. I pray for strength and courage for each of us who love this little boy, as we accept that we cannot possibly know or understand the future. Most of all, Lord, thy will be done. I have no doubt you are working in all of this and that there is a meaning behind it. This little child has touched the hearts of multitudes already.”