Comfort for your mother’s heart

“They” say that the second year after a death is the hardest. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What is true is that you’ve gotten past all of the “firsts” – the birthdays, the holidays, the weird Hallmark holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Grandparent’s Day. So, this is my second Mother’s Day without my daughter Zoe. My second Mother’s Day without my step-daughter Emily.

The holidays were hard – so hard that I haven’t posted anything since then. The last couple of days I have noticed that I cry more easily, just like I did when I was first grieving. Perhaps it is because Mother’s Day is Sunday. I don’t know. I’ve never done this before: this second year grieving for an inexplicable loss. I do know that I am comforted by some research I became aware of a few years ago. If you are grieving this Mother’s Day like I am, I hope you find it as comforting as I do.

There is a process called fetal-maternal microchimerism, meaning both the mother and child have small pieces of each other on the cellular level. Fetal cells have been found in mothers’ brains. A study of women who had died in their 70s found that over half of the women had pieces from the Y chromosome in their brains, probably from when their sons were in the womb. A study of mice showed that fetal cells left in the mother’s body will go to the site of injury in a heart, turning into specialized heart cells that might start beating if needed.

Other studies have found fetal cells in a mother’s bones, liver, lungs, and other organs. Science writer Laura Sanders suggests this may be a way for a child to give back to the mother. That after taking nutrients and energy from the mother during pregnancy, after causing morning sickness, heartburn, and body aches, this is a way that the fetus can provide helpful cells. The fetal cells have the potential to turn into lots of different kind of cells that, according to the studies, can help repair a damaged heart, liver, or thyroid. There is a warning attached to this good news: the fetal cells can also cause damage, possibly playing a role in autoimmune disorders.

Sanders also points out that fetal cells may migrate early in pregnancy, meaning that even miscarriages and fetal demises can leave their cellular mark on a mother. This is heart mending news for those of us who have lost children too soon. Our mothers and our children do live on within us in ways we are just beginning to understand.

This comforts me. I am comforted by knowing that both my mother and my daughter continue to live on in me at the cellular level. I hope it comforts you, too.

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Searching for gratitude

I am looking, searching really, for gratitude. Things for which to be grateful. I took a Facebook sabbath during the Thanksgiving holiday, avoiding all the happy family photos. It’s not that we are an unhappy family. We are a sad family. I took a break from Facebook and from work and went to my sister’s in the Texas Hill Country. We had a Thanksgiving dinner, sort of, Tuesday. Cornish game hen with all the traditional sides. My sister and my husband cooked the hens upside down so they weren’t done at the same time everything else was. The food was good, although some of it wasn’t very hot. We did not get salmonella. I am grateful.

I am grateful there were leftovers that my husband and I brought back home for Thursday. We set the table for just the two of us with my grandmothers china, silver, and crystal. We used the Thanksgiving placemats our daughters Sarah and Zoe made a lifetime ago. For a while we thought Zoe would launch a small business making placemats. She was obsessed with laminating every piece of paper she could mark. The leftovers were better than the original meal. Everything came out – was reheated – at the same time. I am grateful.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving we had dinner with Sarah and her husband. We did not have turkey or game hen or anything resembling a Thanksgiving meal. I wanted them to come to our house because we’ve decorated for Christmas. She wanted me to come to their house because they’ve decorated for Christmas. I wanted her to come here to see our new tree – we have three now. A small one decorated all in red. The mid-size one with all of the handmade ornaments. The new, tall one, bought because we have higher ceilings now.

I wanted her to come here, so she could experience the same absence I experience with each handmade ornament I hang that her sister made. The photos of the two of them with Santa. The missing stocking.

I am grateful that Thanksgiving is over and Christmas will be over soon. I am grateful for a new tree that holds no memory of the one who is no longer here.

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I don’t care

Losing a loved one is a terrible way to arrive at not caring. It makes sense though. The worst has already happened. Whatever else happens in life can’t be this bad. I don’t care. The worst has already happened.

I don’t understand how I can both love and not care at the same time. Detach with love they said in all of those Al-anon meetings. Losing my daughter is a terrible way to arrive at not caring. But, here I am. Loving still and newly not caring.

I do care that once there was a little girl who brightened my days and taught me how to love. My relationship with my sisters is less than perfect. It was by watching Zoe trail after her sister with only love in her heart that I realized I must have been like that once. There is so much unhealed pain between us. Yet, once I was a toddler who trailed after my sisters loving them before I had words for what I felt. My daughter taught me that.

My grief is changing. For most of October I have had moments of sobbing each day. Deep, primal, despair for my loss – for all my losses. My grief is changing. Less thought. More feeling.

I have been doing all of the “things.” I took a grief class. I joined a grief support group for parents. I took a “writing your grief” class. I am doing all the “things.” My husband is doing nothing. We joke about it. Typical. I am running around doing all of the things. He is doing nothing.

That’s not entirely true, of course. He is witnessing my grief as I am witnessing his. “Emily would have loved this,” we say. “Zoe would have railed against this,” we say. Our grief is changing. We are changing – changed by the worst possible experience a parent could have. Our grief is changing. Our love is not.

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To make it real

We took a photo of Zoe after she died. James thought of it first. Frank said he’d been thinking the same thing. I thought it was a good idea so I did it too. I thought how I’d wished we’d had a photo of the baby who died at 29 weeks gestation. It made sense to me to make sure we had a photo of Zoe dead. Every once and a while I will scroll past the image in the photos on my phone and wonder what it will take for me to delete it.

We have so many photos of Zoe alive, why would we need a photo of her dead? To make it real, I now think. We had no photos of the baby alive so we needed a photo of him dead. To make him real.

The last photo of Zoe alive is on Christmas Day. She wanted a photo of her wearing her Eeyore robe holding her Eeyore coffee cup. The robe was a gift from me. The coffee cup a gift from her dad. She posted the photo on Facebook. She was unhappy with the photo I took. Rushing, I didn’t let her take the time to get the ears on the hood facing in the right direction. Yes, my 28-year-old child wanted an Eeyore robe for Christmas, complete with ears and a tail.

She was real. I have the photos to prove it. Images that surround me on a daily basis. There she is sitting on my lap in the water at Galveston. There she is as an infant asleep beside me in the bed. There she is being held by her sister Sarah. They are both smiling. I guess their ages as about six months and 4 years.

There she is in the hospital, newly arrived. Sarah sits in a chair receiving the infant Zoe from their dad. Sarah looks up at him as if to say, “thank you for trusting me with this gift.”

I am not in the photo. I am taking the photo. I remember. Or, I have pieced together the memory from other photographs taken that day. I am wearing an orange robe. My stomach is still extended from the pregnancy. My hair is unwashed. My sleep-deprived eyes are barely open. I was there. James hands Sarah our precious gift. She is real.

A garden angel given to me by friends after Zoe died. She loved Doctor Who, so we move it around for fun (weeping angels – you get it if you are a fan). She’d love it.
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The Shape of Grief

A friend recently reminded me about the poem “The Shape of Grief” by Albert Huffstickler. I know it well. I wrote a sermon five years ago that referenced it, which I’ll include below. There is a natural shape to our grief, but we cannot know it ahead of time. We have to live it and then, maybe, looking back we will finally understand the shape of it.

As a minister I am charged with holding the space for the spiritual well-being of a
congregation or a community. As a minister without a congregation, I am called to hold the space for a community that is formed whenever people gather, whether it is to worship, to mourn or to celebrate. As a hospital chaplain I am called – paged – to a room to hold the space when someone has just received bad news, when a family has to decide whether or not to discontinue life support and when a patient has just died.

I am called to allow the shape of grief or joy or anguish or ecstasy to arise out of the
assembled souls, each with their own experience contributing to the inherent shape present in the room. It is a calling that never ceases to amaze, humble and, quite honestly, to regularly break me wide open with deep gratitude.

Several years ago I was called to hold the space for a grieving community twice in one
week. I was quite literally called – on the phone – by a board member of the congregation I served at the time in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was home in Dallas for the weekend to officiate at my daughter’s best friend’s wedding, home to hold the space for love and hope for families and friends celebrating a young couple publicly declaring their promises to each other. I had come to the weekend in the midst of preparing for a memorial service for one of the members of the Salt Lake City congregation. A long-time member had died of ALS; it was a death that had been anticipated. It was a death that had been prepared for, including a list of the deceased’s last wishes and what could be included in his memorial service.

The second death was unplanned, sudden and tragic. A board member called me while I was out of town to let me know that a member of the congregation had died in a car accident. Knowing that we had one memorial service scheduled already for Tuesday evening, the family hoped we could schedule her service for Saturday morning. When I returned I met with her family – a family defined for that moment as her former partner and the two daughters they raised together – and we created what we thought she might want, knowing that not many people plan to die accidentally when they are only 51 years old.

The definition of family expanded at her memorial service. The definition of community expanded, too. One thing I learned about the shape of grief in Utah is that it is often fractured by the deceased’s religious past. Many members of our congregation in Utah had left the Mormon faith of their childhoods, meaning many had left behind families hurt and confused. For some families, attending the memorial service of an estranged loved one in a church they don’t understand adds to the shape of their grief. The definition of family expanded at her memorial service. It expanded to include her parents and her two sisters, coming in from out of town – coming in to a life their
daughter and sister had made separate from theirs the moment she rejected the dominant faith of the local religious landscape.

The definition of community expanded both in description and number at her memorial service. I will tell you that I didn’t know the deceased at all; she had never attended church in the four short months I had been serving the congregation. She was a member of the congregation’s religious transition group, a group designed for people to be empowered and nurtured as they navigate religious change. I will also tell you that she was one of those members of a congregation that few know well, but nevertheless consider themselves to be part of the religious community.

When the number of attendees went beyond the prediction her former partner and daughters had made to me at our meeting, the pastoral care committee jumped into action producing more copies of the order of service and brewing more coffee for the reception afterwards. I looked out into a standing room only crowd in the sanctuary when I invited people into the circle of love and remembrance, into a time to begin to make sense of this shocking and tragic loss. I looked out into a community formed by grief and united by the common destiny we all share. I sat and listened to stories about a woman who had been the rebellious youngest of three daughters, the proud mother
of two daughters, 22 and 19, and a dedicated volunteer for the Rape Recovery Center. At the reception afterwards I met a former mayor of Salt Lake City, there to honor the deceased for her advocacy and social justice stand for women and gays.

I also met a woman who thanked me for serving coffee. Mormons don’t drink coffee, you know this. It’s part of what we might label as their dogma. This one small, seemingly meaningless, ritual that most Unitarian Universalists take for granted had made an outsider feel welcome, had connected her grief to our religious community. The shape of her grief, fitting in with ours, true to the form of the grief created by the loss of one well-loved.

As the reception was winding down, people were leaving to spend some time with the
family at the home of the former partner and her current partner (family defining and redefining itself). I noticed the oldest daughter was sent to gather the urn with her mother’s ashes that had been placed on the altar for the service. I went with her and we stood for a moment, pausing, knowing this moment should be more than just a casual lifting of an object and putting it in the car in a box filled with leftovers from the reception.

“It will come in waves,” I told her, “the grief.” I told her this based on my own experience. Not having done extensive research on grief, not learning about it in a class in seminary, all I could tell her is how my own grief had been shaped. “It will come in waves,” I said.

Recently I have done a little bit of research on grief and was startled to know that in fact, grief does come in waves. Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, cites the research as evidence to support her experience of grieving the sudden death of her husband. There is a famous study from 1944, she tells us, by a psychiatrist who interviewed family members of those killed tragically and suddenly. He described the physical reaction to grief very specifically as “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time,
a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain” (p. 28). A well-researched model for grief confirming my own experience. This very clinical description is reassuring, but not very comforting.

Another well-researched model of grief – the Kübler-Ross model – theorizes that we move through a series of stages identified as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The research doesn’t always support the model, but it has become such an accepted part of popular culture that many of us use it as a sort of measurement tool to see how our grief is going. What stage are we in now? How long should we stay in each stage? Are we grieving like we’re supposed to be grieving? Anything can become dogmatic: drinking coffee, how we pray or don’t pray, how we grieve. Models of grief are places to start, but they aren’t the only way to navigate grief. Grief isn’t something we move through as if we have a map. It has its own shape, and according to the
poet “that’s what we’re looking for: not the end of a thing but the shape of it.” (Albert Huffstickler)

Helen Macdonald writes that, “The archeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten.” While going through her father’s notebooks after his death, she unexpectedly turns up a key he had sent her. She thinks of his hand writing the note he sent with the key, which sends her to another time and place where her small hand holds her father’s. Macdonald’s grief memoir is also about a sudden death – the unexpected death of her father. In her grieving, Macdonald turns up forgotten connections and wild yearnings. She decides the way to grieve is to retreat from the world and train a goshawk, one of the most difficult hawks to train. This is not a bizarre departure; Macdonald is an experienced falconer. She thinks she knows the best way through her grief. She doesn’t, and by the end of the book she finally understands the shape of it, “I could feel exactly how big it was,” she writes. “It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms.”

Grief is not just about losing a loved one to death. We experience grief at other times in our lives, of course. Earlier I said I had done a little bit of research on grief recently and really I have been doing a lot of research on grief lately, reading Didion’s book, Macdonald’s book, a book on grief by UU minister Mark Belletini and another book called “Birth, Breath and Death” by a UU chaplain. I have been looking for maps on how to navigate through my own losses and holding the space as people in the hospital navigate through theirs. Any change brings grief. Every change brings grief.

As a minister I am called to hold the space for the spiritual well-being of a congregation or a community. I am also called to hold the space for a community that is formed whenever people gather and when people gather for a memorial service the definition of community expands just as the definition of family expands. When I was called to serve a grieving community twice in one week in Salt Lake City, the congregation made up the core of the community and the outside community came in both times to expand and redefine how we grieved.

As I gathered with the family in my office prior to the service for the man who died of ALS, a member of the pastoral care team whispered in my ear, “they will want a prayer.” “Good to know,” I thought because I don’t often know. Many Unitarian Universalists do not pray, so I often ask. Looking at the make-up of the room: the deceased’s Mormon brother, the UU ex-wife, the exwife’s current husband (religion unknown), the deceased’s Mormon parents and the deceased’s son, an on-again, off-again Unitarian Universalist living between two households, I did what I often do.

I explained that some of us pray and some of us don’t, but that gathering for a moment of centering prayer at a moment like this helped us all to be prepared for the grief that may surprise us in the ritual of the memorial service. Rituals help hold the emotions that are too big for our bodies to contain. Prayer prepares us for feelings the size of a mountain.

The group gathered in my office agreed to pray and as I inhaled to start the prayer, the
Mormon brother began, “Father, God….” In an instant I thought that maybe what the member of the pastoral care team had whispered in my ear was, “the brother will want to lead a prayer.” It wasn’t until later that I learned that Mormons do not believe in women leading prayer.

I am called to hold the space. I am not called to control the space. After the service was over and the reception was winding down, the brother came to me as I stood by the altar pausing with respect before I started to clean up. He told me his brother had always wanted him to light a candle at his church. “Would it be okay if I did that now?” he asked.

It is not the end of grief that we are looking for, but the shape of it. Time does work its
magic. We breathe more freely again, the waves of somatic distress coming less frequently. What caused the grief becomes a fact in a long line of facts that create who we are. Grief turns into love, the pain being true to its form. It is not the end of grief that we are looking for, but the shape of it. All that remains is love. All that ever remains is love.

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You have your memories to comfort you

This is what my sister said to me after she read the following piece I wrote for a grief class. “You have your memories to comfort you.” I wouldn’t advise saying that to anyone in the early stages of grief. She’s my sister so I didn’t slug her. We have beautiful memories of both our daughters. Some days they comfort us. Some days we remember and find ourselves standing in the middle of the living room sobbing. 

Zoe, Frank, and I had a magnificent tea experience at a restaurant once. It was so magnificent that we kept trying to replicate it. Zoe and I went to a local shop that sells loose leaf tea and we smelled countless canisters of tea, never quite satisfied that we had found the right one. Acting on the advice of the shop owner, we came home with an earl grey and a rose tea to be mixed together until we got it right. Like so many moments in our lives, we never got it quite right.

We went back to the restaurant and discovered it was an Israeli tea that could be ordered from Amazon. We ordered a box of 100 tea bags. Frank ordered four small glass tea mugs so we could really replicate the experience. The only thing missing was sugar cubes to hold in our mouths while we sipped our tea.

We ordered one more box of the tea, then drifted back to old habits. For Christmas this year, my daughters gave me a tea subscription – a tea sampler is delivered every month. It was Zoe’s idea. While she was searching for the perfect tea gift for me for Christmas, she found a new local tea seller for us to try.

The day after Christmas we went there. I bought Zoe some ginger tea – one of her favorites. Now I have an unopened package of ginger tea in my pantry. I have a few things like that – items I bought for Zoe a couple of weeks before she died. Items she’ll never use but now belong to me.

Her dad gave her a nice set of earphones for Christmas. She brought them over to our house and we looked them up online because I wanted some – they were a little pricey for me. After she died I asked her dad if I could have them. The first time I had to charge them I sobbed, realizing that the last time they would have been charged Zoe would have done it.

I am comforted by owning stuff she once owned. Comforted by knowing that she once was a part of me. That her ashes, some of which are now sealed in an antique tea jar, contain my DNA. She joked that we should put her ashes in a coffee can and place it near the TV so she could watch sports with us. We found an antique tea jar instead and placed it on the mantel. She can see the TV just fine from there.

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Making Meaning of Loss

The quote from the Upanishads stayed with me through all of the loss I have experienced this past year. I quote it a lot. It helps me make meaning of all the death we have experienced in my family. I don’t know if heaven is an actual place, but it gives me comfort to think of dying as a return to a love beyond belief.

I often include in my remarks at memorial services a caution. I caution mourning family and friends not to rush too soon to make meaning of their loved one’s death. As Unitarian Universalists we do not have a doctrine to explain what happens after death; we each need to take time to make sense of the loss.

So it is with resilience. If building resilience is one way to get through loss, then we shouldn’t rush through that either. Rather, we shouldn’t rush towards that, checking it off once we arrive. Made meaning? Check. Arrived at resilience. Check.

My 28-year-old daughter died January 10 and it is a loss that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Our first child died in utero at 29 weeks. Both my parents are gone. My step-daughter died in July a year ago. I know loss. Losing my daughter is a loss that is beyond words – as many have said to me. They have no words for me. I understand. I barely had words for myself at first. Seven months later, words are finally starting to come.

Resilience may come too, but it is not a goal I am working towards.

Psychotherapist Candyce Ossefort-Russell cautions that “resilience as a grief myth hurts people.” She continues, “I’m worried that the 21st century bandwagon of resilience is becoming a new hurtful grief myth that grievers will have to fight against in order to heal; a myth that will make grievers feel ashamed, crazy, and isolated if they cannot quickly bounce back, if they cannot return to a self they once were, if they cannot strive toward joy when they are slogging through.”

Because I am a Unitarian Universalist I do not have a doctrine of what happens after death. I have not made meaning of my daughter’s death and I have not made resilience my goal. Instead, I have embarked on a journey that I have never before taken. Maybe I will develop resilience. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I already have it. Maybe I don’t.

When I was a hospital chaplain attending a death, I would often say to the mourning loved ones in a prayer: “from love we come, to love we are returned.” It is a Universalist belief that I have come to after striving to make meaning of all sorts of terrible loss – mine and others. It is a universal truth found in the Upanishads: “All the universe has come from love, and unto love all things return.” That’s all the meaning I need for now.

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Walking Each Other Home, sermon excerpt

I am starting my “musings on grief” with an excerpt from the first sermon I preached after my month-long summer break in 2019. July had been a month filled with loss, a month that started with my father-in-law’s death and ended with my step-daughter’s death. I keep my cell phone in the pulpit with me, on silent of course, in case of an emergency. While I was preaching I could see that my youngest daughter Zoe was texting me. After the worship service and after a meeting, I spent the afternoon with Zoe who was in the hospital with the DTs. She wanted to be sober for Emily’s memorial service. Zoe is gone now, another contributor to my musings on grief. Here’s what I wrote August 4, 2019.

The night after my husband Frank’s father died the phone rang around 9pm. A ringing phone has become a source of immediate stress in our household these last few months. Frank’s father had been in the hospital for two weeks before he died. Frank’s oldest daughter Emily had been in hospice since mid-May, coming to the end of what her husband calls her “brawl with brain cancer.” Emily is gone now; she died this past Monday. The phone still rings and buzzes with texts. People are calling to offer comfort. Emily’s husband Paul is calling and texting with details for the memorial service.

The night after Frank’s father died the phone rang. It was Paul. Emily had taken the car and he didn’t know where she was. She wasn’t supposed to be driving. She needed a walker to get around. How could she have taken the car? As we left the house to drive around their neighborhood to help find Emily, Frank said “I can’t do this.” “You can do this,” I reassured him. You are doing this. This is you doing this.”

Emily came back that night just after we left our house. We turned around, continued with our nighttime routine and eventually fell asleep. There would be other phone calls, other drives towards their house. The Saturday we thought she was done, Frank drove wildly toward her house trying to trust we would get there in time, but really trusting nothing at this point in a month that would begin with the death of his father and end with the death of his oldest daughter.

As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the drives we take when a child is about to be born. I wasn’t on that drive with Frank. Emily is my stepdaughter. She came into my life when she was 13 years old. The oldest of our combined family of four girls, Emily was the responsible one. The one who answered the phone the day our youngest broke her wrist during spring break. Frank called me at work using my cell phone – it was before he had his own – he was taking Zoe to the hospital, but he failed to tell me which one. I called back. He was unpracticed with cell phones, he didn’t answer. I called Emily at home. The responsible one, she knew which hospital.

Ram Das, the American spiritual teacher known for his connection to Timothy Leary and his devotion to his guru Neem Karoli Baba, said that we are just walking each other home. He also said that “dying is the most important thing you do in your life…. And loving is the art of living as a preparation for dying.” We’re here to walk with each other towards our common destination to no longer be here. How we love each other along the way matters.

Home, for Ram Das, is unity with the divine. We can achieve that here, while we are still present in our bodies, in ordinary moments of connection with each other. Final unity will come when we die. From the Hindu Upanishads: “All the universe has come from love, and unto love all things return.” We are all walking each other home. Our home is love.

A very loving friend asked me if Emily and I were close. I know the question came from love, but I have to wonder if they would have asked me that if I were Emily’s biological mother. We don’t usually ask that question of each other when a family member dies. Were you and your mother close? Were you and your father close? Were you and your sister close? Were you and your spouse close? We may not ask that of each other, but we probably ask that of ourselves. We ask that of ourselves in the way we untangle our relationships after someone is gone.

Another very loving friend, listening to me untangle my complicated relationship with my mother after she died listened while I shared how confused I was. I deeply loved my mother and yet, she had utterly failed me when she should have protected me. I deeply loved my mother and yet, she often irritated me towards the edge of cutting her out of my life. I deeply loved my mother and yet, my friend interjected: “your mother was no saint.” Reality check: my mother was no saint. And neither am I. None of us are.

There is a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition. Two traveling monks observe a young woman attempting to cross a large mud puddle. Without hesitation, the older monk picks her up and carries her across the puddle. The two monks continue on their travels. They walk for hours. Over the hills, down the valleys, through another town and across a forest. The entire time they walk, the younger monk quietly broods. Finally, the younger monk erupts from his silence. In one version of the story, he scolds his elder brother admonishing him, “Monks are not allowed to touch women. Why did you carry her?” The older monk smiles and turns towards his younger brother, “I left the woman alongside the road hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Like all wisdom stories, this story has several versions and several titles to go with the versions. The story I shared this morning with the children is called “A Heavy Load.” The arrogance and ingratitude of the young woman is a central part of that version of the story. Another version of the story is called “A Monk with Heavy Thoughts” and emphasizes the younger monk’s discomfort with his elder colleague’s rule breaking.

We carry a heavy load when someone hurts our feelings, ignores our wishes, or seems to put their needs in front of ours. Refusing to put down our heavy load, we carry grudges and hurts to our graves. We carry heavy thoughts when we question our own actions, regretting hurting someone’s feelings, ignoring someone’s wishes, or seeming to put our needs in front of theirs. Refusing to let go of our heavy thoughts, we punish ourselves with constant shaming. We get stuck in seeing ourselves as victims. We carry our heavy load, our heavy thoughts, crowding out love that is always present. From love we come, to love we are returned. If only we would leave our heavy load alongside the road as we walk each other home.

Up until several years ago, ecologists believed that trees competed against each other. That trees, like humans, engaged in a survival of the fittest battle with clear winners and losers. They believed that trees were competing for resources like light and water and nutrients. That the strongest trees were the ones that grew the tallest and took resources from the smaller, weaker trees. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered otherwise.

Suzanne Simard discovered through conducting experiments that trees are communicating with each other in a way that balances their resources. What she discovered at first, she says is “if one tree had a lot of water in it or a lot of nitrogen or had high photosynthetic rate and if one tree is sick, then the neighboring tree shuttles more of those nutrients to that suffering tree.” For example, if one tree gets damaged by a mountain pine beetle, it will increase its defense enzymes. This information is communicated, and another tree will increase its defense enzymes.

What she discovered next is that the trees in her forest are connected by microscopic fungi in a network called the mycorrhizal network. She describes them like sewing threads that crisscross and go off in multiple directions. They work together to form a very complex web that is in constant communication with the trees.

Suzanne Simard created a map of the network with each tree representing a node. The biggest, darkest nodes, she and her team called hub trees or, more affectionately, mother trees because the hub trees nurture the trees growing in the understory of the forest. They have found that mother trees send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings and this increases seedling survival by four times.

She wondered – do these mother trees favor their own children? So, they grew mother trees with kin and with strangers’ seedlings. They do recognize their kin and do connect with their own kind with larger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. She and her team also found that when mother trees are injured or dying, they send messages to their seedlings, messages that increase the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses.

This is not a selfless act of a sacrificing mother. It is not the selfish act of a mother tree that cares only for its kind. What Simard and her team found out is that trees need a complex, diverse community in which to thrive. They need other plants that can cycle nutrients more quickly. They need neighbors that are resistant to insects and diseases. They share resources with their neighbors because a strong, diverse community gives back to them making them stronger and healthier. Trees need each other and so do we.

Forests are not just collections of trees, just as humans are not simply collections of individuals. They are complex systems with hubs / mother trees and networks that allow them to communicate in ways that provide for feedback and adaptation. This communication makes the forest more resilient.

At our best, when we humans really listen to each other we become more resilient. In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service Ram Das and Paul Gorman write, “We really do meet behind our separateness. And for however long that lasts, such meeting is what helps … helps at the level of being … is help itself.”

Just like the forest, humans have a great capacity for self-healing. Just like the forest, we need diversity and complex systems to promote this self-healing. We used to believe that human beings were locked in a survival of the fittest battle with winners and losers. It’s beyond time for us to start believing that we’re more than just a collection of individuals competing for limited resources. That, we too, are capable of cooperation. We too, are capable of communicating below the surface sending messages to the deep parts of our souls, building each other’s resistance for the journey home.

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There’s No Place Like Home

When you find it’s me you’re missing, if you hope I’ll return,
to your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, in the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end,
and the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.
Bind me not to the pasture; chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.
From “Homeward Bound” words and music by Marta Keen

The first time I sang through “Homeward Bound” I stopped at “set me free to find my calling,” unable to sing the rest of the words. You have to take a full breath when you sing, and often when I sing I’m reminded of the feelings I have been holding my breath against. My husband set me free to live away from him for almost five years. He, my family, and my friends set me free to find my calling. I have returned to them in the somehow of a life that keeps pulling me home.

Some singing buddies from the First Unitarian Church of Dallas invited me to be a part of the Turtle Creek Chorale’s (TCC) Partners in Harmony program. Partners in Harmony started several years ago when TCC invited choir members from local congregations that are open and affirming to join them for a concert. TCC is an internationally recognized men’s chorus, first made famous by the documentary After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. The documentary tells the story of how the chorus lost more than 90 of its members to AIDS and the role music played in their grieving process.

Each night of our concert the chorale’s director introduced the Partners in Harmony program to the audience, asking us to raise our hand if we had grown up singing in a church choir. Most of the 200 people on stage raised our hands. My first church choir experience was at the age of four. I sang in choirs until I was 15 when I left my parent’s church looking for a spirituality that was wide enough to hold my constant searching. I returned to church singing 15 years later and met Rodger Wilson, one of the founding members of the Turtle Creek Chorale. As the choir director of the small Presbyterian church I joined in 1991, Rodger would often invite members of the chorale to accompany our tiny seven or eight member choir. (Once I was identified as the “second soprano,” meaning THE second soprano not someone singing the second soprano line. We were small, but devoted.)

These memories accompanied me into my first rehearsal with the chorale. I had been set free to find my calling to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I moved away from Dallas, first to Utah and Idaho, and then to California. I’m back now because of a family member’s illness. I have returned somehow to a place filled with memories that float in and out with every inhale and exhale that pushes my body to grieve.

I came to ministry as a second career, pulling myself through seven long years in seminary while I worked and helped raise our children. The plan was that I would be set free to follow my calling wherever it led, knowing that my husband would eventually retire early and join me. I never expected to return home to Dallas. I never expected to stand in a room so filled with memories that I could barely breathe, let alone sing. When I left the church I served in California I thought I might have to leave ministry. I thought I might have to go back to the life I had before I found my calling. I didn’t know how I could continue to be paid for what I love; I just knew I had to be home to be with those I love.

Each week at rehearsal I sang, “set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.” When it came time for the dress rehearsal I had breathed through these words so many times that I no longer got caught by them. The words had become a fact in a long line of facts that create who I am. One fact that continues to breathe me is this: my calling stays with me wherever I call home.

The night of the dress rehearsal, I sat with friends watching the first act. In the middle of “Blue Suede Shoes” the director stopped the rehearsal, calling for help for the dancers. A man came on stage, knelt on one knee and proposed marriage to one of the dancers. It wasn’t until the stage filled with their family and friends that we knew this scene was not part of the show. TCC is also known for their campy additions to their powerful singing. This concert included the blue suede shoes dancers, a drag Patsy Cline who fell to pieces while singing “I Fall to Pieces,” and various comic representations of states while the chorale sang “This Land is Your Land.” The marriage proposal could have been just one more goofy element of the show. We weren’t quite sure at first.

Once it became clear that the marriage proposal had been arranged as a surprise (he said yes!), my friends and I found ourselves reflecting on how much has changed for the men of the chorale who were once known for how they grieved. We lost friends to AIDS too, including Rodger. On opening night, the chorale acknowledged the six founding members out of the original 30 who remain. We thought of Rodger and sought out one of the founders to tell him of our connection to their history.

As we talked, the members of the chorale portraying the states wandered by to get in place for the beginning of the concert. The best of them was a young man portraying Dorothy, Glinda and the cyclone all in one costume. At first, all you saw was the meshy contours of the cyclone twirling on top of Dorothy’s iconic blue checkered dress with high-heeled ruby slippers teetering across the stage. As the cyclone twirled, suddenly it was pushed down into a skirt to reveal Glinda the Good Witch with crown and scepter – all of this to cleverly represent the state of Kansas.

Sometimes change arrives like Dorothy’s cyclone. Sometimes change arrives more slowly. I grieve lost friends and celebrate with those who can now, finally, make their love public. It is good to be home both to grieve and to celebrate. It is good to be home to remember that there is no place quite like home.

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“Living Inside Hope” – Easter Sermon March 31, 2013

Living Inside Hope”

© By Rev. Lora Brandis

Preached March 31, 2013

Conejo Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

I tried giving up hope for Lent once. It was harder to give up hope than to give up sugar for Lent, which I often do. More often than not, I do not observe a Lenten practice. Although Lent tugs at me anyway, pulling me towards some ancient memory of wandering in the wilderness towards the promised land of Easter, that moment we arrive after we drag our weary bones back from the dead, back to liberating life.

I tried giving up hope for Lent as an exercise to counter all the criticism we get as liberal religionists. Our faith is too hopeful, so unrealistically optimistic that we ignore the evidence. We ignore the deeper truths of the Passover and Easter stories. We prefer the flowers after winter version, the natural cycles of light and dark explanation of the way things are.

Hope is different from optimism. If you give up hope for forty days and forty nights, you walk with an ancient memory that pulls you towards hope born from absolute failure and death. Optimism ignores the evidence. Hope sees the evidence and keeps walking.

Developmental psychology teaches that hope emerges as an ego strength during infancy. We learn hope in our bodies by the way we are consistently held and cared for. Pulled kicking and screaming from the unitive experience of the womb, the child learns to trust at the same time it begins to sense itself as separate and alone. No childhood is perfect. Most of our childhoods precariously perch between experiences that teach us both to trust and mistrust. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson taught that, “When the ratio of trust to mistrust is favorable there emerges the ego virtue or strength we call hope.”

In the novel Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, a woman tells her sister that, “the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” The novel centers on the relationship of two sisters and the political realities in which they live. One sister moves to Nicaragua to teach local people more sustainable farming techniques and dies after being captured by the Contras. The other sister returns to their hometown to take care of their aging father. After she moves back she encounters the small town’s fight against the local mining company that is polluting the river, poisoning their orchards and destroying their way of life. These are the separate political realities in which they live. The separate personal realities in which they live are held together by a complex sibling bond. Their love for each other bound up in experiences that taught them both trust and mistrust.

After losing all hope that her sister Hallie would return safely, Codi opens letters from Hallie received after she had been kidnapped. Thinking she is past hope, her ratio of trust to mistrust not being very favorable, Codi is surprised to find hope inside letters written by her sister just prior to her violent end. In one of these letters Hallie tells her that the very least we can do with our lives is to figure out what we hope for and when we do, to live inside that hope.

Kingsolver tells the story of Nicaragua’s revolution without naïve optimism or jaded cynicism. Here’s a story about utter failure and death. It is the story of a populist revolution being crushed by covert operations funded by the United States. One of the US-funded Contras’ major strategies was to attack rural schools, health clinics and power stations — the very things that most exemplified the improvements that had been brought about by the revolution – the daily things, the work that “filled children’s bellies and brightened their eyes” (Kingsolver).

Being a story of utter failure and death, Kingsolver’s novel is a Good Friday story. It is the fictionalized account of a young woman dying doing the daily work. It is a story that echoes the real story of a young man named Ben Linder, an American engineer who was working on a small hydroelectric dam in rural northern Nicaragua when he was killed by the Contras. He, too, was doing the daily work by participating in vaccination campaigns and bringing electricity to a small, remote town.

On Good Friday and the celebration of the Passover meal we remember those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of human liberation. We remember those who paid attention to the daily work. We remember those who dedicated themselves, not to “saving the world,” but to living inside hope. We remember Jesus. We remember Ben Linder. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Unitarian ministers James Reeb and Norbert Capek, Miguel Servetus, Francis David, Katherine Weigel, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and this year we remember the families who lost loved ones to mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Connecticut. We remember all those whose names we do not know. We remember their Good Friday moments, their flights from bondage, their showing us the way from the darkness of betrayal and abandonment into a way of living inside hope.

Here is a way of living inside hope: it’s called “failing forward.” Failing forward is a way taught to one of my colleagues who has been in the trenches for marriage equality since 1996. She recalls meeting Evan Wolfson, considered by many to be the founder and leader of the same-sex marriage movement. He is the one who taught her about failing forward. Wolfson is an attorney who worked on Baker v. Vermont, the Vermont Supreme Court case that led to the creation of civil unions in that state in 1999. This decision was a compromise between the National Freedom to Marry Coalition and opponents of same-sex marriage. Wolfson acknowledged this as a step forward, but not the victory he had been hoping for. Ten years later Vermont legalized same-sex marriage. It took ten years; living inside hope, the movement had failed forward.

This week the Supreme Court heard cases regarding California’s Proposition 8 as well as DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. The decisions, which we will know sometime in June of this year, will either establish equality or be characterized as a set back by proponents of gay rights. We may continue to fail forward for the time being, but with many states legalizing gay marriage and public opinion turning toward support of marriage equality, there is a strong chance that this fight will soon be in our past. The ratio of trust to mistrust will be favorable. Hope will emerge.

Thursday afternoon I walked to the campus of the California State University at Channel Islands, which is within walking distance of where I live. I was looking for the United for Marriage Rally, one of hundreds held this past week all over the country to bring attention to the fight for marriage equality that had finally made its way to the Supreme Court. Not knowing exactly where it was, I first walked past the library where the Catholic Club was sponsoring a live stations of the cross for Holy Week. A student portraying Jesus was standing on a cross, his arms held out in the classic pose, his head wrapped in a crown of thorns. I was looking for the marriage equality rally, but first I found Jesus.

The rally was small, perhaps 80 or 90 students with some faculty gathered at the student union building. As I approached, the group was posing for a photo. I noticed one of the signs someone held in the crowd – “Get Your Church Out of My Marriage!” As I got closer, I noticed another sign leaning up against the building – “The Catholic Club’s Live Stations of the Cross has been moved to in front of the library.” It made me smile to think that a marriage equality rally had displaced Jesus.

Several student organizations sponsored the rally including College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty, and Spectrum, the LGBT group on campus. A representative from Ventura County Gay Pride spoke. The president of the College Republicans spoke, identifying herself as a progressive Republican, giving a stirring speech about her generation and how they will shape the future. A member of the faculty spoke spontaneously, moved by the show of support from the crowd. She was obviously pregnant, due in August she told me in a conversation afterwards, looking forward to the day that she and her partner can marry and raise their little girl with all the benefits that legal relationship will give them.

Walking back home after the rally I marveled at the family their little girl will be born into. Like all of us, she will have her own ratio of trust to mistrust to sort out. In this changing world, the odds will be better for her now. In this changing world, her hope will have a better chance of emerging. As I walked past the library I noticed that Jesus was gone. The cross was empty. The passing period was over. I assumed he had gone to class.

Many Unitarian Universalists come to church on Easter wondering what to do with Jesus, now that he is gone from our religion. If the resurrection isn’t real, just a metaphor or a sign that the idea of Jesus doesn’t die, then why mention him at all? Why not displace Jesus with other stories, other signs of Easter like flowers, bunnies and eggs? Because Jesus isn’t gone from our religion. He remains in our principles and sources and in the way we covenant to love our neighbors as ourselves. He remains in the litany of lives lost in the fight for human liberation.

When we hear this litany of lives sacrificed for justice, we could despair or we could hope. The journey from Good Friday to Easter teaches us to do both. The wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights or for forty years teaches us to do both. If you remember Jesus, if you give up hope for forty days and forty nights, you walk with an ancient memory that pulls you towards hope born from absolute failure and death. Optimism ignores the evidence. Hope sees the evidence and keeps walking.

David Ray, one of the founders of American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966, writes about hope in his poem “Thanks, Robert Frost.”

Do you have hope for the future?

someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.

Yes, and even for the past, he replied,

that it will turn out to have been all right

for what it was, something we can accept,

mistakes made by the selves we had to be,

not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,

or what looking back half the time it seems

we could so easily have been, or ought…


Hope for the past,

yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,

and it brings strange peace that itself passes

into past, easier to bear because

you said it, rather casually, as snow

went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Hope even for the past, as snow went on falling in a Vermont that ten years ago had to compromise with civil unions. Hope even for the past that continues to move us toward equal rights for all. The past becomes easier to bear when we know that we are always failing forward to a future filled with hope. Winter does give way to spring. The ratio of trust to mistrust continues to be favorable. Living inside hope, we see what needs to be done and keep on walking.

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