Two Words

It’s amazing how two words can make your whole day.

It’s amazing how two words can destroy it.

The two words that lit me up like a Christmas tree were “someday perhaps?”

The two words that cratered me were “Mother’s Day.”

The words that made me smile were in reference to a future hangout with the aforementioned pen pal that I’d never actually met in real life, but had been writing to for years and years. When he/she (not giving anything away) comes to DC, it will be fun to laugh together, hug, and show them my version of my city.

My mother died in October of 2016, and as you can imagine, I’m not over it. Mother’s Day happens every single year, and I am sort of used to the onslaught of ads that pointedly ask if you’ve remembered to buy presents. The thing is, though, I’d forgotten Mother’s Day was coming up, and being reminded when I wasn’t thinking about it and wasn’t prepared was, in a word, awful.

So, like you do, I immediately bought a ticket to the opening of the new International Spy Museum that day. What I mean by this is that the museum itself is not new, the-new-spy-museum-atthey’ve just moved and expanded from F Street to L’Enfant Plaza. The only thing I will miss about their old digs is the Shake Shack around the corner. Because, of course, the thing you need after looking at espionage gadgets is a black and white malt. But get it to go. Every time I’ve been to a Shake Shack, seating was a nightmare.

I’m also saving some money for the gift shop. Last time I went, I got a t-shirt on clearance that says, “Argo @$#% Yourself” with the spy museum logo on the sleeve. It is brilliant, but I don’t wear it unless I’m hanging out with friends I feel comfortable with- not always a huge fan of meeting new people in a t-shirt that says “fuck,” even bleeped for child safety. Since I am such a huge fan of “Argo,” I found an old promotional t-shirt on Amazon for $10 that says, “the movie was fake. The op was real,” and has “Argo” in large letters with the skyline of Tehran cut into the bottom, plus the release date of the film. That one I wear all the time.

As I was telling a friend, I think I found the last piece of memorabilia available except the script, which I don’t need because I have the movie memorized, anyway. To say that I’ve seen it 25 times is an understatement by a large margin…. mostly because it is jaw-droppingly scary in some places and so damned funny I start laughing and can’t stop in others… especially every time Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and/or Bryan Cranston are on screen. To wit:

The setup is that O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) is driving Mendez to an airport to get on the plane to Tehran.

O’Donnell: I’m required to remind you that if you’re detained, The Agency will
not claim you.
Mendez: Barely claim me as it is.
O’Donnell: Your ˜In Case Of’s’ good?
Mendez: Just Christine (his son’s mother, they’re separated). Guess I should have brought some books to read in prison.
O’Donnell: Nah. They’ll kill you long before prison.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Argo,” Ben Affleck both directed it and played Tony Mendez (emphatic fist shake at not casting a Hispanic actor), who rescued six diplomats who managed to escape from the embassy in Tehran and hide out in the Canadian ambassador’s house (the ambassador is brilliantly played by Victor Garber- also one of my favorite fictional spies as Jack Bristow in “Alias”).

I love how the movie is heartbreaking and hilarious in one breath. And no, I didn’t have to look up the lines, just can’t remember whether they’re at National or Dulles. And even though I’ve seen it more times than all my other favorites combined, I still cry at the end (not a spoiler, just the orchestral score).

My best wish for the new digs is that they have a huge Tony Mendez exhibit, because he died not too long ago and therefore, I would guess that even more of his ops are declassified. I am not totally clear on the rules, but I believe when you die you lose your covers, and the ops you’ve done can be made public… just not the ones that involve other people still alive and/or are still in progress. It’s possible some are still current, because I believe that after Tony left the CIA full time, he was still an occasional consultant. No one would want to lose all that experience permanently unless the person was really, really gone. I can’t imagine the grief inside The Agency, because he was a straight-up legend.

In a way, I think that subconsciously I picked going to the spy museum because Tony died to remind myself that I am not the only person in the world in grief.

I feel the same way about walking through cemeteries. To me, it is not morbid. It is an uplifting reminder that I am not alone in my sadness, situational depression, wondering what we’d be gabbing about if she were still here, etc. What I find is that as time goes on, the well of emotional injury gets more shallow, but there are triggers that pull me right back to her open casket, and how I felt completely disoriented, as if the world had started spinning the other direction and I could feel it.

One of those triggers was Tony’s death. I started crying and couldn’t stop, eventually realizing that it wasn’t all about him. Yes, it was devastating to lose a national treasure, but it was also a direct hit on how “gone” death truly means. And not to demean losing friends or extended family, but your reality doesn’t actually crack until you lose a parent. The entire universe seems different, and for a while, it loses all its color. You just wander around sort of half alive in grayscale.

I knew that I was getting better when I could make an effort to see friends, but at first, it was only other people who had also lost a parent. They were my people, the ones who I could confide in and share my rage at the dumb things people say when you lose a loved one, knowing innately that they mean no malice, so you can’t get mad at them directly. You can only get mad at the situation. Bad theology got on my nerves, didn’t measure up to one lady who compared the death of her cat to the death of my mother at church. It made my rage go to 11 and I had to excuse myself as not to emotionally rip her to shreds, because if I had waited even another three seconds, I would have taken her head off.

There’s only one other situation that makes me truly uncomfortable, and that’s the people who, upon hearing about your parent’s death, start crying because they can’t imagine what’s going to happen when their parents die, and that also happened to me in public (again, at church). The reason it’s tone deaf is because my natural reaction was “well, it’s a good thing I’m going through it and not you.” It’s just so egocentric that I cannot deal. It’s just another situation in which I just have to walk away, because I have not come up with an appropriate response, just a sarcastic one.

And that’s the thing. Because you know the people around you aren’t trying to hurt you, there’s just nothing that anyone can say that will make it better, you have no idea what to say in response to the awkward and often just stupid.

If you don’t know what to do, let me tell you. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint, and everyone processes differently, but this generally works across the board. Say “I’m sorry for your loss,” and offer to be present. And that’s it. The ones I loved the most during that time were people who showed up, but didn’t say much of anything. They just sat next to me as I stared off into space and were willing to listen if I could manage to talk. But they offered no advice on what to do, they just let me process verbally. It’s never a case of needing advice on what to do, especially if you haven’t lost a parent yourself. It’s giving the person room to breathe and never, ever comparing grief, even if you’ve been in the same situation. Because we’re not in the same boat, just the same ocean and trying to keep our heads above water. Suffering is universal, but we all have different ways of coping.

For instance, when I was actually in town for the funeral and with my sister and my dad, I hardly emoted at all because I was speaking at the funeral and I wanted to feel put together for it. I wanted to be able to be funny, because the eulogies I enjoy the most are the ones that offer real insight into the person. My mother was a church musician almost her entire life, starting at 12 or 13. So my opening line was, “this is the only funeral Carolyn Baker’s ever been to where she wasn’t working.” It had the desired effect. The entire congregation just broke up.

I am also quite socially anxious, and only three people I knew besides my family came to the funeral, so I had to put on a mask and a suit of armor to deal with being in a HUGE crowd where I knew practically no one. The mask and the armor are extroversion to an Oprah-like level, while inside I am shaking and counting the seconds until I can get home. In short, I didn’t look like someone in grief until I flew back to DC, where I only got out of bed sporadically for about three months. I allowed myself to completely fall apart, just not in front of anyone. I did once, and it was terrifying, so I never did it again. I gave lip service to letting people in, and then I completely isolated, only emoting through e-mail or crying into my pillows when no one was home. I couldn’t even bear crying that was loud enough for my housemates to come running, and they’re people I’d trust with my life.

In public, I became stoic and divorced from my emotions, because feeling even small emotions led to a flooding out I couldn’t stop. It was better not to start, because it would stop me from engaging in conversation. Even when I was with friends, there was a risk I wouldn’t take- being there, but not present….. people talking at my body while my soul was out there somewhere, unable to respond appropriately with laughter or empathy or whatever the situation needed…. as well as just nodding and smiling because I could hear people talking, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. It became background noise.

In essence, compartmentalization was necessary to have a fighting chance at moving on.

I thought I knew grief from bad breakups, and it was a wake-up call to realize how differently devastating this grief continues to be.

That’s because even though you gain and lose people to circumstances throughout your life, there’s still a small chance they’ll reappear. You apologize for being shitty people to each other and as long as the apology comes with changed behavior, it will generally stick…. or as I call it from a stolen line, “resurrection happening in the middle of the mess.”

As an aside, Easter is a very important holiday for me, because I don’t generally celebrate Jesus’ resurrection literally, but the way we resurrect ourselves, both individually and in community.

When a person dies, as opposed to a relationship, you lose hope. You lose the future. And if the person dies relatively young, you get angry at having the years stolen away in which you feel entitled. My mother was 65. She died just months after her retirement from teaching- she never even got to enjoy it. What I miss the most is that I thought we could go to church together more often, because she wasn’t working. Even when she took time off to come and visit me, she’d never take time off from church as well. When she died, she was completely free, because her church had so few members that they decided to close, and she hadn’t found a new church yet. I’d already started looking through solos because I thought I had my favorite accompanist back, and I’d already talked to my choir director about it.

My choir director and my mother were cut from the same cloth, and every time Sam played solo piano, if I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell the difference. When my mother died, it made me come unglued. I went to church for about six weeks after I came back from the funeral, and it was just long enough to realize that it was the biggest trigger of them all and I still can’t go back. I know I will; eventually I will get that trigger stamped back down to manageable, but today is not that day.

I do appreciate that Mike, the husband in the family I live with, keeps inviting me to his church, even though it’s relatively conservative United Methodist. I’d still take him up on it because I know the hymnal from front to back, as well as soprano descants for nearly everything. Singing would be the most important part of church for me no matter what the congregation believes.

In true introvert form, I want to be invited even if I don’t take you up on it.

Another two words that make my day?

Please come.

Sermon for Proper 14, Year A: Choppy Waters

Matthew 14:22-7

It’s hard to imagine looking at the news this week and not feel the choppiness of the water surrounding our boats. We pray for all those affected by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, particularly the family of the woman who died and those injured. We pray for all those at University of Virginia and the neighboring schools who are watching in horror.

We pray for Guam, who has been directly threatened by Kim Jong Un. We pray for a president who has no experience in this type situation, and may encourage violence rather than squash it.

Prayer is about hope, faith, and love. We may not be able to directly calm the waters around us, but we can abate the hurricanes inside us, emotions rising that we may not have felt before because for the young, they are walking in new territory… while older Americans remember the white supremacy violence and nuclear threats of the 1960’s, and have to relive that trauma.

Today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus needing rest and relaxation after preaching to the crowds and having them flock toward him, overwhelming the calm inside him and needing to retreat to recover. While he is gone, a storm brews on the Sea of Galilee (now known as Lake Kinneret), and Jesus cuts his time away short to run to the shore and help them.

It is essential to remember that Jesus is not doing anything out of the ordinary, and is in fact, a part of his personality. Jesus is doing what he always does, which is to help people in need. When the Disciples see him walk out onto the water, they are terrified. Some people translate this literally, that he could walk on water. However, from the Greek, it is unclear whether this is what happened. In verse 25, it is epi ten thalassan, which can equally mean over the sea and towards the sea. In verse 26, it is epi tës thalassës, which can mean on the sea or at the seashore. Therefore, it is hard to tell whether the Disciples thought they’d seen a ghost because he was walking on water toward them, or whether he just sneaked up behind them and they jumped out of their skin. Remember, he was away and unexpected.

The surprise regardless of what you believe happened is that Jesus shows up in their hour of fear and need of reassurance. Whether the storm blew over on its own, or whether Jesus personally calmed the waves is of no consequence. As  Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister in addition to his PBS presence, put it, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.

When we look around at the choppy waters surrounding our own boats, let us not focus on the water. Let us focus on the people who are willing to drop whatever they’re doing to rush in and help us in our own hours of need.

There is no better metaphor for our current situation than Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk rescue mission during WWII in which private sailors volunteered to drop everything they were doing, including fishermen who would lose wages, to go and rescue soldiers in France and bring them back to British shores, because the destroyers could not reach shallow water. Without even thinking about it, they refused to focus on the choppy water, but on the people in need. People who never signed up for military service endured gunfire and bombs, but ignored the threat in favor of “keeping calm and carrying on.”

It has become a trite saying, but when you really ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?,” this is it. This is the spirit of Christ working through enormous chaos, calming the water for the soldiers who saw the rescue boats coming. Just like the Disciples surprised by Jesus, they had no idea that the small crafts were coming. Some were scattered among different ships, and others were swimming for their lives.

Even if the weather was still bad, the storms that raged within the soldiers as they knew they were facing almost certain death from German fire or hypothermia were calmed. The spirit of Christ walked on the water, to the water, in the water.

When the storm rages within you, know that someone is coming. It might be the spirit of Christ that lives in you, or it might be the spirit of Christ that lives within someone else, ready to drop anything to come and help you in your own hour of need.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces