Saturday, December 15, 2012

broken hearts, broken lives

We, as a nation, as a world, have experienced one of the worst tragedies that we could ever imagine. I know so many feel as I do: while I don't know anyone personally at Sandy Hook Elementary School, anyone with an ounce of compassion in our hearts are also in a state of grief. We struggle for the right words of comfort, enter conversations about the need for gun control, but through it all, many of us (meaning me) wonder what can we do to help.

There are constructive ideas all over the internet, discussions about gun control, the need for better mental health care, and the isolation that exists in our society today. These are all good, needed discussions, and constructive changes needs to take place - but for now, what I want to share is different.

I'm reading a book I picked up quite by chance at my local library bookstore, My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. I'm amazed that a something written with such depth of feeling could end up in a library discard pile, but then again, I never would have found it otherwise, so that alone was my personal blessing. 

This is a narrative about touching lessons learned from people. Dr. Rachel has been working with people with terminal illnesses for more than thirty years, and has lived with Chrohn's disease for more than forty years. I find her writing to be sensitive and full of something that seems to be lacking in much of society today: wisdom.  Her book shares some of the wisdom that she's learned from patients and others who touched her life in some other way, including her Orthodox Jewish grandfather (who calls her Neshume-le, which Dr. Remen tells us means "little beloved soul.")

At the start of the book, she writes about how her grandfather was the one person in her life who tenderly shared his faith in God by telling her stories from the bible. (the bold highlighting is mine.)

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. in this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. These people are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.
"Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?" I asked, certain that he would say "Yes." But he shook his head. "No, Neshume-le," he told me. "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them."
It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered only was the capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. "And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world," my grandfather said. "It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so."
And then she writes about her thoughts, responding as a young child about such a great responsibility that must be on the actions of the Lamed-Vovniks.
"How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "What do they have to do?" My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. "Ah, Neshume-le," he told me. "They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."
Without compassion, the world cannot continue.

In a society that places so much value on action, it is comforting to me to think that our compassion links us in the suffering of the people in Newtown, CT, and even defines us. For me, as one who feels helpless in this time of tragedy, I feel - well, more human, in that thought.

Sandy Hook Elementary School - and all who have left this world too soon - we weep for you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Enduring Heart

I cleaned up my bookcase yesterday.

That was a major accomplishment for me. I don't know why it took so much effort to tackle this, but at least I finally did it. I love my books - I love all books, as any writer usually does. Yet despite my bibliophile love, my neglect made it seem as though my stacks of books were bursting at the seams. Finally, slowly, I cleaned it by sections, put my most important books together at one end, and washed the dust off the wood as I went along.

My most valuable books are now in categories of faith, food, and shelter. My daughter gave birth to the most beautiful baby girl three and a half weeks early.

Tonight, I can't sleep.  I am one hundred and twenty six miles away from her, or approximately two hours and sixteen minutes by bus. One hundred and twenty six miles from helping my baby with her first birth. This precious, beautiful girl, Josette Marie, was born a teeny six and a half pounds, and has lost some ounces since then, because little Josette prefers to sleep and cuddle with her mom, rather than eat. Her momma, my girl, is caught between the indescribable joy of the miracle of giving birth, and the unavoidable worry (and lack of sleep) that is the constant companion of parenthood.

I never felt so helpless in all my life.

My body, curse it (no, I don't really mean that!) does not do what it used to do. I try, I really do, but it responds with aches and pain and if I push my limits too much, then the resulting pain is excruciating, along with fatigue. My reflexes, (and brain) are not as fast as in my younger days.

So tonight, I think about how much I want to help my daughter, how I want to be at her side, and I feel helpless. Despite how tired I feel, I stare at the darkened walls and sleep evades me.

My dogs, Emma and Sam, lucky them, are the picture of relaxation, spread out on the bed that refuses to give me sleep.

I decided to turn on the light and look at some of the books formerly buried in piles of confusion. "Left to Tell," by Immaculee Ilibagiza, is the first one I pick up. While I remember reading about her testimony as the only survivor of her family (indeed, I think her entire village) of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, I didn't even remember buying it.

Sigh. Thank you brain. I will read this soon.

I put that one down, and pick up the book my dear friend Mary gave me so many years ago. "The Enduring Heart," by Wilkie Au. The day before my next birthday, when I turn sixty in April of 2013, Mary (O'Flaherty) Floyd will have been gone for three years.

Her obituary stated "In the past 15 years, she split her time between Winthrop and Ireland. She dedicated her life to serving and sharing the love of God."

She certainly did. Mary taught me the rosary, encouraged me to return to Mass, but most of all, she was an example of the true love of God. She was kind to everyone, stranger or friend, and extended her hand to anyone who needed help. My best memories are filled with cups of tea with Mary, along with one rosary after another. It was said many times that her husband feared she'd give their house away right out from under them, her love for her fellow man and woman was so deep.

I miss her so. And now, when my forth and last born is going through the joys and worries with her newborn baby, I think back to when I was a new mother, and Mary was my guide and prayer partner, helping through my insecurities, fears, worries as a new mom, through ear infections and pneumonia. Mary, a retired nurse, was the one who told me to rush my two year old first born, Carrie, to the hospital. She recognized the signs of pneumonia, something her pediatrician insisted was only an allergy. Thanks to Mary (and a two week stay at the hospital), my little Carrie survived.

Her friendship meant the world to me. Although later, I moved away, and wasn't as close in later years, she never left my heart. It was so comforting to pick up the phone and hear her voice (I seemed to sense when she returned from Ireland).

I miss her so...

Tonight, I looked at that book, the book I never found the time to read. Although I've lost so many possessions throughout the years (even, to my shock and sorrow, losing the precious beads that I used while praying with her), I held onto this book. It stayed with me through my many, moves, from one city to another, from Massachusetts to Arizona and back again. Tonight, I picked it up, and read the inside cover.

"For most of us, living in the good times is easy. When we are young and healthy," (OK, that's when the tears began), "when life seems brimming with possibilities, it's a simple matter to move ahead confidently and believe that the all-loving God smiles on our endeavors. At the same time, we all know those days will not last forever." (now the tears are really covering my face) "Life brings trials and sadness. Not only that, but most of us will live to be much older than our parents. People need a spirituality for the long haul that will last and bear fruit long after the spring rains and summer sunshine are gone. Is it possible to live vibrantly and confidently even then?"

Mary, who was as close to a spiritual adviser as I've ever had, once told me that time means nothing to God. I forgot her exact words, but it was something to the effect that it doesn't exist in the spiritual world. (Which, to me, is so hard to comprehend).

The book my friend gave to me about twenty or twenty-five years ago (while she was then, around my current age) is so appropriate for me right now.

Thank you, Mary, for such a perfect gift, at such a perfect time.