Notre Dame and our common humanity

Why is it that tragedy unites us but otherwise we spend our time picking each other apart and spreading divisiveness?

I don’t want to launch into a synopsis on modern politics or the state of the world today. Most people are pretty up-to-speed on the general dark cloud hanging over the western hemisphere without my rehashing it…so I’ll be short and sweet here for the sake of all of our sanity and won’t delve into things about which I know (too?) little.

What I know is this: Notre Dame cathedral burned yesterday and it stopped everyone in their tracks. Suddenly people of all stripes are united in their grief. Facebook posts display picture after picture of individuals’ experiences at Notre Dame, plus stories of longing and sadness from those who hadn’t had the chance to go there and see it in person.

The notion that this monument anchoring the skyline of Paris for centuries is in peril defies belief. This human construct, a display of the beauty that man is capable of creating, has for centuries drawn pilgrimaging Catholics, as well as millions of tourists of other religious and agnostic persuasions, to stand in awe of its majesty. It has survived so much history, so much destruction, from the French Revolution to the two horrific world wars of the 20th century. But in mere hours yesterday it literally went up in flames.

It’s like the smack across the face that the world needed. I hope it is, anyway, and that some long-term good will come of it. Historic monuments like Notre Dame are an investment. They represent hope, connect us to our past, and guide us toward the future. They are an incarnation of what binds us to each other and to our common good. They are a symbol of the best in human civilization – architecturally, culturally, and artistically –  and a beacon when we have lost our way.

We have been living in a period of neglect of community, faith, and hope. We have literally let historic buildings crumble and decay before our very eyes due to a lack of funding, indifference, and disinterest. In our lives, the virtual becomes ever more confounded with reality. We intentionally, or through the magic of algorithms and our personal data, surround ourselves only with like-minded individuals.

Today we must acknowledge these failings and renew our faith that we are more alike than we are different. It’s well beyond time to restore global sanity, to find common ground, and to chart the course forward with an intact moral compass by investing in what really matters. The investment required is not exactly in our history or our future, per se, but both together manifested in how we treat our fellow man today. Words like honor, dignity, respect, integrity, patience, and hope swirl through my mind. The restoration of the building is a worthy aspiration, but those values are what urgently need restoring.

The Void

Have you ever felt like you were being chased by silence? Or felt the weight of nothing?

The sudden loss of someone you love does that. There’s this constant sensation that something is missing, this echoing emptiness enveloping you. In quiet moments, the sadness creeps in, sneaks up behind you and surprises you with its tenacity. It’s still here…

My mind searches and searches for answers, attempting to fill this void, but the result is always the same. She is gone and it’s incomprehensible. She was so vibrant and full of life one minute (actually for 71 years of minutes!), and then she was gone. Who knew that the absence of someone could take up so much space in a room? Who knew that silence could be so loud? That emptiness could be so heavy?

Everywhere I look I see the negative space in the composition of my life with Nancy. Where once the space around her defined her physical presence, now the space where she isn’t defines her absence. I first learned the concept of negative space in 11th grade art class. I am not 100% sure I am interpreting it accurately, but this abstract way of thinking resonates with where my grieving mind keeps landing.

We went skiing last weekend, one of Nancy’s favorite activities. When I opened the door to the condo, I expected her to be there, as if maybe our paths just haven’t crossed this past month. Her smile and her voice are so vivid, my mind insists that she’s here somewhere. Out at dinner, the lack of a chair reserved for her made my chest ache. Her absence weighs on us and fills the space between us. I thought I saw her walk by the ski lodge when I was waiting in line inside to get lift tickets. My heart leapt and I almost ran out to call her name. And then my brain caught up with what my eyes thought they were seeing.

On our first run, laying down the first tracks that day after hitting the chairlift for the opening bell, the sun’s rays shone brilliantly through the clouds. I always call this God lighting. In that breathtakingly magical moment, I knew Nancy was with us, that this was her peeking through to whisper hello and good morning and I love you all.

Sun Rays at first run
Nancy’s Hello

What I wouldn’t give for a hug from Nancy right now. How she would have enjoyed being with us.

It was great to see how much fun the kids had, how life goes on for them with so much less heaviness. They happily and fondly and vocally remember her. We talk about her a lot. She is still very much with us, her positive spirit guiding us and encouraging us onward. She would absolutely be telling us to go, live, and enjoy life. And we are…but, for a while anyway, there’s also this mental leap of loss, this inescapable physical void that accompanies us.

I’ll close with this beautiful Maya Angelou poem that the amazing author, storyteller, life coach, and my kindred spirit Susie Rinehart sent to me recently. It expresses so eloquently what I am stumbling through here. Enjoy. And go out there and live!

They Existed, by Maya Angelou

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

Good Grief, Charlie Brown

Is there such thing as good grief? Because it feels like an oxymoron. Grief is heavy and hard and, of course, sad. It implies the loss of something important. How could that ever be good?

I was saying to a friend the other day that I’ve grieved so much lately that I must be on the path to enlightenment. Right??? I mean, what else is the point of all this suffering and introspection? I get it, I really get it. Life is fragile and short and beautiful and hard. And grieving is something you have to live through; there are no shortcuts. The Weight of Grief, a sculpture by Celeste Roberge, accurately and poignantly reflects how it feels.

The Weight of Grief by Celeste Roberge

Grief is a funny thing. I can be ambling along quite pleasantly in my “normal” life and it just sneaks up, welling up unexpectedly in my chest from seemingly nowhere to overcome me. I’d love to call out, “MERCY”, to the universe and actually get a reprieve. But, instead, here I am facing again the reality that this life journey isn’t something that’s totally in my control and diving deeper into gratitude for what I have and authentically living for what really matters.

Here’s where the good in grief lies. Grief amplifies the otherwise mundane, magnifying the importance of the smallest gesture. I had never understood the importance of ritual, for example. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of ceremony or tradition. But when we joined hands in a circle around my aunt to pray together, though our brains were addled with grief and a sensation of numbness was overcoming us, we all knew verbatim the words. It required no shuffling of papers or notes, no cueing, no preamble. There was incredible solidarity in that harsh and deeply painful moment.

Food is another item that ascends to the pinnacle of significance during times of grief. People deliver food to grieving families as a way of saying, “I love you and I don’t know what else to do so here’s one less thing to worry about.” Food becomes an important means of connection, both literal and figurative sustenance.

When my aunt died unexpectedly two weeks ago, she had been anticipating our arrival to visit for a couple of days. Her refrigerator was full of some of the family favorites: her homemade mac and cheese, broccoli (our staple veggie), pasta and meatballs, and ricotta cookies. We decided that we should gather as a family and enjoy the meals she had prepared. My husband was given the task of packing up the food and bringing it to my cousin’s house. He felt strongly that he was delivering something sacred, so he packed the car with ceremony and care. Nancy had baked her love for us into each morsel of that food. The food was emblematic of her devotion to us and her anticipation of the time we would be spending together. It always tastes good, but never before had consuming mac and cheese been so poignant.

I can’t talk about food and not mention the chocolate chip cookie, which is hands down one of our family’s most treasured delicacies. My mom and my aunt were like some sort of chocolate chip cookie ambassadors, working industriously to spread their love of this perfect cookie far and wide. Chocolate chippers were regularly in the cookie jar on our kitchen counter, homemade and delicious. Every time I came home from college my mom was pulling a fresh batch from the oven, the smell of melting brown and white sugar, butter, and gooey chocolate chips permeating the kitchen. Our exchange students from France, Germany, Serbia, and countless visitors from elsewhere, were quickly indoctrinated to this most American delight. When traveling abroad, my mom even brought brown sugar and chocolate chips with her so she could reproduce the official chocolate chipper there. When I lived in Madagascar, I improvised using chopped up chocolate bars to make some for my homestay family. I am not kidding at all when I say that we believe with an almost religious zeal in the chocolate chip cookie as the quintessential unifier and the answer to almost any question. At Nancy’s celebration of life, we served chocolate chip cookies.

The last item I wanted to highlight are the plentiful rocks and shells on a New England beach. They can seem like nothing much at times, commonplace and a regular part of the beach landscape. Many people just walk by them, preoccupied with their thoughts or focused on the ocean. But in the midst of our intense grief, my cousin’s wife had the presence of mind to collect various shells and rocks from the beach near where Nancy lived. She put them into a wooden box for each of us, and instructed us to build a cairn of remembrance for Nancy at our homes. The cairn, she wrote, will “act as a landmark and a compass to guide us back to the people, places, and communities that Nancy loved.” She also gave each of us half of a shell that another family member has in their collection, a symbolic way to keep us connected across the days and miles between us now that we have returned home. With these beautiful words and her extraordinarily thoughtful gesture, instantly these otherwise ordinary items became a coveted treasure imbued with deep meaning and value.

In grieving there is renewal in connection with family and friends and community. It always comes back to this. That was on display in spades at Nancy’s celebration of life (Community Pays Tribute to Nancy Waddell), and in the food that kept arriving at our doorsteps. In loss we are reminded of what we have and somehow we appreciate it more fully. Out of grief, new friendships and connections are made (I’m looking at you WV Adaptive and HFCC!). In my sorrow, but also in how I have deliberately chosen to live every day of these past two weeks, my aunt is present. Her example, her capacious heart, and her compassionate spirit guide my actions. I can tell she will never leave me. Good grief, that’s an astonishing gift.

charlie brown good grief
Good Grief image by Charles Schulz