What the Greeks got right–when grief has a funky beat

Heading home after work at church today, and part of that work is talking and processing with congregants and staff these days (how could it not be?), and put on Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ kickin’ retro funk song, Retreat. And then it hit me, the ancient Greeks got it right when they embodied human emotions and states-of-being into their pantheon.

Here’s a song about a woman scorned. She is challenging her lover to retreat in the face of her fury. Right now, it is kind of the same song that grief is singing to me. Yeah, I know, not, of course not. Grief is not singing to me in the form of Sharon Jones. No, no, no.

But maybe grief is palpable, and I fight against it at my own risk. The song is boisterous and giddy in its challenge: “Raise your white flag high ’cause I’m comin’ in blazin’… And I don’t care if it makes sense to you!” Horns blaring, percussion pounding. Bell tolling. Oh yeah, have fun with this.

Have fun (or funk?) with grief? Really? Tear my shirt! Throw ashes on my head! “Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” Sharon Jones channels the furies–let it all out. Because this time (and every time?), it won’t make sense. Because today I don’t have to declare victory. There will be time for that later, after this raucous (for me, perhaps not for you my quieter more solemnly disposed friends), exceptional event.

For now, maybe turning the dial to eleven, and letting the sea crest over the walls may be exactly what is needed. If that is what it takes, there it is: “Cause it’s my way baby, and I don’t care none about the rest of you.” Go for it, grief. I’m down. I’m dancing.

The Thirty Thousand Voiced Creature of PNC Park

After and in the middle of the tragedy, the family went to Pittsburgh for a long planned visit with friends. We did not talk at length about it. In point of fact, my friends are from the Danbury area of Connecticut–yes, Newtown. One friend taught at Sandy Hook and was in the school when the shooting happened. What strange good company we made.

So, there we were in our different stages of grief, eating good food, drinking wine, riding carousels, and generally taking time away from the world. It almost worked. Careening along the Phantom’s Revenge at
whatever speed helps (and jarred our bones).

Tuesday night we saw the Pirates play the Dodgers along with 30,000 of our closest friends. The game was close until the Buccos scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to reach the final score of 12-7. The crowd followed the game closely: cheering heartily all the Pittsburgh tallies; groaning sickly at the two errors by two different Pittsburgh third basemen; and booing lustily after Dodger reliever Jamey Wright intentionally plunked Russell Martin and was allowed to remain in the game (it was the third hit batsmen of the game, and the second in a series of retaliations).

Seat by seat, aisle by aisle, and section by section the fans embraced the game. My daughter, Katherine, had no idea that a baseball game could produce more than the esoteric detachment of rooting for our (semi-)beloved home team, the Norfolk Tides. We stayed through the entire 3:39, cheering and clapping and booing with all our friends.

Katherine asked, “When can we go back?”

My friend Brian said, “if I lived near a team, I would go every day.” Amen, brother.

Was it wildly jingoistic? Infinitely meaningless? Utterly unpack-able in some philosophical “opiate of the masses” fashion? Yes, yes, and yes. I’ll get back to grief and confusion (and did, quickly), but for one night (and others now to follow), it was good to get swept up and away.

Struggling with suicide

While I am sure that suicide is difficult in any faith, in Unitarian Universalism it poses some distinct challenges. To begin with, as a faith that does not dictate a specific doctrine or creed, Unitarian Universalism finds cohesiveness around the mutual affirmation of some fairly general principles. As general as those principles are, even in our faith we wrangle about them and how they should be lived and interpreted. The main thing we do is agree together to affirm them.

In the end, that agreement that we make with each other is the main thing that holds us together. This makes Unitarian Universalism a covenantal faith; what holds Unitarian Universalists together is not a belief in god, or in a primary prophetic text, but in the act of making a covenant with each other.

This covenantal action bespeaks a premise that we do not make our faith alone–that it arises out of relationships. If you examine the Unitarian Universalist principles, you will find that they all refer to how we are in the world with each other. Even the fourth principle, which seems on its face to be about truth, insists on a “responsible” search for truth and meaning. Responsible to whom or to what? To each other and to the world? At least.

The theology inherent in the Unitarian Universalist reliance of covenant directly places the mysterious truth, what some would call the divine, into this web of relationships. We enter into these relationships freely, which is to say that we are not compelled by force or threat; there is no damnation to frighten a Unitarian Universalist (or anyone) into compliance. We are always in a set of relationships: families, friends, work, but also to nature, to the all the world around us, to the historical past and future, and,in a special way, to our fellow congregants.

This web of relationships can feel weighty at times. For instance, a cup of coffee enjoyed after worship explodes into the world as the web of relationships flowing from coffee in the cup expands ever outward. It is hard to be in the present moment, because no one thing is unconnected. All our choices become profound decisions. However, the web can also be a safety net–they are the ties that bind us to the world. It is not so bad to be bound to this world.

And so to suicide. Suicide is particularly hard because it severs relationships, and it shows that an individual has lost connection to the vast array of relationships to which she or he belongs. The survivors feel the loss because one part of the great tangle is no longer there. And because part of Unitarian Universalist theology is bound to all these relationships, that theology is called into question by the act of suicide.

No, of course not, one might argue, suicide is an act that belongs entirely to the person who enacts it. It reflects only on that individual and his or her state of being. I understand that perspective, but struggle with it, in some portion because I am a Unitarian Universalist.

One of the great mysteries–what makes the self– is answered not by cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), but by I am in relationship with the world therefore I am (help me with the Latin, please). This is a fairly radical concept, perhaps more so than we ever fully imagine, because there is no self without the world–the self is contingent on the world. Most would reverse that postulation.

But the world! Insistent and persistent. And then, if only it had been so for my friend, and how could it not have been when she knew all this and knew it more than I ever will? So, I struggle, and stay tangled.

and another thing we take for granted: cold

My daughter grew up in a world without artificially produced cold. The orphanage in Zhongshan had minimal food refrigeration, no air conditioning, and little or no ice. The wading pools were opened in July and August to give the children a little relief from the summer heat and humidity.

So, our summer world is more than a little strange to her. The temperatures we keep our buildings in the summer? She dresses in long pans and long sleeves. “Cold.” The air conditioning vents for the back seat are closed on her side. “Cold.” Her favorite movie right now is Frozen, which she calls, Cold.

More than that–the obvious–condensation on glasses at the table: fascinating. Ice cubes in water: more of the same. Salads? Who eats cold, uncooked food? Bananas are good; we eat them at room temperature.

I look forward to our winter, and am glad that we have a full fall to help with the transition. Sweaters, long johns, and mittens, here we come.

Swimming Lesson (expanding the comfort zone)

Let’s put it this way: at the moment Shi Hui would be happier if every pool were no more than three feet deep. Needless to say, her first swimming lesson was in water deeper than that, and the prospect gained her full throated disapproval.

What is a dad to do? Do I cancel the day’s attempt? Do I attempt to force the issue? Do I sit down on the pool deck and join my daughter in an emotional outburst? How about none of the above?

I walked Shi Hui down to the shallow end, where she ran to the water (and slipped s she sprinted around the corner of the pool), and then gleefully showed me her very own swimming lesson. I watched, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, and then pointed to where the lesson had begun. “Swimming School,” I said. My wife and I had introduced the idea do lessons as school, and so the concept was not a new one to her. School is where work gets done. “Play,” I said as I pointed to the shallow end. “School,” I said as I pointed to where the other kids were working.

Shi Hui pointed to the water around her, making her desire fairly clear. And so I pulled out the rarely used father voice, “Wei Wei.” She looked up. This was business. “School.” She walked up the handicapped ramp and trudged back to the lesson with me, unhappy, but without the tears that had led to our respite.

During the first exercise with the instructor (kicking using a kickboard) she clung to him with the fearful grip of death. During the next exercise (taking a breath and submerging with her hands extended above her head, and which, thankfully, we had been practicing already), she released the instructor. And for the third exercise (a reprise of the kicking), she took firm grip of the board and kicked away.

After the lesson, she returned to the more familiar depths and practiced for half an hour. Laughing and smiling all the way.

I don’t know what the best way to encourage a child to push her limits. My other daughter will go to the mattresses (Godfather slang) over math homework, and no father or mother voice can stem the tide. I don’t know how or when Shi Hui will draw her lines in the sand over food, effort, or rules. But today felt like a gentle victory. I cross my fingers and hope for more.

Story Telling

Two weeks ago I gave a sermon at my church about what I learned from my father about fatherhood for Father’s Day. It went well. Afterwards some people told me what a good story teller I was, which was nice. I’m sure a few left thinking what a gasbag I was, which is fine too. I was asked whether I got so wrapped up in the story that I forgot that people were listening. Not really, after all, the whole point is to get everyone to focus their attention. Here are some things I did that I hope made that more likely.

I told the story about what I learned from him about fatherhood. I did this by relating things that had happened between him and me in our life. When I “wrote” it, I observed the “rule of three”: the big story (the sermon) had three separate main incidents. Why three? I draw an analogy from geometry when I explain this to my students: it takes three points to define a plane in space, and without that plane, we have nothing on which to stand. I’m sure there are corollaries to this rule: two points make a line, which is only good for tightrope walkers; four points make a solid which will block the reader. Besides, I only had 15-20 minutes: three is enough.

There was plenty of connective tissue to get from one incident to the next. When one shares a story from one’s life, it can be easy to forget to make the connections because they seem so obvious to whoever lived that particular life. I was cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t simply telling my story, I was telling a story based on things that happened to me. My life was the evidence–I still had to make the case.

When delivered it, I put my written notes aside, and followed the outline I had practiced over and over during the month I had to prepare. This is not a useful strategy for everyone. First, not everyone is used to speaking in public, and a strong written text can be an enormous support. Second, one needs to practice a speech to be delivered extemporaneously: the odds of ramble increase exponentially without a firmly rehearsed structure. The advantage was that I could listen to the hundred or so people who were listening to me while I delivered the sermon. I knew what I had to say; I didn’t know how people would hear it. I was able to tinker as I spoke to fit the way people were listening.

Did I end up leaving things out? Sure, I always over-prepare. Was it perfect? No, but what is? Did I get to my conclusion? I think so. It felt done. And now on to the next story.