All my favorite people are broken

I signed up for the Glen Workshop about a month before my dad died. If I’d known that my dad was about to die, I’m pretty sure I would not have signed up. But I did, and I had talked my friend Jen into signing up, too, so I didn’t feel like I could back out.

Thank God.

I have been hearing about the Glen for years, mostly from my friend Denise, who has participated many times, first as an MFA student, and since graduating, to continue to hone her craft. I never really considered it, because I remembered the vulnerable feeling of workshopping my writing in an undergrad fiction writing class. I don’t much like that feeling of vulnerability.

So, what compelled me to register for Glen West 2014?

  1. A pre-end-of-2013 price break I found out about from an email newsletter sent by Image Journal.
  2. The opportunity to participate in a workshop led by Susan E. Isaacs, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Angry Conversations with God.
  3. A chance to breathe the same air as and enjoy a performance by Over the Rhinethe source of my blog title.
  4. Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And did I mention that I invited my writing friend Jen to come too, and against all odds i.e. two small children and a working husbandshe said “yes”?

I sent in my nonrefundable deposit before Thanksgiving.

Two days after Christmas, my father died of complications from surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

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During the eight months between Dad’s death and my departure for Santa Fe, I often wondered if taking this trip made any sense at all. As I grieved for my father and served as executrix of his estate, I also faced a need to attend to my own financial needs; I am responsible to raise a good bit of my salary, and my single most generous donor is now gone.

Could I afford to go? Could I afford not to?

I also knew I had to submit a work in progress to present at this workshop on “spiritual writing” (or creative nonfiction). I suspected I might find the experience emotionally challenging. Which means I took one obvious essay topic off the table immediately: no writing about my dad—or about my mom, who died nearly eight years ago. My newly orphaned state felt too new to be articulated and dissected. Plus, I would cry.

And so as the time crept closer and I still hadn’t started to write anything fresh and new, I revisited an essay I wrote 10 years ago, about a trip to New York City with two dear friends. Entitled “Being Known,” I suspected it had the potential to elicit the emotions I was trying to resist. But at least it wasn’t about the kind of loss I’ve experienced recently.

The bottom line? I went, I read, I wrote, I cried. I learned. I grew.

I shared a part of my story, and these new friends and fellow writers received it with grace and encouraged me with concrete suggestions of how I might tell it more effectively. I received the gift of their stories, and we all recognized the truth of what it means to be alive on this beautiful, terrifying, messy planet.

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As Over the Rhine sang on Saturday in the closing evening concert, all my favorite people are broken.* I knew then that this was the theme of my week at The Glen.

Perhaps it’s the theme of my life.

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Some prayers are better left unspoken
I just want to hold you and let the rest go

All my friends are part saint and part sinner
We lean on each other, try to rise above
We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners
We are all late bloomers when it comes to love

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward
You can stay right here, you don’t have to go

Is each wound you’ve received just a burdensome gift
It gets so hard to lift yourself up off the ground
But the poet says we must praise a mutilated world
We’re all working the graveyard shift
You might as well sing along

Cause all my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
As for your tender heart, this world’s going to rip it wide open,
It aint gonna be pretty, but you’re not alone

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, you’re welcome
Yeah, you’re safe right here, you don’t have to go

Cause all my favorite people are broken
Believe me, I should know
Some prayers are better left unspoken
I just want to hold you and let the rest go

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*If you’re interested, I found Linford Detweiler’s notes on the process of writing this song

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Snapshots from The Glen

For years, I’ve been hearing gushing, amazing, inspiring testimonials about Image journal’s annual Glen Workshop. My friend Denise has participated as a part of the Seattle Pacific University low-residency MFA program, and has continued to do so since graduating in 2009. I have lost count of the number of times she has encouraged me to come and participate. To be honest, I didn’t think I ever would.

But here I am!

Glen East takes place in June at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Glen West takes place in August at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Glen East would be the more geographically accessible destination for this Pittsburgh native. But Glen West is where I find myself this week, experiencing the high desert beauty of New Mexico (a place I’ve never visited before now), in a community of open-hearted artists. Poets and painters, novelists and musicians, photographers and essayists, all gathered to explore the intersection of faith and art and their own giftedness in those areas of creative expression.

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angry-conversationsI am one of 14 participants in the “spiritual writing” workshop, which many of us agree would be more aptly titled “creative nonfiction,” since all of the writers here are doing “spiritual writing.” We have been shepherded through this experience by Susan E. Isaacs, actress, comedienne, and author of one of my favorite spiritual memoirs, entitled Angry Conversations with God. She is performing her one-woman show of the same name tonight after dinner.

It has been a humbling, encouraging, scary, rewarding journey. We all read each other’s work before showing up to our first class Monday morning, and given the personal nature of our essays, it’s safe to say we knew more about one another than one would expect to know on a first meeting.

With her screen-writing background and experience as a memoirist, Susan has guided us through to helpful exercises, including mapping our stories (and our lives) with Post-Its.

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Throughout the week, we have each had an opportunity to read our work aloud in class and to receive feedback. Given the vulnerable exercise of not only laying our writing out for critique, but the stories (often poignant and sometimes painful) of our very lives, it’s been a blessing to feel cared for and encouraged by this diverse group of people, even while receiving constructive critique and suggestions to make the work better.

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Today, the final readers read, and we celebrated afterwards by dancing around the room to “Love Train.”

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Tomorrow morning is our final session together, and tomorrow evening, Over the Rhine performs a closing night concert. I’m not sure what could be more amazing than that.

Sunday, my friend Jen and I head south to Albuquerque to prepare for our journey home to Pittsburgh. I will be processing for quite a while the gift of this week. Not only has my own writing (and desire to write) been rekindled, but I have been given the gift of the stories of these people, most of whom I did not know a week ago at this time. It is a valuable gift indeed.

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The one who has God lacks nothing

I was at a support-raising seminar with our new CCO campus ministry staff last week. I am putting more effort into my own ongoing support raising, now that my #1 benefactor—my dad—is gone.

During one portion of the two-day workshop, we were each asked to share Scripture passages that help inform our view of doing this counter-cultural thing: raising the money to provide our salary. It can be anxiety-inducing, to say the least, so I felt led to share from Matthew 6:25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

And then I shared a prayer from Saint Teresa of Ávila.

During my first year of doing campus ministry at Gannon University, this born-and-raised Presbyterian spent almost every Tuesday evening sitting cross-legged on the floor of the freshman women’s residence hall, learning the Roman Catholic mass from the dorm chaplain, Father Susa. It was 1989, and this weekly gathering was retro even at that time; “Mass and Rap” was a throw-back to the 1960s, before Hip-Hop was a thing and when “to rap” meant nothing more than sitting around and talking.

Fr. Susa had a rotation of prayers that served as benedictions, but this prayer of St. Teresa is the one that has stuck with me through the decades:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing frighten thee.
Everything is changing,
God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
The one who has God lacks nothing.
God alone fills all our needs.

When I shared it in the context of this support-raising training, I naturally got a little choked up. Because that’s how I roll.

A few days later, the new staff came to visit CCO HQ here in Pittsburgh, and one of them asked if I could write the prayer down for her. Yesterday, I got a thank you note in the mail:

“Thanks for the prayer you shared in class and printed off for me. I taped it in my journal, as it has given me words…to fill in the moments when I’m feeling desperate but unable to pray because words have felt trite or I quickly twist them to complain in unbelief.”

I was moved that she took the time to thank me, and I was awestruck at the ongoing movement of the Spirit, a ripple effect through the decades—through the centuries! (Teresa of Ávila was born in Spain in 1515.) If I can judge the age of most of our newest staff, Erin was likely little more than a toddler when I first heard Fr. Susa recite that prayer in the lounge of Finnegan Hall.

As one of the college students who sat next to me during many a Mass and Rap puts it now, “That prayer got me through unemployment and cancer. It really is a one size fits all!”

The one who has God lacks nothing.
God alone fills all our needs.

Amen.

TeresaAvila

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Sunday on the couch with Charlotte

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This is how I spent my Sunday afternoon: on my living room couch, snuggled under an afghan crocheted for me three decades ago by my Aunt Kushie, with a purring, sleeping cat named Charlotte draped over my feet.

Today marked my second Sunday back at church since Dad’s funeral, and thankfully, there were fewer tears this morning than there were last week. I know that tears are cleansing, that it’s healthy to let them flow, that there will be many more during this season of grieving. But I have to tell you, it was a relief to be able to worship with (relatively) dry eyes this morning. I was grateful to be able to sing without choking up at the end of every stanza.

I have been back to work for close to two weeks now, gearing up for one of our busiest seasons as we prepare for Jubilee 2014. I am learning what is involved in being the executrix (for the uninitiated, that’s female for “executor”) of a last will and testament. I am grateful for my brothers, for the mutual support and the lack of drama as we negotiate unfamiliar territory together.

If nothing else, my relaxing Sabbath day afternoon on the couch with Charlotte is evidence to me of the power of prayer.

Technically, I am an orphan at age 47. But I don’t feel like I am, and it’s not just because of my age. I deeply feel the love and support of my immediate and extended family, of amazing co-workers, and of an authentic and loving church congregation. And I feel comforted by friends and acquaintances and former colleagues of my dad—those I’ve known all my life and those I’ve still not met.

I know that all of this is a reflection of the love of my Fathers—both of them, my earthly one and my heavenly one.

I know more tears will come during this season of grief. And I know that more such seasons await me down the road. I also know that I will be granted peaceful afternoons like the one I experienced today. I know that I can rest in the love and grace and provision of the One who created, sustains, and redeems all things—and that death and grief will not have the final word.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” —Revelation 21:3-4

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Letting Dad go

This is a slightly edited version of the email message I sent to family and friends this morning, sharing difficult news.

Some of you have already heard, but I know this will be a surprise for many of you. I am sad to report that my dad passed away last evening, Friday, December 27, around 8:15 p.m., about two hours after Vern arrived at the hospital.

His condition had deteriorated since the aspiration of his feeding tube on Christmas Eve. Given conversations with him before the surgery and how he was able to communicate after, especially the last couple of days (in hand gestures and in writing), our decision to let him go was unambiguous and unanimous. He was facing the need for a tracheostomy to help him breathe, the prognosis for his kidney function was not good, and if he did recover enough to leave the hospital, he would be facing a long stay in a nursing facility.

Dad was an independent man. Part of his original resistance to having the aneurysm repaired when it was first discovered a couple years ago centered around the post-surgical recovery time. He couldn’t imagine that he’d have to go at least a month without driving.

We were all gathered around his bedside in the ICU—me, my brothers Vern and John, John’s wife, Cindy, and daughter, Katy, Dad’s girlfriend, Rose Marie, Uncle Paul (Dad’s younger brother), Aunt Barb, and my cousins Meredith and Nate. After praying with the hospital chaplain and taking our moments to say goodbye, Dad passed even before the nurses had a chance to begin final preparations. It seemed fitting that he would go out on his own terms.

We are in the process of figuring out the arrangements and will be in touch as soon as they’re finalized.

Thank you all for holding him and us up in prayer. We are sad, but we are at peace that he is at peace.

Love to you all.

Below is a photo of my mom and dad, taken on a Nag’s Head, North Carolina vacation in the late ’70s or early ’80s. (Note Vern’s photo bomb to the left.) 

This is how I like to remember them both—young, healthy, together again. 

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God is with us

A little over a year ago, I was sharing a four-part series of articles about my Dad, chronicling his rise from coal miner’s ninth child to college athlete to NFL rookie to captain of industry.

A week and a day ago, my dad had surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm. While the surgery was successful, the recovery has been slower than we’d hoped. Considering his age and the size of the aneurysm, this isn’t necessarily unusual, but it has taken us by surprise. We’ll be spending Christmas with him in the ICU.

I am grateful for the many family members and friends who are lifting Dad (and the rest of us) up in prayer and offering comfort and support to me and my brothers. And I am hopeful for his recovery, even as it’s hard to watch him suffer right now.

If you are so inclined, please join me in praying for my dad. He’s the handsome guy on the right, pictured here with his equally handsome brothers.

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In the midst of this difficult season, even through my tears, I am grateful to be reminded of the true significance of Christmas—and to realize that even as my own world seems to have shrunk to the size of an ICU cubicle, God is with me—with all of us—all the time. That was the point of him humbling himself to be born into a primitive society, to the humblest of parents, in the humblest of places. And it’s why, 2,000+ years later, we still commemorate that humble birth.

“The incarnation does not mean that God saves us from the pains of this life. It means that God-is-with-us. For the Christian, just as for everyone else, there will be cold, lonely seasons, seasons of sickness, seasons of frustration, and a season within which we will die. Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow into heart of everything that is and, there, find it shimmering with divinity.” —Avery Dulles

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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. ―Matthew 6:33-34

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
―William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5

It’s hard to stay up
It’s been a long, long day
And you got the sandman at your door
But hang on, leave the TV on
And let’s do it anyway
It’s okay, you can always sleep through work tomorrow, okay?
Hey, hey, tomorrow’s just your future yesterday.
―Theme song to the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson

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