Well, just in case you've never known anybody who suffers at the holidays, here I am! Now, this hasn't happened in a long time, so it's kind of new -- or very old, but not recent -- for me. The first few Christmases after my daughter died really sucked; but for a lot of years now, I've been pretty fine, whether I spent holidays alone (I work on religious holidays, so I don't get away much for Christmas), or whether I've had friends or family close by -- I tend to be of pretty good cheer, and make my own party or join others for theirs on the holidays.
But this year has been a little different. Coming back from sabbatical has been hard, I think. Initially, it felt great to be back: I loved being back at church, loved being with the folks at church, loved preaching and celebrating the Eucharist. I loved the sermons I preached, and all was well. Then Advent came, and Christmas, Lessons & Carols, and reading for my book group. It all kind of snuck up on me and whacked me from behind. Suddenly I felt like I was dancing as fast as I could, and still not getting nearly enough done. People were mad at me from every direction because I hadn't attended to their particular project or problem as soon as I got home. My computer went on the blink, so I didn't do as much work at home, either. I'm using my little notebook now, but it's not nearly as easy as the big desktop with a fine, flat-screen monitor. I've also got a lot of documents and pictures on the big computer that I can't access just now. I think I need a new video card in the desktop computer, but I just don't have the time and/or energy to get someone to check it out. Tonight I've locked my keys in the church (left them and other people left), so I can't do some of the evening things I thought I might do over there. I can get them tomorrow morning, but still -- and I'm left feeling really stupid and forgetful, on top of everything else.
Then, with sabbatical letdown and holiday planning and lots of other stuff, right in the middle of it all, Newtown came. I was feeling rotten already, and then there was that great grief, that great yawning darkness coming at me from the eastern edge of the country (Connecticut, where I went to seminary). There are the faces of those little angel children -- too young to hate (or, as someone else said, also too young to hate adults!). Sometime Friday as I lay crying on my sofa, I was hit with the realization that I know that feeling those parents had -- the phone call, the rush to wherever (I went to the Hospital ER), the interminable, helpless wait for news, and the learning that your child wasn't coming home from school that night, or ever. Oh, it has been nearly 30 years since my daughter died, and it feels like last week just now. And twenty of those babies -- I can't imagine how that town must feel, not to mention those 20 families. It breaks my heart. It breaks everyone's heart, I know -- and it should.
I particularly liked this picture, which I also posted to my facebook page:
I don't know who made this amazing drawing -- so simple, so evocative -- I didn't. Facebook might have that info. All I know is that perhaps the red figure was supposed to be a Sandy Hook parent -- but it feels like me. And I have this communion of saints, living and not living, that I can feel with their hands on my shoulders, and other hands on their shoulders, and on back, and back, and back, clear to God or infinity, or whatever.
This is more black madonna work, in case you were wondering. Being in this darkness when the rest of the world is in light, or just going on with its own business -- that's dark work, shadow work, black madonna work. It's not a scary place for me, and it's pretty familiar, but I can't say I like it much. I've been standing in the light for a long time -- sabbatical, work going well, my big weight loss, everything pretty bright and sunny. Being back in the shadows isn't much fun at all.
Here's a little madonna that consoles me, though. I took her picture at the Louvre in September:
She's a lovely little nursing madonna -- I took lots of pictures of sculptures and paintings like this. They're so human, so homely -- not in the sense of ugly -- but domestic, comforting, cozy, even. This one will lose a child -- but not yet. Still, she knows the dark: that unplanned pregnancy, that long trip to Bethlehem, that cold birthing-place, the mystery of the signs and strangers visiting. She lives with mystery very well -- with great grace.
Several really good things have happened in the last couple of days, however. My good friend and ex-husband Jack has sent me several wonderful links -- one a beautiful panorama of time-lapse photography on a mountain, another a very thoughtful piece about "the end of the world" and some thoughts by Dietrich Bonhoffer. Maybe he'll have the links on his blog, which I've linked here. The pieces themselves, as well as his thoughtfulness, have helped my mood.
I also got an email from a friend who scheduled an Advent Quiet Day about the black madonna in Knoxville for me, and she says people are asking if I have notes or written materials from that presentation, nearly 2 weeks ago. No, I don't. I had jotted a few words down on some index cards, which I forgot to take with me. I did have my figures, photographs which I laminated, and this trusty little notebook computer on which I had selected some photos to show on a bigger screen. I mostly stood around and talked to them about the black madonna and told stories and made associations to real life -- about darkness and waiting and carrying God's dreams for the world, and being pregnant with something that was about to be born, and living in mystery or darkness or grief or illness. It was a wonderful day for me, and hearing that others want to see and read and hear more has inspired me again. The last time I scheduled a time to talk to my parish about the black madonna, after my trip to Italy in 2009, not a single person showed up. At this big church in Knoxville, over 40 women showed up (including a handful from my parish -- I'm very grateful to them). It was so wonderful to know that others are interested in this odd thing that has become a passion for me. I feel inspired to maybe put together a little self-published book or something. That sounds like a fun winter project, once the holidays are past.
Today at the healing service I had a wonderful experience. After I anoint and pray for everyone who comes forward, then my usual practice is kneel at the altar rail myself, and they all lay hands on me and say prayers for my requests. Today I wept -- for Newtown, for myself, for all those that I know are hurting during this happy, shiny season. And I felt the love and compassion that flowed from and through those people -- it lifted me up and made the load feel lighter. I came home and had the energy to finish the service leaflet for Lessons & Carols on Sunday, and even design the cover, which has this woodblock on it:
If you're close to Crossville this Sunday at 4, be sure and come. The choir has been working hard, and it's a beautiful program of Christmas Lessons and Music -- my musician's handbook said Christmas music was OK for 4th Advent, so we're going for it.
So feeling down as I do, I'm a little disappointed to realize that most folks don't really think the world is going to end in 2 days. I guess I'll have to get those service leaflets and sermons done, gifts wrapped and mailed, bills paid after all, and continue to pay my student loans and taxes, too. Oh, well. I was kind of excited about the adventure of it all.
Watch this space. I've got lots more to say.