Cleaning House

The Recipe

The Recipe

I found it under a pile of papers: an innocuous looking blank page from a hotel notepad. Surely I had saved it for a reason? Turning it over I saw the words, “Cook sweet potato in microwave.” My throat tightened. I remembered searching the kitchen for an odd scrap of unused paper, as Dad started telling me how to make sweet potato pie. The phone call was at least four years ago, but the immediacy of my quick pencil scrawl brought it into the present, along with the realization: no more conversations with Dad. I set the paper back down, and walked out of the room. Finishing cleaning the countertop would have to wait.

It’s not like I needed anything to make cleaning more difficult for me. When I was a child, the main obstacles were finding things I would rather be doing (usually a book to read), or finding things that I was required to do, and hadn’t gotten to yet (usually homework.) As I got older, half-finished craft projects became their own category – things that malignantly chided, “You and your big plans – you never follow through.” But those stumbling blocks were nothing compared to cleaning the house after my father died: Losing him has turned my house into a grief minefield.

If I clean for long enough, it is certain that I will find something that I associate with Dad. And thanks to my extra-feely-ness, loss sticks to everything once it is unearthed. If I keep cleaning past the initial shock of a “Dad find,” other items stimulate pre-emptive grief – reminding me of friends and family members who are not dead, but who I will miss one day when they are. Of course, maybe I will die first, and if I am feeling maudlin enough, this too will be considered: will this object cause my husband or daughter to burst into tears remembering me? Putting away the Christmas tree ornaments this year became a masochistic exercise: “How many losses can one person remember and/or anticipate, before she collapses into a pile of red and green tissue paper?”

I have finally learned to ignore the books and magazines I haven’t read, to breathe steadily even when confronted with forgotten would-be store returns and camp registration forms… I am beginning to talk back to the half-assembled projects, and am learning to figure out what ill-considered purchases need to simply be shared with others who are more likely to use them than I am. But more than three years after his death, I haven’t managed to get past finding something that reminds me of Dad without feeling achingly empty.

I hadn’t anticipated that. It isn’t like I had never lost anyone before: my grandparents, several aunts and uncles. But over time, those losses transformed, leaving only happy memories and gratitude – and sometimes a much needed assurance of forgiveness for myself in the relationship. But Dad’s death was different for me, and it has made me realize how little I really knew about grief. How little I know still.

Empathy, fatigue, and evil


I was listening yesterday to “The State of Things” on WUNC radio. The program was on scientific and historical understandings of empathy. One of the presenters suggested that empathy was actually problematic, because we tend to give more weight to the problems of people we know (because that is who we tend to empathize with), and so bigger problems – like starvation, for instance – are too little addressed because we do not have faces and names to put with the problem.

This seemed to me like a problem of empathic imagination – and a theological problem. Can we truly forget when we hear of war in Syria, for instance, that the thousands of people killed already have families who know them by name, who feel their loss keenly – as keenly as we would feel the loss of a family member?  I suppose most of us can, or this and countless other atrocities would not continue.

As I listened to the program, I began to work out a hypothesis that I have been slowly developing about empathy existing on a spectrum. My idea is that some varieties of depression and anxiety may be rooted in a genius for empathy: if hearing of *any* suffering leads to feeling the pain of the one who suffers, then in a world full of suffering, the deeply empathic individual quickly becomes overwhelmed. Over time, this constant barrage of suffering can lead to classic depression symptoms of withdrawal (what I have sometimes called “retreating to my blanket cave”). In order to survive and function, a person with an overwhelming capacity for empathy must find a way to protect herself – perhaps through selectively ignoring certain information, or through finding safe modes of retreat and escape, or through constructing armor to shield her softest places.

When I was 27, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time, as a chaperone to a group of middle schoolers preparing for confirmation. I was armed and ready. I had shed tears for almost two decades over the horror of the concentration camps: I had been reading about the Holocaust since I was ten, even having taken a class in college entitled The Politics of Genocide. I had celebrated Passover with the son of a Holocaust survivor – he wept through the entire meal. I had cried myself dry over the years.

I was there to support the younger people as they encountered wave after wave of new and distressing information. As for me, I was weary and jaded. The systematic elimination of gays and lesbians, gypsies, and the mentally ill was not new. The torture in the name of scientific experimentation was known and could not be more horrible than it had been before. Standing in a train car and imagining myself packed in with a hundred others, unable to see where we were going, on our way to our deaths, whether immediate or drawn out over years – I had imagined it before. It was the stuff of my dreams. The U.S. complicity in the Holocaust did not surprise me. The pile of shoes only told me what I had already known – that the sheer volume of the loss in no way belied the particularity of the loss of each individual. I began to feel afraid of my capacity for self-protection. Had I become so hard that nothing could touch me? Among a busload full of teenagers and chaperones, I alone had not cried.

And then, in the hallway leading into the vestibule that marked the end of our journey, there was a quote from a survivor. I cannot remember the exact words, but what he said was that for him, God had died in the concentration camp. God was dead. Like a vacuum, the emptiness left behind by God’s exit sucked the air out of my lungs and the marrow out of my bones – I felt hollowed out, an empty suit of armor. I wept. Wept for a loss that was greater than any other loss can be – the loss, for one who believed, of the ground of all his being. The loss of his belief in a love that would not let him go. The loss of his belief in a power greater than death and terror and insanity.

Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And evil is a relentless nothing that stops at nothing to separate us from the love of God. But evil is a lie. And I remain convinced that love wins.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging.  If Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

If Love is Lord…

In these days when we still wait for Love without suffering and Light with no shadows, I sing every chance I get, I hide in my blanket cave when I must, and when I am strong enough I weep, weep in the loneliest caverns of another’s heart.

My Dad – “After the Yellow Ribbon”

My Dad was in the Air National Guard during the Korean War.  He had hoped that he would learn how to fly an airplane – he had grown up as one of the few poor kids in a very wealthy community – the sort of place where even in the late 40s a kid might have their own plane to mess around with.  Dad knew that the only way he would ever learn would be if the military taught him.  But he started to become nearsighted around the time he joined up, so he became a mechanic instead.  Because Korea was starting to ramp up around that time, he was on active duty for about three years.  Several times, his unit was scheduled to head out for the Pacific – but each time, the orders changed at the last minute, and he stayed Stateside.  The planes he worked on went, but he didn’t.  He sounded relieved when he talked about it – not that he didn’t have some harrowing experiences: seeing one airman stab another with an ice pick over a card game, being in a plane that went down in Louisiana and having to hoof it back to base several miles through a swamp at night… but he was openly grateful that his training in hand-to-hand combat had never been put to use.

I remember asking him when I was about nine or ten, “Would you have killed anyone, Dad, if you had gone over there?”  He looked sad, and shook his head, “I don’t know, honey.  I don’t know.”  In later years, I learned that he felt guilt over his involvement as a mechanic – he may not have fired any shots, but he did patch up targeting devices and bomb doors – he was part of the machinery of war, and as such could not pretend to himself that he had not participated in killing.

This is a time of year when I think of my father, and of other veterans.  As a child, I remembered my father’s birthday not in its own right, but as the day after Veteran’s Day.  I remember marching in the Veteran’s day parade through the small town we lived in when I was ten, as part of my Girl Scout troop. I had thought Dad would be excited or proud, but he grumbled that he remembered when it was Armistice Day.  That he was a veteran, and he didn’t want a day.

To round out this picture, I want to be clear that my Dad might have been registered as an independent, but had voted Republican at least since 1980.  He was an annual dues paying member of the NRA (until the “not my president” remark, which struck my military-trained father as treasonous.)  He told me that I was over-reacting when I protested that he and mom should not be popping popcorn and sitting in front of the television “watching the war” in 1991, as if it were just a TV movie.  He respected my own pacifist position, though having lived through McCarthyism, it made him nervous.  He saw war as a necessary evil, and thought it was naive of me to even consider the possibility that violence might not be necessary after all.  I considered pacifism to be a natural outgrowth of all he had taught me.  He hoped it was just a phase, and was always determined that I be careful that my own idealism not get in the way of me being sensitive to those who disagreed, and especially to those who went to war.  After all, he had lived through Vietnam, too.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parent’s church for my father’s birthday.  The pastor talked some about “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw would have it), and asked for all of the veterans of WWII to stand.  In front of me there was a couple, and the wife prodded her sitting husband, “Stand up!  You were there!”  He shook his head.  He didn’t want to be recognized for that, he told her.  But she kept pushing with her words, “You deserve it!”  Finally, maybe just to quiet her, he stood.  There were about 5 other sheepish looking older men standing, too.  Everybody clapped for them, but I didn’t see any of the vets smile at the applause.  They looked sad.  Then they sat down.  I remember thinking that that was quite a thing to put them through.  Sure, we don’t want to jeer at returning soldiers, the way some did after Vietnam.  But it’s not particularly helpful to clap for them either – simply cheering is one way of denying the reality of the losses that veterans experienced “over there.”

WWII was over before my Dad was old enough to fight, but several of my uncles fought – one in Europe, the rest in the Pacific.  One of them had been sent out to shoot a sniper hiding in a tree just outside of the camp. My uncle had been the third sent out after the sniper – the first two soldiers did not make it back.  When my uncle came back home after the war, he woke up in a panic one night, ran down the stairs with a rifle, and shot all the windows out of his brand new car.  I remember Dad telling me this story, and me being surprised never to have heard any of my uncles talk about the war.  “Why would they want to talk about it?” he asked.  He had a sense that, as a child, I was just looking for interesting stories.  And to turn war into a series of exciting and interesting stories is to strip it of all meaning.

This weekend, Milites Christe, a student group at Duke Divinity school, is hosting a conference called “After the Yellow Ribbon.” Their intent is to bring the Church, the academic community, and the military into conversation with one another, in order to better love veterans – in order to see them in all of their complex humanity, to listen to them and to stand with them in their most broken places – to cry out with them, “How long, O Lord?…”

Last year, this weekend took on another association for me, when my father’s body could no longer hold multiple myeloma at bay.  He died three days after his birthday – four days after Veteran’s Day.  He was a complex and often infuriating man, stubborn and full of contradictions.  And we loved one another fiercely.  I am so grateful that he finally felt assured in his last months that there was nothing he had done (nor could have done) that was beyond God’s love and forgiveness for him.  I pray that the conference this weekend might empower others to experience God’s grace for themselves and for all people – and to convey this grace with sensitivity and with power to all they encounter in the future – especially to those who have been wounded in the course of their participation in the military.