peace be with us

Recently I wrote about faith and comfort, denying that the former gave me anything of the latter. Instead, I said, faith prompts surrender to the unknown and unknowable, the unseen and unseeable, forcing us to accept that the God we believe in is up to some business far beyond our ken. Loving the One who made us means being at peace with the notion that not much, or anything, really, is within our understanding or control.

But being at peace: that’s not so easy, either. This morning at Mass I was fretting about something, grinding it to a nub, worrying it harder and harder, getting more and more stuck in the grotty sink trap clogging my psyche. Even sitting next to two of my kids, singing hymns about peace, I couldn’t find any. It just wasn’t there. I hadn’t stopped believing in love or God or the daily miracles of living, but I found it hard to find any rest or stillness in them, even sitting there in church.

But then the Mass inched toward communion, and the liturgy arrived at that moment when the priest turns to the faithful and says: “May the peace of the Lord be always with you.” We all responded, as we have since the translation changed a few years back: “And with your spirit.” Then, as always, he exhorted us to offer one another a sign of peace. And we turned and hugged and shook hands with loved ones and strangers alike. Peace be with you.

The Peace always brings me peace. No matter what hard nub I’m rubbing in which dark recesses, it brings me into the light with its flesh-pressing affirmation of divine and human love. This morning, in that moment, all of my worries lifted. How often this happens to me: I walk into Mass weighted and freighted with the burdens of life, only to feel them lifted at the Peace. And how often I dwell on Peace as a gift we bring to one other. It isn’t some remote, avuncular, fuzzy-bearded God floating on cotton balls who gives us Peace. It isn’t the priest, or the promise of cookies after Mass. It’s us. We grace each other with it. We stick out our fists for the hand-off. I give it to you; you give it to me; hey buddy, take it and pass it on.

I’m certain I wasn’t the only person who struggled this morning and needed a blast of peace. We all do. We all have preoccupations, anxieties, quaking fears, thundering grief. Most of the time we sit there, nursing them quietly behind masks of unruffled contentment (or at least acquiescence). Sometimes, with shrinks and priests and friends and confidantes, we confess them out loud. But even without speaking, even without listening, we can help ease someone’s burden. We can bring peace to another with the simplest gesture, the fewest words. Not can; must. We have that power.

This morning, distributing handshakes and quietude with my fellow Catholics, I realized that my faith does bring me comfort. Sometimes it descends in a snatch of music, a bit of prayer, a dimple of light, a stretch of rainbow or a startling coincidence; because I believe in God, I believe that the still, small voice can bring insight and rest in the darkest times and unlikeliest places. But I also believe that God deputizes us to bring peace to each other. Christian and Muslim, atheist and Jew, we’re all assigned to the same task: to live, do our best, love our deepest, get up when we fall, help others when they do and bring a gift of calm to the people around us. Peace be with you.



bombings aren’t suicides

The horror in Paris has me thinking again about the failures of that word “suicide.” I first wrote about this back in March, when Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz killed himself and 150 other people when he flew a plane into the Alps. I was struck then, and I’m struck now: we need different terminology to describe a mass murder that involves the death of the killer, too.

Whenever I hear of a suicide bombing, I wince. I think: that’s not suicide. That’s not the same sort of action, driven by the same sort of mental state, that caused the deaths of too many loved ones in my life, dear souls who bear no kinship with the murderers in Paris. My husband and sister bore no hate in their hearts for others. They were compassionate, decent and bountifully giving people driven by love, and the pain that caused their suicides was an excess of feeling that could find no outlet short of death. They didn’t mean to extend that pain to others when they died; that wasn’t their intent. They were beyond intent. They were beyond thinking about anything but escape.

What black thoughts felled them had nothing to do with the darkness that infects extremists, who strip themselves of the very human fiber that binds us all. A man or a woman driven by hate who enters a teeming public space and detonates a vest is acting not out of self-loathing, not out of inward pain, but from the loathing of others and the monstrous conviction that outward pain can serve some higher purpose. They blow themselves up not because they feel too much but because they feel too little. They’ve already rid themselves of their humanity. They’ve already annihilated themselves.

And so a suicide bombing isn’t really “suicide” — in Latin, the killing of the self. In such bombings, the human perpetrator is simply collateral damage, a mere ambulatory shell that allows the explosives to reach their intended targets. Call the act for what it is: an auto-detonation, no more than using one’s body as a weapon of mass murder. Suicide has nothing to do with it, because the self has nothing to to do with it. By that point, it’s already dead. Were the self still living, it would stop, cry out in horror and cast the intact vest aside, then fall to the ground and weep with shame.


under the radar

The other night, I was discussing Albany’s status as a bizzy-buzzy up-and-coming tech hub with someone who lives very far away.

It’s funny, I said. There’s a lot going on around here. But most people don’t think of Albany that way.

“Amy,” he replied, “I hate to break it to you, but most people don’t think of Albany at all.”

I laughed. I had to laugh. Those of us who live here are ALWAYS laughing, because there’s nothing else to do, really. Most people don’t think of Albany at all — unless you reside in tobacco-spitting distance somewhere to the south, in which case you make THE worst possible assumptions about the place (It’s boring! It’s backward! It’s corrupt! It’s an armpit with a charter! People wear clogs!). Otherwise, chances are you’re not lying awake at night sighing, Ahh, fair Albany! I long for thee! It’s just not part of your normal fantasy life. This city is so far under the radar, it’s scraping its butt on the sidewalk — and such a nice butt, too. Historic and Dutch!

But you know what? I’m okay with that. I’m okay with the butt-scraping. I like being ignored. True, an eensy part of me perks up at the thought of Albany being tapped as the Next Brooklyn, at least after Troy gets finished with it, or maybe even the Next Austin Not In Texas. Another possibility is becoming the Next Hudson, which was itself ignored by the cognoscenti until all of sudden everyone downstate collectively went: There’s a post-industrial burgh north of Manhattan with cheap real estate and flea markets? Let’s go! Back in the early 1980s, Hudson was SO thoroughly ignored that a train passing through it almost failed to stop long enough to spit me out — because, as the conductor explained, leaning out the door toward my worried mother on the platform, “No one gets off in Hudson.”

I’ll admit I kind of miss those days. The last time I rode through, the station was so clogged with people getting off and on that it held up the train by a good ten minutes. Hudson’s been discovered! Help, somebody! Help! Help!

I’m not sure I want that for Albany. One of the personality quirks I simultaneously love and hate about the region is its inferiority complex, which reflexively pooh-poohs anything fascinating or singular or old or funky that makes it stand out among similarly sized municipalities. I wish there were more pride of place the way there is, say, in New England, where you can’t set foot without instantly absorbing all of its quaintness as though you’ve been shot up with maple syrup by a white clapboard steeple. New Englanders are mighty proud of their New Englishness, and I can say that because I grew up there. But Albanians? Either we don’t know what we have (that charter, for instance, makes it the oldest armpit in the country) or it doesn’t occur to us to brag about it. And if we bragged more, we could be the Next Berkshires, people!

But maybe what I value most in Albany is exactly that non-braggy quality, the taciturn character and lack of pretension that make living here so easy. All the cool goings-on, all the tech stuff and the arts, all the history and the walkability and mountains that ring us with nature, are that much more enjoyable for being low-stress and accessible. For not being discovered or declared hip by outsiders. For not being the Next Brooklyn. I’d love to see the city and the region keep right on evolving, becoming even techier and artsier and prouder of its history, but may it never lose its unassuming, unhurried, utterly un-hip decency. Being the Next Albany is fine enough.

i shred, therefore I am

My first great achievement this past weekend: moving the piano. YES, PEOPLE. I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF. I figured that shit out, friends! True, it wasn’t a concert grand or anything, just a snappy Japanese upright. But it was A PIANO. And I MOVED IT. All the way from the back room of the house into the dining room — through three whole doors! That sound you hear is me patting myself on the back while yelping sadly in pain. My muscles aren’t what they used to be. But still. They managed.shreds

My second great achievement this weekend: shredding the old bills and crap larding up my file cabinets in the aforementioned back room of the house. This I had been avoiding assiduously and, dare I say, passionately in the four years since my husband died.

At first, my logic in avoiding it was: Well, I’ll need those old bills and crap at some point, because Chris just died, and you never know. A year later the logic had morphed to: Well, those old bills and crap can wait, and anyway, Chris just died, and you still never know. Two years later the logic had morphed to: Well, Chris just died, and the old bills and crap are taking up all the room in the file cabinet, but they can wait, and I’ll just put the new bills and crap in crazy stacks and drawers all over the house. Three years later the logic had morphed to: I have no time for this shit, but I’d better buy a shredder, anyway. Finally, four years into it, with the shredder waiting patiently in a box beside the file cabinet, the logic had morphed to: BLOODY HELL! I HAVE NO ROOM LEFT ANYWHERE FOR ALL THE NEW BILLS AND CRAP COMING INTO THE HOUSE! PASS THE SHREDDER!

And so, dear friends, I found myself shredding ALL sorts of nifty-keen utility bills and telephone bills and bank statements and health-insurance receipts and ancient orthodontic reports and flimsy yellow repair records — for cars I no longer own — and similar such ephemera, some of it dating back to the mid-2000s. I shredded and shredded and shredded. I felt like I was cleaning out not just the files but my own psychic space.

And as I did, I found myself in the grip of all sorts of competing emotions: relief that I’d finally gotten around to this onerous, long-delayed task; amazement at the fettuccine-like ribbons of paper amassing in box after box; exhaustion, and a touch of fear, at the thought of ever letting the files get this bad again; sadness at the realization that I was shredding little pieces of my years with Chris, no matter how mundane; hope for the future; and happiness at the room I was making in the files, my house, my life.

With all of these emotions whirring and grinding around (really, they made more noise than the shredder), I began to cry. Just a bit. Not mucus and saline everywhere, just a few easily expunged dribbles. But grief is weird. Even when you know full well that you aren’t over it, that you’ll never be over it, that the whole IDEA of being over it is a total crock, that all you can ever manage is to keep living, keep loving, stay grateful and shred as necessary — even then, it’ll catch you by surprise.

I didn’t know I had it in me to weep over office equipment. But I did know enough to know that pain and hope can co-exist in the same heart at the same time, and that the holy mess of our little human undertakings can lead to a kind of awe. What a shredded tangle I am half the time! And yet I’m still here. That’s not nothing. That, AND I MOVED THE PIANO. ALL BY MYSELF.