the circle

I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. 

-Martin Luther King

Not long ago, an image flashed into my brain that I just couldn’t shake. I kept coming back to it, wrestling with its implications, wondering if I’d finally found a way to illustrate — to myself, at least — my understanding of love and God, my confusion and dismay at the hateful partitions that divide us, my own imperfect faith and my stumbling movement forward in my efforts to do right. Then today at Mass, the King quote popped up in a visiting pastor’s homily on love, and the image flashed in my mind again, almost cinematic in its scope and detail.

This is it:

We are all in a circle as wide as humanity itself. Imagine a field with tall grass and a shadow of mountains ringing the horizon. Imagine a light breeze with a scent of earth. And imagine, at the center, the wellspring of all love in the universe. Some of us call this center God; some of us call it goodness, or kindness, or the guiding principles of life. The name we give it doesn’t matter. But it’s the same beaming nucleus for us all, the same source and impulse to love that warms us and draws us forward.

We spend our lives walking toward the middle, or we should. To our right and to our left are our loved ones, holding hands as we take each hesitant step. Beyond them are those we know not quite as well, maybe love a little less. Beyond them are those we don’t know but see as equals. Farthest away, on the other side of this colossal circle, are those we might not even recognize as human: We can’t see their faces, after all. We can’t see the light reflected in their features — the warmth in their eyes, the gentleness in their bodies as they lean to help their neighbors. So we judge them. Fear them. Demonize them as the Other.

Only when we walk toward the center of the circle, pulled by love, does the distance between us shrink and we see their faces in the light. The closer we get, the clearer they become, and those faraway masses cease to be strangers. We see the fullness of their humanity and wonder why we failed to see it before, why we thought they were different, why we judged and feared and demonized.

I made a fumbling stab at expressing all of this after church, when I spoke to the visitor who’d delivered the remarks quoting King: the Rev. Daniel Carson of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. I found him, thanked him, told him my story, told him about my image of the circle, told him I’d grown up in an atheistic/agnostic family and converted to Catholicism 30 years ago this spring. Told him, too, that I’d never understood the urge to erect so many walls. We’re all in this together. We’re all following the same light.

Believing in God means believing in love —  but saying we love is one thing. Moving toward it is critical, and not only because we long to be closer to the source; because it brings us closer to each other. Sometimes we lose sight of the love that binds and beckons, and we fail, we fall, we turn away. But as Martin Luther King reminded us — reminds us, still, from his place at the center of the cosmos — we can always turn back.

Because the love is there. It’s real. No matter what we call it, it calls to us at our places in the circle. And we walk.

(Stock image from dreamstime.com)

 

five

This past Monday marked five years since two cops appeared at my door to say that my beautiful, brilliant husband had leapt to his death from a roof near our home. Every year, I try not to dwell on the anniversary of Chris’s suicide. Every year, I fail. chris-in-fedora

At work I hit my deadlines, chit-chatting with colleagues and making my plans for the week, all while carrying the weight of the day inside me. I didn’t want to feel it. Don’t go there, I told myself. I wanted Monday to be normal, the week to be normal, my whole life to be normal.

It isn’t, of course. But whose is? And who doesn’t carry around a pocketful of dates that throb with consequence and pain?

In remembering Chris, I try to focus on the joyous markers and all their many blessings: his birthday, our wedding day, the births of our three children. I try to dwell with gratitude on his life and lingering gifts. I want to remember the light and love in his eyes, the way he laughed and kissed and cracked a grin. The fedoras he used to wear, the bike rides he used to take: I want to remember those, too.

But even when I try hard not to focus on the anniversary of his suicide, it focuses on me.  The 26th of September licks at me like the flickering tongue of a snake.  I think of Chris’s profound sadness, the changes that overtook him in the months before his death and the rupture in the universe — the outrageous, senseless, gaping violation of it –that sucked him away. I think of the long day that followed. An endless day. A day that still feels like yesterday. A day that always will.

And yet a lot has happened in the five years since he died. More life, more love, more loss. I’ve traveled to Ecuador, Edinburgh, Jamaica, Yosemite. Watched one daughter graduate high school, another graduate college. Marveled at a son who turned 16, filled with strength and kindness. Wrote a book about grief. Told a story for “The Moth.” Did a Tedx talk. Buried my second mother and my best friend. Held my baby grandniece — Chris’s baby grandniece, the most perfect creature you’ve ever seen, born to parents who wed on Chris’s birthday. Laughed.

I got laid off from one paper and hired back by another. Started this crazy blog. Took up jazz fiddle. Shoved the piano into the living room (alone). Contemplated getting a tattoo (still contemplating). Adopted two kittens. Made new friends. Turned 49, then 50, then 51, then 52, then 53.

So here I am, a little older and grayer, a little creakier, a little more arthritic in my knees and lower back, but not yet as old or gray or creaky or arthritic as I’ll be tomorrow. In another two years I’ll be 55, Chris’s age when he died. Yet more life will have passed, then more life, then more.

I believe in the eternity of the human soul. I believe in the solidity of human love. I believe that souls are love, and eternity is solid, and no one who spends his life embracing and lifting others is ever truly gone. I’ll see Chris again, of that I’m sure. But not right now. Not right here. My job is to be in this world, going about the business of living with whatever faith and relish I can muster.

So, no, I didn’t want to dwell on the anniversary of his death. But dwell indeed I did, all through Monday and the week that followed, thinking about the permanence of a moment and the transience of a life. Five years are forever. Five years are gone. How strange, that I lived five years without him.

the gifts that live

Today would have been our silver. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and I got hitched at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington, Conn., a pretty stone church that my mother liked to call Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.

Three priests presided. Music was provided by one violinist (my mom), one trumpet player, two organists and a gospel choir. A friend snapped photos. My brother-in-law ferried us in Chris’s old Corolla to the reception, which was held in a church basement down the road that we rented for 60 bucks. The meal was pot luck. I’m not kidding. Pot luck. For entertainment, a buddy of ours played guitar. Stout-hearted friends took control of the kitchen, and washed, and washed, and washed.

I think of that day and wonder how we did it. How we managed to fall in love so wildly, so quickly, with such conviction. Four months after our first date, we got engaged. Again I’m not kidding. Four months. Six months after that, we were married. Who does that? How did we know it would stick?

I think of that day and marvel that Chris and I were ever so young. That so many now gone were still alive: my parents, Chris’s parents, my sister Lucy, my best friend Pam. And Chris! How alive he was. How his heart rumbled inside his chest. The man stood so straight he almost fell backward. He hugged me so hard I almost cracked. He smiled with his mouth, his eyes, his whole sturdy person, rocking on his heels with the rhythm of delight.

I think of that day and swell with gratitude. Chris gave me so much. He gives me so much still, his gifts growing with love long past his death. He gave me our three beautiful children. His dear, kind sisters and brothers, their husbands and wives. My three fine nephews. My new great-niece, an angel born three weeks ago.

Chris gave me my home: Had I not married a reporter for the Times Union, I wouldn’t have moved to Albany. He gave me all of my life here. All of my friends and coworkers. All of my neighbors. He gave me the Adirondacks. Camping. Stewart’s Ice Cream. Downhill skiing, which I would never have tried without him.

He gave me the lingering effects of his green thumb. The apple tree at the front of my house. The gardens, front and back. The spider plants, upstairs and down.FullSizeRender

Most of all, he gave me his love and all its light. That lingers, too. He gave me faith in the long-term bond between two people. He gave me an understanding of love as a deep, enduring and sacramental fact, as a truth forged together but greater than the both of us, as something worth fighting for every minute — because the minutes, if we honored them properly, could amass into decades.

And so they did. Twenty years I had with my good, strong, loving, constant husband, a brilliant man whose giant heart roared with the joy of living. He died, but his gift goes on forever.

that word again

baby fistI’ve been thinking about love in the last few days, itching and twitching with excitement as I awaited the arrival of a new and blessed human into the clan. She finally came, this great niece of mine with her mop of hair and splendid howling maw, and she’s perfect. She’s gorgeous, of course, but that’s not what I mean. I mean she’s perfect in the way that all babies are perfect, as an emblem and ambassador of all that we long for in this life.

She isn’t merely loved. She’s love embodied. I haven’t had a chance to meet her yet and hold her in my arms, but I already love her and know her as love. I already know that she’s a gift, not just to her parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and great uncles and great aunts and cousins, but to the world. To everyone else. To all of us here, groping through the everyday with faith that it will lead us somewhere with light and meaning.

Love is a verb and an abstract noun. But it’s also a substance, a thing made tangible and real by living, touching and giving of one another — a thing that sparks to life in the arms of our beloved and grows with each new embrace. We rock our babies, and they become toddlers. We kiss our toddlers, and they become schoolchildren. We hug our schoolchildren, and they go on to high school, then college, then jobs, then marriage, then children and grandchildren of their own, making yet more love out of yet more love in an endless, fractal branching of fertility and hope.

My own three babies, no longer small, are the proof and stuff of love. So was my late husband, this new little girl’s Great Uncle Chris, who made our children with me. So was my late sister Lucy, whose death prompted us to have kids sooner than we’d planned. So are all we love who leave too soon, who cease to be present in this world but never cease to be real, because love never ceases to be real. How could it?

This is the lesson in every baby: that nothing, nothing, nothing is more real than love. Not time. Not loss and pain. Not life itself. That first holy moment cradling a child lasts forever. It is forever. People call parental love unconditional, but it’s more than love without condition; it’s love without end. All love is. All babies are, this one included. She’s love, and she’s loved. And all is right with the world.