Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"It Ain't Conceit If It's True"

Way back in high school, in the Old North State, where Driver's Ed was (and still is) a required course and paid for through your taxes, I had a teacher who said basically two things that have stuck through all these years. One was, "I'll let you know when I quit rockin'," always said in response to, "All clear," at an intersection following a stop in which too heavy a foot on the brake caused too sudden a stop. Sarcasm, you see, is a tool in almost every teacher's bag. It stuck. Thirty-two years later, I remember Mr. Stikeleather as I patiently wait for my own daughter to master the gentle lessening of pressure on the brake that produces a smooth stop.

The other thing he was fond of saying whenever we young bucks gave him a hard time for his surplus of self-confidence was, simply, "It's not conceit if it's true." That stuck too, and oddly enough, I've had occasion to use it once or twice in my life.

It comes to mind tonight though, in a corollary form.

This is going to be, without a doubt, the most profoundly sad Christmas of my life thus far. (I'll not say "ever," because I know better than to tempt fate in that way.) I've been a little worried about myself lately, and about one of my very closest and dearest friends. I think, though, that Stikeleather's Maxim should serve to put my mind somewhat at rest, and likewise, the minds of my friends. I think that my cigar-chewing, Old Spice-wearing driver's ed teacher would argue that it ain't clinical depression if there's an acute external cause for it. We are entitled to our sadness, that close friend and I, even more thoroughly than our normally abundant self-confidence. She even more than I, on both counts.

I have held this post for days, wondering about the propriety of revelations so personal, both to myself and to, quite probably, the best friend of the opposite gender I am ever likely to know in this lifetime. But I am a great believer in the power of (insert your own word for it here). For some, the word is prayer--they credit the intensity of one person's supplications or the overwhelming volume of many simultaneous pleas with somehow bending the will of the Almighty to give divine attention to a mortal purpose that He might otherwise not have deigned to notice. I choose not to believe His purpose so malleable nor Him so needful of our efforts to direct His attention where most required. I choose, instead, to believe that our own wills and attention have power we are unaware of, and that our lack of awareness lessens that power not one whit. I believe that when many of us are concentrating on a single outcome--as when many people pray (genuinely, with great focus and earnestness) for someone's deliverance from a thing, be it sickness, addiction, or grief--that very real energies are contributed to bringing that outcome about. Call me a flake if you wish, but I will point out that no good Christian, Muslim, or Jew doubts the power of prayer to bring these things about through such efforts. The primary difference between my view of how it works and theirs is that I give both God and Man more credit than those who believe He can be thus bargained with. The result is the same, only the conception of the mechanism differs. I explain all of this because I am going to share what I do for a reason I will explain at the end.

In my case, the sadness to which Stikeleather's Maxim entitles me is grief for the end of a 20-year marriage. Even more than the disintegration of romance that causes my own heart to ache, I grieve the disintegration of stability and concurrent uncertainty about the future that weighs on my children's hearts. Every single thing in this holiday season that should be a source of joy is become a heavy thing instead, bathed in a finality that partakes of every memory back through two decades and shrouds each event or task in a pall far more bitter than sweet. Only one thing lessens that effect: because I knew a year ago that my oldest daughter would be leaving for school this past summer, I was aware even then of a certain finality about most events a full season ago--last time choosing a tree together as a family; last Thanksgiving all at the same table, for years at least. But I did not expect last year's yule to be even the penultimate Christmas morning waking under one roof. That, I expected to fend off a few more years yet, until marriage or engagement drug one or both of my children to some other hearth hung with stockings. But, it was that penultimate thing nonetheless, and that makes this one . . . sad.

But my grief pales, even in my own mind, next to my friend's. In a span of mere months--a span far, far too short--her healthy, active mother was diagnosed with a disease that my friend, the real doctor, knew would end her life. But used to being exceptional in every way, in no small part by virtue of coming from exceptional stock, my friend expected her mother, I know, to enjoy the generous end of that range oncologists give in answer to the inevitable, "How long?" But this time, it wasn't to be.

And because it came suddenly and in stark contrast to what I know she had expected, my friend is lost now, stuck in a place between worlds like Neo at the beginning of the final installment of The Matrix. There is the world that was but is no more. That world included a mother's comforting touch and voice and assurances--things even we nearly-half-century-old folk still need to lean on from time to time. And there is the world that will be, eventually, where my friend embraces her own assumption of that role, and recognizes that in every kind word or deed however small, in every child's injury attended, in every young mother's doubts assuaged, in every fine thing that she does for her husband that makes him aware of and grateful for her love, in every quiet secret, unrecognized as such, passed to her daughter or her sons about what it is to be a woman or a man, in every moment of considerate counsel, gracefully given or received with friends--in all these actions and moments, her mother lives on through her, and will live on through every life she touches. That world and her embracing of it, will be, but it is not now, not yet.

Now is the dark time, the lost time, the time of grief and inward wandering where all the things that she will one day recognize as her mother's continued presence are now the sharp and painful reminders of her too sudden and too new absence. This dark time, this place between worlds is a boundary that must be crossed. Even those who seem to deal with the loss of a beloved parent without passing through this valley eventually come back to it. The danger is in stopping, in looking back with such intensity and regret that one ceases to move forward to that brighter place where the person we loved so much and miss so much becomes, finally, a quality of the light in our smile, an overtone or harmonic in our laughter, and the breeze that rejuvenates our soul in our silences. Sometimes, making it through that valley requires more strength than we think we possess. It's those times when the prayers of all our religious friends and the concentrated attention of all our spiritual ones sustains us.

And that is why I'm sharing all of this here. For my religious friends, this amounts to a prayer request. For my spiritual friends, this is an invitation to focus your meditations on a heart that needs them. For my friends who are neither, this is an invitation to practice a new skill you may not have known you had. And it is not for myself I ask. There are gullies in my path these days, but few that I can't see over the edge of. My friend, though, is journeying through a darker vale with tall, steep sides, and I'm not sure the light at the other end is visible yet. Pray for her. Think of her. Send energy her way.

There was an episode of the original Star Trek titled "Requiem for Methuselah," which ended with Spock easing Kirk's grief through a mind meld and a single word, "Forget." I would not wish forgetfulness on my friend. What I would pray for, visualize, will into existence is not forgetfulness, but a different character of remembrance--one in which joy is the dominant emotion, in which the bitter no longer overwhelms the sweet, but serves as foil to deepen it. One which recognizes that remembering with joy is the greatest honor we can do those we loved and the greatest lesson we can teach to those we love still, for in doing so we school them on how to remember us, because our time will come, and sooner than we think.

Don't hesitate in this holiday season to reach out and touch one another. And I mean that literally. Shake a hand, wrap a friend in a full-bodied bear hug, hold a face in your palm while you tell someone that you love them. Life is short, and the only immortality we can be certain of is woven from the lives we touch.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I have never been so grateful for my friends as I am just now. Thank you all.