Monday, June 13, 2016

This Unity of Ancient Belonging

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the 
   secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and 
   renewal to those who work with you and to those who see
   and receive your work.

- from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue

On a day when so many of us wept in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, I found myself spending hours with two men who have become kindred spirits. On a day when consolation was needed, my soul friends supplied real comfort.

I met Mark five years ago when he became a pastor at the church I serve. I liked him immediately. His humility and humor were refreshing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was in need of healing when he entered my life. I was getting over years of church-inflicted trauma. Of powerful voices dismissing the calling and capabilities of women. Of disappointment and disillusionment amplified by religious-based bigotry.

Mark and Denise
Mark ably weaves grace and love as easily in one-on-one chats as he does in his sermons. Between hearty laughs and meaningful moments of silence, he practices holy listening and authentic presence. Over the years, my friends and I have challenged ourselves to embody such goodness.

Yesterday, amid prayers for those who grieve this latest act of evil, our church bid farewell to our beloved pastor and his dear wife Denise. Mark was recently reassigned, and so they will begin a new chapter apart from us. As the choir sang one last song, Mark and Denise held one another at the altar. My roommate Abigail, a bearer of light and love, came up beside me and rested her delicate hand on my shoulder. We stood in the balcony together, mirroring our friends, and shed tears. We cried over the loss of Mark and Denise. We cried over our slaughtered brothers and sisters. We cried for the hatred that seems all too prevalent.

Later, standing in the empty parking lot, Mark and Denise and I hugged. As we said tearful goodbyes, he reminded me that we were soul friends: one last gift of healing. 

The late Irish poet, John O'Donohue, dedicated an entire book to the concept of soul friends (anam cara in Gaelic). In Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, the philosopher offers:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship... This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”

When dozens of vibrant lives are cut short, when power-thirsty charlatans heap hate and ignorance on top of the initial violence, when our collective hope is once again dashed, our souls need their cherished friends.

Yesterday evening, as the oppressive heat gave way to a light breeze, I enjoyed the presence of my other soul friend, Thomas. My soul must have something of a split personality. Mark is devout; Thomas doubts. Mark is as wholesome as John Denver or Mister Rogers. Thomas is more of a rock star. Both men epitomize the truth behind O'Donohue's words:

"The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit." 
Thomas in his studio - the scene of many of our conversations.
I've never enjoyed looking in the mirror. I'm quick to scrutinize and inflate any perceived flaw. But somehow, in the presence of my soul friends, the mirror doesn't seem quite as harsh. The reflection, whole and still full of imperfections, is softened by overwhelming, genuine love.

With an abundance of grace, Mark points out the inconsistencies in my life. His gentle questions bring me to a place of self candor. I am a better person because of Mark.

And I'm a better person because of Thomas. Though staring down the ugly and hard is difficult, I'd often rather do that than explore the good and beautiful parts of me. Thomas is the one who casts light on what is almost too hard to see. As an artist always ready for the next critique, it's uncomfortable to sit in the brightness.

I was a student when I met Thomas a dozen years ago. I was in the adjacent pottery class, and I would work almost exclusively at the hand building table so I could overhear his art appreciation lectures. The next semester, I registered for his drawing class. My love of visual art, somehow abandoned in my late teens, returned with a new energy. 

Over time, Thomas became a trusted confidant. His search for and appreciation of grace, along with his passionate approach to living, imbue our late night conversations with meaning. We see the best in one another, and we make a point of reminding each other that we both have something worthwhile to give.

It's been less than two days since the news of the Orlando massacre broke. Already, the loudest and most obnoxious voices are heard above those calling for love. In times like these, what are we to do?

I am reminded that there are alternatives to hiding away or despairing of life. Mark is a pastor; Thomas is an artist. Through their vocations, they offer healing and beauty to a world desperate for both. I feel called to minister through acts of compassion and justice. And I feel called to create and teach art. Because of the influence of my soul friends, I am empowered to work for a better world, using the gifts I have. O'Donohue bids in Anam Cara

"may the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work."

Tonight, my friends and family stood shoulder to shoulder with members of our community. Words of mourning and resilience were shared. Candles were lit. A song was sung, and a bell was struck once for each victim of the Orlando shooting. It was a humble affair, quickly arranged on a downtown square. But in that assembly, the first embers of healing, light, and renewal were sparked.

We have work to do. I hope we find soul friends who remind us of our connection to all of humanity, who urge us to truly see ourselves, who bring out the real contour of our spirits, who share the burden and gift of life together. Perhaps then we'll be reminded of our shared work of pursuing peace and seeking justice and choosing love. 

"If you realize how vital to your whole spirit - and being and character and mind and health - friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us… we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential."

May we take time to nourish real, soul-deep friendship. May we seek and be soul friends. May we meditate on what we learn. May we urge one another on in love.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Til I Reach You

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state...

-from "Rivers and Roads" on The Head and the Heart's self-titled album

In this morning's wee hours, my friend Daniel lost his grandmother. I found out right before the bidding prayer during a service that celebrated the Baptism of the Lord. Calling out Daniel's name, I recalled similar prayers of comfort lifted for my own family last January 10.

A year ago today, my dad's family grieved the death of Pop, my 88-year-old grandfather. My parents had been keeping vigil for a long time. On my Aunt April's birthday, Pop breathed his last.

This afternoon, in the midst of chaotic funeral arranging, Daniel and his wife Monica took a little time to attend their young son's first art show. Daniel, proud Papa that he is, texted me an image of a whimsical collage, pointing out that the brightest component - a colorful bird - was created by his son.

I grieve with my friends. Daniel, Monica, and their clan will miss their Granny something fierce. But, as affirmed by an unexpected, happy paper bird, life goes on. Those left facing a new day without their loved one can find that fact almost unbearable at first. Even after a year, I know what it is to occasionally wake with a surprising sense of loss.

Pop and I were always great buddies. I had the good fortune of living close to my grandparents as a baby. And after he was sure I was too sturdy to break when he held me, Pop and I shared a bond that lasted the rest of his life. If I'm being honest, I still believe there's a tie that binds.

Pop and Lindsay on the deck of Pop and Sparky's home.

Pop was a complicated man, born and raised in a hard time. One of my cousins once described him as a "happy-on-the-inside kind of guy." And I suppose that sentiment was fairly accurate. I don't think he ever quite got over the death of his beloved brother in the Korean War. That heartache left him wounded and a bit hard around the edges. Even so, Pop sure was lovable.

In his own little ways, he made us all feel special. There's about a decade gap between the cousins in our family. Amanda, my brother Allyn, and I came first. Pop would make us giggle by randomly popping out his fake teeth. He spent hours regaling us with stories of his and Uncle George's shenanigans in Depression-era West Virginia. When Olivia and Cameron came along, Pop developed a game just for them. Every time he said goodbye to his youngest grandchildren, he would let out a huge sneeze. Dozens of quarters and dimes would magically land on the floor. Their delighted squeals always made his eyes soft.

Not the most demonstrative man outside of those childlike moments, he could seem gruff. But we all knew the truth: Mike Barrick loved his family and friends. He even knew our pals and regularly asked after them. If he met someone once, he remembered them. 

As my brother became a teenager, Pop would 'sell' him something - like an old TV or some forgotten toy - for a dollar bill now and then. When Allyn's best friend AJ would come along to visit, Pop extended the same deal to him. And when AJ died before his 23rd birthday, Pop grieved right alongside us. He knew the pain of a broken heart better than most, and when my dad and I both lost our best friends, Pop's heart broke again with ours.

I'm a keeper of letters and a firm believer in the beauty of handwritten notes. Pop prided himself on having perfect penmanship and a keen ability to choose just the right card for any occasion. I saved the ones he sent over the years: lovely words of sympathy, funny postcards sent from Florida vacations, cheerful cards filled with birthday wishes. In these treasured pieces of paper, I am reminded of his big heart.

My family and friends remember Pop and his love for us in different ways. We think of him when an old Dean Martin song is played. Or when we recreate his famous chocolate chip cookies. Others recall rooting for the Mountaineers with a young, debonair Pop, when dressing up was the fashion on game day. For me, he is inextricably linked to West Virginia and my abiding passion for my home state.

My grandparents' home was always the gathering place for holidays and summer vacations. The happiest moments of my life were spent in north central West Virginia, playing with my cousins and whispering late into the night with my grandmother Sparky or one of my aunts or uncles. We're all scattered from Texas and Indiana to North Carolina and Virginia. And Pop and Sparky's house is now someone else's home. This past Christmas was the first time none of us made the long drive out of state. We didn't exchange gifts around the tree or attend midnight mass or eat gobs of the best Italian food this side of Calabria.

Nothing is as it has been. And I miss the faces of my sweet cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss the faces of our West Virginia neighbors, priests, and old friends. I certainly miss looking my grandparents in the eyes and kissing their cheeks. But, in the newness of life without Pop and Sparky, our hearts are softened. We can share the gift of empathy. We appreciate rambling stories and the gnarled hands of the aged. We don't take for granted opportunities to gather with loved ones.

On this feast day, at my Aunt Mickey's parish, mass was offered for Mike "Pop" Barrick. I give thanks for the life of the man that did so much to shape mine and honor the ways he demonstrated his love for us.