what Han Solo understood

I wrote the following 10 months ago, after we celebrated Judah’s 10th birthday in Memphis while he was at St. Jude. He died just over three weeks ago, and I sometimes forget he is gone. We miss him so. He fought so bravely, and lived so well, and his family surrounded him and loved each other through all of it. We are each learning to carry Judah’s life with us through stories and memories. In these weeks of brokenheartedness I find strange comfort through remembering not just Judah, but also how we all helped each other through. None of us is alone, even when we feel swallowed up by despair. Here is an attempt to capture that idea:

I recently watched A New Hope, the film that introduced my generation to Star Wars. Our family gathered to view it for my nephew’s 10th birthday, projected on a big expansive wall, with bags of popcorn and candy in abundance. It was such a beautiful night, not just because that movie is nearly perfect in the way it threads early friendship, captures the angst of longing to outgrow one’s childhood, describes good and evil, explains the sacrifice necessary for resistance, and demonstrates the way we mechanize the serving class, reducing them to machines even as we delight in their simple mindedness (It really is a fabulous film).

It was also a beautiful night because my nephew has a brain tumor, and we don’t know if he will have another birthday. The pain of carrying this knowledge is excruciating. The weight overwhelms when added to any simple task. It is always present, and always terrible.

It is especially awful in the way it disorients us in relation to time. When a young person you love might not live long, you feel regret and longing for the time before, when you did not know. You feel the present in your bones: the frantic, fleeting, precious present, and you want to grab all of it. The future looms, though. You fear it, hating what it brings. It is easy to forget that you are at war with the future on a hard day though, and you might accidentally long for it to end. Then you’ve betrayed yourself, because you vowed to avoid the future, to never ask it to come. Part of the weight of grief is the way it makes you betray yourself. 

Judah Finn, my nephew, has been in Memphis since July, when his mom and dad arrived with their family for a 2-day appointment. They haven’t driven east since, but are suspended, like time, on the western edge of the state. Judah is being treated at St. Jude, a magical place that celebrates the dance of past, present and future in remarkable ways.

When you enter St. Jude, you are accosted by pictures of bald children. These aren’t fat little babies, but kids of various ages, kids whose hair should be pulled back in a ponytail so a cartwheel can be perfected. Kids who should be experimenting with hair gel and the wondrous spikes it can create. The shock of their sunken eyes and round heads exposed by chemotherapy makes you want to look away. But then you realize each of these faces is a portrait being held by even bigger pictures of adults. The kids smile in the midst of pain, but the adults are beaming. They smile the smile of gratitude. They are survivors, holding pictures of themselves from their pasts. The images of the adults, with long lives behind them, are juxtaposed with the kids they once were, living through a nightmare. Their futures came, with wonder, so their pasts could be gladly left behind, rather than gripped with longing. Suddenly you realize that these pictures don’t mean to accost; they invite you to believe.

 The thing about faith is that it is elusive. It can be hard to find, hard to trust, hard to know. I used to hear people describe how they walked through hard places, carried by their strong faith. Now I am more likely to hear people say the Universe feels really dark right now. People say this not to explore some vague sense of spirituality; they are simply people whose life experiences leave them wondering if they can trust the world as they previously thought it to be. When life is devastating, when it feels as if all the things we once trusted are no longer safe, where do we turn?

As a person of faith, I turn to God, to a Messiah who moved toward hurting people in time and space to redeem them, to bind up their broken hearts and to comfort those who mourned. Still, this turning to God thing can feel foolish, or perhaps insufficient, when the life I experience is wrong. It is wrong for my sister and her husband to cling to the life of their son as a tumor tries to take him away. It is wrong for their family to be suspended in Memphis, for their sense of time to be disorienting. It is wrong for them to want the future to come so Judah’s siblings will remember him. It is wrong for a God who heals and comforts to see God’s people broken and grieving.

And yet, I turn to God and find comfort there, even when I’m angry and not sure I want to believe anymore.

In a remarkable story told by one of his close friends, Jesus tells a man whose child is ill that he must believe, for believing leads to hope and hope leads to love and love sustains us. The broken man, responding, says to the Giver of all life, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” This is a story I cherish, for it captures well my dance with faith. It is everything to me, and it is fickle, not to be trusted.

Still, even in all the pain, faith and hope are what I long for. They are elusive and difficult, but they are also the marrow, the lifeblood that help us survive. St. Jude knows this. This is why they display photos of beaming adult survivors holding pictures of themselves on their worst day. Because sometimes the worst day is the worst…but sometimes it isn’t.

In A New Hope, Han Solo is arrogant: a self-starting egomaniac who depends on no one but himself and his furry, moaning companion, Chewbacca. Solo has no use for the force or for good and evil; he only cares about what benefits him. As Luke faces his most important mission—destroying the Death Star—Solo chooses to save himself, abandoning his friends (temporarily, of course). The loyal friend buried within Solo persists even in the midst of his betrayal, and he wants to comfort Luke, to say something that will help him. Like many of us, Solo’s strategies for avoiding risk and protecting himself fall away when he realizes the people he loves are in danger. He wants to help and to hope. As Luke turns to board his X-wing fighter, Solo calls his name, and then says, with something more like wondering than conviction, “The Force be with you…?” You hear it, right? He says it like a question, as if uttering for the first time: Could this thing be real? Could it help? Do you believe?

I’ve never noticed it before, but earlier this month, as my nephew turned 10 and the whole world felt sad and beautiful and ugly as we battled to live only in the exact moment we embodied, Han Solo seemed to speak for all of us. I looked over at my brother, with whom I share a soul and every important instinct, and saw the tears in his eyes through my own. Our eyes wondered, together, “The Force be with you…?”

I think Solo knows what faith is like…it can be a statement, but sometimes it is a longed-for question, and it is no less powerful for being so. Only a few things remain, but faith, hope and love are among them.

on doubt and breathing

Sometimes the world is too much, and so we try to escape. Even that phrase—that I often overuse, “the world”—is an escape of sorts. We are often bad at naming the thing, the pain or joy, the love or anguish.

I’ll try again.

Sometimes hope feels like the easiest thing in the world. Like running fast and forever on a day when you can. Like a morning with plenty of time. Like a conversation that rings eternal. Sometimes hope is easy. But sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes a band that holds the world together snaps and the shock, the injustice, the wrongness of it is so complete that despair and sadness feel like the only thing there is. A little boy who doesn’t get to grow up. A family with an ache that consumes. A younger brother who might not remember.

It is not a choice not to hope, nor a choice to escape. The wrong just becomes so big that you can no longer access the good. The paths to hope and joy become inaccessible. Sensemaking is out of the question. Perspective, like aging eyes, becomes blurry.

If such horrible things can happen, maybe the ground is not so solid. Maybe all our assumptions and dependables and granted takings are foolish after all. Maybe we should trust nothing.  What is true? Who is sure? What will hold me?

My friend Lori, with a voice like liquid wisdom, reminds me, “Bles-sed are those filled with doubt. Bles-sed are those who doubt.”

 

Breathe.

 

The questions don’t disqualify. And like good hospitality, suddenly I know I’m not alone in wondering how I can ever hope again.

And so, to circle back to our roots: Sometimes the world is too much, and so we can’t access the comforts or hopes or truths that usually restore us. Sometimes the present God feels distant. Sometimes we can’t write a treatise, or lecture beautifully on the nature of things, or gently advise a path ahead. Sometimes we can’t charge into battle, or trust the system, or even name the thing we need from a friend. No, we can’t do any of those things that usually hold the world together for us.

Perhaps though, we can wonder. We can appreciate a flare of beauty. We can create beauty (as resistance). We can accidentally be comforted by a God we feel distant from at the moment.

This feels like, and often accompanies, art. And so today, in the midst of wrestling with my own silence, I’ll offer the poetry of another. (When your own way is blocked, look around and find a companion. Mary Oliver is a great place to start.)

Breathe.

FromThe Ponds”

…Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

 

into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—

that the light is everything—that it is more that the sum

of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

“Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

From “In Blackwater Woods”

…every year

everything

I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
 

“Don’t Hesitate”

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Mary Oliver

Amen.

all is not well: hope and despair in an age of rage

One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.

 If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist.  If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.

Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.

Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.

Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves.  By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.

One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.

 My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.

As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.