Christmas vs. Easter

Christmas comes as the darkness grows. Easter comes after the darkness is complete. At Christmas, we light candles in the blackness. At Easter the worst has happened. The blackness has won.

At Christmas we try to protect ourselves as blackness comes near. We strain to see any flicker of light. We hold a baby and dream of the future. But at Easter we admit our despair. Did the baby even matter? It’s over. There’s nothing left to hope for—The body is already cool.

This isn’t about religion, although people think it is. Think instead of a paddler in the wilderness. He’s a bit lost and he paddles hard. Storms come and go. He finds his way along rivers, portages through thick forest, discovers lake after lake and then gets lost again. He never knows the end. One day, he’s paddling along a rocky shoreline. There’s a point up ahead, but he can’t quite make it out. Working hard, he pulls close enough to see. Finally he can make out that it’s a point, a rocky point. There’s a corner to turn. The wind pushes at the canoe, and he has to paddle hard. His arms ache, but he’s got grit. He keeps going. Finally he makes it around the corner and gasps. Goosebumps ripple down his arms. Awe. Wonder. Mystery. It takes his breath away. This lake is flat and brilliant and easy. He’s never seen such light. And it has no end. It’s easy and it has no end.

Thirty-four years ago on Easter weekend, I was holding a baby. I was trying again. I had a new life after crawling out of the shame of my divorce and the griefs of my baby’s death and my husband’s alcoholism. For me, this laughing, easy-tempered, pretty baby proved rebirth. As mothers do, I had fallen deeply in love with her. She had a fairy-like quality, a magical way of moving softly through the days. My older girl had a sister, a family. And my husband’s surprise and wonder was holy. He loved my older daughter but had never held a baby of his own. When he held this little girl, you could feel his shock and joy at such tenderness. He had never imagined such love.

On that same Easter weekend, my little nephew died from neuroblastoma. None of us will ever forget the sound of my brother’s voice that day. A few days later, when everyone else went to the funeral, I chose to stay home.

What was real to me was Easter. It’s not that I wanted to avoid the pain of my nephew’s death. I had had a baby die. I knew that the light can disappear completely. Darkness sometimes wins.

But even after total defeat, after irreversible destruction, something happens that makes no sense at all.

On that Easter weekend, I held joy in my arms. This wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t about the darkness that might come. This was Easter. This was after the darkness had won—And that was the whole point.

There are times when we have howled until we are empty.  We cannot cry harder or louder or longer—And still it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. Then there is a quiet that comes. It’s a kind of peace, but you can’t call it easy because getting there is the most brutal road in all human experience. Yet finally we come to the silent place, the emptiness. It’s a terrible openness in which everything is possible.

Even though it makes no sense at all, there is something beyond the rocky point. The paddler turns the corner. My nephew let go of this body to open into the wonder.

I am not talking about heaven here. This is about a reality, a dimension, a quality of awareness that underlies everything we think is real life. It’s a veil, a sheer curtain, a wisp of breath right under our noses.

In the winter, a seed has no choice but to lie in the blackness deep under the ice. A caterpillar knits its chrysalis without hope. It has no idea how to make wings.

I can’t out-think this mystery. I have no choice but the next step, even though I have no idea what the next step is. I do not know the deep magic because thoughts and beliefs distract me. I worry, hope and fret. I do not trust what I cannot imagine.

The mystery requires utter blackness. Thinking doesn’t work. We cannot plan or understand. There has to be the release of giving up because that’s when we finally relax.

That’s when the deepest magic, the power, the tenderness can take us over, knowing us better than we know ourselves. It shatters the seed’s shell by trusting the softness of a seedling’s leaves. It tears the chrysalis open by loving the joy colors of wings.

On Easter, we raise our heads from the ground. We look up because we hear something, a wisp of song. We cannot know what it is. We do not understand. It makes no sense. But it is good.


Here’s the best book I have seen on death.

On Life after Death, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. I’ve read it many times and given it to dozens of friends. Kubler Ross was the world-famous psychologist who developed the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her speciality was dying children.  But late in her life, she realized through many experiences that death does not exist. She says, “My real job is… to tell people that death does not exist….You don’t have to do anything but learn to get in touch, in silence, within yourself. Get in touch with your own inner self and learn not to be afraid. One way not to be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose.

Wilderness Love

As Mom came around the corner and saw it, she gasped, stumbled against me and started to cry.  “There are no words,” she said. “No words.” Touching that beauty, knowing it was real made her weep. It was the Taj Mahal. We had pushed our way through Agra’s appalling tourist bazaars, paid rupees for our tickets and stepped around the corner to see this. My eighty-year-old mother’s tears made it a holy moment. 

The wilderness where I live is like the Taj Mahal. It’s so magical, so enchanting that when people here describe a campfire or a misty dawn, they often choke up. When I first moved to the north woods, this surprised me, but now I expect it. People’s eyes change. Their voices get husky. “It’s the place where I see God,” a big man tells me. “It’s my church.”

Ten years after we visited the Taj Mahal, Mom died. Dad had died just a few months before, and she went from diagnosis to death in about 20 days. And then, a few weeks later, my ex-husband’s body was found. For me even meditation and church couldn’t touch the edges of this grief. It seemed hundreds of miles across with no roads through. I couldn’t grasp where the pain started and stopped.

We decided to paddle out into the wilderness. There were long days of paddling on rivers and lakes with only the sky for company. The lakes led one into another, day after day, and we camped on rocky islands with only red squirrels and grey jays to talk to. It felt like the rivers, lakes and trees had no beginning or ending. The trees rose high around us and the water shone. 

The sky never faltered. As I paddled, the sky wrapped itself over me, over all of it. Finally I felt I could almost breathe. It’s not that the deaths were okay. It’s that awe and silence became common for me. Every day the massive presence of shining water and kind trees held me with a power so huge that even a grief as terrible as mine could soak into the earth like rain.

We live next to that wilderness in a house in the woods on a hill. At night, it’s mostly silent. The  lake across the road opens into a million acres of lakes, islands and forest without roads or people. Right now, it’s -26 F here, but every day in the summer, campers paddle by on their way into the silence.

Now, in February when it’s often -20 or -30 F at night, all we hear is one car spinning its wheels on the icy hill. Our neighborhood follows a one-lane dirt road through the woods, and only two other houses have fires going and lights on. Sometimes packs of coyotes wake us, yipping as they run by. Every now and then we hear wolves. But living here we see how wrong the fairy tales are. The wolves melt in and out of the woods like ghosts, avoiding people. To see one trotting down the road feels like a blessing because they vanish like a dream.

Sometimes we hear a logging truck on the highway a mile away. There is no traffic at all. Sirens are so rare that everyone stops talking and looks around because it can only be for a neighbor or for someone lost in the wilderness.

I moved here from a big university town. I needed to rest and leave behind the scandals and the competition. Mostly I needed to see if I could ever have a happy relationship. So I came here with a man to try it out.

Only a few people move here to stay. After all, there’s a massive filter. In the city, people come to get training, degrees and great jobs. The pay is so good that they ignore the traffic and cement. But Ely is a small town far from everything. No one moves here for ambition. People move here to get close to the wilderness—which pays little.

There are locals here who have stayed, but they stay for tradition and family. There used to be mines here that paid well, and there are still a few. But iron mining has changed, and without that security, families struggle.

People here know how to stay warm. They form book groups, go fishing together, ski on the lakes, practice yoga, play music, paint, quilt and write. They meet for breakfasts and dinners. The place is crowded with brilliant, gifted people. Among the people who came here from outside, I know a music therapist who sells canoes, a psychologist who preaches every few weeks and a veteran union organizer who can catch walleyes while he’s sleeping. Among the locals, I know a quiet stay-at-home mom who writes brilliant blogs, a crack mechanic who can resurrect a truck with 200,000 miles on it and a nurse who can sweetly change the mind of the most arrogant doctor.

People here have the time to be friends. My church is small but warm. When I walk in the door, people smile and call my name. The young Presbyterian pastor guides by listening and encouraging. In city churches, there are semi-pro musicians who sing and play. Here we have a few, but mostly in the choir we have the fun of just singing together, joining together. We can’t be ambitious, but we can sing together, week after week, for fun and beauty.

I came to the woods to become. I’ve learned how to trust and how to have fun. Of course I miss the city, especially the thrilling array of people, cultures and food. But maybe I’ve unlearned the worst of my city lessons. There is no race to be won.

The wilderness surrounds us. The silence holds us all.

Mom came here once just before she died, and she loved it. It was right after Dad’s death. She didn’t know yet how sick she was. Mom could always sense enchantment. She often lost herself in the moment. The Taj Mahal made her cry because it holds the same untouchable essence as a thunderstorm.

When she visited that summer, every day she lay for hours on our sun porch. When she came in, her eyes had changed. “Did you sleep, Mom?” I’d ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if I was asleep or awake.” She shook her head in wonder. “The sky here…The trees….There’s just something about these woods.”  

by Jean Gendreau

 

The Christmas Seed

It is dark and getting darker. Under the snow is bitter ice, and under that, brown earth. I remember standing by a grave 45 years ago—my baby boy’s grave. I had been in the hospital about a week, too sick to be there when they buried him. It was February in Wisconsin.

What came to me as I stood in the cemetery was that brown earth does well against the ice. Years later I know without a doubt that it’s true.

Yes, things end. Relationships end, jobs end, lives end. What I thought would work failed, and my mistakes could fill a warehouse.

But mother earth holds her own against the ice. A fallow field can overwhelm every dream of disaster.

Tonight the woods are growing darker, and I rest in the utter silence. I surrender. I give up what I thought I knew. The silence grows.

There is a magic deeper than time, stronger than any word or thought. None of my thoughts work in this quiet—none of my regrets, none of my plans. All I can do is surrender.  The earth’s safety deep under the ice holds me.

It turns out that I am a seed. I never knew it. The woods around me knew, but I didn’t. The leaves fell, the lakes froze. All the flower stalks bent and dropped their seed pods. The bears went to sleep.

I thought I was separate, but I was wrong again. I thought I knew what was happening, but I did not.

The Mystery that sings the darkness is a holy thing. I cannot understand, but I can trust it. There’s no point in planning or analyzing. If I try to grab it, it melts.

My shell softens as I wait. In the darkness, there’s a sense of Advent—not bright lights or trumpets, but the possibility of hope. There’s nothing to be seen yet. This is the longest night, after all.

Just as bulbs lie in the brown earth, I rest. There’s a sigh. Conception. Maybe. It comes out of nowhere, just a tickling touch. Grace. Just a breath.

A leaf falls from a tree into Oneness. A flower drops its seeds, trusting the brown earth.

Water turns to ice, proving Oneness. It knows that even as ice, it is water. It is always part of the whole. The only thing needed is a bit of warm light.

Years ago, as I looked at the grave’s fresh brown dirt, I was still whole—but my brain didn’t know it. I thought I was broken.

Even though the ice covers everything, the seed knows. Conception needs darkness and secrecy. Later there will be a stirring on the surface, but for now, the deep magic requires mystery. Oneness—love—holds me and you and my baby boy forever.

Tonight’s snow falls gently. I light my candle and wait. It’s just a few days now until the longest night. The seed knows that the light will come again.

—by Jean Gendreau


We will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be in Ely, Minnesota, on December 21st, at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.
Starting on January 2nd at 5:30 pm, there will also be a free meditation class,  “Meditation: A Six-Week Journey” offered in Ely MN. All are welcome. To sign up click here.

 

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.