Monday, December 27, 2010

A "Voice of God" moment

I have come to believe that God speaks to us all the time, and that people who are looking for affirmation of this will find it. Ron’s suicide was just the sort of bone-rattling chaos that made me seek this affirmation.

Once tuned in to the “divine communication” frequency, however, there’s a trick to its interpretation. Messages with that “special resonance” can sometimes conflict with one another. I experienced this over the recent holidays.

The first time was at a Christmas party for a bunch of insurance salesmen. (I know—yawn.) I went to support my husband, who is new to this field, but I didn’t despair—you just never know when a special gift might be sent your way. And because I was looking for one, I found it: in the form of a man with an open, friendly face, and a sweep of thinning gray hair. He made his way around our table, shaking hands and introducing himself. His name was Peter. Yes, he was an insurance salesman, and networking, so I assumed he’d move past me soon enough (there’s no insurance in my line of work whatsoever).

But what was that interesting accent? Yorkshire, he told me—and the conversation opened.

He asked me what I do. I was immediately drawn to him and hated to lose his favor so early; these guys are all about the money, as the evening’s award litany illustrated.

“I’m a writer.”

“What are you working on?” (I liked him even more for not asking, “Where can I buy your books?”)

I answered, “A memoir.”

“My mother wrote her memoirs when she turned 50,” Peter said, his face animated. “It was the best gift she ever could have given me, and her grandchildren.” He then tapped my arm with his index finger, to make sure that within this crowded room he had my full attention. “If you don’t think your life is worth recording, you aren’t taking your life seriously enough.”

He left me with that thought. Its positive message was enough to get me through several draining days of writing that challenged me to recall, in great detail, the final years of my first husband’s decaying life.

But by the time I finished writing, the day before Christmas Eve, I wasn’t in the best shape. My current self was mourning for my younger version, carrying on in those final days unaware of all she had already sacrificed, unaware of all that was still to come.

I had to call my mother about Christmas and worried that I wouldn’t be able to disguise my emotional fatigue—an actress I’m not. So when she asked me how I was doing, I answered truthfully. “I’m okay.”

“Just okay? What’s the matter?”

“I wrote myself into a bad place today while working on my memoir.” [I realize that in alternate universes, this might be a reason for a woman to place a call to her mother. You know, for comfort.]

Absolutely sure of the truth of her stance, she said, “That’s why you shouldn’t be writing a memoir. Always look forward, never look back.”

These words had resonance because I’ve heard them before. It is the motto of her life; her way of coping with a difficult childhood that came with its own bag of horrors.

Voice of God recap: You should be writing a memoir; you shouldn’t be writing a memoir. Each speaker bringing a message of which they are most sure. One a stranger, one the woman who raised me.

If one of them spoke with the voice of God, how do I tell which one? I have a few thoughts on that, which I’ll share in the next post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Ring of Truth

Weeks of engagement ring shopping later (catch up with this story here), I was trying even my own patience. Dave had asked me to marry him in March, and we were coming up on May. Telling people I’d gotten engaged had been fun, but the “Let me see your ring” part, followed by an embarrassed silence, was getting old. I began to see a “setting event”—or two, or three—in my future.

Luckily, Dave actually dug this about me—my search for meaning, my perseverance, my recently discovered, don’t-settle-for-second-best attitude. Made him feel special. Plus, with his two natural children, two adopted foster children, and a divorce that registered on the Richter scale, he’d been engaged with his own search for meaning. “You’ll find the right ring,” he said. Note the “you’ll”—even he had dropped out of the search.

I finally stopped in to see the local jeweler, from whom my first husband purchased my engagement ring. I’d hoped to avoid the location (reference breaking old patterns, in my last post), but short of daytrips to larger cities, which my schedule would not support, my options were running out. I ordered a ring on spec—a round diamond surrounded by a gold swirl that required a matching band. It was a little different, a little artsy. I convinced myself it would be just fine. Since the first ring had been bought there, the jeweler even offered to give me half of the original purchase price with a trade-in.

But I had settled, and the relief of calling off the search wasn’t enough to keep that knowledge from eating at me.

That night a friend from church, also recently engaged, told me about the place where her fiancĂ© had bought her ring—a location that had somehow ducked beneath my radar. Slapping on a smile to brighten my voice, I told her that I had no need to continue shopping. I already had a ring on order; I was done looking.

“Go to Engle Jewelers,” she said.

Hadn’t she been listening? I said, “I just told you I ordered a ring today.”

“Go to Engle Jewelers,” she repeated. There was a resonance to her tone I couldn't ignore, like Moses channeling God.

When Mr. Engle unlocked the next morning, he found me waiting at his door. I scanned his display—by now, all rings were blurring into variations of the same half-dozen styles. And then I saw it, in the back corner of the case.

I immediately recognized what I’d been looking for all along: a braided band with strands of yellow, rose, and white gold. A symbol of a blended family. I hadn’t seen anything else like it. The matching engagement ring had an oval cut solitaire.

Once I’d found it, everything about the purchase was easy. Mr. Engle offered to let me borrow the wedding band for a week, wear it, and make sure I liked it.

"Really?" I said. "How much money do you want me to put down as collateral?"

"Just take it. I trust you."

I insisted on producing my driver's license for photocopying, just in case I could be held legally culpable for taking advantage of a kind and generous jeweler.

At dinner that night, I showed the ring to Dave, and explained the meaning it held for me. When I asked him if he would wear a matching band, I think his answer held as much emotion as mine did when I said I’d marry him.

Then, another bonus. When we placed our order—not the following week, but the very next day—the jeweler honored the full purchase price of my first engagement ring as a trade-in. This was twice what the jeweler who had made it had offered! When I mentioned this, Mr. Engle assured us that the value of diamonds and gold did not diminish with time. I admit it was hard to part with my three-stone ring; I had loved it so. But there was meaning in that, too.

My ring still reminds me that in order to move on with our lives, we must take the best of the old and keep weaving it in with the new. So when Dave and I did marry, there was one aspect of my first wedding I did not change—my best friend, Ellen, once again served as my only attendant. She has been an unconditionally supportive witness to my flawed yet ongoing search for what is real and true. In church that day, it was she who handed me the colorful threads of gold that I would place on Dave's hand, to match mine and symbolize our union.

When we hear those "important" messages, how do we know their source? I had a few conflicting messages arise recently about the writing of my memoir. More about that in my next post. Until then, Happy New Year! May you take the best of the old and weave it in with the new.

FYI: Regrettably, Mr. Engle retired and closed his wonderful jewelry shop.

How do you know if it's "the right one"?

In recent weeks, television viewers have been inundated with jewelry ads. They have failed to move me. As far as I'm concerned, Jared can keep their chocolate diamonds (too hard to digest), and Kay can keep that idiot who rewards his girlfriend with diamonds for being afraid of thunder (next he'll feed her when she begs for food). And as much as I loved Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, when I look at Jane Seymour's open heart designs, I can't help but see glittering fishhooks.

But I'm picky—ask any of the owners of the jewelry stores within a two-hour driving radius of my home. I visited them all after Dave asked me to marry him almost eleven years ago. Some might say I was as unforgettable as the feel of grit on sandpaper. I didn’t set out to earn a reputation. I’m simply a person who struggles to find meaning, and since there isn’t an occasion more meaningful than a wedding, I struggled a lot. In public.

Perhaps the jewelers would have been more empathetic if I’d told them the whole story—that I’d done this all before, eighteen years ago. That it hadn’t ended so well. That my new beau recognized me as a potential life partner right away because of the newfound honesty with which I expressed my vision for my life—a vision that almost word-for-word echoed thoughts he had written down himself, years before. With that knowledge, certainly anyone could understand my need to find the perfect ring, right? I mean, past childbearing age, why remarry at all unless the union adds meaning to your life?

Since the average length of each store visit was already pushing the one-hour mark, I spared jewelers the narrative and picked my way through dozens of rings that any less demanding woman, they’d quietly inform me, would be thrilled to own. Dating again had offered a similar quandary—it’s hard to find the right one when you have no idea what “the right one” looks like. The ubiquitous answer: you know it when you find it.

I had loved my first engagement ring, a round-cut diamond with two smaller stones on either side, and kept finding myself attracted to similar rings. But wasn’t this why I’d undergone therapy in the first place—to break the habit of seeking out the same old relationships? I forced myself to look at styles to which I’d never before been attracted—marquis and pear cuts, unusual shapes that required a matching band, estate jewelry, different kinds of stones.

While shopping for rings that spring, one exasperated chain store owner told me to come back later—much later, in July—for his setting event, when he would have at least a thousand different settings to choose from. “It’s your only hope,” he’d said, a smirk on his face. But Dave and I had planned a September wedding, and I’d been hoping to feel engaged, complete with ring, for longer than two months.

“If only you could describe the ring to me,” said another jeweler, pulling out a pile of catalogs. If only. I half-heartedly flipped through the pages. These rings looked so...flat. I knew one thing—I wouldn’t find what I wanted on paper.

In fact, I didn't find what I wanted at all until the voice of God spoke to me. More on that in the next post.

Have you ever recognized something as "right" the moment you saw it? I'd love to hear your story.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Light in the midst of darkness

Last night, for the first time, I participated in a longest night service at church—a service for those who need extra emotional support at the holidays due to a loss of one sort or another. It was lovely, and included harp solos and two songs by the Doylestown Comfort Choir, a group of women who will come sing at the bedside of people nearing the end of life's journey. They sounded like angels. When the time comes, if I could have the privilege of crossing the threshold from this world to the next ushered by their voices, I'd choose it.

For last night's service I wrote a prayer. I remember how hard it was to pray in the early weeks and months after Ron's suicide, because I couldn't find the words. If ever in my life there existed a need for prayer this was it, but I didn't know what I was asking for, or from whom. My girlhood prayers had been a bit like lists delivered while sitting on Santa's lap, and now that I was grown, and paralyzed with horror and shock, I didn't even know what I wanted.

Maybe I did: I wanted to feel less profoundly alone. I remember sitting still with my hands upturned, hoping that all those extra sense receptors along my fingertips and palms might literally feel God's presence. And while I didn't feel anything like Santa taking my hand, I did feel a golden presence fill my body. Light coursed through my veins. It was beautiful, wordless prayer and I knew I was not alone.

Now that I have reconnected with my words I hoped to share something of that with those who came to Doylestown Presbyterian Church last night. I share my prayer here for those who might need it. I began with an introduction:

The winter solstice is wedged between a holiday in which we give thanks and a holiday in which we give gifts. But as we gather here on this longest night, many of us recognize that we don’t have a whole lot more to give. I want to assure you that you have found respite from all that giving within this sanctuary tonight. Tonight we are here to receive. Our God is glorious, our God is merciful, and our God can restore us. As we now bow our heads together, I encourage you to place your hands on your lap, palms up, to receive God’s love. Let us pray.

Heavenly father:
We gather before you, on this longest night, in a posture of surrender. Some of us feel used up. Exhausted. Broken, from the burden of loss. We pray for healing, for ourselves and for those we love.

We remember Christmases past, and how easy it was to be thankful for the gifts that came in beautifully wrapped packages—for gifts that smelled like freshly baked bread, that tasted like chocolate ice cream, that sounded like laughter, that felt like sun-warmed sand.

We’d rather not accept the challenge of gifts that arrive in less desirable wrappings—for gifts that smell like fear, that taste like defeat, that sound like trouble, that feel like loss.

Lord, restore our faith that while gifts with such wrappings are not immediately appreciated, or easy to open, you have the power to hide within them gifts of spirit that bring us closer to one another, and closer to you.

So often we have prayed to you, our hands tightly clasped, hoping that if we are grateful enough for the loving gifts in our lives, they will never be torn from our grasp. Tonight, help us to let go enough to accept the greater wisdom of your will.

Let our upturned hands feel your presence in this room. Keep us safe as we grieve our losses fearlessly, that we might honor the love we have known. Help us to leave some of our burden here at your altar, on this longest night, for we can no longer carry it alone. And as the nights grow shorter in the coming weeks, help us, with returning hope, to reach again for the warmth of the rising sun, in faith that all things come and all must go, and that this is as it should be.

We feel closer to you when we recall that your greatest gift—the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ—was ultimately wrapped in torture and sorrow. You too have suffered. Yet still, you loved. Tonight we ask so very much, yet nothing more than what you promised us through the sacrifice of your own son: we ask that you grace our upturned palms with your healing love.

In Jesus' name we pray,

I wish you all meaningful moments of reflection this holiday season, and as much peace and love as you can handle.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What have you done with your gift today?

Every now and then, to slap myself out of complacency, I read stories with headlines like the following, that I pulled today from Google:

Dec. 4, 2010. Virginia man kills estranged wife, self.

Dec. 4, 2010. Ohio man kills estranged wife, self.

Nov. 22, 2010. Georgia man kills wife, self.

Oct. 17, 2010. North Carolina man kills wife, self.

Sept. 27, 2010. South Florida man kills wife, stepkids, self.

Aug. 13, 2010. Chicago man kills wife, self.

July 30, 2010. Hyde Park man kills wife, self.

June 12, 2010. San Francisco Bay area man kills wife, self.

And I remind myself that I'm safe. My kids are safe.

So many headlines testify to the fact that many men who feel my first husband's brand of despair take their families to the grave with them. The corporal in charge of the Special Emergency Response Team operation on the day of his standoff told me as much: once a man loses his appreciation for the sanctity of human life, he becomes a dangerous and unpredictable creature.

They don't send dozens of armed troops to your house or dispatch a helicopter from Harrisburg if you aren't in grave danger.

They don't whisk you from your home one at a time, under armed guard, reconvening the family at a remote command center, if you aren't in harm's way.

They don't make the decision to barricade roads and bar people from their homes and make the local elementary school cancel recess and afternoon bus routes on a whim.

The media doesn't swarm to your remote farm, or slap photographs and maps of it on their front pages with headlines like the above, if they don't think there's a story that impacts the community.

Our reality: The day of the standoff, Ron had ample opportunity to hurt the boys and me. Yet because he chose to kill only himself, I have to believe that he was trying to release us from his private hell and his disastrous choices. That isn’t exactly the way it turned out—the repercussions of his act extended much further into the community and further through time than I suspect he imagined—but he obviously wasn't thinking so well.

Is this an odd post for the holiday season? I don't think so.

I'm alive. My kids are alive.

There's nothing like tragedy to tip you into a posture of gratitude. At this time of year, wedged as we are between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’m thankful for the simple yet extraordinary gift of life. We take birth for granted—who doesn't? What do we know of its circumstances, at the time? But my sons and I were spared—passed over, you might say—at a time when we were aware that it could have gone down another way.

What an opportunity my sons and I were given. And I am driven, every day, to make the most of it.

If you did something special with your gift of life today, please share it!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Where is Ron?

If you've been following this blog you may recall that last week I introduced a fundamentalist Christian friend who had a few firm opinions about my plans to remarry. That wasn't the first time she'd shocked me with her outspokenness.

Soon after Ron’s death, when I was expressing fear for his soul, she told me there was no question at all as to where a suicide victim would end up. He’d gone to hell.

My first thought: It’s amazing how sweet and compassionate people can be when you are grieving. But I quickly moved beyond that.

Why? Because at least she was talking to me about it. Suicide is a difficult topic to broach. People don't want you to cry. They don't like feeling helpless. This friend, on the other hand, walked beside me—literally. We became walking partners, sharing our beliefs and philosophies and good books while traversing the hills of Berks County, beginning at 7 a.m. most mornings.

She was never less than honest. Even I had a question as to the whereabouts of my husband’s soul. Isn’t extinguishing your life a big "f@¢k you" to the Creator who bestowed it?

After much thought I have chosen to believe that God suffered along with Ron, recognized his addiction as illness, and when Ron was too weak to take one more step on this earth, met him at his collapse with arms strong enough to carry him home.

This obviously was not my fundamentalist friend's opinion.


She changed her mind when not a year later her twenty-year-old son died of a heroin overdose (my son Marty referred to the incident in his lyrics for "Know What I Know" at a previous post). Her son's death certificate stopped short of saying “suicide,” but like me, she realized that in terms of deadly weapons potential the difference between the words “needle” and “gun” might be semantics.

She "knew" the truth espoused by her church. But try as she might, she could not envision a God who would condemn her son to hell for his actions. She knew her son was with God, in heaven, and that his pain had been relieved. She felt this in such a way that she knew it, body and soul.

She left her inflexible church for one that believes in the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That message is simple: God loves us all.

Is there life beyond our physical existence? We can’t know, for sure. My friend and I have covered a lot of ground on that one, literally and figuratively. Who ever would have thought we'd have so much in common.

This is what I do know. Heaven and hell exist right here in the physical realm, and that barring certain mental ailments, choosing one or the other is within our power. Ron and I lived on the same farm, one we both loved, yet I lived in increasing peace as he lived in increasing torment.

What about you--do you give much thought to the notions of heaven and hell?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Wedding Guest

As common as it is in our society, remarriage inspires controversy, and I appreciate the comments people have left about it after my last post. On the day of our wedding, Dave and I didn’t pretend for a moment that we stood at that altar free of the baggage that metaphorically surrounded us. It was important to us to be in that moment with as much honesty as we could muster, and that included honoring all of the life experience that brought us there.

So we wrote this poem together. Our friend Trish MacCubbin read it at our wedding in her inimitable breathy, soothing voice:

The Wedding Guest
by Kathryn Williams and Dave Craft

Divorced man
and widowed woman
look back on life’s
unplanned challenges
unwelcome forces
unpredictable events
unstoppable changes
and reflect in gratitude
that God,
whose plan was greater
than their limited vision,
has brought them here today.

This powerful, silent witness
left ample room for soul struggle
cradled them in their fear
patiently received their surrender
and bestowed courage when
quaking hearts
recognized a new life
in each other.

They stand here today
imperfect humans
full of joy
humbly inviting God
to their wedding.

May God live at the heart of this marriage
and create a sacred connection.
May He carry this new family in His hands
and nourish it from the bottomless well of His perfect love.
May this couple never forget that God has
called them here today to fulfill His vision for their lives,
and may they always find peace in His presence.

After the vows we had our children get involved. We placed two bouquets of loose flowers on the front pews on either side of the aisle. As my sons' music teacher sang Steven Curtis Chapman's "Love Will Be Our Home," each of Dave's four children took a turn getting up from their seat, selecting a flower to represent him or her from the bouquet on the groom's side, and placed it in a new vase on the altar; likewise, my sons each took a flower from the bride's side to add.

By the end of the song their combined flowers had created a new arrangement. It stood on the altar, like a gift. It was moving and meaningful and few eyes were dry.

One of my sisters, however, got up and walked out.

She came to the reception later but did not come through the line to greet us. She never lifted her eyes to meet mine nor offered a word of congratulation.

An explanation for this would have to wait until Dave and I got home from the honeymoon, but since I've never been one to tolerate the "elephant in the room" for very long, I asked her about this when I returned the choker and earrings I'd borrowed from her for the wedding. Her perception: that I was trying to erase Ron from the family's memory with the flower ritual.

Metaphor is tricky that way, because everyone brings something different to it.

To her "it had only been three years" since Ron's death. To me it had been "three long, hard years" of therapy, reading, journaling, contemplation about the suicide, and continuing to address its ramifications. I grieved intensely because our survival as a family depended upon it. The life we lived every day was the one Ron no longer inhabited.

My sister's life, which never included Ron on a daily basis, gave her plenty else to think about. She was less motivated to pick up a topic as ugly as the suicide of a family member to study it deeply. So her grieving hadn't progressed at the same pace. I may have been ready to move on, but she was not ready for me to do so.

The ritual worked for the Craft-Williams clan, though. No family life is free of problems, but our new family unit—further symbolized in Dave's and my wedding rings of interwoven yellow, white, and rose gold—has never doubted our loving commitment to one another. We have prospered from it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Till Death Do Us Part"

I’ve thought about the above words a lot since Ron lifted them from our wedding vows and scrawled them, at a dramatic pitch, at the end of his suicide note. That act alone is an attention-getter, but in addition, his suicide note comprised the largest outpouring of feeling I’d ever received from him.

Then he disappeared from this world with a single shotgun blast, spattering the words with drops of his blood.

I still have the note. I do not have him to discuss this with. So I chase his spirit in my writing—Turn around! Talk to me! Hear me!—hoping to milk what meaning I can from his choices and actions.

With his postscript Ron was referring to the fact that despite vowing to love him until death, I had, some eight weeks earlier, begun divorce proceedings. Alcoholism had obliterated what sense of fiscal responsibility he’d had, and since he wouldn’t seek help for he drinking or our marriage or the spending, I needed to protect our children and me from any further harm in this regard.

He chose to pre-empt the divorce on his own terms—he’d wanted to live on the farm together as a family until he died. He did so.

Three years later, I was ready to make that same vow again.

A fundamentalist Christian friend voiced a strong opinion about this: Dave and I were not free to marry. You gotta love a woman who speaks her mind, you know?

According to her beliefs, I was free to marry Dave because my husband had died. Dave was not free to marry me, however, because he had divorced.

I couldn’t play that game. I knew in my heart my marriage to Ron was over and could see, in retrospect, that the difference between divorce or death in my case was only a matter of timing.

It never ceases to amaze me, since we all worship the same Creator, how differently we believers choose to draw boundaries between right and wrong. Luckily, not all Christians are as rigid as my friend. Dave and I found a pastor who believes, as we did, that God will forgive choices that result in no-win situations because God loves us, expects us to grow, and challenges us to bring good things into the world.

So I imagine Ron might be as surprised as my conservative friend to hear that I believe, as Ron did, that what God joined together, I did not have the power to put asunder. I see that as a separate issue from enacting my legal right to extricate myself, to the extent possible, from the consequences of his choices. But I remember the soul connection with the man that I loved, and even beyond his death, Ron will be with me for the rest of my life.

So I was never “free” to marry Dave. Yet I chose him.

And I guess he wanted me, ghosts and all.

More on that, in Dave's and my words, in the next post. What do you think—are we ever truly freed from our choices?