Monday, January 4, 2010

Being Present to What Is...Even When It's Broken

Yesterday, my blogging friend Elizabeth wrote a beautiful piece that inspired me very much. Elizabeth's blog, a moon, worn as if it had been a shell, is listed on my sidebar; I encourage you to visit her there. She's a Hopeful Parent, a wonderful writer, a humorous and honest woman.

Elizabeth and I have some interesting things in common. One of them is the fact that her daughter, Sophie is the EXACT same age as Katie - same birthday, same year. This gives me a special affection for her.

Recently, there was an exchange on Hopeful Parents, and Elizabeth's recent posting about it was luminously beautiful. In her post, she brought up L'Arche Communities, founded by Jean Vanier. One of their famous staff residents was Henri Nouwen, a gifted Catholic priest and writer. This brought up memories in me of first reading Nouwen's works, and learning of his move, from the heights of academia, to live in a community of mentally and physically disabled people. When I first read about it, I didn't understand the move. I think I understand it better, now.

Moving to a life of service from a life of worldly achievements and grandeur:  whose message does that remind you of? It reminds me of Jesus, talking to the rich young man, telling him to sell his goods, give to the poor, and that in so doing, he would receive treasure in heaven.

The Hopeful Parents discussion apparently had to do with disagreement over the use of the  word "broken," as well as the words "resignation" and "acceptance." I confess here that I didn't read the discussion; I do not feel called to enter into it, though Elizabeth's posting impelled me to reply to her.

Having shared the gift of the Eucharist, the word "broken" does not offend me at all.

"As they were eating, he took a loaf, and after the blessing, he broke it; then he gave it to the disciples, saying, 'Take and eat this, it means my body' (Matt. 26: 26). In other versions, Jesus said, "This is my body, which is given for you" (Luke 22).

Katie and David @ Katie's 11th Birthday dinner, March 2006, Il Fornaio
In the world of childhood cancer, there is a great deal of brokenness to be faced and lived into. Brokenness is everywhere: broken bodies, broken health, broken lives, hopes and dreams, broken paradigms, broken childhood, broken families. Facing our brokenness seems to me to be part of facing our humanness. Broken things are not necessarily consigned to the trash; they can be useful and instructive.

One of our most painful discussions after Katie's surgery centered around the enormous scar that ran the length and width of her abdomen, from the hollow of her throat past her belly button, and from side to side, including scars from surgical drains. Being a very pretty girl of 12, Katie did not like to see any imperfection in her body.

It was painful to see her rejection of this part of her journey, but I understood her feelings. At her age, I think I would have felt the same way. I told her that the scar was a symbol of her survival, and so, it was beautiful, to me. But I could not make her see it that way. The best we could do was to assure her that it would fade. And it did fade somewhat, but it would always have been part of her body.

We are all broken; it's a broken world. I am broken now, in ways I couldn't have imagined, before. It just IS. I don't know what to do about it; I certainly can't "fix" myself, anymore than I could cure cancer, or bring Katie back from the dead. I am simply trying to learn to live with it, with grace, with love. It's not "pretty" - not at all. But when we are aware of our brokenness, perhaps we can let in a bit of light, a bit of help, from beyond ourselves. Perhaps this is the point: humility, freedom, letting go.

All I know is that I learned more, and served more lovingly, in my utter helplessness in the face of Katie's cancer, than in all of my striving and reading and learning up to that point. None of my efforts made me into the person I wanted to be; only showing up in the moment, accompanying my family on our journey into hell, taught me this. And even that was not through any sufficiency of my own; it was precisely because I was not sufficient, not in control, out of answers and solutions, that I could listen and act freely and openly.

All of this makes me think again of the contemplative way of seeing, and being in the world. A recent posting from Richard Rohr:

"What does this moment, this naked now, have to teach me?

"Non-dual thinking is the most accurately descriptive term I can find for contemplation. Not necessarily inspiring, but accurate! It is a different mind, a different way of seeing and hearing which does not divide the field of the moment, but lets the whole moment, as it is, come toward you. It allows each moment to be an epiphany and its own kind of manifestation.

"What happens in contemplative prayer is, now and then, by the grace of God, your field of vision opens up and clears out...

"You don’t take control too quickly by explaining, fixing, controlling, categorizing, or needing to fully understand right now. Your mind is able to simply say, “It is what it is. Let this person or event come toward me and teach me what it needs to teach me, and give me what it needs to give me, and take from me what it needs to take from me.”  - Adapted from Exploring the Naked Now webcast


Elizabeth said...

Karen, I am so glad that you posted this because I toyed with the idea of using your email to me as my post today. Your ability to clarify and articulate the "moiling" of my mind is breathtaking. I, too, read this recent passage of Rohr's and was struck by its relevancy to the discussion in general of broken-ness and acceptance and resignation. What you have learned and what you impart with such grace is literally "life" saving to me and I am very grateful for it. Thank you.

Busy Bee Suz said...

A very deep and thought provoking post. My words...they are never enough to reply to something of this nature. But...I do feel that most of us are 'broken' in some way. It some of us it is more obvious.

unbashedjoy said...

What an insightful post. You are such a strong and graceful woman, Karen. I just love the words you used to describe Katie's scar. "A sign of her survival". Such a beautiful way to look at it.

karen gerstenberger said...

Thank YOU, Elizabeth.

Suz, your thoughts are always valuable to me.

Erica, after Katie's surgery, they couldn't even close the incision completely for nearly 2 weeks. To see your beloved child with her abdomen partly open, only covered by dressings, so vulnerable, is an abomination. The day they closed it was a day of celebration for me. All of the milestones in her recovery meant another chance at life. So it was beautiful, to me.

Karyn said...

This reminds me of a wonderful interview with Pema Chodron that I read in O magazine a couple years ago.

Oprah Talks to Pema Chödrön

Sje talks about how every moment--good and bad--are learning experiences. And why we should stay present even when things are bad.

Have you read her book, When Things Fall Apart?

karen gerstenberger said...

Karyn, yes, I have - I love Pema Chodron and that book! said...

This was wonderful, Karen; it's very hard to see you as broken, in a way -- you seem very whole to me -- precisely because of your willingness to walk into the hard places and take us with you. Your remarks about Katie's scar are a perfect example: it's a gift to be able to see the good in what most would label bad. Thank you.

Karla said...

Well said!

Daisy said...

Beautiful post, ((((Karen)))).

As was mentioned, we are, I absolutely agree, broken and we spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money trying to cover up the fact. At some point, though, when, as you mentioned, we realize that we are completely out of our own resources, we are forced to see past the illusion and then we must choose whether to reach toward God (even with teeth gritted) or not.

"It's not "pretty" - not at all."

I hear you, my friend.

amanda said...

Your stories of Katie always give me a source of strength. She was (in life) and remains (in spirit) a remarkable and beautiful young woman...

The pork recipe is:
1 pork roast, salted and peppered
6 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 red onion sliced
1 cup hard cider
1 cup chicken stock
1 bag of sauerkraut

Dump everything in the crockpot on low and let it go for 8 or more hours. I occasionally would baste the meat with the juices. It was divine. I made homemade applesauce to have with it.

Renee said...

Karen this is amazing. What an amazing post.

Yes we are all broken and can't be fixed. Certainly not the way we were. But we can be broken and live.

Broken does not make us NOT whole though. We are whole, we are just broken too.

I love you dear friend.

This post is a gift.

Love Renee xoxo

Karen said...

I am basically speechless at that post.It's so beautiful, real and true--and deeper than what we'll find in most of our reading. I've read it twice trying to find words to respond. Like the others, I am always struck by your grace and your ability to accept and trust even in the midst of the unacceptable. I don't know if I'll ever have what you have, though I love reading what you say. There is so much reflection in your thoughts. I can't reflect yet...I just react still. Anyway thank you so very much. You always amaze me and inspire me.

MB said...

So many people look at broken as if it is a bad thing. Each human being who walks and lives on this some point in our lives. It's only because we live under some false illusion that if we walk very carefully we will avoid all the land mines of life. Well, we know that not to be so. The coolest thing about brokenness for me is that breaking opens up the shell we build around our hearts to let so much more in and SO much more of our gifts out. The horrible part is that it takes tragedy, illness, death, loss, etc,etc to do the breaking. surely there is an easier way!!!!

Renee said...

Oh God Karen, you know how some things hit you so funny and you are laughing your head off.

That is what just happened with your comment about Wahid and welding.

No it is welding, welding. Working 9 to 5 welding to support the family on an hourly wage.

I love that you thought he was doing some kind of art with it. har har

Love Renee xoxo

deb said...

I knew that I would find brilliance and elegance here.
Coming from the nudge of Elizabeth and Renee.

but I certainly didn't expect this. I am a puddle..
I will read back, to learn more of this journey that you share with incredible grace.
I send deepest sympathy for the loss of your beautiful daughter.
Prayers for continued peace for you and your family.

cristie said...

thank you. xox

NightSwimmer said...

I too have found that broken is broken, that broken is beautiful, that I am broken, that we all are broken, that broken is like the breaking of the bread. I love what you wrote.