This Grief is an Arroyo

tr-aroDo you know what an arroyo is? I’m from the American Southeast, so this is something I’ve learned about only recently, over the past few years since I have gotten to travel around New Mexico and Texas. It is a streambed which doesn’t have water in it 100% of the time. So, it is an occasional river. I guess local people know the ebb and flow of these things. I would not know how to predict a flash flood.

I’ve heard a story about east coast tourists who were thrilled to find a comfy, flat spot for their tents when camping out west. In the middle of the night, they heard shouts and people freaking out and managed to get out of their tents to safety right before a huge wall of water would have pushed them down the creek bed, in a knot of pillows, tent & sleeping bags that could have drown them.

A dear friend of mine died last year. I’ve been thinking about her a lot over the past few days. As I search for a metaphor to describe the grief that has reappeared in front of me, I think of an arroyo. It is not a stream or river or an ocean, but it is as an arroyo. I think about her often. I’ve cried a lot. The thoughts in the beginning tended to be the mundane ones about stopping by to see her during the normal errands I did in the area where she worked. Now, I have to follow up those thoughts with a reminder that I cannot see her. The grief is not there 100% of the time. I saw her in person very regularly yet not very often. Often, my thoughts turn to her and I smile and move on. Sometimes, though, the same line of thinking or memories surprises me with a flashflood of tears.

Her family gave me a scarf of hers which I did not wear until this past weekend, where it saved me from an unusually cold February in Los Angeles. When I got home from that trip last night, I went through all my bags and realized I left that scarf somewhere between a 40,000-person conference, a shuttle to the airport and LAX-an impossible task to track it down. I can only comfort myself by remembering that so many things passed through her hands-donations, clothes, furniture, plants, flowers, food, and passed through her station wagons-always on their way to someone else, so I hope that scarf ends up with someone who wants and needs it, too. That’s what I’m telling myself to keep the arroyo dry, otherwise, I’m going to be out of commission for an hour today, crying over the loss of the scarf but really crying over so much loss.


I sent this blog post to my friend, Rev. Amy Vaughan, a North Carolina poet. Within the hour, she wrote this beautiful poem. Please share all of this with anyone you know who may be grieving.  You can read another of her poems here:

Amy Vaughan       February 27, 2017
*With thanks to Julie for the inspiration
That occasional river
Flash floods when 
I least expect it,
But mostly in the mundane tasks
Of daily life,
Like in the ice cream aisle 
At the grocery store,
Looking for the two-fer sale,
Like you would have,
Or when a can of purple plums
Falls hard on my foot from the pantry shelf
As if you’d pushed your favorite down
Just to make me smile.
In Texas and New Mexico, my friend tells me they call
These places of 
Occasional rivers
A dangerous place to be in the middle of the night
In a tent,
When you thought the flat ground 
To be an ideal camping spot,
Until that rushing water 
Appeared and you escaped
But just barely,
From being drowned in a froth of 
Tent poles and sleeping bags.
I think my grief, too,
Is like the arroyo,
The occasional river,
Creeping up on me
Just when I think I am safe,
Like when I am trying to comfort someone else
On their loss, not mine,
And it is me who ends up
Weeping uncontrollably.
These arroyos,
I have learned,
Can also serve to bring
Water to desert animals,
And so I wonder if my
Grief slakes the thirst of a small
Chuckwalla lizard or a 
Clever javelina
Like compassion or
And, too, these
Occasional rivers are sometimes
Used as pathways,
Routes to make the going easier
When the way is dry and smooth.
Can my grief
Take me where I need to go,
If I am careful not to let it 
Drown me when 
The water rushes in?
Occasional river,
Deep arroyo of 
School me, that I can
Drink in all that I can learn
Without drowning 
In the flood.
Amy Vaughan       February 27, 2017
*With thanks to Julie for the inspiration


What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?

St. Francis died in his early 40s. He left behind 5,000 people who looked to him as their leader. His closest companions had been with him since before his conversion. They must have grieved him for the remainder of their lives.

9/11 Scared the Heck out of Us

I teach English as a Second Language.

Well, that’s not actually true.

Yeah, that’s not entirely true. It is not just me. There are several of us who go every week: Raul who is 84 and might just be the Dos Equis “World’s Most Interesting Man” who has been part of English Conversation Hour for 17 years. There’s also my friend Mijin who volunteers alongside us. She’s a professional English teacher in her own country and she recently aced an English competency exam. There’s also Lisa, a housewife from Louisiana who is there most weeks.

I don’t teach it-it is a conversation hour so we sit in a circle and talk about different stuff from week to week. Sometimes one person dominates, sometimes we break up into small groups, sometimes we pair up and sometimes everybody takes a turn to talk.

It is not a second language. Most of the participants grew up speaking one language at home, another language in school and maybe even some additional ones before taking on English. My own grandma grew up speaking only German at home. She didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten. Eventually, everybody hated Germans so she squished the language far down & to this day does not remember a word of it. What about your grandparents? Or theirs? Who hated them when they first got to the U.S. If your ancestors are Catholic, that’s an easy one-I can give you a whole list of everyone who hated ’em.

This past week at English Conversation Hour, I looked around the room and there were people who once lived in Iran, Dominican Republic, Columbia, California and Saudi Arabia. Now, we all find ourselves in Charlotte, NC either by choice or circumstance. I did not choose to live here but my husband’s job has brought us here. I share that in common with several people in the room.  We talked about our upcoming weekends, our families and methods we’ve found useful for taking on new languages (my personal fave is to use the free app DuoLingo. I learned Italian in 8 months last year, inspired by the progress I’ve seen in English learners).

Like a lot of my fellow Americans, certain images come to mind when I hear the word “Iran” or when I see a woman with a hijab (headscarf). Similar images come to mind when I heard the word “Beirut” or hear Arabic spoken. 9/11 scared the heck out of us. I’m going to say that plain and simple. I was a campus minster at the time and so grateful we had daily Mass that day on campus. It was packed. The priest read from the liturgy meant to be read “In times of national crisis.” He cried during it and the floodgates opened with lots of scared people crying our eyes out. I spent the night next door to my house, sleeping in the chapel of the Franciscan and SSJ sisters who lived next to me. I literally showed up with my sleeping bag and pillow, not wanting to sleep alone in my apartment that night.  We’d never thought much about Islam at that point. But, since 9/11 scared all of us, it has been hard to separate 9/11 from Islam and Islam from 9/11-like the red and white components of a candy cane, they seem twinned in our minds.

Also twinned in our minds are images of Muslims and terrorists. The point of terrorism is to terrorize people and their hope is to have ramifications beyond the individual actions that they do. When the fear/terror of terrorism begins to be invoked by our own leaders to terrorize us, the bad guys have won. Their point has been made. Their branding has taken hold and now they sit back and relax while others continually scare us. I’ve read that more people are accidentally killed by toddlers than terrorists in the U.S. in a given year, yet we’re all paranoid now, aren’t we?

Just sitting around a room together in Charlotte, talking about simple things like family and travel and days off, we realize we have more in common than we have differences. We worry about the same categories of stuff, we like good food, music has a place in our lives, we want what is best for our loved ones. If you wonder where immigrants come from, sometimes it is as easy as looking at some recent history of the U.S. being involved in something in their home country. Do you know anyone who emigrated from Vietnam in the 70s, 80s or 90s? Or from Iraq in the 90s or 2000s?  If so, guess what, they were most likely “on our side” during whatever was going on over there at the time. That’s why they have the preferential status of refugee.

I’m taking a basic filmmaking class at the local community college this semester. Our instructor was teaching us about lenses and filters, f stop settings, glare and reflections tr-1when he told us that the widest range of skin tone from the lightest to the darkest skin is really just a few shades apart in the grand scheme of the color wheel and its zillions of colors. I’ve seen photos on facebook of Franciscan friends holding a quote from Jesus, “I was a stranger…” I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to sit in a room of adults who all have a common goal of working on a new language together. I’ve also been able to experience being a stranger in many countries over the course of my travels (to 23 countries) where I was one of few Christians or few Catholics (heck, that’s the place I grew up in the NC mountains), few white people, few Americans, few English speakers, etc. I just ask you to remember that once upon a time, your grandparents or great grandparents were reviled. Businesses had signs up to warn Irish or Italians not to bother coming in. I’m going to continue going back to spend an hour a week with English conversation hour and I hope people continue to come, from all over the world to sit in a circle and talk about simple things. Sometimes we have little pot lucks and get to sample chocolate from Italy or a casserole from Columbia. Although I may have been inundated with negativity associated with the word “Iran” or with negativity about a woman who wears a headscarf, when I actually sit next to someone from Iran or someone with that head covering, we talk and listen, remembering that just like, in the grand scheme of the colorwheel, where our skin tones are not that different, neither are the things we hold dear: our husbands, our families, their well-being, our friendships and even stuff like whether the app called Mango really is better than the one called DuoLingo when it comes to learning another language. (I recommend DuoLing0.)

God bless America.

The Death(s) of Friendship(s)

Of all the little pieces of paper and bits of data and shreds of parchment in the world, we only know of 2 which Francis of Assisi himself wrote on. One of them was kept for decades by his friend, Leo. On one side is a beautiful writing known as the “Praises of God” with its benedizionelitany of names for God (my favorite is “You are all our riches unto sufficiency.”) The other side is the one Leo thought was most precious. He folded this parchment three ways until it was a tiny rectangle that would fit presumably in a pocket of his crusty old habit. I imagine he opened it up once in a while to re-read it in the many long years after his friend Francis died. Have you ever had such a precious note or letter? These days, I guess it might be a snapchat or text that we hold dear as a friend expresses her care for us. Although most who would study this parchment care more about the poetry, Leo preserved the little note meant for him. You can tell this because of the way he folded the parchment, careful to keep the more precious side on the inside. Right before he turned it over for safekeeping, probably at the end of his life, probably to the order of cloistered women who also knew and followed Francis, he took red ink and described what this was.

Recently, I was reading something by someone smarter than I am as he lamented that people no longer see friendship as something worthy of philosophizing about. In fact, I can’t even think of any songs which celebrate friendship. They’re usually about love or hate of one person who either now or then was an object of desire.  I use Facebook as much as anyone and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t all just kind of sharing little press releases all the time, unawares of who is actually reading them. I overheard a conversation at the gym this morning. The friends had not seen each other in a long time but were able to reference the things they’d seen on Facebook. It made for a funny discussion since they had information about the other person’s recent doings without necessarily having firsthand experience with them or without the other person knowing they knew about what they’d been up to. The conversation seemed stilted and, sadly, unnecessary.

Here’s a quote I’ve remembered since high school: “Affection can withstand very severe storms of vigor, but not a long polar frost of indifference” (by Sir Walter Scott).  A strange thing happened to me in 2015. On the same day, I was to drive a couple of hours from where I live to have lunch with one friend and coffee with another friend. As it turns out, the time before that was the last time I’d get to see either one of them. One friend had an accident that week and went into a hospital, then another and another. She passed away in February. I wrote about losing her on this blog. I grieve her still. I just finished creating a documentary about women who serve the poor (called “Energy of Nuns”) and dedicated it to her, “To Madeline, who also loved and served the poor.” This woman was so giving and kind. Even in death, she has allowed her body to be part of the training for medical school students so they can learn from her how to heal others. I still cry for her and I just cannot believe she is gone. If you want me to tell you more about her, email me. She was remarkable and influential and I think, has helped to set me on a path toward really telling the stories of those who serve the poor in order to motivate others to do the same. She is very alive to me in my memory and has influenced my worldview so much over the years that I have to credit her for a lot. She really helped me integrate my intense experience of living in a Hartford ghetto for a year while working at a homeless shelter into serving at a college and a university as a campus minister in Winston-Salem.

On that same day in 2015, I was supposed to have coffee with another friend. We had been in touch a few days before through texting and Facebook so everything seemed on track to get together as planned. Well, I was told the night before that she did not wish to see me because I had said something a month before which really upset her. She told me to “take care” and subsequently did not respond to my attempts to reach out. I scoured my memory, trying to recall what it was that was so awful that a friend of 15 years could not stand the sight of me after it. Almost a year later, I am still scratching my head and wondering what combination of words I managed to string together (unawares) that dealt a death blow to our relationship. I still don’t know. I am cautious now as I speak with friends, afraid at any moment that I will alienate them as quickly. I had no idea I had the power to destroy something so precious in such a simple way. It is terribly humbling and frightening. I grieve that loss as well, though it too seems unreal.

My husband’s job has brought us to many different places over the years and I’ve had to start anew with making friendships. A kind woman who had been a regular at the local YMCA for decades became a friend to me as we’d see each other every morning at 7:15am. In another town, one thing led to another and I became the unofficial assistant volunteer youth group leader (in Reidsville, NC) and met a wonderful woman who I’m going to text right now and tell her I want to see her (excuse me a moment).Okay, I’m back. I don’t want a few months of absence to be confused for a “long polar frost of indifference.” In another town, my friends were all retirees, in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. I share the story that I had my first jello shot that year with a woman who was 88 (and it wasn’t her first!). God has been good to me and given me lots of wonderful women who have given me advice, encouragement and companionship when I’ve needed it most. Naturally, other friendships have come and gone over these years. I’m comforted by the thought that some were just for a season and that it is natural that there is such an ebb and flow. In our country, we move so dang much and we live over such a vast area (one of my bridesmaids is a 40 hour (!) drive away from me) that friendships have to be elastic and able to adapt to changes. Another good friend and her brood of countless kids will be moving back “up nawth” as we say down here. It makes sense logistically since that is where her husband’s job is but it doesn’t make sense to my heart yet. I’m supportive of her and I will do what I can to assist and encourage her because it must be done but man, I think there’s another round of grieving about to hit me again.

A few years ago, I was with some people from high school. One person spend the whole time examining the nature of what she had always thought was a friendship. Reading other meanings into it now, 20 years later, she wanted to approach the person and explore “what was really going on.” This seemed fruitless and even dangerous since both are married now and I’m glad I was able to talk her out of broaching that topic. Sometimes a friendship is just a friendship. Except I don’t mean that. I don’t mean “just” a friendship. I don’t remember where the heck I read it (sorry) but I read recently that friendships are holistic and demand something from us socially, physically, mentally and more. I love when a friend trusts me to water plants while she is out of town. I love to write another friend’s relative who is in prison because I know it brings her some comfort as well. I love to  meet up, if just for a cup of coffee or a quick bite to eat with a friend. Yesterday, I even got to spend an entire day with a woman I’ve known for over 20 years, since we swam together in high school. I thank God for these moments. There’s a line from “Stand by Me” at the end where the narrator laments about the death of a childhood friend that “Although I haven’t seen him in more than ten years I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve… does anybody?” Yeah, I think we can. I think we have to work harder at it. Even though today is officially “Social Media Day,” I think we have to work IRL (In Real Life) to support and encourage our friends. I don’t think I’m finished making friends yet. Heck, last year I made friends with a lovely woman who is an Au Pair, here from another country for a year. We have great conversations and as a matter of fact, we’re having lunch tomorrow after my ESL class. Want to join us? You’re invited, friend.

Waiting for Test Results (and Marshmallows)

You know that feeling of waiting for something?  Think about when you or a loved one was waiting to find out how someone did on an SAT, a blood test or the Bar Exam. It can be awful, can’t it?  In that strange time span of hours, weeks or months, you wonder what has happened. The funny thing is that the facts and reality are already there and have been in place for some amount of time. The test is over, finito, done.  It is like celebrating your 50th birthday. Friend, at your 50th birthday party, you’ve already just spent a year working toward being 50!

49 year olds may want to take a short break here while they realize they are already in their 50th year.

In the case of waiting to hear the results of something, what you are waiting for is the information to be interpreted and shared with you. In the case of medical test results, The Funny Business is already at work, networking, getting business cards and making itself known (to your cells, organs, bloodstream or what have you). Or, maybe The Funny Business is chilling and laying or low or maybe has “left the building” altogether. You are among the last to know as the lab techs who tested it, P.A. who interpreted it and nurse who calls you all know these facts before you do. If they get them too close to 4:55pm and traffic can be nuts outside their building, forget about it, you’re not finding out until tomorrow.

Waiting in times like this can be hard, even for people of faith. When we claim to be people of faith, we like to toss about keywords like trust and hope.  We can whip out a ttgreeting card to a troubled friend quicker than you can say “where are the stamps, honey?” We can post memes on Facebook with the cheesiest platitudes that we wouldn’t dare use in real life but there’s a kitten and it sounds positive and our friend (or facebook friend) is hurting so we go for it. The hard part about being a person of faith is when you actually have to live it out and the rubber meets the road. The hardest part of chastity is when you encounter someone and have actually fallen head over heels in love with them. The hardest part of serving the poor is when there’s one right in front of you and she annoys you, makes bad decisions, approaches you the wrong way or is rude to you. These ideas of trust and hope (and everything else we claim to hold dear) have to be real to us in these absolutely real moments of our lives otherwise, we are just poking our sticks in the fire without taking the risk of putting a marshmallow on one. Yeah, most marshmallows come ttout burnt and taste utterly disgusting but if we’re too afraid of how they might come out to risk it, we will just spend the evening fruitlessly poking at coals and yes, maybe accepting a square off the Hershey’s bar and a few squares of Graham crackers but WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? Those cold, timid things (cold squares of chocolate and graham crackerness) are no match for the sugary goodness of a hot, dangerous, messy s’more. Let’s back up here. The point is that real life happens sometimes, even when it seems like we are doing all the right things and living the right way and when these moments hit us, we get to see for ourselves how much we believe in these otherwise transcendent, elusive concepts like faith and trust and hope. If you failed the driver’s test, then what? You’ll schedule another 4 hour day at the DMV to go again. If you find out you failed the Bar Exam, then what? You’ll sell all your law school books on ebay and do what you always wanted to do-go on walkabout for a year ( I’m guessing here). If you fail the blood test, then what? Well, first come the stages of grief, each coupled with a microbrew of your choice, and with the awesome part where you find out what faith, hope and trust mean when its time for you to actually rely on them.

What does this have to do with St. Clare of Assisi?

St. Clare’s big thing is that she insisted on living in a way that meant her monastery did not have the usual failsafe measures in place. She insisted on living out poverty not for its own sake but because it meant relying on God to see them through. Of course, one of the ways God works is by moving the hearts of regular people like you and me to give people like St. Clare and her sisters food, blankets and elbow grease when the roof starts to leak. She didn’t set up a fund with a cool logo, she didn’t accept dowries from those who joined her and she insisted that the monastery have only enough land to grow food for themselves rather than owning lots of land and becoming landladies to the local people who would then farm the land. Her mettle was tested every day and she wanted it that way. Oh, mettle, that’s a cool word. Here are some synonyms: spirit, fortitude, strength of character, moral fiber, steel, determination, resolve, resolution, backbone, grit, true grit, courage, courageousness, bravery, valor, fearlessness, daring and spunk. If you’re afraid of your marshmallow turning out bad and that keeps you from roasting one, you’re missing your spunk, kid. Get it back.