Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Last night, poet Angela Alaimo O'Donnell posted a link to her facebook page to her essay about her mother's body and how important it was to Angela. The essay is posted online here, but a paid subscription is needed to see the whole thing. So if you subscribe to Commonweal, head on over there and take a look at it. It's good stuff.

It made me think of my own recent ruminations about death and the bodies it leaves inanimate. I don't think I'm ready to write a whole essay on this---although it has crossed my mind to do so---but in this season of preparation leading to the feast of the Incarnation, I think it's appropriate to stop and think about our bodies---animate and not.

It's been my custom for several years now, if I am able, to touch the body of someone who has passed away. I did it just recently, at the funeral of a church member, someone I didn't know all that well, but saw nearly every week. I was there to assist at his funeral service, but I paused by the open casket before the service and put my hand on his shoulder.

There have been people I've loved for whom I was not able to do that. I regret it. Their death remains somewhat unreal. It's as if they simply disappeared, moved without telling me where they were going. There is absence, but no confirmation of where they went.

But if I touch them, I can feel they are dead. It is real. The person is real, the death is real. None of it is imagined, none of it is mysterious. The absence makes sense.

I've learned that I'm unusual in this regard. Many people I run into do not want their bodies on view at all, much less touched. It seems many people I know are appalled at the idea of just seeing a body on display---however cleaned up by the funeral home---and would rather everyone were simply cremated. That way, all we'd have to look at is an urn or box of ashes.

I don't know what this says about our relationship to death. Maybe it simply says some neither need nor want to have the kind of physical closure I speak of above. I want to say there's a disconnect between us and the reality of death. I think there is evidence to confirm this idea.

I believe in the resurrection of the body. Even as I type the words, I don't know if I mean that literally or metaphorically, but I believe in the resurrection of the body. An inanimate body, without its spirit/breath, is real, the person is really dead. It's just a stage. I believe in the resurrection of the body.

So when I die, as I will, I hope some people will look at me, inanimate, without breath. I hope they will touch me. I hope they will realize, "This is Neil. He is real. He is really dead."

I hope they will believe in the resurrection of the body, in whatever way it makes sense of them, and that my death will make the hope of the resurrection just as real.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hoping Like a Fist on Your Sternum

It's sort of a joke. I like to play the curmudgeon because, well, I just think it's funny and fun. I've been called Eeyore and have the plush animal someone gave me to prove. My internal self-image, however, is really rather hopeful. Mostly.

2010 has not been kind to me, at least not emotionally. From a significant death early on to the impending loss of a job at the end of the year, with some heartbreak in between, it's fair to say that I earned my Eeyore plush and maybe more.

It all seems rather incongruous, really, when I look back over the year professionally. I've expanded my freelance writing from regional to national. I'm especially proud that I've landed bylines in both The Christian Century and The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, all in one calendar year. I've read both periodicals for years and some people I very much respect have appeared in both. It's kind of a thrill to see my name on the same contents page as Andrew Holleran.

Which all goes to show that accomplishments aren't necessarily the source of all joy. They're the source of some joy, but not all.

Some years ago, an image I used for hope, especially when you're feeling hopeless, is a hand reaching into your chest, grabbing hold of your sternum, and pulling you into the future. It's an image that has come back to me this year. Sometimes, to make it into the future, we need someone to be that forceful with us, that rough. When all you want to do is curl up and stay where you are, in the sad feelings (which do have, I admit, an addictive quality), making it to tomorrow can feel like a violent attack.

And praise be to God for it.

I've never been diagnosed for depression and after reading Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Me, I realized that I'm probably more guilty of the sin of acedia than a victim of depression. They are not mutually exclusive, of course, as Norris notes, but seeing as how I seem to be climbing out of the pit without use of prescription drugs suggests that I'm not depressed in the clinical sense.

So I'm being pulled into the future by a hand that has invaded my chest and grabbed my sternum. It's pulling me forward, out of a past that I can't have anymore, into a future I cannot see. Psalms help. Community helps. The small joys of accomplishment help. But they are all tools supplied by the owner of the hand.

Sometimes hope comes as a rainbow after a flood. Sometimes it's a little less pretty. But hope comes. Thanks be to God.