How to Do a Memorial Service (in hindsight)
The widow should not be among the speakers.
I want to hear what you will say.
Do not wear brown, certainly not plaid.
I always loved you in earth tones, my Scottish lassie.
Do not let your kids sit at the back.
They can laugh as well as cry there, with their friends.
Do not mention the troubles you had together.
We did have troubles, and yet we stayed together.
Do not tell the congregation that the probability of death is 100%.
It’s the truth—I accept that now, along with you.
Altar calls at funerals are tacky.
Do not say “no thank you” when they invite you back to church.
I don’t blame you—I only went for the healing prayer.
Do not host a barbecue at your house after the memorial service.
You always did like a party; I don’t mind any more.
We should both enjoy our good company.
Category Archives: Religion & Spirituality
I’m watching my body a lot, a habit of may my age, since ones fifties are, on average, when the changes start to accelerate, or seem to. In reality for most of us it’s gradual, but the sudden realizations of the gradual changes are punctuations in the gradualism. Like, suddenly I have three gray hairs, five inches long–where did they come from? Or, how long have my eyebrow hairs been so coarse, my bunions so pronounced, my eyelids this drooping?
I’m pleased, actually. I feel fit and healthy, strong and wiser, and for some reason have less cellulite now than a decade ago. My hair doesn’t fall out as much as it did a few years ago, and I kind of like the veins in my hands. Also, I’m having a resurgence of interest in, and time for, connecting with friends and making new ones, in going out and having fun, and even dating. Not that I get out much, certainly not on dates. I still feel that’s premature, as I am only five months a widow. But as I admitted to a friend and colleague a few weeks ago, I’ve been interested in dating for years, since before my husband got sick. When times were hard between us, and I wondered what the future would bring, whether our paths would stay aligned, I imagined what it would be like if I became single again. I thought I’d enjoy it very much–I’ve always got on well with men, found them easier, in many ways, less intimidating, more accepting and more open to in my style of communication than women.
Not that I ever cheated on my husband, or flirted, even. It was all in my mind. Nor was he unfaithful even through the hardest times, though he would flirt too, in an innocent way–more like being a good listener and making women feel important and worth conversing with. Once we were very secure in our relationship, after the first few years, I never had a problem with that, though I’d tease him at the way he’d get waitresses, church ladies, salespeople, older and younger women, listening to his every word. We talked about the temptations we began to have later, although I kept my confessions at a theoretical level. I had learned how tender and fearful he could be, how insecure, once by a strange circumstance, which I’ll describe below.
I was extremely careful with my attentions, assuming any man could, if I was not very careful, get the wrong idea. Even married men, even churchgoers, younger or older. Because of what my husband had shared about how most men think, and because so many times in the past I had naively pursued and nourished friendships with fellows I had no romantic interest in (but being more comfortable with guys), be my relaxed self, and end up receiving their amorous attentions and having to drop the friendship, not really knowing how to recover from that embarrassment. Though I learned to give hints that I was not interested in that way, which helped. Also, if in a relationship with someone, I was always very careful to be loyal to that person until we parted, and spend little time on other friendships with guys. Just so it was all very clear, because that’s what I would want.
Except that time, after holding out for months against the attentions of an extremely attractive grad student whose passions were, I think, further fired by my attempts to keep my distance and be faithful to my nice Christian boyfriend and my faith. Meanwhile, my secret passions for him were fired by his respect for me, his self control, and deep, intellectual conversations over coffee in the graduate student bar. He’d found the surest way to win my heart, which he did fully and completely, and I apologized to my Christian boyfriend, confessed my weakness and decision, and soon brought the new fellow to my college Christian fellowship. He was only intellectually curious as wasn’t willing to take on the yoke, however, despite my explaining that I couldn’t get serious with a non-Christian. I refused to let the relationship proceed past the sex before marriage point, for example.
He was unphased, and would not give me up. I was conflicted (he wrote a poem about that, which I later destroyed, but still of which remember the final line). I’d bought tickets to Bruce Cockburn, and we argued about this during the show, with touches and kisses in the dark.
It didn’t help that the wife of the staff worker in our student fellowship, when I brought the fellow for the Friday night worship, sidled by me and said in a low voice, “Now that’s the kind of guy I used to go for!” I had given my ultimatum about the conditions of the continuance of our intimacy. He refused. We spent a glorious spring and summer traveling around Nova Scotia, sleeping at my insistence, in separate tents, surveying fields for drainage, and writing for various environmental projects. The separation didn’t last, as I couldn’t hold out any longer, and, whatever–he was worth it, I thought. Then he went to Dominica, and after being invited there and me paying for my ticket, he called me at work to read the breakup letter. I remember pain in my gut, clenched teeth, and curling up outside in a snow storm almost wanting to freeze to death. Whenever I thought of him for the next fifteen years, I pictured myself punching him in the gut. He probably would have taken it as his due. Apparently I was some kind of project or experiment, to see if he could get me to love him, and if he could love me. Always the gentleman, he confessed that he did, but also didn’t. Something about his heart having been broken previously.
For years, I didn’t know what I would do if I saw him again–would I punch him in the gut? II felt his presence everywhere, as if he was watching me. I imagined running into him on the bus, in a pub, even across the country when I moved there.
That was a relationship I had to talk about with my fiance (a committed Christian, intellectual, multitalented, and tall, dark, and handsome) as we worked through our pasts. Had I bonded with the gur? Was I over him? The fact that I still wanted to but punch him favored a no answer. Does one ever get over that kind of young love and heartbreak?
The other relationship of note–one realizes this after reflecting all these years–was a purer, chaster love, with a sweeter, more friendly attraction. That was the fellow I still call my first love. Had I not gone away on a six month cultural exchange and as a consequence been emotionally exhausted by the experience, we might still be together today. He was sad when I said I just couldn’t be with anyone, and he went in another direction, married a woman I didn’t know well, but liked and respected, and is a happy father of three boys, a teacher and basketball coach.
In some ways, I think I was too much for him–I’m too stubborn, maybe too sarcastic, too many ups and downs, him being sweet tempered and kind, very outgoing and social, but tender–I might have hurt him. The man I married was made of stronger stuff (as a mentor once told me American men are in comparison with Canadians; he said I should marry one, which I thought funny, as well as highly unlikely). So I think it’s just as well. But I still feel tenderness toward him, and always will. I finally let myself look him up online, and there he was, handsome and smiling as ever, and I was sorely tempted to send a friend request! Didn’t seem like a good idea., though I wish I hadn’t sent back the mementos I had from him (which I did when I got engaged). I fancy that he can’t trust himself to friend request me either, for I’m easy to find and he may have checked. We had that kind of parting.
My husband wasn’t as concerned about that fellow, it not having been a consummated relationship. He had the wrong idea about that, but oh well. I’m glad he didn’t worry.
It was strange for me finding out what did worry him. When I caught a ride to my daughter’s fifth grade multi-day trip to the mountains with a divorced dad of her classmate, I didn’t think anything of it. We chatted there and back, and that was that. But when I casually mentioned the drive to my husband, I found out about the tender insecurities in the heart of my otherwise extremely confident, unselfconscious mate. I had to reassure him over and over that there had been nothing, nothing! of any concern, and make sure he believed it. So when I actually did feel attractions, my thoughts remained my thoughts, and I would never hurt him with them, and certainly would never betray him with actions. Over the years of our marriage I’ve had at least as many crushes as the next woman. As my mother, for example, who was fond of mentioning hers, for example.
I feel like my secret attractions helped, in a way, as they had a way of spicing things up in our bedroom, without his even knowing why. And if it was the same for him, I forgive him–whatever! Some might say those are emotional affairs, and just as harmful, but I disagree. Iit’s not as if any were based on an actual relationships, only thoughts, never communicated to the men in question. I was always relieved when an attraction, fizzled, anyway–it’s not as if I wanted to be attracted to anyone but my husband, especially anyone I’d see regularly. And although our marital passions were mellower after over twenty years of marriage, they were still there for both of us, along with all the familiarity and companionship, such as it was, and never perfect. One can never appreciate enough the miracle of another mortal, let alone one’s chosen mate, one realizes after losing one.
Mark, I feel your kindliness toward me, your understanding and releasing me into my new life. It’s not you who’s holding me back. Our children seem okay with the idea of me dating too. I’m just really enjoying my independence, honey, and you know that about me. I love making decisions without consulting anyone, love having all this margin in my days to go out and do whatever I have time and energy for. And also, I want to honor you to your family and not minimize the significance of your presence in my life, to honor your memory. They’re in a different position in relation to you than I, they have different personalities, and their bereavement is different than mine. But they also don’t want me to be lonely, and might think I “need” someone, which I don’t think I do,or not specifically a man. I need people, co-workers, friends, and close friends, as well as people to serve and care for. I’m of two minds, yes–I want to flirt, date, party, be pursued, but I also want to stay free. Freedom and opportunity–two of my most important values, as I told you, when you asked.
It’s not that I’m walking out to make a point, but I may as well wander off and look at the night sky instead of this malarkey
Hocus pocus is hocus pocus
Even if it is a Mayan chant
I wonder if this poet, with her dark, mournful face,
intoning in language none of us can comprehend
and her accompanist, tapping on his rawhide drum, tipping his rain-stick,
making sounds like wind howling down the canyon walls,
are playing us gringos for fools
as we sit straight in our chairs, all hushed and reverent.
It must be good stuff,
since we can’t understand it, and
ought to listen now, at last.
Are they laughing up their sleeves
like the Indians in Freddy the Detective
who squat at the side of the road in buckskin
selling baskets for wampum, speaking with hand-signals
for many moons
then going home to white wine, Chopin
and a book discussion?
I went to the local country church as a kid, the one nearest to our home, though not the denomination of either of my parents. Not really a denomination at all, only an amalgamation of other failing ones, leftover liberals from when the conservatives took a stand on biblical infallibility and split, or leftover conservatives from when the liberals took a stand in on women’s rights and split–a kind of catch-all: the United Church of Canada. My parents wanted to join whatever was local, as long as it wasn’t too weird or conservative, and the United Church was only a few kilometers away, less if you tool the train tracks. They believed one should connect with the community, like it or not, and expect some hospitality at least.
It was pretty close by road, and even closer by train tracks. The tracks route was quieter, cleaner, and prettier—one could admire undulating fields, streams, and forest thickets full of birds as the level track cut through or bridged over, inhaling the heady mixture of fir tree, blossoms, and tar. You could walk on the rails or keep an awkward short stepped pace on the massive wood ties, interspersed by a leaping gait that took two, or even three ties at a time. Timothy grass swishing, grasshoppers and crickets singing, the thickets alongside full of birds, crows announcing the loner on the tracks with unknown intent. Once I saw a mother skunk tailing three or four kits, making me extra attentive at that spot from then on.
For the church youth there was Tyro (meaning novice or recruit) for the boys, and for us, CGIT–Canadian Girls In Training. The adult women did the kitchen work and had the real control, and the men moved the chairs and tables–but not the piano, by God–that was donated by so-and-so and to move it was an act of social affront as well as likely to make it lose its tuning. The older men drank, danced, and played cards, but not at church events. No, drinking and dancing were not the Protestant Way, however amalgamated and liberalized.
Then I got invited to my Catholic friend’s church in town. I’d have to go to Mass, she said (she showed me what to say and do as I received the wafer–I was nervous to get it right). Then we could go to the youth dance. The idea that a church would hot such a thing was golden–I was crazy about dances, shy as I was/. I loved music, wantes to move to it, and let it carry me to…BOYS. Tough I would not see my greatest crushes there, there would be boys. I had a great time, developed a fifteen-minute crush, and concluded that although Catholics had some weird habits in church, they knew how to party.
This was confirmed when I found out in college at a Catholic wedding that not only did they use real wine for the Eucharist, they brought it out at parties, too. But that was nothing to my first experience at a Sabbath meal in Israel.
We were living as a family in student housing, and a rabbi would periodically set up tables in tents in the quad and hold a celebratory mean, complete with plenty of sweet wine, he being a heavy partaker. We left early with our children when it became a little too raucous, though I’m sure the dancing would have been a lot of fun for college students, and led to a deepening of community ties and maybe late night conversations about what God required of them, anyway.
So I was pleased that my husband and I were invited to our current Catholic friends’ fiftieth birthday party, with mass beforehand. Sure, I had Protestant, even evangelical, friends who enjoyed a wine or a beer on occasion, but they never could bring themselves to incorporate this into their services, or even potlucks, except for a little red wine in the sauce and real vanilla in some of the cookies. A shame, living this double life. So, not even because I enjoy a drink–I generally don’t / makes me sleepy and I prefer coffee. But I like seeing people willing, as the Bible teaches, to use wine and strong drink to make the heart merry, to comfort or relax the stressed, and especially, render us more willing to dance.
The priest, who had given the sermon in the church across the road from the hall just before the party, gave the blessing, and then went to wash the dishes. There was a dance instructor, and we danced, though this was the beginning of my mate’s yet undiagnosed illness, and he was not up to many sets. I had a lovely time, met some new folks, and went home tired and cheerful instead of frustrated and disappointed, which has been a frequent result to my regular daytime church visits over the years. I say to the pastors, priests, and rabbis out there, if you can’t give an intellectually and spiritually challenging sermon and help people connect deeply over coffee, prayer, or discussion, then throw a foot-stompin’ hoe-down, with biblical refreshments served.
The people who are praying for and with my husband, bless their hearts, seem to believe that sickness and disease are against the created order, a manifestation of the Fall. None of our friends, and not many of our acquaintances, are prosperity gospel types, looking automatically for moral failures and faith deficits in the sick — my husband is doing that task himself — not as a way to cast out the demons of sickness, but as a response to the reminder of the limit on the days of his life, and as part of the physical cleansing and peacemaking one must do to support wholeness. Of course he wants to live –and of course I want him to. I am waiting for a miracle too, and his faith is helping us all to stay brave and cheerful. I want him to go on growing along with us, so he can accompany our children into and through their adult lives. But neither of us really believes that cancer is evil. It is testing by fire, but if the fire eventually burns you up, well, it is fire, and we are combustible.
One of our cancer recovery books has a quote that says runaway cancer cells are simply response to starvation of the right nutrients and the long term barrage of harmful substances from our diets, environments, and emotional chemistry. The starved cells can’t help but go out of control, and unless we prevent that, or deal with it over the several months it takes for healthy tissues to regenerate, cancer takes hold. We’re hopeful that his body can recover, at least come away from the edge that seems so close, and alleviate symptoms, but perhaps, if there’s time to repair the damage, full recovery. Chemo can’t do that for pancreatic cancer.
Then there’s the other part of my brain, that acknowledges that the data says three to six months, without chemo, a year to a year and a half with, and no cure, and no recommended end to chemo. Five year life expectancy, 1 to 2%. Deadline, lifeline, both at once.
One MUST believe in healing, because one can, and it makes life better. Yet one must make preparations, as if, well, we had to to do these things anyway–paperwork and such, so why not now, even if we both have decades ahead of us after all. For the children’s sake.
A friend, sleepless because of thinking of us, found a podcast by Kate Bowler (Faith, Cancer, and Living Scan to Scan), and bought me the book, Everything Happens For A Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved); I loved the title, and the book was good. I think I would like her, if I met her, especially her wry Canadian sense of humor.
One of the things she said was “I did feel like cancer was the key that opened up this whole other reality…you notice things…like I was cracked open and I could see everything for the first time.” That’s where my husband is, most of the time, and I have a glimpse of that. But certain things are still very hard. Some of them are the same things as ever, which is disappointing. My tears last night were about that — how much of our time so far has been spent not being friends, either by default or by active relational dysfunction and poor communication. Now, when I need to be an even better friend, and need an even better friend, the pressure’s a little much, sometimes.
I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.
One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.
One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.
I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.
As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.
I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.
I had to decompress today with a few colleagues, after the two strange biology classes I had. Same students, attentive and courteous, but we approached, a little too close for comfort, the idea that humans and chimps could be related. The question was (how could I be so naive?), What do you think humans and chimpanzees share so many similarities? They were to talk in groups and all they came up with was variations on because God made them that way. Either God made them that way, period, or God gave them some of the same characteristics because they were good adaptations for a similar lifestyle. One boy did offer the possibility that they might have a common ancestor, so I added that to their ideas. No one thought of genetics, but when I mentioned that genetically the two species are very similar, there was a pause, and “that doesn’t prove anything, though.”
I feel like these are just ordinary, evidence-based ideas, and that I don’t need, in fact should not–in the name of providing a science education–avoid them or couch them in creationist terms. Plus there’s so much that could be discussed about the reasons for the religious reservations there are to seeing connections between species, and especially to seemingly undermine the special status of humans in creation in any way. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to bring up what I know about biblical teaching on creation or how there need not be such a sense of threat at all. I wish I could talk with the parents away from the school, tell them I believe in God, have great respect for the Hebrew Bible, and can read it pretty well in the original. We have an entire library of commentaries (in storage), and are not godless pagans. The reason I thought God was so awesome as a kid was because of the wonderful things made by the Creator, and how much great design I recognize in both the big picture and fine detail. The theologians call this “general revelation,” which is available to all (as opposed to “special revelation,” available only to those to whom it revealed throughout history).
Instead, I fell I am coming across as anti-religion. I want to counter that, subtly but somehow, but it might not be possible. Can I direct those who are interested to sources from within the Christian community that have a more evidence-based view of biology, and a more literary, this-is-not-a-science-text view of the Bible? Maybe the best approach is, if it seems like there are barriers to learning growing, or that it seems to families that I am not respecting their majority culture, to ask questions. I could even offer the option that they research any biology and science-related passages in the Bible, and see how it relates to scientific evidence. Which passages of Genesis, for example, run parallel to science’s view on the origins of the planet and its life, and which seem to run contrary? How have theologians tried to work this out?
But time is short, and they still have to learn about cellular processes, ecology, homeostasis, inheritance, and physiology. But first we have to get through the evolution chapter with some semblance of integrity and harmony.
Here’s the piece I wrote to try to address parents on the issue:
In several of our discussions in biology class, it has come up that a majority of students in the classes consider faith in God, belief in the soul, and the special status of the humans species as very important. This was in the context of a discussion about how humans are unique, and the characteristics they share with other primates, based on their observations. The way I addressed this is to say that there are different ways of knowing, some accessible and testable by science, and others not, but known or believed very deeply in other ways.
Sometimes the scientific evidence presented in class may conflict with religious views of students and/or parents, and I am very aware of the need to be mindful of my role as public school teacher delegated by this community. Off and on I’ve had good conversations about this with parents, staff, and others as I work out the best way to proceed. I have really appreciated the opportunity to better understand views of both students and parents here in the area. I have also appreciated the openness of both to learn and converse in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Okay, so I’m in ——-, and I knew what I was getting into when I took on this job. I homeschooled my own four children for many of the same reasons our ——– families do, and have had reservations about the way a public school must by law provide a religion-free education, and so, by default, appear to communicate a low value for faith perspectives, while trying to respect all citizens’ religious, or non-religious, views.
In science classes, I must refrain from engaging in teaching even about religion, although it is permissible by law in social studies or history classes. The ACLU’s interpretation of the law is that “[I] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”
This respect for the law about my duty as a public school teacher has made me reluctant to directly address any of the faith-based views I have encountered in class. On the other hand, discussing the apparent conflict between religious and scientific views is very interesting to me personally. I also wish I could provide resources that could help families to understand the ways in which scientific scholars of the Judeo-Christian faith have tackled these areas of conflict. But once again, I hesitate due to the constraints of the law. I also realize that other than asking questions to help students develop their own thinking as related to biology, it’s not my role to address about religious views about science.
I will be teaching evolutionary theory in the next month or so. This will include presenting the scientific evidence that has accumulated from many sources for the theory of common ancestry, as well as teaching about the biochemical drivers of evolution on short, medium, and long time scales. I will do my best to continue to nurture a respectful forum for discussion and individual interpretive work (in writing and projects), where that can lead to a greater understanding of high school level biology. I appreciate parents’ and students’ patience as we go through this sometimes uncomfortable process.
I also want to communicate here some of the things I have said in class about the value and limits of science. I have said that science is a great tool and way of knowing, but that there are other ways of knowing and being sure of things. Science attempts to be objective and relies on evidence–lots of it, to develop theories. I point out that although a theory, as the term is used in science, is well supported by evidence, all theories are subject to testing, revision, and falsification if there is enough contradictory evidence. No theory ought to be spoken of as “true” or “proven” in science. Science is also not useful for verifying or disproving any type of knowledge for which observable or measurable evidence cannot be gathered, and so can never be used to disprove, for example, ideas about God, or whether there is a divine force behind both evolution and the day-to-day life of molecules and cells.
The only area I see a direct conflict between faith and science is in the view that the Bible, Hebrew or Greek testaments, are sources of reliable, sufficient empirical evidence to counter scientific views about the age and history of the Earth. I cannot present the young Earth view as a viable alternative theory, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for it. That said, there are many alternative faith-based ways to view biblical teaching relating to creation, and there are good books, lectures, and websites that offer guidance for those who want to inquire. I hope that students in conflict will seek these out rather than either simply refusing to consider scientific evidence on the one hand, or, on the other hand, doubting their faith because they believe it is incompatible with scientific evidence. Mostly, I hope that they will gain an appreciation of how amazing, intricate, and interesting the world of living things is, and as much knowledge about how it works as possible.