The Woman at the Cross

girl-at-altar

Earlier today, my lifelong friend Kelly shared the following on Facebook:

You know how the Mona Lisa is so intriguing because there are all sorts of ways to interpret her smile? I encountered something this morning that evoked that same feeling in me, making me wish I could have snapped a picture of it: I saw a middle-aged woman overlooking a darkened chapel At Stella Maris. She had her back to me so I couldn’t see her expression. She was leaning against the entry door with her head cockeyed in such a way that her head rested on the door frame. She stood there just staring at the altar. Was she looking for a buoy to help her? Was she in awe of God’s mercy? Was she just resigned to the sad fact that all life ends? Hard to say.

I was so taken aback by its description that my mind was creating a thousand different scenarios for her being there. I think Kelly did a great job of “painting” a picture with her words, and so I created the image above to help guide me in my response, which is below.

A huge shout out to Kelly for taking the time to share this observation with all of us. As an artist and writer, I was grateful for the connection I made with her words. Enjoy…

The Woman at the Cross: My Response to Kelly

The older altar boy looks on from the entrance of the Tabernacle, and he sees a woman old enough to be his mother. She lowers her head toward the cross. He sees disappointment, as if she feels failure in how she is raising her only son. He rubs the edges of his sleeves with his fingers, a nervous habit he developed when he was younger. It was just another thing he did “wrong” when he would endure the lectures for stealing food from Parkers, or lifting a few cigarettes from her pack of menthols that she kept in her replica Bottega Veneta handbag. He remembers the night her sobbing woke him just before dawn, and when he went downstairs to see if she was okay, he stopped on the third step from the landing, looking at his broken mother, rosary beads laced through her fingers, praying for something, anything to make him a better boy.

When she died later that month from the cancer that consumed most of her organs, he laced the same beads around his own fingers, vowing to do right, vowing to honor her prayers.

He wants to console her, tell her that it’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to work out the way she wants it. He remains in the doorway, though, and lowers his own head as he makes the sign of the cross. “Oh, Lord, for the moms who are hurting today, hear my prayer….”

From the other side of the altar, the young musician restrings her guitar in preparation for the 5:30 mass. She notices the older woman leaning against the wall, head bowed toward the cross, and she smiles. She remembers when she was younger, a “basic” singer/songwriter still trying to find her voice. How she would lean into the sacred space of the cross, pray for musical divination, and vow to keep the creative channels open as she continued to play morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t until her third year strumming a set of new nylon strings when it hit her: it was time to stop playing covers and replicating everyone else’s sound. It was time to write her notes, and her lyrics, and her arrangements.

Soon, she would put her restrung guitar into the simple stand by mic number 3, and lean into the sacred space, praying for continued musical divination, channeling God’s message through C chords played a few frets south of the nut. The musician smiles as she watches her whisper the Lord’s Prayer. Later she will watch her from the stage as she sings along among the others in the congregation. Their eyes will catch for the first time, but that’s all it will take for them to understand the mutual love they share for the Trinity. Heads bowed, prayers whispered, notes played, words sung. The Universal love for Christ knows no boundaries.

From the back of the church, Father Rossi prays for the woman at the cross. He has known her since her baptism. He remembers her reverential fear in her first communion, her shaky but certain voice as she shared her vows at that same altar, the cold, clammy touch of her hand as they prayed before her husband’s funeral, and her muted gratitude 7 weeks later at her own son’s baptism. Today, Father Rossi knows that she prays not just for strength to carry on another day, but she prays as well for strength for her son, now five. She prays for those who have lost their spouse. She prays for divine guidance to lead her where she is needed the most. She prays for her husband, for the altar boy by the Tabernacle, for the singer/songwriter on the stage. Father Rossi knows of her struggles, but he also knows of her strengths through God. Most importantly, he knows of her faith and gratitude in these gifts of strength. She is unique, and she is no different from any of his other parishioners. She has known love, and loss, and hope, and grief.

He knows these are the people of his parish. Unique, struggling, and strengthened through Christ.

The altar boy begins to light the prayer candles, and the woman in prayer makes the sign of the cross, genuflecting before she rises once more and heads to the back of the church.

“Thank you, Father,” she says, and he just smiles.

She grins, walks on, and carries the prayers on the cross with her as she passes through the threshold and enters the world a little more protected, a little more forgiving.

Behold: The power of prayer.

The Child At My Door

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.57.08 PM

It was a late November night,
And I was just about done.
The stacks of papers that I needed to grade
Had, in some small way, dwindled down to none.

I lifted the stained red cup from my desk
And finished the cold coffee poured hours before;
I reached for the lamp signed by students years ago,
But was stopped by a soft knock on my classroom door.

“Enter!” I said, but there was no reply,
And so I left the light on and walked to see who was there.
I peered out the small window and saw a head bowed so low;
It was a mere child, standing small, his clothes threadbare.

I opened the door – just a crack – to see who he was
And what he wanted, and why he was here.
At first he didn’t speak, not a single sound;
I wondered if he was dumb, or simply frozen with fear.

“What is it, my son?” I asked. “You can tell me what is wrong.”
He looked up, his eyes stained with mud and tears,
And immediately I could see that he had traveled far;
This boy, still in his teens, had aged far beyond these early years.

“My Lord, what has come of you?” I asked, still holding the door.
“My school has closed,” he replied, “And I have nowhere else to go.
“They have burned our buildings and our books.
“Now we are left with no place to grow.”

I felt the weight of the door press against my chest
As I looked into his eyes, filled with desperation, with defeat.
My classes were already packed, I thought,
And I was warned to be wary of lies, or even deceit.

Was I wrong to be fearful of this boy,
Who had traveled far to seek shelter in my room?
After all, he was different, and his land was filled with dread;
He came from a place that was dark, a harbinger of Persephone’s tomb.

I pulled the door shut, affirming my fears, and sighed.
As I had been warned of the dangers of such travelers in the night,
True, though I knew they had nowhere left to turn,
It would be easy for me to send him away, out of my sight.

But then I turned around and looked across my room
At the scattered desks left awry by the lives I had taught;
Hundreds – no thousands – over the years who had come through this door
Despite their struggles, their challenges, that had once left them distraught.

Of their backgrounds I knew little at the beginning of school,
Then- as they wrote, and shared, their stories with their peers,
I understood the adversity that they had faced
And realized that I had met them at the end of their hardship years.

Was this child any different than those who had come?
Different than the thousands who brought color and life?
They filled these four walls in this once-barren room
With the expressions of love and learning, far distant from that long-ago strife.

I thrust open the door and welcomed him in-
A shuffle, if you will, of warmth and care like I had shown no other.
“You are welcome in this room, my friend,” I said,
“And here you are safe, for I will help you as I would my own brother.”

I poured him the last of my coffee and gave him my seat,
The soft glow of the old lamp casting a warm light on his tired face.
We are all one in this world, once weary, once in need, I thought,
As he absorbed the feel of his new home, a nurturing, kind place.

I stuffed the stack of papers in my old teacher’s bag
And opened our books to chapter one.
He looked at me and smiled when he read the first three words
And I smiled too— For us both, as our new journeys had, indeed, just begun.

Rus VanWestervelt, 11/18/15

Compassion: Let Us All Begin Here

WorldPeaceCover3

The dust is beginning to settle following the attacks in Paris, as moments of shock have turned to hours and days of grief and contemplation. Our disbelief has turned to a variety of emotions: sadness, frustration, and even anger. In the aftermath we are caught between the struggle to do something meaningful and to return to whatever we call “normal” these days. After all, there are football games, upcoming holiday events, and school activities that go on. We don’t need to struggle with our nagging conscience that we can’t, or shouldn’t, engage in “fun” things while others mourn deeply for those lives lost in the attacks. We need to carry on; we need to engage, participate, and support the very things that define our communities, our countries, our lives. Our efforts to carry on do not replace our compassion; they strengthen it.

I have noticed, though, that there is a division among some when it comes to how we need to react now that the threat is greater than ever in cities all over the globe. Certainly, there seems to be no “safe place” anymore. We are all vulnerable to senseless acts of terrorism. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that.

These arguments and calls for action in how we respond internationally spark strong debates and judgments in leadership, retaliation, and policy. I get that there is a place for that. Discussion is both valid and necessary for us to evolve and work toward macro solutions that benefit not only the United States and France, but all nations – and all people – throughout the world.

These arguments and debates, however, do not negate a call for compassion, for peace, faith, hope, and love. We cannot condemn an impromptu performance of a pianist playing “Imagine” outside of the Bataclan because it doesn’t “solve” the problem, just as we cannot mock or judge individuals for posting symbols of support or peace on social media sites.

The two do not cancel out each other, simply because our individual efforts serve a different role than the broader, more rhetorical discussions about what is wrong with our society and what should be done at a national or even international level.

My focus is on compassion and what I, you, and we can do to strengthen our communities right now. No, it’s not going to change anything about the debates last night or who might be vying to run our country in 2017. And it isn’t going to shift our international policies on terrorism or how we – or anybody else – should respond. What compassion will do is strengthen our own communities and unite us in ways that we desperately need to be united.

I see three stages of how we can provide compassion and help others in and beyond our communities.

In the first stage, we offer a visual demonstration of support at the individual or personal level. We do this in many ways, and not one of them should be considered superficial or “trendy.” As nations paint their landmarks in blue, white, and red to show support, so do individuals paint their profile pictures and cover photos with solidarity. How does this help? I have seen individuals directly affected take solace in such support. This very minimal act of helping makes a difference, even if we are not aware of it on an individual and personal level.

In the second stage, we take action in our communities to make it a better place for everyone. We pick up trash, we check in on neighbors, we attend community events. We serve as models for our children, for others, in how we live our lives beyond fear, how we demonstrate courage in our actions and strengthen our foundations in peace and unity. We abandon judgment and embrace diversity; we stand united among the pillars of peace, faith, hope, love. What brings us there – our individual beliefs, religions, backgrounds, cultures – makes no difference. We recognize these pillars as universal structures of strength. And in so doing, we, as individuals, become pillars of strength and carriers of each: peace, faith, hope, and love.

Finally, in the third stage, we initiate programs to heal, to protect, to serve. We create opportunities for greater action through camaraderie and unity. We become integral players in the development of these initiatives. This might be through the development of community sports and recreation programs, school-based activities and events, church-centered missions and drives, and larger initiatives that create products or provide services for others in need.

We can debate all we want about the macro policies about war, government, guns, and international relations. We can question why we feel more inclined to react to tragedies in France than we might for tragedies in other places such as Beirut or Syria. We can spar with friends, defending and offending (although I wish we wouldn’t) along the way.

But we can also show compassion first, and throughout, our debates and discussions. If we do this at every level of how we respond, either on a micro or macro level, we can effect greater change in ways that matter most to our local communities, as well as to the individuals comprising our immediate worlds.

Begin with compassion. Become a pillar of peace, faith, hope, and love. Let these be the foundation of all we do now, and tomorrow.

Dream On

When I was 7 or 8, my brother, 19 years my elder, moved back into our house after he separated with his wife, and we shared the narrow attic bedroom space. That must have been weird for him, as he had spent his entire childhood up there with our other two brothers, who were much closer in age with him.

There we were, oldest and youngest, first and last, alpha and omega. We were the bookends of our parents’ efforts in building a big family.

Every morning, about 30 minutes or so before I would need to get up for school, Warren’s radio clock alarm would go off. He had it set to WLPL, 92.3 FM, a station I had come to love for the next decade for its cutting-edge rock that we now listen to on classic rock stations like 100.7 The Bay. My days and nights were filled with Zeppelin, Hendrix, Eagles, Elton John, Heart, and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

But on those mornings when his rock-and-roll clock would tick-tock click to that moment when we would both be awakened, Aerosmith played, “Dream On.”

Every. Single. Morning.

Warren would stir, grumble a bit to himself, then roll out of bed and trudge downstairs to our one and only bathroom. A few minutes later, I would hear the front door open and close, his motorcycle come to life, and then the roar that followed, then faded, as he headed off to wherever big brothers work when they have just separated from their wives.

In my head, among the grumbles and the roars of everything that made my big brother larger than life, I continued to hum the Aerosmith tune as I lay in bed, Dreaming On to a time when I would get big. And grumble. And roar.

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn
Isn’t that the way
Everybody’s got the dues in life to pay

So here we are: four decades later. As I write on, “Dream On” plays over and over through my earbuds, into my head, along my veins, and within my heart and brain, a reverberation of love and nostalgia that seem to cancel out each other.

My brother is now dead. He no longer grumbles, roars, or dreams on. I am left with a residual, fading echo of a man I yearned to be.

warren dugout

And I would think that I would be desperate to hold on to each note of this song, each lub-dub-dub of his cycle, each synchronous wink-and-smile that he would give me, you, a stranger to let you know: “I hear you. You aren’t alone. It’s going to be okay.”

Yes. I would think just that. But it isn’t happening.

Half my life
Is books, written pages
Live and learn from fools and
From sages
You know it’s true, oh
All these feelings come back to you

So instead I try to name that narrow space that exists between love and nostalgia; I try to box it into a nice little corner where I can name it. Identify it. Label it and reduce its hold over me so I can move on and dream on (and dream on and dream on) so that my dreams might come true.

All I can find, though, is something I barely recognize as an emotion caught in the ugly balance between depression and acceptance. The clouds are heavy, you see, but I just can’t tell if they are filled with the humid rains or the sun-drenched rays.

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

Here’s what I do know tonight. My brother’s synchronous wink-and-smile is getting me through. It reminds me that I am not alone, that so many of us are struggling with this new and uncomfortable feeling of loss, and that we’re going to be okay.

Throw that all together, and maybe that’s why the rains aren’t falling, but the sun’s rays aren’t getting through the clouds either. It’s this gray existence of understanding, of perspective, even of peace in knowing that, maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will indeed take us away.

But for now, we are here. And with this dream that carries on, we persevere, we find the strength between winks and smiles, and we carry each other as best we can.

We carry each other through the laughter, through the tears, through the early-morning songs that play on and on in our later years.

Yeah. Through the grumbles of thunder and the roars of silent rains and rays, I hear you. We’re not alone. And we’re going to be okay.

In fact, I think we already are.

sunset rvw