Value to be Gained

I was reading a story that has been in the making for a while. The topic was the bankruptcy of Sears, an originally Chicago company that has a more than century-long history. I’ve read a number of stories and articles about Sears over the years. Something about its demise illuminates the ways in which iconic institutions transform themselves and, even still, diminish and die. There’s something in that ending arc that’s worth respecting.

In my reading of stories, and this recent one in particular, I have remembered KMart commercials. I’ve recalled flipping through thick catalogues as a boy, searching the pages for stuff my mother wouldn’t and couldn’t buy. I thought about the time seven years ago I went into the Sears on 79th Street, near Stony Island, just because it was still open and how I shopped for vacuum bags and then went into a sister’s store where she sold fragrant oils and African cloth.

I have slowly reviewed the ways Sears could be the huge business it was, sell so many things, and, as slowly, crack into forgetfulness. I’ve watched Sears linger. I’ve grieved, in a way, at the death of a business so meaningful. And even without knowing why I’ve felt so endeared toward the store.

I’ve thought about all the years and all the people who have worked there, made careers there, been given first jobs there and about how very little is written about those folks. I’ve thought about the highlights from the cratering of Sears centering on the named executives. I’ve been disappointed that after one hundred plus years, the stories last told are about the high-level figures who made the most money and seldom, if ever, about the people who sold washing machines and light bulbs and winter clothing.

Even with my slow thinking about this store’s end, I don’t have many memories of the place. We shopped at Everblack–also called Evergreen Plaza–where Montgomery Ward held premium real estate. My big brother took me into Oaktree for a black suit, a peach shirt, and tie with images of something like grapes. Mama took me and Mark to McDonalds sometimes in the pavilion where they’d later play live music on the weekends. I bought a girl I liked a gold bracelet at Chain Reaction one Christmas, and the Original Cookie Company knew me for several of those splendid pizza-sized chocolate chip cookies. But I didn’t really sit with the decline of the Plaza. I drove by as they demolished it, but I don’t remember thinking through that change. Perhaps it was in the driving by, in the re-viewing, in the re-visiting that I grieved in a stretched out way for Everblack.

Now though, I’m sitting with the death of Sears and what it means. I don’t live near a Sears. It takes too much effort to pass by the 79th Street location just to witness that old building sitting like a shell  and to see this storied company’s death. Death is not a legal term. The company couldn’t compete, couldn’t maintain or re-engineer itself for the times, despite new leadership, changed strategies, effective-for-a-time consultations and re-organizations. Sears had to die.

I’m sad about it. Sad in a way that I can’t quite articulate. Sad, perhaps, because it’s one of those institutions that predated me that is now dying prior to me. And I hope to live a long time! Sad, perhaps, because it is something that was born before me that will not outlive me. Sad, perhaps, because I shop at the places that have contributed to the death of this store and company. Then, again, as the story said, Sears could return:

It may be that we haven’t seen the last of Sears. But insomuch as we may be losing a storied brand that holds some cultural value, there is value to be gained back in the form of insight.

Endings gift us with insight. Losing grants us space to mourn. Sometimes we notice and use that space. Sometimes we pass by it as we scroll down the day’s newsfeed, acting as if that title didn’t connect with an unwanted loss. So I keep considering where my grief begins.

I know the name and role of Julius Rosenwald is a part of my adult reflections on Sears. Rosenwald’s support of historically Black schools and centers of learning have developed in me profound respect. I used to walk around the corner to see his old home, to “pay my respects,” and to keep the appreciation for what he did alive in me. It may be there that my grief begins. Not that Rosenwald was single-handedly responsible for the success of Sears as we knew it. That may be attributed to him, but there is no such thing as single hands in business or anything else, is there?

My grief is related to Rosenwald but I’m sure that’s not the length of it. And I also don’t yet know the “value to be gained.” I’m not sure of this loss’s insight. I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to see. I do know that I have lost before. I know that all losses have eventually brought me something, even something small, and, in that offering, has been generous to me.

This loss–and all my losses–can be trusted for that. They are brutal, losses, and some of them intend to wipe away the easy comfort a person has with the world. Losing a job or closing a company or ending anything may mean changing the trust you have in your footing. You lose trust, but you still can trust that something else is coming. It may be insight. It may be grace. It may be a lesson. It may be a quality. Loss will take something from you, no doubt, but taking is never all that loss does.

In the meantime, you wait and when you can, you wait with hope. I’m right there waiting too.

Park Swings

I heard Nina Li Coomes, a poet from Japan and Chicago, and her poem–which I got to by her essay in my inbox through the On Being newsletter–made me think of you. It made me think of your brother, too, but the thought of you came first.

Her poem was written to her unborn daughter and for a moment the title of the poem, spoken at a Chicago slam which Nina won, felt implausible to me, felt foreign to me because of my deep experience with you boys, felt distant to me because your mother used to say all the time how she thought I’d soften if I ever had a daughter and how she wanted to see that softening.

Presumably I’ve spent a lot of time hardening. Well, I should be honest that it’s not a presumption. I have hardened. I could insert the things I’ve said in a dozen ways before to explain that calcifying of my heart, that drying of my spirit, and provide departure points that begin with you, extend with your brother, and deepen in the country of loss that I live in while being a father whose own father exists in memories, in pictures, in videos, in the mouths of loved ones, in the twinkle of my mother’s eyes.

But I have softened and I thought of that softening today. I thought of it last night as I melted over the pain joy blanketing me in the quietness of a wonderful day to be a father. I softened all over again as I thought about why going to McDonald’s is so hard for me, why white and brown vans send my heart into its own swirls, why passing by parks and playing in parks with you and your brother the way we did yesterday is a trip full of complicated pleasures. These softenings remind me of the days when I held my father’s steep, chiseled hands, when he took me and my brother to eat, to play, to run, to be free. Thinking of them let me think of the hardening.

Nina’s words brought back my scholar and peer’s words while we were swinging on the swings, your brother commanding me to push and him watching you and you doing the same, smiling just the way you did when you were your brother’s age when we played in our park across from the Obama home, and me pushing you both by using the back stretch that ends of a sanchin kata that you haven’t learned yet, one you’ll do better than me. I was being a good dad and it was a way to spend the day with you and with my good dad on his birthday.

Nina’s poem had a line. You know lines because you possess many of them, keep your own like a poet awaiting his debut, inching up to the stage at Busboys, breathing lines at Louder, testing phrases at the Hyde Park Blvd bus stop, whispering them while you review a kata just before a promotion. Her line made me think of your line, which made me remember a moment that you discussed with me and your mother late one evening, after bedtime came and went.

You were distressed and that distress etched something in me that made me want to shield you. We talked it through. You and your mother had talked it through before. I heard some of it and stayed out of it. I waited until I was brought in so that you could do your thing with mommy. Then, we three discussed it. And we kept at it. I hardened in the moment because I’m used to hardening. I’m not bad at hardening. I would soften later. We would keep speaking over themes like the one you raised that night. We would edge toward the swing, lift ourselves in it, and eventually press ourselves into the blue.

Second grade would be a long grade for you (and me), longer than the others so far. It would be the grade where I heard difficulties emerge for you that were never difficulties before. It would be the grade that would show me the poverty and richness of my fathering skills. It would be the grade when me and your mother worked through how to become even better at something we do well.

It would be the grade that would deepen my longing for my own father, when I would write for him and offer my words to the sky for him to read the way I pushed my sons on swings during the holiday when their father felt free with them and, surrounded by friends over poorly coordinated leisure that worked out fine, despite his little fears that felt less strong.

You and your brother will keep swinging. The smiles in your faces tell me that. I’ll be one of the ones behind you, pushing, pausing, pressing you to extend yourselves, kick your legs, and dig into the movements of freedom. And we’ll all be engaging in that extending and kicking and digging. We’ll all be freer for it. One swing at a time. One smile at a time.

You and your brother can fight about who will write the poem. I have my thoughts about who will win.

What You Should Not Say

Do not tell me

there will be a blessing

in the breaking,

that it will ever

be a grace

to wake into this life

so altered,

this world

so without.

Do not tell me

of the blessing

that will come

in the absence.

Do not tell me

that what does not

kill me

will make me strong

or that God will not

send me more than I

can bear.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more compassionate,

more loving,

more holy.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more grateful for what

I had.

Do not tell me

I was lucky.

Do not even tell me

there will be a blessing.

Give me instead

the blessing

of breathing with me.

Give me instead

the blessing

of sitting with me

when you cannot think

of what to say.

Give me instead

the blessing

of asking about him–

how we met

or what I loved most

about the life

we have shared;

ask for a story

or tell me one

because a story is, finally,

the only place on earth

he lives now.

If you could know

what grace lives

in such a blessing,

you would never cease

to offer it.

If you could glimpse

the solace and sweetness

that abide there,

you would never wonder

if there was a blessing

you could give

that would be better

than this–

the blessing of

your own heart

opened

and beating

with mine.

This is from Jan Richardson’s latest book, The Cure for Sorrow, a collection of blessings she wrote after the unexpected death of her husband. I’m thinking through an upcoming summer unit with new chaplain interns, thinking through a writing prompt friends gave me, and considering the integration of loss, of words, of self and of care. I commend the book to you if you consider such things yourself.

Words to Remember From Joyce Rupp

I have needed to be compassionate toward myself when I was hurting. I have also needed to offer compassion and kindness to others. One of my best sparks for love and for forgiveness of old relationship hurts came from an image of myself at the Last Supper table, seeing my “enemies” seated next to me, all of us being loved equally by God. Another image that gave me courage and also freed me from mistakes and wounding behavior of the past was that of a beehive in my heart with golden bees making “honey of my old failures.”

Images have also reminded me how valuable a sense of humor is for healing. Mary Lou Sleevi portrays the widow Anna, in the Gospel of Luke, as the image of a woman who could laugh through the tough things of life: “Anna comes to Her Moment laughing. Those eyes have twinkled as she wrinkled…Her face the free expression of all that’s inside.” Perhaps, most of all, images have helped me to name my need to surrender and to trust God with my life. In order to be healed, I need a desire to let go, to get on with my life, rather than cling to the pain and memory of my old wounds. Some see surrender as negative because, for them, it implies a patriarchal approach to God, a giving in to a “higher power.” I do not envision it this way. I see surrender as a natural part of the cycle of life and, thus, it includes the spiritual path as well. I have learned much about having to let go of control by observing seasonal surrendering such as the plowed fields of spring accepting heavy rainfalls, summer’s fruitful days giving way to autumn harvesting, and winter’s wind whirling snowflakes into banks of beauty. My surrender does not seem passive to me. Rather, it feels like a strong trust in a loving One whose wisdom stretches far beyond mine. God can empower me, work through me, and weave patterns that I do not dream possible. I experience this as a great gift of love.

Dear Heart, Come Home (p. 127-128)

Soul Stuff: Entrusting Yourself

I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.

Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.

My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.

Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.

When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.

May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.