When a Friend Dies

I received this group email not long ago:

Our beloved Beth has passed away. We lost her at approximately 7 p.m. yesterday. It is a very difficult time for our family. We wanted to let you know how much we appreciated all of your support, kind words, and the loving prayers. Beth has wonderful friends.

When I hear that a friend has died, I feel the world suddenly shrink. It’s a strong, visceral feeling. Some of the air has been sucked out of our universe. The air that Beth breathed.

I can’t imagine her dead. She was the embodiment of joyous, energetic activity. Then out of nowhere, viral encephalitis infected her. Three weeks later, she was gone.

Death is the great mystery. A cliché, that sentence. And yet…what a mystery that death is a mystery. It happens to everyone; so shouldn’t the human race by now have figured it out?

For me, one of the most helpful meditations on the mystery of mortality is Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Of course, this book is a meditation on much more as well…but transience is at its core. Dillard notes that when we’re confronted with huge statistics about death (like: over 230,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), our minds can’t respond. We’re numbed. But when a single person whom we care about is dying or in danger, all our attention pinpoints on the preciousness of that person’s life. How can we save him? Dillard recounts how whole towns pour out to search for one missing child.

About an hour after hearing of Beth’s death (that hour sitting in something not quite like prayer, more like intense listening to the world shrink as Beth leaves it), I move to my shelves of poetry. Who here might give words to what I’m feeling? [Read more...]

The Choir: Children of Krakatoa

Parker & Coward, Krakatoa Eruption (1888)

On August 26, 1883, the people of Perth, Western Australia, paused to register what historians have referred to as “the loudest sound ever heard.” Almost 2,000 miles away, a volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa rocked the world, obliterating two-thirds of the island, and causing tsunamis that killed over 36,000 people.

In 2012, atmospheric alternative rockers The Choir titled their fourteenth record The Loudest Sound Ever Heard, too—a decidedly ironic move for the Nashville, Tennessee-based outfit. The band has made unassuming, understated alternative-rock for almost thirty years, after all, relying more often on restraint than bombast.

It was for this reason, in fact, that I dismissed the band’s music as a teenager in the early nineties. When compared to the heaviness of sludgy Seattle grunge—a sound that stole my heart and never returned it—The Choir felt like a featherweight act to me. Frontman Derri Daugherty’s vocals had all the innocence of a songbird’s, and I preferred Kurt Cobain’s world-weary wail.

A classmate insisted on introducing me to Nirvana’s Nevermind album on his Walkman on a youth group ski trip, and I had obliged him, albeit reluctantly. For my teenage mind, the sacred and the profane existed in compartmentalized, cordoned-off spaces—seldom overlapping and, more often than not, existing at odds with one another. [Read more...]

The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]

Spared not Blessed

In the West we have forgotten how the world devours children because mostly when our children die they are defined as subhuman by the law, and so we don’t count their lives when we stop their hearts from beating.

We have escaped an age when half the children born to us die before adulthood, and so we need not live—most of us—with the daily presence of death, prowling as it does like a wolf in tall grass.

When death comes for our children it is an anomaly, and our suffering, no matter how closely those who love us draw near, must be borne largely alone. Our friends grieve for us and in a sense with us, but most of them can’t know, thank God, what it is to grieve as us.

Until, that is, some hell-riddled boy brings guns to a school and blows holes through children whose coffins will be no bigger than your luggage. Until some cult-minded psychopath detonates a bomb that rips off their arms and legs just as easily as you’d shuck corn. Until what surely must feel like the hand of a vengeful God crushes them where they huddle screaming in grade school hallways. [Read more...]

Lamenting an Imperfect Friendship

Walking on the sidewalk of Spokane, I read an email that made me stop still. I’d just left a reading of North of Hope on my first trip away from my husband and two young children, when I checked my iPhone, compulsively, as I do, having no one to debrief with in person, looking for some kind of connection through cell signals and electrons.

It was a warm spring evening, and I thought I’d find a good glass of wine along the river. I was the only one in a sweater, an old comfortable one I liked. Everywhere there were bare arms and shoulders, street musicians on sidewalks from which heat wafted like a smell, carrying the sounds of the saxophone player and three shirtless college-aged guys with beards playing ordinary objects as percussion.

It was an email with just a name in the subject line, the name of a long ago friend I’ve maintained occasional contact with. She had dinner at our home when she was at a work conference a year before, and sent a note when our second son was born a few months ago. Just a couple of weeks ago I’d had a note from her on Facebook saying she’d received her copy of North of Hope and was excited to read it. [Read more...]


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