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Lost and Found – November 7, 2010

Standing on a thin patch of grass between the road and a huddle of trees, we waited for the it to arrive. We leaned out from the sign-post, watching down the winding street of cobblestone and asphalt, anticipating. We had our hiking shoes on, and I wore a big, ridiculous hat to keep the sun off of my face. The two of us, my partner Sara and I, were visiting central Mexico, staying with a local family and studying Spanish. Each morning and afternoon, as we walked from our host-family’s house to the school and back again, we had seen it pass us by: the bus. After the first several days of exploring our neighborhood we wanted to see what the downtown was like, to visit the cathedral and the zocalo. And that meant taking the bus.

It was shorter than the city buses we were used to in the states, painted white with tall-backed, comfortable-looking seats. When we spotted it coming around the bend near the lavanderia, we flagged it down, paid our fare, and took our seats near the back. We watched together out the window as the new geography of our daily lives flew by at a quick and jostling pace. We passed Farmacia Similares, whose corporate spokesman is a round-bodied cartoon pharmacist with a bushy grey mustache named Doctor Simi. One of the employees was out front in their Doctor Simi suit, dancing to Mexican pop music to attract business. He waved to the bus. We waved back.

After ten minutes or so, we’d gone further than we’d ever gone on foot before, crossing into unfamiliar territory. On the right, we saw the new Costco shopping center, built on a hillside of flowering plants and with an attached art gallery. For a little while, I tried to keep count of the restaurants I saw: most were either Italian or Japanese, and Italian was winning. The newer and the older parts of town were so mixed but as the buildings got closer together and we began to see more people walking along the street, we knew we had reached the heart of the city. We watched for the cathedral: the stop where we were told to get off.

It never came. We did see it from a distance a few times, first up ahead of us, but then later, behind. After awhile, the buildings got further apart again, the people thinned out, and then nearly disappeared. The bus, once filled to capacity, grew more and more empty. We had gone too far. I reasoned aloud to Sara that the bus must loop around eventually, and go back along the same route. As we went further and further on, I hoped that I was right.

Eventually, the houses outside our window just stopped. No one had gotten on or off of the bus for what seemed like a long time, and the road brought us right up to a steep drop. It turned sharply, and zig-zagged back and forth down the hillside. At the base, the bus pulled up to a little cinder-block building with iron bars over the entire front face. It was a convenience store, but customers weren’t allowed inside; they had to stand at the grate and ask the clerk for whatever they wanted to buy. After that building, the road ended; there was nothing but jungle ahead. The driver turned off the bus, and got out; we two were the only passengers left. The sun began to set, and the noises of the early evening began to seep out of the forest. We had no idea where we were.

That moment, sitting on a bus at the forest edge, night coming on gently, was the most lost, the most physically lost, that I think I have ever been. I had just enough Spanish that I might have asked, “Donde estamos?” – “where are we?” – but not nearly enough to understand the answer. Now, I may not always know what I’m doing, but I usually know where I am, and not knowing something as basic as that leads to a lot of uncomfortable feelings: fear, and frustration, and regret, and uncertainty. One of the lessons I learned from the year I spent as a hospital chaplain, is that the feelings that come from being lost have a lot in common with the feelings that come from loss itself: from losing a dream, or a relationship, or a person you love.

It is true that chaplains are witnesses to death; it is part of our work in the hospital. But contrary to what some of my patients seemed to think, when the chaplain comes to see you, it’s not always because you’re dying. The loss I saw most often was actually the loss of role, of some ability or identity that was a corner stone of life, and now the whole house has to be rebuilt without it. I regularly met people who’s illnesses, and the treatments they needed to help them survive, forced changes to their way of life. Danny, a man who has worked in construction his whole adult life is going home on disability, unable to return to his vocation and his friends on the crew. Sharon, a mother of four adult daughters, facing the reality of her mental illness, struggles for the first time in her life to let her children mother her. Max, a grandfather who has never been sick a day in his life, checks into the hospital for the first time. Danny, the carpenter, Sharon, the caretaker, Max, the picture of health: each of these people is losing something, some piece of themselves that was precious to them. Each of their losses is real, each one feels like an attack on who they thought they were, each one is a cause for grief.

At the pace of modern life, with all of the work that it takes just to live, it is all too easy to forget that each moment of time is unique and irreplaceable. We can remember the past, and we can anticipate the future, but we live in the present, and as each new moment begins, another moment passes into memory. There is loss and renewal in every second of every day. This, to me, is what is so powerful and beautiful about any sort of enduring love: between parents and children, between married people, or between close friends. That sort of love says, ‘I love you, the you that I know, and more than that I love the you I do not know, the you I have not met yet and will not get to meet until a month, a year, a lifetime from now.’ That is the hopeful love of a birth or a wedding; it helps us feel the promise and potential of each new moment.

Sometimes that promise and potential is to be found not in joy, but in anger. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explains how she came to be a Buddhist by telling the story of the end of her marriage:

We lived in northern New Mexico. I was standing in front of our adobe house drinking a cup of tea. I heard the car drive up and the door bang shut. Then he walked around the corner, and without warning he told me that he was having an affair and he wanted a divorce.

I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.[i]

It was anger, a powerful, overwhelming anger at her husband that set Pema Chodron on the road to finding not only her religious identity, but her life’s work. When her marriage ended, she found that she could not get comfortable, she could not find solace or refuge in her new reality as the person that she used to be. She tried hard for a long time, but it didn’t work – to regain some sense of comfort and wellbeing, she had to change.

William Bridges, a writer and workshop leader in the field he calls ‘transitions management,’ speaks of this uncomfortable gap, this empty time in the wake of an ending, as The Neutral Zone. It is the same passage through loss that I believe Wendell Berry was speaking of in his poem The Slip. In it, he describes a pasture along the riverbank which has fallen away and been consumed by the expansion of the waters:

The river takes the land, and leaves nothing.

Where the great slip gave way in the bank

and an acre disappeared, all human plans

dissolve. An aweful clarification occurs

where place was. Its memory breaks

from what is known now, begins to drift.

Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness

Widens the air for birdflight, wind and rain.

As before the beginning, nothing is there.

Human wrong is in the cause, human

ruin in the effect—but no matter;

all will be lost, no matter the reason.

Nothing, having arrived, will stay.

The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon

it passeth away. And yet this nothing

is the seed of all—the clear eye

of Heaven, where all worlds appear.

When the imperfect has departed, the perfect

begins its struggle to return. The good gift

begins again its descent. The maker moves

in the unmade, stirring the water until

it clouds, dark beneath the surface,

stirring and darkening the soul until pain

perceives new possibility. There is nothing

to do but learn and wait, return to work

on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.

Though death is in the healing, it will heal.[ii]

Loss is real, it is irreversible, and all things which are mortal must one day end. In the presence of that reality, this is the guidance the poet offers to those lost and wandering in the desert of grief: there is nothing to do but learn and wait, and return to work on what remains. There is work to be done even after the loss, there are lessons to learn, there is hope to till out of the soil of grief. The opportunity does not explain the tragedy, does not justify it, but it does offer a sprout in the scar.

This is one of Rabbi Laurence Kushner’s most vivid messages in his famous book, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” That title, by the way, is frequently misunderstood. Once, I was returning the book at the library and found it was overdue. I don’t know how that happened – I’m usually very careful about avoiding late fees. So I had to pay a fine of twenty cents. The clerk looked at the book I was being fined for and said, “What an appropriate title to be fined for!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her why Rabbi Kushner wrote this book, that his inspiration for writing was the life and death of his son, Aaron. In it, the father lists the many gifts of wisdom and insight that he gained from knowing and losing his son. They are gifts he would happily surrender, every one of them, for his child’s safe return. But that is not a choice he has the power to make. Instead, Rabbi Kushner summarized the challenge of being lost, and yet still seeking to find in this way:

Are you capable of forgiving and accepting in love a world which has disappointed you by not being perfect, a world in which there is so much unfairness and cruelty, disease and crime, earthquake and accident? Can you forgive its imperfections and love it because it is capable of containing great beauty and goodness, and because it is the only world we have?[iii]

These are the questions that loss carries with it. They are the same for every loss; only the volume changes. They come out to meet us as we step into the desert, they flow on the currents at the bottom of the river, and they drift from the forest on the sounds of the night. In the hospital, I often discussed these questions with my patients; they raised them, or something like them, as they set out into the desert. It is the nature of the work of the chaplain, just as it is the nature of life itself, not to be neat and tidy, with a simple, easy ending. Most people go home unfinished, carrying a bit of the desert with them. When Danny left, he was still figuring out what would replace the work he could no longer do; figuring it out with the help of his parents, his sister, and his girlfriend. The last time I saw Sharon, she was still trying to reconcile thirty years of being the caretaker and provider with all of the help and support she needed now from her children. But when they came to take her home, she was able to go with them. And Max; Max broke his streak of perfect health with heart surgery and a week in the ICU. He went home still grieving for the damage to his healthy, young-at-heart identity. But he told me before he left: “If this is what it takes, to stick around for my grandkids, then I’ll do every damn thing those fool doctors tell me to do.”

For my partner Sara and I, in our case, we could not stay lost forever. Eventually, the driver returned to the bus, and we wound our way back up the steep hill. On the ride up, we could look out over the forest and appreciate its lush color for the first time. Passing through the ancient city after sunset, the dim lighting gave the people and buildings a ghostly beauty. We wound our long way home through the night, and found our stop, and left the bus behind for our beds.

My friends: the next time that you are lost at the edge of the forest, I hope that your journey through the night might be as easy, and that wherever it takes you, you do not have to make it alone.

[i] From When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, Shambhala, 2002

[ii] From The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry, North Point Press, 1987

[iii] From When Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Schocken Books, 1981


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