“The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” — Mrs. O’Brien, “The Tree of Life”
“If you’re having trouble forgiving others, forgive yourself. If you’re having trouble forgiving yourself, forgive others.” — Rob Bell
How do you grieve something that never was? And how do you hope for that which never was, to one day be? Or, at the very least, to grieve what could have been, yet hope for what could be? I’m not sure I have an answer, and maybe the questions deserve more questions. Maybe it’s in the questions that we find the holy response we’re looking for.
I was flying back to Atlanta from Seattle a few months ago, and just as we were approaching Atlanta, we were rerouted to Huntsville, Alabama due to a storm (those damn southern summers, I swear). So we land in Huntsville, and we refuel, and we all have to stay on the plane, so people are complaining (but like, damn, Jackie, I can’t control the weather), and we end up sitting there for about two hours as we wait for the storm to pass and the all-clear to be able to fly to Atlanta. But even as an introvert, two hours is a long time to sit next to people on a tarmac in Huntsville, Alabama and not talk to them. So I start talking to the guy to my right, the guy in the aisle seat, and at first it’s all small talk, y’know, like, “man, this sucks,” and he says, “yeah, I’m trying to get to Charlotte but at this rate I might have better luck renting a car,” and I respond with a “dang, man, that’s tough,” and he cracks a smile and nods. So then we start talking about Charlotte, and why he was in Seattle, but it turns out he was in Denver the night before that and Germany the night before that, and I find out he’s a C-17 pilot in the Air Force, and I tell him my dad was an AC-130 pilot, and we make a joke about how all the Top Gun propaganda is exactly that, and we both laugh at the jadedness of it all, and I do my best to not tell him I’m a pacifist, or that I’ve been to Iraq, but two hours is a long time to be stuck next to someone, so eventually it comes up, and we start talking about the reality of war and death and grief and suffering and how f’ed up things are, and my jadedness toward the military industrial complex really comes through when he says, “you ever been to Baghdad? That whole f–ing city was destroyed.” But then we get into a bit of an argument as he makes some negative comments about a group of people that I love, so I call him out on it and tell him he’s being an ass with all these assumptions he’s making, and he apologizes, and then he asks me, “you ever been to Afghanistan??,” and I say “no,” and ask him if he has, and for the first time in the whole conversation, he gets a little serious, and the cynicism fades out of his eyes as he says, “yeah, last August.”
“Wow,” was about all I could say. His whole demeanor changed, and he wasn’t making eye contact anymore, but after a few seconds of silence go by, I ask him if he minds telling me about it. So he recounts to me the horror and trauma he witnessed, evacuating thousands of refugees from Kabul right after the Taliban took over. Still, not making much eye contact. He says the runway is filled with hundreds or maybe thousands of people, and he swears the guy in the ATC tower is just some 16 year old kid, telling him that he’s just gotta land the plane. But people on the runway have AKs, and this cynical, jaded, 20-something year-old C-17 pilot obviously doesn’t want to die, and he doesn’t know who the hell these people are on the runway, but he lands it, and befriends an Afghan who is able to translate for him, and him and his crew are able to make multiple trips evacuating refugees in the span of about 40 hours, and he’s telling me all this, and he looks up, and then down again, and he says, “I’m just glad I didn’t kill anybody.”
I wept about an hour later.
And I wept again, a few days ago, at Volunteer Park in Capitol Hill, Seattle, with a hot dog in my hand and talking with a new friend about life and change and questions and family dynamics and sadness and forgiveness. And forgiveness. And forgiveness. And I cried. With my new friend, with a hot dog in my hand.
As Andy Squyres says, “hot dogs are the answer.”
You’re right, Andy.
There’s this Irish proverb that I’ve come to love, and yet it prods me like the way the Teacher in that old book talks about the words of the wise.
“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
I’m not sure if I can, yet. To find shelter in each other, in another. To belong is a frightening thing. Sometimes the storm is more comforting than the pain of living in the shelter of others. But we must.
I ate a blueberry bagel a few months ago, one of those “Dave’s Killer Bread” bagels. I think I got it at the Target on SW Barton St. Kept it in the freezer for awhile because God knows I’m not about to eat six blueberry bagels before the expiration date. Anyways. I ate it with joy, standing over the sink because I smothered each half with almond butter and honey, my fingers stained with stickiness. And I felt forgiveness upon me. I like that language, by the way. The idea of something “being upon us.” It was Padraig O Tuama who introduced me to that language. He talks about how, in Irish, there isn’t a word for “being sad.” Instead, sadness comes upon you. And at another time, something else will.
So I stood over that sink, honey dripping down into that metallic abyss like I had just crossed into the Promised Land, and forgiveness was upon me. And it’s been upon me more and more, softening my cynicism in the same way my toaster softens that frozen bagel. And I think about George Macdonald’s Lilith, and his understanding of hell, and I think about Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman and their dreams of the beloved community, and that if they can forgive, so can I. And to long for redemption, or healing, or holiness, or wholeness, or whatever the hell you think human flourishing and goodness is, well, it’s not an easy thing, and sometimes it’s a fucking hard thing, y’know? But maybe that’s part of getting to the wholeness — that wrestling of hope — that dark night of the soul where we don’t let go until we’re blessed (like that sleazy patriarch with my name), and we walk away with a limp because wrestling in the dark is no easy virtue, and we’re left weeping at the terror and beauty and wonder of it all, and we are tempted to think it’s all a game but we know deep down it’s a gift.
I’ve got this picture burned into my mind. It pops in my head nearly every day. It’s this image of a fallen fighter jet in the middle of a desert just west of Iran, and it’s got bullet holes through the cockpit canopy. And I took the picture.
And I don’t know why, but it haunts me. I don’t know the story. Quite positive it’s an old Iraqi jet, though. An Ebenezer of a haunted past, a haunting past. But I’ve met some Kurds who believe in beating swords into plowshares, and they say they forgive. And that’s not easy. But damn, it’s transformative.
I think what may be just as difficult as forgiveness (whether toward oneself — God knows I need that, or toward others), is the grief of that which never was. There’s that proverb that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and anyone who says they’ve never felt that is lying to themselves. I think, though, that maybe the healing comes by allowing oneself to grieve the loss of a hope. Whatever that hope was, whatever it still is. There is so much pain that comes from hope, but so much joy, too.
And so I grieve those hopes lost, and I do my best to forgive myself for all the pain I’ve caused to myself and others, and I am slowly learning to forgive those who have wounded me, and I am more than my attachment styles, and so are you, and grief is a holy thing, and so is being human, and I allow myself to hope again, and to dream, and to weep, and to dance, and to sing karaoke, and to sit next to a C-17 pilot and talk about the complexities of this world we live in, and to eat some hot dogs with a new friend, and to become a child again and go play in the ocean with a foam board, and to learn forgiveness from a blueberry bagel.