Monday, February 25, 2013

Sometimes Iona Seems Far Away

This week, my daughter and granddaughters are returning from Ireland. 

They have been living there for nearly a year while my son-in-law has been trying to finish his master's degree. Naturally, I am overjoyed. But my joy is tempered from knowing that on the other side of the Atlantic, Austin will watch his wife and children get on a plane. He will then go back to Galway to complete his degree. He won't get to see his wife or children until then. 

I know what it feels like to put loved ones on a plane and I know what it feels like to be the loved on getting on the plane. The years have not made it easier to forget.

So I'm  thinking tonight about all the families of soldiers, immigrants, and missionaries who face the agony of separation. I am thinking about families dear to me who have said a final goodbye to their loved ones, knowing full well that they will never see them again in this life.

In the light of those more serious separations, what my son-in-law faces isn't so bad. Even in the light of the recent past, when a journey abroad involved months or years, what he faces is a relatively small thing. 

I remember moving to South America, watching my grandparents forcing themselves to remain brave for our sakes. I didn't know what they were feeling back then. 

Now I do.

I know all of that. My children know it too. And yet … 

Pain just doesn't yield to reason.

I am thinking tonight about the times I have read a post on Facebook about someone else's pain and how thought, “good grief, “what drama! That's my reaction when the pain belongs to someone else.

Two weeks ago however,  I was the one who posted about how upset I was that my daughter in Phoenix had been robbed. It was Ash Wednesday. I was getting ready to go into one of my favorite services of the year, receive communion and begin what is for me a blessed time of the year. Then a call, and I hear my daughter’s voice and from the first word – “Dad” – I know something’s wrong. 

“My house is a wreck. They went through everything. They took Kendall’s iPod.”

So I posted my anguish online. 

Why did I inflict my emotions on you? 

I don’t know.

I sometimes read the most terrible things on Facebook. Someone has lost his mother. Someone’s house has burned. Someone is going through a divorce. Someone has lost a job. I get worn out by the drama I read on Facebook. 

And yet, I think you will have the patience to read about our stuff.

Our family, like most American families, is scattered. We don't see one another for months at a time. 

Some people think this is natural.

I don’t. 

There’s too much Latin in me to accept this erosion of family and what it does to the individuals in them as "normal." Too many little American children grow up without grandparents or aunties. Too many grow up without a sense of home. Too many live in a house to which they form no attachment because they know they will soon leave it behind for another one, somewhere else.

We call this progress, this constant shuffling about from hither to yon. But if it is progress, why are we stuffing our brains with antidepressants and our stomachs with junk food?

In the middle of all of this madness – for that is what it is – we have discovered a way of shouting our anguish into the night, into the vast nothingness of cyberspace.

It’s a form of prayer, I suppose, forming our emotions into words, throwing the results out into the digital sea in hopes it will wash up on soil far away.

We check the computer through the day to see if anyone got the message. We see a thumb or two pointing up or down, read some short word – ‘praying for you’ – ‘I went thorough that once’ – ‘can I help?’ – or perhaps a cartoon to make us laugh -- and we are relieved somehow.  Someone heard us. We are not alone after all.

It’s a communion of saints and sinners, this cyber jungle. It’s a collection of people who by turns seem mad as hatters, these otherwise reasonable, sane, honest people sputtering and spitting out bits of woe into the ether. 

When not facing any particular trial, I actually get pretty judgmental and condescending about social media. ”Grow up,” I shout at the posts that keep scrolling down the page.

Then my turn comes. 

In isolated suburban mansions that would have made our grandparents gasp, hidden behind remote control garage doors, utterly disconnected from others -- without even the prop of a sidewalk to help us pretend we have neighbors – the television shouts some insane claim about the miracle working power of toothpaste – we open up our computer to tell someone, somewhere, that life seems difficult today. 

Most of the time it’s an overstatement. Tomorrow, things will be fine. A few months from now, my daughter’s family will be reunited. In two weeks, I will see both of my daughters and their children. I’m OK. So why do I inflict this momentary personal drama on you?

In past times, I would have sucked it up. I would have gone on to bed. The next day I would have gone to work. I would have had a cup of coffee and walked through my day with no one the wiser. 

So, is this better? I don't know.

My son-in-law is such a good man. I have watched him walk through things that would have destroyed most people. So I know he will make it. But I hurt for him and I can't help talking about it

My other granddaughter’s dad is in Afghanistan and will be there for months. I will get to hold his daughter in a couple of weeks. I'm counting the hours. But should I post that on Facebook, knowing he will hurt when he reads it? I know he will be glad for me, but still ...

What a strange new world we have entered. Its not quite like our old villages, but not quite unlike them either. Back then we shared our lives with the people at the general store and with the mailman. They carried our news to others until it often reached the ears of people who barely knew us.

If things were bad enough, our neighbors would show up with a pie and a prayer. Even our distant cousins and their in-laws would come and let us know they cared.

I guess, they still do. Only now they show up on this little screen, at this strange meeting where we gather each day for a few moments to let each other know how we are doing.

The social media world makes the challenges of every body's life into a little melodramas. At least that’s what it looks like to the rest of us.

But now we know the truth: that every home faces its own battles and victories that in the past were hidden behind social grace and forced smiles. What looks like melodrama from the outside is some one's private pain.

Here, in this digital village, the agony of homes separated by wars far away, and, in our case, by a few months of study, and yet others, by migration of a loved one to find food and a better life for the family left behind, gets splattered on the wall for all of us to see.

We laugh at these emotional outbursts. Sometimes, we are even disgusted with them. But sometimes, we comfort ourselves by joining in.

On this Lenten journey we are in, we meet and, too often, ignore one another. But then later, when we recall the kind words and brief acknowledgements of our joys and distress, we remember that our heart burned within us. We realize then that these tenuous connections formed by electronic wizardry from a community, that however weird, is sometimes enough to keep heart and soul together.

To all of you who have paused a moment to read these words, but especially to those who are lonely tonight because they are separated from loved ones -- God's peace to you all.

Nothing can substitute for a loved one's physical touch. A cyber ‘poke’ doesn’t even come close. But it is not nothing. And for some, it is all they have.

For a believer it is the perfect picture of Lent. We pause here to grieve things that have passed, anticipate something that is coming, and acknowledge a Presence that comforts and soothes the lonely soul  making his way home.

A cyber blessing, a cyber touch to you all until we can sit down at table and laugh at the silly ways we coped while we were apart.

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