essays and excerpts

In the Wake of Pain and the Gold of Care

“How’s your back doing?” my father would ask with a hope-you’re-okay smile from across the dinner table.

He struggled to remember many things during the last years of his life, but he remembered that my back was hurting. Perhaps he worried, knowing at his age how pain can accumulate and weigh us down. I felt that weight on the morning my mother called to tell me he’d died. That news hurt like nothing I’d experienced before.

I didn’t quite know what to do with myself in those days, and one of the ways I dealt with that involved riding a mountain bike trail near my home. Something about the position of reaching for handlebars felt like a relief to my back, and something about the physical movement felt like a relief to my heart and mind.

Deer came to the trail, too, most days. I’d watch them lift their heads from grazing to watch me. Turtles piled on top of each other on a log in the river. Dragonflies darted above prairie grass. I’d often catch myself making a mental note to tell my father about them the next time we talked. Then, I’d remember he was gone. I’d take a deep breath to keep from crying. He’d loved animals. I’d gotten practice loving what he loved.

Though I didn’t see many people at first out there at the trail, I knew that other people must be spending a great deal of time there, too. Someone had hung a wooden sign on a branch along the way that declared, “Peace.” Unseen others would cut back brush from the path and, after storms, move aside fallen branches for those who came after. I started doing a bit of the same. It felt comforting to find myself in a place where people cared for things and for each other. I don’t think it mattered whether I gave the care or received it, but only that I found myself in the middle of it.

I tried to take care with the people I did eventually start finding. I saw an older hiker with a walking stick one day and asked him from behind if I could pass. He jumped and turned around with worried eyes. I felt bad for surprising him and promised myself I’d ring my bell next time so as not to surprise anyone else.

Before the next hiker, though, I surprised myself. Pedaling through a narrow space I’d often cleared before, my foot got stuck this time in the knotty base of a tree. I fell with my bike down a hill and laid in a fern patch, waiting to feel what might begin to hurt. I became aware of something other than pain, though. I became aware that I could almost hear my father asking: “How’s your back doing?”

I’d thought of him so often out there in the woods as I rode. Pain may accumulate, but so can care, and I’d received so much of his care over the years. Warm memories stored up inside of me seemed to have begun rising back to the surface—slowly, here and there—in the quiet of the woods.

Like gold that a kintsugi artist uses to fill cracks in what she repairs, a sense of care seemed to have begun flowing through the cracks left in me by my father’s death. His love hadn’t died, really. It was more that I was finding his presence with me in different ways.

Laying there in the fern patch where I’d fallen that day, I actually whispered out loud, “I think my back’s okay,” as if my father were still asking. I stood and climbed gingerly up the hill. I still felt a little “off,” of course. When I saw the hiker with the walking stick soon after, I reached for the bell on my handlebars and found nothing. Had the bell broken off? I came to an awkward stop to look for it. When I glanced up, I saw the hiker had stopped to watch me.

“I meant to ring my bell and warn you,” I explained. “I just couldn’t find it.”

He smiled. “That’s okay,” he said. “I heard you coming this time.”

I’d needed that smile. It wasn’t my father’s smile, but it still touched me somewhere deep to be seen in a way that made another human being smile. I grinned back and wished him a good hike. As I rode on, I pulled the bell right-side-up onto my handlebars from under the shift lever, where I’d found it. I gave it a test ding.

“You found it!” yelled the hiker from somewhere behind me. I heard laughter in his voice.

From then on, the hiker—he introduced himself as John—would watch for me and step aside, always waiting with a warm expression on his face. It became a favorite part of my bike ride to find him and others with whom I could smile, grin, or laugh. A young jogger with a large dog, two women on bikes thrilled to see another female, a father and a son resting from their ride who clapped when they saw me trying, and trying, and finally making it to the top of a difficult hill—we all had smiles for each other. It felt like dwelling in a form of care together, too.

In the wake of my pain, flowing through those days like kintsugi gold, I found the warmth and presence of other lives with mine. I even found that my father’s love, woven so inextricably into my own life, seemed not so very absent, after all. Care went with me. I tried to remember this. When pain would come, as it does, I would try to remember and to watch for the gold of care that so often flows in its wake.

It helped when I had my worst fall yet from my bike. I found myself on the ground with pain in my back and chest deepening. I tried to remember not to get discouraged as I made it home and then to my doctor. I explained to him what parts of me hurt—right, left, front, back, all of it. He grimaced when I mentioned how I’d fallen, but his face held no judgement. I’d learned over time that this doctor smiled brightest when talking about mountain bikes, and I saw that smile clearly begin to emerge when we’d determined that I had no fractures.

By the time I was laying on a table for electrotherapy on my spasming back muscles, he and I were chatting about bike skills and laughing. The laughter hurt even more, but I didn’t care. I suspected it helped me as much as the electrotherapy did. When it was time to go, I got up slowly and walked towards the door.

“Have a good weekend, Callie,” the doctor said with a hope-you’re-okay tone of voice.

I looked back and smiled. I thought I just might.

This essay originally appeared on the November 21, 2021 A Kintsugi Life blog.

Claiming a Fast in Pandemic Time: On How We Carry What We Miss

Before the pandemic, the scent of warm, yeasty bread would have filled the chapel. Someone from our school’s café would have walked down in the hour or so before the service to leave a fresh-baked loaf wrapped in a white towel on the table. We’d have smelled it through all the prayers, music, and spoken word, reminded in each moment of a service of word and table. 

However, on the day of our very first in-person service since the pandemic began, I smelled nothing. The bread was missing.To be fair, I sometimes focus on bits and pieces when the bigger picture feels too big to handle in any given moment. I suspect I focused on the bread because it felt like the least painful absence on which to muse. Early in the service, one of the leaders shared the names of two community members who’d passed away recently. I could still see their faces so clearly that I could hardly believe them gone. Tears welled up in my eyes. The thought of our two missing colleagues blended in my heart with all the other people who, for one reason or another, no longer sat in the pews with us.

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss. Even those who have not lost people to death have had to let go of so much in the last couple of years. Rituals and routines, gatherings and goals, all sorts of plans and hopes and dreams—almost all the corners of our lives have required changes and, sometimes, endings. 

The pandemic has left us no strangers to loss, and I feel in some ways as if I’ve not gotten very far at all in metabolizing it. I’m not keeping up with the rush to return to normalcy. What does a person do with her deep sense of not-rightness that remains? How do we carry all the absence, all the awareness of people and things missing from our days, other than to carry it around like holes inside of us? 

I lost track of much of the service that day. I mused on these things until a few words near the end caught my attention. The liturgist asked us to join in the “Call to Eucharistic Fast for the Neighbor.”

“God is with you,” the presider said.  

“And also with you,” I joined in the printed response. 

“Open your hearts.”  

“We open our hearts to God.” 

“Let us give thanks to God.” 

“It is right to give our thanks and praise.” 

“It is indeed right,” the presider affirmed. “In this time of pandemic—a pandemic of illness, a pandemic of injustice, a pandemic of loss in so many ways—to call to mind our unshakeable connection through the body of Christ. It is also, indeed, right and painful to fast from the Eucharist in these days for the sake of the most vulnerable among us . . .” 

I used a sleeve to dab at tears before too many had fallen into my mask. I’d never heard of a liturgy of “eucharistic fast” before. Apparently, we were declaring that we would not share bread or wine again just yet and would instead claim this fast.   

I let the liturgical words wash over me, welcoming their echo of how “off” life still felt. Yes, some of us sat together again in a chapel, but how many remained at home, too vulnerable to risk indoor gatherings? How many of us had found the capacity for “normal” functioning again? I, for one, had not.  

I’d forgotten how beautifully the sacred language in our traditions could help us articulate a “there” that we haven’t reached yet. Here now, still in pandemic time, we were going to wait. Even the Eucharist would wait. It would wait with us. 

“Right and painful,” the presider had said.  

I remembered his words a week later when I woke up congested, feeling my body do that tired, aching thing that bodies do when getting sick. On the one hand, I didn’t think I had Covid-19. On the other hand, my workplace’s policy said that my symptoms warranted isolation. It had been right a week ago to withhold from sharing bread and wine, and it was right now to stay home, withholding myself from others for all our sakes.  

I began contacting people to cancel things the next couple of days. 

“We’ve done this before, haven’t we?” my mother asked when I called her to explain why I wouldn’t be visiting that weekend to bake cookies as we’d planned. 

“I hate isolation,” I said. 

I hated it, and as I felt my disappointment mounting at all I’d be missing that week, the new language of “eucharistic fast” returned. I wondered what it would mean to offer these days as a sort of fast. 

This would be no 40-day Lenten fast, choosing to set aside certain meals or foods for the sake of self-reflection, penitence, and reconciliation. Pandemic time has already spanned two Lenten seasons and bled across entire church calendar years. It has called us to give up more than bread. In so many ways, we’ve given up contact with each other. The liturgy of eucharistic fast described a much less defined timeframe requiring a much deeper kind of patience. It pointed us outward, asking our reflection and sacrifice for the sake of those more vulnerable around us.  

Those who are absent from us these days may be gone with an absence from which they will not return to us in this life. If I claimed a grief-time fast from expecting certain kinds of comfort or seeking to return to life as I knew it with those I’d lost, that fast might need to last a long time. What we miss dearly from pre-pandemic days may remain far from us, or at least available only intermittently, for a while. Were we to fast from our moves to return to “normal,” that fast might need to last a very long time. I seem to recall that the biblical tradition of forty days represented something to the effect of “a very long time.”  

To carry our losses as a fast, our grieving as an act undertaken for God and one another, might honor those experiences as more than merely holes inside of us. These opened-up spaces might feel raw, confused, or grief-filled, but they likely feel that way because of the precious relationships, gifts, and other blessings that once filled them. What if we gave up our expectations that our lives to return to “normal”? What if we fasted from assuming comfort would feel the way it used to feel? If we let go of expectations and assumptions that separate us from God and one another, could our losses become spaces in which we behold divine and human presence in new ways? 

“Sustain us in these days,” the presider at that chapel service had prayed, “until by your grace we are brought together to the table again.” 

The smell of bread remained absent, but the liturgy held me, filled me. It seemed to remind us of how much larger life is than bread alone. The God who made us continued to sustain us and had not left. 

I’ve continued to whisper, “Amen.” 

This essay originally appeared in the October 21, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

On the Changing of Seasons

Lately, I’ve been fighting it. Pandemic life has meant so much change already. I’m feeing less and less desire to adapt. I’m feeling strongly protective of things I wouldn’t have expected to hold onto so tightly. As summer passes and days shorten, I find myself feeling inordinate amounts of grief about small things like the loss of bike rides before work.

Sound silly? It’s true. Much as I’ve hated the pandemic, both COVID summers had me working remotely and relishing early sunrises on commute-free days. I’d often take a bike out on the rail trail near my home, riding north past restaurants that smelled of frying bacon, steering clear of pedestrians leaving coffee shops with their to-go cups and pastries. I’d notice changes in the feel of the air and coloring of the sky, amazed at how many different ways the world could look before 7 am. 

I knew that I’d never begun days so well. Rituals can remind us of bigger pictures, and that bike ride ritual began my days by reminding me of life beyond my email inbox. I’m really, really missing those rides.

I miss Steve’s smile. I never even learned Steve’s last name, but I learned to recognize the grin that would spread across the face of this older walker when he’d see me riding towards him. In our world of masks and Zoom-mediated faces, I found unmasked human beings and their smiles on that rail trail, and I loved it. Maybe Steve did, too. At first, we only waived to each other as we passed. Eventually, when we’d introduced ourselves, we’d stop and chat. I heard about his wife and his upcoming hip replacement surgery. He heard about my concerns as the end to my working remotely approached.

“Will you go back, or will you find a new job?” he asked. “I hear more and more people are doing that.”

“We’ll see,” I said, laughing to find that I was suddenly not worried about the future when I could stand under a shade tree, chatting my new friend. 

Those mornings along the rail trail kept reminding me that life had not ended, pandemic notwithstanding. Life moved along with a series of rapid and profound changes, and Steve and I and a lot of other people had been finding ways to move along with it. Those mornings kept me out among people, engaged by what I could still do and discover, experiencing newness as something beautiful rather than frightening. That time became precious. I’m missing it. When I think about all these things that time has meant to me, perhaps I shouldn’t feel surprised to find myself missing it so much.

The passing of seasons can feel bittersweet at any time of life, as it often means losing what’s become familiar and comforting. I wonder: does the passing of pandemic seasons feel extra difficult? Though life hasn’t ended, it has changed rapidly. Many of us have lost more this last year and half than we even know how to explain. One way or another, we’ve had to find things with which to steady and orient ourselves. No wonder I’m finding it difficult to let go of the pandemic summer comfort I found in those morning bike rides. 

I try to be gentle with myself as I bear this in mind. I try to be gentle with others, too. I try to be gentle, and I try to give myself time to enjoy those memories of summer things that brought me gladness and comfort. Taking time to remember can honor what seemed good and right. However, remembering doesn’t only focus us on the past. Remembering what seemed good and right can also help us focus on what may yet become good and right in new seasons ahead. It helps me, at least, to remember what I’m watching for. 

I’m watching for good ways to start my day, for one thing. I need morning rituals that remind me of bigger pictures and of life beyond my email inbox.

I’m paying attention, also, to how much I need those settings where I get to enjoy being with people who are enjoying their world. Morning bike rides meant getting outdoors into settings where I could soak up the smiles and gladness of others exercising, contemplating, and otherwise greeting the day. (Sometimes I have my own smiles and gladness to share, and some days more than others I need to draw gladness from the people around me.)

I’m also on the lookout for Steve. I haven’t seen him since his hip surgery. I knew recovery would take time, though, so I’m not worried. I’m just making sure to get out as bright and early as possible on my days off to watch for him as he works his way back to the distances he used to walk. 

I trust that we do tend to find what we’re looking for, however unexpected the form our findings might take. I remind myself to stand down from fighting all the changes of season underway (both in Indiana weather and in a global pandemic). I hope to draw wisdom yet from the grief I’m feeling as I say “goodbye” to summer.

I’ve been taking my bike out in the evenings after work lately, and going up the rail trail the other day, I found something new that I’d been waiting to see. A tunnel that had been closed for a while had reopened. Five young people with paint brushes stood inside, studying the tunnels walls while trying to stay out of the way of foot and bike traffic on the trail.

During the tunnel closure, I’d read that a mural would be going up. I saw it now: piano keyboards, violins, and instruments of all kinds danced the length of the tunnel walls. These five young artists must have had detail work to finish up, for they laughed with one another as they dabbed their brushes at the wall. They acted so engrossed with their project and with each other that I wondered if they even noticed the cyclists flying by so close behind them. I watched them enjoying this new thing they were doing, and I let their smiles make me smile, too. 

Monon Greenway tunnel mural by Carmel High School students. Photo by Callie J. Smith.

What will you be watching for this fall?