Handling the Holes Created by Loss

I’ve never worked in kintsugi gold, but I’ve begun enjoying the other kinds of repairs that I do manage to do. Repairs feel like a form of care for the things that go with me through my days. On the bookshelf, a Joy of Cooking cookbook I inherited from my grandmother has its cracked spine reinforced with packing tape. A favorite coffee cup still holds up well with its super-glued handle. I even brought out my sewing kit recently to tackle the holes in my shower curtain.

Pulled threads and puncture holes—that curtain has seen better days, for sure. My black cat Bo caused most of the damage. Between playing with the hem, reaching for the tassels, and grabbing at the fabric when she’d slip on the bathtub ledge, Bo left her marks on that shower curtain. When I gave her away, it took me a while to think about repairing the curtain. I had so many other things on my mind.

My father passed away not long before the pandemic began, and I didn’t know what to do with a world that didn’t have him in it. I grieved that presence that had always made sure our family had what we needed, made sure we knew that things would work out all right. I worried about my mother, too, facing her own grief and pandemic isolation, suddenly living alone. I knew that my mother and father had come to love my cat, their “grand-kitty,” and I asked my mother one day if she’d enjoy having Bo move in with her. Without even pausing to consider, she answered, “Yes!”

So, I gave Bo to my mother. I felt glad that Bo would be sharing her warm, playful little presence with someone who probably needed it. All the same, I missed her. I missed my father. I missed the cute cat pictures I’d take—like Bo napping on a peach-colored bath mat—to send to my father to make him smile. I missed telling him stories about her, like the bulge in the shower curtain where Bo would hide on the bathtub ledge, peeking out to watch me get ready in the morning.

I cried often at first, sad and lonely for loved ones missing to death and to pandemic distances. Human lives can break in so many ways, but loss and grief make up one very common kind of hole that we find in our days. Some days, I felt like I had about as many holes in me as the shower curtain had in its fabric.

The more I let myself cry, though, the more I discovered something else happening alongside the tears: I’d be smiling or laughing in the middle of crying. Mending snags in the shower curtain, I remembered how Bo could make a toy out of anything and laughed as I pictured her with boxes and bags and yarn. I reached for the tool kit my father gave to everyone in the family one Christmas (as if he assumed that life would invariably need repairs), and opening the box, I smiled as I imagined how he would smile whenever I’d tell him about using something he’d given me.

I couldn’t deny the hole where my father’s physical life with us used to be. I couldn’t deny the hole where a little black cat used to be—always underfoot. Yet, even as those holes pointed to absence, I also found them pointing to more presence than I’d expected. After all, love doesn’t just disappear. In memories and thoughts, in the joy I still took at picturing Bo’s playfulness, in the care I still experienced from the things and smiles and thousand other reassurances my father had given me over the years, I found both of them still felt very much with me, albeit in different ways than before.

I said I’d never worked in kintsugi gold, but I do think that the image of gold filling our holes—all those painful openings introduced by wear and tear and time—has given me a lovely way to handle those holes. The gold has reminded me to see in the shower curtain punctures how the sweet little pet who’d made me smile every day now offers her playful blessing to my mother. The gold has reminded me to notice, in that gap where calls and visits with my father used to be, how I continue to find his care with me, even now. I suspect my increasing sense of repair work as a form of care has emerged from my practice with noticing the tender, gentle gold that appears in the middle of my hurting holes.

The pandemic has given me nothing if not practice. When I’d done what I could do with repairing Bo’s shower curtain, I brought out my father’s tool kit to see what other kinds of care I could give that space. I’d never been one to decorate bathrooms, but I remembered the colorful artwork and shelves of linens that my grandmother used to have around her bathroom, and I tried my own hand at introducing some new color around that old pastel curtain. I found a painting in my closet to hang on one of the bathroom walls. I assembled shelving where I lined up my collection of colorful towels, including the one with pastel stripes and a ragged hem line which belonged to my grandmother.

“Granny would have liked this,” I thought, looking happily around when I finished. “Bo would definitely have found even more to play with.”

I’ve also called my mother a lot during the pandemic, asking how she and Bo are doing. In the middle of a sentence sometimes, my mother will cut herself off and say, “Bo, stop that.” She uses her most gentle, coaxing, grandmother-like voice.

“What’s she doing now?” I’ll ask.

One day, Bo was apparently laying on the floor scratching at the upholstery of my mother’s recliner.

“I’m so sorry, Mom!” I said, feeling somewhat responsible for any cat-related damage.

“Oh, it’s not really a problem,” my mother said. “I’ve wrapped clear duct tape around the bottom of the recliner. She can’t put any more holes in it, and besides, she’s so cute when she tries to get my attention like that.”

I laughed, liking her way of handling holes.

This essay original appeared on the A Kintsugi Life blog on May 26, 2021.

Beneath the Loss

Does the vividness of memory ever surprise you? It does me. 

I remember a day as a student when I joined some classmates in waving scarves of every color as we danced barefoot down the grey, marble-floored hallways of our seminary. A drummer walked with us, and a group of people followed.

I think it was a holiday. I think we led people to a special service. I don’t remember those details exactly, but I do remember the joy: on dancers’ faces as we turned and leapt, in the drum beat and clapping hands, in my own body as I danced in public for the first time. I found myself with others in the middle of something larger than any one of us, something whose gladness went deep. 

So much time has passed since then. Even if it hadn’t, the pandemic would stand as a sharp dividing line between now and what came before. At the seminary—the same seminary, where I now serve on staff—we began working remotely just before our city’s lockdown. Hallways emptied. Classes went online. So much changed.

I knew that I got to keep what many others did not: work, income, food, and healthcare. Still, it felt like daily bread taken away to lose the physical presence of so many people and places I’d built my days around. I had a hard time shaking the lethargy of that early pandemic time, missing the nourishment of physical presence. When I’d swing by the seminary building, as I sometimes still needed to do, I’d go quickly in and out. Some of that speed had to do with an eerily empty building, not wanting to spend too much time thinking about the people missing from those hallways. 

One misty afternoon, though, I paused. Just inside the building, floor-to-ceiling windows showed me the chapel across the courtyard. The emptiness prompted recollection. I imagined lights turned on inside, making its windows glow with warmth. I’d often seen them do that on misty days. The place felt dense with memory. I don’t know how else to say it. I glanced across the courtyard, through windows in the opposite wing, and that was when I saw them: the dancers. Colorful scarves, young women in leotards leading a drummer and a crowd, mouths smiling and hands clapping—I saw us dancing as we danced years ago, our joy in one another and in what we were doing still vivid, still clear as day.

Tears filled my eyes. I missed those friends and professors. I missed so many people I’d come to know in those hallways over the years. A sense of loss welled up inside me. I missed my father, too, who died right before the pandemic began. He’d come to campus not long after that dancing day for my graduation. Though he had trouble walking by then, he and my mother persevered, and I remember how they stood beaming as we met by the auditorium for commencement. 

Memories can return with such inexplicable power and presence. I’ve started letting myself welcome them a little bit more lately. Far from adding to my sense of lethargy or loss, as I’d expected, I’ve actually found the memories waking me up and making me smile. I thought at first that they helped me look away from a difficult present. While that’s true, I’ve also started to notice memories doing so much more than that. 

Walking the empty halls, I’ll hear a mentor’s voice echoing back to me from over the years, and I feel as comforted as when she first spoke her encouraging words. I’ll see a colleague’s playful grin as we prepare a practical joke on our supervisor, and I laugh. I’ll feel the glow from my father’s expression on that graduation day as he told me he was proud of me, and it lingers like an undiminished blessing, still. Honestly, some days it really does seem as if the dancers still dance down the marble-floored halls, and my father still smiles for me, and what I grieve isn’t really gone. 

Beneath the loss, if we dwell with it and look at it long enough, I think we can often see that love remains. “Love never ends,” writes Paul. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8a & 13:13 NRSV). Love given and received, love holding us together, love shaping who we are and showing us how we want to live – by the grace of God, remains. Dancers still dance their colorful dances through the hallways of our lives, loved ones still smile for us from beyond the grave, and what we grieve we find is never really gone. 

This essay originally appeared in the May 6, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

On Mountain Biking and Trying Again

I remember lying on my back, looking up through tree branches. Leaves crunched under me, and my new mountain bike lay on top of me. It was not a promising beginning. In fact, it was a broken rib.

Painful as the injury felt, I actually found it a bit comforting. This fracture gave me a perfectly understandable reason for hurting. I had a broken place to which I could point. Unlike the pain of a divorce earlier that year, I could easily explain my bike hitting a tree. For my divorce I didn’t have many words, not for others or even for myself. You might say that was why I climbed onto a mountain bike in the first place.

When I’d moved, newly single, I’d expected to return to the stack of books always waiting for me, but they didn’t hold my attention. That felt odd. I wondered what people did with themselves who didn’t turn to words.  

I borrowed a mountain bike one day wondering if it could hold my attention. I hadn’t been on a bike in years, but I rode up a hill and found myself soaring down into the woods at a speed I could barely control. I felt scared, but not so scared that I shut down. I became alert. Flowing through the breeze and grinding musty leaves under my tires felt exhilarating.

I bought a bike and took it as often as I could to the trail. I’d make my way over tree roots, up and down hills, and around tight curves, surprised by each new thing I found I could do. 

My mind got space to roam, too. It was spacious enough out there to wonder about love and what happens to it, about hurt and what allows trust to return. Throwing myself into this new thing felt life-giving. Even if I wasn’t trying a relationship, the sheer trying of something new reassured me that I hadn’t come to an end of my possibilities. I spoke to myself about such things out there and, while I was at it, found myself speaking to the trees and to the God I believed to be listening. It felt like prayer.

One day I spoke with a hiker who’d stopped at the top of a root-covered hill.

“Look,” he said when I paused. He pointed to a birch whose white bark stood out against a dark, distant tree line. “See the bald eagle in the upper branches?” 

I saw it. A huge head glowed as white as the birch bark. We gazed a long while before I turned back and found the hiker grinning at me. I didn’t know which felt more amazing: to see a bald eagle in the wild or awe in a human face. 

I could still share wonder with another human being – I’d needed that. Divorce is one of many things can shut us down and make us doubt ourselves with others, so it felt good to notice how easily my heart warmed up. I even looked forward to seeing the creatures on the trail, like blue herons by the creek and snakes that sunned themselves by the prairie grass. They reminded me I wasn’t alone.

Then I broke my rib. Then the pandemic came.

I craved the chance to get out of my lockdown isolation, but even after the rib healed and I could have ventured further, my chest would tighten at the thought of returning to the trail.

“I can’t handle any more pain right now,” I thought. “I can’t justify that risk.”

Near-constant pain in my ribcage, recalling the feel of a marriage falling apart, now masking up in COVID-era fear of human nearness – all these visceral memories blurred into one big overwhelm. Yet, I missed my critters and hikers. I missed the conversations with myself, and trees, and God. I’d begun to suspect that falls – off a bike, out of a marriage, into a pandemic – will happen sometimes and are less dangerous than the fear afterwards.

I finally emailed someone from church who’d been mountain biking for years. I worried that we didn’t know each other well enough to ask in-person favors during a pandemic, but I wrote anyway. I asked if he’d meet me at the trail one day and – socially distanced – give me some pointers. I explained that I hadn’t ridden since a rib injury months before and needed help trying again. 

Bless William. He showed up at the trail one morning with Jon, who was also learning to ride. We chatted about technique, and then Jon rode towards the trailhead. William gestured that I go next.

“No,” I said. “I’m slow. You go next.”

 “Go,” he said. “I’ll give you space.”

I went. My shoulders tensed when tree roots twisted across the path. When I saw the place I’d fallen, I stopped abruptly. William stopped, too. I turned back and called:

“Please go ahead so you can enjoy your ride.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “You’ll be more confident knowing someone’s back here to scoop you up if you fall.” 

I noticed his reassurance didn’t say I wouldn’t fall. He seemed to assume that trusting I’d have help would make the difference. I wasn’t so sure, but I went on. 

Slowly, I did begin enjoying the trail’s flow again, relishing some speed and noticing lines through obstacles. In the parking lot afterwards, we stretched and talked of favorite moments on the ride. I felt amused that we’d never chatted this easily during “fellowship time” after worship. 

I may not have had words for my deeper pain, but this time together with things we enjoyed touched me deeply, too. Christian tradition offers a table with bread and wine as a place where we meet, where the broken belong. These communion “elements” are everyday things we turn to – together – for nourishment, things held and blessed by God. The table is a place where we receive what we need – together – to go give life another try.

A divorce had pushed me into trying new ways of being with myself and others. The pandemic had kept us three outside our church building to notice elsewhere the wondrous presence of God and one another. After this morning’s communion on the trail, I couldn’t help but think that many of us might find ourselves bolder and braver at the end of our pandemic and chaotic times, resilient with experiencing these wounded places as exactly the places where we – and life – become new.


Originally published in the January 26, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.