Here’s to the “Real”

 

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Merrill Farnsworth

As a young teenager, I began to realize that life was not always fair. That moment of realization is never easy for anyone, but my Mom offered the wise words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have not been so eloquent in helping my children navigate the difficult days of life. I’ve normally told them that life really sucked sometimes. (Sorry Mom – I know you taught me better.)

A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend, Merrill, was in her last days of life due to breast cancer. I met Merrill one year ago, when she was assigned as my mentor with the Haden Institute, where I had enrolled for the two year Spiritual Directors Training. I specifically remember when I first laid eyes on her. I recall what she wore (she was a cool dresser), and the way she tilted her head. I knew during those first moments that she was the perfect mentor for me.

Merrill and I had a couple really great conversations during that first long weekend training. There were numerous points of connection with our lives, and she just really “got” where I was in my life. From the very beginning, I knew I could be 100% me with Merrill, warts and all. I could do that because Merrill was always 100% Merrill. She was one of the most authentic people I have ever known. And that authenticity empowered me to be the most me I could be. In thinking about her life and spirit in recent days, The Velveteen Rabbit came to mind. The children’s book tells of a stuffed animal who became “real” because it was loved. Merrill loved life – she loved creation – she loved to dance and art and poetry – she loved people – and she was as real as they come. And this vibrant person empowered others to be “real” because of who she was.

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Merrill died while our mentee group was assembled. We were together when we heard the news, and after tears and words, we chose to go to the stone labyrinth and journey its path. Merrill was a lover of the labyrinth, and especially encouraged others to dance along the walkway. As our group followed the path to our destination, a pileated woodpecker appeared on the ground just before us. After a few moments – just long enough for all of us to have a good look – it took flight, and then began making the cawing racket only this bird can make.

Merrill’s voice and presence were real, inspiring, and loud (symbolically!). She was far too young to leave us, but all of us who loved her know her presence will remain with us. She was the real thing, and I know many of us have been inspired and encouraged by her to be the realest we can be, too.

Here’s to the real – here’s to Merrill.

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The road to Hurt

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I have driven along Highway 29 in the heart of Virginia several times in recent years, but somehow that exit sign to a place named “Hurt” had eluded me. As I drove past in recent days, I tried to remember the circumstances of the times I would have driven by previously. The last time had been with a good friend and co-worker, and she and I were probably talking energetically. Before that, I had been in a van with my parents and family, so it makes sense that I would have missed the road sign. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were my state of mind, and not the fact of being by myself in the car, that allowed me to see and remember the exit clearly.

I was in the process of contemplating what it was like to be hurt when the sign suddenly loomed before me. I don’t mean physically hurt, but emotionally. As a college chaplain, I work with students continually who are hurting and in pain from what life has to offer. We all wish to avoid hurt, and I was wondering how I might do that myself, but it was a fruitless line of thought. Life would offer more hurt, and pain, and grief, and I would once again have to figure out how to meet it.

And I will, when it comes, and it inevitably will.

It doesn’t mean I will like it, or that I will calmly believe this is a part of life and look for the good that can always come out of our hurt. I will cry, have a drink, talk to my closest friends, watch a couple bad movies – and then put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.

I will say that the past few decades have given me more perspective on how to encounter Hurt. I vividly recall my mother stating – in the midst of my junior high pain – that the best laid plans of mice and men are often gone awry. (A phrase adapted from the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns, and incorporated in the novel Of Mice and Men written by one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck.) That didn’t keep me from trying to make plans to avoid hurt. If anything, it intensified my desire to arrange my life so that it would be the best life imaginable. I had already known great pain in the loss of my grandfather when I was age 10, a man who was essentially my spiritual father. Even while there were some things I knew I couldn’t avoid, I was ready to tackle life head on. I refused to make a pit stop in Hurt – I would barrel right past that exit as fast as I could.

But the best laid plans…

I have had great joy in life, especially with my children, my dear friends, my parents, and my vocation. Yet, there have also been many days when the hurt was so much that it physically made me ill, and close friends had to prop me up so I could go through the motions of life. Sometimes life had forced me off that exit, and sometimes I drove myself there.

One thing I have learned is that no one has to stay in Hurt permanently. It’s a stopping place. Sometimes the visit is longer than we would want, but we need to turn the key in the ignition and take the unknown path to a different town. It might be Joy, Peace, Fun, or just Good Enough. But that stay in Hurt will help us appreciate the next town all the more. No one ever wants to stay in Hurt (of if they do, then they really need to work with a good therapist), but good can always come out of the visit – even if it takes days or weeks of more driving.