Friday, December 24, 2010

Two days ago, I attended my friend Cynthia's graveside service. It was lovely, a quiet remembrance and committal before the standing-room-only memorial in the afternoon where her husband and father spoke movingly, her two children sang and talked about their parents' devoted marriage, and everyone left amazed at the poise and love Cynthia's children demonstrated in the midst of such profound grief.

These services are for the living, of course. It's what people call "closure," and we do receive  some of that from these memorials and tributes.

But I'm a person who's a little on the fence about "closure." Sometimes I think we're a bit too quick to close the gate on the garden of mysteries that God has presented.

Personally, I like the gate to remain open so I can continue to ponder.

God is sovereign. God is loving. And I will probably never understand why he would choose to take such a faithful servant as my friend, or why it was necessary that she suffer before leaving. Some people are uncomfortable with these questions. But I think God's okay with ponderings such as this. Cynthia's father said it best, with tears welling in his blue eyes. "I wanted him to heal her. He didn't. But God is still on the throne."

Another mystery for me is how in life Cynthia lived in another city, but in death she became my neighbor.

I've written before about my daily runs through a nearby cemetery. Two days ago you could have knocked me over with an angel's wing as I stood on that same soft grass and watched Cynthia's casket lowering into the earth. She rests near that boy named Jacob.

Her committal gave me some "closure." But the next day I wanted to visit her in solitude.

So I ran to the cemetery.

The soil on her grave was still freshly turned and covered with strips of sod. The rough edges waited to form a complete carpet of green and her photo was placed where her headstone will eventually stand. As I gazed at her face, murmuring her name, I thought my feelings would tend toward sadness.

But I remembered something a monk told me.

Several years ago, as a young reporter, I drove to Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia to write a feature story. The Abbott gave me a tour of the buildings and grounds. As we walked the rolling acres, monks gathered in the stone chapel for their holy chants and the sound of their singing seemed to fill the summer trees. I gazed down to our right, and saw a row of white crosses. They followed a path that crested over a hill.

I pointed to the crosses. "What are those?"

The abbot smiled down at the grave markers.

"Those are graduates," he said.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rest in Artistic Peace

My friend Cynthia died yesterday. She left behind two gifted children, her husband Jon, and scores of families who took her art classes and fell in love.

Before she died, she posted these words on Facebook: "Life is full of twists and turns, and riddles and puzzles, that call us to figure them out. God is the mysterious giver of wisdom, by which to do this. We must face our challenges bravely, face to face, and learn from what is being given. C.Y."

Y stands for Youngblood. I gave her name to a character in "The Rivers Run Dry."  Fictional Cynthia Youngblood runs a homeless mission in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Not only was that something the real Cynthia might do, I wanted the world to meet her.

She had large eyes, blue and intuitive, full of compassion, and when you spoke to her, she always held her head just-so, as if tuning her mind to the pitch of your words. Although a visual artist of abundant natural gifts, Cynthia also wrote verse. 

One of her ballads struck me as an ideal children's book. It revolved around her husband, Captain Youngblood, an Alaskan fisherman, and a comical pursuit to find matching socks. The poem had everything a great children's book needs -- delight, rhythm, humor, surprises, and love. I asked Cynthia if I could share it with a friend, a multi-published children's book author. Cynthia was thrilled; she was an enormous fan of this writer's books.

What happened next still hurts. 

The author tore Cynthia's poem to shreds. Not formal. Doesn't obey standard publishing rules. What is the poem's point, really?  

On and on it went.  

When Cynthia asked to see the author's comments, I prefaced the criticism: "It's only one person's opinion. I still believe your poem could be published as a children's book, and a great one at that."

The author's opinion stung. It stung Cynthia the way a pinprick punctures a balloon, deflating the contents, sinking the vessel. 

Several days later, I sent Cynthia another note, more forcefully asserting the poem's strengths. And I described my own battles with rejection, including the top NY literary agents who insisted my books "would never make it."

I'm not saying there's a direct connection but sometime later Cynthia stopped writing. She was so busy. Teaching more art classes. Her own children needed her, so did her husband. She would get to it later. 

The following year Cynthia began having stomach pains. She lost weight. When doctors found the cancer, it was deep within her organs. She had lost so much weight that her already large blue eyes became enormous, as if trying to see everything before time ran out.

Time did.

In my grief, I find myself wishing I'd encouraged her more -- and understood better the lancing pain of rejection, particularly for a sensitive soul. But blame and absolution are for God alone, if He so chooses.

But the real point is this: Our time is short. 

"Life is full of twists and turns," she wrote, "and riddles and puzzles, that call us to figure them out." 

Write, paint, speak. Love. Share what you find. Give. "God is the mysterious giver of wisdom, by which to do this."

And I would add: Refuse the mean critics their audience. 

Time flows swiftly,

--the cool, sweet morning of your life-
and hours lie ahead before your sun sets
on the distant horizon.
How you spend these coming hours
cannot be bought again,
nor wound backward,
and choices made yesterday
blend into today, becoming part of who you will become
in the unformed future.

Life's path is strewn with defining moments
that reveal what lies within.
Sadly, we can only choose one thing
in any given moment,
so we must choose carefully,
knowing that this particular breath in time
will not come again.

bless, and you will be blessed;
give, and you will be given to;
love, and you will be loved.

This, God has promised us,
for whatever we give-out returns
like bread upon water.

And as you walk on,
may the good Lord bless
and keep you,
may your years be rich and long,
and may God complete
the patient work

that He's begun in you.

                                                                Cynthia Youngblood--April 4, 2007