Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Requiem: Grasping the Oxymoron of Senseless Loss

I feel a profound sense of loss this week as we mourn the loss of our brother in Christ.

Jim Miller, husband, father of three, brother in Christ, professor of biology, lover of model airplanes, all things science and humorous--and apparently Star Wars too, was brutally murdered in his home on October 8, 2011 during a home invasion where his wife was seriously injured as well. His children were not home at the time, yet suffer the emotional wounds of this attack.

I had him as a professor of Pathophysiology at Goshen College as did many nursing and pre-med students over the last three decades. My daughter is very close friends of Jim and Linda's daughter and has spent time in their home. Many in the community have been touched by his quiet gifts and qualities. Many are left to try to understand the senselessness of his loss, and the utter brutality committed in a peace-loving home and community. To date, this was a random act of violence by a young man with unknown motives, where the attacker has not yet been captured.

This is my requiem for Jim.

Webster defines requiem as a mass for the dead, or solemn chant or musical composition in honor of the dead. The word is Middle English from Latin, meaning, re--to rest, and quis--quiet; to quietly rest. It was first used in the 14th century. Synonyms include: dirge, lament, threnody, and elegy--all fitting descriptors of the lament we carry.

I am whisked to another time of loss when my dear friend's father died while our Hesston College chorale toured through Europe singing and visiting sites of Anabaptist (Mennonite) history. At Reit-im-Winkl, Germany, in the midst of the most beautiful evening in the Alps, we learned of his untimely end. I can still hear, and see in my mind's eyes and ears, our singing of Mozart's Requiem in that small Geminde (church) with the accompaniment of that old pipe organ--our sorrow palpable and perhaps best expressed in words as foreign as our grief. The following YouTube link is a wonderful rendition:

I had Jim for Pathophysiology, one of my favorite classes and subjects. Pathophysiology is the study of the physiology of abnormal states. Defined by Webster, pathologic means--being altered or caused by disease; being such to a degree that is extreme, excessive or markedly abnormal. And Pathos--is Greek for the emotion and experience of suffering.

One of the things I remember clearly from that class in 1988 was when Jim said that only 1 in 4 pregnancies results in a viable birth. I was amazed that I had assumed all of living and breathing humanity had not faced such terrible odds just to exist from the start. I was amazed and thrilled with the notion that in spite of such terrible odds of things going terribly wrong, my experience was with things going right, and that in spite of how easily things can be so pathologic, that very often they are not--making life a much greater miracle than I'd even imagined or contemplated before.

Life is an oxymoron--a combination of contradictory or incongruous elements. And lives filled with such oxymorons as the beauty of life, and the ugliness of pathos, death and suffering--require great faith.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the grief of such a terrible loss, and the heinousness of the act that took our friend.  Yet, Paula D'Arcy says that all darkness is held in the light--a spiritual definition that challenged my scientific belief that light and dark are separate and do not coexist. Rather, she challenges that all dark valleys of death are ultimately held in His light and shall not overcome us fully. Just as John 1:4 & 5 says: "In him was life, and that life was the light of men, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it."

Elegy is a song or poem expressing sorrow for the one who is dead. 
I came across Wilfred Owen's "Has Your Soul Sipped?" that captures the irony of violent death and the clarity that the dead soldier's smile has not been overpowered by the ugliness of his death. I share this poem here as an elegy to Jim--remembering that the line "sweet murder" is meant by the writer as a complete and utter oxymoron that I can only celebrate here knowing that Jim's death would never be described so, but that his LIFE goes on in us, the peace he stood for, the faith he lived--is the sweetness that touches us in his death--and is the sweetness the writer was grasping for. It is this that exemplifies that this dark valley is still held in light, and this great darkness shall not be overpowering.

Has Your Soul Sipped?

Has your soul sipped
Of the sweetness of all sweets?
Has it well supped
But yet hungers and sweats?

I have been witness
Of a strange sweetness,
All fancy surpassing
Past all supposing.

Passing the rays
Of the rubies of morning,
Or the soft rise
Of the moon; or the meaning
Known to the rose
Of her mystery and mourning.

Sweeter than nocturnes
Of the wild nightingale
Or than love's nectar
After life's gall.

Sweeter than odours
Of living leaves,
Sweeter than ardours
Of dying loves.

Sweeter than death
And dreams hereafter
To one in dearth
Or life and its laughter.

Or the proud wound
The victor wears
Or the last end
Of all wars.

Or the sweet murder
After long guard
Unto the martyr
Smiling at God;

To me was that smile,
Faint as a wan, worn myth,
Faint and exceeding small,
On a boy's murdered mouth.

Though from his throat
The life-tide leaps
There was no threat
On his lips.

But with the bitter blood
And the death-smell
All his life's sweetness bled
Into a smile.

by Wilfred Owen

We smile only knowing that His light and love triumphs all, and this is the sweetness that says, oh Death, where is thy sting? Let us rest quietly knowing this sweetness--but if your soul has not sipped of this sweetness, then you must search on more ardently for the Light.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Kindred Spirits: My Writer's Weekend with my Critique Partner

Never underestimate divine appointments when you go to a writer's conference.

My first ACFW conference was Denver 2009. My name tag said, Newbie, or something like that. My agented, experienced roommate had a place to sit at her agent's table at dinner, leaving me to wander until I spotted a table of other newbies and slid into the only chair left. That's when I met Jaime and our interest kindled over the historical romance genre we had in common.

It takes time to find a good fit for critique groups and partners. 

I was told by mentors to be patient and keep praying. After another 6-9 months Jaime and I started to burn up the internet with Facebook instant messages, and brainstorming on winter nights by the fire, hundreds of miles from one another. By the time ACFW Indianapolis rolled around, we couldn't wait--and then came the giggles, lattes, brainstorming in the lobby while we skipped a lecture session--and the gears clicked into place! We shared the same silly stupid humor when we asked Chip MacGregor if the lady-heroine, was spelled the same as the drug--heroin; and somehow couldn't stop giggling about why dead bodies were okay in mystery novels but not in buggies or bonnet books, or apparently historical romances!?

Who knew God could make me laugh so much when He answered my prayers with so much fun and humor?? ROFL.

So when we couldn't get to St. Louis this year, I booked a train and we hatched up a weekend to get together.

The coffee was brewed, the movies were rented, the fire was stoked and our wits and dreams we vented.
Pizza, eclairs, cinnamon rolls, and breadsticks--bring on the carbs, let's watch movies just for chicks!

Like Lizzie and Jane of Pride and Prejudice, whispering under the sheets, we sat each curled under our quilted blankets and dissected Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley--inuendos, facial grimaces, unfurled hands and kisses--just how did Jane Austen make her readers love him?!  Fast-forward, rewind, we want to see that again!

We quickly learned that we compliment each other's strengths and weaknesses. I push Jaime to know her characters motivations more deeply, I make her answer the "why?" until it tingles with truth and believable anticipation. But she pushes me to make my nice characters have something to do that makes my reader interested enough to keep reading.

What fun have you had on a writer's weekend? How do you compliment your critique partners?