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 Nurturing Hope

The following passages are taken from Patricia H. Livingston’s book “Lessons of the Heart,” published in 1992.

 

I don’t think we reflect much on the fundamental place of hope. I don’t think—--at least I haven’t in my life—--we nurture hope the way we nurture faith and love.

We know we need to nurture faith. We spend time and energy on liturgy and scripture, on reading and prayer, on talking to other people about God’s presence in our lives.

We know we need to nurture love. Married love, for example, must be cultivated. Married couples discover they just can’t assume that their love will bloom forever. Life is very hard. Illnesses and difficult moments with children and jobs, jealousies and differences and limits of all kinds, strain the love. Couples learn that they must create moments for conversations and special times and thoughtfulness and honesty and unselfishness and humor if the love is to survive and strengthen.

A friend of mine called not long ago to read me a note her husband had put for her on top of the leftover pot roast. It said: “This pot roast is better the second time and the third. So are we. Good thing we will last a lot longer than the pot roast. Especially since I am taking most of it for lunch. Hope you weren’t planning to have it for supper!”

Faith matures when we care for it. Love deepens and grows both more fruitful and more comfortable. And so it is with hope. But if we do not nurture hope, it can be choked out before it has a chance to mature.

In love, we try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We consciously try to remember their strengths, we try not to hoard slights and concentrate on every resentment.

This is just as important in hope. It is imperative not to pore over every disappointment and magnify every anxiety. Instead, we need to let the graces sing their plain chant, and shine the spotlight on the times—--despite all odds—--we made it to safety.

I find I have to work at this. What seems more natural is to focus on the fears. To scan the past for what went wrong, and face the future expecting trouble. How often casual get-togethers---at the office having lunch, in the front yard at the mall box—--turn into an exchange of what is wrong. Wrong with the weather, for starters, with the world, with kids today, with prices at the grocery store, with all of it.

I am really becoming aware that this is a harmful thing, at least for me. It may be a way to let off steam. It also lets in cynicism and fear.

Perhaps because the last few years have been years of tremendous transition for me, I have been acutely aware of my own vulnerability. Because there have been major crises in every generation of my family, I have begun to see that it is not a minor thing being careless about hope. How can hope be expected to gather strength and resilience when I assault it thoughtlessly over and over? It is like belittling love with sarcasm and intolerance, for focusing on the slightest failing.

When I began to realize this, I started to pay attention to what I did to undermine hope. Then I tried to notice what seemed to encourage its life. I have come to believe that we have a serious and central obligation to put ourselves in the presence of beauty, within earshot of truth, within the touch of goodness. We need to open the windows and doorways to these signs of God’s life, for they are sources of hope.

I discovered this during one very stressful time when I was about as worn out as I have gotten. I had the new full-time position with the renewal program, but was still sandwiching in talks planned before I took the job. I had just finished two days of a demanding workshop in Washington, and faced getting home very late, and having to go to work in early morning. I could hardly stand to think about not getting any time to rest. An old friend was driving me to the airport. Instead of taking me to lunch, which had been the plan, she brought cheese and fruit and checkered napkins in the car and stopped at the National Gallery of Art.

“This will do you much more good,” she said as we pulled up by the museum. We walked through the archways of that magnificent foyer past the statue of Mercury into an exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe. I had thought Georgia did mostly cow skulls. There were rooms of flowers and skies and mountains and trees; incredible colors, mind-stretching perspectives. When I got on the plane, I felt more alive than I had in weeks. That was when I began to realize that beauty can bring us to hope.

We can’t always get to a gallery. I began to find that beauty within easy reach could sometimes do it too. The color of the edge of daffodils. The shape of flaming leaves on a downdraft of the autumn wind. Bird song on the turn of dawn and on the turn of dark.

Hope is not the naive expectation that all will go smoothly, that desolation will remain a stranger. It is a conviction that God will always be with us in whatever happens. That sounds like the most obvious spiritual cliché. It is just a cliché until something happens that disturbs our world.

    . . . . .           . . . .

Times of difficulty are important. In those moments of dispossession we know that we need saving. Not saving from sin, as we have often narrowly thought of salvation, but saving from being crushed. We can crush so easily. We can be utterly vulnerable, broken open, unmoored, unable to control. In that moment we are wide open to God’s saving love which can gather us up and bring us to peace.

A great friend of mine had a heart attack not long ago, a triple by-pass with lots of complications that brought slow, disheartening recovery. When I say peace, I think of what he said one day.

“People get the wrong idea about peace,” he said. “It is not cool and blue.”

I know what he means. Peace is not the total absence of struggle. It is knowing we are not alone in it. It is having a trust—--what Gabriel Marcel calls the shining of that veiled, mysterious light—--that somehow, on some level, all will be well.

My favorite saying is from Julian of Norwich, that amazing woman of wisdom, a contemporary of Plantagenet kings, who lived in times of unimaginable turmoil just after the Black Death. She wrote in The Revelations of Divine Love that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

That is the core of hope. But hope does not just happen. We have to work on it. I am trying to catch myself doing what Eric Berne, M.D. (author of Games People Play) calls “Ain’t it Awful.” I am trying to blow the whistle on myself when I am dredging up all that could possibly worry me. I was challenged on this once by a friend.

It was several summers ago. My parents lived in San Diego, a continent away from us three daughters scattered in the east. We had a bargain with one of their neighbors that if anything happened we needed to know about she would call us.

She called me one morning saying mom was sick. It was nothing serious, but it worried my dad so much, with his diminished ability to understand, that he was really vulnerable. When mom would fall asleep, he would get very frightened, and wake her up to be sure she was all right. The neighbor was calling to say mom was getting much worse because she couldn’t rest, and one of us should come. Then dad could relax.

I was the most free to go. My one commitment was to meet with the head of a separated and divorced group in Miami who was planning a workshop. He was a friend, and I asked him to meet me at the airport there. I would drive the three hours to Miami and just fly from there.

As I was leaving the house it was raining hard, and I was horrified to notice that my roof was leaking. Water was coming through the ceiling close to the sliding glass door. I tried to put a bucket there, but the drip was too close to the door. No bucket was narrow enough. It is a terrible risk to leave your house in Florida in hurricane season with a leaking roof. You could come home to find everything afloat. I settled on the solution of taking the biggest, strongest garbage bag I had and fastening it to the ceiling around the leak with air-conditioning duct tape. I made three rows of tape, then blessed it, and walked out.

I drove through the Everglades to Miami, met my friend, worked out the design for the workshop. Then he asked me about my trip. I told him I was terribly worried. I mentioned first of all, that I thought dad would meet me, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to find the car in the parking lot. It wasn’t that he couldn’t find it that concerned me (I often can’t find mine), it was how he feels about himself when he can’t find it. And even if he finds the car, sometimes he can’t remember where he put the ticket to get out. I talked about my anxiety about my father first. Then I expressed my fear about my mom, what might be wrong.

Before I could go on, my friend interrupted me to say:

“You know what I hate about you, Pat?”

This is not my favorite introduction to a topic. I did not reply, just looked at him.

“You’re always dreading things,” he said. “Last year you had a family reunion. Before you left, all you could talk about was what might go wrong. It would probably rain. The cousins wouldn’t like each other. Your kids would act like they never used indoor plumbing, or hold up the cloth napkins at the dinner and say ‘What’s that?’ When you came home you said it was the best exchange your family ever had. It makes me sick. I worry about you, and things turn out fine. I hate the way you dread things.”

I was incensed. How dare he! I was the most positive person I knew. The nerve! They called my flight as I muttered something bitterly, like “Thank you for helping me grow.”

As I was boarding, walking down the jetway, he called after me: “Livingston! Look for the surprises!”

I was mortified. Even the pilot looked at me as I got on. I was angry all the way to San Diego. As we were flying in, the plane swung out over the ocean to turn around and land. The sun was setting. The whole world was aflame with brightness, the sea a perfect mirror for the sky. I caught my breath. Then something in me said “Wait a minute. This is not surprising. I am not surprised. The sun always sets in the west!”

But as the time went on, one thing after another caused me wonder. Dad was right there at the gate with a great hug. He walked straight to the car in the parking lot. The next morning a lark sang me awake. I didn’t even know there were larks in California. And mom got better right away. With rest and company she quickly healed. An uncanny thing happened one day. She came in to my room and said, out of the blue, “How’s your roof? I’ve been thinking about your house. It is almost twenty years old, and it has never had the roof replaced.” I started to demur, but she gave me a look that said, “I’ll know the truth.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, it’s leaking.”

“You left your roof leaking in hurricane season?”

So, I explained about the garbage bag, about the duct tape, about the blessing. She left the room and came back with a checkbook. She wrote a check and tore it off and gave it to me: a check for a new roof. My parents do not have a lot of money. What they have they’re saving for doctors’ bills and nursing homes, not wanting to be a burden on us. A roof is major money. There was the check right in my hand.

“Oh, Mom, this is incredibly generous,” I said. I was too moved to get any other words out. Inside myself I fought with the admission: this was a very surprising event.

The last night I was there she and dad and I were sitting on the balcony of their apartment. Off in the distance we could see the ocean. Again the sun was setting: gold and crimson and pale, pale pink. We watched it deepen into rose, and saw the evening star appear, low and alive. Moved by that, at the same time, they began to recite Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar.” This wasn’t surprising for dad—--he recites Shakespeare to the woman at the check-out counter—--but it was for mom. She has a kind of careful reserve. But she spoke it, too:

Sunset and evening star

And one clear call for me!

May there be no moaning of the bar

When I put out to sea,

 

They kept on through the verses until:

 

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark.

 

I sat there in that pink-edged dusk with tears coming down my face. I did not say I was not surprised. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these beautiful gutsy people who had given me birth.

When I flew home the next day, I was hoping my friend would not remember when I was due to return. I did not want to have to admit that he had been right. But when I got off the plane, there he was. I blushed and said “You were right. I was surprised. I was.”

He had the decency not to gloat. (Which just tells you that I had been dreading that he would gloat. You don’t get over it all at once.)

The kind of perspective he had challenged me to require a shift in thought, a reversal. It reminds me of a wonderful thing Demetrius Dumm said in his class. He talked about David as a man of hope. He looked out at Goliath coming at him across the battlefield, and he did not say: “He is so big, how can I defeat him?” Instead he said: “He is so big, how can I miss him? What a target!” This shift does not come easily to most of us. We need to work on it.

The first thing that helps us with hope is: Don’t open the door to needless anxiety. Try to stamp out the dread routine. The second thing is: See it as imperative to put ourselves in the presence of beauty and goodness and truth.

It is important to reflect on sources of beauty for each of us. I find that sunrise and sundown are times of magic. It is as if, when the light is angled with the change of day and night, there is a door open into All There Is.

There are many sources of beauty. On the Notre Dame campus there is a lovely art museum with a wing with the huge sculptures of Ivan Mestrovic that fill me with a sense of the stark and earthy power of the Good. Upstairs is hung Chagall’s great canvas of the circus, all color, motion, playfulness.

Beauty is also in much more mundane places. I have a friend who practices what she calls “the aestheticism of the mall.” She takes $2.50 and no credit cards and walks around mails looking at things she likes. I find malls quite overloading, but there is a shop I love in South Bend on the river called The Mole Hole. It has the most amazing things: kaleidoscopes and music boxes, merry-go-round horses and china clowns, crystal oil lamps and life-sized dolls. They don’t mind if you just browse and I go every few weeks. It’s important to think of places that have beauty for us.

Music is a doorway into hope. Les Miserables impacted me more than any music in my life. It is such a hymn to mercy and to love. The final words just set me weeping at the death of Jean Valjean: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Lots of music stirs me: jazz and country, musicals and instrumentals. I was recently enchanted in an evening concert of Michael Feinstein playing Gershwin and Irving Berlin and great romantic music from over fifty years. When the audience poured out as it was over, our group, and then others as they saw us, began dancing up the street. Feinstein had connected us with something archetypal and beloved deep within.

I try to keep the music I like best from really wearing out. I put tapes away that really move me before I’ve gotten sick of them, saving them for those occasions when I need the door to open.

Truth is such a source of power: great passages from books and plays; poems read aloud. Books I love are many: Elizabeth Goudge’s English novels, John Shea’s poems and stories, Mary Stewart’s tales of Merlin and Arthur, Ursula Le Gum’s exquisite wizard books, the Earthsea trilogy. There are the children’s stories like The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows and Bridge Over Terebithia, and, of course, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia tales.

Splendid books are Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and Olive Ann Bums’ Cold Sassy Tree. All these books have parts to read aloud with joy. Reading aloud can be a strong support for hope. Sometimes I get together with a friend and we take turns. Favorite things we choose include Elise Maclay’s poetry Green Winter, and the provocative, whimsical Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler (given to me by my friend Mary, who is the best person in the world for finding this kind of thing). Perhaps as I list these books I treasure, you will be thinking of sources like this for you.

I have a dream of having gatherings in my home called “Songs and Stories.” I’ve done forms of it sometimes. I have the men and women in our program over each semester for high tea. I use my Aunt Dee’s lovely silver service, and people recite passages from things they know by heart. (Aunt Dee, a wonderful, witty Irish woman whose love of literature is only surpassed by her love of parties, considers this a fine use of her silver service.) We have had glorious collections of recitations: Kilmer interspersed with Shakespeare, Dante after Liza Doolittle, Hopkins followed by a Tanzanian chant.

I think in modern times we’ve lost the strength of songs and stories sung and spoken to each other. For millennia tales were told and tunes were played at the ending of a day. It happened around campfires, in cottages, in great mead halls. VCRs and stereos are wonderful, but speaking aloud the words of truth to one another is a source of heartening we need.

Humor is as essential for hope as it is for mercy. Laughter has a goodness and a beauty far beyond expression. It comes from truth seen in perspective. It literally restores us physically, and it can give us back to ourselves inside.

“If there is a chance to do something fun, something refreshing, try to take it.” This was advice given to me by Pauline, my wonderful neighbor across the street who helped me when my house flooded. Ten years ago when she and her husband moved here she confronted me. I had been telling her I felt badly that my yard was always such a mess. “I know it must bother you,” I said.

“What bothers me,” she answered, “is thinking you would worry about it bothering me. What I want is to know you’re having fun. Don’t waste your time while you are young slaving over some lawn. Don’t wash windows when you could be visiting with a friend. Take every chance you get to relax and play. Your life is hard. Never work when you could be doing something wonderful because you think it bothers me! Take the chances that you get for fun.” That has been very important for me through all these years.

 

I think there are three main secrets of supporting hope. The first I have described as avoiding anxiety if we can. Turn down the volume on dread. The second process is opening the doorways to beauty, truth, and goodness; songs and stories, laughter.

The third way to work on hope is replaying moments of life and love instead of reliving the times of pain. Retelling the stories, to ourselves and others, of moments of courage and surprise and glory can give real sustenance to hope.

I will tell you two such stories I’ve tried to hang on to for myself.

The first happened in a recent May. My niece Liza graduated from college. It was Kenyon in central Ohio, a century-old jewel of liberal arts colleges.

Liza is a marvelous personage. She is tall, regal, statuesque. She has an arrestingly beautiful face, rose cheeked and blue-eyed and fair, with tawny waist-length hair. She majored in music. When she opens her mouth, an incredible voice comes out, rich and true. She has not had an easy growing up. Brilliance in women of unconventional body types disconcerts the usual peer group.

I have loved Liza since she was born, just two weeks after my Boo. When they were both one (a year before the en counter with the wino in New Orleans) my sister came to visit. We were getting into the car; the garage was rather tight. The babies had to scoot over from the driver’s side. Boo went in first. He paused behind the wheel, gripping it in both hands, saying loudly: “Beep, beep. Beep, beep.” When Liza slid over she took the wheel as he had, but she said in her clear and lovely voice: “I am looking for a parking place.” She was one year old.

So I wouldn’t miss this graduation because Liza has long been dear to me. I also went to be with my sister on this very special occasion. The two of us had had quite a year. Our parents had both reached a point where they were finding it very hard to keep living on their own. Dad’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease was more than mom could cope with in her own frail and pain-filled state of health.

Together my sister and I worked the problem with mom. Together we tried to figure out what to do. Miraculously we found two excellent places for them to go where they could each get what they need. Both places were near my sister, near each other. Together we helped them consider and choose. We packed the boxes, followed the movers around the house, arranged both ends of the journey. We did all this trying to deal with their pain and our pain of the ending of an era that we had all greatly loved—--the California era—--and the end, after nearly fifty years, of their being able to live together.

So, as I sat at that graduation next to Peg, all we had been through with those we loved that year was much on our minds. With so many times of struggle, I was glad to be able to be there at this time of jubilation. Unknown to any of us until we opened the program, Liza graduated summa cum laude with a special award of highest honors ever from the music department. My Mom and Dad could not be there, but I sat next to her other Grandmother and Grandfather, Jane and Willard Wirtz. He was the Secretary of Labor under Kennedy and Johnson. Liza is their first grandchild, the first girl in the family, as they had only sons. To feel the pride vibrate through both Peg and Mrs. Wirtz was a splendid thing.

The best moment for me, however, had come at the church service that morning. I sat next to Peg in the exquisite little Anglican chapel set on a green. The service was simple, but very moving. Liza and a group she founded sang the music. The final song was Scottish, from an album by Charles and Craig Reid called Sunshine on Leith. (Leith is a great seaport.)

It begins “My heart was broken. . .“ Now that sounds, certainly, utterly trite. But in that immense year of breaking and transition for all of us, it merely spoke what we had known.

I wish you could have heard her sing the intricate harmony with her friends—--stirring in us all the sorrow of hearts broken, but also the truth of how we can heal and save one another, of the cleansing of tears, of the unspeakable gratitude for our births.

Tears welled up in my eyes and Peg’s. For her birth and my birth. For our beloved sister Mary Lee’s birth. For Dad’s birth and Mom’s birth—--without which there could never have been Liza’s birth and Boo’s birth. So much beauty and kindness and tears clearing blindness.

Those beautiful young people sat down, and the Anglican priest rose for the final prayer of thanksgiving to be spoken by all of us. Row on row of families had come to graduation, assortments of ages and generations, the genetic strain so clear in the shape of faces and color of hair. The sum total of the effort and glory of raising families was inscribed on those faces. No one gets this far without seasons of enormous dark and light.

The prayer, which I think might be from the Book of Common Prayer, was this:

Accept, 0 Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts (my sister and I looked at each other), and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

 

This is only known to the dispossessed, I thought to myself. It is that dependence that is the mother of our truest hope.

He ended, “Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know you and make you known, and through you and in all places, we may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.”

 

The other incident I want to put a frame around happened that same year. It was somehow even more basic. It was at Christmas.

I stopped in Tennessee on my way home to Florida when our fall program ended. The endings of programs, I have learned since then, are hard. Saying good-bye to the superb people who come to us for sabbatical can be wrenching. I hit the road for the long drive just escaping a snowstorm.

I was spent and empty and sad when I reached my sister’s. They waited with hugs and music and scotch and marvelous food. Two days later we had a gathering. Mom came from the retirement complex where she has an independent apartment but communal meals. We picked up dad from the family where he lives, an extraordinary mountain family who has kept Alzheimer’s people in their home for years.

I hadn’t seen him since October and I did not know what to expect. He did not seem to know me. Rationally you know that this is a probable progression of the disease. When it happens to you—--your father does not know you, only knows you are someone he ought to know—--it is very hard.

He was weak. He stared into space through much of the decorating of the tree and the exchange of presents. He warmed to the pie and ice cream. We all smiled, assured. This was the dad we knew. No one could surpass his love of sweets.

The time came quickly when we knew we needed to take him back. He was tiring and feeling confused by the intricacies of the celebration. He looked relieved when we asked if he wanted to go.

My sister and I left to take him home. He lives forty-five minutes away. I was driving, looking into the setting sun. I was afraid of a migraine, often light-triggered. But gradually the intensity mellowed, the world was filled with soft color. It outlined great bare trees and even gave a graciousness to telephone poles. The color caught in the Tennessee River beside us. Dad has always loved the sunset.

“Look, Dad, look.”

“Uh, huh,” he said. But we knew he really did not see.

From the back seat my sister, gently, fighting a profound sadness, began to sing Christmas carols. First a rousing one to keep our spirits up:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Fa la la la la la la la la.

 

I thought of Arthur and Guinevere in Camelot in their great sorrow and conflictedness as they sang: “What do the simple folk do? Do you know? They sing...

She encouraged dad to sing. He smiled a little, but no sound came. She said “This is your favorite, Dad.” And she began.

Then came his voice, that clear full true tenor we had heard all our lives, the voice that is in Liza’s genes. It brought back a tidal wave of memories. We had heard it in ditties before six a.m. We had heard it doing dishes. We had heard it always on long trips, backing out of the driveway: “We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.” It was a voice carrying so many layers of experience, tones, moods, nuances, all our lives long. And now he sang with her in that voice the carol he most loved, slowly, clearly:

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay,

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.

 

This is our hope. This is the whole of it. Peace is not cool and blue. It is born of desolation. Dispossession. But it is born.

We are not alone. God is among us. Within us. Around us. Enfolding us. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

In the strength of that hope for all of us gentlefolk, we

pray:

Grant us through your Spirit that we may know you and make you known, at all times and in all places, and give you thanks in all things. Amen. (89-91,94-106)

 

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