Excerpt from When Did Everybody Else Get So Old
By Jennifer Grant
From Chapter 12, "Death Flickering Like a Pilot Light"
At the end of my street is a large park. When I walk there with my old dog Shiloh, I often use the time to pray for the people I love-and for the people I find difficult to love. I've assigned each person a spot-various trees, mostly-that serves as a prompt.
Sometimes, though, when I walk there, I'm distracted or I talk to a friend on the phone or I just stomp out my bad mood on the gravel path as I circle the pond. When I'm tied in knots spiritually, I wonder whether my prayers are just thoughts blowing into the breeze.
But I continue in the practice of prayer, despite my own uncertainty and in spite of my sometimes frantic, middle-of-the-night petitions when, in the clutches of insomnia, I am filled with self-doubt and irrational requests. I beg for perks, blessings, and good news. These are prayers that, on waking, I half hope God hasn't heard because they are so immature and selfish. They leave no room for God's mystery or otherness; they are basically letters to Santa Claus from a spoiled child. Once again I'm Ricky Bobby shrieking and running around in his underwear, thinking he's on fire. ("Help me, Tom Cruise!") Maybe God knows when to hit "mute."
I've heard people of faith, including members of the clergy, define prayer as simply surrendering our wills and egos to God-or even to the universe or to "a higher power." Others insist that prayer is a meaningful way to invite and affect change in our lives and in the world. Karl Barth, Gandhi, and others maintained that prayer is the most powerful instrument of action in a broken world. When I feel unsteady about the efficacy of prayer, I remind myself of instances in the Scriptures when the prayers of the faithful changed God's mind. And that when Jesus taught the disciples to pray what we call the Lord's Prayer, he was giving us words that acknowledge that God participates in our daily lives. Hearing us. Feeding us. Guiding us. Forgiving us.
Still, it's a challenge for me to reconcile what seem to be disparate truths about the nature of God-that God is unchangeable, a mystery, and completely "other than," and that God's mind can be changed and that God is closely involved in the particulars of our lives, keeping us from stubbing our toes and counting the hairs on our heads. So on any given day, I am either certain that God is walking alongside my dog Shiloh and me as we wind our way around the park, or I think the sky is empty and I am just talking to myself. This tug-of-war between the skeptic and the hopeful believer serves at least one important function in my spirituality-I'm reminded, over and over again, that I cannot figure God out. The Great Iconoclast, as C. S. Lewis called God, smashes my immature perceptions of the Divine. Or, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, "Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind . . . so you cannot understand the activity of God" (Ecclesiastes 11:5).
Shiloh and I pass a shrub with bright red leaves called a burning bush, and I whisper the name Michelle, my friend who has been ill too long and yet still must care for her young grandchildren. Passing a row of sumac shrubs grouped along the fence by the public swimming pool, I pray for my writer friends. I say their names as I pass this cluster of bushes with their velvety fruit. Marlena. Sharon. Lesa. Karen. Rachel. Gina. And a dozen more. A group of seven tall pines is my place marker for my friends Mark and Mary and their five daughters. I pass by, naming them one by one. Hear me, God. Keep them in your care. The tree for my friend Cathleen is a sturdy oak, not young and not old, but strong, and one of the last every season to lose its beautiful red leaves. I pray for her, for resiliency, for creativity, for peace.
As I make the loop around the lake and approach the park's entrance again, I cross a footbridge that has a view of a busy road, just past a large marshy area. I see the back of an old house that's now a neighborhood bar. Beside it are several dead trees. They are massive and tall, but have bare trunks and broken, jagged limbs. It is on this bridge where I pray for the people I used to know and from whom, for various reasons, I have become estranged. In these prayers, I practice surrender. I yield my grudges, my hurt feelings, my unforgiveness. I pray that these people will find healing and comfort and community.
Brett's tree is a massive ash with gray, rutted bark and a scar from where a limb was chopped off many years ago. My prayer, month after month during his illness, had been that the tree would be emblematic of him-that he would live a long life and grow old, despite the visible (and unseen) scars he had accumulated during his illness and treatment. When spring came and the branches budded, I prayed for new growth and life in his body. Many times, I closed my eyes and put my hands against this tree before walking on, praying that somehow Brett would be spared, that somehow that every cancer cell would be obliterated from his body. Miracles do happen from time to time; I believe that. And I think everyone who knew him would have cashed in all our chips for this particular miracle to be accomplished.
Yet there I was with hundreds of others, standing graveside on a November afternoon, staring at the box that held his body. The priest dismissed us, but no one moved. No one wanted to believe, despite the weight of the evidence that confirmed it, that Brett was really gone. We stood in silence, frozen, not wanting to leave him behind at the cemetery. I've never been in close communion with such a large group of strangers. Breathing in, breathing out. In unison. After about ten minutes of stunned silence, we began to move.
Standing there, more words from Ecclesiastes rose up in my consciousness: "I have observed something else. . . . The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. . . . People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy" (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12).
I looked up from the ground to see my friends Andy and Katy walking toward me.
"This just sucks," Andy said, opening his arms wide. Blunt and unpoetic and honest, it was exactly the right thing to say. Crass, simple words after a day of being bathed in streams of beautiful ones. Poems written by Brett's friends. Moving eulogies. Liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. Hymns. Scripture.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art.
The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing.
The beautiful words, and many more, were meant to give our battered hearts comfort-and they did. They were meant to honor and acknowledge the life that Brett led-and they did. They were meant to point our attention toward eternal things-and they did. But I liked Andy's short poem too. Because, when we realize that death is flickering inside us, when parents and friends and others we love die, we hold our hopes in the same hands as we hold our grief.
Jennifer Grant is the author of five works of nonfiction, including Love You More, Wholehearted Living, and When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? Her first book for children, Maybe God Is Like That Too, was released earlier this year. A lifelong Episcopalian, she lives with her husband and four children outside of Chicago. Find her online at jennifergrant.com and on Twitter @jennifercgrant.
When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?
Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife
From writer and veteran columnist Jennifer Grant comes an unflinching and spirited look at the transitions of midlife. When Did Everybody Else Get So Old ? plumbs the physical, spiritual, and emotional changes unique to the middle years: from the emptying nest to the physical effects of aging.
Grant acknowledges the complexities and loss inherent in midlife and tells stories of sustaining disappointment, taking hard blows to the ego, undergoing a crisis of faith, and grieving the deaths not only of illusions but of loved ones. Yet she illuminates the confidence and grace that this season of life can also bring.
Magnetic, good-humored, and full of hope in the sustaining power of the Spirit, this is a must-read for anyone facing the flux and flow of middle age.
"Delightful and poignant . . . a book to cherish and to share with those you love."
-- Dale Hanson Bourke , author of Embracing Your Second Calling
"Jennifer Grant is fiercely tender, funny, passionate about family, faithful, and hungry for justice. Read this book!"
-- Becca Stevens , founder of Thistle Farms and a top ten 2016 CNN Hero
"A simply magnificent meditation on middle age . . . an obvious labor of love and joy that appears like a friend at your side and starts walking with you, doling out stories that will make you roar with laughter, bring tears to your eyes, impart practical wisdom, and make you absolutely sure that you are not alone in this.
-- Cathleen Falsani , journalist and author of The God Factor
"This beautiful book belongs on every woman's nightstand (probably alongside her favorite jar of wrinkle cream)."
-- Katherine Willis Pershey , author of Very Married
"Jennifer Grant's shimmering prose, soulful observations, wit, and insight make her an apt companion as we move through this necessary life stage of change and growth."
-- Michelle Van Loon , author of Moments and Days
"The perfect companion to walk with on this road through the unexpected joy and grief of middle age."
-- Carla Barnhill , author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother
When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?
Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife
Author: Jennifer Grant
Publication Date: 5/2/2017
Retail: $16.99 USD
Binding Information: Paper
To order visit HeraldPress.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores and other online booksellers.