Outliving A Parent

When I turned fifty in January, it was big for one reason: my dad had died at fifty.

Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have cared much. Age doesn’t bother me but this milestone bothered me a LOT.

Many of you will understand. Over the years I have collected stories from sympathetic people who get it. They too live with ghosts: siblings who died young whose unlived lives occasionally walk into the room on an anniversary and afflict them with love and sorrow and survivor guilt. Veterans who sit in impenetrable silence after the Memorial Day service, barely able to speak of the thick presence of spirit around them of men who died in battle while they went home.  Was it they who died with their comrades or is it that their comrades are living in them, taking up such subtle residence in their own lives that they go unnoticed until bidden forth and openly acknowledged in prayer and ritual?

An entire graduating class of students who will never walk by the diploma on their wall without a pit-in-the-stomach remembrance of a classmate who accidentally strangled on the monkey bars or died when the bus returning from the field hockey tournament overturned on an slick road. Time is not linear, it is series of overlapping and intertwined playground slides.

I don’t want to live an unhaunted life.  I believe it is our duty to the dead to carry them as they carry us within the multiple dimensions where souls and time swirl in some intricate pattern that Einstein never imagined but possibly intuited.

My father died at fifty. He had had heart problems that were exacerbated by his Type A+ personality, his uncontrollable (and now, I see, utterly ridiciulous and narcissistic) rages, his workaholism and his “bum arteries.” It was also the 1970′s and early 80′s when the end of his story unfolded and cardiac care was in its infancy. When he had open heart surgery he had to travel from Connecticut to Ohio, and his recovery was long and serious, endured by the whole family around a rented hospital bed in the living room. He was considered an invalid, and a ticking time bomb.

Nowadays, the Carl Weinsteins of the world go in for a triple bypass and come out a few days later with instructions to return to normal activity as soon as possible. I’ve seen men in their seventies have quadruple bypass surgeries and live happy subsequent decades of golfing and Sunday prime rib dinners.

My father died at fifty and it was a personal tragedy for me. There are greater losses and more serious injustices in the world than a child of 17 losing her father on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But we do not tell our stories to compare suffering. I should know better than to even mention the relative scope of my loss. Pain that crushes, crushes. This loss crushed me. It is my “original wound,” as Henri Nouwen put it.

As the decades wore on, I had time to “heal,” or to put the loss into perspective, and more importantly, to dismantle the private religion of Weinstein worship in which I had grown up and been ordained. My paternal extended family has a gift of  huge charisma, self-mythologizing, warm grandiosity, pride and (thank God) self-directed humor. We are an intense tribe, a sarcastic one, and a loyal one. We are as colorfully dysfunctional as any family. I have come to understand that the devastating persecution suffered by our kin in Europe — and the slaughter by the Nazis of those Weinsteins who did not emigrate to the United States — is the foundation of the American Weinsteins’ zealous commitment to survive, thrive, contribute to society, and tell our stories.

I learned only recently, in fact, that a branch of my Romanian family escaped the pogroms and fled to Paris where they lived well and happily for decades until they were rounded up by the Vichy government and sent to Dachau. On my most recent trip to Paris I had “just happened” upon the very small memorial marker near the Eiffel Tower Metro that identified the place where Jews were rounded up before deportation and “happened” to mention it to a family member. Didn’t we have relatives who escaped Romania for Paris? Yes, and they fled from virulent Romanian anti-Semitism right into Hitler’s gas chambers.

How had I never heard this?

These stories were too traumatic to tell, so we told stories of success: educational, professional, personal. We romanticized ourselves and our domineering papas watched their children with eagle eyes for evidence of the talent, brilliance, poise, beauty and integrity we were damned well expected to have. We were Weinsteins. 

Being a Weinstein is no longer my primary identity. It is one of the many things that I am.

In 1983, Carl Davis Weinstein “succumbed,” as they said in his obituary, at fifty. His second child turned fifty in 2016 and celebrated her birthday and then released a sigh of relief that it was over. Continue reading

Posted in memories, Theological Reflection | 8 Comments

The Demanding Tree (A Re-Telling of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”)

“The Demanding Tree” by the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, revised Earth Day 2016

Once there was a tree.  And she loved a little boy.

And every day the boy would come, and he would gather her leaves

and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.

And the tree loved the little boy, but the tree was a bit irritated.  ”King of the forest, my trunk,” she thought. “Wherever did those human beings get such an attitude problem?”

Time went by, and the boy grew older, and the tree was often alone, which was nice and quiet, but she missed the boy.

Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree called out to him, “Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat my apples and play in my shade and be happy.”

“I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy.  I want to buy things and have fun.  I want some money.  Can you give me some money?”

 ”No chance,” said the tree.  “I have only leaves and apples.  Why don’t you go get a job if money’s so important to you? I hear that the Nature Conservancy is looking for clerical staff.  Why don’t you apply?”

And so the boy applied for the job and sent many e-mails and processed many donations to the Nature Conservancy, and the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time, and the tree was sad.

And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, “What took you so long? You don’t call, you don’t write, how’s the job? And tell me, who do you think would really be better for the environment, Bernie or Jill?”

“I am too busy to talk politics with you, Tree” said the boy.  “I want a house to keep me warm. I want a wife and I want children, so I need a house.  Can you give me a house?”

“Of course I can’t give you a house,” replied the tree.  “The forest is my house.  But you’re certainly welcome to pitch a tent on the ground here, and we’ll have a great time.”

“Thanks but no thanks, Tree,” said the boy.  “Maybe I’ll start an intentional community with some of my friends.”

“That’s the ticket,” cheered the tree.  “You Americans already have far too many houses. Why build another?”

So the boy went off to start a co-op with a group of spiritually -centered progressive vegans who embraced voluntary simplicity.

And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away a very long time, and when he came back the tree was so happy she waved her branches excitedly.  “Well would you look what the cat dragged in!! Look at you, Boy! Good Lord, you look awful.  You humans just don’t age as well as we trees do, do you, Boy?”

“You’ve got that right, dear Tree,” replied the boy.  “I wish I could stay and shoot the breeze with you, but I am too old and sad.  I want a boat that will take me far away from here.  Can you give me a boat?”

“Whoa,” said the tree. “I don’t like the way you’re looking at my trunk there, pal.  You want to get far away from here? You’ve got legs.  Walk.   And on the way, why don’t you take some of these seeds and plant some more trees? Make like Johnny Appleseed.  It’ll do us all good.”

So the boy embraced the tree, took the seeds and started on his journey.

And the tree was happy.  Really.

After a long, long time, the boy came back again.

“I’m sorry, Boy,” said the tree.  ”You have no more teeth to sink into my apples.

You’re too fragile to swing in my branches.

Your friends and your intentional community are long gone,

and your old legs can’t take you around as they used to.

We both know that you are at the end of your story, and that I will long outlast you.

I just wish that I could give you something to comfort you. . . .”

“I don’t need very much,” said the boy.  “Just a quiet place to swing and rest.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could. “Well, this old tree is good for swinging and resting!Come, Boy, tie your hammock on this branch over here …and on this branch way over here.  Come, Boy, swing from my arms, and rest.”

And the boy did.

And the tree was very happy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Teacher

One of my very favorite ministerial tasks is to teach. I wish I had time to do more of it. Last night, I started a three-session course called “Encountering Jesus” and we began with Jesus As Healer and the healing miracles. I happened to look up just as a participant got an “ah ha” light in her eyes — that “I just learned something really cool” expression, and I felt an actual thrill go through my body.

I did get a call to ministry, but the first and really supernatural call I got was to be a teacher.

When I was in college, I dropped out of the music major my second week of school. I knew it was wrong for me. I ran from the School of Music to the English Department and nicely and desperately demanded that they enroll me late in a Freshman Seminar. My only requirement was that it be meeting that day, that hour. The administrator was aghast. “There are waiting lists for all the seminars,” she said. I stood there and pointed at the enrollment list. “Just add me to that one,” I said. “That one looks good. Yes, that’ll do. That looks like the perfect seminar to add me to right now” until she relented and gave me the pass slip to class. (I actually couldn’t even see the title of the seminar — I just knew I needed to get into one).  I arrived late, sat next to a guy who would wind up becoming one of my best friends and who would introduce me the boy who would be my boyfriend for the next seven years, and switched majors.

I never doubted my impulsive decision. Not only was it the prompting of my own soul, I decided that my dad had come through from the spirit world to give his support and approval.  I felt it was a sign that, as I was crossing campus to bolt for the English Department, I heard someone playing “Clair de Lune” on a dorm piano in one of the quads. That was the last song played at my father’s funeral two years prior.

People ask how God works in people’s lives who believe in God. To me, God works as a felt presence, intuitions and uncomfortable and often disturbing inbreaking of inconvenient truths. When I try to detour around the promptings of the Holy, I inevitably get busted. And I mean truly, deeply busted in real time, and sometimes for a long time.

God is an energy with which I try to sync myself; a wave I try to ride without flailing against it. I love the last line of our church affirmation, “to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”  I am always trying to be obedient and grow into harmony with God. It doesn’t make me sweet, it doesn’t make me nice, it doesn’t make me not irritated or angry, it doesn’t necessarily make me more likeable to others. I used to think it would.  What it does make me is peaceful and very happy. All is well with my soul. The peace that passeth understanding, and still no time for foolishness.

I understand now that God blesses and graces — God doesn’t grant personality transplants.

You may wonder what caused me to bolt out of Concert Choir that fateful morning in September of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois at around 10:00 AM, rush to the registrar’s office to find out what I would have to do to quit the School of Music and be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences and make a break for the English Department in time for a noon seminar.

Here’s what happened. I had started classes a couple of weeks prior, and had felt a sense of real grief and dismay when I looked at my course line-up of all music studies, all semester. Voice lessons, Italian lessons, keyboard, music theory, concert choir. No literature, no history, no humanities? My advisor assured me that I’d have some electives in junior year and could diversify at that point. My heart sank, but I wasn’t old enough yet to respect that sensation and get the heck out then and there.

Holding onto that unexpressed dismay and sense of loss of broader academic study somewhere in my heart and soul, I stood that morning to sing with a large ensemble of other first year music students. We were singing “Carmina Burana.” The sound was extraordinary. The young singers were serious and amazingly talented, happy to be there, excited to devote their lives to music, and all skilled at sight-reading. I knew I was out of my league and more than that, that I was not willing to do the work required to become as good as any of them. I had neither the discipline nor the desire. I felt like laughing out loud. “Oh my GOD, I am SO not qualified to be here!”

I have always had the happy ability to recognize talent and appreciate it, and not to feel threatened by other people’s talent. I felt great admiration for my peers and in no way diminished by their excellence. I simply knew that I couldn’t rate and that was okay.  I had such clarity.

The funniest part of this story is who God/Fate/Trickster put me between that morning. On one side of me was Sarah Pfisterer. On the other side of me was Mary Dunleavy. Both of these lovely, now highly-acclaimed sopranos lived in my dorm and hung out with me after I quit the voice major, telling me that I had a great voice and shouldn’t be discouraged. I said to both of them, “No, you guys — YOU have great voices. You have great voices, you stand a chance at really making it, I’m fine but I’m not anywhere near your calibre.”

(I see that Mary just played Musetta in “La Boheme” at the Met in January, which I actually saw on the 13th for my birthday!!– I’m sorry I didn’t see it one of the nights she was singing! I was happy to be able to see Sarah play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and as Magnolia in the national touring company of “Showboat”).

The next year, after the dust had settled on my dramatic transition from voice to English major, I was required to choose a major within the English major. The choices were English Literature, The Teaching Of English and something else I have forgotten — maybe writing? Or poetry? Anyway, I do remember sitting with my course catalogue in my lap wondering which one I should choose. I idly flipped through the pages, assuming that I’d choose the literature track but glancing at some of the other track’s requirements. I had no desire to take the boring education courses, and I wasn’t a writer, so…

And then I heard a voice, as loud as if the person had been standing right next to the bed where I was sitting. It said, “You are going to be a teacher.”

Here’s how I reacted. I said to myself, “Hmm. Okay, I guess I’ll go for The Teaching Of English concentration, then.”

No fanfare, no questioning, no wondering, no second-guessing. A mystical experience that set the course for my life and I was completely matter of fact about responding. I still marvel at that.

I was to hear that same voice speak one other time the next year, but that’s another story.

I heard a voice say, “You’re going to be a teacher,” so I obeyed.

And that obedience has given me a life of joy and fulfillment, although the forms of my teaching have changed over the decades.

Last night, the thrill of that original calling returned to me full force. It may not be a big thing, but because it has been exactly the right thing, I shall not want.

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