I have found in these many years of writing in this space, that there is sometimes a disconnect between the words on this page – the sequence of my “published” life – that is a bit incongruous with the actual reality of my life. Most weekends I find myself filled with ideas or inspiration for new projects, and I also find myself with more daylight hours to photograph the people and the things around me. Sometimes I’ll start mapping out the week in my head, thinking about the sequence of stories or images or thoughts, and sorting them into various posts and ramblings that I might share. I’ve shared this before: M often watches me and says that I must be “blogging in my mind”. That isn’t to say that I plan my days around what I will write about, what I might post. I have no schedule, no boss here. No advertisers or sponsors. No pressure. But it might mean that I do think a lot more about what I’m experiencing, and how I’m relating to my family or to our home. It often means I pull out the camera more – something I’m quite grateful for, and something I hope I never stop doing.
Then there are these moments that occur – in the real life, not this recounting life – and I don’t know what to do. Sometimes these are collective experiences that we all share, and sometimes they are very private ones that only a few of us share. Regardless of the length of their reach, they change the telling. I question the story, my story. Do you need to see how I’ve rearranged my pantry, made my dinner, decorated my cookies, tucked my children into their lucky, lucky beds when the rest of my-your-our lives have been torn upside down in a moment? When I’m quiet here, it’s not because I’m busy. When I’m busy I do far more things than even fit into the hours of the day, and what’s a simple blog post in the middle of the fray? When I’m quiet here, it’s because my story has changed and the words haven’t followed the shift yet. They have to tumble around and get their bearings before they come out across the page. They need a quiet house (as mine is now) – a weighty silence before they feel ready to emerge.And then there is this: maybe it’s not my story. Maybe it’s not about me. Maybe it is another person’s story to share, and even if I know them, love them, ache for them, maybe it’s just really not about me. If I share their sorrow with others, their unbearable, unimaginable sorrow, is it just so that they, you, understand my quiet? Sometimes it helps to do that, to say that I can’t bear this on my own or tie enough prayer knots or encourage enough people to care and hope and be there. And then there are times when I don’t even know if it matters because it is such a drop in a bucket with no bottom; not a hole or a crack, but no bottom to speak of, no bottom to hold any of the hurt or the pain or the grief. There are times (like this time) when it doesn’t even feel right to ask; to presume that the bottom could ever be restored.
My sister is helping to plan a funeral this week, for a child, a baby. Not her own, but like her own. A baby; and I can’t even wrap my words around it so that they don’t sound harsh and furious, because the ones in my head really are. I check in on her, and as she tells me about the service planned, I remember this piece I read here a few weeks ago. And then a friend mentioned the very same piece, first told on NPR in 2005 by Aaron Freeman, so I revisited it again, reading it slowly, and differently.
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.
The first time I read this it was late April, and I smiled when I read it. I thought it clever and lovely, and even a bit humorous at the end. The stories out of Boston were still fresh, and it’s not that the sobbing and the weeping and the brokenhearted-ness and the grief rocking weren’t powerful in this piece – they felt very real to me – but I loved the perspective here. I certainly can’t claim to know Mr. Freeman’s real take on (religious) faith, or even his opinion of clergy. I didn’t read his last paragraph as disdain for religion over science, nor did I think he was suggesting that most of us were inviting the wrong officiant to the service, but rather, I read it as the truest, simplest observation of what a funeral is, of what grief is. We ask clergy or family or friends or any number of people to speak at funerals, and what they say is meaningful and important and necessary. We speak of the dead, we speak of the journey of grief, we speak of faith and hope and understanding.
But in those rawest of moments we don’t yet need those words. We can’t hear that we need faith to endure, to understand, because we just don’t have it right now, we just don’t have it. And if we don’t have it – if we don’t know where it has gone or if it will ever, ever come back to us, then we might feel that we will never endure, we will never understand. That becomes the truth, our truth.
We need someone to tell us – in a manner more certain than certainty itself – that he is still with us, he has changed us, he will continue to shape us, he mattered.
This all matters – all the ways that we interrupt those particles, the paths we change. Trivial, it is not; not the curl of a finger, or the wisp of a hair.