This morning a thought came to my mind: do not confuse a narrow life with a simple life. A narrow life is small and limited, ruled by fear. There is only one way, one equation, one path. On the other hand, a simple life begins with a love of all things and all ways and all people—there is an appreciation and joy in all the universe has to offer. What makes it simple is a gracious restraint—a resistance to attachment, attainment, and hoarding. Someone with a simple life makes a conscious choice to only use and keep what is necessary for sustenance and the joy of the heart. Everything else is simply witnessed and allowed to live its own life.
Yesterday my maternal grandfather passed away at 10:14 a.m. This time is significant to me. I was born on October 14th: 10/14. I knew his passing would be a rebirth for me—though I feel guilty saying that out loud. I had complicated feelings towards my grandpa who never received treatment for his PTSD fighting in Germany during WWII where he saw unspeakable horrors. My compassion and sorrow for his experience are sincere and deep. And now, with the discoveries of epigenetics, his trauma is most likely part of my own genetic makeup. Perhaps this is why, in his last few years, I had a hard time being in the same room with him. It was all too painful and messy and agonizing.
Over the years, he cloaked his pain, anger, and manipulation in righteous religious speech and pious ritual. It was the guaranteed road to perfection and salvation. He was right and that was that. He could love you if you agreed with him, followed in his footsteps. One step off the path, and you experienced his pent up anger—his fear that there would be no redemption for any of us if you broke the chain of believers. There were ordinances, religious rituals, that bound the family together—your unworthiness threatened everyone’s salvation and his reputation as The Patriarch of the family.
He grew up on a small farm in Idaho—a simple life, yes? Of course in many ways it was. As much as he longed to be back on the farm all his life, the stories he told of life on the farm were quite sad. His birth mother died when he was only four years old, and his souther baptist stepmother would ask him every night before bed if he had been a good boy—he never believed he was good enough. I’m not sure that he was ever allowed to feel real joy—it would have been seen as arrogant and irresponsible. He married a city girl at 18 years old and was quickly sent away to war in Europe. Life was no longer so simple.
And so it became narrow. “Straight and narrow is the path, and few there be that find it.” If there couldn’t be simplicity, there would certainly be perfection and redemption.
As long as I can remember, his language took on an unpredictable rhythm about redemption, atonement, and repentance on some days; on other days it was laughing to tears about harmless misunderstandings; and sometimes you would be the unprepared target of anger that was a personal condemnation of your soul.
My mom, whom everyone agrees is a saint—myself included, wants to remember the gentler moments she had with him. I, the skeptic, never grew to trust his soft moments. I felt he was luring me in with his sweetness just to get me with his anger and a heavy dose of unworthiness.
Three years ago I wrote a letter to my grandpa about his love for the deserts of southern Utah—his place of refuge and redemption from the night terrors and memories of bombs and death and evil. I want to have compassion for him, and I think I do, but I also knew that my physical reaction to his presence was intense and full of fear. I felt I could only be small and fit his prescription of what a woman should be: a mother, working in the home, silent, adoring of her husband, and pretty. None of this is what my heart wants nor is it who I am.
As we left his room at the assisted living center where he lived for the past 4 years, I noticed all of his handwritten notes taped on the walls, the computer, his TV, the shelves—everywhere. The same words: repentance, atonement, redemption…then this one:
Be still, and know that I am God.
There is something very holy about religious language that still moves me. I have noticed in the past few years that I have begun to redefine and reclaim these words that became so complicated for me. I want them at their essence, away from my grandpa’s fear. I want them in their expansive and simple integrity. I do not want to narrowly associate them with the anger and manipulation of my grandfather—I want them to live simply and beautifully within my psyche.
Redemption, Resurrection, Repentance. These words remind me that morning will always come; weakness becomes strength; rest in darkness and rise again; realign with my soul, daily.