I know this post took forever for me to write, and I know I said I’d put it up a week ago. Well, it was practically ready a week ago. But I wasn’t.  Reason why?  It deals with my issues at home. And the readers who live there. (*cough* <Mom> *cough* <Don’t hate me> *sniffle*).

So, after some careful editing and some prayer, here it goes.

 

I keep coming back to the book of Ruth, not because it’s the title inspiration for this blog, but because it’s one of those precious, tiny, self-contained books in the Old Testament that tells a personal story, and tells it with as much humanity and honesty as ancient Hasidic storytelling will allow.  It doesn’t just report events; it reports life-altering shifts and personal upsets that happened to its characters.  Since my life is in transition right now, the realism just speaks to me.  Especially as it pertains to the process of grief, and how it affects the grieving as they move into a new territory of living.

In Ruth’s tale, the big life-change for Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, is described briefly, but not subtly, through a series of notations made by Naomi herself and others regarding her altered state as a new widow.  I see so much of my mother here, and it helps me to understand her as we walk through this process together. I’ll show you what I mean.

Take, for example, what Naomi says to Orpah and Ruth (her daughters-in-law, who are also newly widowed), and what it reveals about Naomi’s sudden loss of self-worth, and her resignation to her fate. It’s truly sad.

 “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons-  would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” (Ruth 1:11-13)

Naomi insists here that she’s essentially worthless to her daughters-in-law now, since  she has nothing more to offer in terms of children, husbands, or relationships, and, therefore, in this time period, no way to provide for the young women through these connections.  In my own era, my mother isn’t so much concerned about the fact that she can’t provide for me; it’s simply that she knows that, now that I’m grown, she doesn’t need to—and so she feels useless.  I know this only because she says things to me like, “You don’t need me anymore,” and I know it bothers her.  She’s looking for a role. It’s almost as if she’s asking, wondering, If I’m not needed as a mother, and I’m no longer a wife, what am I now?

Now, I’ve read a lot of works on widowhood, most sent to me by kindly-meaning people who wanted me to pass the book, pamphlet, or article onto my mother, who frankly has little desire to read more depressing material about other women who share her situation.  But all of those works deal in a united fashion with one big issue, and it’s the hardest one a widow ever faces: the loss of identity that comes with losing one’s husband–the other half of the “item” presented to the world.  My mom’s trying to figure out her identity now, and I’m trying to figure out mine in relation to hers.  And it’s rough, confusing work.  I feel like a teenager all over again in some ways, because I miss being mothered but I can’t stand being hovered over.  And I’ve also done some mothering lately myself, and feel like I’m ready to take on the role soon (God, husband, and uterus willing).  Mom doesn’t know how to manage my weird moods and standoffishness, and I don’t know how to act differently.  So we’re both in a weird place, identity-wise.

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi deals with her loss of identity by adopting another one.  The identity she adopts baffles today’s commentators who would wish to encourage Naomi to adopt a cheerfully desperate, youthful identity—to get her “groove back,” or re-enter the marriage market.  But rather than get a Benjamite boob-job and some kosher collagen filler, Naomi does what most widows of a certain age tend to do: she takes on an identity that is actually older than her years.

How the heck do I glean this from a few short sentences in the Good Book?  Easy.  It’s obvious that Naomi lets herself go a little—understandably—just by the way that people respond to her. We can tell that her appearance is markedly haggard when she and Ruth finally re-enter Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem since the author of Ruth reports, “the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi”’(Ruth 1: 19)?

Apparently, Naomi really looked awful.  No one can blame her for this, though, really.  I’ve seen first-hand in my own mirror the way that grieving can swiftly age your appearance (drops in weight can create prominent bone structure under the skin, or in older women, exacerbates sagging skin; lack of sleep deepens dark circles and gives a hollow look to the eyes, and constant despair carves a drawn look around the mouth, etc.).  People always notice, and, in sympathy, remark on the changes.  When I returned to campus after my dad died this winter, a dear friend told me sweetly, “Honey, you look like hell.”  My mom’s friends have been kinder, but she’s noticed the changes in herself clearly enough without the comments.

Naomi’s response to her neighbors’ commentary is almost caustic, and it is also as dramatic as Jewish culture allows.  Rather than acknowledge her previous identity, she practices name-swapping, which was a huge deal in Old Testament times:

 “Don’t call me Naomi (my sweet, pleasant one),” she told them. “Call me Mara (bitter), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (v. 20-21)

This name-swap reflects Naomi’s altered attitude, and it’s one that I understand completely.  After a great tragedy befalls you, there is almost a natural, instinctive tendency to adapt not only a bitter, hardened outlook on life, but also a terrible sense of fatalism.

There is a natural kind of logic that flows from the way that the helpless feelings that come out of the experience of loss inevitably become the habitual attitude of the mind.  Fatalism becomes one’s instinct; victim-status, one’s mindset.  The world seems wrong, hostile, and inevitably out-to-get-you.  God seems either to be wanton in his malice or simply uncaring. Either way, a grieving person will feel helpless against powers greater than himself that seem to conspire to create misery.  Simply put, when it rains, it pours, and there is nary an umbrella in sight. The griever finds ample evidence that “the LORD has afflicted [her]” and there is nothing to be done about it.  Naomi represents this death-spiral of thought very well in her own words. The idea she essentially expresses is, I’ll live afflicted, and I’ll die afflicted. It’s a truly fatal way of thinking, hence the attached -ism.

In Turn Mourning into Dancing, the remarkable theologian Henri Nouwen (yes, I know I already made literary-love to him in my post on the nature of time; just deal with my new author-crush, okay?) pays close attention the way that fatalism affects the bereaved.1  In his typical spot-on realism, Nouwen explains how fatalism can bury those who are grieving inside their own coffins of pain and disappointment:

One of the most insidious aspects of fatalism has to do with how it leads us to resist healing. We become hostage to a discouragement that insists that nothing more can be done. Fatalism reinforces our tenacious grasp on the old. We become stubbornly unwilling to consider anything outside our narrow experience. Fatalism can lead to depression, despair, even suicide. (50)

I’m lucky that it’s not a normal part of my nature to be a pessimist, because fatalism is something I have to fight every day as a result of my grief.  I can usually beat it, put on a brave face, and meet the world and its challenges.  But for my mom, my Naomi, the task is more challenging.

“God must hate me,” I’ve heard her say, regarding our recent loss, financial burdens, or sudden need for home repairs.  “I’ve never been strong,” she’ll say, by way of argument or explanation whenever I challenge her to challenge herself to get past a new stage of grief or to fight a symptom of it.  I won’t lie and say it doesn’t bother me and worry me.  But I know it’s ultimately an attitude that she’ll either move away from, or that God will help her alter.  Either way, I have to hope—no, to be certain—that it will change.  How do I know that?

Because in the Christian spirit, faith always wins. And faith is the opposite of fatalism.  Or so says Nouwen, anyway.  I’d like to post Nouwen’s spiel on faith versus fatalism here, just because it explains in simple terms exactly how the two attitudes work in opposite directions in the life of a grieving person:

[F]aith looks very different from fatalism. It is its radical opposite. Rather than displaying passive resignation, faith leads us to hopeful willingness. A person of faith is willing to let new things happen and shoulder responsibilities that arise from unheard of possibilities. Trust in God allows us to live with active expectation, not cynicisim. When we view life as a gift . . . given to us by a loving God, and not wrestled by us from an impersonal fate [or, I would add, an uncaring god-figure], we remember that at the heart of reality rests the love of God itself. This mean that faith creates in us a willingness to let God’s will be done. (51)

Faith therefore means that a grieving person can feel free to trust God and can therefore take on an attitude of hopefulness.  And hope—the best anti-depressant in the world—restores our feeling of rightness in the world, gives us back a childlike sense of provision and protectedness, revives our youthful verve, and yes, even allows us to be vulnerable when we once were terrified of our unbearable and all-encompassing weakness.  But that’s just my experience. Nouwen describes hope’s gifts more beautifully when he writes, “Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness” (60).

As you can imagine, hope like this is wildly liberating. It offers honey when the world hands you vinegar. It makes you feel like you could handle anything, and it reassures you that you’re not alone.  It even gives you back your old identity, with a newer, sweeter assurance, and it returns you to the land of your birth, to the roots of your faith, and to the passion you once had for your faith when it was new.  Best of all, hope, the child of faith, is unstoppable once it’s been given birth.

I think the inevitability of faith’s (and hope’s) victory is the reason why the author of Ruth perspicaciously refuses to use Naomi’s self-proclaimed new name as a reference to her character in the book.  Right after Naomi introduces herself as Mara in verse 21 (in the quote from Ruth 1 posted above), we read in verse 22, “So Naomi returned . . . (NIV)”

Yes. Yes, eventually, she did. 

And Ruth got married, and they all lived happily ever after . . . .until the next invading tribe swept through Israel while it was half-hazardly protected by its judges (because it wouldn’t have a king until Saul came along and sucked and tried to kill Ruth’s great-grandson, David, who was a better warrior and king—until he got himself into trouble with a chick named Bathsheba, and…)

Yeah. We just gotta have faith, people. That’s all I’m saying.

Let God fix the mess.

 

 

 

 

Annddd (cue the clear forewarning of a ham-handed segue here) . . . speaking of signs of God’s faithfulness:

Oscar Wilde’s work never looked so fine.  Ever.

Do you remember Wilde’s gothic novella-parable, The Picture of Dorian Gray (often mistitled The Portrait of Dorian Gray), the story about the young man whose beautiful face is captured by a mysterious painter, who from that moment on never ages, despite the dissipation and wickedness of his lifestyle? You don’t?  That’s because you don’t read (quality literature, I mean. It’s clear that you read this blog).  That’s why I am so excited that a film of this story is finally being introduced to this generation of moviegoers.  It’s a story that can’t be told enough in our times: a dire warning of the price of the selfish consumption we indulge in within our culture.

So here comes the movie to warn us all. And, lo, behold! The beautiful face of Mr. Gray now belongs to Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, the English-major/singer-turned-freakin’gorgeous-actor whom I admire very much, and not just for his dark good looks.  I cannot wait to see this movie.  Bonus feature: it co-stars the unforgettable Colin Firth (That’s right, girls: it’s Mr. Darcy!!!).  

Behold, ze trailer of picture perfection. 

 

I am sad, though. The IMDB.com infopage on this movie says it’s not slotted to come to the USA theatres, but will only become available to us folks across the “Pond” when it’s released on DVD sometime next fall.

Whaaaa? That’s.  So.  Sad.

What can we do? Ruth’s got an idea.  She’ll write a letter where it’s got its best chance of being read.  This being Ruth’s only blog, here it goes:

 

My Dear  and Darling Mr. Ben Barnes,

I’ve read that you occasionally google yourself. And so I’m hoping that, if you should ever find this blog, you might—please, please, please—campaign to bring your Dorian Gray to theatres here in the US.  Pull whatever strings you have to, even if it means supplicat-texting your old neighbor, who is the simultaneous-bitch-and-master of Summit Entertainment Group.2 If he’s able to hook you up to Summit’s U.S. distributor, I will certainly do some word-of-mouth advertising, Facebooking, blogging, and book-dropping in my English major circles to raise the ticket sales for your film.  And I’ll be very, very grateful to you for the gift of seeing you in period costume on a twenty-foot screen. Very, very, very grateful.  So grateful that I might just . . .well . . . mmm . . . Nevermind. I wouldn’t want to sully my portrait, or yours. Much.  I’m sure you know what I mean by that.

Affectionately and much affectedly yours,

Ruth

 

 

I can already see some readers rolling their eyes at me for writing that. But you should already know that I’m shameless, silly, and joking (sort of; I’m kidding in that you-know- it-could-never-happen kind of way).

But I’m also an eternal optimist.   Thank God. 🙂

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
  2. Weird biographical side-note of cosmos-twisting kismet proportions:  Ben Barnes was apparently raised down the street from Robert Pattinson in Barnes, London, and they crossed paths pretty often when they were kids (well, when Rob was a kid, and Ben was a tweenager. Whatevah. The coincidence is awesome). Both Ben and Rob were in the “final four” in Summit’s lineup to play Edward Cullen in Twilight, but Ben was dubbed “too old” for the part (at 26, he was, sadly), so Rob (then barely 21) cradle-robbed the role.  But, oh, the smallness of the world and the pool which spawned these beautiful male leads! I almost want to buy a house in that neighborhood and partake of its magical properties/property by drinking the local water from Barn Elms, breathing the air (fog? It’s western London…), walking barefoot on the grass and rolling in the dirt on the Commons, and then seeing if I have unrealistically gorgeous babies as a result. The place really must be magical, even if it’s unhealthily close to one of the bends of the polluted Thames.
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