As we have for over 30 years, my wife, Jo, and I are sitting on the porch this morning having breakfast. The grass in the yard is more verdant this summer then I remember it before. The flowers show radiantly, helped along by intermittent rains. The spinners are whirring happily in a southerly breeze.
Weather permitting, our breakfast ritual has remained the same except for a couple of things. Since we’ve recently grown aware of time’s limits, we have developed an increasing sense of the ‘now,’ a heightened awareness of each other and of those in our lives we have grown to love.
An odd thing to say, but as we begin to come to terms with having less, we are finding more.
Breakfast discussions have always been a pivotal time in our daily routine. We are typically more together then than we are any other time. Most all issues get on the table. We talk them over. The ritual, while staying pretty much the same, has assumed a different tenor of late. We speak less of circumstantial and household matters; we’ve become, well, contemplative. To say it differently, we speak of and listen more to the language of the heart than the scripts of the head which so much of daily management usually requires.
Since last April our conversations have grown intimate but with an intimacy very different from the intimacy I had once thought of.
To say we have entered a time of more truth-telling doesn’t quite describe it. I once thought of intimacy as the inner freedom we discover when we reveal a darker side of our personality to someone else and still feel safe and accepted –– and indeed that may be. But there’s another side to intimacy that our breakfast conversation revealed on that August 1st morning.
The intimacy was more like small vignettes of our interior lives appearing to us that had not been explicitly expressed before. The vignettes remain buried only because we have not taken them all that seriously or an occasion to have unearthed them has not arisen. These vignettes are not sensational at all, there’s nothing dramatic about them. They are simple thoughts and feelings about the fundamentals of our world that we have quietly entertained but never expressed. The vignettes are not the kind we have kept secret out of shame or for the fear of seeming childish and naive; They are thoughts and feelings we have always harbored (and I believe many people have) but never considered them sufficiently consequential that anyone would really care about them one way or the other. We usually blow them off thinking, “This is just me; I know it doesn’t make sense.” One such vignette rose casually the other morning at breakfast.
As you might expect we have talked occasionally about life after death over the years. In the past, I would describe those conversations more as scripts originating in the head, like the religious or political opinions which anyone may espouse in casual conversation but not necessarily feel they need to embrace it. This morning was different.
That morning I mentioned casually to Jo that this was my mother’s birthday. We began a mathematical calculation how old our mothers would be today. We started running numbers and came up with something like one hundred five to a hundred fifteen. We sat silently.
I recalled how often I’d wished that my mother and Jo could have known each other. She died years before Jo and I were married. I was sure they would have become good friends. I expressed this thought to Jo. Jo replied that was happy in the thought that I would finally meet her father.
We turned to face each other and it took us a minute to fully realize what we were saying. We grew teary. We were considering each other’s loved ones in a way we’d never expressed before, at least openly. We were clearly speaking of them as if they would be waiting to greet us.
Somehow the pith of what this conversation was unearthing had traveled beyond the scripts of the head to the language of the heart and each of us was surprised by how profoundly moved we were by what had just happened. What the heart was saying was that a typical head discussion of “Do you believe in a life after death?” would never have gotten anywhere near.
I confess that I did go into my head later that morning trying to interpret the event with the normal scripts of reason. I tried to be as scrupulous as possible in respecting that what I was exploring was something the heart revealed and not something my head had fabricated. In writing this, I’m trying to remain faithful to what my heart revealed.
I have always been impressed with how, whether expressed at funerals, or appearing in obituaries, or hearing children process the loss of loved ones –– even their pets ––that death bears the sting of a loss. There’s also an assumed and often unspoken thought accompanying it –– one deeply felt –– and running parallel: that these losses are a part of a universal process that ultimately occasions a rendezvous.
‘Going home’ is the popular way the sense of this understanding finds expression in common parlance. Even for me, a clergyman, I’ve often dodged the matter, fearing that it might be only a romantic inclination or a fanciful wish. The simple profundity of my own buried belief unnerved me because it did not fit easily into the tidy world in which my head feels safe and in control. But there it was.
Feelings of deep intimacy happen like that, even with people who are already close: they just pop up and when you hear them being articulated so casually, they seem surprising at first even though you know they are not.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.