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In the midst

I didn't have what you'd call a religious upbringing, but for a while when I was a kid I did go to church every Sunday.  My older brother and I sang in the children's choir. 

Think about that for a second.

Yup.  It all just goes to show you...something...about...okay, I don't know what it goes to show, except that it's kind of a brilliant idea, really, for parents who want Sunday morning child care.

What, you don't think my parents actually attended that church, right?

Anyway, we'd get dropped off, and amid the sound of squealing tires as my parents made their getaway, we'd be there all bleating like snow white little lambs -- the snippets of hymns come back to me all the time -- and then we'd settle into our pews and pretend to listen to the rector as he conducted the talky parts of the service.  I have no recollection of those interludes, although since this was an Episcopalian church, it is safe to assume he was exhorting us all to commit adultery, overthrow the papacy, and have a gin and tonic, in that order.  What I do remember is that when the time came for us to read along from the Book of Common Prayer, I would flip to the appropriate section along with my choirmates, and as the rector droned I would drift.

Pretending to be casual, I'd flip the book's thin pages.  Naturally -- come on, like you wouldn't have -- I'd end up at the Order for the Burial of the Dead.  I never attended a funeral in childhood, never heard these words read aloud, but now, much later in life when I know more about what dying means, those phrases come back just like the hymns.  In the midst of life we are in death is what I keep hearing these days.

Last week my cousin died, 40 years old, in apparent good health, a slim, athletic man.  He left a wife and son, and I have been having flashes several times a day of what this must be like for them.  Even the poorest imaginings make me cry: how many horrible months lie ahead before everything stops feeling wrong?  And, my God, what will they have to go through until they're finally there?

I'm not writing this because I want condolences.  This isn't about me, and that's the point.  I have this indelible picture in my mind, and it's crazy but it persists.  I am thinking about Japan as one of those giant photo collages -- choose a view of the devastation; it doesn't matter which.  Now think of that picture as being composed of a billion smaller pictures: zoom out and you see a town swept away, a family scanning a notice board for news of lost loved ones.  Or a young man alone in his home, fallen over suddenly, while the phone rings and rings, unanswered -- his wife, to ask what the doctor said.  This is happening every day, to those we'll always love and those we'll never know.  Japan is a reminder, on a scale that's hard to assimilate.

So I do things with my children, and I think helplessly and gratefully, Life is going on.  Even my cousin's wife since that day has washed her five-year-old's hair, fixed him some sort of meal, comforted him or tried.  We go on, and it feels both wrong and right, simultaneously obscene and sacred.  Shouldn't the world stop turning? I think when I look at the pictures out of Japan.  No, and thank God it doesn't, I think when I check on Ben as he's sleeping, or soothe a crying Charlie when he swallows his first lost tooth. 

In the midst of life we are in death, but it goes both ways, amen.

If I were a better person, I might be feeling, I don't know, different.  A surge of renewed gratitude for what I have.  The drive to make the world a better place in some practical, tangible way.  Or even a respectful solemnity.  I don't know.  None of that's really happening for me.  What I'm experiencing instead is a strengthening of my conviction that we're all connected, we're all in this together, and while nothing solves the problem, exactly -- you can't wish a town back into existence, or ease the loss of a husband and father -- doing something helps.  I know it helps the giver, and I hope it helps the recipients.

Inspired by much better quilters, I'm giving away a quilt.  Unlike their big beautiful offerings, though, mine's a little one, about 40" square, suitable for a baby or young child.



It's made from a pattern by Elizabeth Hartmann and features a print called Bad Kitty:


...and it's made of cotton fabric and batting, with a backing of soft polyester plush:


To enter, just donate $10 or more to the American Red Cross's designated fund.  After donating, come back here and leave a comment with your tracking number.  For every $10 given you'll get one entry into the drawing, so please make it clear in your comment if you've donated more than that.  Please also leave a valid e-mail address in the appointed space so I can contact you if you win.  Next week I'll choose a winner.