On grief and gratitude

I hadn’t intended to write a blog post at all today, but in a moment of longing to put down words “on paper,” I just started writing it this morning during my writing group. I’m practicing releasing my compulsion to prepare and perfect, so I’m posting this without much thought, editing, or fancy blog things that I don’t know how to use in the first place. In addition to the gifts I mention in this little post, I’m grateful to my partner, Jack, for the gift of writing time (and so much more), which I didn’t know I’d need this afternoon.

Buttercups greeting me on a run this week

My old friends, anxiety and mild depression, have come calling these last weeks and months. Anxiety is a nearly-always kind of thing for me, but sometimes it finds new and creative ways to tug at my mind and heart (especially my mind). Depression has been a less frequent visitor since a dark time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during graduate school the first time in my twenties. I know these gentle callers are not mine alone; if the pains of the world didn’t make us all a little anxious and depressed, we likely aren’t paying much attention. My heart breaks daily for all of those people and places who wake up and go to sleep with sounds of war, occupation, and destruction, especially when I wake up so the sound of birds.

My heart breaks for and with others, too. Yesterday on a run in my neighborhood, I came across a tiny little creature–maybe a baby possum–nestled peacefully in some leaves near a curb. At first I thought it was just sleeping, but alas, it was dead, its delicate little ears still pink. I couldn’t keep looking at it, but I also couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t bear it, and I felt such grief that no one else–at least no human–was there to bear witness to its life or its death. I couldn’t control my tears, so I hid my face from the cars going by. I cry a lot on my runs.

In fact, tears feel on the surface of my very being these days; for better or worse, this tinge of depression has made me ultra-sensitive to the obvious reality of finite existence. Or perhaps it is my ongoing life/spiritual/vocational discernment process, which has for the last two years put me in touch with the depths of, well, everything. Or maybe it is teaching a course on Existentialism in the midst of pandemic and war; each week brings questions about anxiety, despair, faith, courage, death, love. This week, we turn to beauty and art, though these, too, are inseparable from all the rest.

Or maybe the reason for my swelling tears–of course–is because of this remarkable gift of being with my son, Elliott, as he grows and moves about the world as his own person. Even with all my economic, racial, and able-bodied privileges, this parenting thing is hard, hard, work. Some moments, when my patience is worn beyond thin and I can’t manage to juggle it all (even with a fantastic partner) I wonder if I’m cut out for it. But in this rawness, there is a feeling that I’m in “it,” really in it. And my depth of love for Elliott–even in the hardest moments–is always paired with the possibility of loss and the awareness that neither of our lives will last forever. Neither will my little Puglet, Bubba (“Buber”) who, at 16.5 years, daily inches toward a new journey where I cannot accompany him. Neither will Jack’s. Neither will my mom’s, Elliott’s beloved Nanna. Tears flow.

Our Bubba (“Buber”)

But in all of this, what I (also) feel is utter gratitude. Not just thanks, which is important, too, and something I too-often forget to offer, but instead a kind of gratitude that is almost painful because it eludes words to express it. Sometimes I think it can only be felt, maybe through a kind of heart-language. Some of the pain comes from knowing, or at least presuming, that I can never fully communicate my gratitude to the givers. So here I offer just few fragments of what I’m feeling especially grateful for today. I invoke the word “smuler,” my blog’s Danish namesake, here, as these are really just fragments. There are so many threads of gratitude that course through me right now. But one has to start somewhere.

My smuler, my fragments, of gratitude, in this moment:

HonkTX! Band Festival. Last weekend, Elliott, Jack, and I went to the Honk! band festival here in Austin and the first group we stumbled upon was the Austin Samba. Maybe 15-20 percussionists and 10-12 dancers all performing outside right in front of us. We were in the midst of cascading sheer and utter joy. I realized afterward that for 30 minutes, I had felt no anxiety. This is an eternity for hearts and minds which can’t usually find respite. Elliott stood watching and dancing with his own musical instruments (thanks for the ukulele, Julie S.!:), joining in that collective experience of joy that poured out from the hearts and bodies of those artists. For 30 minutes, I felt free. The world was as it should be. Later that day, I got to hear the Yes Ma’am! Brass Band, a fantastic group of musicians whose love for their music is palpable (and there is such cool low brass!). What gratitude I feel for this gift of music, of dance, of artists, and of community gathered to experience it.

Elliott with his ukulele listening and dancing to
Austin Samba

My spiritual and religious home, United Christian Church of Austin. Oh the transitions we’ve had in my church community in the last years! But we’ve weathered it and there continues to be this heartbeat of care, vision, and love, that always persists. Each time I go, I am moved by the words and music I hear, the gifts of Communion I receive, and ways in which its leaders and members seek to incarnate the Christian gospel of inclusion and love in their everyday lives. In particular, my gratitude flows for the ways that our ministers, leaders, and volunteers care for the littles among us; this congregation loved Elliott before he was even born and this love seems to know no end. What gratitude I feel for this family and for the care and dedication to our children.

Elliott painting last Sunday in the Children’s Wing at UCC Austin
(he’s wearing a mask :).
Photo credit: Jack Musselman

Writing Group. These last two years, I experienced being part of a writing group for the first time through my friend and facilitator, Dr. Beth Godbee. Every Friday morning, we gather on Zoom from places across the country to write together. We’re mostly academics of various kinds and most (though not all) identify as women. We work on writing projects of all kinds–academic books, fiction, dissertations, articles, curriculum, blog posts, emails, you name it. I love the dedicated time to write, for sure, but what I’m perhaps most grateful for is the community that I see every Friday morning. Several of us say that in just the first few minutes of being together, even before a word is written, we feel like things are going to be okay, that we can manage (even enjoy) this thing called life, and that we feel, well, better. We sometimes we show up tired, sometimes excited, sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes–often–we lament systemic injustice local and global. Sometimes we laugh! But we show up when we can, and we support one another, not just in writing, but again, in life (though are they really that distinct?). I am utterly and truly grateful for these writers, who have become friends, confidants, and mentors.

Naming gifts runs the risk of excluding those unnamed, and that’s what I’ve done here. No doubt I’ll write about some of those other gifts, too. In the meantime, though, in my time of existential and spiritual tender porousness, I will just offer my deep gratitude for all the other gifts in my life in prayer, meditation, and a depth of feeling which (while imperfect) goes beyond even those ways of communicating.

Thanks be.

Jenny

Author: Jenny Veninga

I'm a theologian, scholar of religion, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I love asking the “big questions” about what it means to exist as a human being and learn from others as they do the same. My hope is that these questions can contribute in some way to living in right relationship with each other and practicing just peace near and far. My academic passions include (but are not limited to!): Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard; queer and feminist theologies; collective memory and trauma; and religious and political issues in Scandinavia and Palestine. I'm currently deepening my sense of how all these areas inform my work as an aspiring spiritual healer. I'm also a parent, a runner, a pug-lover, a thrift-store connoisseur, and a vegan. A Cancer with Sagittarius rising, I love the open road and equally love coming home. I currently live in Austin, Texas, with my partner, toddler, pug, and turtle.

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