Saturday, April 30, 2022

Algorithms

 A discussion question I asked this week in class was “What conspiracy theories do you believe in or enjoy learning about?” The responses were the usual tired stuff: JFK killed by the CIA, faked moon landing, Illuminati, and so on. One mentioned the idea that life is a simulation, and that we’re all programs carrying out code from our programmer. It’s an idea I’ve enjoyed reading about before, from Plato’s Allegory to The Matrix and everywhere in between. 

That response made me think of the if-this-then-that programming responses that I’ve encountered over the last weeks.


I used tax software to prepare and file our taxes earlier this month. During part of the process, the program prompted whether significant changes have happened since last year. When I keyed in Allison’s passing, a pop-up window appeared. Its if-this-then-that programming expressed condolences and assured me it could help me file anyway. I was almost offended by the banality of it. I actually stopped the process and waited a couple of days to resume. A coder at some point was told to be sure to provide pop-up condolences as part of the customer service. Was that programming decision itself a reaction to someone offended that the software didn’t sputter regards in a previous iteration? I don’t know which would be worse, but in the moment, I felt like the struggle of the last months was more of an input variable in a simulation than real, weighted reality. It was too stupid and too predictable and too much to deal with.


Related, I realize that I bristle at being called “Matthew” lately because no one calls me that unless it’s a legal business matter. The letters and emails that start “Dear Matthew. . .” often have their own kind of mail-merge sympathy written in. I’ve made a lot of phone calls settling accounts and notifying agencies over the last months. I told a friend that I think I’ve been offered condolences from at least three different continents. I imagine the if-this-then-that on the computer screen of the customer service worker on the other end: “Ah yes Matthew, we at International Conglomerate Incorporated are sorry for your loss.” I recently read David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? It’s a book about loss and tragedy and how to talk about it in a responsible way--especially from a Christian perspective. One of my key takeaways is that it’s often best to not say something. Having nothing to say is where the banality of commercial condolences comes in, I guess.


I have my own if-this-then-that responses that sneak up on me. A couple of weeks ago, I got an email while I was at work that the principal at the kids’ elementary school was retiring. Allison used to work closely with her when she was heavily involved with the PTA. Without realizing it, my first instinct was to get out my phone and text Allison. I’ve done that for years whenever I want to share a bit of news or get a quick reaction. A friend and fellow parent from the elementary school mentioned that she would love to have Allison’s thoughts about it. So would I.


I also wanted to talk with Allison about the two concerts I’ve seen in the last week and a half. Allison didn’t always enjoy going to shows with me, but she always wanted to hear about them. When I would get in late, she would usually wake up for a minute and ask “How was it?” We would follow up the next morning about the show. She always listened with patience as I gushed or complained or tried vainly to recreate in words how it felt and how I felt. The show I saw Tuesday was the first time I’ve been in a sold-out club in over two years. There were fleeting moments when the sound washed over me and the crowd swayed and the room shook that felt almost normal. The quiet in the car after was exceeded by the quiet of home. I wrote to a friend who asked to hear about it. There were components of the experience that felt familiar to my decades of going to shows: I was at a venue I know well,  I ran into an old acquaintance, I was annoyed at another concertgoer, the music moved me, then the music ended before I wanted it to. Home always feels quiet after a show. This time moreso. 


I’m glad that I went, and I want to continue to see concerts with regularity, but the usual progression of my concert algorithm doesn't function, and there’s a hollowness to the experience that deserves to be written about but can’t be put into words.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Routine

I've spent a lot of the last few months feeling overwhelmed. For our entire relationship, Allison has always been the detail-oriented person. We joked that she was the only grown-up in the family. Having to take on all of the financial and household responsibilities over time has been a difficult, sometimes fraught transition. I realize that when I'm feeling most overwhelmed is when I feel least in control. It's most unhelpful that my default seems to be to freeze and not do anything when faced with significant stress.

A lyric I wrote for a song I recorded forever ago said "If I made up a number, I would keep it for myself / whisper it in quiet, sharing it with no one else / I'd have a piece of all the things between infinities / a little tag of something in the mess of everything." I don't know what I was thinking about at the moment I jotted that down, but now, the idea of owning a tag of something in a swirl of infinities feels like a handhold against unstoppable tides. Thoreau's line about time being a stream that we go fishing in is similar, I guess. I don't know for certain where the water comes from or where it goes, but I've got a stretch of it now that I can think on and consider.

As a kind of coping mechanism, I've found comfort in routines (handholds) that I've been able to establish. Most of them are silly, but they provide me a sense of control in a life and trajectory that still feels wobbly. Some of the routines are daily; some are weekly. 

Daily: 

  • Every morning, I make pour-over coffee and allow myself at least a few minutes to sit and sip it. I like the process: the boiling sound on the stovetop, the bloom of the grounds under hot water, and the quiet moments on the couch at the beginning of a day. A few years ago, I was struck by the paradox of the uniqueness of each day--even when the activity was the same. I started taking a picture of the bottom of my coffee cup every morning. No two are alike, but I might mistakenly think they were. Beyond the paradox of same/different in the same activity, whatever complaints I have, I almost always have the provision of time and coffee and a few moments at the beginning of my day that I can stake claim to.
  • During the first COVID lockdown, I started completing the New York Times daily crossword. Almost every day for the last two years, I've found time to solve a puzzle and escape for a bit into mental effort that exists only for its own intrinsic value. 

  • For the better part of 7 years, I've had a daily alarm at 12:34pm that reminds me to take a deep breath and think about something for which I'm thankful. The last 4 months have been the most difficult in this process because my thoughts often drift to bitterness at our loss and the indignity of Allison's disease. Still, my alarm goes off every day. Today, I was at a softball practice watching Lauren confidently work on her form as a pitcher on a new team. Today, I'm thankful for the leadership of my children, who intuitively look forward for the new opportunities and experiences coming rather than looking back at time that can never be retrieved.
  • Every night, before the kids go to bed, I take their breakfast orders and ask them what time they need to wake up. Through this, I've been able to hone my omelet skills and help each of them figure out their own routines with which to start the days.
Weekly
  • Every weekend, I bake or cook breakfast for the kids. My repertoire is small, but I've reached a point where I don't need to look at recipes for different quick breads, muffins, pancakes, or biscuits. I used to be in awe of my grandma, who could provide food for us, whisking and kneading without guidance beyond her own hands and mind. I hope that I may faithfully replicate at least some component of that for my kids.
  • Every Friday is "bagel day" before school. It's a small celebration of making it to the end of another week.
  • Every Sunday, I try to cook dinner for the four of us and Allison's parents at our house. I find that I think of Allison almost the whole time I'm in the kitchen on those days. Today, I prepared a potato-kale soup and a salad with crusty Italian bread. It's the kind of meal Allison loved to prepare for us.
  • Every Wednesday, the kids and I eat at Allison's parents' house. Amy asks the kids what they want to eat, and we eat and fellowship together. This was a tradition we started after Al and Amy moved here. I'm glad we've maintained the tradition, but there are nights after those meals when our house feels especially empty after we get home.
  • I have reminders and calendar alerts set up throughout the week to water the houseplants, pay bills, take out the trash, check accounts, and many others. It's almost ridiculous how much I rely on my smart phone and digital calendars.
  • Thursday and Sunday are my big laundry days. Athletic uniforms and other unexpected needs pop up, but those are days I set aside for folding and delivering while I watch TV or listen to music.
  • I try to make sure I listen to at least one record from beginning to end every week. Often, it's while I make dinner or fold laundry, but I feel again like it's a little mark in time that I can make mine. This weekend, I was able to listen to multiple records because weather canceled a lot of our outdoor plans.
People ask "How are you doing?" frequently. I usually answer, "I think I'm doing ok." That's the most honest response I can give. I have handholds each day that make me feel like I can manage. I have moments when a deluge of tasks or responsibilities feels like it might sweep me away. When I'm asked to give a blessing before a meal, or when I think to say one, I find myself falling back on a prayer that I've borrowed from Sara Miles: "God of provision and abundance, you feed us every day. Thank you. Guide us, help us, and teach us that we might also feed others in your name. Amen."

My prayer, today and every day, is that I love and provide and laugh and cry as fully as I am able for as long as I am able.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Three months

Today is three months since Allison died. I have a lot of things that I want to say, but I find myself deleting them almost as quickly as I type them. Nothing seems to match what I'm feeling. Being at a loss for words is pretty new to me, and it's the kind of frustration that I usually would take to her to ask what she thinks.

One of the things I've done today is go through the memories and stories that people shared on a form I made before her memorial service. My intent then was to share those ideas with people who attended the service, but like a lot of things, it didn't work out the way I planned it. 

So instead of recapping the ups and downs of where I find myself personally on a day like this, here are a few of the memories that friends and family shared about Allison around the time of her memorial service.

I've excerpted and anonymized them in case people would prefer their names not be published online.

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Allison was so absent of pretense that she moved through the world in a way that was uncommonly pure, open, loving and vulnerable. I never asked her if she thought she was remarkable. I assume she would have said “no.” I would have disagreed. I hope one of her many abiding gifts is that some of her stardust will linger, guide, and bend me toward her unashamed and reverent posture toward the beauty and gifts that are, always, present.

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Allison was the first person that demonstrated to me that you could be a Christian and socially progressive--be a Christian and love gay people, care about justice and rights of all people, and also love Jesus. For me, in 2002 in the South, it was kind of earth-shaking. So now, as someone who manages the finances for my church and services as a community justice organizer on behalf of the same church, I feel grateful for my conversations with Allison hunched in our tiny windowless office as we ate our leftovers.

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Quiet and demure Al surprised us from time to time: I will never hear Cardi B without seeing Al dancing on the dock in Three Lakes. Intermixed with many joys, our friend-family has helped each other through many sorrows. Throughout these impossibly tough times, I have been so grateful to Matt and Al for their openness and honesty and grace, for letting us in and allowing us to feel helpful and connected even as we’ve been so powerless to do the one thing we know they longed for – making Al healthy. 

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Allison has been a guidepost on parenting for me. Seeing Allison parent her kids out of love and gentleness showed me the kind of mom I’d like to be, gentle and kind and filled with adoration for her children. Allison’s warmth for others, especially my family, has been so meaningful to watch. She has shared marriage advice (men never pick up their socks) and parenting advice (it’s hard now and it gets easier but it’s ok to cry now) that has stuck with me. 

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Allison appreciated and sought the best in each day, and I was so impressed by and proud of her for making this extraordinary effort to witness to the importance of human dignity during these fraught political times. She gave fully, and I am so thankful for her goodness, commitment, and witness—whether marching for truth and decency, or for loving and serving her family and community so well.

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I remember so many conversations with Al, ranging from the really big, important questions (parenting, racial politics) to the even more important (tabloid news). Al was in for all of it. As someone who tends to rush to quick and passionate opinions, I appreciated Allison's more considered approach, which always tended to the generous - she looks at things from multiple perspectives, slow to judge or consider people 'wrong', even if she disagrees.

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Allison may not realize how much she taught me just by her example of a good person. The years I have known her seem too short of time. But I do know her, and I love the person she is. The small interactions that seem insignificant are what I cherish most.

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I met Allison shortly after she started treatment. Her smile, quiet wisdom, grace and love for her family were apparent from day 1. I am grateful for her friendship through support group and beyond. I have been rereading her blog post "Heart"As Allison wrote, "I hope that my open heart will lead me to the next loving step in my journey."


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Circles

In class, when I talk about symbolism, I mention the metaphorical weight we assign to objects. I often use my wedding band as an example. What is it? Metal, formed into a circle. It has scratches and nicks on it after two-plus decades on my finger. It will eventually get lost or melted or broken. It exists, as all physical things exist, but the symbolism of it exists independent of its physical form. I talk about the infinite nature of a circle: a beginning that also contains its end, blurring the two into a singular form that is simultaneously dynamic and static. A perfect circle, independent of its physical manifestation.

I’ve found myself thinking about circles and finitude and infinitude a lot over the last weeks. Presence without physical form; symbolic weight absent a concrete object. Existence without beginning or end.


A couple of weeks ago on my birthday, the first since my 18th that I haven’t shared in at least some way with Allison, I decided to pay special attention to circles and the quiet reminders of a continuum that exists without clear beginning or end. Here are a few of the circles that I captured during the course of my 45th birthday:



Metaphorically, the circles outlined hydration, sustenance, activity, and mindful reflection. The unbrokenness of the circles I noticed feels at odds with what feels acutely broken in my life and my conception of it and its trajectory. 


Symbolism is an abstraction, but it exists, present tense. So do memories and feelings. In my better moments, I’m able to cherish the wealth of memories we have in a closed circle of the time we had as a family of 2, 3, 4, and 5. On my difficult days, I try my best to remember what Allison often said, written clearly in 2015 on the second anniversary of her initial diagnosis: 

I try very hard to stay grounded in each moment. It's hard work, and some days--many, actually--I do a bad job at it. But part of my continued efforts to take better care of and be kinder to myself have yielded the understanding that even my bad days with their fear, anxiety, sadness and/or anger can teach me something. Each new day is another opportunity to learn more and hopefully do better.


Sunday, December 05, 2021

"Mary's Room"

Over the last weeks, I've thought frequently about a thought experiment called "Mary's Room," attributed to Frank Jackson. It's an illustration of the "knowledge argument." Basically, an imaginary Mary is a brilliant scientist who lives in a completely black-and-white room, one that she has never left in her life. She has all of the scientific knowledge of color and the spectrum of light and how the human eye captures and translates color to the brain. She knows how and why the brain "sees" red and green and blue and all of the other colors. Still, she has never experienced seeing color. Frank Jackson finishes his hypothetical scenario by posing the question: what happens when Mary goes outside into the colorful world? Does her experience of seeing color enhance her knowledge? Has she learned anything new? Or does the reality of color merely reinforce and affirm her prior knowledge, adding nothing to her prior understanding?

I believe Mary experiences new knowledge through experience. I think her abstract understanding of color and light only provides scaffolding for the less-quantifiable experience of color. These are "qualia," the non-physical components of knowledge that can only be learned through experience.

I first encountered Mary's Room after a long stretch of thinking about empathy and experience as vital components of human community. Some of the most comforting assurances I've received from others about a range of experience: parenthood, marriage, grief, etc. have come from people who have experienced the phenomena they're talking about. For instance, when my dad died, a friend of mine offered to talk (or not talk) about anything or nothing and provide a space where grief wasn't a present part of our discussions and activities. He had lost his own mother a few years before, and knew from experience that the grieving are often the hub of a wheel of grief with as many spokes as there are well-meaning friends offering condolences. He shared further that part of his epiphany about giving space and offering windows away from that ever-present grief came while he was in divinity school. He felt like the loss of his mom provided his fellow students with a learning lab to try out pastoral counseling and comforting, academic explanations of the experience of grief and meaning. At that point, the abstraction of a friend or acquaintance experiencing grief provided the chance for practical application--a laboratory for applying non-experiential knowledge. In my friend's experience, it was exhausting, a steady offering of pat answers and platitudinous, hollow assurances of the ultimate justice of God's creation. It was Mary's confident articulation of the reality of color without the grounding of her experience of color.

I learned from him and from my own experience navigating the grief at my dad's death. I can't and don't articulate a lot of the rote responses I grew up hearing: "God is good all the time" being chief among them. While abstractly and contextually true, I feel like those kinds of sentiments too often land as "Stop your grieving right now and move on." It's never intended that way, but the conflict between the abstraction and experience too often steals the grace from the sentiment. I find that people who have experienced that kind of grief themselves are slower to offer such ideas.

I've known for years that cancer would most likely take Allison from us. I tried to avoid imagining what life without her would be like, but I still wondered. I know academically and scientifically about grief and how it affects most people. I know Allison is loved, and that people would rally to all of us when Allison passed away. The reality of each and every component of the experience: having to share the news with family and friends, the acute physical pain of loss, the sleep disruption, the anger, the confusion, and the paradoxical joy and misery of seeing and hearing from so many loved ones constitute an experiential knowledge, a collection of qualia that together transcend whatever preparation and knowledge I might have had before. I imagine Mary being awed and overwhelmed and startled by the reality of the colors she encountered. How could she not be?

Today is one month since Allison died. This blog has been a place for sharing the full range of emotions and experiences we've navigated since becoming parents. We decided together not to chronicle the roller coaster of Allison's metastatic diagnosis and treatment here. Our writing has been more private for the last few years, or we've written in other places for other audiences instead.

I feel different now (at least as I feel led today). I want to make this a regular place for sharing and reflection again. It's now my intent to write here at least once a month, and to allow the subject matter and content to come naturally to me, as Mary's Room has today. 

Two values have especially guided the way Allison and I have traveled the last few years: 1) finding time every day to be grateful for the provisions and blessings of our lives, even when they seemed slight when contrasted with larger fears and concerns, and 2) being honest, even when it means being honest with Lauren, Evan, and Tobin about incurable metastatic disease and the reality of death and loss. It is my hope, today and every day, that I can continue to uphold those values, even when it's difficult to do so.



Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017

fall fam

As we approach the end of another year, I'm feeling many things: Relief that the busyness of Christmas is complete. Sadness that our time with our out-of-town family is fleeting. Hopeful about being home again and the feeling of a fresh start that a New Year brings. Anxiety about many things, close to home and in our larger community.

Of course, I'm grateful, too. I'm thankful to have marked another year. Matt and the kids are my world, and they are mostly happy and very healthy. That is huge. But the flip slide of gratitude is the always-present knowledge of the fragility of it all. I try to mindful of what is good and right in front of us in this moment.

Yesterday, I was in the bathroom with Lauren at Matt's aunt and uncle's house. There was a sign that said, "In all things, give thanks." Lauren, as she is apt to do--even while sitting on the toilet--read the sign and proceeded to scrutinize it. She said, "Mom, what does that even mean?" I said, "Well, I think it means, no matter what happens we should be thankful. Like say, even if you were sick, you should be thankful." Lala scrunched up her nose, narrowed her eyes, and asked indignantly, "Why would I EVER be thankful to be sick?!?"

I realized she was right. I hadn't quite captured the sentiment correctly. So I tried again: "I think it means that, you don't need to be grateful for being sick, but when you're sick, you can find something to be grateful for." Lauren then wondered, "Like how it's nice how you take care of me when I'm sick?" And I said, "I think that's it, exactly."

I close this year, thankful for each of you who has taken the time to read another year of our reflections on gratitude. Life is beautiful and difficult; some days it feels more one than the other. I hope that we can continue to find some love, some light even in the darkest times--or at least resolve to look for them again tomorrow.

christmas smiths

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trippin'

Lately, I've been caught up dwelling a little on how short our Christmas break feels. The last two years have had school calendars that make our family winter tour feel accelerated, meaning that travel feels more stressful than usual. I have family and friends who don't have near the time that we usually have as a family, though. I'm thankful to be hitting the road for the holidays again, and thankful that we have the time and means to do so.