I’m not sure when I first discovered the comfort of cafés. Perhaps it was years ago when I discovered the Marriott Bakery within the Marriott Hotel on the island of Zamalek in Cairo and found the best brewed coffee in the city. Perhaps it was a bit later when I discovered another bakery walking distance from our flat in that made amazing croissants.
Or perhaps it was after that, when cafés became more available, coinciding with more freedom in my life as my kids got older.
But it has been through writing that I have discovered the true magic and comfort of cafés. When I began writing 11 years ago, I found it difficult to concentrate if I just wrote at home. I would sit with my fingers hovering over the typewriter, my mind blank for things to say. I’d pack up my things, walk out the door and down the street to Central Square in Cambridge, find a café and with a coffee by my side my fingers went from hovering to furiously typing words and sentences.
Though I sometimes struggle with insecurity in public spaces, all that insecurity leaves me as I sit in a café. I am surrounded by life, by music, by sounds from the kitchen, and by conversation but within that noise I’m completely focused. Usually, I hear English as the dominant language followed by Spanish and then others. Living in a busy city it is never English only.
There is something deeply comforting in the anonymity of sitting and working, or reading, or simply enjoying a hot drink by myself in a café.
I write, I look around, I stare into space, I think, I get ideas, I type the ideas into a document, I pray, I wonder, I repeat.
These public spaces help me pay attention to life around me even as I get immersed in my writing. They envelope me with the joy of people watching and remembering the shared human story. And describing the human story and experience is one of the things I love best about writing.
I know I am not the only one. As I sit in a cafe today, I am with several people who came in before I did and will probably stay after I leave. This shared experience of those I may or may not meet does not feel lonely. It feels companionable, as though we have membership in an invisible club.
I also know this is not accidental. We are human beings who are connected not only to each other, but also to place. Place attachment and forming emotional bonds to place begins early in life and there is a lot of research on what makes a place meaningful for people. Places root us to the environment around us and form a context for us to flourish.
But it’s not the academic nature of this that I care about. It’s the physical and emotional nature. For in a world that often feels restless, frantic, and fractious, it’s the wonder, the peace, and the comfort that comes with finding my space in a café.
When you first meet Melissa Dalton-Bradford, one of your first thoughts is “She is the sort of beautiful that makes me feel beautiful.” Your second thought is life is not fair because she is incredibly smart, speaks at least three languages, and is a talented performer.
But when she begins to talk and you learn her life story, you are convinced life is not fair. Melissa buried her 18-year old son a few days after he began college. She laid a son who had been full of life and joy and talent into a coffin. The tragedy belongs in the album of the unexplainable and my throat catches when I think about this, about the loss of this boy to the family, to his church, to his community.
As I listen to Melissa, I don’t stay in that album for long, because she compassionately moves the listener to a different album – an album of hope.
I had the privilege of meeting Melissa in Amsterdam this past weekend. She was the last speaker in what was a conference full of excellent breakout and main stage sessions. I walked away with thoughts on grief and comfort whirling in my mind. It will take a long time to process.
“When others help us heal, they too suffer in some way. Suffering is the modest price of real friendship.” Wayne E. Brickey in Making Sense of Suffering.
I’ve spoken about compassion before in several pieces, but here was another reminder that we begin and we end with compassion. We don’t “patch grief with proverbs”[Melissa Dalton-Bradford] We sit with them. The root of the word ‘compassion’ means “to suffer with.” Melissa quoted a line “To comfort me you have to come close. Come sit with me on my mourning bench” from a piece called Lament for a Son. * So we come close, we sit, and we wait.
To commune means to ‘show up.’ If you talk to people who are grieving about what helped the most, they will tell stories with tears running down their cheeks about how people showed up. They came to appointments and to drop off dinners and desserts; they came to funerals and they made phone calls or just dropped by. We can’t do grief without communing and community. And we must bring community to the grieving.
Melissa reminded us that we each bring a strength to the grieving process and to those who grieve. Your strength may not be casseroles. Mine certainly isn’t. But we all have something to bring. She gave the illustration of two artists who painted pictures of her son that captured his life through their art. They gave what they could. Are you an artist, a blogger, an accountant, an organizer, a driver? Come and bring your strength to the one who is grieving.
Whoever created a ‘time line’ for grief should be challenged to rethink that idea.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer of the conscious dying movement, lived to regret having described the common features of the grief journey as stages. She came to see that everyone grieves differently and that science collapses in the face of the mysteries of the heart. There is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where eachitem ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss, like the girl who learned to surf again after her arm was bitten off by a shark. The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, butthe limb does not grow back.
When someone you love very much dies, the sky falls. And so you walk around under a fallen sky.**
Grief knows no timeline. Three months from now, your friend will still be grieving over her failed marriage. Two years from now, even as she moves on, there will still be times of grief. Ten months from now, your other friend will still dream that her child is coming back, well and whole. Fifteen years from now, a wife will still go to the grave side of the man she pledged her life to and who she thought would be there on her 15th anniversary. Ten years from now the third culture kid or refugee will still feel the weight of grief when they read the news and see “their” countries on the front page. Compassion, community, and comfort need to continue for the long haul.
I wish all of you could have heard this talk on grief and the hope that emerged from the ashes of Melissa’s healing. If she is speaking in your area – GO! But in the meantime, her books hold her story and her story brings comfort.
As I was thinking about Melissa’s talk, reflecting and writing this piece, I saw a picture of the fine art of Kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi is the art of repairing a broken pot with gold:
“When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” *
When we are willing to sit with people in their grieving, we are part of this restoration. We help to fill the cracks with gold instead of sawdust, and the damaged, grieving one heals and becomes stronger and more beautiful.
When my children were small and they got hurt they would come running to me, tears streaming down their faces. And I would pick them up and hold them close. I rarely said “Shh, shh – don’t cry. Everything will be okay.” Instead I would say “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then I would just hold them. Even now, I’m not sure why I didn’t tell them it would be okay.
At one time I was an expert at labor. I have a body that takes to pregnancy like the proverbial duck to water. My body glows during pregnancy. My hips, inherited from both sides of the family, are made for delivering babies. In five pregnancies I only had morning sickness a couple of times, and that was because I made the mistake of taking prenatal vitamins with their mega doses of iron on an empty stomach. I’m not saying any of this in pride – it’s fact. I could have probably had 10 babies and been fine in terms of the pregnancy. (I’m glad I didn’t by the way – just in case you were thinking of asking. Post pregnancy, child raising is a completely different journey.)
I also went through the labor and deliveries of five children with no hitches, no complications, just the hard, hard work of labor. But no matter how “easy” the labor, no mom ever forgets that period that they call ”transition.” Transition is when you look at your husband and you want to say things like “I could kill you right now with my bare hands for putting me in this position.” Transition is where you think you can’t bear one more contraction, one more pain. During transition, you need the presence of people who will sit with you, with no condemnation, no judgment and walk you through the process. You need people who will not chide you for telling your husband he has bad breath, or to shut up and get out. There is no other way but through. You have to get to the end of yourself. During transition you don’t want an explanation, you just want someone there with you.You want someone to lean on, someone to rely on, someone who knows that you can make it through to the other side; the side of the tears and that baby that is so precious that it hurts your heart.
I think sitting with women through labor is a bit like sitting with people through suffering.
There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will help you.”
So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?
Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.
Coming beside them, will I pick them up and say the words “I know, I know. It hurts so much. It hurts and I love you.” And then will I hold them? Will I work toward a fellowship of suffering?
“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”(from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College)
“Out of the darkness of the cross, the world transfigures into new life.
And there is no other way.
It is dark suffering’s umbilical cord that alone can untether new life.
It is suffering that has the realest possibility to bear down and deliver grace.
And grace that chooses to bear the cross of suffering overcomes that suffering.
My pain, my dark—all the world’s pain, all the world’s dark—it might actually taste sweet to the tongue, be the genesis of new life.
And emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace.
“Shadow comforts can take any form. It’s not what you do; it’s why you do it that makes the difference. You can eat a piece of chocolate as a holy wafer of sweetness—a real comfort—or you can cram an entire chocolate bar into your mouth without even tasting it in a frantic attempt to soothe yourself—a shadow comfort. You can chat on message boards for half an hour and be energized by community and ready to go back to work, or you can chat on message boards because you’re avoiding talking to your partner about how angry he or she made you last night.” by Jennifer Louden as quoted on Brené Brown’s blog
The phrase ‘shadow comforts’ was coined by Jennifer Louden in the eighties. I only recently come across this phrase – and I like it.
Shadow comforts – those things that we think will offer lasting relief, only to realize that the comfort was short-lived, leaving us feeling worse than we did at the beginning. Shadow comforts – a false impression of comfort, providing just enough to make us think it’s real.
For years my shadow comfort was eating. I could eat an entire gallon of ice cream, sneaking it when no one was looking. I would eat the batter from chocolate chip cookies until I felt sick. I would drown my sadness and discomfort in food. It tasted so good and kept me satisfied – for a few minutes. Food was my shadow comfort. Later, it changed to people. People became my shadow comfort. I needed their love, I needed their approval. I would rearrange my entire schedule just to please someone else. And then I would return home angry — angry at them for what i perceived as insisting, angry at myself for this unhealthy dependence, my unhealthy need for love and acceptance.
As humans we are infinitely creative at finding ways to mask our pain.Whether it’s eating, keeping our lives so busy that we don’t have to stop and think about our pain, unhealthy dependence on people, substance abuse, working all the time, we have countless ways to ease our discomfort. But all these creative ways have one thing in common – they are shadow comforts.
And the trouble with shadow comforts is that they, like shadows, are fleeting and deceptive, making us think that real comfort is unattainable.When the bright of day comes, the comfort is gone. But for the moment, these comforts stay close and feel necessary.
It is winter and I am particularly prone to trying to find shadow comforts. I make no secret that winter is not an easy time for me. The snow glimmering on branches in morning sunlight holds its magic only until I begin to stomp through slush on city streets.
So I ask myself something I’ve asked a million times — what is real comfort?
Real comfort starts with leaning into our discomfort. The shadow comforts lead us to escape – real comfort asks us to lean in, face the discomfort, the sadness, the anger. Confess the way it takes over our lives, the way it steers us away from truly living. Real comfort wraps itself around us and walks with us, asks us to lay our burdens down and come. Real comfort sometimes wears skin and other times comes when we’re completely alone. Real comfort makes our burden lighter. And sometimes that includes a little ice cream.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”*
Do you struggle with shadow comforts? How do we help each other understand the difference between real and shadow comforts?
We are just back from Phoenix, trading sunshine and seventy degrees for two inches of snow and freezing. The trip was not for pleasure, rather we went to grieve with my daughter-in-law. Lauren lost her father to cancer. He was too young to die, and she is too young to lose her dad.
But it happened.
Finding words to comfort is not easy – and so I rest in the Great Comforter. In a perfectly timed email, a friend of mine re-posted a tribute to her father who died 11 years ago. Her description of grieving and grace is a beautiful offering, not only to her earthly father, but also to God the Father. For those who grieve today, may you rest in one grace at a time.
The call you dread and fear and never expect comes.
It’s mom. “Joann, your father died this morning. Please come home as soon as you can. I need you.” Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones. One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone. The words keep shouting in your soul. “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern. You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.
But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again. “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.” “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.” With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time. He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.
Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost. Lost in sadness. Lost in pain.
I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.
How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey? One hour at a time, one grace at a time. “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase. To added affliction, He addeth more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”
Then it hits me. Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace. Sustaining grace– Read more here.