We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby. I stood by the urn and looked out at the people seated in folding chairs: the baby’s three agnostic/pagan parents, her staunch Baptist grandparents, friends and family of assorted religious and political leanings. All of them heartbroken.
The pagan priestess who had planned the service with me and agreed to give the sermon had canceled just a couple days before. There I stood, a baby’s ashes beside me, aching eyes staring up at me. There I stood, looking out at all of those people who were waiting for me, the pastor, to say SOMETHING—something that would make the unbearable lightness of those ashes at least a little bit bearable.
That was the first funeral I officiated. The first time I felt that funeral weight of love for heartbroken strangers who were looking to me for comfort. The first time I felt the heaviness of the funeral words crawling out of my mouth. The first time I dealt with the weighty anger because my words were not enough, because death was not fair, and this God I was supposed to serve had a lot of explaining to do.
This heavy love-in-grief has revisited me through the years: when I had to move our Easter sunrise service to the hospital bedside of a beloved church member; when I sat with a young man devastated by his porn addiction; when I talked with parents struggling with a child’s mental illness; when I heard that the diagnosis was ALS and, when the time comes, he doesn’t want a feeding tube.
It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden. It’s an easy mistake to make for a girl who fell in love with Emily Dickinson in elementary school and went on to major in creative writing. I believe in the power of language almost as much as I believe in the power of God. And if I could just find the right words, I thought, I could pry the weight off of the crushed hearts around me.
Turns out, though, that the words don’t work. More often than I would like, the words turn to dust in the ears of the grieving. My dusty words may or may not be beautiful—it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the words born in love bear witness that I have been there, with someone, under the weight of their grief. What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.
I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.
Love in grief, funeral love, is heavy. But wedding love . . . I know that marriage is an imperfect institution—that many marriages involve dissatisfaction and heartbreak and grief if not outright abuse and trauma—that the history and much of the present reality of marriage is patriarchal and heterosexist. I know. But still, wedding love, for me, is light. It is joyful and sacred and full of promise.
I have been privileged to officiate weddings for many people I love: my gorgeous graduate school officemate who escaped a nightmare marriage and found Mr. Dreamy Triathlete; young men and women from my church, who I baptized and preached to and prayed for; two women who contacted me to see if I would be willing to do their wedding because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor and they were having a hard time finding one to officiate; two men who had been married already for years, but wanted to finally make it legal and wanted to do it in my town where one of their fathers, who had refused to come to the first wedding, was eager to be part of this one.
Yes, weddings, for me, are light love. But these last two hold the story of a heavier love. Because not everyone in my religious tradition sees the beauty of two women or men in love committing themselves to each other in holy matrimony. Some of my fellow pastors would refuse a request to officiate such a wedding. Some of them tried to get my pastoral credentials revoked because I said yes to such a request.
Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.
As a Christian, I (try to) follow the teachings of Jesus who said, “Love your enemy.” (Other faiths echo this concept as well.) Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.
That is heavy love. Heavy and awkward.
Loving people through grief is hard and heavy, but it is, at least, recognizable as love. The weight bears down in a familiar way, and you just bear it because you have to. You let the heaviness settle all over you, press your limbs, your gut, your heart, firmly down like a lead blanket.
But loving the enemies? Loving the jackasses? What does that even look like? How does it feel? It’s uneven and distorted. For me, the weight rests less in my heart and more in my mind. I have to try to figure out what that kind of love looks like.
It doesn’t look like refusing to marry same-sex couples for the sake of “church unity” and some people’s misguided biblical scruples. It doesn’t look like smiling and nodding when an angry pastor tells me that in his entire congregation of two hundred there are no gay people. It doesn’t look like leaving the convention hall so that people will be more comfortable when they talk about why I shouldn’t be a pastor.
But it also doesn’t look like snarky name calling, or refusing to listen, or leaving the table.
Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning. Because, when it comes to loving enemies, there is a fine line between being honest and being brutal, between being polite and being a coward. When it comes to loving enemies, the words do matter. A lot.
Like, for example, “jackass.” It is a fine word to communicate to you the struggles I feel in loving difficult people. But if I were writing or speaking to an actual jackass, I would need to find a more appropriate, more loving word.
Perhaps the heaviest love of all is love of God. The centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer service is the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” This flows into the v’havta: “Love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This teaching is so important to the Jewish people that when Jesus, a devout Jew, was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).
The scriptures teach that loving God is a deep obligation for people of faith. And that is rather intimidating—to be expected to love the Creator of the universe—the Creator of love itself—in any sort of meaningful, worthwhile way.
How does one even begin, really, to love God?
Maybe that’s why Jesus, after revealing the most important commandment, goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38). So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.
The love of God is, for me, the Love that compels the other loves of my life. The Love that nudges me to continue to pray for and speak (mostly) kindly of the woman who sent a nasty email about me to everyone in the church. The Love that sets me down right in the middles of heartbreaking grief. The Love that leads me to officiate gay weddings and engage in meaningful conversation with those who claim homosexuality is a sin. The Love that demands I consider what is good rather than what is polite, what is true rather than what is easy.
The obligations of love are heavy. Still, so many times I experience this weight as a gift, a grace that keeps me grounded and strong.
In fourth grade, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden. I owned a mint-green Dell Yearling paperback copy that I must have bought with my allowance money. It was a book that likely inspired my childish love of the idea of England, of the idea of gardens and nature.
In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Crawford is sent to England after her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India. She finds herself at the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald, a widower with a tragic past.
Mary is described as an unpleasant child: sallow, thin, spoiled, unsmiling. She is used to ordering people about and having no other children to play with. But once she’s in Yorkshire, the maid Martha begins telling her tales of her family, especially her mother and Martha’s animal-loving brother, Dickon. Mary soon finds herself shunted outside to play, where she befriends a robin and grumpy gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and learns about a secret enclosed flower garden on the estate. Being outdoors improves Mary’s physical stamina and mental outlook: she starts running around and jumping rope. And once she finds the key and the door to the secret garden, she begins poking around in the earth.
She also meets Dickon and, later, her ten-year-old cousin, Colin, an invalid whose cries echo through the manor. She soon gets Colin out of the house and into the garden. Being outdoors enacts a transformation of Colin’s health and gives him a channel for his autocratic tendencies. Soon the children are running around singing, chanting, and speaking odes to the healing magic—sorry, capital M Magic—of “plain” English food, English weather, and English gardens.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England in 1849 but spent a large portion of her adult life in the United States—moving first with her family to Knoxville, Tennessee, then Washington, DC, and ending her days in Plandome Manor on Long Island in 1924.
In addition to The Secret Garden, she was best known for her children’s novels Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. Burnett was also a prolific author of plays, serials, and novels for adults. Her work was successful enough that she was able to spend time in Paris, across Europe, and at a home in Bermuda where she wintered. She also became interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the effects of those beliefs can be seen especially in the last quarter of The Secret Garden.
As a kid, I remember skipping over those “spiritual” sections a lot, although I can’t say it affected my enjoyment of the book. Our Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had similar feelings when showed us what I think was probably the 1975 BBC miniseries adaptation. She said she liked it, although she mentioned the magical-spiritual garden stuff being very hokey.
Hokey is perhaps not the word I’d use today.
I’d love to say that tiny Mindy read The Secret Garden and was able to identify the shitty colonial ideology of the book.
But no, the opposite happened: the book helped make me an Anglophile in my stupid, stupid youth. I loved this idealized version of England with chatty robins and wild animals tamely following Dickon around the moors. I tried to speak with a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to like things described in the book, such as good thick porridge (even though in reality I didn’t like porridge, unless it was Taiwanese rice porridge), currant buns (I disliked currants), the chilly outdoor air (we were in Canada and it was often more than chilly), and running around in it (no). I even wanted to like gardening, though in my personal experience my parents’ and grandparents’ suburban Canadian vegetable patch was pretty terrible and certainly didn’t involve sweet-smelling flowers or fresh healthy air. Clearly I was willing and able to endure a lot of cognitive dissonance around the realities of what I liked and wanted in life versus the ideals described in The Secret Garden.
One thing I could not love even as a child, however, was Colin. And on re-reading the book, well … if anything, he’s worse.
It is very clear to me as an adult how much love and attention the narrator lavishes on Colin. He is often described as “beautiful.” He has a “beautiful smile.” He’s “quite beautiful in spite of his thinness.” His eyes are “beautiful” and strange, and he has long, thick lashes.
Despite not being introduced until the second half of the story, he takes over most of it; Mary—remember Mary? The girl we start off following and the one who finds the whole damn secret garden?—has no more than a few lines of dialogue in the last quarter of the story. Colin, by contrast, talks for pages and pages.
“The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man,” Colin says at one point.
After spouting off in kind for a few more paragraphs, he has Ben Weatherstaff, Mary, and Dickon sitting cross-legged in a circle with him:
“Now we will begin,” he said. “Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?”
“I canna’ do no swayin’ back’ard and for’ard,” said Ben Weatherstaff. “I’ve got the ’rheumatics.”
“The Magic will take them away,” said Colin in a High Priest tone, “but we won’t sway until it has done it. We will only chant.”
Colin becomes the expert on Magic—even though he’s not the one who came up with the idea. But Dickon and Mary and Ben Weatherstaff accept his leadership. He’s a budding cult leader, complete with questionable medical ideas, “beautiful”/hypnotic eyes, and an imperious manner.
In Colin the most annoying parts of Burnett’s spiritual-colonial enterprise are personified. The boy is often also described as a “the young Rajah.” Mary says:
Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn’t.
The “Rajah” epithet sticks because Colin is bossy as fuck. He is the master of the house while his father is away—and never stops reminding people of the fact. But what does it mean that Colin is continually compared to a young, spoiled non-Englishtyrant, when in fact, being cooped up in England on his own estate has made him the dictator that he is?
In the characterization of Colin, we run up against the fact that so much of the book depends on comparing India unfavorably with England, even as the book exploits Indian things that it finds convenient. The children cobble together a spiritual practice by referring to animal charmers, “fakirs,” transplanting Mary’s childish colonial cultural observations and bits from Colin’s books, mixing in the idea of the pastoral, and trying to mash all of these things into a kind of magical—sorry, capital M Magical—English-ness.
I live in Manhattan now, in an apartment.
My upstairs neighbors are renovating, so all morning I’ve been trying to write some sort of conclusion to this piece between the whines of drilling and the thump of a sledgehammer being taken to the walls. My life is the opposite of bucolic, and at times like these, I find myself wanting to agree with Frances Hodgson Burnett—an Anglo-American, city-loving socialite writer—that there is no location more magical and desirable than a great, green garden in England.
But that place is largely a myth—a nation-building tale from another time—and I don’t think the the rulers of that place would particularly welcome me.