Takk for Alt

Christmas is upon us, a time of great joy for some and of some darkness for others. While this person celebrates, that person mourns. Most of us, I suspect experience a bit of both, thinking on those whose presences have graced our tables in times past but do so no more. I find myself thinking of my parents at Christmas. They are now gone but still present in important ways. Strangely, this last little while I have found myself thinking about my father’s mother, my Norwegian farmor. I never knew her, her having died some years before my birth. But I have heard bits and pieces about her, too few.

She was raised in Norway and came to the USA for a marriage that produced one son. Her first husband died in an accident, I was told, and she came to Canada to take up a business opportunity at Milk River in Alberta, where she met my grandfather – my farfar – who was homesteading a piece of land. They went through hard times, raising a family of 8 through the depression of the mid-20th century, losing a child and scratching out a living with little luxury. She died in her early 70s, I’ve heard. When I was visiting a cousin in Newfoundland, I ate at her table and was glad for that experience. That cousin has memories of farmor. I have none.

And so, I wonder why she is on my mind these days. How can someone I never knew take up residence in the “kingdom of memory,” a phrase used by Elie Wiesel? How is it that farmor commands my attention? I really have no answer for this question but am glad for her presence in absence.

Christians speak sometimes of the experience of presence in absence, feeling God acutely in those moments when we feel most godforsaken. Many of us see that evidenced in the life of Jesus, especially on the cross, where he quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Scholars remind us that sometimes the first verse of a psalm was a kind of aide de memoire, invoking the whole of the psalm. In the case of Psalm 22, then, we are reminded that the same person who laments at the beginning of the psalm also said in verse 24: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide the divine face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

There is something right-headed about the fact that the psalmist both laments and praises God’s absence and presence in the same psalm, I think. From one psalm comes both praise and lament. In like fashion, from one heart comes both lament and praise, both doubt and faith. And from all of us comes an ache for a wholeness that is all-inclusive. Maybe that is why I’ve been thinking on farmor these days. Deep in my bones is the desire to be whole, and whole includes holding the hands of all who have suffered for my well-being, for my little successes, and for my great joys. My blood pulses with a desire to say thank-you, and this desire has taken shape in a thought, a thinking on a woman I never knew but whom I know to be a part of me. And so, on this Christmas time, I say to farmor “Takk, farmor, takk for alt.” And to all of my readers, I say thanks for journeying with me in 2018. You will hear from me again in the month of Janus, the wolf who stands at the door of the New Year.

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A Memorial Field

While in Berlin recently, I had occasion to visit the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Information Centre.” Initiated by Leah Rosh and Eberhard Jäckel, this work was designed and built as the “Holocaust memorial for Germany.” It is composed of a series of stelae of varying heights on a field of hills, with the consequence being that you do not know from afar whether a seemingly tall stele is near or far from the ground.


It is hard to describe the feel of the monument. At the edge of it, people mill about, sitting on stelae eating snacks, visiting, arguing, and doing all the things people do in a park. But as soon as someone stands on one of the stelae, a security guard summons them down again.

Eventually I made my way to the middle of the field. Here, the columns were quite tall. People who were laughing and joking on the edges became a bit more taciturn here. It was a bit eerie, but even more off-setting was hearing the crying of children who invariably became disconnected from their parents. One child had crashed into a corner of one of the stelae and was inconsolable. Knowing the occasion for the memorial simply set me on edge.

Underground, beneath the memorial, is an information centre, which requires a security check. No one said a word after making it through the checkpoint, reading bits of history, fragments from letters, stories of families etc. The material was not unknown to me but I read it a bit differently after wandering through the stelae. It seems that the field set me askew, so that facts I knew before bore a new and more ponderous weight.

To say that the memorial is “effective” is to do it a grand disservice. Such language seems too utilitarian, and presumes a goal that is achieved: an item to be checked off of the “to do” list. No, this memorial is not done. It is still churning in me: stelae talking to my soul and silence waking me. I will be sitting with this one for a time, mindful that some lessons are not meant only to be learned but but to be lived resolutely – day in and day out.