Opening a Vein- a reflection on grief

Keep Me in the Light

Gordon C. Stewart  –  Tuesday, 15 March 2011 21:28
This piece grew out of the experience of grief – the loss of step-daughter Katherine following a four year courageous battle with cancer.   was down, way down. I had to preach the following Sunday. I had nothing to say…only a swamp of feelings. I had connected the grief over Katie’s death with the sense of homelessness I had walking the streets iof Minneapolis. I decided to sit down and write. 

What does a preacher or writer do when the well runs dry? For well over a month my well has been dry as a bone. I have nothing to say.

I watch the news. I listen. I am lonely and confused, like a street person hearing the garbled voices of the public address system blaring over the loudspeaker and the thunderous cheers and jeers from the sports stadium blocks away from where I live under the bridge.

When the well runs dry, you sit down at your typewriter “staring at a blank sheet of paper,” said journalist Gene Fowler, “until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Fowler, like famed sportswriter Red Smith, knew that “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Opening a vein is hard when what’s in the vein is grief. It’s even harder when you’re alone and silent on the street, bombarded by all the noise from the stadium.
Only as I begin to write again do I realize the grief. I don’t recognize the world in which I live. I live under the bridge with a cheap bottle of wine. I hear the shouts from the stadium and recognize the passion in their voices, like fans from Green Bay and Minnesota rooting for the Packers and the Vikings: loud cheers and boos from the spectators, shouting the old platitudes, participating vicariously in what’s really happening between the two professional teams down on the playing field.
I don’t know this world. All the rules that favor the middle class and the poor are up for grabs. I’m not sure I want to learn this new game.

I am a man of faith informed by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and the faith and labor movements of the 20th century that ended child labor; stopped employers from working their employees 12 hours a day, seven days a week; closed the sweat shops that were taking advantage of immigrants from Italy, Poland and Ireland; bridled the horses of runaway greed—the banks, the robber barons and corporations— that profiteered at public expense; won the right of collective bargaining; demanded basic financial security for retirees (Social Security); established a woman’s right to vote; enacted the Civil Rights Act; ended the war in Vietnam; and called for ecological sense, the protection of our natural habitat, the air and the water on which life on the planet depends. I grieve that Jesus’ and the prophets’ vision of turning the upside down world right-side up is gasping for air.

Like Gene Flower, the journalist who described writing with drops of blood forming on his forehead, I’m losing it the way he did when a stranger who claimed to be a healer suddenly appeared at the hospital room of his dear friend John Barrymore. “Just give me three minutes with Mr. Barrymore,” said the charlatan, and I will cure him!” Fowler grabbed him by the collar and threw him down the stairs, calling after him, “Physician, heal thyself!”

I want to throw the impostor healers who have suddenly appeared outside the national hospital room down the stairs, which is not a good thing for one who claims to follow Jesus and the prophets. I’m mildly comforted that Jesus lost it when he threw over the money-changing tables of the financial establishment of his time. But then, I’m not Jesus.

Opening a vein may not change the world. I’m still walking the street three blocks from the stadium. But as I think about where I come from and wipe the beads of blood that are forming on my forehead, a hymn that was ripped from the Presbyterian hymnal rises from deep wells of childhood memory:

God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs; Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast; Each age its solemn task may claim but once; Make each one nobler, stronger, than the last.
Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent To Thy divinest speech; their hearts awake To human need; their lips make eloquent To gird the right and every evil break. I am strangely consoled.

The vision and the call are still alive and well in my soul. I pass the homeless shelter near the bridge and hear the faint sound of other street people singing another old familiar hymn.

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art – Thou my best thought, by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

I’m bleeding. But warm blood is a sign of life. Lord, keep me in the light.

1 thought on “Opening a Vein- a reflection on grief

  1. I am so overwhelmed by everything you’ve said here. Both writers you quoted? Those quotes are the two I hold most dear when I think about writing. Your visceral experience of grief? I know this experience well. Your belief in social justice? That same grouping of beliefs are my family’s ongoing legacy, trained into me from my earliest memory. And yet, you’ve written all of these ideas today in a way that just… really… brings… everything… home… at once. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, sir.


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