Death, Grief, and #Outlander

Books.  Are.  Refuge.  I believe this.  I believe they offer hope when it is hard to come by, that they offer respite when the world is “too much with us,” and they offer knowledge to combat the ignorance of prejudice.

So I was not surprised when, after my mom died on Christmas Eve, I eventually turned to my books.  I was surprised, however, that it took me so long to reach out to the solace of their well-worn pages.  There was an answer for that, of course, a reason for my hesitancy to slip into the relief offered by a good story; it just took me a while to work it out…

{SPOILERS AHEAD:  If you haven’t finished the Outlander series to date, you might want to book mark this page for later.  Otherwise, read further at your own expense.  You have been warned.}

Grief is a very personal thing.  It varies so much from person to person, and even from loss to loss.  There is no “right” way to grieve.  (Although, of course, there are some very unhealthy ways to do so.)

In the first book, we get a glimpse at Claire’s grief at losing Frank.  Despite the protests of some Frank Haters, Claire most certainly does grieve the loss of Frank.  She weeps for him at Castle Leoch after tending to Jamie’s injuries.  And, trust me, if a woman can sit on a certain ginger’s lap and sadness that, my friends, is some serious grief.  Some readers minimize the depth of this grief, since Claire doesn’t curl up onto the fetal position or rock back and forth.  Our heroine, however, if made of stronger stuff.  Her turns her grief to action, to purpose, to finding a way back to Frank.  Sometimes, grief spurs us on.

There is more grief, of course, grief over the Wentworth and what it does to Jamie.  Because sometimes, the grief that hurts is the most is the unrelenting pain of someone we know…a pain which we cannot ease for them.  The pain of loved ones can rub and gnaw until it creates a wound on our own soul–as if, by adding our own pain, we can lessen their burden.  Helpless in the face of Jamie’s pain and shame and guilt, Claire finally shares her own pain in the quiet of the abbey.  And, in that sharing, she finds hope.

Sometimes grief more resembles anger, like when Jenny lashes out at Claire for not raising a finger to save her beloved Ian from death.  Why him?  Why now?  Why like this?

Death, like any visitor, can be fickle.  Sometimes you know; you plan for him, wait for him, and are ready to receive him.  Other times, he catches you unaware.

Ian Murphy saw Death coming for a great distance.  There was time to make sure that there was nothing left unsaid.  Time to prepare.  To set things to right.  A blessing to be sure, but also a burden in its own way.  Everyone gathers.  Everyone waits.  Life stands still in the long moments between breaths.  Until finally, the breaths cease and, slowly, life starts back up again.

Other deaths seem to strike like a crime of opportunity.  One moment’s hesitation, a moment too long at a stop light, a skipped mammogram, an unknown allergy…  Unfortunately, life—much like a good book—has periods of unrest…dark times to make the reader appreciate the light…tragedy to make the happy ending that much sweeter.

And that, of course, it why I didn’t immediately return to the Outlander books.  I cared too much about the characters to risk losing anyone else.  Dealing with the loss of Mrs. Bug and also Young Ian’s guilt, seemed too much to take on.  Watching Claire drink herself into a stupor instead of contemplating a life without Jamie felt too raw; to witness, again, Claire’s feeling of maladroitness in the face of Ian’s illness, felt too eerily relatable.  I wanted something else.  I wanted escape.  I wanted love without the pain.  Light without the dark.  Good without the bad.

So, for a while, tended to things.  Arrangements, loose ends, the sorting through of things.  Busy work.  Work to distract the mind.

But that is not balance; it cannot be maintained.

So, now, finally, I venture forth.  I write a little something.  I read a bit.  I try to put one foot in front of the other.  Something akin to walking.  Something like moving forward.

At some point, though, I hope for more.  I hope for something better that just forward movement.  At some point, I want a measure of peace.  The peace that comes with acceptance.  Something past the blinding pain of loss, something past the anger, something past the empty void.  At some point, I want to have the grace and wisdom to, instead, whisper:  That she may be safe, Lord.  

Maybe someday, for the moment, that will be enough.   Until, we just hold on as best we can…

mom-and-dad
Mom and Dad (Thanksgiving, 2016): our last holiday together
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#Outlander, Christmas, and Rereading Books

Books are my touchstones. I carry them with me…battered copies tucked in my bag, a library of books on my phone, and always, always books in my heart. So many of my old photos have books in them, and I can tell you what was going on in my life by what I was reading.

Christmas 1984 – loved stories, and history, and losing myself…that was my Laura Ingalls Wilder period. Still love history.

Christmas 1985 – middle school, awkward, one foot in adolescence and one in childhood…ahhh, yes. Sweet Valley High and Flowers in the Attic. Don’t’ judge.

Christmas 1987 – young, broody…that would be my Sylvia Plath period.

Christmas 1991 – idealistic, romantic, and nostalgic…that was the year I discovered Norman Maclean.

Fast-forward to 2015, and I am re-re-re-reading Outlander. Yes, yes, I know. I have read it a *cough* few times. But there is a very good reason for that: It’s worth rereading.

Outlander-blue-cover-198x300I have mentioned before that the Outlander series, quite literally, helped me survive my husband’s heart attack this past March. I read while he rested in the hospital. The books were my refuge, my companion, my escape, my comfort. They still are.

So, when I realized that I wasn’t feeling all Eggnog-and-Holiday-Cheer, I tried to slow down and take a breath. It helped…a bit. I felt less stressed, but there was still the voice in my head whispering about the Christmas lights that were still in boxes, and the decided lack of Christmas cookies, this year’s non-existent Family Christmas Card, and the fact that Christmas is two freakin’ weeks away and I have done exactly NONE of my Usual Christmas Traditions.

We have not gone driving around to look at Christmas lights even once, I have not watched my traditional Christmas movies (The Family Man; Love, Actually; The Holiday, or It’s A Wonderful Life), and I have bought exactly…nothing. So, basically, I feel like I am sucking at this whole Mom Thing.

*Insert holiday induced pity party here.*

So, after a nice cup of fortifying tea, I started wondering what the holidays would have been like for Jamie and Claire. (Well, not that first Christmas. We know exactly what THAT was like for poor Jamie…let’s not go there. *shudder*  Oh, and not that incredibly rage inducing and misguided Hogmanay with Laoghaire. *makes sign of horns*)

No, I mean the later Christmases…those at Fraser’s Ridge. Actually, in The Fiery Cross Diana told us (she’s good like that) what the holidays were like. Spoiler: They were nothing like the holiday season as we have mangled it.

Despite all the of the responsibilities of being Himself, Jamie still found time to carve Jem a wooden horse, and he also carved Claire a new wooden ladle with the image of a mint leaf carved on the handle. And, despite all the time spent physicking, Claire gave Jamie “a new shirt with ruffles at the throat for ceremonial occasions.”

As Diana reminds us:

Catholics as many of them were—and nominally Christian as they all were—Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, thought with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts.

I imagine a lovely meal courtesy of Mrs. Bugg (God rest her soul), and perhaps Claire would make some of her molasses cookies. And I am quite sure there was a wee dram to be had. Perhaps a song or two as well. Likely no cherry bounce or jigs and reels. But it was enough.

There was no tinsel, no movies, no stampede of crowds. There was no competing to get the biggest or best present for kids or grandkids. There was no social obligation filling every spare moment. There was food, and family, a fire in the hearth, and food on the table. And it was enough.

Once again, books steady me, comfort me. And this is why I reread books…because, like an old friend who knows me well, books bring me back to what matters.

Fragments of Faith and Ian Murray (Religion in #Outlander, Part III)

Balance. It’s all about balance.  At least that’s what I tell myself when Life goes all Black Jack Randall on me. When there are too many bills and responsibilities and too little money and laughter and sleep.  And it’s my birthday later this week, and I despise birthdays.  Long story.  Anyway….

Balance. Yep. And faith. Lots of faith. And perseverance. So. Much. Perserverance.

image(And since my husband assures me that I can relate ANYTHING to Outlander…)

SPOILERS FOLLOW.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.  NO SERIOUSLY, THERE ARE LOTS OF SPOILERS.

The past week has required quite a bit of faith and perseverance. It’s been enough to make a woman feel a bit like Job…or maybe some other man I’ve read quite a lot about lately who, likewise, seems to have more than his fair share of troubles, namely: Young Ian James Fitzgibbons Fraser Murray (a/k/a Okwaho’kenha, or “Wolf’s Brother”).

Let me start by saying that I adore Young Ian. Adore him. He may be young, but he has an old soul, and Lord knows he has lived more in his young life that many an older man, and his spiritual journey reflects this.

Young Ian first finds blood on his hands in Voyager, not long after Claire and Jamie’s reunion (excuse me while I grab a wee dram…and some Kleenex…plenty of Kleenex). He seeks solace in the pleasures of the flesh as well as the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation. (Not at the same time, of course.) This seems an early hint at the back and forth, the push and pull, that seems to color the wee lad’s life.

In Drums of Autumn, Young Ian is ordered to leave behind his old ways…to leave himself behind.*

“They say that after that I will be Indian, and I must not speak any tongue but the Kahnyen’kehaka; I canna speak again in English, or the Gaelic.”

He is, in effect, being told to shed his identity.**  Also, of course, he would have been expected to leave behind the religion that had defined him since birth. How could he possibly make such a sacrifice, to turn his back everything that made him who he was? It’s unthinkable. But the wise and selfless soul finds the words for us….

“Ye said to me once, that my life wasna meant to be wasted,” he said. “It won’t be.” He held out his arms. “I willna forget you, either, Uncle Jamie.”

(Please ignore that noise…it is just the sound of my heart breaking.)

Of course, Young Ian doesn’t forget Jamie. Nor does he forget his religion. It does, however, change over time.

Young Ian struggles with reconciling his Catholic religion and Highland heritage with the things he learned and experienced while living with the Mohawk tribe. We get a glimpse at this struggle when he confides in Brianna at the Mammoth site.

At one point, he mutters under his breath.

“What did you say?” She paused, a half- hulled nut in her fingers.

“Oh, it’s no but a— ” He’d struck once more and caught a spark, glowing like a tiny star on the square of char. Hastily, he touched a wisp of dry grass to it, then another, and as a tendril of smoke rose up, added a bark chip, more grass, a handful of chips, and finally a careful crisscross of pine twigs.

“No but a fire charm,” he finished, grinning at her over the infant blaze that had sprung up before him.

Ian confides in Brianna that he has been thinking about God. She seems taken aback.

“What I am thinking,” he said after a moment, his voice much too controlled, “is this. Was it me?”

“Ian! You mean your fault that the baby died? How could it be?”

“I left,” he said simply, straightening up. “Turned away. Stopped being a Christian, being Scots. They took me to the stream, scrubbed me wi’ sand to take away the white blood. They gave me my name— Okwaho’kenha— and said I was Mohawk. But I wasna, not really.”

* * *
“But I wasna what I had been, either,” he went on, sounding almost matter- of- fact. “I tried to be what they wanted, ken? So I left off praying to God or the Virgin Mother, or Saint Bride. I listened to what Emily said, when she’d tell me about her gods, the spirits that dwell in the trees and all. And when I went to the sweat lodge wi’ the men, or sat by the hearth and heard the stories … they seemed as real to me as Christ and His saints ever had.” He turned his head and looked up at her suddenly, half- bewildered, half- defiant.

“I am the Lord thy God,” he said. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But I did, no? That’s mortal sin, is it not?”

Over time, bits of beliefs and fragments of faith war for dominance, become intertwined, and finally weave themselves in a tapestry of faith. Like his Uncle Jamie, Ian is faith is complicated and hard-won.

His faith is shaped by this sense of duty and obligation. And, at times, by guilt and forgiveness. Sometimes he is the one to forgive and, other times, well, he is mere flesh and blood (okay, okay, he is fictional, I know)…and, as such, sometimes he is the one desperate for forgiveness. Like when he unknowingly takes the life of Mrs. Bug in An Echo in the Bone:

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said gently.

“I know,” he said, and swallowed. “But I dinna see how I can live.”

He wasn’t dramatic about it at all; his voice was simply bewildered. Rollo licked his hand, and his fingers sank into the dog’s ruff, as though for support.

“What can I do, Auntie?” He looked at me, helpless. “There’s nothing, is there? I canna take it back, or undo it. And yet I keep looking for some way that I can. Something I can do to make things right. But there’s … nothing.”

I sat down in the hay next to him and put an arm round his shoulder, pressing his head toward me. He came, reluctantly, though I felt small constant shudders of exhaustion and grief running through him like a chill.

“I loved her,” he said, so low I could barely hear him. “She was like my grandmother. And I— ”

“She loved you,” I whispered. “She wouldn’t blame you.” I had been holding on to my own emotions like grim death, in order to do what had to be done. But now … Ian was right. There was nothing, and in sheer helplessness, tears began to roll down my face. I wasn’t crying. Grief and shock simply overflowed; I could not contain them. Whether he felt the tears on his skin or only the vibrations of my grief, I couldn’t tell, but quite suddenly Ian gave way as well, and he wept in my arms, shaking.

The thing about actually believing in something, really believing, is that it marks you. Ian’s soul has long been marked by his faith, his heritage, his values…and when he unknowingly violates the code by which he lives, it weighs mightily on him.

At the funeral, he faces Arch Bug with to offer compensation, just as his did before when he offered himself to the Mohawks in place of Roger.

“It was by my hand that this”— Ian swallowed— “that this woman of great worth has died. I didna take her life by malice, or of purpose, and it is sorrow to me. But she died by my hand.”

Rollo whined softly by Ian’s side, feeling his master’s distress, but Ian laid a hand on his head, and he stilled. Ian drew the knife from his belt and laid it on the coffin in front of Arch Bug, then straightened and looked him in the eye.

“Ye swore once to my uncle, in a time of great wrong, and offered life for life, for this woman. I swear by my iron, and I offer the same.” His lips pressed together for an instant, and his throat moved, his eyes dark and sober. “I think ye maybe didna mean it, sir— but I do.”

I found that I was holding my breath, and forced myself to breathe. Was this Jamie’s plan? I wondered. Ian plainly meant what he said. Still, the chances of Arch accepting that offer on the spot and cutting Ian’s throat in front of a dozen witnesses were slim, no matter how exigent his feelings. But if he publicly declined the offer— then the possibility of a more formal and less bloody recompense was opened, yet young Ian would be relieved of at least a measure of his guilt. Bloody Highlander, I thought, glancing up at Jamie— not without a certain admiration.

Wrong made right. Making things square, as best as one can. Reconciliation.  Balance. Yes, perhaps that’s it. Balance. Equal parts Catholic and superstitious Highlander and Mohawk…all in perfect balance.

So, yes, it has been a rough week…but I haven’t had to take another’s life, or offer my own as compensation for a wrong, nor have I accidentally killed someone (*knock on wood* the week’s not over yet, and there’s no need to tempt Fate) so, all things considered, I suppose my week could have been worse.

Yes, balance.

Lesson learned, Young Ian.  Lesson learned.

* “He will never come to his house again / his place will know him no more.”  Job 7:10.

** Yep. Shed his identity.  Never fear, though, he manages to forge a new kick-ass self out of all that suffering.  May we all fare so well.

The Conversion of Claire Fraser (or Religion in #Outlander Part II)

Rosary01If Jamie Fraser has the faith I wish I had (the unwavering faith that I strive to have), then perhaps Claire’s faith is a bit closer to my religious reality.  Like Jamie, Claire was also a “cradle Catholic.”  But when we first meet Claire she was (and had never been) a practicing Catholic.  (That isn’t to say that she didn’t have some core beliefs tucked away under the foul mouth and headstrong ways that we all know and love.  That’s just to say that, well, Claire changes over the story.  And her religious beliefs are one of the things that change…or at least deepen and evolve.)

Claire’s initial brush with organized religion might have tainted a lesser person… Certainly her run in with the local priest, circa. 1743, wasn’t an event likely to make her feel welcomed into the proverbial fold and, when later faced with an abundance of Highland superstitions, a visit to Auld Nick’s kirkyard, and charges of witchcraft, one might be able to see her, ahem, disinclination.

But Life (even Fictional Book Life) has a way of making you have to rethink things, and often results in the need to eat your words, totally change alliances, or otherwise transform yourself.  (*Ahem* Not that I’m speaking from experience here).  Yep.  Claire has one of Those Moments.

After saving Jamie from the Wentworth, and their subsequent escape to France and to the abbey, Claire finds a kind of spiritual advisor in Father Anselm.  (And yes, this was one of the scenes that I really, really wish had been on the show.  Feel free to lament the loss with me.)

When Father Anselm and Claire discuss her religion, she tells him that she isn’t Protestant, but she isn’t really Catholic, either.  She isn’t much of anything.  But he explains to her that if she was baptized Catholic, then the mark is still on her.  (You know, kinda like that “J” scar that we all secretly…or not so secretly…wish we had on the base of our hand. *swoon*)

It’s Father Anselm who introduces Claire to the ritual of Perpetual Adoration (and it’s a ritual that Claire takes comfort in more than once in the books).  This time spent in quiet contemplation, alone and yet so very NOT alone, marks the turning point in Claire’s religious metamorphosis.  (And, yes, I do see the change in Claire as being exactly that pronounced.)

Of course, falling through time, having everything you know ripped away from you, and finding yourself in constant danger are certainly enough to make one call out for the help of someone, or something, greater to intervene on your behalf.  Except Claire didn’t.  Or rather, those things weren’t what finally pushed Claire to examine her beliefs.  Those things weren’t what finally formed a prayer on Claire’s lips.

Nope.

Old time, old life, old world be damned.  It was the thought of losing Jamie that made her reach for something, anything, to save him.  It was Jamie that finally evoked a prayer from Claire’s lips.

It was always Jamie.

When situations warranted, the Claire of the later books makes the sign of the cross without hesitation.  The Claire of the later books also routinely blesses Jamie before battle, and she is clearly moved when Jamie invokes the same blessing on her behalf when she goes to deliver a child.  She often utters prayers to saints over the course of the later books.  (Something that Book 1 Claire was not likely to do!)

However, her Catholicism is colored by Jamie’s own and, like his, there is a certain spirituality rooted in Jamie’s Celtic homeland that permeates her beliefs as well.  While not quite as superstitious as her Highlander husband, she finds great comfort in the fact that Jamie knows just the right saint for every occasion, and that he knows that salt keeps the spirits from walking.

Her perfectly rational 20th century certainty definitely took a blow once she went through the stones.  When science and reason can’t find explanation, one must look elsewhere for answers.  Is it any wonder that the things that finally give her grounding, are things based on faith…religion, love, the hope for a future?

Not bad things to build a life around, if you ask me.*

*  Of course, having a strapping Highlander husband around to share that life doesn’t hurt, either. Speaking of which, I’m very grateful for my own Scottish-blooded husband.  (See, honey, I don’t just talk about Jamie.)

NOTE:  For those who might wonder about the use of “conversion” in the title, since Claire did not initially identify as “Catholic,” or anything for that matter, it seems to me that by adopting any form of religious identity she actually did undergo a religious conversion.  (Plus, I’ll be honest, I really like alliteration.)