I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.
I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.
Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.
Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.
Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News.”
Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.
From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.
Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?
After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.
Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.
Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”