December 13, 2012

Transcript for Kate Braestrup — A Presence in the Wild

November 26, 2009

Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Presence in the Wild."

My guest, Kate Braestrup, is a Maine writer and mother and a chaplain to game wardens on search-and-rescue missions. She is called in when children disappear in the woods, when snowmobilers disappear under the ice. There, she says, the rubber meets the road theologically. And her sense of life, death, and God is formed by what happens between and among people.

Kate Braestrup: If nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else, God is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other. And for me that is actually enough.

Ms. Tippett: This is On Being. Stay with us.

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett.

My guest this hour is Kate Braestrup, a Maine writer and mother and a chaplain to game wardens on search-and-rescue missions. She is called in when children disappear in the woods, when snowmobilers disappear under the ice. But the world she inhabits and now writes about is also rich with beauty and decency. Kate Braestrup likes to say that she is religious but not spiritual. She is, she says, a doer and her sense of God emerges from what happens between and among people.

We'll hear about the wisdom she draws from the world of law enforcement in the wild where, as she puts it, theologically the rubber meets the road.

From American Public Media, this is On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Presence in the Wild."

Kate Braestrup's early life did not point with any obviousness to what she does now. Her father was a war correspondent for The New York Times, and she spent her childhood moving from place to place across the world. She met her husband, Drew Griffith, while they were both studying at the Corcoran School of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. After graduation, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine where Drew became a state trooper and Kate became a writer. They had four children in eight years and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism. In fact, Drew Griffith made plans to enter seminary and to embark on a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then he died suddenly, in an accident in his squad car, one morning in April 1996.

Ms. Braestrup: I was in the same moment confronted by an unbearable loss and also by the realization that there were people and a community all around me that were there to help me bear it. In fact, the morning that he died, I was getting ready to leave with the kids — you know, finding their little shoes and their socks and whatever. And I looked out through the back window, because I heard a siren, and I saw an ambulance go by. And I remember actually thinking, "Oh, I wonder who that's for," and then realizing at the same time, you know, I've been living in this community long enough, finally living in one community long enough, so that I probably do know who it's for. And saying this sort of prayer and, you know, I hope they're all right and that I'd be thinking about it through the day and I would find out who it was.

And then as I was putting my shoes on right after that, I was thinking about how much I loved Drew and how nice it was to still be in love with him after 11 years of marriage. That was actually when he died. The ambulance was for him.

Ms. Tippett: That was for him.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

So that was a very profound moment. I mean, it was a terrible moment, that whole day, the day of losing him, but it was a very revelatory day as well. I mean, revelatory of things that would take me years and probably will continue to take me years to sort of unpack, but as a kind of religious experience, that day really was one.

Ms. Tippett: Within a year, Kate Braestrup had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary. She spent her first summer during seminary in an independent study of her creation, riding patrol with police officers up and down the East Coast. She was ordained a Unitarian Universalist, or UU, minister in 2004.

The Maine game wardens to whom she is now chaplain are law enforcement officials serving that state's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Division. Her work with them takes her, as she describes it, to hinges of people's lives, to moments where loss, death, and accident end or alter one life and swing the lives of those left behind in wholly unpredicted directions.

Kate Braestrup calls hers a "ministry of presence" to the wounded, the game wardens who must respond, and to family and friends in the agony of waiting or grief.

Ms. Braestrup: One thing the Buddhists say, or the Tibetan Buddhists, anyway, is that you prepare your whole life for your death.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: And I encounter people when all of the practice that they've been engaged in their whole lives without knowing it …

Ms. Tippett: Without knowing it.

Ms. Braestrup: Yes. We are all practicing all the time for the test, and we don't know what the test is going to be. And I encounter them at those moments when all of a sudden here it is. This is the test. That becomes a kind of mindfulness about what we practice for — what I'm practicing for, what I would want my parishioners or the game wardens to be sort of, you know, what seem like good practices for those moments when you're right up against it and you only have one moment when you get to choose. Or, in fact, you don't choose. You just be whatever it is you've been.

Ms. Tippett: How does Unitarian Universalism, this tradition, how do you find that suited to this ministry, as you call it, your ministry of presence that you find yourself in now, with so many different kinds of people and so many unexpected situations? I mean, and maybe I'm curious too about how the fact that you are a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, has that set you apart from maybe an image of chaplains that you might've had previously in your life?

Ms. Braestrup: Unitarian Universalism at its best it a way of looking at religious questions without requiring that the answer be found for everybody, without requiring that your answer be imposed on everybody else. There's a humble acceptance that I am not God. I am not the arbiter of these things, that the best I can be is a window through which the person that I'm with can get a glimpse of something, and I can only do that by being as completely loving to them as I can be, whoever they are and wherever they are. The place that it's the most directly useful is when I'm dealing with people who aren't religious at all. You know, UUs are very comfortable with people who aren't religious at all. It actually was trickier with people who are very strongly Christian, for example, because many of the prayers and many of the claims are exclusive. So to be able to use that language, I had to kind of come to an understanding.

Ms. Tippett: Many of the prayers that are important to them, to other people?

Ms. Braestrup: Yes, exactly.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. I mean, can you tell me a story about a time when you, I don't know, either where this tradition really suited and was a gift in terms of what you were doing? Or, I don't know, maybe where it was challenging …

Ms. Braestrup: An obstacle.

Ms. Tippett: … but where you really had to think about it. Where you really had to grapple with it.

Ms. Braestrup: I can think of one, and this was kind of an amazing thing. There was a man who went ice skating in the moonlight on a river, and it was, I mean, it was a beautiful night and the ice was new. And when we got there, when I got there, there were sort of two skate lines leading from the dock to across this kind of white shining ice to a hole. And that was it. You know, he'd basically made one pass and hit the soft spot and down he went.

So, you know, it was such a beautiful night that I could, on one level, completely sympathize with him why he would want to do this alone, you know, on the river at night. And the other part of me is sort of standing there with these sheriff's deputies who were the first to respond, going, "This was so stupid. You don't do this." But, anyway, the sheriff's deputy had already notified his widow about 20 minutes before, so I said, "Well, I'll go up and visit with her because I'll be back tomorrow when the warden service dive team comes to retrieve the body."

So I go up to the house and I'm thinking — well, on the way I ask the deputy what sort of family this was. You know, what was his sense? He goes, "Well, let me put it this way, they seem pretty granola to me." I'm like, "Great!" You know, "I'm granola." Now, so.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: And I totally forget that of course I'm wearing this sort of SWAT black, you know, utility uniform.

Ms. Tippett: You don't look granola in your uniform.

Ms. Braestrup: No. And I've got my — right. I've got my clerical collar on and my ball cap and the whole bit. I mean, I look like some kind of bizarre priest or something. So, anyway, so I walk in through the door and the widow is on the floor, which is great. I actually really approve of the floor as a place for grieving because you can't fall off. And she's sort of surrounded by neighbors or, you know, neighbors are already showing up. And she's got an old dog there. And the house is not just granola but it's actually really cool. The man was an artist and so his sculptures were all over the house. So I'm just thinking, "Oh, this is so great. This is so …" You know, I'm responding to all of this stuff. And I kneel down beside her and say, you know, "Hello, Mrs. Brown. I'm the chaplain for the Maine warden service." And she looks up at me and she says, "Well, I don't like cops, and I hate religion." And, you know, I could have, if I had been newer on the job, I, you know, I can imagine myself saying, "But I'm not really that religious." And I'm not — you know, kind of arguing with her.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: Instead it's like, OK, you know, there's all these people around. She's being taken care of and my job is not actually necessarily to minister personally. I just want to make sure that she's being taken care of. But quite, you know, chagrined, I sort of back off and I'm talking to the neighbors and telling them, you know, what we're going to be doing the next day and what she'll need to know so they can transfer that information to her.

So by the next day she had, I suppose, been told by her friends and neighbors that the chaplain really isn't such a bad person. And also I've toned down my more sort of paramilitary look, so I'm looking a little squishier around the edges and I've taken off my clerical collar. Finally, they make the recovery. And I go back to the house, and by that time I'd already asked her, you know, "When do you want to see him after we make the recovery?" And she said, "Right away. I want to see him as soon as possible." Which is, in fact, almost always what people do say. And I said, "OK." And I go back down to the river and I make sure that we've put a blanket around him because a body bag can look kind of like a garbage bag, and I never like that. So we put a blanket over him to kind of soften that. And he's lying on the riverbank.

And so the widow and I show up, and everybody else bails out. Everybody else leaves because they think there's going to be some awful, like, emotional scene …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: … that's going to be terrible. And actually, it was so wonderful. She just — she walked right up to him and started talking to him and patting him and sang to him. She was singing Cole Porter. And, I mean, it was so wonderful. I mean, it was so gorgeous and so holy. And I think, even though, you know, I really anticipated that being a Unitarian would really help me out right from the get-go, it didn't. But then I think at least in the long run what it lets me do is back off and allow God to just do what God does and not feel like I have to shape it or guide it or force it into a certain place that accords with anything, that I can really just let it be.

Ms. Tippett: Maine game warden chaplain Kate Braestrup.

[Sound bite of "I Concentrate on You" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, written by Cole Porter]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, "Presence in the Wild."

We're talking about the stories and insights Kate Braestrup gathers in her work. She was a writer before she became a minister and chaplain, and in 2007 she published a memoir of her recent experiences called Here If You Need Me.

Ms. Tippett: You said earlier that there's this notion, a Tibetan notion, that rings true for you that, whether we know it or not, we're spending our whole lives preparing for our death. But a lot of the cases you deal with are people who are experiencing the death of people they love. And I don't think any of us feel like — like we can prepare for that or that the universe even makes sense if we're supposed to.

Ms. Braestrup: Right. And that's why it's a good thing we don't have to consciously prepare.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And, you know, you make this point — I've had a couple of conversations lately and something that's come up is this theme of providence that runs through American history.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And the idea that we call something providence when it worked out our way.

Ms. Braestrup: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And I heard an echo of, you know, you talk about miracle, about how we will call something a miracle when it is completely unlikely and has a wonderful ending, but you also all the time experience completely unlikely events that are not wonderful.

Ms. Braestrup: That end badly.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And, I mean, I wondered if you would tell the story of Christina and of Anna Love.

Ms. Braestrup: Anna. Yeah. That was one name I did not change.

Ms. Tippett: I wondered about that.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Because she has an improbable name, the policewoman.

Ms. Braestrup: Exactly.

Ms. Tippett: Anna Love.

Ms. Braestrup: So I went and got her to read the book and said, "Is it all right if use your name the way it is?"

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, you couldn't change that name.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, because that is a context in which you ponder this religious idea of a miracle.

Ms. Braestrup: Right.

Ms. Tippett: In all its complexity.

Ms. Braestrup: Well, Christina was a young woman who was abducted and raped and murdered and left in the woods. And so the warden service was involved, along with many, many other agencies, in both recovering her body, evaluating — gathering and evaluating the evidence, and it was a very painful experience for everybody involved. Obviously, for her family it was excruciating. But it was one of those that kind of tests a lot of our sense of, you know, what it means to live in Maine, you know, of safety, of whether our children are safe or whether we are safe, of, you know, what do you do about sort of this evil that swoops down completely at random? And I suppose that's where the issue of miracles comes in, that so many things had to happen in the right way, or the wrong way, depending on how you put it, for this particular young woman to meet this particular guy in the parking lot at 7:00 in the morning. I mean, that is as improbable as any miracle.

And because of that, a miracle to me can't just be something that was providential, that everything had to line up just right in order for it to happen because bad things happen that way too.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: And really bad things happen that way too. And evil people have uncanny luck sometimes. And, you know, I suppose we can all sit around and say, "Well, you know, God intended for this to happen so that this happens and that." OK. But that ends up, again, arguing — what is that? It's the naturalistic fallacy arguing ought from is and this is how it had to be because this is how it is.

If I look at it from another perspective, and this is really the perspective I maintain, that I don't look for God or God's work in magic or in tricks or in, you know, saying "this is what I want" and then I get it. I look for God's work always in how people love each other, in just the acts of love that I see around me. So this tested that. This event tested that for me, because, in general, I don't get involved with a lot of sexual predators and murderers. I'm much more likely to be dealing with accidents or people who've done something stupid or they got drunk and did something stupid, but they weren't actively malicious.

So to look for where love was in this situation, the very obvious place to look would be in the hearts and the hands of the guys who did their best to find her and to make things right for her and for her family. And with all the limitation in that, with all the, you know, with all of the —

Ms. Tippett: That they couldn't, in fact …

Ms. Braestrup: That they couldn't. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: … turn back time or …

Ms. Braestrup: Right.

Ms. Tippett: … make her be alive.

Ms. Braestrup: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Make that not have happened.

Ms. Braestrup: They couldn't fix it.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: And the fact, actually, that they are willing to go and respond to these things when they can't fix it is actually, in some ways, the most beautiful thing I see. I mean, there's one thing to get to be Superman, right. You swoop in and save the day, and it's very satisfying when that happens. I love it.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: I love it, you know, when they find the kid in the woods before the last breath has left his body. And that's wonderful. They bring him out alive; I love it. But what's amazing to me is that these guys are willing to go and do it.

Ms. Tippett: You mean the police officers, the game wardens.

Ms. Braestrup: The police officers and the game wardens, yeah. That they've actually deliberately set up their lives so that they're going to have to go and do these things that are excruciatingly painful and that don't fix or undo the harm and the evil that they see.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And in this particular case it was a woman …

Ms. Braestrup: Yep. Anna Love.

Ms. Tippett: … police officer named Anna Love.

Ms. Breastrup: Yeah. And actually what was so neat about it was that Anna was sort of the primary detective on the case. She's this very serious young woman. I've known her actually for quite a long time now. And she's very easy to picture as a detective. She's very smart, you know, very serious. Kind of a little pale heart-shaped face. And at the time that she was investigating this, and that meant basically comb through all of this information and try to come up with plausible places to look for a suspect, did that, they found the suspect. Then she has to interview him repeatedly and interview all the witnesses and interview him again and then go with him to the scene. You know, they go do this whole thing.

Ms. Tippett: And this is all within just three days, right?

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, she really closed this case.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah, she did. In between all of this, she would duck into the lieutenant's office with a breast pump, because she had a newborn baby at home and she was sending bottles of milk home to her husband, who's also a police officer, so that he could give them to the baby. And I just, I thought, "There's something just gorgeous about that." You know?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. You wrote, "If ours were a sensible culture, little girls would play with Anna Love action figures, badge in one hand, breast pump in the other."

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah. You know, and kind of the perfect detective too, for this case.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm

Ms. Braestrup: Somehow. You know, there are these paradoxes, right, that you can't fix or make them fit together. You can't kind of shave away the edges so that they match. You just have to let them sit there as separate things. And one of them was here. It was on one hand you had this terrible event that was not right and not just and was cruel and on every level harmful and hurtful and terrible. And on the other hand, you have all of these guys responding. All of these guys motivated by love. And one of them is Anna Love, who is a breastfeeding mother.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: And she's the one who nails this guy. And, you know, it's not as if all of that fixes Christina's death; it doesn't. It's just that they both exist in the same time and the same space. Which, I guess, it isn't enough and it is enough.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: You know, you point something out that's very simple, but really striking and unsettling in good ways and bad, that even when the miracle, and, you know, you say we can call things miracles, but it's not — the picture's more complicated than that.

Ms. Braestrup: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: But even when it is of a life restored, that is always a temporary restoration.

Ms. Braestrup: Mm-hmm. Yep.

Ms. Tippett: And you say that most of the time, perhaps, "a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death."

Ms. Braestrup: Then if we look at — and, you know, this is an argument I have with, probably a continuous argument I have with Christianity. I always felt that it was answering a question I wasn't asking. And the question of sort of if you decide that the most important thing, you know, the highest possible value is life, that it's breath in the body and walking around and eating sandwiches and whatever, then you're lost. Then you've lost. You know, because we're all going to die. So then you have to posit this whole other set of things that you can't see and you can't connect with. And as I said, I'm a practical person. I want to be able to see it and I want to be able to do it. So if I posit instead that the most important thing is love, then what I have is, yes, I have a world that's full of suffering and evil and pain, and I have something to do. I have something to look for, and I have something to do. And to me that works better. It's of more practical value than fretting about, you know, OK, is death real? Do we live forever? What does eternal life mean? Would I want eternal life? You know, if there's a hell doesn't everybody get eternal life? Just some of us in hell and some of us in heaven? You know, I mean all of that stuff kind of can be, you know, you can still talk about it, but it becomes less of a pressing issue.

Ms. Tippett: Kate Braestrup's personal story and the many spiritual insights she's gained while working in the wilds of Maine were edited for this hour of radio. But on our Web site, you can hear all of it. Download an MP3 of our entire conversation and this program for no charge at speakingoffaith.org.

In my weekly journal, I give you an inside perspective on how we created and produced this program and what I took away from it. Read my essay on our e-mail newsletter, our staff blog, SOF Observed, or on the Web site. Find links to that and more at speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more conversation with Kate Braestrup of her image of God, the finality of loss, and the human capacity nevertheless to cope and to care.

I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.

[Sound bite of music]

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett.

My guest today, Kate Braestrup, is talking about her experiences where the rubber meets the road theologically. She's a chaplain to the game wardens of Maine, law enforcement officers under that state's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Division. They are trained, among other things, to find children lost in the woods and to rescue people or recover bodies caught in ice or rushing rivers.

Kate Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist minister, a calling that was precipitated by the accidental death of her husband, Drew, a state trooper. Before that, chaplaincy was not the destiny Kate Braestrup had imagined for herself while writing and raising their four young children. In her 2007 memoir, Here If You Need Me, she writes, "If anyone needs proof that God has a sense of humor, here it is. I am a middle-aged mother of four who primarily works with young, very fit men. My preferred habitat is a warm, well-stocked library, yet I work in the outdoors with outdoorsmen." She continues, "But the crowning irony, the one that makes family members and old friends smile in knowing disbelief, is that I, a famously loquacious person, have a job that mostly requires me to just show up, shut my mouth, and be."

Ms. Tippett: You know, you talk about that God has a sense of humor, that that's something you experience. And I wanted to ask you generally about from this work you've done and this life you've lived, are there qualities of God that you have observed?

Ms. Braestrup: Well, I mean, you know, the longer I work and live the simpler my theology gets. And there's many, many things I'm willing to entertain and think about and talk about, but fundamentally it still comes back to that God is love. And I mean that pretty literally, that God is, if nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else, God is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other. And for me that is actually enough. That cultivating it, that thinking about it, worshipping it, working towards it, taking care of it, nurturing it in myself, nurturing it in other people, that that really is a life's work right there, and it doesn't have to be any bigger than that. You know, God doesn't have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together. Right? You know, it's plenty just the God that I work with.

Ms. Tippett: And then, you know, the question is, and this is something I know you grapple with all the time, I mean, how do you draw that line to this God of love from the child who's gone missing, the beloved husband who just skated on the lake to ice that was too thin, the young woman who was raped and whose body is left in the woods?

Ms. Braestrup: Well, the first two are easier than the last one. The first two, you know, it was obvious in absolutely everything around us and everyone, you know, that the child is loved. The people who show up have no trouble at all loving that child enough to risk themselves to try to find her or him. And, I mean, once you kind of accept that death is a given, then that becomes the thing to look for and to mark. And that doesn't mean that we don't …

Ms. Tippett: The love and the care that surrounds.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: And I tell that to people all the time, and they do find it helpful. I mean, it isn't just me. Like, they will say, you know, I will say, if someone asks, you know, "Where was God in this?" I'll say, "God was in all the people that came to try to help, to try to find your child."

And in the case of the skater, I mean, that was an easy one too. It was just, you know, what an amazing life he must've had in order to get to die that way. I don't mean to get to drown in a pond; I mean to be, you know, so loved and so honored and, you know, to have someone who loved him so much she would come and stand by the river and sing Cole Porter to him. I mean, that's pretty good. You know?

And so I often say, you know, the question isn't whether we're going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. And we all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone. And in my experience, I mean, half of the time when I'm going into the woods when we're responding to a tragedy, the making of the tragedy is someone who was willing to risk his life for something really as evanescent as, you know, excitement. I mean, he was, you know, seriously. I mean, he was driving a snowmobile 70 miles an hour, and he bashes into a tree. I mean, we risk our lives all the time.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: Even just in terms of how we live day-to-day. I mean, forget even soldiers going to war or police officers, you know, or Secret Service agents throwing themselves in front of the president or whatever. I mean, we're talking about people willing to risk their lives just, you know, you and I are willing to risk our lives just to get to, you know, the grocery store two minutes faster. So, you know, don't tell me that human beings value life that highly. We really don't.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: But we definitely value our connection to each other. And that, I think, we are less likely to risk.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: In a way, I mean, it sounds crazy but actually in a way that makes sense. I think what we're less apt to be aware of and reconciled to is that we will lose everyone we love as well.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: And that's a lot harder. Fortunately, I will say, and this is an important part, we know how to do it. So I know that whenever I used to think about, you know, what would happen if Drew died, which of course I did think about because he was a state trooper and, you know, you think about that.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: I mean, state troopers were killed before him in my experience. So, you know, what I would always think about was, "Well, if anything happened to Drew, I would just lose my mind." And what I discovered and what we all discovered is actually, you don't lose your mind.

Ms. Tippett: You did lose Drew …

Ms. Braestrup: You should be so lucky.

Ms. Tippett: … and you didn't lose your mind, right?

Ms. Braestrup: No, and not only that, even if you wanted to, you don't get to lose your mind. You have to stay and you have to do it without him. So the loss is going to be real, and there is no anesthesia. So that was a thing I learned. What I also learned, however, is that there is something in us that knows how to do that. And I — that lesson gets repeated for me over and over when I do death notifications. What I find is people know how to do this. They know how to absorb that, the impact of that blow. It knocks them down. And all I do is I go down with them and sit on the floor and be there with them and hold them if they want to be held. And after about 20 minutes — and I was just talking to some wardens about this and we all agreed, it's almost never more than 20 minutes — they will come up. They will come back to themselves, and they will ask a very sensible question, which is usually, "Where is he? When can I see him?"

I mean, to me there's something miraculous just about that. I mean, like a little tiny resurrection. Like how can you do that? And we're talking about, you know, women who've lost a child, which is one of those ones where I just, you know, think, "Oh, I'd lose my mind."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: They don't, and they somehow manage to do it and to continue to be loving, meaningful beings in the world. And that's amazing. And there's something very encouraging in the sense of giving courage. There's something encouraging about that.

Ms. Tippett: Game warden chaplain Kate Braestrup. I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, "Presence in the Wild."

Kate Braestrup ends her memoir with another story from her life of chaplaincy in the wilds of Maine. An elderly woman with Alzheimer 's disease has gone missing, and Braestrup describes the gaggle of law enforcement officers and other community members: high school soccer players, the local equestrian club, even supervised prisoners from a correctional facility, who all join in the search for this woman. Braestrup focuses her telling of this story on the reaction of the woman's son, Jim, to this gathering. He says, "Everyone in the world is here. It's a miracle."

Ms. Tippett: At the end of your book, you begin to tell the story of a woman who goes missing and all the people who come out to search and care and prepare casseroles.

Ms. Braestrup: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: You don't tell us how the story ends because, you say, that is not the point.

Ms. Braestrup: Right. Well, I mean, you know how the story ends.

Ms. Tippett: That story?

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Tell me.

Ms. Braestrup: Well, I mean, she was an old lady. That was probably 10 years ago. How did the story end?

Ms. Tippett: She died one day.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah. So, I mean, that was sort of part of it. I mean, of course we know how the story ends.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: And what was lovely about that particular time was just how clearly her son saw it and articulated it. It's actually more common than not for the family of someone who's lost in the woods to come to the search scene, see all these people, and go, "Oh, my god. Look at all these people. You know, we didn't know this many people cared about us." You know, they get it.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: And that's before they know what's happened to their kid or their dad or whatever. But in this case he, you know, he said very clearly, you know, "Look at all these people. This is a miracle." And that is. That is the miracle of human life for me. That is — that's it.

Ms. Tippett: Is all that care that …

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: … we can gather around each other and ourselves.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah. Right.

Ms. Tippett: I was thinking while I was reading your stories about Dorothy Day, you know, the story about her.

Ms. Braestrup: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: It was when she watched all the outpouring of care after the San Francisco earthquake, that she watched that and said, "Why can't we live this way all the time?"

Ms. Braestrup: All the time. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And I think that, I think that, you know, whenever we have a natural disaster, which we seem to be having plenty of these days …

Ms. Braestrup: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: … or we have September 11th, you know …

Ms. Braestrup: Right.

Ms. Tippett: … there's this story of the tragedy, and then you get the stories of how people leapt in and were courageous and took care of each other.

Ms. Braestrup: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And yet we treat that as kind of this unusual occurrence and then it goes back to normal.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: But it strikes me that you live — you see that as the story we should be telling ourselves all the time, at least as much as the story of the tragedies. And as more normal than I think we treat it.

Ms. Braestrup: Yes. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Do you think it …

Ms. Braestrup: And more reliable.

Ms. Tippett: More reliable.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Huh.

Ms. Braestrup: It's more reliable. You know, it doesn't always work. I mean, you know, there are awful stories about people who — Kitty Genovese and I think there was even a more recent one about people who are hurt and nobody comes.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Braestrup: And actually, that was the thing that was so traumatic, from my perspective, about Katrina, was here are these people suffering and nobody's coming. And I can't go help, and nobody's going to help. I mean, that's actually the worst thing, I think. The most traumatic thing is not suffering; it's suffering alone.

And I actually, you know, I actually think in a lot of ways we are getting more responsive and more attuned. You know, this surprises people, but I'm actually relatively optimistic about that. I think that we know more about tragedy so there seem to be so many more of them, but we actually do respond to them. We do care about them. And I'm sure there are many places in the world that they haven't lost this. It's just that too many of us spend too much time watching television or something where community response isn't normal and, you know, what you see is, like, the CSI team come in. Or you have Sex and the City, where nobody has any community responsibility whatsoever, you know, to anybody. But to grow up in a community or to be in a community where everybody really knows how to do this has been very educational for me.

And so whatever it is that allows people to sort of see a need and realize that they have the capacity to help fill it and to go and do it, it's alive and well in Maine. And it was a big part of what I understood from Drew's death. It was a big part of that first day, was not just I've lost Drew but I've lost Drew and here come all these people who are going to hold me. And that was just, you know, that was just astonishing to me. And beautiful.

Ms. Tippett: Game warden chaplain Kate Braestrup.

Ms. Tippett: Tell me something that's happened to you lately that's on your mind as, you know, you continue to ponder what faith means, what religion means, in this particular vocation that you've chosen or been drawn to.

Ms. Braestrup: Well, not a whole lot's happened this week.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Ms. Braestrup: Yeah. Actually, I might go back to the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Once a year, around May 16th, there's sort of a convocation of widows and orphans and widowers and partners and family members of officers who've been killed in the line of duty in the previous year. And the names of the officers are added to the National Memorial at Judiciary Square, and they have a number of services and some, oh, therapeutic events and various other stuff for the kids and for the widows. And the first time I went was in 1997. That was a year after Drew died. And I was invited back, and it was such a nice thing to get to go back as a minister and as a chaplain, rather than just as a new widow.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm

Ms. Braestrup: I mean, that was a really nice thing. But there were two things that happened that surprised me. One was I went with these game wardens who had actually volunteered to go. The state of Maine has had a lot of budget issues — so there wasn't any funding for them to go — so they took their own time to come with me, which was very nice of them and actually made a huge difference in how the week felt.

So we get down there, and I told myself that I wasn't going to look at Drew's name on the wall until I was all done with my official responsibilities. And I felt sort of melodramatic about this, like I was kind of being, you know, I was kind of being silly.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: And, you know, it's been 12 years and it's just his name and I see his name all the time and, you know, whatever. But I decided I'll just — to be safe. So the candlelight vigil comes, and I give my prayer. And then, still in my robe and my collar and my stole and everything, I go around and I find the game wardens who have been waiting for me, and I said, "Well, you know, before we do anything else, I guess I better go see Drew's name." So they said, "All right." They said, "But when you're done we're going to take you to this bar we found." And I said, "Really?" And they said, "Yeah. It's this cop bar, and it's just full of cops. You've got to see this." I'm like, "All right." So we go around and I'm, of course, meeting people and talking to people that I know and whatever. And I'm perfectly fine, perfectly calm. Get to the little section of the wall that has name, I see his name, and I'm gone. I mean, I almost fell down. It was as if it was brand-new.

So that was revealing, I think, and humbling for me. I think I had been feeling like maybe, OK, I'm over it. I'm not where all these brand-new widows are anymore. And I thought, well, OK, for that moment I was, and that's OK. And I guess, you know, I try very hard not to get all emotional in front of the game wardens. Well, I blew that. You know, because I'm the helper, not the helpee. Well, OK, I blew that.

So then we go, and I take off my robe but I still have my little skirt and my clerical shirt and my clerical collar, and we go to the cop bar. And it was literally a bar stuffed with, you know, mostly men with very short haircuts and badges. And they're all sort — you know, the music's very loud, and they're all drinking sort of Miller Lite and singing along to "Sweet Home Alabama." This is not normally my scene when I go to bars, which I don't anymore because I'm middle-aged and I have children and whatnot. But it was so much fun. And I realized, actually, that it was like being at a family reunion where you know everybody there is your cousin, but you just haven't met them all yet. You know, it was like being with your family.

Ms. Tippett: And how did those two experiences work together for you?

Ms. Braestrup: I probably, between, you know, re-experiencing the loss as loss and being reminded again that, you know what, you lose. You really lose. You don't get to have it back. And, you know, all of the wonderful things that happened to me and happened to my children and the people who love us and my second husband, who's darling and the kids love him and I love him and all this, all of that is wonderful. And Drew is still dead.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Braestrup: And that's just how it is. And, you know, that that doesn't actually need to be redeemed. It can just be there. And it doesn't have to be fixed. It can just be there. And at the same time, immediately almost, being held up and, you know, I mean, literally held up, actually, at the time when I almost fell over. But, you know, that there was always still this sense of a community that will hold us. And in this case it happened to be the community of cops, but it wouldn't have to be, you know. It was pretty amazing.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Braestrup: And that's really what it comes down to for me, that those two things are enough.

Ms. Tippett: Kate Braestrup is a chaplain with the Maine Game Warden Service and the author of Here If You Need Me. In closing, again, I'll read a few lines from that book.

Ms. Tippett: She writes, "Sometimes I remember something funny that Drew once said, some offhand comment that still cracks me up, and I think: Ah. To be able to make someone laugh years after I'm gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for." She continues, "If you are, in Christian terms, following Christ or, in Unitarian Universalist terms, completely and wholly in love, then you are in heaven no matter where you are. If you are not in love, you are in hell, no matter where you are. The stories we tell of heaven and hell are not about how we die, but about how we live."

[Sound bite of "I Am in Love" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, written by Cole Porter]

Ms. Tippett: You can read more of Kate Braestrup's writing and hear my full-length unedited interview with her on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. And gain a fresh understanding of how we created and produced this program on our staff blog, SOF Observed, or through my weekly journal. Find links to all this free material at speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of "I Am in Love" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, written by Cole Porter]

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is Chris Heagle. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Voices on the Radio

is a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for the Maine Warden Service and the author of Here If You Need Me.

apples