I learned a lot about faith from Laura Viehmann. I've learned a lot about faith over the last decade or two from individuals I can count on one hand, maybe two, powerful people indeed, because new knowledge makes us bigger and better and none of them have any idea how much they've expanded my horizons.
I knew Laura for quite some time before I realized that she was a devout Christian and the large role her god, her faith, her church played, not just in her life, but truly, in her heart, in the fabric of her. Laura and I agreed completely on so much -- we talked about politics, parenting, art, music, the gamut of what people talk about, although with us, there was a whole lot of cancer talk thrown in. Laura, I think, appointed herself my cancer fairy god mother/big sister the minute we met. I think we hugged within a few minutes of meeting, and laughed at the absurdity of our mutual situations, I remember exactly where I was standing at the time. Laura was only a few years older than me, and while age is but a number, she was definitely the older, wiser sister and I think my well being was a little bit of a pet project for her during my intense year of treatment and then my readjustment to the civilian world which one never actually does quite fully. I was in a bit of a daze when we first met, albeit feisty as hell which is why we were drawn to each other. I was newly out of a long marriage, a single mom, and just diagnosed with very aggressive cancer, and Laura intuitively knew there was a role for her to play in my "journey" as much as I loathe that expression. All the while she was on her own "journey", she had her port put back in and knew it wasn't coming back out. I know that quietly, in the background she had planned meticulously for her exit, but she didn't incorporate that inevitability into her daily life one bit. She was dating, she was redecorating, she was buying art, she was living so fully, and only considering the life part of the equation. It wasn't denial, I and I'm sure many around her did the denial part, it wasn't denial for her, it was a choice, the best choice anyone could make and one that ain't so easy.
Upon getting to know each other better and sharing our stories, both of which had terrible unexpected loss in them, her a husband and me a baby and then that great uniter, proliferating cells gone mad. I think we crammed many more years of friendship and connection into the years that we had because we had so much in common, I am a maker of things and promoter of local art and craft and both the concept of "local" and art and craft itself were so near and dear to her, so that was something else we had in common and Laura loved to come and sit and chat in my studio for hours. We were also united by being the proud mamasitas of two sons each who we adored endlessly, and who could be maddening because that's their job. Laura laughed, and made bad jokes with me, she also said "fuck" a lot which I loved about her because she was so calm and nurturing, but could also have a wicked sense of humor and that smile, always with the smile. After some time Laura started making references to god and her church and occasionally scripture, and I was surprised by that. I also, easily reference that I'm a lifelong atheist, and as she didn't seem jarred by that, I figured neither should I be, by her belief.
She reminded me of some friends who are Irish Catholic and who are also true Christians and I'm afraid that in my experience, those are few and far between. I've seen what faith and ritual is to this family and at first, I was also taken aback as we are so aligned politically, on social issues, as friends and parents. I'll admit my ignorant bias, which is that when I think Christianity I think Republicans and charlatans, I think of people who need a crutch, I think of Karl Marx "religion is the opiate of the masses", I think homophobia, anti-choice, anti-woman, I think empty rhetoric and hyperbole, and Pat Robertson. But these friends and Laura and a few others (hello Palisades Presbyterian) have given me such a valuable glimpse into a great big world I knew nothing about. Actual, real live Christians who follow the teachings of a great man and are motivated to do good works and be active in their communities, (who cares if some of us think he's the son of god and others, the first great social agitator.) Quiet good works, who have chosen careers that help others, that do good works through their churches, and everyday lives, and who's faith is real and true and is passed down through generations. I think that maybe belief is a language that if you learn it young, like any other language, certain synapses fire, neural pathways formed, and you can speak it later on without an accent. I hope I live my life in similar ways as these friends, just without the structure, the home base that is a church, I don't have those neural pathways, I don't know that language and so I would never quantify what I believe in those words. I believe in the universal strand that connects us all, I think some things are more than coincidence, but I don't call it god and I don't pray... I hope. Many words and phrases, such as scripture and bible hymns are a language that I'll never speak and while many speak them with forked tongues, many speak them with sincerity and intelligence and sometimes they get overlooked, they got overlooked by me. I saw the serenity that Laura's faith brought her and her life was teeming with good works. She was a doctor who chose to work in an underserved community, with the deepest respect for her patients, she donated time to so many causes, and enjoyed life with a great sense of fun. Her faith was as deep and sincere as it gets but I can't imagine her proselytizing to anyone, or judging anyone, ever, who's belief system was different, surely I'm proof of that. It is possible to be intelligent people who believe vastly different things which turn out to be mostly the same things, regardless of labels and language. There are all kinds of people, all kinds of Christians, all kinds of jews... and speaking of the jews, I just have to throw in here that I am lucky to have a few friends who have shown me the most beautiful practice of judaism, quiet, beautiful heartfelt practice of a religion I grew up with and always felt so alienated from probably because of the way I saw it done.
I believe in connection, and Laura and I had an immediate connection. Our friendship took place outside the rest of her life. I never went to her church until today, I never went to her house, it took place in my studio with the door locked so we wouldn't be interrupted, on a sofa with tea and sometimes lunch. It took place at the farmer's market and occasionally at a hospital. It took place without us ever meeting each others boys, but knowing them as if we did. Because she came by my workplace, she met some of my friends, she saw a glimpse of my world while I only heard about hers. Her funeral today was horribly sad and also joyous because how could anything about this woman not be joyous. When friends and family spoke about her, they spoke about the woman I was privileged to know, I recognized her in their descriptions, yes, she was a bit of a character, and I feel privileged to have glimpsed a little bit of the rest of her life today.