My dad turns 86 next Saturday. This week we’ve been reviewing his Excel spreadsheet detailing the plans for the family reunion in Sweden in August. He also told me he’s considering subdividing the property his house is on and building a much smaller place because the house in Boquete is too big and too loaded with memories that make him sad. He’s already started laying out blueprints for what he wants. At the end of that particular Skype session we discussed a trip in August of 2014 to visit my cousin RoseMarie in North Carolina, and then going on to Yellowstone, a place he’s always wanted to see. That’s my dad! I thank God for him today…
And this morning, waiting for a meeting I was quite anxious about, I sat where I could reach out and touch a Meyer Lemon tree already filling with fruit, I could feast my eyes on orchids, and remember ‘ Becky, who lived her last years in something one can only describe as penury, and left a $250,000 bequest to All Saints which helped make this small paradise called Becky’s Garden possible. Some kinda beautiful…
I love the solitude of the weeks when María and Sherod are off on one of their adventures and I especially love when Friday comes around. It’s been a stressful week with work. More than usual, we have had drop-ins at the church, folks who were lost and at their wits’ end and desperately alone. One of them came in and visited for a while one day and two days later, yesterday, was back. A distinguished-looking person in his late fifties who once had a good job and a good life, he fell through the cracks with the Great Recession of 08.
M recently got a 2-week gig with a large temp agency to do heavy labor in a warehouse. When he went to deposit the paycheck in his account, just in time to pay rent and avoid eviction, it didn’t clear. He tried again a couple of days later and it still didn’t clear. No one from the temp agency would work on this with him face to face—he had to call a service center and would find himself waiting up to an hour on hold, listening to god-awful Muzak. He was shuffled from one person to the other. It was all made worse because, though he is here legally, his English isn’t great.
Finally desperate, he went to one of these check cashing places, the ones that are so exploitive, and got the money he needed. Except that, even though this was now 10 days after having received the paycheck from this global temp agency, there was still a ‘stop payment’ on the check. Now the harassment began. At all hours of the day and night. By the time he came to see me, M could barely hold it together because he was so distraught. The A/C in the parish hall had not been working, I kept losing internet connectivity all week, a couple of other things were pressing in and here was this person struggling to explain it all to me, shoving little pieces of paper across my desk, giving me wrong phone numbers to call, getting me on calls with people who put me on hold as well or, worse yet, were insulting and demeaning to us both.
After about 20 minutes of this, I’d had enough. I followed him in my own car and we went to the nearest office of the temp agency. The only ones there were the site supervisor and another person sitting behind a desk who might have been a temp worker himself. Basically, I pulled out all my big guns. I said I was M’s pastor, I was trying to help him resolve a problem caused by the temp agency and if the agency didn’t get it resolved quickly, I had lawyers and the press lined up to demonstrate how this multinational is exploiting a person legally in this country.
At first, I got the run around. I must have looked pretty determined because the young woman got someone on the line and we were able to explain the situation to a person who could do something. Again. But first we had to hold for 20 minutes. The agency called the check cashing folks to confirm that a new check had been issued to them and had been mailed and got a commitment from the check cashing folks that they’d back off the harassing calls. In these situations I always try to emphasize that I understand that the person interfacing with me probably has their hands tied and I try to treat them with respect. There was some small amount of humanity and humaneness in the encounters with the temp agency staff.
I also talked to someone who is probably either Pakistani or from India, at the check cashing place because I wanted to be sure that the agency service center people really had talked to him. When I had first called this person from my office earlier in the morning he was just awful. When he figured out I was actually trying to fix the problem, you could hear the weariness slide into his voice as he explained about the boss getting on top of him because so many people kite the system. M didn’t necessarily get much dignity back but hopefully will not get harassed any further. And I got back into my car and struggled not to sob.
I am a powerful, privileged, competent person and I am in ministry, what someone beautifully described as the last great generalist position around. I can tackle a broad range of problems and meet a lot of different kinds of needs. I write applications for grants where I get to throw around phrases like, “we leverage the resources and generosity of two different faith communities”. It all sounds so hopeful and I want to be clear, I am in awe of the fact that I get to be a priest. But the extent of the exploitation I see is appalling.
I curled up on my spouseman’s easy chair this afternoon and read a book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming which traces a person’s exile from and return to a small Southern Louisiana town. It’s all about belonging and being claimed. Even the land claims this particular prodigal son as he returns home. So many of the good people I know around here are not claimed, have no notion of what it means to belong in and to and with a community.
We don’t talk a whole lot about desire in the church. Some of that’s the legacy of the Gnostic duality of body and spirit that found its way into the New Testament. There is such tremendous fear about the places desire might take us, the harm it might set loose, the pain it might cause. And of course, if you are a woman, there is the misogyny.
A few days ago, I read an article about a recently published book on desire that got me thinking. Somewhere along the line, this fairly proper preacher person figured out that I have not ever addressed this topic as an essential part of our incarnation from the pulpit and I have a hard time imagining that I will. That puzzles me. I score pretty high on a risk-taking scale.
It also seems to me that a parish community would be a logical place for this kind of conversation. I adore being a parish priest because I get to work in an amazing space where at least some academic rigor can comfortably coexist alongside very down to earth, “how do we get to the next place” kind of practicality. I dropped out of Vanderbilt when I was getting my PhD in theology, in part because the work I was doing felt so incredibly disconnected from anything real or that mattered. I used to tell people that in class, I heard sentences like, “Jesus is the eschatological manifestation of the kerygma of hope as the ground of our being” and went out at night to bars like the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. There, I heard songs with phrases like, “and take your tongue out of my mouth ‘cause I’m kissin’ you good bye.” I liked that I understood the theological language in class. I was thrilled to be in my twenties and to “get” songs of love and desire. What’s so cool about my work is that with most things, there isn’t this either/or binary set of choices in most of what I do. Except around this topic that is carefully fenced in, with blazing signs that flash, “warning, keep away”.
There is also the fact that I am now in my fifties and people start referring to women in my age bracket as crones. What would she know about this any longer, right? Here’s the catch. If you get healthier, as I have over these past couple of years, if you go for long walks in the lushness of a South Florida evening when life is just bursting forth everywhere you look, it turns out that categories of who has it and who doesn’t aren’t quite so neat and tidy as they’d seem. It isn’t that I am about to go pell mell into some kind of freaky late mid-life crisis, cougar kind of adventure or anything like that. It’s just that I find myself resisting the idea that we have to walk so carefully, be so prim, be so scared of who we are.
In that spirit, here is a safe little story about desire.
I said in a recent post that my roommate at Randolph Macon and I were pretty intense. We were also protected and I, at least, pretty self-conscious and uptight. Someone taped a sign on our door one day that said, “The Convent”. Bless our hearts—I remember that sign really hurting because that’s what I was like, not who I was. I was totally intimidated by the party scene that involved road trips to Washington and Lee, Hampden Sydney, or VMI, the all-male schools that were counterparts to Randolph-Macon, Sweet Briar and a few other women’s colleges in Virginia. It made for a very wretched sense of isolation and of being fundamentally flawed. For Carolyn and me, going to church was a way out of the oppressive space of an all-women’s college. There was also babysitting. One weekend, a college professor and her husband left town and left us their kids and an old somewhat rickety but really cool convertible. Heaven!
But the really memorable babysitting gig we had was on a Friday night. I can’t conjure up the names – or even the faces – of the people who hired us and only dimly recall a suburban kind of ranch style house. But the babies were very little and went to bed early. HBO was still new and that particular night was transmitting a concert of classical music. Again, I don’t remember very much about most of the concert though Carolyn and I were immediately quite enchanted with the conductor who was some. kind. of. beautiful.
The very last piece of the concert was Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin—so sensuous, so tender, such a beautiful piece of music being conducted by such an incredibly handsome young conductor. Every now and then, Carolyn and I would look at each other and bust out laughing because we were aware of how absurd we were, totally enthralled by this performance—it’s a miracle we weren’t drooling on ourselves. By the rather dramatic end of the piece we were gasping and squealing and laughing our heads off all at once.
In a very bourgie neighborhood, on a very dull night of babysitting in Lynchburg, VA this was an ever so chaste and innocent ménage a trois. It was magical and I can name it for what it was without the least bit of shame or sense of having done anything wrong or impure because all we did was sit and watch a TV program. Nonetheless, that night made us giddy for the promises it made about incarnation. The music was beautiful, the conductor was an absolute feast for the eyes. It was Friday night, we were in college and life was just beginning. Desire was good and so were we.
We should be able to talk about these things with a little less trepidation. Our girl-children should know more about the goodness of their bodies and old ladies ought to be able to read that silly book, Shades of Grey, without feeling like they are doing something wrong. And mainly, we should all be able to recognize and rejoice in the fact that this is how God made us and IT is good. IT is very good. Amen and hallelujah!
My roommate at Randolph Macon and I were really intense. And we went to some pretty intense movies. One of them was the movie Julia, with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. I only have impressions of the movie thirty years later, but the opening scene, when a voiceover explains “pentimento” has stayed with me all these years. According to the definition in Wikipedia, “a pentimento (plural pentimenti) is an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work, showing that the artist has changed his or her mind as to the composition during the process of painting”.
The idea that a painting has layers of effort and retains traces of a regret or change of mind is quite lovely in my mind. It seems to me that life is like that as well. Layers of trying, and trying again, and trying one more time. We can’t quite erase the previous efforts; in a sense what is here and now is what is most real, or at least most accessible, but those other times of trying help give this moment depth and meaning it would otherwise lack.
I walked out of our house this evening for my evening ramble, holding hands with my daughter. School is out and tomorrow, she and her daddy are heading to Alabama to visit my mother-in-law. They will stay with our friends Cosby and Marsha, they will stop at Julia’s kitchen for a meal, they will sleep over in Crawfordville and visit with Sherod’s son and family. This isn’t the first time they have done this journey just as María and I have left the house on so many other evenings like this one, she walking me to the end of the block and then running back down the street to meet me when I call her on my way back home. There is nothing new in any of this, even though such fundamental changes have reshaped our family in this past year.
This picture in Wikipedia shows something of the haunting quality of pentimento—the past never gets erased, we bring our ghosts with us into our present and whatever the future may hold. Pentimento is derived from the Italian word for repentance (and in Spanish, the words is arrepentimiento—same origins, I’m sure). Walking with my girl tonight, helping her pack for her trip, her eyes bright with anticipation and happiness, of course there are some regrets that slip through my own happiness. But tonight, repentance is about the willingness to retrace our steps only to try again. The failures, even the grief, don’t have the last word though we could not erase them even if we tried.
You get to the IRS building by 6:00 am ( though doors don’t open till 8:30). The few of us who got here that early get to stand under a small roofed area. Everyone else stand in pouring rain because we are getting some of the rain from TS Andrea. Sequestration on top of bureaucratic indifference.
I am here w M. The father of three beautiful children, he has a serious problem with the IRS. Someone stole his social security and for the past three years he has been trying to get the mess cleared up. In the meantime, new taxes, penalties and interest keeping getting added to his bill. He was so desperate last year he actually figured out how to pay thousands of dollars hoping that would solve the problem. It didn’t.
This year, he wasn’t given the tax credit due to him though he does keep paying his taxes. That tax credit was earmarked to go to Mexico where his family ekes out a minimal existence on a small farm. That tax credit is the difference between barely enough and real hunger for his children. Am I hopeful we’ll get his problem solved today? I doubt it. This is one more way that those at the bottom get pushed further down. It is just 7:22. Another hour and 8 minutes till the doors open and we can scramble for a number then wait some more.
In my first 12 years in this country these are the places I lived for 3 months or more:
New Orleans, La
I drove with Sherod from Huntsville to Atlanta, GA in November of 1988 for our interviews (yes, separate) with the Immigration and Naturalization Service so I could become a permanent resident after we were married. I became a citizen of this country in a courtroom in Memphis. My formative first years in this country were all spent in the South and I expect I will bury my husband, and will probably myself be buried there as well. I am a person of the South.
Today, sitting waiting at a railroad crossing while an interminable train went by, I read in the New York Times that Will Campbell has died. I first heard about Brother Will when I got to seminary at Sewanee. The year before he had spent some time with the seminarians there, including Sherod. There was an admiration verging on reverence when people around there spoke about him. My very best friend in my class had met him as well in Chattanooga and he too spoke with deep respect and admiration about this eccentric, colorful, remarkable man. Jon gave me Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly our first Christmas in seminary. Written by Campbell, the book narrates his journey from being a small town white Baptist preacher boy in Louisiana, to becoming active in the civil rights movement, to ministering to members of the Ku Klux Klan.
There was so much about the South that reflected the further south I came from. Just a couple of nights ago, I watched María watching The Help. Though I find that movie and the book it’s based on to be just a little too facile, nonetheless, they remind me that I grew up in a home where the people who worked and lived under our roof were only allowed to use “their” bathroom — no law needed to be passed for that to be so. Because my parents didn’t think the servants who kept our home running knew how to use hot water wisely, there was none in their bathroom. Hard stuff to acknowledge about my family of origin, but too true to forget. The parallels made living in the South both more comfortable and more deeply disquieting than if I had moved to another part of the country, I suspect.
When I read Brother to a Dragonfly I found some very unexpected relief. Campbell simply refused to work with the neat, binary categories which are the first step towards dehumanizing people. There was a compassion and a recognition of the absurdities of the human condition that he seemed to find everywhere he looked. He was subversive and restless and incapable of functioning very well in ‘the establishment’. He helped me see that living out on the edges, in the boundary spaces is a good place to be. But he also insisted that you continue to love and refuse to demonize any human being, no matter how flawed and broken. He lived his life well and richly and deeply. I can more easily acknowledge my southern roots when I think that I stand with folks like Campbell, who refused to ignore complexity.
The New York Times obituary says, A knot of contradictions himself, he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel. A preacher without a church who nonetheless ministered and served. More and more, that is what I aspire to. I keep seeing those buses go up and down Davie Boulevard and I inch closer daily to starting to ride one as part of my walking routine. I’ve been thinking I could use my walking app to track miles riding on the bus so I could get off and walk my allotted portion heading back home. I suspect I could talk to a fair number of people on a 6 mile bus ride. I know this: much of what the Episcopal Church is determined to protect and preserve is simply not that valuable, including, and perhaps especially, its buildings. I realize that’s a crazy silly thing to say, but those buildings so easily become bunkers and I get claustrophobic in places like that.
Will Campbell helped me start seeing the world this way. I’m going to go out and walk tonight. But before I do, when my spouseman Sherod gets home, I think I am going to serve us both some bourbon and give a toast on behalf of one of the saints of God. Who I hope today is up there finding all kinds of friends who went ahead of him and will be glad for his company.