You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (St Augustine)

St. Benedict of Nursia is considered the founder of the kind of monasticism we are most familiar with in Europe and the Americas. In the mid 500’s, Benedict wrote what has come to be known as the “Rule of Life”—a detailed blueprint for the ordering of life in a monastery community. The Rule is broad in scope and also incredibly detailed. Although I bridle at a lot of the more patriarchal requirements and expectations, I find myself drawn to much of what it describes about communal life.

Recently, I was looking at a certification program in spiritual direction that led me down a rabbit hole that felt right to explore. Even today, a person wishing to become a Benedictine religious must go through a year-long probationary period. At the end of that time, if the person continues to feel called to this life and is found to be able to do so he, she or they takes a binding vow. In Latin, the vow is “stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia” (stability, conversion of manners, and obedience).

In the midst of so much that is being reordered and rearranged in my life these days, it was the commitment to and promise of “stabilitate” that most intrigued me. Although the easiest translation for stabilitate is stability, I think a there’s a synonym that better reaches for the intention of this promise: steadfastness. In practical terms, for people making this Benedictine vow, it means they willingly choose to remain for the rest of their lives in the monastery community within which they take this vow.

In my previous post, I described the restlessness and mobility that has shaped life for many in my family from one generation to the next. I described the reassurance I have felt when I thought, “well, I’ll just move” as a means for trying to reinvent myself, as a way getting closer to doing and being what I thought was more true to who I am. Now, I also see how much I was guided by the impulse to “run away from,” which, wrapped in nice paper, gets described as “getting a fresh start.”

Something strange, and increasingly lovely, has happened as Sherod and I have made this little homestead ours. We don’t have a very big circle of friends here but we are so grateful for the ones we have. They are friends for life. It isn’t only that I claim this place as home, but that this land, the trees, the sunshine early in the morning, even the coyotes howling at night, have made a claim on me as well. I pay attention now in ways I never did in other places I have lived.

The day the small tornado hit Lowndesboro, Sherod and I, who were spared, took less than a minute to hightail it back home to cook lunch for the folks who were gathering to start responding to the damage in our small town. It wasn’t but a couple of hours after my dad died before the food, and flowers, and care started pouring in.

Things are also asked of me by the land because of what I see. A few Sundays ago, the morning was crisp and cool in the sunlight as I headed to church on Old Selma. This is a winding country road with very, very little traffic. It finds its way through fields and wooded sections, where the tree canopy grows across this somewhat sorry excuse for a paved road making it beautiful, no matter how sorry or full of potholes. My path constantly intersects with the journeys of wildlife.

This particular Sunday, right before I got to one of three creeks the road goes over, I saw something making its way across the road, painfully slowly. I know what comes with this time of spring into summer—right about now, love is a burnin’ thing for turtles around here and they are on the move. I’ve known that for a while. When I first moved here, I only recognized turtles after I had passed them on the road. Then, I became more aware and more careful, slowed down, went around them, and thought, ‘hurry little one.” But seeing turtle ‘road kill’ became heartbreaking. I now keep a travel pack of handy wipes in my car and I do whatever I need to make sure to help those little ahistoric creatures get off the road. Turtles carry a lot of salmonella so after I’ve carried one across the road in the direction it was traveling, I make sure to clean my hands carefully. Turtles can also bite so how I pick one up matters.

On another Sunday, a great big turtle was crossing but I realized I needed to go a bit further to park my car safely. As I got out, I saw a jeep come to somewhat of screeching halt right behind the turtle. The guy got out, lifted and carried the turtle to the other side. When I thanked him, he said he’d figured that’s why I had stopped too. I have no idea who this person is and yet now, in a way I don’t really understand, it feels like we are neighbors and kin.

I get anxious thinking about aging out here in Lowndes County, especially if I am widowed. I have landed in a very unlikely place for a liberal, feminist immigrant with family scattered across continents. The impulse to move, to leave, to start anew, is still in me. But I have claimed this place as home, and now this home makes more and more of a claim on me. I am privileged by that claim. And I am slowly, as slowly as a turtle crossing Old Selma road, making a vow of steadfastness, of Benedictine stabilitate. Restlessness little by little giving way to peace.

In My Garden

Wright Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg,  VA, 
West Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg,  VA, 
Edificio Santa Fe, Calle 64, Bogotá, Colombia, 
Buddig Hall, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, Jena Street, New Orleans, LA 
SPO 84, Sewanee, TN
Elkins Ave, Nashville, TN,
Prince George Drive, Huntsville, AL
Briargate Lane, Madison, AL
Joslyn Street, Memphis, TN
Bay Pointe Drive, Memphis, TN
SW 152 Ave, Miami, FL
SW 75th Ave, Miramar, FL
SW 23rd Ave, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Brown Hill Rd, Lowndesboro, AL

These are all approximate addresses of the places I have moved to since I left Colombia in 1978. Some were just about moving to a different house in the same city. A lot represent significant dis/relocations. They paint a picture of our very mobile society. They also part of the arc of my family’s story. For at least 4 generations, as my ancestors became adult, they left their home in Sweden. One went to Germany, though my great grandfather ultimately returned to Sweden with his family.  My grandfather Knut moved to Côte D’Ivoire, and then to France, before emigrating to Colombia with my grandmother, Rosa. Vera and Hans, my maternal grandparents emigrated to Panamá and eventually moved back and forth between Sweden, New York, where my mom went to school, and Panamá. As a young child, Dad was shipped off from Colombia to go to school in Sweden and did not come back to Colombia until he was in his mid-twenties to take over my grandfather’s business in Cali. On a visit from New York, to meet her Colombian fiancé’s family, my mom ran into my father at a party and within 18 months, the previous engagement had been broken off and she and my dad were married and settled in Colombia. With one brother in England and the other in Holland, and me in Alabama, the tradition of generational resettlement has continued.

I think restlessness, hard family realities, curiosity, and, perhaps, even some courage and hope about starting anew, have shaped this wanderlust. There are achingly difficult moments that are inevitable with a scattered family. Yesterday, I was busy when I got a text from Hans, my Dutch brother. He wanted us to FaceTime at 4. Right on the dot (because that Swedish punctuality matters!), he called. Hans had read the leaked Supreme Court document in the morning and wanted to know if I was OK. It was sweet and thoughtful. Four o’clock in Alabama is 11 o’clock in Tilburg; Hans looked exhausted. But we had a lovely conversation and I would have given just about anything to actually sit with him, to live close enough to visit with him regularly. I miss him.

For all the challenges, those life decisions that’ve been made from one generation to another run deep in me. Recently, some friends who are Sherod’s age and have serious health issues moved into an Episcopal retirement community in Asheville NC that offers a full continuum of care for the elderly. I had already been thinking about the years ahead. Fourteen years younger than my spouseman, I know it is realistic to anticipate that I will survive him. As I age into those terribly vulnerable years when life is drawing to an end, I ask myself, “who will I turn to for care?” Hearing about the place our friends have moved into, my immediate thought was—there it is! That’s it! I will get the care I need without imposing on anyone. I’ll be safe. I won’t be alone. Whew! I’ll just move there.  

Yes. Just move, tear up roots, leave the roses, the pecan grove, the quiet Alabama mornings, the dazzling stars I love to look at out in our small homestead in the country.  Move. Again.

As the political and cultural rifts in this country widen more and more, as less and less feels sure and trustworthy, I also wonder: should I try to leave, emigrate again? I could very easily get residency in Spain and Sweden, I could go back to Colombia, I could go back to Panamá. I could. I could move again.

Now, that answer to fear and a desire to have some say over the final years of my life doesn’t work. Deerfield offers every bit of the gracious loveliness that our years of saving, our inheritances, and the performance of the stock market can afford an aging person.  And, it is safe because it has insulated itself from the rougher edges of life. I’d be surrounded by folks very much like me. My life could be curated and distilled into everything that is comfortable and easy to love.  I gulp when I think about that possibility. I don’t find any real hope in other countries either, especially given my daughter, that extraordinary young woman, who has such needs, who is so fragile.

In the meantime, our small farm/homestead has become a place of unending joy for me. These days I get up around five. I do my daily ‘Liturgy to the Gods of Good Coffee” and sit in my favorite spot for quiet, reading, and reflection that ends with me saying Morning Prayer.  By then, it is 6 in the morning and there’s light outside. I take my shears and my trug to do the rounds of the flower beds and our vegetable garden. Sunny and Gilbert, our barn cats, follow me. Usually so does Tux . Occasionally, Mo is with us too. The thing is, after a quick breakfast, Mo loves nothing more than to jump on our bed so he can have a nap before getting up for the day.  I think he also likes cuddling with his fast-asleep human. No matter who comes along, this daily pilgrimage proceeds in fits and starts with a whole lot of gamboling on the way. 

Mostly, I just look, pull the occasional weed, marvel that now that the nights aren’t so cool, things are growing so fast. The roses are blooming with an astounding exuberance so a good part of the time is spent ‘dead heading’ and gathering flowers.  I laughingly shared with a friend that it is here, in West Central Alabama, that I have discovered my inner Baptist self. There’s a hymn beloved around these parts of the world, with an opening verse and refrain I have too have come to love for what it tells me about these daily pilgrimages:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

Time out of time. Heaven on earth.  Every single last thing I could ever hope for. Life abundant. An invitation to consider the Benedictine Rule of Life. To be continued

Back Home

A Family on the Beach in Hilton Head

I’m not sure how to talk about the trip I took and what I thought about on the long ride home, but it’s worth a try.

The first, very obvious realization was about my own self, and how, I who was never one of the ‘it girls’ or at the center of things, am moving further back out to the edges of life and culture. Hilton Head Island is beautiful The tree canopy was even more stunning to me than the ocean. And it is also extraordinarily manicured and well cared for. I was in an enclave of great privilege and that was brought home to me when I realized that in the parking building of my Airbnb, I was parked between a Lamborghini and a Porsche. I struggle these days with the excesses of privilege—I simply can’t get my mind around people paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a quick trip into space when there is such desolation that could be alleviated by that kind of money. I knew how to move in that Hilton Head Island kind of space; it wasn’t like I was not grateful for the beauty, the quiet, and the graciousness. I just find myself wanting to simplify my life more and more, ask less of our “Mother Earth,” and give more of what little I have to give of myself and my privilege.

Being with my cousin and her family was pure, exquisite joy. I lived very disconnected from my family for most of my adult life. With my brothers in Europe, my parents and the rest of the family in Colombia and Panama, it was easy to build without them. I discovered when my dad came to live with us, that having a family member in such close proximity made my life so rich and meaningful, even on the hard days.  For years, I was busy, my cousin and her family were busy, and there are a million other excuses I could give for having done a poor job of staying in touch with her. But she stood next to me as I officiated at my dad’s burial, and she helped give air the oxygen I needed to take the next breath.  

Her family and I could not be on more different ends of the political spectrum. We had a few careful conversations but not ones that lasted very long. I have learned a wonderful way of being respectful when it comes to political differences. It is a simple phrase: “I think I understand what you are saying, and I see things very differently.” That reminds me not to pull out my old habits as a member of the debate team in High School and simply listen, keep showing up.  I wasn’t there to compete for the best argument in support of a political position. I was there because I love these folks and don’t get to see them nearly enough.

And the hardest, perhaps truest, truth of these past few days:  Both my cousin and her husband had terrible Covid at the end of 2020, before there were any vaccines available. Both almost died.  Additionally, there is a vein of dementia that runs through her mother’s side of the family. My cousin appears to be slipping into that dark night, especially since she got Covid. It is still early and only now, is the family beginning to consider a thorough evaluation. God, we all hope we are wrong. While we were together, she and I laughed and carried on, told old stories. This is the cousin whose two sons were killed by the FARC, narcoguerrillas in Colombia, in 1987. We talked more about the days around those deaths than ever before and I was humbled that I was allowed into that place.  While my cousin’s slippage was obvious, it has not affected the deep, deep love that she and I share so it wasn’t anything that took away from the goodness of our time.

Driving home yesterday, with no delays or rain, only sunshine and lovely rolling hills and open spaces between Savannah and Lowndesboro, I ached with the knowledge of how quickly time goes by, how many goodbyes and losses I’ve already experienced and how many more lie ahead. It is so trite and cliché.  And so essential. Make it count. Don’t think you’ll have another chance. Don’t forget to tell people how much you love them and what it means that they love you. I forget all that constantly. I shut down, go into work mode with blinders on. Being with my cousin was a nudge from the Spirit of Love and Life telling me, “don’t forget…” 

Monday After Easter

If you know me, you know I am quite driving-averse. Like, a lot.  I surprised my own self this morning. I had checked tire pressure, had gotten new windshield wiper blades, filled the windshield washer fluid up to the top and charged a fancy new jumper set in case my battery dies (I even remembered to put it in my car last night). At 7:30 this morning, I hit the road—filled up on gas, went through the car wash and then got on I-85. 

About 20 miles northeast of Montgomery, traffic stopped. Just stopped. And my iMap guide started flashing a portion of the interstate up ahead in red. It also indicated I could expect a delay of 1 ½ hours. Sure enough. We crawled along, until finally, I came to a place where one of those 18 wheel rigs had somehow crashed into an embankment and the whole front was basically smooshed into the container it was pulling.  I prayed for the driver and his/her family. Soon after, I got to the exit I needed to take to get on a gorgeous back road that would carry me to Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. On my way home, I plan to do some photography along that stretch.  From there, I headed east on a state road to Macon (also in Georgia). The best part of this leg was seeing acre after acre of solar panels harvesting sunlight. We are so extraordinarily resistant to anything like that in Alabama that I am thrilled when I see it in other places.

About 30 miles from Macon I got on I-75 N and then took a turn to the east again, to get on I-16. I’d been on I-16 for a mile when again. Traffic slows to barely a crawl.  At one point it comes to a standstill while an ambulance zooms by. We are stopped for several minutes and when I look across at the driver in the van in the lane to the left of me, he’s leaning against his window, sound asleep. When traffic started moving again, folks behind him began to honk like crazy.  When I lost sight of him, the van was still not moving and I wondered if he was alright. I thought about these crazy, stressed out, selves of ours that get into cars and drive. How do we live to tell the tales?

Then I drove straight east for another 220 miles. It was interstate driving which means it was pretty boring but there wasn’t much traffic, the rain had ended and I was listening to a nice book on Audible. The road also brought me closer and closer a true nemesis: I-95. There are simply no words. None. Not after navigating that interstate in South East Florida for almost 20 year. 

I got on 95 just a few miles away from Savannah, GA and headed up north, pleasantly surprised by how light the traffic was though I did see several speed demons with FL license plates weaving across lanes at ungodly speeds… A few miles from the border with South Carolina, third verse, the same as the first, a little bit longer and a little bit worse.  Traffic slows down to a crawl. Even slower than the other two times. Now I’m beginning to run low on gas so some anxiety hops in to take a seat with me. It ended up being a 16-mile backup caused by another accident. Finally, finally, I got off on the right exit and made a beeline for the first available gas station and then drove for another 32 miles. I was on roads that carried me past estuaries and rivers in the low country where Pat Conroy grew up, and where the movie Prince of Tides was filmed.  Finally, I got here.

I am meeting up with my wonderful, crazy cousins for the next two days and driving home on Thursday.  I’ll see them a good chunk of each day and I will also have time to myself. But this picture:

This is why I came. This is why I didn’t mind at all, driving for almost 11 hours to get Hilton Head, SC. After I got settled in my Airbnb, I walked a couple of blocks to the beach and just listened to the surf. I bet Jesus is around here somewhere too, hoping that after all that praying, all that worshipping, all that music and all those flowers he had to pay attention to for the last week, he may get to have a bit of solitude, standing on the shore, looking out at the sea.

Happy Easter Season and good night!

Where? When?

Burnt Eggplant & Tomato Tahini (Recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi)

The blooms opening, pulling in all it takes so they are at their brightest and most lovely, are, of course, the signs and sacraments of spring. But what moved my Dad most at this time of the year began when ghost-grey limbs of trees stripped bare in the late fall, first got a greenish sheen to them. As day followed day, the green would take form, translucent and fragile, yes. But substantial. Real.

My dad and I followed that unfolding , on drives day after day, during each of the five springs we shared. aThe greening of the land was almost painfully exquisite to us the spring before his death. It made our trips into town on Old Selma Road magical. These days, if I won’t glance over, won’t try to get a glimpse of him, Dad is right there, riding beside me as I head to work. Such a strange combination of longing and comfort accompanies me as I strain to take in all that ordinary beauty made new once again. I feast my eyes for him, as well as me.

When my mom died, I never had the sense of presence I have with my dad. I imagine there are all kinds of reasons why. Surely, not ever having lived with my mother for more than a couple of weeks at a time since leaving for college when I was 18, had meant we lacked the kinds of rituals and routines I had with Dad. It feels strange, that absence with no sense of real presence.

A few days ago, I got a small package from Amazon, a replacement nob for the lid of one of two “Le Creuset” pieces that are my pride and joy in the kitchen. I hadn’t used the smaller piece for years because without a nob on the lid, it was hard to manage. With the lid all better, this morning, I used it to put up an eggplant dish I was preparing. Memories swirled around me like the tide rushing in. Both pieces were my mom’s. She brought the one I used this morning on one of her visits to our home in Lauderdale. The other one always sat at the top of the cabinets in her kitchen in Panamá, only to be used at Christmas to make the annual Swedish baked beans. After her death, my dad had no use for it and was only too glad to start decluttering. I lugged the piece from Panamá back to the USA in my carry-on, a 5 ½ qt dutch oven that, as they say in Colombia, weighed more than a bad marriage.

I have used the dutch oven almost weekly. Each time I lean down to pull it out of its shelf, I am aware of its weight, the strain on muscle, sinew, and bone as I lift it out. The smaller piece, pictured above, is not as heavy but my heart was particularly happy this morning as I piled a delicious new dish into that beautiful oval piece that I remembered from the kitchen of our house in Cali.

Today, what I realized was very simple. Such practical beauty, such ability to hold what nurtures and delights, such heft and “here-ness”: this is where and how my mama is with me, even now. And I give thanks…

Dissonance and Delight

It isn’t that the horror and grief aren’t relentless. For the first time, maybe ever, I was glad yesterday during the service at my church to use the older, more victorian Eucharistic prayer we call Rite I, with all its emphasis on our wretchedness. Through all my years in the ordained ministry, I have repeated, over and over, that all God’s children are beloved, all humanity held in the heart of a God who is always creating, redeeming and sustaining. Never before have I so thoroughly believed, and been glad to say out loud, the first sentences of what’s known as the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

Even in the midst of the realities of a new war in Europe, on the heels of a devastating pandemic, both of which began as we entered the season of Lent, I have been holding dear a moment both of dissonance and delight that met me unexpectedly last Thursday. I had visited a parishioner who is 97 and remarkable beyond words and then was heading home. I needed some limes and lemons, as well as a jalapeño so I decided I stop at Capital Market, a grocery store just across from the major thoroughfare close to my church. I have only been there once since the pandemic started in 2020 and even before that, I was not a frequent shopper there either.

I walked in and immediately was greeted by the music that always plays; I suspect the owner is active in a Pentecostal church so there’s a never-ending stream of Christian songs to walk through the store with. And in this space is one of the most international, diverse grocery stores in the area–aisles of Korean food, Indian food, Asian food, Caribbean food, Latino food. I’m usually in a hurry and know exactly what I want so I am in and out of there in a jiffy. On Thursday, I slowed down. Marveled at the variety of vegetables, fruits, and greens in the produce section. The dizzying array of dried chiles from Mexico and Central America. The large section of “Coca Cola Mexicana.” And then I got to the beginning of the aisle with Latin food.

Just a few steps down that aisle and there, right at eye-level for me, were cans of Milo. Milo is a chocolate powder you add to milk. For a time early in our childhood, my brother Hans and I had very frequent, tough bouts of tonsillitis and ear infections. We would be put on all these antibiotics that tore through our guts. You don’t get through childhood in Colombia without one or another intestinal parasite and the medicine for one of them included arsenic when I was a kid. Those too were hell on our bodies. All of that added up to a pair of pretty scrawny kids whose mama kept trying to put a little meat on their bones. The way to do it involved giving us Milo, touted for having lots of vitamins and minerals–a beverage of champions. Man, did we love it!!! And then, we got our tonsils out and got sick a lot less. I can’t remember seeing Milo in our house after I was about 6 or 7; as much as we’ had loved it, I can’t remember missing it.

Nonetheless, decades later, here were those only-too-familiar green cans of Milo in a store far more like the Carulla grocery stores in Colombia than a Publix or Fresh Market–a little scruffy, a little chaotic, a lot colorful. All of a sudden it created mind-boggling, cognitive dissonance. Was I in Cali, Colombia, circa 1965, or was I was in Montgomery, Alabama in 2022? I snapped pictures of the Milo, of the panela imported from Colombia, and of the frozen arepas, sent the pictures to my brother Hans in Holland. Along with the dissonance there was the purest of delight. Of appreciation for my childhood, for the wacky weirdness of living in Alabama. For my mama who worried so much for her peeps, and Ligia, the woman who cooked for us and prepared those glasses of Milo for us every day. For the way the two pieces of who I am came together in such an unexpected way on an ordinary Thursday. More than anything, I was alive and so glad for that…

Perhaps it is wrong to dwell on a silly moment. On Sunday, the NYT published a piece about Auden’s poem Musée Des Beaux Arts that captures another kind of dissonance this moment brought with it. At least for me, here and now, there are some concrete things I can do in response to the horror unfolding in Ukraine–there are donations to make, prayers to offer, a willingness to pay attention and not ignore the suffering. When delight, or wonder, or surprise, or joy find me, it feels ungrateful and foolish not to welcome the messy, complicated truth that life is like that. So here’s to a glass of icy cold Milo, mamas doing their best for their kiddos, the truth that those children grow up and then grow old, and to scruffy supermarkets with treasures waiting to be discovered. ( BTW–it was more than enough to simply look at those cans, I had no desire whatsoever to buy one and try it again.)

Progress, not perfection

A number of weeks ago, while I was home and my spouseman and stepson were out hunting, I got the idea that I was going to try making croissants. Don’t know how to put this any more bluntly: it was a total disaster and I vowed I wouldn’t ever waste my time again.

Then, in early February, we got word that one of our very dearest friends had died very unexpectedly. Sherod drove to Ft Lauderdale yesterday; tomorrow, he and María will attend Bob’s funeral together. Bob was one of the folks who found María and he was her Godfather. I thought about going and then I realized I wouldn’t. The last year of my ministry in Ft Lauderdale was living hell, some of it of my own making, some, because making church sausage can be brutal. I don’t know that I’ll ever be up to stepping foot back at All Saints and that’s ok. I took yesterday off and today’s my regular day of Sabbath time; that meant the critters had someone to take care of them and I have been in good company.

Thinking about how to find my way through these days, I decided that by golly, I was going to take what I had learned with my first attempt at making croissants and try again. It’s a 24 hour process though long. periods of time involve letting the dough rest. Nonetheless, it requires concentration, and slow, careful effort. When I wasn’t working on the bread, I cleaned kitchen cabinets. By the time I went to bed at 11:30 pm, after doing the “second fold,” it took me less than 5 minutes to fall asleep. I was back at it today and in the final steps, I saw clearly that I was learning some more and there was still a good way for me to go to master the art of croissant baking. I have no idea when, or if, I will do it again.

I was immeasurably thankful for the work I could do. Before I fell asleep on Wednesday night the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun and all day yesterday, I found myself stopping to weep, for the people of Ukraine, for my brothers, their families, and our good friends in Europe, for our country that now has a former president lauding Putin, for the future that waits for our children even as we spend time on war and not climate change. That, on top of the sorrow of losing our friend, made it so tempting to do nothing but stare out the window in despair.

I got through the day, I am now actively shaping my sermon for the Sunday of the Transfiguration, war and death have not had have the last word in or home. And I have the evidence of applied learning in front of me. The croissants will go to neighbors and the freezer, and there is deep satisfaction; these are not perfection, but there was some progress.

You lock a sheet of butter in dough
You go through a process of layering the dough and butter. Lamination, it’s called.
The second to last step involves rolling out the laminated dough, cutting triangles and then forming the croissants
Out of the oven
With some lamination

As Winter Gives Way

We’ve had harbingers of spring for the past couple of weeks. The forsythia is in full bloom, the camellias are too. Daffodils have been popping up, some of them in unexpected places around our little homestead.

This year, I have to admit that the promise of spring feels profoundly different and not in a real good way. Yesterday as part of my sermon on the passage in Luke that charges us to love our enemies, I shared a hard and painful story about an incident of overt, aggressive racism I witnessed in the parking lot of a Publix store in Montgomery. It left me shaken to my core. Today, I was having lunch with a new member of the parish and his wife when my iWatch started buzzing repeatedly. It does that when I have a new text message or when a newsflash comes through from the newspapers I follow. I wondered if it meant that all hell had broken loose in Ukraine.

On Saturday evening, awash in new grief for my dad, I went out to walk through the pecan grove that delighted him. I kept a small handful of Dad’s ashes before we had his burial at the church; a month after he died, I scattered them in a corner of the land he had come to love, where he and Mouse had walked daily. Now, as the sun went down, I went to the place where I scattered those few precious bits of a life to say out loud, “Hola, papi” and just as I got there, a deliciously cute little bunny sprung out of the brush nearby and went hippity-hopping away from me.

We know we have a resident skunk, smelled him or her a couple of times too! More than once, I’ve watched deer graze under the pecan trees. More than once, I’ve also been pretty sure the coyotes we heard yipping, barking and howling were that close to our house. Squirrels and birds, and all kinds of other creatures share that space. In the midst of the sadness, I felt a jolt of wonder and gladness: Dad would be thrilled to know he has so many different friends to keep him company.

But the grim realities weigh heavy and unlike other years, the tentative few signs that spring will be here soon bring to mind Sara Teasdale’s poem. The poem’s structure, with one rhyme after another, feels quaint in the light of more contemporary poems. Nonetheless, the poem speaks a bleak and strangely beautiful truth, at least to me, on a rainy, grey day at the end of February in central Alabama.

There Will Come Soft Rains
(War Time)
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

True This…

Yesterday afternoon, when I got home, I opened my car door and immediately was washed over with the smell of cow manure. We live across the road from a large pasture and at this time of the year, there is a lot of cattle grazing there. The breeze was blowing just right—talk about “in your face!”

That reminded me of something else. Last week, Sherod and I were in the den watching TV in the late evening. Although it is Mo’s habit to go have a nap before going to bed, he hadn’t done so yet; he was draped across Sherod’s feet. Tux was snuggled into her favorite cushions on the sofa. All of a sudden, she was like something out of a cartoon, seeming to leap straight up, right out of a deep sleep. She began to bark ferociously and Mo followed suit. They kept running back and forth between the back door and the windows in the den and they would. not. stop. I finally decided to let them out and as soon as I opened that door, I knew what had them so upset: skunk. Lord have mercy, the smell. In that split second after opening the door, those two had gone tearing out and now, my fear was they’d get sprayed and then what would we do???!!! The skunk must have skedaddled fast enough to avoid having to let loose that smell.

The next day, I stood and talked to Mark, our friend who keeps his horses, Gus and Jack, with us. He comes over to feed them regularly so we stood in the pole barn for a quick visit while the horses ate their oats. Mark worked for the state as a biologist until he retired and is our local expert on wildlife; when I told him about the night before, he just kept saying, “Boy, you lucked out! They say try this and try that if your dogs get sprayed by a skunk but I am here to tell you there ain’t nothing you can do because it is absorbed into the skin and into the hair and it’s just nasty.”

Then he said that I should tell Sherod he needed to reconsider his armadillo trapping plan. For several months, our back yard has grown increasingly pock-marked, with small holes about 4 inches across and maybe 3-4 inches deep. That back lawn has been beautiful in the past and it has been making my spouseman nuts to see all the damage to that pristine lawn of his. He decided the holes looked like the work of an armadillo so he set up a trap. In case you don’t know, armadillos are blind so you set up these two by fours in a V-shape with the trap at the point. The armadillo ventures into the V, doesn’t know to turn around and ends up getting stuck in the trap.

A few months ago, there was a big old armadillo in the trap who (we thought) benefitted from our mushy hearts and was relocated far down the road in a pasture not close to any homes. When we told Mark what Sherod had done, Mark with his wildlife experience told us an armadillo that’s moved like that can’t make it in a new location and by law in our state you are supposed to kill it. I’d been sweating the thought of a new armadillo discovering a whole new meaning to finding oneself at a dead end. Turns out, skunks love to dig for grubs and Mark thinks there’s a good chance at least some of the digging is the work of the skunk. Unlike armadillos, skunks do ok in a relocation program so Mark suggested a can of cat food in the trap. We’ll see how that goes. If the Mallowman gets sprayed, he’s sleeping in the pole barn!

I don’t imagine I’m different than most everyone else: we become habituated to the space we occupy, take it for granted, and when newness has worn off, stop realizing just where we are. Now and then, by God’s grace, we are caught up short, made to stop and see, really see, where we are. So this week, I am mightily aware, can say with absolute certainty, “true this: I am now country.”

Old Dispensations

Yesterday, as I prepared our biweekly church newsletter, I found myself returning to “Journey of the Magi,” the poem by TS Eliot I first read when I was 20 and still have read at least once yearly for 40 years. Today, the description of life for the Magi when they returned to their own homes is especially poignant as I reflect on the Christmas season ending today. 

It wasn’t that hard to fall into the old rhythms of planning and preparing for Christmas. One of my deepest joys as a priest right now is my partnership with Randy Foster, organist-choir director at Holy Comforter. It has opened an especially commodious and grace-filled space to explore ways in which liturgy and music go deep, help our congregation find its place in the presence of the mystery of God. That has not changed. The pandemic has not undone the delight I find as we prepare for worship during Advent and Christmas. 

At home, I did a lot more cooking, decorating, wrapping, preparing, than I’ve done in years. The work was all about connective tissue; how, after so much isolation, I needed to remember I am connected to my past, to our little homestead, to my parish, my friends, my family. All of that was meaningful. I also never stopped feeling uneasy.

Today, I am taking a day of ‘in place retreat’ here at the farm. Jan Richardson, a woman whose wisdom I cherish, publishes resources for a “Women’s Christmas Retreat” each year.” It was from her that I learned that in Ireland and other places, the 12th day of Christmas is an opportunity for women to celebrate and regather themselves for the start of a new year.  If you are interested in this resource, rich with reflections, poetry and provocative questions, check out this link

I’m trying make sense of the uneasiness I could not shake off all season. I see some bits more clearly. Sherod and I give each other very, very few gifts these days. Others are so very generous. On Christmas day, after we had opened all the gifts, I was overwhelmed by the number of gift bags, paper, and ribbon I gathered up. I have folded as much of it as I could, will recycle it next year but that will still leave me with way more than I need in the foreseeable future. It isn’t about being an ingrate. In this age when the earth is suffering to the point of death from our excesses, how might we show love and generosity in new ways? How do we get there from here, in an economy that depends on our consumption, our always needing more.

A couple of relatives sent us gift baskets—the kinds that come with all manner of celebratory goodies. Again, the gratitude. Again, that food that tastes delicious and is not particularly nutritious, and is also poison my body can’t handle well, while I am endlessly tempted. 

I don’t mean to go down a rat hole, and especially, I don’t want to sound like I am incapable of joy, incapable of celebration, incapable of receiving the love offered to me. And I was and am so uneasy because the world has shifted, has changed fundamentally for me. I know so much more now about the ways in which “old dispensations,” old ways of moving through seasons in unexamined time did way more harm than I gave myself time to consider.

There’s more. I can barely stand to read the news these days. As priest and pastor of a church, I’ve always been very careful about how, when, and where, I express my political views. Mostly, in the past, I have avoided falling into the kinds of political binaries that shut down conversation and close off possibilities for work and relationships. That is still where I prefer to be. But the Day of Epiphany, when we see revealed and behold, when we are filled with wonder, in the presence of God’s love made flesh, this day, will also always be the day this immigrant’s heart began to break, and continues to, in the shadow of the storming of the Capitol. 

A significant number of my fellow Americans (some of them very, very close kin) and I see the world, the choices, and the possibilities for our country, in diametrically opposed ways. It isn’t just that the old dispensations no longer give me comfort and a sense of safety. It is that, as one of the Magi says in Eliot’s poem, reflecting on that journey to Bethlehem:

“I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

I experience loved ones, neighbors, so many others, as “alien people” clutching a way of seeing the world that only feels death-dealing from where I stand. This Christmas there was birth, for sure. And now I am not sure I can tell the difference between birth and death as I bid it farewell on this day.