It is supposed to be hard & other things I don’t want to forget.

I was perched on a step stool discretely placed behind the altar, black veil in hand, struggling to get it up and over, down the back of the altar cross. Then I would tie a back ribbon around it and walk out in darkness and silence. I tried several times, the fabric kept slipping off even though I’d practiced a couple of times during the day on Thursday and it worked well then. I breathed through the rush of anxiety and then it came to me: this is supposed to be hard. When I finally got the cross veiled, tied that ribbon and walked down the aisle, I was almost in tears. It’s supposed to be hard to turn around and see dimly that the altar has been stripped bare, and the aumbry doors hang open awkwardly, and the sanctuary candle has been extinguished.

I had had a half-formed homily on my mind for days; on Friday morning I sat and wrote it and my throat kept knotting up.  It is hard to contemplate the horrors that unfold all the time around us—I re-read a harrowing article in the New York Times about the way women in Honduras are being killed and why. I couldn’t stop thinking of how here in Alabama we have systematically stripped people who are incarcerated of their humanity—we may not be in prison, but we who continue to let things be as they are for prisoners are committing a crime against the Holy Spirit, in some regards, we are re-crucifying Jesus.  

Saturday: hard in its own way, and yet with tendrils of hope carried in with the cold wind that blew from the north that morning as 20 of us huddled against the church wall in the Memorial Garden for the Holy Saturday liturgy, reminding ourselves that “In the midst of life we are in death;” (BCP).  It is hard to do what TS Eliot asks us to do in East Coker: Wait without hope. Wait without love. That kind of surrender even of hope and love was made at least a bit more bearable when I looked around and saw faces mapped by years of stories of grief and great love, saw young faces so clear and bright, heard a delicious little boy get it just a bit wrong or totally right when, at the end of a prayer, he said “Oh Man” instead of Amen.  The waiting is easier if we are not alone.

And then it was Easter and it was time, according to so many voices all around us, to turn off the darker, more somber voices and fall into merriment and color, and music, and extravagance and beauty as we brought back the Alleluias. I was reminded: even Easter Sunday is supposed to be at least a little bit hard. And yesterday there was plenty of sorrow at the images that kept coming in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. The thing is, that is precisely what the heart of these past days is about: insisting that the horror does not have the last word. Our celebration is a disruptive act of refusal to give in to all that is broken and harmful about our humanity, trusting that God can take the very worst and help us start over.

So here are the things I want to remember about this Holy Week:  

Don’t tell me an older congregation isn’t willing to try new things! The people of Holy Comforter continue to amaze me with their willingness to engage our worship without the kind of rigidity and insistence on form that teeters on the edge of performance for performance’s sake. It was not the intent of those of us who planned the worship for Holy Week to be different or “try something new” for the sake of being cute or obnoxious.  The very talented staff that works with me helped plan and prepare good liturgy. What was offered was received with a reverence that filled these days with meaning and beauty.

It’s supposed to be hard. Even though the worship schedule we put together this year was lighter than I’m used to, last night at about 7 p.m. I literally could not keep my head up a moment longer. I slept until 6 this morning. 

What good does it do to have Holy Week and promptly forget? I come back to the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins I first heard from my boss at the Ascension a few years ago: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,”. That is the prayer.  Indeed. May he easter in me, easter in us…

When I grow old…

Flower bed in the middle of spring

I hit a wall last Sunday in the early afternoon, when I’d led a class, a church service, 2 meetings and still had to go home, prepare some notes and head up the road to a town north of Montgomery, where I’d accepted an invitation to be Lenten speaker that evening. I thought, “that’s it, I’m taking tomorrow off because I am exhausted.

I did household work that following morning, planted some lilies of the valley, washed and ironed and folded and put away, moved winter clothes upstairs and summer clothes downstairs. Monday was also when I got my girl her Easter Basket and was the day I took my dad to get his monthly pedicure. He got out of the car a little more slowly, walked a little more carefully, seemed a little more stooped over than usual. I chuckled a bit, watching him walk into the nail salon, thinking he’d been home a week and still wasn’t fully recovered.

A week earlier, Sherod, my husband, got up at 3:20 in the morning, threw on some clothes, and went over to gather up my dad and his roll-on bag. I imagine they rode into Montgomery in silence, and Sherod pulled up his truck right to the door of the Greyhound station in one of the very seediest parts of town. He watched and made sure my dad got inside safe and sound before heading back home.

At 4:45 a.m., my dad was on a bus, settled in for a 10-hour ride to Gainesville, FL where he would meet the special lady friend he left behind in Panama when he moved to Lowndesboro in 2015. They still email and Skype regularly.

When Dad got to Gainesville, he arranged for an Uber ride that dropped him off at the Airbnb he’d rented for the long weekend he and F were going to spend together. When he told me his plan, I teased him a bit, told him about all the news about Airbnb hosts secretly videotaping guests and posting videos on social media. I ended with the admonishment that I didn’t want to see a video of the weekend on Facebook and my dad blushed the deep red of a freshly picked, ripe tomato.

I picked him up at the Greyhound Station at the backend of his trip; he looked very happy and very tired. We haven’t talked a lot about the weekend; it feels important to respect his privacy and he hasn’t been very forthcoming. He’s still happy and has still been catching up with himself, now two weeks later. But that makes sense. After all, this is my 92-year-old dad. He astounds me. More than 30 years younger than he, I would feel hip and cool to be able to tell the above story about my own self. And he navigated the technology and distances with no help from my husband or me, except for the rides to and from the bus station.

His friend needed to come up for some medical tests so this happened on her timetable. However, I want to believe that with so much life bursting out all around us, with spring in full bloom, my dad was inspired and strengthened to go be true to love. I know for my own self, this is the time of the year I get to thinking of trips I might take and places I might see. But even more–it is he who inspires me and reminds me that even when we grow old, life has a way of being full and rich and overflowing with unexpected opportunities that we can say yes to or not. I hope I will still find the way to say yes if I live to be 92….

Easter Basket

We have had very little contact with María since January. Sherod was down and actually had a couple of pretty good days with her at the beginning of March, was there on her “Gotcha Day” on March 4th. I will go see her for her birthday in the middle of May. In the meantime, there have only been a handful of calls, a couple frantic, with her wanting us to reassure her that we are still alive. There has been one single one that felt like we were actually connected like we used to be, so much history carrying us through all kinds of conversations and laughter in spite of so much separation. I ask myself: if I sing to her in Spanish will she remember? Is there a right word, a right tone, a right response that makes it better? How about an Easter Baske? I can buy her an Easter Basket—put all the things in there that remind me, and maybe remind her, of the way it used to be.

Today I bought what I needed to put together the basket.  

I had taken today off after hitting a wall yesterday at about 1:30 PM: I finished the third meeting of the day and knew I had sm notes I needed to make for myself before heading to Wetumpka, a town north of Montgomery, to be the last speaker for the Lenten Program of the Episcopal church up there.  I realized I had to stop. Just stop. So this morning, I did. I told my mind to quit jumping around so much, I made a list of the simple household tasks I could get done.

I was already moving quickly by 8 this morning and it was glorious. I planted some lilies of the valley. I washed sheets and made up beds. I ironed and went out to pick one of the last cabbages of our winter planting and then came in to cook.

After lunch, my dad and I headed into Montgomery. He needed a pedicure, and his sweet old dog that continues to hang on, Pía, need a refill for the pain meds for her arthritis.  I had time to kill, and that’s when it hit me actually; my gosh, I’ve been working on my Palm Sunday sermon and it’s not quite 2 weeks until Easter, and I have to get something in the mail to María. With World Market close to where my dad gets his pedicures, I dropped him off and headed on a scout and scavenge journey for my girl.

The basket is ready. Tomorrow, Sherod will see to it that it is properly packaged and will coordinate with María’s behavioral specialist so he can ship it and make sure our girl gets it her goodies in time for Easter. I can’t stop and wonder if It will have any meaning for her. I know better than to hope that it will draw her closer, out of the place she has withdrawn to that keeps her so far away from us now.

I have to be truthful, mainly with myself. I could reach back to another time, remembering how much Easter baskets delighted my brothers and me when we were little.  I could giggle when I found a silly little lamb, there was a tiny snow globe with a little chick inside; I stood and shook it for as long as I dared and then added it to my cart. For those 20 or so minutes I spent shopping, and then the other 10 I spent here at home putting it together, all that mattered was I could do this one small thing for my girl.  

And then, for an instant, the black hole opened up and for the first time ever, I wondered what it would have been like to have a 23 year old daughter who could engage with me or roll her eyes and tell me she was busy, if I tried to talk about my Holy Week sermons.  I fled as fast as I could from that thought.  Magical thinking is not the way forward.But neither is that horrible, insidious game of ‘what if.’ What there is that can’t break, can’t be erased or forgotten or denied, what there is is so much love and if the only way I can love her today is by putting this silly gift together, I am thankful for what I have.

Now, spring

All kinds of new beginnings and steps forward. On March 1st, I became the Rector at Holy Comforter. The property we had used as a rectory has sold, some new potential partnerships are emerging that would add life and light to the amazing space we have. Even our Holy Week bulletins are close to being put to bed, several weeks ahead of schedule, so Holy Week should be a time of holiness and not exhaustion.

As a parish we’re still vulnerable. And maybe that is what makes this small community a lot bolder about the things we are willing to consider for ourselves. I feel almost embarrassed to admit that it is only in the past week that I realized our chapel, perhaps my favorite space of all, is called “The Chapel of the Resurrection”. The symbolism was right there, in the stained glass window above the reredos, if one had eyes to see. I don’t know what resurrection looks like for Holy Comforter or in my life, but that is the ground of my faith.

There is great joy for me when I go in and sit quietly in the chapel, not because I know what the future holds for my daughter, for my parish, or for me, even though–or perhaps precisely because–there are no certainties for the path ahead. Instead, the joy arrives because there is the kindest of breezes dancing today. The sunshine is drying sheets to crackling, fragrant, radiance. And I get to hear these tiny, persistent little pio, pio, pio’s as I sit and write.

First time able to hang sheets out to dry this year
The lavender is starting to bloom

And five new little chicken girls have come to join the clan, all of them Eggers: Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rock and Rhode Island Reds

So yes, now, spring.

So beautiful. So hard.

Quinceañera

I had the privilege several years ago to go to a writer’s workshop where I met Kate Bowler. She is well-known for her work on the Gospel of Prosperity and for what she has written since being diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer at 34. With immunotherapy that has worked remarkably well for her, it would be more accurate, at least for now, to describe her condition as chronic, rather than terminal, but there is no way to know how long that will be the case.  Kate is as kind, generous. and insightful as anyone I know.  There’s a phrase of Kate’s that has become part of the fabric of hope and consolation in my life. With no pat answers for the why of illness and suffering, she says, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”

Eighteen years ago this week, I was putting a car seat in the back of the Volvo I had bought a few months earlier. I had chosen the safest car I knew of because I would soon be carrying a precious little girl in the back seat through the awful traffic of Southeast Florida.  I had washed about a dozen skivvies and t-shirts for a 24-36 month old toddler, and little socks, too, and jammies and overalls. Friends at work and friends at Sherod’s church had thrown a pair of lovely showers for us so Luz María’s room was filled to overflowing with gifts, from the practical to the utter frivolous and fun. Mary, the woman who first got to know Maria and helped bring us into her life and she into ours, had made a beautiful bed skirt for the small brass bed I’d slept in as a child. I’d sewn matching curtains and together with Sherod, had made a contrasting, upholstered window cornice. Neither my heart nor her room in our home in Fort Lauderdale could contain all the hope, joy and expectation with which we waited to bring our girl to her new forever family.

Last week, we got word that Mary, the friend who found our girl and brought her into our life, has been moved into hospice after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and all kinds of complications.  We lost touch years ago when she and her family moved, and then Sherod and I went off in our own new adventures, but I have always harbored the hope we’d reconnect and she’d get to see Maria as a young adult.  

 There’s the regret that I did not make more of an effort to stay in touch with a woman who changed the trajectory of my life. Even more, these days, there is growing concern for my María.  For two months, she has been slipping away from us in a new and unexpected way. First, we began to hear her tell  somewhat bizarre stories, like that she’d gotten married and was pregnant.  Then, she stopped talking to us almost completely. She had been calling, sometimes several times a day, and it just stopped. We call her daily as well and now, she refuses to come to the phone. The one time I’ve spoken to her recently, her affect was way off, her voice was shrill, the content of the conversation deeply disturbing: “Mama!!!! You are alive! I brought you back from the dead”.  No gentle challenge from me could convince her otherwise.

Yesterday, we had a phone consult with her support team.  Like us, they thought at first this was a new attention-seeking strategy. After all, María has been endlessly creative in her quest to get all the attention she could. But in the past, when ‘psychiatric symptoms’ manifested themselves, we had an effective plan that would quickly help her stop trying to get attention that way. This time it has not worked. It is more accurate to describe her now as quite frequently delusional, and possibly, hallucinating. The affect is too different.  The withdrawal is too real.  Later today, the next consult is with her psychiatrist.

There are more questions and fears than I can put words around. There is also all the accumulated joy of small and simple, and sometimes breathtakingly grand moments, with my daughter over the past 18 years. On March 3rd, when I am at Cursillo and Sherod is with María to celebrate her “Gotcha Day,” I know I will once again be overwhelmed by the knowledge she is the best thing that ever happened to us.  Kate has said it best: “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”

Spring is the smell of wild garlic

The weather has been crazy around here: two weeks ago, a tornado that flattened a lot in a town close by. Then, days that started in the low twenties and today, a high of 78 and tomorrow it goes up to 81.  I am not the least bit fooled, at least not this season.  The climate is changing and within my life time, it is possible our world will be so turned upside down that everything we knew about the seasons will be unrecognizable but we are not there yet. That’s why, on February 6th, 2019, I am not fooled; we are yet in that time when winter is still winter.

For now, spring is the smell of wild garlic, sharp and pungent. It announces itself as I walk out the front yard, to put things in our trash bin close to the road. It’s there when I stand out on the deck in the back of our house, waiting for Tux to do her business, alert because when I got up this morning, the coyotes were howling their laments too close by for comfort.  Some evenings, I lean down and clip a handful of delicate stalks poking out through the browned grass of winter and go in to add them, chopped, to my baked potato, a simple meal turned into a feast of brightness.

At first, spring does not smell sweet and subtle; spring smells loamy and penetrating and persistent.  Maybe that’s because before it can be sweet or gentle or kind, it has to be strong and persistent.  I didn’t know that spring takes so much effort. Pushing through the dark earth towards the light can only happen bit by bit, with pauses because the cold is so cold and more has to be asked of the earth for a seed to keep growing. What I most remember about my first spring here is the day when I looked around and all manner of flowers were blooming and the grass had stopped being lifelessly brown, and the trees had the green glow of a million tiny new leaves that had finally broken free, into the sunshine. 

This time around, I want to urge the buds and the shoots not to quit, to resist the urge to curl up in a ball and keep the dreary cold at bay.  I appreciate the guidance wild garlic gives me, the places that smell invites to go look for that may need my quiet non-cheerleader cheers. I follow my nose and then keep going a bit more, bump into our cherry tree that was stripped bare months ago. It might not look like much, almost like just another part of winter, but look again. The bumps and swells along stems: they are decidedly not about winter. 

I may think I can urge the growth to happen, the winter to part in two so more can come rushing in, but that’s nothing but foolishness on my part. I have to wait. Before it can be anything else, spring is a promise.