So, What Really Matters?

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My mom and my grandmother surrounded themselves with much beauty in their homes; a part of my grandmother’s Latin American colonial art collection was on special exhibit for a time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was always a sense of wonder coming into her house when we visited her because everything was just so beautiful. My mom too, had a very good eye, though she lived in my grandmother’s shadow and I think trusted herself far less when it came to decorating her house. Nonetheless, I can remember being in the old part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, with Mom, going from shop to shop, while my mother searched for a couple of pieces to add to her snuff bottle collection. I remember being enchanted by the colors and the artistry. A couple of them were painted inside with a single bristle.

Quite honestly, Sherod and I really struggled as we started sharing a household. Our tastes are considerably different and though we have found common ground through the years, there has always been at least a gentle tug and pull between us about utility and graciousness, presumption (mine-ugh!) and hospitality. I’ve learned a whole lot about hospitality married to Sherod. Slowly, I have found a way to value beauty and challenge in myself both pretention and a desire to be liked, which includes having my home admired. Nonetheless, all through my years growing up, and then, as an adult, each time I visited my parents’ home while Mom was alive, there was this whispered, almost imperceptible promise: “many of these gorgeous things will be yours. You are the daughter, the sons don’t give a flip about any of it—much of this will be yours.”

The first round of letting go came when I went down to help my Dad after he sold the house he and my mom built in Boquete. He was downsizing significantly and needed help sorting through and paring down. I had vaguely imagined my dad dying in their own lovely house, not a rental, and my brothers and I closing the household down after his death. I figured that at that point, I would see about having the things that I would inherit packed and shipped to me. With Dad downsizing, and I working in a position that felt very precarious, it was gut-check time. I ended up showing my dad a few pieces of furniture I truly loved, and we agreed that he would see about getting those pieces shipped to me, along with my mother’s fine china. Every effort to make that happen fell short, I suspect because my dad was simply too overwhelmed, and time went on with those pieces and china sitting in a corner of his porch in the little rental.

Then, the reality of his need to move in with us hit, and after that, I faced into the enormity of the financial responsibility Sherod and I were assuming. All of a sudden, I had to think through and be clear with myself about what mattered. In the end, I settled on one painting and Mom’s collection of snuff bottles.

As much as anything, those pieces I let go of mattered to me because they connected me to the stories of my mother, my grandmother, and with one piece, even my great-grandmother who had lived with her daughter in Panama and the USA for many years and moved back to Sweden in her late 70’s. Mormor’s Mor, as we called her, took back with her a collection of all the exotic dead bugs she’d accumulated in the tropics, kept each in its own little box padded with cotton; her collection, which was quite extensive, was kept in an exquisite chest of drawers. When her lady friends would come to tea, she delighted in horrifying them by taking her specimens out to show. I knew exactly where that piece of furniture would go in our house here in Lowndesboro.

Maybe what also made this hard was we had the means to bring those things here and Sherod was extraordinarily generous about encouraging me to go ahead and do so. This was a purely adult decision I had to make based not on my own immediate desires, but the larger truths we inhabit these days. What you have relinquished of your own free will is sometimes harder to lose than what was taken away from you.

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The picture arrived a few days ago and now hangs in the space I hoped it would fill. I don’t have my great-grandmother Caroline’s furniture but my mom’s snuff bottles and Chinese figurines are on the chest of drawers Sherod made many, many years ago. I can hardly even look at that little corner without tearing up; it didn’t take a houseful of stuff to stay connected to the women who came before me.

And today, something else happened. I had been out gardening and took a big load of weeds in the wheelbarrow to our burn pile. When I had finished getting the weeds where they needed to be, I walked back to the pole barn to put away the wheelbarrow. As I set it down, I noticed how beautifully the light was playing on everything our friends Mark and Kay have hung on the outside wall of the hay room, things they need for Gus and Buck, their horses who live with us. Those things were as beautiful, and the light was as filled with meaning as anything I own or possess. I got my camera, took a picture. I was hot and sweaty. I had been delighted, hefting the wheelbarrow, feeling the strength in my arms and smelling all the farm smells of this little corner, glad for my morning’s accomplishments.

It hit me then. This. The light and the color, and the very ordinary things that, together, were such a gorgeous composition. At best, this was a fleeting composition,  but it was here. It was here for me to see before I went in to talk to my husband, and write a sermon, and call my girl. This. This is what I love.  This is what matters.

What It Means

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The mother of a young woman with different abilities, I am constantly aware that definitions of adulthood we take for granted are not as straightforward as we think.  My girl is a miracle of paradoxes:  put an addition in front of her, something as simple as, “what’s 3+4?” and each time, she must concentrate, and struggle, and use her fingers to try to solve the equation; there’s never any guarantee she’ll get it right. However! There has not been a single effort on the part of lots of people around her to keep her safe from internet predators that our girl has not found a way to overcome.  Each time we think we have her hemmed up, out of the blue, I will be at my laptop and a PM from Facebook will pop up. “Hi mama this is María.  How are you? I love you. Rite me bac.”  My heart dances and shrivels, in the same instant.  Any way I have of staying connected to this person I continue to miss desperately, gives me joy.  And I know only too well how very vulnerable she is to exploitation and harm. So once again, I follow up with her support team in Fort Lauderdale, once again we try to figure out one more way to keep her away from what is both life-giving and death-dealing not just for her, but for all of us, really: the internet.

When we are together, and out walking, whether to the mailbox at the end of the driveway here in Lowndesboro, or on a busy street, María always slips her hand into mine. Each of those walks holding hands makes the ground we walk on holy for me, filled with the mystery of love so real I get to feel its touch and grip.  And yet I always make myself hold her hand as lightly as possible. Whatever comfort holding her hand gives me matters nothing next to my desire, as her mama, to give her the space to claim as much independence as she possibly can. If one day, she were to pull back her hand and tell me we don’t need to hold hands any more, I would be fierce in safeguarding that space between us.  From the moment I met her, even though she was not placed in my arms as a squalling baby, my job has been to let go–and strengthen her to let go too.

So here she is, already past her teens, a 20-year old.  María has informed me that as soon as she is 21 she wants to go to the Hard Rock Casino close to her residential program. O dear, sweet Jesus, have mercy on us!  I’m glad I still have several more months to find a way to honor her sense of what it means to be an adult without surrendering her to one of the worst versions of adulthood I know!

Over the past few months, Maria has been discussing this year’s election, her desire to vote.  Sherod is driving to see her next week.  One of the things they’ll do together is register her to vote, hopefully get a sample absentee ballot.  She and her dad will discuss who she wants to vote for, and hopefully, practice filling out the ballot.  Then, we will ask one of our friends in Fort Lauderdale to sit with her when she gets her real ballot in the mail.  We hope our friend can answer any questions Maria might have, help her make sure her ballot is counted by filling it out correctly.  When Maria’s done with the ballot, our friend will make sure to mail it back.

There is no paradox in this, no bittersweetness, just absolute pride and satisfaction.  My daughter has pretty strong opinions about who she thinks should be our next president.  She sees herself as part of a larger reality and understands she plays a part in how history turns out.  She needs some special accommodations and she also deserves the respect of citizenship.  And she is enough of an adult to vote.  How wonderful is that?!?!

Gates

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In the spring of this year, we realized we needed to enclose our vegetable and flower garden because Mo-Licious, the wonder dog, loves nothing more than to roll around, dig, chew, and in any other way possible, lay claim to the garden. When we put up the gate, there was all kinds of hope for that space. I painted the gate thinking about all the abundance we’d enjoy, what I would try canning for the first time this year, and all kinds of other farmer-ly thoughts. It’s been a rough year for gardening for us and there is no real harvest to speak of—hasn’t been for most of the past 2 months. Now, the summer is over, even if fall has not fully made itself known, and I am thinking a lot about open and closed gates, what I keep out and what I try to hem up.

At the end of the workshop in Collegeville, after my piece had been “work-shopped”, I met with Lauren, the retreat leader. She is rather fierce and intimidating and I had prepared extensively for our meeting. I had some specific questions about my piece, and even more, about developing this craft of writing with a new level of seriousness. I wanted some good things to read, some challenging exercises to consider, anything to sharpen the saw. When someone intimidates me, I get hung up on being clear, logical, succinct but not superficial; I bet I radiated anxiety as I carefully laid out my questions. Lauren waited patiently.

When I was done, she asked me if I had ever considered getting an MFA in writing because she thought it was the ideal next step for me. More specifically, she is part of the faculty of a ‘low residency’ MFA program offered by Seattle-Pacific University. The name is pretty self-explanatory. Most of the work towards the MFA is done in conversation with a single faculty member at a time—me an apprentice, he or she a mentor. Participants write and read, and then write a bit about the assigned books. Over a two year period, there are 60 to 70 books assigned and in that time, you submit a minimum of 30 pages of writing every 6 week. Twice a year, a cohort gathers for about a week to do more intensive work together. It’s a way of paying intense attention to writing, an opportunity to have a writing community and a mentor to work with, while staying connected to the life you already live.

My heart stopped when Lauren made the suggestion. And then it galloped off in all kinds of excitement. The possibility has tumbled around and around in my mind for weeks now—almost 8 weeks, to be exact. There are enormous obstacles. I have a husband, a daughter, a father, who matter deeply to me and who need me. My work as a priest has the capacity to run me ragged and run me dry, even as I still marvel that I am back in a parish. At my church, we are absorbing a lot of change at the same time our pastoral needs are high. Between my family and work, there is very little time left over and this program requires significant time commitments. Last, but certainly not least, there’s the cost. Like $37,000 worth of cost this middle-aged woman is not about to manage with student loans.

Today, Sherod and I had a great day together and continued discussing the possibility of a 10-day trip to Normandy in late May/early June of next years—a dream of many years. This evening, we were in the pool, noticed again some trees we need to cut down, and talked about some other plans for the farm. There are all kinds of ‘logical extensions and consequences’ to decisions made previously so I struggle to hold the tension, try to see clearly, to be honest, above all realistic. The possibility that I will be able to actually pursue that MFA is very, very small.

I realized something else though. There’s another aspect of this decision that I have to pay attention to. I have long regretted giving up too easily on my PhD studies after I graduated from Sewanee and the following year, got ready to marry Sherod. I know now that my decision to withdraw from Vanderbilt was driven as much by terrible self-confidence as by practical challenges.

One of the application requirements for the MFA program is 3 letters of reference, including one from a person who has worked with me in an academic context. I got my MDiv in 1987—that’s almost 30 years ago. I have one professor I reconnected with via Facebook so I reached out to him a while back to see if he’d be willing to write that letter for me; he most graciously agreed to do so. He asked me to write a statement of what I thought was important for him to say and get it back to him so he could work on the letter. There’s some urgency with this because Philip has early stage Alzheimer’s which he’s open and courageous about, and requires me not to waste time.

I’ve tried five or six times to get the statement written, revisited my time in seminary, found myself wrestling, like Jacob wrestled with God, just to say a few things about those years. Each time, all I see is what a mess I was, how much more I could have gotten out of my studies, how much I wish I had known then that I know now. This exercise makes me see that as much I’ve found my way, my voice—my self—over the past thirty years, my capacity to doubt my abilities and my worth turns out to be endless.

I am going to apply for the program knowing full well how small the odds are of actually making it. But if I don’t at least apply, if I don’t at least take another step towards putting out on the line a part of myself that is both incredibly important to me, and incredibly easy to hush up and ignore, I will carry a regret I don’t deserve or need to carry.

I don’t have to be the gatekeeper that keeps my dreams at bay.

Worn Out

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A Sofa and A Freezer That Wore Out

It’s one of the epic stories of our marriage—how when we got married, Sherod had very little to call his own, apart from books and hunting gear. The one thing that really mattered to him was the upright freezer he’d gotten around the time his son was born. By the time we were getting hitched, the freezer had been well used and was covered with rust on the outside. It had held fish and deer and lots of other bounty over the years and Sherod looked forward to lots more of the same in the future. Our apartment was tiny and the only space he could find for it was our dining room. It took plenty of negotiating to work out an alternative; we did and our marriage survived. And then, year after year, the freezer continued to serve us incredibly well. This year, about 43 years after it was purchased, its motor finally gave up the host with no possibility for repair.

Another of those marriage stories: the first years were lean. We didn’t have a lot of money to spare and our tastes were hugely different. That meant we were in no hurry to purchase a lot of furniture. Our sofa, for example, was bought on the cheap because it had a small tear in the fabric, in a somewhat out-of-sight place. Eventually, though, we had the means to buy a nice sofa and a pair of armchairs. I really loved our sofa and yet, late last year, it too was about done—the fabric had gotten simply too nasty  after too many dogs and cats finding a way to get on it. We have people over enough that a larger sofa would also help. There something to be said about using what we have enough to wear it out!

Today, both have been hauled away. This isn’t about sentimentality. But it is really strange to see things that have been such constants in my life not for years, but decades, start to need replacing. Of course, there’s plenty of other evidence of the passage of time; sometimes I get spooked.

Sherod is off in Colorado at a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot gathering. By the time yesterday rolled around, I had crammed my days while he’s gone with all kinds church work—all of it noble, good and important. But I’m not going to work so hard after all. I’m going to spend some time writing this afternoon, when I get back from a lunchtime meeting and on Sunday, I am going to do some garden work. I don’t want to look up one day and figure out I ran out of time. I want to wear myself out with living.

Days of Cotton

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Cotton Field On the Way to Hayneville

On Saturday, I got a late start and even at a little after nine in the morning, when I went out to feed my chicken girls, there was a cool westerly breeze and less humidity than I’ve felt in a while. I’ve seen trees with leaves starting to change, though you have to look hard to notice. Even the pool, where Sherod and I have found respite from the heat and busy-ness at the end of the day, is enough degrees cooler now that our spoiled selves resist its chill. But most of all, there is the cotton, the cotton literally busting out of its bolls, in fields that stretch almost as far as the eye can see.

It is that in between time, both harsh and gentle, when a season is giving way and we are moving into the fullness and loss of a Southern fall.

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Strength: Liz, Kate, and Deanna

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One of the gifts of Facebook is its ability to give us continued glimpses and insights into the lives of people whose paths cross oursfor only a brief moment.  A few years ago, I attended a conference on Bowen Island in British Columbia.  There, I met a young woman, Liz Tichenor, with her lovely and musically gifted husband, and delicious little girl. In the years following that brief encounter, Liz has lost her mother to suicide and her infant son, Fritz, to SIDS.  She is a strong and true priest in San Francisco, and she continues to build a beautiful life for herself and her family.  Yesterday, she shared a poem that isn’t an easy read, but is full of the kind of harsh and beautiful grace that’s always made my own life more meaningful.

A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

At Collegeville, I met some pretty extraordinary people. Two of them are theologians, well respected university professors, both of them dealing with the realities of Stage IV cancer, still intent on living full, productive, creative, remarkable lives.  One is Kate Bowler, who is a professor at Duke and is world-renowned for her research on the Gospel of Prosperity.  You should read her essay that appeared on Valentine’s Day in the New York Times; it is called Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me.  Deanna Thompson is a professor of religion at Hamline College in Minnesota, and you can read more about her on her blog, Hoping for More.  This fall, she is also publishing a book that explores how websites like CaringBridge in a sense become the ‘mystical body of Christ’ in those strange, inexplicable moments when life as you knew it is snatched out from under you because of serious, life threatening illness.

All three of them are so young.  Beautiful, strong and brave.  And I am so grateful that thanks to Facebook and their blogs,  the light that shines through their lives continues to illuminate mine.

The River

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I don’t remember knowing Sherod without hearing about The River. He’s a river-town boy, with endless stories about what happens on the river: learning to ski, boating, swimming, laughing, drinking too much, letting the river carry his life, his loves. There are the harrowing stories, though, fortunately, not many. The worst was the time he, his wife, children and friends had pulled their boats on the sandbar everyone liked to hang out on, when his 4-year old son was pulled under the boat by the current. If not for a friend who saw it happen and was able to pull Charlie out…

It’s the kind of story that makes any parent’s hands go clammy.

I grew up far from the ocean in Colombia, surrounded by the Andes, familiar with rivers that ran fast down mountainsides, occasionally, dropping off for hundreds of feet in cascades and waterfalls. We had some friends whose farm included a waterhole that was deep and cold and exhilarating and I can still see in my mind’s eye, my brother Hans about to leap from a boulder high above me, wondering what gave someone the courage to jump like that, telling myself “it would be bad for my hip to jump” though in truth, it was mainly fear that kept me treading carefully in the water. Though rivers crisscrossed my childhood, they were always destinations—places we’d go to, not part of the warp and woof of life.

I’ve lived in New Orleans, in Nashville and in Memphis, all with rivers, two of them with The river, the Mississippi—but they were not my rivers. All those years in Fort Lauderdale, we lived on the water, but a tamed and imprisoned river, bent and straightened to the will of folks with a definite vision of what the swamps of Florida could be forced into becoming. I rode my paddleboard, helped steer two motor boats and a sailboat down those waters, got so I knew every curve and sinew of the waterway that took us out to the really big water, the Atlantic, and somehow, it was a place I lived in but it was not mine nor did it claim me as its own.

About 5 years ago, things had gotten bad. Sherod was in constant pain that had been diagnosed as back problems but would eventually turn out to be two terribly arthritic hips that needed to be replaced. I kept taking him to a pain management clinic where he’d be given shots in his spinal column that were supposed to be magical and never were. The conflict in the ministry we were both working in was growing and getting ugly, Maria was struggling, so much was unraveling, even before we could see it clearly. The last thing on our mind was going out on the boat—no time, no energy, no desire.

When we bought this, the fourth boat we owned as a couple, we named it One More Chance—the names of our boats tracing the passage of time in our marriage: Los Locos, Promise, No Name, and finally, One More Chance. One more chance for what? Happiness? Adventure? Playfulness? It was never clear to me and in those last 3 years we spent in Fort Lauderdale, the boat sat out on its davit, from time to time, a source of irritation for me: why have it if we weren’t going to use it.

These last two years have been busy ones. Busy in the best sense possible. Sherod’s retirement. I rebuilding my life and sense of vocation. Allowing roots to go deep into this land we love, loving in new ways—both each other, and the many creatures and people who now inhabit our life.

Then, on Tuesday, one more chance. A new beginning that was a return. After tinkering with the motor, lots of time carefully cleaning and preparing and restoring, Sherod hitched the trailer of One More Chance to his new truck; he, Maria and I piled into the truck cabin and carefully drove to a boat ramp nearby. When One More Chance was tied up at the small dock by the ramp, we got in, each took the seats we’ve always claimed, and headed out on the river. The river. The Alabama River. Isn’t it funny how one more chance sometimes means coming right back to where you started from, allowing who you are to reclaim you, and discovering that the happiness is both the same and brand new. The boy is back on his river.

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