When the world had ended

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It’s surprisingly hard to write about my work here in St Thomas.  Quite simply, in a two week span last September, the world ended in St Thomas.  The above two pictures really don’t begin to capture the devastation though they give a small sense.  All that blue in the bottom picture is what we learned to call FEMA blue in Fort Lauderdale–the blue of tarps FEMA hands out to people whose roofs have been very seriously damaged. This is 5 months later and the tarps are still there and will be for months to come. Not everyone has power yet. There is no ‘landline’ phone service. All the drinking water comes in plastic bottles.  There are two enormous mountains of debris laced with all kinds of toxic materials that sit on either side of Charlotte Amelie, and no one knows what to do with them.

You can see all that but it’s the toll on people’s souls. I only get tiny glimpses of the anguish and devastation this really left behind when I listen to the individual stories that are excruciatingly personal and desolating, and not mine to tell but which are part of the gift I have been given by this generous community.

Since the end of September of last year, bits and pieces have come back together and a new world emerges.  Cruise ships were back within weeks of the hurricanes–not even 2 massive hurricanes could begin to erase the beauty of this island nor keep the luxury jewelry stores shut down.  I watch thousands of people debark from 3-7 ships a day, come scurrying into town to make their purchases and then leave again, and I wonder if they have any notion at all of the hardship all around them while they are here.

People are making sad peace with the fact that many of their own no longer have a way to survive on this island. They are rebuilding. A member of the vestry at All Saints Cathedral Church is helping to rebuild the sewage system that was basically decimated.  A lot of the every day work of living carries on. And always, all around me, laughter.

There are two other women from Alabama sharing the diocesan visitor quarters with me while they work with the Cathedral School this week.  At lunch we walk from the cathedral campus down to an area where we can pick up a bite to eat before getting back to work.  We walk past a corner shop where there is usually a group of guys hanging out, friendly, more than a little high on pot, with astoundingly long dreadlocks.  They’ve taken to greeting us like this: “Good day, Charlie’s Angels.”  Since the three of us are in our middle years, we delight in our moniker and wish we could whoosh back our hair a la Farah Fawcett.

Each night, we are invited out by parishioners, vestry members or members of All Saints Cathedral School board.  We are entertained lavishly and graciously and there has not been a single night where at some point we haven’t found ourselves laughing so hard the tears were streaming down our faces and our bellies were aching.  That hospitality, that laughter, that willingness to allow three people to parachute in from a very distant world, with good intentions and no real knowledge of this beautiful place, is at the heart of the courage of a community that would have every right to husband every last one of their resources for the work of rebuilding.  Would perhaps be wiser asking us to stay home.

I hope the retreat I will lead starting tonight, the preaching I’ve done, the services I’ve led will make some tiny kind of difference. Yesterday morning, I did the blessing of a civil marriage for two folks from New York who got married on the beach by a justice of the peace on Wednesday evening. They were kind and generous and I wonder if their monetary gift and the monetary gift I will be able to give the Cathedral’s senior warden on Sunday morning, thanks to the generosity of my church back home and several other friends who invested in this trip, will be the real difference I can make.  I know this for sure: it is the new friendships and the time of companionship with brothers and sisters I didn’t even know I had, that seem to me to be where the real holiness resides, where the Spirit has been at work on all of us.

Tiny steps that are gigantic

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Grace and joy ebb and flow when it comes to my beloved girl, Luz María. Right now, she takes my breath away often. Her residential program has recently hired a pair of behavior specialists who are doing magnificent work with her. With any number of cautions, with enormous reserve, they and we have allowed ourselves to begin to consider the possibility that one day, María will function well enough to move to a less restrictive environment. That’s all “institutional-eze” for the hope Maria will be able to live in a group home setting. If that is the case, she will be able to move much closer to us—maybe even as close as Montgomery. My mind immediately goes, “whoa, Rosa, manage expectations.” I take nothing for granted and make absolutely no assumptions, given the path we have made over these 17 years. But what an astounding gift hope can be.

A couple of weeks ago, Luz María called to report she’d had a meeting with her behavior team and she was doing great. She explained her behavior statistics were on the up and up. Then she said, “I’m going to get to move to Alabama soon and that’s good because you and my dad are getting old and I can help you shower, and make you food, and take care of you.”

There it was: the same kind of generosity that has been at the core of my girl’s being from the beginning. We are a couple of weeks away from celebrating her ‘Gotcha Day’—March 4, which was a sunny Sunday in Mexico City in 2001. Each year, I allow myself to go back to the day after she was entrusted to our care, to the morning we went to the Museo del Papalote, a lovely children’s park and how María pulled her daddy to an infinity fountain at the entrance as soon as we arrived. How, there, she put his hands in the water and gently washed them for him. How she did the same for me. One who had been so neglected, so rejected, so utterly valueless, was so willing to be the exact opposite, treat those around her with reverence. The absolute miracle of our daughter.

A few days after she and we had the conversation about coming to Alabama, she sent us a letter with her own gorgeous vocabulary:

Proment=improvement
Bark = BARC (where she lives)
Persenoess= percentages and refers to the percentage of time she engaged in appropriate behavior
Behaver=behavior

It pierces my heart to read the last line because all these years later, I still miss her as much as on the day she was removed from our home by the police for her own safety and ours, and after a brief stay in the psych unit, moved into BARC. Maybe, just maybe, all her tears and ours, her laughter and ours, her doggedness and our refusal to give up are enough to nurture that tiniest speck of a seed of hope so that one day, we won’t have to miss each other quite so much.

A very small claim to reflected fame

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Parishioners of HCSC Including Reggie Cathey

Thirty years ago this July, Sherod and I were married at Holy Cross-St Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Huntsville. Sherod was rector there so this was kind of a big deal. Shawntae and Jennifer were our flower girls. The ladies of the church put on a spread. And as hot as that afternoon in July was, our party was such fun. One of the ladies gave us a fancy set of satin YSL sheets and made Sherod blush furiously when she made some kind of comment about him sliiiiiiiiid-ing into bed on those smooth, silky sheets.

The Senior Warden when we were married was a wonderful guy named Reg Cathey, who taught at Alabama A&M. Reg had a son, Reggie, who was trying to break into the movie scene in Hollywood and happened to be home the weekend of our wedding. We had invited the whole parish to the service and Reggie came with his dad. Whenever he was home, he always came to church and he was beloved. Reggie was gracious and charismatic, a lovely person all the way around. We’ve been thrilled through the years watching Reggie make his way—we whooped the first time we were watching The Wire on HBO and recognized him.

And then this weekend, we got the very sad news that Reggie had died.. How wonderful it was to watch someone we knew and knew to be such a lovely person make it and make it big. How sad that he has left too soon. Rest in peace…

 

July 9, 1988, with Shawntae and Jennifer

First

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The camellia bush has begun to bloom–spring is heading our way.  More and more, my Scandinavian heritage asserts itself and I look towards just a few weeks from now with dread and resignation, to the heat of an Alabama summer. Already, I also dream of the cold months that will surely follow.

Be that as it may, the camellia bush is blooming. That is all.

Wilma, Irma and Maria

St Thomas After the Irma and before Maria*

On October 24, 2005, a few weeks after Katrina, Fort Lauderdale was hit by a Cat 1 Hurricane, Wilma. Tucked into our house with a friend, Sherod, Maria, our pets and I hunkered down to wait it out. After a couple of hours of incessant, howling and wailing wind like everyone talks about, things had gotten fairly rough. We’d already heard the screeching of metal as the screened in the area around our pool fell apart and went crashing into the pool and deck.  There were all kinds of thumps, some of them obviously involving large objects hitting walls or the ground, but we couldn’t see them because we were shuttered in. We knew these thumps were about flying debris, for sure, but how bad was it? The scariest moment for our household came as the wind shifted direction after the eye went over the house.  We had a wall of sliding glass doors running along our living room/dining room area where we were riding out the storm. They, and all our doors and windows, had been properly shuttered and until then, we had felt relatively safe.  But all of a sudden, our ears started popping and simultaneously, we looked at the glass doors and saw they were bulging in so much that we expected them to shatter at any minute.  And then, it would be time to run–though where we would run, was not clear.

The doors held and by late afternoon, we began the ‘post-hurricane’ time of digging out and starting over. It’s as if simultaneously the world had ended and begun anew, with all its weirdness and disruption.  In our neighborhood, we were without power for pretty close to a month.  Sherod had bought a generator and we learned to rotate washing machine, refrigerator, and freezer on and off the generator and we put up a makeshift clothesline to keep clean clothes.  We got a glimpse of a tougher life that requires more effort to accomplish small things and more resilience and strength and grit.

In the hours before we safely leave the house, it was hard not to wonder how the church we were both serving had had fared and how our parishioners were doing as well..  This was right as off-site data storage was becoming available and we had backups of the database of church records with the software company the church used. That meant we had some sense that if there had been any significant damage to the church, we’d be able to reconstruct our parish membership roles pretty quickly.  In those hours, and during the next days, Sherod and I had long conversations about how a church can–and also might not be able to–be church after bad hurricanes.

Looking back on the days and weeks of getting things working again, I remember we had emotionally exhausting work to do. But all this had been was a Cat 1 storm–as easy as you could get in the hurricane department.

For the US Virgin Islands, the recovery continues as it will for years to come, after back to back Cat 5 hurricanes–Irma and Maria.  Like first responders, clergy live with the tension between caring for themselves and their families and tending to their faith communities. I suspect for the clergy of the USVI, life is lived in a crucible of need far exceeding resources. All these months later, my fellow clergy colleagues must be exhausted.

The Episcopal Diocese of the USVI and the Diocese of Alabama, where I am canonically resident, have a companion diocese relationship. The Bishop’s office in Birmingham has been hard at work coordinating a variety of relief efforts, trying to ease the hardship in many different ways.  Today, I got an invitation from the relief effort coordinator for our diocese.

The Bishop of USVI must make a trip in the latter part of February.  He needs clergy coverage for the services at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in St Thomas in his absence.  That community also needs a facilitator to ead their vestry retreat.  I am headed down to provide that help on the 17th of February.

I know a little better than others what I’m heading into, but probably far less than I think.  I hope what little I learned during Wilma will help me be better able to work and serve with these brothers and sisters I’ve never met. Sherod and I have given to emergency funds set up for both Puerto Rico and USVI. But I am so uncomfortable about helping exclusively from a safe distance.  Now, I take myself, body, mind and spirit, hoping to do some little bit of service.

There’s one small twist of fate in this trip. For years, Sherod and I dreamed of going sailing in the USVI.  A former boss of mine had spoken endlessly about the magic of the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda. With the sailing experience we were getting in South Florida on our sweet, good sailing vessel Promise, we imagined going down to this yacht club/resort in Virgin Gorda, chartering a sailboat and heading out for a sailing vacation. As things would have it, we ended up going to Mexico instead, and brought home a little girl to call our own.  Now, settled in this farm of ours, coming more and more to terms with the kind of simplicity we both are reaching for in our life, Sherod and I don’t harbor those kinds of dreams any longer.  It’s plenty exciting to get the Seed Saver Exchange catalog on one of those dark, cold days in January.  Yet here I am, getting to go to the USVI.  That’s how life turns out: things happen. Just not how you’d imagined or hoped they would. Sometimes they turn out so much better.

*http://www.kwqc.com/content/news/St-Thomas-heavily-damaged-by-Hurricane-Irma-443032983.html

 

On a snowy day in Lowndes

It’s fifteen degrees outside and with windchill, it feels like -1. About 3 inches of snow fell during the night and even the interstates were shut down in this part of the world.

Earlier this morning, I got to make another snow angel. When you are edging towards 60 and have had hip replacement surgery, you know better than to assume there are endless opportunities to do something that tickles you half to death. You make that snow angel now, the best you can.

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I tromped through the snow in my flowered Tractor Supply wellies to check on my chicken girls and barn cats. Lifting the roof of the chicken coop, so heavy with snow, was scary—we’ve never had it so cold around here with chickens. Everyone is doing well.

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I just stood out there, wanting to take it all in, to extract every ounce of wonder and joy from a dawn like this even if the wind felt like it was shredding my ears and my nose to pieces.

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And I talked my sweet husband into doing what we weren’t supposed to do: we got in his 4WD pickup truck and went down to Lowndesboro so I could take some pictures and assess the likelihood of being able to go to work today (NOT).

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The quiet of snow. The gentleness of a morning too complicated to allow me to go to work. The rock solid truth, however brief and dimly understood, of my husband, my sweet dog Daisy, and my silly one, Mo-licious, all of us jostling and crowded into the front seats of a pickup truck in January, in Lowndes County, on the back end of a snowstorm.

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Venga la esperanza (Hope, please come)

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Tía Inga and I

I have a brother whom I’ve struggled to have a good, healthy, adult relationship with. The reasons are complicated but the kind of ordinary give and take of siblings has eluded us for most of our adult years. Every now and then though, a way has opened to cut through the disappointment, failed efforts and baggage that that have made it so much easier for each of us to take our own path and have little contact. At some of the bleakest, most difficult moments of my adult life, it is he who has given me new hope, a bit of sunshine in the dark.

A few weeks ago, the woman who helped raise me, Ligia, who was my nanny and who, night after night took turns with my mother, turning me over every three hours so I wouldn’t loose lung capacity in my full-length cast, this beautiful woman, Ligia, died. Today, I have received word that my Tía Inga, my mother’s sister, died last night. Her relationship with my mom was difficult as well. Especially since my dad moved up here, I have had very little contact. We weren’t close; nonetheless, I grieve her death. In a time when a great deal else is in flux, and disruption seems to be the only normal all around me, the loss of the mothers in my life is particularly desolating. Earlier, I sat in my small home office with the finality of Tía Inga’s death, the absolute horror of our President’s latest assault on basic human decency, and a bunch else at the end of a hard week, feeling like it all could drown me, when the insistent, persistent melody of a song began to play in my mind.

Sylvio Rodriguez’s music is described as “tender balladry” at the same time that he is a politically active Cuban who has always supported the Cuban Revolution. I’d never heard of him until soon after my mother’s death, another time of piercing grief, when my brother sent me a YouTube link to one of his pieces. The title of the piece is “Hope, please come”. The following are the lyrics in Spanish with a very rough translation. We are all certainly in need of hope these days, it seems to me. So I am beyond grateful for my brother’s love that finds a way to give me that gift of hope.

And I think again, how strange, and harsh, and beautiful life is.

Venga la esperanza

Dice que se empina y que no alcanza,
(She says she stands on her toes and still can’t reach)
que sólo ha llegado hasta el dolor. (That she’s only gotten as far as the pain)
Dice que ha perdido la buena esperanza (She says she’s lost all good hope)
y se refugia en la piedad de la ilusión. (and seeks refuge in the piety of illusions)

Sé de las entrañas de su queja (I know about the depths of her complaints)
porque padecí la decepción: (I too suffered deception)
fue una noche larga que el tiempo despeja,  (It was a long night that time has cleared away)
mientras suena en mi memoria esta canción: (while this song plays in my memory)

Venga la esperanza, (Hope, please come)
venga sola mí. (Come by yourself to me)
Lárguese la escarcha, (Let the frost be gone)
vuele el colibrí. (May the hummingbird fly)
Hínchese la vela, (Let the sail be filled)
ruja el motor, (Let the motor roar)
que sin esperanza (Because if we have no hope)
¿dónde va el amor? (Where is love to go?)

Cuando niño yo saque la cuenta  (When I was just a boy I figured out)
de mi edad por el año dos mil (How old I’d be around the year two thousand)
(el dos mil sonaba como puerta abierta (Two thousand sounded like a door flung open)
a maravillas que silbaba el porvenir). (To marvels whistled by the future)
Pero ahora que se acerca saco en cuenta (But now that it draws near, I figured out)
que de nuevo tengo que esperar, (That once again, I’ll have to wait)
que las maravillas vendrán algo lentas ( That marvels will arrive somewhat slow)
porque el mundo tiene aún muy corta edad. (Because the world is still so very young)

Venga la esperanza, (Hope, please come)
pase por aquí. (Come by here)
Venga de cuarenta, (Come if you are forty)
venga de dos mil. (Come if you are two thousand)
Venga la esperanza (Come hope)
de cualquier color: (Come in any color)
verde, roja o negra, (Green or red or black)
pero con amor. (But come with love)