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.
Today, life began to slow down; enough that I was able to go out and do some photography and then sit down to write this post.
It has been a month since I’ve been here, a month so densely packed that there weren’t enough hours in the day for all that needed to be done. Our first Christmas without Maria was even harder than I had anticipated it would be and in the end, was filled to overflowing with the beauty, grace and wonder of sharing a first Christmas with the people of Holy Comforter. This parish I now serve is vulnerable in ways that maybe most, if not all, Episcopal churches are vulnerable. I experienced the truth about us, that the vulnerability in no way diminishes the courage and goodness with which we spend our days. Each Sunday in Advent seemed to add a new layer of meaning to our preparations for Christmas.
Christmas Eve showed me what a liturgically bold and curious community I am a part of. Not only did people notice that I had chosen an alternative Eucharistic prayer for our service, held in the early evening, but were so lovely about telling me how much it had meant to them. It’s a prayer that is more inclusive, that uses powerful images of Mary and her role in the story of redemption, and does so in a way that manages to be both solemn and joyous at the same time. The simple service on Christmas morning, when sunshine streaming through our chapel windows made the nativity set my mom gave me shortly before she died luminous, had all the gentleness and silence one might have hoped for as Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus stirred at the beginning of a new day.
Then, on Epiphany Sunday we were our most playful selves at Holy Comforter, with three kings in the procession, one of them swinging the thurible most majestically, I must say. At the end of the service, the entire congregation followed the choir and altar party out of church, playing orff instruments, dancing (a little modestly) and singing Siyahamba–“We are marching in the light of God.”
I received a beautiful Epiphany practice from the previous rector at Church of the Ascension and I am thankful for having been able to bring this gift with me to Holy Comforter. Right outside the red doors of the church we stopped long enough for me to clamber up a ladder to follow the old, old tradition of blessing the lintel: 20+C+M+B+19.
The letters each remind us of one of the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). They are also an abbreviation for Christus mansionem benedicat; Christ bless this house. We marched some more and then stopped, this time at the doorway to our offices. And then, we were on the move again, this time going almost all the way around our building to bless the door of the food pantry where 300 neighbors and their families each month receive food that keeps hunger at bay. I heard one parishioner comment that he had not been back in that part of our church for 20 years. Sometimes, when you follow the Epiphany star, you end up in places you never thought you would come by again.
We bless our lintels using chalk and over the course of the year, the elements will slowly, but surely, wash away the signs of the blessing. I love that all we ask for is a fleeting blessing. After all, what we have is a next step we can take, and sometimes that step is very small. Each step we take is particular, a response to what we only see dimly now. Who knows what we might need and ask for when, once again in 2020, we stop as a new year begins, to ask for yet another blessing. Over time, there is blessing asked upon blessing, so many layers of hopes and dreams and fears of ordinary people trying to be faithful. The blessings we ask for bring us very close to the promise of the Prologue to John: that from the fullness of God’s love we receive grace upon grace.
All kinds of other things have happened–on Wednesday of last week, out in the chill of morning, I found myself digging a small grave that would hold the ashes of member of the parish who we were burying that afternoon. I was struck all over again by all that is both beautiful and bizarre about being a priest in a small parish.
Today, a leader of our food pantry and I began to make plans for how to respond to our neighbors when the SNAP payments stop at the end of this month and are unavailable to food vulnerable people during the government shut-down. We’ve had our vestry retreat and next week we’ll have our annual meeting. Intense days of work and prayer, of surrender and response. Days when sometimes all I could do was look for the light, days when the light washed me in warmth and consolation, and days when the light lightened our darkness enough to keep marching.
It was another stunning Florida ‘winter’ day with the gentle breeze, the dry air, the temperatures in the very low 80’s. María and I walked and shot hoops (we’ve both gotten better at it, go figure?!) a lot. This afternoon, we sat on a porch swing outside A House, where María lives. She wanted me to braid her hair, and then to use lotion to give her a hand massage. Incarnation. It is all about incarnation and how it must have been like for Mary to marvel at the soft skin of her new born child, tending to him as best she could given her circumstances..
My iPad allowed us to use YouTube to listen to the Christmas music that we’ve known from ‘before the beginning, before there was time’–I imagine some of the folks who walked by behind us had to cover their ears because we couldn’t help but sing along. A bit loudly, I’m afraid.
I ran up to Mr. D’s Pizza in the late afternoon–that’s the pizza place that delivered pies to our home when we lived in Fort Lauderdale. Four years later, the man who delivered our pizzas is still there–I ran into him as I was coming in to pick up enough pizza for the staff and residents in A House. Just a little bit later, I sat at one of the dining room tables with my girl, 2 young women in their late teams who are profoundly autistic, and with S, who wears a protective helmet all the time, is about 50 years old I’d guess and has no teeth. She smiles with the innocence of an infant and she melts my heart. Usually she just flat out hollers. Tonight though, she ate her pizza with gusto and then wanted to know if I am married and kiss my husband. I couldn’t understand her but there were plenty of people around her who know her well enough to provide translation services. She beamed when I told her that yes I am married, and yes I kiss my husband.
I could name each of the women who make a home with Maria in A house, and tell little stories about each of them. Spending time at BARC has allowed me to get to know each woman-child, at least a little. I took great delight watching them all enjoy the pizza and then, the cookies I’d bought for them. But too soon, the meal was over and María was in charge of loading the dishwasher. We’d agreed this morning that that’s when I would leave and so I did. Dinner was as lovely as any Christmas meal, and Lord knows, I needed a little Christmas, right this very evening.
Now, it’s time to get cracking on what comes next–3 sermons to write and plenty else. So that’s what I will do but isn’t my María’s picture, shoved into my hand just as I was leaving, amazing? How can you not have the merriest “Chrissmiss” ever with such a gift.
In 2012, the year we finally had to place Maria in her current residential program, she was not able to come spend Christmas with us at home. Instead, on Christmas Day, we took her presents and went to spend the day with her at BARC. She was into basketball in those days and she and I had a running argument: as we shot hoops we bickered endlessly about who was Little Bow-Wow, and who was LeBron. LeBron was playing with the Miami Heat and we were both whooshed by him, each of us wanting to claim his name for herself. It was not the day we would have hoped for and it turned out to be just fine. The weather was the most perfect SoFla weather imaginable on Christmas Day: sunny, mild, a cool, gentle breeze blowing. It was so good to be able to reach out and hug that kid who still had (and has) the capacity to take my breath away in the fullness of her beautiful and miraculous self.
This year, with the distance that separates us and our girl’s continued struggles, we will not get to be together on Christmas Day. I head to Lauderdale for a very quick visit later this week. Her presents are wrapped and ready to go with me. I’ll deliver them to the social worker at BARC who will see to it that Maria gets them on Christmas morning. One of the gifts I will carry is a new electronic picture frame. Sherod has loaded over 150 pictures in chronological order—the story of her life since the day we got custody of her in México in 2001. On Wednesday, the day I get to spend with her, we will have some time to look at the pictures together and tell stories. Even if we don’t, Sherod and I have had the frame up for the past 2 weeks and I have stopped often to look at all those snapshots of her life—and ours.
The pictures remind me that Sherod and I have tried awfully hard, been so determined to do everything we could to give María the best life possible. At one level that is no consolation—life continues to be grim for our girl, with no end in sight. At another, though, I can see moment after precious moment, when, for however briefly, María has known herself loved and I have gotten to experience grace beyond counting mothering her. Sadness? Yes. Regrets? How could I regret love?
I sit writing this on Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing, as Advent wobble and tilts towards Christmas. Tonight, my dad, Sherod, and I had dinner as the flames on a pink and two purple candles of the advent wreath on our dining room table burned steadily. We share more meals with Dad these days and last night, we had also eaten together, though at the kitchen table. There, I had candle light, but also the fun, silly light of a small string of star shaped lights I picked up at Michael’s earlier this month. I’d wrapped it around a vase and filled the vase with greenery.
I’m back at that table now and if I look outside, or into our living room, I see lights as well—the plain white lights on the Christmas tree inside, Sherod’s tomato cage forest outside. Each year, he wraps quantities of colored lights around tomato cages and sets them up out by the edge of the front garden. Some of them hang low from a tree and if there is a breeze, they sway gently against the dark darkness of a country night, all of them together a kind and persistent insistence of joy even in the midst of sadness. Though we don’t use María’s first name, Luz much, each small light, or luz in Spanish, that shines in my home this year is a reminder not just of the “Light that is come into the world,” but of my daughter as well.
I listened to a podcast yesterday that included a story about a person who worked as a counselor with people trying to recover from heroin addiction. The counselor explained that in her experience, as heroin addicts finished getting through the worst of their withdrawal symptoms, they seemed to find great comfort in empty spaces. She wondered if those empty spaces represented the hard truth that addiction brings with it enormous, sometimes catastrophic loss. Could it be, she said, that standing in a room with nothing in it might be a way of acknowledging the grievousness of such loss? I don’t know. But yesterday, it gave me a way to understand why I have so strongly resisted pulling out all our Christmas decorations. The Christmas tree just has lights on it, along with 3 ornaments I was given this year. The advent wreath and a Christmas-y table cloth and placemats are about as much as I can bring myself to have out in acknowledgment of the season. My girl is not here and everything else feels like clutter.
And here’s the thing–the miracle, actually…the emptinesses of this Advent have been startlingly rich. I’ve had time to spend with friends. Time I didn’t spend in the busy-ness demanded by our culture has been time I’ve gotten to do a bit of extra work with my new parish, work that has delighted and amused and been wonderfully meaningful.
And today, after church, I led a vestry meeting that ended with some social time to welcome incoming vestry members and bid farewell to the ones who are rotating off. As we were sitting around the conference table shooting the breeze, I heard someone come up to the door behind me so I turned around to look. One of the women I worked with at my previous church had come to bring me a gift. It’s a gift she and some of my parishioners made for me and it’s hard to describe what it is except to say it is part of one of my most favorite presentations from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I could not have been more surprised, nor could I have been more joyfully thankful than I was at that moment—for the gift itself, for generosity of time on the part of the people who helped her make it, and above all, for my friend’s beautiful heart in bringing such a gift, that in its own way is also all about the light.
It is true that empty spaces can offer us the consolation of being real about all that has been lost. And. And it is equally true and life-giving to remember that the emptiness can be filled in the most unexpected ways and most surprising moments. So yes. It is Gaudete Sunday.
Holy Comforter will offer a series of intergenerational programs on the Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday, participants will have the option of walking through a labyrinth in our ever-so-beautiful chapel. If they prefer, they can help write a prayer for each of the Advent Wreath candles. Both are quiet, gentle ways of entering into this season where darkness melts into light. For the second Sunday, we we will work on a collaborative art project that explores words used to describe Mary. Just the colors we will use for the project are vibrant and luminescent. I smile every time I look at them. The third Sunday is tree-trimming time, and for those who prefer something more quiet, the materials to make Christmas greeting cards for the peoplea we serve through the food pantry and the Communities of Transformation program. And then, on the fourth Sunday….There will be good hot cocoa with peppermint sticks, marshmallows, and whipped cream, and our organist/choir director will graciously gather us around the piano in our parish hall so we can laugh and sing things like ‘the weather outside is frightful.’
These first two Sundays, I will also wrap up the “A Time for Listening” program which has been a marvelous way to start getting to know the people Holy Comforter, the memories, the hopes, and the dreams that are harbored in our parish.
Our church, like so many others, faces all the challenges of our denomination: an aging congregation, the loss of some of our financial base, a neighborhood that keeps changing in ways that feel bewildering sometimes. Precisely for that reason, I am convinced we have to take the time to prepare to receive the Word made Flesh with our whole self–muscle and bone and voice and the steps we take carefully on a labyrinth journey and the feel of the hot cocoa sliding down our throats, and with eyes able to feast on rich, gorgeous color. I have spent the day preparing to prepare with my new faith community–my body tells me so with some soreness. It also tells me, with the little skip my heart takes, that we are about enter to into enter Advent, my most favorite season of all…
Here is one very small, very personal, reason why this matters quite desperately for my family.
In 2015, my father was living in Panamá when he came to spend Christmas with Sherod and me. It only took a couple of days for us to realize that at 89, he was getting quite frail. It would not be long before he’d need more help than he could get in Panamá. With my brother, Hans, living in Belgium, and my brother Nils in the UK, none of us had the flexibility to provide him care on on ‘as needs’ basis.
Dad, Sherod, and I decided to find out what it would take for Sherod and I to sponsor my dad for residency so he could live out the rest of his days here in Lowndesboro. We learned three things very quickly: 1) Because there had been no previous conversation of a move like this, he could stay in the US and apply for a change in visa status from tourist to permanent resident. If he left to apply for the visa from Panamá, it could easily take 5-10 years before he’d make it to the top of the waiting list. 2) Dad could not apply for any public assistance; for 5 years, Sherod and I would be completely responsible for any expenses he could not cover himself. After 5 years, he could apply for citizenship and qualify for Medicare, thus perhaps lessening my husband’s and my financial exposure. 3) Because it had been launched a few years before, as soon as he got his green card, Dad would be eligible to participate in Obamacare, though with no subsidies or tax breaks.
We completed his application for residency, held our breath, three adults figuring out how to live together. I left home at 18 and only returned home for one or two week visits so Sherod and I were both strangers to my dad. We prayed he’d have no medical emergencies. Every part of his life back in Panamá, including his beloved dogs, Pía and Mouse, went into what felt like a state of suspended animation while we waited for his application to be decided on. And then, in May of 2016, his Green Card arrived. Immediately, he applied for insurance under the federal marketplace program because Alabama had deliberately chosen not to have a state marketplace. The insurance wasn’t cheap–$730.00/month plus additional for dental insurance. Additionally, though he’d start paying in June, his coverage would actually not start until August 1. Of course, literally, the week before his coverage began, Dad got sick enough to land in the hospital overnight. The bill came to $15,000.
By 2017, the premiums had jumped to $1032 per month. This year, they increased to $1325, or half of his total monthly expenses. It is tough—the bottom line is my dad has funds to cover his living expenses for about another 10 years. We don’t have any illusions—under Trump, we do not expect that my dad will be given citizenship so Medicare is not an option. Fortunately, this year, the monthly premiums only went up by $52.00 so that gives us a little breathing room. But we continue to wait and watch as our current leadership does its best to dismantle Obamacare without having a viable alternative in place, especially \for someone like my dad.
Sherod and I are in a double bind. Luz María is in a program that costs over 150,000 a year because she needs such intensive care. It’s a program funded by Medicaid. As we listen to Mitch McConnell say that Medicaid and other public assistance programs need to be cut to manage the national deficit, we talk about the alternatives if the program is cut and we are left responsible for our girl. The only thing we have decided we could do if we had to bring her to live with us is keep her drugged right up to the level of vegetative state—she’s simply too dangerous otherwise. On the days we are brave enough to look at the entirety of our situation, we are aware that we could come to a time when we would be financially responsible for both my dad’s medical needs and María’s life needs. We have had the conversation more than once. We have never found a way to make the pieces all work financially. We are fortunate to be able to save money every month. The cost of living in Alabama is certainly lower than in Florida. I continue to work and retirement is not on the horizon any time soon for me. And we choose not dwell on the grim possibilities we face. I am too grateful for today.
But I will tell you as honestly and clearly as I can: there are some things terribly wrong in this country. I recently watched a program where a bottle of wine was easily auctioned for $500,000. Five. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. A painting was sold for $90 million dollars in another auction that took less than 5 minutes to close. Yet an old man who I love beyond words may find himself without healthcare insurance by the end of next year.
Only once since I turned 21 have I not worked–and that was for 3 months after we adopted María and I quit my FedEx job to tend to her. I refuse to describe myself in some kind of false binary category—socialist or capitalist, Democrat or Republican. What I want is something that works for the largest number of people possible in a way that respects everyone’sdignity. I understand we need a shared sense of responsibility and that we must demonstrate a willingness to keep managing the tension between having a social safety net and taking personal responsibility for our lives. I’m not interested in blaming. I want solutions. And I know as a nation we are capable of figuring out a way forward with health care and some of the other large challenges we have ahead.
In the meantime, I ask as many of you as are willing to copy and paste the comment that goes with this post into your Facebook page. People like Sherod and I, and my dad, and my daughter, are the faces of Obamacare.
This Thanksgiving Eve, I have much to be deeply grateful for. It is also a time when I miss my girl something fierce. In the next few weeks, her behavior support team will try a new intervention that is tough, tough enough to have to go through an external review process before they can implement it.
Her new ways of pulling law enforcement and child protective services into her orbit when she’s out of control put her and the team increasingly at risk for the worst unintended consequences imaginable. I can’t spend much time thinking about the bleak options we have nor about what it will be like for her when/if the new intervention is put in place. I know that the best years we had with our María were ones when we used a similar intervention. I can still go back and look at the frequency data we kept for her during that time, trace the trend line that improved dramatically very quickly once we put that intervention in place. I just had so wished and hoped that the work we did then would stabilize her behavior more permanently.
So tonight I miss my daughter and am grateful that my spouseman made this little video that makes me laugh. I will stay busy and I will welcome our friends and family to the feast tomorrow. I am thankful for love. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.