The Fire and the Rose

The Fire and the Rose

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding 

When Sherod and I lived in Memphis, our house had a wonderful garden.  Sherod grew vegetables and had a flowerbed filled with foxglove and echinacea and daisies and all manner of other blooming perennials.  I grew antique roses.  There were times when I could go out to our garden and pick a couple dozen beautiful roses that would fill our home with the most wonderful fragrance for days.  We left Memphis in 1996 and I still miss my roses.  There’s a place in Texas called “the Antique Rose Emporium” with the most amazing collection of heirloom roses imaginable.  I carefully selected my roses from their catalogue back in my Memphis days and just a couple of months ago, in a bout of nostalgia, I pulled up the Emporium’s online catalogue and ached all over again for my beautiful garden.  The weather here is so humid and hot that all I have ever seen around are somewhat paltry, Home-depot kinds of rosebushes, a caricature really, of what grew with reckless abandon in my backyard.

Last night, I was out walking as sunset approached. The sun was low enough that light was kind to everything it touched.  The temperature still drops at the end of the day and the breezes are so gentle they’re a butterfly kiss on my face. I walked by a house not far from ours and stopped in my tracks.  Literally, my heart began racing.  Roses. Roses coming so close to the ones I knew and loved in Memphis.  Bushes growing tall and strong and full of blossoms.  I don’t know how else to describe this but as a mystical moment of connection: connection with my past but also with my life right here, right now, connection with the world, somehow revealed in that garden, connection with a God of such absurd and unabashed abundance.  Such grace waiting patiently to be discovered, simply waiting to be seen…

Above all

Above all

New River Regional Ministry on A Friday Afternoon
St. Ambrose Episcopal Church

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

     to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way

     to something unknown,

         something new.

Yet it is the law of all progress that is made

     by passing through some stages of instability

         and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.

Let them shape themselves without undue haste.

Do not try to force them on

     as though you could be today what time

         — that is to say, grace —

     and circumstances

        acting on your own good will

     will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new Spirit

     gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing

     that his hand is leading you,

     and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

         in suspense and incomplete.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God,

     our loving vine-dresser.

Yesterday morning, part of the leadership core of the New River Regional Ministry, the new ministry that we are trying to nurture into being, went to a meeting at the Diocesan offices in Miami.

The ride down I-95 is a journey in time for me.  That’s how I got to work everyday for most of my tenure with the LAC Division of FedEx.  I laugh, remembering that there was a big sign on one of the buildings, an ad for bidets.  It had a smiling little stick figure squatting down.  It said, “a clean tushie is a happy tushie.”  It still amazes me that I used to get on southernmost end of I 95 at the  edge of downtown Miami.  More than once, I thought I could just stay on this very highway and get all the way to Maine, even missed my own exit on purpose a handful of times.  The sign for the exit to Jackson Memorial and the VA hospitals always gives me a little clutch.  When Sherod went through the most intense part of his radiation therapy in the summer of 2001, I had to get off on that exit to see him while he was in the hospital and then had to race home to our daughter who had come home in March.

Yesterday, we were going to the Diocese because we still need assistance to keep this ministry going.  That has never been easy for Sherod or me, two headstrong, opinionated people who get very impatient very quickly.  It is always easier, isn’t it, to see the speck in someone else’s eyes than the beam in our own?  In the past few months, we’ve understood more clearly that we’re trying something that does not lend itself easily to the existing funding and assistance mechanisms of the church and that others have had to make enormous stretches to understand the help we were asking for.  Recently, I was introduced to a TV series called “The Walking Dead”; it came recommended for it’s portrayal of people’s behavior when the world as we know it has ended.  The series is populated by large numbers of walking dead folks who are hideously, horribly hungry and who lack all charm and subtlety.  With no intent to suggest that this is what our congregations are like, I imagine that there are times when members of the committees charged to disburse the very finite amount of funds available to aide fragile ministries must feel they are swarmed by endless need that threatens to be all-consuming.

In the past few years, these kinds of diocesan meetings have been sharp, we’ve hit against  sharp edges of fear, misunderstanding and difference many times.  It’s felt like we came out bruised and somehow diminished.  Today I am aware that if we felt diminished, it wasn’t because of what “they” did.   I don’t like having to ask for help.  Rather than recognize any self-doubt and uncertainty about our work, I had an easier time getting defensive and combative.

That “slow, constant work of God” has started smoothing many of those edges.  Yesterday, I was simply grateful to have a place to go to for help.  Our successes are still small and the way isn’t real clear for NRRM.  But  I felt great joy as I talked about the things that are happening in our midst and listened to Sherod tell other parts of our story as well.  I saw faces around the table that just looked human—interested, tired, willing to listen.  I know at least two have lost a parent in the last 9 months—one in the last month.  For some strange reason, yesterday more than usual I would have given anything to call my mom.  I wondered if they too were tucking away grief to do the work at hand–so much of the time that’s what we’re all doing, just getting through the day.

Since we started NRRM, the Episcopal Church has continued to struggle with accelerating decline.   I ache for the other applicants for Diocesan aid who are struggling to keep their doors open.  It’s been too easy in the past to view other needs in the diocese as competition for that very limited number of dollars available to help.  We are all part of the Body of Christ and we are all diminished when any of us fails.  It struck me that ministry has this way of stripping layer after layer of veneer and defense and self righteousness until we are essentially ourselves, aware that all we can really do is open our hands in need, and sometimes in wavering hope and confidence.

Promising word has come back about the results of the meeting.  We’ll know more on Monday.  Teilhard de Chardin’s prayer both comforts and confronts me as I sort through the past week.  It is extraordinarily difficult for me to trust the slow, hard work of God.  Today what I can say is, “I trust, Lord. Help me with my distrust”.  And whatever it is that we have accomplished that inspired others to continue to engage and assist us, Ad majorem dei gloriam

Reaching for Happiness

Reaching for Happiness

The past couple of weeks have been filled with moments of announcement and glimmers of something new in my life.   I may have a map, or at least some sense of being able to see the lay of the land.  But the way is still different and unfamiliar.

I know some things.  I know that I am leaving another place.  The place I have lived and moved and had my being in for longer than I can remember is a place filled with sadness, loss and grief.  It seemed that I moved from here to there just to keep moving.   Moving kept me busy.  And being busy kept me from realizing just how incredibly sad and filled with despair I was much of the time.  It is probably just as well that I wasn’t aware.  I wouldn’t have had the confidence to face into that void inside of me.  Coming as I do from a family with a lot of history of suicide, I wonder if I could have made it.  I am a woman of faith.  I am a priest, even.  But I think my heart was too troubled to give God much space.  Maybe all God could do was watch and wait and hope on my behalf when I lost my capacity to hope. Oh, as a priest I could still talk about it quite convincingly.  I could even visit places of hope for certain parts of my life for a little while here and a little while there.  But dwelling in hope? Abiding in hope?

Around October of last year, that began to change.  In June, my mom’s death had been a mirror that I would have preferred to ignore but couldn’t any longer.  Then, almost by accident, I finished crossing the river of denial related to my health and weight, and on the distant shore, after about 2 years of swimming in and out of eddies and currents of disbelief, I stopped and looked.  I had to look way down into a sink hole with another mirror, the mirror of aging with a chronic condition of insidious destructiveness.   I had to stop and be real.  Tell the real story even when it was embarrassing.  I realized just how much I was using food to numb myself out, to deny the sadness, the grief and the wrenching losses I had not even stopped to recognize.

It was more than I could do alone so I started seeing a therapist.  She is a gentle, kind woman who won’t let me off the hook for games I have long since mastered.  She can disarm me by simply asking me to sit quietly and breathe, breathe deeply.  J has been helping me sort through my early years as an adult, the decisions I made, the path I opened for myself.  I look back on myself with a lot of compassion these days.  I had no earthly idea what honest human needs look like and even less, what my own inner resources might be.  Instead, I invented and improvised and fell back on patterns I saw played out in my family of origin—patterns I am not particularly proud of but understand much better now.

How can you be in any meaningful relationship when you put yourself on like a dress every day and you never quite fit?  Over time, the dress gets stained and soiled, loses a button, and becomes frayed at the edges. You never stop to think this might not be you, so you spend a lot of time putting more stuff on to cover it up.  But it all looks and feels shabby, stifling and shameful.  It is easy to be a bag lady in your own skin, walking through your days muttering to yourself with an edge of angry desperation:  “You stupid idiot.  You messed up again.”

I kept moving.  I kept pitching my tent and pushing my cart full of bits and pieces that I thought made me me.  But I got lost an awful lot.  I also lost many things. One of the things I lost was my engagement ring—a lovely, simple piece of jewelry that symbolized promises and goodness to come. It was as if promises and goodness got lost with it. I was so extraordinarily lonely and afraid.  And the sadness grew in me. It pushed harder and harder so it was hard to catch the next breath.  Recently J called me on the fact that I was sitting in her office smiling, beaming really, and invited me to breathe.  It wasn’t thirty seconds and I was sobbing as grief just poured out of me.  I swallowed an ocean of sorrow over the course of 25 years and I am letting it go.

My walking, my praying, my time in therapy, the fact that I am eating more healthily, my willingness to start naming the grief and accepting the pain have brought me to a new place.  A thin place between sorrow and the rest of my life.  A place where my endurance allows me to reach destinations I set for myself and to accomplish things that matter.  The losses are no less real for my finally having named them—unlike God, when I name things I don’t really have any more control over them than I did before. But naming things allows me to be true to what is and not what I once hoped might be.  It is a form of sobriety.

It is possible that another major loss lies ahead for me.  But if that happens it will be because I am not trying to cover myself up any more.  If there is more left to let go of than grief, it is pieces that are certainly not me any longer and maybe never were.  I will be able to continue to go towards a new place because I know now that I have many more resources inside myself than I ever allowed myself to believe I had.  I am not scared as I contemplate that possibility.

And as I said, I have moments where I have already crossed over.  Tonight as I unloaded the dishwasher, I delighted in the lovely mug I use for my morning coffee.  It is perfect, absolutely perfect for me.  On Tuesday, I stood outside a hospital in my ministerial black—black skirt, black clergy blouse, official looking name tag and clergy collar.  A man I’d watched get out of a car in front of me—an aging, somewhat feeble-looking person, stopped and with a strong, life-filled voice told me how much he liked my subversive, sexy red heels.  I smiled all the way back to my office.

I talked to dear friends this week, each time I went out for my long walks, no longer needing quite as much solitude on those walks as I have before.  Tonight, I go to bed tired and tomorrow morning, I am going to work on taxes for a while, then I am going to a quilt show and coming back to clean my house so it will be shiny and welcoming when the Mallowman and the girl get back from a week-long road trip.  It struck me tonight:  I’m happy.

Eleven Years

Eleven Years

Luz Maria Mallow Lindahl, February 2012

Tomorrow, it will be 11 years, and a Sunday it was on that year too.  Sherod and I flew to Mexico City early in the morning.  There are so many memories, joyful and heartbreaking, of that day.  The one we’ve struggled with the longest is the memory of leaving Hogar y Futuro that Sunday morning.  Maria was in Sherod’s arms and I was walking alongside.  Literally, we had dozens of little children like Maria clinging to us, our hands, our arms, our legs, begging to get to go home with us too.  And we couldn’t.

When we visited BARC, Maria’s new home, a couple of weeks ago, we found out that many of the people that live there have no families, no contact with anyone beyond those walls.  We were warned that we are going to have a whole bunch of new members of the family who will be as happy and excited to see us and be with us as Maria when we come visit.  It occurred to me that in that strange and lovely way of time, we are being given a chance to say the yes now that we were not able to say to the little ones we left behind in Mexico.  It’s like Garth Brooks sings, “our life it’s better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”