The Path is Home and the Wind is the Path

The Path is Home and the Wind is the Path

Getting on the Ferry to at Horseshoe Bay, BC

It’s beautiful here.  I’m on Bowen Island, a twenty minute ride on a ferry from Vancouver.  In some ways, yesterday was one of the days of easiest travel I’ve experienced since 9/11.  Before the day was over, I had flown for 7 1/2 hour, ridden a train, a Vancouver metro bus, a ferry and I had walked in the rain.  So it was also a day filled with a sense of adventure.

When I got to the airport in Vancouver, I met up with others attending this conference including Keith Oglesby, an Episcopal priest who serves a church in Cumming, Georgia. Keith was also the Vice President of Sales for the FedEx Latin America and Caribbean Division in Miami when I was also working with FedEx LAC so we knew each other back then.  At dinner last night, we had a wonderful discussion about the lasting ways in which our FedEx experience has shaped our ministry.  Connection and community and the discovery of a new-old friend.

Then we did some group work that in some respects was the total opposite of our dinner conversation.  While Keith and I had talked about the kind of clarity and accountability we sometimes miss from our corporate days and laughed at how we keep trying to measure the impact of what we do in ministry, the discussion was framed with this question:  “What is the deepest longing that brought you here today?”  I sat at a table with someone who talked at some length about the song Dust in the Wind which I blogged about here a few months ago.  Somehow the conversation then morphed into the connection between longing and belonging and in one of those moments of clarity that are only possible when you started your morning at 4:00 and now your watch, still on EDT,  says it’s 12:30 the following morning, it struck me.

I keep reflecting on the whole notion of home and I have recently come to the conclusion that for me the path is home. That’s why I adore these outings and little adventures.  So it seemed to me last night that the path is the wind.  Being a small speck of dust carried by the wind is a strangely comforting image, quite unexpectedly.  I ran into Keith after 12 years and that, only after having hardly known him at FedEx. Last night, talking about the SFA and vestries (and only a FedExer would know what I mean and it’s too long and boring to explain)  there was a sense of being at home and belonging.  I sort of like that new idea–a child of the wind.  

Miss Maria Obama Mama

Every time Maria sees Romney on TV she says, “You’re fired” in a way that would make the Donald proud.  Today, we went out to do our bit to help in this year’s election effort.  We showed up at the at the Sistrunk headquarters for Obama and got assigned to do some canvassing.  With the help of our new friend David, we visited 50 households in the Dorsey Riverbend neighborhood.  It’s not a well-to-do neighborhood, predominantly African American.

I canvassed during the last elections as well in a similar neighborhood up in Lauderdale Lakes.  I am humbled by the graciousness with which people like Maria and I are received in what keeps getting described as the mean season.  The visits that are most meaningful are with the very old and frail, who take long minutes to get to the door and then welcome us into their homes.  More often than not, what starts as a a political pitch ends in prayer.   No matter how introverted and antisocial, I never get to the political season without falling in love with community all over again.

This morning we were in an area with a lot of young and youngish men hanging out, some of them already drunk or well on their way. A few would have intimidated me before; now I am just one more older woman who no longer scares so easily and who has more to lose by playing it safe.  One young man was dressed in drag, with a dress that was way too short and no underwear underneath.  He was so angry, cussing and carrying on with another sex worker who wouldn’t help him with something or other.  Broke my heart.

Too many of  these young men told me they couldn’t vote.  That means they served time at some point and have never gotten their voting rights reinstated.  I get so incredibly angry at this disenfranchisement.  Those of us who can really must vote.  Even when the choices aren’t great and the problems of our country intractable, we have to vote.   Because too many others can’t.

David, who came with us because I think the folks at the headquarters were concerned to let me and Maria loose in the neighborhood, opened a window for me.  He is a very active member at Mount Olivet Baptist–one of the powerhouse Black churches in Ft Lauderdale.  He is working on a program that serves young African American veterans who are returning to civilian life torn apart.  It struck me that the New River Regional Ministry still has so many more partnerships to develop if we are really going to claim that we are here to transform our community.  We exchanged information and agreed to stay  in touch.  He gave us each an Obama button and Maria a poster for her room at BARC.

As my mom said so many times, “pa’lante, pa’lante”.  Forward. Maria is fired up to do this again next weekend.  Love my girl…

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro

My words aren’t holding up so well these days.  I’ve started a number of entries that didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  So I’m hiding out in poetry these days, trying hard to listen.  Here are the three I keep coming back to.

THE ROWING ENDETH
I’m mooring my rowboat
at the dock of the island called God.
This dock is made in the shape of a fish
and there are many boats moored
at many different docks.
“It’s okay.” I say to myself,
with blisters that broke and healed
and broke and healed
– saving themselves over and over.
And salt sticking to my face
and arms like a glue-skin
pocked with grains of tapioca.
I empty myself from my wooden boat
and onto the flesh of The Island.

“On with it!” He says
and thus we squat on the rocks by the sea
and play – can it be true – a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces,
A wild card had been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when He took out the cards and dealt.

As he plunks down His five aces
and I am still grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
and laughter rolling like a hoop
out of His mouth and into mine,
and such laughter that He doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus
at our two triumphs.
Then I laugh,
the fishy dock laughs
the sea laughs.
The Island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.

Dearest dealer,
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untamable, eternal,
gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love. 
Anne Sexton

THE PONDS
Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them-

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch
only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided-
and that one wears an orange blight-
and this one is a glossy cheek
half nibbled away-
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
Mary Oliver

Allegro
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.
Tomas Tranströmer

Incarnation Revisited

Incarnation Revisited

On Wednesday morning, I got to sit at my desk with a delicious baby boy, Aarón, on my lap while his mama took care of some business with Diana, our family programs coordinator.  Before too long I had figured out a way to get peals of laughter out of him—it is an intoxicating sound, that.  We usually have our girl over to visit on Wednesdays and this week was no exception. After a late afternoon appointment, Maria and I sat side by side and I told her about my visit with the baby and that led to her asking about about another Aarón, one of the first people who started attending Mass at el Centro on a regular basis when we opened the first storefront chapel.

I’d met him down at Vila’s, where day laborers gather to wait for work.  Somehow, he decided to come and see and then kept coming. An extraordinarily quiet young man, he has graced us with his presence. But as with most undocumented people, he comes in and out of our community life and there are times we can’t track him down and my heart goes to my mouth; I wonder if the Migra got him, or something worse happened.  We hadn’t seen Aarón for several months.  Yesterday afternoon, I was in my office when I heard his voice in the front office.  I went out right away and gently kidded him about the fact that I thought he might have been deported.  He hasn’t.  But he had come to tell us that he’d decided to return to Toluca, the city he’s from in Mexico.  That he was leaving early this morning.  Could we help him print his boarding pass, and could we tell him what American Airlines allows with baggage?

Over the years, El Centro has been the closest thing to a safety net he’s had and I was fiercely glad we could help him close out his time in this country in these two small ways.  We talked a little bit more and then we said goodbye because I had somewhere else to be; his eyes filled with tears as we hugged and I made the sign of the cross on his forehead.  There were twenty children about to arrive for our aftercare program so I drew myself up and went on to take care of business.  As the workday was ending, when everyone else was gone and the office was quiet, I sat and wept.

I see the line clearly drawn between who I was before my mom’s death, and who I am now.  One change in me has to do with these kinds of moments.  There had been plenty of goodbyes before June 5, 2011.  When I look back, I realize that more often than not, my response was a combination of grief and despair.  These days there is less despair.  Paradoxically, it makes the grief sharper.  The loss is more real and the things I used to do to defend myself from the intensity of the pain no longer work particularly well.

As I thought about all that, I remembered the 23rd of December of 1983. That night, I was the chaplain on duty at Southern Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, which meant that I had to respond to any emergencies, Code Blues (cardiac arrests) or any other pastoral needs that came up afer the three other chaplain interns had gone home for the night.  On the following morning, the 24th, I was flying to Cali to spend Christmas with my family.  In September of that year, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had had a mastectomy at Tulane Medical Center.  I was still defining boundaries with my family in some fairly tumultuous terms and I was very apprehensive about going home.

On my watch that night, seven people died. It seemed like my beeper never stopped going off, sometimes in the middle of my efforts to pray with people who were in deep shock and horror. One of the men died very unexpectedly and was still on the bed in the emergency room when his brother came in.  They were identical twins and imagine what it was like for that man in his early forties. I had just had my 24th Birthday and had no clue how to minister to him.  There is still a lot of haze and jumble when I think back on those hours.  What I remember very clearly is standing in the nurses break room in the oncology unit, as dawn was breaking, with one of my favorite nurses, Katie.  There were all kinds of Christmas goodies on the table and she looked at me and said, “after so much death you either have to have a great meal or great sex”.  There were some ways in which I thought I understood what she was saying and others in which I was clueless and would be for a while longer.  What I knew for sure was that I was numb.  In fact, I could only be home in Cali for 5 days because of my job, and I slept for the first 2 of those days.

As I understand it now, what Katie was saying was pretty simple.  We have to reclaim life and we have to reclaim it in the way we were created—in all our messy, wonderful, amusing and complicated incarnation.  Certainly sex and a great meal are both ways of saying yes, of receiving life back into those places that have been gutted out by pain and loss.  There are other ways too.  Yesterday, I went out to walk earlier than usual and took a different route.   I park my car at a Walgreen’s next to something called the 17th Street Causeway—a bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway.  I then continue along the beach access road, A1A, so that by the time I’m through walking, I’ve covered a little over 6 miles.

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It was still daylight and each step I took was an acknowledgment of the deep sadness I felt knowing Aarón was leaving and each step was also a yes.  The breeze at the top of the bridge was quite strong, pushing against my body and I welcomed it.  At the south end of Fort Lauderdale Beach there is a basketball court and every time I’ve walked by it there’s a game going on.  By the time I was walking that stretch of my route, everything was bathed in the light of dusk and my eyes feasted on the color, the motion of beautiful young bodies stretching and jumping and running and turning.  I marveled to listen to several different languages and laughter.  At one point, I almost stopped. A young man and woman sat on a low wall that curves around the beachfront and spoke to each other in perfect Cali Spanish.  I know there are tens of thousands of Colombians in this area, a lot of Caleños.  But I am still always delighted to hear that accent when I don’t expect it.  And then there’s the bracing smell of the sea breeze coming off the water and the deep belly breaths I allowed myself to take watching a small sailboard skim the waves off the beach.  So much to take in.

There was yet one more way in which I realized I was saying yes.  After all these months of walking and paddle-boarding, I can move at a good clip.  I was aware that I had to find ways to get ahead of a lot of people, even after I had walked more than 5 miles, that I was moving more quickly than others.  I also was sort-of stunned to realize I’ve stopped playing a game I’d played for years.  For the longest time, especially when I was most overweight, I looked at other women’s legs searching for the most perfect pair of legs, trying to find the ones I would  trade my own legs for, if that were possible.  I realize that sounds really weird and in a sense it is.   It’s also a little pathetic—wishful, magical thinking in the highest degree.  Each time I made a comparison, I said no to my own self.  It was a form of dissociating myself from me, getting out of my body.

Sometime over these past few months, that has stopped being a necessity for me.  In fact, last night I loved my legs for their ability to heal, and hold me up, for how strong they’ve gotten, for the ways in which they, as part of my body, allow me to make myself available to everything that is involved in saying yes.  Life has come to visit, has settled in and found a place to be at home in me.

My Heart Has Found Another Way

This morning, about 36 hours after getting back to town, Sherod and I sat at a table out on Fort Lauderdale Beach on our regular day off. I can only speak for myself but I was worn to the nub.  Yesterday I began to work at 5 in the morning and worked pretty much straight through until 9 last night.  There were moments of celebration in that time, but there was also the grinding work of finding—and leading—the way out of a parochialism that threatens to choke the life out of NRRM, the Episcopal Church and maybe even all of us.  I begin to think that parochialism is the essence of original sin.

Let me explain what I mean.  Parishes are the smallest “units of ministry” in the Episcopal Church.  They have always been about defining a geographical boundary and offering ministry and services to the population in that area.  For a long time that worked well.  I understand that you must circumscribe to build.  But at least where we do our ministry, it has stopped working.  The term “parochialism” comes straight from the concept of parish and here’s how the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines that word: the quality or state of being parochial; especially: selfish pettiness or narrowness (as of interests, opinions, or views).    That is too accurate a description of  life and work within the church today.

For over 10 years, Sherod and I have been absolutely convinced that for the Episcopal Church to be a meaningful source of hope, comfort, transformation and grace in our community, we have to become interdependent, intentionally and willingly; we have to develop strong partnerships across paroquial lines.  The resistance to this redefinition of ministry does not stop astounding me.  And right now, it has at least me, but maybe both of us, worn out.

Yet once again, we worked with enormous intensity to try to redraw the picture, find better words, open a small space—a door, a window, anything—to give us a way forward even when it seems like there isn’t one.  As husband and wife, as well as partners and in a boss and subordinate relationship, we have a lot at stake when we sit down to do this kind of work.  When the stakes are high so is the tension.  There just don’t seem to be a lot of alternatives to acknowledging the tension and continuing on.  Today it seems that maybe we have found a tiny little hole to try to squeeze through.  We need some other folks to look at our work and maybe help us open the hole some more.  Along with the weariness, fragile hope resurges.

Sherod’s sermon at the wedding on Saturday was based on this song by Emmy Lou Harris.  He recognized that this is a ballad about the ultimate enabler in a dysfunctional relationship.  But it is also true that whether in a marriage or a ministry, along with patience, there has to be unceasing perseverance and constant reconciliation, rediscovery and reinvention.  I’ve only been doing small tasks and chores, some reading since our conversation.  I am husbanding my energy  for my time to walk tonight—that’s about all I am capable of today after the intensity of the work we did.  But as we got into Sherod’s truck after sitting at that table at the beach, a small new possibility emerging for this wildly foolish ministry we’ve given ourselves to,  the words “my heart has found another way to be loving you again” sang to me as a priest of the NRRM.

A Very Civil War

A Very Civil War

 

On Tuesday morning, my friend Marsha invited me to come with her to an aerobic class at the local wellness center in Selma before walking over to be with my mother-in-law.  There were about 10 women in the class, all of them older than me; the instructor was a retired dentist, a charming man.  They couldn’t have been more gracious and kind in their welcome.  The day before, Annaw’s hospice case manager dropped in for a visit, bringing with her a newly-hired nurse who was obviously in the middle of her orientation process.  Shortly after they left, I went out to get something from the front desk and ended up walking behind them.  The case manager was obviously filling the new nurse in on some of the details about Annaw and I heard her say, “I just love Miss Juanita to pieces”.  Been a while since I heard that expression said for real.  Everywhere I turned, I experienced that almost sugar sweet graciousness the South takes pride in.

The other truth about the South was there in the silences, the absences, the subtexts.  None of the residents at the assisted living facility are anything but white and privileged.  There was no person of color in any of the social functions I attended.  One of the funniest, most charming women residents at CH was sharp-tongued, imperious and sarcastic every time she spoke to one of the staff people of color.  The lines between privilege and poverty, power and marginalization are clearly drawn almost everywhere you look.  I don’t think I saw a single Latino person walking down the street either in Orange Beach or Selma—you can tell the draconian immigration laws of the state have had their desired effect.

I am challenged to re-examine not only the meaning of home, but also the contours of ministry when I consider what it would mean to live back in Selma.  As a very young girl, when I dreamed of coming to live in the United States, I always insisted I’d come but never, ever, live in Alabama.  Of course, that was blown out of the water almost immediately.  Now, a new question emerges for me:  what would ministry look like for me, if I were to end up back in Alabama?

On and off in the past few months, I’ve been engaged in a conversation about tolerance with one of my parishioners.  It started with a quote he’d shared—something to the effect that “Tolerance is an excuse for not discovering that what we believe and hold as true might be wrong”.  When I consider what’s happening in our country, it seems to me that we swing wildly between a kind of values imperialism and a tolerance that isn’t really that, but rather, a fear of meaningful, transforming encounter and conversation.

Right now, the most civil thing I know how to do about the political “conversation” that’s going on leading up to the elections is avoid that topic almost completely, except with people I trust and, more than likely, have a lot in common with me.  My mother-in-law keeps Fox News on, at a high volume, almost 24-7, and what I did, over and over again, during my three day visit was stand up and walk away when I simply could not stand to listen any more.  Of course, I couldn’t engage my mother-in-law.  But I couldn’t even sit still to listen to the people talking on Fox—too offended, too overwhelmed, too filled with despair to stay engaged.  When Sherod and I broached the possibility of  moving to Selma after Sherod retires,  my dear friend Marsha ever so gently asked me if I could stand to live in an area where there are many, many people on the “extreme right” (her words).  I didn’t see any Obama Biden lawn signs  or bumper stickers the whole time I was in Alabama.  I saw plenty of Romney-Ryan signs though, and awful billboards about Obama. I find all that daunting.

So the question really is:  what would it mean to be a priest in that kind of space?  I don’t have many answers yet, but I do have some folks whose footsteps I can follow.  Perhaps the person who most inspires me in this respect is Will D. Campbell. I first came across his work back in ’84, when I started seminary at Sewanee.  He is a renegade Southern Baptist preacher from Mississippi who wrote a memoir called Forty Acres and a Goat.  One of the wonderful voices of eccentricity and courage in the South, he tells the story of how he first worked with Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference, and then found himself building a strong and pretty amazing ministry among members of the Ku Klux Klan.  By the time I got to know of him and his work, he was living in Mt Juliet, TN, on a farm that included a small guest space where people who needed to could come and hang out at the farm to visit, talk, heal and rediscover themselves and their Creator.

As I reflect on what that might come to mean for me, I can hold on to a few strands of the ministry I am engaged in right now.  One of the biggest gifts and challenges of this ministry is patience.  It takes me a while to get past fear and defensiveness—especially my own.  As long as I am in that space of fear and defensiveness, I am at war, perhaps a very civil war, but nonetheless a war, where most of what I am doing is about winners and losers, the sting of adrenaline that comes from defining so much in terms of life and death.  The lessons I’ve been learning about hosting grief and loss apply here as well.  Sometimes, all I can do is sit with my own self and someone else rather than plan and prepare the escape.  Presence.  It’s one of those clichés of ministry that I dismiss at my own peril.

I got up very early this morning to prepare a special bilingual worship booklet because on Sunday I have 3 baptisms.  As I read the baptismal covenant, first in Spanish, and then in English, it struck me that it all starts with recognizing each other’s humanity.  Will Campbell has known that for a long time  and inspires me to learn the same.  I feel a glimmer of hope that if we do end up in Alabama,  I can come to know that in yet another way and therefore, be able to serve where the need is. And then it strikes me: I’m not in Alabama any longer.  It is still early in the morning here in Fort Lauderdale and there is a whole lot I need to do as a priest here and now.   So that’s where I’m called to be.

How Sweet It Is

Before we left on our trip, Maria gave me very clear instructions related to the wedding: I needed to catch and bring home the “bridal buffet” for her. One of the bridesmaids very kindly donated her bouquet so on our way in this evening, we stopped to drop it off, along with a pair of pink fluffy slippers, for our girl. She made me wait while she rummaged in a drawer and pulled out an envelope and pushed it into my hand. How sweet it is to come home…

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