“Old Age Does Not Arrive Alone”

20130811-181758.jpg
That’s a saying in Spanish my dad quotes with some frequency. He has injured his knee, though we don’t really know how. All we know is he woke up in considerable pain day before yesterday and that knee is swollen and painful. Tomorrow more than likely we will have to go get it seen by a doctor. It is particularly worrisome because his other leg is the one really affected by his old back problems–it’s the one that when he gets tired, his foot drags. With both legs compromised, he is very unsteady on his feet.

We were going to meet his old class ‘compis’–his old schoolmates today, at a nice restaurant in Vaxholm. Earlier this week, we found out that one of them, Einar, had been hospitalized after a heart attack. Hans had to bow out because he is still recovering from heart and back surgeries and had had a setback this weekend. But Arne and his wife, Ulla Britta, and Barbro, agreed to come to our cottage for a ‘ficka’–a little afternoon snack. Arne and his wife drove 2 hours to catch a ferry and come on the island. Barbro took buses and then walked for about 1 kilometer. She arrived so early that she stopped along the way to pick a bag of blueberries for us.

In your mid to late eighties, even a year makes a difference. I saw that in all of them. I watched them linger over the coffee, knowing they needed to call it a day so my dad could put his leg up, so Barbro could catch her bus, so Arne and Ulla Britt could drive all the way back to Uppsala. But when you know you’ve come to an end, a real, a final end. When you know this is the last good bye, it is hard not to try to get one more story, one last laugh, one final moment of companionable silence that too quickly will slip into absence.

Since my dad hurt his knee 2 days ago, I have been having a hard time of it. There is little for me to do except tend to him. I go out and bike and walk each day but I would give anything to be able to share this beautiful place rather than explore on my own. Helping Dad carry his grief by myself has been lonely work. My older brother and my younger brother will spend their time here with their life companions and I watched how my older brother was able to draw strength from his partner during their visit. I imagine it will be the same with Nils and Laura. It is a relief that they and my niece arrive tomorrow afternoon, regardless of the “stuff” between my brother and me.

I took some pictures this afternoon. Even in the midst of the blues, I am struck by how beautiful these old folks are–and how dear. It is a privilege not to be taken lightly to be a part of this long good bye.

20130811-181140.jpg
Arne

20130811-181400.jpg
Barbro

Church

20130809-180453.jpg
Yesterday’s adventure, a little on the misbegotten side, left my dad very tired and in pain. Today it has rained on and off most of the day. At noon, suffering from some cabin fever, I decided to hop on the ferry and go to Vaxholm, the closest town (bigger than the villages on this island) to look for a little gift for the girl Maria and do some grocery shopping. Dad had decided he would read and keep his legs up most of the afternoon.

When I got off the ferry, I enjoyed wandering around in the heavy drizzle and made my way to the church. Again, the question, “where is home”? There’s a graveyard behind the church; I saw more than one family plot with tombstones that ranged from the 1600’s to the last few years. Talk about belonging. As much as my dad and I love Sweden, I am here for only 8 more days. I have no idea, now that my dad has decided this is his last trip, if I will ever be back. My dad, older brother and I talked about the fact that Dad will almost certainly die in Panama, Hans will probably die in Holland; in the same way, Nils will die in England and I in the US. None of the rest of my family members want a Christian burial, all of them want to be cremated and all of them want their ashes scattered where there is no way to mark their final resting place.

I understand their reasons and I accept the differences that define us as a very loose-knit family. I understood something else today as well. After wandering around the nave of the church, stopping in front of the altar, admiring the pulpit, I ended in a back corner far less remarkable than the rest of the space. There was a place to drop some money and light a candle, which I did. I wept again for my mom, said a prayer for her, missed her. I realized every church is the church to remember her in, every opportunity I have to light a small candle allows me to re-enact the liturgy of the light, that beautiful liturgy we celebrate on the Eve of Easter, when we reaffirm that death is not stronger than life, that darkness has not overcome the light. I felt very much at home in that beautiful church this afternoon–maybe the best I can claim for myself is, “home is where the church is.”

20130809-182946.jpg

Old Friends and Family

Tomorrow my dad and I will be out island hopping, working our way to the outermost islands of the archipelago and won’t be back until late in the evening so I am posting tonight what I would have posted tomorrow.

This is the last time my dad plans to be in Sweden. He has slowed down in this past year, needs more rest and the journey here from Panama is long and arduous. Sweden is horribly expensive–it is not unusual for a hamburger to cost $30.00. He is concerned to make provisions for any medical care he may need further along. So there is an incredible poignancy that colors these days as surely as the beautiful Swedish sunlight.

The visit with my older brother, Hans, and his partner, Anne Marie was just incredibly fun. Hans is mischievous, sarcastic, and funny. Anne Marie has this really down-to-earth wisdom that makes it easy to talk about the hard things and see them in a new way. I could tell how much my dad loved having the three of us together.

20130807-194321.jpg
Today, Tante Maj, and her children, Olle, Kerstin and Jurgen came to visit and brought a typical Swedish lunch with them. Tant Maj and Farbror Gunnar are my dad’s oldest, dearest friends. Farbror Gunnar, stricken by Alzheimers could not come but Tante Maj is as sharp and full of life as ever.

20130807-200700.jpg
She knows my father well enough to know exactly what meal would make him the happiest. She herself had prepared four different kinds of pickled herring, and served the herring with all the typical accompaniments. We drank aquavit and sang old drinking songs. There was knäckebröd (HARDTACK) and Swedish cheese, new potatoes with dill, and beer.

20130807-200318.jpg

Dessert was a “Sommar Torta” (a summer cake) that tasted exactly like our birthday cakes tasted when we were growing up. As soon as I tasted it, I understood where my mom’s birthday cakes came from–very unexpected!

After lunch, Olle, Kerstin and I went up the steep hill behind the cottage we are renting. At the top there are two cannon embankments built during WWII and you also get a gorgeous view of Linanäs.

20130807-202914.jpg

20130807-203134.jpg

My dad and Tante Maj tell vivid, wrenching stories of the war, of how immediate it was, even in Sweden that was neutral. And they complain about how sanitized war has become. I ache at the thought that my dad has begun to tie the loose ends of his life, has begun to say his good byes, like he did with Maj at the end of the visit. I am so glad for him to get to say good farewells, hard though they may be. But my brothers and I still have so much to learn from him and his generation…

Grundvik

This morning I walked to Grundvik, another nearby village

20130807-080736.jpg

My eye keeps getting drawn to the bits and pieces of everyday life

20130807-080837.jpg

20130807-080901.jpg

20130807-080929.jpg

20130807-080959.jpg

I am enchanted with the thistles

20130807-081053.jpg

And I was able to pick blueberries and raspberries for my oatmeal

20130807-081158.jpg

20130807-081237.jpg

But more than anything, what I feast on is the light.

20130807-081417.jpg

Footprint

20130806-074506.jpg

Yesterday was laundry day around here. My brother and his partner had left, the weather forecast calls for lots of rain starting this evening. Our cottage has a great washing machine but no dryer so after each of the three loads of clothes I washed, I walked down to the umbrella clothes drying contraption and used old-fashioned clothes pins to hang clothes. I could get high smelling the clothes after the fresh breezes of the day had dried them and I took them off the line, still warmed by the sunshine.

We walk or ride bicycles everywhere we go. I have found out that Swedes are fastidious in their recycling. There are 9 separate bins at the recycle center where we take the garbage we don’t compost. There are fewer appliances, spaces more compact–my ecological footprint is so much smaller here.

I find relief and a sense of ‘rightness’ in all this. I’ve said elsewhere that these past few years have been a lot about learning to live in my body. It seems inevitable that being more aware of incarnation requires a different relationship to the Earth. The air is so clean here, there is no litter along the sides of the road, much less noise (though admittedly, we are out in a rural area so that is only normal). I sleep with my window and curtains open so when I wake up at about 4 each morning, I watch the sunlight slowly extend further and further down the trees outside my window as the sun rises. Connection to the rhythms around me is so obvious here.

There is also a growing tension in md that has become more explicit in this space. Having a smaller footprint on this fragile and distressed planet requires time. I was surprised by how long it took to hang clothes (not something I have done a whole lot of in my lifetime!). To get to the nearest shop to buy milk takes 20 minutes each way. Even something as simple as cleaning up and throwing away garbage in the process of preparing a meal takes mindfulness and care to make sure I put recyclables in their proper places so when I get to the recycle center I don’t have to spend a bunch of time sorting through the things I have brought.

I don’t mind that everything takes more time. In fact, it’s the opposite. I find deep satisfaction–something very close to life as prayer is possible here. The tension I am struggling with is this: the work I have been doing at least for the past 6 years is in direct contradiction to these rhythms of life. I discover a new grant our ministry might be eligible for and it happens to have a deadline coming up quickly? I am on it like white on rice–I try but don’t always succeed in holding on to my walking at night (all the time, though, I know it is crazy to cut back on something so essential to my wellbeing). I let the housework go, I cut corners on the cooking, I race through everything else I have to do. I am driven and disconnected and, quite frankly, not a very nice person to be around.

There is, of course, a sense of accomplishment when I meet a deadline. All the hours I spent preparing the United Way grant bought us some more time and ability to build the programs we’ve all dreamed of in the ministry I am a part of. But there is also what I can only describe as a sense of emptiness that follows each deadline. Even worse is the time I spend on efforts that are truly ridiculous. A fridge needs repair — making sure I follow the approval process for getting it repaired, finding a repair person, getting him or her to do the work right or getting another person in when the first one does a really crappy job–I do so much of this now. And the most disturbing of all–the amount of time it takes to navigate the minefields of a denominational system in crisis, where anxiety and reactiveness permeate everything, where the impulse to preserve and protect are making us more the Walking Dead than joyful, vibrant communities that don’t fear death because they live in the promise of resurrection.

My desire to have the time to leave a smaller footprint behind can become one more expression of the self-absorption of a first-world, spoiled princess–how much easier it is to wash my family’s clothes and prepare nice healthy dinners than engage the issues of justice and mercy faced by the community I serve in Ft Lauderdale. But something is not working about the way we are going about doing ministry. To find a more faithful, more meaningful way to be a priest and resident of Earth is part of the work ahead, especially now that Sherod has announced his retirement and such huge decisions lie ahead about what I will do in the 15 or so years I have left for active ministry.