End of year adventure

One should spend the last day of the year on an adventure. That’s what we did. Along with some dear friends who are here for a visit, Sherod, Maria and I went down to Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County, Alabama. Gee’s Bend is about an hour away from here. It is also where the quilts come from. The amazing quilts of a group of African American women whose works of art have won them world-wide recognition. You can see some of their quilts here and read about the Gee’s Bend quilters here.  Sherod  grumbled a bit about heading down there, unsure if anything would be open today, wondering if all we’d do was take a long country ride. There was one woman at work on a quilt when we got there and then a room full of quilts and quilt objects for sale.

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The quilt I wanted was $7500. This was what we settled for instead, considerably less expensive and still beautiful. It will grace a wall in our bedroom.

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The township of Boykin is actually where the quilting cooperative is located and Gee’s Bend refers to the bend that the Alabama River takes right there and which surrounds Boykin on three sides. Before we left, there was some question whether or not the ferry that runs from Gee’s Bend across the river to Camden is in operation. In fact, it is and was about to head across the river when we went looking for it. I love ferries.

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After a wonderful lunch of soul food at Miss Kitty’s in Camden, we rode back home to finish up this hard and blessed and illuminating 2014. Before coming back into the house on a chilly winter’s day, I had to stop and take a picture of the Paper Whites that greeted me earlier when I went out to take yesterday’s compost to the composting bin.

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There is much about this year that I wish had worked out differently than it did. Sherod’s, Maria’s and my life have changed profoundly and irrevocably. There are some new empty places in my heart because leaving meant losing, or at least accepting very diminished, relationships with folks I love and still miss. And those small Paper Whites are the sacrament of what is new and exciting and lovely about our new life and the hopes and dreams for 2015. May it be another year of blessing for you and yours…

What is the kindest thing I can do?

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“The response to injustice is to share. The response to despair is a limitless trust and hope. The response to prejudice and hatred is forgiveness. To work for community is to work for humanity.”— Jean Vanier, L’Arche Founder (from “Community and Growth”)

Early this morning I joined Maria on the air mattress we had blown up for her to have a ‘sleep over’ in our room. Even sleeping in her room just down the hall from us is an act of courage for our daughter.  These slumber parties seem to give her great joy. Today she was as warm and rosy and cuddly as a little kid; she put her arm around my neck and in a sleepy voice said, “Maybe you could sell this house and come live with me at TDC. Sometimes I get very sad there because I miss you.”

Although we have started cranking up the wheels of the system related to her health, there is something not well about her body and we are worried. At very close to 200 lbs, though she is under 5 feet tall, her weight is a significant problem. Her ankles are swelling regularly though it is not edema as best as we can tell since edema is more uniform and usually extends further up a person’s legs. This inflammation is more lumpy and very painful. Tomorrow we will talk to the TDC folks, again, to try to keep pushing on the system to get to root causes. When Maria had her surgery earlier in the summer, the surgeon had to remove one of her ovaries along with the cyst and it was this summer that she gained so much weight. we wonder if some of the hormonal changes that surgery caused might in some way be related to her health issues. At least this  is one possible track to follow.

She has also regressed into significant dependence—we are having to retrain and re-motivate her towards greater independence about everything, down to tying her shoe laces. Somehow, though, my response is different this time around. I am so not interested in blaming, accusing or even necessarily “fixing” her or her situation. I have found some new patience and without as much reactiveness (of which I have often been guilty in the past), I continue to marvel at this young woman who calls me mami.

For Christmas I got her a Coach ‘wristlet’—a small wallet with a wrist strap–and put a $50.00 Visa gift card in it. I explained that she is grown up enough now that we wanted her to have a credit card. She was transported. It was wonderful watching her carefully sign her name on the strip on the back of the card. We talked in general about what she might use it for on Christmas Day and then got on with other things.

Yesterday was Sherod’s birthday. We sat down to plan the day mid-morning and agreed that the day needed to include a trip into Prattville and that we might have lunch at a restaurant as part of that plan. Maria’s face literally shone (and these days when she is lethargic and quite emotionally flat a lot of the time, that in itself is a gift) and she said, “I know what, Dad! I can invite you to lunch with my credit card.” We talked that through and eventually agreed she’d still save it for outings from TDC in Tallahassee but it was the kind of generosity I have experienced from Maria since the very beginning. Her beauty takes my breath away.

Trying to manage all the pieces, trying to be true to her and honest about her behavior issues and Sherod’s and my needs and limitations, recognizing that the distance between us and TDC is greater than we are comfortable with raises anxiety in some ways and also offers tantalizing new possibilities.

What happens to adults with developmental disabilities in a rural county in Alabama? How does a small working farm create a space for something like an adult day program for this fragile segment of our community—can it be part of the resounding God-yes not just our daughter but others in this area might need to get a better chance? I’ve spent some time reading about L’Arche communities in this country and earlier, Maria and I went and saw Wild together. Not the greatest movie for her, but for me a reminder about several things including the call to “do the kindest thing I can”.  In this time of on-going vocational discernment, I can’t not wonder about how to offer not only myself, but this amazing little farm of ours, for the kind of community that opens space for the very fragile.

She’s with us for another week, the longest time so far since she moved into BARC.   Best Christmas gift. Ever.

The View

I have not walked intentionally for a long time.  I got busy here at the farm and the sidewalk of Lowndesboro ends a couple of miles away from us.  There was no way to walk at night safely.  Today, I had had enough. I have missed everything that walking allowed me to do.  So I simply got started.  It is very different–I walk on the road, facing traffic. I have enough of a grassy shoulder to be able to step aside when I see a car headed my way. In three miles, I only had to do that 4 times.  This is also the exact opposite of an urban landscape.  Sheep, deer, squirrels and a large eagle have taken the place of the occasional crab, frogs, ducks and owls of my rambles in Fort Lauderdale.  And especially, there are hills. A couple of them are steep enough to leave me winded but give me a great workout.

I also signed up and paid my fees to walk in the Mercedes Marathon on February 21st in B’ham.  It was a little unnerving to then go out and realize my pace is considerably slower right now and probably my endurance is lower, though I didn’t even try to walk the 6 miles I was accustomed to in Ft Lauderdale.  It means that I will need to train with more intention and attention to speed.  I’ll have to push myself quite a bit.  But this time, I will be training in terrain that is even more hilly than the terrain of the course in Birmingham.  I’m aiming to make the walk with better times and we’ll see if that happens or not. It won’t be the end of the world if my time isn’t better.  As I chugged up the steepest hill in my way today, I remembered how a part of the walking 2 years ago got just incredibly monotonous and boring.

Something else occurred to me: last time I participated, I went with my friend Marsha. Though she finished ahead of me (in fact, I lost sight of her in the first half hour) there was a sense of camaraderie and of a shared adventure.  I think I’m doing this completely on my own this year, and anyway, even if you do it with a buddy, I think these experiences are finally about testing  who you think you might be, so it is an experience of solitude, at least for me.  Except that I also remember the people cheering participants on at lots of points along the route.  I remember how touching I found that encouragement.

I have my training program mapped out between now and the 21st of February and it is going to be pretty rigorous.  Fortunately, I am traveling very little between now and then so I will be able to keep to a regular schedule.  I have some music to train with that helps me with my pace.  I have the determination. Gonna do this thing…

Here’s what the view was like as I walked today.

It's maybe hard to see, but that's a pretty steep hill to climb.

It’s maybe hard to see, but that’s a pretty steep hill to climb.

It still astounds me that I get to see sheep out grazing almost daily.

It still astounds me that I get to see sheep out grazing almost daily.

These two cows caught sight of me, stood and looked at me until I came up parallel to them, and then, started walking along with me.  That was just the coolest!

These two cows caught sight of me, stood and looked at me until I came up parallel to them, and then, started walking along with me. That was just the coolest!

An Alabama Christmas Morning

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After days of grey, damp cold weather interrupted by fog and heavy downpours and on Tuesday evening, tornado watches, the sun is out.  And in the light I am able to behold the splendor that is the Rosita Chicken Coop Supreme. Biddies will come live here in the Spring.  But this is truly a thing of beauty. (And Sherod, being Sherod, threw in a great frittata pan present in joyful anticipation of all the eggs our chickenses will lay).  Merry Christmas to one and all…

We have found our way to Christmas–December 24, 2014

December nights in southeast Florida are velvet-dark and beautiful. For several years before we moved here, I made it a habit to walk almost every night for about 6 miles. I had a route I could find my way through, even on the darkest night. Because I knew my way so well, because it was so dark on most of those December nights and I never carried a flashlight, it was a time that felt like I was invited to contemplate the profound mystery of a God who surrendered all the power, might and glory of infinity in the choice to come be with us.

As I walked, it wasn’t so much that I had words to pray with, as a sense that I was invited to simply allow myself to be in the presence of a mystery as deep as the dark all around me. I would become aware of a stillness inside of me that felt like it went on forever. It was in that silence that I could hear how the Word of God was spoken into being then came and pitched a tent in our midst.

This year, the invitation is different. This year, I have been given glimpses, flashes of new understanding about the night of our Savior’s birth that are only possible because this city slicker is discovering life in rural Alabama. A couple of weeks ago, Sherod and I were out starting to get a part of our land ready for a garden in the spring. We were busy and there was quite a lot of back and forth and here and there going on when I looked up and saw Gus, one of the horses we board, looking intently at us from just outside the pole barn. I couldn’t help but think of this night all those years ago in Bethlehem, and how the barn animals must have watched intently, as Mary and Joseph came into the stable, and Mary labored to give birth. Gus, with that intense gaze, brought me so much closer to the miracle of this night.

One of the parts I love most about being a priest is getting to place a simple piece of bread in people’s hands at communion. All the hands that cup in expectation are so beautiful to behold and often move me to tears. Last Sunday morning, when I put a communion wafer in Mr. Caswell’s hands, I looked down and saw hands that carry the story of a lifetime tending to livestock, hands that have helped in the birth, and life and death of all kinds of God’s creatures. Once again, it felt like a glimpse—a quick moment of understanding. Seeing those weathered hands, I thought about the hands of the shepherds who came to behold the newborn child of God, hands that also told a story of birth and life and death: How it is all a miracle and it is also about hard, hard work.

The smell of livestock around us, and freshly plowed soil, the wild, untamed sound of coyotes howling in the night and our ability to look up and see a gazillion stars on a cold, clear night. Somehow, each and every one of those moments here in Lowndes has been an invitation to go and see.

In the course of our life, the invitation changes form, we follow many different paths to get to Bethlehem. I wonder: what path brought you here this night? And what have you learned about yourself and your God on the path that got you here? I imagine the stories are varied and colorful and astonishing.

Regardless of how we got here, of what we learned and who we have become on that path, what we come to behold is simply this: That a little child was born, to an impossibly insignificant young family in a tiny speck of a country on stardust become a planet in the vast expanse of the universe. I bet this was one of thousands of other births that night and to many it did not mean a thing. And yet, that birth changed everything then and it still has the power to change everything for us here and now. That birth can portend the possibility of healing where none seemed possible. That birth can help us walk when we think we will never have the strength to stand again.   The child that was born this night will go on to teach that we are capable of feeding five thousand when all we have is a handful of black eyed peas and just enough turnip greens to take care of our own family.   That child changes our hardened hearts and makes us willing to be part of the kingdom of God where mercy, generosity and fearlessness guide our choices and shape our love.

The path has brought you here tonight was for this: to allow hope to be born again, in your heart, in mine, in the heart of our broken world. Listen, listen carefully tonight. A newborn child cries in the night. Angels sing in joy.   We have found our way to Christmas once again.

That pesky Olaf

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Olaf, the naughty elf, has been hard at work in Maria’s room. He locked the door and for days we have heard furniture getting moved around, loud Christmas music and all sorts of giggles and cackling. In a little while, I am going to Tallahassee to pick up my girl to bring her home for Christmas—the first time in two years that she will actually get to sleep over with us for Christmas. If past performance is the best predictor of future performance, Olaf will run the girl ragged—she might wake up w peanut butter in her hair and there will be all kinds of other mischief.

Don’t get me wrong. I would give my life for Maria to have a different set of circumstances. But the ability, year after year, to join  her in the wonder and playfulness of this season? Still fills me with awe…

Next…

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We’ve finished the first part of preparing for our garden. The Mallowman and I are becoming good farming partners.  We each work to our strengths and we both understand enough of what needs to be done so yesterday, there wasn’t much talking as we finished the work of getting leaves spread out and turned into the soil. I also began to collect and work horse manure into the plot.  We continue to have two resident horses, Buck and Gus, who use our pastures and leave their gifts generously.  The work of gathering manure will continue for several days and this one is largely mine to to get done.

Exactly 6 months ago, on June 18th, we were coming to the end of my last day in Fort Lauderdale. Then, I would have told anyone who asked that manure is manure is manure, that there sure seemed to be a whole lot of it going on around me and all it did was stink.  Those of you who remember my blog posts this past summer, when both Boo and Daisy, but especially Boo, got so sick, will remember I learned some new things–about the fact that when you love a pair of critters like those two, and the job has to be done, you just do it.  I pushed past the smell and the nastiness and ended up just being glad that in some small way, I could tend to Boo and honor her by getting the drama out of what was simply a part of life.

This afternoon, as I looked at the piles of manure that dot our pastures, what I could see was fertilizer that’s there for the taking, that will make our garden grow, that reminds me that in the cosmic economy of life , manure is gold and gold is manure, or something like that.  And all I feel is glad to get to do this work, glad to be outside and feel the cold against my face, the slight ache of my hands as I hold the  shovel I use, an ache that reminds me I’m no spring chicken and I’ve lived through a lot, gotten knocked down from time to time, certainly shoveled some manure.  Even still, I am stronger, more determined and more available to life and more willing to hold my own in the world than ever before.  In January of 2013, following along with others, I decided to choose ‘the word of the year’ and went with endurance.  I started this year not with a word but a phrase: cultivate joy.  Both are the warp and woof of the word I hold so dear these days: farmer…