This morning started at 5 and I’d been working pretty steadily since then. I have another 10 days of significant travel that start with flights that will take me through Dallas-Fort Worth this afternoon and land me in Detroit almost at 11 tonight. I was getting stressed out thinking about it all. And then, I was not.
Go for a week, when the heat has begun to take hold, when there has been rain, when the creatures around here have seen the land lie fallow for so long they’ve forgotten the kinds of delicious morsels that appear round about now; then, return to a garden that stuns. I keep thinking I know abundance only to learn some more. Massive amounts of canning ahead!
Enjoying another version of farm life. With our Memphis friends, Mike and Mary, and their offspring, who are now awesome adults. Their youngest, Will, is in the kitchen cooking up a storm because he is catering his mom and dad’s 60th birthday party while he waits to hear if he is going to be one of the chefs that will tour with Jimmy Buffett. AND his big sister Katie just announced her engagement. Lots to celebrate at the party that’s coming up tonight…
To get to Gethsemani, you go down New Hope Road for a few miles and then turn on Monks Road. I have remembered this particular place often through the years. Soon after my ordination as priest of the church, I came to participate in a weeklong training program on Faith-based Community Organizing here in Kentucky. Along with several RC priests, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian and a couple of Methodist pastors, and a Jewish rabbi, I was helping to found BOLD Justice in Broward County. I had already been actively involved in community ministry with the homeless population \and other outreach programs in Broward. I kept bumping into the intractability of the systemic issues underlying the misery and pain I saw all around me. I believed then, and still believe now, that it takes many people working together and maintaining steady, courageous and unrelenting pressure on a system to bring about meaningful change. BOLD Justice was a way to explore how that might be lived out.
The training program I participated in was rigorous and demanding so I was glad, about half way through the week, when we got a late afternoon and evening off. I had a rental car and knew the Cistercian Abbey where Thomas Merton spent much of his life as a monk was close to the convent where we were doing the training. On a whim, I set off to find the Abbey and got there in time to sit in the visitor section of the church to participate in the Vespers service. Because it was summer, I also was able to go out to walk in the simple cemetery by the church where Merton is buried. The beauty of the place was deeply moving to me.
I’m at a strange place with the church. I am simply jubilant to find myself serving with the good people of St. Paul’s, Lowndesboro. I continue to make good progress with the work I have been given to do with ECF and am grateful as well, for the relationships I am building within the Diocese of Alabama. Yet my heart breaks often for the Church. I see so much anxiety, a deep uneasiness that what we’ve always done isn’t really working and an even deeper fear that the cost of letting go for the sake of what God might do next is simply too high. We grind along, neither moving towards death and resurrection, nor content to immerse ourselves fully in denial.
As I wrote in my previous post, this is the season when I must acknowledge the reality that death and loss have been writ large in my life these past few years. What I also know is that allowing myself to “host” what I most feared changed me forever, it helped me understand resurrection in body, mind and spirit, in ways I would never have discovered if I had continued to play the endless games of magical thinking I had lived in before. Quite simply, my life is infinitely richer, more joyful, more meaningful for what these years have taught me. As one who has lost most of her fear about losing, even losing everything, I find myself in a very different place than a lot of other people who are trying to help the church find its way through this strange new passage we are in the midst of.
It was providential to find myself close to the Abbey where Brother Louis, as Merton was known in his community, lived and then was laid to rest. Even the brief time of entering the silence of the Abbey was filled with grace. It led me back to Merton’s prayer, which is where I live these days. I have no idea where I am going, especially as a priest of the church. I have to trust as Merton trusted. I have profound respect for Merton’s capacity for being both a contemplative and a deeply committed activist who understood that Micah’s words—love mercy, do justice, walk humbly with your God—call on us to do more than simply look at the brokenness of the world and retreat into spaces of comfort and safety. l have no idea what that means for me now–back when I was ordained and just launching El Centro Hispano de Todos los Santos it was all so much more clear.
Looking back through the pictures I took this early afternoon—on a cold, more wintery than summer day (54 degrees and a slight drizzle), I have to believe with Merton, that “that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing”. As confused and limited as my line of sight is, this much I can say: I desire deeply to know what God would have me do. For tonight, I trust that that is enough.
We will travel to Ft Lauderdale before too long to visit with Maria. We have very intentionally decided to use all that time with her alone. Because of her circumstances, I anticipate we will be back in Fort Lauderdale with some regularity and will have other opportunities to visit with friends we love and miss, but this time, it is just our little family unit, coming together for a very few days.
There are some trees in bloom here in Alabama. Though they are far more muted, they make me recall the other, far more spectacular trees of South Florida, the Royal Poincianas. As our days were slipping away in Fort Lauderdale last year, I used to drive around trying to see the Royal Poincianas with enough intent, enough attention, enough gratitude, to make those images last for always. Seeing them come into bloom each year had been one of the absolutely wonderful gifts of living in that part of the world and I had anticipated I would miss them.
Now, the knowledge that I will probably see at least some in bloom, stirs some real ambivalence for me. Turns out that they are now associated with a lot of leave-takings. It was in the season of their bloom that my mother died–four years ago on June 5th; we moved Maria into BARC, 3 years ago on June 5th. I left the ministry at St Ambrose on June 8th a year ago. No small amount of grief wells up along with the joy of recalling their beauty.
Home for 3 days between trips, I have spent a big part of my last two days out in the garden, tending to the plants and flowers that fill my new life. On Sunday, the liturgical year will pivot to the “Season after Pentecost”, with its rich and lovely hues of green. The growing season is upon us that mirrors all the growth happening in our garden. It seems many of our vegetable plants grow several inches from one day to the next; blossoms have given way to small fruit that are also swelling and growing daily. There is such abundance all around me.
Again, the paradox, the “both-and-ness” to this time. The abundance makes the sense of loss more piercing, in a way. The abundance also requires more of my attention, my energy, my work, so the days pass quickly and sleep comes fast and deep at night. The beauty and goodness of where I am now will not be denied or overlooked. It carries the invitation that I acknowledge the sadness and not surrender to it, carry it lightly and set it down to hold a sweet clucking hen, an armful of flowers or a post digger, shovel and compost to dig space for a gorgeous new rose someone gave me.
From the thirty-seventh floor of a hotel right across from the United Nations, looking downtown towards One World Trade Center. I stood at the window a while ago and realized that if, on 9/11, anyone had stood where I was standing, he or she would have seen the devastation of the WTC towers on that fateful day. In the midst of the busy-ness of my day and evening, that was a deeply sobering and sad realization. Say another little prayer for all those souls that were there that day, and for the soul of our country…
The truth is, I didn’t much want to go. Especially in the last few years, I think we’ve both gotten more comfortable about doing things on our own rather than together. Sherod headed out to the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association annual meeting on Wednesday and I was swamped with work so time just flew by for me. My travel schedule is insane until the 11th of June— I will lay me down to rest in Atlanta, NYC, Birmingham, Decatur, Louisville, Columbus-Indiana, Detroit, Ft Lauderdale, and Washington DC between now and then. So the prospect of driving to Columbus, Georgia to attend the ARA banquet yesterday, and driving back today, was sort-of overwhelming to consider. We batted ideas back and forth by phone, considering what might work, though I basically assumed I’d just stay put.
On Friday at about 9 PM, Sherod announced he was coming home, would spend the night with me here, and we’d drive back to Columbus yesterday morning. It’s a two plus hour drive so I was relieved when he showed up all in one piece a little after 11 PM, even happier crawling into bed with him beside me. I’d been missing him and been too busy to notice. Our ride yesterday was filled with good conversation and we met Charlie, Sherod’s son, and his wife, Penny, for lunch. Sherod had invited them to come to this gathering as well.
The festivities were held at a place called the “Civil War Naval Museum”, along the Chattahoochee River. Mainly filled with the remnants and stories of the Confederate Navy, it was an interesting place to find myself in. But that hardly mattered compared to who I was with. Ever since we first met, the fact that Sherod flew helicopters (or helicopeters, as he calls them) in Vietnam has loomed large in our life. Along the way, I think I’ve posted pictures or shared them on Facebook—pictures of handsome, slim, flat bellied, smiling young men (babies, really), gathered around Huey helicopters and Cobras, looking nonchalant when life in Vietnam in 1968, around the Tet Offensive, and Khe San, was anything but.
Names I’ve heard for almost 30 years—Jerry, Jim, Allan, Mobley finally got put with real faces. Those faces and those bodies, though, have become stiffer, frailer, much older, more worn. The Aerial Rocket Artillery group was formed in 1965 with aviators from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division to provide helicopter artillery coverage for the ground troops fighting in Vietnam. There were about 80 men and their spouses in attendance this week. The jokes were bawdy, every now and then, I looked into aviator eyes that have a kind of sparkle to them that can go to deadly sharp and serious in less than a heartbeat. But there was more introspection, more sorrow, in the conversations about what Vietnam actually meant.
We finished a tour of the museum and were sitting for the dinner part of the program when the president of this association went to the podium to speak. After talking about this, and thanking for that, he launched into a story. One of the battles the ARA group played a very significant role in was the seige of Khe Sanh. I am no war historian so this is a hugely simplified version of events, but essentially, a Marine base up in a plateau in the northern part of South Vietnam, close to the border with Laos, was caught in a months long siege by the North Vietnamese. The siege began in early 1968 and by April, the situation for the Marines was pretty desperate. The story told last night was complicated and filled with more pieces than I could follow but basically, a lone Marine, far from any other troops, badly wounded and under fire, needed to be rescued. This was not the kind of mission that the ARA had been put together to carry out. But you don’t leave a brother out there when you can help. A helicopter went in under intense fire to pick him up. He was so badly wounded that he was not able to get to the aircraft so the door gunner got out of the helicopter and dragged the Marine into safety.
After describing the basics of the situation, Larry, the president of the ARA, explained that in the past year, the Marine had found and contacted him, trying to find the men who had saved his life in Khe Sanh. He’d spent 47 years trying to do that, to say thank you. Larry asked three guys to come up front—Jerry, Sherod, and Allan. Jerry and Sherod were the two CWO-aviators flying that helicopter; Allan was the door gunner. The three of them and the Marine, who introduced himself as Lucky, huddled for a few minutes up front. You could have heard a pin drop in the room; there were very few dry eyes.
Lucky, when he was given the chance to say a few words, used that time to talk about PTSD. Until then, as Sherod’s second wife, I had felt a bit like an interloper. His buddies are still married to the women who waited for them to come home from the war and I know I have no earthly idea what that was like. But when Lucky began to talk, describe his own rounds with PTSD, the guys pretty much looked down at their plates and it was the women who made eye contact and we all knew. All of us. This was pretty stark, raw, being present with each other.
I’ve been awfully annoyed this year by the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s always close to the anniversary of my mother’s death; the utter helplessness I live these days, as my daughter’s mother, both make it awfully hard for me to countenance the cloying sweetness of this day. I’m glad I was at that banquet last night and this morning driving home was about reflecting on the stories I heard, the life of the man I am married to, the fact that we are all of us, always, called to help lift the one who has fallen, called to abide with each other not in commercialized sweetness but in the realities of life as it really is. With all its glory. With all its pain.
In some ways, it is becoming harder to write, especially for this blog. Each day, each week, brings new discoveries and new sources of delight and wonder. But they are so ordinary and homely that it seems absurd to think they’d be of interest to anyone. Increasingly, my days are shaped by routines of farming—there is a constant need to tend, to pay attention, to respond to the creatures that fill our life, the seedlings that are growing strong and sure out in our vegetable garden, the land we’ve been entrusted with.
I’m still ‘splorin—there’s a creamery not far from our house where I will be able to buy locally produced goat cheese. I have also stumbled into a day hiking group in Montgomery. Even these discoveries are ordinary as dirt.
Today, a diocesan update went out here in Alabama, announcing that Sherod has been appointed Priest in Charge at St. Paul’s, Carlowville, and I as Priest in Charge at St. Paul’s, Lowndesboro. There are pastoral visits to make, sermons to prepare, vestry meetings to lead; the rhythms of the liturgical year are starting to move through me again, and I with them, in ways that are deeply familiar, deeply cherished. It is magnificent to be back in parish ministry, if in a very circumscribed way.
Though my life is ordered and gentle and kind right now, the world is not. I read enough posts on Facebook, read the NYT, poke around on the Internet enough to know that whatever words I might have are inadequate to the horror, the pain and the brokenness that seems to be grinding our very planet, and its inhabitants, into a bloody pulp. I have found one small piece of writing that is helping me order and focus as I find my way back into local ministry. It was posted on Facebook by a friend, Janice Costas, whom I met at a conference a few years ago:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it. The Talmud
I have a new faith community with which to start exploring what this might mean in this place, in this time. I am just not sure that the exploration involves me speaking or writing as much as it involves me trying to open spaces where others can engage this message with courage and generosity. I appreciate that there is less to say these days.