Going down to the river to pray

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Bethany’s Kids Session 1 Staff

I started out my adult years with some definite ideas of places I would not go. Headed to the USA to college, with the hope and dream of staying in this country, I said I would absolutely, positively, never, ever live in Alabama. After I graduated from seminary, I added another “not never, ever, ever”: “I shall not, no will not, no cannot, not ever be a priest.” We all know how that one turned out. When I moved to Huntsville, when Sherod and I got married in ’88, I added a new “heck no”: Camp McDowell signified something I neither understood, nor valued. It felt like the meeting place of the Diocese of Alabama Episcopal clique, and I wanted nothing to do with cliques, especially not Episcopal Church cliques when I could not see a place for myself in that place with those people. I was adamant that I had neither the desire nor need to go anywhere near McDowell.

What’s more, I had heard my mother tell the story of the year her father was really struggling with alcoholism, and her mother, trying to shield her from some of that, sent her to some posh summer camp in Maine. I watched my mom shudder describing the icy lake water, the mosquitos, the strenuousness of it all. For my own self with my bum hip, a summer camp program, with hiking and canoeing, and swimming and all those other outdoor activities that define summer camp was so removed from the realm of my being, desire or imagination. Between the mamacita’s story and my own limitations, all I could really say was, “isn’t going to happen.”

Then, not only did I get married in Alabama, to an Alabama boy, but when we actually had the freedom to choose where we would live as Sherod retired, I was as enthusiastic as Sherod about coming back to Alabama. After thinking I’d never get to be parish priest again after I left Ft Lauderdale, I went to work at Ascension and our vestry vestry retreats where held at McDowell the last two years as was the Diocesan Convention in 2016. It was no longer a matter of whether I’d find my way to Camp McDowell. I was going. Full stop.

What I found shattered every single one of my preconceptions. Since I left Alabama with the Mallowman in 1990, Camp McDowell has launched a folk school program. An organic farm is up and running here too. There’s a program of environmental stewardship that just knocks the socks off me. And under the leadership of our current bishop, a whole new section that’s totally accessible and hospitable to people with all kinds of “exceptionalities” and “disabilities” has been built. Earlier this summer, my girl got to attend a McDowell camp session for adults with the kinds of life challenges she faces; though she gave everyone here a run for their money during the first days, she was welcomed, she was made to feel that she belonged and she wants to come back.

About 10 weeks ago, I got a call from one of the members of McDowell’s leadership team. Along with offering camp sessions for persons with significant challenges, McDowell also offers a camp inclusion program—4th-6th graders with typical abilities and special needs attend camp together for a week. Each session is led by a priest of the diocese who sets the theme, helps develop the program and serves as chaplain and worship leader. The priest who’d committed to take the first session of “Bethany’s Kids” had backed out unexpectedly and the call was a plea for help: would I take his place?   Yes. Yes of course I would. I’d be honored.

I’m at Camp McDowell, today working with the college-aged staff who work through the summer as counselors, life guards, activity directors and musicians. On Wednesday, “camper buddies,” high school students who will be assigned to work 1-1 with the children who need a little extra help, will arrive for training; close behind will be the campers themselves. We will have time together to explore, and I hope, experience the wonder of one of God’s most wonderful gifts: the gift of being “refreshed in living waters.”

I am so glad all those rigid “I won’ts” of my younger years are not as strong as curiosity, and a capacity to eat humble pie when necessary. Me and about 75 other people, young and old, fragile and strong, all of us rich in grace, will be here this week.

Early in the morning

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The routine is firmly established for the Mallowman. Stumble out of bed, feed the critters, make a cup of coffee, go out to the deck to make sure the deer haven’t found their way into the vegetable and flower garden. Then come in and watch Morning Joe. In the meantime, Mo and Daisy have been out in the garden for a while, whined and carried on till they were let back inside, to make a beeline for Sherod, sitting on the sofa. “Pay attention to me, pay attention to me, love me, love me, love me!” they say. I get on with preparing to go to work, and most days, walk out to see my flower beds, then leave the three of them keeping each other company. I am always a little jealous as I leave—we have another funeral at Ascension on Thursday, the days are jam packed right now. That slower, gentler, pace the rest of my little family keeps is quite lovely to behold. But going into work, I never have the radio on in my car and I drive on Highway 80 through the gorgeous morning light on rolling hills, cotton fields and creeks. It’s my version of quiet. Maybe even of heaven.

At 29

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There’s a certain perversity in the gift. This is one butt ugly Cockadoodle Rooster. Cement, no less, and stained the ugliest browns I could dream up.

I’ve been working for three years now on the flower bed out in front of the house. This is the year when it feels like it’s finally getting in the shape I had wanted—an oak leaf hydrangea, gladiola, daisies, yarrow, mums, roses, ornamental grass, foxglove, amaryllis, painted daisies and salvia, with some or all of them overlapping as they come into bloom. Some mornings, with the gentle light of dawn, I have marveled at the beauty of this little spot that is thriving because I tend to it, I weed, and fertilize, and plant, and prune, and, when no one is close by, talk to the plants encouragingly.

Yesterday, I got the present Sherod chose for me for our 29th wedding anniversary. It is so ugly it could make you cry. It is so “not me” as to be transcendent. It is so playful and dear and in my face, how can I not love it? There was only one place it could go, and that was in this beautiful little bed that might otherwise become too precious by half. So there he is. Sorta like the man I love.

O beautiful, for spacious

Yesterday, I went to visit a parishioner who is tending to her husband who has been slowly getting lost in the horrors of dementia/Alzheimer. He is at a VA facility in Alex City, about an hour northeast of Montgomery. The route I chose took me through Wetumka, and Santuck, then north past Equality (if I’d turned east between those two towns, I’d have reached Eclectic) and a few miles further up the road, Alex City and the Bill Nichols Veterans Home. It is a large building with plate glass windows, nicely kept large garden, good parking.

I stopped in the portico and front entrance and visited with three veterans in wheelchairs, caps telling the story of service in Korea and World War II. Courtly, they returned my greeting and when I asked how things were going, one told me they were out “enjoying the breeze, ma’am, enjoying the breeze.” The staff at the reception desk were friendly and knowledgeable. Everything looked clean and well cared for. The elevator was slow but got me to the fourth floor and from there, it was easy to find the room I was looking for.

Every person I’ve encountered in end-stage Alzheimer’s is little more than a whisp of humanity, so translucent and fragile, a strong breeze would carry them away. Every family member who has cared for a loved on in this place is exhausted. At the very end, as a person enters the stage of active dying from Alzheimer’s, the tangles of exhaustion and fear and sorrow and helplessness for the family are so very difficult. I watched the staff at this VA facility respond quickly, with compassion, with considerable competence when they were needed. I had not noticed any of the kinds of awful smells I sometimes find when I make visits to nursing home, and when I stood and waited for the elevator to take me back downstairs, I was aware of a mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

I walked out thinking of how very critical we are of the VA system. And don’t get me wrong—my husband is a veteran and I get glimpses of the bureaucratic messes the VA can create for itself and the people it serves. But still. I got to see right things being done right, so my sweet parishioner and her husband could have the peace and comfort each needs.

I drove back through the beautiful, winding, country roads of Alabama, where it’s next to impossible to tell where poverty ends and grace break through, where towns have such quaint names and rivers like the Coosa and the Talapoosa run through and refresh my spirit, even on a sad and hot ride home.

Driving, I thought about the 4th of July, how we had a our traditional parade in Lowndesboro, our speeches, patriotic songs, watermelon and cake. Nothing fancy. We celebrate in a space with complicated history we don’t necessarily talk about as much as perhaps we should, but where I watch people trying awfully hard to be true, and kind—a difficult combination. I teared up when we sang America the Beautiful because of these lines especially:

 America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

I love this battered, bewildered, fractured and fractious country of mine. And I especially love this bewildering, fractured, tormented and amazing state called Alabama. The little video I put together, including that wonderful traditional piece of American music, performed by a group called Grace Notes, helps to show why…