True This…

Yesterday afternoon, when I got home, I opened my car door and immediately was washed over with the smell of cow manure. We live across the road from a large pasture and at this time of the year, there is a lot of cattle grazing there. The breeze was blowing just right—talk about “in your face!”

That reminded me of something else. Last week, Sherod and I were in the den watching TV in the late evening. Although it is Mo’s habit to go have a nap before going to bed, he hadn’t done so yet; he was draped across Sherod’s feet. Tux was snuggled into her favorite cushions on the sofa. All of a sudden, she was like something out of a cartoon, seeming to leap straight up, right out of a deep sleep. She began to bark ferociously and Mo followed suit. They kept running back and forth between the back door and the windows in the den and they would. not. stop. I finally decided to let them out and as soon as I opened that door, I knew what had them so upset: skunk. Lord have mercy, the smell. In that split second after opening the door, those two had gone tearing out and now, my fear was they’d get sprayed and then what would we do???!!! The skunk must have skedaddled fast enough to avoid having to let loose that smell.

The next day, I stood and talked to Mark, our friend who keeps his horses, Gus and Jack, with us. He comes over to feed them regularly so we stood in the pole barn for a quick visit while the horses ate their oats. Mark worked for the state as a biologist until he retired and is our local expert on wildlife; when I told him about the night before, he just kept saying, “Boy, you lucked out! They say try this and try that if your dogs get sprayed by a skunk but I am here to tell you there ain’t nothing you can do because it is absorbed into the skin and into the hair and it’s just nasty.”

Then he said that I should tell Sherod he needed to reconsider his armadillo trapping plan. For several months, our back yard has grown increasingly pock-marked, with small holes about 4 inches across and maybe 3-4 inches deep. That back lawn has been beautiful in the past and it has been making my spouseman nuts to see all the damage to that pristine lawn of his. He decided the holes looked like the work of an armadillo so he set up a trap. In case you don’t know, armadillos are blind so you set up these two by fours in a V-shape with the trap at the point. The armadillo ventures into the V, doesn’t know to turn around and ends up getting stuck in the trap.

A few months ago, there was a big old armadillo in the trap who (we thought) benefitted from our mushy hearts and was relocated far down the road in a pasture not close to any homes. When we told Mark what Sherod had done, Mark with his wildlife experience told us an armadillo that’s moved like that can’t make it in a new location and by law in our state you are supposed to kill it. I’d been sweating the thought of a new armadillo discovering a whole new meaning to finding oneself at a dead end. Turns out, skunks love to dig for grubs and Mark thinks there’s a good chance at least some of the digging is the work of the skunk. Unlike armadillos, skunks do ok in a relocation program so Mark suggested a can of cat food in the trap. We’ll see how that goes. If the Mallowman gets sprayed, he’s sleeping in the pole barn!

I don’t imagine I’m different than most everyone else: we become habituated to the space we occupy, take it for granted, and when newness has worn off, stop realizing just where we are. Now and then, by God’s grace, we are caught up short, made to stop and see, really see, where we are. So this week, I am mightily aware, can say with absolute certainty, “true this: I am now country.”

Old Dispensations

Yesterday, as I prepared our biweekly church newsletter, I found myself returning to “Journey of the Magi,” the poem by TS Eliot I first read when I was 20 and still have read at least once yearly for 40 years. Today, the description of life for the Magi when they returned to their own homes is especially poignant as I reflect on the Christmas season ending today. 

It wasn’t that hard to fall into the old rhythms of planning and preparing for Christmas. One of my deepest joys as a priest right now is my partnership with Randy Foster, organist-choir director at Holy Comforter. It has opened an especially commodious and grace-filled space to explore ways in which liturgy and music go deep, help our congregation find its place in the presence of the mystery of God. That has not changed. The pandemic has not undone the delight I find as we prepare for worship during Advent and Christmas. 

At home, I did a lot more cooking, decorating, wrapping, preparing, than I’ve done in years. The work was all about connective tissue; how, after so much isolation, I needed to remember I am connected to my past, to our little homestead, to my parish, my friends, my family. All of that was meaningful. I also never stopped feeling uneasy.

Today, I am taking a day of ‘in place retreat’ here at the farm. Jan Richardson, a woman whose wisdom I cherish, publishes resources for a “Women’s Christmas Retreat” each year.” It was from her that I learned that in Ireland and other places, the 12th day of Christmas is an opportunity for women to celebrate and regather themselves for the start of a new year.  If you are interested in this resource, rich with reflections, poetry and provocative questions, check out this link

I’m trying make sense of the uneasiness I could not shake off all season. I see some bits more clearly. Sherod and I give each other very, very few gifts these days. Others are so very generous. On Christmas day, after we had opened all the gifts, I was overwhelmed by the number of gift bags, paper, and ribbon I gathered up. I have folded as much of it as I could, will recycle it next year but that will still leave me with way more than I need in the foreseeable future. It isn’t about being an ingrate. In this age when the earth is suffering to the point of death from our excesses, how might we show love and generosity in new ways? How do we get there from here, in an economy that depends on our consumption, our always needing more.

A couple of relatives sent us gift baskets—the kinds that come with all manner of celebratory goodies. Again, the gratitude. Again, that food that tastes delicious and is not particularly nutritious, and is also poison my body can’t handle well, while I am endlessly tempted. 

I don’t mean to go down a rat hole, and especially, I don’t want to sound like I am incapable of joy, incapable of celebration, incapable of receiving the love offered to me. And I was and am so uneasy because the world has shifted, has changed fundamentally for me. I know so much more now about the ways in which “old dispensations,” old ways of moving through seasons in unexamined time did way more harm than I gave myself time to consider.

There’s more. I can barely stand to read the news these days. As priest and pastor of a church, I’ve always been very careful about how, when, and where, I express my political views. Mostly, in the past, I have avoided falling into the kinds of political binaries that shut down conversation and close off possibilities for work and relationships. That is still where I prefer to be. But the Day of Epiphany, when we see revealed and behold, when we are filled with wonder, in the presence of God’s love made flesh, this day, will also always be the day this immigrant’s heart began to break, and continues to, in the shadow of the storming of the Capitol. 

A significant number of my fellow Americans (some of them very, very close kin) and I see the world, the choices, and the possibilities for our country, in diametrically opposed ways. It isn’t just that the old dispensations no longer give me comfort and a sense of safety. It is that, as one of the Magi says in Eliot’s poem, reflecting on that journey to Bethlehem:

“I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

I experience loved ones, neighbors, so many others, as “alien people” clutching a way of seeing the world that only feels death-dealing from where I stand. This Christmas there was birth, for sure. And now I am not sure I can tell the difference between birth and death as I bid it farewell on this day.