A Lenten Epiphany

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Epiphany at Ascension, 2017

On Sunday evening, two friends and I were cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner. The spouseman and a couple of other friends were sitting around our dining room table, laughing and talking. I was struck by a thought that, to some, might seem morbid but was as filled with wonder and gratitude as I could ever imagine. To give it a bit more context and meaning, I need to harken back to conversations Sherod and I have had in the past.

One of the questions for people like us, who got used to living in border spaces, has been “where will we be buried when we die”? That, in some ways, points at what we define as home and for the longest time, we had no answer. We’d come to spend a holiday in Selma and I’d marvel at family plots with generations and generations of a single family buried together. Generations being born, living and dying in one place is far, far removed from the realities of my family, where each generation for at least the last four, has literally moved to a different continent than where the previous generation lived. In my generation, my older brother will likely be buried in Holland and my younger brother in the U.K. I still wish there could have been a place that marked my mother’s life, a place where I could see her name and get as close to her as is possible when all you do is use your finger to gently follow the letters of a name on a little plaque or tombstone. Her ashes went swiftly and playfully down to the Pacific Ocean after we sent them on their way in the Rio Caldera and the most I can do is gaze at a picture my younger brother took as he left Panama after her death, a picture that shows where the Caldera empties out into the Pacific.

On any given day, I would have answered differently if asked where Sherod and I would want to be buried or have our ashes buried or scattered. I was OK with that—after all, it reflected how lightly we held to place as a definition of home.   Now, there is much less doubt and in fact, sometime soon I have to make some arrangements because we know where our final resting place will be. We’ve even talked about filing funeral plans at Ascension.

I hadn’t realized until Sunday evening that there was a corollary to the sense of rootless-ness that defined most of our life together. With a husband 14 years older than I am, it is fairly reasonable to consider the possibility that I will outlive Sherod. I have never given much thought to what it would be like in the wake of his death, if in fact, I do outlive him. What came rushing in, uninvited and unexpected, as I stood laughing with my friends, as I looked around my kitchen, was a certainty that I’d be OK. I’d be able to find my way through that particular devastation. There would be people to walk with me, there would be other parts of my life that would demand my attention, that this small farm, and all the new responsibilities I would have to shoulder, would provide comfort and consolation.

In Fort Lauderdale, with the partnership in ministry Sherod and I developed, if something happened to him, it happened to me as well, when it came to my work situation. Even if I could continue working in the ministries we were involved in, I would not be able to earn enough to hold on to our house and the life we had built together. I am so liberated by having found and been found by Ascension on my own merits and on my own, by the fact that our vocational paths have broken away from each other definitively. I am my own person in ways I don’t think any woman before me in my family has ever experienced. I am also part of a community that I belong to and belongs to me. If it is true that I dread losing Sherod and even pray that it will be I who go first, I am so incredibly thankful that I can bear to consider such a possibility.

And really, such thoughts are grounded in something even deeper and more new to me. I have never had more of a sense of belonging, never been less lonely, than I am now. That is quite simply stunning. AMDG

The Work of Wind and Winter

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Early in Winter

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As Spring Begins to Bloom

In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker Four Quartets

Another Year

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Luli and Polly, 2001

On Saturday, we will celebrate Maria’s “Gotcha Day”. Sixteen years.  At this time in 2001, I was furiously tying up loose ends at FedEx-LAC to start maternity leave.  I’d go home in the evenings and open the closet where little girl dresses hung in perfect formation, at attention, waiting to be chosen.  I’d open the drawers of the dresser and pull out a sparkling white pair of skivvies and marvel at how tiny they were.  I’d stand in the middle of her room imagining.  Just imagining.

Of course, I had a lot wrong about what motherhood would be like.  Yesterday at church, Andy, the Rector, talked about reformation and transfiguration–how we are capable of reformation, that is, turning in a new direction, trying again.  But transfiguration? That’s God’s work with us.  It’s been a bit of both, I think, in the work of motherhood.  Our daughter has helped me become a better person.  March 4, 2001.  The. bestest. day. ever.

To Show Up

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These haven’t been an easy couple of weeks.   Part of my work includes walking with people when they get the most devastating news imaginable. And holding hands with a daughter as she walks into a “chapel” at a funeral home to positively identify her mother’s remains, laid out on a “serving table” (that’s what the funeral director called it). What was worse was sitting through the meeting with the funeral director. We were finalizing the details for a pre-paid cremation for her mom; a process that should have taken no more than 30-40 minutes took almost 2 hours because the funeral home was attempting to get a grieving woman to spend more money as the means to truly honor her mama. Sitting there, late in the afternoon on Sunday, I was ready to jump out of my skin. Monday, a day off, I spent time working on the service for the baby boy with no name we buried in the Pauper’s Annex at Oakwood early on Tuesday.

My dad has had some minor health issues that made my days longer and more complicated and I am facing into the truth that I have not done the things I need to do to take good care of my own health. I’ve already started to take the steps back to health but those little voices about worthlessness—boy, they get loud.

Last Thursday, those voices, sharp as needles tore deeper when I heard back from Collegeville. I have not been accepted into this year’s workshop. I got the news when I had eked out a couple of hours off to make up for lots of time at work. I was able to carry my disappointment with me, out to the garden and started preparing my flowerbeds for some spring planting and sowing. It is only natural to want to know why I was not selected and of course, there is no way I can get that feedback. Nonetheless, I was able to step back enough to understand this about my writing: I think the focus of the workshop requires the participants to be further along in the process of writing a manuscript than I am in mine. I am certain Collegeville made a good decision.

For me, though, the next challenge is dealing, not with itty bitty mean little voices, but with a deep current of awareness about my age and circumstances. I am in a demanding, a really demanding, job. The kind of pastoral care and ‘capacity building’ work I am doing these days is draining, unpredictable, and relentless. I struggle to find the energy and focus for the kind of writing I want to do. As I worked around the plants in my flower bed after I heard from Collegeville, trying to pull out the root structures of the weeds, discovering a fire-ant nest, realizing my favorite daisy plant did not make it through the winter, I wondered about the life I have built for myself. What might I be able to change, how I could open more space for the writing? I am no longer at the place where ‘do overs’ and ‘resets’ are reasonable and realistic. Even what’s in place right now is not particularly amenable to any significant change—small adjustments and tweaks is about it. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish I could change my life enough to sit and write for 3-4 hours a day until I finish my book. A lot of wishes and far more practical and immediate needs and responsibilities.

My flower bed was instructive. Wishing won’t take the weeds away—there is simply persistence. I can pour highly toxic poison on the ant nest and leave an awful legacy to those who will follow behind Sherod and me in tending to this corner of heaven. What I choose to do instead is work around that nest, be careful, share a space I wish were mine alone with some rather unsavory small creatures. The branches on the rose bushes in the bed are weighed down with more buds than I’ve ever seen on any of them. Amaryllis spikes with buds closed tight are pushing out and up at amazing speed. New seeds for ‘forget me nots,’ and ‘painted daisies,’ and ‘blanket flowers’ are already here, ready to be sown. And all of this requires one thing above all from me: I have to show up.

So today, I’m showing up for my garden and my life.

Allow Not Our Hearts To Be Hardened

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Pauper’s Annex, Oakwood Cemetery

The email started out like the others I’ve received when Oakwood Cemetery has reached out to us to officiate at a Pauper funeral. But this one tore me.

Name – LIVESTONE BABY
Sex – Male
Race – Black
Date of Birth – October 22, 2016
Date of Death – October 22, 2016

This time an infant. An infant who died with no name, who lay in the cold and dark of a morgue cooler for four months.  Did he lie there unclaimed, or has his mama tried frantically to find the means to pay for his burial? We don’t know.  I understand tomorrow he will be brought to us in a small cardboard box.  Perhaps family members will be present as well.  For sure, members of the “Children of God Cemetery Guild” will help me return him to his Creator.

Although we have a standard Office of Burial for people who ended their days utterly alone and with nothing left to call their own, I have spent time today preparing an Office of Burial For An Infant. We will begin with the resurrection anthems from the BCP. I have taken the liberty of writing a collect:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray. Loving God, who created, redeemed and always sustains us, we come before you this day with broken and convicted hearts. We know not this little one’s given name, yet, we are assured by psalmists and prophets alike, that even when he was in his mother’s womb, you already knew him and you called him by name.  Now we return him to your abiding compassion. Be with his mother, in whatever her circumstances and condition. Be present with us who have gathered to celebrate a brief life and the little light that shone forth in world, though none could see it. Strengthen our resolve to be tireless in our work on behalf of your kingdom, where every single one of your children, young or old, rich or poor, will be honored and called, “Beloved of God”. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Together we will read a part of Psalm 139 and hear the Gospel of Matthew that reminds us of Jesus’ infinite love for the little children.  We will say the beautiful prayers of commendation that also come from the Book of Common Prayer, and then we will commit that small, infinitely precious, cardboard box to the earth. Like a mama hen, may God hold that little boy safe beneath strong wings, and may God have mercy on us all for our blindness, willful and not, for our fear of scarcity that makes us so stingy with our abundance, and for all the ways in which we dishonor the loving kindness with which we were created and called to be builders of God’s kingdom.

 

flowers, grief and e.e. cummings

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It’s a grey, chilly, winter day in Lowndesboro.  I’m not sure why, except that I love them both, but my friends, Liz and Bob, have been on my mind. It is around this time that Liz lost her beloved nephew quite a number of years ago now.  For Bob, the loss came suddenly, much more recently: a man who could say “sugah” better than anyone I ever met,  with his wonderful art, his dogs, his foibles, his infinity of tchotchkes, was Bob’s love and companion.  None of us ever know, really, because most of us learn to carry it well, how disorienting, how grey and colorless grief can be for years on end.

I pulled on my funny-silly Wellies, the ones I bought for 19 dollars at Tractor Supply and still look good and work good too. Then, I headed out to capture tiny bits of color that have found their way to Lowndesboro already.  The forsythia bloomed early, fast and fierce this year, so fast I almost missed the bloom.  The peach and white flowering quince are also blooming; the camellia bush is about to explode in its riot of pink.  And the daffodils. My Lord how I treasure those sweet, ordinary daffodils, with their yellow insistence that bleakness does not have the last word,  nor death. I took these pictures for my friends and for anyone who grieves and finds the world too awash in gray and grim these days.

we need to remember, we need to remind each other: that queer old balloonMan whistles. even now.

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Wonderful, Wonderful Camp McDowell

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Yesterday morning, Maria sat next to me while I filled out an application for her to attend summer camp at Wonderful, Wonderful, Camp McDowell. Earlier in the week, I’d had a great conversation with the director of Special Session at McDowell , a camp program for people with varying abilities. Although her behavior will need to continue to be stable, and she’ll certainly need to keep her little self out of the Psych Unit, if all works right, Maria will come here for summer camp in June.

Camp McDowell has been the heart of life in the Diocese of Alabama for decades—when we lived here in the late 80’s, I heard a lot about it and resisted going to McDowell on principle—anything mainstream Episcopalians in Alabama liked was suspect to this angular, combative person who wanted nothing more to do with the church. We left and the mission and focus of McDowell continued to expand and become more generous. It hosts the Alabama Folk School now, has an amazing working farm and programs on environmental stewardship. Then, Kee Sloan, our current Diocesan, became a bishop after years and years ministering with tenderness and insight to special needs folks. On his watch, a few years ago, McDowell made the circle even bigger, more bold and generous, so it now holds space in a new area, Bethany Village, where all kinds of people with special challenges have a place to play and experience Sabbath and community at its best.

That’s why Maria will, God willing, be there in June. In July, it looks like I may get to serve as chaplain for another program, Bethany’s Kids Camp, which is brings together special needs children in elementary school, with ‘mainstream’ children and together, they get to have camp like camp’s supposed to be—filled with laughter, mosquitos, new friends, funny songs, swimming, canoeing, a little bit of homesickness and grace.

I am tired of wringing my hands and getting into a lather over each worrisome bit of news that comes from Washington. I am doing what I can (which isn’t a whole lot) to let my elected leaders know where I stand on the issues. I’ve taken off work for Maria’s visit; these days at home with our beautiful girl, I am being reminded of the urgency of working with, and supporting the people and community efforts where even the most vulnerable have a place at the table. It’s in those places I find my humanity stretched, and I hope, formed more truly in the image of the One who created us.