On a snowy day in Lowndes

It’s fifteen degrees outside and with windchill, it feels like -1. About 3 inches of snow fell during the night and even the interstates were shut down in this part of the world.

Earlier this morning, I got to make another snow angel. When you are edging towards 60 and have had hip replacement surgery, you know better than to assume there are endless opportunities to do something that tickles you half to death. You make that snow angel now, the best you can.

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I tromped through the snow in my flowered Tractor Supply wellies to check on my chicken girls and barn cats. Lifting the roof of the chicken coop, so heavy with snow, was scary—we’ve never had it so cold around here with chickens. Everyone is doing well.

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I just stood out there, wanting to take it all in, to extract every ounce of wonder and joy from a dawn like this even if the wind felt like it was shredding my ears and my nose to pieces.

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And I talked my sweet husband into doing what we weren’t supposed to do: we got in his 4WD pickup truck and went down to Lowndesboro so I could take some pictures and assess the likelihood of being able to go to work today (NOT).

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The quiet of snow. The gentleness of a morning too complicated to allow me to go to work. The rock solid truth, however brief and dimly understood, of my husband, my sweet dog Daisy, and my silly one, Mo-licious, all of us jostling and crowded into the front seats of a pickup truck in January, in Lowndes County, on the back end of a snowstorm.

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Venga la esperanza (Hope, please come)

Inga and I

Tía Inga and I

I have a brother whom I’ve struggled to have a good, healthy, adult relationship with. The reasons are complicated but the kind of ordinary give and take of siblings has eluded us for most of our adult years. Every now and then though, a way has opened to cut through the disappointment, failed efforts and baggage that that have made it so much easier for each of us to take our own path and have little contact. At some of the bleakest, most difficult moments of my adult life, it is he who has given me new hope, a bit of sunshine in the dark.

A few weeks ago, the woman who helped raise me, Ligia, who was my nanny and who, night after night took turns with my mother, turning me over every three hours so I wouldn’t loose lung capacity in my full-length cast, this beautiful woman, Ligia, died. Today, I have received word that my Tía Inga, my mother’s sister, died last night. Her relationship with my mom was difficult as well. Especially since my dad moved up here, I have had very little contact. We weren’t close; nonetheless, I grieve her death. In a time when a great deal else is in flux, and disruption seems to be the only normal all around me, the loss of the mothers in my life is particularly desolating. Earlier, I sat in my small home office with the finality of Tía Inga’s death, the absolute horror of our President’s latest assault on basic human decency, and a bunch else at the end of a hard week, feeling like it all could drown me, when the insistent, persistent melody of a song began to play in my mind.

Sylvio Rodriguez’s music is described as “tender balladry” at the same time that he is a politically active Cuban who has always supported the Cuban Revolution. I’d never heard of him until soon after my mother’s death, another time of piercing grief, when my brother sent me a YouTube link to one of his pieces. The title of the piece is “Hope, please come”. The following are the lyrics in Spanish with a very rough translation. We are all certainly in need of hope these days, it seems to me. So I am beyond grateful for my brother’s love that finds a way to give me that gift of hope.

And I think again, how strange, and harsh, and beautiful life is.

Venga la esperanza

Dice que se empina y que no alcanza,
(She says she stands on her toes and still can’t reach)
que sólo ha llegado hasta el dolor. (That she’s only gotten as far as the pain)
Dice que ha perdido la buena esperanza (She says she’s lost all good hope)
y se refugia en la piedad de la ilusión. (and seeks refuge in the piety of illusions)

Sé de las entrañas de su queja (I know about the depths of her complaints)
porque padecí la decepción: (I too suffered deception)
fue una noche larga que el tiempo despeja,  (It was a long night that time has cleared away)
mientras suena en mi memoria esta canción: (while this song plays in my memory)

Venga la esperanza, (Hope, please come)
venga sola mí. (Come by yourself to me)
Lárguese la escarcha, (Let the frost be gone)
vuele el colibrí. (May the hummingbird fly)
Hínchese la vela, (Let the sail be filled)
ruja el motor, (Let the motor roar)
que sin esperanza (Because if we have no hope)
¿dónde va el amor? (Where is love to go?)

Cuando niño yo saque la cuenta  (When I was just a boy I figured out)
de mi edad por el año dos mil (How old I’d be around the year two thousand)
(el dos mil sonaba como puerta abierta (Two thousand sounded like a door flung open)
a maravillas que silbaba el porvenir). (To marvels whistled by the future)
Pero ahora que se acerca saco en cuenta (But now that it draws near, I figured out)
que de nuevo tengo que esperar, (That once again, I’ll have to wait)
que las maravillas vendrán algo lentas ( That marvels will arrive somewhat slow)
porque el mundo tiene aún muy corta edad. (Because the world is still so very young)

Venga la esperanza, (Hope, please come)
pase por aquí. (Come by here)
Venga de cuarenta, (Come if you are forty)
venga de dos mil. (Come if you are two thousand)
Venga la esperanza (Come hope)
de cualquier color: (Come in any color)
verde, roja o negra, (Green or red or black)
pero con amor. (But come with love)

A new magic

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María walked into her room on Friday and stopped. She kept turning around, looking first at one part of her room and then another. There wasn’t the kind of gleeful astonishment and squeals of previous years. Instead, she was very quiet. I was biting my tongue, trying to open space for her to take the lead, getting a bit anxious that somehow, this had gone wrong. Finally she looked at me and in almost a whisper said, “this is beautiful. Mami, I don’t think Olaf was the one who did this. I think this was you. Did you do this for me?” I couldn’t lie. I told her I had and she came over and just stood and hugged me. Later in the evening she added, “I am not sure it’s ever been Santa either. I think it’s been you.”  As we lay together on her bed at bedtime, she repeated over and over again, “I love how my room looks. Thank you, Mami.” And just like that, my girl and I had moved into a whole new place.

As much as I have loved the wonder of seeing Christmas through my woman-child’s eyes, there is no regret or nostalgia that we have crossed out of that time. There’s a kind of ordering of thought and experience that made it possible for María to take her room in and come up with a new way of understanding what she was looking at. I am beyond thankful for this kind of progress in her cognitive development. They say the brain keeps developing until you reach your late twenties and I get to see it live and in Technicolor with María.

There was a new magic in the past couple of days—the unimagined wonder of a young woman settling into a more companionable relationship with her mom. We worked together yesterday and today, preparing meals for ourselves and friends. We are both trying to be healthy about the food we eat and as a result, María was able to wear a dress that was too tight for her a couple of months ago. There was some makeup in María’s stocking. We had some company coming over for lunch and she asked me to help her with the make-up though she cautioned she didn’t want a whole lot of it on her face. When I finished, she asked me, “do I look pretty”.
“O my stars, María, you look stunningly beautiful and grown up”

Herself completely and also, a new creation.

May the rest of your Christmas season and the new year that lies ahead have such moments of wonder and joy.

Prepare

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The hard feelings surrounding the realities of my daughter’s life ebb and flow for me. There are times her voice is so happy and full of life that it is easy to get on with mine, reminding myself that any 21 year old would be on her way to independence and I’d do well to catch glimpses of her as she left the house for yet another adventure if she were home from college. This year, I’ve struggled.

Sherod and I spent some time this year doing the legal updates required of us every few years so María will be as well taken care of as possible when we are no longer here.  Writing the very specific directives for what will happen to María when both of us are dead is wrenching. Her dependence on others is so great. I think I speak for Sherod and me when I say, for us it’s not a burden but a privilege. For those left to watch out for her, the burden will be significant.

We are incredibly fortunate to have some financial means that can help make María’s life more comfortable. I am especially grateful to the Episcopal Church because she will receive survivor benefits from both of our pensions for the entirety of her life. But I make sure not to fool myself: what we will leave behind can only supplement the benefits available to her through Social Security and Medicaid. The cost of her care at BARC runs well over $150,000 a year right now. When I hear men like Paul Ryan, who’ve been shaped by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, talk about “taking on entitlements next year to manage the deficit,” I fear for my girl. She is a speck of nothing next to the greed, the expediency and the insularity of the people making decisions about the financial future of this country. Doing our legal work and listening to the stuff coming out of Washington DC would plunge me into absolute despair if I let it. I try to stay busy instead.

For those and a number of other reasons, I have missed my girl something fierce this year. As Advent gets started, I start holding my breath, hoping she will be in good enough shape to come home for Christmas. And I start preparing. Today, The pajamas are made. Each year, I try to decorate Maria’s room with a Christmas-y and here in Alabama, wintery theme. This year, it is snowflakes. There’s also a reminder that a couple of years after we brought María home, the movie Elf was on infinite loop in our home. She and I must have watched that movie hundreds of times together. There is something hauntingly, magically similar between the innocence of Buddy the Elf, and my girl’s innocence. I simply adore that movie for giving my girl a way of looking at her own self in ways that make sense to her.

One of our favorite scenes is the one where Buddy starts singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Jovie. Now, I am one of the ones who grows increasingly uncomfortable with the subtext of this particular song. But before I had read this powerful piece, I ordered a wall decal knowing Miss María would love that connection to happy memories of us singing along with Buddy and Jovie. I debated whether or not to put it up and finally decided the memory was just too sweet to ignore. Along with that decal and one of a tree with birds on its branches, there are snowflakes gently drifting down the walls of her room and this week I’ll hang some paper ones I made for her from her ceiling as well. The sheets are flannel with snowmen and snow drifts, the comforter is white and the IKEA star-lights are up.  God willing, Sherod and I will be standing where passengers come out into baggage claim at the Atlanta airport this Friday, anxiously watching for our daughter.

Last week during the time I spent with a group of women at my church who do a Bible Study together and who also observe Advent together for an hour each week, we discussed the notion of preparing. Several talked about those final days in a pregnancy where the impulse to ‘nest’ is strong and how that describes part of what Advent preparation is all about: creating a space to welcome new life. There are so very few of the things I would want to do as María’s mother that are possible, so many things I was not there to do for her as she came into the world. I imagine I will always find myself ‘nesting,’ preparing for her arrival at Christmas, not because I can make up for what she didn’t have but because mothering this miracle of a person is always new and extraordinary to me. It is such a joy and such a gift. I also find it a way to understand that extraordinary piece by Meister Eckhardt:

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.” -Meister Eckert (1260-1328)

Maria continues to teach me the miracle of incarnation.

 

 

Never

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Here’s what I heard when I moved here:  It never snows in Central Alabama.  I also heard the words never, ever, ever used in conjunction with Democrats and elections in this part of the world.  Sitting by the fire in my Lowndes County home, watching the big ole wet snowflakes come down pretty fast, I wonder, can pigs fly? Is it possible that enough of us would trust that a woman, let alone several of them, would speak truth at great cost to themselves, to make a harder than usual choice?  Do the silence breakers have a chance? I wonder.

Leading my heart to Christmas

Work won’t lighten up–each day brings its own set of challenges, sometimes craziness, frequent heartache.  Today a guy showed up at church in need of gas money. I’m jaded and suspicious enough to automatically wonder what the angle is.  I’ve been practicing something else though. I ask myself, “who am I to thwart the outrageous generosity of  God?”  With no cash of my own on hand, I was grateful our front desk volunteer had a $10 bill he put in my hands. He insisted I give this person that little bit of help on behalf of the whole church.

I walked out to our gracious, elegant foyer and saw a man sitting on one of our sofas, a man I suspect isn’t nearly as old as he looks, clothes hanging off his thin frame, literally sitting there hat in hand.  He wept when I offered him the money.  We hugged, I said a prayer with him, made the sign of the cross on his forehead, my faith tradition’s way of asking a blessing from our Triune God.  He thanked the volunteer, they too hugged and then he left.

This year I’ve had on my planning mojo. I was able to prepare a package of very silly things that went to a friend’s house a couple of weeks ago.  Today, while María was out of her residence, my friend Barbara went into her room and left the goodies on her dresser-a mug and a package of hot cocoa each for her and her roommate, some nail decals, elf clip-on ears, a letter from Maria’s good friend, Olaf the naughty elf, and a little sound box that makes slightly obscene noises. After she set up the surprise for my girl, Barbara sent me a picture.  About two hours later, María called me and all I heard was one version of the obscene noises, followed by peals of laughter. She didn’t even speak–just laughed and hung up.

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I was able to sit with both moments for a fairly long spell this evening. During the last couple of weeks, I have taken every free moment I could eke out of my days and evenings to work on my annual Christmas flannel PJ sewing project. It is slow and careful work for me. I still have to make my daddy’s PJ’s, but tonight I finished stitching the one for Maria–I had finished Sherod’s at the end of last week. This sewing gives me space to sort out the noise from the clear, beautiful notes of the angels’ songs during Advent. Sitting at my sewing machine, shaking my head because the flannel fabric I chose for my loved ones is so silly, I was able to revisit both moments from earlier in the day.   María’s laughter and the sobs of Elmore, the man I had helped, mingle in me–they are truly the song at the heart of this season, aren’t they?

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These small, insignificant steps I have taken to prepare for Christmas are my acts of subversion and rebellion. They help me see something stronger than everything that seeks to blind and silence us these days.

Shelter

 

I woke up this morning with a vivid dream still playing out in my mind. A large group of people, some I knew, some I didn’t, were hurrying to gather up a few things they would be allowed to take with them down to the nuclear shelter under the building we were in. We’d been told we had fifteen minutes to gather our things and get into the bunker before all nuclear hell broke loose. I kept getting confused, having to stop and think about what was essential to take. When I’d figured it out, and gathered a passport and wallet, a book and my extra pair of glasses to put in my small bag, I started heading down the hill to the entrance of the shelter. But I dropped my bag several times and had to retrace my steps, go back and retrieve it, while time kept ticking by. It was a beautiful day and the landscape around the shelter was lush and green, but the only thing that was really real was that I might run out of time and not make it into the shelter in time. I woke up with my heart racing.

I am sure there are all kinds of Freudian interpretations and otherwise, to apply to my dream. I don’t think that’s it, though. I watched the evening news a couple of days ago, right after North Korea launched its latest missile. A mild-mannered man in Hawaii was explaining that the state government there was resuming its monthly testing of the island’s nuclear warning system. It wasn’t that I freaked or had a panic attack. It’s that a sense of hope and optimism imploded in my chest.

I have never romanticized a time in my life as “the best of times.” One of my very earliest memories is of being out in the streets in Cali with my mother—she had me out in the specially rigged stroller that the good folks at Boston Children’s had made for me so my parents could take me places even though I was in my full-length cast. I couldn’t understand why the people who shared the sidewalk with us were crying and then I heard someone say, “Mataron a Kennedy”—they killed Kennedy. I remember being very young and listening to my parents talk about the hundreds of children that had died somewhere in Colombia because somehow, a bottle of Malathion, a virulent poison, spilled into a large vat of milk and the spill went unnoticed. The milk was bottled and delivered all across the city, and first the children, but soon anyone who had drunk the milk simply died. I could go on enumerating how earthquakes, the Yom Kippur War of ’73, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, so many other moments, that reminded me we live a precarious existence.

All that is vivid and clear for me. And I have also never seen our world as utterly out of its mind as I do right now. Until now, there had been some kind of assurance that we’d find our way through just about anything because the US had a level of strength and integrity that would make the difference. Today, China and Russia become stronger and stronger as I watch a group of mainly old privileged white men cutting deals and massaging legislation not to serve the people of this country but to benefit the wealthy donors who oiled the way for these men and a handful of women to get and maintain power. They are mortgaging my special needs child’s and all our children’s future. I join with many folks who wonder if our president is out of his mind. We are using a kind of language about North Korea that simply terrifies me—I suspect that is what my dream was about. I am thankful for the effects of the #metoo campaign and I also find myself bracing for a backlash against women. Indeed, for me, darkness comes early these days, and stays late.

When I woke up from my dream, I thought about what it means to shelter in place here on our small farm. As tornado season begins each year, we remind ourselves that our guest bathroom, with its Pepto-Bismol pink tile and wonderfully foolish little chandelier, is our safe space. The space is small and we often laugh at the thought of Sherod, and Mo and Daisy and Spot and me, my dad, Pia and Mouse (and now Gilbert and Sunny)  all fighting for space in the tub; I suspect we can laugh because we’ve never  had to seriously consider going into that space. The fragility of that bathroom, its utter inadequacy in the face of a real tornado warning, let alone a nuclear threat, the sense of finding no safety in any human enterprise, not even the enterprise called the United States of America, is not what I want to face into on a Friday morning, the first of December, when preparations are already underway for Christmas.

And perhaps, just perhaps, that is the exact right time to face into such profound fear because what hope there is does not reside in humankind. “Surely it is God who saves us, I will trust in God and not be afraid”.