Dissonance and Delight

It isn’t that the horror and grief aren’t relentless. For the first time, maybe ever, I was glad yesterday during the service at my church to use the older, more victorian Eucharistic prayer we call Rite I, with all its emphasis on our wretchedness. Through all my years in the ordained ministry, I have repeated, over and over, that all God’s children are beloved, all humanity held in the heart of a God who is always creating, redeeming and sustaining. Never before have I so thoroughly believed, and been glad to say out loud, the first sentences of what’s known as the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

Even in the midst of the realities of a new war in Europe, on the heels of a devastating pandemic, both of which began as we entered the season of Lent, I have been holding dear a moment both of dissonance and delight that met me unexpectedly last Thursday. I had visited a parishioner who is 97 and remarkable beyond words and then was heading home. I needed some limes and lemons, as well as a jalapeño so I decided I stop at Capital Market, a grocery store just across from the major thoroughfare close to my church. I have only been there once since the pandemic started in 2020 and even before that, I was not a frequent shopper there either.

I walked in and immediately was greeted by the music that always plays; I suspect the owner is active in a Pentecostal church so there’s a never-ending stream of Christian songs to walk through the store with. And in this space is one of the most international, diverse grocery stores in the area–aisles of Korean food, Indian food, Asian food, Caribbean food, Latino food. I’m usually in a hurry and know exactly what I want so I am in and out of there in a jiffy. On Thursday, I slowed down. Marveled at the variety of vegetables, fruits, and greens in the produce section. The dizzying array of dried chiles from Mexico and Central America. The large section of “Coca Cola Mexicana.” And then I got to the beginning of the aisle with Latin food.

Just a few steps down that aisle and there, right at eye-level for me, were cans of Milo. Milo is a chocolate powder you add to milk. For a time early in our childhood, my brother Hans and I had very frequent, tough bouts of tonsillitis and ear infections. We would be put on all these antibiotics that tore through our guts. You don’t get through childhood in Colombia without one or another intestinal parasite and the medicine for one of them included arsenic when I was a kid. Those too were hell on our bodies. All of that added up to a pair of pretty scrawny kids whose mama kept trying to put a little meat on their bones. The way to do it involved giving us Milo, touted for having lots of vitamins and minerals–a beverage of champions. Man, did we love it!!! And then, we got our tonsils out and got sick a lot less. I can’t remember seeing Milo in our house after I was about 6 or 7; as much as we’ had loved it, I can’t remember missing it.

Nonetheless, decades later, here were those only-too-familiar green cans of Milo in a store far more like the Carulla grocery stores in Colombia than a Publix or Fresh Market–a little scruffy, a little chaotic, a lot colorful. All of a sudden it created mind-boggling, cognitive dissonance. Was I in Cali, Colombia, circa 1965, or was I was in Montgomery, Alabama in 2022? I snapped pictures of the Milo, of the panela imported from Colombia, and of the frozen arepas, sent the pictures to my brother Hans in Holland. Along with the dissonance there was the purest of delight. Of appreciation for my childhood, for the wacky weirdness of living in Alabama. For my mama who worried so much for her peeps, and Ligia, the woman who cooked for us and prepared those glasses of Milo for us every day. For the way the two pieces of who I am came together in such an unexpected way on an ordinary Thursday. More than anything, I was alive and so glad for that…

Perhaps it is wrong to dwell on a silly moment. On Sunday, the NYT published a piece about Auden’s poem Musée Des Beaux Arts that captures another kind of dissonance this moment brought with it. At least for me, here and now, there are some concrete things I can do in response to the horror unfolding in Ukraine–there are donations to make, prayers to offer, a willingness to pay attention and not ignore the suffering. When delight, or wonder, or surprise, or joy find me, it feels ungrateful and foolish not to welcome the messy, complicated truth that life is like that. So here’s to a glass of icy cold Milo, mamas doing their best for their kiddos, the truth that those children grow up and then grow old, and to scruffy supermarkets with treasures waiting to be discovered. ( BTW–it was more than enough to simply look at those cans, I had no desire whatsoever to buy one and try it again.)

Progress, not perfection

A number of weeks ago, while I was home and my spouseman and stepson were out hunting, I got the idea that I was going to try making croissants. Don’t know how to put this any more bluntly: it was a total disaster and I vowed I wouldn’t ever waste my time again.

Then, in early February, we got word that one of our very dearest friends had died very unexpectedly. Sherod drove to Ft Lauderdale yesterday; tomorrow, he and María will attend Bob’s funeral together. Bob was one of the folks who found María and he was her Godfather. I thought about going and then I realized I wouldn’t. The last year of my ministry in Ft Lauderdale was living hell, some of it of my own making, some, because making church sausage can be brutal. I don’t know that I’ll ever be up to stepping foot back at All Saints and that’s ok. I took yesterday off and today’s my regular day of Sabbath time; that meant the critters had someone to take care of them and I have been in good company.

Thinking about how to find my way through these days, I decided that by golly, I was going to take what I had learned with my first attempt at making croissants and try again. It’s a 24 hour process though long. periods of time involve letting the dough rest. Nonetheless, it requires concentration, and slow, careful effort. When I wasn’t working on the bread, I cleaned kitchen cabinets. By the time I went to bed at 11:30 pm, after doing the “second fold,” it took me less than 5 minutes to fall asleep. I was back at it today and in the final steps, I saw clearly that I was learning some more and there was still a good way for me to go to master the art of croissant baking. I have no idea when, or if, I will do it again.

I was immeasurably thankful for the work I could do. Before I fell asleep on Wednesday night the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun and all day yesterday, I found myself stopping to weep, for the people of Ukraine, for my brothers, their families, and our good friends in Europe, for our country that now has a former president lauding Putin, for the future that waits for our children even as we spend time on war and not climate change. That, on top of the sorrow of losing our friend, made it so tempting to do nothing but stare out the window in despair.

I got through the day, I am now actively shaping my sermon for the Sunday of the Transfiguration, war and death have not had have the last word in or home. And I have the evidence of applied learning in front of me. The croissants will go to neighbors and the freezer, and there is deep satisfaction; these are not perfection, but there was some progress.

You lock a sheet of butter in dough
You go through a process of layering the dough and butter. Lamination, it’s called.
The second to last step involves rolling out the laminated dough, cutting triangles and then forming the croissants
Out of the oven
With some lamination

As Winter Gives Way

We’ve had harbingers of spring for the past couple of weeks. The forsythia is in full bloom, the camellias are too. Daffodils have been popping up, some of them in unexpected places around our little homestead.

This year, I have to admit that the promise of spring feels profoundly different and not in a real good way. Yesterday as part of my sermon on the passage in Luke that charges us to love our enemies, I shared a hard and painful story about an incident of overt, aggressive racism I witnessed in the parking lot of a Publix store in Montgomery. It left me shaken to my core. Today, I was having lunch with a new member of the parish and his wife when my iWatch started buzzing repeatedly. It does that when I have a new text message or when a newsflash comes through from the newspapers I follow. I wondered if it meant that all hell had broken loose in Ukraine.

On Saturday evening, awash in new grief for my dad, I went out to walk through the pecan grove that delighted him. I kept a small handful of Dad’s ashes before we had his burial at the church; a month after he died, I scattered them in a corner of the land he had come to love, where he and Mouse had walked daily. Now, as the sun went down, I went to the place where I scattered those few precious bits of a life to say out loud, “Hola, papi” and just as I got there, a deliciously cute little bunny sprung out of the brush nearby and went hippity-hopping away from me.

We know we have a resident skunk, smelled him or her a couple of times too! More than once, I’ve watched deer graze under the pecan trees. More than once, I’ve also been pretty sure the coyotes we heard yipping, barking and howling were that close to our house. Squirrels and birds, and all kinds of other creatures share that space. In the midst of the sadness, I felt a jolt of wonder and gladness: Dad would be thrilled to know he has so many different friends to keep him company.

But the grim realities weigh heavy and unlike other years, the tentative few signs that spring will be here soon bring to mind Sara Teasdale’s poem. The poem’s structure, with one rhyme after another, feels quaint in the light of more contemporary poems. Nonetheless, the poem speaks a bleak and strangely beautiful truth, at least to me, on a rainy, grey day at the end of February in central Alabama.

There Will Come Soft Rains
(War Time)
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

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.

Caminho de Santiago-An Update of Sorts

The Party That Wasn’t

The only way to talk about my pilgrimage on the Portuguese Coastal Route of the Caminho de Santiago starts with two small stories.

Early in the Morning
Two winters ago, my sweet dog Tuxie needed to be groomed. Her appointment fell on a particularly cold day and her haircut was especially short. That evening, she was obviously chilly and at bedtime, we invited her to sleep on our bed. She was pressed tight against me the whole night long. Somehow, the invitation became permanent.

Every day, somewhere between 4:30 and 6:00 am, Miss Tux begins to stir and wakes me up. I don’t move, trying to sneak in a bit more sleep. She is patient for about 5 minutes, then stands up and shakes herself vigorously. Again, I play possum. Next, she drapes herself across me, not doing anything more than that, except her tail wags so hard the whole bed shakes. When I finally give up, I scratch the bottom sheet of my bed to let Tux know I’m coming, then grab her for little bit of “woob a@# and wrastlin”.

Early on, that was the extent of the routine. But then, Mo, the Ying to her Yang, decided to join in by coming around from the other side of his humans’ bed, to breathe right into my face, his tail thumping as it hits the wall close to my bed. The best I dare do for my 90 lb. friend is scratch behind his ears with one hand while I mess with Tux with the other. Just a bit of that is more than enough for me and I say, “Let’s get up!” They bound out of the room and go sit eagerly in the kitchen, waiting for me to serve them breakfast. The ritual has several additional parts, all of them overflowing with the sheer exuberance and joy with which these two beautiful creatures greet each day.

The Past 10 Days
More than a month ago, things were looking pretty good. The pandemic seemed to be easing up enough that I did something I’d never done before. I invited the vestry and staff, and their significant others, to come for a Christmas gathering at Sherod’s and my home. It didn’t take long for my mama’s spirit to take possession of me, churning out the detailed to-do lists, cooking, cleaning, totally enjoying the thought of being able to have a party. There were layers of meaning in the work. I decided to make Swedish sweets for dessert, a small nod to my heritage. The last time I prepared any of them was a couple of years before my dad died. Once again that brought home to me that the previous generation of my family is gone. There’s a strange sense of unmooring that comes with that insight.

By Saturday evening, everything was just like I wanted it. And for days, I had grown more and more uneasy hearing about the Omicron variant. The party was the next day (yesterday) and the temperature would be very low so my carefully prepared plan for adequate ventilation would not work. There were any number of other reasons as well, but the long and short of it was, I no longer felt it was safe and responsible to go forward with the party. It was awful to make that decision. I don’t regret it.

I tell both these stories because together, they capture my sense of life without a future. I struggle these days as I think about that pilgrimage I’d been so fired up about; I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment. On numerous occasions, I’ve gone into the Delta webpage to buy my airline ticket and backed off after going as far as choosing my seats for the flights. You can get refundable tickets but they cost a fortune and it’s not clear that a Covid outbreak is considered a reason for refunds now. I continue to work out and pay attention to the ways in which I can be in the best shape possible, but not so much because of the pilgrimage, but because it is something I can do now to contribute goodness to this crazy broken world of ours.

There is a new, low-level anxiety that goes with that sense of no future. It isn’t paralyzing but it does take energy from other places in my life. I try to remind myself that having no future is actually at the core of human experience—you can look ahead, you can dream, you can plan and then, life can take such totally unexpected turns. There is something important to learn about that truth in this time when the virus insists on showing us we are not in charge. A few days ago, I’d been moping around about how hard this all is. The very next morning, when Tux draped herself on me, filling my very being with giggles, I had a moment of utter clarity. The daily morning gift of joy I receive from Mo and Tux makes me live here, makes me live now in the best way possible. I can aim for the pilgrimage and still hold it very lightly. Maybe having less of a horizon is not so bad at all.

A tiny story of holiness

I was able to bring Chinese takeout Ito BARC for María on Thursday, as the rest of her household was preparing for dinner. The twelve women residents arrive back from their day programs around 4 each afternoon. There are meds to take, showers to have, clothes to fold, for those who are able. Others simply sit in one or the other of the common spaces. Starting that set of routines is one transition and the second one moves them into the evening meal.

This is normally a period of contained chaos—I can only speak for our own experience with our daughter but transitions are always tough for her and it seems like that holds true for the rest of her housemates. MarÍa is one of the most functional members of the house and most of the other residents are non-verbal. A couple, though unable to speak, do vocalize, sometimes very loudly. 

The staff, women who mostly come from Caribbean islands, are  totally engaged and alert during this time. They coax, direct, challenge, redirect, compliment, have micro-conversations, with 12 people with varying degrees of need, ability and internal resources. This all goes down in a relatively short amount of time. I can only imagine how tired the women who serve the residents of A House must be when they get done with their work. And what always gives me a knot in my throat is how affectionate and genuine they are with such vulnerable and complicated people.

Thursday evening was no different than many other nights I’ve been there, except there was an audio speaker pouring out Christmas music.  I’m not sure if this was a Spotify playlist, or a radio station, or what.  All I know is, after “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the tenor and tone changed dramatically. An orchestra started playing and the voice of a soloist intoned the first notes of “O Holy Night.” María’s home, A House, became unexpectedly quiet and then, the staff and residents spontaneously began to sing along with the voice coming from the speaker. You had to be there to observe the non-verbal residents sing as they were able. Some quietly kept the beat with their bodies, other croaked or hummed along, no real ‘melody’ as we would define it, but undoubtedly, a song. It was all of them. Every single one of those twenty or so women sang their hearts out.

I was spellbound. What was it about that piece that knit this group of people together like this?  How astounding, to watch music not just transcend limitation, but transform it into something holy, and pure and just extraordinarily beautiful. This is incarnation. This is what it means to be human.

There will be signs

“Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth” (Lk 21:25)

As the week ended, we began to hear about a new Corona virus variant of concern being flagged by scientists in South Africa. For a moment, the thought raced through my mind: “Is this then, how inexorably, the human population is decimated, how we face into the end? A virus so wily and strong that it outruns us once and always?” I quickly dismissed my overly dramatic notion but I would lie if I said it didn’t leave a lingering sense of uneasiness.

Then, it was time to start working on my sermon and for the third week, the Gospel reading was all about apocalyptic times. In a space that already feels so apocalyptic, the notion that there are signs all around us to read and understand about how it is that the Kingdom of God is ushered in with finality, was also deeply unsettling. Am I staying alert enough? Am I watching for signs with eyes of love? As so much feels broken, even shattered, beyond repair, can I truly put my trust in the assurance that cataclysmic events are “but the beginning of birth pangs” as God does something new? I kept looking for a ‘handle,’ an entry point that would allow me to find what I can only describe as the beating, life-giving heart of the Gospel passage for the week. I had a few glimmers of what that might be but nothing to build with. I’ve learned to trust (at least up to a point) that I will be led where I need to go for a Sunday sermon, even if that doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like.

With all that a faint, persistent hum inside me, I got up Saturday and made sure I was wearing clericals before I headed into Montgomery for a busy morning. On the 21st of this month, Ms. Helen Louise Miles died. Ms. Helen had worked in the kitchen of Jeff Davis High School in Montgomery during the week for decades. And for over 30 years, she cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings for the people of Holy Comforter. I never met her–she’d moved to Georgia long before I came to Montgomery, but had heard a tiny little bit about her. When I shared with the parish that she had died earlier on the 21st., what I can only describe as a tremulous sigh went up from the nave. Ms. Helen hadn’t only served the parish well for all those years. She had been love, light, and life to many, many, many folks.

I would not be able to attend the funeral but there was going to be a visitation and viewing before the service. I needed to pay my respects on behalf of the parish. I punched in the address to the funeral home and headed there, wondering if the street was one I’d heard about on the news a few weeks earlier. Getting close, I had to turn off Day St. on Hill St. At the first stop sign, I would need to turn left onto Jeff Davis Ave. When I got to the second street that intersected with Hill, my GPS announced it was time to get on Jeff Davis. As I turned, I looked up long enough up to see one of those innocuous green street signs we all know so well. Except it was no longer Jeff Davis Ave. It was Fred Grey Ave. Last month, the street was renamed in honor of the civil rights attorney who grew up on that very street and represented Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The change was not—still is not—without controversy. You can read about that here.

I stopped the car and looked up again, with goose bumps all over, tears in my eyes. I had seen a segment on the local evening news about this change, had been moved that the change was approved by White folks as well as Black on the Montgomery City Council. I drove on to the funeral home, stepped into the chapel and stood before Ms. Helen’s open casket to pray. Ms. Helen, now a thin, tiny dried leaf of a self, was ready to fly away, but before she did, this place of her last repose was on a street that now remembered, not the president of the Confederacy but a man who fought for the rights of people like her.

Right there. On the corner of two streets in a tucked away and off the beaten path kind of place in Montgomery, I was invited into the Gospel. Jesus said, “There will be signs…Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” God knows—race relations, civil rights, violence, so much is achingly wrong in this city where I serve as a priest. The resistance to a small change like this one is still mean and ferocious. There is still so, so much not yet reconciled or redeemed. But even so. Here. Now. On the most ordinary looking of street signs there it was. A sign. An Advent glimpse of God’s Kingdom breaking in. We must stand up. Raise our heads. See. Redemption is drawing near.

Things broken, things repaired and transcendent II

Not long before the anniversary of my dad’s death, I was in the small space where I work out on my DE (I’m not real fond of it and the “E” stands for elliptical so I imagine you can figure out what the D stands for…). It was already dark outside and Sherod was watching TV so when I was done working out, I headed back to the den to sit with him. 

As soon as I walked in, I saw he had a very pained expression on his face and immediately launched into an apology. He’d almost tripped over Mo, our dog, close to the coffee table in the den. As he reached out to prevent himself from falling, he knocked off a ceramic bowl and broke it. The bowl was one of those extraordinarily bittersweet remnants of my childhood and my parents’ home. It was made by a well-known Swedish artist, a fine piece, and so beautiful to me, it made my heart ache when I looked at it.

The bowl had graced my mother’s living room, probably the most paradoxical space in our home in Cali.  It was where you could see how my grandmother Vera, with her French training in interior design, had helped shape my mom’s aesthetic. The living room was gracious, filled with fine furniture, and sunlight, and lovely things. It was also a space we were only allowed into on Christmas Eve.  My brothers and I never dared enter that room otherwise, though I remember standing looking in, always taken by its beauty, both so intensely familiar and so far removed from the day-to-day realities of life. The ceramic bowl was always close to one of the edges of the glass table and I can still see the whole room in my mind’s eye all these years later, and how everything seemed to fit together so perfectly.

In 2015, when it became clear that Dad was reaching the point where he needed more help and support than he had in Panamá, when he made the move to Lowndesboro, he brought very little with him. My mom had inherited a fine collection of colonial Latin American art and had a lot of fine antique furniture. All of that landed in a consignment shop in the town where Dad lived, Boquete, and who knows where any of it is now. But Dad brought the bowl with him, and asked me to put it in my living room. 

Now, that piece so loaded down with history and nostalgia and meaning, was broken. When I saw the pieces, I just sobbed. I know it was another round of grieving, another way so much of aging continues to be about subtraction rather than addition. I started to live with that reality 10 years ago and it still has not ended.

Then, as I reflected on this new loss the next day on my way to work, still tearing up, I remembered the wonderful Japanese notion of Kintsugi, a way of transcending brokenness by repairing a broken piece of pottery or ceramic, gluing the pieces back together with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The repair is not concealed but celebrated, adds further beauty to a piece. I thought perhaps I could figure out a way to do that.

I began to do the research during my lunch break and had actually found a source for that special lacquer on Etsy. I would order some because the bowl was broken into 3 or 4 large pieces and doing that meant I’d be able to give it to my niece one day, with the story of the way in which perfection is not necessarily what matters most. The “imperfections” tell about the layers of story that keep adding to my life even when I am so used to thinking (and feeling a little bit sorry for myself) ‘subtraction, all of it is subtraction.’ It really isn’t. 

When I got home, I headed to the den and as I walked by the dining room table, there was the bowl, glued back together, perhaps a little awkwardly, but nonetheless, a broken piece made whole. Sherod had worked hard on it all morning and apologized that he hadn’t been able to make the repairs seamless and invisible. This was another kind of Kintsugi—perhaps not as pretty the one you do with gold lacquer, but one that is infinitely more valuable, a gift of love and an effort to make amends.  The bowl is back in its place. I stop to feast my eyes on it often.

Today I’m in Charlotte, NC visiting my cousin and her family. We’ve been looking through old family pictures, ones that date back more than a hundred years. Our family has known its fair share of brokenness, and we are all patched and glued back together, shattered as our lives have been over and over again. This is just another way I am reminded what it means to me personally to say, “we are people of the resurrection.”

Ours

Our House

It’s a red-letter day at the Lindahl-Mallow’s. I just paid off our mortgage. For the first time in our marriage, we are completely debt-free. It took longer than I’d hoped and, be that as it may, we have careful plans to do everything in our power to stay that way. The relief I feel has so many parts to it. Too often now, I read the news, listen to our leaders, see so much suffering, and believe our country–the world itself, is a very slow-moving train wreck.  Not having debt, having some land where we can grow things, knowing how that works, gives me some reassurance about our capacity to carry on even in very hard times.  If all we do is become more be self-sustaining, I want to believe we will do our part to try to change the death-dealing course our world seems hell-bent on following. There is a whole new meaning to ‘ a lightness of being’ this Friday afternoon…