The face of God

The stories in the Bible about being in the presence of God are conflicting and conflicted. Can you see the face of God and live? How can you live if you have not seen the face of God? I am steeped in the Judeo-Christian version of reality, that assumes that power, might and glory, like God’s, look big, imposing, scary enough to maybe make you die of fear. Every now and then, that image gets turned upside down.

Last night, my sweet girl dog Tux jumped up on our bed after we’d tucked in for the night and came and snuggled against me.  I had literally just put a new coverlet on our bed in the afternoon, tickled that I’d finally found something I really liked for the summer. when even nights are hot and sticky in Alabama.  All of a sudden, Tux jumped up, got as far as the bottom edge of the bed, and proceeded to throw up this ghastly, stinky gob of stuff. I practically flew out of bed with nothing to do but wipe the stuff off the coverlet ( trying hard not to retch myself), gather it up, and head to the washing machine.  I set it to wash for a long time…

This morning, when the sun was already high, I took the coverlet out of the washing machine and went out to hang it on the clothesline.  It was a bit big and cumbersome. As I was stretching it out on the line, out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow move by and heard fluttering.  I glanced down and literally, at my feet, looking up at me with the shiniest obsidian little eyes imaginable, was a robin.  He looked at me for several seconds and I looked back, astounded by the beauty of his plumage, but even more, by his fearless examination of me.  And then, the moment was over and he was off, probably to find some more food for his brood that’s still holed up in the bluebird house at the end of our wildflower bed.

I wonder if these aren’t the moments when we actually do get to see the face of God.

Just about perfect

Blueberries, blackberries and little Miss Tux helping out

I was up very early—before 5 this morning, and it didn’t take long for dawn to start breaking. After feeding Tux and Mo, who demand to be taken care of before anybody else, I sat with my cup of coffee.  My small obsession is good coffee and today, the coffee I roasted Friday was just right. On a day off it somehow tastes so very much more delicious, perhaps because I get to savor each sip. I read for a bit, played with my silly dog, slipped into some gardening clothes, and got started on the things I’d promised myself I’d do today.

The best part of the work was out in the garden before the heat had taken hold.  This is the first day blueberries truly needed picking and now I know how to do it—how to turn them gently this way and that, to make sure they are blue all over. How to pluck them so their tiny, delicate stems stay on the plant and I don’t have to pick them out when I’m getting ready to make some jam. 

I used to do this work in a hurry, anxious to get the work done, anxious that I might not pick enough and too many would go to waste. The pace is much more slow and careful and deliberate so I see the bees, the big, loud bumble bees and hear the endlessly noisy mockingbirds. It’s all about the journey, not the destination when I find the right rhythm. Some of the berries I plucked slipped through my fingers and fell in, under the branches of the blueberry bush. I didn’t even try to find them. I decided it’s one of the ways I share this bounty with all the other creatures who appreciate their juicy deliciousness.

When I stopped, I walked over to our blackberry vine and put down my trug. It looked so pretty I had to grab a few pictures.  We planted the blackberry vine three years ago; last year was the first time it bore fruit. This year it stretches a good 6-8 feet in either direction, and the vine is laden with blackberries that will be ripe, most of them all at once, in the next 2-3 weeks.  

Volunteer flowers are growing on either side of the fence between our fruit and vegetable garden and our backyard. In the next two weeks, if the heat doesn’t kill them, they will bust open too. And if I looked down towards the gate into our food garden, I could see the fig tree that has plenty of fruit this year as well, and the peach trees that Sherod has so carefully tended to and should bear some nice peaches. I got a recipe for pickled peaches yesterday, knowing canning is in my near future. It never stops being new. It never stops being a parable of the gracious reign of God.

The rest of the day whirred its way through. I had washing and ironing and beds to make, with line-dried sheets. I cooked some of the meal for this Memorial Day, I continued to work on my thank you notes for everyone who was so amazing the night of Holy Comforter’s Celebration of a New Ministry, went back out for one more round of work on the flower beds.  When I was hot, really hot, really tired, really dusty and gritty and grimy, I rinsed off, got in my bathing suit and Sherod and I got in the pool long enough to splash around, watch the shadows start growing longer and laugh at the utter cuteness of our two silly dogs as they played around the pool. 

And then, it was time for dinner with my dad, time to clean up, time to watch an episode of Downton Abby (am not exactly binging but trying to see an episode a day; I only started watching episode 1 of season 1 a few days ago).

This was a day when Sherod and I were like three-year-olds intently engaged in our own projects, only catching glimpses of each other, or stopping to ask a quick question.  I kept silence most of the day and luxuriated in the solitude.

All that’s left is to post this, brush my teeth and go to bed. A day doesn’t get much better than this.

By gratitude alone

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is gratitude. I woke up early this morning, and so did Sherod. As they begin, the days are still cool and gentle, so today we went out to the back deck with our coffee, sat quietly and watched the morning start unfolding. There were two moments so beautiful it felt like my soul was not big enough to hold such loveliness.

Towards the end of our property line, there are some very beautiful trees and in front of them, a small patch of wildflowers that Sherod plants each year. The light came through the trees, dappling the flower bed, and the bluebird house Sherod made that holds a busy little couple raising their babies, making everything lush and luminous all at once. Then I saw that one of my roses, a plant that had actually been in pretty bad shape as spring began this year, was covered with blossoms and buds. Two other rose plants were also blooming and the abundance that all of them together represented was simply astounding.

I got back from Fort Lauderdale yesterday afternoon. I had gone down to spend María’s birthday with her. It was the first time I had to confront directly the new normal that is emerging with our daughter. She basically lives in two different realities at this point. Some of the time it’s as if nothing had changed. She is her winsome, needy, amazing self. Then, this vacant look comes into her eyes, she slows way down, seems to get increasingly confused, struggles mightily to stay grounded in the world that the rest of us know and understand. She stops recognizing me, and all I have left that I can do is sit quietly next to her, hoping the confusion will pass. It did this time around, but not quickly.

We went to the movies on the day of her birthday, when she seemed to be in a good place. We were well into the movie when she got quite agitated. She’d held on to the stub of her entrance ticket and all of a sudden said we needed to leave immediately because she had won the prize and needed to go pick it up it up right away. There was no way to redirect her. Fortunately, I was there with one of the staff members who works most closely with María; between the two of us, we agreed it was time to get moving. Ashley took María back to BARC and we decided I’d take a step back for a while. Instead, I went shopping, got my girl a new set of bedding–sheets, quilts, pillows. By the time I got back to BARC with Costco pizza and birthday cake for a party, she was in better shape, puffed up big as could be when we sang Happy Birthday. It was only when I was getting ready to leave that the weird ideation and affect came back.

This is the new normal, probably for the foreseeable future. As far as we can tell, this moving in and out of the reality the rest of us know is a symptom that Maria has somehow regressed to the point where she has stopped being able to distinguish between past and present. We believe it is the result of the line Sherod and I had to draw last April. That was the last time we were able to have her here at the farm, and it was a nightmare with her out-of-control behavior that included brutal self-injury. Unable to make the connection between her behavior and the fact that she sees us less and is not able to come and spend time with us, Maria keeps experiencing the trauma of abandonment that so defined her early childhood. And it is more than she can bear. She becomes psychotic often these days and the medications still haven’t helped much.

We have had to find our way through so many new normals with this brave and wounded young woman. There has been so much to let go of. I have the strength to go be with her, to love her in whatever shape she’s in. I fly to Fort Lauderdale and let my heart rejoice to see her and hold her hand or hug her, if only briefly. In fact, this time I saw some exciting progress with her physical health and and, well-being. She is working out at the gym four times a week, and has lost over 40 pounds which is excellent. I hold on to that as a reminder that even the new normal with its losses doesn’t mean that everything is lost, by any stretch of the imagination.

But it takes energy and it takes pure strength of will, to say goodbye again, to come back into this other part of my life. As I drive away from BARC the last day I’m with her on one of these trips, I wonder how I will make myself leave her, get on the plane to come back home.

By God’s grace, the strength has always been there. This morning I was reminded how the grace is offered—it is all around me in God’s creation, the steadiness of Sherod’s love, the generosity of the parish I serve, the newness of a new day. It is gratitude, sometimes gratitude for the smallest, most insignificant things imaginable, like sunshine dancing with the leaves, that keeps me going.

Blackberries, roses and coyotes

At about 2:00 this morning, I woke up with a start.  It stopped being unusual to hear coyote packs howling in the night a few years ago—after all, on June 21st, it will be five years since I was the first of us to move into our little farm in Lowndesboro; we live with lots of coyotes all around us.  But last night, there was a pack yipping so loud, sounding so nearby, that I panicked, convinced they were in our back yard, trying to get into Fort Yolk, where the old lady, La Monita, the last of our original chickens girls, and five new young ‘uns Sherod is raising, were all tucked in for the night. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that sense of being so much in the presence of raw danger. I woke up the spouseman who went out and looked as the night fell silent. It’s possible the coyotes were in one of our pastures or in the wooded area right beyond our fence-line, but there was no sign they had been anywhere near the chicken coop.

I have struggled to find the energy to get out and do the spring gardening that my roses and flower beds require.  But what matters is today I was out with all my gardening stuff, weeding, dead-heading my roses, feeling the tug of the weight of a wheelbarrow full of limbs and weeds on my arms and shoulders as I hauled the effort of my work to the burn pile.  After I dumped the contents of the wheelbarrow and stopped to open the gate of the pasture, I noticed a bright-red, not yet ripe, blackberry close by. I put down the wheelbarrow and began walking along the fence. I had stumbled into a small wild blackberry patch.  When I had as many blackberries as I could hold in my hand, I put my harvest in the wheelbarrow, along with a rose I had picked and my gardening stuff and headed back in for the day. 

You cannot be connected to the earth, to the wilderness that is easier to see when you live out in the country like I do, without having to acknowledge that there is a wildness to this life of ours we don’t get to choose. Last night as I lay in bed with my heart pounding, waiting to know if the coyotes had brought carnage to our homestead, that truth was brought home to me with ferocity.  Within that wildness, so completely beyond our control no matter how much we like to think otherwise, there is also the utter generosity of Mother Earth. I’ve neglected my roses and yet they are laden with blooms. The blackberries were so juicy and sweet, still warm from the day’s sunshine, so delectable as they went down my throat, parched from an afternoon of good work.

It is supposed to be hard & other things I don’t want to forget.

I was perched on a step stool discretely placed behind the altar, black veil in hand, struggling to get it up and over, down the back of the altar cross. Then I would tie a back ribbon around it and walk out in darkness and silence. I tried several times, the fabric kept slipping off even though I’d practiced a couple of times during the day on Thursday and it worked well then. I breathed through the rush of anxiety and then it came to me: this is supposed to be hard. When I finally got the cross veiled, tied that ribbon and walked down the aisle, I was almost in tears. It’s supposed to be hard to turn around and see dimly that the altar has been stripped bare, and the aumbry doors hang open awkwardly, and the sanctuary candle has been extinguished.

I had had a half-formed homily on my mind for days; on Friday morning I sat and wrote it and my throat kept knotting up.  It is hard to contemplate the horrors that unfold all the time around us—I re-read a harrowing article in the New York Times about the way women in Honduras are being killed and why. I couldn’t stop thinking of how here in Alabama we have systematically stripped people who are incarcerated of their humanity—we may not be in prison, but we who continue to let things be as they are for prisoners are committing a crime against the Holy Spirit, in some regards, we are re-crucifying Jesus.  

Saturday: hard in its own way, and yet with tendrils of hope carried in with the cold wind that blew from the north that morning as 20 of us huddled against the church wall in the Memorial Garden for the Holy Saturday liturgy, reminding ourselves that “In the midst of life we are in death;” (BCP).  It is hard to do what TS Eliot asks us to do in East Coker: Wait without hope. Wait without love. That kind of surrender even of hope and love was made at least a bit more bearable when I looked around and saw faces mapped by years of stories of grief and great love, saw young faces so clear and bright, heard a delicious little boy get it just a bit wrong or totally right when, at the end of a prayer, he said “Oh Man” instead of Amen.  The waiting is easier if we are not alone.

And then it was Easter and it was time, according to so many voices all around us, to turn off the darker, more somber voices and fall into merriment and color, and music, and extravagance and beauty as we brought back the Alleluias. I was reminded: even Easter Sunday is supposed to be at least a little bit hard. And yesterday there was plenty of sorrow at the images that kept coming in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. The thing is, that is precisely what the heart of these past days is about: insisting that the horror does not have the last word. Our celebration is a disruptive act of refusal to give in to all that is broken and harmful about our humanity, trusting that God can take the very worst and help us start over.

So here are the things I want to remember about this Holy Week:  

Don’t tell me an older congregation isn’t willing to try new things! The people of Holy Comforter continue to amaze me with their willingness to engage our worship without the kind of rigidity and insistence on form that teeters on the edge of performance for performance’s sake. It was not the intent of those of us who planned the worship for Holy Week to be different or “try something new” for the sake of being cute or obnoxious.  The very talented staff that works with me helped plan and prepare good liturgy. What was offered was received with a reverence that filled these days with meaning and beauty.

It’s supposed to be hard. Even though the worship schedule we put together this year was lighter than I’m used to, last night at about 7 p.m. I literally could not keep my head up a moment longer. I slept until 6 this morning. 

What good does it do to have Holy Week and promptly forget? I come back to the line from Gerard Manley Hopkins I first heard from my boss at the Ascension a few years ago: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,”. That is the prayer.  Indeed. May he easter in me, easter in us…

When I grow old…

Flower bed in the middle of spring

I hit a wall last Sunday in the early afternoon, when I’d led a class, a church service, 2 meetings and still had to go home, prepare some notes and head up the road to a town north of Montgomery, where I’d accepted an invitation to be Lenten speaker that evening. I thought, “that’s it, I’m taking tomorrow off because I am exhausted.

I did household work that following morning, planted some lilies of the valley, washed and ironed and folded and put away, moved winter clothes upstairs and summer clothes downstairs. Monday was also when I got my girl her Easter Basket and was the day I took my dad to get his monthly pedicure. He got out of the car a little more slowly, walked a little more carefully, seemed a little more stooped over than usual. I chuckled a bit, watching him walk into the nail salon, thinking he’d been home a week and still wasn’t fully recovered.

A week earlier, Sherod, my husband, got up at 3:20 in the morning, threw on some clothes, and went over to gather up my dad and his roll-on bag. I imagine they rode into Montgomery in silence, and Sherod pulled up his truck right to the door of the Greyhound station in one of the very seediest parts of town. He watched and made sure my dad got inside safe and sound before heading back home.

At 4:45 a.m., my dad was on a bus, settled in for a 10-hour ride to Gainesville, FL where he would meet the special lady friend he left behind in Panama when he moved to Lowndesboro in 2015. They still email and Skype regularly.

When Dad got to Gainesville, he arranged for an Uber ride that dropped him off at the Airbnb he’d rented for the long weekend he and F were going to spend together. When he told me his plan, I teased him a bit, told him about all the news about Airbnb hosts secretly videotaping guests and posting videos on social media. I ended with the admonishment that I didn’t want to see a video of the weekend on Facebook and my dad blushed the deep red of a freshly picked, ripe tomato.

I picked him up at the Greyhound Station at the backend of his trip; he looked very happy and very tired. We haven’t talked a lot about the weekend; it feels important to respect his privacy and he hasn’t been very forthcoming. He’s still happy and has still been catching up with himself, now two weeks later. But that makes sense. After all, this is my 92-year-old dad. He astounds me. More than 30 years younger than he, I would feel hip and cool to be able to tell the above story about my own self. And he navigated the technology and distances with no help from my husband or me, except for the rides to and from the bus station.

His friend needed to come up for some medical tests so this happened on her timetable. However, I want to believe that with so much life bursting out all around us, with spring in full bloom, my dad was inspired and strengthened to go be true to love. I know for my own self, this is the time of the year I get to thinking of trips I might take and places I might see. But even more–it is he who inspires me and reminds me that even when we grow old, life has a way of being full and rich and overflowing with unexpected opportunities that we can say yes to or not. I hope I will still find the way to say yes if I live to be 92….

Easter Basket

We have had very little contact with María since January. Sherod was down and actually had a couple of pretty good days with her at the beginning of March, was there on her “Gotcha Day” on March 4th. I will go see her for her birthday in the middle of May. In the meantime, there have only been a handful of calls, a couple frantic, with her wanting us to reassure her that we are still alive. There has been one single one that felt like we were actually connected like we used to be, so much history carrying us through all kinds of conversations and laughter in spite of so much separation. I ask myself: if I sing to her in Spanish will she remember? Is there a right word, a right tone, a right response that makes it better? How about an Easter Baske? I can buy her an Easter Basket—put all the things in there that remind me, and maybe remind her, of the way it used to be.

Today I bought what I needed to put together the basket.  

I had taken today off after hitting a wall yesterday at about 1:30 PM: I finished the third meeting of the day and knew I had sm notes I needed to make for myself before heading to Wetumpka, a town north of Montgomery, to be the last speaker for the Lenten Program of the Episcopal church up there.  I realized I had to stop. Just stop. So this morning, I did. I told my mind to quit jumping around so much, I made a list of the simple household tasks I could get done.

I was already moving quickly by 8 this morning and it was glorious. I planted some lilies of the valley. I washed sheets and made up beds. I ironed and went out to pick one of the last cabbages of our winter planting and then came in to cook.

After lunch, my dad and I headed into Montgomery. He needed a pedicure, and his sweet old dog that continues to hang on, Pía, need a refill for the pain meds for her arthritis.  I had time to kill, and that’s when it hit me actually; my gosh, I’ve been working on my Palm Sunday sermon and it’s not quite 2 weeks until Easter, and I have to get something in the mail to María. With World Market close to where my dad gets his pedicures, I dropped him off and headed on a scout and scavenge journey for my girl.

The basket is ready. Tomorrow, Sherod will see to it that it is properly packaged and will coordinate with María’s behavioral specialist so he can ship it and make sure our girl gets it her goodies in time for Easter. I can’t stop and wonder if It will have any meaning for her. I know better than to hope that it will draw her closer, out of the place she has withdrawn to that keeps her so far away from us now.

I have to be truthful, mainly with myself. I could reach back to another time, remembering how much Easter baskets delighted my brothers and me when we were little.  I could giggle when I found a silly little lamb, there was a tiny snow globe with a little chick inside; I stood and shook it for as long as I dared and then added it to my cart. For those 20 or so minutes I spent shopping, and then the other 10 I spent here at home putting it together, all that mattered was I could do this one small thing for my girl.  

And then, for an instant, the black hole opened up and for the first time ever, I wondered what it would have been like to have a 23 year old daughter who could engage with me or roll her eyes and tell me she was busy, if I tried to talk about my Holy Week sermons.  I fled as fast as I could from that thought.  Magical thinking is not the way forward.But neither is that horrible, insidious game of ‘what if.’ What there is that can’t break, can’t be erased or forgotten or denied, what there is is so much love and if the only way I can love her today is by putting this silly gift together, I am thankful for what I have.

Now, spring

All kinds of new beginnings and steps forward. On March 1st, I became the Rector at Holy Comforter. The property we had used as a rectory has sold, some new potential partnerships are emerging that would add life and light to the amazing space we have. Even our Holy Week bulletins are close to being put to bed, several weeks ahead of schedule, so Holy Week should be a time of holiness and not exhaustion.

As a parish we’re still vulnerable. And maybe that is what makes this small community a lot bolder about the things we are willing to consider for ourselves. I feel almost embarrassed to admit that it is only in the past week that I realized our chapel, perhaps my favorite space of all, is called “The Chapel of the Resurrection”. The symbolism was right there, in the stained glass window above the reredos, if one had eyes to see. I don’t know what resurrection looks like for Holy Comforter or in my life, but that is the ground of my faith.

There is great joy for me when I go in and sit quietly in the chapel, not because I know what the future holds for my daughter, for my parish, or for me, even though–or perhaps precisely because–there are no certainties for the path ahead. Instead, the joy arrives because there is the kindest of breezes dancing today. The sunshine is drying sheets to crackling, fragrant, radiance. And I get to hear these tiny, persistent little pio, pio, pio’s as I sit and write.

First time able to hang sheets out to dry this year
The lavender is starting to bloom

And five new little chicken girls have come to join the clan, all of them Eggers: Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rock and Rhode Island Reds

So yes, now, spring.

So beautiful. So hard.

Quinceañera

I had the privilege several years ago to go to a writer’s workshop where I met Kate Bowler. She is well-known for her work on the Gospel of Prosperity and for what she has written since being diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer at 34. With immunotherapy that has worked remarkably well for her, it would be more accurate, at least for now, to describe her condition as chronic, rather than terminal, but there is no way to know how long that will be the case.  Kate is as kind, generous. and insightful as anyone I know.  There’s a phrase of Kate’s that has become part of the fabric of hope and consolation in my life. With no pat answers for the why of illness and suffering, she says, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”

Eighteen years ago this week, I was putting a car seat in the back of the Volvo I had bought a few months earlier. I had chosen the safest car I knew of because I would soon be carrying a precious little girl in the back seat through the awful traffic of Southeast Florida.  I had washed about a dozen skivvies and t-shirts for a 24-36 month old toddler, and little socks, too, and jammies and overalls. Friends at work and friends at Sherod’s church had thrown a pair of lovely showers for us so Luz María’s room was filled to overflowing with gifts, from the practical to the utter frivolous and fun. Mary, the woman who first got to know Maria and helped bring us into her life and she into ours, had made a beautiful bed skirt for the small brass bed I’d slept in as a child. I’d sewn matching curtains and together with Sherod, had made a contrasting, upholstered window cornice. Neither my heart nor her room in our home in Fort Lauderdale could contain all the hope, joy and expectation with which we waited to bring our girl to her new forever family.

Last week, we got word that Mary, the friend who found our girl and brought her into our life, has been moved into hospice after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and all kinds of complications.  We lost touch years ago when she and her family moved, and then Sherod and I went off in our own new adventures, but I have always harbored the hope we’d reconnect and she’d get to see Maria as a young adult.  

 There’s the regret that I did not make more of an effort to stay in touch with a woman who changed the trajectory of my life. Even more, these days, there is growing concern for my María.  For two months, she has been slipping away from us in a new and unexpected way. First, we began to hear her tell  somewhat bizarre stories, like that she’d gotten married and was pregnant.  Then, she stopped talking to us almost completely. She had been calling, sometimes several times a day, and it just stopped. We call her daily as well and now, she refuses to come to the phone. The one time I’ve spoken to her recently, her affect was way off, her voice was shrill, the content of the conversation deeply disturbing: “Mama!!!! You are alive! I brought you back from the dead”.  No gentle challenge from me could convince her otherwise.

Yesterday, we had a phone consult with her support team.  Like us, they thought at first this was a new attention-seeking strategy. After all, María has been endlessly creative in her quest to get all the attention she could. But in the past, when ‘psychiatric symptoms’ manifested themselves, we had an effective plan that would quickly help her stop trying to get attention that way. This time it has not worked. It is more accurate to describe her now as quite frequently delusional, and possibly, hallucinating. The affect is too different.  The withdrawal is too real.  Later today, the next consult is with her psychiatrist.

There are more questions and fears than I can put words around. There is also all the accumulated joy of small and simple, and sometimes breathtakingly grand moments, with my daughter over the past 18 years. On March 3rd, when I am at Cursillo and Sherod is with María to celebrate her “Gotcha Day,” I know I will once again be overwhelmed by the knowledge she is the best thing that ever happened to us.  Kate has said it best: “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”