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”.

Thanksgiving 2017

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When all was said it done, we ended up twelve of us gathered around two tables pushed together to make one long one; for a while it looked like we’d have more but this was a lovely size. I wielded a mean glue gun last weekend and made my own napkin rings, having finally succumbed to the allure of Pinterest. I found a new dressing recipe, still cornbread-based (I never have quite lived down my first foray with Thanksgiving, me newly married, my mother-in-law still not sure about me, and I so foolish as to find a dressing recipe in Gourmet Magazine that had nothing to do with Southern traditions) but a nice variation on the theme, with sage, rosemary, parsley, thyme I’d picked earlier from my garden, and dried cherries.

I planned better and paced myself through silver polishing and ironing in the last week. Some things I figured out I wouldn’t have the time to make but could still place an order for, and the generosity of friends who were determined to help make a feast out of this day, made a difference. It made the morning move through gently; at our busiest, my sweet husband and I stood and kissed in the kitchen. We were happy just doing that and looking at each other.

My granddaughter Grace, who I held in my arms day-before-yesterday, stood at my sink, a junior in highschool, slicing tomatoes on the cutting board my Spouseman made for me. During lunch, I sat next to my dad who quietly said my party reminded him of my mom’s parties. All of a sudden, this utterly different tradition than anything my family of origin had ever known was somehow part of that fabric too, that patchwork of cultures that make up my life.

The hole left by Maria, who could not be here today, and had her Thanksgiving with the staff and residents at BARC Housing, never stopped aching and that too was alright. This isn’t about perfection. It is about goodness. She was already getting ready for bed when I talked to her just a bit ago, excited because of all kinds of things that will be happening in the next few weeks, including voice lessons she’s starting on the 30th. Here, some are napping, some are watching football and I am getting ready to take on the next round of cleaning and putting up. Maria isn’t the only person I love and miss today. There are so many. In the end, that’s what I am most grateful for—all those people to love and call mine, no matter how far away.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The beauty is there

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On Highway 80, Heading Home

This isn’t Vermont or New Hampshire. Not even North Carolina or Tennessee. Yesterday, I drove home through the grey, bone-chilling drizzle of a typical fall day in West Central Alabama, slowly making my way on Old Selma Road. I was aware that autumn is actually anything but spectacular in this part of the world. On the entire stretch, 12 miles long, from the outskirts of Montgomery to our farm, there was no other car on the road so I had an unimpeded view of the wooded lands on either side of Old Selma. When fall arrives in Lowndes County, mostly it turns leaves brown and brittle, leaves that give up the fight without one last splendid burst of color. Tropical Storm Nate blew through here this year, stripping more trees of more leaves more quickly than usual.

On Old Selma Road, poverty, the kind of poverty that is made up of beaten down old trailers and “manufactured homes” that are none-the-less home to many, mules and horses with bones etched through coats of fur dulled by hunger, is more visible now that so many of the leaves are gone. But so is a shiny new small bike, standing on an otherwise forlorn front porch, transforming what should be bleak into a place of some kind of brave and undaunted love. This isn’t beauty per se, but something transcendent and strangely filled with grace and goodness.

Here, in this part of Alabama, in this season, you have to look for beauty. You can’t just look down the road and expect to be dazzled in the way you might be by the colors further up north, so many and so brilliant on a crackling fall day. Here it is about driving slowly, and being observant. Trusting that even if all you’ve seen for any number of miles is a variation on the theme of dry brown leaves, you can reasonably hope to come upon, to be surprised by beauty, if you will look hard and not quit. Because tucked into nothing more extraordinary than a denuded pecan tree grove or a bunch of seemingly lifeless underbrush, you will find one, or maybe two trees of stunning, breath-taking color, or a bush of burning red glory, like Moses must have seen when God spoke to him, such beauty as will fly right in the face of the truth that this isn’t the place to come looking for the glory of fall.

The news about Alabama these days is like looking through the denuded trees of fall, to a place where there is much spiritual poverty and hunger and bleak truths that can’t be hidden. But when I go slowly, look carefully, hold to hope and allow myself to be surprised, I keep finding extraordinary beauty, right here, right now, in Alabama. If you’ve never been, I’d love to show you. Come visit.

Getting my tropical on

The past few weeks have been difficult at work.  We are finding our way towards a new version of church that is more hospitable and inclusive.  Some parts of that work have been joyful, especially watching new leaders emerge.  Some of it has been deeply, personally painful.  It all came to a crisis point just as I was preparing to slip down to Ft Lauderdale to visit my girl for a couple of days. It was an exercise in spiritual discipline to disconnect.  María and I did our usual: cruising up 95 to Butts Road and  “Normstrom” for a new pair of shoes that fit each of my girl’s feet correctly.   A couple of nice meals.  A visit w someone I hadn’t seen for over four years.  Lots of singing in the car. We also did something I hardly ever did when I lived in Lauderdale: we gardened.  Some of our dearest friends are in the midst of sorta awful medical challenges and their yard still tells some of the story of Hurricane Irma.  Maria and I weeded and cleaned and moved lovely plants back to where their splendor shines.  The still familiar Florida sun was on my face and shoulders–so different and so like the sun that is up for much shorter days in Lowndesboro.  Now, I’m waiting for a flight back out, grieving again about leaving my daughter who is quite simply the best. It’s early morning and I splurged on a cafecito and tostada cubana, getting my tropical on for just a bit longer before I go home.

A Woman and Priest

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There are still times as I wake up, when astonishment does battle with desolation and I am overwhelmed again, by the realization I will never bear a child. It’s absurd in one sense that I keep having to try to make my peace with that reality; for a woman late into her fifties, that train left the station so very long ago. The thing is, bearing a child wasn’t just a part of being gendered as female. It is that it was light shining in darkness for me.

All through my childhood I resisted doing the physical therapy necessary to keep my bum hip working. I had a hard time separating who I was from the incredibly ugly orthopedic shoes I had to wear, and would cry and beg to get ‘normal shoes’ instead. The one thing my mother repeated over, and over and over again was,”Rosita, but if you don’t use those shoes, if you don’t do your physical therapy, you will never be able to have babies”.

I heard that promise so many times, I held on to it so tight when I was desperately lonely as I grew up, it was woven so deep into my sense of who I was called to be, that it shaped my understanding of embodiment, of womanhood, of the source of meaning for my life. My girl Maria is beyond blessing to me. I am leading, a good meaningful life. And I suspect I will end my conscious days regretting that I was not able carry a child in my belly, see glimpses of the man I love and myself, in person conceived in love.

I write these things because it is against this personal backdrop that twice, as an adult, I was asked to accompany another woman to have an abortion. I was newly married the first time, and I can’t say I knew the person I went with particularly well nor have I seen or talked to her since then. She and her husband did not share with me the reasons for her decision, but the anguish in their faces when they asked for my help led me to believe then, as I believe now, that it was extraordinarily difficult circumstances that forced them to make that decision.

The second time, I was older. I was also a priest by then. A person who deserved a future, who had barely scratched out an existence for herself for years, and was finally getting on her feet, was raped. Raped pretty savagely. And ended up pregnant. She had no good choices, she was and is a remarkable person, but would have gone under with the weight of bearing a child and being responsible for him or her. I held her hand while she had the procedure. I watched her grieve, then return to the work she had been given to do.

The irony of both those moments does not escape me. The one who desperately wanted to be in the position of taking a pregnancy test and watching the ribbons turn the right color was the one who gave comfort to two different women for whom that news represented utter and complete devastation. If I was able to be of any comfort, if I made any difference, it came from the conviction that there are times when there are no good choices, when all we can do is make a decision, no matter how shattering, and regather the shards of a life we’d hoped would go a certain way and now won’t, so we can get on with living.

I have known tragedy in my own life, have experienced grace as capable of putting broken pieces back into some semblance of a new heart that learned to beat strong and hopeful again. I have also seen up close and personal, the cost a child, who was neither planned for, nor wanted, pays. I have seen what child abuse does. I have seen how overburdened and inadequate our foster programs are. I am the mother of an adopted daughter whose life will always be bitterly hard. Years and years and years ago, I heard someone say, “there are worse things than not being born.” I have seen the truth of that first hand.

I write these things today because I am heart sick reading about the decision by the current administration to make it more difficult for women to have access to contraceptives. I respect and will always protect the right of another person to reject abortion as a viable choice in a desperate situation. I have kept hoping that those who want to see abortion made illegal again, and those who don’t, will find common ground to stand on. I thought the common ground we might share involved helping to prevent pregnancies that lead to devastation. I believe that birth control is essential to the well being of women and that a loving God could not have given us minds capable of developing contraceptives only to snatch that possibility away as a “sin.”

Today’s news fills me with grief. There is a casual harshness towards the hard realities of being a woman in this news that is cruel beyond words. I am reminded of that brilliant definition of hope I have quoted in this blog befor:

[H]ope is not optimism. In fact, in certain cases (I suspect most of the cases where it actually matters) optimism can be a vice opposed to hope. An optimist can discount and ignore evidence against her conviction that things will right themselves. An optimist is threatened by others’ pain. But someone acting in hope—the conviction not that things will right themselves, nor that we’ll be able to right them, but that God’s power will work to overturn whatever wrongs our systems can devise—that person can face pain. Without denying pain or being swept away by it, she can face her own and others’ suffering. https://womenintheology.org/2013/05/08/hope-in-the-storm-tossed-church/

I cling to these words.