Our two horse friends, Gus and Jack, no longer live with us. Their humans decided they were finally at an age where tending to horses was simply too tough on them and a young family with children would welcome the horses with open arms. It was a sad day when they were loaded into their trailer and headed down the road to a new life. My dad would have been heartbroken and so was I, not just for my own self, but on behalf of my dad who loved those horses dearly.
Their departure has brought a lot of changes–M, their person, and we, had worked out how to share the pole barn so the two horses could have a paddock of sorts, where they were fed, where the farrier could tend to their hooves and the vet could also work with them, but especially Jack, who suffers from equine COPD. Gates and partitions, equipment and hay are all gone now. The little space where M kept the feed and other supplies for Jack and Gus is now empty and we are looking at how to covert it into a larger, safer chicken coop and yard for the our girls, who are aging now, to have more space to enjoy the last years of their lives. We are also looking at getting maybe as many as 10-12 chickens next spring–though no rooster!!!
And of course, the fields on either side of the house are empty now. We’re planning to allow our current vegetable patch to lie fallow next year and put down our spring garden in the east pasture. I’m squirreling away money so my part can have raised beds–these knees and hips do not appreciate a bunch of kneeling to weed! There’s a lot of space to take care of (about 3 acres) and I keep telling Sherod some pygmy goats, a mean white goose, and a donkey, would offer yet more entertainment and keep the fields from getting overgrown. I have visions of little ones wearing PJ’s like these on Christmas morning!
All that is fun to dream about and in the meantime, Sherod plowed a swath of land close to the house in late May and scattered a bunch of wild and sunflower seeds. They are flowering now and the patch almost shakes with the buzzing of our bees early in the morning. This picture captures a tiny bit of the beauty they have brought to our home.
And then, there are the bees. Sometime they annoy the heck out of me. I go by the hive on my way to take garbage out to our dumpster. I have been seen running like the haints are after me when the bees are upset and cranky and decide to dive bomb me.
The hive is a collaborative venture between the Spouseman and two neighbors and friends.Today, they gathered around a centrifuge to collect the first honey. The colony has thrived on our land for over a year now and the honeycombs were rich, rich, rich with honey. There’s plenty left and more will be produced during the rest of the summer and early fall to keep the colony going in the colder months.
The three guys share the honey in equal parts and we got the first installment of our allotment this afternoon. Another moment, even in the midst of the bleakness of most days now, when “my cup runneth over.”
If you have spent any time at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, AL, you have heard this phrase: The way the world could be. What started as a typical Episcopal summer camp has evolved into a lot more over time. It became the diocesan conference center, and then emerged as the place where the Alabama Folk School resides. A sustainable, organic farm came into being, along with an environmental learning center, a preschool for the children from Winston County that live close by. This is an impoverished county at the very end of the Appalachian Mountains, in coal country, so that program was a true gift to the area.
And then, there’s Bethany Village. A complex of lodges that can sleep up to 22 people each, along with summer-camp style cabins, an enormous gathering space called “Doug Carpenter Hall,” and other charming gathering spaces. “The Doug” is like an extraordinarily beautiful barn. None of that is so different or remarkable for any diocesan camp and conference center except for the fact that Bethany Village was built to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible for people with all different abilities and needs. Whether it’s about canoeing, or swimming, or getting in and out of the shower with no fuss, there’s a place for you, full stop.
For the past two weeks, Bethany Village has hosted a set of summer camp sessions that open space for fragile people with varying abilities to experience the joys and mosquito bites (🤪) of a summer camp program. Under the direction of McDowell staff, I was the co-lead member of a program team that served a combination of regularly and differently abled children in the 4-8th grade. We had 21 one young ‘uns, 11 of them, what you’d call ‘mainstream.’ There were a number of Downs Syndrome children, a couple with autism and a few others with additional vulnerabilities. We also had 26 “Camper Buddies,”10th-12th graders who are asked to wrap themselves around the campers to provide the care, assistance, and support our campers need to thrive at camp. I watched the camper buddies grow in love and devotion for their younger buddies, and it was beautiful.
On the last night of the session, we did what almost every session at Camp McDowell does: we had a talent show. It began with F., who had been rehearsing with her mom before camp to sing “Amazing Grace” at the talent show. She decided that was far too tame and ended up belting out “Hello” by Adele instead. She brought the house down. The raucous cheering and standing ovation were so loud it made my ears hurt. Another act brought the camp staff person in charge and a petite, peppy young camper buddy together for a burp throw-down. The duration and strength of burping that young woman was capable of left us all slack-jawed and then on the floor laughing. Only at camp.
But it was the most fragile and indomitable of the campers whose act was transcendent. This young person walks within inches of the line between life and death all the time. Her needs are so significant we ask a parent to be along for the session in case A has a medical emergency. There is so much our culture would describe as “wrong” with her, including Downs Syndrome and several other health issues. She is nonverbal and requires help walking. And she is a scrappy, determined survivor of the worst health issues can throw at us.
Before her performance, the MC of the talent show asked the audience that was growing noisier and rowdier by the moment, to quiet down. He announced A. would be performing and showed us how to raise our arms and wave our hands to demonstrate our appreciation for her performance, rather than hoot and holler and whistle. Everyone understood. All the campers, all the buddies, all the adults. The space went so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, A’s two camper buddies brought her out and “Let it Go” from Frozen began to play. One of the camper buddies held the microphone up for A and we were gifted with a series of grunts and groans and yowls—no other way to describe her vocalizations—and there wasn’t a dry eye among the older camper buddies and adults.
Her mom got to see her daughter do her own version of belting out a song with glee. Her mom got to see a crowd of young people (the very ones who are of an age where it is so easy to be callous and indifferent) spellbound by this one young girl who, every day, defies the odds stacked against her, who was now transcending and transforming those odds, by getting to be nothing more than a kid at camp.
For a number of us, there was an almost unbearable tension and paradox as we watched the talent show continue to unfold in all its glory. The words, “the way the world could be” were made flesh in the most beautiful way imaginable. And right before the show started, word had started trickling in about the shooting at St. Stephen’s in Birmingham, we heard at least one person was dead. Some of our campers and camper buddies are members there. Every single one of us knew at least one person at St. Stephen’s. After the talent show and late into the night, my fellow clergy person, a couple of other adults, and I, were up listening to, praying with, trying to remind our camper buddies of God’s unending efforts to heal all that is broken and battered in our world.
Then, for most of the rest of the night, I lay in bed asking myself over and over again, “What kind of world are we sending these amazing and beautiful young people back into? What have we done to our children’s world…”
Another morning began in the usual way for me–coffee, out to check the pool (one hapless little frog needed to get pulled out of the water), then to see how my vegetables are growing. My eggplant bushes are flowering quite profusely and one has two babies on it, one of the cantaloupe plants is flowering too, and my pride and joy today: there is a teeny-tiny butternut squash that looks healthy and strong on its vine.
I was up earlier than usual and the house was still quiet so I came back in to read the online NYTimes. One article caught my eye; an article about parents dealing with Sabrina, a young girl on the autism spectrum. You can read the article here. I hope you will. Every muscle in my body clenched up as I read the article. I didn’t exactly have a flashback but, dear God, I knew what was being described down to the core of my being.
There is a ‘severe mercy’ for parents like the Benedicts, like Sherod and me. We discover that there is nothing, I mean nothing, our child can do that can separate him, her, they, from our love. In our experience, love was not enough. When we finally found a behavior therapist who understood what María actually needed, she explained we simply had to quit trying to discuss her episodes of out of control rage with our girl. Insight would not lead to behavior changes. Whatever understanding she might gain from us trying to talk about the rage reinforced the behaviors we so dreaded. Once she had de-escalated after these episodes, we needed to learn to go on as if nothing had happened, even if she had left us, or herself, bleeding, bruised, and overwhelmed. The only way I was able to follow that guidance was to let go–of my fear, my anger, my despair, my very primitive instinct to strike back. This was a kind of radical forgiveness I could never, ever have learned if my daughter hadn’t been entrusted to my care.
Carol, the behavior therapist who worked with us, helped us open space for María to live in our home until she was about to turn 16. That NYT article paints the picture pretty thoroughly–adolescence on steroids is not a pretty thing. And then, one day, Carol and the rest of our girl’s support team sat us down. María was now too strong, she was becoming increasingly cunning, she was at high risk for running away, and the SIB (self-injurious behavior) was becoming unmanageable. When María turned 16 a few weeks later, she would qualify for placement in BARC Housing–an intermediate care facility in Davie, a few miles from our home. ICFs are actually nursing homes. This one was geared to individuals with cognitive and behavioral challenges. Providentially, a bed had opened up at BARC, which in and of itself was sort-of miraculous. If memory serves me correctly, at the time there were only 1000 beds in ICFs in all of Florida for people with all the challenges María was burdened with–and in that year, Florida’s population was close to 19 million. Think about that ratio!
In the very last week before she was able to move to BARC, our girl spun out of control worse than ever, and on the advice of her team, we Baker-acted her, had her admitted to a psych unit as a stop-gap measure while the last pieces were put in place for her move. On June 5th, 10 years ago, our girl was taken to BARC house from the hospital. That day was especially anguishing because it was the first anniversary of my mom’s death. And along with the anguish and grief, there was a relief I felt more than a little guilty about. For the first time in over a decade, Sherod, María and I were all safe.
Every few years, we tremble. A note will go out to the families of BARC residents to ask for help to plead with the state government. All across this country, the push has been to move to a model of ‘community based care.’ On paper, it sounds fabulous; you and your loved one will be wrapped in all the support necessary so everyone can thrive. You’ll get help all the way from folks to cut your loved one’s toenails to behavior specialists, to highly trained home assistance. But all that costs money. A lot of money. And state legislatures all across the country have cut, and cut, and cut, funding so you end up being on endless waiting lists just to get the most basic services; 5 or 10 year waiting lists are not unusual. When Florida’s legislature moves in the direction of cutting funding to ICFs, it is a matter of life and death for our girl and for most, if not all, the residents in need of the care she gets at BARC. So we plead, we ask friends, neighbors, anyone and everyone we can think of, to help us lobby so those cuts won’t go through. To date, our efforts have worked. That in no way reassures me that cuts won’t come that will jeopardize the sustainability ICFs
I share all this because it falls under the umbrella of “Mental Health.” There simply are no words to describe the white-hot rage I have felt since last Tuesday, hearing so many politicians in Texas and in the Senate, talk about the Uvalde massacre in terms of “issues of Mental Health” that besieged “one evil young man.” The ones who squawk the loudest, trying to frame what happened in terms of a single individual with mental health issues are the exact same ones who have made it brutally difficult for our most vulnerable to get the help and support they need. In that regard, those politicians have as much or more blood on their hands as Salvador Ramos.
If you read this blog post, I hope you will consider sharing it with others. Even more, I hope you will read and share the NYT link with others. I know we don’t, and I suspect the Benedicts don’t, ask for sympathy or pity. Rather, I hope our story and theirs might help someone see the kinds of hell-scapes that exist around mental health in this country. It will take a lot of us for asking more of our elected officials for anything to change.
In the autumn of 2014, Sherod and I had just finished moving to Lowndesboro. The last moving boxes had been unpacked, the renovations in our house were almost done and we were expecting Sherod’s son and his family, along with our girl María, to come for Thanksgiving. We were also getting our minds around the opportunities for gardening and growing our own food, giddy with anticipation.
One of the first things the Mallowman did was buy some very young saplings: three pear trees, three peach trees. We fenced in the back third of the back yard and began to get that space ready for spring planting. The 6 saplings went into the ground in a single row. There was already a fig tree growing close by, three blueberry bushes that have been faithful in giving fruit each year and a scuppernong vine. A couple of years after we planted the saplings, Sherod also planted a blackberry bush that has now flourished so we have 3 vines growing all along the fence. I think we will be able to start picking the blackberries next week and the harvest promises to be massive.
It took a while—about 3 years—for our peach trees to start producing fruit, though before that, they did have blossoms on them each year. A trip up to one of my favorite places in Alabama, Petals from the Past, meant we came home equipped to provide better care for our peach trees and over the next couple of years, we had a small crop of peaches from one of the trees. Then, two of them produced sweet, delicious fruit—the kind you eat fresh off the tree, with peach juice running down your face and you just don’t care because the fruit is so delicious. This year, all three trees are loaded, so much so that Sherod has had to cull them all. Fewer fruit have more intense peach flavor, are healthier and bigger. At the Curb Market last Saturday, the baskets of peaches I used to buy for about $8-10 now cost 15 or 16 dollars and I am grateful that we will be able to provide for ourselves this year.
And then, there were the three pear trees. They grew more slowly. And year after year, nothing. Not even a single blossom on any of them. No sign that they’d ever bear fruit. Sherod and I took to walking by them to issue a quick reminder: ‘y’all remember the fig tree in the Gospel? Y’all remember that a tree that doesn’t bear fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire? Just sayin’…” For the last 3 years, every year, Sherod has announced the end is near, he is about to cut down those danged trees.
Early this spring, one morning Sherod called me out to the garden. We stood looking up at the middle of the three pear trees, amazed and thrilled. There were blossoms on it. And then, after the blossoms had dried, teeny tiny little pears. There aren’t many. Of those, quite a few show signs that insects have had a feast. But there are maybe a dozen that are perfectly pear shaped, with just a small blush of red, that keep growing and growing. Pear harvest usually happens in August and September. There’s no telling whether or not these beautiful little fruit will be good for picking. I can’t feel bad if critters that need them get to them first. I don’t know if we will get to feel that special joy we always feel as we feast on food we’ve grown ourselves. But that doesn’t matter.
One of the laws of physics says “If an object A exerts a force on object B, then object B must exert a force of equal magnitude and opposite direction back on object A.” I wonder if for every parable of woe, there might be an equal and opposite parable to be considered. If so, the message for today is this:
The parable of the pear tree.
Once there were pear trees that yielded no fruit. For years and years, they were tended carefully, they had been planted in rich soil, they grew tall and slender and beautiful but yielded no fruit. The farmers grew weary of all that tending with nothing to show for it. They threatened to cut the trees down. They fumed sometimes. And yet. And yet there was something that hesitated, at the thought of simply destroying a living being that had beauty all its own, even if it bore no fruit. It wasn’t necessarily grace–perhaps just inertia–that kept those fruit trees alive, but the trees bore another fruit it took a while for the farmers to see. The trees showed the farmers that along with care and all the other things they did for them, the trees needed patience. An abundance of patience. Patience. A gift of the Spirit. So many second chances, we lost count of how many. But enough that at least one finally bore the fruit we so wanted. In the end, isn’t that the truest truth about the one we call our ‘God of infinite love and mercy’…
For a time, I fancied myself a writer in the making. I will always remember with great joy the summer I was selected to participate in one of the Collegeville writer workshops with Lauren Winner; Kate Bowler was one of the other participants in my group and since then, several others have published wonderful books. I am glad to keep pecking away at this thing of trying to put words around life and I no longer lay claim to that title.
A few weeks ago, Suleika Jaouad, who, like Kate Bowler, is an exquisite writer about life at the edge of death, put out a challenge on an Instagram page she created early in 2020 as the pandemic laid hold of us. Called the Isolation Journals, this page was intended to challenge people to push beyond everything militating against writing and creativity. Now she was issuing another challenge: a 100-day effort to engage in at least one act of creativity a day. I jumped on the bandwagon.
Before too long, I found myself pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an act of creativity. It’s easy to say photography counts. To write. Gardening? It has more to do with facilitating growth and life than the creative life of an artist or writer. Following the general parameters of a recipe to make a new kind of jam? Eh… Sitting quietly, simply observing how beautiful the roses in my garden have been this year, how quickly the phlox is growing and how my lavender is thriving on the front bed? Almost certainly not.
Each day, I have been aware of the challenge. However, I can’t say I have been faithful in actually meeting it. And in an unexpected sense, I have discovered that what I am doing is about another challenge.
It’s been Alabama hot for the last week, and night temperatures have stayed above 70 degrees F. It’s felt like pool time was here and at the same time, every day there’s been something that got in the way. Even before it’s time to start enjoying the pool, there’s a rhythm that I have to re-establish each year. The pool needs daily tending, a small set of chores that will make the pool a delight in the late afternoon for the spouseman and me.
Perhaps the hardest part of the chores involves little animals that get caught in that wide expanse of shimmering water, who hop in without thinking, or, on a couple of occasions, actually just fall in. It happens mainly at night. It used to be that my work was about using the pool skimmer to fish out little dead bodies, I always squeamish, always wincing at the horror of it. These past few days I’ve discovered if I get up early enough and head out to do my job, I can actually save most, sometimes all, the little frogs that hopped or fell in during the hours of dark and cannot get back out. It still gives me the heebee-geebies, I’m always slightly terrified one will end up jumping on me (that’s a whole different story), but I get it done.
This morning, after I’d finished my daily rescue mission, I thought back on the previous 24 hours. Yesterday morning I think I messed up around my sermon and some visitors to the church I served. It left me feeling just awful and aware life is like that; no matter how much I want to, I can’t always wrap things up nice and neat. Then, after the service, I had three commitments I needed to keep with people who are sick and with an organization that’s just asked me to serve on their board. I was getting ready to head out when my phone lit up with text messages. A person I’d had fairly regular contact with a number of years ago was in crisis and trying desperately to get in touch with me.
I moved my commitments around, excused myself from the one that couldn’t be rescheduled. Then I worked into the evening with someone who was so terribly isolated and afraid that I could see that even breathing was hard for them. I had no fixes. I had no cures. I am still concerned for them and what lies ahead. But I do have some more clarity about the 100 day challenge, as I can manage it.
At its core, at its most basic, the daily challenge is more simple and far harder for me right now. I try to show up. That means paying attention. Staying engaged. When I fall short, acknowledging that and trying to make amends. It also means knowing my limits, holding the responsibility lightly and with the indifference Ignatius of Loyola so eloquently described: we do our very best without investing in one outcome or another. These days, for me it also means getting on that elliptical of mine that I love to hate to have a good workout, at least 6 days a week. There’s more of course, but in the end, it is basically that my challenge for a 100 days (and for a lifetime) is to show up.
For the duration of the challenge, here and on Instagram, I’m going to keep trying to describe small acts of my life that include creativity, at least some of the time, but also speak to drudgery and how much of the work is plain old persistence. I am carrying the challenge more lightly, though, not beating myself up because I can’t claim to be a writer, an artist, or even a particularly creative person on any given day. Instead, I have to trust that showing up counts for something.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (St Augustine)
St. Benedict of Nursia is considered the founder of the kind of monasticism we are most familiar with in Europe and the Americas. In the mid 500’s, Benedict wrote what has come to be known as the “Rule of Life”—a detailed blueprint for the ordering of life in a monastery community. The Rule is broad in scope and also incredibly detailed. Although I bridle at a lot of the more patriarchal requirements and expectations, I find myself drawn to much of what it describes about communal life.
Recently, I was looking at a certification program in spiritual direction that led me down a rabbit hole that felt right to explore. Even today, a person wishing to become a Benedictine religious must go through a year-long probationary period. At the end of that time, if the person continues to feel called to this life and is found to be able to do so he, she or they takes a binding vow. In Latin, the vow is “stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia” (stability, conversion of manners, and obedience).
In the midst of so much that is being reordered and rearranged in my life these days, it was the commitment to and promise of “stabilitate” that most intrigued me. Although the easiest translation for stabilitate is stability, I think a there’s a synonym that better reaches for the intention of this promise: steadfastness. In practical terms, for people making this Benedictine vow, it means they willingly choose to remain for the rest of their lives in the monastery community within which they take this vow.
In my previous post, I described the restlessness and mobility that has shaped life for many in my family from one generation to the next. I described the reassurance I have felt when I thought, “well, I’ll just move” as a means for trying to reinvent myself, as a way getting closer to doing and being what I thought was more true to who I am. Now, I also see how much I was guided by the impulse to “run away from,” which, wrapped in nice paper, gets described as “getting a fresh start.”
Something strange, and increasingly lovely, has happened as Sherod and I have made this little homestead ours. We don’t have a very big circle of friends here but we are so grateful for the ones we have. They are friends for life. It isn’t only that I claim this place as home, but that this land, the trees, the sunshine early in the morning, even the coyotes howling at night, have made a claim on me as well. I pay attention now in ways I never did in other places I have lived.
The day the small tornado hit Lowndesboro, Sherod and I, who were spared, took less than a minute to hightail it back home to cook lunch for the folks who were gathering to start responding to the damage in our small town. It wasn’t but a couple of hours after my dad died before the food, and flowers, and care started pouring in.
Things are also asked of me by the land because of what I see. A few Sundays ago, the morning was crisp and cool in the sunlight as I headed to church on Old Selma. This is a winding country road with very, very little traffic. It finds its way through fields and wooded sections, where the tree canopy grows across this somewhat sorry excuse for a paved road making it beautiful, no matter how sorry or full of potholes. My path constantly intersects with the journeys of wildlife.
This particular Sunday, right before I got to one of three creeks the road goes over, I saw something making its way across the road, painfully slowly. I know what comes with this time of spring into summer—right about now, love is a burnin’ thing for turtles around here and they are on the move. I’ve known that for a while. When I first moved here, I only recognized turtles after I had passed them on the road. Then, I became more aware and more careful, slowed down, went around them, and thought, ‘hurry little one.” But seeing turtle ‘road kill’ became heartbreaking. I now keep a travel pack of handy wipes in my car and I do whatever I need to make sure to help those little ahistoric creatures get off the road. Turtles carry a lot of salmonella so after I’ve carried one across the road in the direction it was traveling, I make sure to clean my hands carefully. Turtles can also bite so how I pick one up matters.
On another Sunday, a great big turtle was crossing but I realized I needed to go a bit further to park my car safely. As I got out, I saw a jeep come to somewhat of screeching halt right behind the turtle. The guy got out, lifted and carried the turtle to the other side. When I thanked him, he said he’d figured that’s why I had stopped too. I have no idea who this person is and yet now, in a way I don’t really understand, it feels like we are neighbors and kin.
I get anxious thinking about aging out here in Lowndes County, especially if I am widowed. I have landed in a very unlikely place for a liberal, feminist immigrant with family scattered across continents. The impulse to move, to leave, to start anew, is still in me. But I have claimed this place as home, and now this home makes more and more of a claim on me. I am privileged by that claim. And I am slowly, as slowly as a turtle crossing Old Selma road, making a vow of steadfastness, of Benedictine stabilitate. Restlessness little by little giving way to peace.
Wright Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, VA, West Hall, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, VA, Edificio Santa Fe, Calle 64, Bogotá, Colombia, Buddig Hall, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, Jena Street, New Orleans, LA SPO 84, Sewanee, TN Elkins Ave, Nashville, TN, Prince George Drive, Huntsville, AL Briargate Lane, Madison, AL Joslyn Street, Memphis, TN Bay Pointe Drive, Memphis, TN SW 152 Ave, Miami, FL SW 75th Ave, Miramar, FL SW 23rd Ave, Ft. Lauderdale, FL Brown Hill Rd, Lowndesboro, AL
These are all approximate addresses of the places I have moved to since I left Colombia in 1978. Some were just about moving to a different house in the same city. A lot represent significant dis/relocations. They paint a picture of our very mobile society. They also part of the arc of my family’s story. For at least 4 generations, as my ancestors became adult, they left their home in Sweden. One went to Germany, though my great grandfather ultimately returned to Sweden with his family. My grandfather Knut moved to Côte D’Ivoire, and then to France, before emigrating to Colombia with my grandmother, Rosa. Vera and Hans, my maternal grandparents emigrated to Panamá and eventually moved back and forth between Sweden, New York, where my mom went to school, and Panamá. As a young child, Dad was shipped off from Colombia to go to school in Sweden and did not come back to Colombia until he was in his mid-twenties to take over my grandfather’s business in Cali. On a visit from New York, to meet her Colombian fiancé’s family, my mom ran into my father at a party and within 18 months, the previous engagement had been broken off and she and my dad were married and settled in Colombia. With one brother in England and the other in Holland, and me in Alabama, the tradition of generational resettlement has continued.
I think restlessness, hard family realities, curiosity, and, perhaps, even some courage and hope about starting anew, have shaped this wanderlust. There are achingly difficult moments that are inevitable with a scattered family. Yesterday, I was busy when I got a text from Hans, my Dutch brother. He wanted us to FaceTime at 4. Right on the dot (because that Swedish punctuality matters!), he called. Hans had read the leaked Supreme Court document in the morning and wanted to know if I was OK. It was sweet and thoughtful. Four o’clock in Alabama is 11 o’clock in Tilburg; Hans looked exhausted. But we had a lovely conversation and I would have given just about anything to actually sit with him, to live close enough to visit with him regularly. I miss him.
For all the challenges, those life decisions that’ve been made from one generation to another run deep in me. Recently, some friends who are Sherod’s age and have serious health issues moved into an Episcopal retirement community in Asheville NC that offers a full continuum of care for the elderly. I had already been thinking about the years ahead. Fourteen years younger than my spouseman, I know it is realistic to anticipate that I will survive him. As I age into those terribly vulnerable years when life is drawing to an end, I ask myself, “who will I turn to for care?” Hearing about the place our friends have moved into, my immediate thought was—there it is! That’s it! I will get the care I need without imposing on anyone. I’ll be safe. I won’t be alone. Whew! I’ll just move there.
Yes. Just move, tear up roots, leave the roses, the pecan grove, the quiet Alabama mornings, the dazzling stars I love to look at out in our small homestead in the country. Move. Again.
As the political and cultural rifts in this country widen more and more, as less and less feels sure and trustworthy, I also wonder: should I try to leave, emigrate again? I could very easily get residency in Spain and Sweden, I could go back to Colombia, I could go back to Panamá. I could. I could move again.
Now, that answer to fear and a desire to have some say over the final years of my life doesn’t work. Deerfield offers every bit of the gracious loveliness that our years of saving, our inheritances, and the performance of the stock market can afford an aging person. And, it is safe because it has insulated itself from the rougher edges of life. I’d be surrounded by folks very much like me. My life could be curated and distilled into everything that is comfortable and easy to love. I gulp when I think about that possibility. I don’t find any real hope in other countries either, especially given my daughter, that extraordinary young woman, who has such needs, who is so fragile.
In the meantime, our small farm/homestead has become a place of unending joy for me. These days I get up around five. I do my daily ‘Liturgy to the Gods of Good Coffee” and sit in my favorite spot for quiet, reading, and reflection that ends with me saying Morning Prayer. By then, it is 6 in the morning and there’s light outside. I take my shears and my trug to do the rounds of the flower beds and our vegetable garden. Sunny and Gilbert, our barn cats, follow me. Usually so does Tux . Occasionally, Mo is with us too. The thing is, after a quick breakfast, Mo loves nothing more than to jump on our bed so he can have a nap before getting up for the day. I think he also likes cuddling with his fast-asleep human. No matter who comes along, this daily pilgrimage proceeds in fits and starts with a whole lot of gamboling on the way.
Mostly, I just look, pull the occasional weed, marvel that now that the nights aren’t so cool, things are growing so fast. The roses are blooming with an astounding exuberance so a good part of the time is spent ‘dead heading’ and gathering flowers. I laughingly shared with a friend that it is here, in West Central Alabama, that I have discovered my inner Baptist self. There’s a hymn beloved around these parts of the world, with an opening verse and refrain I have too have come to love for what it tells me about these daily pilgrimages:
I come to the garden alone While the dew is still on the roses And the voice I hear, falling on my ear The Son of God discloses
And He walks with me And He talks with me And He tells me I am His own And the joy we share as we tarry there None other has ever known.
Time out of time. Heaven on earth. Every single last thing I could ever hope for. Life abundant. An invitation to consider the Benedictine Rule of Life. To be continued…
I’m not sure how to talk about the trip I took and what I thought about on the long ride home, but it’s worth a try.
The first, very obvious realization was about my own self, and how, I who was never one of the ‘it girls’ or at the center of things, am moving further back out to the edges of life and culture. Hilton Head Island is beautiful The tree canopy was even more stunning to me than the ocean. And it is also extraordinarily manicured and well cared for. I was in an enclave of great privilege and that was brought home to me when I realized that in the parking building of my Airbnb, I was parked between a Lamborghini and a Porsche. I struggle these days with the excesses of privilege—I simply can’t get my mind around people paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a quick trip into space when there is such desolation that could be alleviated by that kind of money. I knew how to move in that Hilton Head Island kind of space; it wasn’t like I was not grateful for the beauty, the quiet, and the graciousness. I just find myself wanting to simplify my life more and more, ask less of our “Mother Earth,” and give more of what little I have to give of myself and my privilege.
Being with my cousin and her family was pure, exquisite joy. I lived very disconnected from my family for most of my adult life. With my brothers in Europe, my parents and the rest of the family in Colombia and Panama, it was easy to build without them. I discovered when my dad came to live with us, that having a family member in such close proximity made my life so rich and meaningful, even on the hard days. For years, I was busy, my cousin and her family were busy, and there are a million other excuses I could give for having done a poor job of staying in touch with her. But she stood next to me as I officiated at my dad’s burial, and she helped give air the oxygen I needed to take the next breath.
Her family and I could not be on more different ends of the political spectrum. We had a few careful conversations but not ones that lasted very long. I have learned a wonderful way of being respectful when it comes to political differences. It is a simple phrase: “I think I understand what you are saying, and I see things very differently.” That reminds me not to pull out my old habits as a member of the debate team in High School and simply listen, keep showing up. I wasn’t there to compete for the best argument in support of a political position. I was there because I love these folks and don’t get to see them nearly enough.
And the hardest, perhaps truest, truth of these past few days: Both my cousin and her husband had terrible Covid at the end of 2020, before there were any vaccines available. Both almost died. Additionally, there is a vein of dementia that runs through her mother’s side of the family. My cousin appears to be slipping into that dark night, especially since she got Covid. It is still early and only now, is the family beginning to consider a thorough evaluation. God, we all hope we are wrong. While we were together, she and I laughed and carried on, told old stories. This is the cousin whose two sons were killed by the FARC, narcoguerrillas in Colombia, in 1987. We talked more about the days around those deaths than ever before and I was humbled that I was allowed into that place. While my cousin’s slippage was obvious, it has not affected the deep, deep love that she and I share so it wasn’t anything that took away from the goodness of our time.
Driving home yesterday, with no delays or rain, only sunshine and lovely rolling hills and open spaces between Savannah and Lowndesboro, I ached with the knowledge of how quickly time goes by, how many goodbyes and losses I’ve already experienced and how many more lie ahead. It is so trite and cliché. And so essential. Make it count. Don’t think you’ll have another chance. Don’t forget to tell people how much you love them and what it means that they love you. I forget all that constantly. I shut down, go into work mode with blinders on. Being with my cousin was a nudge from the Spirit of Love and Life telling me, “don’t forget…”
If you know me, you know I am quite driving-averse. Like, a lot. I surprised my own self this morning. I had checked tire pressure, had gotten new windshield wiper blades, filled the windshield washer fluid up to the top and charged a fancy new jumper set in case my battery dies (I even remembered to put it in my car last night). At 7:30 this morning, I hit the road—filled up on gas, went through the car wash and then got on I-85.
About 20 miles northeast of Montgomery, traffic stopped. Just stopped. And my iMap guide started flashing a portion of the interstate up ahead in red. It also indicated I could expect a delay of 1 ½ hours. Sure enough. We crawled along, until finally, I came to a place where one of those 18 wheel rigs had somehow crashed into an embankment and the whole front was basically smooshed into the container it was pulling. I prayed for the driver and his/her family. Soon after, I got to the exit I needed to take to get on a gorgeous back road that would carry me to Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. On my way home, I plan to do some photography along that stretch. From there, I headed east on a state road to Macon (also in Georgia). The best part of this leg was seeing acre after acre of solar panels harvesting sunlight. We are so extraordinarily resistant to anything like that in Alabama that I am thrilled when I see it in other places.
About 30 miles from Macon I got on I-75 N and then took a turn to the east again, to get on I-16. I’d been on I-16 for a mile when again. Traffic slows to barely a crawl. At one point it comes to a standstill while an ambulance zooms by. We are stopped for several minutes and when I look across at the driver in the van in the lane to the left of me, he’s leaning against his window, sound asleep. When traffic started moving again, folks behind him began to honk like crazy. When I lost sight of him, the van was still not moving and I wondered if he was alright. I thought about these crazy, stressed out, selves of ours that get into cars and drive. How do we live to tell the tales?
Then I drove straight east for another 220 miles. It was interstate driving which means it was pretty boring but there wasn’t much traffic, the rain had ended and I was listening to a nice book on Audible. The road also brought me closer and closer a true nemesis: I-95. There are simply no words. None. Not after navigating that interstate in South East Florida for almost 20 year.
I got on 95 just a few miles away from Savannah, GA and headed up north, pleasantly surprised by how light the traffic was though I did see several speed demons with FL license plates weaving across lanes at ungodly speeds… A few miles from the border with South Carolina, third verse, the same as the first, a little bit longer and a little bit worse. Traffic slows down to a crawl. Even slower than the other two times. Now I’m beginning to run low on gas so some anxiety hops in to take a seat with me. It ended up being a 16-mile backup caused by another accident. Finally, finally, I got off on the right exit and made a beeline for the first available gas station and then drove for another 32 miles. I was on roads that carried me past estuaries and rivers in the low country where Pat Conroy grew up, and where the movie Prince of Tides was filmed. Finally, I got here.
I am meeting up with my wonderful, crazy cousins for the next two days and driving home on Thursday. I’ll see them a good chunk of each day and I will also have time to myself. But this picture:
This is why I came. This is why I didn’t mind at all, driving for almost 11 hours to get Hilton Head, SC. After I got settled in my Airbnb, I walked a couple of blocks to the beach and just listened to the surf. I bet Jesus is around here somewhere too, hoping that after all that praying, all that worshipping, all that music and all those flowers he had to pay attention to for the last week, he may get to have a bit of solitude, standing on the shore, looking out at the sea.
The blooms opening, pulling in all it takes so they are at their brightest and most lovely, are, of course, the signs and sacraments of spring. But what moved my Dad most at this time of the year began when ghost-grey limbs of trees stripped bare in the late fall, first got a greenish sheen to them. As day followed day, the green would take form, translucent and fragile, yes. But substantial. Real.
My dad and I followed that unfolding , on drives day after day, during each of the five springs we shared. aThe greening of the land was almost painfully exquisite to us the spring before his death. It made our trips into town on Old Selma Road magical. These days, if I won’t glance over, won’t try to get a glimpse of him, Dad is right there, riding beside me as I head to work. Such a strange combination of longing and comfort accompanies me as I strain to take in all that ordinary beauty made new once again. I feast my eyes for him, as well as me.
When my mom died, I never had the sense of presence I have with my dad. I imagine there are all kinds of reasons why. Surely, not ever having lived with my mother for more than a couple of weeks at a time since leaving for college when I was 18, had meant we lacked the kinds of rituals and routines I had with Dad. It feels strange, that absence with no sense of real presence.
A few days ago, I got a small package from Amazon, a replacement nob for the lid of one of two “Le Creuset” pieces that are my pride and joy in the kitchen. I hadn’t used the smaller piece for years because without a nob on the lid, it was hard to manage. With the lid all better, this morning, I used it to put up an eggplant dish I was preparing. Memories swirled around me like the tide rushing in. Both pieces were my mom’s. She brought the one I used this morning on one of her visits to our home in Lauderdale. The other one always sat at the top of the cabinets in her kitchen in Panamá, only to be used at Christmas to make the annual Swedish baked beans. After her death, my dad had no use for it and was only too glad to start decluttering. I lugged the piece from Panamá back to the USA in my carry-on, a 5 ½ qt dutch oven that, as they say in Colombia, weighed more than a bad marriage.
I have used the dutch oven almost weekly. Each time I lean down to pull it out of its shelf, I am aware of its weight, the strain on muscle, sinew, and bone as I lift it out. The smaller piece, pictured above, is not as heavy but my heart was particularly happy this morning as I piled a delicious new dish into that beautiful oval piece that I remembered from the kitchen of our house in Cali.
Today, what I realized was very simple. Such practical beauty, such ability to hold what nurtures and delights, such heft and “here-ness”: this is where and how my mama is with me, even now. And I give thanks…