Last year not long after the election, we bought a faux birch tree with lights on it.
We brought it home and put it on the wide window ledge in our kitchen/dining room and plugged it in and admired it.
We never turned it off again.
Day and night, winter and spring and summer and fall, we have been waking up to the lights on that tree and coming home to the lights on that tree and eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the lights on that tree. It has been in the background of innumerable photographs; right now our ginger cat is sitting under it with his paw in the water dish.
Yet it has never become something we don’t notice.
As night impinges on day in these dwindling weeks before the Solstice, the little tree reminds us that even in a sad and terrible world, in a devastating political and cultural season, glimmers of goodness exist and there are means to defy the despair evil wants us to feel. By the lights on the little tree, we will call our representatives, and make donations to religious and civic organizations doing good work, and wrap packages and write cards for people we love, and play games and read books and hold hands and pray with them, too.
We will kiss, and we will cry, and we will rage and prepare to burn the whole thing down, and we will refill the cat’s water dish.
Jesus told the disciples that no one but God knows when the hour and the day will come.
In the meantime, I’m not sure what else any of us can do but stay awake and be ready for the moment when something we do or say can make a difference.
I bought this t-shirt at UCC General Synod in Baltimore and wore it home yesterday. I’ve admired it on friends’ social media and went to the Exhibit Hall looking for it on Monday. The back of the shirt lists all kinds of Black Lives that Matter, including women and trans* people. I especially feel convicted by the line on the front in smaller print, “White Silence is Violence.”
When I stopped in Shrewsbury, PA, to get an iced coffee, I got out of my car in the Starbucks parking lot and wondered if anyone would react. I don’t wear politics on my clothes much. In the town where I live, I’m running an action as an LGBTQ+ person every time I grocery shop, go to the doctor’s office, or attend a school or sports event with my wife. When I was in a pulpit, I preached Black Lives Matter, but I’m not in a pulpit now and don’t know how likely it is that I ever will be again, at least around here.
At Starbucks, the family parked next to me included a White dad, a Black mom, and their two teenaged daughters. I stood in line with the dad while the rest of the family used the restroom. I wondered what they thought of the shirt. I know in my town we’ve heard People of Color say they don’t want attention drawn for fear of getting racists more riled up than they already are. I don’t want to make things worse for any particular person in order to make a larger point, do I?
While I stood waiting for my drink, the mom passed me on her way to the door. As our eyes met, she said, “I like your shirt.” Then we both said, at the same time, “Thank you,” and she touched my arm, and we both had tears in our eyes.
I am not looking for cookies here. That moment in the Starbucks felt unearned, although I appreciated the moment of connection. I’m pondering the difference between sharing articles online, which is easy for me to do, not only because I do a lot of my work online, but because it feels safe, and actually showing up, which I don’t often do because … why? I have a list of reasons (a few) and excuses (quite a few).
Mostly, being transgressive feels scary, which I conclude is the point. We can’t make change by staying in our safe zones.
I am the older sister. I grew up taking blame for naughty things my brother did, and taking the spankings, too. At least, that’s how I remember it.
“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
I’m reading Mary Karr’s book, and I’m noting how one-sided all our stories are, and impressed by how generous she tries to be when recalling stories about other people. So I will confess I know there were times the spankings were related to my behavior. I know I was far from perfect; in fact, I spent quite a bit of time in the office of the head of the lower school at St. Agnes in my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade years. A core unrest whipped me around and around; I climbed out a window, and I kicked my teacher, and I pulled a fire alarm, or so they tell me. I think I am innocent of that last one. But who knows?
By adolescence, I had learned how to control myself a little better – or to pretend to, to pretend to be that professional good girl an older sister and first-born ought to be. As my brother got involved in typical teen-age shenanigans, I became pious and careful. I might disappoint my parents (I did), but it wouldn’t be on account of sex or drugs.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in… (Luke 15:25-28, CEB)
I think in the church we’re very likely to identify ourselves with the older son, to convince ourselves that we’ve always been well-behaved, loyal, hard-working, all the ideals of this American culture. The truth about me is that I have been all those things, but I’ve still managed to leave home, worry my parents, shock everyone who knew me by (1) going to seminary, (2) getting divorced, (3) getting married again, (4) getting divorced, (5) coming out, and (6) getting married again. To my family back home in Virginia, who thought of my brother as the imp and me as the nice girl, I have engaged in a complete role reversal. My brother is the steady one, long-married, established. I am the rogue, the prodigal, the sinner.
When I read this chapter now (Luke 15), I read it differently than at other times in my life. I can only read it as myself. We are all corrupt this way.
I read it as a person whose whole life is viewed differently, as a woman whose choices are well outside the realm of youthful sins, errors or peccadilloes. I read it as a woman whose marriage is considered suspect not because it’s #3 but because my spouse is a wife. I read it as the niece who was not welcome at a funeral, as the sister whose brother would not come to the wedding. I read it as a pastor’s wife subject to never-ending micro-aggressions not only from the people who question our “lifestyle,” but from the people who claim to support us. I read it as a pastor whose employability in a progressive denomination plummeted just for being queer.
When I read these stories now, I am grateful for these stories and Jesus’ assurance that God loves us, and seeks us, and returns us to the fold.
It’s only in some human eyes that I ever left it.
Holy God, sometimes we get lost in the wilderness of judgment, in the dark corners of oppression, in the foreign land of inhospitality. You nose us out, search for us, welcome us home, and in every case, rejoice when we are together again. Thank you for that. Amen.
I note that the Left is, as we have come to expect, engaged in self-destructive internal wrangling, complete with name-calling and finger-pointing. We are not “on message” because that is not part of our DNA. We disparage the people who offer support to each other on the Right; their lockstep smacks of collusion.
Some voices say that we cannot afford to be so hard on each other in a time when there are forces we must resist, but I would amend that.
We cannot afford to forget each other in a time when there are forces we must resist. We must remember that there are life experiences and points of view different from our own, open conversation instead of assuming it will arise, invite relationship instead of taking it for granted.
The responsibility to act – to remember, to open, to invite – always lies with those of us who benefit from privilege, whether it derives from our race, our level of education, our economic advantage, our orientation, our gender identity, our ability, or our religious identification.
Where can you open a conversation? It’s harder when, admittedly, we’re not all the same. We need to take the time to listen more closely, to ask and answer questions that may seem obvious but (maybe) are not, to be humble rather than defensive when we get things wrong, to commit to inviting new relationships, to be ferocious in our commitment to the greater good.
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.
It feels bad right now because it is bad. Playing on racism, misogyny, religious prejudice, and homophobia worked. The winners are taking America back not just from big government or coastal elites but from Mexican immigrants and Islamic Gold Star parents and and queer families like mine and the women of color who have been the most faithful Democratic voters, by far – to name but a few. I was raised in a political family, but my response to this loss cannot simply be one about team loyalty or brand identification. As a person of faith, I believe the people leveraged for this victory are the very ones with whom Jesus would walk.
And I’m not going to lie. This feels hard. We wept last night. But today we need to be even more sure to seek out and come alongside the ones most at risk in this world. That’s what following Jesus means.
So although I’m going on little sleep, it’s time to get up and keep going.
Our puppy, Teddy, has decided that books are the best chew toy. We’ve caught him several times in recent days surreptitiously removing a book from the bottom of our big Ikea shelf system in the living room. He started with coffee table books, lying down to gnaw the corners of volumes also recumbent due to their extreme height. Then he managed to drag a picture book out and across the floor, and he hit the mother lode: photographs of a post-Katrina trip to Mississippi tucked inside the pages of “The Storm.”
I am in one of those pictures, standing with a small group of children, outside their church, Handsboro United Methodist, where I offered pulpit supply and emergency coverage as a small gesture of support for a pastor on the Gulf Coast, ten days off to keep recovering from the physical and emotional damage of wind and water and loss. Months had gone by and great mounds of debris had been hauled away, but houses remained catty-corner to their original addresses while the people who had lived in them still sought safety.
The children are holding gifts sent by the people of Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC, where I was pastor. I traveled to Mississippi with a backpack full of gifts, tucked in the folds of a prayer shawl for their pastor.
In the picture, I’m wearing a dress from LLBean; I got it at a rummage sale for $3.00, at a church where I filled in just after seminary, a real score because it was unworn. That’s a pair of Birkenstock women’s loafers originally purchased for my oldest son when he was at that awkward size between boys’ shoes and men’s, worn by me for many years, through numerous re-heelings, re-solings. I wore a ponytail because a retired colleague’s wife said my hair looked unprofessional around my shoulders, but I kept it long to save money on haircuts.
I remember many things about that trip, the things I saw and many of the people I met and the stories they told me. I cannot forget the people who literally clung to tree branches to save themselves, who lost their brothers, or their dogs, or their homes, or even just their sense of direction.
It’s much harder to remember being someone who tried so hard to be so many things to so many people without leaving an imprint, who tried so hard to be ordinary and good and acceptable.
I want to tell her, “You have no idea of the storms that are coming. You will feel like a house off its foundation. You will learn what it’s like to perch precariously, clinging to what remains.”
And then I might whisper to her, “But keep hanging on, dear one, because beyond the storm there is hope. In the recovery from the storm, there is kindness, and love you won’t recognize at first. Don’t let go.”
I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”
As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.
I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.
Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.
Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.
After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)
I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.
To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*
Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!
Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**
Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.
Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.
“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.
I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.
At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.
He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.
He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.
An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.