Peace descends upon my heart this morning which is not made of my making. The awakening to the day, however, was filled with worry over my dog, Birdie. Congestion bothers her breathing and I can hear it. I come to the computer to rearrange my budget. Yet, all I can do is wait for the vet to open and pray. While praying for this 17# of pure love and wonder, I remember my friend, Jane, suggested a podcast about poetry. Since I had no chance to listen to the podcast yesterday, I take the 8 minutes to listen today.
The poem is written by Faisal Mohyuddin’s and it is his poem “Prayer”. The first part of the podcast is a bit of a preface of how the poem was birthed, and poems are always born. The podcast where you can hear Mohyuddin’s poem is called Poetry Unbound and the episode my friend wanted me to hear is called A Poem for Ritual and Reset. The poet’s voice calms my anxiousness. The story of the poem’s birth paints a picture of ritual I recognize from my own faith. The poem itself, holy. I listen again.
Then, I realize it is time for the gathering of rubbish. On Beech Mountain, we cannot put our trash out the day before pick up because of bears. Even if the bears are sleeping through the winter, the raccoons, coyotes, and cougars are active. The raccoon is bigger than my dog. I have heard but not seen the neighboring coyotes and only recently learned there is a big cat somewhere on the mountain. Reluctantly, I set aside my headphones of the poem to turn to the necessary task of recycling.
My grandparents were born shortly before the Great Depression. I watched them reuse/repurpose/recycle before we used those specific terms in our vernacular. To them, it was to avoid being wasteful. It’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember. My parents followed suit giving us a good understanding of care for the earth.
During Lent of 2019, my choice of “fasting” was to lessen my use of plastic. It required me to be more intentional in every purchase. It was both amazing and sad how hard it was to choose cardboard containers. Amazing because the practice pointed out how careless and thoughtless, I had become. Sad because of remembering a time when every piece of food wasn’t wrapped in plastic; when milk was available in glass and the milkman picked up the recycled glass bottles from our back porch.
The practice was enlightening, and it also lightened my burden on trips down the mountain to recycle. Then, after losing my car, it became clear that the next practice will need to be to lessen my use of cardboard. That, however, will be harder since I have to order everything I need. Whether it’s Walmart or Amazon, the ridiculousness is that though I order only once a month, the boxes come piecemeal. As I prepared for my morning task of recycling, I remembered someone mentioning a program where the boxes would be reused.
Quickly I researched and found that Givebackbox will give you a label to mail the box to a source nearest you that can use the boxes rather than clog a landfill. In the past, I had a garden and used boxes as weed barriers. The Givebackbox may be my new way of being intentional about cardboard. After taping the address label to Goodwill, I step onto the porch to leave the boxes for pick up and for the first time of the day see the sunrise.
The color is fabulous. I grab my camera in hopes to share the vibrant color with family and friends. Most photographers wish to capture sunsets, but I always want to capture sunrises. It is only recently I’ve
returned to using my Sony Alpha camera again and I know that with my balance issues, there may be a blur; no matter how still it seems that I stand movement shivers like a sound wave. Once I snap a few of a color I can only find described as “cobaltvioletdeep” or deep magenta, I take the time to set the camera on the tripod. By the time I’ve mounted the camera, the colors have faded but are still lovely.
Morning is the time of prayer for me. One of my life goals is to make each action/choice/chore a prayer of some sort. As I wash my dishes, I give thanks for the water and dishes. Today, each step down the snowy mountain was full of rejoicing over the beauty of another day. I thought of friends who tell me about poetry and prayer. A smile came to my face as I remembered and blessed the melting snow dwarves the young guests built yesterday.
A day that started in worry has been transformed into one of peace. My heart rejoices that I have all that I need and that as the hours pass, an answer will be given for Birdie. It is simply a matter of waiting and trusting. Those are two things that have never been easy for me. Prayer is practice and our practices are prayers.
There’s a song that has been coming back to me from long ago. It’s one my mom played on the piano and then my sister and I would take turns singing the verses. The title of the song is, “This Life” and it’s by Evie Tournquist. She was a contemporary gospel singer popular in the 70s when we were in high school.
A couple of weeks ago I asked mom to send me a copy of the music she has. I’ve looked for the Evie songbooks for years just to have copies of the songs I sang with my mom and sister. The music still speaks to me all these years later.
“This life I have been given is but a moment’s time. This life I have received it as a gift from [God’s] hand.”
Written in first person as one singing a song to God it is quiet, respectful, and full of heart. A lot of Evie’s songs were that way. As a trio of short women, we did also love the fun song she did called “I’m Only 4 foot eleven but I’m going to heaven and it makes me feel ten feet tall….” My theology has changed a lot since then so there are some of the contemporary gospel hymns I wouldn’t sing today because my understanding of God is more magnanimous.
The song moves gently into my mind again today as I look through old pictures taken through the past thirteen years. Since my divorce, I’ve tried moving those thousand pictures of life with my wife to a safe keeping place. It’s been healing in many ways and of course, when I see pictures of our happiness and love it has been hard.
The pictures I am moving to the Flickr account today though, are ones I took on walks in forests. The walks were mostly in various places of the Nantahala Forest because it is so large, and Sylva is dead center of it. That place in the forest is one of the million reasons I loved living in Sylva.
Forests have always been exciting places for me. Exciting for the potential to see wildlife, but also to discover wildflowers, birds, nests, paths, and all the ways that nature changes in the forest. When I was in high school, we took one of those tests that gave you ideas about vocation in life. I always got Forest Ranger. As I look through my photos of today and get excited about new walks on Beech Mountain, I wonder if I missed my calling.
Seeing photo after photo of the wonder of the forest, I can see why I am so happy here. When my ex and I would vacation, we would only go an hour from the house staying in the mountains. The rivers and the trees were too peaceful to leave for the city or a harried trip on the interstate. Even now, when I want to go somewhere, it’s usually to explore this area. This month is dollar days at Grandfather Mountain. I’ve not been there in over twenty years. I can’t wait to see Birdie up on the top of those rocks looking down to the mountains below.
Linville Gorge is nearby and so are the caverns. I’ve truthfully no desire to see the caverns again. The last time I was there I realized being underground freaked me out a bit. Yet, I don’t have any photos of the
trip I took in the 80s. Film cameras were too expensive, and I was one of the musicians singing in the mountains with Resort Area Ministry (R.A.M.) out of Boone. We all had just enough money to buy a ticket into the cavern. With my new digital cameras, would it take my mind off of the damp underground? The freaky bats that I don’t like (even though I know they are beneficial)? The water that could hold the Loch Ness Monster; even if it doesn’t have a water monster? Evidently, my sci-fi imagination goes a bit haywire in underground caverns.
A lot of the photos I uploaded today were photos I took of the forest floor. It is amazing at the life and
growth that occurs on the floor of the forest. First, the mosses begin to green up. Then there are sprigs of other plants. My friends already post pictures of trillium and trout lilies sprouting in Southern Appalachia. We have only a few greens here on Beech. Yet, I can’t wait to discover what they are and where they are.
Each day in a forest is an adventure because things are blooming. The frogs started singing last night. The night before the owls were hooting it up that it’s spring. Birds sing in the morning and the new red squirrel is already trying to tease Birdie. One of my new writer friends in the area posts regularly about the wonders she finds on her hikes. Lisa Creech Bledsoe is a great poet too and she sometimes posts her poetry as well. Check out her site at Appalachian Ground. Wonders await you in your own back yard or back forest. Take the time to look around at the ground around you. You’ll be glad you did.
Sounds like some new movie for Hugh Grant to star in, but it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, there were funerals during this time too. Death waits for no one and cares not about our special occasions. My ex and I had planned our wedding shortly after North Carolina announced it was allowing gay marriages in the state. Paula Offutt and I were giving presentations about our new books at City Lights Bookstore. A friend who loved us interrupted the reading to let us know that the ruling had passed. None of us could believe it.
Now many are trying to take our newly given rights away again. States are creating bills and hoping to make laws that can discriminate against us. Let me tell you this. Now that many of us have had a taste of freedom, those states are not thinking clearly about making us go back in the closet. We have sacrificed too much to get rights that many take for granted. We cherish those rights and we will fight for them. The LGBTQ people are not afraid of hard work, protest, losing family, or physical harm. None of us want that in our lives, but we want to keep our rights.
If I did a timeline summary of all that happened between the time of the book reading, it would look like this:
New Book Release/Reading – Marriage Equality in NC – Wedding plans – my dad’s death – Disability Hearing – Wedding.
In all of that rejoicing, my dad died. There was no rejoicing then mind you. My family had a hard month with my dad on life support machines and with his being 78, we had to make a tough decision. There was tension in the family over a right to die and the meaning of faith. On the day my dad died, my family decided to leave my partner out of the surviving relative list in the obituary. That hurt. It hurt because I knew they loved her, and she loved them. Then, it caused problems because my partner thought I should raise my voice.
It wasn’t because I was chicken. I had stood up to my family (and lost) before. My concern was the fact that my mom had just lost her lifelong friend and love. Mom and dad fought all the time. So much so that at times I thought they didn’t like each other. Later in life, I realized that both of them liked to argue to a certain degree and that they had learned to make their peace with each other. In addition to concerns about mom, my sister and I were heartbroken over the loss of our dad. My sister worked alongside of dad, so the loss was deeper for her. In my attempt to minister to my family’s grief, I did not do as my partner asked.
Besides, my dad’s death caused a cyclone of feelings inside of me that I was having a hard time understanding. There was grief and loss, but there was also relief. Not only relief about my dad no longer being on life support machines, but I later realized his death meant one less person to condemn me in my family. Though we had made a kind of peace about me being present with my partner, it was an uneasy peace. After his death, he came to me in dreams to tell me how much he loves me. I write in the present tense because he still comes in my dreams to bring love to mind. Somehow after his death, I knew he could accept me in a way he couldn’t in his life. He was the only one of my family that later felt present at my wedding.
After the funeral, my partner suggested that we postpone our wedding. That really hurt. It hurt because it was the only way I got through the ordeal with the month’s waiting in the hospital. It hurt because I was afraid that my choice to not start a fight in the midst of family grief caused my then-future-wife to have second thoughts about marriage. I believe I even asked her that.
It was true what she said that I was grieving. I couldn’t see how postponing our wedding would make a difference. Though I’ve learned healthy ways to grieve, I am slow at it. Because of my tendency to ponder and analyze my every thought and feeling over events, doing the same with grief makes it seem exponentially longer. At this writing, it’s four years after my dad’s death and I still grieve at odd times. Still miss him when I see his harmonica or run across his guitar slide and the memories of him teaching me guitar make me wish to hear him. Even in 2015, I know that postponing the marriage would have only delayed my grief over the loss of my dad. To postpone would have caused me to stop grieving and wonder what was wrong with my relationship.
Looking back now, perhaps that’s what I should have done anyway. The married and happily ever after was too enticing. Though I knew that life is always full of ups and downs, I was confident in the us that we were and that we had been. At that time, we had been together for nine years and had already gone through a lot. Hell, I thought the fact that two women went through menopause together was enough to cement our marriage. That wasn’t a fun time I tell you, but we made it and we still loved one another.
There also was the issue of my declining health. Even before dad’s illness, we had been working to get disability in place for me because of how it was impacting my life and ability to work. Though my partner talked about the stress of it, she promised she still loved me for who I was. The thought of being classified as “disabled” was horrible to me and caused a great identity crisis because I like to work. I didn’t know who I would be if I couldn’t work. I didn’t know where I would fit in the world, in my church, in my family if I didn’t work. This was going on before dad died; even when we planned to wed and, in the weeks, before the wedding. It made it even more difficult that the hearing before the disability judge came up to be scheduled on the day of our wedding rehearsal day. We asked the attorney about postponing it. She informed us that the judge could delay it another two years and we both knew I needed more medical help because I had no insurance.
We went to the hearing and the judge made an offer to grant the disability for the future, but it wouldn’t cover all of the bills that had piled up to the date of the final hearing. I can’t remember why the attorney suggested postponing our wedding at a discussion after the judge’s offer. My partner righteously and angrily explained to the attorney that we had waited all our lives for the right to marry. In truth, I think my partner surprised herself at how angry she was that the attorney suggested that. My partner’s standing up and claiming our wedding in such a manner made me even more confident in our wedding. The day before the wedding I was declared by the state as “disabled”.
That label did not affect me though because, at the time, I rejoiced in the fact that I was beloved. I felt loved by my partner, community, church, and even my family at the time. Though they did not know about the wedding. Dad died before we could even tell them about it. I knew they wouldn’t come anyway and did not want messages about my salvation mixed in with the grief, the stress of the disability hearing, and the stress (yet joy) of getting married.
Our wedding was simple. We dressed in our best pantsuits. We encouraged everyone to come as they were; casual and fun. The wedding was full of messages of love. From ancient Hebrew scripture to the reading of a Shakespeare ode, love was in the air. Friends played music. All of my partner’s family who lived in town participated. Friends helped. We walked down the aisle to “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (my favorite Bach piece) and walked out to “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” (a favorite of us both). Our reception was provided by the locale business lesbian. Our photographs by the local and out partner of the business lesbian. We had Christians, atheists, agnostics, and Buddhists at our wedding. The church string band played Celtic music. We danced, ate cupcakes, and rejoiced in the love of family and friendship.
Everyone told us then and later that it was the best wedding they had ever attended. They talked of how much fun it was and that they were free to wear whatever they wanted. Everyone talked about how much love there was in the ceremony and the reception. It’s true too. Though I won’t post a photo of my ex here, you can look at her face and see love. Love for me, for her family, church, and for our friends. We both talked about how blessed we were.
Our honeymoon wasn’t far away but a few towns over. Just enough to be out of our neighborhood for a mini-break, but also close enough so that if my 96-year-old mother-in-law needed us, we could get there in time. I was proud and honored to be a part of her family. In fact, they were a lot like my family except from Chicago. Okay, so that’s a lot difference. But the love of music and God tied us together.
Today, March 28, 2019, would have been our fourth wedding anniversary. Today is the one-year anniversary of our divorce. Yet, what I tell you now is that I’m going to celebrate the love and not the pain. I am sad that my marriage didn’t make it. That much is true. Yet, it is also true that in those years we had together I had more love than some people have in a lifetime.
My friends remain. I have made new friends in my new community who have brought healing and hope for life again at this age. For now, I’m unwilling to talk about romantic love, for I thought my wife was my “one”…she was the only person I was willing to marry. It doesn’t mean that the loss of her means there’s no such thing as romantic love, but that I still have much to learn about love. I still have the love in my heart after all the hurt. After all the loss, the love I have in my heart and life is greater than what I have lost. That is what I will celebrate today. I pray that you know you are loved too.
Wonder is a word with different meanings. I get caught up in word definitions. My mind gets caught up in words. My heart gets caught up in meaning, working together with my mind to parse out what this life is for me and how to live it best. Upon first recognition, wonder came to me in the form of questioning. Questions always swirl in my being as a divine koan whether or not it’s true.
I wonder what G-d has planned for me now? I had planned to preach over the weekend at the church where I had served as a pastor. Had worked to be careful and not over commit beforehand or afterward. My best-laid plans fell through of course. Life has a way of reminding us that we are not the ones in charge. Life itself is.
“Life has a way of reminding us…” That’s a phrase I remember writing in other reflections. Human beings are forgetful. We forget the important things of life all of the time. We forget to eat right or follow the instructions of the doctor. We forget this and that and before you know it, time slipped by. I was no longer young and invincible. Now it’s hard to believe that I thought I was ever invincible.
“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.” ~Frederick Buechner on Vocation
Standing to look out the door of my mountain home I pray about the days to come and what it means for me as a called person. In the past, I know I can say I was called to ministry. Through music, retreat leadership, word and sacrament, I followed that call. Even as I write I follow that call but in a different form. The standing still and quietly led me to be present in the moment. At that moment, the sun came out over the distant mountains and I was struck with wonder at its beauty.
Eureka! Wonder! That is my task in life. No. Wonder, that is my largest gift. Wonder comes to me as easily
now as it did when I was a child. As a child, youth, teenager, I often got in trouble for taking too many photos of flowers, fields, and trees. Film was expensive then and mama always wanted me to have people
in pictures. She said she didn’t mind me taking pictures but it was expensive to develop them. So, please get photos of people if you are taking an entire roll of film; at least get some people in some of them.
I chuckle at the memory now. I don’t have many actual photographs of my adult life because I couldn’t afford to have that many developed. My vocation choices have always been those that have meaning, but that didn’t assure a healthy bank account. In those times when it did include money, I was mired in college or seminary debt. I don’t regret that either. There were plenty of times then when I wondered how I would survive. Now I wonder at the beauty of the long life I have had thus far.
Yesterday, days after I started this writing, the dog and I walked out in the fluffy, new snow. She pranced as we walked to the mailbox. I may have danced had the snow not been so slick. I have yet to dread it like so many others do. Nature continues to inspire and heal me. It’s no wonder I am filled with awe and struck by joy.
Wonder can even be found in death. That lesson was taught to me while a chaplain at the Baptist Hospital in Columbia, SC. I was blessed with the opportunity to be present as many passed from this life to the next. Death caused me to wonder in a different way than life but I cannot say that it was a sad experience. Being at those deaths proved to me that there is more to us than this life.
Technical difficulties caused this post to take me longer to write than normal. In the days that passed between the beginning and the end, Mary Oliver died. She remains one of my favorite poets. She understood wonder in many ways. The first poem I ever heard of hers was quoted in a small mountain church. It makes for a perfect end to this reflection as the poet lives on in wonder.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Gratitude is thankfulness, but without the gluttony, don’t you think? As we enter into the winter holiday season, my mind turns to the aspects of the holidays that we love about the holidays. Some of the holidays are religious, but others, like Thanksgiving were created by a President. These holidays have meaning for us all in different ways. Today I ask myself the ways we can celebrate family or community that aren’t filled with political incorrectness, materialism, or religious antagonism. That may be a monstrous task. Yet, our society has been in disarray to the point where we must look at our lives differently.
In my life, I always loved the Native Americans and their love for nature and the land. When, as an adult, I discovered the truth in our country’s Thanksgiving lie, I was torn. Torn because I didn’t want to celebrate what had happened to the Wampanoag, that both saddened and angered me. At the same time, Thanksgiving was the time it seemed my family got together and celebrated. The season was not as stressful as Christmas. Even as a child, I could feel the tension in family at Christmas that wasn’t there at Thanksgiving. At the Thanksgiving meal, everyone was merely peaceful and thankful.
My dear cousin married a Navajo musician and was the first to explain to me why she no longer celebrated the U.S. holiday. She is a kind woman who I know I can talk freely with and explore feelings, thoughts, and even dreams. Also, when talking with my cousin, I didn’t have to explain the tensions or dynamics of a big Southern family to her. She knew and lived a similar experience. Each year afterwards though, I think of the truth of how the Native Americans were treated, used, and then later, not only abused but massacred…some tribes to the point of extinction.
These stories are learned through reading the histories of Black Elk, Tecumseh, and The Trail of Tears. When I lived in Oklahoma, my favourite thing about living there was to see signs saying that the person was entering the Sac-Fox Nation or the Pottowatomie Nation. I was excited to be able to live among such noble people. Yet, they were treated as outcasts. The Native American there was treated like the blacks of the South were treated when I grew up in the 60s.
Years passed and I continued to learn how unmerciful the whites were to the tribes. In the book, 1491 (Charles C. Mann) a history is laid out about how the tribes welcomed the white man or the Spaniard, and then were exploited through the Americas. They were not immune to smallpox brought here by the Europeans. We stole their land and moved them to reservations or Oklahoma. In the comedy show, Latin History for Morons Netflix says, “John Leguizamo won’t rest until every moron becomes less of a moron.”
Usually, in writing blogs, I like to have plenty of photos to break up the words. As we enter the “holiday season” I exhort you to change the holiday. Let’s take a holiday from bitterness, greed, and strife. Let’s choose to love one another and care for our world and our neighbor so that each day we live a practice of gratitude. Gratitude does take practice too.
Human beings that we are, it is easy for one to focus on the negative aspects of life. We forget the beauty and gratitude of merely waking up. Grief does not rest during these times either and can even be exponentially triggered. Can we take a holiday from the rush-a-holic business of this time of the year to pay attention to feelings: both the feelings of self as well as the other? Can we practice that each time we think something is wrong with a person to try and find what is right?
Even writing that paragraph was a hard practice for me. Why? Because I know that if I ask another to practice something, I must also look in the mirror at my choices and my actions. This practice of gratitude doesn’t have to be vocalized and in fact, vocalization can mask a dark reality. Look deep inside of yourself. What do you see there? Can you give thanks for all that you are? I know I can’t. Yet, I can give thanks that I have friends who love me just as I am.
My dog sits at my right foot watching me as I write the end of this blog. She thinks I sit at the computer for too long. Pets teach us the true meaning of gratitude, so does nature. Turn your Black Friday into a green one by going for a hike in nature with a loved one. There are many ways that we can practice gratitude that include all of humanity and our world. Let’s start this year.