As Beautiful as Life

This morning on our walk down to the Black Dog for breakfast, Coco asked me a great question: "What's the coolest place you've ever visited?" I've been a lot of cool places in my life, so it was not an easy question to answer. Decidedly, one of the coolest is the graveyard in Talkeetna, Alaska. There is a memorial there for the climbers who have died on Denali and with the list of climbers' names is a quote by John Muir that I have always loved: "Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."

I love cemeteries and am drawn to them wherever I go. I love reading the old names, I love gravestone art. I love the stories the stones tell. I feel quite fortunate, now, to be living in a house that is bordered on two sides by cemeteries.

One of my favorite things about living near a cemetery happens when people come to visit someone in the graveyard. I love how they drive very slowly, with a kind of reverence, obviously with the intention of going to be with the dead. I often wonder what they do or say, if anything, when they have found the stone they're seeking and spend time there. 

Everyone, of course, believes something different about the dead, and it's often reflected in the ways people either caretake or neglect the graves of their loved ones. There are some graves across the street that are heavily leaden with artifacts; shells, toys, coins. There are wind chimes and photographs. Some of the stones are very nicely landscaped, some have plastic flowers, though there is a sign at the entrance forbidding them. The latest trend in gravesite embellishment seems to be solar lights, which, in theory are a nice idea, but they make the place look like a mini fairground at night. I don't think that the dead need solar-powered lights and I know that the living neighbors of the dead most certainly do not. 

When I was young I imagined that living near a cemetery meant that your house would be haunted with all kinds of evil and mischievous spirits. It was a terrifying thought. As an adult who spends her days tending to the dying, I am intimately familiar with the many aspects of the human walk toward death. I have witnessed slow and steady and I have been present for quick and traumatic. I cannot say that one death is better than another; all death is hard. And all death is mysterious and contains beauty; I am no longer fearful of death or the dead.

I am, however, fearful of what the funeral service industry does to the dead.

Personally, I don't believe that it's good practice to take a dead body, empty its contents, fill it with toxic chemicals, place it in an airtight container and lower it into the earth. I'm not in favor of this kind of burial, but I understand the whys. I would like very much for us, as a culture, to educate ourselves more about the options we have when we die. For Vermonters, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, in Burlington, is a tremendous resource, with lots of links and helpful information. Many do not know that in Vermont families may care for their own dead including transporting the deceased, burial on private property, or cremation. No funeral home involvement is required in Vermont, nor is embalming required. It's good to know and to think about these things ahead of time. It's a beautiful blessing to discuss with friends and family what you might want to happen to you when you die, and to understand what your options are. Usually, in the grief and trauma of the moment, folks don't know what they have to do, and so are immediately at the mercy of a funeral home. I will preach this until I can no longer: talking about death isn't going to make it come sooner and not talking about death isn't going to make it go away. Talk until your lips fall off; invite death into your life. You may as well make room for death; she's not going to go away.

On the hill where I live and there is a large cemetery across the street and a smaller one to the south of the house. To the north there is a field. The dead, I'm sure, roam freely here; they are my neighbors and my friends. I knew some of the folks who are buried across the street and I sit with them from time to time. There is Deb, who was the secretary in Scott's office and one of my first friends when I came to Vermont in 1992. She died in her 40s of a rare form of cancer that presented in her leg. Near her is Matt, who died seven years ago when a tree limb fell on his truck. He was in his 50s, a deeply beloved father, husband and friend to many. Deck's is the last stone at the end of the walkway. He died about a year ago and his last words to me were, "If you say you're going to show up, then show up." I thank him frequently for that reminder. To the north is my old neighbor, Zoney Whalley. There are markers for people I know who haven't died yet, whose bodies will come to this hill one day. 

When I sit on my front porch in the evening, the sun begins its descent behind the hills that frame this valley. Wind moves the branches on the trees; birds of all kinds talk to one another. I can hear the traffic down on Route 30, sometimes. But mostly it's very peaceful. The dead do, indeed, make good neighbors. 

A cemetery is quite a thing. I like to imagine that the spirits are having a good time over there, maybe dancing or laughing; maybe just wandering around. I hope they know when we humans visit. I think they do. Keep coming, folks, the dead and I like having you on the hill, and it's an important and sacred pilgrimage we humans make, to the cemeteries in our towns. Amen.

Send My Roots Rain

Something funny happened yesterday. The events themselves weren't funny at all, but I found something funny in there before I went to sleep last night.

I have been getting bad news about my car for the past several weeks, but yesterday I got really bad news about my Passat wagon. I had to go pick her up from the guys who were trying to fix her because her most recent ailment is out of their range of work, so I brought her home and parked her out front. "I'm sorry, Velma," I told her, "I'm sorry you've been so sick."

We named her Velma when we got her two years ago. Our last car was Patsy, a white TDI wagon. Velma, of course, because she is the brains behind the Scooby-Doo gang. Patsy was white and reminded us of white patent leather shoes. We named her Patsy for Patsy Cline. We didn't go out driving after midnight very often, but we sang the song a lot when we were tooting around in Patsy.

Next came Velma, who has not been well.

Last night I received a message from Sam in Lake Tahoe. He told me that his good buddy had taken a terrible fall at the mountain during the day and was on his way to the hospital in Reno. "My friend Shaggy fell really really hard skiing today," he said.

It was a bad day for Shaggy and Velma.

Right?

Shaggy is doing better and will be OK. Velma's repairs will be very expensive, but she'll be back on the road eventually, too.

The funny thing is that I was already thinking about writing about a weird little name thing that happened last week.

When I looked back over the week, I realized that I had received help, in unexpected ways from three friends. I thought about how they had shown up in my life with messages I needed at precisely the right time. Their names: Polly, Molly and Dolly.

I truly am not making this up.

Polly sent me a photo of the ocean from her home on Martha's Vineyard on a day when she wasn't feeling all that great. It spurned me to think about bodies of water and my life and where things are headed these days. Polly's love and the image were just what I needed to realign my heart and head that day.

Molly is someone I met through Polly. She sent me a message last week about what's happening in her life and she said some very kind words about my book, which she had just finished reading. Molly is going through some things I went through not that many years ago, and I felt grateful that my experience could be useful for her. And I was deeply grateful for her benevolent message about my writing. I needed that reminder because...

Folks have been asking when I am going to write another book, and the truth is that it's already under formation in my head, but I don't wish to create another book on my own, so I have been hoping an agent or a publisher would knock on my door one day, and I could invite him or her in for tea. It hasn't happened though I feel I have been patient, albeit frustrated. When I spoke with my friend, Dolly, last week, she suggested I get in touch with the folks who own the local bookstore, for guidance.

Duh.

Which I did, which resulted in a very nice lunch with the owner of the local bookstore which resulted in some very good ideas about how to proceed toward Book Number Two. And a connection with an agent, which could be a long shot. Or maybe not.

Velma and Shaggy. Both in for repairs.
Polly, Molly and Dolly. All three, in one week, watching over me and guiding me where I need to go.

I don't think that I'm the only one whose life is punctuated by humorous vignettes, by delightful coincidences and enchanting surprises. Keep a close watch for these things; they tend to sneak in when you're focused on the stuff that's not going very well.

I encountered  the most beautiful poem recently, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's a thick one and requires several reads in order that it settle into your bones, but the last line leaves me in tears every time. Hang in there.

Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. 
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end? 
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, 
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, 
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain, 
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. 
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

The rains came. They come, they do. Just not always in ways you thought they would. Amen. 

Boobies and Bridges

So.

I'm taking a class at Fordham right now called History of Christian Spirituality, from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Four hundred years is a lot of time to cover in a semester. Still, I love this class. Until we arrived, this week, at Feminism. I was pretty fired-up from the last unit, on liberation theology. I can totally get myself behind those guys in South American who put their lives on the line to fight for the rights of the impoverished. But an argument over whether God was or is male or female puts me to sleep every time.

God people, come on.

I can put an end to this discussion here and now, for all time.

If God is in you and you are a man and God is in me and I am a woman, then God is both. 

Or wait, hold on. Maybe God is neither ... ?

If I am a woman who has both "masculine" and "feminine" traits, then God probably has characteristics of both, too. 

Of course, once we start down this rabbit hole, we're in big trouble ... if God is in the grasshopper, is God a grasshopper?

The problem, of course, is that we only have us as our reference point. All we know is male and female. We don't have deeper language or a wider range of experience when it comes to gender, so we use what we have and we fall woefully short.

The beauty and the enormousness and the everything-ness of God, to my small and barely-trained mind, is kind of impossible to contain in the limited-language and one-sided experience we humans have. Arguments over whether God is a man or a woman seem absurd and wasteful. I get that women are angry about all the Him and He in prayers and Scripture, and I get that women are angry about the Catholic Church; I spent 18 years of my life going to Catholic Church, but I'm not angry. 

The Bible is filled with stories of badass women: Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Mary, Hannah, Tabitha, Yael, Joanna. And there were plenty of others who were unnamed. If I need a female heroine, I can easily find one in there. If I need a story of a strong woman kicking some warrior ass, stopping a plague of locusts and getting home in time to put the kids to bed, it's in there. I'm not worried about a lack of powerful female role models in Christian history.

When I preach and when I choose prayers for Sunday morning, I change the Hes and the Hims to God. God is the word I use. A single proper noun, no pronouns necessary.

It's kind of funny because there was a time in my life when I was angry. I was mad about something having to do with women, but I can't really remember what it was anymore. I got sidetracked, away from being mad about women stuff and spent my life absolutely loving being a woman, having babies and breastfeeding them and watching them get bigger. Trying on different job hats and stretching the limits of what I thought was possible for me. I have always been curious about the male world, and, looking back now, I can easily see that I have sought to find inroads to the places where they gather, entirely out of curiosity.

When I was a kid I was fascinated by what my brother and his friends were doing. When I was in college, a school heavily dominated by Greek culture, I knew that sorority life wasn't for me. I became a "little sister" at a fraternity instead, and still adore many of those ATO boys to this day. Later came firefighting and now ministry. Totally male-dominated worlds. 

I don't think that anger and righteousness are good propellers of change in this life. "Intimacy with difference fosters its accommodation," says Andrew Solomon in his fantastic book, Far From the Tree. Read it.

We know this already. The only way to come to understand someone who is different is to spend time in their company, to hear their story, to try to make sense of how they experience this world. We don't know any other way than man, woman; the argument over whether God is male or female is a moot point. And it's also the wrong question and a waste of time and energy.

Here are some of the right questions:
I don't understand your point of view, can you explain it to me?
Can you help me understand how it is that this makes sense to you?
How does God manifest in your life?
And, of course, my all-time favorite, beyond gender, beyond pronouns and straight to the heart of this life: I see that you are suffering; how can I help? 

This way of being applies to far more than religion; it goes far beyond whether or not God has boobies. It cuts into all of the things that divide us as humans and asks that we learn how to stop tossing rocks long enough to build bridges. 

Please, in your day today, build a bridge. And then invite someone over. Male, female, black white, republican, democrat, religious, agnostic, it doesn't matter. Knock it off with the words and focus on the humanity, focus on what is working, focus on the love of God that pervades everything, and I mean everything. God is so far above and beyond male and female that it's impossible for us little humans to get it. Just take care of each other, OK? Amen. 

Our Little Life

As dreams are made on...

As dreams are made on...

Why do we go to the places we go when we dream? Last night I was in an enormous house with a boyfriend I haven't seen in almost thirty years and his family, two of whom are dead now. My kids were there. Sam had a really great, very white old Jeep Wagoneer, wood panelling on the side and a bunch of skis on top. Coco, the same age and size she is now, had a driver's license and a car. My friend, Katie, who teaches at Emma Willard, was there, with very long hair and one tooth missing in the front of her mouth. The weather was beautiful. Much of the dream felt sad, seeing people I miss and watching my children drive away. 

A missing tooth, children driving, people who are dead. Dreams are so weird!

Do our dreams have anything to do with what we are doing right before we go to sleep? What we're reading or talking or thinking about? Last night I read about liberation theology and Jesuit chastity before falling asleep. 

That doesn't help much.

I read an article somewhere the other day about how insufficient sleep has become a public health epidemic. It surprised me, and then again it didn't. I would imagine that the amount of time humans now spend looking at a screen during the day is in direct proportion to the amount of sleep they are losing each night. I would even go so far as to say that it's a bad idea to keep electronics in your bedroom while you are trying to sleep. It's my theory, but there's probably evidence out there somewhere to back this up. Think about all the things we associate with sleep and have since we were little: a cozy blanket, a soft stuffed animal, a dog sleeping nearby, pillows. Humans aren't meant to be sleeping with light-up buzzing and beeping electronic displays near our dreaming heads.

A slight digression and food for thought. 

Do our dreamscapes take us places based on the events of our day?

Yesterday I made a list while I was making hospice visits, of the things I wanted to remember to be grateful for when I did my examen at day's end. I got this far:

rain
crocuses
hearing my brother's voice
conversations with Sam and Nate
the sweet bakery girl I spoke with in Bozeman
running into Mairi at the co-op
taking Jane for a short walk, outside her public housing nursing home
the smell of the logs on the truck in front of me at the stop light
the dispatches Brett was sending me from the road on his way to Nashville
the boots I had decided to wear that I hadn't worn in a long time, how good they felt
Easter approaching
that I didn't die in the car wreck that almost happened on Woodstock Avenue
jellybeans
the sweet message I got from Raina
Joy's joy
that I had gotten three loads of laundry done before I left the house
the kindness of Margaret's message
the sun came out

That took me up to the late afternoon. There were many more things to come before the day ended.

Maybe it's the cultivation of the awareness of the minutiae of a day that makes the details of my dreams so vivid. Maybe in being grateful for the people I interact with in my day, I am gifted with the opportunity to be with people I love and haven't seen in some time, in my dreams at night.

I don't know. I love the curious nature of dreamland and of our sleep time. Yesterday I sat with and watched a person who is very close to dying. Though not with us here in this realm much anymore, she was still very active: eyes moving beneath her eyelids, hand motioning, lips forming words not spoken. What is she dreaming about? I wondered. What do people dream about when they are in-between death and life?

If you read my book you know that for many years I had a recurring dream in which I was despondent over leaving college. It didn't make sense to me until someone pointed me to what happened right after I left college. I had been confused and focused, all along, on college itself. I didn't want to leave college in my dreams because I was hit by a car a few weeks after I graduated, in my reality. Once I understood what was going on, the sad dreams ended.

Life, death, waking, sleeping, dreaming, I love how these things are all miraculously and mysteriously rolled together into this funny experience of ours.

Shakespeare, of course, summed it up nicely in The Tempest in the words of his character Prospero: 

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

I hope that you live well, today, all days, that your life is place upon which dreams are made, and that you sleep well, tonight, all nights. Amen.

God as Thief

The other morning I noticed something beautiful. 

I poured the half & half into my cup of tea and suddenly there was an explosion of swirls. Cold liquid meeting hot, white meeting brown. It was captivating, a kind of cosmic dance there in my morning brew. 

Wow, I thought, how come I never noticed that before?

In Thorton Wilder's play called Our Town, the character named Emily Webb, who has died in childbirth, asks to return to the world of the living. She sees all the simple things that make up our days, like ironing and meals and sleeping and hot baths, and she asks, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"

I used to follow a blog that was, and may still be, very popular, called Humans of New York. There is a young man who is a photographer and he walks the streets of New York City and takes pictures of people and then records some part of their story. There is one that has stuck in my memory. The woman was sitting on a park bench and she spoke about how she had worked in a restaurant for many years, how the restaurant was home and the people she worked with like family. Then the restaurant came upon hard times and eventually closed. Looking back on those days, the woman says, "I was happy then, and I didn't even know it."

I wonder, sometimes, do we know happiness when we are in it?
Are we aware of how magnificent life is when we are living it?

Or is it only when something terrible jars us from our daily existence that we smell how great the air smells, see how awesome the members of our family are, understand how marvelous it is to have hands and eyes? To be alive?

Jesuits practice something called the Daily Examen, a five-part prayer that looks roughly like this: 
1. Gratitude
2. Review
3. Sorrow
4. Forgiveness
5. Grace

I've broken it down into those elements so I can remember it better. First, identify those things for which you are grateful, then do a full day's review. (The kids and I used to do this at bedtime, without knowing that it was Jesuit-ish. We called it Talk Me Day.) Then notice any things you did for which you are sorry. Ask for forgiveness, and then pray for grace with which to enter into a new day.

It's a kind of conversation with God, at the end of the day. And it brings one in close contact with the simple goodness of a day.

I began a journey of seeking God, probably when I was born, who knows? But it became more pressing during the past several years through a series of events. For me, God is not a man, God is not keeping score, nor is God tossing lightening bolts at us pitiful humans. God is not wearing a long white robe, nor does God need a shave. God is in your mom's smile, God is in the grass that is slowly, slowly greening up. God is the unexpected windfall and the terrifying heart attack. God is in the suffering, the sorrow and the ecstasy. God is like a thief, relentlessly trying to steal your attention, to bring you back into awareness of the beauty of this life, both subtle and profound.

When I did my examen the other night I was amazed by something. It was a cold and rainy day and I was tired and weary from hospice visits. I was missing the kids and worried about whether or not I would be prepared enough or graceful enough to meet the challenges of the upcoming Holy Week. I had received bad news about my car. 

I laid in bed, eyes closed, house quiet, and thought of all of the people I had been with throughout the day. I thought of the people I ran into unexpectedly, of the kindness of those trying to help me with my troubles. I thought of one of my beautiful hospice friends, breaking through the frustrating sludge of her dementia to patiently teach me how to knit. I thought of the sweet messages I received. I was amazed by how many people I had encountered in one day. And, too, I thought of the incredible luxuries I have in my life every day: a warm home, enough food, a back-up car that runs, clothing, a hot bath. Love. So much love.

I had no idea it had been such a beautiful day.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? 

It starts with the milk in the tea and it goes from there. Blessings upon your day. Amen.