In Hannah's Hug

Each week I am tasked with creating a sermon to share on Sunday morning. Every week I find myself wondering how this happened and dreaming of returning to civilian life. I daydream of becoming a librarian, spending my days surrounded by books and quietness. 

Putting together a Sunday service is like putting on a play each week: choose the reading, pick the hymns, ask people to participate. Print the bulletins, make sure there's coffee, light the candles, check the mic. Some weeks it's done with time to spare, others I'm running around on Sunday morning, putting last minute touches on everything. 

All the world's a stage, indeed.

A weekly sermon is a challenge. Six days is not enough time for a reading from scripture to ferment. I wonder sometimes who came up with the system and I often imagine what a church of my own creation would look and feel like.

Sometimes I wish I could just stay in bed on Sunday morning. I wish I could sleep in, then grab The New York Times and go to Bob's Diner for a bite to eat. I can almost remember what those carefree Sunday mornings felt like. 

But there is something that I know to be true, and it keeps me keeping on, driving to church each Sunday morning: I have been many things in this life: student, teacher, writer, photographer, editor, firefighter, shopkeep, but I have never been more proud to name myself by my vocation than I am now, as a pastor. I like to play with it: pastor, minister, preacher. I like the old language best: preacher. 

I have participated in almost every aspect of a wedding: bride, bridesmaid, guest, photographer, floral designer, but I have never been happier than I am as the officiant. 

Weddings, baptisms, funerals, in the hospital, at the bedside of the dying, standing at the pulpit on Sunday morning. I am in love with my work.

I don't really know how this happened. It was not, by any means, intentional. My route to this life was zig-zaggy with dead ends and u-turns. I started where most people end up and God only knows where it will all go from here. 

A QuinnHannah hug.

A QuinnHannah hug.

Maybe I was born with this map in my heart. Maybe that's how it works. What I'm going to say in tomorrow's sermon is that what I do know is that I'm a Godspotter, and I will take full credit for inventing that word.

What I understand now is that I am in relentless pursuit of evidence of God in our lives. I found it this week, in the hospital, in the contours of the frozen puddles, in my daughter's eyes. In my son's tender story of what may be his first love. I felt the presence of God when Will and Brett took the time to get together to plan the music we will all enjoy tomorrow morning. I felt God in Hannah's hug and when she handed me the eggs from her chickens. I saw God while I was watching my dad ski with my daughter on a perfect blue-sky day. I encountered God watching my friend, Joey, gently stroke his dying mother's head. I saw God in a mother talking to her daughter at the coffee shop and in the kindness of the person who rescued our dog. I even found God in Eric's death, in all of the ways the people who loved him managed to transcend time and space to connect, precisely as we humans are meant to connect.

I think this is what it means to be a preacher. It's about Godspotting and I will be doing it until the hour of my death. And most likely beyond. Amen.

A Long, Long Time to Be Gone

It's funny how one of the first things we do when someone dies is look for pictures of them.

It's like we need to recall, right away, the things we no longer get to have. Their smile, their hair, the shape of their hands. The size of their body. Who they were.

I was thinking about this in the aftermath of my friend, Eric's, death this week. When we were in college together you had to have had a camera to take pictures, and not many people had cameras then. We weren't recording every move we made, which was probably a good thing.

The pictures surfacing are grainy and faded. It's hard to believe it's been thirty years since we were all together at St. Lawrence.

The pictures that are surfacing now show Eric as I remember him: radiant. He was fair-skinned and light-haired and slight of frame. And a kind of light came from him. He made you smile simply being who he was. And also because he was always smiling.

Eric and Megan, mid-80s.

Eric and Megan, mid-80s.

Eric's death has dredged up all kinds of memories of our college days, which, looking back now, seem like nothing but fun. I don't recall any of us getting too stressed-out about grades or classes. It was like this surprising and delightful concentration of funny, smart, interesting, creative people there in Canton, New York, middle-of-nowhere. Today we are farmers and doctors and teachers and presidents of things. We are artists and preachers and writers and makers of cool stuff. Sturdy, upright people doing good work in the world and raising interesting people to take our places. Good things happened back then, when we were all together in that weird little place in upstate New York, under formation.

We know this about the silver lining of death, that death, ironically — the great separator — brings people together.  In no time at all a group formed online to express sorrow and disbelief and to share photos and stories. Eric meant something to a lot of people. I hope that he knew this, but I fear that we all didn't say it often enough: you're great, you matter, knowing you makes a difference for me, in my life; thank you.

We do what we can, right? And then death reorients us, for a while anyway. Slow it down; take the time; say the thing; hug the kid; stare at the stars.

The photographs allow us to time travel, and, too, the music. It was a glue for us then, the Dead shows, tapes, tie-dyes. The traveling, the good food, all of it. I wonder sometimes what the glue is for young people today, if there is any glue. 

I listened to a bunch of it yesterday, driving over to Saratoga to see about an old friend and his mom, in hospital, and I thought about how the lyrics take on a very different flavor now that one of us is gone, how the songs seem to say different things than they did when we were twenty.

Listen to the river sing sweet songs...
Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light, rising up to paradise...
All I know (s)he sang a little while and then flew on...

May the four winds blow you safely home.

Good-bye sweet Eric of life. Please show us how to care for your family, show us how to love each other, and be with us when we head to Canton in June to see what thirty years gone feels like.  Amen.

Ten Bucks

This piece is dedicated to my friend, Eric Weight, who died in a biking accident yesterday in Bellingham, Washington.

 

Sam sent me a picture of his report card the other day. It's probably not called a report card anymore, but I like that old language and I'm sticking with it. It's like beauty parlor for me. Some things just sound good and make me happy when I say them. 

Report card probably makes me happy because when I was a kid our dad gave us money when we brought our report card home. He had a system, as any engineer worth his slide rule would, whereby we were given a certain amount depending on where the grade fell in the dollar range, which I think went from zero to ten. It added up pretty nicely back in the late 70s and early 80s when I was in junior high and high school and we took a lot of classes each semester.

Sam was very proud of his grades. In his first year of college, he is doing well, academically. This was not always the case for Sam. Like most people, he wasn't a big fan of high school and he chose not to go directly to college; he was tired of sitting in classrooms and studying things that didn't hold his attention, so he worked for two years. He worked hard. The jobs he had were physically demanding and he made enough money to buy a car, to travel to Italy and to live on his own, for a while. He learned how to do his banking and how to grocery shop and how to make a doctor's appointment. Surprisingly, children are not born knowing how to do these things. It turns out that our tech-savvy offspring often need help with life's simple chores. "How do you hang a shower curtain?" Sam asked me one day during a phone call from Wal-Mart.

Sam learned how to live in this world in those two years, and now he's back in school and getting good grades and he's proud of himself. 

The day before Sam sent me his report card, I received feedback on an exam I had taken and learned that I had gotten a 97. If my dad's grading system was still in place, I would have gotten ten bucks for that good grade. I was pleased. I did the Awesome Grade dance around the house. I shouted it out to Brett, who was appropriately proud.

And then I thought to myself, Jesus Christ, I'm working on my second master's degree, at a school of religion, and I still care about grades.

Daggonit. What is wrong with me? What is wrong with the world that we must quantify our learning? That we attach numbers to the things we study?

Sam has always been good at lots of things. He is physically gifted; he can do like three flips in the air off a trampoline. Sam has a way of moving through this world that I can only describe as kinesthetic poetry. He is intuitive and very funny. And he is kind and sincere. He has the gift for cutting through a lot of life's bullshit to get to the meat of a situation. I often turn to him for advice. If any of these things had ever been graded, Sam wouldn't have felt like a kind of a failure in his teen years. 

Grades. Life.

I was not a fan of high school either. Fortunately my high school had a deal with nearby Skidmore College, so I finished early and took classes there. Then I went on to college for four years then university then more university. I cannot stop! I love learning, I love the thinking and the writing and the discourse. But grades? Come on. Shame on me for thinking that a 97 meant something important at the age of 51. Can I integrate what I learned into my life? Will it help me serve others in a more meaningful way? Will it make me a better person?

Our college friend, Eric, who was a beautiful light of this world, was hit by a car while riding his bike yesterday and he died. Eric had six kids and he was mightily proud of them. He was an attorney, but I knew from talks we had not long ago that he had an inkling of a dream of studying theology, maybe moving in a different direction vocationally, one day. This is not unusual for people at our stage of life, to experience a longing inside, to think more about the bigger questions. You go to college, you settle down, marriage, kids, work...and then life does that thing. People start dying, the world feels different. Why are we here? What's it all about? What is the point?

Found his place in Tahoe.

Found his place in Tahoe.

When Sam sent me his grades I told him I was very proud of him, but I also told him that I hope he is proud of himself. "I hope you are studying the things that matter to you and I hope you are satisfied with the work you are doing because what you do today will move you to where you want to go," I told him, "and also because this is your life, my love, and you should make it what you want it to be."

"One day" is today and the grades we get matter very little in the scheme of things in this life. There are many kinds of intelligence, most of which are not quantified. I am, of course, proud of Sam. I am proud of Sam for having known himself well enough to have chosen not to go to college right after high school. I am proud of Sam for having waited long enough to know what readiness felt like, so that when the time came he found the specific course of study at the specific school in just the right place for him. He is very happy living on the shores of Lake Tahoe, skiing as often as he can and meeting people from all over the world. He set himself up to get the grades he's getting today by taking his time, by falling down and picking himself up, by swimming upstream when all of his high school buddies were following the usual migration patterns. Good grades are nice. Good living, even better. Ten bucks to Sam for that. Amen.

The Writing Life

I want to talk for a few minutes about the creative process. A couple of things have sparked this thinking in me recently and I thought it would be fun to try to write about it.

Many years ago I was studying for an M.Ed. at UVM, taking a class with Robert Nash, one of my all-time favorite professors. He specializes in something he calls scholarly personal narrative, which basically means that he believes that our stories are at the heart of our work. So we did a lot of writing and sharing of our writing. In one class he asked me about my writing process. I had no idea. I mean, absolutely no idea. I had never thought about it...well, I write things down on scraps of paper when I'm driving. And then I guess I sit down and write. I had never even thought about a process.

I had no process, no practice. I was undisciplined as a writer. But I sure loved writing!

About ten years before Professor Nash placed this question in my lap, I was living in southern California, teaching English at a private school. I was very lonely, far away from everyone and everything I loved. What a perfect time to become a writer, I remember thinking. Nothing quite like a good case of depression topped with a shot of melancholy to fuel the writing life. I bought a used typewriter and a pack of clove cigarettes and believed that would be just what I needed to Become a Writer. 

It didn't work, and the smelly cigarettes were particularly annoying to my housemates, who got up every morning at 6 to go surfing. 

If you came to one of my readings this past winter, you know this already, so take the dog for a walk or make another cup of coffee, you don't need to hear it again. Six years ago I went to Alaska and decided not to take my bulky, beloved Nikon. The thing about Alaska, though, is it shifts the molecules of your soul. I had my dad's old film camera, but it wasn't enough. I was seeing things and feeling things I needed to process, posthaste. So one morning, holed up in a room at the Alyeska ski resort, I wrote a story.

I started sharing my stories that morning, right here, in this little corner of the world wide web. I wrote, clicked on "Save & Publish," posted the link on Facebook and there it was. I was a writer. 

Kind of.

Along the way I have learned a few things about my process. This morning you get all my secrets. For free.

I love sharpened pencils and paper. I am a sucker for notebooks and the Staedtler #2 pencil, very sharp. 
I write when I am driving. There is something about the motion that gets the words moving.
I write when I wake up. I never write any other time of day. My brain works in the morning. By nightfall it's sludge and all I want to do is read. I love reading. I love bookstores and libraries. I hang out in them a lot.

I like to stretch myself in new artsy directions. I am trying to learn how to knit. This past winter I started sketching and I may move on to painting. Several years ago I became engrossed in floral design. I went to the flower warehouse on chilly winter days and wandered through the cooler rooms, looking at all of the different colors and shapes. Flowers engage so many of the senses; drawing requires that one slow way down. Knitting is tactically pleasing and the finished product is wearable!

Here is what's so great about learning something new: you have to ask a lot of questions. You have to seek out the people who know how to do the thing you want to know how to do. Your brain loves it when you do this. So does your heart.

Keep learning new things.

Travel, of course, inspires. Movement, new faces, new smells and visuals. 

I stopped drinking several years ago and find that this has had a positive impact on my life. No surprise there. My head is clear when I wake up in the morning. And I believe that ideas and dreams and memories flow more smoothly and freely through a substance-free body and mind. More room for the muse, if you will. Booze might make you feel more creative, but there's a tipping point at which you become a jerk. Too risky. Not worth it anymore.

I believe it's important to challenge yourself, always, your entire life. When I turned 45 I jumped out of a plane. I have one state left to visit. I have pretty much never stopped studying. At the advanced age of 49 I decided to become (I didn't really decide, but that's fodder for another story) a preacher. Which means that every week I have to do something that makes me a little nervous, gets me a little excited and keeps me humble.

The most important thing of all, I think, is a version of what I wrote the other day that Tom Waits said about writing songs. He said that you have to make your life into a good landing place for the songs, and he really nailed it. 

I can see now, looking back over these years, that I have endeavored to make my life a good landing place for the stories. Not on purpose, but more because my life has been largely fueled by my insatiable curiosity. I wake up in the morning now and do a little mental inventory: is there a story needing to come out? I search around, thinking of the things that have happened and people I have encountered recently, and when there is a story I head to the laptop and start writing. Almost always I have only a vague idea what is going to come out and I never know how it's going to end. The stories, in effect, write themselves. 

When I was younger I thought I needed a typewriter, then I thought I needed a studio. I thought I needed a drink and some cigarettes. I was wrong. I needed structure and accountability and this website has provided that for me. But writing is not about the external. Writing, for a writer, is already in there. It follows us everywhere we go, refusing to be ignored. If you were born to write, the writing will come out eventually. 

What is my process? Well, Dr. Nash, I will tell you: I sleep, usually quite well. And it seems that my stories take shape while I'm doing this, so that when I wake up they are ready to be told. I try hard to get out of the way once I sit at my laptop with a cup of tea in the morning. Also, I drive a lot and when I'm driving I talk to myself and I listen to music. I'm very good at entertaining myself. The car is where I get to be alone and the landscape through which I drive, here in Vermont, is highly inspirational. I take a lot of notes while I'm driving.

I try my best to build a life of great hospitality for the stories. I look for the joy and the suffering and the connections, I pay attention to the people I meet, then I place my hands on the keyboard and open my head and heart and let 'er rip. Amen. 

 

 

My Further Up

Yesterday Coco nudged her face into my neck and said, "You smell good. You smell like the beach." Maybe my moisturizer reminded her of suntan lotion, or maybe I smelled like sand or the ocean, whatever the case, it was a compliment of the highest order.

From there she went into a kind of olfactory swoon..."I love the smell of the beach," she said. "And I love the smell of Nanny and Pa's basement...and the Aubuchon Hardware in Shelburne...I walk in there and it smells so good!"

I knew what she meant. There are smells in this world that trigger all kinds of good feelings in me. Boxwood, for one, reminds me of my summers in Kentucky. Good leather, the Christmas tree, a baby's neck, rosemary, New York City. I could spend all day making this list. 

I had a moment of intense motherly pride hearing that three of my daughter's favorite smells are the beach, a basement and a hardware store. So far, so good.

I often wonder what I will miss about this world when I die. If missing things is an option. The pleasure of eating? The smell of mowed grass? The way it feels to hold someone's hand.

I do a lot of hand holding in my hospice work. Lots of times because there isn't much more to do than just being present with another human being.

I still haven't found the right language to describe the hospice situation. I'm the chaplain, but the people I see aren't patients, and I don't like the word client. It's not work. Mostly we are just two, sometimes more, people, spending time together and sorting through the things of this world. Sitting there beside us is a truth called death.

Most of us live with the flawed notion that death is quite far away, when in reality we have no idea when death will present in our lives. 

In hospice time, death sits beside us. Sometimes it's a most unwanted companion, but I find that most of the time death has found a place of acceptance in the hospice room. Like the relative you know who is going to say something that will stir everyone to debate or argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table, death comes because death is part of the family. And sometimes, almost always, death has much to teach. 

This is true of most things we would prefer to avoid in this life. Take a closer look and you will see, nestled in there in the things you tiptoe around and stash in the back of the closet of your life, some of your finest teachers.

A digression, as usual.

Hospice. 

I have had people look directly into my eyes and say, "I don't want to die." I have watched people die a long, slow peaceful death over many weeks, their body disappearing a little more each day as their spirit begins to pull away. They speak to unseen visitors and reach for the spoon they once used to stir the soup. I often sit with people whose closest friends and parents and siblings have already died. Those people are always ready and often wonder why they haven't left yet. I tell them there is always a reason. 

One more smell, maybe. Another view of winter into spring, perhaps. A chance to meet one more person, to hold a hand for a while, to share another story.

The hospice journey is often quite miraculous. It is literally time and space carved out of life in which we can acknowledge...death is with us now. My hope is that we do, in those days and months, sometimes years, welcome death and all she has to bring to the feast of life.

Yesterday one of my hospice friends described her situation in a way that was perfect. She is in her 90s and her life has been whittled down to a few pieces of furniture and photographs in a small room in a care facility. Everyone she loved died before her: her siblings, children and husband. Still, she maintains a pleasant demeanor and positive outlook. She is neither angry nor sad. "Everyone is gone," she told me, "I'm not sure why I'm still here. I'm ready, though," she said, without a hint of worry or fear. "I'm ready to meet my...and here she struggled with language, her elegant hand waving in the air in front of her..."I'm ready to meet my...further up."

I am ready to meet my further up. That is a truly beautiful readiness. Amen.