Fwoop Fwoop Fwoop

One of the questions I inevitably have to ask as a hospice chaplain is about the memorial service. Have you thought about your service? What kind of service do you want? It's fascinating to me, how many people have never put any thought into this, even though we are all going to die. We spend months, sometimes years! planning a wedding in unimaginable detail: the song for the first dance, color of the napkins, line-ups for the photographer, shoes for the bridesmaids. We get our hair and make-up done, we take dance lessons. We spend thousands of dollars on flowers and thousands more on food, all for a few hours' celebration of something that may or may not last. The divorce rate fluctuates over time, but it's still pretty clear: a lot of marriages end. You can, however, count on death. It is going to happen, and, as far as we can tell, it's a permanent condition.

Why, then, don't we spend more time talking about what kind of celebration we want when we die? Sure, we probably don't get to be there, but maybe we do ... we don't really know, right? And even if we can't attend, it's still a really nice thought that all of the people we care about have the chance to get together and say nice things about us. Who doesn't want that? So while party favors and a photo booth probably aren't the order of the day, it's still not a terrible idea to start talking about what you want to happen when you die. I promise you that talking about death isn't going to hasten death, and that not talking about death isn't going to make it go away. 

It will happen, at some point. Why not plan the party now?

Some of the people who know me already know some of what I want: I want to be cremated, with half of my ashes placed in fireworks and shot off at the fabulous party you're all going to have; the other half scattered from the Sensation chairlift at Stowe. Also, if you know what I mean by The Grotto in the Saratoga State Park, please sneak a handful of the ashes into your pocket and toss me into the woods there. I will thank you for it when I see you, at some point.

I have decided, in the aftermath of three deaths this past week and two the preceding week, to lay out the rest of the plans, just so everyone is on the same page.

The aforementioned fabulous party should take place in the spring in a nice field. I have always imagined it happening in my former backyard in Charlotte, now my former husband, Richard's, backyard. I have a feeling he'll be OK with this because Richard loves a good party and he's an easy-going guy. Also, he may take some pleasure in pulling the fireworks lever.

I love the idea of exploding in technicolor high over Lake Champlain.

Note: Richard, don't forget to let my other former husband, Scott, pull the lever a few times. Or light the fuse or whatever the heck you do to set off fireworks. Ask Sean Russell; he puts on a great display every July.

Music: if Jonathon Richman is alive and available, I'd like him to come and sing a few songs, especially New England, I'm a Little Dinosaur and That Summer Feeling. 

Well when your friends are in town and they’ve got time for you
When you were never hanging around and they don’t ignore you
When you say what you will and they still adore you
Is that not appealing, it’s that summer feeling.

What's not to love? That summer feeling. I'll miss it when I'm dead. I think.

Other music: there's an old traditional called One Morning in May. Please play that if you know how to play the fiddle — maybe Kristin? Peace Piece by Bill Evans. Make sure everyone is quiet during this. Otherwise, lots of noise. Ripple, of course: If I knew the way, I would take you home. One hymn: Be Thou My Vision.

And I would like a rousing rendition of When We Finally Come Home, by Brett Hughes.

I would like my teacher friends to create a Sensory Station, where you can smell the things I loved to smell: boxwood, rosemary, bacon, coffee beans, leather, pinon wood; touch the things I loved to touch: velvet, Nate's curly hair (sorry Nate!), sand; and hear the sounds I loved: the crack of a bat, the whistle of a train, the crackle of the needle placed on a record. GG and Little, you're in charge of this. Also, this might be pushing it, but I loved it when the librarian stamped the card in the back of the book. I loved that whole process: the taking-out of the card, the stamping, the putting-back of the card into the pocket. Actually, for a while there was a stamping machine that made a great sound. Maybe you could set up a little make-shift library, Ellen? 

I also loved the sounds that the round keys made on the cash register at the grocery store when we were kids. The click, click, click.

I would say a kissing booth because I love kissing, but I don't want any faked stuff. Just kiss a lot and hug, too. Republicans, find a Democrat and hug them. Say you're sorry to someone; tell someone they're beautiful. Tell someone they mean a lot to you. Everyone should leave the night's festivities holding someone's hand.

You can all drink without guilt or fear again once I'm gone, so there should be plenty of booze. When I drank I loved Guinness and rum and cabernet. I loved the dark drinks, the ones that tasted like they were scraped off the forest floor. Drink them from pewter mugs, if possible.

Though I am scared of the ocean, I dearly love all the edibles she provides, so foodie friends please: oysters, clam chowder, lobster, mussels. Dig some pits and have a clam bake. The more opportunities for fire at this gig, the better.

And there should be jello salad. Because I find jello salad to be hilarious. I don't care what you put in it, just please make sure it's on the table. And Lauren, please make that magical salad of yours, with the dressing first at the bottom and the huge wooden bowl. It's a work of art.

Pie. It goes without saying. 

Candy cigarettes for all the children. Kristin Baker, please hand these out.

Joanna, you're in charge of spin art. Sarah Martin Banse please choose a couple of passages from Shakespeare. Make people act them out if you're feeling bossy.  Polly, an O'Donohue blessing please and Sam and Nate you are more than welcome to tell everyone the truth of how I was always changing my mind, always trying ridiculous new things and always running late. Tommy, dredge up all the good childhood stories you can muster. I'm especially fond of the ones having to do with explosive things, burning things, cutting the hair off dolls and Mom washing out mouths out with soap for swearing. Tell them all. Finally, the very oldest person there must read Stages by Hermann Hesse. 

I was told once by an intuitive person in Montreal that this is my last lifetime. Well thank God for that, I thought, living is exhausting!

"What does that mean?" I asked him, "what comes next?"

"You're going to be an archangel," he replied, and since then I have imagined myself with enormous wings, fwoop fwoop fwooping high over the hills, looking out for the babies and the young lovers, checking in on the widows and the worried teenagers. It's a lot to look forward to; I'm excited about what the future holds, and I thank you all in advance for being a part of the celebration when I die. I have one final favor to ask: please, whatever you do, do not call it a celebration of life. My whole life has been a celebration of life; by the time I'm done with this body that will have ended.

Please, call it rightly: A Celebration of the Death of Melissa Ann Catherine O'Brien. Thank you and Amen!


Compensatory Graces

Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.
At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.
We must try to see one another in this way.
As suffering, limited beings—
Perennially outmatched by circumstances, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.

-a conversation between Vollman and Bevins in George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo

The other day as I was driving to Rutland I thought, again, about what it feels like to not have a cell phone. And then I thought, "I don't have a cell phone, I don't have a TV. I don't drink; I go to church on Sunday. I preach in church on Sunday."

Cripes, what a weird life this has turned out to be.

Then I thought about how those few bits of information about my life don't tell the story well at all. When you think of someone who doesn't have a cell phone or a TV, someone who refrains from drinking and who goes to church, you think of a certain kind of person. Maybe a Mennonite or a person who lives off the grid. Someone who doesn't much like the world, maybe. 

And that led me to think about the other facts of my life and then I started making lists and I found it to be really amusing, my life by the numbers.
I got this far:

I have two brothers and a sister.
I have two sons and a daughter.
The birth times of my children: 4:48, 3:38 and 5:38.
I have been in love five times, married twice, divorced twice. 
I have had six dogs and no cats. 

I have been to 13 Caribbean islands, 49 states and 9 countries.
My immediate family is testosterone heavy; the males outnumber the females, 2 to 1: there are 10 males and 5 females in my family and we live in Vermont, New York, California, Alaska and Colorado.
I have been to 32 Grateful Dead shows.
I have lived in 4 states: North Dakota, New York, California and Vermont.
I have lived in 4 apartments and 8 houses.
I grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York.
I have owned 5 Volkswagons.

The oldest piece of clothing I own and still wear, that I purchased new for myself is a Patagonia jacket, bought in 1986. Second oldest: Patagonia shorts, circa 1987; third oldest: Patagonia ski pants, 1997. 
I was born on 5.19.1965 at 7:53 AM in North Dakota.
Lessons I have taken: horseback riding; fly fishing; drawing; banjo; skiing; tennis; surfing; skeet shooting: snowboarding; rock climbing; dance; basket weaving. 
I have been to Alaska 5 times and New Mexico 6 times.
My full name is Melissa Ann O'Brien. I took the name, Catherine, when I was Confirmed. There are 9 Saint Catherines and they were mystics, artists and writers.

I have 2.75 degrees: BA, M.Ed. and soon an M.A. 
Certifications I hold: one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education; Level One Reiki Practitioner; Ground and Aerial Training, Skydiving; Firefighter 1; Advanced Fire Behavior: Wildland Fire Control; Hazardous Materials Operations; Hospice Volunteer.
Team sports: softball, tennis, track & field, hockey.
I have been skiing since I was 5.
I have climbed 17 of the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks.
I will be 52 in May. I'll be in Alaska for that birthday.

Rock climbing, Boulder, 1988.

Rock climbing, Boulder, 1988.

What is it that tells the story of a life? Is it the numbers? The spaces between the numbers? I am a voracious obituary reader. I love to see how a person's life is distilled into just a few paragraphs. I often wonder, sitting with hospice friends, what they were like when they were young. What they loved, what they dreamed, who they knew, where they worked. There are so many things to know about a person. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Are you best in the morning or at night? What color was your hair when you were young? Did you travel as much as you wanted to? Do you believe in God? Do you have any regrets? Do you remember your first kiss? Coke or Pepsi? Follower or leader? 

I wonder, sometimes, about all these things we do, places we go, the ways in which we choose to challenge ourselves, the things we wish to learn. We are trying, trying, trying to make a life of lasting worth, fleeing, perhaps, the reality that we are suffering, limited beings. Creating, as best we can, some version of compensatory graces as we go. Hoping that our obituary tells the story of a life well-lived, fleshed-out fully, worn thin by the time we're done with it. Why we come here when we do is anybody's guess. When we leave is an even larger mystery. The in-between, our very own paint-by-numbers. Amen.  

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.