Sunday, May 22, 2016

Battling Spring

It has been an exceptionally slow spring with several false starts.  The flowers poked their daring heads above the ground only to be covered by several inches of snow.  Again and again this would happen.  Tantalizingly, temperatures climbed as we, throwing caution to the balmy wind, celebrated spring only to have our hopes dashed with the next bout of deep cold.  And then we'd say, "What did you expect?  This is New York" and go about our business properly chastened.  It is a rookie mistake to expect spring during the spring months in Western New York.  But those little flowers and green leaf buds were indomitable and while I hardly dared dream, I kept consulting them like oracles.  Today I dare to hope that we have turned a corner.  There was a bit of ice in yesterday's rain, but the lilacs are in bloom and despite the chill in the air this morning, there is too much green on the trees and too much promise in the sunshine for me to believe that winter can do any more than leave us with a parting cuff and cussing.  Winter can be a bitter old man, but there's not much bite left in him.

On the branch just outside the window sits a robin.  He's a robust fellow who persistently flies against the windowpane--thump!--and then returns to his perch to glare in at us.  We are told that he sees his reflection and thinking another cheeky male has come to disrupt his household, he stands guard periodically giving the perceived interloper what-for by smacking his fat little body against the glass.  We've attempted to discourage this delusional behavior by a variety of means, but he is persistent.  In fact, this is his second year of window-smacking devotion to his mate.  He is delusional, but he is also admiral in his loyalty.  What worries me, however, is that he will do himself harm.  I worry not just about his plump little robin body, but about his dear little robin spirit.  For two years he has lived with the anxiety of another male robin invading his peaceful domestic life and potentially causing harm to his little robin family.  I may know that he need not worry, but the robin doesn't know that.  He stands guard day after day with worry in his tiny heart.

Perhaps I anthropomorphize too much, but it is difficult not to feel great sympathy for the robin.  My spring has been thematic.  I might file the entire thing in my brain as Worried Hope.  Since my grandmother's passing, all the energies in my life that seemed frozen have begun to thaw.  For an eternity, I waited sometimes patiently (but mostly impatiently) for Something Good to Happen knowing that I could not really move toward that Something until "Grandma Doesn't Need Me Anymore."  Well, that time is now.  And now, like the spring itself, there have been persistent indications from the Universe that change is coming.

My husband has graduated from college ending his long internship at the wildlife refuge where he works.  This took us by surprise since we thought they planned to either keep him on a few months longer or maybe even open a permanent position for him.  No dice.  This was not a tragedy.  Having satisfied his obligations in a special federal program, he has earned assistance finding  a permanent federal job somewhere in the country and has already landed a term position that will pay the bills while we search.  I tried to be enthusiastic about the idea of moving to a new place, but I failed.  I was too frightened and sad about the situation to muster up anything like believable enthusiasm.  I suppose I gave it all away when I couldn't stop crying about it.

 My career as an adjunct lecturer also seems to be coming to a close.  I always said that if my husband found work elsewhere or if my father, with whom I work, retired, I would leave my thankless job and good riddance.  I hoped for one of those two things to happen.  Longed for it.  Prayed for it.  And now my husband has found work elsewhere and my father has announced his retirement.  And me?  Far from feeling good about these changes for which I've prayed, I'm just unsettled and uncertain.  Everything is changing.  Too fast.

My family is changing too.  Grandma is gone.  I can't even wrap my head around that. 

My son turned 18 and let us know that he didn't plan to come with us when we moved deciding instead to take up my parents' offer to him to continue to live with them.  My younger son, while still "the baby", is increasingly independent and rapidly approaching his teen years. My daughter turned 17 and became very interested in being herself.  She is still a loving and conscientious girl, but is now much taller, hipper, and more obviously assertive in her quest to be unlike her mother.  I knew this was coming, but when I saw her dressed for her prom, I was a wreck of pride and sorrow.  I bought her dress, shoes, and make-up, helped her pick out jewelry, and watched her father take a thousand pictures as she and her best friend vamped for the camera.  She is so different than I was at her age.  I was too much of a nerd to ever contemplate going to prom, but I did my best not to let her know how scared I am of that difference.  I cheerfully joined her in prom preparations.  Dress, hair, make-up--I tried to be as cool as a mom can be.    As she and her friend pulled out of the driveway, I sat on the front porch in my sensible shoes and long skirt and waved a happy good-luck-and-have-a-great-time! good-bye to my gorgeous short-skirted, long-legged daughter.    Then, when she was down the road, I burst into tears and wept for at least half an hour straight.

So that's how it goes.  Spring is beautiful and heart breaking.  It is too much for me.  At first, you just see a few green shoots, a little blossom, a budding tree.  You feel that you can observe it, understand it, keep track of it.  I miss the discipline and certainty of winter, agent of ice and dormancy.  Blessed winter keeps checking life's haste, calls it back to order, cautions its wayward ramblings.  But the dear conservative winter can only hold on so long before spring well and truly breaks through those bonds and erupts in a riot of green.  I walk outside and try to imagine the still winter, the austere lines of gray branch against white snow and white sky.  I try to remember when the air was not full of a cacophony of bird song.  Spring is a time of hope, but like my robin friend, I worry and stand guard at the window.  I see threats to my family everywhere in this unruly eruption of change.  I feel like I must, if I am to be at all vigilant for my family's sake, run up against the hard edges of reality again and again.

But it occurs to me that this too might be delusion.  Is it possible that while the warm spring welcomes growth all around me I am only staring down a delusion. Perhaps I am no less foolish than the robin outside me window.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Now. Look Here.

Note:  I delivered this sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King's birthday and two weeks following my grandmother's death at 99 and 1/2 years old.

These years have been difficult and unsettling years.  Often when people speak to me of the future, they do so as if it is a haunted and unwholesome place.  I have become afraid of the future.  I’d rather rest in the pages of history with my heroes  but the world seems so damaged and hurting that their victories have become like accusations.  “We played our part,” they seem to say to me, “what will you do?” 
I can’t answer the question.  Sometimes I think I’ll drive myself crazy with trying.
Not that it would have mattered much if I could find the answer.  I do not know what work I will be called to do in the future, but up until last month, I knew my place and that was with my grandmother.   

These years have been difficult and unsettling years for her too as one by one she surrendered her connection to her life and to those of us who had shared it with her.  Her body weakened and her vision and hearing failed her.  She lost her ability to walk, to stand, to sit up without assistance.  She lost her ability to cook, to feed herself, and finally to swallow.  Most painfully for us, she seemed to always be somewhere else, away from us.  Days would go by without a word from her or even a smile.  In our multi-generational home, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered around her, and year after year as she drifted away from us, we all drew closer.  My mother retired early and dedicated herself to my grandmother’s care.  She even began to sleep on the floor beside Grandma’s bed.  My children grew up with the mandate that every decision must be made with their great-grandmother’s needs and comforts in mind.  Shawn and I together decided that whatever we pursued in life and career must honor her as the center of the family.  
Through it all, I’d watch and read the news with a growing sense of dread for my children’s sake.  I became jealous of my grandmother who, with nearly a century behind her, had moved beyond all care for tomorrow.  And I resented her too because in satisfying my duty to her, I felt I was neglecting my duty to the future.  My career stalled.  My writing stopped.  And the more vulnerable she became, the more time she required of me, of all of us.  I loved Grandma but I resented her too. I missed the person she had been and dreaded the final loss of her.
For eleven years I helped my family protect my grandmother’s independence and dignity.  But despite our best efforts, her independence fell away, and then her dignity, and then, many long, painful months later, she was gone too. 
And I had a sermon to write.
I wanted to write of important things and chose hymns and readings that focus on interpretations of the healing presence of the Divine in our midst.  The gospel writers called it the Paraclete, which is sometimes translated as the Advocate.  The early church named it the Holy Spirit.  Generations of mystics have called it the Inward Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, “that of God,” Holy Wisdom, Intercessor, Comforter, Helper, Beloved.  
But this message is not about theology or the history of Christianity.  I wanted it to be because I love that stuff, but I couldn’t manage it.  Our household is in disarray.  My words also do not follow good order and they keep wandering.  I find that they want to be with her.  
Grandma was not a prophet like Dr. King or a mystic like Julian and I never heard her use the words “holy” or “spirit” either alone or in combination.  Still, I keep hearing her voice in my head.  “Now, look here!” she would say as she was always pointing out little details to us--a loose thread on a sweater, a bloom on an African violet, a jack-in-the-pulpit in the garden, an error in our grammar.  I have a lot of stories about her and I’ll be telling them all my life, I suppose.  But if I had to choose one to tell you now it would be how she used to take me outside to show me the plants in her garden.  My grandmother’s garden was never going to win any awards for style, but I loved it.  It was green and cool and full of interesting things.  She was not a boastful gardener with flowers set to impress, as much as she was a steward of the lowly things.  A tiny plant in a hidden place was as much a joy to her as any prize bloom.  
She was our matriarch, a sovereign and mighty force in our life surrounding us with houseplants and crocheted mittens and afghans and other signs, visible and invisible, of her love.    To outsiders, it might have been difficult to see that love.  In her affections as in her garden, you had to know what you were looking for.  She was not going to gush over us, call us sweetheart, and bake us cookies.  She was not that kind of grandmother.  I knew she loved me because when I was little, she listened to me with the same respect she would give an adult.  I knew because she hung mirrors and towel-rings down low so that we kids could reach these handy tools of life without having to ask for help.  I knew because if anyone teased one of us little ones, she would sternly defend the child with the words, “She is a person!” 
Her kids and grandkids (and there are a lot!) are an eclectic and eccentric set and we brought more odd ducks into the family when we married people of different races, nations, sexualities, and religions.  In the boxes of photographs and cards that she saved over the years is evidence of just how weird we sometimes were.  She took it all in stride.  Whatever our condition, whatever our passions, whatever our place on the spectrum of life, she welcomed us back without question or condition.  We were all persons, unique and changing, and always, always entirely acceptable and beloved in her eyes. 

Her theology, and she would never use that word, was very basic.  The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit that religious literature describes so mytho-poetically is really quite an ordinary and humble thing.  It is, finally and simply, a presence that seems to be always there, though we hardly ever take the time to notice.  It is the impetus, pathway, and action of love.  It is the divine part of us that makes humanity humane and informs the way we deal with death and grief and memory.  It is Spirit seeking itself and finding it in the hidden places.  It is what we learn from folks around us as they pass in and out of our lives--whether they are Jesus of Nazareth or Martin Luther King, or my grandmother, Prudence Mary, of a tiny town in central New York. 
It was difficult to wait with her in her last years.  Like a little kid, I was restless and eager to run off and away, but instead I held her hand and followed her as if we were still together in her garden.   Except there were no more gardens.  No more painting or pottery or furniture refinishing.  No more shopping or visiting or Eastern Star meetings.  No more crocheting and knitting, croquet or dominoes.  No more delicious cakes or horrible casseroles.  All of that was long ago and all that was left was an old woman, sometimes selfish, very frail, and wholly dependent.  But she was not done teaching me.  As the silence grew around us and between us, it was still as if Grandma was saying, “Now, look here!”  The woman who had taught me all I know about personal dignity and self was also teaching me how to let those things go. 
Revelation can be a humble thing.  The Apostle Paul and Dr. King found it in a jail cell.  My grandmother spent her life seeing worth and divinity in small and humble places.  She was not a big picture person, my grandmother.  She made her life in the everyday.  It is a very human, and very holy thing to do.  Look here.  This is the stuff that justice is made of.  This is where kindness grows.  As I struggle to understand just how my life will continue without her in it, I keep encountering her lesson that it is not the outward success but the such-ness of a life that deserves our attention.  Do not mistake greatness for importance, power for strength, or piety for faith.  
For nearly a hundred years, Prudence was simply herself, formal and formidable, stubborn, brilliant, irascible, creative, witty, and kind.  Sometimes I wanted to set aside my duty to her and become important, to roll up my sleeves and seek a ministry outside the family.  But it was never that time--so I waited.  I waited until the morning after Christmas when I took my turn with her as she lay quietly breathing…breath after purposeful, intentional breath.  I listened to her sigh in what sounded like a young woman’s voice.  It was a beautiful sound.  The household around us continued to bustle and live, but Grandma and I were caught in a moment of blessed quietness when I said, “I love you.  It’s alright.  We all love you.  It’s alright.”   Then, though she had seemed barely conscious for days, she set her jaw in one final moment of determination and was gone.
Now it seems that she and I are both free and I must decide how to live in a troubled world without her.  I do not know what I will do.  I hesitate to bring so private a message to you.  I feel selfish in doing so, but this is the only thing I could write.  I have not yet received my new orders.  I do not know what to do next.  “We wait in the quietness for some centering moment that will redefine, reshape, and refocus our lives,” wrote Howard Thurman. I think I know what he meant.
For my entire adult life, I have been my grandmother’s apprentice and companion.  But that is all over, and I do not know what is next.  Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel ready to rest in a faith I cannot understand or describe except to say that I do believe and I have known that a Comforter has come and does abide with us forever though we are sometimes too busy to notice.  “Now,” my grandmother would say, “Look here.”  The Beloved has been with us all along.