Saints and poets maybe

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

– Thornton Wilder, “Our Town”

laddersThe first time I ever saw “Our Town” was in 1988, a Broadway production starring Penelope Ann Miller as Emily and Eric Stoltz as George.  I started crying during that speech of Emily’s when she comes back for a day, and I was still crying after the curtain call when the house lights came up.  It has stayed a favorite ever since.

Maybe it’s those words about realizing life, every every minute, that grow more poignant as I get older.  Maybe it’s the dawning understanding that this person will not always be a part of your life.  She might move away, or you might.  You might have a falling out, or simply grow apart.  He might turn weird.  They might die, quickly or awfully.

It’s the acknowledgement that these bones and ligaments and cells break down after a while, that they’re not made of diamonds or titanium, impenetrable and durable for eternity.

It’s the awareness that the house you grew up in feels a lot smaller if you ever go back and visit; schools do too, and churches maybe, or any place that lodged in your heart but is better served by an imperfect memory than an actual, contemporary experience.

It has taken me a while to cultivate the practice of realizing life.  I’ve never been the kind who stops and smells the roses, but I’m beginning to do just that, which is funny because ever since I turned fifty, I’ve been more and more aware of the finity of years I have left.  I hope for several decades more, but still, my days will come to an end, later rather than sooner. Yet I don’t want to rush and cram as much in as I can.  As life shortens, I slow down.

So I watch my daughter when she’s not looking.  I watch her mouth an imagined conversation and I eavesdrop on her singing in the shower.  I watch my husband, too, with his imagined conversations.  I watch his patience with children and marvel at what an amazing special ed teacher he must have been in his previous career.  I watch him preach, and I look out at the congregation and their complete engagement with him, even as he conjures up a word now and then, or makes illegal grammatical turns.

I wonder at the perfect circle the dog makes when he curls up, and the asymmetry of the spider webs that decorated the yard naturally  – artisanally and organically – for Halloween.  I marvel at how hard it is to photograph a spider web or a rainbow or a sunset, and maybe it’s better that way.

I pay attention to the color of the sky on any given day, and the color of the leaves, and whether or not they’re still a part of the branch or part of the lawn.

I look at the small things, and watch the slow things, and I seek out the big arcs too.  I wonder at the ever-so-slight curve toward justice that history is taking. Looking at yesterday, the arc seems flat. Sometimes I have to look far back, decades or centuries back, to see that curve but it is there.

I rejoice when someone gets ordained after waiting thirty years to be able to do so.  I am humbled by those who protested apartheid and eventually brought it down, all that pride falling down like some fragile Humpty Dumpty. I applaud my friends who have more stamina than I when it comes to fighting for justice every single day. I tear up reading all the Facebook posts after the Cubs win.  108 years.  That’s a long arc toward victory.

I look for what is good; I try to hold fast to what is good because that is the glue of life, the stuff that holds us together even while the tragic and oppressive might make us stronger or at least more determined.  That’s realizing life, too: realizing that not everyone has a fair shot and it may well be our jobs to change that.

But mostly I look for the poets and the saints, few of whom are published, few of whom have been martyred or accomplished miracles.

I look to Gwendolyn Brooks and Bruce Springsteen and Brian Doyle and Naomi Shihab Nye and Denise Levertov,  and the psalmist and once in a while St. Paul.  I look to memes that take my breath away.  I seek people like Nancy, a woman in my parents’ church, who weekly collected outdated food from the local grocery stores and took it out to the fields to the migrant workers, enlisting the aid of people of all ideologies and politics to help her.  I am grateful for the Tamale Ladies, those women who sit wisely and patiently outside of Whole Foods with their coolers on wheels, micro-industrialists all of them, a community of women who feed their families and ours.

Saints who dress up as teachers, and CNAs, and guys who punch a clock, all of whom realize that life is found in the small moments and not the big ones: a C instead of a D; being able to walk to the bathroom instead of using the bedpan; a whistle blown which means the shift is over and you can go back home to the people who love you.

A month of convalescence has been a gift and an invitation to realize life.  It’s also invited a discipline to focus on healing and positive input so most days I have to set the election aside.  It’s been an opportunity to acknowledge that I am loved and liked and cared for, which isn’t always easy but has proven to be wonderful and humbling.

Because “it goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another” – unless we make time.

May a saint or poet cross your path today.

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Ode to the post-surgery days

Oh wondrous scar, bumpy and red and ugly, how you have ruined bikini season for me!
And yet therein lies an escape: I shall always have an excuse to cover up.

Oh, makers of cards and floral bouquets! How my friends have supported your bottom lines in this past fortnight!  My shelves are laden with colors and comments, wishes and prayers, sentiments heartfelt and appreciated.

Oh occupational therapists and your kind! How clever you are, inventing the grabber and the walker and the cane, and that most marvelous of inventions, the sock puller-upper!  But how dastardly are those white compression socks on the unshaved leg.  Begone, constrictor! Your blood clot prevention work is done!

Oh church ladies and the moms! How generous you are with your offers of food and rides!  Our freezer shelves overfloweth with your goodness and mercy and soup!

Oh mother and mother-in-law!  How dear are your phone calls and voicemails!  I am FINE! I know how deeply you both longed to be here, yet duties at your own homes beckoned.

Oh friend Alison! What would we have done without you? Your example of how to sleep well is a lesson we needed.  Your meals, and the notebook of recipes you left behind, have sated us body and soul.  You have achieved the Mary Poppins Pinnacle of Care award, and we are still trying to devise a plot to kidnap you in perpetuity.

Oh spouse and child! How patient you are! How well you clear the floors of tripping hazards and allow my drug-addled brain to be more random than usual!

Oh new hip! May I and thou bond now and forever.

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Be Ye Kind

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Last week I had surgery for a total hip replacement. That has been a long time coming and I can now tell I have parts that move the way they are supposed to.  It’s fantastic.

In these past few days I have been absolutely overwhelmed by kindness and care from so many. At the top of that list are my husband, my child, and my friend Alison, who flew across the country to take care of all of us. And then there is the congregation, and my family, and the school moms, and pastors I’ve never met who’ve held me in their prayers, and old friends around the country who have emailed and texted and messaged, who have baked muffins and sent cards and flowers and chocolate, because they know me well.

I am grateful, too, to the hospital staff.  There they were, taking my vitals, checking in on me, telling me it would be okay when my blood pressure plummeted, putting on the helpful/unsexy white support knee socks, encouraging me through all that initial discomfort  and pain, waking me up through the night as they did their job.

You could say that all those hospital people get paid to be kind and caring. That’s true. As a pastor I know that because, in a sense, we get paid to be kind. It’s a big part of our job.

But what if it were everyone’s job to be kind? What if kindness were the true measure of our worth, and not our social status or our bank account? Wouldn’t that be something?

Kindness is there but it’s usually so small that it gets overshadowed by all that’s loud and angry and grumpy. I’m not sure kindness really works on the grand scale but I know it does on the small scale: helping someone get dressed or making a cup of tea. Bringing a magazine with Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover, and another with the newest, best restaurants. Staying away can be kind; so can stopping by.

Once I’m up and around I’m going to spend more time on the small kindnesses. I can’t fix the world. Hell, I can’t walk without a walker and good meds at this point. But I can be kind, and I will.

And you?

The grace of the saints, and they didn’t even know it

easter.lily_Well, Easter is over; at least, Easter Day services are done and it’s “get a latte and put on comfly clothes and maybe take a nap” time.  For all of you who are church people, who in some way did something to help make this morning beautiful, thank you.  Thank you, flower arrangers and communion setters.  Thank you, sound system gal/guy, ushers, van drivers.  Thank you, coffee hour servers who had double duty today.  Thank you, bulletin stuffers and tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and organists, and choir directors, and custodians.  Oh, God bless all the custodians.  Thank you egg dyers, and banner makers, and families processing with azaleas and eggs.  Thank you, all you who showed up.  And thank you, all you who celebrated LIFE today.

I was a bit under the weather on Holy Saturday, and tentative about how I would be on Easter.  Admittedly, it was a slow start, but by the time the second service began, it was all good.  The sermon was early in the service, which meant that I got to worship without worrying for the last half.  My colleagues offered a beautiful invitation and beautiful communion prayer.  Our elders helped serve the bread and cup.  And then the saints showed up.

The woman I’ve never seen before carrying up her sleeping toddler.  The woman now using a cane, but by God she was here on Easter despite the recent stroke.  The man who’s mother is dying more quickly than any of us would like.  The person who is still a bit put out with me over a recent unpopular decision, who did not avoid my station but received the bread from me.  The teenager who was just confirmed a few minutes earlier.  The grandpa with his whole family in tow, even though they go to other churches they came with Dad today, because it’s Easter and because they miss their mom who died a few years ago.  Our administrative assistant who makes so much run so smoothly, bringing her mom.  The woman who prays without ceasing for all of us.  My daughter.  Her friend.  The strangers, the leaders, the wondering, the wandering, and the lost.  The saints showed up.

I had one critique after the service, from someone who doesn’t come that often.  She regretted that in my sermon I didn’t mention that Jesus had risen.  I thought I had, but perhaps too obliquely for her.  All the same, whether or not anyone there thought Jesus showed up this morning, spanking-fresh and resurrected, I will tell you this:  the saints showed up this morning.  Thank you all.

And for good measure:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.

To the planter of trees

tree_lined_street_lgTwo of my frequent routes include an arcade of trees.  One is at an intersection I drive by every day, the other on 99E heading south towards Milwaukie.  Neither is very long – one just a block, the other maybe a quarter-mile.  But even in winter, when the branches are bare, the trees form this graceful archway that we drive through.

As I went though one the other day, I started wondering about the person or persons who planted those trees.  Were they young?  Did they see the fruits of their labor?  Did they measure carefully the space between the trees, imagining how far apart they needed to be so their branches could grow without touching?  Did they plant them hoping that in eighty years, one hundred years, the trees would still be alive, healthy, providing a bower for motorists?

It seems to me that planting trees is a pretty selfless act.  You may get to watch a sapling get strong, but you will likely not live to see it in its prime.  And planting trees is an act of hope, too – hope that someone else will take up the care of the tree, that in the future when the planter is gone someone will look at the tree and offer thanks.

We have two enormous oak trees on the west side of our house.  I imagine they were planted when the house was built in 1925.  They are now two and a half times as tall as our house, and they are beautiful, whether with bared branches or in the lush fullness of summer.  They are beautiful and more often than not I do not appreciate them.  February is the one time of the year when they aren’t dropping something.  Come spring, it will be helicopter seed pods, then green acorns in the summer.  In the fall the brown acorns drop, aided by feuding squirrels.  Once the acorns are done, the leaves turn brown and drift down; we are very generous and share our leaves with the neighborhood.  In the chill of winter things are still unless there’s a wind storm, in which case we have branches adorning our yard and roof.

laugh inI wish I appreciated our two oaks more than I do.  They provide habitat for squirrels, and I think the crows are doing their own version of Laugh In in them.  They shade half the house, a relief in the relentless sun of summer.  But they are messy and trimming them is not cheap.  Their root system means that we have a basement in only half the house.

Would I cut them down if I could? That’s the question, isn’t it.  It would make our lives and landscaping easier.  We wouldn’t have to wear our bike helmets when we dine al fresco.

Would I cut them down if I could? No.  No, I wouldn’t.  They are things of beauty, among the most grand in the neighborhood.  The crows make me laugh.  The squirrels drive the dog nuts and give him something to do when we’re gone for the day.  The shade is lovely.

And there’s something plain wrong about cutting down a magnificent healthy tree – the inconvenience to us is far outweighed by the patience it took for that tree to go, the hearty conversations with neighbors in the fall when we’re all raking the leaves, the sheer beauty of something that towers over our man-made home.

So, to the planter of trees, our oaks, the trees that line the avenues: thank you.  Thank you for your foresight.  Thank you for your dream.  Thank you for your part in creating something beautiful that maybe you never saw.  Thank you for the trees.

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Stuffed; or better, My Cup Runneth Over

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly this morning I was on my way to the grocery store for eggs and Rainier beer, because it’s Thanksgiving, of course.  As I drove along the familiar route, I looked up to the steeple of the Methodist church, and noticed a bird on top.  It took me a moment, because I wasn’t sure if it was a real bird, perched atop the cross on top of the steeple, or some sort of weather vane thing. It was 7:15 on Thanksgiving morning and no one else was on the road, so I just watched for a few seconds until the bird moved its head, and the mystery was solved.  Because I was driving toward what was left of the sunrise the bird was silhouetted, and I couldn’t tell what it was, but I guessed it might be a seagull.  Interesting.

For the rest of the drive I thought about the bird on the cross on the steeple.  Maybe it’s keeping watch, or having its own little vigil for all of its bird-kin who gave their lives today that we might enjoy turkey and dressing and the works.

I got to the store and immediately went to Starbucks, because Momma hadn’t had her morning coffee yet and it would just be better if I did.  I got my eggs, and noted the Safeway does not sell Rainier beer, and picked up a few things to make a pumpkin cheesecake I hadn’t planned on baking.  I thanked everyone at the store profusely for working on Thanksgiving.  They were all quite gracious, and said no problem, that’s why we’re here.  Nice.

On the way home I thought about food.  I thought about my plan to eat so that I’m full but not stuffed, and my intention for exercise today.  Then I thought about all the people who will be getting their Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter or soup kitchen, if they get any Thanksgiving at all.  I thought about the cut in food stamps, and the food that flies off the shelves at our local food pantries, and maybe yours, too.  I thought about the woman at my parents’ church who died recently, about her personal ministry of collecting food from  local stores and driving it out to the fields to feed the migrant workers.

Last night at dinner our daughter asked about the Great Depression.  She’s reading the American Girl “Kit” books, and wanted to know what a depression is.  I told her that her grandparents remember the Depression, and how her great grandmothers would give food to anyone who came to the house who looked hungry.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but it does stir stuff up, stuff about the privilege of having a table of friends or family to eat with, the privilege of drinking good wine and eating an ethically-raised turkey.  It stirs up stuff about people who don’t have community or food; it stirs up stuff about the gloss of the first Thanksgiving story.

We’re joining friends whom we love for dinner today; I am grateful that they invited us.  They’re not particularly religious people, so I imagine there will be no grace said at the table, which is fine, because I can say many graces of my own today.  So here goes – and a happy Thanksgiving to you.

God of bounty, who calls us to see the scarcity;

may we be full today.

May we be full of your stuff, and not ours –

full of gratitude, of course;

full of mercy for the things that go wrong;

full of sorrow for those who hunger;

full of hospitality to those who are lonely;

May our cups runneth over.

God who loves the widows and orphans, who calls us to look far to the margins,

may we hunger today.

May we hunger for your graces, and not ours –

hunger for some justice;

hunger for some healing;

hunger for kindness, humility, and faith.

Hunger for our suffering kin who are so depleted they cannot even wail.

Our cups do run over, God, because you love us.

Let us fill each other’s cups today.

Amen.