A different survival

Last week, Gracie, who is in 8th grade, called me from school, crying.

Their class had just watched the videos from 9/11, videos that included a lot of the live footage, and the photographs that came out in the days immediately following that tragedy.  She was crying not just because of having seen, and felt, the loss, and the terror of that event, but also, because her teacher immediately moved on from the video into an analytical discussion of Islam.

I was upset with her teacher, but then I realized – she’s just doing what we all learn to do.  And teaching the kids to do it too: De-personalize, objectify, contain, move on, stay busy.

To cope with how overwhelming life can be, we have to stay shallow.  In these days of mass shootings, children separated from their families at the border, a corrupt criminal justice system and the school-to-prison-pipeline, environmental devastation –  in these days where all of these big and heartbreaking things are – everywhere – to live in this world, we have to keep so much held in, well-contained – and we learn to just move on to whatever is the next big thing, to just keep going.  (And worse: this shallow orientation also tends to benefit the very small – and increasingly smaller – few who will profit from the status quo.)

I’ve been re-reading adrienne maree brown’s emergent stratagy all summer, and I keep thinking about one line early in the book: “We are brilliant at survival, but brutal at it.” She goes on to say – “We tend to slip out of togetherness the way we slip out of the womb, bloody and messy and surprised to be alone.”

Gracie had a very human reaction, a healthy reaction, a heart-felt response to something overwhelmingly painful.  It reminded me of Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” – that begins first by really honoring the pain and the grief – of all we have lost, all we are losing.  Most important, is the opportunity to do this work communally instead of in private, individualized spaces.  Because in the communal spaces of grief, we realize our collective power for change.

It was such an opportunity to teach these middle schoolers about communal grief, and the power of collective action.  Instead, her teacher said, when she heard about Gracie’s reaction, “I’m glad she took care of herself by calling you, and getting a hug from the counselor.”

I’m taking the kids to Denver’s Climate Strike on Friday because I want them to know that there is another way to respond to our personal sense of loss and grief – they are both extremely distressed about climate change and its impact. And to know that they are not alone – there’s a massive community of people out there who are also heartbroken, outraged, and ready to lead our country and our planet in an entirely new way of survival.  A survival that prioritizes staying together – in the tears, in the heartache, in the terror.  A survival that uses that heartache to motivate us to do better – not in some distant future of some future election cycle – but now.

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Thirst

Start with the thirst
the deep well you have been forgetting,
ancient and ready to be soaked
without shame
the well your grandmothers dug for you
the reservoir carved and cared for
by the people your ancestors
betrayed
your thirst is their faithfulness
undeterred from believing
there are no strangers here
in the same thirst
we are made and unmade
born and born again

Thirst is the thing
that remembers
who you are
before the land, the hard rock, your
body stiff and unyielding –
hungry for canyons, mountains,
oxbow lakes, whole oceans of whales
and sea lions, and even
the bitter stories of slave ships and refugees
refused at the shore –

The thirst can hold it all,
untellable tales of
water coming before the ground is ready
water rising without recourse
stories also of creation and construction
the pot boiling for tea, and dinner,
warm washcloths, and
the first starts of a seedling in the spring
the thirst tastes the air,
knows the sky, and the
rain before it comes, and
sets in motion
the leap off the ledge
of the dock
freedom bound
into the startling cold, and the way the
breath leaves, and returns
like the sense that you are small
and also not unlike
late summer monsoons
always on the verge of
danger, and undoing it all

The thirst says
we are soft in these bodies
part river, flowing with the browns, the cuttbows, the
immigrant geese, sometimes too much, and
risk ready, part creek trickling
for miles underground,
the thirst knows there is a way
to turn every breaking thing
into beauty, to flush the wound clean
and begin the healing
again, thirst is what is possible
when we tend to the wanting
of all the world, the generations, the stars
starting with
your one, dry mouth
and the reaching for the glass,
the pouring, and the filling
the lifting to your tongue, and the
drinking in until you are
drenched in
life

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Weeds, a Sabbatical Story

I know it sounds naive, but I swear at the start, I thought it was a one-time thing.

Granted, they were everywhere, so I knew it wasn’t going to be simple, or short term.

But, still, I thought if I was thorough, attentive.  If I got to the roots.  If I spent enough time – in what I came to think of as both my penance, and pleasure – sweating in the often blistering sun – if I was sufficiently dutiful – I would eventually be able to move forward. All the weeds would be eradicated, and my garden would become safe, and regulated – without having to return again, and again, and again.

Before I knew to call it “bindweed,” I saw its ropes wrapped around every little thing in my garden just trying to break free, and survive.  There were others, too – what I later learned to call crabgrass, goatsbeard, thistle (mostly Canadian variety), spotted surge, and the wayward starts born of nearby trees, confused about worthy ground.img-0142.jpg

All of them, a flourishing, interdependent ecosystem of garden colonizers – and we know, no colonizer gives up their territory too easily.

Still, it was beautiful.  All of this unruly growth, when you stood back – my garden was robust, alive, with the weeds indistinguishable from intentional plants.   Wild, unruly, beautiful.

It had been like that for such a long time, I confess it had started to feel like destiny. Like that was the plan all along. Two full seasons since we moved in, probably many before that. And for each of these seasons, the wild beauty was enough. 

I’d even say that sometimes, when I looked out at the great green wall of everything mixed up and running free – it was exquisite.

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Wild, exquisite, free.  And perfectly low-effort – exactly aligned with what I had time to wish for.

As sabbatical began, I decided I should take a good walk through the garden. Get a closer-up sense of what was actually going on, start to imagine something else, a bigger wish.

It was the first week of May, before anything was in bloom, but already swelling with spring rain, and newly bright sun – the garden was already loud, or really, mostly, the weeds were loud, and pronounced.  And the trees, too, pronounced with huge bundles of dead branches weighing down new growth.  And in every corner, fallen leaves and peach pits decomposing, and weeds on top of leaves, and rocks in all the wrong places.

So I set out, on a mission.  To bring order, clarity, new life.  Beginning with understanding what that life would even mean – to learn about each plant on its own terms, with its own impulse towards life, and to see – what is this intending to be, to do? which parts here are plant that we want to save, and which is the invader?

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I took many walks through local gardens with handy labels – CSU, Spring Creek – and I googled often.

Once I had a sense, I moved on to the work of liberation – unwind the bindweed, extract the thistles, remove the leaves, move in new rocks, settle everything in, bless it with water, and then, step away to see what would happen.

Although it’s true, there’s a lot of labor at a number of points along the way, equally, gardening is an act of just paying attention – with occasional pep talks, laments, and praise.  This is how I ended up with poems like the one that begins, “I found myself apologizing to the peaches again today….” 

I bought two pairs of sturdy gloves early in the summer and I used them regularly, and there’s even a couple of well-earned holes in the fingers), but still I mostly preferred to meet the weeds with my bare hands.  (Except the thistles.  I mean, ouch.)

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Which means, I am returning from sabbatical with calloused hands. Calloused, and still dirty-looking, despite many regular and thorough washings.

Sometimes, at the end of the day I would look at my hands and imagine my paternal grandfather, Gus – the smell of his tomato plants, the rhubarb he’d complain was out of control, and the way he pulled the carrots out of the ground and I thought it was a miracle.

Or, my father’s hands after a day in the raspberry bush, or the potatoes, or the annual planters on our deck.  The way I learned, not with words exactly, just in the living – how the garden can turn a bad day, or bad week, or bad year of work, or a fight at home, or a checkbook that won’t balance or reveal the money for all the bills that need to be paid – all of these, after a few hours of watering, weeding, re-arranging, witnesssing – can be transformed into joy, and release, and even, purpose.

I know it’s probably too obvious, but it’s still true to say that weeds are a lesson in power.  The power to choose what has the right to keep on, to flourish, the power to understand what was worth saving.  Or, the power to remain careless and haphazard, to pull up something someone had sometime earlier planted with some great intention.

Even just today I pulled on a particularly interesting weed only to realize from the black well-balanced dirt that came bursting out – it was something I’d planted early in the summer, and had forgotten.

We are always all making this choice – what is worth saving, what matters, what belongs, what we want to feed, what we will leave behind.  Some of us have a greater chance to decide, a wider span of control, autonomy, privilege.  And still, all of our lives are attempts at this power – in the garden, our homes, our cities, our lives.

For example, for a long time, in the early summer, I decided to let the goatsbeard thrive as part of the garden.  The yellow flowers were so tall, proud – it gave some height to an otherwise ground-cover-heavy yard.  They asserted their place so particularly, not appearing at all like invaders.  And still, when I looked at them, I knew, their time would come – and little by little, they came to look more and more like dandelions, and so I reached down at their base, and dug my fingers into the dirt around them, and pulled them each up, one after another.  Like a massacre, or a liberation.

I’m sure not everyone experiences their garden as if a battle – but I could not help, over the season, to begin to know myself as the defender of the plants that were intended to flourish – battling all those that were constantly attempting to squelch this flourishing.

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Not just weeds, but hail – late, and devastating.

And squirrels, especially in the late season as the peaches swelled.

Bugs came earlier – i.e. the hungry caterpillars trying to turn into the butterflies who will later pollinate flowers in all the right ways are first a threat to the leaves of those same flowers.

My well-intentioned but still careless dog is both a danger and defender, though probably, in balance, an extremely-well-disguised enemy.  And still, his company makes it worth his betrayals: the ways he displaces the rocks on top of the fragile new plant while chasing down a squirrel, or decides the just-cleared out area with a new tall-reaching flower is just the place for an afternoon nap.  Mostly, his company, especially attentive when I’m digging, or sitting and staring at it all at the end of the day overrides all of this.  Net positive, I swear.

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More questionable are my thoughtless and only-occasionally-well-intentioned children -who travel up and down and around my garden without thinking twice. They forgot to notice there’s been a change since the weeds covered it all, forgot to adapt their behavior to find the newly installed steps around either side.  I shout at them, plead to be careful of the flowers and they look down and shout out, sheepishly, sorry mom, and then by the next day, forget again.

All this – not to mention the news coming from the border, the President, and the dual massacres in Ohio and El Paso – all had me thinking all summer about danger, and what we do to protect the things we love.  This is what happens with such a huge expanse of time, and the chance to listen to all the news, and the brain space to worry about your children and all they may be getting themselves into, and to think back on all that life has brought, and all that has been lost along the way.  You can’t help but contend with the fact that danger is everywhere, and grief.  No matter how dutiful we may be, how thorough, hard-working well-intentioned, how diligent – there is so much at risk, all the time, everywhere.  Not everything can be saved, and barely anything – especially people – can be protected from danger.

To decide to care about something means to decide you’re going to have your heart broken, sooner or later.

I kept thinking – it would be so much easier if I just let the weeds keep on with their takeover. If I cared less, paid less attention.

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But then, I would look over at the trees, freed from all their dead branches that had been for so long holding them back, now flourishing – and the path I’d made after all the weeds were cleared that we could walk up to survey it all, and sit under the shade, while the neighbors’ chickens make their daily plea for food or attention –  and the phlox offers itself in bright pink, and purple, and white – I didn’t even know those flowers existed before all this began, and yet their potential was there the whole time. The whole time, there was always so much here than I even knew to hope for.

Only this that can keep us from letting the danger take hold – this seeing something beyond what we thought was possible, this stunning surprise of life, this faith in what remains not yet.  Only the clearing everything out, the caring for something before you even know what it is, that risk to care, to tend, to feel a part – only this decision to love keeps us going.

I kept on with my plan for much of the first few weeks.  Working slowly, dilligently, whole days would pass and I’d hardly made it through a small plot of land.  And with each hour, the filling of buckets and buckets of weeds, alternated with re-distributed rocks.  And then, throughout the day, I would empty the weeds into the yard waste bins, that over the week would fill, until each Wednesday they would again be full, or over-full, to place on the street – and another week would begin, with hope, and intention.

Weeds, and rocks – these were the truest story of my sabbatical.

It continued like this until early June when I took a trip with my family to the northwest, which meant I left it all behind for nearly three weeks.  There was water on it, that wasn’t a worry, I decided it could survive a couple of weeks in early summer, and then I would get back on mission.

The good news was that, it all survived – water does make sure of that.  The bad news, or really, just the lesson, was that the water also fed the weeds, and even more so.  In fact, the weeds, while I was away, decided it was their time to party / take over.  A full resurgence, over every little area that I had considered conquered.

I had no right to believe that one pass would tame all that had been running free for years – but I did believe it, and seeing everything I had so carefully cleared all grown over again, I was devastated.  I wondered if I had been wasting my time, or if I would ever move beyond this 20 square foot plot into the rest of the yard- or if I would keep at this one section over, and over, and over.

Every thought I had about danger being everywhere intensified – and instead of just thinking about danger, I started to wonder about nihilism.  But then, there was still about 8 weeks left in sabbatical – I had all this time to just, go back, try again.  So I did.

Pulling, and moving, and assessing, and blessing.  This time it all went much faster, as I realized I knew some things about how the plants should fall, and because I’d been there recently, the soil was quicker to give way when I came for the weeds.  Before long, I was moving along to the next section, and the next, and the next.

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Along the way, I kept circling back to the prior places, watering the new plants I’d added, reshuffling displaced rocks, finding the bindweed that was so insidious, persistent – sometimes even having the nerve to flower – conceding the impossibility of really ever getting it all.

One particularly problematic section I’d done over three or four times, I finally decided to clear out all the rocks and dig it all up, spread out weed-preventer, and then put down a weed barrer, and then the rocks again, along with a few new plants.  We have to vary our strategies, I reminded myself. Keep trying new ways to tend to all this life and these dreams for more.

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It’s a set up, you know that, right?

This was the response the minister who led my life review retreat in July asked me when I told her about my work in the garden, and my hope to get it stable – finished – before I would feel ready to go back to work.

It’s a set up, what you’re doing to yourself. 

And then we took a walk to the garden right below the window we had been sitting beside.

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She and her husband had been gone from home for the first 6 weeks of summer.  They returned to find their garden looking like this on all sides.  Wildflowers aka weeds had fully interspersed with every flower they’d previously intentionally planted.

Sometimes life looks like this, she said.  And sometimes it looks like something more orderly.  The work is not to make it all look orderly, and it’s not to give it all up either.  The work is to discover in all of it, where the beauty is at any given moment, the joy, and what will be, good enough.

Good enough is not a concept I’ve let myself entertain much – like ever – and even though I wrote it down when she said it,  and even agreed to give such an idea a try – I’ve had to turn it around and around since then to begin to understand what she was getting at.

Which is – I think – about coming to terms with our place in life, which is not nothing, and also, not everything. To accept that there are seasons in life, as in the garden, and rhythms.  I think good enough means coming to make friends with time – rather than, as I have always done – thinking of time as a problem to be solved.

Good enough means coming to terms with what we can do in day, an hour – or a lifetime.  Calling that offering a blessing – whether it turns out to be a garden abundant with weeds and wildflowers (as mine was as well – and it was, in its own way exquisite), or one governed with intention that yields peaches, phlox, hydrangeas, wisteria, sage, daisies, columbines, lilacs and so many others – and fends off any creeping invaders with diligence and fidelity.

Good enough is not to surrender to the danger that threatens all that we love, or pretending it does not exist, but only to know that our best defense must include knowing our own limits, and even our helplessness in a bigger sense – to continue to do our part, regardless, and to give the rest to those who will come next, to the earth, to God.

Good enough feels like a discipline to me, a scary one, sometimes, and a liberating gift most of the time. And, it is a practice I am trying out each day far beyond my garden, far past sabbatical – as my attempt to feel less compelled to hold it all, to refuse to concede to the danger, or to stop noticing them – or the grief – but to stay connected to the beauty, and all that keeps growing, and thriving in my garden – and in this life – far beyond what I ever could have imagined.

 

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Reunion, a Sabbatical Story

What does it mean to meet again?

After months, or years, or decades, to encounter another that we have not seen, or kept fully in touch with, especially one we once knew well, one we were close to, who knew us, who still carry in them, our secrets and our stories, our once-articulated dreams – memory offers us an almost-automatic familiarity, a nostalgic trust.  We feel at once close, and connected, like time travelers sent back, as if nothing could overcome the strength of love (or whatever it was) caught in history.

But then, time descends, stubborn, we notice changed skin, hair, the crack in the voice that was not there before, a new love hovering nearby, a certain bitterness or grief glimpsed in otherwise casual conversation – and suddenly we realize that we do not really know each other any more, that we are strangers, that we need to start at the beginning, learning each other’s names, dreams, preferred beverage, the ways we spend our days, the questions we wake wondering, the fears that we push away.

Or at least we do, if we want the reunion to be real, for the connection to be real, to be alive.

I am just past mid-way through my 44th year – which, if I’m lucky, could be something approximating the midpoint of my life.  I have lived long enough to have accumulated many stories – losses, and disappointments, betryals and terrors, and also joys, and breathtaking beauty, and even things I would call miracles.  I have left behind so many things I once loved, or struggled with, and people – some I have left, some have left me –  sometimes with relief, sometimes with regret, most often both of these, indistinguishable.  And also, places I have moved from, homes and communities and whole worlds I no longer inhabit – and within myself – whole worlds I have forgotten to remember in the process of building a life.  Picking up, settting down, sorting out, begining again, marching on.

It started in the garden, in early May, moving from tree to tree, tracing the branches that needed to fall, discovering buried perennials I never knew were there, finding order and light. There, I remembered myself before seminary, before children, in our little house on Santa Fe, where the neighbors blasted polka every Saturday, finding long-neglected and grown over-irises that would end up making big shows a few months later – and planting Pye-weed that I thought I’d killed before it turned up a few feet away strong as ever, and writing about it all in what would become a reflection I’d read in church one Sunday. The Sunday where the nice church ladies asked me after how far along I was in seminary – even though seminary wasn’t even in my view of the possible, but then, I started to wonder, and dream.

I met this part of myself again – in the sun, and the dirt, before the kids were even yet out done with school – with curiosity and an abundance of time, and a capacity to keep showing up each day to learn what this person I am today knows still about the one I was then, how or if we connect, what wisdom we each have to offer the other.  Reunions are never just a matter of meeting another again, but always include an encounter with ourselves from another time, to see ourselves then as whole, without giving in to the temptation of regret, or sentimentality.

To make it past giddy nostalgia, to the real meeting again, reunions must release all assumptions of what growth should look like, or what life should mean, could mean, and withhold all judgments of how time has served, or failed us.  We must open ourselves only to the real stories of who we have become, how we have changed, what we have lost, and gained, the choices we have made, and why.  It takes work to make this much space for the familiar to become also, at once, entirely new.

I remembered myself without children, without sermons to write, without theology. I remembered what it felt like to have dreams disconnected from community, and whole days, and weeks, and months that would pass without ever once finding my voice.  I remembered time, and choice, and solitude that is only sometimes loneliness.

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about 1/3rd of my rock-wall garden in mid-may, after 5 full days of moving rocks and pulling weeds

This early experience in my sabbatical gave me some good groundwork for a trip in early June, when my family and I drove all the way west, stopping for a few days with my sister in Portland, and then eventually heading north to Olympia, Washington, where my sisters, neices, and parents live, and for what would become home base for an actual reunion at my undergraduate university in Tacoma.

Officially, it was for Reunion Weekend at the University of Puget Sound.  But what drew theatre majors to the campus that weekend in June was not actually some generic idea of reunion.  It was instead, the retirement of a beloved teacher and mentor, a teacher who started my sophomore year.  Which meant that we didn’t just have a students who graduated from a single year, but classmates spanning from the mid-nineties to current students – which makes more sense I think for how we should always do class reunions, because you never really just make relationships with the students graduating in the same year.

I haven’t ever been to a class reunion – college, or high school – and I was anxious/skeptical/dreading headed into the first night.  But….it didn’t take long for all of that to drop away.  Walking in, I saw the faces of so many beloveds – some of them looking as if no time had gone by at all – and felt immediately, wholly, at home.

It helped that we were in our theatre, the space where we fell in love – or tried not to, built sets, quick-changed, found and lost and found props, learned to focus lights, watched each other grow up – or tried not to.  Meeting a beloved place again is less complicated than meeting a person, though barely.  Sometimes in church we say that the walls hold the stories of all those who have ever come in to this community, and that immediately, when you enter, the stories begin to find their way to you.  Walking into the theatre, I thought the same thing – all the stories held in these walls, all the late night tech runs and the Sunday matinee duds, all the anxious auditions, and the mystery of when everything, suddenly works, and comes alive.

On the way in, my dear friend and I stopped in at the green room, and I flashed on a thousand formative moments that happened right there, and really, a few in particular.  Love notes passed.  Questions – big and life-changing, or petty and coy – all shared between two, or ten, or twenty joined in intimacy and the deadline of a show going up, at least until strike comes 8 weeks later.

We didn’t have cell phones, or social media, everything happened in the time it took to trek across campus to retrieve a note someone left for you. Which could mean hours, or even days, before you knew that your whole life had shifted. Life that could’ve gone one way, but instead went another.

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When my friend looked at me from inside the green room, I flashed on his face 22 years ago – scared and strident and sad and filled with so much longing.

Some moments in life feel like they are so big, there’s no way that anything after could live up to them – that was what a lot of our time in the theatre department felt like.  To return, to see us all at mid-life with children, and wrinkles and gray hair, and regular-life jobs with regular hours – some part of me had an instinct to call it a let down.  But instead, I leaned into the sense of this huge relief, and amazement.  To see that we went on, and survived. That we had the audacity to believe we deserved life’s most regular, and daily joy.  It turns out, the stories we thought we were in when we were 19, and 20, and 21 were not, for the most part, the stories we were meant for.  Which does not undo the righteousness of our dreams, the glory of who we were, then.  It was – and we were – glorious together.  And also, there is such a sweetness to knowing how wrong we were, and what other thing was brewing that was the life we would come to call our own.

 

 

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After UPS, things got even more reuniony, as I traveled with my daughter and my mother to my hometown – Port Angeles, Washington, on the way to a few days in Victoria, British Columbia.  Because my parents moved from my hometown my freshman year in college, I haven’t been back too often as a grown up, especially with my mom, and maybe never with my daughter, who is now old enough to understand what it means to go see her mom’s hometown.

Having Gracie with me allowed me to return to my hometown with a little more strangeness, and generosity- a little more openness to its beauty, which is, I realized, incredible.  I showed her the house I grew up in, a house my dad designed, as well as the field my sisters and I played in, and the route we took from our school to our grandparents’ house.   Here is the place where I tried to teach my sister to ride a bike.  Here’s where we rented our very first video.  Here are the county fair grounds where we learned about roller coasters and rodeos. Here is the swimming pool I swam in morning and night for most of my life, and here is the cemetery where my grandparents are buried.  

We also had the chance to spend some time with my uncle and aunt, whose house I spent many hours in growing up as their daughter was my same age, and a good friend.  My uncle showed Gracie Victoria and the ferry through his telescope, and I sat in his living room remembering the hours of dos-based games I’d played there.

Before our trip I had downplayed our visit to BC, where I had grown up going often given its proximity just 17 miles across the water.  But then, going there with Gracie, with the new passport requirement, and the sometimes-strange vocabulary and the gorgeous harbor with the houseboats and water taxis – I was amazed again, and grateful in new ways.  To know this place so well, and also to realize how much I did not know it, to learn it all over again as the person I am now, and to see how we had each changed, and also how we had not, to make space for meeting again, to be fully in this time, here, now.

 

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Most of all, it left me feeling really grateful.

I carried all of these memories from my trip home with me as I traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior in mid-July for a life review retreat with the Rev. Karen Gustafson.  Another reunion – this time by way of telling the story of my life, and to be heard telling it.  To see what is familiar there, and then to encounter it anew.  To find ways to tell the story differently, to notice patterns, to imagine what is differently possible from this encounter-  both in how we understand what has been, and how we can build our lives into the future.

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In telling the story of my life, I met again the major (and some minor) characters and tried to see them not only from the perspective of the person I was when I knew them – which was, sometimes a child, or a young adult – but as the person I am now.  Sometimes this meant that I forgave them more fully, sometimes I saw that they needed to be held more accountable, sometimes I came to see that I still could not save them – and that had to be, and was, ok.

Real reunion allows for this sort of shifting to take place, this re-telling of the story, this unlodging of too-long-stuck feelings, this freedom into creation rather than destruction, an opening into possibility.  As Karen reminded me, life is not arrival, it is constant becoming.  And I would add – it’s not just becoming, it’s also constant ending, and also the constant attempts at reconciling these, making sense and pulling the pieces together – which is really still, becoming, and ending –  and then reconciling.

We always talk about reunion as a matter of meeting those we knew a long, long time ago.  But in this way, reunions are not just encounters after long spans of time apart, but are also the chance we are given each day, to meet ourselves again, to meet each other, to meet this life again – and to hold in these encounters both the trust we grant the familiar, as well as the space to discover the entirely new.

Imagining life as reunion has helped me to imagine the ways that my life is both ancient, and newborn.  That I carry with me a deep well of history – choices that I have made, people I have loved, places that have formed me – and all of these connected with other histories, other choices, beloveds, places.  This history is steady, and strong, and trust-building.  Which means it is good, and fine, and possible to believe that I know some things now, that I have traveled to this place with some intention.

And equally, that these companions of history, people, geography – all of these are living companions that can and will keep changing in the daily meeting again.  Just like the stories we thought we were in as undergraduates – everything we know now may turn out to be wrong, and something else entirely may be at work.  That there is an alternative world just waiting for us to discover it, to create it, to become it – together.

In her book, The State of Affairs, Esther Perel reminds us of a fundamental, existential conflict within us: “We seek stability and belonging, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity…we crave security and we crave adventure, but these two fundamental needs spring from diferent motives, and pull us in different directions.” When we practice life as reunion, we can hold both of these impulses at once.

In so many ways, reunion has been the story of my sabbatical.  And, as sabbatical ends, the theme continues as I prepare for the reunion with the church, with the people of the church, with my colleagues, and with ministry.  It is a gift to remember that in this meeting again, we can both lean into the easy trust of familiarity and history, as well as make space for what has shifted – for growth, and change, and new life.  Not just in these first few weeks, but as a daily practice, and a gift we can give to ourselves, and to each other, and to the worlds that are just waiting for our willingness to become.

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Shows, a Sabbatical Story

I trace my love affair with TV to Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd.

Moonlighting ran from when I was 10 to 14, a time when I had a super small TV in my bedroom.  Before I even knew it was a thing, Moonlighting taught me to go all in on the will-they-or-won’t-they.  I can still remember – without any googling….

You can see how this might get lodged in a 13 year old’s brain.

I also remember the nights I’d decide to watch it – no DVR or catching-up-when-it-hits-netflix back then – without having finished my homework.  And the staying up way too late afterwards to slog through Grapes of Wrath or Spanish III vocab.

It’s a pattern I really never unlearned, despite today’s on-demand-culture. I’m still willing to sacrifice sleep and good sense for a good ‘shipping.  (I mean, I can basically attribute my whole marriage to another will-they-or-won’t-they story…but I suppose that’s another post entirely…..)

Which is to say, even when I’m not on sabbatical, I love shows.* But it’s only on sabbatical that I get to follow that love without guilt, and without (too much) lost sleep. 

My best guess is I watched about 22 shows in the last 14 weeks, some of them spanning multiple seasons.  I have a pretty-close cataloguing at the end of this post, but before that I want to highlight just 5 (ok, 6)- which I picked not only because they are shows I’d recommend to most anyone, but also because I think they do a good job of telling the story of my sabbatical.

  1. Better Call Saul – Carri was late to the Breaking Bad party – despite my urging, she kept getting stuck on how dark it all is, and how Walter is just such a selfish whiner. And, I mean, she’s not wrong.  But this last year she went all-in, and immediately dove into this pre-quel spinoff.  On the other hand, I’d resisted going any further into the dark world, and we role-reversed, and she was the one now constantly confused as to why I wouldn’t just give in and enjoy all this brilliance.  Sabbatical gave me the head space to finally imagine doing that, and I quickly realized what she’d been telling me: Saul is even better than Breaking Bad.  Dark in more tolerable ways, but still with characters just as problematic, yet even more lovable – making choices that have you cringing in advance for what will inevitably – maybe 3 or 5 episodes or even whole seasons later – lead to their ruin.  And still the acting, writing, and filming is just stunning.  Also, if you are like Carri and just cannot with Breaking Bad, I don’t think it matters.  I think it works on its own, and it’s just a bonus if you happen to already know the later-tragedies of these characters.

2. Pose – The whole of the first Season I was pinching myself that this show – about trans and gay folx of color in NYC in the late 80s and early 90s – exists on TV.  I loved (and cried through) every single episode – it even made me love Ryan Murphy again.  Which is why I was both obsessing over / dreading Season 2 – I figured there was no way to keep up all that brilliance.  But then, at least as far as I’ve watched, I was happily, fully, proven wrong.  The characters and stories remain fierce, and queer, and complicated, and beautiful.  The actors blow my mind.  Billy PorterMJ RodriguezIndya Moore.  I thought a lot during sabbatical about queer identity, and how queerness is (or is not) compatible with church life, and ministry.  I wrote some on queer relationships, and queer love (which hasn’t yet been ready for sharing), and what especially gets me about this show is how well it manages to get at the fragility and the fidelity of the queer community.  The family that is created by choice by those who know everyday of their lives – as Audre Lorde said – we were never meant to survive.  

 

3. Fleabag – About half-way through my sabbatical I got to spend some time with my friend Kelly Dignan, who was just a few weeks from concluding her ministry at the UU Church of Boulder.  Kelly and I get along for so many reasons, but one of those is our mutual drive and ambition, and our relentless work ethic.  Which is why it was especially fun to spend some time with her in the middle of my time-away, and a couple weeks from her quitting her job to leap into a great unknown.  We took a hike in the foothills of Boulder, marveled at the wildflowers, and each expressed a lot of gratitude for where we have been, and for the chance to re-group, and to make choices for our lives that are more fully aligned with our call – rather than a need to prove ourselves and our worth through our to-do lists.  While I was there, Kelly told me that of all the shows I could watch on sabbatical, I had to be sure to watch Fleabag.  I hadn’t heard of it, but came home and started immediately – and loved it. It’s a show about grief, and friendship, and family, and regret.  It’s witty, tragic (though, like the main character, it hides it well), funny, and smart.  And it’s a great length for such a powerful show.   The second season is a world unto itself, probably even better than the first.  Especially fun (and again, tragic) to watch as a clergy person who has spent a lot of time thinking about boundaries, intimacy, and power in the church.

4. Marcella / Broadchurch – I’m cheating a bit by putting these as one – but I watched them quickly and sequentially so I experienced them as all one.  I’m including them here because they represent my “British TV” phase of sabbatical.  They are – fair warning – extremely dark.  Especially season 2 of Marcella and pretty much all seasons of Broadchurch.  Still, the characters are so compelling – and it was so mesmerizing to live in the British police world for a while – how few guns they all have! How little worry there seems to be about their makeup, or love interests, or especially perfect looks by any of them, or tying up all the leads they threw our way.  I thought a lot about betrayal, and how we decide to believe what people tell us – even ourselves – during sabbatical – and these were themes played out in both of these shows.

5. Dear White People – Through my sabbatical I had the chance to participate in a series of conversations with community leaders and activisits from across Fort Collins (facilitaed by the Colorado Trust) – many of whom are people of color.  And in these conversations we talked a lot about who feels at home in our city, and why – and whose story is told when we talk about Fort Collins.  I’ve been wrestling with the questions of how change happens for our city, and if it’s even possible – and how to listen more, and support the leadership of those whose stories have not been told, or told as centrally.  I thought about all of this watching Dear White People – both seasons 2 & 3 – as the main character, Sam, moves out of sheer idealistic and righteous activism, into a more active heartbreak and disillusionment.  Especially in today’s polarized, social-media-fueled and white-supremacy-normalizing world – how do we confront and counter racism in ourselves, and in the world?  And how does real change happen? Does it? Bonus: one of my conversations this summer introduced me to the term “hotep,” and despite a shallow googling, I wasn’t quite getting it.  Until one of the episodes of Dear White People featured a dude getting called out as hotep, and it all became clear.

 

I toyed a lot over sabbatical with starting up a whole new blog just dedicated to reviews and recommendations of shows (with a splash of podcasts and music for variety). Afterall, Carri often tells me she can’t keep up with / remember every show I tell her she should watch – and also that recommending shows to watch is one of my love languages.  Which made me like: she sees me….

But I decided that one of my favorite things about shows is that they are almost always an experience entirely related to my own pleasure.  Without justification, explanation, or work product.  Hardly ever do shows translate well into sermons in any setting – but especially in a UU setting, there’s a longstanding too-good-for-TV orientation so it’s rare to find congregants – or even colleagues – who can speak this language with me.  If I was an avid book reader, I could more easily bring up the books I’d read (even fluffy novels find an easier conversation in after-church coffee time than the latest netflix binge).

Instead, shows are like my little mini-rebellion in the middle of life always oriented towards producing, and efficiency, outcomes, and utility.

We all need these things in our lives, these things we choose for no other purpose than joy, and relief, and the remembering of entirely other worlds, other stories than our own, and the ones we carry.

And it was this personal, private joy that was the story of my sabbatical.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Below you’ll find my full list of shows I watched (I think) from May through August  – feel free to ask me about any of them if you’re curious. Or tell me what you thought about something – though I don’t want to write (more than the occasional) blog posts about shows, I do love talking about them.

  1. Jessica Jones – Season 3
  2. Catastrophe – all Seasons
  3. Big Little Lies – Season 1 and half of Season 2
  4.  Workin’ Moms – Season 2
  5. Handmaid’s Tale – current Season
  6. Pose – current Season
  7. Dear White People – Seasons 2 and 3
  8.  Shrill – Season 1
  9. Better Caul Saul – all Seasons
  10. Younger – current Season
  11. Queer Eye – current Season
  12. Cooked – all episodes
  13. Marcella – all Seasons
  14. Broadchurch – all Seasons
  15. Bodyguard – Season 1
  16. Dead to Me – Season 1
  17. Bonding – Season 1
  18. Insatiable – Season 1
  19. Fleabag – all Seasons
  20. The Defenders – all episodes
  21. The OA – Season 2
  22. Pen15 – Season 1

*Since today, a lot of watching TV shows doesn’t happen on an actual TV, I’ve taken to just calling them simply “shows.”

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Poetry, a Sabbatical Story

“Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”
-Pablo Neruda

I’ve always loved writing – especially poetry – which I started experimenting with in middle school when all things feel like they should go in a poem.  By the time I was in high school,  my journal was filled with lots of poetry (and math proofs), with a somewhat hilarious and hubristic variety of subjects, most of which I had no right to have an opinion about.  Bullying and domestic violence, racism, love, loneliness, and trying to grow up.  Some of these I knew some things about.

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Regardless of all this writing, I never really thought of myself as a writer, let alone a poet, which seemed a term reserved for people like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, or my 10th grade favorite, Sylvia Plath.

Around the same the time I read The Bell Jar, I overheard a friend of mine talking about a poem she wrote with one of her friends.  I had showed her a little of my writing, after she’d shown me hers, but we hadn’t really talked about it.  I just figured, she too was shy about sharing.

Which was why I was especially surprised when I heard her say my name, and that I wrote poems too.  Yeah, Gretchen also writes poems.  Really cheesy ones.  You should read them – they are all so sweet. 

I basically died.  It was literally the worst thing I’d ever want said about something I’d written, let alone a global characterization of my writing to a random guy.  It hit me so hard.

While I didn’t decide to stop writing, I did start thinking that whatever I wrote would have to be like Emily Dickinson.  As in, discovered after I die, for the world to evaluate long after I wouldn’t have to hear anything about it.

Obviously, given the fact that a major part of my job involves writing, and then sharing what I’ve written, I mostly got over it.  But still I’ve remained hesistant to take my writing, in and of itself, as something serious, or worthy.  Something to share as writing.  What I write for Sunday is spoken into the context of community, and relationship, and then by Monday, set aside for the next Sunday.  I write calls to worship, and prayers, and sermons – but I am not a writer, per se.  Especially not of poetry.

Which is one big reason that I came into sabbatical with an intention to write everyday, as a discipline.  To free myself of some of these old stories, and to remember the joy of writing just for writing.  To experiment and learn about different practices of writing, to remember different forms – and to relish in the freedom of being unrestrained by the practical needs of an upcoming theme and persistent deadlines, or the expectations of what is appropriate for church, or the worry of how my words would be taken, if they would matter, and in what way.

And then, sabbatical actually began.  And it turned out, I wanted nothing do with writing.  I found myself exhausted of introspection, and of meaning-making entirely. 

I wanted only to be quiet, work in my garden and in my home, to watch netflix, to go on walks and to have nothing to say about most anything.  And as the days and weeks passed, I could feel the weight of Sundays lifting, the push to produce a certain number of words (not too few, or too many), with a well-crafted bottom line, and a tidy message of hope and meaning – all fall further and further away.

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I loved the relief of it all so much that not quite half-way through sabbatical, I confessed to my spiritual director I was worried that I had nothing to say about anything anymore, except maybe about moving rocks from one part of the garden to another, or the mystery of still having Uggs boots in our shoe bin two months into summer.

She said, isn’t it interesting how reality doesn’t come with meaning attached to it? Reality isn’t a story.  Reality is just – what is.  You’re experiencing reality.

We’d talked about this, she reminded me – that this would happen.

This is life, she said.  How does it feel?

We are asked and ask ourselves to process our lives so quickly today, to move from experience, to story, to meaning, (and often to reporting it out on social media) – so fast – we start to take the story-making, and the meaning, as the reality itself.  Especially when a main part of your job is getting up in front of people and trying to weave meaning out of the preceding days, or weeks, or years – all in the span of 20 minutes for a crowd whose attention is already veering towards the grocery list, or the text they just got, or the week ahead.

So that to step away from the cycle feels – terrifying, disorienting, groundless.  And also, if you let it, glorious.

In place of story-weaving and meaning making of my own, I found a hunger to listen to new words, and new ideas.  Another story of sabbatical I’ll tell soon will be about “my summer of infinite podcasts,” as podcasts were how I began to feed that hunger.

On my own for most hours of the day, in the hot summer sun, I’d alternate between listening to the trees, and the next-door neighbor’s chickens, and the windchimes sounding from every direction- and then hitting play on another random podcast while kneeling in the dirt, amending the soil, noticing all the small changes of summer.

Along the way, I kept my my journal near, and would write small and unfinished notes to myself that when I look back at them now appear like little pep talks I was giving myself….or maybe, I see now, like aphorisms, or psalms….here are a few of the more intelligible ones….

  • It takes a long time to dig up such a small amount of ground. Often, whole days.
  • Time is not a problem to be solved. But I keep trying anyway.
  • There is nothing extraordinary about betrayal, or grief. It’s regular.
  • There are right and wrong ways to love.  Love is not actually always love.
  • Weeds are a way to remember we have the power to choose.
  • To pick up is to begin setting down.

I’d get a line like this written, and then – nothing else would be there.  I’d want to go back to moving rocks, pulling weeds, listening to podcasts, or the wind, making dinner, watching netflix.  It was sometimes terrifying, annoying – sometimes just – perfect.  Who needs meaning anyway?

Along the way, I discovered two podcasts that began to shift things in me.

One was an interview with the poet Maggie Smith, who wrote what became a “viral poem” in 2016…..

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The conversation with Maggie Smith had her talking about coming to believe that her life, in the every day, would be a worthy topic for poetry.  Motherhood, and meal making, laundry and car pools.   She talked about a moment in her life when she realized she didn’t have to write about things that “poets write about,” she just had to write about life as she saw it, and that still she was just as much a poet.

There was something really comforting in hearing her struggle with the poet identity, and the question of what is worthy of real-live-writing.

Second, I discovered a podcast from poet Tracy K. Smith, called The Slowdown.  It’s a poem-a-day type thing, except with curation and most-often commentary from Smith.  Most episodes are five minutes or less.  For a while, I just let the back episodes play one-after-another, with only a short breath between – like I was gulping it all down.

But eventually, I fell into a rhythm of each day waking to hear the new episode, to let that be my poem of the day – without any real need to make my own meaning or application.  Just to take the time to really hear the words, the ideas, and the sound of Tracy Smith’s voice which basically feels like a lullaby to me.

These two podcasts opened up even more curiosity, so that I went looking for more books of poetry – I got Maggie Smith’s book, and a few books from the library – Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton and Christian Wiman.

And then more poetry podcasts, including an interview with Camille Dungy where she talked about form in poetry, and about the need to study and practice different forms – stuff  that I only slightly remembered from high school and college English classes.  Which led me to Mary Oliver’s two books on poetry – A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance – where she talks about why it’s good to emulate other writers, that it’s a critical way to gain skill and eventually, to develop your own voice.

I started to wonder what it would mean to take up writing not as a hobby, but as a student. To imagine myself just learning, free to not know, not understand – despite all the words I’ve written, to be ok with being a beginner.

In mid-July, about 10 weeks into sabbatical, I flew to the north shore of Lake Superior – an area of the country I have never been, but that immediately felt familiar. (I learned later that my great grandparents had settled there for a time, with the other Scandanavians.)

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I was there for a retreat with a senior colleague, an individualized retreat meant for looking back on the story (stories) of your life, and considering the story ahead.  In my room there were shelves of even more poetry, that I sat for hours late into the night reading – Wendell Berry, May Sarton, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy…

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And another book, a guide of contemplation and prayer grounded in poetry. It invited a three part practice – a question to contemplate, and then write about, a verbal prayer of poetry or scripture, and then centering prayer for increasing amounts of time – eventually 40 minutes a day.  I began right away, and have been continuing every day, ever since. I have found an especially beautiful collection of poems that I highly recommend – called Poetry of Presence – that, in addition to Tracy K. Smith’s daily poem, have been part of my daily scripture.

And somewhere – through all of this – everything changed. Slowly, and also suddenly.  Like going to the gym for weeks and weeks – and just at the moment when you feel like maybe you just don’t have the sort of body that makes muscles – you look in the mirror and it’s happened.  That it was happening the whole time.

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Since then I have written every day, including four completed poems and three sabbatical reflections – with another three poems and ten or so reflections in the works.  You can find all the poems posted here.

I don’t know that I have yet come to peace about calling myself a writer, but I do have clarity that I want and need to keep writing, and to take writing – including poetry – in and of itself as a serious and worthy part of my life, and what I am called to do.  Which also means that I have to continue to find ways, even as I return to church – and meetings, and email, and the march of Sundays coming again, and again – to make space for the experience of Reality.  Unstoried, unfiltered, without any meaning around it, at all.

Which is maybe what scares me most about returning to work.

Because what I have learned during sabbatical about Reality, is that it takes a really long, long, long time.  It cannot be forced to comply with our deadlines, not if we really mean to contend with it rather than our ideas and stories of it.

That is, it takes a long, long time – until one day, it feels sudden and simple.  Relentlessly available, and abundant.  That there is no way to make it feel available and abundant by rushing it, but only by giving over to its slow and invisible and mysterious workings.  That it is random, and unpredictable, and that somehow, this makes it all the more beautiful, and trustworthy.  Because we cannot make sense of it, not really, cannot contain it, certainly, cannot force good news to come on our terms – we can only pay attention and let the world and life work on us, and then – maybe, something will come through.  Something some call spirit, or grace, or maybe just Life, for real.

This is what it means to be a grown up, my spiritual director tells me, when I express my fear that I will not be able to continue to pay attention like this, once I’m back tending to the emails and the meetings and the march of time.  She says the challenge becomes not to keep up your spiritual practices, or to stay connected to these new insights and connections – these are the choices you are going to make.  The challenge is only how many emails or meetings will you be able to add in to your life, while maintaining these things.  Growing up means being able to choose to keep these connections while tending to all that may come your way, to not lose yourself, or Reality, along the way.

This is the story, and the prayer of my sabbatical.  To make this choice.  And to trust that even when the words seem sparse, and the weeds seem to have taken over, and the peaches got slammed by the hail storm – that Reality will continue to shake loose something more, and that so much is happening that I can’t see, or know – until the time comes.  That rebirth, and reconciliation, is always on its way.

And that sometimes, this trust, and the practice will have to be – is – enough.

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Summer Fruit

IMG-1996Stop changing
I tell the peaches,
pluots, and
plums, as I pull them
from the sack
and line them up straight
Stay as you
are, sufficiently
fragile and
alive for ripening
to remain
ready, with sweetness
to drip when
my teeth break the skin
and the juice
finds my lips, hungry

Last night I
watched my daughter sleep
with her hands
raised over her head
she filled the
bed with her body,
teenaged, and
fearlessly unfurled
I saw her
infant arms, surrendered
and the prayers
in my mouth,
habits equally
impossible –

We can’t save
anyone, life goes
too far, too
much beyond what can
be held in
our hands, stayed by our
plans – life is
ruthless, and rarely
ripe at the
right amount given
the mess, and
the need to spill not
despair but

light

Despite memory
and betrayal
and my daughter’s arms,
teenaged, and
brown, up above her
head, also
I fear sudden shifts
from life, to
death, and the wish not
to stop, but
hurry, and to keep
living – the
summer is filled with
stories of
juice bursting from flesh
perfectly
sweet, and my children
looking at
me, too late to catch
the swell of
stickiness, we laugh
at the rush
of everything on
their mouths, and
mine, and careless joy,
dangerous and true
believing
if only long enough
to taste life,
uncontained,
radical, and free

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