Christmas has come and gone, all 55 days of the commercial season, which began the day after Halloween, as well as the twelve days of the liturgical one (December 25 through January 5). Epiphany, too, (the day, January 6) is behind us, although the liturgical season will be with us through Fat Tuesday.
Epiphany, from the Greek word, reveal. In the Christian church, Epiphany refers to the revelation of God’s physical presence in the world—the universal Christ in the form of the baby, Jesus. In secular usage, an epiphany is a revelation or realization of a deep truth.
Last year, January 6 became another of those days that will live in infamy, a different kind of epiphany, the day on which the depth of this nation’s social and political disfunction was revealed to the world and to ourselves. A year later, the disfunction has hardened, and the wounds show no sign of healing.
I have been struggling with these two epiphanies, one of light, the other of darkness. Torn between despair and hope, it is the signs of hope that I cling to.
Just after Christmas, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died. A few days ago, we observed the Martin Luther King national holiday. Against terrible odds, these men found hope and the courage to work for justice. In their lives and witness, I find hope.
After a crazily warm November and December—mid 70s on New Year’s Day—temperatures plummeted into a cold and wet January. Mona gets walked usually four times a day—long walks including down into our woods and meadow—so that means donning boots and heavy coat or rain gear many times a day.
All that walking helps to burn off her excess energy and keeps me from getting lazy (maybe part of Nancy’s agenda in talking me into getting another dog?). With Nancy’s training and patience, Mona has mellowed into something of a lap dog. Cuddle time and exercise! The annoyance and inconvenience bring lots of compensation.
When the weather is suitable, I combine a work session in the woods or meadow with one or more of those daily walks. Loading The Goat with tools and a cable to tie her to, Mona and I trek down one of the pathways, and I spend time cutting, trimming, digging.
I have three huge brush piles, each growing faster than they decompose. We are trying to build up—a native, wildlife friendly habitat. But that requires some tearing out. Edges I would like to fill in with shrubs and forbs must first be cleared of invasive bittersweet vine and privet and rampant raspberry tangles. We’ve removed some small trees for aesthetic reasons. Much of the constant rain of deadfall from the large overstory trees can be left lying where it fell, but some needs to be removed from paths and open areas. It all adds up.
The heavy plastic silage tarp we are using to smother weeds has been moved to its third location, after a year at each of the first two sites. The roughly 100 x 25 foot strip at site #2 has been seeded with the same native wildflower mix we used on site #1. The experiment is a mixed success. The wildflowers are a great replacement for what we smothered out. But already the ground ivy has reinvaded site #1 or was not adequately killed back by a year without light. And this infestation is probably more than we can control by hand weeding. Barring a heavy chemical treatment, which would kill the wildflowers, we may be stuck with the ground ivy.
It is cold, and we are still in the depths of winter. But signs of spring are emerging. We have a few snowdrop blooms, and lots of daffodil stems are pushing up. A few weeks ago, we saw a doe being followed by her successful suitor, while a rejected one still hung around in the background. Life goes on. May Epiphany shine through all our darker epiphanies.
The funniest story I have heard about covid-19 hoarding came from my son in Oregon. He was at a gasoline station when someone pulled up in a homemade go-cart and asked for one-half gallon of gas. Any more would have just leaked out through the rust holes higher in the tank.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself whipsawed in my reactions to the pandemic. So far for me, it has been more like a vacation than a hardship. My vacation started back in that distant time (three weeks ago) when covid-19 was mostly a problem for other places. I had minor surgery and was forced to be inactive for several days. So I read. Books. A lot of them. Some new, others pulled from my bookshelf to be enjoyed for a second or third time. My recovery coincided with the local onset of social distancing. Normally at this time of year, I would be juggling gardening and other projects between my home and church, and spending lots of time on the two bands that we belong to. With the bands shut down and normal church activities curtailed, I just stay home. Work outside or in the shop for awhile, practice the sonata I am trying to learn, then settle in my recliner for more reading. A vacation.
Sure, there have been minor quandaries. Is it okay to make a quick stop at Home Depot on my way home from physical therapy? Should I quit physical therapy? (They are shutting down, so my last two appointments will be remote.) When the contractor I have been trying to get for a month finally says he can look at the job, do I turn him away?
I will admit to one or two moments of panic when reading about what could happen and imagining myself as one of those who needs a ventilator when none are available. In truth, however, I have barely been inconvenienced.
One can find—in the media, in the commentariat, among acquaintances—views on where we are heading that range from Pollyanna to Armageddon, from fears of social breakdown to signs of empathy and solidarity with the afflicted, from the fatalistic “I will die” to jokes about hoarding toilet paper when the symptoms are respiratory.
Nancy and I were having a “best of times, worst of times” discussion recently. Relative to most of humanity, past and present, we were born into place, time, and circumstances of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege. Furthermore, my worldview held that, over time, these blessings of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege would spread to larger segments of humanity. Observing 1) the accelerating pace of fallout from climate change, 2) worldwide political tendencies toward the nastier forms of nationalism and tribalism, and 3) our revealed vulnerabilities to this pandemic, that worldview and our blessings seem increasingly fragile.
As a former spiritual director regularly asked me, where is God in this? I reject the simplistic and naive answers to that question: That God is absent or non-existent; that God is vindictively punishing us for some infraction; that God is testing our faith, and we need not take the precautions, such as hand washing and social distancing, prescribedby mammon (updated versions of snake handling and the prosperity gospel). I do not believe God has willed this disease on anyone, but I do believe it has something to teach me.
Exactly what, I do not yet know. But I see some hints in the recent daily meditations of Richard Rohr. I won’t try to summarize, because I am still digesting. If you are interested, I suggest going directly to those meditations, March 21 through the present. Contemplate what the psalms of lamentation (March 21) have to tell us. Explore Barbara Brown Taylor’s word, “endarkenment” (March 26). (That one has prompted me to re-read her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.)
It is, amid many rainy days and a frightening pandemic, an intensely lovely spring. I am trying to pay attention to both.
It has been a busy summer. We are remodeling two bathrooms, gutting them down to the framing and working back out. Although the physical work is hired out, the disruption of daily living and the time involved in researching and selecting materials still have a huge impact on our capacity to carry on with normal activities. Two years after buying this place, we still don’t feel settled in.
The big event of our summer, however, was a trip to Ireland—two weeks with our church choir (and some groupies). We sang Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast one weekend and at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the next, plus a public performance at Bangor Abbey, our choirmaster’s home parish. As in all my musical undertakings, I feel I am the least talented and least experienced of the group. The music was difficult, and there was lots of it. So, telling about those experiences is much more fun than was the actual doing.
The debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah” occurred just a few dozen yards from Christ Church Cathedral, and its choir, plus that of nearby St. Patrick’s, comprised the original chorus. We sat in the stalls of that choir and sang for eucharist and evensong in that church! Our recessional passed under its great organ just as Emma, our organist, hit the lowest, most powerful notes of her postlude. Those vibrations stay with you long after the physical echos have died away!
To get to the bell ringers’ chamber in the belfry requires climbing a narrow spiral tower from the south transept, and traversing an outdoor catwalk along the base of the transept roof. In ancient times, we were told, the belfry was also the treasure vault. The narrow spiral approach, corkscrewing clockwise as you climb, was designed to put an attacking (right-handed) swordsman at a disadvantage. I never realized these places did duty as forts!
For all that, the most memorable parts of the trip were the more traditional tourist things. When asked about strongest impressions, favorite experiences, etc., I give some variant on “everything.” Was it the wild northern coast of County Antrim, or the crowded streets of Dublin with buskers on every corner? Or maybe the ancient stone ruins? The invariably lovely countryside? The food, the friendly people, the coffee? Ah, the coffee! And flowers everywhere!
Nearly everywhere you go along the Northern Ireland coast has a sign with a variant of “Game of Thrones, Season x, Episode y filmed here!” We were in and around Portrush a week before The Open. Astounding, the logistics of putting on a major golfing event in a fairly isolated location! Hundreds of acres of temporary structures, some 30 by 40 feet and two stories high! We stayed at the nearby Giant’s Causeway Hotel, a Fawlty Towers-looking structure set amidst the lushest meadows imaginable, edged by clifftops a hundred meters above the North Atlantic Ocean. The Causeway’s polygonal basalt columns are a marvel, but an after dinner, almost dusk walk along the clifftop meadows is the memory that feeds my soul.
We actually spent more time in the big cities. There, too, delights abound. St. George’s Market in Belfast, with its handcrafts and culinary temptations and Tennessee flags. (Nashville is a sister city.) A gourmet dinner on our “private” open-air balcony atop a department store. (Actually, that balcony would hold thirty diners, but all the other patrons that night preferred the smoking balcony.) Another dinner, a seafood mezza, at a Lebanese restaurant in Dublin. Extravagant floral displays in gardens and window boxes. Public art. Even rural roundabouts might have towering sculptures! And walking, walking, walking. One day, our phone app clocked nine miles of random “let’s see where this goes” meandering.
Typically, when Nancy and I travel, we are ready to go home by the third day. Not since our honeymoon have we had a two-week vacation. I am happy to say two weeks was not too long. Still, it’s nice to be home.
The weeds did not go on vacation during our absence, and we are in a fight to prevent the mulberry weed and stiltgrass from going to seed. But those gardening activities have to compete for our limited time and energy. Church, band, the remodeling project—all want a piece of us.
Three weeks after our return, we hosted the four grandkids and their parents. At the beginning of that three-week countdown, the downstairs room the kids were to sleep in had no ceiling and, in a few places, no subfloor in the still-under-construction bathroom above. The furniture from that room, plus construction tools and supplies filled the rest of our downstairs guest spaces. It would have been a busy three weeks even without the stiltgrass and band and other components of our everyday lives.
“No matter our vocation, we so often find ourselves living life as a form of triage.” (Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story).
Amen! Testify! Even in retirement. Even without remodeling.
Our house is surrounded by trees—mature trees that not infrequently shed parts of themselves. Even the slightest of rain showers seems to bring down one or more sticks you’re grateful not to have been underneath when it fell. Once last year I found a thirty-foot long limb at the edge of our meadow—a seemingly healthy arm ripped from an eighty-foot tulip tree. Did I sleep through a windstorm? Did an otherwise benign shower generate a freak localized burst of turbulence just fifty yards from my bedroom window?
Three days ago, I found an even bigger widow-maker in the driveway back to our garage. I stepped off about forty feet of chestnut oak, nine inches in diameter at the butt. This one, at least, was dead wood—woodpeckers had been at it. It seems to have taken a tip-first dive, then toppled sideways down the embankment to land ten feet laterally from the plane of its fall.
The source tree was one of a cluster of three big chestnut oaks covered with English ivy, the removal of which had not yet risen to the top of our priority list. As the widow maker had damaged a rhododendron at the tree’s base, I climbed the bank to trim away the broken branches. While up there, I removed ivy from the trunks of the oaks, and Nancy resumed her long-interrupted task of clearing it from the forest floor. Triage.
Fortunately, that rhody is not a well behaved lawn shrub; it has gone native and formed the beginnings of a “laurel hell.” Loss of a few branches soon won’t make a noticeable gap in its overall form.
The ivy is bound for the landfill; can’t risk its taking root again. The widow maker and its rhody victim I cut up and hauled downslope. Half a ton of matter added to our brush pile.
Yes, our place generates lots of work. But pleasures also. From our deck, we daily watch the antics of the hummingbirds, the clouds, the windmills on Buffalo Mountain. From the deck, I noticed the snakeskin in the redbud. That eighteen- or twenty-inch juvenile had climbed twenty-five feet up the tree and slithered out of its skin on branch tips so small you’d think they would not support a goldfinch. Just in the last week we’ve seen our raptors at hood ornament height on prey-catching trajectories just in front of our moving cars: the barred owl across Nancy’s bow one night; the red-shouldered hawk across mine the next day.
For two glorious weeks in Ireland, we put the daily demands aside and walked new paths. Even now, back to “real life,” I am blessed that my daily triage involves mostly responsibilities willingly chosen.
Our interim rector recently used the following prayer:
Gracious Lord, we thank you for setting before us tasks which demand our best efforts and lead us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities. Let us leave the past behind and look towards the future that you hold for us.Help us to be thankful, joyful, and expectant for all you have done and will continue to do. In the name of the One who leads us forth. Amen.
Travelers on I-75 through central Florida will likely be familiar with the proclamation, “We Bare All” on dozens of billboards, advertising the strip joint at Micanopy. While I admit to some curiosity and titillation, that’s not the reason those words were running around in my thoughts. Bare all. Bear all.
I have been re-reading Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. Her piece on detachment has this quote:
One sixth century monk, Dorotheus of Gaza, describes detachment as “being free from [wanting] certain things to happen,” and remaining so trusting of God that “what is happening will be the thing you want and you will be at peace with all.”
Norris goes on to say, “This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a vigilance that allows a person to recognize that whatever comes is a gift from God.” Richard Rohr calls it “death transformed.” A bit of ego dies, and something better arises in its place. We accept what we cannot change, and in the letting go of the futile wish that circumstances were different, we find the gift that was waiting. Something like detachment is a part of every wisdom tradition: Christian, Buddhist, etc.
I think the reason “bare all, bear all” was in my thoughts is that I am slowly coming to admit there is something I need to let go: a desire that has haunted me, poisoned me, for a long time. I cannot fulfill that desire; I need to accept that fact and embrace what I do have. I am still far from any detachment on this issue—depressed by the coming death and not at all trusting in a subsequent re-birth. While I would like to say I “bear” it with detachment, I am currently “bearing” with self-pity and resentment.
In this frame of mind yesterday, I hit the mess that is Georgia highways. We were doing the Spring migration of Nancy’s snowbird parents, she driving the girls’ car and me driving the boys’. I had seen a single warning, fifty miles or so in advance, that the right lane was to be closed during the weekend at mile xx on I-475, the bypass around Macon. There seem to be two kinds of drivers regarding lane closures: suckers (e.g., me) who move over immediately, and __ (another s-word comes to mind) who try to push to the head of the line by ignoring the warnings and then expect suckers to let them in at the last minute. Having seen the warning 50 miles back, and being of the sucker tribe, when I suddenly hit the traffic slowdown, I moved to the left lane.
But there is another reasonable response to a sudden slowdown, especially an unexpected one. (And a single warning 50 miles in advance is totally inadequate.) That response, which I once had ingrained but had not had to practice recently, is to take the nearest exit and evaluate alternatives. Nancy, some distance behind me, had just enough time to duck for what turned out be the last exit in a six-mile backup. Nancy breezed around the backup, in which I would be trapped for nearly an hour and a half.
I judge the Georgia highway department in this instance to be either spectacularly incompetent or actively venal. They could have warned of large delays and urged finding an alternate route (there are at least two), but that might inconvenience the locals. Their neglect placed the entire burden on thousands and thousands of unsuspecting through-travelers. Adding insult to injury, this construction, scheduled for weekend hours, was totally unmanned when I passed at three on Saturday afternoon. The workers had quit for the day.
It got worse. Nancy, now an hour and a quarter ahead of me, hit more and more slowdowns, ones she could not drive around. Warning me of misery to come, she suggested I strike out across country in an effort to avoid the interstate. We have successfully enjoyed this kind of meandering before, me driving and she navigating and exploring online. But this time, the strategy failed. Atlanta is just too big. I headed toward Athens to get away from the multiple snafus of the big city, then north to Gainesville, then through the Appalachian foothills into Tennessee. But every resident of Georgia chose this afternoon to take a leisurely drive, instead of staying home and watching whatever sport is currently in season. My father-in-law helped navigate and stayed in good humor, but the outcome was that we lost another hour and a quarter. We pulled into Oak Ridge two and a half hours after Nancy and her mother. What should have been an eleven and a half hour drive took me fifteen and a half hours.
Where does “bares all” comes into the picture? If you can think of a negative trait, I probably exhibited it yesterday afternoon. My very first reaction, when Nancy phoned to say she had gotten around the first backup, was anger and envy. As the day wore on, I added profanity, whining, despair. I tried, I really did, to take a more detached view of my predicament. I practiced my mindful breathing routines. I noted the beauty of the foothills and lakes. I thought of those not just inconvenienced for a few hours, but in seriously desperate straits: journalists and dissidents jailed and brutalized by despots, refugees from war and rampant civil disorder huddled at the borders of unwelcoming countries, my own among them. But truly, I was not the poster boy for detachment. Hours later, I am still wound up, still stewing.
And did you catch how I tried to distance myself from my baser self in the title? Not “I Bare All” but “Travel Bares All.” It wasn’t me; the devil made me do it.
As we kept in touch by phone during the long ordeal, Nancy kept saying, “You have to blog about this.” I suspect she had in mind my taking a humorous slant on the afternoon. In time, I suppose I will be able to do that. But for now, what stands out for me is embarrassment at what the afternoon revealed about me and how hard it is to let go what is old and not working and to embrace what is yet to be revealed.
We have in our Memorial Garden two ornamental cherry trees. There were four, but two had to be removed, as they were too close to concrete walkways and their roots were knocking the concrete off-kilter. The remaining pair are not so close, and yet could potentially disrupt other sections of the walks. The arborist-suggested remedy was to dig beside the walkways, snip any offending roots, then install a metal barrier against further intrusions. We had done one tree last year, the shortest section of walk, but still needed to treat the other. The task: a thirty-foot trench, one-and-a-half feet deep, with attendant root cutting. I invited some friends to the party.
Thus, “The Fellowship of the Shovel” convened one recent morning. There were five of us, and more willing to help. But, frankly, five post-retirement guys wielding mattocks and shovels and saws and sharp-edged flashing was quite enough to fit into a thirty-foot trench. I am happy to say there were no injuries, at least none reported to the crew chief. Two hours spent in pleasant company. Thanks, guys!
The “Fellowship” was mostly a subset of a group of men who convene early each Wednesday for prayer and study and fellowship. David, our assistant rector, had the vision to assemble such a group, and with his leadership and patient encouragement, it has coalesced into a dozen or so regulars. These men are doers, responders to need. When I issued a church-wide call for help through a short-term staffing vacancy in our nursery, two-thirds of the volunteers were from its membership. We are about to begin our third summer of cooking breakfast each Sunday for the entire parish. The breakfast fills the space between early and late services left available by the summer hiatus of the education program and allows the two communities (early risers and the rest of us) to mingle. It is a group of men unafraid to show compassion, to be vulnerable, to talk of faith and doubts and joys and sorrows.
That I am a happy member of this group is a surprise to me. My earlier experiences with all male (or even mostly male) groups have left me feeling like the ballroom wallflower—watching from the sidelines, not participating in the action; I more easily integrated into mixed or predominantly female groups. How much of the change is due to some kind of growth in me or how much is due to the character of the individuals in the group, I cannot say. I am, however, proud to be one of them.
There is a new page showing on our top level menu, entitled “Meditations on 7 Words.” While we are still six weeks away from Good Friday, I have taken yesterday’s beginning of Lent as an occasion to collect the Good Friday meditations I have written over the years and publish them there. I invite you to read them.
And if you are interested in a series of meditations for each day of Lent, you might check out this booklet, a collaborative effort both in its writing and its illustration. Nancy has taken a collaborative art project that she helped design for a retreat last summer and reconfigured and repurposed it to illustrate these meditations written by fellow parishioners.
In addition to our travels outlined in that last post, we’ve had separate trips involving our parents. But we’re home for a while now; back in ordinary time. Ordinary time in the conventional sense, and somewhat in the liturgical sense as well.
The calendar of the Christian church is dominated by the two great feasts, Christmas and Easter. Advent (four weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Christmastide (12 days). Later, Lent (six weeks) precedes—and prepares one for—Eastertide (50 days). [Note that Christmas and Easter are not single days in the church calendar. After spending four—or six—weeks in preparation for a feast, we make that feast last. Only in the secular world do we sweep out the Easter grass and go back to work the next day.]
That still leaves three-fifths of the year. The season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and the longer season between Pentecost and Advent, are in some traditions called Ordinary Time.
In the children’s program of instruction called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the church year is simplified as a circle of six segments; two triplets labeled Before the Feast, During the Feast, and After the Feast. Their liturgical colors are purple (before), white (during), and green (after). One triplet represents the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmastide, and the season after Epiphany); the other, the Easter cycle (Lent, Eastertide, and the season after Pentecost). Ordinary time comes after the feast.
In the popular conception, Mondays and other post-holidays are depressing days. We dread the end of the weekend, the end of the holiday. We dread going back to work or school, and we apply a pejorative label: back to the rat race, back to the salt mine. The end of the feast is the end of all that is good. I’ve had some of those days.
And yet, a serious post-feast let-down would not be an indictment of post-feast time itself, but a symptom of a pathology in my life. Ordinary Time is not boring time, not drudgery time. Its liturgical color is green, not gray. Ordinary Time is the season in which we engage productively with the world. Ordinary Time is when we live our lives in gratitude for the feast.
How am I spending my Ordinary Time? Here is a sample:
A trip to the going-out-of-business sale at the local used bookstore, through which I discovered the fiction of Richard Marius (definitely worth further reading), and picked up the books on which two favorite movies were based (Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate)
Fall gardening tasks: digging, dividing, reshaping, mulching, and adding some hardscaping
Simple shop tasks for Nancy to support her painting and music
Almost daily long walks with the dog
I have been especially attentive to autumn leaves this fall, not through any virtue of mine but because Nancy has been collecting and pressing/preserving them for her art work. In past years, the fall leaf show was mostly observed from a moving car at highway speed. Peak color season lasted just a few days. How different when collecting on daily walks! I am newly aware that the season lasts months, not weeks or days. Even within a species, leaves may turn color weeks apart, depending on sun exposure and other factors. This past weekend, I was treated to views of still brilliant reds and yellows while, in the background, the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville were covered in hoarfrost. Ordinary time indeed!
Our trip to grandkids and to Berkeley Springs was a feast, grace on grace, blessing on blessing. Weeks later, I still savor the feast even while going about my day-to-day. But, frankly, too much feast is too much. I am glad to be home. Yes, some things are not so much fun. There are dishes to wash, floors to mop, toilets to clean. But there are also books to read, gardens to tend, music to make, paintings to paint, autumn leaves in their astonishing variety and glory to enjoy even while raking. And photos of grandchildren to savor.