Death

Though it is the season of rebirth and renewal there has been a lot of sickness and death swirling in and around my life this spring. This isn’t unusual for me, as many of you know, as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death all the time. In pastoral care work, in hospice work, death is lurking nearby constantly, often accompanied by its best friend, illness. And though I am well acquainted with those words from Psalm 23, on everyone’s list of Biblical Greatest Hits, I actually do fear some evil. A lot of the time I wonder just what the hell is going on.

Why so much sickness? And why, in recent times, so much truly catastrophic sickness? People aren’t getting the little cancer scare, they’re getting the “Stage 3-4” shitty news. Last night while I was working on my sermon I read that Rachel Held Evans, whose voice and religious writings I have admired, had died. She was 37 and she went into the hospital about a week ago with flu symptoms and a UTI. The meds they gave her caused seizures … coma … brain trauma … death. She had two little kids, she had important things to say, she lived a good and altruistic life. Dead at 37? Wtf?

Is our world killing us? Or is it the other way around and now we are coming full circle? All of the toxic sludge and indifference and wanton consumerism and greed generated by us seems to have created an environment that is hospitable for every imaginable little bug, but not for us humans. I wonder sometimes if we are the pestilence and we’re being eradicated in a kind of slow-motion cleansing. Is there evil lurking in there somewhere? I think so. In the hearts and minds of the people who pepper our food with the pesticides that leech into our water and ground and fall down on our heads in the rain, giving us cancer. In the corner offices of the pharmaceutical giants who send rivers of opioids into our communities, creating a generation of junkies. In the mindset that every bad feeling, every discomfort is diagnosable and that there is a perfect pill to make us well. These evils I fear.

In recent weeks it’s felt like I can barely keep up with the prayer requests. No matter which direction I turn there is someone there who is very sick or news of a recent death: a friend’s brother, dead at 59; a friend in her 50’s with advanced cancer; a friend’s brother in his early 60’s being admitted to hospice care.

Truly I did not come here this morning to pull a blanket of misery over your day. There are no answers to life’s most pressing question: what the hell? There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason when it comes to life and death and the sickness that often moves us from one to the other. And certainly the dreary weather this spring has not made things easier.

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Is there hope? I have to believe. Otherwise, why? What for? So we can exhaust ourselves, rack up debt, buy a bunch of crap, spend our nights looking at a screen, pop a prescription med and try to sleep, then do it all over again tomorrow?

What’s the point? I don’t know … the Grand Canyon, the unfurling fern, a baby’s chubby fingers, the softness of a lover’s lips. The Sunday Times, a genuine hug, clean sheets, the curled-up dog. Blueberry pancakes with butter and maple syrup. When someone holds the door. Watching your kid figure it out; the constellations. Bookstores, Redwood trees, naptime. Grilling season, campfire, the view from the top. Swimming, french fries, the sound the peepers make in the spring.

The mystery.

It’s what’s not known, I think, that makes the whole shebang worth the suffering, worth the pain. It’s all the magic that dwells in the unknown, in the not knowing, in the never, ever being able to know.

The other day I sat vigil for a while with a woman who was dying at the hospital in Rutland. This is a hospice thing; when someone is without family we try to line up people in shifts to sit with them so that they don’t die alone. It’s nice. No one should die alone in a hospital.

I had not met this woman previously and when I went to be with her she was already unconscious and her breathing was a bit labored. I try to imagine, when I enter a situation like this, what the person was like when they were not in a hospital dying, when they were young. I try to figure out who they were, what they loved, how they spent their days. I chat with them, ask them questions, sing to them and I usually rub their hands and feet. It seems that no matter what state we’re in we all love a good hand massage.

When I pulled back the covers to rub her feet I saw that she had perfectly painted toenails, bright pink. And I thought … well, girl, you’re ready for whatever party awaits on the other side, well done. And though she was deep in the mysterious well of neither here nor there, her breathing changed just enough to tell me that she was enjoying my hands on her feet. A simple act, really, moving a person out of this world and into the next, with a bit of love, a bit of shared grace. It’s a two-way street, though, birthing the dying into their next realm; the gifts I receive are treasure, too.

When I was done I covered her pink toes back up, greeted the person who came to spend the next two hours with her, then walked out into the rainy day, grateful to be the very most simplest thing of all: alive, still.





The Scribe

I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I’ve been keeping a kind of eager eye on the approaching hurricane season situation. For some reason it has a specific start date: June 1, but I’ve noticed a couple of news reports recently suggesting that it’s already underway. Raymond Lo’s predictions of last fall in regards to water (and fire) disasters seem to be coming to pass, though it’s also fairly obvious that we can count on extreme natural disasters to be part of our lives now. It does not look like we are going back to a time when there were a few hurricanes each season that were of average intensity. Mozambique recently suffered it’s second cyclone, barely a month after the first. India is currently being hit by a powerful cyclone. A recent tropical disturbance near Florida appears to be evidence that the hurricane season is cranking up. Here in Vermont it’s been raining for what feels like forever. I’ve never seen Lake Champlain as high as it is now; there is no land where the Charlotte Beach once was.

Here it comes again.

Here it comes again.

And the flooding … Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin. It seems we are a very wet, eroding, landsliding world this year. JT isn’t the only one who’s seen fire and rain. Welcome to the apocalypse, my friends.

I’m always a little hesitant to talk in those terms for fear that someone might take my pastor role as some kind of privilege that gives me insight into God’s plans. It might, but I’m certainly not going to use it to predict the weather. Mostly I think I’m one of those people more willing to point out that we’ve been fucking with our world for a really long time and now and payback seems to be the order of the day. I worked for the Sierra Club in the late 80s and things were going to hell back then. In the thirty years since, not much has improved, from an environmental standpoint. Call my sister and ask her if you don’t believe me; she’s a scientist who has worked in Antarctica many times over the past 10 years; she’s seen firsthand that our planet is melting.

What to do, what to do? I can think of a better way to spend the billion bucks that were raised to rebuild a church that burned recently, but no one’s asking me. Indeed, no one seems to be doing much of anything save separating their trash, which I suspect is all eventually reunited in a giant pile created by the garbageman who laughs at our foolish charade every time he hauls the crap away. If you stop and think for a moment of all the things you do that are kind of sucky for the world we live in you’ll probably feel so ashamed that you will have to back to checking Instagram and drinking a beer. It’s so … much … work to change habits, to cut back, to stop doing stupid things, to care about something as big as all of nature.

The reason I’m feeling a little giddy about hurricane season is because I am packed and ready, toothbrush and passport by the door, to head out with my camera and notebook as a volunteer for disaster responders, Heart to Heart, International. As a logistics member of the team I’ll have to do things like scout for food and pick people up at the airport, but as a communications person I’ll get to take pictures and record stories. “Even an apocalypse needs chroniclers,” as my friend Tim Kreider said in this terrific essay. Read all of his stuff, by the way, if you haven’t already. He’s that great combination of smart/funny I always talk about and love so much. His books, We Learn Nothing and I Wrote This Because I Love You are hilarious, but they make you think, too. They make you think about important things like life and death and love and loss.

Even an apocalypse needs chroniclers, and so I’ve appointed myself to the position and am therefore awaiting hurricane season with a sharpened pencil and a packed satchel. I’m tired of it, too, the destruction, the suffering, the loss. I don’t know if I can do anything about it; I don’t know that hurricanes and typhoons are stoppable anymore. So instead I’m going to show all of you what happened and I’m going to do it with integrity. When I go I’m going to sit with the people there and listen to them tell the story of what happened and then I’m going to share it with you in the hopes that the molecules of your heart shift a little. Because I think that’s where it starts.

So if you see me after the first major one hits in the next couple of months and I look a little psyched, don’t be alarmed. Pestilence, War, Famine and Death are having their day, that’s for sure—we’ve got it all here on Ye Olden Planet Earth. Put me down as the scribe, though, there’s still plenty of work to do.

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Toast

A couple of years ago I was in a period when I was living through some fairly difficult days. My heart was stressed and my mind was not at ease much of the time. During that time I developed an intolerance to anything with gluten in it. I also had headaches that were so profound that I thought I had a giant tumor in my brain. And I am not a headache person. I’m not a person who gets sick much, either. At one point I had Lyme Disease, and though that was obviously a result of the tick I found embedded in my shoulder one spring day, I became incredibly sick, the most sick I had ever been.

It’s only now, with the gift of time and clear vision that I have been able to link the challenges of the circumstances and the stress in my life to the illness that befell me then. I was in a relationship that was unhealthy—a situation that left me feeling that I was in perpetual fight or flight mode. I was a little lost vocationally and my sons had flown the coop for college in the west. There was very little happening during that time that was joyful or even satisfying.

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A friend of mine who is a Reiki Master and teacher recently suggested that I watch the documentary called Heal. It was the second time in about a week that someone mentioned the film, which is always a sign to me, and so I did. From it I gleaned a very simple and profound understanding: if our thoughts and emotions can make us sick then they can also make us well. And so I decided to do a kind of experiment.

I decided that I was going to work to undo the gluten intolerance that had brought to my life a kind of low-level misery. Obviously there are far larger issues we contend with in this life, but I am a toast girl. I am a pasta girl. I like having a chunk of good french bread, butter and jam with my coffee in the morning. I live in Vermont and bread and butter and jam are all made by people I know and they taste sublime. I love a bowl of steamed mussels with lots of bread to sop up all the juices. Bread, bread, bread has always been my life and when it started to make me sick I was pretty angry. Which helped a lot, of course.

I won’t describe to you what happened to my body when I ate something with gluten because you’ve probably had digestive issues at some point, so you know. It was ugly and smelly and painful.

Here is what happened:

I started a habit. I start my days with Reiki (I have Reiki II attunement), meditation and visualization. Also, most days I eat or drink yogurt before I drink coffee or tea. Yogurt first. All of this was my idea, no one prescribed it. And believe me when I tell you … it is not easy. Learning to meditate feels like working on the flabbiest muscle in your body. I could not believe how weak my mind is … traveling hither and yon all the time. It is hard work to reel my thoughts in and keep them focused on one single thing: the healing of a very specific unwellness.

I visualize beautiful things: a garden of flowers and vines emanating from my gut and swirling around my limbs and up around my head. I created a small mantra: this body is a body of peace, this body is a body of love, and I repeat it over and over. I imagine my community of gut cells living happily and healthily. I know this all sounds a little woo-woo, but I have good news: it’s working.

It. Is. Working.

I say working because I’m fairly certain this will be an on-going thing. I feel cured, if you will; I can eat all the things I haven’t been able to eat for the past few years with none of the effects of the gluten-intolerant condition. I had homemade mac & cheese the other night, I have had birthday cake and popovers (two one evening), the most amazing cruller of my life in Kittery, Maine last week. Bread and I are reunited and it feels so good.

Imagine that. The mind that can make us sick can make us well.

Taking some kind of pharmaceutical antidote would be much easier than meditation, visualization and energy work, no doubt, which is probably why no one really talks about this stuff. Americans seem to love a diagnosis and a pill. But it’s always the harder work in that pays off in life. And this healing choice, unlike every medication known to humankind, has positive side effects: I feel peaceful, more grounded. I don’t limit these practices to the morning; sometimes I meditate when I’m walking Daisy. Sometimes I do the visualization when I’m driving. Sometimes I sit still after a meal, if I’ve had pasta or bread, and give myself Reiki. In other words, my choices to make myself well and to stay well are woven into my days. I will tell you that it’s a good way to live. Things fall away, I get less upset about challenging personality conflicts or unresolved questions. I can eat an english muffin for breakfast again and I am more tuned-in to the nuances of the world around me. I am noticing more instances of synchronicity; my head and heart are clearer.

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Shortly into this process I visited with my friend, Raina, who happened to be reading The Mind-Gut Connection, another sign and a terrific book. Do all diseases begin in the gut? I’m beginning to understand this reality. Did I become sick because I wasn’t trusting my gut, because I had stopped paying attention to the gut reactions I was having to things in my life back then? I think this was part of the story.

Now I know. I won’t linger in situations that are not life-affirming. I won’t allow myself to believe that someone else holds the key to my well-being. Medical degree from Harvard or not, it’s clear to me just how much we intuitively can know about our own bodies and minds. I now know the power of my very own thoughts and the array of choices I have, all the time. I am humbled, quite frankly, by the reality of what us humans are and I will never sell myself short again. The bodies we have, our hearts, minds are infinitely magical, infinitely capable and we limit ourselves by lack of trust, lack of faith, lack of effort. It has been great to be able to eat toast again, to not have to ask the annoying gluten-free question at every restaurant, to not be the eater with the issue at the dinner table. It has been miraculous to learn, to have taught myself how to rewrite the sickness script.

What’s the upside? It’s free; the downside: it’s hard work. The upside: my body is healing; the downside: it takes patience. The upside: I feel powerful knowing I can take charge of my own wellness, the downside: I have run out of them here, I can only think of about two. The upsides, I know, will be life-long and infinite.

Charlie

I take this story out and dust it off every few years and today it’s particularly poignant because I learned on Tuesday that Charlie has died.

It goes like this:

When Sam and Nate were young we lived a back-and-forth life between northern and southern Vermont. On most Monday mornings we drove from Charlotte to Pawlet, where they were in school. After much experimentation in regards to which spot on 22A had the best egg sandwiches, we settled on the Addison Four Corners Store and stopped there each week.

Pretty much every general store in Vermont has its crew of guys who gather there in the mornings to drink coffee and figure everything out. That’s how you can tell if it’s a legitimate general store — by the group of gentlemen standing in the corner, many of them on a break after early morning milking and barn chores.

Usually I don’t dare attempt to penetrate this particular version of Guy World, though I have made a small business out of that in my lifetime, starting in college when I preferred being a “little sister” at a fraternity to joining a sorority, into my 40s when I became a volunteer firefighter and right up to today: women in the clergy are still seen as outsiders.

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However. One of the gentleman in the Circle of the Brotherhood of Morning Coffee broke ranks at some point and came over to say hello to me and the boys. He said he had noticed us there on Monday mornings and wondered where we were headed. So I told him, then he told me a bit about himself. That’s how we came to be friends, Charlie and I. Over the next few years of Monday commuting we shared stories, caught up with each other, came to know something about each other’s lives. One year at Christmas time he gave the boys each a wooden ornament he had carved, telling us that that was his hobby: making things out of wood.

Sam got a Santa head (and I’m sorry to say I don’t remember what Nate got) that became a kind of talisman for him. He carried it in his winter coat pocket then transferred it to his backpack pocket in warmer weather and that thing went with him everywhere.

Charlie lived in a white house right on Route 22A and sometimes when we passed by he was out working in his gardens. That was the other thing Charlie loved to do: grow things. One time we stopped to say hi and he invited us to see his wood shop. It was then we got a sense of just how much he loved woodworking. His shop was filled with all kinds of projects, hundreds of ornaments and small toys, most of which he gave away to friends and family.

The story goes that Sam had a wee bit of trouble passing his driver’s test (almost eight years ago now), and by the third try his dad and I were getting a little nervous, so we both went to the DMV in Rutland that day to lend our support. He finally passed the test and when he got back to where we were waiting Sam put his hand in his pocket and pulled out Charlie’s Santa and said, “It was because I had this.”

Sam is a junior in college now and last week he sent me a photo of the Santa in his hand. Every year he puts it in a pocket in whatever ski jacket he’s wearing that season. I’ll bet he’s had it now for fourteen years.

We stopped doing our 22A runs many years ago and so I lost touch with our morning coffee friend. I noticed in recent times that Charlie’s gardens had fallen into disarray, and so it came as no surprise when the gentleman who owns the Addison Four Corners Store told me on Tuesday that Charlie had died.

It’s funny, you know, the spaces we leave when we go from here. And the traces, too. Charlie’s not going to take up space at the store in the morning anymore, but Sam has the Santa that Charlie made with his loving hands and maybe eventually he’ll give it to one of his kids. And tell him or her the story of those early Monday mornings, of the egg sandwiches and cider donuts and the three attempts at getting his driver’s license and the woodshop and the gardens and our friend, Charlie, who one day came over to say hello.

Billsville

Ellie and I went to a little show last night. Doug Hacker and his lovely wife, Caroline, their son and dog open their home in Manchester to musicians and music lovers in a terrific enterprise called Billsville House Concerts. Doug has his finger on the pulse of what’s fresh and worthwhile, musically — musicians who are maybe just below the radar, musicians who are moving through the area, musicians who might want a break from the normal routine of larger venues or playing in noisy nightclubs and bars. So he invites an artist or band, sells tickets and everyone comes with food to share and things to drink and he throws a good, old fashioned house concert. Totally old school and truth be told, what I’d like to see happen one day in the world of “religion.” I know it was a very, very sad day when Notre Dame burned, in terms of architecture and history, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking … it’s about time those crusty old institutions went up in flames.

The other great thing about Billsville shows is that all of the proceeds go to the musicians. Doug and Caroline don’t take a penny. How’s that for doing something truly great for this weary world? Naturally, I ran into a bunch of people I know there and got to catch up with them, which is not hard to do when you’re in someone’s living room. I don’t drink and so going to the kinds of places where live music usually happens is a drag for me. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. Why is it that the sharing of music came to mostly take place in drinking establishments? Dark, stinky bars where everyone is talking and getting drunk. Jesus, if I had to preach in places like that I’d quit my job. Musicians work hard at what they do, they have something important to say (most of the time) and they deserve our clear-headed attention.

The great Glaspy.

The great Glaspy.

I think this is why Billsville and places like it are so appealing, to performers and to listeners.

The music last night was terrific: Margaret Glaspy is super cute with a tremendous voice and charming presence. I had seen her when she opened at Billsville for Rayland Baxter a few years ago, but it was just a few songs then. It was nice to see her with her own full show.

I’m always curious to see what a musician’s banter will be like, in-between songs. It tells you if they’re clever, smart, funny, shy, tired. If you go to more than one show and they tell the same stories over again you know they need a freshening-up. It’s one of the things I love the most about the band called Darlingside. Those boys are really funny and quick. They’re quick with the intelligent funny, which is the very best. One of the funniest musicians I ever saw was Cheryl Wheeler, at Caffe Lena many years ago. I have no idea what was said or sung, but I do recall laughing until I cried; she was hilarious.

There was a lovely moment during the show when everyone started kind of humming/singing along. It happened spontaneously, which I loved because it meant that everyone was sitting there wanting very much to sing, too, and so when the opportunity came … we sang. This is one of the things I love the most about church, the intermingling of voices in song and prayer. I think that it’s very important that we join together that way. Get out of our own thoughts, get out of our own skin for a little bit of time and become part of something larger. There is something that feels so good about not just being sung-to, but singing all-together.

The shows at Billsville are not expensive at all. And it’s a totally uncomplicated process: Doug sends out an email before the show with their address and a plea to not block the neighbors’ driveways. He greets you at the door with his phone, no ticket necessary, no wasting of any paper. “It was nice to see your name on the list,” he said to me when I arrived. “It’s nice to be back,” I told him. And then it was into the kitchen to see Julie and have a cookie and catch up on stories of our kids and then to our seats with a hello and a hug to the sound man, Will. An hour or so of great music, sitting behind Troy and his kids and Olivia and Bo and Jake and Erin, who are getting married in June. A ride home under a starry, starry sky with me lovely friend Ellie. T’was a charmer of a springtime eve. You should go to Billsville sometime.