Thursday, June 30, 2011

a mammoth day

With mere days left before the rhythm of my life changes dramatically, several days ago Ken and I revived an idea that we'd considered over a year ago. With the acquisition of a golden access pass, Ken (and at times, his companion(s)) gets free or discounted admission to national parks and their associated attractions. We contemplated visiting a different national park within a 100-mile radius of where we live once a month. There are about ten that fit that description, and we felt in good position to begin to check them off our list. That is, until the incredibly uncomfortable heat and humidity of last summer set in. The idea of being out in nearly 100-degree heat, with accompanying humidity, put a distinct damper on our plans.

We looked at our collective schedules and chose yesterday to head of to Mammoth Cave National Park, less than two hours from home in Mammoth Cave, KY. We had a gorgeous day for our outing, with temperatures hitting their peak in the low 80's, and zero humidity. The skies were blue and the sun bright and beckoning. Once in the park we paused to let rather large wild turkeys cross the road (no jokes, please), and shortly thereafter spotted a doe with her twin fawns. This picture is of one of them (my error on spotting the deer was in ogling this tame trio instead of grabbing my camera immediately--thus limiting my photo opps to this single shot).

Mammoth Cave NP is a HUGE park, with cave tours as the highlight but far from the only activity. We have learned that many such parks aren't done justice by a single day's visit, so we knew better than to attempt to cram in too much. We settled, instead, on a single cave tour with the highlight of stalactites and stalagmites toward the end.

Known as the New Entrance (blasted out in 1921), it takes about two hours to wind down labyrinthine stair steps through the living part of this section of the cave, known as the sinkhole. It is referred to as living because of the continuing presence of water. These next pictures are in the sinkhole--looking up, over and down (click to enlarge for a closer look).

Upon inquiry we learned that it took three years to install the stairs (which at times take you through rather narrow and contorting spaces) that take you to an area 250 feet below ground known as Grand Central Station: so called because of its relative size to the sinkhole through which you've just ventured. I opted not to take a picture there, since the light from my flash would not illuminate its size, nor was there an adequate place to try a time-lapsed exposure.  Generally speaking it was about the size of a basketball court, with a lower ceiling and irregular, sloping floors punctuated by chunks of rock. Grand Central is considered dormant: a constant temperature (54 degrees), no humidity and no water.

From Grand Central we walked--and sometimes climbed--through more dormant portions of the cave until we reached the most impressive section known as the drapery room, full of stalactites and some stalagmites. The remaining walk from that area to the exit also contained some stunning formations where I was able to use the handrail to steady my camera for a longer exposure and less washed out color. Then again, we are talking about shale and lime rock, not known for their splashy contribution to the world of geology.

Let's not forget our intrepid adventurers!
After some time in the bookstore we headed to the nearest Dairy Queen (thanks to Linda, our informative travel information concierge), then wended our way south through beautiful Kentucky farmland toward home. It was a wonderful day full of God's splendor, highly recommended to one and all.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

beyond warts

This past Wednesday Ken and I lived the refrain from one of Toby Keith's songs: "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was." Early that morning we got up at 2:00 a.m. to drive to Rockwell, North Carolina to attend the funeral of Ken's aunt. It's a seven hour drive, and with a time zone to cross putting the pedal to the metal was imperative. We arrived as the casket was being taken from the hearse and carried into the church. Phew! Three hours later we were back in the car, heading home. It was a long day.

Travel like this is sort of an out-of-body experience. Were we really there?  Did our heads leave and return to the same pillows on that day and yet give us the gift of those few hours with family far away?

In the natural course of things on the way home we talked some about the family we had just seen. Ken made calls to his dad and sister to "report in," and conversation around the nature of those conversations (or lack thereof) fueled further conversation. I shared with Ken a recent conclusion I had reached after reflecting on the stories and details of families with whom I am acquainted. No matter what "norm" our culture/society tries to paint of what a family looks like, few bear a resemblance to that projected norm.

Whether the family portrait reflects hues of divorce, addiction, triplets, estrangement, illness, adoption, no children, eight children, disability, premature death, infidelity, abuse, gifted children, homosexuality, celebrity, poverty, trophy wives, wealth, fill in the blank--it seems that no family is spared a reality skewed from the cultural ideal (I am not attaching value to any of these descriptors, only naming deviations from the cultural script). Some of us are unphased by this, some adapt, others learn to cope reasonably well, and still others carry scars that impair them for life.

Reflecting on that notion further this morning I heard in my mind a scene from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. I was 11 when I saw it, and was captivated by it. I bought the record of the movie and listened to it endlessly, essentially memorizing the whole thing. The scene to which I refer is the concluding portion of the story, whereupon receiving news of the deaths of Paris, Romeo and Juliet the prince ferets out what led to their demise. To the heads of the Capulet and Montague families he says,
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.
In the film, astride his horse, the prince repeats those final three words, shouting them at the top of his voice, "all are punished!"  The words reverberate among the cobbled floor of the town square and the walls of buildings surrounding it.

It is that declaration of punishment that echoes in my mind now, not stemming from hate and power-wrangling as in the case of Shakespeare's story, but as a result of the many ways our lives become fractured and damaged. It causes me to wonder why, when we have the means to heal and recover from damaging story lines, and when the desire for wholeness generally permeates our being, we shrink from opportunities that lead to that wholeness. Why is it so hard to be honest and vulnerable, to risk sharing our hurts and bridging gaps when instead hateful words are hurled, or taunting putdowns and meanness carry the day? I know the clinical answers, but that's not good enough. I believe we all have the capacity to put aside whatever false benefit we believe power holds for us, to be seared by the healing power that comes from love, or at the least, the willingness to respect another person.  It boggles my mind that the world is full of so much dysfunction when it doesn't have to be, and worse, that human beings choose dysfunction over health.  The result is that we all are punished.

I know it can be wearying to put on our best face, to lay bare the rawness of our being in an effort to overlook the toxic fruit that emanates from the wounds of others. I am convinced, however, that without efforts to show love in return, to mete out kindness and compassion as balms for those wounds, we will spend our lives in the shadow of punishment.  That's unacceptable to me. I hope it is unacceptable to you as well.

Friday, June 24, 2011

friday five: faith and culture

At RevGals Terri and the church she serves are involved in a week-long celebration of ecumenism across faiths. With that celebration as a jumping off point, she invites us to consider:

1. Have you ever had an experience of a religion other than your own? And, if so, what was it like for you to experience something different? If you haven't, what religion might you like to study, experience, and learn more about?
I grew up in a community with a large Jewish population, so I counted among my friends, neighbors and classmates many Jews. This was my norm. I didn't think twice about fellow students missing school days for high holy days, and talk of Pesach and Seders (among other holidays and events) was as common as conversations about Christian holidays and traditions. I attended several Seders, and though the first one was a new experience for me, it never occurred to me to consider it as something "different." In fact, for a period of time after that matzoh was on our grocery list.
2. Have you ever studied, traveled, or explored other cultures? What and where, and when?
I was very fortunate to be part of a leadership team on a trip to Israel and Egypt in 1997. One of the things that impressed me most was the coexistence of cultures in Jerusalem that looked nothing like the conflict depicted via the media in the United States. I am so grateful for that first hand look. An impression was also made by our tour guide, a Jew, and our bus driver, a Palestinian. They ate together at most of our meals along our trip, and talked and joked together as we journeyed. 
The camaraderie of these men stood in contrast to the reality of travel in Egypt, where Cairo street corners were populated by machine-gun-bearing soldiers, and our tour bus had its own undercover, armed guard. (The presence of the military was also evident in Israel, but they somehow "blended in."  I guess that should be a little disturbing.)
Another impression was architectural. I found Israel to be uninspired, architecturally: homes were built of concrete and functional in design. Beauty seemed irrelevant. Egypt, on the other hand, and mosques in particular, were stunningly beautiful. With the Islamic prohibition on depicting anything live, geometric figures were lively, colorful, and dynamic.

3. Any stories you wish to share about a person (author, teacher, etc), or a friend or colleague, from another culture or religion, who has impacted you in some capacity?
My above answers hint at this. I don't think of individuals as having impact on me as much as being part of what has informed and shaped me over time. I was fortunate to grow up in a family and religious tradition (Quaker) that honors and values diversity. My own reality included learning from everyone, in whatever way their life differed from mine. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that among my family my older brother is agnostic, his wife Jewish, my younger brother Buddhist, his wife a Buddhist converted from Roman Catholicism, and me, the Episcopal priest who tries to embody being a Quakopalian. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

a daughter tips her hat

For the record? I don't have the greatest father in the world. Most of the people who know my Dad would be shocked to hear me say that. He has one of the biggest fan clubs imaginable, and if you met him you would understand why. I understand why. He's very personable, interested in people, listens, is compassionate and empathetic, kind and generous. He can laugh at himself and express the depths of his soul in eloquent words. He's smart and creative and inquisitive, and he's not afraid of pushing the envelope.

But Dad has deep wounds that, although he's worked to understand them, he hasn't been willing to risk their healing. Those wounds get in the way of intimacy and connection at the deep levels where it matters. Or at least they did while I was growing up and becoming an adult.

In early adulthood I tried to build a new relationship with my father as two adults. Again and again he disappointed me, until one day I realized that I  had to change my expectations. I didn't lower my expectations to avoid disappointment. Instead I got to know the man who was my father, and came to understand who he was and what had shaped the person he had become and was becoming. That change on my part made all the difference in the world toward opening a door to relationship with him.

A new perspective also made it possible to see him as others did. When I was in seminary he came down to New Haven to take me and my roommates out to dinner. One of my roommates was a med student (Dad is a doctor), and as he engaged her in conversation over dinner I got a glimpse of the professional so respected among his peers, and other medical professionals with whom he worked. It was a rare moment of objective appraisal that I cherish.

Dad had polio as a child, and in his elder years the consequences of that illness have contributed to a significant physical fragility.  He cannot walk on his own, and even the use of a walker puts such a strain on his upper body that the walker is only useful for short distances. That doesn't stop him from trying to cover greater distances, to his peril. On my recent visit home I arrived at his house in the midst of one of those less successful attempts at ambulation. Unable to support his weight, he had fallen. But he raised himself to his knees and, using the walker for support, shuffled his way to the front door to let me in. We then struggled to help him get upright again so that he could return to his spot on the couch in the living room. It took multiple efforts and resilient determination on the part of my father, but we managed to get him where he needed to be.

In the face of this lifestyle Dad is bored, but uncomplaining. Caught vulnerable on his knees, he was not embarrassed or self-conscious. He sees his current physical state as a natural--if unfortunate--evolution. He rolls with the punch.

I didn't get the father I wanted, but as his daughter I have access to a man that I admire greatly in many, many ways, and for that I am thankfuul. On this day of honoring Dads I honor the man who is my Dad, and I am glad to do so.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

untangling the knots

Next week will mark the sixteenth anniversary of my ordination as priest. That's not a long time, but it's a significant length of time to have walked that path. As I stand at the present fork in the road of my life I haven't really said much about why I choosing the prong of that fork that doesn't have anything to do with priestly ministry. The short answer is that it hasn't worked out. The long answer is considerably more complex and nuanced.

Here's a window into that complexity that might help understand where I am.

It's not uncommon to hear that members of any church think that pastors or preachers don't do anything between Sundays. I'm not going to waste my time dignifying that myopic cluelessness, but it does share similar qualities with a persistent experience of mine as a parish priest. When parishioners express their appreciation for me as a priest that appreciation has fallen into a singular category: preaching. Don't get me wrong, to be praised in the area of preaching is not a small thing. I suspect there are any number of clergy out there who are starved for praise in that department. But here's the rub. It's essentially the ONLY area of my ministry that has received appreciation.

Why is this an issue? For reasons that escape me it is the only one that members of congregations I have served seem to notice. Let's do the math. Fifteen minutes out of a sixty-hour week (the average norm for clergy) is .625%.  Does it make sense that it frustrates me that 99.375% of my effort goes under-acknowledged and unappreciated?

My coach helped me understand this dynamic in this way: in parish work my strengths and abilities were focused around communicating opportunity, illuminating possibilities, sharing transforming realities, honoring diversity, assuring the love and available presence of God in times of distress, listening, expressing gratitude for the efforts of volunteers, encouraging doubters, speaking truth, mediating grace, loving when I didn't like, valuing the smallest contribution, telling stories of hope, and more. The collective behavior of the people I served suggested that they paid attention to what was available to them and chose not to participate in the kingdom being proclaimed.

In visual terms I was about growth (picture vertical, reaching upward), the community was about business as usual (picture a flat, horizontal line). See that intersection? No wonder there was no affirmation, appreciation or recognition. No wonder I felt empty and starved. No wonder it's time to use what God has given me in a place where music can be made.

Does this mean that the world of parish ministry is empty and void of fulfillment? No. What it means is that my experience of serving in it has left me depleted.

For the record: there are individuals from  my congregations who have told me about transformation resulting from sermons, or bible studies, or one-on-one moments. I do have letters from parishioners who thanked me for my pastoral care, for being authentic and vulnerable, for helping them believe and hold on to hope when the world around them suggested otherwise. I have been chosen to lead retreats because it was evident that there was light in my soul, and because it was equally evident that I was eager to share that light. It has not all been a disappointment, and it does matter that 1% of my time could touch so many hearts and lives and make a difference in them (including members of the Bush family!).

Coming to understand that it is best, and right for me to take another path right now does not mean I have answers, only clarity where there was once a great deal of fog. It is my prayer that revelation will continue to unfold, that way will open, and that the moment of dancing in the light is not too far in the future.

Friday, June 17, 2011

friday five: stairway of surprise

At RevGals Jan is inspired by "a book entitled Stairway of Surprise: Six Steps to a Creative Life by Michael Lipson. His premise is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I shall mount to paradise by the stairway of surprise." Lipson's book is about practicing or developing six inner functions--thinking, doing, feeling, loving, opening, and thanking.

So these categories of attention are a jumping off point for today's Friday Five:

Pick five of the six actions and write about how you are practicing them today or recently. For a bonus, write about the sixth one you originally didn't choose!"

What or how are you...

1. thinking?
I am thinking about so many things! Old work, new possibilities, politics, relationships, working up the energy to do a thorough cleaning of our dog-ruined carpets... Some thoughts emerge of their own accord and some are thrust upon me. Poke me at any given time and you'll find something different on my mind. In June 2011, that's the way it is!

2. doing?
Newly unemployed I am focused on looking for work. So much to say about that, so little energy to say it (at least this morning). Maybe tomorrow this weekend I'll expand on this. I've got the time!

3. feeling?
I'm in that place of coexisting contrasts: grieving what is lost (more than a job), and anticipating with excitement (if not a little anxiety) what lies ahead. I'm not wallowing in the former, but I am trying to honor its truth when it makes itself known. The latter is pretty much a "hot damn!" that comes with some rolling up of the sleeves.

4. loving?
This is my bonus "sixth." Some love is easy. The less easy is the uncomfortable part. Let's just say that there are some people in my life whom I love and whose behavior is hurtful. I'm trying to love my way through the hurt and make good, grounded decisions about how best to navigate the relational stresses. I strive to be honest about the hurt while acknowledging that the complexity of other lives and hearts skew the equation in ways that are difficult to anticipate. Another reminder that I continue to be a work in progress.

5. opening?
This is another category that, to do it justice, deserves a full response. Since I lack the time for that this morning I will simply say that I am opening possibilities.

6. thanking?
I just enjoyed the gift of almost two weeks back on "home turf" in Connecticut, land of my birth as well as of steady habits (CT folks will understand).  My time there with family, driving familiar roads and visiting favorite places (not to mention enjoying amazing June weather) was restoring as much as it was a respite after some difficult months. I am deeply grateful for everything that was part of that time away: reconnection, new connections and letting go. Being in the moment of each moment of that time was an expression of gratitude.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

between chapters

It was inevitable. The grief, I mean. When I learned that I would be losing my job I was upset, angry, sad, jolted...  you name it. I had to process what I knew and what I would come to know and make my peace with it. I saw this transition as an opportunity for my benefit and growth. All well and good. The last day came and I turned in my keys and took home the last of my belongings: vestments, prayer book, stoles. The door closed behind me.

The following day I worked at cleaning the house and preparing for my mother's arrival, packing my own things and making arrangements for my trip to New England to see my family. I got in the car the following day and away we went.

Now, with that envelope of peace and comfort and familiarity and love and support back in another time zone, I face my life where I live my life.

Saturday night I didn't need to review the lessons or the logistics for the morning to come. Sunday morning it didn't matter what time I got up or what I did once my coffee cup was empty. I wasn't on vacation, I was in a new world.

I directed my attention to the jumble of chaos that my office contained. Sort, pitch, relocate, repeat. You wouldn't know it to stick your head in to my office, but it weighs considerably less than when I began. The ironing board is down at least, and the piles that were on top of it have been dispatched to their necessary resting places. Time to begin again.

And then I took a break, sat in the recliner and noticed the sun filtering through the windows. Sunday sun. And I wept. The grief is trickling, but it stings. The reality is that in spite of saying yes, in spite of praying, discerning, laboring, listening and yielding all these years, I am meant to be somewhere else. Perhaps one day I will make sense of the path that I followed. Perhaps one day I will see the opportunities and choices and experiences as divinely guided to bring me to a place of deeper joy and greater service. For now I grieve.

I do not regret the sacrifices to study. I do not regret the bumpy road that led to consecration. I do not regret the opportunity to meet and serve the number of lives that intersected with mine. I do not regret the tears or the joy of sacraments shared, lives welcomed or bid farewell. I do not regret any of it.

But I am sad. The loss is great and deep, and apparently necessary. I will welcome whatever comes next with gladness. I know that to be the truth because the bud of gladness is forming within my being, and it longs for light.

But today I am sad.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

a brief look back

A quick post this morning as I am heading off to the Berkshires to meet an old friend for lunch. She posted on facebook that it has been 16 years since we've seen each other. Unbelievable!

My buddy The Bug mentioned that she was unaware of the fire to which I referred in my last post. Oddly enough I'm not sure I ever blogged about it, which is strange. Briefly, nearly two years ago a fire broke out at my mother's retirement community. It was in the roof of the "natatorium," which is a stone's throw from Mom's apartment. 46 residents were not only evacuated that night, but displaced for eight months while the effected section of the complex was gutted and rebuilt. It was a rough time for all, though the staff here were amazing and supported the residents and took great care of them every step of the way of that nightmarish journey. Only one apartment suffered real damage from the fire, though all got water from the sprinklers. Every impacted apartment was emptied and put into storage. Anything wet that couldn't be dried (papers, for instance) was thrown away. Fortunately for Mom all essential papers are in filing cabinets and didn't get wet, so she suffered minimal loss. My particular job on this visit is to regroup and arrange a collection of photographs for the hallway. Seems I have a knack!

So it's high-ho, high-ho, to the Berkshires I will go for a delightful and nostalgic visit to that area of western Massachusetts. Have a grand day!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

pigeon watch

When Mom and I arrived at her place last Wednesday we discovered that pigeons had been regular visitors to the deck off the living room of her apartment. Let's just say that they left a multitude of calling cards. Very messy. One of the neighbors whose window gives them a magnificent view of Mom's deck mentioned that he thought some nest-building had also been going on. We decided to explore further and, sure enough, in the shadow of some folded chairs propped against the wall there was, indeed, a nest. See above! One pigeon hatchling and one egg waiting to hatch.

It's not every day that you have a front row seat to such an event, so I've been keeping a watchful eye through the deck door to cheer the second baby pigeon's arrival. But day by day, Mama roosted and the egg didn't hatch. We began to worry that the egg wouldn't hatch, and last night a lot of mournful cooing and the company of other pigeons perched on building rooftops piqued our curiosity. This morning the egg is outside of the nest, and Mama and Papa can't seem to decide what to do next. We're a tad worried about the baby, not that we're eager for a growing population of pigeons, but all God's creatures deserve a fair shake at a good start in life. So we watch, and wait.

In more important news my godfather, George, died the day we arrived, so I was not able to see him to say goodbye. The good news is that I am here for his funeral on Monday and time with the gathered family, and I am grateful for that. This is one of the ways that God is being good to me right now.

Halfway through my visit I have lunched with my nephew, had a visit with my dad, dinner and a movie (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary) with my older brother and his wife, and a good visit with my younger brother. The week ahead holds more opportunities with family, a "meet half way" with a friend, coffee and networking with the director of Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), and a handful of projects to help Mom restore her apartment to pre-fire glory. Furthermore, the weather has been spectacular and the rhododendron are still glorious. The time will pass more quickly than I would like.

Hoping that you all are well and holding the fort in my absence. Ciao!


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