The Edge of Winter

I was talking to someone the other day – a friend, maybe, or a colleague – about the whirlwind of headlines these last couple of weeks:

  • Executive orders to delegitimize trans, nonbinary and gender-variant identities;
    some kind of fiasco with one of the ongoing federal investigations;
  • the brutal assassination of a journalist in Saudi Arabia;
  • the xenophobic frenzy about a mass migration of Central American refugees a thousand miles from the US border;
  • the murder in a grocery store of two African-American shoppers by a white supremacist who was unable to get into a nearby Black church;
  • the mass shooting last Saturday of worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, where eleven people died;

…and some other thing I couldn’t remember.

It was wild, I said. If you’d been writing near-future speculative dystopian fantasy in 1998 and you tried to publish this week it would have been sent back as too implausible. You couldn’t have made this sh–tuff up.

The next morning I woke up and said, “The pipe bombs! I forgot about the pipe bombs!”

Because I’d forgotten about pipe bombs, mailed (and intercepted before receipt) to a dozen high-profile Democrats including two former presidents, like they were toilet paper at the grocery.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

By the time I post this, it will be obsolete. Something else will have happened; it seems like every day something else does, a firehose of catastrophe gushing faster than anyone can drink it in. Here in the middle of things, what do we do with it? What do we do with it?

I want to write a little bit about crisis and trauma here; about the human bodymind and how we are wired and plumbed to respond to thread. We are animals after all, made of MEAT! as the story goes, of sinew and bone and biochemical instinct as well as intellect. We are adaptable; this is both a strength and a liability in the long run. When we are too terrified, we freeze. When we are too comfortable, we relax. Somewhere in between, alert to threat but not overwhelmed by it, we are best capable of choosing and taking action.

So I do not want to minimize this week’s cultural trauma. One thing after the next after the next. The threat – to safety and sanity – is real for some of us (and therefore for all of us, if my liberation is bound up in yours.) So we cannot ignore or dismiss the effect of direct attacks on identified populations – by race, religion, gender, profession or political affiliation. To dismiss the individual dots is to obliterate the larger pattern. We cannot afford to be complacent.

In avoiding complacency, also, there is the risk of becoming panicked into inaction, overwhelmed by grief or burned up by fury with no vital outlet. I wonder about this and see it in the urgent messages not to forget about this atrocity, or that one, or the other one or the one from last week or last month or last year. “Never forget!” the signs proclaim – and yet we do; there is only so much anyone can remember at once time.

I am not sure I agree with the premise that we must all be at maximum outrage about everything all the time; in fact, I am very sure I do not agree with that.

The human system does not function very well under chronic stress. Among other things, our capacity to make decisions, especially considered ones, is impaired by high levels of stress hormones. Some times we just can. not. do. the. thing. (I’ve personally experienced this, the inability to make an otherwise decision when overwhelmed. Probably a lot of readers have as well.)

So I am mindful that – by chance or by design – America right now is turned up to 11 on anxiety and outrage, with a side order of helplessness and violence for many of us who are invested in building a kinder, fairer, sustainable way of being with one another. We are being goaded in the run up to an election whose processes we may or may not trust, by a political system in the hands of people who thrive on others’ pain and fear.

I am not going to tell anyone not to be afraid, or hurt, or angry. But strong emotion is strong power, and I am going to ask each of us to consider who is using our power, and to what end.

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Drive By Posting

There is a funny thing that happens when you are approaching a milestone achievement, something like graduation or your first real job. (Some people think this way about finding a partner, or moving out, or losing an arbitrary amount of weight, or whatever.)

Somehow you imagine that once you Do The Thing, all the messy part is going to be over with.

Those readers who are smiling know how this really works.

I had such plans for this summer, after graduation. There was going to be art! and gardening! and finally putting the house into some semblance of order! and FINISHING ALL THE PROJECTS!

You can imagine exactly how this played out.

And it is now September Again, the August humidity tattering on the first breath of cooler, drier autumn air; the sun still warm against the windows; the grass in the flowerbeds long gone to seed; the maples once again blushing at the first coy suggestion of fall to come. There will be apples soon, then pumpkin, then the cleaning of the garden, then frost on the windowpanes and studded tires on the car.

And some time after winter, it will be spring again, then summer, and the odds are that I will STILL have wall-to-wall piles of books and unfinished projects in every corner.

I am learning, slowly. I am learning that my need for spaciousness and silence runs counter to my partner’s need for busyness and order. He is uneasy when the days are not filled with doing; I yearn for those precious windows of opportunity to just be, to soak up the stillness and absorb any given moment of nothing in particular.

It is September Again.

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Hold My Hand

One of the things I have been doing, particularly since graduation and finishing my internship, is working per-diem as a hospital chaplain. “Per-diem” is by the day, as needed; what it means is that I have a job, working anything from one night a month to several nights a week, at the Big Hospital that is 57 miles, mostly interstate highway, from the ol’ Sand Hill where I live.

It’s a long drive, one that I have become well acquainted with over these last two years, over two units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Big Hospital, and two years of parish internship at a church in a town halfway between home and hospital. It is, as I am fond of saying, not a bad drive in the good weather… and not a good drive in the bad weather.

When you drive the same stretch of highway over and over, you get to know it in an intimate way: that particular overpass where the sun is right in your eyes at certain times of the day and year; the wide curve by the bog where the geese nest in the grass verges in the spring time; the patch of wildflowers that turn a road cut purple for a few short weeks; that one stretch of nondescript road, halfway between somewhere and somewhere else, where you inevitably remember whatever it was you forgot that you are going to need at your destination. (For me, this stretch is I-295 through Bowdoinham, ME. Sorry, Bowdoinham.)

Dead dog on the highway… Median cats are growling at me,
I turn my lights on brighter…. I’m counting through the night ride.

You notice the road kill: deer, turkeys, smaller creatures beyond identification. The skid marks. The bent guardrails. The deep rut marks in the grass verges. The occasional twisted piece of plastic or metal on the shoulder, surrounded by glittering shards of broken glass.

One more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
One more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

Some weeks ago, I was heading down to work and noticed the aftermath of an accident I’d heard about on the radio earlier in the day. Only the bent guardrail and the fresh ruts in the grass remained, mute testimony to the power of physics to transform a life – or to end one.

one more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
one more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

There are basically three things that will land a person in the emergency room, and we learned about them all in high school: biology, chemistry, and physics. I think about this a lot when I am on duty, and when I am on the road.

Physics is falling off of things, or onto things, or into them. Physics is also behind the pager shorthand for all the kinds of collisions: bike vs pedestrian, car vs bike, ATV vs tree, sled vs rock. It’s brutally succinct, this communication: agent vs object, along with some patient identifiers that are protected by privacy laws, but it gives us an idea about who’s coming to the door.

An aside: Please do come to the emergency room if you’re having a medical emergency, or if you think you might be having one. If you’re really not sure, go to Urgent Care if there’s one near you, and they can help you figure it out. If you come to the emergency room, and it turns out that you are not having an emergency, you will probably be asked to wait behind the people who are (or might be) having an emergency.

Part of my job includes reassuring folks that if they are waiting, it’s a good sign that they are less sick than the person who is being rushed through.

Part of my job includes waiting, with family and friends as well as patients, while they find out how bad their day just got.

Part of my job includes just being there when things are very bad indeed.

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Four years ago, I did not foresee the possibility that chaplaincy would turn out to be my vocation. I was pretty well convinced otherwise. The universe is full of surprises, not always pleasant ones, but this curve in the road has led to an unexpectedly good place for my ministry to unfold.

Sometimes I am asked, “What do chaplains do?”  and that is a surprisingly tough question to answer.  We do a little bit of a lot of things, and much of the value of a professionally trained chaplain is in the things we do not, or should not do: we don’t proselytize, or push our own religious views on others – that would be a violation of professional ethics.  We aren’t there to fix anything, or to present medical news, good or bad.   We are there to accompany folks through the process of being in the hospital, to listen compassionately and without judgment, and to help patients and their families figure out how their experience fits into the rest of their lives – which includes, but isn’t limited to, any religious or spiritual beliefs and practices a person has.

It’s a fuzzy edged job in a science-driven system.  We try.

darkness into darkness, all the carnage of my journey
makes it harder to be livin’
(he said) it’s a long road to be forgiven… 

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Lyrics are quoted from the Indigo Girls, “Chickenman”

* * * * *

Edited to add:

I am on call tonight. I posted this before I left home.

On the way down, I was the middle vehicle in a near-miss with a flock of turkeys. No accident happened. This time.  All is well, or at least well enough for now.

one more life for the taker…
chickenman, hold my hand….

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June Already

I went four months again without blogging. Oops.

These things happen. My purposeful reflection – and my writing time and my personal energy – have been tied up in a mix of transitional things: finishing my last semester of seminary, winding up my parish internship, picking up extra hours as a per-diem chaplain at my former CPE site…

About graduation. It is very strange not to be in seminary any more, especially as not much has changed, at least superficially. But I am now in possession of a very expensive piece of paper that proclaims me a “Master of Divinity.” I do not believe it for an instant; I have mastered nothing. I am a rank apprentice and will ever be. I refer to it as my certificate of professional cat-herding. That, at least, is plausible.

Or maybe “Master of Divinity” means simply that I can document basic proficiency in lingering on the edge of not having a blessed clue what is going to happen next, or what on earth I am doing there, or why any of this is happening, and being more or less okay with being nose-to-amorphous-ambiguity with the Great Mystery. That is, maybe, also plausible.

I am curious to find out what happens next.

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The suitcases are unpacked. One of them isn’t back in the basement yet, but they are unpacked.

I have washed three loads of laundry today. One of them is still in the dryer.

I put some of my “travel kitchen” stuff back in the real kitchen, since I do not plan to be cooking at the hostel any time soon.

The little black cat is still mad at me, but I imagine that as soon as the Other Human goes back to work tomorrow, she will affix herself to my person for as long as I let her. But this is my busy week, and I will be taking off again tomorrow to get back into the groove of church business.

It is very strange not to be going back to school in Chicago. I got home two days ago from the last academic class of my seminary degree. I owe one sermon, one discussion board reflection, and about ten pages worth of Biblical Interpretation paper to round out the semester; after that, all I have left to do is complete my internship and I will graduate in May.

It has been a long five years.

I have made so little time for life maintenance the last few weeks — even when I put a block of it on my calendar, the last half-year that allotted time has mostly been used to rest, exhausted, or catch up on schoolwork or church work or soul work or to barely smooth over the surface of the chaos. Some deeper order needs to happen.

I need to do some mending. I have things in my life that are worn thin and need to be attended to. That is both literal and metaphorical – the pants with one leg hemmed, the jacket where the seam is pulling out, the coat with the missing buttons.

But also, the dead plant on the windowsill that needs to go into the brush pile out behind the shed, the shoes that need to come in from the porch, the piles of books that need to find a home, some kind of order other than where they landed when last read.

And it will not happen, if I am exhausted, or sick, or stressed out, or overcommitted, or on deadline for something higher priority. And so it hasn’t. Fair enough.

One thing I am still learning, still trying to learn, is the art of making enough space for my self to exist, to breathe, to rest when the need of the world calls me. I know I am not alone in fearing, deep down, that I am too small and too vulnerable and too weak and too flawed to make any difference worth making.

Perhaps this is even true. But I want to remember that I, personally, am not charged with saving the whole of the world singlehandedly; indeed, I am not even solely responsible for saving any small piece of it singlehandedly nor even for completely saving any of it, ever. I am answerable only for doing that piece of the middle of the work which is before me, as much as I can do, as much as I can do it, knowing that it will be insufficient and incomplete — and so will each of the other pieces of the great work, as all of them have always been and will always be.

The great work, after all, is never finished. Like a mathematical limit, we push ever closer toward the beloved community, the kin-dom of God — knowing there is always a measurable gap and infinitely more work to do; it is the doing of the work, not the achieving of some finite end, that is our salvation….

Whatever that means.

I’m feeling unusually contemplative tonight, more so than I have been able to in a long time. Perhaps that means the circle has spiraled round and I am back where I started, only more so. This coming within sight of the end of seminary, it is an ending — but it is a beginning too; not a clear beginning, but the beginning of a beginning, maybe.

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2017: Don’t Let The Door Hit Ya…

It hardly seems worth the pixels to write a summary for a year when I’ve written one and a half blog posts, at all. But it’s been like that. So like that.

Since the non-cancer diagnosis in late October, I’ve been trying to keep up with thing after blessed thing, scraped thin and having limited success with keeping all the plates spinning and not crashing violently to the floor. I can honestly say that I’m glad I don’t have cancer (at least, as far as anyone knows) but at the same time, the watching and waiting and vague uncomfortable symptoms that are the new normal are… not resting well. I want answers, and good ones, but that’s not how this goes.

The play-by-play of several weeks of congregational internship work will not be recorded here in full; best gloss that over as hit after hit of emotionally intense work on top of more emotionally intense work. One of the public parts was the disappearance of one of our congregational committee leaders, who went missing and was presumed dead in late November. His body has not yet been found and is believed to have washed out to sea.

I was unsuccessful at my denominational credentialing interview and invited to return and re-interview at a later time. I am writing that in public because I am unwilling to feed the shame that lingers around unsuccessful interviews. I knew going in that I wasn’t as fully prepared as I wanted to be – the previous three months had taken their toll – and received some valuable feedback on areas where I can continue working. But it’s still a disappointment and a frustration that leaves a lot of things up in the air.

December has been a month of trying to patch together my ragged worn-out spirit and deliver on all the loose ends of things that I have pledged to do. I need to finish my coursework in order to graduate in May. I need to pack my suitcase for one last trip to Chicago, soon, to take the last class of my MDiv. And I need to find ways to take better care of my body and my soul – more art, more music, more rest. I have been sick a lot this year, between two months of respiratory illness in the late spring and my current nemesis, a bout of asthmatic bronchitis that’s flared up in the early bitter cold weather these last couple of weeks; never mind the mysterious and unpleasant autoimmune things going on under the surface.

This flesh is not a happy comfortable place to be right now. It is hard to be present and open to experience in this body. And I have not had the strength of spirit or the depth of soul to care much about the vast sorrows of the world lately – something I need to regain connection with in order to feed my call.

But first, rest.

And tomorrow, a new calendar, and resolutions, and an honest effort to bring to fruition some of the many things I have started.

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October again.

It does this every year, you know. October, I mean. Somehow without my turning the crank the summer goes from green to golden to a glorious flash of red and orange and then scatters on the wind, leaving the naked fingers of the maples pointing accusingly at the sky.

Every year.

I take solace in the turning of the seasons, that something is always going to come next; that if winter (they say) is coming, surely spring will follow. In the mean time, that’s a pot I don’t personally have to stir.

Red and gold maple leaf lying on green and brown grass.

I had imagined blogging more this summer and autumn, but life had other plans. I realized today that it has been five years since I discerned my call to ministry, four years since I started seminary, three years since I had a… difficult and unexpected detour. And here we are, at — not the end, but the beginning. Or at least the middle. It is, after all, all made of middle. And so instead of blogging I’ve been attending to all the other pieces of life: art and family, reading required books and preparing my credentialing packet for my MFC interview this winter, figuring out whether or not I have cancer, diving into the last year of my internship and the final classes to complete my MDiv.

One of these things is not like the other. Continue reading

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