We were done, done what we’d come to do. Finished hiking The Hundred Mile Wilderness over the past ten days. Now, just 3.2 miles back to Phil the Outfitter and our car. Between us and Phil’s place, Buck Hill.
All day we’d been joking about it — while some finished their adventures on the Appalachian Trail at the top of Katahdin or Springer Mountain, we were finishing on the other side of Buck Hill, all 1500 feet of it!
Barb agreed to stay with our heavy packs at the end of the Hundred Mile Wilderness Trail as Pat, Jen and I took off to hike the last few miles, grab the car and pick her up.
And so we took off excited and anxious for hot showers, clean clothes and a big lunch. Sad too, that our trek was about done. We were already waxing nostalgic about our misadventures on the trail. Finding it hard to believe the hike was now over when there were times during it we thought it might never finish.
So there we were, light, free, expectant, setting off with poles clicking behind us and no packs. No water or food either for who needed that – we were done! I set out as I am wont to do at the head of the pack striding out confidently to jokes about what a fine Boy Scout guide I was.
We conquered the “summit” of Buck Hill – a view of fog through a dense stand of trees, a wet, gray July day. Now just a mile and a half to the car, we started our descent. However, as we descended so did my energy. I watched my brisk walk turn to a slow walk, to a plodding stroll. Jen jumped ahead, “Let’s keep Peter going!” But as Pat and Jen shouted encouragement, I was going slower, slower, slower. 100 miles only to collapse out here at the end of the journey descending Buck Hill!
Jen turned, excited. “The BoBo Bar! Does anyone have the BoBo Bar?” Alas, the alleged BoBo Bar that Barb had encouraged us to take, we had left behind. As we’d taken off, I couldn’t imagine eating yet one more bar and now I’d kill a boar!
At last we came to a cross roads. We all recognized the sign post – we’d walked out here that first night ten days ago when we’d spent the night at Phil’s — but none of us could remember which way to turn. My energy continued to fall. Jen now hungry and tired herself. Pat weary and ready to be done. But which way to turn? Seven minutes from Phil’s and not a clue how to get there. At this point, so close to the end, tired, hungry, thirsty, cranky we realized how easily people die in the woods!
How you end a journey matters. We’ve all heard it said that ending well matters to make room for the possibility of all that will be. And while that is true, like you, I have known good endings and less than good endings like ours on Buck Hill.
Several years ago when I prepared to leave the church in Seattle where I’d served for 25 years, I realized I didn’t know how to end. I learned through that experience that making the possibility for a good ending means taking time to reflect, to look back – naming, remembering what we learned, what we did well together and recognizing and asking forgiveness of one another for what we did not. It means getting together the information, supplies and tools a new pastor will need as he gets to know your community. It means preparing a basket of welcome and planning some ways for a congregation get to know a new pastor. It means making a great open clearing by having the conversations and rituals to hold in grace what we have done together and all we have left incomplete.
It means taking the gift of time for all the feelings a goodbye brings. And it is time which I look forward to on the other side of our goodbye. To gift myself with a few months of my own Walden Pond time after I finish here in September – time to be, write, reflect on this amazing time that has changed and shaped me, affirmed in me the passion and call to this particular interim ministry work of transition and transformation.
Back at the crossroads on the Appalachian Trail last month, we took off in every direction but the right one. At last Phil called and told us which way to turn. As we stepped out of the woods, there was Barb in the distance whooping and cheering. She’d gotten a ride back to Phil’s ten minutes after we left her at the roadside. She’d had a hot shower, changed her clothes, got something to eat, and been sitting there reading Chicken Soup for the Soul. We traipsed out of the woods in line without lifting our heads, without a wave or response. I was spent, Jen defeated and Pat fed up.
Of all the stories I tell of our days on the trail, Buck Hill is the one I always tell first for it’s the one that left the most lasting impression and taught the most important lesson. Buck Hill is the ending that finds us all after we think that the journey is finished, the way complete and home just around the bend. Buck Hill means remembering in the joy and anticipation of rushing towards a joyful new beginning that we must not forget our need for the same food and sustenance that we’d depended on all along the way. Buck Hill bucked us all into the reminder that ending attentively and well makes all the difference!
Last Sunday was Jazz Sunday at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor. I’d heard it was a long and favorite tradition here but because like most everything else it was cancelled last summer, I’d never experienced it myself. And because I don’t know much about jazz, I called the band’s director, Barney Balch.
“Jazz is about communication,” Barney told me, “It’s about having a conversation between the instruments in the band.” And so on Sunday, Barney and band members Lefty, Micky, Bill and Herb helped show us what jazz has to teach us about conversation.
We listened to the sound of a conversation that works. We remembered the importance of looking at each other, listening to each other. We listened to the sound of a conversation “break-down” or “train-wreck.” We heard how a train-wreck can turn to a new conversation by stopping and inviting a “do-over.” But most of all we all learned something about the wonder and holiness, the beauty and grace, fun and play of a conversation that ebbs and flows into new discoveries – just like jazz.
This weekend the congregation here is invited to a sacred conversation with the search committee’s settled pastor candidate. They’ll have the chance to meet, worship and gather as a community to vote on calling them as the next settled pastor of the church. The search committee has heard the Spirit’s call and this Sunday the congregation gets the opportunity to listen to and affirm that call as well.
It is a strange and wondrous work of trust that we hold in the United Church of Christ to listen for the Spirit’s call as a community to guide and lead the church into a season of transition.
It is common practice for the interim pastor to be away on this important weekend to make space for the new conversation to take place. I am gifted to have the opportunity to visit a friend who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and expected that she did not have long to live. Here we are a year later and while she still has terminal cancer, she is feeling and doing well. It is a gift beyond words to be able to have the conversations with her we expected we might never get to have in person.
When I return next Monday, the conversation here is expected to turn to closing this interim time together and making room for the new. We’ll make time for conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye. We’ll have the opportunity to look back on this strange, challenging and holy time we’ve walked through together framed by the pandemic. We’ll remember what good work we did together to prepare for the new as well all we did not do and have left incomplete.
We concluded Jazz Sunday with a reminder that in days of change and transition we need more than ever to be carried by the reminder of what we hold in faith and trust – that we are carried by Grace. Grace in the waves beneath us, Grace in the wind around us, Grace leading us forth to surprising new life and the other side of the Sea where we discover again that the journey through was more than worth it. A discovery of a new relationship and and new season that was so worth getting to.
In these holy days of conversation, may we open wide our hearts to a deeper listening, welcoming, discerning and following of the Spirit’s will and way.
The past week has been a full one for many parishioners at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor.
We’ve had more people in the hospital, in rehab, taking falls, recovering from falls, facing surgery, recovering from surgery than we’ve had at any one time in the past 18 months.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Or perhaps pivoting to a new season is like getting up from a chair and moving across the room — a bit trickier sometimes than we thought.
The past week has brought pivoting to a host of other activities we haven’t seen the likes of in well over a year.
The first Children’s Ministry social event.
The first Rotary dinner.
First in-person worship services and planning for the first in-person memorial service at church next week.
First July 4th Parade in two years.
First time going to church in-person with my family . Seeing old friends for the first time.
And yes, the first hospital visit.
Last Tuesday at a dinner at a table of eight in a crowded room I looked around at the wonder and weirdness of it all. Still trying to remember how to do what I used to do all the time. Remember, that its not the same. It’s different. I’m different. We all are.
Today my family is going out on the mailboat run in Lake Winnipesauke. Front row seats in the bow on a gorgeous day. As I look out at the mountain ranges ringing the lake I bask in the beauty, the wonder and beyond words gratitude of just being here together.
It’s been a year and a half of anxiety and uncertainty. For some of us, a time of deep grief, the death of loved ones. The loss for others of the particular plans we’d made, the hopes we held.
But today, just this. This moment of grace. This here and now.
The smile of relief as family members sprint on board with two minutes to spare.
The other day I was challenged in this my own season of pivoting to take it all in. To feel all the feelings – grief and anger, anxiety and expectancy. Everything. All of it.
To open the vast room of emotion inside, as wide as this open lake. Opening from all that keep us shut down, closed off, stuck in our small rooms and spin of anger, grief or despair. Opening, opening to the wonder and the weirdness, the beauty and grace, the tears of love and loss of all that is here.
A duck flies off. A great splash below. A lone figure paddle boarding. The mountains clear through the morning mist.
I’ve learned that I’m an experiential learner. In other words, unless I do it, I don’t quite get it. I wish it were otherwise but honestly if you explain to me what to do or give me a set of directions to follow I won’t really “get it” until I’m actually doing it.
Before my 100 mile wilderness trek, many people told me about the importance of eating during the day on the trail. I went with my Dad to the grocery store and we picked out Cliff Bars and Protein Bars, sausage sticks and beef jerky, cheese, bags of nuts and two emergency Snickers bars for whenever I’d come to the end of my rope and needed to keep going! It all seemed like a lot of snacks to munch on and more than I’d ever taken on a day hike. Besides, I was trying to keep my pack as light as possible. So I didn’t pack the other things we’d talked about taking like tortillas, peanut butter, raisins, chocolate and yet more nuts.
Out on the trail I soon learned that I didn’t quite have enough snacking energy to sustain me or perhaps I wasn’t consuming what I had in the right way. Our group leader, Jen, asked me several times the first few days, “Are you doing okay?” I nodded. I was feeling good, felt I could physically do the hike, but my energy slid off the chart by later in the afternoon when we finished up our hikes. “Where’s Peter?” was the question my hiking buddies asked each afternoon as they looked around for me.
This summer we’re all figuring out what we need to sustain us in yet another season of change. We’ll all need different things and perhaps more gifts of sustenance and grace than we imagine we do, as we navigate our way through.
We’ll be figuring out how comfortable we are gathering in-person with others. We’ll be figuring out how to handle our anxiety and protect ourselves and family members and friends who are not vaccinated. At in-person worship we’ll be continuing to learn about moving through this season and yes, learning in real time about what works best for the safety and care of the whole community of our visitors, friends and members. It will take extra patience, kindness and understanding with ourselves and one another, yes. What’s the “food” and “sustenance” you need to help you trek with care through this coming season?
This week of July 4th is sometimes an important gathering time for family and friends. I am here with some of my family on Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire near where my parents live. I am so grateful for this time we have together and I’m also holding in my heart all who aren’t able to gather with family and friends this year. Some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones. For some of us other’s family gatherings just emphasize the ache of our own isolation. Others of us are unable to travel or have loved ones that cannot travel to see us.
What it all adds up to is feeding one another with our care, checking-in and presence in a season that is full of joy, anticipation and thanksgiving for some and for others of us grief, loneliness and loss. We need each other – that’s one of the central gifts and messages of church. And we do.
May your loved ones walk and be with care these days.
May we all find food along the way of sustenance and strength.
And when your supplies run low may we reach out and check in with others because truly when we are together there is always abundance and more than enough.
Of all the activities I’ve had the gift of taking part in during my year and a half living here in Boothbay Harbor, my favorite has been the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet.
In the last year and half when I heard so many times, “we usually do this…except for this year,” it was the one event that wasn’t cancelled last year and so a gift to take part in it again yesterday.
I don’t know what it is about it. Something about standing there yesterday on a blustery Sunday afternoon at the edge of the dock with my colleagues the Rev. Kate Pinkham from the Congregational Church of Edgecomb and Deacon Bob Curtis from Our Lady Queen of Peace, white robes flapping in the wind, stoles tangled around our necks, pitchers and bottles of water in hand to throw out with wet shouts of blessing to the passing fleet.
This year, we’re joined by Miss Teen Maine who just graduated high school and is taking the year off before school to carry out her new responsibilities, like blessing the passing fleet. There is something so ancient about it, so elemental, this meeting of the little crowd with us on the dock, the boats precariously rocking in the waves, navigating close to the dock or order to receive a splash of water and shout of blessing. As they pass, I think of all the blessings they need and we hope for them, for protection, safety, a bounteous catch, safe voyage and return.
Estelle Appel counts the boats each year. “I’ve been counting the boats for thirty years,” she tells me, and this, her last year of counting. “I have cancer,” she tells me, “have had it for four years.”
Last year the wind was blowing in the right direction and every crew got a good dousing. This year the wind from the south is blowing our water blessings back on us especially when Deacon Bob flung out the remnants of his pitcher of water to cries of surprise and delight as it blew back on us on shore. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. For that’s the thing about blessing. As Bob’s wife explained to me, we come to bless and we end up being blessed in turn.
“How much longer will you be here?,” Kate asks. I’m not so sure. A candidate for the settled pastor position at the church will be voted on by the congregation in the coming weeks. But for this time, the presence of right here, right now. The gift of a few more more months to take in the blessings that have been so many.
“Its not easy to count the boats,” Estelle reminds me. “Every year everyone comes up with a different number. I learned to pick a point, a boat moored near the dock and count each boat only after their stern passes by.” This year Estelle counts 16. The most they’ve had years ago was 85. “A lot has changed,” she reminds me, “We used to have a large commercial fishing fleet – haddock, cod, tuna but now its just the lobster boats.”
Estelle tells me there used to be a party after the blessing and perhaps some year it might come back. But for this day, its the blessing afterwards of an arm around lobsterman Rusty Court as we pose for a picture, head off with him to meet a friend waiting in his truck.
I lose track of the blessings all the time. And far too often in the press of the schedule and duties of the day, do not pause long enough to notice them. But today, I want to commit to count them, as Estelle does, one boat, one blessing at a time.
The masts tower above the docks on Commercial Street, three tall visitors from away, from far, far away. The tall ships, Spirit of Bermuda, Privateer Lynx and Nao Santa Maria docked here for the festival that never happened last year for a few days this weekend before they’ll head again out to sea and ports further South. Out to the whales, the porpoises, the waves as high as the ship itself, the endless water, the brilliant sunrises and surging storms, the dull routines that the crew have told us is life at sea.
Its all textures of rain here this Friday morning. In Seattle what we’d call “drizzle” turning to “showers” turning to “rain” and a good soaking “downpour” that we’ve so needed on this parched land. A roll of thunder as we grab hold of the wet ropes on either side of the steep gangways and step on board to another world. As the rain pours down, a sense of what it might be like to be on board this ship at sea in the storms they have come through to make their way here. “No protection from the elements here,” one old sailor tells us.
The Spirit of Bermuda is a teaching sloop serving the youth of Bermuda. For five days, the Middle School students set sail around Bermuda, the first time many have left their island home and set out to sea.
“No cell phones, no sugar allowed on board,” the crew member explains. “On day three everyone falls apart,” she says. “And there is the opportunity in their breakdowns for a breakthrough. For something new, something deeper in them to be born.”
Likewise for the college student from Colorado I talked to onboard the Nao Santa Maria. He tells me of three days of seasickness that started his apprenticeship on board.
“It was terrible,” he says, “It’s part physical, part mental, the adjustment your brain and body need to make to the constant lilt of the sea. You don’t want to eat but you have to eat. But after three days your body adjusts, starts to get used to moving with the boat and not fighting against it.”
He’s hopeful that he’s heard from another new sailor that after the second time out he’d had only two days of seasickness and after the third, only one.
I remember what it was like out on the trail. Those first three days of adjustment. The tight knot in my back that first day that rebelled against the audacity of carrying a thirty-three pound pack. The soreness of my feet, the hot spots that would soon break out into half a dozen blisters. All the thoughts, considerations, everything of home that I ruminated on, obsessed about and needed to put down. The need to be emptied out in body and mind in order to be present, present here with each footstep, each breath. A quieting of everything that rebelled against what was not familiar, not of comfort and home so that I could find my way to home, here in the woods.
It took me nine days, not three, to discover what it is about hiking that some people like. After eight days of adjusting to the pack, the pace of long days and nights of little sleep, on day nine I stepped fully that morning into the swing of my pack, the steady rhythm of the trail, the pleasure of exertion, stepping up and higher than I’d found imaginable a few days before. Enjoying myself, enjoying being here immensely. Awake and alive and here, just here.
As I turned back for one last picture, I wonder on the young people on these tall ships. The tall order that the captain and crew have set for them. The trust that they have in them, that they indeed can do hard things. Do different, do sickness and sugarless, do without internet and time to call their own, do it to discover what is on the other side of all that is hard, of all they thought possible. Christianity calls it the fancy word of resurrection. Which is really another way of finding that there is new life when none saw it coming. A different life, yes, a new way and awareness. A life that you can’t explain or make sense of but that can only experience, only take in one step, one breath at a time.
I don’t know what these young people would call it, that which I see it in their faces, in the set of their eyes. This budding wisdom, a seeing, a knowing of having been through something that matters. The knowledge that they too are vulnerable and resilient. Have more grit in them than they ever knew. A kind of calm presence planted in them, a small bud that blooms here in the silent steadiness of the old gray bearded crew who have seen it all and yet set out again to share in the wonder of all that is the sea.
Last week someone shared with me, “COVID taught me that we can do really hard things.” I paused, smiled. Thought, that’s true. I think we all learned this past year and a half perhaps that we can do things that we’ve never done before and perhaps thought we never could. I think of all the particular challenges we have walked through – wrenching grief and loss, uncertainty, anxiety and isolation. I think myself of needing to learn to live and work differently, lead worship differently, make connections differently – not always easy and sometimes even fun. But all hard in different ways.
In last month’s newsletter I shared some thoughts on what it takes to do hard things as I prepared to take off on a 10 day backpacking trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness, while church leaders wrestled with next steps in opening the church for public worship and meetings and as others of us delved more deeply into the learning, conversations and growth required to become an anti-racist people.
However, it’s one thing to write about what it takes to do “hard things” and another thing to actually do them. In the last two weeks on the trail I learned a bit more about what it really takes to do hard things.
I wrote in last months newsletter, “Discomfort is not bad. Discomfort can build resilience for ongoing learning, growth and transformation.” I learned on the trail that discomfort just hurts! I appreciate so much all your prayers and concerns for my foot which I have been freely complaining to you about for the past 5 months! My foot held up and while it hurt sometimes other parts of me hurt more. I learned that walking with discomfort is the way to find your way down the trail. It’s not getting over it so much as breathing into it. It’s adjusting your pack, shifting your weight and when you can’t pull it in any tighter or let it out any more, learning to to take a breather, get a snack so you can get back out again out on the trail.
Last month I wrote, “As we do challenging work and take steps to new beginnings we need to be ever mindful of taking care of ourselves and one another.” I learned out on the trail that sometimes taking care means turning back and offering a hand to someone struggling over the giant boulder behind you. But more often it is walking ahead showing the way through and instilling a confidence and commitment that those behind they can do the same. I discovered that the gifts of laughter along the way and pausing to take in the wonder of a mountain top view are some of the best ways we show care to ourselves and one another.
And finally, I wrote, “Times of challenge and change are good times to pay attention to how our learning feels in our bodies. Taking time to notice how we are feeling can help us move openly and authentically into times of change.” I learned on the trail that I am not so good at listening to my body. I am more familiar with thinking my way through than feeling my way through. But to make a long trek well and with care, you need to learn to feel your way. I had to learn to notice when my energy was waning and to reach for another BoBo Bar instead of putting it off for another hour. I had to learn to pay attention to and tend the hot spots on my feet lest I get three more blisters. I slowly learned that listening to your body takes time and practice.
In the past weeks, I hiked 100 miles, church leaders discerned and implemented next steps in a process of opening to public worship and meetings. We shared and heard in worship on June 20 what a difference it has made to our lives and faith to be on the journey of becoming an anti-racist people.
No, the thoughts I shared last month on journeying were not “bad” thoughts on doing hard things but perhaps incomplete. In this time of continuing and challenging change — as church and other organizations are opening up in new ways, as we return to activities and connections we haven’t made in over a year — what wisdom is helping you make your way? I’d love to hear what you are learning and what is sustaining you along the “trail”!
For over 170 years he’s been reaching out his hand and inviting us to leave our familiar shore and head with him out to sea.
Sometimes, like Ishmael, we take off with him for the long, dense journey through 135 chapters because we have nothing particular to interest us on shore. Sometimes we know this need to “drive off the spleen” or regulate our circulation. Sometimes, a damp drizzly November in our soul…January 2021, a COVID Winter, almost a year into the pandemic.
So while my sister lay on the couch playing Word Chums, the dog asleep at her feet, while my niece knitted, and friends binge-watched Netflix, I read Moby Dick. I’m not saying that to make myself out as particularly noble in the adventures I choose. I’d already seen all the hit Netflix series – “The Crown”, “Lupin”, “The Queen’s Gambit”….and I can’t play Word Chums well enough to beat my sister.
No, not nobility but mindlessly scrolling through yet more unread emails led me to take Ishmael’s hand. That notice that the Folio Athenaeum and Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle were co-sponsoring a six- week read of Moby Dick. Two of my favorite organizations in Seattle, how could I refuse? And besides, Lillian was leading the book group.
Lillian Dabney is the Librarian at the Folio where for three long years I struggled over writing my own book about going to “sea” and learning to sail. Between writing, editing and lots of staring out the window on Puget Sound, Lillian and I would talk about point of view and character development. She’d recommend books I’d never heard of, opened new worlds in literature that I never would have ventured into.
“Every time is a good time to read Moby Dick”, she told us.
I wasn’t so sure.
When I was preparing to leave Seattle several years ago for my own adventure at “sea”, I was given a blue leather bound, gold-plated edition of Moby Dick from a young couple. I’d read Moby Dick once decades before at a time when I was seeking to knock off a few more titles from that endless list of “books I should read” or “books that it would be impressive to say I’d read” to impress my Word Chum and Netflix watching family. I remember reading it as an adventure story with some rather long boring parts and recognized there was something here I was missing. I figured I’d pass on my fancy tome to my eldest nephew who likes reading such classics. I couldn’t imagine ever reading it again.
But then, its COVID. It’s not any time, but this time and perhaps the time to read Moby Dick again for a Zoom book group which enables a homesick guy on the east coast to connect to my familiar shore of Seattle right after dinner and before my bedtime. So perhaps, yes, “The best time to read Moby Dick is now,” as Lillian reminded us.
And so thanks to an invitation and my own “November in my soul” this COVID winter and spring I read Moby Dick. Twice, in fact.
The first time through felt like I’d felt so often the past year. Overwhelmed, lost in chapters I couldn’t always follow, obscure references about things I imagined I might have once known, words I’d never heard of (and grateful to learn were sometimes Melville’s own inventions!), a plot I struggled to make sense of. The erudite readers in our group saw things I never saw. Commented on details I missed. Yes, Netflix sounded good sometimes. I’d never gotten this lost, confused and overwhelmed in watching “The Crown.”
The day after we at last finished, Lillian proposed we start over and read Moby Dick again. I laughed. I mean, I’d never have imagined doing that. Had I in fact ever read any book over again right away? I mean with so many books, you have to move on. And I mean the absurdity of it – to take on 615 gold-leafed pages – all again? But yes, I had to admit, its still a COVID winter. And if not this time what time to spend six more weeks reading Moby Dick? My Monday nights looked like they’d be free for at least the next year as far as I could tell.
So, “Call me Ishmael,” one more time. But this time through I knew a bit more and understood a bit more about where Ishmael was taking us. I knew there was so much more here that I wanted to learn, realized in fact that I not only could but I wanted to read it again. What was it that I recognized I needed in reading it again?
Like some of my friends, I’ve felt the dislocation, discombobulation of going through time the past year. Each day, each week, each month a relentless cycle of “the same” wondering how it could be Thursday night…Saturday night…yet again, trying to remember what it was I’d actually done the past week.
Reading Moby Dick again was different. Instead of going through a haze in time week after week, re-reading Moby Dick deepened my experience of time. As I read it more deeply, deliberately, this second time, I wasn’t quite as lost in the turns of the plot and intricacies of language. I was learning, hearing differently. Deepening, not lost, in the turning of pages, the passage of time.
Yes, “anytime is a good time to read Moby Dick,” and perhaps read differently through each season of time we read it in. Through the long year of masking, distancing, and endless hand washing, through the anxiety and stress of grocery shopping, and the isolation of being at home alone, there was Ishmael inviting us into an intimacy that felt of another world. As he climbed into bed with Queequeg, as he let down his guard and opened his heart, as he put down his hubris and discovered Queequeg’s humanity, legs entwined and pipe smoking shared, he opened my longing for such an intimacy with one another that seemed lost on a forgotten shore. What a time in this COVID time, to be led by the hand (can you imagine!), with an invitation to entwine ourselves in another’s humanity, no longer stranger. To invite us to recover our own humanity and see it in one another that we keep hidden in our small mindedness and prejudice.
There again, Ishmael, inviting us into a squeezing of hands that I had forgotten how much I missed. There with hands in the spermaceti with him, squeezing hands, (aghast that we can’t actually be doing this, can we?) and recalling me to the longing for it. When was the last time I held and touched another’s hand?
Amidst all the imprisonments of my small fears, there is Ishmael who is not so afraid, meeting fear with curiosity. Uncovering within him, within us, the discovery of what is beyond our prejudices, our racism, the humanity, the human beings we are. Taking us by the hand and leading the way through New Bedford, on the Pequod out to sea, in the wonder of the whale, opening, expanding our small world confinements with curiosity, an openness to discovery.
It does my soul good to join him with all his prejudices and my own that are so resistant to leave a familiar shore, so resistant to change. He takes me by hand and sets out to introduce me to the world again – Black, White, Asian, Savage, Cannibal, Christian, Pagan… With his hand in mine, watching his, my own racism, prejudices, assumptions expanded, re-thought, reworked by his curious and caring imagination.
As I read on, found I didn’t so much read Moby Dick as it read me. How I find myself, even and especially where I do not want to be found, in all these characters at sea. But this year unmasked me, as at times I found myself unrecognizable to myself. Whose self-incrimination, depression, out-of-sortness is this?, I wondered. Who is this feeling like I’d never felt before?
And so this year, I too have gotten to know Starbuck in me, whose humanity is his strength and his downfall. That part of me that can’t stop doing what I am accustomed to doing, going along, fulfilling “orders”,” deceiving myself into thinking it might be, could be, otherwise. Unable to turn to a bigger imagination of what might be possible but only returning to an outdated morality and ethics. As I watch him, I wonder myself on my own stepping up and stepping away from the responsibility of what is required. Lacking with him the imaginative capacity to see what it would be to step beyond ways that do not serve anymore.
Here, too, with Ishmael, covering up my suspicions of what I need to do. I know this: “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me.” (103)… As it has been with me.
Here, me in Stubb, in my awful pride when I have killed my own “whale”.
Here, too, like Pip lost at sea, lost to myself. I’ve known something of it this year, what it is to be out there alone at times in rolling waves, no clear rescue in sight.
Recognize the nobility in the harpooners who eat last, these essential workers, who do not abandon the ship to the last, stand on the masts sinking in the waves looking out, doing what they came to do, what they do.
As I read on, wonder at my own sea voyaging, my own stepping away from what had been my life. Am I too the Blacksmith who set sail to heal a wound that could not be healed?
This year, I not only read this, I get this, we, vulnerable humanity in our tiny boat, Queequeg holding up the lantern through the foggy night, far from the ship, “hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair”. (240)
And yes, Ahab, hell-bent and not able to turn aside, even as he leads his crew to their deaths.
And thankfully, sometimes, too, Ishmael who again and again takes me by hand, open to wonder and discovery. Perhaps it’s why he’s the one to survive.
Moby Dick reads me.
And so, this COVID winter and spring as I watched the storming of the US Capitol, I read Moby Dick. Saw the mad men out there, in me, Ahab’s “madness maddened,” unable to turn away even from our better judgment.
Read Moby Dick as I watch Derek Chauvin’s trial, Facebook Posts and YouTube videos of more and more and more Black and Brown men and women people killed by police. Daunte Wright…Marvin Scott…Ma’Khia Bryant….. There Ishmael, taking me by the hand again to see, to weep, to rage, to see the whiteness we refuse to see, don’t want to see, this empty slate filled with our fears.
Read Moby Dick as I read of mass shooting after mass shooting….Atlanta, Boulder, L.A.…. Wonder on this Tahiti in our souls that we need to ground us and call us through the tumultuous sea.
As my aunt, elderly and in a nursing home, dies of COVID, read Moby Dick. As COVID cases world-wide surpass 100 million…2.5 million deaths….500,000 in the US alone, read Moby Dick. At my best, can feel what I do not want to feel, how we all are like it or not “enveloped in whale-lines.” Sometimes, in hearing the stories, seeing the images, can imagine how the most vulnerable among us feel, the cut of the rope against their necks as it is as well against our own, as we “realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” (301)
So, yes, “It is always a good time to read Moby Dick,” and this COVID winter and spring Ishmael leads me where I want and do not want to go, to see what I could choose not to see. Always sending me out, to further exploration, wonder, to breaking down of all our small walls and considerations, out into discovery, out to sea.
And here, as well, reading Moby Dick, recovering from my first vaccine, and now my second. I know the temptation of the Lee Shore – the deadly longing to go back, to return to the safe-haven of the past even though there is no going back. Fear that we may not have learned, may again choose not to know what has been uncovered, revealed about ourselves, our lack of humanity, the systemic racism that is a whale line around our necks, the climate crisis that we do not want to recognize.
Perhaps, I’ve turned to preaching…
Which is something Ishmael never does. But calls us out, full of questions. Shows us instead of preaching the contours and shapes of the whales bones, peels back his skin, wonders on the meaning of skin, the meaning of whiteness. A trustworthy guide when we’ve lost trust.
Gaslighting is in full force today, to deny what happened this year, is happening now, to just move on and forget. But can we turn from the treachery of safety? To again risk discomfort so we can live our life, for life? To trust ourselves to the sea so we might each find our Tahiti? What will it take for us to turn aside? Can we? Do we all have to die except a survivor like Ishmael? Could it not have ended differently? Can it for us? Will we perish before we can turn away? That’s our question at the end of the discussion.
I could slide into preaching again….
So, yes, Ishmael, take me by the hand. Continue to lead me where I did not want to go. Clear my eyes. Reveal me to myself. Open me to wonder. Go with me, out, into the sea.
It was a perfect Maine spring day for the Memorial Day parades in town. Drizzly, gray, a bit of bite in the air. A perfect day to remember what we are here to do, a perfect day to hold all we have been through these past fifteen months.
The last time I spoke at a Memorial Day celebration, I was ten years old. A Prisoner of War, a Vietnam Veteran, had returned home to my hometown that year and I’d been asked to speak to the gathering on the town common that Memorial Day. Its decades later now, and I feel a bit like that ten year old boy as I stand here on the library lawn, the stone memorial to the war dead in Boothbay Harbor beside me, the community band in their red blazers and white pants behind.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken part in any Memorial Day celebration and unlike communities that mark Memorial Day with community picnics and races, here the formal solemnity of the day is still carried on. Six two-block long parades scattered around the Peninsula led by a color guard and twenty slowly marching veterans. A trolley car of other vets too feeble to walk, a sharing of words by a local pastor or church leader, the laying of a wreath at the memorial marker. Not quite understanding what was required of me today, I’d gone to watch the little parade and ceremony in Newagen earlier this morning. Introduced myself to Carl who told me of when the parade was twice as long, the band twice as big. He remembered how many veterans, dear friends, have died in the past years, how many of their stories lost.
My conversation with Carl reminded me of a short piece I’d read earlier this morning from Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who lives on the peninsula just to the east of us here in Boothbay Harbor. She wrote, “I cannot think of those who died in our wars without thinking of the terrible holes their deaths tore in the fabric of our lives” — the wonder of who they would have become, what the world has lost by never knowing their children.
Looking out at the children, women and men gathered along the sidewalks and edges of the green lawn in bright rain jackets and ball caps, I think of all the stories this crowd and so many like it could tell of this past year. How COVID-19 has touched, disrupted, upended, taken and torn from our lives. The plans we abandoned, the expectations we let go. I wonder if perhaps we all understand a bit more about what “tattered fabric” is like and what we have come to mark and do today as we remember those who have died in our wars.
As we whisper the names we know or have been told about, relatives, friends, neighbors who have died in past wars, I’m reminded of standing in church yesterday, our first Sunday for in-person worship in over 14 months. During the service, some of us came forward to write down the names of relatives and loved ones that had died in war.
I remember too how yesterday at church, Mike, a Vietnam War veteran, stood and shared that yes, we must remember those who have died but we must also not forget those who have come home from war. The way war wounds everyone touched by it. To remember veterans who lived through the war only to have lives ravished by addiction, mental and physical illness, psychological trauma. The tattered fabric of their lives. I think of the eighteen Veterans today who will take their own lives as eighteen Veterans every day in our country take their own lives. Invite us again, to pause, remember.
Today thanks to the words I have heard and this marking I am part of, I get it in a way I haven’t before, that this Memorial Day to not only a day to remember the tattered fabric of loss and grief but also a call to repair. A day to come together, to bind together the fabric of who we are and who we have become as a people and nation. A day to recommit to tend and mend the tattered fabric that is our common life.
Yes, to repair the fabric in the marking and memory. Yes, to do it by finding our way to advocate and create a community of care and support for our veterans, for all, wounded by the ravage of war. Yes, to repair the fabric, by remembering the stories so they are not forgotten.
As I stood here outside the library I thought of all the stories that have been forgotten, the stories that we never learned and must. The story of people like Isaac Woodard that I learned last week. Woodard, a decorated African-American World War II Veteran, who on February 12, 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, was attacked while still in uniform by White police in South Carolina as he was taking a bus home. Beaten and blinded for being an African-American war hero.
I look around the crowd and long to see, must see, have to see, the possibility of what is here in us together. All we might do, of who we might become together. Perhaps, no, not too late. Not too late to relearn sacrifice for the sake of healing. To work together for our common good in not only word but deed. To remember and tell the stories and so live a more authentic and true story of who we are and might become. To create, yes, a more perfect union and live into the ideals of which we proclaim and sing, for which so many have hoped and striven, so many wounded and continue to die, a country, tattered and torn yes, but where there will at last be true liberty and justice for all.
A few weeks ago a colleague mentioned to me that the pastors he has talked to have said that the transition back to in-person worship is harder than the transition last spring to closing down in-person worship.
I didn’t quite get it. We weren’t opening to limited public worship until May 30 and that seemed a long way away a few weeks back. But last week with May 30 getting closer, I understood a bit more about the challenges of return. We’ve had lots of conversations about guidelines and processes for a safe return while the guidelines change, some clamor for quicker change, while others worry about their kids and other unvaccinated friends and family getting sick. No easy cookbook solution to meet everyone’s needs.
These aren’t unfamiliar dynamics in any time of change. But what is it about this transition that I am finding so challenging?
In the last week, I’ve been watching myself return to old habits that tell me I’m stressed. I see how I have rushed to complete things and check them off my to-do list so I could get on to the next thing to check off, instead of pausing and waiting like I do when I’m working at my best. I’ve noticed myself rushing over checking in with the people I have committed to checking in with, running to “fix” problems that aren’t to be fixed but to be with.
For sure, the deadlines and to-do lists with yet another transition are real but I don’t deal with them as easily this time as I do at my best. What’s up?
Perhaps its because I was only here in Boothbay Harbor six weeks before March 13 when the pandemic closed down life as we knew it. Perhaps its because “going back” feels like moving to a brand new community and new way of being together that I’ve not really experienced before. For over the past 14 months I’ve stood on the chancel preaching across rows of empty pews to the crack at the top of the sanctuary door. This coming Sunday there will be people here. What’s that going to be like?
Last Wednesday, it was two weeks since my second COVID-19 vaccine. It’s taken a while to get used to talking to other vaccinated people without a mask on. For some, its like the first time I saw them without a mask! So strange and wonderful, disconcerting and new, to see people’s faces again. So strange to be learning about getting together with others without the familiar anxiety of the past fourteen months.
I’ve been joking that I’ve been out “partying” the last couple of weeks. I had dinner with a couple last Thursday night, a small afternoon cocktail hour the next day and a family party on Sunday afternoon. As I sat at the table with the other retired ministers and their spouses on last Friday afternoon I felt how long it had been since I’d socialized with a group of people I didn’t know. It felt like an old familiar thing I once knew how to do as I listened to the rhythm of the conversation ebb and flow. An hour into the gathering I texted the friend I was supposed to be talking with to reschedule our conversation. I’d forgotten how such gatherings in person evolve and besides, I was enjoying myself. That too, such a strange feeling, thoroughly enjoying myself, not anxious or cautious being with others as i’ve been during the height of the pandemic.
As my social calendar filled up I wondered, How did I ever make time for doing this? What do I need to give up now to make time for it? I actually had to say no to an invitation because I’d already committed to another invitation. I haven’t said no to an invitation in over a year.
A friend mentioned how much better her relationship with her husband has gotten during COVID. “I realized before I was running around a lot and when I got home I was tired, worn out. He didn’t get the best of me. With COVID and both of us working at home and none of those things to run around and do, we had better quality time to spend with each other.”
Listening to her, I wondered how I’ll figure out a new life-giving balance in all the responsibilities and relationships in my life.
I wrote a friend last night whose church just opened last Sunday to public worship, “Getting back is hard!”
“You will be fine,” she reminds me, “You have done it before.”
And maybe that’s it – I have done so much of what is before me before and this time, this return, I don’t want to do it like before.
In the isolation of the past year and a half I’ve reached out more intentionally and regularly to some of my family and friends. I don’t want to lose those connections in my busyness of social engagements and “getting back to normal.” And though its not always been easy, I’ve been kinder and better to myself as well the past year. With not as many engagements and activities, I’ve had time to do things like this – sit here at the kitchen counter and write, ruminate and wonder. Time to listen to the birds sing as I am doing now. I don’t want to lose this gift of time and I fear losing it in the change of season.
Here in this summer resort community, life is particularly busy in the spring and summer. I hear from folks about their calendars filling up, about long lists of chores. I don’t know if I want that. In fact, I know I don’t. And what does that mean that I don’t want added responsibilities? Am I stepping away from something I should be doing or am I in fact making room for something I do?
Last year, many of these folks like me didn’t have long lists of chores and to-do lists. I had time last year at this time and because I had time, became a better pastor at work and more present to family and friends.
Maybe, that’s the invitation to help meet my anxiety. Being present to all of it. The anticipation of a summer here like I’ve not experienced before. The grief of putting down some wonderful ways of doing things and making room for learning some new ways. To step out of my comfort zone and into the newness of now. That’s how it is for me. How is it for you in this season of yet another change?