I tested positive for COVID last Monday after an afternoon walk with a friend in the Arboretum and not being able to smell the lilacs that were supposedly quite fragrant.
“You have COVID!”, she said, joking. I knew I had congestion and a cough from springtime allergies. I knew I didn’t have COVID. At least I didn’t when I’d tested last week. But that afternoon back at the office I took another test.
I couldn’t believe it – two lines! What does that mean, two lines? I read the instructions. Re-read them. Took another test. Two lines! Examined and re-examined the little pictures. COVID! No! It can’t be! The illness that had been in so many other people was now in me.
My first instantaneous thought before thought was “Don’t tell anybody!…. Deny, cover it up….Go on as if everything is normal.”
It was my my first sign that something powerful happens with the onset of a disease, a diagnosis. Immediately, our minds can race to some old story to put “meaning” on it. For me, an old story of moralizing illness. An ancient belief that I had done something wrong, I was at fault and had in fact “sinned” by getting sick and had done something unconscionable and probably unforgivable by perhaps making others sick. And like a little child who doesn’t want to be judged and lose connection, a first thought – “Don’t Tell!”
In the last week I’ve had a slew of such “crazy” thoughts, old stories that have come up and grabbed me as I’ve been recovering. Fortunately, while the thoughts have sometimes momentarily taken over and fully inhabited me, for the most part I’ve been able to look at them and see them for what they are and how in fact they are trying to protect me and keep me safe.
Yes, fortunately last Monday, I was quickly able to see the “crazy” thinking of denial and cover-up and stepped into telling my colleagues and calling my friend with news they needed to know. I was deeply gifted that no one has shamed me or blamed me for having COVID. But somewhere deep in me, perhaps in many of us, a connection has been made between illness and shame.
I’ve watched my thoughts agonizing over how I could have gotten sick, what bad decision I must have made and didn’t know I’d made. I watched my mind grabbing for every hard decision I’ve made and questioning my ability to choose wisely. Felt racked by guilt for who I had or was going to make sick in the coming days.
Today I’m feeling almost all better – congestion and cough cleared and no longer in need of an afternoon nap (although perhaps that is something I should continue, so I just took one!) So while my brain has cleared enough to write this post, I share a few questions and observations about what has come up for and helped me through the most challenging part of living with COVID – my “crazy” thinking.
How did I miss hearing this kind of ”crazy” thinking from others I’ve known with COVID? Was I not listening? I really didn’t have the appreciation until now what a mind wrestling with illness can do. So today I wonder, What is the meaning you put on illness? Where might those thoughts have come from? What does your more mature and adult mind know about what illness? What happens when you meet those old stories of illness with compassion?
What were your experiences of illness as a child? I know that spring allergies have been part of my life since I was young and I know that sometimes I used not feeling my best as an excuse to stay home from school, not because I was actually that sick but because I wanted some care. I don’t actually know how often I did that but what I do know is that because of that distorted way I used illness, it’s challenging for me to lean into self-care with myself when I am sick. Sometimes I can judge taking care of myself for not pushing myself when I should be. I need the guidance of others like my doctor to help me find the right path.
My doctor told me, for example, “Peter, run the marathon you were supposed to do on Saturday with your friends next year. You don’t want to push your body in its healing.” His good advice didn’t mean I believed him, however! When I woke on Saturday feeling better I was convinced I could jump in the car, drive to Maine and run the race. Fortunately, I paused and googled advice from several running magazines which all affirmed just what my doctor had said. In fact, I needed and took two long naps on Saturday!
Who cared for you when you were sick? Who can care for you now? I am someone who readily seeks out comfort and care, affirmation and support from loved ones when I am sick. Since they are not here with me now, I was grateful I had some zoom conversations with friends and colleagues that gave me an opportunity to share my “crazy” thoughts out loud. As I did so, I started laughing at the absurdity of them. That so helped and felt so good – to separate what I was thinking from what I really know. I also know that I can isolate when I am not feeling well. Fortunately, I saw that thought for the unhelpful response that is and called a few friends. That helped!
And yes, I got outside. The sky, the brilliant green leaves, the flowing water, yellow flowers, the moon and starlight – all of it is such an essential part of healing. Just getting outdoors moved my mood and turned my thoughts into a wider wonder from what increasingly felt like a closed small room. Taking some walks, doing some yoga when I felt better all helped me move my moods. One of the most challenging things of being in hospital is the inability to escape the closed walls of that room. I think now of one person I visited who listened to music often – what a gift that must have been to bring them into a wider field of being.
Where is your illness an opportunity to grow? I experienced often last week how my thoughts kept making me smaller, their own way to protect me from yet more vulnerability and uncertainty. I didn’t blame the folks I knew who had COVID. I didn’t think they had done something wrong or been someone who was wrong in their “being” because they were sick– but I certainly thought that for myself. At least with feeling judged, we have something to hold onto. What if all we have instead is the truth of our vulnerability, the uncertainty that is life? How might that be a gift and make for a wider, deeper connection?
And so, I got curious about wondering if my experience of illness could also make me bigger as much as it was seeking to make me smaller. I certainly had a lot more personal empathy for folks I knew with COVID. I called them up or emailed them. I let them know I was thinking of them.
On Saturday I start a retreat with the Animas Institute focused on Bill Ploktin’s book, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. It’s a short book and good read and helped me in its descriptions and exercises to begin to understand a bit more about the origin and effect of my so-called “crazy” thinking. Maybe no, not so “crazy” just truly so human.
What if COVID is an opportunity to connect us in our vulnerability? I flew into Seattle the day in January 2020 when the first case of COVID was diagnosed. I flew out when the second case was discovered. I remember thinking (again, illness “crazy” thinking) that “they” were sick because they had just been to China, that this was a disease like so many others that would be confined and contained and experienced by “others”.
It was my nephew who early on in 2020 saw what COVID could so easily become. I remember wanting to comfort him, to tell him that it wouldn’t be that bad. I remember worrying about his worrying. And he was right. What he saw is what happened and is happening with COVID, a disease affecting “them” has become a condition affecting all in some ways, and some of us, communities of color, the poor, in devastating ways.
And so, as a week ends and my healing continues, I give thanks for a steady recovery. I am humbled by the way my “crazy” thinking leveled me at times and what I’ve learned from watching my thoughts. I’m grateful for the healthy choices I made and have further empathy for why we all sometimes make less healthy ones.
As the pandemic continues, I open my heart and pray ever more deeply that we might care more deeply for ourselves as the beginning of the way we care most deeply for each other and our wider community. That this challenging and changing time may become the opportunity for the meeting with compassion and healing of these “crazy” minds of ours for the sake of the wider hope and deeper healing of the world.
It’s Sunday morning and when I sat started writing this piece it was 7:20 a.m. and a few minutes before my friends would be setting out to run the Sugarloaf Marathon. I was to be there running with them this morning but last Monday I tested positive for COVID after going for a walk in the park and discovered I was unable to smell what I’d heard were fragrant lilacs. My friend joked, “You have COVID!” I was surprised to learn I in fact did, that this illness that has happened to so many others has now happened in me.
So this morning instead of being out on the road in the mountains of Maine, I’m here at my little table by the window, looking down over the Neponset River rippling dark green and gray through the brilliant green leaves of the golden birch by the bank. It’s a gray morning, a slight breeze and turn to the leaves, unseasonably warm.
The river below has been such a metaphor for my time these past three months as I’ve been serving as the Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline. I have said to many I have never been so relaxed and anxiety-free as a pastor ever before in my career. I don’t know what to make of it.
Yes, good work to do, and such good people and staff to do it with. Yes, the privilege of sharing this beautiful apartment here by the river thanks to friends from Maine. Yes, its been the gift of long morning runs along the Neponset River Trail this spring as I’ve been preparing for this marathon today.
Its been the joy of the most absurdly difficult and fun gym class I’ve ever taken at the Dorchester Y. It’s been weekly dinners with an old friend and sailing on the Charles. Its good conversations and late afternoon yoga class around the block from the church that has made this training the best I’ve ever had. Thanks to yoga, I can still touch my toes and am not stiff as a board, grouchy and gaunt as I’ve been preparing for other marathons. It’s been a wonderful season of training, of giving myself to receive the gifts of this time.
Its been a long journey to come to this particular bend in the river and I give thanks for all it has been to bring me here so blessed and at peace.
As I sit here scribbling these words this morning with my morning coffee, I open my news feed. The headline of yet another mass murder yesterday, and the targeted deaths of yet more black men and women by a white supremacist. People just out for their Saturday morning shop looking to pick up a loaf of bread and jar of mayonnaise and meeting a young man with a gun around the corner.
The racial hate and violence in the news again today is something we don’t want to see but is in fact nothing new. Racism takes so many hidden forms in the fabric of our everyday society and institutions that are just as insidious, violent and deadly. Racism is in the water which we all live in this country, in this river that has carried me here.
My friend reminds me that the Neponset River is now a hazardous waste site. Like the river, the toxicity here is old.
Just up from my apartment where the bridge crosses from Milton into Dorchester Lower Mills, there’s a historical marker for the mill that was built here in 1675 to manufacture gunpowder for King Philips war.
2,500 colonists, 30% of the English population of New England died in the war. At least twice that number of Native Americans were killed. Some historians estimate that the combined effects of war, disease and starvation killed half the Native population in the region.
My morning runs take me past an idealized mural of members of the Neponset tribe looking out over the river. Along the trolley track beside the trail, the old yellow trolley rattles by long overdue for repair. At a recent public meeting the Metropolitan Transit Authority apologized to the neighbors along the track which ends in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods for false promises and neglected commitments. History keeps repeating itself.
I’ve run down the river trail past Carson Beach where on August 10, 1975, “hundreds of Black protesters, fed up with the indignity and terror of living in a segregated city rallied to assert their right to use Boston’s public spaces. What started as a peaceful protest devolved into violence between Black and White demonstrators, further cementing Boston’s national reputation for racial rancor.” (Deanna Pan, Boston Globe, July 13, 2020)
1675, 1975. History keeps repeating itself.
Today I wonder, what does it mean to give yourself to the river? I mean, all of the river.
The river is long and flowing, brightened by brilliant green leaves and the plaintive song of the redwing blackbird. This is true. And this as well: The river is toxic and carries the blood and violence both done to and inflicted by the divergent communities and generations that have sought to make a life beside it.
Today the river is its own dividing line between predominantly white communities and communities of color. Milton where I live is 72% white; across the river, is Dorchester which is 21% white.
What might it might it mean to give yourself to the healing of a river?
From where I sit this morning, the river turns beyond where I can see until appearing there again across the marsh golden in the setting sun.
Years ago in a time of wrestling and questions, a friend spoke to me of rivers. Of the futility of fighting to turn the flow and the necessity of giving ourselves to the current and way of the river, to this unfolding gift of life which is always moving and changing.
I think of his words today and the places where I rejoice in the river flowing and beautiful and yet can hide all that I don’t want to see.
I think where the river is dammed and drifts into stagnant pools.
I think of what it might mean to give myself to all that is this river, to all that it carries and has carried me here – both the beautiful and good and the toxic and terror which which has both harmed me and benefited me.
In the river below is a white crested duck abandoned here by its owners last summer. They’ve survived the winter, made friends with the cormorants, mallards and squawking geese. They’re out there now paddling after the mallard. They too have given themselves to this unfamiliar and blessed place, to this turn of the river. From all signs, they’ve survived. But I want for them what I long for myself, for all of us – something even more, to thrive.
I wrote this piece a couple of months ago at the close of my four-month intentional sabbath time between finishing my position as Interim Pastor at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and starting the new position where I am currently serving this spring as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts while the Senior Pastor is away on his sabbatical.
I’m curious why its taken me a couple of months now to post this reflection on what I learned in those four months of my own “Reluctant Interim.” Perhaps, as I begin to look forward to the unknown possibilities of the summer, I want to remember what I learned in the unknown of last winter. Perhaps, it’s just that today seems the right day to remember what I learned and share it with you.
September, 2021. My term as interim pastor in Boothbay Harbor was coming to a close. It was my first interim pastor position and I’d learned a lot and really enjoyed it. Though I’d moved across the country 3000 miles to a coast I’d not lived by for 40 years, I liked being back in New England and had made good friends in the community. I would miss being here.
As I prepared for the new settled pastor and prepared to leave this place I’d called home for over a year and a half, I began to wonder what was next. I knew that before jumping into whatever that next chapter and position would be, it would be good to take a break, to have my own interim time for a couple of months.
It wasn’t that I was exhausted, worn out, burned out. No, in fact I was full of energy and clearer in my call and passion to walk with people through transitions. Instead, I knew I needed some time to let go of this congregation I had loved. I wanted time to put down the stories so I wouldn’t enter a new community getting the new congregation confused with this one.
I talked to my spiritual director about what I wanted from this, my own interim time. I wanted time to be outdoors, write, reflect on all I’d learned and how it had changed me, connect with family and friends. He heard the heart of what I wanted – time to reconnect, reground in the Spirit. That was it, so clear, so simple. I needed this time before whatever was to be next to be with God.
It’s funny how sometimes you can know so clearly what you need and yet can get so easily distracted and interrupted from actually doing what you know you need to do! For isn’t there something both enticing and terrifying about choosing time to connect with God – something so unfathomable, mysterious and open about what such a time offers. I’d always come to making a retreat for some “God time and God space” with some initial longing and joy and had it turn to sheer fear and trepidation as the time approached knowing that in a time like this all sorts of things come up.
So I was surprised and delighted a few weeks before my position was ending in Boothbay Harbor, to have a church reach out to me about a new interim possibility. I jumped onto scheduling an interview delighted at my good fortune to perhaps have found a position before I’d even left this one! The interview went well, they told me they’d be calling my references soon. I looked and relooked at my calendar for the fall negotiating with myself about when I would actually be willing to start. Maybe, I thought, I really just need a month or perhaps a few weeks. I pondered, What would be the least amount of time I could imagine needing? Wherever that “connecting to God” time that I’d talked about wanting had got condensed down to a manageable few weeks so I could get on to my next thing.
It wasn’t about money. I’d been saving for this time in-between and putting aside a bit month by month over the past year. I had enough to support my needs for several months at least. But what I wanted more than a paycheck, more than time with God, more even than what my heart knew I wanted and needed was certainty. The certainty of knowing what was next and avoiding this interim time of unknowing that I’d felt and said I needed. Now, that it approached, I wasn’t so sure.
It’s not that God cannot be present and come in the surprise of an opportunity that might be right where you need to be. But as I sat with this opportunity, I knew it wasn’t really a call, it was merely a way to avoid the deeper call I knew I wanted to follow.
There were two nagging problems about the possibility of this new position. Something about the idea of moving to this new community made me depressed and the Associate Conference Minister (ACM) who had a good read on my particular passion and gifts thought this position wouldn’t in fact be the best use of my gifts and desire for my next interim. I was so grateful. She’d reminded me what I wanted and had my best interest in mind. So grateful and so hard to heed however once I was off the phone with her.
I spent a week thinking of being someone other than myself with different passions and gifts than the ACM had reminded me were mine. Maybe I could do this – maybe this would be okay…. But then again there was this depression that wouldn’t lift when I thought of moving there, there were those turning words from the ACM that this place might not be the best fit for what I was looking for.
It took me a week to write back to the search committee and share what I knew was true and didn’t want to be. It wasn’t a good fit – not where I needed to be – not the right place. Again, its not that perhaps going there could not have been a good place but I found I was choosing it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to go there to have the certainty I craved, for control, for having a position, for the delight in being wanted – none of which had staying power.
The deeper part of me, that older, wiser part of me knew I needed my own interim time in order to be with the God I needed to meet not in the certainty of a job but in the emptiness, space, time, unknowing where I have always found God. But how hard to choose that! I would have taken comfort, assurance, the certainty of a job any day over that!
The ACM had in mind another position that she thought would be a great fit and was opening soon. I dreamed my way right into moving there but I sensed from the interview that they had already found someone else they wanted. They had. I didn’t get the position.
All which thrust me right back where my friend Larry said he hoped I might end up – in the uncertainty and opportunity of my own interim time that I’d said I’d wanted all along.
In the four months of my “reluctant interim” last fall and early winter, I learned a lot. Grew a lot. Let go and opened, rested and played, was indeed re-grounded in the presence and imagination of God. I have a clearer and deeper sense of my call that led me to say yes to opportunities I never could have imagined months ago.
“You are going in the right direction, and you will end up right where you need to be,”my colleague Tom in Boothbay Harbor reminded me as I left. Along the way, I’d held close to the hope of his words and the trust he held for me.
A few months ago, I said yes to this position where I currently am serving, as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts for a few months this spring. I said Yes to this position not to take away the uncertainty of the future. Not to fill my checking account again although this position will help do that; I still had a few more months of savings put away. I said yes to this position because it fits. Fits my best sense of the next and right step on the way, of God’s call, something I never would have known or been able to discern without the gift of the interim time this past fall and winter.
So a few notes, in the weeks ahead, a reminder to myself about what those four months this winter gave me and what I want to remember today.
1. A good ending makes way for a good new beginning. There is another post I could write about what I’ve learned about good endings but in essence it all came down to being intentional and focused on finishing well. Yes, I had a good check-list of things to complete. Yes, I cleared my calendar for conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye. Yes, made space for us all to share what we learned and what questions had arisen in our ministry together. Most importantly, I gave myself to the grief of goodbye. I knew I was going to miss these people and this place. But instead of doing what I’d sometimes done before, jumping over or denying or walking around the grief, this time I stepped into it, felt it, gave myself to it. I talked about it, got support for myself through it, released it. And the gift of good grieving is that when I left I was done and I’ve been amazed how little I’ve looked back. It was time to say goodbye and my ending well honored the gift of the time we had shared and the new time before us all.
2. Find good partners to be with you on the way. I couldn’t have had the kind of good ending I’d had without the support, guidance, listening space and loving nudges and challenge of a spiritual director, coach, ACM and wise friends who hear and know me well. The regular conversations with all of them helped me to process and discover what I was feeling. Their good words reminding me of what I had expressed I wanted, help set me on the path forward.
3. Head North to Monson. After the final service, the liturgy of leave-taking, passing back the church keys, after the cake and after final hugs of goodbye, I headed north to Monson, Maine. Months before I left I’d dreamed I could stay on in town. I had a beautiful house I was renting, great friends in the community and a wonderful community that I’d really enjoyed living in. Why couldn’t I put down the position of pastor and stay on? It took a conversation with my coach to get me out of my imagination and into what was real. It was a small town. I’d run into people at church all the time and what I’d loved about being in town was connected to my role in the community as pastor. He helped me see what I was reluctant to see and yet knew – it was not really possible for me to stay on and have the new beginning the church and new pastor needed and I needed as well. He was right – they and I needed a new beginning. But where then was I to go?
I thought of how good it would be to have a place where I could settle for a couple of months – a place with what I had loved in Boothbay Harbor – a place with a YMCA for early morning gym classes and a pool, a place near the sea and places to hike, a place with the possibility of making new friends and not so far from the ones I’d left here. I made some inquiries and found a place that sounded like it might work but they wanted a longer lease than I could commit to – so now where to go?
The previous spring I’d been invited by friends to join them for a backpacking trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness, the last 100 miles and most remote part of the Appalachian Trail. I’d never gone backpacking for more than one night in the woods and that many years ago. However, I’d jumped on the opportunity, part of my joy in discovering all things Maine. The trek was challenging, hard, and oh so fun. When I returned, the church administrator remarked how I’d changed. “You came here months ago all buttoned up but you came back from that trip so relaxed, so at peace, so yourself.”
I thought of the beautiful little cabins Phil the Outfitter had where I could stay. Thought of the possibility of hiking the next section of the trail from Caratunk and back to Monson. I’d never hiked alone, never camped in the woods alone and the 32 miles from Caratunk to Monson would be a perfect place to try this on. Phil would be there to support me if needed and I already had the trail maps!
How good it was to have a destination to head to out of town after I finished. How good to have a good story to share. For sure, some people worried but others delighted in my stepping off the map of the familiar once more. I like to think it might have been encouragement for them to do the same as they welcomed a new pastor into their community.
An adventure thrust me out of my familiar place and routines into the disorientation that provided a great beginning for my realignment. A few months ago a good friend died and I was able to be with Wes’ wife Marcia for the weekend and memorial service. She shared the other day that she is “realigning”. She noted how everything is different now and she is slowly learning how to do things differently. Its not been easy but realigning often isn’t. Leaving a beloved community was its particular kind of loss and grief and getting out of my comfort zone and into my discovery zone helped me to realign. My adventure in the woods gave me a space to reconnect to my joy and love of adventure, challenged me to overcome obstacles in creative ways, gave me the space and time to grieve, let go and give myself to the trail ahead.
On my backpacking trip I began to learn about hiking in my own way. I learned that I didn’t hike like I did when with my friends. Instead of putting in 10-14 mile days I took 6 days to hike 32. I learned the joy of wandering and delighted that I discovered I am a true rambler. When I at last returned, Phil was curious, “What did you do out there all that time?”
“Oh Phil!” I exclaimed, “I had such a great time, I paused and listened when I was going too fast, spent a morning watching the fog lift off the lake, backtracked to spend the night camping on the top of a mountain peak so I could watch the sunset, moonrise and sunrise. I met wonderful people along the trail and delighted in the solitude.”
He shook his head, said he could never do that. He’d hiked 32 miles that week in 2 days that had taken me 6.
4. Go to Church. When I returned from my trek, I spent another couple of days hiking in the north Maine woods. I visited a church on Sunday that I discovered was in need of an interim and dreamed for a while of being there. I sent on my profile and received soon the best rejection note I had to date, “I think there are many churches who could use your gifts. Happy Holidays!” That set a pattern for my coming weeks – I went to church on Sundays whenever I could. Sunday morning helped ground and connect me to God and yes, gave me a wider perspective on what was happening in church. I learned what spoke to me and what didn’t.
As I packed to leave Monson, I was struck how sad I was. It had been a good start to a new beginning.
5. Blog. Scribble and remember what you are learning about yourself and interim times. As I started this interim time, I wanted the freedom to let go of most commitments, but I chose to commit to blogging each week about what I did and what I discovered so I could remember what I was learning and so my family and friends knew where I was! A few months ago, I’d put out a question on the Maine Conference FaceBook page asking if folks had leads or ideas on places I could spend some time that fall. I jumped on the two places that were shared – The Alcyon Center, a retreat center in Acadia National Park, and a rental on an island. Two perfect places to do what I wanted to do in this time as well – to have space and time to write and reflect on all I’d learned and was learning on the way. I love to write and writing is a practice that helps me keep in touch with how I’m feeling. It also helped to have these places set up so that as I left I had a schedule of where I was going to be – enough structure in the midst of the uncertainty I found helped. Because of COVID I also knew that I needed to hold these plans pretty loosely.
The time at the Alcyon Center was fabulous – a few others were there on retreat and I had time for things that ground and renew me – time for conversation, great hiking, shared meals, and time, yes, to write. Sometimes when I’ve planned on doing something I’ve gotten to that time and something else was now needed. I was delighted that I actually wanted to write and did! But instead of writing about Boothbay I wrote about my backpacking adventures the week before and my hikes that followed. I was struck that it wasn’t so much the memory of the past that called me but the present discoveries I was making. I enjoyed my time on the island with more time to hike and write about what I was discovering on the way.
6. Say Yes. Some invitations became possibilities as I said yes to a week-long backpacking trip with friends in Virginia and an invitation to visit former congregants at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, preach at their church and get to learn more about this fascinating school. I discovered the joy of being able to say yes and time to do things a full-time job, commitments and schedule don’t sometimes permit. Things were falling into place! I had the gift of spending a weekend at my nephew Thomas’ new apartment in New York, seeing friends in New Jersey and going for a run with my nephew Peter in Baltimore. Such a gift of time.
7. Discover the Strange “Gift” of Challenges. And yes, as things fell into place they fell out of place as well. Our backpacking trek with my friends in Virginia was great fun and then had to be called off early because of a sharp drop in temperatures which we weren’t prepared for. A wise decision to call our trek short and now the dislocation of wondering – where would I head next? I wasn’t expected in Berea for several more days so I took off for a cabin in West Virginia. It was a good place and I had some fun runs and exploring. It was also lonely, the first time I’d felt the longing for others who were not there. It made me all the more grateful when I got the chance to stay with a family in Berea.
And then there was my hand. Besides a couple of blisters, the only thing that hurt after coming down from our backpacking trip in Virginia was my hand. I did what I had too often done with injuries – ignored them figuring they would go away soon enough. My hand didn’t heal however – the pain didn’t go away and it started to swell. Despite my disappointment in not being able to finish our AT hike, I knew with my hand as it was I couldn’t have kept on going myself as I would have liked to have done. I headed off to Berea and after a few days gave in and contacted a doctor. Perhaps an infection, and for sure a need to see an orthopedic doctor about a possible break. Not in my plans. Neither was my sister’s surgery that had moved up a month. I wanted to check in on her and see how I could help out at home. I put down the writing retreat time I’d planned and headed to my sister’s home in Maryland. Besides, I had to get this hand looked at. I figured I could write while at her house.
The visit to the orthopedic doctor confirmed that I did not have a break but a good case of tendinitis. He put me in a splint and scheduled a time to see me 10 days later. So much for my writing retreat!
I had often told the story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41) – the Gospel story which seemed to me a perfect picture of an interim journey – a leaving of home for the opportunity to go to the other side of the lake. Along the way what happens, happens – a great storm, the disciples panicking in the boat and shaking Jesus awake, “Teacher! Do you not care if we should perish!”
It was my own stormy time in my little boat. This was not what I had in mind, and I felt all the fear, anxiety, creeping desolation and depression rising in me. I thought I was being held and led so well in these past weeks and now 6 weeks in look at what’s happened! Things are not going as planned.
I was good – okay, pretty good – at obeying the doctor’s orders for caring for my hand. I worked anyway I could to get around his order to keep the splint on all day. Tried to write with my left hand. Couldn’t read a thing I wrote.
It took me awhile to embrace not the time I had planned and wanted but the gift of this different time – the gift of time just to be with my nephews, to eat popcorn and watch Al Pacino movies, to take the dog for a walk, plan and make a Thanksgiving feast together, be there for my sister and help out around the house. To embrace the gift of this kind of time, ordinary family time without the pressures of other responsibilities and timelines.
8. Come to the End of the Road. I’d loved my time at the Alcyon Center earlier in the fall and was delighted to learn when I was there that I might be able to put together a time to return soon. They were offering a retreat on the 14th century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, which sounded particularly timely for me. Besides I needed to place myself in Maine again for the last commitment on my schedule – meeting friends from Boothbay in early December to attend the University of Maine hockey game and run the Millinocket Half Marathon.
It was exactly two months since I’d left Boothbay when we set out in 10 degrees on icy roads to run the half marathon. I’d told friends that Millinocket was at the end of the road heading north – now I’d reached my own end of the road. I didn’t have any commitments after this and a wide-open December. Disorienting and challenging as this time was, it also was when I really leaned into the discovery of the challenges and opportunities an interim time can provide.
9. Wander in the Fog. I headed south to Maryland and into the gray descent of a December fog. Nothing was clear. I treasured the words from The Cloud of Unknowing that this unknowing is the place off the map where God is to be met, but I can’t say I liked it. I had more interviews, wanted things to fit that weren’t fitting. I was most struck by a position I found and applied for that offered one week off each month. I thought it sounded perfect but I realized that what really interested me was that one week off each month! The three weeks of work weren’t what I was called to or passionate about. I wanted to make it work, kept trying to see how it might work when I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit for me or for them. It wasn’t what I wanted. The search committee got it. “Are you really ready to settle?,” they asked. No, I had to admit I wasn’t. I wasn’t longing for a settled position, I wanted to take a community adventuring in a time of discovery. I wasn’t ready to settle for something just to make it fit.
And so in the fog, I gave myself to the gift of what was there – my niece home from college and more time with my family, for games and play, for simple routines like morning swims and classes at the Y. My sister improved and along the way that month, so did I, including my hand. I went to church and met a community and colleague who is doing the kind of ministry connecting Spirit and Wilderness that I’m passionate about. Conversations led to new connections and opportunities.
10. Discover Ghost Ranch. As it became clear that things were taking their time coming together, I wondered, where to place myself in January? I remembered Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’d been there decades before in another liminal time and the wide open terrain and vast sky had served me well. Perhaps it was just what I needed. A quick search showed they had a January term and an opportunity to join the “Adult Service Corps” that would cover most of my expenses. I didn’t overthink it, signed up to go that day. And yes, why not go for the whole three weeks?
Ghost Ranch was right where I needed to be, the kind of open space to help open my imagination and discovery. Much to my surprise I loved serving on the Service Corps and tearing apart cabinets, using power tools, painting. It got me out of my head thinking and planted in my body and present. A great team to work with and so much fun.
I’ve been struck by the many ways I’d grown and changed during these past months. My flight to Santa Fe was delayed due to snow and later cancelled when the airport shut down. I spent the day at the airport reading a good book knowing that I had no control over what happened and let unfold what would. It’s what happened at Ghost Ranch too. I’d come with all my ideas and plans of time to write and paint and ended up doing neither. Instead gave myself to the gift of this place – to good work and conversations, wandering the trails, early morning runs and making new friends. I was learning again about being present to what is and less triggered and clinging to the way I wanted things to be.
When a friend died, I was able to say right away to his wife, I’ll be there. I had a clearer sense of what I needed to do and more agile in pivoting to it. So many surprises along the way and little of what I “planned” on leaving Boothbay Harbor. I’d told folks as I left that I was going to find another interim position and here I was headed to this position job as a sabbatical pastor for a few months. So much has changed, so much opened up beyond my expectations since leaving Boothbay Harbor four months ago.
11. Trust Things Get Figured Out. At Ghost Ranch, I signed up for a weekly on-line class on “Navigating Change” hoping that it would help me get stuff figured out. Yes, it provided some good tools and reminders, encouragement from others in interim times as well. But more than helping me “figure stuff out,” the course reminded me that things are being “figured out” beyond my planning and control.
It’s a message I’d shared in my previous interim of learning to trust in the mysterious process of transition. To believe and trust what is hard to see in the passage from one side of the lake to the other, especially when a storm comes up – that Jesus is there, has always been there in the boat with us. We are making our way.
No, its not about just sitting passively and doing nothing along the way – it is about finding the things we really need to be doing that bring us back to the presence of Jesus in the boat, to learn to adjust the sails to heed and follow the wind of the Spirit. It’s such a different kind of stance than sitting tight fisted at the edge of your seat, which is in fact no way to sail a boat. No, to sail well, means to breathe and sit back, open and awake to everything happening around you, holding the mainsheet and tiller light in your hands so that you can feel the subtle shift of wind and be ready to respond.
Do I do it all the time? Of course not, and this interim time certainly taught me that – taught me the humility that as much as I talk a good talk to a community about the opportunity of interims and the joy and possibility of a sail across the lake to the unknown, that I struggle with trusting this journey myself and would often choose another path than this. But despite myself I have a deeper confidence as well in the unfolding of time and trusting in God’s lead and hand in it.
Things got “figured out” beyond all my figuring as I let go, stayed present, pivoted, got out of sorts and found my way back to ground again, opened to possibilities I never imagined. Tried things I thought I wouldn’t like and ended up loving them. Had conversations, made connections that took me to the next step. Sounds like a good interim time and in it, yes, I learned more about being there with people in times like these.
I did in fact what I really wanted to do – got re-grounded in God – the unknown, mystery, Spirit of God, learned to practice loosening my grip. Learned time and again to put down what gets in my way – my desire for false security and control and be open to what I need most of all – an open heart and spirit to keep listening for and heeding the Spirit’s call.
I don’t know where the road leads in the next few months after this position ends. But I trust more than ever that this not-knowing will serve me well. I’ll give myself to the present needs and bring a deeper trust that Jesus is in the boat with us.
Yes, by the time this new position started, I was ready to say yes to this good work. Rested, grounded, humbled, open, knowing more intimately some of the feelings and triggers, stumbling places and opportunities that come up at interim times like this for all of us. Yes, things that I hoped for never happened and things that didn’t were gifts. I had the interim in fact I knew I needed all along and yes, however reluctantly I entered it, it has served me well.
12. Take the time to remember, reflect and write what you learned up before you move on to the next new beginning! I ended my interim time on a week retreat in upstate New York at Colgate’s Chapel House in Hamilton. Just the gift of time I needed to take those early morning runs, wander the woods, and reflect and write on what happened and all I learned in these past months. What a wonderful gift to receive before starting this new position. And because I took that time – this piece came to be! So grateful!
All week I’ve been rejoicing in skiing in circles. Some fifty miles of circles on the cross country trail and most of them on the trail at the little golf course around the corner from my parent’s house here in Laconia, New Hampshire.
Yes, the snow’s been spectacular, the weather perfect. Yes, the luxury of stepping out the door and soon onto the trail. But its been the joy of what’s happened circling those same small trails, time and again that has been true gift and grace.
Earlier this winter there I was in Bethesda, Maryland circling the lane at the outdoor pool. I delighted several times each week stepping outside to walk to the pool, barefoot and shivering, my towel draped around my neck, putting on my swim goggles and sitting at the edge of the pool, calves in warm water (yes, the outdoor pool was heated!) and then jumping in to circle, back and forth, up and down the lane.
There’s something about the slow circling of the cross country ski trail, the same lane at the pool, that I find so freeing.
But like all journeys, circling takes its own time.
When I start circling the same trail through the woods or lane at the pool, I watch my mind and memory often trace back to the past, back to a stuck place or decision, a question or query.
How many times in my life have I circled problems to no avail. Circled solutions I was unable to see. I’ve known the fixation of believing that if only I circled that stuck place one more time I’d be able to see my way through. Yes, I’ve known the obsession of my over-thinking, wanting to fix everything fixation! Often I’ve had to remember time and again that its been stepping away, getting outside for a walk around the block and one more time again, that I’ve been able to be freed to see “the problem” or myself, or my place and role, in a new and clearer way.
Yes, there’s something about the physical act of circling that helps me find a way when there is no way.
As I circle the ski trail, swim laps in the pool, I find that the interior, mind-fixing and obsessing noise increases for a while, and with it, at times, the intensity of that stuck place or memory. But keeping at it, keeping circling, something else happens and there’s this opening.
It’s like the shades have been pulled away, it’s like I see. I notice the tree, the blue sky, the sun lighting up the tops of the trees across the forest. I see the sun glistening now off the snow that I notice is quite icy. As I circle, I still, I quiet. I breathe. I’m in awe at the wonder that I’m breathing and that I do it most of the time without my even noticing. I feel the bite of the wind, look up and notice that there’s a sky overhead and there are grey clouds moving slowly above me.
And then in the face of everything that can never be fixed and will never be solved, amidst all my little obsessions and worries, there is this slide of the ski. There is this stilling to sky. And it is more, so much more than enough.
That is, the big news here on this particular section of the Neponset River where it rounds the bend and opens into the wide, reedy-brown marsh.
That is, the big news for my friends and their concerned and watchful neighbors.
It seems last summer, someone abandoned their pet, a domesticated white crested duck down here at the river. Over the past months, The Duck’s new human neighbors have been much interested in tracking the distinct white duck with the awkward nob on the top of his/her/their? head.
They’ve reached for their binoculars each morning, recorded, and FaceBooked their sightings. Marveled as the wary duck and mallards built a slow connection and camaraderie. But these past weeks with the river now frozen and another icy storm on the way, they’ve been watching with worry.
My friends look out on the icy river this Thursday evening, thick fog descending. No sign of the duck.
Would The Duck be able to find warmth in the company of the mallards?
How would The Duck survive if the mallards flew off? They’ve watched with concern as the poor Duck has tried to fly with them, alas cannot.
Sometimes I’ll admit I’ve rolled my eyes and been downright dismissive of stories like this one. Sometimes, been all too quick to judge such stories as silly distractions amidst all the sorrow and struggle, incomprehensible violence and disasters in the world. I mean, look at us, pouring all this care into The Duck when there are people down the street who are longing for this kind of connection and care. I mean, look at us humans, able to see and notice a lone duck and so unwilling to see each other.
But This Duck, well, got to me. Broke through my icy dismissal and opened my heart.
On Thursday I’d outpaced the winter storm coming across upstate New York and arrived safely at the warm home of friends in Milton, Massachusetts late that afternoon. Along the way, wonderful vistas of fog rising through valleys, rolling fields of yellow corn stalks poking up through the snow. So many wonderful scenes and no possibility to safely pull off the road and take a a picture.
Friday morning the storm caught up to the Massachusetts coast here in Milton. I woke to pouring rain soon turning to sleet. Took off for my morning run down the trail next to the T, puddles deeper than I anticipated, icy water pouring down into my shoes. Glasses sleet speckled and fogged. So cold. So wet. So fun!
Circling back to my friend’s condo, I head down by the riverbank for one final loop. Much to my surprise, I spot the brace of waddling mallards coming up over the ice.
Turn and share the surprise of a warm greeting with white haired and blue jacketed Mike, who’s ventured down here on this cold morning to check in on (of course!), The Duck.
As he explains how the duck’s top-heavy crest makes them much more adept on water than land, we look out and see there just beyond the mallards, The Duck!
By now, I’m as happy as he is to see The Duck I’d only heard of. They’ve survived! I can’t wait to tell my friends!
Onto these critters we throw our personification, pour out our empathy. Why? Is it our longing for a story of survival and grit, for what we pray is possible amidst impossible odds? Is it our need for a new story to break open our tired and diminished imaginations? Is it love?
Survival of the vulnerable and overcoming differences to survive together, is not the big news in the Sunday paper today. Perhaps its because we don’t know what to do with all that’s in today’s news that we pour out our empathy and are stirred to action by the orca nursing her sick calf, the lone bird far off course trying to find her way home, this resilient Duck.
Perhaps need these little nature stories to recall us to our own better natures.
Yes, perhaps drawn to them to break free our imaginations from icy cynicism or despair.
Perhaps, need these stories of daily hope believing that if The Duck can survive this night, perhaps we can as well.
Perhaps, drawn to the awe and beauty of witnessing creatures connecting across difference when all too often we can’t see beyond our own.
I don’t know, perhaps for all of that, and perhaps for what we don’t even know and struggle to name.
What I do know is two strangers, me and Mike, are chatting merrily together in the shower of sleet because of The Duck.
Later that morning, my friend Anne comes down with a handful of cracked corn. The mallards see her coming and waddle over to devour the corn.
Our friend, The Duck, remains out there paddling, ignoring her call, as if to say, “Thanks very much, I’m doing just fine.”
And much to our delight, thanks to you, Duck, so now are we.
I trace my index finger slowly carefully, up and around and one more time around the labyrinth. Whoops a quick turn here I almost missed.
This month I’m taking a class on “Navigating Transitions” and today our teacher has invited us to take a few minutes to trace our way through this finger labyrinth. As we trace our way, she encourages us to remember and reflect on how we have walked through our own journeys of transition.
What I know this afternoon is how incredibly good I am at this. I mean look at me, so carefully following the lines, so quick too! Whoops — not so quick. I guess I’m not at the end yet. More careful tracing, careful, careful. Yes! The middle successfully reached and in record time!
Most students in our class on “Navigating Transitions” don’t think much of the finger labyrinth and I thought I’d be one of them too.
But then something happened when I tried to trace my way out of the middle and back to the beginning. I start back, so confident and clear and then I can’t get out. I mean, I keep coming right back to the middle again. This silly game and I am so frustrated. What’s happened? What’s wrong?
And then my frustration breaks into laughter. It comes to me as it has come so many times before and will time and again as I never seem to get the point of it before I forget it again — its not really about being so good. That’s not even the question.
Tracing or walking a labyrinth can be a way to get in touch with your intention for your path ahead.
Tracing or walking a labyrinth can reveal you and how you walk.
Sometimes I think, I’m so good at this! And maybe for the moment, I am. So bright. So careful and quick. And then here I am the next moment circling right back to where I began, slipping in mud and covered in paint.
Today, I get another lesson in humility and reminder that the way I walk the path of life matters. Learn yet again that I’m better walking mine with a little lightness and ease than with some surefire fixed intent to show how quick and competent I am.
The impact of our way of walking was all brought home to me later this week in a walk through a pueblo with anthropologist Martha Yates.
The Tsankawi Pueblo, part of the Bandelier National Monument, was established about 1400. And what I think is like the coolest thing here is that the paths of the people who lived here are worn away into the pumice on the mesa. We literally are walking the paths they walked here some 600 years ago. Some of us in our group realize they were quite smaller than we are while some of us stride through the narrow paths with ease. Martha tells us there are seven, eight miles of these trails here. I want to explore them all.
Once again, a reminder that time is not linear, its vertical. Its not that we have stepped away from our past, moved on from the lives we have lived. The past is here beneath our feet. We walk as we do, stumble as we stumble because of the paths our ancestors have worn before us.
We learn that some 800 to 1000 feet under the earth here at Ghost Ranch are the footprints of those who have walked here before us. Last year archaeologists discovered in White Sands, New Mexico, the footprints of children playing by a stream bed 21,000-23,000 years ago.
We wear a way as we walk in the way of those who have gone before us.
How we walk, where we walk, matters.
The paths we trace, we leave for the children who come after us.
How mindlessly I tromp through the snow, slip through the mud, so unaware of my path and the consequences.
The people who walked here knew as they walked that their feet were massaging winter seeds.
Today is Imbolc, and we’re halfway between winter solstice and the spring equinox. The days are continuing to grow slowly lighter though its still dark and cold. It certainly is here in Hamilton, New York, well below freezing when I’ve been out for my early morning runs and afternoon walks in the woods. But today, its warmer, up near thirty and the trees talking to each other in sharp crackling, warmed by the sun and warmer temperature.
I’d never heard of the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc until last month when archaeologist Martha Yates mentioned it in her lecture at Ghost Ranch on archaeoanthropology (yet another word I’d never heard of.) She explains how ancient people here traced and tracked the cycles of the sun and moon, equinox and solstice in petroglyphs and stone formations. Noted the path of moonrise from its most southern to northern point on the horizon.
“Does anyone know how long that takes?”, Yates asks.
One hand raised.
18.6 years. Who knew?
Why did they do this? For sure, they were scientists of their day and curious. But for all we don’t know about why they marked the growing and fading cycles of light, we know that alignment of their ceremonial life with the celestial and natural cycles and seasons mattered. They knew bad things would happen if things got out whack between the cycles.
Alignment? I don’t even think about alignment until my car starts easing to the left. Alignment of ceremonies with the stars and seasons? It all sounds very New Age-y and perhaps it is. But it’s also, Yates reminds us, very old, as old as our ancestors in Africa, Ireland and the Southwest.
Today, I’m quick to think I can overcome and outsmart the cycles of stars and nature herself. Perhaps with track lights and central air we’ve proven we can. And of course we can see as well today the dire consequences when we’ve forget that we’re not really that separate from cycles and seasons larger than ourselves.
Alignment matters. Can we remember our way back to it? And if we did, what might it mean for how we mark our days, for what we pause and notice? What might arise if we recovered ancient festivals to pause and celebrate, reground and reroot?
In the Southwest, the wide open landscape and sky, the absence of light and not a heck of a lot of other stuff going on, makes it a natural place for me to notice such things as sunrise, sunset and moonrise.
I notice with thanks the difference the growing light makes in seeing the potholes and ice when I’m out on my morning run. Grateful for the gift of the light of the Wolf Moon that helps me see my way back down to my room.
I call out to my workmates to come see the dark clouds of the storm coming up the valley. Step out into the immersive cold chill of this dark morning, wonder on the slow warming of the day as I shed my jacket and gloves. Yes, get slippery red mud tracked all over me and around my room as a reminder that I’m actually not that separate from all this muck and majesty.
What is happening here is of course happening everywhere, its just that so often I don’t notice. Or I notice it sometimes and then forget. Already, I’ve lost track of the moon today (New Moon to Waxing Crescent).
Alignment with what is happening out there in the world and in here in us and our life together feels very earthy and incarnational, very Christian to me or perhaps the possibility of what Christianity could be again. The kind of alignment that Jesus knew who speaks of the care of lilies, stands in a boat to speak to wind and sea.
If you had told me that I’d actually enjoy tearing out old cabinets and measuring counter tops, learning to use the power drill and sander (or actually sanding at all), I’d have said, No that doesn’t sound like me.
I’ve never been particularly good at or interested in house projects and repair, but here I am loving our tearing apart and putting together work, loving being part of our little service corps team at Ghost Ranch.
Yesterday we took apart a bookshelf. Today, moving dinosaur bones and pulling out a dusty rug. Tomorrow, blue taping the walls and preparing to put on a coat of fresh paint and add some new life to this little room.
I’ve scurried up scaffolding and popped out rivets, plastered holes in the wall and sanded them smooth, learned how to measure the space between two walls.
For sure, its the gift of our wonderful foreman, Art, who patiently shows us how to do such things. Yes, wonderful teammates, Mark and Eric.
Yes, good work that gets me out of my head spinning and into the slow presence of now. Slowed to the specificity of tape measures and pencil markings, slowed to the careful blue taping of the edges of walls and rinsing paint brushes. Slow enough to be present.
The agreement is to serve 25 hours a week for such things as painting and plastering, and then for a nominal fee, receive the gift of room and board and Ghost Ranch.
Every morning I’m up in the dark following the beam of my headlamp down the dirt road to the highway or out past Georgia O’Keefe’s house. Back for morning yoga, a bowl of hot oatmeal, eggs and green salsa and back to work.
Days marked tracking the orange sunrise and sunset, the slow moonrise and changing light on the mesa, red and tan, now dark purple and gold. In between, good company, good work, great joy.
Over the next two weeks I’ll hike all the trails, get caked with slippery ruddy mud that sticks like plaster to my pants and boots (and still’s here on my boots weeks later), leaving a fine trace of red dust and Ghost Ranch wherever I go. All the while, the snow, slowly melting, the moon quietly growing.
Sometimes I’m surprised by remembering something from years ago, like that silent watcher in stone that towers above the path to Box Canyon.
Early one morning, I stop on the trail. Hear, Receive.
I look up, open my hands. I do, I am. Receive it all.
Am I the one “serving” or is this place serving me?
Last month it had become clear that the coming together of my next step forward was taking its own time. Where in this liminal time, between the home I had left and the home that was yet to be, would be a good place to place myself in January?
My question led me to the memory of a place I’d gone in another such time, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. A quick search and a few emails later affirmed that the “Adult Service Corps” for three weeks in the “January Term” might be right what I was looking for – an opportunity for community and solitude, some good work to do and a good place to ponder, a chance to return to a place I’d loved.
29 years ago I’d arrived in Santa Fe on the overnight train from Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm. I read William Least Heat Moon’s story of his own travel odyssey, Blue Highways, as we passed through the long rolling hills of Kansas and shared breakfast with an Oklahoma rancher in a white brimmed hat. We arrived at the small train station hours late, on towards midnight, greeted by the surprise of falling snow and relieved as well to see the pickup’s headlights in the small parking lot of the staff member who had waited for me.
The week before I’d left my position as executive director of a community-based AIDS organization in Evanston, Illinois. I’d been hired as their first director three and half years before and in that time BE-HIV (Better Existence with HIV) had grown from 1 staff member to 8, from 1 volunteer to over 200. The fast growth outgrew my passion for bringing people together to create something new. I believed they now needed a new leader with experience in nonprofit management to take them to the next level.
That’s what I usually said.
What I didn’t usually say is that three months earlier Rob had walked into my office. Actually, limped down the hall, leaning heavily on his wooden cane. He was 35, tall, thin, neatly trimmed brown hair. A long tender face and the saddest of eyes. Last week he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. In 1992 receiving an AIDS diagnosis meant you had two years to live. I’d seen it happen so many times, almost to the day, like some horrible, relentless clockwork. That afternoon when Rob walked in, I looked up into his brown eyes and knew, I cannot do this one more time.
I was 31. I had plenty of energy. I knew how it to work hard and long hours. It wasn’t that. What I didn’t know was what to do with this grief.
After so many deaths and the inevitability of so many more, after so many people who I had cared and hoped and grieved for, I knew when I looked up at Rob, that I couldn’t do this one more time. Couldn’t imagine one more intake, one more Monday night dinner sitting around the table and hearing the stories, attend one more funeral. Couldn’t give my heart one more time to someone I would too soon be saying goodbye.
Some months earlier, I’d found myself in the emergency room. For months I’d been finding it hard to take a deep breath. That afternoon an ache in my chest led to a call to my doctor and being hooked up to an EKG, sticky ointment and cold tubes stuck on my chest. No, not a heart attack but a good case of stress.
It was one of the first times I’d come up against this reality called “limits” and I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I’d learned well how to push through, get through, climb over and see beyond. But what do you do when pushing harder won’t get you to where you need to be?
Today, 29 years later I sit here in the empty conference room, grey tile floor and grey wall, Kitchen Mesa glowing red and brown in the afternoon sun. Hear the slow clicking of his cane down the hall, the surprise of moistness at the corner of my eyes all these decades later as I remember the names and faces that had brought me to Ghost Ranch those many years ago.
I don’t know how I knew I needed this, this “solace of fierce landscape” as the theologian Belden Lane speaks of places like this. I knew nothing of New Mexico but something in me knew it was the place I needed to be. And so a slow rumbling train to this vast, starkly beautiful landscape of red and brown stone and the bluest of sky, a place big enough for all my questions and empty enough for all the grief I did not know how to hold or name.
The next week, the gift of time and space I needed.
Each morning I set out to explore a new trail. As I climbed the mesas and buttes, I learned the joy of hiking without a clear destination. No peak to conquer, but a trail to discover. Along the way, paused to take pictures of craggy rock formations that became a broken communion table; a grey gnarled snag, a weeping Christ.
Practiced silent rituals opening empty hands to honor, release the young men and women I’d loved into a care bigger than I could hold. Lifted and tossed the weight of anger and sadness for families and church who would not say the name of AIDS, the names of lovers and partners, as if the silence would take the pain away.
Here I could say their names, and recall their stories. Here find the solitude I craved and the companionship I needed, meals with the dozen or so seniors in an elder hostel course, the only other guests on the ranch. Every evening, the men in the group would lean across the table, longing for me to tell them where I’d gone and what I’d discovered, jealous of my freedom as they’d sat in class while I wandered the valley and explored the trails.
The men and women we served at BE-HIV had found their way to strangers to an anonymous office site in a church basement because they couldn’t find what they were looking for anyplace else. Here in a basement of concrete block walls and small windows looking out on grey window wells, they found the compassion, the care, the friendship they craved. Here could talk about what they feared and ask for what they needed. Here find something of that love and care that the people and places they would have gone to for such support were unable or unwilling to provide. When they died, I attended their funerals where so often the name of AIDS was never named, partners and lovers uninvited or unrecognized.
That winter I’d begun to talk a bit more about the call I felt to help make the church upstairs from our office basement more open and welcoming to the people we served at BE-HIV. Over the next years, Dave and I knocked together on many church doors as we sought a place to serve together in ministry. Knocking on the door of the church and inviting it to live into its name of being a place where “all are welcome” became our passion and call.
Now, decades later, I’ve come here again to open my heart. To discern, to receive the next step in the call to walk with a people out beyond the limits of their familiar into the mystery of their becoming. Out from their home that was into the home unseen that is yet to be. Out into the possibility and discovery of the wild and wilderness, this place for exploration and adventure, of learning and limits, for trying and failing and trying again. For finding that next step as we make our way to the new way of life we all need as a people and planet in this dark and deep season of change and transition.
To this vast emptiness, this stark beauty, I open my heart.
I’ve been thinking of friends. The gift and wonder of those particular friends who show up in your life unexpected and unplanned. Friends who in some mysterious way just by their presence along the way have shaped who you are and who you have become. Those friends who changed you not necessarily because of what you did with them, but just because of who they are.
Wes was one of those friends, one of those wonderful friends I was so blessed to have part of my life. When Wes’s wife Marcia called me a few weeks ago to tell me Wes had died and to invite me to say a few words at his memorial service, I, who have spent my life using words, found myself speechless. How do you even find words, how do you even speak of what a friend means in your life?
As I pondered how to possibly find words to share to speak of my friend Wes, I found myself drawn to what is beyond words and says it so much clearer – pictures, music, stories, memory.
For me, memories that began of me as a 27 year old young man who had recently moved to Chicago with his partner Dave. That winter we met Marcia and Wes at church.
What a surprise it is of these people who somehow show up in our lives. Why of all these people who come in and out of our lives have made these particular people our friends? Perhaps they were just the friends we needed, the kind of friends we didn’t even know we were looking for.
The late 1980’s, early 90’s in Chicago were a challenging time, a hard time. Here we were in a strange new city far from family and friends. It was our first time living together, Dave in social work school, I the director of a community AIDS organization in Evanston. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and with it so much loss and fear, anxiety and uncertainty. A time of missing the stability and comfort of the lives we once had, wondering if we would ever get them back. A time perhaps not that different from this time.
Amidst that challenging and growing time, Marcia and Wes recalled us to the gift of ordinary time. The gift of evening card games and puzzles, laughter and play, to wonderful meals around their dining room table.
In the years to come, as our friendship grew, there were hard and disappointing times, uncertain times when we wondered if and how we would live into our dreams and doubt if we ever could. In the midst, there were our friends Marcia and Wes with us and for us along the way, recalling us to the gift of this present moment and time. Recalling us to wonder and joy, to puzzles and pranks, to life.
Yes, there were joyous times as well. Dave and I celebrated our commitment service at St. Pauls Church where I sat with them in the pew each Sunday and Dave sang in the choir. Marcia and Wes hosted our families after the service back at their home. They were those kind of friends.
When we moved away, our friendship moved with us. Yes, it was different but every time we got together we were right back at it like no time had passed.
It’s now many decades later and life has been full of joy and blessings, yes, thanks be. And yes, of loss and grief, of disconnection and dislocation as this is the way of life as well. The kind of lost and wordless times it is hard to find words to make your way out of.
And then, the gift of words that finally come. An email, a phone call, “Hi, I’m coming to the city and would love to see you.” And the friendship was right there; it of course had never left.
It was a few months ago that I last had the chance to talk with Wes. He was at the nursing home and that day, a good day. We talked of ordinary things and as our time drew to say goodbye, the words that were always there and had never left, I love you, Wes.
When Marcia called to tell me Wes had died and when the memorial service was planned, the words came right away as well, I’ll be there. No question, no doubt, no second guessing or second thoughts. Maybe I’d learned the cost of not being there at such times when I could have. Maybe the words for where I needed to be were just given, quick and clear. I’ll see you soon.
Yes, so glad I was there last weekend. Such a privilege, such a gift to just be a friend who is there with a friend in times like this.
As I look back on last Saturday afternoon, and remember the faces of Wes’s friends in the sanctuary I give thanks again for the gift of Wes and what we experienced and shared that day in memories and music, pictures and the words that finally found us,