“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

In 1971 I etched those words with a pocket knife in the green enamel of the bridge railing where the main road crossed Rondout Creek (“crick”) in Alligerville, New York. My father had a sprawling old farmhouse there, which he escaped to from the city over weekends and summers. The creek divided a gravel road lined with houses from Frank’s store. The thing to do, if you were twelve in Alligerville in the summer, was to walk across the bridge to the store. Several times a day. I’m guessing our gang of five or six bored kids accounted for at least half of Frank’s non-gas business. For days on end we subsisted on popsicles, soda, cigarettes, and jerky, bought with spare change mixed with pocket lint, pooled together with the occasional crumpled dollar bill.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. (I guess every day is. That’s the point, right?) But today was my first day untethered from a wonderful job I held for five years. Today is the day of wondering: what am I doing? What’s next? I feel a bit like Adam and Eve thrown out of Milton’s paradise: “And the world lay all before them.”

So what’s next? Only God knows, has been my answer to this habitual question from colleagues, friends, and parishioners.

IMG_2975Yesterday I walked from my car to the cafe where I’ve had a quick latte and journal-spew every Sunday morning before church for the past few years. These shoes caught my eye. They remind me of so many things: who I longed to be back when I was twelve, summer feet toughened against the hot tar as I stood barefoot scratching words on the bridge railing. Who I tried to be for a season or two in college, metallic blue eyeshadow caked on in layers before heading out to a dive college town disco. They remind me of an imaginary younger self: flashy, nimble, and daring.

I love loving those shoes, but I don’t ever have to wear them. They’re not even my size. But on this first day of the rest of my life, everything is up for grabs.

What I’ve learned from books, lately

photo 2 (48)A few days ago over lunch a friend said: “I imagine it’s pretty hard getting ready to leave your parish. All kinds of things must be coming up for you.”

I’m moving out of my office. Slowly, surely, I’m leaving a job where I’ve been for the past five plus years, a job where I’ve worked harder and had more fun than I ever thought possible at church. It’s a hard place to leave, in spite of knowing that it’s time. Yes, many things are coming up for me. But instead of telling him about all those things, I just talked about my books.

As a woman of the cloth, I have a lot of books. Books acquired before, during, and since seminary, book-group books, gift books, someday-when-I-have-more-time books. Most people in my position go through life moving their books from one office to the next until they retire and have a huge book sale, or give the books away, or box them up for their heirs to deal with. But I’m neither going to another office nor retiring. When contemplating this move I realized I wasn’t ready to put the books in boxes or give them away, and instead hired a talented young man to build some gorgeous shelves in my study at home.

photo 1 (49)Over the past six weeks or so, since the time the shelves were completed, I’ve taken a box home from the office every few days. I’ve tried to cull through them and give some away, but that has not been easy. I’ve been able to part with maybe fifty books out of I-don’t-know-how-many hundreds. I’ve been meticulous about organizing them: scripture commentary on the shelves by the desk, theology and ethics on the shelves by the armchair. Church music and worship next to the desk, my father’s amazing photo album collection and books for daily prayers next to the armchair. Dictionaries (including Latin and Greek dictionaries which I haven’t opened for decades) are next to the desk; poetry is next to the armchair. Church history didn’t fit; it’s spread out over two shelves in the guest room. Church growth and development sprinkled across both study shelves. You get the idea.

It’s been great to take the books from office to home one box at a time, rather than dreading a big overwhelming moving day. I want my final goodbyes to be separate from packing and moving and sorting. Ditto with my first week at home without a sermon to write or parish meetings to attend.

What I’ve learned from my books is that I that I have a whole lot more commentaries on scripture than I ever knew, and that each one is a particular treasure. I’ve learned that somewhere along the way I picked up a dozen different books on Saint Paul and have yet to read them. And that in me is the intent to read them. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of great stuff out there on Christian ethics and that much of it is on my shelves. I’ve learned that I’m not done with study or preaching or diving deep into worship.

On Saturday I brought home the last box of books. Shockingly, they just fit. Because the books seem to have become a metaphor for what I’m affectionately calling My Big Transition to God Knows What, the fact that they all fit bodes well for whatever comes next. And whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a book to go with it.

 

The Curses of Psalm 69

Psalm 69 always comes around on a Friday in the Daily Office in the Episcopal tradition. It’s fitting, if you think of every Sunday is a “little Easter” and every Friday as a “little Good Friday.” Why not include the Psalm that includes these Good Friday words?

They gave me gall to eat, *
and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm-69-29-web-nltThis morning, Psalm 69 came around again and I had a vivid memory of being in the chapel of the first church I joined in Portland in a dark, rainy Friday morning in 1987. The priest, deacon, and I were about to say morning prayer. The deacon would write the psalms for each day on a clipboard he’d attached to the chapel wall. Marker held aloft, he paused and turned to the priest to ask: “Shall we leave out the curses in Psalm 69?”

Psalm 69 is one of those psalms that gives the Bible a bad name, gives God a bad name,  section is marked as optional in our collection of daily readings.

Psalm 69 is in a special category of psalm called an “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalm. It begins familiarly enough:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

The psalmist is surrounded by enemies, and God is his or her only hope. Familiar enough, right? The psalmist prays fro God’s unfailing help. But then, two dozen verses in, the psalm takes a twist:

 Let the table before them be a trap
and their sacred feasts a snare.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
and give them continual trembling in their loins.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.

Let them be wiped out of the book of the living
and not be written among the righteous.

Really? Of course we want to leave out the curses. Most people do. And yet. The curses remind us that the people who wrote the psalms believed in a God who could handle all of their hateful, vengeful feelings of which, I imagine, in their collective heart of hearts, they must have been just a little bit ashamed. The angry, cursing psalms are not an indictment against an angry, vindictive God, but rather a confession of an angry, vindictive people. The God whom they try to co-opt into their pain is a God who can handle the whole infinite range of human emotion–that’s the blessing of the cursing psalms.

Yes, we can leave out the curses of Psalm 69. But isn’t it good to know that we can leave them in?

It’s been a long time….

spiral clock…since I’ve blogged on this site. (I’m sure you’ve never seen that before, eh?) Which is not to say that there’s not lot going on in my little world. I’ve been busy over at Define Fitness, and continuing the journey of integrating and holding together the various pieces of life: personal training, parish-priesting, fun with other churches in my work with the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, working on my memoir (will it ever end? doubtful), and, last but not least, hanging out with my beloved menfolk every chance I get.

PassageOfTimeSepiaI hope that the handful of you who regularly read this blog are having a similarly rich, full time, and experiencing many blessings and much peace. And stay tuned.

 

Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

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was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

Feast your eyes….

Here are some photos from my afternoon at the Tate Modern. No captions, no commentary, no nothing. (Phew!)

No commentary except about this first photo, that is, of a guard (I know they don’t call them “guards” any more….a concierge?) at the Tate. At the risk of seeming both overly forward and horribly middle-aged (not to mention American), I told her I thought her hair was a work of art and asked if I could take her picture. She was happy to oblige, and took my request very seriously in a way that I found touching.

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Choose your own adventure: some thoughts on pilgrimage

IMG_1936My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.

There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.

There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.

Durham CathedralThere are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.

Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.

IMG_1942A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.

IMG_1941As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”

This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.

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My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?

nathan hundred acre wood