tiny grief song

September 12, 2013

Robbie and I recently went through the loss of a miscarriage. No matter how common people tell you a miscarriage is, the feelings of grief and sadness when it’s happening and then after are devastating.

For those who have also been through this or another kind of loss that is private, difficult to understand or accept, I wanted to share a poem I just read the other night before bed – from one of Mary Oliver’s newer books of poetry called Evidence. This one’s called “Swans”.

They appeared   

   over the dunes,

      they skimmed the trees

         and hurried on

to the sea

   or some lonely pond

      or wherever it is

         that swans go,

urgent, immaculate,

   the heat of their eyes

      staring down

         and then away,

the thick spans

   of their wings

      as bright as snow,

         their shoulder power echoing

   inside my own body.

      How could I help but adore them?

         How could I help but wish

that one of them might drop

   a white feather

      that I should have

         something in my hand

to tell me

   that they were real?

      Of course

         this was foolish.

What we love, shapely and pure,

   is not to be held,

       but to be believed in.

         And then they vanished, into the unreachable distance.

This baby would have been born in early March, so we planted a forsythia—that friendly yellow bloom that is the first to blaze in spring—to honor the memory of this life that was and never was.

However painful our losses, life moves along. We get through them with the love and mercy and grace of God. And we heal and start to feel like ourselves again—like ourselves again, but forever changed. 

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Mother Goose

July 3, 2012

I have been waking up early because, frankly, at eight months pregnant, there is a limit to the number of hours one can find a comfortable lying down position. And most mornings, over the last month or so, in these dawn hours, I’ve been watching a mother turkey in our front yard and her gaggle of “turklets” (our made-up name) romping around behind her in the tall grass. To my human eye, she seems to give them tough love and makes noises from her beak that are improbable in the gentle early morning. Her small birds seem to do what she tells them to do. And by the time the sun burns away the fog of dawn, she and her brood disappear into the woods, which is when I step off the porch to let our chickens out of their coops.

I guess for some of us, caring for pets is a precursor to caring for children. Our eight hens recently witnessed the neighbor’s rooster (who moved to our house the day we moved in and never left) get blown to bits by a shotgun. The rooster was a hideously aggressive gamecock with spurs, who was bred to fight anyone and anything that threatened his territory. He had become so aggressive, so ugly and ultimately so murderous of other, gentler creatures under our care, that we had no choice but to take him out. My brother-in-law came over one Sunday after church, hatched a plan with my husband and they did the deed. We took some pictures and buried him. Who knows what our pet chickens think of our choice to kill Gregorio, but I like to think they are resting more peacefully now.

Last week, my brother Roy was house sitting for us while we were out of town. One morning, he was chipping golf balls in the front yard, when he stepped into a sunken spot of lawn and his foot sank into the grass. He saw several small animals scatter at once by his feet. With a closer look, he realized he’d stepped into the soft nest of some brand new baby bunnies—four of them, he said, all of which could have fit into the palm of his hand. Roy left the babies alone, hoping that he didn’t disturb them or their mother too much. He put a stick in the ground where the nest had been built, so Robbie and I could see it when we got home. Over the last few days, as I’ve driven past that stick marking the spot, I’ve stopped my car along the drive to check in on the mother bunny from a distance. She seems fiercely protective of her little brood, wide-eyed and watching for any possible threat to the new life under her care.

We are anticipating the birth of our first child—a girl—in a short number of weeks. I guess out here on Little Marrowbone Road, we are all working on making our nests as safe and as peaceful as we can—the turkey, the chickens, the bunnies and Robbie and me. Nature is brimming with the instincts to protect what we’ve been given to protect, to love who we’ve been given to love—an enormous task. We are scared; we are overjoyed, and we are grateful. All the preparations and all the nesting remind of this excerpt of a poem by Alta:

One hesitates to bring a child into this world without fixing it up a little. Paint a special room. Stop sexism. Learn how to love. Vow to do it better than it was done when you were a baby. Vow to make, if necessary, new mistakes. Vow to be awake for the birth. To believe in joy even in the midst of unbearable pain.

Please keep us in your prayers as we step into our new roles as parents. We are so excited to meet our daughter.

When the Time Comes to Let it Go

March 19, 2012

My grandmother Vivian is dying. She has entered Hospice Care (what a gift!) at the nursing home where she lives in Pennsylvania. At the age of 91, she has been suffering these last two or so years. Her spirits have been pretty low, as she’s been less and less able to do things for herself, unable to attend church or see her friends and family when she wants.

My mother, father and I had the chance to spend some sweet, sweet time with her last week. When we entered her room on the first day, she looked so small and so fragile on her bed. And even though I’d been told she wasn’t doing well, I felt so emotionally unprepared for what I saw. I couldn’t stop crying but I was also so incredibly happy to see her. It was all these emotions at once.

On one of our days with her, we wheeled her out into one of the bright social rooms where she traditionally sat with her friends to talk, read or watch TV. She was facing one direction, but seemed disoriented and kept asking us where we were. My mom had the good idea to turn her around so she was facing her friends at her old table and immediately the worry and concern left her face. One of my uncles sent her some daffodils, her favorite flower, and they were on her bedside table where she could see them. When we moved her out of her room, she asked us to bring the daffodils too, and we kept them always in her sight. When the bathroom light was too bright, she asked us to close the door. We tried to do as many of these small, simple things as we could and keep her as comfortable as possible.

My dad and his brothers made lots of funny jokes with her and she laughed. We all told old stories, funny things we remembered. No one can make my grandmother laugh like my dad. I watched him hold his mother’s wrinkled hands and thought about her carrying him in her body, her soft hands holding him as a baby, her strong hands cooking delicious food all through his childhood. I thought about all the things they had done together and everything they had been through. I thought about my father watching his mom go. And I thought over and over again about how I honestly don’t know how people watch their parents die, or how they keep going after they are gone.

My grandmother’s birthday is this Thursday; she will be turning 92. It’s amazing how much grief we can feel at the end of such a long and beautiful life—even when we know that all life comes naturally to an end. These words from Mary Oliver help me with the letting go—

To live in this world 

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it 

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go. 

Mary Oliver, excerpt from “In Blackwater Woods” 

I wish that we always had the chance to say such a sweet goodbye to the people who leave us. Until the day I myself am facing my own death, I will consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life that I had so much good time with her, that we shared so much love, and that I got to be with her at the end.

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One More Song for the Maker, Chickenman

July 27, 2011

Just over two weeks ago, Robbie and I inherited six laying hens from a pastor friend of ours who was called to another church and moving out of the state. This same pastor friend also happened to be the one who taught a class we took on keeping backyard chickens. As my father-in-law was quick to point out, we literally inherited our teacher’s pets.

A few days before we picked up our chickens, we secured our backyard. We walked the privacy fence, looked for any holes under the house, leveled a steep hill to detract predators from climbing over. We found the shadiest spot for the position of the coop, bought pine shavings, wheat straw, organic feed and a waterer. We purchased a coop from an older couple west of town and asked our neighbors for help unloading and assembling it. We set out fresh bedding for the chickens, and then came the babes—all different colors, all different breeds. We gave each one a name: Marin (named for Marin County, California where we spent much of our honeymoon), Fanny Lou, Nina Simone, Nopalita, Lady Bird (named for our friend and church member) and Toby Ziegler (named for our favorite West Wing character). We became attached in an instant, learned their personalities, invited our parents over to meet the grandchicks, practiced picking them up, ate their delicious eggs and doted on them in public, showing people pictures of them on our phones.

Their second night with us, I had to be downtown for work until late. After a while, I noticed I’d missed four calls from Robbie. Then came the text: “I lost some chickens.” I called back to get more information. My husband was panicked: it was dark and he could find only two of our little brood of six. He’d checked the coop numerous times, under the house, under the porch, behind the shed, inside the shed, the coop again. He hadn’t heard any sounds of struggle—an indication that an opossum or raccoon had gotten inside the fence. Before we hung up, he said his plan was to hit the pavement and take a flashlight into the neighborhood to see if he could find any sign of our chickens, dead or alive.

I got home an hour later, and walked into a sad, dark house. Robbie was lying in a dark bedroom with a pillow over his face. He hadn’t had any luck finding them in the neighborhood. We discussed all the possible ways and reasons our chickens were gone: a predator had found its way in and made off with four of our girls; their wings weren’t clipped as well as we’d thought and they’d flown over the tall fence; there was some sort of hole or exit beneath our house that was accessible to them, but invisible to us. After all this positing, we concluded that we just weren’t ready, and we went to bed sad.

The next morning at 6 am, Robbie got up to let our two remaining chickens out of the coop and all six marched right out of their little door. He came back up to our bedroom with a huge grin on his face and a look of confusion. All six had been inside the coop all along, we discovered, just up on their roosting poles. Every time my sweet husband had lifted the lid of the coop to see if they were inside, they were roosting up on the top portion, the part of the coop in his hands. We were so excited to see them that morning and had a little party out back, in our PJs, with breakfast and coffee. We are still laughing at what those chickens were thinking each time they were tipped sideways in the dark that night. It would make a great cartoon…

I hope you get a good laugh from this story as you make your way through this week. We all spend so much time looking for what’s right before us, in front of us, inside us. We search for God, for ways to be faithful to him, for something to deliver us from present worry or strife. It’s not wasted time, but when we catch a glimpse of God living right where we live, we remember our deliverance has already been sent. Go well this week, remembering God is in our midst!

cool blue stole my heart

December 7, 2009

i recently saw some portraits of birds, done by a local artist. the small paintings were whimsical and pictured different birds wearing different hats made from things in nature—a cardinal wearing a crown of sunflower seeds, a chickadee wearing a wild, red strawberry, a tiny bluebird wearing a headband of acorn scraps or a goldfinch wearing a flush of small yellow buds. the artist told me she imagines each hat to be something the birds could make themselves, from things they can find in nature. each hat was playful and protective. each hat seemed to identify each bird as unique, and at the same time, seemed to camouflage them in the woods. in each small square of canvas, the artist tells a whole story about wildness, about pride, about survival and about god’s lavish creation.

this past week, i was walking alone around the lake at Radnor, and just as i entered the woods, i caught a flash of a small bluebird just beside me on the trail, perched on a branch close to me, just above my head. it was impossible not to notice his blue body in the midst of the trim, winter landscape. in so much brown, even the smallest blue miracle is so pronounced.  as i walked, he talked and bounced from branch to branch along the trail. he stayed so close beside me for so long that i walked in amazement at the persistence of this little bird and what was happening between us. was he following me? or was i following him? eventually, twenty minutes later, we came to a place in the trail where other people were stopped and gathered. i lost the bluebird there, when i turned my attention to a family of deer eating and chewing and smelling the ground.

we often think we are alone, but we are never alone. i want to wear the memory of that bird close to my body all winter long—the small, blue miracle—like a hat to announce me and protect me and keep me going. it’s a story about how god stretches out alongside us. it’s a story about pride, about survival, about the complicated beauty of this wild world. it’s a story about how each one of us is set down here on earth, a miracle among miracles, and about what we make for ourselves from what we find in the woods.

sermon : we were like those who dream

November 12, 2009

audio of a sermon delivered at Vine Street Christian Church in Nashville, TN on October 25, 2009. based on the following scriptures:

Jeremiah 31:7-9

For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy. And those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

homily : an armor of roses

November 4, 2009

a homily for the Ammerman / Van Meter wedding, delivered at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Paris, Kentucky on November 1, 2009. based on their reading by Rumi, posted below.

An Armor of Roses by Rumi

Take January’s advice. Stack wood.
Weather inevitably turns cold, and you

make fires to stay healthy. Study
the grand metaphor of this yearly work.

Wood is a symbol for absence. Fire,
for your love of God. We burn form

to warm the soul. Soul loves winter
for that, and accepts reluctantly the

comfort of spring with its elegant,
proliferating gifts. All part of the

plan: fire becoming ash becoming
garden soil becoming mint, willow, and

tulip. Love looks like fire.
Feed yourself into it.

i’m thinking about how this room is built from Kentucky ground.  these walls were built from Kentucky blue ash—these logs cut and hewn by people who knew how to live off this land. oak and chestnut trees were used for beams and supports. the folks who built this church drove posts down into this fertile Kentucky soil, the same soil that grew those tall trees. they were in the work of splitting planks, carting lumber, setting each piece in place, truing up corners and mixing the mud to make mortar.

leave it to these two punky brewsters to get married on All Saint’s Day, a day we remember all the saints, known and unknown—those who have died, who are already at rest throughout the world. leave it to them to celebrate new life in marriage on the very day we make memory of lives already lived. leave it to them to make a ritual of looking backwards with gratitude, while looking forward with joy.

packed into this old fashioned church, it’s impossible not to think of the generations and lives that lived before us—people we love who’ve already passed through this life and moved into another one with god. in this room, we remember our ancestors, who are together somewhere else easy to be, where they can dance with their broken bones. but oh how they also are in this very room with us too—their hopes and dreams stretched out across the bone structures in our faces and their stories inside hand-me-down wedding bands, tarnished and shiny with their own stories of love and of striving. with us and with these two punky brewsters, those already gone from us, are celebrating.

Rumi talks about making fires to stay healthy, studying the grand metaphor of the yearly work that is cutting the logs, stacking the wood, building the fires and learning something from the burn. it’s like lighting a candle for someone we love—to memorialize the past and say a prayer for the future. meanwhile, the woodpile needs attention. meanwhile, the wood needs chopping. meanwhile, we’ve got to find a way to get through winter.

while we light fires to memorialize the past, we stack wood for the future. standing in this little country church, in the spirit of all our saints and on the eve of wintertime, we know this is how to build the sacred room of marriage: to let the people we love be our tall trees, our floorboards, our headboards. to put stakes in the ground for one another. to look backwards at who came before, to light a candle for every name, to haul the logs, place them somewhere special, burn form to warm the soul, say our prayers out loud, always looking forward—and back.

Sarah Wylie and Griffin, you are passions & boldness & punk & purpose. this is a really beautiful wedding, and we’re  all here to witness it. but we’re here to witness it, because we believe in an even more beautiful marriage. we’ll be here like so much more firewood for you when you need it. an armor of roses. fire becoming ash becoming garden soil becoming mint, willow, tulip.

god bless, the wooden frame of your faces. god bless your unbridled passions and all your devotion. god bless this sacred Kentucky spot and all the trees felled to build it. god bless you as you live into this love.

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angels in the architecture

November 3, 2009

there’s a tree at Radnor Lake that used to look like a tall Jesus—a thin trunk for a body, with branches for arms, dark skin made of bark, round knots for compassionate eyes and a simple line that stretched into a kind of understanding across a long face. my mom pointed this Jesus out to me one day on a walk and every time we passed it after that season, we looked up and could see him there with arms branched out, stretching towards the whole forest of living things.

as time passed that year, the Jesus in the tree got harder to see. we would look for it, but some smaller trees got bigger and changed our view—branches broke off, bark peeled away or we walked the path from the other direction and this tree became just another tree in a forest of so many trees.

this happens with our images of god; too much changes in the course of our lives for God’s face to stay the same—our parents die, our babies get sick, we lose our jobs. one season moves into another one and new perspectives get bigger and crowd out old ones. god doesn’t change, but the look of the face of God changes as the conditions around us change, and we can’t see like we always saw.

changes wear down those images, high up in the sky. since I’ve been back in Nashville, I’ve been walking at Radnor and almost daily, I see a small cross of sticks laid across the same bench on the trail—tracks of someone else’s strong faith. i’ve made my own stories about the one who leaves them there. and now, each cross on the bench is just like the old tree—another face of faith in the forest—so humble, so close to the ground.

clap hands, clap hands

August 19, 2009

just before moving to Nicaragua, i received a very routine surgery on my right hand for carpal tunnel, in which the doctors made an incision into my palm to widen the place where my nerves run through it. while the symptoms of carpal tunnel are gone and the scar is healing nicely, the spot is still so tender that i can’t put much pressure on it or clap my hands at all.

i recently moved into a new place and have made a morning routine of walking a block down my quiet street and across another busy one, to a house where a few sisters make corn tortillas every day of the week. when i get there, i am greeted by the big extended family and place my order, which is almost always the same. i love to watch these women make the tortillas; their arms are strong from working the corn, and their skin is smooth and shiny. i imagine their hands feeling like worn pennies to touch—hard and soft at the same time. they grind, knead, press and pat the dough at a tall table, dipping their hands into one cloudy bucket of water on a stool. they slap thick, pressed circles of ground, wet maiz into perfect tortillas with their right hands, while spinning the thin plastic discs beneath them with their left. the rhythm of their work is so satisfying to watch, and the sound of the slapping is so visceral, it almost hurts my still-tender scar to hear  it.

from these frequent trips, i have learned to bring my own flat plates for carrying the tortillas home. i pay my money and they place a neat stack on one plate and cover the stack with the other one. and i walk home, shifting the piping hot prize from hand to hand, always aware of the tender scar. the things i like about living here i can count on my one hand. this little morning thing is one of them, and i’d clap for it if i could.

but the mother and child reunion is only a motion away

August 17, 2009

this morning, i was invited to go to a church located just on the edge of Managua, on top of a sloping hill. the church building was one huge room and as soon as i entered it, i felt like i was inside a big box store—the walls were plastered with simple language and easily calculable equations; there was an allure to the sleek packaging of stuff for sale around the perimeter of the huge gathering hall, and the vastness of the place was so over-stimulating that i felt small and ordinary inside it.

after i lot of walking through the crowded hall, i sat in one of thousands of plastic chairs that had been set up in rows on the concrete floor. there were walkie talkies and fake flowers, electric water fountains, plastic rocks and crushed velvet money bags being passed down each row. there were prizes for raffle, an outfitted rock band up front and an impressive light show on every white wall. soon after we found our seats and sang some songs, we listened, through an amped up sound system, to a dozen testimonies of how god has increased portions and provided monetary miracles in the lives of those sharing them. this theology sank my heart, and this physical environment saturated my senses so much that it was hard to know what to do with my body, my eyes, my vision, my thoughts.

a short row of chubby, church-going family members sat in the seats in front of me—what i assumed to be a mother, father, grandmother and her grandson. this little boy, maybe two years old, spent most of the service in his grandmother’s lap. she was fat and dark-skinned, and when embraced between her two thick arms, her grandson would giggle into her delighted face for what seemed like a brief eternity. occasionally, he would leave her to run between the plastic chairs or down the aisles; i watched him drink all the soda from his dad’s thermos, swat at a bumble bee on the wall and pull on his mom’s blue earring. after doing each of these things, he would run back into his grandmother’s arms to check in, like he was bound to her by some joyful tether. and always so delighted, she would love him up there and they would share face to face time so contagious, it made me ache to be held so close, by someone so big. and then, quickly, he’d be gone again, weaseling under a chair or making eyes with another child or tugging on his own sandal.

after two hours of church, the little boy fell asleep in his grandmother’s arms. he looked heavy to me and hot, like children often do when they sleep. his chubby cheeks were so relaxed that his opened mouth leaked down the soft, loose skin around his grandmother’s elbow. everything about her body holding him close was a sermon about god for me—the boy so tired from all his wandering and she, all soaked in his sweat and spit, but still strong for him, still so full of love for him. and so this was my way of going to church in that church—with my gaze stuck on them, thinking about god like this, thinking about love like this, feeling myself tethered, trying to feel myself held.