On being a fish in the School of Love

Update on June 15, 2017:
I wrote the post below nearly six years ago. This past Tuesday, I learned that Z., the parishioner I wrote about, died last week. She had been in a nursing home for the past few years, which resulted in a huge improvement to her health. Two years ago, she re-connected with long estranged family members who, until they heard her voice on the phone, thought Z. had been dead for years. They continued to visit her at the nursing home regularly up until her death. Emmanuelites also continued to visit her and sent her cards.

Tomorrow Emmanuel will hold a funeral for her, this woman who both taught us and learned from us how friends accompany each other: doggedly, imperfectly, earnestly, generously, with forgiveness, patience, admiration, and whatever else we can muster, in service to each other and to the mysterious force that is the gravity of love. We’ll sing, pray, and eat with her one last time (while Z. came to and ate at every potluck, she steadfastly refused to participate in communion because she was afraid of germs). Then we’ll send Z. along to the burying ground, and to whatever is next. I hope her version of heaven is a place where, among other things, she is the only one allowed to smoke. She loved smoking, but hated when anyone else did.

This poem I read recently is for Z.

Enriching the Earth
by Wendell Berry

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. Against the shadow
of veiled possibility my workdays stand
in a most asking light. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Original post, dated July 25, 2011:
All the churchgoing I’ve done in my adult life has been in urban settings. When I compare this to the churchgoing of my childhood, the biggest differences seem to be that, as an adult, I’ve attended churches with a lot more people who are either visibly mentally ill, or homeless, or both.

Listening to the radical teachings of a homeless rabbi to the marginalized people of a land occupied by a hostile foreign army is a lot more intense when some of my pewmates are marginalized people who stink to high heaven because they don’t have a regular place to bathe or wash their clothes, and/or who are clearly struggling to keep any sort of grip on their minds. Some have been given to what I think of as Liturgical Wandering, where they get up and mill about at inappropriate moments. Some have come storming down the center aisle, hollering incoherently and angrily. Some have panhandled during communion. You get the idea.

We have a few regulars at my church who are in the category that PW refers to as “the least, the last and the lost.” Like all the rest of us who more easily pass as “normal” (even though in our own ways we are also “least, last, and lost”), some are higher functioning than others. Recently, one of our “least, last, and lost” responded to an announcement in the worship folder that offered pastoral care services to anyone who needs them.

I will call this person Z.

Z’s pastoral care needs include help with laundry, grocery shopping, and getting rides to and from church. I don’t know if there’s any diagnosable condition involved, but Z is consumed with fear and suspicion. This results in incredibly tense situations at church, especially around personal contact (touching) and food. I’ve seen more than a few well-meaning people tenderly touch Z on the shoulder while trying to find out what it is that Z needs, only to find themselves on the other end of Z’s outraged, “Get your HANDS OFF OF ME! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??”

Yesterday, I volunteered to give Z a ride home from church. Well, I didn’t exactly volunteer. PW asked if I would do it. I didn’t want to do it, but when my inner Bartleby the Scrivener muttered “I would prefer not to,” I took a deep breath and said “too bad” to it. Then I responded to PW with, “Okay.” There were at least a thousand other things I would rather have done, but it’s a shallow, flimsy, and ultimately worthless commitment to a difficult and demanding faith tradition if I only show up for the people I enjoy. There’s at least one thing I’ve learned in all these years of church-going: if we’re really following the example of our homeless rabbi, being a Christian is less like a garden party, and more like mud wrestling.

At the exchange of the peace during church yesterday, the co-chair of the pastoral care committee, B, hugged me and wished me “many blessings” on my afternoon adventure with Z. B knows how important those blessings are. She recently spent something like 5 hours sitting in a laundromat while Z did laundry and refused all help. I didn’t realize that such a simple exchange with someone I love would end up becoming a life preserver that I would cling to desperately in order to get through the afternoon.

Giving Z a ride home was excruciating – it took way too long, it overwhelmed every one of my senses in bad ways, and it tapped the bottom of qualities I think of myself as having in abundance: patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, and good humor. I completely underestimated the effect that an hour’s worth of Z’s paranoia would have on me. I knew that I was only experiencing a sliver of what it is like for Z to navigate the world on a daily basis. This simultaneously comforted me, made me feel ill, and shattered my heart. I squeezed the life preserver of B’s blessings and hung on tight.

As you may have gathered from the description of the scene at the laundromat, Z moves at a glacially slow pace. After a complicated and time-consuming trip to the grocery store, where I thought Z might collapse from stress, we arrived at Z’s apartment. I carried the groceries up and stacked them precariously on one of the few available flat surfaces. Z thanked me awkwardly, and looked smaller than ever as I closed the door behind me. When I left the tiny, chaotic room that Z calls home, I got in my car and took a deep breath. I didn’t know if I would throw up or start sobbing, or both.

I sat there for a few minutes, bobbing in the sea of a wider world that was both roiling with the shock, horror, and grief of Norway – where my grandfather was born – and buoyant with the glee, relief, and wonder of the many same-sex couples across the State of New York, who spoke their vows to each other and got to hear the thrilling words, “By the power vested in me by the laws of the state of New York, I now pronounce you legally married.” I let the tears come.

That’s me, out of formation in the lower left corner

More and more, I think the practice of going to church is, basically, swimming in the School of Love. It’s about learning that sometimes love is as simple, and as difficult, as escorting a nausea-inducing person to your car, opening the door, and helping the person sit down on the once pristine passenger seat. It is about remembering to hold your breath while you reach across to help that person, who does not want to be touched, with the seat belt. It is about wielding a grocery cart and 20 bucks to buy diet soda, blueberry muffins, pita bread, hummus, and taboule. It is about choosing to be compassionate, even when everything about it makes you feel ill.

One of my swim coaches once told me, “You won’t get any better if you back off from the pain. So if you want to be better, when you get to the pain, just swim through it.” He made it sound so easy. Oh sure, la dee dah! Just swim through it! La la! Even when I knew there was an endorphin rush on the other side, I always found it terrifying to swim through the pain. That was several decades and two shoulders ago, before I found that most of life’s swimming doesn’t happen anywhere near a pool.

What do I want to be when I grow up? Better. Better at compassion today than yesterday. Better at love this year than last. Better at doing the next right thing than I was just a moment ago. And so I keep swimming in the School of Love, clinging to the lifeline of my many blessings.

Advertisements

Lent to us. Again.

Five years ago, PW invited me to preach the sermon at the noon Ash Wednesday service at Emmanuel. A lot has happened in the intervening five years, and these thoughts feel more necessary to me now than they did then. I’ve provided some updates in the text below, and a performance of the perfect song for this sermon, which was written in the intervening years.

If you are making a Lenten journey, my wish for you is that it is abundant with new meaning and perspectives, and readies you to embrace the unfathomable, irrational message of Easter, which is, as PW so often reminds us at Emmanuel: Love is stronger than Death.

Well, here we are, perched at the beginning of the 40-day journey of Lent. You know, legend has it that explorers used to write “There Be Dragons,” or they’d draw dragons onto areas of maps to represent uncharted territory. I’ll confess that the view of Lent from Ash Wednesday often feels to me like looking at a map where an X marks “You Are Here” and I’m looking down a road that is dotted with signs that say “There Be Dragons.”

[Update on March 1, 2017: According to this  article in the December 12, 2013 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, no old maps said “There Be Dragons.” or “Here Be Dragons.” But a 16th century globe does!]

Oh sure, the festive welcome of Easter awaits us at the end of Lent, with all its flowers and Alleluias and new beginnings. But it seems so far away, and February lasts so   dang    long for the shortest month of the year (note: this sermon was delivered on February 22, 2012), and There Be Dragons! And We Are Here.

Each of us has our reasons for coming through the door today, and if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling to unload a freight car’s worth of baggage you have accumulated with regard to Lent. Maybe the stuff you might give up for Lent has been tumbling around in your head, like lottery ping pong balls in their little see-through chamber. Chocolate? Facebook? Swearing? Maybe you’re debating whether to get the ashes, whether to rub them off before you leave the building, or whether to disregard Jesus’ strongly worded admonition and wear them all day, as a visible sign of your spiritual commitment. But, if you do that, then you risk having them misunderstood or judged… Aaauugh!

See if you can put all that down for a bit, and since We Are Here (and There Be Dragons!), let’s be travelling companions through Lent. I know this is likely the only time this peculiar and unique group of friends and strangers will be together. But, as we’ve already heard, and we’ll be repeatedly reminded, we all share a common beginning and ending: dust. So, really, we’re family!

I know that for our purposes today “Lent” refers to the time of fasting and reflection that precedes Easter. But, I love word play, and I love to tango with heresy, so I want to point out another meaning of Lent: it’s the past tense Lend — the act of giving something away that must be returned, eventually. Specifically, I’m thinking about life, about how our lives are Lent to us. None of us can keep what the poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.” Sooner or later, we all have to slide through that Return slot.

Later on, when we get to the Ash part of Ash Wednesday, listen for Pam’s voice repeating, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as she marks people’s foreheads with ashes. If you don’t get the ashes, that’s fine, but, please, listen for the words. Let them be a chant or a mantra for Lent; let them remind you of your borrowed time. This life of yours, the body you’re in, it’s all fleeting.

At the beginning of our Lent journey, You Are Here, I Am Here, We Are Here, and surely There Will Be Dragons! With our borrowed lives, in our Lent bodies, with our unknown Return dates, consider: What is it you need over the next 40 days to break out of patterns that have become prisons? What do you need in order to arrive at Easter feeling more alive than ever, with a feeling that your life has marked some Xs where once there were dragons?

I interviewed a 65-year-old man recently named Richard. Ten years ago he went into the hospital with a kidney stone, acquired sepsis, and to save his life, doctors had to amputate his arms below the elbows and his legs below the knees. Richard’s one of these guys who is always tinkering – you know the type. And he has made a very full life for himself. He continuously tweaks his prostheses so they work better, so he can do more things on his own. He figured out how to paint and play guitar and even shovel snow.

Richard sometimes visits new amputees in the hospital. He’ll walk into their rooms and jump up and down on his prosthetic legs, to show them that their lives aren’t over just because their legs are gone. He made videos to demonstrate how quickly he could attach his arms and legs, without help, to show others new ways to be independent.

Richard told me, “I have a great life! I am the kind of man, when I see a door open, I go through it. I know that my family will support me. I have a great family, and I know not everybody has that. So when a door opens, I go through it, for myself, for my family, and for the people who can’t go through, for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t have the support, or they’re too scared. Whatever. I go through for them, too.” Richard’s one of those guys who matter-of-factly ventures out into the “There Be Dragons” part of the map and marks it with a new X: Now, We Are Here.

A couple of years ago, Richard’s wife Carole saw a TV news story about a local hospital’s new hand transplant program. Carole called the hospital to see if Richard might be a candidate. Last April, after more than a year of tests and screenings, Richard was put on the list of potential hand transplant recipients.

Last October, a local man about 20 years younger than Richard suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Like Richard, Steven was a tinkerer, one of those guys who fixed his friends’ cars and did all his own home repairs. Still, when doctors asked Steven’s wife Jodi about organ transplants, and asked if she’d also be willing to donate his arms and hands, she was startled. But she took a night to think about it and concluded, “Steven’s talents were in his hands. Why let them go to waste?” Jodi went to a There Be Dragons place and marked an X. And now, We Are Here.

richard_mangino_article

Blood flow returning to the left hand during Richard’s surgery. Photo: Lightchaser Photography

More than 40 medical personnel worked for 12 hours to give Steven’s arms (below the elbow) to Richard. It will be at least a year before Richard has full sensation in his arms, before he’ll have full use of them. He won’t be shoveling any snow this winter, so it’s just as well that we haven’t had much. But he’s started to playing some piano and he can’t wait to feel his grandsons’ faces, to feel his wife’s hand in his. When Richard met Steven’s widow, Jodi, he told her it was okay if she wanted touch his new hands. She hesitated. She hadn’t been sure if she even wanted to look at them. She was afraid she might not recognize them.

While they sat and held hands and cried together, Richard said, “I told her how sorry I was about her husband and I just kept thanking her. I said we gotta keep going forward. I’m a living example that there’s always a way to go through the next door, even after you lose someone you love.” So now, We Are Here.

[Update on March 1, 2017: A year ago, a local TV station interviewed Richard to catch up with him. It’s a great interview that really captures his spirit. Sorry I couldn’t figure out how to embed it.]

Today I want to suggest that our guideposts for the next 40 days can be the noun forms of the traditional Lent activities of giving alms, praying, and fasting. Specifically, they’re what I’ll call the three Cs of Lent: compassion, connection, and clarity.

02hand2

Steven and Jodi Lloyd. Photo provided to The Boston Globe by the Lloyd family.

Jodi, Steven, Richard, Carole, and their families are ordinary and stunning examples of compassion, connection, and clarity. They are also profound reminders of the message of Easter: when Death meets Love, Love always wins. EVERY TIME.

Love. Always. Wins.

mangino_3

Carol and Richard Mangino, a year after his surgery. Photo: Lightchaser Photography

 

[Update on March 1, 2017: Love doesn’t always win in ways that prompt Duck Boat parades, and blasts of confetti. Sometimes, maybe even often, Love wins in that still, small voice kind of way, like a wind generated by the flapping of the tiniest of wings. Sometimes Love wins long after you’ve given up on it. But I maintain that compassion, connection, and clarity open us to Love that cannot be vanquished.]

One of my favorite modern prophets, the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “Every little deed counts, every word has power…[E]veryone [can] do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments.”

My hope for you, for all the members of our Dust Family, is that we spend the rest of the lives we’ve been Lent finding ways to go forward, through whatever unlikely doors might open, even, and maybe especially, when There Be Dragons. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we launch ourselves off the X that marks wherever we are now, and fill the next 40 days with so much compassion, connection, and clarity, that it will become a habit with us. Compassion. Connection. Clarity. Yeah, ‘cause THAT’s how the Dust Family rolls!

And when we return to the dust from whence we came, the world will be more redeemed, the map will have lots fewer dragons on it, and it will be spangled with X marks we have left behind:

We Are Here.

Reflections on the election

2016-11-09-08-09-12

This box greeted me when I got off the elevator at my office today.

Here are some things I’ve learned as an adult churchgoer that are coming to mind as I gird myself for the future with our next president.

  • At any given moment, one person can be having a transcendent experience while another person in the same pew, maybe the person sitting right next to you, can be enduring a kind of hell that can’t end a moment too soon.
  • Some people sing beautifully, with rich harmonic sensibility. Others can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Regardless of where any of us are on the musical spectrum, some sing loudly, others quietly, others not at all.
  • For some, a particular prayer or passage of scripture is a precious, delicate thing that must not be tampered with. For others, the same prayer or passage of scripture is an oppressive trigger.
  • There are good reasons why the most frequent thing Jesus is reported to have said is, “Do not be afraid.”
  • One person’s heroic messiah is another person’s evil terrorist who must be humiliated and destroyed.
  • When forces of oppression and annihilation are on the loose, some people collude. Some people flee and hide behind locked doors. Some people keep their heads down and try to pass. Some people—usually those with the least to lose—run headlong into danger, testifying with their bodies or their words or their lives, to the irrational notion that love is stronger than death.

As last night’s election results began to coalesce, my father called me from his bed in the rehab unit where he’s recovering from a heart attack and emergency double bypass surgery. His first words were, “So. Where are you moving?”

My immediate reply surprised me, not so much with its content but with its ferocity, given how defeated and despondent I felt, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying and I’m fighting.”

As I talked with each of my parents last night, as we shared our laments and anger, I felt a deep and renewed appreciation for how that response to stay and fight for what I believe and whom I belove is something I learned from them. Even as I feel so sorry for their having to endure this latest election, I feel infinitely blessed that they are both still alive to remind me how to survive this election: with love, by love, for love.

Yes, some of us are grieving while others are celebrating. Some of us are dying while others are being born. Some of us are feeling liberated while others are being incarcerated, tortured, even murdered for who we are. This is how life is. This is how life has always been. Our task has always been this: figure out what you want your life to stand for and live it as fearlessly and courageously as possible. Take your inspirations where you can find them and build on them. Learn how to love both ferociously and tenderly, and then use that love to change what you can, in yourselves and in the world.

After last night, many of my friends are wondering what we tell our children, whether they are adults or not yet born or somewhere in between. This is what I’m telling mine. And I aim to live long enough for them to tell me their version of this when I need to hear it.

Come to think of it, they already have.

We got next

This week. This life. I can’t believe what I’ve seen and heard this week. Really. It’s as though every cell of my body is simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted.

On Sunday night, at an interfaith prayer service to honor the Charleston Nine at the historic Charles AME Church in Roxbury, the attorney general of my state, Maura Healey, gave a rousing sermon in which she said this:

Today we talk of mourning, the hurt we feel, of healing, and coming together – and that is right. But that is not enough. That will not do. We have work to do. In basketball we say, “I got next” when you want to challenge someone. Tonight, I got next, you got next, our government’s got next. Each and every one of us has got next. We must challenge ourselves and our leaders, every day. Every day, every person must make this their own, to see the world through the other’s eyes, to live the world through the other’s experiences, the other’s circumstances.

Two days ago, the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, ordered all the Confederate flags removed from the grounds state capitol. In one of his statements about the situation, he said this:

“I said ‘we’re going to remove them,’ and I did,” Bentley said. “I’m the first governor that has removed a Confederate flag.”

This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 5-4 ruling making marriage equality the law of the land. The concluding paragraph of the decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said this:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is Reversed.

It is so ordered.

Today, my marriage to PW is legal in every one of The United States of America. Today, I listened to my president praise this decision, with a challenge, when he said this:

Those who have come so far on their journey to equality have a responsibility to reach back and help others join them.

As the news spread on the equal marriage decision, political people in opposition to it began their predictable chorus of outrage and rebellion. I felt compelled to write a post on Facebook, in which I said this:

Can you hear it? The reactions of people insistent on not obeying this new law of the land (equal marriage) echo the refusals to adhere to the 14th amendment when it first became the law of the land in 1868 (protecting newly free persons who had been enslaved). Are you listening? Are you paying attention to what you hear?

Queer people and allies, do not limit your joy today. But know this: our freedom is inextricably linked to freedom for ALL society’s disenfranchised. We cannot be rest or be satisfied until ALL are free.

In short, we need to work our asses off to end white supremacy and the myriad forms of racism it generates, from the benign to the murderous. It will be difficult. It will require our hearts to break open. It will require each of us to be willing to sit with and hold the justifiable outrage and despair of people we do not know and who do not look or think like us.

Love one another. Live for each other.

As I was typing that, our president began to sing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the Charleston Nine, cut down in the middle of a Wednesday night Bible study by a white supremacist.

Hearing President Obama lead thousands of mourners in that song gave me such a strong memory of my friend and mentor, the late John Shepherd, who died of AIDS on October 7, 1993, in Washington, DC. He was 48.

I remember a passionate speech John gave during a worship committee meeting on the subject of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” John said he would not play it unless the words “that saved a wretch like me” were changed to “that saved and set me free.” In his speech, John said this:

All my life I’ve been told I’m a wretch. Or if not told that, then treated like one. So while I love this hymn, and I believe in grace, I will not be labeled as a wretch any more. And I don’t want anyone to take that label on. Let’s focus not on who we are before grace arrives, but on what grace does. It sets us free.

Ever since that day in 1991, I have always sung the line that way. Thank you, John, for teaching me to focus on freedom. May we honor the millions who died, enslaved or free, to bring us to this place of a new kind of freedom. May we all find the strength, the wisdom, the grace, and the courage to go out of our way to bring freedom to those are not yet free. If you know what freedom tastes like, don’t you want it for everyone else?

We got next, people. We got next.

The Algebra of Life

Only an infrequent blogger such as I would have ears so tinny as to pose a mathematical riddle on a Sunday. Today’s algebraic challenge?

When does 62 = 24? Show your work.

The answer is June 7. Today is a mixed bag in our house. In the algebra of life, each June 7 marks another year of marriage for my parents while also marking another year that PW’s dad has been dead. Today is my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary. PW’s dad died 24 years ago today.

Isn’t that so like life? One person can be experiencing a transcendent moment of awe while the person right next to her can be staggering through the endless, rocky, unpredictable terrain of grief. Even stranger is when the same person is living in both landscapes.

I never met PW’s dad, but I’ve heard enough stories to wish I had met him. And not a week goes by that I don’t ask him, in case he’s hanging around within earshot, “Did you see that? Did you hear that? She’s stunning, isn’t she?”

160 PARTY BARB 01_0003.1

My parents on their wedding day in 1953.

As for my parents, well, in their 62 years of marriage, I’m pretty sure they’ve reinvented the institution of marriage at least a handful of times. Probably more. I’ve never understood why people are afraid of marriage being reinvented. It seems to me that every couple who enters into this covenant will reinvent it, shape it in their own way, learning how to love each other as they come, to paraphrase Kristin Diable’s “True Devotion.”

image001

My parents on PW’s and my wedding day in 2004.

I don’t know the particulars that have gone into my parents’ reinvention. I know some of the components that loom large: admiration, humor, and forgiveness.

When PW and I were watching the Belmont Stakes yesterday, we were both struck by how newly minted Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah finished the race–after a mile and a half, it seemed like he was still accelerating. That’s what my parents’ 62-year marriage looks like to me today,  as though their union has more forward momentum than ever before. I also happen to know that their church congregation gave them a standing ovation today, so there’s something else they have in common with the thunderous thoroughbred.

For some reason, this poem comes to mind on this bittersweet anniversary. It’s from Mary Oliver’s 2014 collection of poems entitle, Blue Horses, which PW gave me last Christmas:

RUMI (for Coleman Barks)
 
When Rumi went into the tavern
I followed.
I heard a lot of crazy talk
and a lot of wise talk.

But the roses wouldn’t grow in my hair.

When Rumi left the tavern
I followed.
I don’t mean just to peek at
such a famous fellow.
Indeed he was rather ridiculous with his
long beard and his dusty feet.
But I heard less of the crazy talk and
a lot more of the wise talk and I was
hopeful enough to keep listening

until the day I found myself
transformed into an entire garden
of roses.

Which brings us to another math problem:

When does 62 + 24 = infinity? Live your work.

Lent To Us

I’ve emerged from the endless task of snow shoveling (we’ve had more than 96 inches of snow so far this winter) to find that Lent starts today. These church seasons remind me of the hide-and-seek call, “Ready or not, here I come!” As usual, I am not ready, and I rarely know what to do with Lent, so I went back and read this sermon I gave three years ago on Ash Wednesday. It seems as good a place to start as any.

The Crooked Line

Several weeks ago, PW invited me to preach at the noon Ash Wednesday service at Emmanuel. My first thought, which I kept to myself, was, “Yikes! There’s no way I can be ponderous enough to write and then give an Ash Wednesday sermon.” So, of course, what I said out loud was, “Okay!”

Every time I worked on my remarks, in the days leading up to today, I kept hearing the voice of a man I interviewed recently for a letter I wrote for work. So here’s what I ended up with.

Well, here we are, perched at the beginning of the 40-day journey of Lent. You know, legend has it that explorers used to write “There Be Dragons,” or they’d draw dragons onto areas of maps to represent uncharted territory. I’ll confess that the view of Lent from Ash Wednesday often feels to me like looking at a…

View original post 1,399 more words

Update from Prison: Prayer as Pep Rally

UPDATE: PW had a clarification to the first bullet of holiday advice near the end of this post. 3:47 pm Eastern time, 12/23/14.

The two months at the end of the year are the most emotionally charged among the women who are incarcerated at the jail where we do our card-making project every Monday night. This is as reliable as the tide, and has been for each of the 17 years that PW has been leading this program. This year, these past few weeks have featured:

  • A loud woman who seemed almost boastful about her proclivity for stealing. One night she crowed about having stolen an ornament off the Christmas tree during chapel, “because I’m outta here on Wednesday and I liked the ornament and I wanted to give it to my mom!” The guard who accompanied us that night said, “You’re outta here Wednesday? See you on Thursday!” We haven’t seen her since that night. Yet.
  • Several silent, weeping women, painstakingly making cards for their infant children.
  • A table full of ebullient women who sang “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” loudly, complete with shout-outs:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose (like a light bulb!)
And if you ever saw it (saw it)
You would even say it glows (like a flash light!)

All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names (like Pinocchio!)
They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph)
Join in any reindeer-games (like Monopoly)!

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then how the reindeer loved him (loved him)
As they shouted out with glee, (with glee!)
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, (reindeer)
“You’ll go down in history!” (like George Washington!)

Last night there were five women, one of whom was chomping at the bit to get started.

“I have a lot to do and I don’t have a lot of time! Come on! Let’s go!”

We hadn’t even gathered for our opening circle and her energy was spiraling out of control. PW responded by leading our usual opening prayer as though we were a football team, huddling in the locker room for a rousing pep talk before taking the field. There we were, five volunteers and five incarcerated women, holding hands in a circle, bouncing up and down to this chant:

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
Everyone: POWER!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: FRAILTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CERTAINTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: AMBIGUITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: ANSWERS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: QUESTIONS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: SELF-SUFFICIENCY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: INTERDEPENDENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: PERMANENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: TRANSCIENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CLARITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: MYSTERY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: FANTASY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: GOD!!

ALL: AMEN!!

I don’t know whether PW’s ingenious Prayer-As-Pep-Rally approach was what calmed the women down, but the rest of the night was mostly quiet. Toward the end, I stood at a table counting supplies while three women complained about a particular guard who writes them up for things that they suspect aren’t against the rules.

“She says to me, ‘What’s in your hair?’ I say, ‘A floss loop I bought at canteen.’ She says, ‘That ain’t for your hair. Take it out.’ Damn. I’m pretty sure once you buy stuff at canteen, you can do whatever you want with it. If I wanna decorate my hair with a floss loop, I can! Pretty sure that’s not in the rule book. Why she gotta be so angry?!”

They went on to describe this guard in more colorful language. I didn’t say anything. Finally, one of the women looked up at me and smiled and said to the other two, “I know why she’s so angry. Her pants are too tight!”

Then they all, and I, fell out laughing.

Based on my Monday evenings in jail over the past month, here’s my advice for enjoying the rest of the holiday season:

  • When you sing a song that is intended to be joyful, don’t hold back. PW’s embellishment on this advice: If you smile when you sing “Alleluia,” it will look AND sound like an “Alleluia!” UPDATE:    PW clarified: “What I say about smiling when one sings ‘Alleluia!’ is that it makes the resurrection seem more plausible. (:”
  • Some of your prayers might work well as pep talks, complete with a huddle, shouting, and jumping up and down.
  • If you need to cry, but can’t let your guard down, start coloring something to give to someone else.
  • If you want to decorate your hair with floss, gitchyer floss on. But don’t use it before. Or after.
  • If you’re going to wear pants, make sure they’re not too tight.
  • Savor your freedom.

May your holiday season bring you some measure of joy, even if it’s fleeting and hard-won.