Tag Archives: the Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew

For the anniversary of my life

When I was in college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry. It was both luxurious and exhausting, like mapping a geography that constantly changed. That was when I first encountered the work of W.S. Merwin. I don’t remember in what year of college I met Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” but it was love at first read. The first line of the poem is inscribed into my memory, where it hangs out in the same room with lots of other firsts (stitches, swimming ribbon, kiss, love, broken heart, broken bone, etc.)

For the Anniversary of My Death

By W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

There’s something about year’s end for me that highlights the collision between the inexorable march of the calendar and the concentric, infinite whorls of life giving way to death giving way to life. Maybe by the end of every year I just notice this collision more, as though the previous 11 months have worn away the insulation on my nerve endings. Whatever the reason, by November and December, I’m moved to tears more, I feel like I hear and feel everything more acutely, I notice more stuff that’s in my peripheral vision, and words, phrases, and melodies tumble around in my head like too much laundry crammed into a dryer. When I slow myself down to sort all this out, I feel mostly bewildered, as though I’m sifting through a great pile of mismatched socks.

So I’ve been quiet here for the past couple of months.

And it’s not like I suddenly feel I have something really profound to share today. I just need to be reconnected with this discipline, and with the small and mighty community of people who come here to share, to seek, to find, to laugh, to cry, to wonder, to ask, “Where in the world are we (or is she) going?” That is, after all, why I come here, too.

A little more than six weeks ago, I was in a spectacular—and still unbelievable—car accident. While I was sitting alone in my car, stopped at a light, a man half my age drove into the back of my car while he was travelling at least 45 mph, according to the police. There was no squealing of tires to warn me—he never even hit the brakes. For me there was just deafening noise and intense impact, as if a bomb had gone off in the trunk. When the dust cleared, I peered out my windshield to see a car lying on its side in front of me. It was the car that had just hit me.

I couldn’t process any of this at the time, and I still can’t. All I could manage to say when I stumbled out of my car in a fog of shock was, “What the…What just happened? What??” Wave after wave of onlookers, police, and EMTs, approached me to ask if I was hurt. “I…I don’t know. Um, I think I’m okay. I…What just happened? What the??” As it turned out, the only significant damage was to the cars involved, and the other driver’s insurance rates. I was extremely lucky to sustain merely an addled brain, a badly bruised knee, and a little whiplash.

I frequently find myself reflecting on my luck, particularly at the end of the year. This year, my reflections on my luck were accompanied by the relentlessly looping soundtrack of the car wreck, with a steady drumbeat of newsflashes that made my heart hurt:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend—a college classmate and a woman I have admired and adored for more than 30 years—has some kind of cancer that her oncologist isn’t even sure how to treat. She also recently lost her dad to leukemia.
  • On Christmas morning, as PW and I were walking into church a couple of hours before the service started, we encountered a woman standing outside Emmanuel looking at the various signs on the doors. “I’m looking for an Episcopal church,” she said. “I just found out that my husband of 34 years has been having an affair for the past three years, and I need to find a place to sit in church with my fine young son.” Sure enough, they showed up for the service and the son sat with his arm around his mother the entire time.
  • This past Friday, a long-time friend of my parents and college classmate of my mom’s died after a long ordeal with cancer. Barbara Higdon was classy, brave, brilliant, and one of those trail-blazing women on whose shoulders generations of other women stand, many of us without knowing it.

The day after I heard about my friend’s diagnosis, I was walking  through Chinatown and was frozen in place by this graffito:

There are many more heart-hurty news bits in the mix, but those three, plus the graffito, best capture the variety. As I was sitting in church on New Year’s Day, in the stunningly beautiful Lindsey Chapel, the low winter sun came streaming in the windows in such a startling way that many of the people in the congregation turned around and looked up. The room and the congregants were bathed in a brilliant, other-worldly light.

Meanwhile, Bishop J. Clark Grew (ret.) was preaching about the currency of hope, and how this year’s familiar Christmas narrative reminded him that the divine rarely breaks through in our lives in ways we expect. As if on cue, the words “for the anniversary of my life” floated across my mind’s eye in an unbroken line.

After my initial reaction (“What the heck? THAT’S not how Merwin’s poem goes!”), I felt like a dog resisting the pull of the leash. I wanted to investigate these words “for the anniversary of my life,” to spend a long time sniffing them, tumbling them around in my brain.

I don’t know if “for the anniversary of my life” and the graffito’s message “She knows she’ll never die!” were the divine breaking into my consciousness, but I’m open to the possibility. Maybe the openness to the possibility is the whole point. This morning I felt driven to pull one of my favorite books off the shelf: William Stafford’s “You Must Revise Your Life.” This slim little paperback is a combination magnifying glass and life raft when I encounter life’s mysteries. I mostly don’t want a decoder ring for life’s mysteries; I just want new ways to look at them without drowning.

The book is only 118 pages long, and in my copy I have folded over dozens of pages, underlined many passages, and bracketed entire paragraphs, usually putting stars next to the brackets. At the bottom of page 81, I have a couple of sentences bracketed, with a star, and above it I wrote, “This is it!”

“[T]he product is expendable, but the process is precious…The process is the process of living centrally and paying attention to your own life. Surely that’s worth doing. If you don’t, who will?”

In the sense that we all have an expiration date, the noun-ness of our lives is expendable. It’s the living itself — our verb-ness — that’s precious and unbounded by time: the ways we choose to live, whom and what we choose to notice, to share, to explore, to accompany, to hear, to carry with us. Sometimes we write, and sometimes we are surface on which others write. Barbara Higdon’s physical matter is dead, but the essence of her life cannot be extinguished; I’m still discovering ways in which she is written into me.

Like many people out there writing our lives from one day to the next, with and without words, I find myself beginning this year in wonder and mourning. I don’t know the ratio of one to the other, because, honestly, I feel filled with immeasurable amounts of both. Which brings me to another little poem, this one by a 12-year-old girl from New Zealand.

May your year ahead be so bold and brilliant. May your wonders be deep and your mournings be shared.

Dark, Dark night.
The trees. The river.
One more day;
For so slow goes the day.
Before the end
    the world goes round
        once more.
The world begins the day.
The night has gone.
The day for the end of the world
    once more begins.
Once more begins the sun
Slow, so slow.
Go on, world, live.
Begin, sweet sun.
Begin, sweet world.
The people live and die.
People die alive
    alive
        alive

By Lynette Joass
Age 12
New Zealand

From “Miracles: Poems by children of the English-speaking world,” collected by Richard Lewis.

Here’s a song for this post: Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Breaths.”

My Ash Wednesday Bonanza

I heard two great Ash Wednesday reflections yesterday, and what’s the point of having a website if I keep these to myself?

In the first one, at noon, the Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew was his refreshingly blunt self. He talked about how we don’t really think about needing the help or support of a divine presence when we’re feeling at the top of our game. He ended with what was, for me, a refreshing and surprisingly comforting suggestion: “You know what? You’re a mess! You need a savior. The good news: you already have one!”

Now, it’s a dicey thing to stand in a pulpit and tell people that we’re a mess. Lots of folk, especially queer folk, have abandoned church life because we’ve been told over and over how messed up we are. Certainly my own abandoning of church life in my late teens and 20s was partly because I didn’t think church had anything to offer me except condemnation at worst, and awkward tolerance at best.

Maybe it helps that I know and love Clark, and I know that he knows and loves me. Maybe it helps that I’m secure in my queerness, and I’m no longer looking for external affirmation to tell me I’m all right. Maybe it helps that I’m comfortable disagreeing with, and occasionally raging at, things I hear in church; I no longer feel like I have to figure out how to accept and agree with everything I hear, especially from the pulpit.

At any rate, I walked up to Clark at the end of the service, gave him a huge hug, and said, “Thank you for outing me as the mess that I am. Now I can stop pretending to have it all together! What a relief!!”

I went to the evening service as well, not because I’m koo koo for the Cocoa Puffs of the Episcopal Ash Wednesday liturgy. I went firstly because I was reading the first two lessons and also firstly because PW was preaching. It was a bonanza to get to hear sermons from two of the best preachers I’ve ever heard, as well as to get to hear the beautiful music and sing soprano, alto, and tenor in some of my favorite hymns.

Psalms

Apparently, there are four disciplines that Lenten observers are encouraged to take on during Lent: study of scripture, fasting, praying, and almsgiving. In the evening meditation, PW advised starting with the Psalms if we don’t know where to begin with the study of scripture.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since I reviewed her Ash Wednesday meditation yesterday morning. My blender brain spent the rest of the day mixing her recommendation to read the Psalms with a comment I recently made to a friend about how much great music has come out so far this year (new releases from Teddy Thompson, The Wailin Jennys, Buddy Miller, Adele, The Low Anthem, Amos Lee, Lucinda Williams, Over the Rhine, Ron Sexsmith, etc.)

Plus, in the past three months I’ve also come across some new artists that I would never have known about were it not for the miracle of the Music Genome Project known as Pandora (Great Lake Swimmers and A.A. Bondy are the first two who come to mind).

So, today I’m adding a new page to the website: Psalms/Psongs for Lent 2011. If you want to engage with me in a daily exploration of old Psalms and new Psongs, head over to the new page and check it out.

“the soprano sings an intimate and gracious air punctuated by surprising unison choral outbursts”

I have so many shout-outs today, it occurs to me that maybe I should start a tradition of Shout-out Sunday here at The Crooked Line.

First, to my beloved friends from college, Martin & Heather, who are creating something wild and wonderful down in the Texas Hill Country: Madroño Ranch, A Center for Writing and the Environment. If creativity and the environment are the least bit interesting or important to you, their blog needs to be on your reading list.

Reading Heather’s blog post yesterday inspired the post I wrote here yesterday on grief, and it’s still weaving its way in and around and through my grey matter.  One of the persistent wonderings I’ve had since reading Heather’s essay about time and creativity and memory was around the possibility of being able to feel time as we’re moving through it.  As a former swimmer, I love the feel of being in water and how the texture of water changes.  Swimming in lakes in New England in the springtime, on a sunny day, the top foot or so of the water can be warm, and sometimes even feels thick in its warmth.  But if you go vertical, you find that there is a very cold, dark, sharp layer of water below.  At least that’s how it feels to me.

It occurred to me last night that music is one way that I feel myself swimming through time.  I love all different kinds of music, which is probably apparent if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, or if I’ve imposed one of my CD mixes on you.  My music appreciation has a whole new gear since my wife PW started working at this church a couple of years ago.  For most of the year, except the summertime, some grouping of singers and musicians from Emmanuel Music provides a couple of musical offerings every Sunday.  For me, this means that nearly every Sunday, I have a goosebump experience.

The title of today’s post comes from Michael Beattie’s always-evocative program notes for today’s anthem, Handel’s Chandos Anthem 7, “My Song Shall Be Alway.”  So picture this.  I usually sit in the third row of the church, just to the right of the center aisle.  I like being this close because if I’m really quiet in my head, and if no one is talking to me, I can hear sharp inhales and exhales of the musicians, I can hear the keys being pressed on the oboe, plus all the wonderful sounds of the instruments and voices blending together.  Anyway, today I was sitting there, and while I usually try not to distract myself by looking at the bulletin during the music, sometimes I can’t help it.  And there was some point during the lovely soprano solo today when I wanted to see how the program notes described it.  I found the weaving together of the soprano’s voice and the oboe, and Michael’s dancy conducting, to be particularly time-swimmy.  So I looked down at the notes, and I just as I was reading this line “the soprano sings an intimate and gracious air punctuated by surprising unison choral outbursts,” I was enveloped in one such surprising “choral outburst” and waves of goosebumps shot up my spine and engulfed my head.

I feel unbelievably lucky to hear extraordinary live music on such a regular basis, and even when the music itself doesn’t bring goosebumps, often just watching and hearing how the ensemble, conductor and chorus are working together will result in goosebumps.  Even when I’m just not feeling the music on a particular day, the luxury of watching the ensemble, conductor and chorus swim through time is inviting in and of itself, and the next thing I know, I’m doing a figurative cannonball into the pool and I’m in there with them.

Finally, completing the kick-butt church day today (“kick-butt” is a high compliment in my family of origin), one of our newer parishioners, the Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew, took the tricky pitch of the virulently anti-Semitic gospel reading for today and basically hit it over the Green Monster onto the Mass Pike.  I love hearing really great preaching and teaching on a reliable basis.  Another reason I love sitting up in the front is because when a particularly good sermon — like today’s — is concluded, I usually hear at least one whispered “Wow” coming from behind me.  Today there were several such murmurs.

That’s it for my first Shout-out Sunday.  Since it’s been such a Heavenly Day, I’ll let Patty Griffin take us out with that very song: