Quietude

Evergreen Pond Dead Tree

Yesterday I finally walked to the ponds at Evergreen Cemetery, after not being there for over a year. It is a longer walk for me—half an hour there and half an hour back. But I never come right back. I go to the place where the dead tree fell into the water, becoming the center of pond life for the critters there.

So I sat at the base of the log, and I found myself growing quiet. Just paying attention to the life around me. I saw a brown frog in the water close by, and later, a green and yellow bigger one off to my right. A small turtle was sunning on the log. Once, the green and yellow frog slowly moved forward about a foot and then stopped again, eyes and mouth above the water. The turtle slipped into the water. A mother duck with two youngsters swam past, and then circled around and climbed up onto the log where she and her babies attended to their feathers.

Last week was encumbered with many projects, and lists of more projects. Ever since I cleaned out my office, I’ve been trying to catch up on household maintenance and fixing things. The biggest project that I actually accomplished was fixing the ice dispenser on our refrigerator. This involved two phone calls, moving ten boxes and a table to reach the freezer in the basement and turn it on; hauling food downstairs, two coolers, defrosting and cleaning the whole fridge, and starting it up again.  Three days. But it worked.

Anyway, once I sat next to the pond, the burden of unfinished projects just disappeared.  Not the projects of course, but the burden.  My soul got quiet and peaceful.  Another turtle climbed onto the log.  I saw another brown frog.  I saw a winged insect struggling on the surface of the water, until a dark turtle-shaped shadow swam near and suddenly the insect disappeared. On my walk home, the quietude stayed with me.

This has been a year of a lot of work in our yard, creating a garden of fruit trees and perennials and bushes. Working with growing things is one way to learn to connect to the earth. But being silent next to a pond brings a deeper sense of unity.  I am grateful.

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Surrender

They say that life endings and transitions are in some ways a preparation for that greatest of transitions, dying.  So I am noticing some things about the ending of my ministry.  I have not been able to do everything I would have wished to do, or imagined I would do.  For example, I wanted to have more final visits with people, more moments of personal gratitude and farewell.  I wanted to give gifts, I wanted to express more appreciation.  I wanted to pass along more details of how things work at my church–why do I know so many details? Who will they ask when I am no longer there?

Is that how it might be with dying, as well?  That we finally come to realize we can’t finish anything?  That we can’t express enough appreciation?  That we can’t pass along enough of the knowledge we so carefully gathered?

Meanwhile, I am trudging along with the sheer volume of work to do to clean out my office.  I am asking, What should be saved to pass along, and what should be recycled or shredded?  I am remembering meaningful activities, caught in old file folders, that I had forgotten we had done together.  I am asking, What do I want to keep for this unknown future life called retirement?  Right now, I don’t feel connected to the magic, to the flow of the River.  I feel as if I am in the dark about what the future might hold and where I am going.

Is that how it is with dying, as well?  That we feel overwhelmed with the minutiae of our daily existence?  That we are too weary to feel the magic?  That we are fully in the dark about the mystery beyond death?

Meanwhile, our country is descending deeper and deeper into fascism.  Social support systems are being gutted, even as I am wading through the bureaucracy of signing up for Medicare, Parts A, and B, and D, and supplemental.  Migrant children are being detained in cages, while their parents suffer, also caged, not knowing where they are.  Discriminatory exclusions are ruled legal.  Courageous people are protesting in the streets, making a loud noise, saying don’t go gentle into that dark night.  And I am at home in this liminal space, unable to participate in resistance, exhausted and weary, and all I can do is pray, and that, not very well.

So I come to this morning, this morning of my birthday of all things, and I finally write in my journal after several days neglect.  I set it all down, by setting it in words on paper. And that is my prayer, setting it all down, while I sit outside in the backyard.  I feel as if I am in labor, but to what purpose?  Someday, too, I will enter the labor of dying, and what will be the purpose of that?

Finally, I realize, we cannot finish everything that needs doing. All we can do is surrender into the Mystery.  And so I do.  I surrender to you, dear Creator, dear Goddess, dear Mystery. I surrender to you, dear River, dear Ocean, dear Love.  You have been my source and strength since before I was born, you have led me through dark valleys into transformation.  So I trust you, and I surrender once again, into the Unknown, into the Mystery.  Have mercy on us all.

White Pine in summer

My Mystic Father

Dad at 48

[My dad at the age of 48.]

My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:

I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.

My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.

Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Critters

 

Squirrel on deckSo I was sitting on the deck, just writing in my journal, and this little being came within a few feet, just looking at me.  No fear, just curiosity.  We live together in this beautiful place, and perhaps he/she is acknowledging that?  Or saying “Thank you for the sunflower seeds, but why do you make them so hard to get in that crazy contraption?”

Meanwhile, our nocturnal digger has also returned, very politely avoiding the plants and digging up the paths.  I am assuming it is our resident nearby skunk, though it is here earlier than last summer. This year I haven’t even been trying to straighten everything back again, unless it has dug a hole close to a plant.  But as you can see, everything is getting lush and leafy–rhubarb, sea kale, turkish rocket along the back.  Every tree is surrounded by herbs and clover.Nocturnal digger back

This morning I wandered for an hour in the garden to feel the ground and do last minute care-taking before I fly to see my parents today.  I planted some lovely basil that was a gift, watered the annual bed (and discovered some other little neighbor has eaten one of the broccoli seedlings–oh well I hope you enjoyed it), put more compost on the growing asparagus plants, and also watered the summer sweet bush cuttings that are temporarily in a pile of compost as well waiting to be planted.  Margy will tend the garden while I am gone.

I am thinking of my dad today, my spirit is with his spirit during this journey.  May this day be blessed with safe and smooth travels of whatever kind.

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

Just Be

Hammock View

My birthday isn’t until the end of June, but Margy gave me a wonderful free-standing hammock as an early birthday gift.  With all of the working in the garden, it is easy to forget to just BE–to just lie there and watch the sky and the trees and the birds.  It is large enough for both of us, and on Friday afternoon Margy and I were just being in it together.  Several little birds came to check us out in the trees close by–a tufted titmouse was singing, so much louder than one might expect from its small size.  Catbirds, cardinals.  “What is this new nest in the back of the yard?” they seemed to be asking.  “What new thing are you humans doing here?”

But we weren’t doing anything.  We were just being, watching, enjoying, listening, seeing.  On Saturday, I came back and tried again.  I especially like the symbolism of this gift, since this summer I will be retiring from my work at the church.  It is a bittersweet time, because I have loved my work at the church, and I will miss the people there.  But I like to imagine that in retirement I will have more opportunity for just being.  The hammock is a reminder to take that time–to not get caught up in all the projects I might be doing in the yard or the house or out there in the wide world–but to be still and spacious, to relax, to observe, to delight.  Thank you, Margy!  I love this gift!