Fathers

Victor Carpenter

[Rev. Victor Carpenter] 

I learned yesterday morning of the death of my mentor, Rev. Victor Carpenter.  He was my internship supervisor in 1998-99 at the First Church of Belmont, MA, and truly a ministry “father” to me.  He was the same age as my dad, and taught me all the practical ins and outs of life in the ministry, especially a ministry infused with a passion for justice. But the best gift he gave me was his expression of belief and confidence in me–through Victor, I felt I could do everything!

I was ordained at the Belmont church on Fathers Day, June 20 in 1999.  Victor preached the sermon at my ordination, and I was grateful that my dad was also among the many people who participated in the laying on of hands that blessed me for my work in ministry.  That work took me away from the Boston area, so I only saw Victor during occasional visits after that internship year, but his love and belief stayed with me through all the years of my ministry.

I should say a little more about him for those who do not know him.  Victor was a graduate of the Harvard University Divinity School class of 1959.  Along with Belmont, where I knew him, he served churches in Norwell, Massachusetts; Philadelphia; Arlington Street Church in Boston; and The First Church of San Francisco.  He also served The Free Protestant Church of Cape Town, South Africa; perhaps pivotal in shaping his own passion for social justice. After retirement, he was an interim minister in Dorchester, Carlisle, and Hingham, MA.

He received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1987. In 2011 he received the Unitarian Universalist Association Distinguished Service Award.  (You can read more about his amazing ministries at that website.)  He was active for racial justice, peace in the middle east, access for people with disabilities, and an end to oppressions of all kinds. He was also kind, funny, savvy, and did I say passionate? He was a mentor and support to many others in ministry.

Today I am thinking about his wife Cathe, who herself has been a fierce and loving advocate and educator, and his children and grandchildren, and all of us who were touched by his life and ministry, and feel his loss.  I am also pondering this unlikely juxtaposition for me personally–his death occurring in the very same week as my own dad’s death.  I had known that Victor was terminally ill with cancer, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.  But I feel the double loss of these two father figures in my life, in many ways so different from each other, yet each so pivotal in my spiritual journey. I feel so grateful for the gifts I received through their fathering.

 

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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

Yes They Did Come!

HummingbirdWe put up the hummingbird feeders five days ago, and the hummingbirds showed up within a couple days.  Today I got some photos, while sitting on the deck a few feet away. This is a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and a female came around as well.  It is rather marvelous that they can find these feeders, considering the length of their travels.

Hummingbirds migrate to and from central America where they spend the winter, usually in the same place that their ancestors did.  They fly alone, not in flocks, and instinctively know where to go.  Isn’t that incredible?  Hummingbirds have an average life span of 3-5 years, so maybe these are the same hummingbirds as those who found the feeder we put up last year, before we had the roof on the deck.  Or maybe they are descendants.  Now we have two feeders, and they’ve already used both.  Hummingbirds are very territorial, so I wonder if we’ll see others, or these two will claim it all for themselves.

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!

Hummingbirds?

Hummingbird Feeder

Margy got a new hummingbird feeder for us!  I put it up today, plus our old one too, attached to opposite sides of the beams on our new roof on the deck.  I hope we aren’t too late to catch the migration–we used to put out the feeders when the viburnum near our door (in North Yarmouth) started blossoming, the first week of May.  We’re still figuring out the best timing for here in Portland.  I’ll let you know when we see any.

In the meantime, lots of watering to do, and I also divided some comfrey and some oregano to take to the Plant Swap tomorrow at the Resilience Hub.  Last year we got all of the companion plants we needed for our cherry trees.  The comfrey and oregano seem like basically fool-proof plants, and grew abundantly in the food forest.  So I was confident enough to take some out to share.  This year, I hope to find some kale seedlings, perhaps, and just see what might be there.  Maybe elderberry starts?  It has been a beautiful day in the garden.

Hummingbird Feeder small