The Art of Disappearing
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
It is January, and I am finally feeling the urge to clean up files and books in my basement office. It took a while. Many of these I had brought home after cleaning up my office at the church when I retired last summer, but even most of what was already here is from my work as a minister. Cleaning up the files is one way to make space as I discern who I am in this next chapter of my life.
I got a big boost in motivation when I learned that shredded white paper can be composted. That’s right! I don’t even have to send it to recycling, I can add it to our composting right here. Composting works with a mixture of nitrogen sources (“green” for short) and carbon sources (“brown” for short.) Paper counts as a carbon source (brown), like the dead leaves or coffee chaff that we are already using. Each time we bring out kitchen waste (green) to the outdoor compost bin, we also cover it with a pile of carbon sources (brown.) (Usually, you want more volume of brown sources to green source, maybe about 3 to 1, but the exact ratio isn’t something to worry about.)
I don’t like the idea of throwing things “away,” which just clogs up landfills–since there really is no “away.” So it makes a big difference that I can compost paper. Somehow it seems so fitting to compost the remnants of my life as a minister into substances that can rejuvenate the earth. Not that I’ve stopped being a minister–but I will be a different sort of minister from the minister who led a congregation.
As it happens, on the same day I decided to start in on the basement, Netflix released a season of Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up show. I like her guidance to hold each item, and if it “sparks joy” keep it, and if not, thank it and move it along. What a beautiful idea, to thank the things that have served us in the past! I think she also mentions asking, “Do you want to bring this into the future with you?” (Please don’t quote me on the details–I haven’t read her book.) Watching the shows provide another boost of motivation. For me, the process of tidying up my files and books in the basement is about imagining what I will need for the future, what I want to “archive” from the past, and what I no longer need to keep.
(And if by any chance you are worried that I would compost the books–no, no, no–most likely, I will donate books I no longer need to the library, or to friends and colleagues that might want them.)
By tidying up and reorganizing my papers and books, I hope that a spaciousness will be created in which the future has room to be born. May it be so.
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.
On Sunday, June 17, my congregation celebrated my ministry of thirteen years, upon the occasion of my retirement. (I will still be working behind the scenes in June and on-call through July, but that was my last Sunday service.) I was overwhelmed with their expressions of love and appreciation. I will miss everyone so much.
There were so many amazing touches to the celebration, including this tiny (6 inches across) diorama of my life created by Kathy N. with details including my guitar, a stole I wear when I preach, tiny protest signs, the cover of my actual book, our fire circle, cherry tree, rain barrel and garden tools. The celebration included a reflection from me and testimonials from a few church members, and a poem and a funny song created for me, and more. There was a gorgeous rendition of Jeremy Geffen’s song “Mystery,” done by the choir and instrumentalists, along with other beautiful music. They also honored me with the designation of Minister Emerita, and gave me beautiful gifts. There was a photo slideshow of moments from my ministry. We danced around the dawn redwood tree. And ate delicious food, and I received so many hugs, including from the children.
The ministry relationship is so very deep in a particular way. Not the same as friendship, but filled with intimacy. During conversations with people during the meal, I kept remembering the significant moments I had shared with them. I remembered their loved ones who had died during my ministry. I remembered the joyful weddings, and the painful separations. I remembered our work together in the community that I helped to hold and cherish. I felt the blessing of our relationships.
In retirement, I am leaving those relationships behind. That will be the hardest part. I am relieved to let go of the work. My body just can’t do it any longer. This year has been hard with many auto-immune flare-ups, days of exhaustion, and just barely keeping up with everything. I am ready to lay that down. But I will miss the people. Not that I will never see them again. I will be in the same city, and our paths will likely cross occasionally. But in our tradition, the retiring minister disappears for a while, to give people a chance to form a ministry relationship with someone new. The Interim Minister has already been chosen, and will arrive August 1st.
Meanwhile, I am cleaning out my office, and saying goodbye to staff members, and taking care of transitional details. But I feel absolutely full of gratitude and amazement for these wonderful people, that I was lucky enough to serve and to love during these past thirteen years. Just wow!
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.
I am on retreat with my friend in Albuquerque, and we started off by visiting the Jemez Hot Springs, and soaked for an hour in their healing mineral waters. All of our tensions floated away, and our bodies and souls felt renewed and relaxed. I loved that we were under the watchful arms of an ancient Egyptian river Goddess.
My intention for this time of retreat is to re-emerge myself in Spirit after a long hard winter, to prepare myself for the transition ahead as I retire this summer from my work as a parish minister, and venture into the next phase of my journey.
Times of big changes are liminal times, sacred times, but perhaps also times of anxiety and danger. I want to stay true to the leadings of my body and spirit that have brought me to this crossroads. One of those leadings came from the weariness of my body, its chronic illness and auto-immune flare-ups that left me bedraggled and exhausted. I know it is time to stop pushing it so hard. How fitting for my first day here to bring my body to these healing springs.
I am also already absorbing so much nurture from deep conversations with a sister in spirit who understands the call of ministry and justice, and who understands the lessons of the body, the lessons we learn from limitation and illness. I am nurtured by this sister traveler into the country of elderhood.
One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend Lori and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling we each seemed so isolated in our private meditations. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.
Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle; I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God she experienced.
I shared this story with my colleagues last week. From Wednesday through Friday, I was on retreat with other Unitarian Universalist ministers at Biddeford Pool, by the sea. They had invited me, because of my upcoming retirement, to share my “Odyssey,” my story of ministry. So on Thursday evening, I talked about the long path and the many transformations that have been a part of that ministry journey, starting with this story of my being used unknowingly by the Spirit.
Years ago, even as a child, I had opened my life to that Spirit, that Mystery, that flowing River of Life. Ministry has meant, for me, at root, that opening to be of use. At different times in my life, that has included many different types of work. Most lately, as a minister in a congregation, I have been preaching, offering pastoral care, teaching, writing, going to many meetings. But ministry is not always about our intentions or our plans or our activities.
I shared another story that happened only a few years ago. At that time, I was planning to join my congregation at our annual retreat at Ferry Beach. We were happy to be including a visiting UU minister from Burundi, and I was going to drive him to the retreat. But then I got sick with a bad cold or flu–can’t remember which. I called a member of the congregation to see if she could give him a ride instead. She did, and later she told me that it had changed her life. She was transformed by hearing his story, and she eventually went to visit Burundi with other UUs.
I was struck by how even our limitations–even getting sick–even being missing–can be an occasion of unknowingly triggering a blessing for someone’s life. If we are in the flow of Spirit, the flow of the River, even our flaws can be of use. This gives me great comfort as I deal with health issues that drain my energy and interrupt my intentions and activities, and are the impetus for my decision to retire this year. I remind myself to trust in that same Spirit who has been undergirding my life and my ministry for all these many years. Trust in the flow of the River.
This coming summer, I plan to retire from my ministry at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church. I have loved being a minister and have loved serving this congregation for 12 1/2 years. I think the congregation would also say that it has been a good match. But last summer, I began to think I might need a change. I have been dealing with auto-immune health issues for some time, and just don’t have the energy I used to have. I will be turning 65 this coming summer, and that means I will be eligible for Medicare–which in turn makes it possible to consider this change.
Unlike when Margy and I were searching for greener housing, and had such a clear sense of intention guiding our efforts, this change is more mysterious. It comes from a deep place of weariness in my body, and a deep hunger for spaciousness in my spirit. I am not sure exactly what the future will hold. One thing I do know is that I need to tend the garden in our yard.
We’ve already ordered a bunch of trees and other perennials that will arrive in the spring: one “Honeycrisp” apple tree, one “Contender” peach tree, an “Illinois Everbearing” mulberry tree (that one is mostly for the birds), three hazelnut bushes, two blueberry bushes–Blue Ray & Jersey varieties, a licorice plant, twenty-five Asparagus plants, and three goldenseal plants.
My spirit feels like the ground hidden under the snow, or the berries encased in ice. I am trying to find quiet and solitude to listen to what it wants to tell me, to find out, as David Whyte says,
“What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?”