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.
What a pleasure to finally complete the asparagus beds, along with setting pavers and stones into the area under our outdoor water spigot! With so much always “in process” in the garden, little completions are quite satisfying. That is also true for me in other areas. Yesterday, I finally figured out our financial budget for retirement, and that feels so grounding as well, like I am really retired now.
I blogged about planting the crowns last April, near the walls behind the house and next to the garage. [Here is a picture of the “before” trench behind the house.] The instructions were to let the asparagus plants grow in the trench, and add compost and soil bit by bit as they got taller, keeping at least 2 inches above ground. This was complicated by the fact that some of the plants bolted up in a flash, while others were tiny babies for such a long time–even still.
But last week, with more compost and soil, I finally brought the beds up to level, and then finished them off with a layer of wood chips. In the bed near the garage, I actually created two little pockets with cut out pots for the ones that were still too small, so I could fill the soil around them up to level. They would have been buried! Hopefully, they’ll get enough sun and water to keep growing and come back next year with a flourish.
I also moved our lemon balm plant from near the cherry tree over to the small area just left of the water spigot. It looks and smells so cheerful there, and will be nicely contained for a plant that I learned has a spreading habit.
We are in the season in which life is bursting out all over, even as we can start to feel the shift toward the autumn. Days are shortening, and everything seems to be growing as much as it can. It is amazing to think that all these green plants die back in winter, seal themselves in their roots, and hide as if they didn’t exist at all, only to re-emerge in spring. So now they are making the most of sun and heat and rain, turning sunlight into sugar for all life in the neighborhood. The asparagus will die back too, in the winter, but come to life again in the spring–and we’ll be able to share in their bounty from that season forward. I love perennials!
Transitions create a liminal time, a time on the threshold between old and new, between past and future, a sacred time, perhaps a dangerous time. Yesterday, I turned in my keys to the congregation where I had ministered for 13 years. My retirement is official. But who am I now?
It is not that I didn’t have any ideas about what I might like to be doing after I finished that work. I imagine I will still be on A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community, what this blog is all about. But what I notice, and have been noticing the last few weeks, is a sense of floating or flying, a sense of directionless. I haven’t been able to put it into words. But artist Cathryn Falwell captured it in this beautiful banner she created for me as a retirement gift. (Thank you Cathryn!) The red cardinal is flying over the terrain of earth, hills, trees, clouds, water. The landing is not yet in sight.
It is not a fearful time, nor sad really, though I have moments of sadness about letting go. It is not really excited or joyful either. I am not doing a happy dance. It is “in between” everything. I remember that I wanted to have a sense of spaciousness, an empty space before I filled it with new things. So perhaps it is a spacious time, though it doesn’t quite feel spacious yet.
I realized a few days ago that summer in Maine always carries a sense of urgency. There is such a short growing season, and the garden clamors for attention. We have reached the solar festival of Lammas, the early harvest celebration. The garden is full of harvestables–huge kale plants, and basil; the oregano and thyme herb clusters have expanded and gone to flower to the delight of all bees; volunteer blackberries are starting to ripen in the back of the yard and down the street at a vacant lot. We are also overgrown with crabgrass and could never finish all the weeding that one might do. Plus there are always practical things to attend to–meals, dishes, bills, household maintenance. Not to mention that the beach also calls us to swimming during these hot sunny days that end so quickly.
So what is spaciousness? How do I float along in this empty and full terrain? Perhaps I just float along. Perhaps I just float along, until the next sacred thing emerges.
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!
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!
During our ritual celebration yesterday evening for Imbolc/Groundhog Day, we scryed with the magic of the fire in our wood stove. Scrying is a form of seeking wisdom, by gazing into some sort of medium–such as a crystal ball, tea leaves, a bowl of water, a candle flame. It gets a bad rap on Wikipedia as “unscientific.” But as one person mentioned last night, while meditation may sometimes be difficult, there is something about quietly staring into a fire with each other that brings one to a state of stillness within.
When we find that stillness, we have access to our own deeper wisdom, and the wisdom of the deeper mystery. Some people see images in the fire. Others notice whatever thoughts or feelings emerge in the stillness of gazing.
Here is what I noticed on the way to the wisdom in me: First of all, a sense of deep weariness. Then, a desire to stop doing so much out there in the world, to pay attention to what is happening within. Then, a feeling of how difficult it is to say no to invitations to activism on issues that are important. There is so much hard stuff in our world right now, and so many good people are responding. How do I know when I should be taking action, and when I should be in stillness?
Then, a fear that if I choose to say no, I will disappoint people, lose their love and acceptance. Then, a realization that that motivation, that fear, is not a source of wisdom, but rather a wound that needs healing. I sat with the fear for a while, gazing still into the fire, opening my heart to the healing energies of the mystery. We were celebrating Brigid after all, who is a Celtic goddess of healing. We had brought into the circle a small bottle of water from one of Brigid’s wells in Ireland, and I anointed my forehead and heart and hands with some of that water.
Deeper still, I realized that I am in the midst of a profound change. I am shifting from one identity, one chapter of my life–as the minister of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, to another identity, another chapter–as yet unknown. What I most desire is something like a cocoon in which to make that transformation, just as the caterpillar encloses itself for its transition to the butterfly.
This “enclosing myself” is not the same as doing nothing at all. There are activities that directly relate to this transition–processes of ending, closing down, completing the work. I notice how hard it is to turn my attention away from the usual activities of my current/former self, to pay attention to the transition. And in understanding this, I realize that I have to be courageous enough to say no to some good and important activities and activism. I have to say no, so that I can be courageous enough to say yes to the transformation.
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?”