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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Things done and left undone

I woke up this morning feeling rather melancholy.  There's something about New Year's Eve that brings some of that out in each of us, I think, along with a sense of adventure and excitement.

We look back on the old before looking ahead to the new.  Something in that process stirs the soul.

"Things done and left undone" is the phrase used in the confession of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

We say that prayer together in church, Sunday after Sunday.  Most of us have memorized it and can repeat it by rote.  We know that prayer "by heart", but, more often than not, we do not let the words touch our heart, until one day, we look at the calendar, and we realize that the passage of time has crept up on us once again and we run smack-dab into the truth of the words of that prayer. 

Being the odd creatures of habit that we humans are, we establish "New Year's Resolutions".  We resolve all sorts of things about "things done and left undone." We resolve to finish something we started or stop patterns of behavior. 

Get back to the gym.  Start that diet and loose those 8 - 10 pounds that have suddenly gained on us when we weren't looking at what we were eating.  Read more.  Drink less.  Quit smoking.  Change a behavior. Take that class.  Learn a new skill.  Do what we know how to do even better. Cultivate a particular virtue.  Promise to be kinder, gentler, more patient, less stingy.  Practice 'The Golden Rule'.  

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt that says, "Wait 'till next year's resolution."

While I think that this process is not entirely without merit, I think there's something to be said for practicing reality.  As I've looked back over the last year, I realize that, in the process, I have also been taking stock of what I know to be true about myself.

Before I take my leave of this earthly plane, I would like to be able to say that I've climbed Mt. Everest, or swum the English Chanel, or flown in a space ship, but I know those things will never happen.

They are lovely fantasies, and I greatly admire those who have achieved these accomplishments, but, truth be told, I simply do not have the desire to discipline myself and do the hard work of the preparation required to attain these goals. 

So, I've been looking at who I understand myself to be and what it is that I desire.  What is it that stirs my heart and my soul and excites my mind?  What makes me feel more fully alive?  What gives me a sense of satisfaction and hope?  What challenges me to move beyond my limited understanding of myself and summons me to grow, more and more, into the image God had of me when I was called into being?

As I sort through the scenes of the past year in my mind's eye, images emerge from the recesses of my memory and begin to form a collage that is very instructive.

I want to hold up one snapshot, one image, one story that is fairly emblematic of all the others.

On Christmas Eve, I went to visit a parishioner who, for the past year and a half, has been living in an "assisted living facility".  In another day and time, it would have been known as an "Old Folk's Home", but we are living more and more into The Age of Euphemisms so as to protect ourselves from the harsh reality of the truth of our lives.

She came to St. Paul's shortly after I arrived.   A woman in her mid-70's, she came there, she said, because she had finally found a place where she might know acceptance.  "If they can have someone like you as the spiritual leader of this church, well, then maybe there's a place for me, too."

Euphemisms.  She was talking, of course, about her almost 40 year relationship with another woman.  She had two grown children - both boys - who were "sort of accepting," she said, but "mostly uncomfortable with my lifestyle."

And what style of life would that be, I asked her.  She got flustered and said, "Well, you know.  'Our' lifestyle."  Hmmmm. . . I said. . . I don't know.  Do you mean that sometimes I wash the dishes and Ms. Conroy takes out the garbage, and other times, we switch tasks?  Or, that she used to help the kids with their math and science homework and I would help them with their book reports and English literature - because that's what are particular gifts and interests are?

She blushed.  And then, she sighed.  "I'm still working through all of this," she said.  "It's been . . . hard. . . and. . . I guess. . . well, I guess I'm sometimes my own worst enemy."

And, aren't we all, my dear?  Aren't we all?

I visited her and her partner from time to time, usually around an illness.  Then there was that time around the accident, the details of which were never really clear.

That was not unusual. I would get bits and pieces of their story, strung together from moments when they clearly - almost desperately - wanted me to know things.  And then, at other times, they were equally clearly and almost desperately private.

Woven through the fabric of their stories, however, was the unmistakable thread of shame.  It sometimes knotted itself around their hearts, chocking back tears and wrapping itself around them in colors and shades of melancholy and sadness.

They had dared to live together and share their love and their lives in a time that was much more cruel than what Ms. Conroy and I have known.  I could only imagine what filled those blanks, those empty pages in the book of their stories.

Over the past three years, she had become 'frail'.  She was sometimes 'forgetful'.  Her partner once whispered the word 'senile'.

Then came the diagnosis we all knew and feared but dared not speak its name:  Alzheimer's Disease.   There's no euphemism in the world that can blunt the truth of that.

They were separated, finally, when she moved into the 'Assisted Living Facility'.  Sold the lovely apartment they had lived in together for 30 years.  Visited each other several times a week. 

She sometimes became agitated when I would visit,  especially if I didn't eat lunch with her or when she couldn't walk me out to my car at the end of our visit without an attendant to accompany her.

About six months ago, she was transferred to the "Reminiscence Unit" - another lovely euphemism to blunt the truth of being on a locked unit, an electronic device pinned to her dress.  Just in case.

I was always pleased that she remembered me.  Sometimes, it would take her a while to put the face and the name together with the place.  You could see the wheels spinning in her head.

Once she made the connection her very first question would be: "How is your partner?" I would tell her in some detail as she listened with great interest.  Then, I would ask her about her partner.  "She never comes anymore," she would respond.  Which was decidedly not true, but it was her reality.

We'd go back and forth like this for a time, trading questions and answers, and then, as if she were caught in some horrible psychological spin cycle she would look at me and say, "How's your partner?" And we would begin again.

At some point in our conversation, she began to be aware that she was repeating herself, and she would become agitated and annoyed.  It was usually at this point that one of the aids would begin to make motions and noises that it was probably time for me to leave.  I would, but reluctantly. With great sadness. 

When I visited her on Christmas Eve, she told me that she would be alone on Christmas Day.  Said that her partner would be out of town and unable to visit.  That one son would be in Colorado where he lived and the other on a vacation with his wife in Aruba.  She asked me if I could come back on Christmas Day.

"It would bring me such hope," she said.

I called her son's house but, as there was no answer, I assumed that he was, in fact, in Aruba as she had said.  I called her partner's house but, as there was no answer, I assumed that she was, in fact, out of town and unable to visit.

On Christmas morning, after about four hours of sleep, I dressed and went to church.  After the service, I took one of the poinsettias and headed off to see her.

As I arrived, she was just getting off the phone after a conversation with her two sons.  Not one in Aruba.  Both in Colorado.   Both loving and caring, kind and gentle to their mother.

Her partner was due in to have Christmas lunch with her in about 15 minutes.  Not out of town.  Just not where she wanted her to be or the way she wanted to be with her.

It took her a while to make the connections about who I am.  I had one of those weird conversations where you are talking to the person but really explaining yourself to another person. Which would have been the Unit Manager, a lovely woman named Sarah with kind eyes and a gentle spirit.

I stayed for a while until her partner arrived and we were able to share a visit.  When she inevitably got stuck in one of her 'spin cycles', her partner looked at me and her eyes welled up with tears.  She said she had to use 'the facility' and would be right back.

When I talked with her later she wept openly and said, "I just can't stand it when she's like that.  It just breaks my heart."

I said, as gently as I could, "She doesn't 'get' like that.  She 'is' like that.  We just convince ourselves that she has 'moments like that'.  She doesn't have 'moments like that'.  That is the reality of her life, now.  And yes, it is heartbreaking.  But, the pain is much, much worse when we place unrealistic expectations on her or ourselves. "

"Alzheimer's has robbed her of most of who she was.  This is who she is, now. She is small, sad glimpses of who she was and frightening glimpses of who she will become.  Mostly, she's terrified and is trying not to let it show.  She's working very hard to keep up a pretense of social pleasantries so we won't become as anxious and scared as she is."

"We've got to take it all and be all that we can be for her so that she can be all of who she is for us.  Even when that isn't enough.  Even when that breaks our hearts."

We cried together, her partner and I.  On Christmas Day in the morning.  It was the best present I could think to give her:  The truth, bathed in our tears and wrapped up in our sadness.  And, my friendship, guidance and solidarity with her.

I can do that because I know, in one sense, we all have Alzheimer's.  We live with small, sad glimpses of who we were and frightening glimpses of who we will become.  Mostly, we're terrified and try not to let it show.  We work very hard to keep up a pretense of social pleasantries so others don't become as anxious and scared as we are.  And, if they don't, chances are, we won't.

I can do that because I know that, in that moment,  God was also weeping and sad. Which is why God sent the most sacred part of Godself to be our friend and guide to stand in solidarity with us. So we won't be alone in our sadness and despair.  Even when we think we are.

I also know that most - if not all - of my parishioners don't know - will never know - of this Christmas Day visit.  And, if they did, some will think me foolish.  Others will think me a saint.

Neither is true, of course.  I'm just a parish priest, is all.  Sometimes foolish.  Deeply flawed and faulted.  Often impatient.  Sometimes feeling incompetent and an impostor.

I don't have any answers to the deep questions of people's lives.  I don't know why there is suffering in the world.  I only know that there is.  And, I know that I'm to be there, in the midst of it - things known and unknown.  Doing some things and leaving others undone.  But always trying to be present in and to the moments of loneliness and despair. 

I know I'm to break through the myths and fantasies we create in our lives which often find expression in the euphemisms we employ about our lives. 

I'm to try to have reasonable expectations of myself and others, and help others develop that of themselves and others - and me - so when we disappoint, the fall won't be as far or the landing as hard.

I'm to try to be unreasonably hopeful and expectant, calling myself and others to greater challenges and risks so that we might learn and grow.

I'm to try to live the poetry of life, making connections for people between the miracle of a spider's web and the gift of the network of community.  The rising of the sun and the hope of a new day.  The twinkling of the stars in the night sky and the promise that darkness will not overcome us. 

To see possibility, even when everything looks broken and desperate.

To speak the disturbing truth when convenient half-truths are more comfortable.

To try to live as God loves us - abundantly and generously. Wastefully lavish and foolish. Without fear or shame when we stand before each other in the presence of God.

To be faithful to what I know about who I am and whose I am.

This is what stirs my heart and my soul and excites my mind.  Living this life makes me feel more fully alive and gives me a sense of satisfaction and hope.   This is what challenges me to move beyond my limited understanding of myself and summons me to grow, more and more, into the image God had of me when I was called into being.

As a new year fast approaches, my resolve is to live even more faithfully into my desire and my passion for the identity and vocation God has given me.

Even if no one else knows or notices or even cares. 

God knows and notices and cares.

Reaffirming that knowledge is the best way I know to start the New Year.

Happy New Year!

Or, my dears, as Robbie Burns would have us sing:
We twa hae run about the braes
(We two have run about the hills)
And pou'd the gowans fine,
(and pulled the daises fine)
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit
(but we've wandered many a weary foot)
Sin auld lang syne
(Since old long ago.)

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
(We two have paddled in the stream)
Frae morning sun till dine
(from morning sun till noon)
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
(but seas between us broad have roared)
Sin auld lang syne
(Since old long ago.)

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
(And there's a hand my trust friend)
And gie's a hand o thine
(And give me a hand of yours)
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
(And we will take of a good drink and toast)
For auld lang sine
(For old long ago.)

For auld lang syne, my dear
(For old long ago, my dear)
For auld Langsyne,
(For old long ago)
We'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
(We will take a cup of kindness yet)
For auld lang syne!
(For old long ago)


eileen said...


You made me cry. For us all.

So much resonated with me in this essay. Bless your honesty and humanity and willingness to do and be both.

Happy New Year friend.

Fran said...

I am sitting here weeping copiously. Sending you love and gratitude - happy new year. xoxoxoxoox

IT said...

There you go again making my eyes well up. So resonant. So wise.


have a peaceful New Year.

klady said...

Tears, here also. You are an extraordinary human being and priest and I thank you so much for sharing this with everyone. Every time I think about dropping out of "church" things like this make me pause and wonder at what survives and flourishes there notwithstanding all the ... stuff. God truly knows that people of all kinds - male, female, "straight," lesbian, gay, and transgendered, white, brown, yellow, and whatever, with or without their full minds, in joy and sorrow - are worthy and loved. Thank you for demonstrating it so beautifully and eloquently - yet again.

Martha said...

Wow, just wow. Once again, you nailed it, sister.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I have been meditating a lot lately on what it means to be--truly be--a bearer of Light. All I have to do is look at your post and realize you have that one down quite well.

What's interesting is as I read it, you know who was on my mind? Your brother.


june maffin said...

One of your most articulate, compassionate and sensitive articles of the year. Writing - God's gift to you ... and through you, to us. Thank you for accepting the gift and using it with such courage, grace and vulnerability. May you continue to receive, accept, use and share this gift in the New Year and may you and Ms Conroy be blessed beyond what you can ask or imagine.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I'll add my name to the list of weeping readers. To me this story is an example of the faith that comes with wisdom. A couple of years ago I was a co-mentor for an EFM Year 1 class, and one of the participants said that her faith was ruined by such a close reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. As I get more and more traction into my fifties, I'm falling in love with a God -and with the people of God - who see things as they are. May God give you and your family strength and courage in the New Year.

susan s. said...

Thank you.

IT said...

And BTW may I reiterate, that a collection of your pastoral reflections, such as this one, such as the baptismal letters, the posts recounting the daily life of a parish priest, would be a heckuva book. I'd certainly buy it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you for all this very high praise, my friends. You know, I jus writes 'em like I sees 'em - with a little help from Shekinah. Okay, more than a little.

You know, this is the daily bread of most clergy. We just talk among ourselves. Maybe IT is right. Maybe I should write that book. Maybe more people should know that we do more than liturgy on Sunday or look like we're staring blankly out the window immediately before someone "just stops by" to say hello.

Anyway, g'won. Quit yer cryin' now. Blow your nose and pick up your socks and go do your own reflecting. Think of your own life and the people God has called into it. Your own stories.

Shekinah is calling. And, I'd love to hear them.

Erp said...

I'm also crying.

May be daily bread and butter for clergy in the trenches though I suspect few can write so well.

susankay said...

Elizabeth -- I also thought of your brother -- and my father -- and my mother-in-law -- and a friend at church.

All manner of things will be well. Hard to remember that sometimes.

whiteycat said...

I'm late to checking the blogs today but like so many others ... thank you for this insightful post. May God continue to bless you, your life and work in the new year ahead.

And, by the way, g'won and write that book!

Joanna Depue said...

Quite simply, a heartfelf thank you, Elizabeth. May your ministry and inner life flourish in the new year.

IT said...

Dear lady, i think you have half written it already. Really. Think about it?

Elaine C. said...

Thank you for sharing these wise insights -- I sent a link to this posting to a friend caring for his wife ...

Fr Kenny said...

Thank you so much for this! My dad is not good just now and you just articulated how I feel about it! I'm ready to celebrate the Eucharist this morning with a strengthened heart and mind.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

@ Fr. Kenny: God Bless you and your father.