Thursday, December 31, 2009

FOR ANN-MARIE CLARK, 30 DECEMBER 2009

When I came home from the hospice I loaded up the dishwasher as I heated up a meal of leftovers: some paella from Christmas day, alu gobi from Sunday dinner, roasted turnips and yams from Monday, and a bit of leftover Chinese take-out.

I listened to NPR as I ate: stories about the attempted bombing on the Northwestern flight, the new health care proposal, WWII conscientious objectors, and more. I scrubbed the stovetop as I listened. “It’s your turn to clean the stove,” I told Ed days ago. After heavy use over Christmas, with the kids home, and lots of friends over, the stovetop was greasy and crusty. I’d spent half an hour scrubbing it after Ed’s department party at our house, and didn’t want to do it again. But now Ed was in New York visiting his parents, and the stove still dirty.

I gave in and cleaned the damn stove, not willing to hold out for ideology any longer. I gave the stovetop my all, wiping away not only the most recent grease, but even old stains from months past. I took out a metal spatula and scraped away at the ceramic top.

I held you in my mind, Ann-Marie, as I scrubbed. After a year battling melanoma, and a remission I cavalierly assumed was permanent, your body broke out in cancer again, no longer responsive to treatments. Slowly, you let go, and after you came home from the hospital for Christmas, it became clear you were ready for hospice.

When I visited you today, you were well along the path. Unconscious in your bed, even my cold hands coming in from the December frost didn’t startle you. Head back, mouth open, one hand rested on your chest. Several of us gathered and sang for you, songs you knew well from the song circles you’d been attending and hosting for years.

Be like a bird
who halting in her flight
on a limb too slight feels it give way beneath her
yet sings, sings, knowing she has wings


Members of your meditation group came and chanted prayers. I offered a eurythmy Halleluiah. We shared Ann-Marie stories, talking about how much you love to laugh, how good a friend you are, what a compassionate therapist. Where would I start? After 20 years of friendship, what story would I tell? I chose to stay in a deep, rich silence, standing beside your bed, imagining where your inner work was leading you.

Driving home, however, I remembered an incident you were part of. It was at another hospice, where a student of mine lay dying, and several of us from the song circle gathered to sing for her. However, when we walked into the patient’s room, I realized this was not my student, and that in fact, I didn’t know this person at all. After a few confused minutes, we decided to sing for her anyway. Some friends and family members were in the room, and they encouraged us to stay. We realized that it really didn’t matter that we didn’t know this person, and in fact, we could’ve walked into any room of the hospice and offered to sing. On the way home, we laughed heartily over my blunder, while appreciating the magic that had transpired. Her family was so appreciative, and the patient responded to us in her own way, by raising her arm and turning her head.

And now we are singing for you. After all your years mothering, dancing, singing, cooking, healing, now you are still. You are leaving this earthly plane, you are leaving your young adult children and your husband, and hundreds of people who love you. You are on a journey we can only observe from a great distance, wishing you well, singing you songs, and chanting prayers.

Back at home, I keep scrubbing the stove, a privilege and burden of the living. Your hand, Ann-Marie, that I held as I sang, will never wield a spatula or kitchen sponge again. In your hospice bed, you have completely transcended dirty stovetops, unread emails, difficult clients, floods, and earthquakes. You are finished with walking along the Milwaukee River, dancing in the kitchen, writing poems. But death, too, is a good place. For you, my friend, my soul-sister, I scrub the stove spotless.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

RETHINKING CHRISTMAS

How do you take the most commercialized, commodified holiday of the year and truly make it meaningful for yourself, your family, and your community? This Christmas I am especially struck by the Christian message of humility contrasted with the secular message of consumption.

In Christian liberation theology, we are invited to identify with a Jesus who is poor, oppressed, and alienated. We see Jesus as a figure who enters suffering willingly and transcends it. At Plymouth UCC we recently watched an interview of black liberation theologist Dr. James Cone with Bill Moyers.

Do we identify with the oppressed or with the oppressor? James Cone asks. Do we identify with those in power or with the powerless? Our answer may affect how we choose to commemorate Christmas.

A Facebook friend recently mentioned how much she loves Christmas in Manhattan, and several people chimed in with “thumbs up” and agreement about the beautiful shop windows on Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t help bursting the bubble. “Seriously?” I commented, “I try to stay away from all that.”

Didn’t we have our crash? Aren’t lavish window displays soooo 2008? Do we still identify with the wealthy and powerful, having suffered at their hands, losing jobs and houses and health care and more? Do we still long for luxury, knowing how fleeting it all is, and knowing that the environment or developing nations have been exploited to produce many such goods? Remember GW Bush’s “haves and have-mores”? Surely we are over all that.

If we take Jesus’s suffering to heart, how does that affect the celebration of Christmas? Thankfully my kids, young adults, have matured beyond the hunger for new toys that used to dominate the holiday, and we have been able to keep the gift exchange low-key.

So how do we honor the holiday without the commercial trappings? How do we celebrate Christmas as common people, working people, simple people, honoring Jesus, who was born in a shed, for God’s sake?

As soon as my teaching obligations ended for the year, I went into a sewing frenzy. I set up my sewing machine in the dining room, went through my piles of scrap fabric, and sewed: 2 pairs of yoga bloomers, 6 yoga mat bags, 5 pranayama bolsters, and 1 one grocery shopping bag, so far. When the kids were little we used to make dozens of candles to give to friends. I find that making things serves as a wonderful foil to consuming, which can often feel more like destroying. Instead of destroying we are creating. We also used to make handmade Christmas cards, loving inscribed with personal messages. Since the kids have gotten older, this tradition fell by the wayside, but I’m determined to send cards again this year. I also made quite a few cds of my favorite podcasts over the past year, from favorite public radio programs such as Speaking of Faith and Radiolab.

We celebrated Christmas day with our second annual film festival, with each member of the family selecting a film. I invited my whole local email list of 200 friends, and quite a few came by, including Jews and atheists, those without family in town, and several members of my favorite demographic—older single women.

Not only at Christmas, but throughout the year, can we take on the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor? Can we live like Jesus each day? Can we identify more with those who suffer than those who inflict suffering? Can we stop imposing suffering on others and instead be willing to take it on ourselves? What about people of color and women, who are already at a lower level of privilege, can we still embrace suffering? Is it appropriate to do so? Please consider all these questions with me, and examine them through these Holy Nights, and let me know what you come up with.