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Zephyr Point Retreat Center, South Lake Tahoe, 2005
is a place for occasional musings, "noticings", stories, quotes, questions, etc...Come by every so often for a new story or two....
"This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it....Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. " Ralph Waldo Emerson( found with thanks in an essay by Garrison Keillor)
"One really has nothing in the world to fear. One becomes fearless when one understands the power of the soul. " Mohandas Gandhi.
“In the end there is only Love”*
these next two stories have been published in my book Reflective Surfaces: Curiosity and Creativity
“But wait,” I asked my friend Margaret.“Isn’t this illegal?Won’t someone object, or be offended?”Her request for me to preside at her mother’s funeral had caught me by surprise.Immediately excited, I nonetheless wondered at my competence.And if I questioned my competence, surely others would as well?But Margaret had no doubts. “You’re the closest to a minister we know,” she said lovingly, " and we trust you." So with a gulp at my boldness, I accepted this privilege.
Margaret gave me stories, favorite hymns and picked three people to do eulogies. I googled the hymns for key phrases and developed a theme based on those and the stories.Celtic prayers and modern translation Psalms bookended my sermon. Two eulogies included pieces that Margaret herself had written, during the course of her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s.
The funeral would take place in the small Texas town of Yoakum, a settlement of Czech immigrants where Margaret was raised.Entering the town you encounter a sign that proclaims “Yoakum, Leather Capital of the World.”More than agriculture, an iffy business at best, the primary enterprise in Yoakum has been nine leather factories. Frances Vahalik, Margaret’s mother, had worked for years as a master leather tooler. Examples of her mother’s handiwork appeared on tables at the front of the chapel, along with pictures, handmade quilts and crocheted blankets.
The funeral director was kind and knew most of the arriving folk. Quickly, decisions were deferred to “the minister of record”, and I acted like it was everyday news. Although psychologists don’t perform funerals, I reckoned spiritual directors technically could, so I was covered.
I wondered about this largely rural congregation that was drifting in, and what they would think of me in the pulpit.At the last minute, a young man arrived with a big black box and offered to play his accordion, to help out in any way he could for “Miss Frances.”I opened my mouth to say “no thanks” but as I looked up into his yearning face, a better answer came immediately. “At the end of the service, as people file past the casket to go out to the graveside, what about then? Could you play something?” He was thrilled to do so. Later that morning, as the accordion music filled that chapel, it was so perfect I could hardly believe it.
To send someone’s mother along her way is quite a responsibility, I thought.But to speak to and on behalf of a whole community about such issues of life and death was just plain scary.People at a funeral expect something. More than saying “good-bye”, they hope to hear something that eases their hearts and memories, touches them and connects them. They want to hear answers to unasked questions, they want to know they will go on and are not alone. They want to leave believing they are better people, somehow.
Or at least, that’s what I thought people wanted.Maybe their priest would have more to offer in a different language.All I had to offer was myself and what I thought was important to remember.
I wanted to remember that Frances believed in a daily walk with God.Her Companion was close, in the here and now, not far off, waiting for a reunion after a long absence.Frances talked with God about the farm, about Margaret and the rest of her family, about friends she had over for coffee, about hard times and about her leather designs.Crafting the tangible with her hands, Frances created a life with God by paying attention and talking.
I wanted to remind people to look kindly into the face of their neighbor, and know that in so doing they were seeing God.I wanted to say that in the heart of every moment there is a choice, Love or Fear.
The microphone tested, I stashed my notes and prayer books, hoping I wouldn’t send too much time shuffling through them. Looking at the expectant faces in front of me, I smiled and welcomed them to this celebration of life, of Frances Vahalik, of Yoakum and all creation. They smiled back encouragingly. I took a deep breath.“Let us pray.”
A note about Seeing
“It’s looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.”Vincent Van Gogh
Once I played the Fox in a community musical production based on “The Little Prince” byAntoine de Saint-Exupery. The Fox teaches the Little Prince how to tame him and then teaches him the secret, perhaps you remember: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
When I paint or draw an object or scene, the process of looking closely enough to reproduce/express what I see somehow creates a home for it in me.I take in the place/face/object, drink it in.I deconstruct it into light and shadow, line, form and texture, then pull it back together again as a whole.When next I pass that place, see that object, I nod with familiarity.I know it, differently than I know the thing next to it, or the house on the next block.I know it, we have exchanged something, that place and I.That light, that shadow, it is part of my vocabulary, maybe I dream of it.
And now I notice that it isn’t just what I paint that I have come to see, to make familiar.Sitting in traffic, there is the sudden recognition of the abstract painting made by a large red coil hanging in the back of a gray truck underneath a black rectangle window.There are the rusty funnels attached to a small concrete factory that look like giant birds sipping delicately from a pool.There are the thousand variations of light on the stone walls of St. Stephen as I walk by throughout the year.The blazing sunset reflections on downtown glass buildings.Green parrots nesting on utility poles in the little town of Everman. The play of light across the face of a sleeping child.
So this week, as I requested that a large, dying tree be taken down, I went out to draw it.The photographs I had taken were useful as memories.But I sought a different kind of knowing, that which Walter Burghardt calls the “long, loving look at the real”.I sought the gesture of limbs, the details of bark, the grasp on the earth by the thick twisted roots, the evidence of a long life providing shade and shelter. After two days of chainsaws, all that was left was a level stump, 8 inches high, four feet across, with a deep ragged hole near the center which had been the heart of the tree. The flat surface looked topographical, the lines and curves reminiscent of the mesas and cliff walls I once saw from a small plane soaring over the Canyonlands of Utah. This surprise made me smile.