Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Cleaning Out the Refrigerator

Nothing says pride like a refrigerator. Nothing boasts so boldly about our kids’ awesome accomplishments than does the family refrigerator.

Over the years, tacked onto my refrigerator door have been precious documents: a drawing Zach gave me for Mother’s Day, Colleen’s A Plus algebra test, Jacob’s third grade Ready Reader award.

And photos, of course. Even through their teens, their baby pictures, curling up at the edges, still graced the door: Zach on a riding horse, Colleen smiling beneath a thick fringe of bangs, Jacob buried in the sand at the beach.

And now, they are all grown up: 35, 33, and almost 30. And stuck with magnets to the stainless steel are Colleen’s Meals on Wheels business card, Jacob’s PAX East Indie Gaming Flyer, and a New York Times review of Zach’s latest film.

And this past year, my refrigerator has become WAY more complicated. Enriched in many ways – but definitely way more complicated. Reunited with Rebecca, my long-lost daughter, I now have four children instead of three. And she has three great children. And my youngest Jacob is now father to his partner’s adorable three young boys.

Pinned to my refrigerator is a greeting card that sums it all up: “I love my weird family.”

A refrigerator is a family’s most boastful appliance. Nothing preaches good news better than a refrigerator.

Clean out the Fridge Simpsons

And on Sunday, when we parade into the pews, that is what we want people to see: ‘our refrigerator best”. The service over, pressed and polished, we follow the scent of java and the cookie-crumb trail to the parish hall, where we boast of our good news. Our boy’s baseball team is in first place. My wife’s promotion. My son just got into the best college. My daughter tiptoed her way to fame at the ballet recital.  All the good stuff.

At coffee hour, we name and proclaim, each of those precious icons we have taped to the outside of our refrigerators.

God-forbid, however, we actually open that door. Open that door to see what lurks in the dark corners of our refrigerators. Moldy stuff. Rotten stuff. Unidentifiable stuff. Freezer-burned resentments. Ice cold anger. Frosty feelings of all kinds. To tell the truth, we’ve all got this nasty stuff in our refrigerators.

But the very last place we want to admit this – is church. Garrison Keillor says that the last place on earth we would ever want to air our dirty laundry is church.

Episcopalians have sometimes been not so nicely called the “frozen chosen.” It is not the Episcopal way to witness publicly to our weaknesses. When people are struggling the most, church can be the most uncomfortable place to be.

When a couple goes their separate ways. When a teenager comes home pregnant. When your nephew has been diagnosed with AIDS. When you lose your job. When you admit to a drinking problem. Church can be downright cold, an unforgiving place.

And Church History is filled with shaming and blaming. We no longer sew ‘scarlet letters’ on sinners’ garments, but we silently assign them in our thoughts. “Thank God”, we whisper in our prayers, “that we are not like them.”

Paul’s point today, in his Letter to the Romans, is we are all like them. We are “them.”

There is a tug of war going on about food, of all things. And judgment coming from both sides: the carnivores versus the vegetarians. Really, the Gentile versus the Jew, in this new thing called “church.”

Paul, humorously, does get in a bit of a dig about the vegetarians. They are welcomed as “the weak.” Jewish-Christians, apparently ordered vegetarian when eating out (or only ate the vegetables at a Gentile dinner party)– to avoid kosher conflicts.

But Christians sharing a table should not eat with one another for the purpose of quarreling over the food – or family traditions, or spiritual differences. Paul counsels his parishioners not to “lord” one’s traditions over the other.

Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks. And those who abstain, also honor the Lord and give thanks to God.

 Neither is wrong. Both are right. The Lord of Love is “not a divider but a uniter.” (I think I have heard someone say this before!)

But unity is not the same thing as uniformity or even conformity. Healthy disagreement is a good thing. People of faith, family members, neighbors can thoughtfully disagree on all kinds of things. But our disagreements, hopefully, should not be a means to divide and conquer. Instead, our differences can open up windows into one another – to help us see and understand and heal.

Now there is not a soul anywhere who does not limp their way to the communion rail. We might look good, refrigerator good, but we all come to the table broken, cracked, and far from perfect. And if we were a bit more Evangelical, this would be the time for the altar call. And I would ask Ryan to fire up the organ and play “Just as I am.” Coming forward to the table, we would witness to our weakness. We would drop to our knees and confess our sins.

We Episcopalians do this “generally” together in the prayer that we share. But I’d like to end this little homily, with a confession of a different kind, a Celtic prayer.  One that helps us, personally to name and claim all of that nasty stuff in the back of our refrigerator.

Let us pray:

Jesus, forgive my sins.

Forgive the sins that I can remember and the sins I have forgotten.

Forgive the wrong actions I have committed and the right actions I have omitted.

Forgive the times I have been weak in the face of temptation,

and those when I have been stubborn in the face of correction.

Forgive the times when I have been proud of my own achievements,

and those when I have failed to boast of your works.

Forgive the harsh judgments I have made of others and the leniency I have shown to myself.

Forgive the lies I have told others and the truths I have avoided.

Forgive me the pain I have caused others and the indulgence I have shown to myself.

Jesus, have pity on me and make me whole.

Amen.

JoaniSign

 


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May the Circle Be Unbroken

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.

 I confess to you that these are my very favorite Eucharistic words in the Book of Common Prayer. And I know they are seldom heard because they come from Rite One, in the prayer of consecration.  Very few parishes and fewer parishioners hear their priest recite these words much anymore. I cannot even tell you the last time I celebrated he Eucharist with Rite One. But these words resonate with me still, especially, because of the little church I served in seminary – the little church that broke all the Eucharistic rules.

At Grace Church in Georgetown, during communion, the entire community gathered around the altar with hearts all lifted up to the Lord. And the priest and people prayed: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord ourselves, our souls, and bodies.  Together we blessed the bread and blessed the wine. Together we made Eucharist.

Now Grace is a small stone church nearly 200 years old. It was founded by the hoity-toity, for the riff-raff that worked on the C&O Canal and along the Potomac riverfront. The wealthy churches. Christ Church and St John’s did not want to suffer the discomfort of having the poor in the pews.  So, they charitably set up a church to segregate the poor. But little bitty Grace turned the hoity-toity upside down. You see Grace is in Georgetown but it’s really not of Georgetown. Its home to both street people and business people, artists and schizophrenics, a former prominent Pentagon spokesman and the proprietor of a porn shop across the street, professional families and homeless families.

And at Grace, when it was time to receive the holy host, time for the family to come to the table, the worshippers encircled the altar. They passed the plate from hand to hand. Each tore off a ragged piece of bread: The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Then around the circle the cup would go, tipped one-by-one to the worshippers’ lip. Sometimes dismembered crumbs would fall and float in a bloody pool of wine.

And from the circle, the prayers of these people rose like incense: for friends and family, for the stranger and the estranged, for the faceless and the nameless, for the broken and the battered, for the lonely and the lowly. They offered up their prayers for one and all.

And here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee…”

Now it is truly amazing and a little-known fact that the Bible freely and often quotes the Book of Common Prayer (SMILE). And these beautiful words from Rite One come directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter Twelve, Verse One. The passage has much to say about communion — not about liturgical niceties — but what it means to be in communion, to be in the Body, flesh and bone.

I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. We are one body and individually we are members of one another.

Now the communion circle at Grace was intimate but it was not cozy. The communion circle at Grace was indeed comforting but it was also discomforting.  The communion circle countered Georgetown’s culture.

You might be shoulder to shoulder with someone who had not taken a shower in weeks. You might be passing the peace with people who panhandled in the streets.  You might be drinking from the same cup as the unhinged guy, who talks to himself.

This circle at Grace was a sacred circle. But it resembled very little the circles of influence and affluence outside its doors.

And that is what church is supposed to be. To call us out of the world so that we might witness to the world. And Paul, the circle drawer, tells us how it can be done. Romans 12: 9-21 is a litany of 23 Christian commandments. Paul weaves them together like poetry –  into two paragraphs.  The first paragraph’s commands, hardly any Christian could disagree with: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer; contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

But in paragraph two, the going gets tougher.  Just to name a few:

Bless those who persecute you.  Bless those who put you down. Bless those who say you don’t matter, who say that you don’t measure up. Bless those who say you don’t belong.

Weep with those who weep.  Weep with those in the depths of depression. Weep with those who live in darkness. Weep with the desperate and the destitute.

Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Associate outside your home-owners association: with the homeless, with the addicted, with the mentally ill.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them. Not just your neighbors — YOUR ENEMIES – a soup kitchen for the terrorists along with the terrorized.  A soup kitchen not just for refugees but for tyrants.

may-the-circle-be-unbroken-jo-anne-gazo-mckim

Paul, the circle drawer, draws some pretty tough lines in the sand. His uncomfortable words are a call to discipleship, one that demands more than a little sacrifice. Not the easy Lenten stuff, like chocolate, but the really hard stuff.  Can I give up my pride, my selfishness? Can I give up my arrogance and my conceit?  Can I give up my defenses and my prejudices? What will I offer up? What will you offer up? What will we offer up, of ourselves, our souls and bodies, to build up the Body of Christ?

The church is not supposed to be a country club. It’s not supposed to be a gated community. The church is not a Meetup group, either. The Church – capital C –  are the followers of Jesus. And Jesus says: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Jesus gave it all up, once and for all, on a cross at Calvary. And as his followers, we got to  give up a part of ourselves, each and every day. Not to be martyrs. Not to suffer for suffering’s sake. But to give up more than a little, for the healing of the sacred circle, the circle of haughty and the lowly, friends and foe, comrades and enemies, the lonely and the lost, the tearful and the joyful: the gay and the straight, the Jew and the Gentile, the black and the white.

May this Circle be unbroken, bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye. There’s a better way awaiting, Lord, (with your help), if we but try, Lord, if we but try.

JoaniSign


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The Third Peacock

Middle child of six siblings, this third Peacock often got lost in the crowd.

Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy. Our six birthdays, from the oldest to the youngest, spanned just nine years.  No wonder my mom could barely keep us straight.

Maureen. Tim. Joani. Bernie. Clare. Joseph. She would rattle through our names till she found the one that fit.

It’s me, mom. It’s Joani. Remember me?

And with six kids in the suburbs, it was no wonder that my mom made use of all the help that she could get. My Grandma Cady, my mom’s mom, would cook, make lunches, and help get us off to school. My dad was a doctor, a surgeon, so we could afford to hire help. Cornelia cleaned, Cora did the ironing, and Sonny, Cornelia’s brother did all the heavy lifting.

Outwardly, we all appeared neat and tidy, organized and orderly. But that was so not the case. My mom’s bipolar disorder, along with my dad’s addiction to work, wreaked havoc on our home.

But we six kids, whether because of our circumstances – or in spite of them — compounded the chaos tenfold.

There was a lot of yelling, screaming and name calling. Middle child, I learned to keep my head down. Middle child, a translator at the bargaining table, I tried to keep the peace.

As much, as any little kid could.

the third peacock book cover

And there was more than just a little competition. Who has to do the dishes.  Who gets to sit up front in the car. Who gets first crack at the Oreos – when my mom got home from the store.

Our birth order was also our pecking order — but often in reverse. My grade school idea of fairness was quite literal. I remember sneaking down the stairs, on Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, and counting the packages under the tree. Invariably, Baby Brother Joseph always got the most.

Always.

Joseph, was the most beloved, it seemed. Too little for household chores. Too adorable to be held accountable. He could always hide behind my mother’s skirts.

Or so it seemed to me.

Who wouldn’t want to murder their little brother? Or throw him into a pit? Or sell him off for twenty pieces of silver?

This is the story of Joseph. Not my baby brother Joseph. But Joseph of Genesis. Joseph, one of the great novellas of Hebrew Scripture. Joseph, the youngest and most favored son of Jacob. The one who got the awesome coat.  Baby brother Joseph, who did not endear himself to his siblings.

An angst filled family story of biblical proportions.

Joseph was seventeen years of – shepherding the flock with his brothers. Joseph, the apple of Jacob’s eye, put his brothers in a bad light. He ratted them out for some unnamed offense. And Jacob rewards him for betraying his brothers — with that amazing technicolor dream coat. The child of his old age, he loved Joseph best of all.

His brothers hated him for it. They could not even spare him a peaceable word.

Jacob sends Joseph out to find where his brothers are keeping the sheep. Before the distance is closed between them, the siblings conspire to do their little brother in.

Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into a pit.

We’ll tell dad a wild animal devoured him.

No, the eldest counters. Let’s just steal his coat, go with the pit and not kill him.

It being a waterless pit, this was Joseph’s brothers’ singular kindness.

Callously, they sit down to eat – while up comes a wandering band of Ishmaelites – nomads and merchants on their way to Egypt.

This inspires in Judah, another of the brothers, a very profitable idea.

Let’s sell him to the highest bidder!

So, they pull him out of the pit and hand him over for twenty pieces of silver.

 Joseph, the youngest, the interpreter of dreams, quite ironically is put in the middle. His protective father behind him – ahead, his brothers plotting his demise.

They could all use a little family therapy, don’t you think?

So, could we all.

Our families of origin. Our communities of choice. Our workplaces. Our psychic spaces. Our social circles and political cul-de-sacs. We all tend to hang out with our own tribe. The folks who look like us and think like us and agree with us.

All could use a little family therapy.

Yahweh does not rescue Joseph from the pit – at least not in the swoop down from heaven – Deus ex machina — way. Instead, God, quite providentially, leaves his children –- including us — to our own devices. The devices, God has equipped us with. By our wits, by our skills, by our gifts — to work out this family squabble on our own.

To literally appeal to our better angels.

Three weeks ago, July 21st, the Washington Post reporter, Colby Itkowitz wrote:

On a Wednesday evening, Donna Murphy joined about 30 people in a nondescript basement…for a Better Angels’ “skills workshop” to learn the fundamentals of how to have difficult conversations, to bring Democrats and Republicans together for a three day Better Angels dialogue.

 Better Angels began as a civics experiment in rural southwest Ohio several weeks after the election. With the emotions of the campaign still raw, a room of 21 strangers, ten who voted for Trump and 11 who voted for Clinton spent an entire weekend together talking.

 They listened. They debated. They vented. There were tense moments and emotional ones.

 After 13 hours of discussion, the participants did not change their views but left with a softened view of the other side.

 Better Angels went on a thirteen-city summer tour to promote this red-blue dialogue – to facilitate conversations across a deep political divide.

 The program is the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, a Republican, and onetime opponent of same sex marriage – who later changed his position after a friendship with a gay man changed his mind.

 The group takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, will swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 Blankenhorn concludes:

 “One consistent message we’re getting is, there are strong disagreements, but we’re not as far apart as we thought we are. There is passion and disagreement…but the main takeaway is that this is good, this kind of talking with — rather than at or about – our political opponents is good for us and good for our country.”

 Some of these groups have decided to meet on a monthly basis. Some not. But meeting even once like this could be a really good idea, don’t you think?

A really good idea, we could put into practice here in Alexandria.

Maybe?

On behalf of Emmanuel, I have sent Mr. Blankenhorn an initial inquiry of how, as a parish, we might sponsor a Better Angels training weekend in our own backyard.

Just a possibility that could come to pass early next year.

A way to equip ourselves, as sisters and brothers, to speak and to listen to one another in love.

Let’s think about it. Talk about it. Pray about it.

The third Peacock, in me, wants to believe that we can work towards healing our tribal divides.

This middle child wants to believe that we can work towards putting aside our self-righteous needs always to be right.

Dear God, please, help us to both temper and to tame

the destructive side of our, all too human, sibling rivalries.

JoaniSign


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A Room Full of Mothers

How many children do you have?

Not a trick question, right? But it is a tricky one for me.

Publicly the answer has been an easy “three”  for twenty-nine years since I bore Jacob, my third following  Zach and Colleen back in 1987.

But behind closed doors, when asked, I would falter. The gynecologist would look at my chart and say: “How many pregnancies? Number of successful deliveries?”

Do I lie and say “three”? Does it really matter for my medical history?

Or do I tell the truth and say “four”. Then hold my breath and hope I won’t have to explain why I gave the first one away.

Every doctor’s appointment was a little flashback to my 17th year. The year the rabbit died. The year of seasick mornings and solitary trips to the Medicaid clinic. The year of the swelling belly and iron capsules to choke a horse. Remembering being ostracized by my family and terrified by the little life inside me.

Sitting on the examining table in a hospital gown, I would recall the mysterious being who kicked and elbowed and crammed their little self  into every little square inch of me.

And every year, September 28th, on her birthday, I would think of her and wonder where she was. I would beam powerful positive thoughts in her direction — to her unknown location.  And I would permit myself a melancholy moment or two, stuff it down, and then move on.

Stretched, so stretched beyond my teenage capacity.

She gave me my very first stretch marks. A badge of honor.

And just prior to Christmas past, she found me. Rebecca found me. I have told this story on U&U. And I have blogged about our Saint Patrick’s Day weekend reunion.

So serendipitous that we reunited on this Celtic feast. As an adoptee, in a sealed adoption, Rebecca’s “non-identifying information” identified her biological maternal family as Jewish.

Uh, no. Def got that wrong.

DNA and Ancestry.com identified a healthy dose of green blood. Irish. Definitely Irish.

Somehow deep down in her bones, Rebecca intuited this all along. All three of her children: Bella, Jude, and Meir are all steeped in Irish step dancing.

On my visit in March, I tagged along to their class at a dance studio in a nearby town. Kids of all ages in comfortable clothes and special shoes shuffled and kicked to Celtic tunes.

A Room Full of Mothers Jackie Wade mother an daughter

Parents, meanwhile, and by “parents”, I mean mostly moms crowded into the windowed little waiting room. Kindly one mom gave up her seat so that I could sit up front and see.

As other moms came and went, Rebecca introduced my unfamiliar face. Some already knew our story and some did not. Those who knew smiled and nodded. One very sweet mom even made us a celebratory strawberry tart.

But for those not in the know, Rebecca would quickly try to catch them up, starting with,

“This is my mother.”

Startled by her words, instinctively I looked over my shoulder and thought:

“Where, where is your mother? OMG, she means me!”

A singular mom sitting by the door had a quizzical look on her face — which compelled me to explain myself. I spew forth my teenage tale, circa 1972.

I didn’t need to do that. Or did I?

And I wonder about all of the moms in the room and what their stories might be. I wonder about the maternal ghosts and mothers in abstentia – who haunt this waiting room. Rebecca’s mother. My mother. Adoptive mothers. Birth mothers. Grandmothers. Stepmothers – both evil and good.

I wonder about all of the overlay and layers of expectations that our culture slathers onto maternity.

From our very first December conversation, I wanted to be especially respectful of Rebecca’s mom — the one who parented her so wonderfully. And I wanted  – and still want – to be especially careful not to offend her in any way.

Rebecca, 44 years old, reminded me that she is a fully functional grownup. Ha! And that it is hers alone to manage these relationships separately. I need be responsible only for my own.

And Rebecca has taught me that it is okay to say that I am her mother. That is biologically and verifably true. “Biomom” is what she most appropriately calls me.

Six months have now passed since Christmas. Rebecca and I talk, text, and email with some frequency. We have a loving relationship, a rippling relationship that now ripples throughout my family: with her siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even cousins many times removed.

I now include Rebecca on all family emails, both the good news and the bad news. And when I send an email to “my kids”, I simply sign it “mom”. It was just too wonky and weird to qualify it as bio/mom or biomom/mom/Joani. And it seemed really silly to leave it blank. Its just an email for heavens’ sake, right?

It really is more though, isn’t it? Yes, I think it is.

And so back to the question:

How many children do you have?

No longer a tricky question,  I answer “four”.

One in VT. One in NYC. One in D.C. One in NC.

All rocking adults.

And I am happy to answer any questions, if you would like to know more.

JoaniSign


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Dirt Therapy, the 3rd

 

Easter, this year, began for me at Christmas Tide.

Sunday evening, December 11th, my phone rang. It was my baby brother Joseph on the line. “Are you sitting down?” he asks me. “Joani, we have never talked about this. Do you remember in 1972 when you were pregnant and gave a child up for adoption?” Dumbfounded, I literally respond,  “Yes, Joseph, of course, I do.”Well, she found me,” he says. “Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com, she found me.

The birth of a child to a teenage mother is a familiar story at Christmas. But the family trauma that resulted from my personal story, I had long buried.  And these forty-five year old memories resurrected a trembling seventeen year old child.

The very next day, December 12th, scared to death, I called my newfound child.  It was the best Christmas present I have ever been given. Her name is Rebecca.

We have spent the past four months condensing more than four decades, and without going into the details, I am happy to declare that all is good, very good. And if you like, you can catch up here: Scarlet Letter, No MoreThe “Nua” Normal“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

And resurrection has brought reunion.

It is remarkable how deeply Rebecca and I resemble one another: our personalities, our intellectual curiosity, our spiritual bent, our sense of humor. Not only our way of speaking but what we say. People have confused my writing for hers and her writing for mine. It is uncanny. It is remarkable. Rebecca says that distance reinforced her DNA. It was a form of rebellion, she says.

I do like the sound of that, though I am not sure exactly what it means.

Needless to say, this has been an incredibly healing experience.

I tremble no more.

Sprouted from the same soil,  Rebecca and I, our selves, our souls, and our bodies are intertwined.

So this Easter is all the sweeter:

Now the green blade riseth!  indeed!

So it seems very apropos to post Dirt Therapy once again.

A post that includes an anecdote about Jacob, Rebecca’s newly discovered little brother and a snapshot of my mother, the grandmother Rebecca never knew.

So, here we go…

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 29 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.EA11B186-69B7-45E1-8E52-41A174207E9A

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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Six Feet Under

One of my favorite books is Gospel. No, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, this “Gospel” is a big rambling 800 page novel by Wilton Barnhardt. Gospel is the story of an eccentric, hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant., as they careen and comb all over the world — through Europe, Africa, the Middle East and America — in search of a fifth gospel long lost to time and history.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle, Judas’ replacement, chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts. The apostle Matthias had never seen the risen Lord. He struggles daily with his unbelief. These newfound chapters and verses tell how Matthias, in his old age, searches out the remaining apostles in their twilight years. Do they still believe? Do they still hope in that wild and wonderful story of Jesus, risen from the dead?

There are rumors — persistent rumors — that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen and secreted away. And these rumors haunt Matthias and he just has to know the truth. So he searches out the shady underground and the cities of the dead that traffic in relics.

The price is a bag of silver to be taken to the tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” Matthias says, “where the death relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden…But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange. but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path! He approached what looked to be an anointed body and began to unwrap the dirty linen… but I demanded that he stop and I fled up the stairs… I ran from the very truth I sought…. ”

“I ran from the truth I sought.”

Resurrection is hard to hold on to.

Maybe this is why graveyards and cemeteries haunt us so. These holy places speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. Stones silently tell the stories of the lives buried beneath our feet: rows upon rows of soldiers at Arlington; the fading glory of government buried deep  at Congressional; my parents, their parents, cousins, neighbors, uncles and aunts, all planted at Cedar Hill – just across the Anacostia line.

And then there are the graveyards of our own making. Deaths of a different kind: the death of a marriage; the relinquishment of a child; the abandonment of dreams; the places in our hearts and heads where we surrender to the darkness.  We bury the pain of our trauma six feet under. With the belief, that there is no hope of resurrection there.

But — what about Lazarus?  Lazarus, called forth by Jesus, stinking and stumbling out of his tomb today?

Now I have always had trouble with the Jesus in the gospel of John. At first, callous and cold, he appears to be using his friend’s death, as an opportunity for a parlor game – a magic trick to impress the incredulous crowds. The unbelievers are likely the people in John’s own community. This is late in the first century and resurrection doubt was certainly creeping in. And so, the Gospel of John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels. This triumphant Christ, cocky and confident of his own divinity, makes sense only with the resurrection in the rear view mirror. Maybe the story is just one of the “signs” John concocted to convince his congregation of the wildest story ever told.

But scrape these layers of stuff away and read it again. The core of this story rings true. It is in the end a story of a grieving friend –whose faith was put the test.

the-raising-of-lazarus-after-rembrandt-1890

“The Raising of Lazarus” by Van Gogh

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus — over scheduled and overburdened. — preoccupied with his preaching mission –is not overly concerned for Lazarus. This illness does not lead to death. He’s just got the flu. He will get over it. He will be alright. But indeed death does steal Lazarus away. Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany and as he approaches the grave of his friend “Jesus wept.” He breaks down and cries. A man in tears, he openly grieves for his friend. And wracked with guilt, Jesus berates himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, why was I not here to comfort you? O my God, why did I not come sooner? Maybe there would have been a miracle that day and I could have healed you. And then desperately Jesus cries out. Father, hear me. Please, bring him back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that no one was more surprised than Jesus. You see, just before he heads into Jerusalem. Just before he has to climb the hill to Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call death back to life. That God will unbind him and let him go.

And so for us as well, on this final Sunday of Lent, we get a glimpse of Easter. Yes, first Jesus, dead three days will rise again. And in this lies our hope, that God can and God will rescue us from the graveyard: the real ones and the ones we dig ourselves. Literally and metaphorically, not just in the by and by, but in the here and now, death shall lose its sting. And all of those stones, blocking the way to heaven,  might just be rolled away.

But first to Calvary… we all must go.

JoaniSign

 


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“Knock the Unicorn Off the Cloud”

From Rebecca, my new found firstborn daughter, in her own words:

What happens when the people that you MOST want to talk about your life and adoption with are also the people who might be the most confused and hurt by what you have to say? What do you do when your loaded, intense and central-to-life story is also someone else’s….but from a completely different perspective? How do you handle the unremembered (but very much present) pain of separation when most people expect you to just be “fine and grateful”? How do you reunite with people who are all at once your closest relatives and at the same time complete strangers?

I dont know the answers to any of these questions. But I am trying to figure it out. By living it.

In times of great trauma (like war) children get torn asunder from their parents and their families. Sometimes, children are sent to live with other people to keep them safe from battle torn areas. Families in these situations perhaps spend years being apart, not knowing about the wellbeing of those they are separated from. When these families reunite, it is a clear cut story of wonderful reunification and a return to familial wholeness.

When families are apart because of adoption, there is an expectation that loss and separation are not felt in the same way as the war torn family. The original trauma that caused the need for adoption is not acknowledged, and the loss for both parents and child is not recognized. Somehow, this trauma which caused a need for separation and the subsequent loss and pain is not seen as valid or even present. If it is present, then something must be wrong that has absolutely nothing to do with being adopted or having relinquished a child. These feelings should all be washed away with a pervading feeling of being “grateful”, “making the ultimate sacrifice”, “moving on” and “growing in someone’s heart, not their belly”. While these sentiments are likely well intended, and meant to put adoption in its most positive light, it also has a dismissive quality that does not allow for the true complexity that is relinquishment, adoption and reunion.

Just because my name was changed on a birth certificate, and because I was handed to a childless couple who wanted nothing but a child of their own at 1 month old does not mean I did not experience a loss. A lifetime of wondering, and trying to interpret myself through a mirror that did not properly reflect my unique self as inherited by DNA set me up for perhaps never being able to fully be a part of any family. I always feared I would never have a complete sense of self, and never fully belong. Anywhere.

With one family I share a history, with the other DNA. I never knew until reunion how important and influential DNA is. Raised by linear thinkers, this circuitous brain of mine often felt improperly wired at best and damaged at its worst. My extroverted, overly expressive and impulsive self was reflected back to me as “overbearing”, “selfish” and “unable to be alone”. A good head taller than my adoptive mother, I felt “huge” and “amazon” and like an abnormal ogre. I remember a teacher telling me that my terrible posture was caused by “lack of confidence” and “laziness”. I felt misunderstood, and often inadequate. When I could not read maps and cried over simple math problems, no matter how hard I tried, it was just another proof that I “did not work to potential” (a regular quote on the math and science portions of my report cards). My love of all things religion and religious cult made me appear “flaky”, “gullible” and even “unstable” outside of my true genetic context. Imagine my shock and surprise when I found that these traits of mine that I was trying to find environmental causation for were actually already programmed into me. Out of my control. Out of my adoptive parents’ control. Heck, out of my natural family’s control. The years I spent over analyzing what should have just been assumptions….now, that is loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Not one ounce of me wishes that my life was any other way. I would not have the three children I have now and the life that I love without my adoption. But this does not make adoption a gift to me. It does not make it like a unicorn riding on a cloud. unicorn pillow i poop magicIt is real, complex, multi-layered and I will likely be trying to make heads and tails of it for the rest of my life. Adoption, my adoption, JUST IS. It is not all good, it is not all bad. It is what it is. And it sure is fun to reunite. It is exhilarating to finally see context for my features, my temperament and way of thinking. I would take gaining new siblings as an adult again and again, even with the conflicting life of an adoptee. This adventure of reunion could never have happened without the event that triggered my needing a reunion.

So, I will not try to reflect too much on what could have/should have/would have been. That ship has sailed. I am just going to enjoy it. Knock the unicorn off that cloud. I much prefer it here in the muck and depth of reality. And I am happy that what I found when I finally met my natural family was an openness and willingness to understand this paradox. The 44 year elephant in the room has finally materialized.

I realize now that placing the inflection of a question at the end of a statement an inherited trait…..my sister, biomom and I all do it….although I do it with definitively more alto style diaphragm support (thanks theater, voice training and social smoking!). So, I will refrain from making statements that don’t have room for an open ended question at the end. And most profoundly, I am grateful to finally know my family so I can get the rest of the story.

NOTE from Joani:  Stay tuned for more U&U guest posts on our shared story of reunion.

Thanks be to God.