Carrying the camera day after day through familiar territory is just a way to practice looking. Sometimes you find yourself taking the same picture over and over again, like the rise, just to see if you can get it better. And sometimes you come across something you’ve never seen before, and you know you better be ready, because there won’t be a second chance.
The rose has been cultivated beside a city sidewalk, a block or two away from the men sleeping on a grate in yesterday’s photo. Some forms of life deserve that kind of care, it would seem, while others are problem whose solution eludes us.
In their later years, with little provocation, my parents would perform their “better days” riff. It would begin with one of them saying, “Things were better when we were young.” They’d go back and forth for a while affirming and embellishing that statement, until finally one of them would shrug and say, “Well, I guess things were better as long as you were white, Christian, and maybe a few other things.” And they’d shake their heads and there it would end, at least until the next time.
Even in their regret for a time when the world felt safer to them, they had a generosity of spirit that allowed them to see that things weren’t better back then for everyone. They missed those days when their lives really were simpler—if not without hardship, including depression and war—but they also understood that by chance they enjoyed advantages which—also by chance—others lacked.
The greatness of the American experiment in freedom lies in setting a glorious ideal of liberty and justice for all, then continuing to do what’s necessary to include anyone who’s been left out. It’s never been perfect, and maybe it never will be. But patriotism isn’t about pretending that it is. It’s the ongoing commitment to honor the ideal by aspiring to achieve it.
I wonder if the flower would seem so exquisitely beautiful if its time weren’t so short, if full bloom wasn’t also the beginning of fading away to nothing.
Yesterday by chance I came across a note I’d typed out on my computer for a parishioner early in 2016. He asked for a quotation I’d included in my sermon that week, from the book “When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanithi, the brilliant young neurosurgeon who had just begun his final year of training when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He went on with his work as chief resident, decided with his wife to have a child, and began writing his memoir. Kalanithi knew he was dying, but until death came he was going to live.
His wife finished his beautiful and heart-wrenching book after he died. In her epilogue, Lucy Kalanithi summarizes their story in one sentence that is as full of truth about life and pain and meaning as anything I have ever read:
“Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult—sometimes almost impossible—they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”
My parishioner’s wife of 67 years died six months after he asked me for the quote. Two weeks ago, we buried him. Yesterday, I visited their daughter in hospice. Seeing her parents’ picture on a dresser in that room brought them both alive for me again, just for a moment.
Life and death, joy and pain. Would human life and love be so exquisitely beautiful, I wonder, if our time were not so short?
In the distance ahead, the meetinghouse where I was married 40 years ago come October. It sits by a busy country road and when the doors and windows are open on a fine morning, the building hums with the sound of passing traffic. But this spot is set back so far from the road that it’s quiet here, except for birds and insects.
This is the spot where I expect what’s left of me when this life is done to rest for eternity, here in close proximity to some I knew before their time came. I didn’t choose the spot; I suppose you could say it chose me, but that’s a long story.
For most of my life I’ve felt uprooted, and I’ve wondered what it might have been like to be raised where my parents and their parents grew up, to be supported by connections that were already in place before I was as much as a thought in their minds. We moved when I was not quite 5, again a year or so later, and again two years after that, and from then on I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of not quite belonging the way other people did, wherever I lived.
I’ve come close now, having lived in this community these 40 years, and yet the security of being truly grounded is still elusive. I’ve grieved its absence, longed for it, and yet I wonder what it will be like to be planted, finally, in one place.
I’ve been reading a book called Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which includes some wonderful reflections on trees and life, including this:
No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—and to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.
Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.
But when it wins, it wins big.
The bush these grow on is taller than I am. Each cluster of blossoms is the size of a softball. I see Creation showing off again these days, everywhere I look.
According to the Internet, the writer Alice Walker said this about beauty: “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.”
Perhaps that’s true, but there’s more. What I would say is, this: Whenever you really see the beauty that already is all around you, you are restoring your own soul. Call it mindfulness if you like, or just call it being truly alive.
So what exactly is Beauty, and why do we crave it so?
The poet/priest John O’Donohue wrote, “We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strings of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances the sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness.”
We awaken and surrender in the same act. I love that.
My dad, who was a veteran journalist, used to joke that he hoped to die on a slow news Sunday, so his obituary would be prominently featured in the next day’s paper by editors looking for copy to fill the paper.
He didn’t, but his obit still made it into two newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, which respectively covered the areas where he had grown up and become a newspaperman and where he lived for the last 50 years of his life. He didn’t make the New York Times; apparently you have to be multiple kinds of wonderful for that, and the wonderful ness of my smart, gentle, kind and loving dad wasn’t quite enough to make the cut.
So what does it taken to be deemed the worthy subject of a real obituary, not just a paid death notice? The Times itself has been doing some soul-searching about that lately, recognizing that “who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.”
Big surprise: the Times’ look back at its own obituary archives revealed that the achievements of white man have been disproportionately valued in those pages over the years.
So consider this: When my father-in-law died in 2007, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran his obituary. It reported that he served in the Merchant Marine during and after World War II, founded a couple of successful businesses with his wife, and was involved in many community activities.
My mother-in-law, Doro Kerr, died three weeks ago, but the Inquirer said they would not be able to run her obituary. Thumbnail sketch of her life? She fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and started over again in this country. She worked for the Inquirer itself and was the first woman at the paper to sell national advertising, despite some resistance from her immediate superior, who is said to have commented that the people who were best at that kind of work wore pants. (She says she told him that would be no problem, she’d be happy to get a few pair.) She founded a couple of successful businesses with her husband—and believe me, he might have had the big ideas but she was the one who made them happen—and was involved in many community activities.
His life worth an obit. Hers not. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Anyway, she will be remembered at a memorial service this Saturday, May 5, at Solebury Friends Meeting. The service itself begins at 2, and it will be preceded by a 20-minute prelude of piano pieces that were meaningful to her. She will be remembered and honored there by those who knew and loved her, so all will be well.
In the shadows next to the main door of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia, there’s a sculpture that touched my heart when I first saw it at Diocesan Convention last November, and I’ve continued to think about it ever since.
It’s called Hungry and Thirsty Jesus, and it shows a life-size figure in bronze, seated on the ground, a beggar who has pulled a blanket around his shoulders and up over his head to stay warm, so his bearded face is barely visible. He has one hand extended as a plea to passers by, and that hand is the clue to his identity, for it bears a wound in the center of palm, the ugly mark of a nail.
The sculpture was installed last year, and it’s the work of Timothy Schmalz, a sculptor who describes the art he creates as ͞visual prayers.͟ This piece draws its inspiration from Matthew 25:35: ͞I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.͟
As faithful Christians we know we’re called in baptism to see the face of Christ in all those around us, from the rich and powerful to the homeless beggar on the street. We accept this as an ideal, and yet we fail at it again and again. How many of us would recognize Schmalz’s beggar as Jesus if he didn’t have the mark of that nail in his hand?