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And A Little Kid Shall Lead Them….

September 26, 2011 10 comments

A friend lost her father suddenly last week and she has been sharing her experience of grief with us in a way that reminds me of the profound days and weeks after my own father passed away nearly 20 years ago.

When I was 28, my father had been unwell most of my life. After suffering a near fatal heart attack at age 50, he was forced to retire from a busy job as the senior minister at a large Congregational church in New York and start over again somewhere less stressful. We moved to a farm my parents had bought a few years earlier in southern New Hampshire.

For years prior, we had traveled from NY to a summer retreat near there with a large group of families from the church, and one of our favorite destinations to visit was The Friendly Farm in Dublin. We’d all show up and spend the day feeding the vast array of farm animals with the food provided. It was an exciting experience for a bunch of kids from the suburbs.

When he heard we were moving to the farm for good, the owner of The Friendly Farm presented my dad with a beautiful Jersey calf as a gift. We loaded the week-old calf, whom we named “Irene” (eirênê) after the goddess of peace, into the backseat of our VW bug and took her home.

Over the years, Irene was mother to several calves, many of them not her own. They were Holsteins, Herefords, Ayrshires …. she had no qualms about who nursed off of her as long as her udder was empty and comfortable when they were done feeding. She lived for many years as matriarch of the farm.

So it seemed right, many years later when it was time to make a transition in my life, to spend a summer working at The Friendly Farm as a way to clear my head with some hard physical work at a place that represented good memories.

As the warm, early April sun filtered through the tall pines to melt the remaining snow, I would arrive early each day to begin the Spring chores. A batch of tiny goats had arrived for the season and my first task was to feed them — all twenty or so. In a 5-gallon bucket I would combine warm water with a powdery formula mix and fill twenty 10 oz. Coke bottles, fitting each one with a rubber nipple. In order to not lose track of who had already eaten — goats are tricksters — I would lift two at a time over a wooden gate and when they were done they’d be replaced by two more. The ritual made my spirit laugh.

But even as my own heart was expanding, my father’s was shutting down. When I told him I was working at The Friendly Farm, instead of his usual feigned disappointment that I wasn’t studying to be a brain surgeon whenever I’d tell him about my latest occupation, he just said, “That’s great, El.” His fight was gone. On April 22, 1992 — Earth Day — he finally gave up for good.

I thought about him in the weeks that followed as the farm began to come alive with new babies from the cows, sheep, chickens, and goats. I remembered all the creatures that had been born on our own farm in the early dawn before school, finding a new baby calf or foal all slippery and slimy being licked clean by its mother, and the amazement at watching that hour-old baby stand up on its shaky legs and begin nursing. All around me, new life was springing up again even as I struggled to fully understand that another had come to an end.

I worked through those days feeling some sense of comfort in the routine of the farm but still wasn’t experiencing acute grief. I wondered why I couldn’t feel anything. I decided that I had grieved him so many times over the years that what I was feeling was relief that he finally wasn’t suffering anymore.

Then one day a goat gave birth to triplets. Twins are the norm so when a third is born chances are that the little one won’t survive. It was clear when I saw this tiny kid plop out after the other two that he would not live for long. He was half their size, his breathing labored, and he couldn’t stand up to nurse. His mother refused to help. I tried to get him to drink some formula but he wouldn’t take it.

I did the only thing I could think to do and brought him to a quiet place in the bottom of the barn where I made a soft bed out of sawdust and hay. I lay down beside him and stroked his tiny frightened head and assured him that he needn’t be afraid, that it was okay to let go.

And then I remembered that those were the very thoughts I had spoken in my mind as I watched my father’s life drain away in the week before he died. I picked up the baby goat and put him in my lap, cradling him against my body as he took his last heaving breaths and when at last he became still I threw my head back and let out a guttural sob…. and then spent what seemed like hours weeping and rocking that little kid as though he were my big bear of a father who had died all alone in a hospital room.

In my heart I knew that this sweet baby goat, this little kid only hours old, had been sent to help me let my father go and I watched with my mind’s eye as the two of them, healthy and strong, walked side by side into the early Spring sunlight….

Giving Birth?

July 21, 2011 3 comments

Don’t get all excited — I’m not having a baby. That’s my gift to humanity. One of me is enough!

But if you ever read what I write, you’ll notice a theme.

I’m a reluctant religious fanatic.

I don’t actually want to take part in any of the organized versions but I am fascinated by all of them. Reading people’s ideas about faith and humanity is like crack to me. I’m addicted, and these days my drug is amply available. Facebook alone assures me a lifetime supply — I’m one happy junkie!

But I don’t go in for the hardcore stuff. Can’t afford it. It’s too much of an investment so I get what I can when I can.

I got a good nugget the other day regarding God’s command to us to “be fruitful and multipy”. Most people look at that and say it means that God wants us to have lots and lots of babies (does that mean they should be good at math and not be fruits? After all, “fruits” can’t multiply. Hmmm…. another subject to explore). In a world where our population is causing us some major labor pains, could that possibly be interpreted differently?

I come from a large family. Ten of us, if you include my crazy parents who thought this would be a good idea. You don’t see those numbers much these days and if you do, it’s often within a religious sect known as the Quiverfull movement where women have as many babies as their reproductive organs will withstand (see: Duggar Family. I’m fairly sure that Mrs. Duggar’s uterus must be made of kevlar).

But not all of us were cut out to give birth to human beings. Sure, biologically the goods are all there, but could it be possible that others of us were meant to be impregnated with ideas, or abilities that help us to better serve those whose gift it is to raise children?

I can’t compare what happens for me to actual childbirth since I haven’t experienced it, but my life seems to cycle through “pregnancies” — the initial glow of an idea, the morning sickness with the changing hormones caused by anxiety, the eventual realization that this is really going to happen and I’m going to have to deal with it, and finally the “get this thing outta me before it kills me!!” stage.

That’s the birthing process of a creative idea. Where I have trouble is with the thought of having to raise the idea to adulthood. I know the soul-crushing angst of aborting ideas over and over again so I practice birth control. I sabotage conception all the time. I’ve even thought of just giving birth to a concept and letting someone else raise it but I’m too afraid of what will happen to it if I give up control.

Maybe this is the world we’re living in. Someone tried to tell me that we have to give up all control to God but I just can’t wrap my head around that idea. As human beings we have mastered control over so much in our lives and yet we are just as out of control as ever.

What would the world look like if we didn’t stand in the way of creation?

Broken Windows, Crumbling Walls

June 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Not long ago, someone smashed my windows and kicked down my door.

At first I was outraged. How dare she??? Who was this veritable stranger that thought it was her place to violate me that way?

It took a while — 6 months, to be almost exact — for me to understand that she had seen smoke coming out of me. In my stupor, I didn’t recognize it, didn’t even smell it as I watched the tree of my life begin to smolder and set the surroundings of my emotional world on fire.

Then, just as the whole thing was about to go up in red hot raging flames, she came bursting through and yanked me roughly out, leaving scrapes and broken limbs in my mind like pulling a blue spruce out the front door backwards. I clung to the door jambs of my castle and fought every word she said. I even managed to give her a few stings with my spiky needles in my desperation.

For months I just lay there watching my psyche go up in smoke. Those hot colors, that raging heat mesmerized me as I surrendered all that fury. I knew I could not go back inside that place. I had to let it burn.

Her parting words to me were, “We have many teachers in our lives, though sometimes we may not recognize them.”

I have thought about that in the ensuing months since my rescue. Always, I have resisted the teachers who pushed me the hardest. I have found ways to make my failure their fault. I have hardened myself to the guidance of some of the wisest minds and I have suffered for it. So have others who have been hit by the flak of my obstinacy.

Since then I have opened myself up to other teachers. I have begun to put myself in front of those who push me to fail, as my parents had done when I was younger. They knew there was more to me but my response was to snarl and snap and retreat to a defensive corner. I rejected their tough love.

Yet sometimes that’s the only love that works. I felt bullied when I was really being loved because I didn’t recognize the truth of their words. I know there’s a fine line and I don’t mean to minimize the experience of those who are truly bullied, but I think we have begun to lose sight of some of the wisdom that is being imparted to us by declaring that anything that makes us uncomfortable is inherently bad. In seeking to soothe myself from the pain I perceived to be inflicted by others, I was causing myself more damage than they ever could.

My walls are crumbling and my broken windows are releasing the caustic, pent up smoke of my rage. Soon all that will be left of me is wide open space where once stood a fortress against the world. Already I smell the sweet air as my spiritual lungs heal and I am able to breathe deeply again as I gaze up at the sky and see the world I had closed myself off from.

To my tough-love teachers, I can finally say thank you.

What is a father?

June 17, 2011 12 comments

It’s been nearly 20 years since my dad was “released from this mortal coil” and I still think about him nearly every day.

My dad was huge, not just in physical stature, but as a person. He might not have described himself that way  but nearly everyone who ever knew him would.

Ray Fenner

Ray Fenner

As a UCC minister, he held a position few of my friends’ fathers did. In fact, I have yet to meet many preacher’s kids other than my cousins, whose father went to seminary with mine.

Talking with an old friend yesterday about our dads got me thinking about what makes someone a “father”. I hear people talk all the time about the importance to a child of a mother AND a father and I wonder, what is it that makes a good father when they are all so very different from each other?

Even apart from his vocation, my dad was a good man. The eldest of 6 siblings, he grew up during the depression, worked his way up to Eagle Scout, fought in WWII, provided for 8 children, and lived out his days in relative peace and comfort on a farm that had been his lifelong dream.

But life was not gentle with him. The horrors of war tormented him, and he lost his next younger brother, who was in the prime of life, to a boating accident. A few years later, his wife, my mother, who had fought mental illness throughout their marriage was taken by cancer at age 40, leaving him with five young children to raise. He took a chance marrying a woman he hardly knew who had three daughters of her own and his life took on a new shape. Then, just when the edges seemed to smooth out, he suffered a major heart attack requiring him to leave a thriving church congregation behind to start over again in a new place as an invalid.

Strange, I’ve never written all that down before and I am overwhelmed at the idea of surviving such a litany of catastrophes. What makes someone able to get up in the morning and face each new day after all this?

I would not describe my dad as a religious man; that was not his motivation for being a minister. Rather, he simply cared deeply for people and his own experiences gave him a level of compassion rarely found in someone many would describe as a “strong” man. He was generous beyond his means with others but we always seemed to have all we needed. Like most of us, he had his demons that would show up on his sharp tongue or in the flash of anger in his eyes. He kept his pain to himself most of the time but there were occasions when he couldn’t.

As time went on and he came to truly appreciate the grace of being surrounded by thousands of wonderful people that were the best perk of his profession, he became a peaceful man, though depression over his poor health became more prevalent. His heart, the real one and the figurative one, began to lose strength more rapidly. Finally, one morning he just couldn’t get up to face another day. He died on Earth Day 1992 and my brother, who became the doctor my dad had once thought he would be himself, eulogized him as “Father Earth”, and indeed he was the salt that gave our world more flavor.

I don’t really know what it means to be a good father. I just know that I had one.

Christa McAuliffe’s Death Reminds Me of What It Means To Live

January 28, 2011 2 comments

The temperature was 90 degrees in the bright pink hotel room I was living in outside of Keene, New Hampshire that winter. Something had gone wrong with the thermostat and I couldn’t shut off the heat. Outside, the temperature was well below freezing and dark sky was ablaze with stars.

The images on the TV screen were many of the same ones I’d been clipping out of newspapers and magazines for months leading up to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The seven astronauts had become bigger than life because for the first time one of them was a civilian.

Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen as the first representative of the Teacher in Space Program, was the instructor everyone would have wanted. She reminded me of my 4th grade teacher who knew how to keep me on track but was the first to appreciate all that I was, not just what I could do academically. Like me, Christa was also from New Hampshire, so I felt extra pride in her designation as the first teacher in space. As I struggled to regain my footing after dropping out of college where I was studying to become a teacher myself, she made me want to reconsider my decision to quit.

I had never paid much attention to the shuttle launches before this one. For the first time, I was really engaged in the space program. I’d read everything I could find out about it. It seemed the whole nation was captivated just as they’d been when man first landed on the moon.

Finally, the day of the launch came — January 28, 1986. Sitting at my desk at the Brattleboro (VT) Area Chamber of Commerce, where I was working for just enough money to cover my commute back and forth from the motel I lived in for $90.00 a week in Keene, this was my first real job. My co-worker and I listened to live coverage on the tiny radio behind my head, and Larry Smith, the local DJ covering the event, sounded as excited as we were. He rattled off the play by play and I looked forward to being able to watch it all on TV later that night.

Larry began echoing the countdown of the announcer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and my co-worker and I joined in. “10 – 9 – 8…..”

LIFT-OFF!!!!

We clapped and cheered and threw all our little bottles of white-out in the air.

But before we could finish retrieving the bottles, something went terribly wrong with the launch. Just over a minute into the shuttle’s flight, Larry reported that an explosion had sent smoke and gases and parts of the booster rockets in different directions far up in the sky.

My blood froze. It was too soon for the rockets to disengage! For hours, commentators speculated about what had happened and held out hope that the capsule containing the astronauts had somehow escaped undamaged though we knew there was no way. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to admit they had all perished so we prayed for a miracle.

That night as I viewed the coverage in my motel room, I felt like my guts would explode out of my body as I watched over and over again the inner workings of the shuttle assembly shatter violently when a later-identified frozen O-ring in one of the booster rockets allowed gases to escape and blow up the rocket engine. The images of the explosion showed trails of exhaust veering off and close-up photos strained to see if any of the falling pieces could be the fuselage of the shuttle itself, or, God forbid, any of the astronauts, flung from the orbiter at some 50,000 feet above the ocean.

There I stood, alone in the icy draft of the wide open window, sobbing my brains out. Nothing had ever crushed my spirit like this. For days afterward I watched the coverage as the scientists exhaustively pored over what went wrong. When it was agreed that none of the astronauts could have survived the event, President Reagan delivered a moving eulogy whose last line remains with me to this day:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

In an age when our “heroes” tend to be people who get paid lots of money to exploit a certain innate ability, I think back to that time when a TEACHER was our hero. Somewhere over these 25 years, we seem to have forgotten that our best teachers aren’t the ones that urge the highest test scores out of us. They aren’t the ones concerned about what facts we can regurgitate for the sake of a rating. They are the people among us whose greatest mission in life is to help us build the kind of character that makes us heroic in the eyes of our communities, even if our greatest accomplishments are unknown beyond the walls of our own homes.

If the explosion of the Challenger taught us anything, perhaps it is that catastrophic failure is not a reason to stop trying. I believe that if Christa McAuliffe had survived that tragedy, she would have returned to her classroom and with the help of her students, figured out what could be done differently next time to make the mission successful.

And if the memories of how she made me feel at that low point in my life have any meaning, maybe it is the realization that we are all teachers…



Moses as Metaphor

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

I almost wrote “Moses as Matador” by accident but then the mental image of Moses in those tight little pants and funny hat made me chuckle and realize my mistake.

Isn’t that just the way we think about these things sometimes? I still picture Charlton Heston as Moses with that ridiculous mane in “The Ten Commandments” after God had spoken to him. I’ve heard of people’s hair turning white over night, but c’mon…

I lay for a moment this morning with my eyes closed, anticipating the familiar weight of my recent anxiety. For months I have felt the surging heaviness in my chest that precedes my winter depression and had begun to hunker down for this annual period of soul hibernation. Usually, I futilely try to self-medicate to get through this time but it only brings greater despair. I’ve had enough of fighting it this way and am trying healthier means of escape.

As I waited for the crush of daylight that announces another day of spiritual combat, a vision began to emerge of thousands of people trapped at the shore of the Red Sea (my heart) desperate to escape as their tormentors drew closer. They grew agitated as more and more of them got backed up and just when all seemed lost, an image from “Dr. G., Medical Examiner” popped into my head, of a human heart being split apart and I felt all the blood in my body gush though mine like ocean waves parting to let my life force flow again.

Moses was in my chest with his little red flag and silly hat and flowing gray beard! Ole’!

And then, as if it knew exactly how much to let through, my heart returned to normal, its tide ebbing and flowing as though nothing strange had happened. When the tormentors arrived at the shore, they were forced to turn back.

Moses, the metaphor, is this euphoric moment when I am set free to explore my promised land. Moses, the matador, is the frustrated part of me that gets to the other side and realizes this freedom is pointless if all my life force wants to do is wander around and complain until everything gets backed up again.

So maybe what I really need is for Moses the nomad to GET mad and stop letting the aimless flock keep dragging him back to that same place of panic.

Or maybe Moses the metaphor just needs to learn to enjoy the sand between his toes and the crashing of life’s waves….

Just Paint…

September 16, 2010 4 comments

An artist friend wrote :

“… might have to stand back. it is when you do that–the whole picture makes sense.” — D. L. King

That’s the quote I’d been looking for to gather together my recent thoughts.

Sometimes when I’m painting a mural, standing a foot away from the wall, I feel panicked. The brush strokes make no sense. The colors seem wrong. I hate myself for not being a better artist. Then something pulls me away just as I am about to take my brush and scribble violently over the whole thing.

This experience seems to play out on so many levels. Lately, the world has chased a lot of us up against our own walls and we are staring at them, shouting at them to change because we refuse to believe that we have the power to transform them. The idea of picking up a brush and some paint seems frivolous and useless. We’ve lost all perspective, so sure that someone is trying to take away the creative rights to our lives that we have forgotten about the grace that will reveal the image for us if we would just agree to pick up the brush and start painting.

Those who have been fortunate enough to find just the right highlight in their lives often cast a shadow that further darkens the efforts of those who haven’t found the strength to start again. Rather than extend the mercy that could be the catalyst that is needed, they shout “it’s my paint and you can’t have any! Go get your own!” The intended image becomes even muddier.

But what the highlight folks don’t understand is that the shadow is key to bringing out the dimension of the whole picture. Without it, the highlights overwhelm and the depth of the whole is lost. The secret is in learning how to balance the highlights and shadows, allowing each to contribute to revealing the rich mid-tones of our world.

No matter how many paintings I do, I will always experience this feeling of panic. I will stomp to the back of the room with hot tears burning my cheeks, furious. Sometimes I will even feel the urge to cause myself physical pain. But then an unseen hand will touch my shoulder and turn me around, saying, “Look at what you’ve created…” Blinking to recover my focus, I will witness an epiphany. What looked so wrong up close will look extraordinary from a distance. The flat, frustrating ugliness will reveal a dimensional invitation for transformation. And once again, I will understand the changes I need to make — what to paint over and what to make more prominent  — It will make perfect sense!

Yet, as beautiful as my life seems at times and as good as the highlights feel, I will always be in search of the shadow. I hate the pain of looking at it, but when I am given the grace to walk away and allow distance to restore my perspective — it is in that moment of revelation that I experience pure joy…. Thanks for the reminder, D.L.K….

(see more murals)

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