Society

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

I woke up with a mild feeling of dread. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work or be around people. The last few days I have spent reading and writing. Every few months I do this because I usually have piles of books I need to catch up on and I never seem to make enough time to write – so these days are necessary for me to stay connected to these important tasks.

Unfortunately, when I am coming out of a particularly busy week, it seems to take a couple days for my mind to slow down and get into the reading and writing solitude groove, but once I am in that groove, I feel like I could easily stay there forever and it takes a great deal of effort to emerge back into civilization. When I left the house on Wednesday for an appointment, I realized I hadn’t gone anywhere since Sunday except on a few lonesome walks in the neighboring fields. I also hadn’t showered or brushed my hair. I can slip into hermit mode easily and could stay there indefinitely.

I come by it honestly. My dad was a full-fledged hermit. Many of my elementary-school classmates thought I didn’t have a father because they never saw him, and unless they were in my house or the doctor’s office, why would they?

I was still an infant and my brother only four when dad’s health declined to the point he was unable to continue working as a pastor. We left the Twin Cities and moved to a tiny farmhouse outside Henning, MN. Mom took care of me and my brother. Dad wrote. He fashioned a small office in a back pantry where he retreated to scribble in his notebooks and read.

I believe that he fancied that our move to the country was a new start for us. We raised chickens and had a big garden. On Sundays he and mom taught us Sunday School at home. He did not believe the church in town could teach us better than he could. On summer evenings we played kickball in the back yard and in the winter we went sledding down the big hill in the woods.

At first, Dad still did some supply preaching at area churches on Sundays, but he stopped that soon after we moved to the farmhouse. Dealing with people was just too exhausting for him and bit by bit he began to delete himself from the world. He didn’t run errands. He stopped working at all. He didn’t have or see friends. He didn’t visit his mother or brothers who lived five miles away. He never set foot in our school even one time in the years Andrew and I were growing up. Eventually he also stopped feeding the chickens and working in the garden. He finally wearily sent us to the church in town for Sunday School and confirmation class and if we ever wanted to play kickball or go sledding, it was only mom who went with us.

Our family narrative became “Dad doesn’t feel good.” “Dad is too sick” to come to this or that. “Dad is having a bad day” and so that’s why he never leaves the house. He was suffering and he was the eternal victim.  The rest of us learned to live around that. We learned to never expect anything from him.

How infinitely small his world became. Perhaps it is no surprise he was angry much of the time – so angry that it seemed to push him over the edge to have to deal with any of us. His temper boiled and erupted into fits of yelling, hurling repetitive, paranoid, nonsensical phrases over and over until he would collapse into sleep on the scratchy brown living room couch. Finally, it wasn’t enough to just isolate himself to our property or our house, he retreated to his bedroom where he laid in the dark quiet for years.

And I was glad when he finally did. It was so much easier when he stayed in that room, because when he came out his anger and sadness filled me.

Yes, my dad had physical health issues, but I am certain that it was the emotional and mental issues – the way he isolated himself that really took away his life. The isolation was the perfect nourishment for the depression that hid him away from us and everyone.

I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of my dad’s life. It wouldn’t be too much of a leap to say that I even appear to be living parts of his life. He was a pastor, I am a pastor. He loved living in the country, I love living in the country. He was a writer, I am a writer.

However, while I am similar, I am the mirror image, or even the upside-down of him. He was a fire and brimstone preacher, I tell about Jesus’ peace and grace. He liked living in the country so he could hide from a world that both displeased and frightened him, I simply love having space to breathe and quiet. Maybe we are most alike in our writing. He loved his writing and tended to it daily, praying it would be meaningful to someone else. So do I. His writing was his way of praying, telling himself and God about his life, worries, dreams, despair. Me, too.

There are two stories I tell over and over and they are both stories of the loss of my parents. Although my parents died only a year apart, I lost one so much earlier than the other. Mom was 77 when she took her last breath and I stopped being able to create new, loving memories with her. With Dad it was about thirty years before that when he stopped participating in life – his, mine, anyone’s.

I grieve my mom’s death but I also grieve that I lost my dad so long before he took his last breath. His physical death on a January day in 2010 was powerfully anticlimactic as he hadn’t really lived in so very long.

I want to live. I don’t want anything to die in me while my heart is still beating.

Yes, I love my reading and writing days when I cloister myself away and talk to hardly anyone, but I know I must be with my community, too. I need them. I need their energy, ambition, love, conflict, because I have seen the alternative and it is empty. God didn’t create us to exist only in our own thoughts and comfortable, safe surroundings. Too much space, too much quiet, too much time alone – it seduces, but left unchecked, it kills. At least it kills me. I choose to be influenced by others – friends and acquaintances, to have their ideas rub up against mine and see what kind of fires that creates in the imagination.

Not terribly long ago, I was having a hard day. I was tired and hungry and grieving for a friend who had just lost her dad. On the drive back from the memorial service, I decided to pick up a pack of cigarettes. I quit long ago, but every few years I dance with the devil and buy a pack. I savor that pack over the next week until it is gone and then go back to my non-smoking life.

I thought about isolation that week because I didn’t want anyone to know I was smoking, so I had to do it in secret. I would make up reasons I could be alone so I could go have a smoke: go for a drive, go for a walk, stay up after everyone went to bed, get up before everyone else, it was exhausting just trying to make room for those cigarettes in my life. Then, I also had to make sure I had breath mints and Febreze and I was washing my hands constantly to try to keep the cigarette stench off of me. Alone, alone, alone. I craved that time alone like I craved the next smoke, but neither the time alone nor the nicotine fixed anything. I was not changed in a better way for having had the solitude or the smoke.

What did help? What did bring ease and energy back again?  Laughing with my kids. Coffee with a friend. Sitting down to talk to my husband. Singing hymns at the bar with my rowdy congregation.

We were created to be in community.

If you need to talk, I’m here.

If you know of someone who is lonesome, give them a call.

 

Society

By Eddie Vedder

It’s a mystery to me
We have a greed
With which we have agreed

You think you have to want
More than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me

When you want more than you have
You think you need
And when you think more than you want
Your thoughts begin to bleed

I think I need to find a bigger place
‘Cause when you have more than you think
You need more space

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

There’s those thinking more or less less is more
But if less is more how you’re keeping score?
Means for every point you make
Your level drops
Kinda like it’s starting from the top
You can’t do that

Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

Society, have mercy on me
I hope you’re not angry if I disagree
Society, crazy and deep
I hope you’re not lonely without me

 

 

 

 

Moving Day

I drove up and saw the moving truck was already parked in the driveway.  She had enlisted help from me and three others – all friends in the community.  She is a pastor, too – which means there were many boxes of books, plenty of religious art, scads of paperwork from this seminar and that continuing education class. She already moved her cats to the new apartment yesterday.

She is a single pastor, which I think may have to be the loneliest thing in the world.  I was one for a few years, before sweet Chad came along.  I can’t count how immensely thankful I am for my tiny little family particularly when I am feeling on the edges, alienated by whatever community God has called me to.  My husband and sons help me weather the inevitable storms that come with my work and they help me remember I’m not just Pastor Ruth.  They keep me real and happy.

I did a paper many years ago on Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first ordained woman in the United States.  She was an ordained pastor for only a few years before she left the ministry.  She was single when she served at her first call in a small community in Upstate New York.  I read letters she wrote to a friend in which she talked about how hard the long winters were.  It isn’t hard for me to imagine how it was for her because my first call was also in Upstate New York and I had a couple winters there alone in a parsonage.  So silently the snow drifted up against the brick walls of my house.  So surely I felt the winter would never end.  Kind families invited me over for Thanksgiving and Christmas but I never really belonged.  I was called to love them and I did.  There were many lovely people in that church and some, a few, deeply awful ones, too.  When I called the parking lot gossipers and the hateful council members on their crap, I knew it would shortly be time for me to go.  And I did.  I wept to leave that wonderful/horrible church, but I chose to go and I had a new call waiting for me across the country.  It took me a few years to recover from my first call, but I was able to do that.

My friend didn’t choose to leave her call.  Her church decided to let her go and so now it is very abruptly time to pack up her cats and books and papers and go.  God called her there and now she is left to figure out why it was only for such a short time and what is she supposed to learn from it?  It’s hard enough to leave everything and follow God’s call.  Then infinitely harder when that call seems to just evaporate into thin air and without warning.

I know all the old sayings – “God has a plan” and “you never know all the lives you touch even if it is just a short time” and of course there is a part of me that believes those things.  However, as the years unfold and I meet more and more dear clergy who are hurt and abandoned by their churches, it is difficult to not get disheartened.  Most lay people will never understand the kind of sacrifice that goes into being a pastor. Yes, I know that every job is hard and requires sacrifice, however there are few careers where one’s work bleeds so fully into the rest of life. There is no way to be a half-hearted minister.  You simply must love your congregation and when you love them, it is so easy to get hurt by them.  You simply must pick up your life and go to where the call is, yet usually that means leaving behind every friend and everything familiar.  Sometimes it works out fine and great, good connections are made and it becomes home.  Sometimes, though, you are packing up a moving van after just a couple years in a place, wondering what the heck happened, and dreaming about whether or not it is possible to use that Masters of Divinity degree for any sort of gainful employment in the secular world.

We stuffed the last boxes and bits of lawn furniture into the remaining crevices of the moving truck and shut the door.  By now she is probably unloading its’ contents into her new place. She has already asked that some of us, her pastor friends, might come and help her do a blessing of her apartment after she has settled in.  Of course we will.  We know well that our homes dearly need God’s blessing to ward off the hard things that come with what we do.  Go away isolation.  Go away depression.  Go away spiritual confusion and endless longing for God and wondering if we really are serving God in the best possible way through the vessel of the church.  The same church that sometimes welcomes us warmly with potlucks and coffee cakes, and then sometimes spits us out.

IMG_9122