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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stumbling on Holy Ground

On a day of many tears, a day in which I found it hard to leave my bed, a day when time passed ploddingly, two friends shared poems to greet me as I retired for rest and respite.

Energy to greet the day was slow to come.  I awoke at a reasonable hour, but listening to the rain beat on the roof and thinking of the tasks I ought to get started on, I stayed put through the morning.  Apparently it was a condition that had struck the whole household, for I ventured forth to find Mom and Dad eating a very late brunch of eggs and bacon.  We slowly stirred ourselves toward the day.  Mom made her project the addressing and stuffing of Christmas letters to friends and family.  She put Dad to writing personal notes on some of the letters.  I decided to make my task keeping Mom settled rather than restless as she deals with the slow healing of her foot.

Nevertheless, I was grappling with restlessness, too.  Today, four days from Christmas Day, a season that for thirty-three years I have spent with Everly, and for all the years since their births, with three children, I am spending with none of them.  I'm not begrudging the children's absence, having agreed that they should do what they are doing.  Still, the absence of all four is palpable.  So I bugged the kids to text me a report on their days, which they lovingly and faithfully did, warming my heart.

I made a couple of laps, at different times of day, walking around in the yard, inspecting the results of the rain that is watering my seeds and bulbs.  The mail came.  It included a Christmas card from the Relay for Life organization that raises money for cancer research.  Last April, Naomi led the organizing of a Relay for Life Team, and our whole family, along with Ruth and Emily, walked, danced, and sat vigil for most of the evening, with a few staying the entire night, raising lots of money and supporting Everly in the fight against cancer.  Of course, the organization did not know of Everly's death, and yet opening the card addressed to her, a card intended to offer her encouragement in her struggle, was tough to bear.  It follows on a couple of Christmas cards from friends, arriving at the end of the week addressed to Mike and Everly, because they had not heard the news of her death.  Just the thought of telling them the news was an emotional challenge.

So it was a moping kind of day.  I got up with some energy and made a tasty and nutritious dinner which we all enjoyed.  Then it was back to biding time with the television on.  So when I found these poems this evening, they surprised me by casting a new perspective on the day.  I found new thoughts arising to frame the season.  Philip Thompson posted a poem by W.H. Auden.

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say "I," it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.

For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.

Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim -- "There must be some mistake" -- you must be mistaken.

W.H. Auden, For the Time Being
I found myself in that looking everywhere for the garden and finding only desert, yet clinging to the assurance that "the garden is the only place there is."  Studying the events of a life, the fragments remembered, the wishing for what was--all these dovetail into not being able to imagine tomorrow.  To what have I consented?  Certainly not her death and not today as destiny!  That I might live without her is of all things most absurd, a dream, one from which I cannot escape, feeling it must be mistaken.  And why not rebel, doubting that the garden can exist? 

It was a day of being between things, when nothing seemed quite present:  living as though it were 39 years ago, my sister having moved away from our household, and Mom, Dad, and I sharing a house.  A dream of lost time, of a reversal, of passage that dissolves at the edge of being, of a memory banging away at that edge, more real than what is seen, yet itself invisible. 

Well, so much for gobbledygook language that comes of trying to analyze my inwardness.  Auden had much more to say here than what I have drawn out of it.  He speaks of alienation of the human condition from many angles.  I'll stop there for now.  Thanks to Philip Thompson for posting the poem.

The disorientation that is at the heart of Auden's poem is a theme of the other verse, by Wendell Berry, shared by LeDayne Polaski.
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
It is a Christmas poem, focused on Christmas eve's birth of Jesus in a barn.  Berry frames it as a working farmer on a working farm, making a regular trek to check out something in the barn.  As he sees the story unfold in Luke 2, he realizes that it could have been his barn.  He could have had the same surprise as the shepherds, finding the Holy Family where no one would expect, in an animal stall.  Looking into another world, yet this same world.  Seeing in a brand new way, challenged by the moment even to breathe, he, and now we, stand on holy ground that we thought until now was just plain ground.

What a realization, a decentering and recentering, a disorientation and reorientation, a demoralization and remoralization!  Seeing what I have seen over and over again, but seeing something completely new in it.  What a gift to be able to see that in my own old barn!  What a gift to see it in my house, in my yard, on my street, in my beaten-down 55-year-old body, my cataract-growing eyes!

And what it brought to mind was the holiness of Everly's last morning.  On July 18, I awoke to a day that I knew must come, but did not want to come.  I started out to try and keep the routines going as they had been.  Eventually, I sat beside the bed and watched as Everly persevered a holy struggle.  She clung to her life, breathing heavily and rapidly, each rhythm of oxygen and carbon dioxide a word of love for her children, for her loved ones, for me.  She lay on the bed, eyes closed, seeing what was, and perhaps what was to be, her thoughts and feelings somewhere between holding on to us and being set free.  She knew, and she had told us many times, it was time to go.  She was ready.  And now, no longer able to speak, only to breathe, to suffer a beating heart full of love, she was being transformed from one glory to a greater degree of glory.

It was the same room as every day before.  The guest bedroom in Salado that had become our interim home, our very home.  Everly's things arrayed in all their organizational glory surrounded us.  A rented hospital bed and recliner arranged for her comfort were the prominent fixtures.  I have walked into this same room hundreds or thousands of times.  Wearing clothes I wear every week, seeing clocks showing time as they do every day, touching objects as I do at any time, I was with Everly in the room.

And on that day it was holy ground.

So today, reading Wendell Berry, I realize that I "cannot turn away the thought . . . that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened."  Shepherds stumbled on a baby in a manger in a stable.  Berry had second sight one late night in his barn.  I get it, too.  It was "a night like any other night," and Darrell Adams's poem now comes to mind.

A night like any other night,
The census time at hand,
A weary couple, a child near born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.

A time like any other time,
The rulers called it peace.
A subject nation groaning for
Someone to set them free,
A leader, a soldier, a mighty king--
A star or a stable they see.


A child like any other child
Of poor and humble birth,
Lowly shepherds see where the great are blind:
The humble savior’s worth.
May we see with their eyes this low-born babe,
A sign of peace to earth.


A night like any other night,
But a hush is on the land.
A weary couple, a child just born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

A night in which the unexpected lurks amid the expected, when glory astounds the humble while the rulers and teachers can't see "light / That lights them from no source we see," was a night like any other.  Some lady had a baby in a barn.  Heaven and earth met in a cow stall.  Dirt, straw, manure--all that seared-bleared-smeared-smudged-smelly place is charged with God's grandeur.  It's holy ground.

And by the analogy of being, on a street corner in Salado, in a bedroom where a family gathered, earth and heaven met.  Everly held our hands and her Faithful Friend's hand.  An old piece of carpet, a mechanical bed, cotton sheets--all these jammed-in, jumbled, familiar artifacts of our lives became holy ground.  And if we can see like shepherds, with gratitude for the grace of God that in Everly showed forth in all its glory, we can grasp that on that day we glimpsed two worlds, finding that our own place was also holy, "although we knew it not."  And continuing with Gerard Manley Hopkins, our doubled vision, our holy-in-ordinary day, invaded that room
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent, Christmas, and Everly

Yesterday, December 18, was one week until Christmas Day, and five months since Everly breathed her last, calm breath.  David started the day by getting on the road to NC.  His wonderful friend Lila will be married this week in NC.  I am praying she can have even more than the 33 years of partnership that Everly and I shared. 

Hugh Delle woke up yesterday with discomfort and swelling in her toe.  She contacted her doctors, and before mid-afternoon she had been in two clinics. By noon one doctor had her taking antibiotics, and by 4 pm she had had another surgery to remove the tips of two toes, hoping to head off another long bout of struggling with infection.  Many of you remember her battles in the first part of 2013 fighting infection in her foot.  The prescribed antibiotics ultimately put her into severe danger and hospitalization in June and July, delaying her return from NC at the time of Everly's death.  So with close medical supervision, we are reevaluating our Broadway family Christmas plans, hoping there will be a turnaround that could let her travel to see Jerene and Jim after Christmas Day.

Lydia and I drove to Waco for the Baylor Basketball doubleheader yesterday.  Everly got our family going to Baylor women's basketball games, buying season tickets last year, that she and I mostly used.  Lydia, of course, attended with her student ID.  This year, without Brittney Griner, the playing style is different, and the attendance is down.  The kids have not been as enthusiastic about attending.  David, Naomi, Lydia, and I all attended one game together early in the season, but the prominent of absence of Everly made it hard for all of us. 

Most games have been on weeknights, so the Austin to Waco drive is a bit much before work or classes.  And Lydia's work load was so intense this semester, with all kinds of group projects and lab activities plus business and social enterprise work that she often could not get away. They also are probably a bit tentative because of missing their mom.  By the way, both Baylor teams won yesterday, in two close games.

As people keep telling me, we all grieve differently. I've attended all the games I could so far, in part because it keeps me doing something that I used to do with Everly.  She loved going to Baylor and watching the women's team play, as do I.  With attendance so low this year, I have not actually sat in my assigned seats yet.  I usually find friends like Katie Cook, Sharon Rollins, or Barry Harvey to sit with.  The drive, through the perpetual I-35 NAFTA Highway construction zone, is tedious, but it keeps me close to her.

That was yesterday.  As Christmas draws closer, we are feeling our way forward, wondering how things will be.  We have planned to spend time on Christmas Day with the Estes family in Austin.  David, who has Lila's wedding and another wedding in Philadelphia later, has to miss that family gathering.  But we all agreed he needs to be with Lila on this special day. 

After Christmas, we will drive together to Black Mountain, NC, to see Jerene and Jim.  David will join us there.  WD and HD are expecting to go, although I have my doubts at this point.  She will have several doctor visits between now and Christmas, so I hope we can make the best decision.  I know Mom will be very sad if she has to stay in Texas, but no one wants hospitalization in Asheville again.

After some time with the Broadways in Black Mountain, our four Broadways will take a couple days retreat to a mountain cabin for some family time.  Several people said we should plan something completely different as part of this first Christmas season, so that is what we came up with.  We'll take some board games, swimsuits for getting in the hot tub, books for reading, maybe a couple of movies, and boots to hike if it's not too cold.  It should be a good time for just comfortably moving into and out of conversations about Everly while being able to support one another.  That's what we are hoping. 

Naomi helped us get the Christmas season started by buying a Groupon to take the four of us to dinner at a fancy fondue restaurant called The Melting Pot.  Without the 50% discount, probably none of us would ever have gone there.  Fondue during the holidays has been a Broadway family tradition, but we've always done it at home. 

The thing about fondue is that it takes time for cooking each bite, so there is plenty of time for visiting, as compared to the usual rushed meal times of day to day.  We had a great time just talking and laughing and thinking about our lives together.  After it was over, I had to agree with Lydia's comment as the two of us walked toward the restaurant, "Naomi's doing the Mommy job and getting us organized to be together."  Each of the kids has wonderful characteristics passed to them by their mother.

Everly was our big-time Christmas planner.  She arranged everyone's schedules.  She went out with the kids to help them shop and to find the things they needed or wanted for Christmas.  She unpacked and repacked the ornaments for the tree.  She made sure all the gifts were in place with bows on them.  She enjoyed and promoted the big events of gift-giving and opening.  She instructed me on what to cook.  She took care of lots of the cleanup.

This year Hugh Delle was not feeling up to setting up a Christmas tree, especially since we will be gone during the Christmas season.  Lydia put one up in her apartment in Waco.  Hugh Delle had me help her get out wreaths and some other Christmas decorations which she has put around the house. 

It's a different sort of Christmas without Everly in charge.  We decided to tone down the Christmas gift buying this year.  But that turned out to be harder for me than I expected.  I felt an inner drive to try to live up to, at least in some way, Everly's caring gift-giving to our children.  My gifts will probably seem less personal, more practical, and more oddball than hers.  But at last count I had hit double digits in the number of packages I had for each of the kids.  Oh, well, I thought I would cut back.  Naomi has been loving the chance, with her first job providing a real paycheck, to buy gifts this year.  Overall, we're feeling our way into a new era.

Advent, as a season of waiting, is different from last year for us.  Last year we were waiting to see how progress was coming with a new chemotherapy plan.  It turned out, by February, that it had not worked well for Everly.  But we had been very hopeful in December, when reports said that one last persistent tumor might be reduced to the point of clearing out all of the visible cancer from her liver.

This year we wait in part for the celebratory season to pass.  We wait to see if we can make it through.  We wait to share some very painful joys of enacting our traditions with Everly's absence. 

I think it might be like what some have said about the long silent periods in the history of Israel.  The trajectory of life and nationhood they had anticipated was interrupted and took a very different turn.  So they waited to see what might come next.  Sometimes they held onto the faith that God's mercies would continue to be new every morning and that springs might come forth in the desert.  Other times they felt that God had lost interest in them and cared little whether they were righteous or unrighteous.  I suspect other times they just went through motions and felt numb, only to be surprised by pains on some days and joys on others.  I think that's how we are waiting this year.  What will the coming of the Christ Child mean?

Everly had a certificate describing the meaning of her name, a gift that someone had given her.  "Everly" as a first name was a kind of "coined" name.  But its first three letters, Eve, is a very ancient name.  The certificate said it means "full of life."  It can also mean "mother of life," or simply "living one."  Whether or not her parents had ever thought through those historical meanings for her name, it certainly came to be true of her.  She was the life of the party.  She was the life in our partnership.  And she was the mother of life in our family.  So this Advent, we wait for that life to rise in us, the seeds she planted and nurtured.

I planted more wildflowers today, in 72 degree weather at our Chisholm Trail home:  purple shamrock oxalis, Tahoka daisies, and three types of coreopsis--dwarf red plains, golden wave, and plains.  Lydia helped me plant 100 tall Dutch iris bulbs, mostly purple with a few yellows mixed in.  A couple of days ago I put out Red Drummond Phlox. 

On our honeymoon, on a couple of days we drove out around Caddo Lake and Lake o' the Pines in northeast Texas to look at wildflowers.  I had a new guidebook on wildflowers of Texas, so we stopped now and then for me to get out and try to identify something.  I remember wearing an orange shirt that summery day.  I must have looked like the Great Wildflower of Destiny to the bees, and they decided to gather around me to get a taste.  So we had to quit getting out of the car. 

Our two temperaments were obvious on that day.  Everly enjoys flowers and fresh air, but she quickly draws the line when she starts feeling uncomfortable, hot, sweaty, itchy, etc.  My single-tracked mind was pulling me toward exhaustive knowledge of wildflowers on that day.  Everly lost enthusiasm for the project sooner than I did, with the pollen, the hot sun, and the bugs.  Thanks to the bees, we got on the same page pretty quickly.  That would be one of the earliest memories of our marriage.

Here we are today waiting. Hugh Delle is struggling with pain and medications, waiting to get better.  David is driving the long trek to Durham, waiting to reunite with friends.  Lila is awaiting a ceremony to mark off a new path and new hopes.  Lydia has gone to stay with Naomi as they wait for the intensity of the season to begin.  I could not post this journal entry for four hours while we waited for a power outage to end and restore our online access. 

And now bulbs and seeds are in the ground, both at the cemetery and in our yard on Chisholm Trail.  The irises and wildflowers are another sign of waiting, seeds waiting to grow, bulbs waiting to shoot forth, colors and life that will emerge in spring and summer to remind us of our very own Mother of Life who will never leave us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Facing My Shortcomings

I had a conversation with my son earlier this week.  He was commenting about preparing for guests in his apartment, and somewhat amused that he was trying to make sure that they did not make fun of his housekeeping after they leave.  He said that he was trying to think about what people who visit other people might deem to be important.

As is often the case with my children, I take something they say to me and begin to associate it with various theoretical understandings of ethics or theology or history or whatever pops into my mind.  This is often accepted with interest if I don't push it too far.  What I usually do, however, is drone on too long until they are wishing they had never started the conversation.  I did that again, comparing the development of conscience, that shared (con-) knowledge (science) that is held in communities, growing out of the way we come to understand and internalize what others believe is important.  Blah blah blah blah blabitty blah blah.

Yet I have had to relive that conversation over and over again as the week had dragged on.  It is grading week.  I am the worst of grading procrastinators.  And each day as I have struggled to get on with my duty, I have realized that getting my work done has depended to a great deal on having Everly in my life.  I know I have to be honest and face her if I am profligate.  This is the first grading period I have had since she died.  And the tendency toward being what Aristotle called the "weak-willed" person is stronger than ever.  Here and now, facing my shortcomings, I am reminded again of how Everly made me stronger than I am alone.
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