No Lie: Vultures on the Beach

I’m trying to sort out the birds. It’s not like I’ve never been to the ocean before; it’s that this is the first time I’ve ever been here with the intention of starting a long term relationship. I don’t want to start off with a lie.

A few evenings ago when the little white bird with the black legs (who might be a plover?) yanked a ghost crab (I’m fairly sure about that one) from the swash, he ran up the shore into the wrack and tried to find a nice quiet table for dinner.

No such luck. The brown bird with the long legs and the long beak (perhaps a willet?) started chasing him. Up the beach, down the beach, into the water. Every now and then a few other birds that might also be plovers joined in the chase.

The bird that might be a plover with dinner in its mouth kept dropping the crab and trying to take a bite, but every time, the bird that might be a willet would close in. Nothing for it but to grab your ghost crab and run.

I must have watched this dinner dance for ten minutes. Finally the bird that was the best at fishing gave up and tossed the remains of the crab on the sand. I expected the long-beaked bird to run in and grab the crab, but nobody came. Apparently all that drama was just about the chase.

The other brown bird that looks like an overgrown sparrow on orange stilts (that might be a sandpiper?) played no part in this story.

These things happened as I’ve told them. This is a true story. I was there. I watched it happen, and then I wrote it down.

You might be wondering

what this has to do with Daniel Dale, a journalist from the The Toronto Star. Then again, maybe you weren’t wondering that. Maybe that was just me. Either way, a tweet from NPR popped up while I was writing. In it, Dale was explaining why, when the guy we put in the White House just makes something up, Dale uses the word “lie” in his reporting.

It’s a complex argument but I’ll try to simplify it for you. (Actually, that last sentence is a lie. It’s still as simple as it was when your mom explained it to you in kindergarten.) If you make something up and tell people it is true, you are lying.

Call it a “definitional thing,” if we need to pretend it’s complicated. Dale’s bigger point is that if you are a major newspaper (he’s looking at you, New York Times), and you don’t use the word “lie” to describe a lie, you are, well, how can I say this…you are lying.

On a day when pipe bombs are flying around the country, I would have loved to tell you that the little bird that might be a plover caught a crab and the other birds cheered and they all shared the crab and lived happily ever after. That would have been a nice uplifting story, but it wouldn’t have been true.

Likewise, if I had said that the bird that might be a willet had flown across the border from Honduras planning to kill Americans, that would have been a lie, too. (See how easy?)

You might be wondering

what this has to do with vultures on the beach. This afternoon when Fred and I were walking along the beach, I saw three huge blackish-brown birds gathered on the beach above the scarp. Before a passer-by told me they were vultures (with a gently implied “duh” and a nod to their naked heads), I was planning to tell you that I had seen beach turkeys. Actually, I was trying out both “beach turkeys” and “sea turkeys” in my head.

I wasn’t going to tell you that they were actually called sea turkeys, because that would have been lying. I was going to tell you that I called them that in my head to help me remember what they looked like until I could get back to my friend’s condo and look them up in her helpful beach book.

Most of the time, I find it’s not all that hard not to lie.

Anyway, the vultures are on the beach because Red Tide is here in Brevard County. That means there are dead things on the beach, and vultures eat dead things.  I watched while a vulture dug in the sand and pulled out a dead fish and ate it calmly while his buddy vulture looked on politely.

No lie.

You might be wondering

where I’m going with this little collection of true stories from the beach, and I can assure you that you are not alone. I snapped a few photos of the vultures to prove they were there, then Fred and I continued on toward the pier.

Here in Cocoa Beach, sea turtles nest in the dunes. If you live along the beach, during turtle nesting season you have to turn off your lights or close your blinds at night so the turtles don’t think your light is the moon. The moonlight on the water draws the turtles into to the sea.

I find that fact to be both beautiful and true.

So this afternoon, while pipe bombs were flying around the country, an algae bloom was poisoning fish and gumming up the seafoam, and vultures with good table manners were digging in the sand, Fred and I kept walking toward the pier.

We hadn’t gone far before we saw the turtle, lugging her heavy body toward the sea. She lumbered through wet sand, a small crowd of beachcombers snapping photos and quietly cheering her on.

The “duh” woman  appeared at my side. “There’s so much life here!” she marveled. She was right. That was a true statement.

You might be wondering

how I’m going to tie these true stories from the beach together and draw this essay to a close. Again, let me assure you that you are not alone.

It’s just that I think it matters to learn the names of the birds, to be diligent in calling things what they are.

Yesterday I saw a news clip where the guy who lives in the White House claimed that Democrats are trying to get rid of coverage for pre-existing conditions (one of which I have) and Republicans are trying to protect that coverage.

That is a lie.

It’s driving me crazy. A vulture isn’t a willet isn’t a sea turtle. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.


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Albuquerque’s North Valley

Photo of a cow lying under a Cottonwood

Picture a little kid’s drawing of a house: at its simplest, a triangle perches on top of a square.  Then imagine the kid with the crayon getting restless.  She stretches the square into a long skinny rectangle and topples the triangle over the edge. The triangle lands in the rocks next to the rectangle and turns the little house into an arrow.

You can’t get comfortable in an arrow. We sold that house and decided to head off in the direction the the arrow was pointing. We moved in temporarily with my friend Ken in the North Valley and gave our granddaughter one of our cars. That’s why I’m walking down Guadalupe Trail this morning, past some cows and a singing pyracantha hedge full of invisible birds.

I’m looking for the little half-sized road that will take me to the ditch bank. Among the many gifts of spending the last  six week’s as guests in my friend’s house has been the chance to fall in love with this little stretch of Albuquerque’s North Valley.

Things happen here

that never happened on the West Side. A few days ago a woman wandered into the yard with her beagle. She wanted to know if I had lost a turtle.  When I said no, she left and came back a few minutes later with the turtle she had found wandering in the road. “I’ll just leave him here anyway,” she said.

Ok. It’s a nice yard for a turtle. It had a neon pink Z painted on its shell. I watched him lug his prehistoric body around the garden until I lost sight of him between the flagstone path and the chamisa.

It’s not just that strangers bring you turtles in the North Valley. The other night Rusty wasn’t feeling well, and I found myself curled in a blanket, sitting in a rocker on the front porch at 2:30 in the morning. It was peaceful in the cool dark, and I felt almost lucky that I’d been drawn out of bed.  Rusty, instantly calmer in the fresh air, went to sleep at my feet while I rocked and daydreamed.

We might have stayed there all night if I hadn’t heard something breathing. It was a deep, grunting, wild noise, followed by some serious rustling in the garden.  For no reason that holds up to daylight, I imagined a wild boar, its giant tusks angling for the kill. I woke Rusty and hustled him inside, wondering what feral beast was sniffing for us in the night.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a wild boar sighting in the North Valley. In the rational light of morning, I see the holes in the grass, each one the size and shape of a skunk’s nose.

In the North Valley

I’m remembering how much I enjoy walking. Not just to walk, but to get somewhere. This morning the cows are out as I head South on Guadalupe Trail. I count four of them, with the biggest leaning against a cottonwood just beside the road. He looks at me without much curiosity and swishes flies with his tail.

When I get to the ditch,  I hang a right and then another one at the no trespassing sign and suddenly I’ve left streets behind. I’m walking beside an arroyo, flush with flowing water. Old land rights still dictate when farmers may open simple wooden gates to flood their fields. Sunlight dapples my arms as it sifts through cottonwood branches and lands in shards on the dry ground.

I bend to pass through the first stile, alarming a lizard that skitters up the fence post. A coyote appears about ten yards up the trail. He looks at me and prances ahead, then turns back, keeping a constant distance between us. Somewhere to the east on the other side of the ditch a rooster crows.

I step through the second stile. It’s morning in the North Valley, and I’m walking in an older version of the world. I was going to say I’m not at work, but I don’t think that’s true. My new work life is a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle before you get the edge pieces done–I’m still figuring out what will go inside. “Whose woods these are I think I know,” is running through my head. Who’s to say walking through the bosque on a sunny morning doesn’t count as work, if you’re trying to make a life  as a writer?

When I turn left to head toward the coffee shop, the coyote runs ahead toward the Rio Grande. I’m thinking about a few lines from the Navajo Blessingway Prayer: “With beauty before me may I walk, with beauty behind me may I walk.”

Just before the coffee shop,

the dirt turns back into pavement. The house on the corner marks the transition. Long skinny garden beds separate the house from the road. Signs are painted on water drums and fence posts and compost bins.  “Be joyful,” “Be You,” “Sit here and enjoy the new.” A few weeks ago, the sunflowers were blooming and the vines were heavy with tomatoes.

I turn toward Rio Grande and have coffee with my friend. On my way home, I pass the yard with the painted bench again. I’ve been trying to decide if it says enjoy the new or enjoy the now. A young man is working among the plants this morning, and I think about asking him. I say hello and thanks and tell him how much I enjoy walking by his garden.

“You’re welcome,” he says, “Would you like a zucchini?” And just like that, he pulls a knife from his pocket, cuts the long, thick fruit from the vine, and hands me a zucchini. I decide I don’t want to know if he wants me to enjoy the new or the now.

I walk home with my zucchini.  It’s just another morning in the North Valley.


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Learning to Drive

Photo of rose bush

My oldest granddaughter is learning to drive. She fiddles with the levers under the seat to adjust it just so and backs out of the driveway. Her shoulders are up around her ears, and I have to coax her to relax a little.

Her eyes are glued to the pavement right in front of her. I encourage her to  sweep the road with her eyes, to glance in the rearview mirror. It’s as though she is somehow paralyzed and in motion at the same time.

When I was learning to drive

someone told me to “Aim High in Steering.” It must have been a heading in the Pennsylvania Drivers’ Manual, because it’s been running through my head like a chapter heading ever since Cali first got behind the wheel of my Subaru a few weeks ago.

Today she wants a bigger challenge, so we head down Golf Course and hang a right on Montano. We’re heading for Unser, where the road cuts through the petroglyphs and intersects the far west stretch of Paseo del Norte.

The road opens out as we cruise past the volcanoes and the Double Eagle airport. The city falls away to the east, and if you aim high in steering, all you see is desert road unravelling before you. Cali takes the curves gently and doesn’t panic as impatient drivers zoom by on her left.

I’m usually a nervous passenger,

but for some reason, I channel utter zen cool when someone is learning to drive. My step-daughter still jokes that when I taught her, I would say, in a matter-of-fact tone, things like, “You might want to tap the brakes now before that semi flattens us.”

I can’t explain it, but nothing Cali does really throws me. She’s doing fine, other than the fact that she doesn’t quite get the idea of stopping gradually as you come to an intersection. (“You might want to brake sometime soon,” I say a few times.) I don’t even flinch when  we hang a left and she turns into the oncoming traffic instead of the right lane. “Go to the right,” I say a few times, and she does. We don’t even have to hop the median.

My point is that while she’s cruising the desert, I have time to think about aiming high in steering. If I remember my Drivers’ Ed right, I think the idea is to pay attention to what’s happening up ahead, to lift your gaze beyond what’s right in front of you so you can anticipate problems before they happen.

It might be the advice Cali needs as she stares straight ahead, but for some reason I haven’t passed on this particular nugget yet. (“Ease off the gas when you see brake lights,” and “If there’s a ball rolling into the road, there will be a child”–these are the ones I’ve told her.)

It’s June,

so lizards are skittering up the back wall and the roses need a good dead-heading. Cali pulled uneventfully into the driveway after chalking up another hour and a half in her driving log, and I’m still chewing on”Aim High in Steering.”

Is it the opposite of living in the moment? Usually when I hear kids planning out their whole future, I cringe a little. I know teachers are supposed to be in favor of setting goals, but so much of what teenagers are planning comes from other people’s goals and expectations for them.

Most of them haven’t found that thing that makes them vibrate yet; or, if they have, too often they have to set it aside  to jump through all the other hoops we put in front of them and call school.

Live now, I tell them. You’ll figure it out. Life will ask you questions and you’ll build a life by answering them.

And yet,

come October I won’t live here anymore. I yanked my gaze out of the present, and now I’m learning to drive into a different life. When I first made this decision, a friend told me that “the universe rewards boldness.”

It sounded encouraging, but I didn’t know what she meant until it started happening. Barriers, stress points, uncertainties–all those things are just evaporating. I’m aiming high in steering, and friends keep running out into the road ahead to clear the way.

This afternoon when I was trying to figure out where this post was going, I pulled The Art of Possibility off my shelf. In Chapter 8, “Giving Way to Passion,” the Zanders quote Martha Graham. She says, “There is a vitality, a life force…that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it…it will be lost.”

There’s a lesson there,

I think. Once upon a time, a Buddhist nun asked me to wash some special glasses. They had belonged to her parents, she told me. I washed them carefully, dipping them in the soapy water one at a time. As I placed the last one in the drying rack on the counter, I missed the peg, and it shattered on the tile floor.

I felt terrible, knowing that the glass was important to her. When I told her what had happened, though, she said, “It is the nature of glass to break.”

Back in January before I threw my whole life up into the air, I wrote, “It’s madness not to be who you are.” What I didn’t know then is that when you step deeply into who you are, into your unique nature, you step into energy, into Graham’s “life force.” It turns out, that force has (is?) a momentum all its own.

So that’s what I know as June warms up the lizards on the back wall. Cali is about eight hours into her life as a driver. Next time we go out, I think I’ll tell her to aim high in steering.

Right now, though, the rose bush is shouting for attention, so I’ll stop here. I’ve got to get out the clippers and make way for some new things to bloom.


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Not Talking about the Trinity

Photo of three small lit tea candles, but we are not talking about the Trinity.

[This week, I’m posting a sermon I delivered at St. Michael and All Angels. Back to regular posts next week!]

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many times have I said those words and made that gesture without thinking about it?

When Father Joe asked me to preach today, his email included this note, “Fair warning,” he said. “It’s Trinity Sunday.” To be honest, at first I didn’t really know why he was warning me. I guess I’ve never paid much attention to the feast of the Trinity.

So, I did what I often do when I’m confronted with mystery. I fired up my laptop and typed “preaching on Trinity Sunday” into google. I found things like “Dear Priests: The Top Five Heresies to Avoid This Trinity Sunday”; or this one: “It’s Heresy Sunday: Don’t Fall for the Trap”; and my favorite: “Tweeting Trinity: Because Heresy is Meh,” which unfolded as a series of 66 tweets. We’ll come back to #61 later.

I was starting to understand Father Joe’s warning,

so I made a snap decision. We’re not going to talk about the Trinity today. I’m going to leave deepening our understanding of the triune nature of God to the professionals.

Instead, I want to talk about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library describes the Pharisees as “blue collar Jews” who are the “spiritual fathers of modern Judaism.”

Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night,” presumably to avoid being seen. He starts the conversation with what seems to me to be an unequivocal declaration of faith.  “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says. That’s his going in position: knowledge–not suspicion, not curiosity, not hope. “We know,” Nicodemus says. “No one could do what you do without the presence of God.” Of course, he doesn’t say that Jesus is “the son of God,” but if I get sidetracked by that technicality, we might end up talking about the Trinity, and we’re not going to do that today. Suffice it to say that Nicodemus knows that Jesus has come from God.

The last thing Nicodemus says is “How can these things be?” I have been thinking that living in the space between those two comments— “we know that you are of God,” and “how can these things be?” — might define our lives as Christians. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

It occurs to me that to call ourselves Christians

is to do exactly that: to declare our willingness to sit with mystery.

In between those two statements by Nicodemus, Jesus says a lot of important and famous things.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and “no one can enter the kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”

We know that Nicodemus is “astonished” by these words, because Jesus says to him, “Do not be astonished.”

But let’s leave Nicodemus with his jaw hanging open in astonishment for just a moment. I want to tell you about the butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but a few dozen specific butterflies hanging from the eaves at Bosque School about two weeks ago. On Wednesday morning, they began to emerge from their chrysalides. We watched in awe as each chrysalis first opened, as a new creature stepped gingerly into the world. They hung there for hours. While we watched, each butterfly unfurled one wing at a time, then the two wings would start to spread apart and stretch open. Finally, early that afternoon, the first butterfly stepped off the overhang and flew.

I couldn’t stop thinking about them. These beautiful creatures, (Cathy Bailey came by and told us they were mourning cloaks) have been here before. What I was witnessing wasn’t their first birth. They knew the earth first as something to crawl upon and now they know it as something to soar over. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be born from above, to be born of the holy spirit.

But we are not talking about the Trinity this morning.

Let’s get back to Nicodemus. In this country, we love to evaluate teachers. In that spirit, when Jesus turns to Nicodemus and says, “Aren’t you a teacher of Israel? I can’t believe you don’t understand this,” one might conclude that this wasn’t Jesus’ finest teaching moment.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Jesus had said something like, “Oh, I see these metaphors aren’t working for you. Let me lay it out more simply”?

But far be it be from me, a person who is afraid to talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, to rewrite Jesus’s lines for him. Instead, Jesus doubles down on the figurative language. He says,

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In other words, be willing to sit with the mystery.

The wonder I felt that Wednesday morning

watching the butterflies emerge and soar lasted exactly forty-eight hours. Friday morning, at work at Bosque again, the chrysalides were hanging empty from the eaves, and I started getting texts from my husband.  Sadly, you probably know where I am going with this. The names of the cities are starting to blur. That morning, it was Santa Fe, Texas where an angry young white man showed up at his school and started shooting. Two days ago, just before I left my house to attend a joyous graduation ceremony at Bosque, a seventh grade boy in Noblesville, Indiana, started shooting his classmates.

I find myself standing here before Jesus, among all of you, friends and fellow believers, and all I have are the words of Nicodemus. “I know you are from God” I repeat, almost like a mantra in the face of suffering, almost as though I am trying to convince myself. I know you are from God, I say. Yet “how can these things be?”

Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel. In chapter seven he reminds the chief priests that the law requires them to give Jesus a hearing before convicting him. Then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings the burial spices and, with Joseph of Arimathea, wraps the body of Jesus in the burial cloths, and lays him in the tomb.

I have one more short story

to share with you this morning; my third, if anyone is counting. (Not that the number three has any special meaning to me today.) In between those two school shootings, while I was trying to write a sermon that either would or wouldn’t be about the Trinity, I met up with an old student to have a drink and catch up. He’s in his thirties and highly successful by any measure. As a person who served in the military doing dangerous work in Afghanistan, he has experienced more suffering and death than I likely ever will. Talking with him I was reminded of a time when I experienced a great loss. In 2011, a student I loved killed himself a few days before the beginning of his senior year.

In the wake of that loss, I was trying very hard to pretend I was fine. When people kept pointing out to me that I wasn’t, I finally went to talk to Brian Taylor. When even your priest tells you to talk to a therapist, you figure it’s time. My problem was that I had become terrified to love in such a fragile world. To heal, I had to remember to love anyway. I had to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain my ability to function. I like to think that that’s what Nicodemus was doing as he laid Jesus’s body in the tomb.

So. If this had been a sermon about the Trinity,

you might be tempted to think that the story about the butterflies was a story about God the creator, and that the story about the school shootings was a metaphor for Jesus’s earthly suffering on the cross. You might even think that my own slow decision to let love call me back to the things of the world reveals the movement of the spirit.

But you would be wrong. The only thing I understand about how God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one is that love wins. Tweet 61 from “Tweeting the Trinity because Heresy is Meh” says “So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what’s revealed is a mystery).”

What I have to say on this Trinity Sunday, on this Memorial Day weekend, is that all that I know about what I mean is that as Christians, we are called to sit with the awesome mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.

In the name of the creator, and of earthly beauty and pain, and of the mighty, mysterious power of redemptive love. Amen.


Happy Memorial Day weekend! This post is the text of the sermon I preached at St. Michael and All Angels this morning. (At some point, that link should take you to the audio version.) If you enjoyed reading my work, please feel free to share and to invite your friends to follow LiveLoveLeave.

Eden

Yesterday at a school in Oklahoma, teachers lay on top of their students to protect them as a tornado smashed through town. This is what teachers and parents do every day; they throw themselves between children and danger, hoping that such a frail shield will be enough. We keep getting reminded that all we have are these flimsy, breakable bodies, that sometimes all we can do is throw ourselves to the ground and hold on.

I was already thinking about loss. All week I’ve been trying to figure out the connection between loss and abundance. I’ve never agreed with people who say that loss exists to make us appreciate joy. Joy is its own tangible thing. You know this if you wake early; every single morning, one bird sings first. Being awake to hear that wild call into darkness, that summoning of light, isn’t the absence of anything.

The day Fred and I walked north and south as far as you could go on the beach at Laguna, clambering over rocks, skinning our knees, and peering into tide pools, wasn’t the absence of anything either. Joy didn’t come that day because no one we knew was dying. Joy came because an abundant world had cracked open, and we had shown up to see sculpin, sea anemones, and starfish washing in and out of the tide pools.

If loss isn’t a joy-deepener, what is it? The callous “suffering is God’s will” has always struck me as an oxymoron, and a particularly unkind one at that. I prefer to imagine a distraught God trying to talk a stubborn son out of crucifixion. I can picture a strong-willed young man-god explaining to his horrified father, “I know you didn’t mean for it to go this way, but, trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

I guess deep down, I don’t know what to make of Eden.

For almost a decade, I spent one week every year at a Zen Buddhist center in the Jemez with a bunch of teenagers. Buddhism taught me that my thoughts weren’t my self and that I could acknowledge anxiety and then let it go. It taught me to breathe, and to chant, and to be still and wait for understanding.

One of the four Noble Truths says that the origin of suffering is attachment. My understanding of Buddhism is whatever you call understanding before you can call it rudimentary, but this one always bothered me. How do you love and remain unattached? How can learning how not to hold on be a good thing?

For the record, I excel at holding on. My step kids laugh at the way I grip the strap above the passenger door when Fred is driving. I don’t lift my hands in the air on roller coasters (or at least I didn’t back when I used to ride them). I never let go of the handlebars, or even the steering wheel for that matter. In the picture from the Tower of Terror, one of those elevator-dropping rides that I got on accidently, you can barely see me; I’m tucked in behind Fred and holding on. Even when I’m riding the tram to the top of the Sandias, where my biggest fear is that the cable will snap and we’ll plummet to the canyon floor, I hold on to the pole in the middle of the cabin, as though somehow that grip could save me. I’ve got holding on down.

Non-attachment always sounded to me like not caring, like protecting yourself to avoid inevitable suffering. I know how to do that, and for me, learning to be alive in the world has meant un-learning that skill. I had to learn how to love enough to be destroyed by loss, and then, when loss almost destroyed me, I had to learn how to tread water beside it without letting it pull me under. I had to come to grips with the fact that the children I teach can die, and still throw myself on top of them as though every nascent promise will have a chance to blossom.  I have to throw seeds into clayey ground and trust that something beyond my meager gardening skill will help them grow.

It took an Episcopal priest to help me understand this idea of loving without attachment. When the Rector of my church announced his upcoming retirement, I, along with an entire congregation, had several months to come to grips with the impending loss of a wise, compassionate, beloved teacher. Over those months, in sermons each week, he and the other clergy talked about love and grace and leaving.

At first I wanted them to stop. I didn’t want to live in the loss any sooner than I had to. But as they all kept talking, every week, in beautifully crafted sermon after sermon, I felt something in my grip unclenching.

Last Sunday after the final service, I went to a ballet recital. I watched as one of my students led a group of three year olds on stage. A minute or so into the dance, one little tutu’d girl stopped. She didn’t get confused or distracted or scared; today just wasn’t her dancing day. She folded her arms across her white leotard, dug in her white-tighted heels, stuck out her tiny lip, and pouted. Tiny tutu collisions followed as the other girls, their routine disrupted, lost their way on the big stage. My student danced on beautifully, her face relaxed and smiling, her dancing free and joyful.

When I first heard about our Rector’s retirement, I was that little girl in the tutu with my arms crossed. When the time came for our last service together, I was my student, able to keep dancing through a world that wasn’t organized around me.

One summer before I realized I like the idea of gardening more than I like gardening, I planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, thyme, and parsley in some clayey soil that gets too much sun next to a brick wall that radiates heat and cooks the plants all day. (My sister once added sage and rosemary to this mix and called it her Simon and Garfunkel garden.)

The parsley loved it. I put in two plants that year, and they grew bushy and tall, and I ate fresh parsley all summer. I remember those plants vividly because a parsley caterpillar spent July living on one of them. If you haven’t seen a parsley caterpillar, it looks more like something that came out of Pixar than out of creation. My grandson wore a Bee Transformer costume on his fourth birthday, and the parsley caterpillar looked a little bit like that. 1284088532SZTrNi-1

I spend just enough time paying attention to the world that it’s still easy to surprise me. The parsley caterpillar, striped in neon green and black, dotted with bright yellowy-orange spots, would lift his head and wiggle his two bright green horns when I came into the garden to water.  (Ok, I suspect I’m personifying, or at least canine-ifying here, but all I can do is tell you how the world feels to me.) I learned to water gently, so as not to wash him off his stem. Each day I’d peer at the parsley until I spotted him, say good morning, and update him on the dismal state of the other plants in the garden.

The first morning, certain I was experiencing something new on the planet, I did some research and learned that my little (ordinary) worm would grow up to be a black swallowtail. I wondered what he knew about who he was becoming. He didn’t seem concerned. He lazed on the parsley all summer. Back when we shared our house with three aging beagles, my sister described them as “decorations that follow you around.” That’s sort of how I felt about the caterpillar; he was a really cool animated plant decoration.

If you’re a real gardener, you already know how this story ends. One morning I showed up with the hose at my scrawny garden, and the parsley and the parsley caterpillar were gone. Every single leaf had been chewed to the stalk. It hadn’t occurred to me that one day he would leave and take the parsley with him, but it made sense. He’d had to find a new spot to spin himself into his shroud while he transformed. I looked around the garden, but I never found the chrysalis.

Mostly I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand how each loss holds every other loss. I don’t understand how we keep managing to live our way out of it. I don’t understand why sometimes these frail bodies are enough to hold back pain, and sometimes they buckle. For a while I wondered if abundance were about the present, the potential each moment has for bursting into beauty, and loss were about the past and future, and our fear of losing every impermanent thing. That doesn’t really explain it, though. Loss is every bit as present and tangible as joy.

Because my parsley caterpillar went away to cocoon, I missed the moment when the black swallowtail emerged into a new world. I didn’t see him light on the trumpet vine and wait quietly for his wings to dry. I don’t know if he burst out blinking into the sun, or unfolded himself easily into early evening.

1351460677oDGetxMostly I don’t understand loss. All I know is that that summer, the back yard was full of black swallowtails. I loved to watch how gently they brushed the planet. I can see them now as I watch my student dancing; they skip and flutter, they light for a moment on a branch that doesn’t bend, they swoop and hover. All they are is wing and wonder; nothing about them is built for holding on.