Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pooh Sticks at Slack Tide

The tide was very high and slack the day after Thanksgiving when we arrived at the "jiggly bridge" where the Mill Pond meets the York River. About ten of us--sisters, spouses, cousins--were out for some fresh air and our annual day-after-Thanksgiving walk to the Jiggly Bridge following lunch together at my mother's. (We walkers were her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and something like a great niece.)

Over the years on walks to the Jiggly Bridge, my sister's family and mine have carried on a tradition of playing "Pooh Sticks" at the bridge, where we have almost always encountered a significant rush of tidal current in one direction or another--either from mill pond to river and out to sea, or the other way around.

Pooh Sticks, for the uninformed, is a game described in one of the Winnie The Pooh books. It is played by dropping sticks off of one side of a bridge into the moving water beneath, then rushing to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick "wins" by coming out from under the bridge first. When the tide is moving fast under this particular bridge, there are hazards of various kinds--eddies that toss lightweight sticks in not so straightforward directions or even hold them captive a while; rocks and rock weed that complicate matters at the edges of the passage, especially at lower tides; and sometimes also the wind playing tricks.

While I'd like to claim that veteran Pooh Stickers play with skill and finesse, making careful calculations to fit the circumstances, it's really not true, at least not for us. Winning is basically a matter of luck--luck both in finding a good solid stick or two and in dropping the sticks serendipitously. And winning isn't nearly as important as simply playing.

This year we walked to the bridge knowing it would be our last such day-after-Thanksgiving walk. My mother will be moving soon; at age 91 she is somewhat resigned to this next "adventure" (not her word for it!) that will relocate her to an assisted living facility near my sister in Connecticut. For my daughters and my niece, who were young children when we first launched our Pooh Stick tradition ten or twelve years ago, this was an important ritual to enact one last time. Anna and Hannah began scouting for sticks as soon as we turned onto the path to the bridge. It felt important to me, too, to play this last game of Pooh Sticks; my heart felt full anticipating this simple ritual.

The high tide was noticeable immediately. In all our years of post-Thanksgiving (and also some summer- time) Pooh Sticks, we have never encountered such a high tide. Nor such a slack one. Meaning, there was virtually no current moving the water either into the millpond or out to the river and the ocean.

In other words, there would be little force to move our sticks under the bridge. It was even hard to tell which direction the water was moving, so negligible and subtle was the movement. This was not going to be one of our more rollicking games of Pooh Sticks!

Indeed our sticks dawdled and drifted their way under the bridge, barely making forward progress. It was like suspended animation--the slowest, laziest Pooh Sticks game imaginable! That's just the way it was, and there wasn't much to do but . . . go with the flow, what there was of it.

After two rounds of lazy sticks, we started to turn for home. And I was seized with a desire to mark this occasion some how--this last of many years of Pooh Sticks together at the Jiggly Bridge. We'd forgotten to bring a camera, so there was no way to note this moment with a photo. The best I could think to do was to gather us into a group hug just where the bridge meets the footpath, which is what we did, honoring this tradition and this gathering and this marker in time. With hands in mittens and bodies in thick winter coats, we threw our arms around each others' shoulders and huddled together briefly.

More recently it has occurred to me just how fitting the slack tide was for this particular game of Pooh Sticks. The tide itself was marking time for us, inviting us to pause there between flood and ebb. A calm, quiet moment before we would all be swept up in the turbulent, troubling force of the current of all that has to be done to move a 91 year old woman. And perhaps even more than the tasks to be done, there are the strong undeniable yet undefinable currents of emotion and memory--some very old and some quite new--and the challenges of four adult siblings juggling interpretations, desires, opinions, and different ways of sorting things out and getting things done. Someone recently reminded me that each of us carries with us a slightly different memory of the very same woman who is our mother, and no one's memory is any "truer" than another's.

Some days now it seems as if all five of us, my mother and her four children, are being carried along into a strange birthing process, a "birth" that is a dying and being born anew in some as yet unknown way, that we are being carried on a current that allows for no turning back. I would be glad for a moment of slack tide calm here and there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I've been haunted by a story a heard the other day, about someone (name and identifying details withheld to protect the innocent) who had been a professional musician before being ordained as an Episcopal priest, who gave up playing his instrument of choice when he took up ministry. Something about the story got a hold on me, or me on it, as if I knew there was something there to be learned and  perhaps spoken aloud. And when I tried to wrestle and write about it, what came out had the force of a manifesto, more or less as follows.

I want to say in the name of all that is holy, do not forsake these things you may do (like playing a musical instrument, gardening, painting, cooking, etc.) that are life-giving for you, that keep you connected to the wild, living, untamable life-force, to "Whatever it is that's out there and in here," as someone I know chooses to call this. That's what I want to say.

And again in the name of all that is holy, please do not confuse all that is "religious" for all that is holy. I see now how thoroughly and terribly I mistook what's religious (and even more narrowly, what's Christian) for what's holy and sacred, and in the process did grave injury to my own self and my creative energies and inclinations, not to mention those of others.

I suppose the story of the priest who gave up music-making reminded me a bit of myself. For most of my life I've been a poet of sorts, at least I've been an occasional writer of poems. I took poetry workshops in college, even won a poetry prize, and carried on writing poems in seminary, though really, it's possible I kept writing in seminary largely because of the inspiration and encouragement of someone who loved both me and my inclination to write poems.

By the time I got to seminary I had already shown a troubling (though I thought entirely "holy") inclination to ditch my allegiances to activities and even writers who weren't explicitly "Christian," as if truth couldn't come to me and the world through such channels. Never mind that I loved the works of these writers, poets, musicians, etc. For whatever sad combination of reasons--immaturity, a slightly stoic New England upbringing, and the overly heavy influence of some conservative, somewhat Calvinist Christian colleagues whose judgments I feared--it didn't occur to me to trust what I loved, to pay attention to what gave me delight. As if sacrifice and suffering and seriousness were the only reliable tools for discernment. (Yuck! Heaven help us!)

About ten years out of seminary, an encounter with the person who had inspired and encouraged my poetry shook me at my core. Acting from instinct, I did my best to write about this encounter, and without ever deciding to, I started to write a poem. And the act of writing a poem got my attention.

"Oh..." I found myself musing. "I used to do this; I used to write poems on a regular basis."

I didn't remember stopping writing poetry in any sort of intentional or official way, but I knew it had been a long time since I'd written any. Naturally I wondered what had happened and went looking back in my journals. Here's what I found:

Ordination had happened. Parish ministry had happened. Writing sermons and directing my creative energies toward church stuff happened. By the time I had been out of seminary for about a year and had been ordained and employed in parish ministry, I had stopped writing poems. I didn't mean to stop; I just kind of stopped.

I had allowed one of my most personal of creative outlets to dry up from neglect and non-use. In so doing I had also lost one of the best ways I had had (though I may not have put it this way at the time) for staying in touch with a voice that was truly mine, authentic to me and most certainly not shaped in any particular way or toward any particular topic or occasion that was required of me, like preaching a sermon, writing a newsletter, leading a discussion or teaching Sunday School.

And what I would say now, from the vantage point of another fifteen years, and from the place of freedom gained by renouncing my ordination and stepping well out of church life, is that in giving up that creative outlet I had also given up one of my best and most open channels between me and "all that is holy;" between me and the great creative force that infuses, animates, and sustains the universe and everything in it; between me and "whatever it is that's out there and in here," within me and within you and between us, too. (Though it leads to a huge new topic, one might even say this was for me a way of "prayer" though it didn't seem to bear much resemblance to all the ways I had thought I should pray and had tried--and basically failed--to pray.)

Somewhere in the days of my musing on the story of the priest-musician, I happened to have a conversation with Raye Tibbitts about this, which resulted in her asking me to be a guest blogger on Gatehouse.

"Sure!" I said.

"By December 1st?" she asked. "Sure!" I said (it seemed so far away at the time).

As the date drew nearer, my recollection of our conversation grew vaguer and vaguer, so that I honestly began to wonder what on earth I could have possibly said that Raye found so intriguing. All I could remember was the Episcopal priest who had given up his music-making.

That, and my new understanding of "the unforgivable sin." What? Have I lost it? Why would I care about "the unforgivable sin"?

As I talked to Raye ("ranted" may be a more accurate verb) about this whole matter of recognizing the "holiness" of all forms of creative activity (and really, all of life) and of reclaiming the word "holy" from the religious sphere, I spun off a sudden new insight into a not-so-favorite Bible verse, in which Jesus is reported to have said: '"Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin'--for [his critics] had said, 'He has an unclean spirit.'" (Mark 3:29-3-)

Of all the "blasphemies" against the "Holy Spirit" (a.k.a. great creative force, Life, and other wide inclusive names), the one I've come to see as "unforgivable" is that of so narrowly defining and trying to limit what is holy that one overlooks, undervalues, squelches, and and dams up the flow of the creative force through each of us. And what's unforgivable about this is that every time we undervalue, demean, and refuse to play along with this creative force, not only do we harm ourselves, but also something of great potential value is lost. Something that wants to be expressed through us is left unexpressed, perhaps forever--"an eternal sin."

I'm not talking only about "creative works of art" although it's easy to see how this operates in that sphere. I'm talking also about whole lives and the capacity each of us has to live more fully, more creatively and authentically, not as someone else but as ourselves. That, it seems to me, is the holiest obligation each of us has for the time that we're here. (Not to the exclusion of things like compassion, and justice, and kindness, mind you, but those "virtues" get expressed through you in your own way.)

I will end with a very short, favorite story and a favorite quote. The story is of Rabbi Zusya (a long ago rabbi), who nearing death, declared to his beloved students, "When I stand before God, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' God will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"

And the quote, from Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian: "Do not ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive and go do it. For what the world needs is people who are fully alive."