Angels Among Us

I’ve never believed in guardian angels.  Surely God has better things for His messengers to do than follow me around, lest I should dash my foot against a rock.

He came in my door in a blue work shirt and jeans.

He sat in the old Stickley Mission chair.

Light from the door illuminated the silver in his thick hair.

And then he had wings.

What did he say?

I don’t know, because for minutes I was entranced.

By the white wings that sat so comfortably on his shoulders.

It was an old white shawl I had thrown over the back of the chair, and the posts of the wooden chair lifted it gracefully, the fringe hanging down in the points of feathers.

I have a guardian angel.

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Dust to Dust, Sand Hill

On the north shore of New Brunswick, on the disintegrating cliffs of sandstone with their deep granite bones, my parish had two cemeteries. The Clifton Cemetery, across from Christ Church, is in danger of  falling into the sea in a few decades. The relentless sea will take the bones and headstones of old sailors and fishermen who escaped a watery grave. The other cemetery is at Salmon Beach, a quarter of a larger burial ground known as Sand Hill. As is often the case with rural maritime cemeteries, the land was useless for farming, so it got used for some other kind of planting.

A hundred years of burials had pretty much filled our zone of the cemetery. Family plots were overlapping. Negotiations went on for one family to buy an empty nook or two from another. But sometimes those spaces weren’t empty as shown on the cemetery map.

The brass sounding rod was often employed. Driven hard into the ground, the ten foot rod would find anything solid. Poor families didn’t always buy headstones. In a generation past, the hand dug graves didn’t always fall in a neat line. Sounding revealed any misplaced vaults or caskets. In years past, plywood vaults weren’t used. A hole was dug, the coffin lowered, and the grave back-filled.  This made it easy to mistakenly re-open an old, unmarked grave. Years of topping up the depressions, and the natural shifting and settling of a piece of land that was mostly a roughly grassed dune, made the topography uncertain.

It was an ugly cemetery. Shaped like a dead whale, it had badly fashioned wrought iron gates, gravel  paths and an assortment of cheap thin headstones. It was bordered by chokecherry and scrub pine. It sloped down to a gully and a slab of fill built up to provide more plots. It had all the peacefulness of a vacant parking lot.

My archdeacon asked me to assist at a funeral one Saturday. I couldn’t, with a commitment for home communions that day, but I said I would come by the cemetery for the committal. He was concerned about the bereft, adult daughter, who had cared for her elderly father for a decade, and his twin brother, as well. The brother had died two years before, and she had been distraught then. Now that the frail old father was gone, he expected that he would need some help with an hysterical daughter.

I arrived at the cemetery just as he pronounced, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The daughter, with her son’s arm lightly around her shoulders, threw herself to her knees, wailing, as the casket was lowered. I lunged through the little crowd and caught her by the arms. “No!” she shrieked. “Don’t take Daddy away!” The son and I wrestled her back from the edge of the grave. She struggled against us.

“Mum!” he shouted. “You are not jumping in that grave.”

“Daddy!” she cried and keened. I had her in a lock grip around the waist as her son stood in front of her, his hands on her shoulders.

The archdeacon hurriedly finished the office, and relatives lifted the weeping daughter to a car, where she was locked in with hefty female cousins on either side.

The archdeacon was as pale as his surplice. I asked, “Do you need a nerve tightener?”

He shook his head. “I don’t drink.” He stalked off with a frown and left me to supervise the back-fill of the grave.

When we met again, I tried to explain. “These are people who aren’t far out of the old country.”

“Which old country?”

I gave him a deep, deep look, the sort of look one gives a rather stubborn and obtuse child who really does know better.

“Look at your parish names. What do you think is their ethnicity?”

He took out his parish list. (And I thought, You don’t know their names?)

“Reilly, Murray, Scott, Elways, O’Mallory, O’Thomas…”

“Irish. You haven’t been here long, have you?”

“I arrive just two months before you.”

“You hadn’t noticed a lot of emotion among them at funerals?”

“This is only the second funeral I’ve had here.”

Right. I had been doing all the funerals.

“Do you know what keening is?”

He gave me a blank-faced stare.

“It is a form of mourning. The women wail and cry at the graveside. They used to do it for the full three days of the wake. You will find they still do it in some families. They get all worked up. It lets the dead soul know the family cared.”

“That is absolutely pagan! Why do they do this?”

“It imitates the cry of the banshee.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

I have a glass face. Whatever I am thinking shows. I must have looked incredulously stunned.

“How can you not know what the banshee is?”

“Is it an animal?”

I’m sure I tilted my head like a puzzled dog.

“Ban shee. Bean sidhe,” and I spelled it for him, “is the familiar spirit of an old Irish or Scottish family, that wails over the dying. It is an omen of a death. It means…” (and I whispered) “.. Fairy Woman. One of the good people.”

He slammed his hand on his desk. I jumped.

“I…I have no tolerance for this nonsense! Surely they don’t believe in such…such things!”

I sat very still.

“Surely you don’t believe in this!”

I couldn’t tell him. I had reasons not to trust him with what I believed and didn’t believe. (Although that is a tale for another rainy day.)

Yes, I believe in the banshee. I’ve heard her. So have other people I know. It is an eerie, terrifying cry, that rises in pitch, wavers, drops, and starts again. I have reason to believe. It isn’t belief; it is knowledge.

But I really didn’t want to make another visit to the bishop’s office.

Oh, there are more stories out of that cemetery of thin ghosts…

World Goth Day

Hugo Simberg 1890

I don’t know how goths organized to the point where this was declared a day of unity. Goths are a lot like cats that way.

They argue amongst themselves most of the time.

They range from all black everything to pastel-clad lolitas with parasols.

There are pagan goths, atheist goths and Christian goths. There are Islamic goths.

Anarchists, socialists, communists and monarchists.

The unity is in living a subculture that is also counter-culture, in being visibly different.

Grave Matters

Graveyard by Kati N Utter

When I went to seminary, we never talked about cemeteries. We had lessons and discussions about funerals, pastoral counseling for grief, and end of life issues. We did not talk about cemeteries.

And yet clergy so often find themselves in cemeteries. Sometimes, weekly or more often. It stops being macabre and becomes part of the routine.

My first parish was on the northern shore of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Chaleur. It is a mystical place. Ghost ships appear in certain seasons.  My house faced the bay, with the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec on the far shore. When I looked out my kitchen windows, all I saw was water and the misty headland.

The wind blew constantly, usually just below gale force. The trees had branches only on the leeward side. At night, as I lay in bed in that high old ark of a manse, the house shook with the gusts, and the attics howled at its gaps. During the day, as I sat at work near a window, I could hear pieces of shale rattling against the panes, lifted up the eroding cliff by surges in the air currents.

The church cemetery was just down the road, across from the church. It was on the top of a one hundred foot high cliff, a slowly eroding cliff, and we were losing one or two feet of shoreline a year. I estimated we would start losing the graves nearest the edge in less than a decade. In a hundred years, maybe sooner, the church itself would be gone. The sandstone cliffs were falling into the bay, accelerated by rising water levels and more acidic sea water. The community itself was slowly dying. I felt as if I was keeping hospice for it.

freestockphotos

The church we usually used for funerals was the old one, a wooden timber frame structure very much like an up-ended boat.  It was narrow and high; the distant beams were shrouded in ancient cobwebs, dust and melancholy mystery. There was a very incongruent Masonic window where a Rose window should have been, and I hated it with great passion. I had no charity toward facing my people with a pentacle in my field of vision, or having it over my shoulder as I said the Eucharist.

The rest of the stained glass was recent, and bad, as in bad as hideous. It was executed in a moronic, ham-fisted style, simplistic without being simple. It was stained glass from the chapel of hell. I considered recruiting local vandals to break it all.

The church was full of strange sounds and echoes, sighs and grumblings. Things moved around overnight. I felt a great resistance of spirit there: I was the first woman to preach and lead worship in the building, in a history extending back more than a hundred years.

My first funeral in that building fell about two months after I arrived. The day before the funeral, as I sat writing the sermon in the midst of a screaming gale, part of my roof lifted off the house and landed in the back yard. I had to run to the attic with drop cloths and buckets.

Richmond Oddfellows 1899

The deceased, Mortimer O’Reilly, had been my neighbour across the road. I spent many days with him in his last illness. I used the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer funeral rite, from 1662.

“The Priest and Clerks meeting the Corpse at the entrance of the Church-yard, and
going before it, either into the Church, or towards the Grave, shall say, or sing,
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he
were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never
die.
I KNOW that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shalt stand at the latter day upon the
earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see
God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.
WE brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The
Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

The storm had not abated. The two elderly bachelor brothers, neighbours to the church, had dug the grave, fulfilling their vow to the parish to dig the graves by hand, up until Mort should die. A decade before, imprecise directions had caused a backhoe operator to misjudge where to dig, and he opened a grave that already had an occupant.

It was Canon Verey’s grave. The coffin lid came up with the first strike, and with the second, his cassock, collar, and sternum. The backhoe operator then noticed the shreds of black cloth hanging from the teeth of the digger. The man swore he would never dig another grave, and had not set foot in the cemetery all those years.

The day of Mort’s funeral was still wild, a dark day of wind and sleet. The ground was saturated, the grave itself was a foot full of water. I asked the funeral director to keep the widow in the car while we went to the graveside. He said, “The problem is, we can’t get the hearse to the grave. I’m not sure we can get into the cemetery at all. The pall bearers are going to carry the casket across the road.”

The car for the widow remained in the church parking lot, and she and her youngest daughter watched the procession from there. The funeral director gave up on the umbrella he was trying to hold over my head. My cassock and surplice were soon soaked, but I had worn sturdy shepherd boots. Still, the long autumn grass was slippery with sleet, and he held onto my arm, steadying my small body against the buffeting of the wind. The six pall bearers  struggled with the casket across the road and trod carefully among the old graves.

At graveside, the funeral director realized that the hydraulic frame for lowering the casket would not hold in the sandy brink. The pall bearers, grizzled ex-sailors and railroad men, silently and efficiently threaded straps through the handles of the casket, braced themselves on the sides and lowered their old friend gently.

I stood beside the family headstone, the funeral director holding my shoulders from behind as the verge of the grave slowly melted under my feet.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” And the handful of grave dirt I cast three times on the coffin rattled loud over the banshee screams of the north wind.

The funeral director anchored me back to the church. I opened the car door, embraced the widow, and sent her home with her children. He and I stood in the parking lot for a minute. “Get in the hearse,” he said, “I’ll drop you at your house. You look like you could use a drop of whiskey.”

He, too, was soaked through, his hair plastered down with rain, his black suit dripping. “You could too,” I offered.

Back at the manse, the hearse parked in my driveway, I turned on the electric fire in the living room. We stood before it, water cascading out of our clothes, while we each downed two hefty shots of  the Glenlivet.

“See you next time,” he said.

Nova Scotia Museums

Hating What I Should Love

I hate Mother’s Day.

I have two children. They are adult men now. I don’t consider it necessary to send me flowers, chocolate or gifts. They don’t have to take me out to dinner. I don’t want mushy, sentimental cards.

I should be able to ignore Mother’s Day. But I still hate it.

It’s some sort of strange reverse guilt.

If I were a Good Mother, my children would fall over themselves to honour me on Mother’s Day, no matter what I said about it. They don’t. So I must be a Bad Mother. That seems to be the public logic on the matter.

It seems that at least once  a year, this little family of three (plus partners and companions) has at least one member who is unemployed, broke, transiting, or otherwise in need. We help each other as we can when these things come up. We only have each other now, and we stay pretty close these days.

So keep your judgment of my family situation to yourselves this year, please.

You aren’t here and it is none of your business. If I want to be a Bad Mother and ignore Mother’s Day, it is my own dammed problem.

I’d say, “awesome.”

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I moved from a small cottage in the mountains of eastern Canada to a renovated farmhouse in eastern Iowa. It is more than renovated – it is expanded. It has wings. I live in one wing, and share the kitchen, dining room, entrance hall and sun porch, which functions as my living room and workspace – like the solar of a castle. There is a fountain in the front yard. The other wing is a great room with a large fireplace – the master’s lair. I venture into it on tiptoe, to let the Great Pyrenees dog, Zach, in and out of the back yard. I haven’t been upstairs.

Like any good castle, it has livestock running loose. There are chickens here, and they are little feathered thugs. And like any good castle, this one is in a constant state of construction and renovation. There is scaffolding at the back of the house, and the Rock Star hens like to climb into it to watch me in the kitchen. They come up to the full length window in my door, running madly on some secret chicken errand, glance in, and run on.

There is a ditch with mallards in it – our moat – and a good deal of fencing. We are at the end of a gravelled road. The property is well shaded, spacious, and mysterious, full of odd little corners and gardens. It looks still and peaceful, but a lot of work goes on here. The large vegetable garden is going in; various nooks of the house are being wired or painted or modified.  I clean and cook, and look for work. I haven’t worn shoes since Sunday.

There is a cellar. There is a mystery door on the stair landing, which seems to go out into nothing. I have not ventured even that far upstairs. It is no-woman’s-land, and is referred to as “the man cave.”

I liked our cottage, but this awakens ancestral memories in me.

Bloggity BlogBlog

Back when I preached three or four services a Sunday, I got to the point where I hated the sound of my own voice. I hated my intonations. I wanted to shutupshutupshutup. Someone was boring me, and it was myself, as Dylan Thomas said one drunk afternoon in Wales.

For an introvert I had to talk and write – very publicly – a lot. Telephone, meetings, sermons…I was exhausted by the avalanche of my own words. When I took up blogging in lieu of preaching, it seemed quieter, but the sheer weight of the written words bore me down too. My goth girl group – The Goth and More Blogging Community – writes, and vlogs. (I should say, goth girl group except for one – Anuan – who gamely puts up with les girls and advises us on historicity and swords.) I should do a vlog – I should explain Plain dress, and Plain life – but then I think about the sheer performance that requires, and I hesitate.

If one thing goes wrong with producing my blog, I freeze, dump the effort, and lose my momentum. Oh, yes, I must get over this. We are talking about very public ministry – on the street, in weekly services, group studies, even a local channel program.

Is it about the silence? Maybe. There are so many Christian cliches about silence, though, that instead I want to listen. Not just to the inner voice, but to the outer voices, the children of God who are lost in this world and crying for help. I have to shut up long enough to hear them.

To hear where they are, to hear why they are lost, to hear what they have to say about their own way back home.

Definitely Different

I was discussing my gothicky Plainness with a good friend last night. He’s sympathetic  and supportive, with his own sense of Plain. He also has a flare for dramatic dress that could easily take him into living performance art, without too much of a detour.

The conversation centered on why I am so…different. The rest of my family is pretty staid and mainstream. You wouldn’t look up and notice them in a crowd.  I blend in only in places where there are a lot of Anabaptists, and then they notice the differences.

But why? I said this: Ever since I was a child, I was surprised if someone remembered me or said they had thought about me when I wasn’t there.

His analysis was that I never took to the status quo, that I can’t see anything in it.

Of course my reaction was that this CAN’T be normal. And maybe it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it is wrong. Or that it needs to be cured or fixed or therapized.

I’m not here to live out life as performance art, either, as many goths do. Art for art’s sake, a living daily performance of street theatre, quotidian dance.

Except, perhaps, in the way that Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist did. Not that I am much of a prophet. I am just a minor figure in the 500 year old Plain movement, adapting it to modern times. I can’t help but incorporate some of that strangeness I have acquired – or worn from birth – into that Plain. It is my own quotidian dance, but it is Shaker dance rather than a dark version of Stravinsky’s wild Firebird. I don’t intend to burn to ashes.

Instead, I am called to carry the Light. As are all Christians.

Plain Goth Wardrobe

She travels with:

2 cape dresses

1 plain black dress

1 black blouse

2 knit jerseys

5 petticoats

3 aprons

Clark black ankle boots

several pairs of thigh high black cotton stockings

2 white nightgowns

3 stiff prayer kapps

5 soft prayer kapps

2 hard bonnets, black

1 sun bonnet, white

1 slat bonnet, beige

1 wool bonnet, black

1 wool shawl, black

1 knit lace shawl, grey, with ribbons to tie it as a sontag