“At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? What am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? … It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds: to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. (Perhaps) The time has come to cross the next threshold.”
– John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us
An Irish priest turned poet who married poetry to theology and the Celtic spirit with a love of the natural world.
Do you remember the reading about the piece about the trapeze? Danaan Perry wrote:
“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along, or for a few moments in my life I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.
“Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily (or not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging towards me. It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this “new trapeze bar” has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the next one.
“…the void between…is a scary, confusing, disorienting ‘nowhere’ (kind of place) that (feels like it) must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.” Warriors of the Heart, Danaan Perry
We’re in that transition zone, separately and together.
It’s tempting for me to do the dentist-chair thing, to close my eyes and get through it…to go into a meditative state so as to avoid, or minimize the pain, knowing it will be over soon.
Twenty-nine years ago, on April 1, I took hold of this trapeze bar, the Unitarian Church in Westport. I wondered if I was up to the challenges of this particular place – the congregation, the New York culture – no, it’s not New England, really…but I knew how to do it. I had done it before – at the church in Lexington, and at the church in Attleboro…starting up is easy, in that you know what you need to do: the task is clear and fairly simple: make meaningful connections. As E. M. Forster said in Howard’s End ‘only connect.’
I knew what I needed to do: to make meaningful connections; to learn names, and to listen to the stories behind the names…to tell my story, to become a real person who is engaged in a life and who is ready and willing to share that life and to let you know that I want to listen, as well as to speak …to recite some poems…to play with words…to take the old stories from the common literature, including the Bible, and squeeze some new meanings out of them…to turn them upside down to see if you can make some sense out of them for our time, for our lives. “Only connect.”
But the un-connecting is different – it’s not just the other end of the spectrum, with a beginning date on one end and a final date on the other, from left to right. It’s a place all of its own, an unfamiliar territory with no land marks, no road signs. Stanley Kunitz provides some support in his poem, The Layers
“And in my darkest night when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage a nimbus clouded voice directed me: ‘live in the layers, not on the litter,’ and though I lack the art to decipher it no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.”
In recent weeks I’ve had the feeling that there’s an elephant in the corner of the sanctuary, so I thought it was time to take him out of the corner and prop him up front and center.
For some, there’s anticipatory grief happening – it’s the kind of preparation work we do to deal with an impending sense of loss, and it’s not much different from the work we do when we go through a loss.
The so-called stages are familiar to most of us: denial, guilt and depression, anger, bargaining and acceptance.
It’s a nice-sounding paradigm, it serves as a model, or a pattern to follow, but it isn’t all that clean and neat, because it’s about emotion, and emotions are never as clear as spring water…it’s always a bit clouded, and things often turn up from years or decades ago…they get ‘triggered,’ as we say.
You may remember the film version of Zorba the Greek, from the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. The story’s about a rather uptight English writer, Basil, played by Alan Bates, who travels to the Greek island of Crete on a business matter – and meets up with the gregarious, and sometimes outrageous Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, and soon his life is changed forever.
A powerful human encounter can do that…change us forever.
There’s a scene at end of the film when Basil and Zorba have to say good-by and Zorba looks at him, smiling, but sad at the parting, and says, “Come, embrace Zorba!” He says that a good-bye must be quick – don’t drag it out.
It’s a very touching scene – reminiscent of Juliet’s good-night to Romeo: ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow’
Basil acknowledges Zorba’s positive influence on him, in spite of what he sees as Zorba’s challenging, sometimes maddening idiosyncrasies. When they embrace he tells Zorba how much he’ll miss, and says he will never forget him.
My brother Bill, who shares my love of language, told me that the expression ‘Good-by’ is an abbreviation of ‘God be with you.’
Solzhenitsyn: “Own only what you can carry with you. Let your memories be your travel bag.”
There are lots of kinds of good-byes. The most common, ordinary kind is the comment to a family member or friend who you expect to see again, soon. Then there’s the good-bye from a family member or friend who you don’t expect to see for quite some time…which has a deeper emotional aura to it.
Then there’s the good-bye with someone you don’t expect to see ever again…
My wife Lory works with hospice, and as a social worker she helps families deal with saying good-bye, and helps them through the grieving process – some of which takes place in the months and weeks leading up to the inevitable parting.
We’ve all become familiar, to one degree or another, with the grief paradigm…the so-called ‘stages of grief,’ which I won’t go into, except to talk about the time before the parting…which the clinicians call preparatory grief, or anticipatory grief.
I simply want to acknowledge that that’s where I am, now, and many of you have told me, directly or by inference, that’s where you are – between holding on and letting go.
It happens when someone says, “I’m going to miss you.” That’s an acknowledgement of anticipatory grief, meaning, “I feel bad…now.”
Anticipatory or preparatory grief follows the traditional paradigm: denial, anger, bargaining, guilt and acceptance. Not that these feelings become conscious, nor do they follow a nice, neat order, nor does everyone experience them, but it’s a reminder that feelings have a life of their own.
To some, my leaving still seems like a long way off – three months away…so it’s too early to start the good-byes.
For others it seems immanent. I got a lot of those kinds of messages in the Valentine blitz a few weeks ago, and I realized what a good idea it was…at least for me…
The blind men described the elephant based on the part that they touched – and each of us will do the same. We’ll talk more about it later, but I promise not to dwell on it – my hope is that we’ll learn and grow from it and find ways to celebrate out time together.
I’m not saying good-bye, now, but I thought it was time to rearrange the elephant that’s been sitting in the corner –I want to plop the elephant down into the center of the stage, just for a few minutes, then move him out of the way so we can make the most of the next several weeks.
We made many meaningful connections, and along the way I’ve said many good-byes at scores of memorial services, and when folks have moved away from the area, and when some have returned to the religion of their upbringing.
Some of the ongoing connections have lasted twenty-nine years. Some connections didn’t last long, but were memorable.
I remember a very brief connection with a man in Dublin, Ireland – he called himself the happy wanderer. I was in the pulpit, sermonizing, at the Unitarian Church on St. Steven’s Green in Dublin, when a man walked into the church and meandered down the center aisle, looking around, taking it in…and he came down to the front of the sanctuary and was reading the Biblical passages engraved on the walls of the sanctuary.
I was in a high pulpit, to my left as I faced the congregation. Everyone was looking this visitor, or intruder from some of their points of view, and wondering what to do.
I looked down and said, in my best Irish accent, “A top ‘o the mornin’ to ya, sir.”
He looked up, smiled a big Irish smile and said, “A top ‘o the mornin’ to you, too, sir!” He added, “I’m the happy wanderer, you know…I go from place to place…”
I said, “Would you like to have a seat?”
“I don’t mind if I do,” says he, in his natural brogue.
I went on with the sermon, quoting Whitman and Emerson, by way of introducing our British Unitarians to Americans who influenced us. After just a few minutes he stood up, looked up to the pulpit with a pleasant face and said, “Well, that’s enough for me!” and proceeded to exit the sanctuary.
A brief, memorable encounter – and, I must say, I found the visitor endearing, though the minister of the church didn’t, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Michael Donnelly, was sitting in the pew – Donal Donnely’s brother, with whom I was visiting, apologized for it, so I didn’t tell him that I found the happy wanderer a congenial fellow who helped to lighten things up a bit.
“Well, that’s enough for me!”
Closing Words: Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind always be at your back, may the rains fall soft upon your fields and the sun shine warm upon your face, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.