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stacking the stones

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We’ve seen a lot of stones in Ireland.

Much of the land is made of giant rocks masquerading as mountains, enormous pieces of ancient earth rising upwards. Somehow, the land feels older here.

I learned about stone walls when we moved to New England. I had not seen them before, other than in pictures or movies. When we lived in Boston, Ginger and I used to drive up to Robert Frost’s farm in southern New Hampshire and follow the path marked by signs telling us which poem to read at a particular spot. Near one stone fence we read “The Mending Wall”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . .

Yet I have always found a beauty in them, in part, I think, because I learned that they grew out of a practical need. As farmers cleared the land, they encountered lots of rocks. It was easier to use them as fences than to try and haul them off somewhere. The real beauty of them, however, is in their construction. They are stacked without mortar, placed in such a way that gravity becomes the glue. They fall into to each other, which strengthens the whole wall. They don’t fall apart easily.

Our time in Ireland has helped me realize those first New Englanders did not invent anything, they simply continued practices they learned from those who had come before them. This is a country of stacked stones, walls designed to contain sheep and cows, to control grazing, to divide property, and, I trust, to tell stories.

One of the reasons I notice stacked stones is because of a story from scripture that holds enduring meaning for me. It comes from the book of Joshua. After the Hebrew people had crossed the Jordan River,

Joshua called for the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one man per tribe. Joshua said to them, “Cross over into the middle of the Jordan, up to the Lord your God’s chest. Each of you, lift up a stone on his shoulder to match the number of the tribes of the Israelites. This will be a symbol among you. In the future your children may ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you will tell them that the water of the Jordan was cut off before the Lord’s covenant chest. When it crossed over the Jordan, the water of the Jordan was cut off. These stones will be an enduring memorial for the Israelites.” (Common English Bible)

I rarely see a stack of stones without thinking of the question: What do these stones mean to you?

Making a stone wall is no easy feat, and lifting the stones may be the easiest part. To create the kind of support needed for the wall to endure, each stone has to be placed with intention. Some of them have to have their edges knocked off so they fit just right. None of the walls stand because all of the stones are uniformly cut; they stand because they fall into each other rather than away. They are stacked to stay together.

Not all the stones in the field were stacked into walls. Some were thrown as weapons, intended to do damage or create fear. Some were built into fortresses in response, as dividers and protectors. What our stones mean comes from how we use them.

We spent our afternoon yesterday in the town of Downpatrick, in County Down, learning about St. Patrick, which was another lesson in stacking stones. We went first to the St. Patrick Centre, which says they are the only permanent exhibition about him in the world. The exhibit was a meandering multimedia path through early Irish history, but it began with a guide undoing what we thought we knew:

Patrick didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland–there were never any snakes in Ireland.
Patrick never wore priestly robes.
Patrick never used a shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Patrick was never officially canonized as a saint.
Patrick didn’t wear green.
Patrick didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland; it was already here.
Patrick was not Irish.

I think it is also fair to assume Patrick never intended to be remembered by copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate the day of his death.

The exhibit inside the center also made it clear that we don’t know a lot about him for sure. Only a couple of documents have survived, one being his Confession and the other a letter to a general. How we have stacked the stones says more about who we want him to be rather than who he is, perhaps. But such is the nature of remembering. We stack up our stones so when the children or anyone else asks, “What do these stones mean to you?” we can tell them.

One of the things I learned about Patrick was that he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as an enslaved person when he was a teenager. He was probably from Wales. He escaped and returned to Britain and then came back to Ireland. Much of the exhibit stacked the stones of his story in a way to show how he shaped the nation of Ireland and its faith. It was told as a hero myth, if you will, a story of valor and conquest and conflict, both external and internal. He grew Christianity by trying to drive the “pagans” off the island.

After we came out of the exhibit, I walked a few blocks in downtown Downpatrick, which seems to be a place that is struggling. Many shops were permanently closed. I saw two or three thrift stores and two bookmakers–betting venues, that is. It felt like a place that needed some attention.

From there, we drove out a bit, down roads lined with stone walls, to Saul Church, one of the landmarks in Patrick’s story. We had time to walk through the small church and cemetery, take in the view of the surrounding farms, and hear from Gareth Higgins who offered a different way to stack up the stones.

For him, the power of the story was simple: Patrick was brought to the island as an enslaved person. He escaped and went home and then he chose to come back to Ireland to share the love of God. He didn’t come back for revenge or retribution. He came back for love.

When I asked him how that matched with the story we heard at the Centre, he said, (and I am not using quotes because I don’t remember exactly) That story is there if you want it. I am choosing to find a story of redemption.

So much rides on how we chose to stack up the stones.

What do the stones mean to you?

Peace,
Milton

rest

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We are one day past the midpoint of our time on the island of Ireland. The morning here is cool (59°) and clear. The cottages where we are staying on the outskirts of the coastal village of Kitkeel are surrounded by green fields marked by stone walls that were stacked by hand. It is quiet and, for the most part, it will stay that way, other than the sounds of daily life of both humans and animals.

Even in our time in Dublin it seems that people are not clamoring to make the day begin, for the most part. We were hard pressed to find a breakfast place that opened before eight while we were in the city. The pace of the retreat has also offered a gentle waking each morning. I have woken up to a conversation rather than a to do list.

It is a gift.

In our time at Corymeela, Paul Hutchinson started with a question: What’s the score? From there he intentionally meandered through all kinds of wonderful things, mostly by telling stories and asking more questions. Corymeela is a community of peacemakers. The community is not static; people come and go, for different lengths of time. We were there for the better part of a day to hear their stories and to learn, I thought, about peacemaking in northern Ireland. Paul did those things, but in a way I had not expected.

Somewhere in the meanderings, he talked about rest by asking a question: At the end of the seventh day, was God tired?

The question made me realize that most of the ways I have heard the idea of sabbath discussed implicitly assumes that the initial acts of creation exhausted God. Maybe we don’t say it that way, but when we talk about finding sabbath for ourselves–finding rest–we often speak of it as compensation for our own exhaustion and use God’s rest at the end of a busy week as our example. Then, of course, we have the biblical description of God as one who “never slumbers or sleeps,” which too often shapes our work ethic, or at least our schedules.

In the Genesis account, the rest comes on the seventh day, but in the Christian tradition we attach sabbath to Sunday, which we think of as the first day of the week since it was the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The significance of that stands out to me when I take it alongside of the root meaning of rest.

The word comes from German roots through Old English, where it meant “rest; a bed or couch; intermission of labor; mental peace, state of quiet or repose.” But the older German word had a sense of measurement to it, a sense of specific distance after which it was time to rest, like our Sunday. That sense of measurement came from nomadic people who were always moving. They measured their movement by the distance between resting places.

Though most of us are not moving from place to place, we are moving, almost constantly it seems. What would change if we measured life from rest to rest, rather than from project to project, or obligation to obligation?

I remember first reading Frederick Buchner’s description of the day as something sandwiched between two nights and being caught by surprise. I had always thought the day came first and it brought a freshness to life to see the night as the reference point. That also helped me move from thinking of life in linear terms and to see things as more circular and cyclical. Though we are born and we die, life is less about progressing to a specific finish line as it is moving from place to place, and then to another place after that. Whether that movement is physical or metaphorical, how we see what we are moving from and going to seems to matter.

I’ll ask it again. What would change if we measured life from rest to rest, rather than exhaustion to exhaustion, or problem to problem, or even opportunity to opportunity?

As I write, I am conscious that I am thinking in big chunks of time: week to week, year to year. How far till the weekend? When is our next vacation? I know the Genesis account lays out seven days, but maybe we need a smaller scale. What are the rests we move to and from in our daily life? How do I live my day moving from rest to rest, from awareness to awareness, from love to love, from breath to breath, from refreshment to refreshment?

What if we thought of one another as rest rather than responsibilities?

That last question leads me to wonder how we become havens of rest for one another, how we learn to offer respite and restoration in our daily encounters. I am also conscious, after yesterday’s post, of how many re- words are in the last couple of paragraphs.

Paul Hutchinson talked about Rowan William’s idea of taking “a vow of incompleteness,” so that we could appreciate and live in “the open texture of every moment.” Perhaps, then, to move from rest to rest is to move from incompleteness to incompleteness. God didn’t rest when it was all done. It is never all done, even for God. We do what we can as we move from rest to rest, allowing ourselves to be defined, in a way, by our incompleteness rather than our accomplishments.

We move from grace to grace, from forgiveness to forgiveness, from hope to hope, or we can say we move from demand to demand, from grief to grief, from crisis to crisis.

To say life is full of all of those things is to state the obvious. At the core of the oldest definitions of the word, it is clear that life is not all rest. We have problems and crises and responsibilities.

And we move from rest to rest, if we are willing to see it that way.

Peace,
Milton

resolved

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Ireland is a lovely and complicated place, which, of course, means it shares much in common with the rest of the world though its story has often gotten more publicity over the years. A number of years ago, Gareth Higgins and Brian Ammons began doing Ireland Retreats from this vantage point:

The story we tell shapes the world we live in. The story of Ireland, north and south, is full of light and shadow, mystery and earthiness, sacred and profane collaborating to create a land of charm, beauty and inspiration. We invite you to take time out to experience the landscape, art, people and story that has captivated so many.

I am in the middle of one of the retreats. We have moved from four days in and around Belfast to a small coastal village between Belfast and Dublin called Kilkeel. The rhythm of our time has moved from long walks through urban neighborhoods to compelling stories from a variety of speakers to quiet time along the shore or in the middle of sheep pastures. We are here to listen, learn, and connect so that we might have a better sense of how we can make peace in our world, however big or small that world may be.

Gareth is in his late forties and grew up in Belfast. His life has been shaped by what people here call The Troubles. As we talked in one of the early sessions, he described the current situation in northern Ireland by saying the conflict has been “solved, but not resolved.”

The relation between the two words jumped out at me: solve and re-solve, as in to solve again. Perhaps, I scribbled in my notes, life is not an Agatha Christie mystery to be solved so we can move to the next case but a returning to keep resolving–coming back to the story over and over–to see what else we can learn.

The oldest roots of the word solve run all over the place, going back to the fourteenth century: to loosen, dissolve; untie, release, detach; depart; unlock; scatter; dismiss; accomplish, fulfill; explain; remove, It took a hundred years for us to begin to use the word to mean explain or answer, and then a couple hundred more before we thought about solving mathematical problems.

When I think of solving a mystery, the image in my mind is of wrapping things up rather than releasing or unlocking. I hear an expansiveness in the root of the word I had not thought of. When we think of solving a problem, it means we are done with it and can move on. We wrap it up, so to speak, when what the roots of the word tell is is that we actually set things free.

What, then, does it mean to resolve?

From some of our earliest language classes we learned that the prefix re- means to do again. It shows up, I would venture, as much as anything in our language, perhaps because life is mostly about doing things over and over.

Back to Gareth’s description of the situation in northern Ireland–it is solved, but not resolved–and the notion that to solve is to release (there’s that re- again), to resolve might mean to unlock or untie over and over, not as a means of wrapping things up or moving on, but as an understanding that resolving as daily practice is elemental to what it means to be fully human with and to one another.

To resolve means to scatter my presuppositions, my assumptions, my biases, so that I can free myself to find a deeper understanding of the world of which I am a small part. To be soluble means to be able to be dissolved, taken in, might we say included. To be a peacemaker, perhaps, is to be resoluble, or at least an agent of resolution, committed to connection and belonging.

Resolve, as a noun, means determination or focus, even as another meaning of the verb is to reduce to essential components. I have said before that life has a centrifugal force that flings us to the edges. We have to resolve ourselves: to pull ourselves together with determination and a sense that our connectedness matters most.

Solutions come together because the component parts belong together; resolutions are statements of communal intent, statements of communal identity. We are built for belonging, even as we often seem determined to live dividedly.

When I was in seminary, I took a French class while visions of doctoral work danced in my head. I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember one Beatitude in particular:

Heureux ceux qui répandent autour d’eux la paix,
car Dieu les reconnaîtra pour ses fils.

Blessed are those who spread peace around them,
for God will recognize them as God’s children.

May we daily resolve our lives–bring things together over and over, spread peace around us, so that we all might know we are wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved and to belong.

Peace,
Milton

transported

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I have been away from the blog because we have been traveling, finally getting to take a trip that was supposed to be a part of Ginger’s sabbatical in 2020. The focus of the trip is an eight day retreat with Gareth Higgins and Kathleen Norris in and around Belfast, learning about and meeting with peacemakers. Ginger and I came a few days early to see Dublin and will stay a few days after to visit Galway and the west coast.

Today is the first day I have had time or space to write. I am hopeful I will get back to a regular posting over the next few days. There is much to share. For now, here is a poem about those who have helped us get from place to place, offering directions for the journey.

transported

we have come to Ireland
both south and north
to rest to listen to learn
and think about what
it means to wage peace
some lessons
have come in transit

the person who first
greeted us when we left
the Dublin airport was
Declan, the cab driver who
snaked through the city
to get us to Temple Bar

all the while asking questions
and answering ours
affirming some of our plans
and altering others
with a gentle lilt
and a kind smile

Morgan carted us from
the Kilmainham Gaol
the thick stone walls
that hold so many wounds
to the invitation and
hope of EPIC the Irish
Emigration Museum

James took us back
to the airport so we
could move north into
a different story
that is the same story
and as James said
is more complicated
and he loved Belfast

the cabbie who drove us
from Belfast to Holywood
said she spent six and
a half months working her
way across America
we will be here fifteen days

and Julie our bus driver
for the week said
if you pass someone
in the street
of course you say hello
it might be the first time
someone has spoken
to them that day
it’s kind of important

Peace,
Milton

lemon basil ginger cookies

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One of the sadnesses of my summer is that our basil has not done well in the garden. It is my favorite summer herb, particularly when the tomatoes are ripe and (since I live in New England) I can find good, fresh mozzarella cheese.

We are profligate in our planting of basil in the spring, planting both seedlings and seeds over a couple of weeks so that we have a contagion of bright green leaves all season, but not this year. Such is the way life goes. I am grateful, therefore, for the good people at Bishop’s Orchards who have had far better luck and share their wealth by providing full grown (and potted) basil plants–I’m talking eighteen inches high and bursting with leaves–for $7.99. Who knew summer could be saved so economically.

Basil also makes me pine for one of my favorite places in Durham, Fullsteam Brewery, and their seasonal Southern Basil Farmhouse Ale, which is a basil-infused beer that is exactly what summer tastes like. From the first time I tasted it, I started thinking about a cookie. When I started my cookie company, Milton’s Famous, I made them for as long as the basil lasted. Two of the farmers at the Durham Farmers’ Market, Helga and Tim, had the best basil and I swapped a big box of cookies for a bag of green goodness every Saturday.

When I try to describe my cookie recipes, I say I want the cookie to tell a story. I want there to be a beginning, a middle, and an end to the experience, not just a single scene. This is a sugar cookie at its core, with the earthiness of the basil, the tartness of the lemon, and the surprise of the crystallized ginger added in. As I said, I think it tastes like summer: sweet, rich, and zesty.

You’ve still got time to make them.

lemon basil ginger cookies

1 1/2 cups butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 large egg
2 tablespoon lemon zest
2 ounces lemon extract

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh basil leaves, rough chopped
10 ounces crystallized ginger, rough chopped
sugar for garnishing

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Cream butter until fluffy; add sugar and let the mixer run for about five minutes. Add the eggs and beat until mixed well, and then add the lemon zest and lemon extract. Mix until everything is combined.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Put about a third of the flour in the bowl of a food processor and then add the chopped basil. Process it until the basil is absorbed and the flour has a green tint. Add the chopped crystallized ginger and process until it is combined, but it can still be a little chunky. Whisk the flour from the food processor in with the rest of the flour and the other dry ingredients. Add to the butter mixture in the stand mixer and mix until well combined.

Using a one ounce cookie scoop, drop the cookies onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Shape each ball into a disc and dip the top in sugar and place back on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 for twelve minutes. Makes about three dozen.

The most difficult part about writing this recipe was trying to quantify the amount of basil–first, because it is hard to measure and second, because I don’t actually measure it. I just use a whole bunch of it. A mess of it. A helluvalot of it. I am sure you can come up with your own measure.

Happy summer!

Peace,
Milton

bigger barns

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My sermon for the church in Westbrook this week comes from the lectionary text, Luke 12:13-21, where Jesus tells a parable about a person who keeps building bigger barns so they can amass greater wealth. (Consider the previous sentence as a clear example of a way to get people to decide not to read further—but please keep reading.)

The story was a response to a request from someone for Jesus to arbitrate a dispute over an inheritance. He declined, and then told a story to say, “Your financial abundance is not the point of existence.” It strikes me as a good perspective for institutions as well as individuals.

___________________________

As best I can remember, it was a little over twenty years ago that Ginger and I were talking with my mother and she said, “‘Would you like an inheritance or would you and Ginger like to go to Africa?”

We were unflinching in our response. “Africa,” I said, “definitely Africa.”

As I have told you, I spent most of the first sixteen years of my life in Africa. We left the continent to move to Houston, Texas in 1972–on my sixteenth birthday. I had never had the chance to go back. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity, even if it meant I didn’t get an inheritance.

it was a good choice, even though there are those who would point out that if I had invested the money spent on the trip it would have multiplied itself many times over in the last twenty-odd years. That’s true–and I would not have seen the herds of zebra and wildebeest, or listened to the hippo choir sing at night in the river below our camp, or listened to the young school children we met who were so proud to show us what they had learned, or had a chance to show Ginger the house where I lived in Nairobi, or gotten to take a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti.

I am infinitely richer for those memories.

Maybe that is an odd way to start a sermon about what we do with our possessions, but that is the first thing that popped into my mind when I read Jesus’ admonition about storing up our treasures, I think because my father caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect him to value a memory with me over a savings account. My parents were savers and planners and they also knew they was not going to live forever, so they shared the wealth to deepen the bonds of family.

Though life doesn’t always play out as simple either-or decisions, we have many moments in our lives where we must choose between generosity and self-preservation, and those moments string themselves together into a way of living. Sometimes we become most possessive of the stuff we didn’t earn or collect but has been handed down; we act as if we deserve it.

That seemed to be the attitude of the man who came to Jesus and said, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” We don’t get any indication of the issues at stake. Perhaps the parents were dead and the other sibling was the executor. Who knows. Whatever was going on, Jesus had no desire to weigh in.

“Who set me as the arbitrator?” he asked, making it clear he had no intention of doing any such thing. He did, however, see it as an opportunity to speak to the larger issue, so he turned to those gathered and said something that jumped out at me: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That’s not one of the sayings of Jesus we quote with regularity.

I have a feeling, at this juncture in the sermon, that it probably feels like you know where this is going–that I am going to talk about how we have too much stuff and we need to learn to live on less and give away more—Marie Kondo style; that the point is not to see how much we can amass, but how much we can share.

Yes, to all of those things. But since that is the obvious sermon and you already saw it coming, I feel the tug to focus in a different direction and start with the sacred cow of many congregations: our endowments and our perceived need for bigger barns.

The word endow means “to provide an income for.” The basic idea is not a bad one. People leave an inheritance to provide some stability for congregations that meant a lot to them during their lives. Often, they leave quite specific instructions about how the money should be used, and often those instructions are trapped by history and, even though driven by passion, are short-sighted.

At the church in Guilford, there is a fund “to provide hats for the minister’s wife.” I don’t know who gave the money or when, but the designation is no longer useful or helpful–although I did make a case for using the money to buy me a new Red Sox cap every spring. Though the line item feels kind of silly, the problem is the designation makes it hard to spend the money because of all of the rules around endowments, which leads to a larger question: what are we saving for?

What I have seen more than once is churches saved the money, but then don’t spend it for fear they will use it up and then have none. Meanwhile, the day to day life of the church suffers because they don’t have the money they need to answer God’s call to ministry in their towns and neighborhoods.

Ginger served a church in Massachusetts that both had an endowment and struggled to raise the money to support the annual budget. One of the folks in the church came up with the idea of drawing “legacy pledges” from the endowment as a way to allow the church to thrive. “Those folks gave the money for the church to use, not to sit on,” he said. It was a life-giving suggestion to the congregation.

Maybe all of this is on my mind because you as a congregation are beginning a new chapter in a time when we are getting warnings about our economic situation. It also hits a recurring theme for me that the reason for a church’s existence runs deeper than self preservation. The reason we gather and minister as a congregation is not so the “church” will last forever, but so faith will endure through loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to meet the needs around us, to offer help and healing and hope. We are called to generosity and compassion, not frugality.

Theologian Carol Howard Merrit says,

Our future does not depend on our bank balance; it depends on whether we are making a difference in the world. Stewardship doesn’t mean we stockpile cash until we all die; it means that we look for ways to use our resources to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, and tell the good news. Faithful ministry is not watching over the bank balance to make sure it doesn’t dip below a certain point. It’s about being faithful in our work and witness.

The reason the man in the parable built bigger barns was so he could feel like he had enough to relax and live his best life. That formula for life doesn’t work. There is never enough to allay our fear if our fear is about never having enough. Whatever security we think we have in our endowments is not a reliable sense of security. Congregations don’t thrive because they are sitting on tons of money. They thrive because they are sharing what they have and they are sharing themselves. They share what is in their barns.

We have congregations all over New England who have wealthy endowments but only a few people in the pews. Many are closing and the big question is what to do with the money they saved as security and never shared.

This congregation is far from closing its doors. In fact, you have a new pastor coming and you are sharing new ideas and dreams. You have good days ahead of you, even as I know you have big questions to face about how you will minister to people in Westbrook and the surrounding towns. Remember no one ever chose to be a part of a congregation based on how they handled their investment portfolio. Remember Jesus didn’t say, “I am with you as long as you have a healthy endowment.” He said, “I am with you till the end of the age.”

We are not called to last forever. We are not called to build bigger barns. We are called to love one another, to care for one another, to share with one another for as long as we can. The legacy of love that we create with our compassion and faithfulness is what will endure. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

growing old

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I have been working my way through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants for several weeks now, moving slowly on purpose because it feels like I need to let each chapter take root before I love on. It feels like the rhythm of my reading is keeping time with the rhythm of her writing.

In one chapter, she talks about a pond on her land that had been taken over by algae such that it was not a place her daughters could play, so she decided to clear the algae and restore the pond. She describes the issue this way:

Like many an old farm pond, mine was the victim of eutrophication, the natural process of nutrient enrichment that comers with age. Generations of algae and lily pads and fallen leaves and autumn’s apples falling into the pond built up the sediments, layering the once clean gravel at the bottom in a sheet of muck. All the nutrients fueled the growth of new plants, which fueled the growth of more new plants, in an accelerating cycle. This is the way for many ponds–the bottom generally fills in until the pond becomes a marsh and maybe someday a meadow and then a forest. Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment, rather than progressive loss. (86)

My etymological dictionary says the root of the word old means “to grow, nourish.” Whether you’re a pond or a person, to age is to be enriched rather than to be diminished. In both cases, the point of the enrichment is not to stay the same, but to grow and change. Perhaps that is why we say we grow old.

Many languages make a distinction between old vs. young and old vs. new. English is not one of those languages, which may explain why we struggle with aging. New and young are seen as the pinnacles of culture and consumerism. Old things are passed away. But Kimmerer’s pond tells us that is not how life–in the largest sense of that word–works. Life is growth: birth and death and rebirth, feeding and sharing and changing.

I love the way she talks about the way in which many ponds age to become a marsh and then a meadow and then a forest. I had never thought about enrichment as transformation in such terms. To grow old is not simply to become an antique version of ourselves but to mature into a more complex being. The pond of my childhood has become a forest of a life. Then again, perhaps the metaphor works better when it is less individual. In the same way that a forest is not a collection of singular trees but a diverse being of many trees who belong to one another, growing old means growing together.

As rich as the metaphor is, it does not hold much sway in the way we as Americans think about aging. Too often, the reality is more along the lines of John Prine’s “Hello in There.”

you know that old trees just grow stronger
and old rivers grow wilder every day
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

But my reason for writing tonight is not to lament all that is lost in this country because we look at aging as progressive loss. I started writing because Kimmerer made the connection between ponds and people, offering the reality of aging as progressive enrichment.

There are a lot of things that are not fun about growing old. I don’t know that it would serve much purpose to provide even a partial list here, though as I type I realize that there are a lot of things that are not fun about being young. I have no need to romanticize growing older as a means of self-assurance. I also don’t want to lower my expectations on what I have to offer or what life has to offer me just because I can’t do all of the things I used to do. Then there is the temptation to claim age as some sort of superiority, as though seniority automatically translates into wisdom. Looking at life that way breeds condescension.

It strikes me that Kimmerer never draws an analogy between the pond and a person. She says, “Ponds grow old, and though I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging as progressive enrichment. . . .” It may be self-congratulatory to think I am a pond in the metaphor. Perhaps, I am a nutrient, or one of the plants fed by the flow of minerals into the mud.

The choice I have is how I want to grow. I can grow lonesome, or I can grow into connectedness.

Ginger had a meeting today with a ninety-five year old parishioner who wanted to talk about what to do with the rest of his life. Norman Lear wrote an opinion essay for the New York Times yesterday to mark his one hundredth birthday and spoke of his “next century.” Last weekend, Joni Mitchell sang her first full set in twenty years at the Newport Folk Festival.

The forest is already well-established. None of us is the first tree to grow or the first pond to age. All of us are made of mud–the sacred, soggy stardust made to grow older and richer. John Lennon may not have had all of that in mind when he wrote “Grow Old with Me,” but his words add their own enrichment:

grow old along with me
the best is yet to be
when our time has come
we will be as one
God bless our love
God bless our love

Peace,
Milton

lizzy!

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lizzy!

she told us
she spells her name
with an exclamation point
by the way she dances
and flails her tail
any time we call her

she is an
off-the-chart extrovert
(I should know)
who wants to meet
everyone she sees except
the riddle of small children

most mornings
after breakfast and some after-
noons she takes time to sit
in the chair or on the back
patio in the summertime
and pay attention

she is not
bored or pining or asleep
she is attending to the world
a small schnoodle monk
soaking up the sounds and
sights for as long as it takes

an exclamation
point is used to show emphasis
she assumes the posture of
the punctation to soak up
the world not shout at it
then she goes back to dancing

Peace,
Milton

shameless

3

We have always had a passport drawer.

It is the top drawer of an old Singer spool cabinet that sits on top of a table that used to hold a Singer sewing machine. Both were handed down from my mother’s parents. They have traveled with Ginger and me to every house we have lived in and they have always held the passports.

Since both of us are ENFPs, details and organization are not our strong suits. We have a lot of stacks of things and drawers with stuff in them. The passports were different. We knew we needed to be able to find them.

Yesterday–a week ahead of our trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland for a peace and justice retreat (that we were supposed to do in 2020, but you know the story), I opened the drawer to get the passports, proud of myself for thinking ahead, and they were not there. Well, there were passports in the drawer, but they had expired before the last time we had been out of the country in 2018. The valid documents were somewhere in the house, but not in the drawer–the drawer we had not needed to open for four years.

We began two processes this morning: One was to start looking in every drawer and closet and on every shelf to see if we could find them, and the other was to call the US Passport Office to see if we could get a new one as a result of a “travel emergency.”

I dialed the number around 9 o’clock and followed the instructions, pressing numbers when asked to do so. Well, first I dialed in four times only to be told the call volume was too high and to call back at another time. Then I got a voice that told me to press numbers, which led to another voice that told me to hold on for the next available operator, and then another voice that said, “Your wait time is more than two and a half hours.”

My hearing aids have a bluetooth feature that allows my phone to connect directly, so all of this was happening in my head, including the switch from the voice to classical music–a tune I recognized and got to know even better because it was about a three minute loop and I had been told I was going to wait far longer than that. (I would tell you the name of the piece, but I have since blocked it out.)

The website was clear that we could not walk into the passport office in Stamford without an appointment, but we thought we would drive down there just in case someone answered and we could get in line. The trip down to Stamford took about an hour. I have Apple Car Play in my CRV, so I was able to move the music out of my ears and on to the car speakers, but the music never changed. About the time we got to Stamford, the voice told me the wait time was “more than two hours” and then it dropped to “more than an hour and a half.”

I dropped Ginger off in front of the office and went to park. I had barely gotten out of the car when she sent a text that said, “Don’t hang up! Come back and get me but don’t hang up.”

I did as I was told.

By now it was a little after 11:30. We started driving back and ran into heavy traffic, so we made a signature B-C move in such a situation: we got off the highway and found a diner. The Silver Star Diner in South Norwalk. We had lunch and then went across the street to REI to see if I could find a rain jacket for our trip–a small gesture of hope as the music continued to loop in my ears.

As we checked out, the voice said the wait was down to “more than twenty minutes,” then, as we pulled out of the parking lot, a human voice said, “US Passport Office. How may I help you?” We pulled into the next parking lot so we could pay attention.

We laid out the situation and answered all the questions the way the website had instructed. The person asked for our zip code and then said, “We don’t have anything in the Eastern US. I can get you an appointment in El Paso, Tucson, LA, or Hawaii.”

She was serious and she was kind. She just didn’t have anything else to offer. As hard as our day had been, I tried to imagine theirs. For all the time I had waited, they had been talking to people who needed help. Who needed appointments. People who didn’t live in El Paso or Hawaii. She had nothing to offer, but she still had to keep answering the calls of people asking for what she could not give. I thanked her for trying.

As we hung up, I looked at the length of the call: three hours and fifty-seven minutes. Then I realized I forgot to thank them for making the music stop.

As we drove back, Ginger reached out to a couple of our local officials who are a part of our church and they put us in touch with the office of our state representative, Rosa DeLauro. The folks there are trying hard to get us a shot at making our flight on Monday. They too, have been kind.

Sunday we had a guest preacher at the church where I am bridge pastor–a “neutral pulpit” for a search committee for another church. The preacher followed the lectionary, talking about Jesus’ parable that we call “The Friend at Midnight” in Luke 11. I learned the the word as persistence (“I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”) is better understood as shamelessness, as in the guy knew it was late, but he also knew friends are willing to be taken advantage of, so he asked shamelessly and his friend got up and helped him.

That’s how I have felt today: shameless. Yes, I wish we had kept up with the passports, but as exhausting as the day has been, I am grateful that Ginger and I have not blamed each other or ourselves, have worked hard to turn the house over looking for the passports (and ended up throwing a bunch of stuff out–bonus!), and we have called and waited and driven and asked and then turned to people we trust to see what they can do. And they got up and are trying to help.

I am mindful tonight of the gift of people in our lives of whom we can ask shamelessly. I am humbled, hopeful, and grateful.

Peace,
Milton

tomato time

1

Tomato season in New England runs a little later than other parts of the country. Ours are just beginning to come in–at least, the cherry tomatoes are starting to ripen–but most wait for August. The good news is we keep harvesting tomatoes well into the fall.

I would love to tell you we are going to have a bumper crop this year, but our tomatoes are having a hard time. They are still growing and there is fruit on the vine, but not in the quantities we had hoped, so the picture is from last year. Still, it’s a good time to talk about tomatoes.

A fair number of our cherry tomatoes get eaten as we pick them. They are like little pieces of candy on a hot summer afternoon, and then a good number of them get eaten fresh on, well, pretty much anything I can think to put them on. And still there are more. I have found two ways to cook them that make them last and taste even better; both of them take a little time, but not a lot of attention.

tomato confit

The traditional meaning of confit has to do with slow-roasting meat in its own fat (like duck confit), but the idea has expanded to include vegetables as well. As one article I read put it, confit is to deep frying what smoking is to grilling: low and slow versus fast and furious.

Here’s what you need:

enough cherry tomatoes to cover the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish
enough olive oil to come up about half way on the tomatoes
unpeeled cloves of garlic
fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil)
salt and pepper

You can also add:

sliced jalapeños
peeled shallots cut in half longwise

Preheat the oven to 275°.

Cover the bottom of the dish with whole cherry tomatoes, then add the garlic, jalapeños, and shallots. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay the fresh herbs over the top. You don’t need to take anything off of their stems. Drizzle the olive oil over everything until it comes up a little over halfway on the tomatoes.

Roast for about 2 hours, until the tomatoes look wrinkled but are not bursting. Set the pan aside and let it cool. Squeeze the garlic out of its peel and put it back in the confit.

Put in top of everything from pasta to steaks to chicken to you name it.

I store mine in pint-sized mason jars and keep them in the fridge. Use the oil from the pan to cover them when you put them in jars.

Here’s the second variation.

oven-roasted tomatoes

The two biggest differences between this recipe and the one above are the temperature and the amount of oil you use. Oh–and you cut the tomatoes this time. My recipe is adapted from this one (and if you don’t know Smitten Kitchen, you need to.)

The ingredient list is similar to the recipe above.

enough cherry tomatoes to cover a baking sheet when halved
olive oil
fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil)
salt and peper

Preheat the oven to 225°.

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Cut the tomatoes in half longwise (slice where then stem was) and arrange them on the baking sheet so they are close together. Get as many in there as you can. Drizzle with olive oil (you don’t want to drown these) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. If you want a little kick to them, add some crushed red pepper. Lay the herbs across the top. One again, you don’t need to pull them off of their stems.

Roast them in the oven for at least three hours. I use the cook timer on my stove, set if for three hours, and then forget about it so that they cool in the oven. They will resemble sun-dried tomatoes, but will have a little juice still left in them.

They make a great pizza topping, are wonderful on salads, and taste pretty damn good all on their own. You can also put these in pint-sized mason jars, or other airtight containers. If you do, cover the top with oil. You don’t want to drown them, but a little bit of oil will help them last. Refrigerate them once they cool, if you haven’t eaten them all.

Happy tomato days.

Peace,
Milton