lenten journal: life on the edge


    I dug a grave today.

    It was a first for me. The call came early this morning from church friends Tracy and Robin saying their beloved beagle, Violet, was going to be put to sleep. Ginger was up and out of the house in minutes. About a half hour later she called and asked me to meet her at their house to bury their pet. I put my shovel in the back of my Cherokee and drove over to share in what was a very sacred time. They brought Violet down from the house, beautifully swaddled in a sheet, and laid her in the place we had dug at the bottom of the yard, next to the fence that backs up on the wooded land behind them. Nellie, their beagle puppy, ran around us as I dug and they grieved, a visible sign of hope beyond the loss. As we were putting the grass back on top of the grave, Robin threw a piece of a root over the fence into the woods and said, “It’s good to be on the edge of the wilderness.”

    Yes, and meaningful.

    The physical act of digging the grave and placing the body of the dear little dog down in the dirt had a visceral effect on me. There was a time when people were more accustomed to living with death, and dealing with it. The old row houses in Boston have “coffin corners” – small indentions in the wall of the stairway so the coffin could make the turns when the body was brought into the house for the wake. People dug graves together, waked the body together, buried their loved ones and threw dirt on the coffin together. They got to say goodbye with body, mind, and heart in a way we do not these days. Our funeral rituals are quiet and solemn and do their best to keep us from seeing anything but flowers. I felt honored today to get to share so practically and poignantly in the grief of our friends. It is good to be on the edge of the wilderness – together.

    My afternoon was an exhumation of sorts, and unintentional at that.

    We finally got to some boxes of books that have been in the shed since we moved into the house. We’ve been staining bookshelves and are ready to fill them, so today we started bringing in the books and helping them find their places on our shelves. (We also set some aside to find new lives on other people’s shelves.) I opened one box to find binders of poetry and lyrics going back seventeen or eighteen years, words I had allowed to get buried under the passing of time. Some of them would do well to stay underground, but some deserve to be resurrected, if you will, to find a new life in these new days. I have no idea what I will do with them, but I know I’ve got to dig back in and see what is there, find what I had to offer.

    On October 26, 1992 I wrote:

    sacred rituals

    she can’t fall asleep till her daddy sings songs
    the porch light stays on until everyone’s home
    there’s a note in his lunch box to find everyday
    and she plants every year as the snow melts away

    he doesn’t get up till he’s hit the snooze twice
    if it’s Tuesday night then it’s chicken and rice
    each time they meet they exchange and embrace
    before she eats dinner she bows to say grace

    the meaning of lifeagain and again
    as oft as you eat
    as oft as you drink
    remember me
    remember me and you

    Our church is continuing our Lenten practice of celebrating Communion a different way each Sunday even as we participate in the long tradition of Palm Sunday. I love walking in with the palm branches and singing together because it brings the same kind of physicality to worship I found in working the shovel to make a place for Violet. When it comes time for Communion, we are all going to process out of the sanctuary, rather than up to the altar, and celebrate the meal outside on the front patio as a way of physically reminding ourselves we are carrying Christ with us as we go into our daily routines.

    The Body of Christ – to go.

    My notebooks full of words and ideas got lost because they never got attached to anyone. If they find life now, it will be because I find a way to flesh them out into a poem or a song to share, to make them something more than an idea dreamed up in the comfort of my own home. The rituals that matter – whether in shovel or song or sacrament – are the ones that bind us together, here on the edge of the wilderness.



    1. Dear Milton,

      I have been reading your blog for about three weeks now, which I realize is not very long. But I wanted you to know that many of your entries resonate deeply with me and have an impact on my day. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, prayers, and poetry, they are a blessing in my life.

      Jon Kara Shields

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