My son was visibly, palpably relieved at first to know this -- that we were not alone. My husband and I couldn't stop talking at first about how strange it was to feel truly at home in a "church." Our first experience at the UUFoM, we actually both felt a bit overcome by that feeling of "coming home." It was abundantly clear to us that our son appreciated our feelings of comfort -- I realize how odd that sounds. I mean, he seemed to be happy that we weren't alone because he realized, then, that we weren't just weirdos who refused to believe what "everyone else" believes. He realized we are just as boring as everyone else. And, quickly, his relief turned into the typical "I-don't-want-to-get-up-and-go-to-church" fights most older children/ tweens begin to have with their parents. I know I had them with my mother when she would get me ready to go to our Episcopalian church.
My mother and I attended church alone most times. All of the other kids were either out of the house or too old to be controlled by her by the time we really started going regularly. And, my father just did not go. I was the one she could make go. But, most of the time, I think I went willingly because I loved being alone with my mother. It was one of my favorite things as a child. Just to be alone with her. One of my fondest memories is still the couple of times she and I walked all the way to the church. She didn't drive until she was 48 but I don't know if we had to walk because she wasn't driving yet or if she chose to walk as part of one of her weight-loss kicks or what. I remember that mostly the walk through our (then) middle/upper-class Detroit suburb was noisy and along busy streets but as we got closer to the church, we started walking through woods. THIS was the part I loved. My mother knew all the names of all of the plants. And this impressed me. It's funny. I wouldn't have said it impressed me then but I see, looking back, that it must have, because I remember it so distinctly.
In fact, this walk (or series of walks -- I honestly can't remember if it happened more than once but I believe it did) was monumentally important in both my development as a writer and as a spiritual person. My mother possessed a power to name things, and not just things but all the natural things -- the entire natural world -- she knew the name of every tree, every plant, every flower. She knew why some of them weren't growing well that year or why some of them were strong. She knew that some of them were latent yet and some of them were already passed their peak in the season. Maybe she was hoping that I would grow up to learn these things too, that I would want to name the natural world and garden and invest myself in knowing how things grow. I often feel disappointed in myself that I did not learn those specifics from my mother. But what I did learn was a love for language, a fascination with knowing, a strong sense of the interconnectedness of everything. I wish I could garden. But, what my mother taught me on those walks (and throughout her life) was even better than teaching me how to garden.
This one memory is particularly clear and I've written about it briefly on this blog before. The minister had given a particularly heavy sermon one day -- we had one of those really heavy ministers, fire & brimstone and all that, which is sort of weird for an episcopalian but my mom seemed to like him so I took him seriously and took a lot of what he said to heart. I felt scared after this sermon, I remember, though I can no longer access my reasons for that. I DO, however, remember what my mom said when I asked her if Jesus was the son of god, for real and how did he live after he died because that seemed impossible and scary and just weird and what about hell was I going to go to hell was my dad was she going to go to hell and what about swearing do people go to hell if they swear and what about if they drink a lot or if they fight and stuff like that how can I make sure I go to heaven with you, mom, and on and on. You might think I'm simplifying her words in response to my childish anxiety but I'm not. This is really what she said. "All you have to remember is that God is Love. That's all that matters, really." She really said that.
I floundered in my spiritual practices for many years -- maybe I still am, really, floundering. But, it is so easy to come back to that. I know, many people would say it's "too easy. God is love. Humbug. There's so much more to it than that!" I know. I know there is. But it's a jumping off point. It's a starting place. It's a foundation that we need. It is maybe THE foundation that every kid needs. Even parents seem like they hate you sometimes. They get so mad at you. They can be so disappointed with you. They can even hurt you, reject you, neglect you. But god is bigger than parents. God is love. When even your parents, even your family, even your kind let you down, there is love because there is god. And, that's just one application of that truth. There are so many others.
When my mother told me that God is Love, it calmed me down -- and it's not easy to calm me down because I was born anxious and busy, my mind is a hive of bees. And I felt that same calm the first Sunday I attended a Unitarian Universalist sermon.
One tradition I absolutely love in my church is the sharing of joys and sorrows. Early on in the service, members of the congregation can come up and light a candle of joy or a candle of sorrow and share their joy or sorrow with the rest of the congregation, because "a joy shared is a joy multiplied and a sorrow shared is a sorrow lessened" or something like that. It's beautiful. Within the first few months of attending the UUFoM, my husband and I became official members and I lit a candle and shared my joy that day that I felt like I was finally where my mother had raised me to be all along. Her teachings were always Unitarian Universalist more than they ever were Episcopalian or Christian.
Today, was our Christmas pageant. I have never in my life been involved in a Christmas Pageant and frankly, I would never want to be. But my daughter wanted to be and she has an easy way of pulling me into things and making me love it. So while she dressed up like the ghost of Jacob Marley, I dressed in red, for Christmas, and donned the green and red elf hat we have in our collection of Christmas decorations.
Sitting in the sanctuary today, watching people line up to share their joys and sorrows, a thousand thoughts raced through my mind and all of them started with one sudden realization: the elf hat used to belong to my mother. The one and only Christmas my parents ever spent with us at our house, she wore that Elf hat and my father wore a Santa hat. And the vision of her face all lit up with her beautiful smile under that silly elf hat made me grin from ear to ear. I wanted to get up and share the joy -- the absolute joy -- that my mother taught me a borderline obsessive love for fun, for laughter, for silliness. And then, I suddenly wanted to share that fun and laughter and silliness are so healing and so important in dark times. And then, I wanted to light a candle of sorrow for those dark times and a candle of sorrow for another Christmas without my mother. (Without my father. Without my sister-in-law, Beth. Without my brother Robert. Without my brother Mitch.) And then, I wanted to tell the story of the walk through the woods. I wanted to light a candle of joy that my mother taught me that God is Love. I wanted to light a candle of joy for every sweet child that got up in that silly, chaotic, very UU pageant and did their best and brought light to our hearts and helped us remember.
I wanted to light a million candles of joy and sorrow for my kind -- full of their own mythologies, their own stories of becoming, their own joyful moments with their loved ones, their own sorrows, their own losses, their own anxieties, especially my dear friends and family who have lost their own parents in these last couple of years (or ever) and who are living without fathers and mothers during this holiday season -- especially Robin, Merrilyn, Michelle, Shira, Laura, Ashlee, Brenna, Tyler, Kris, Jeff, Bill. Our losses can't be understood -- not even, truly, by each other, because they are so specific, they are so discreetly and particularly and painfully our own. And where we find light and joy is just as strange -- just as unique.
And then, sitting there in the sanctuary, I realized, I wasn't preparing to go up and share a joy or a sorrow. I was drafting a blog post.
I've been away far too long. Probably not for you, whoever/wherever you are, dear reader -- but definitely for me. I let myself get pulled away from myself by work, by chores, by expectations, by committees, by grading, by doing the dishes, by folding my clothes and putting them away, by binging on glee, by lots of things that just happen. But today, I'm coming home again.
It hurts to think of my mother. But it hurts so much worse not to think of her, not to allow myself to touch her again in my thoughts, with my heart. So here we are, back in the kitchen, all of our candles lit. Cooking and eating with love -- and hoping you are doing the same.
Vaya Con Dios & Namaste
on this beautiful Winter Solstice