This week, I am helping lead a retreat at Suttle Lake. There are three of us leading. The other two leaders, Kate and Michael, have been leading this retreat for over thirty years. Last year, they decided it might be time to invite someone new into the mix, so they asked our camp director, Jane Petke for suggestions. Jane generously suggested they give me a call. Many of the participants have been coming a long time, but there are always one or two new people who find their way here each fall.
The schedule of days is a lovely balance. We worship three times per day together. In the morning, we meet before breakfast and Kate leads us as we sing, read the day’s scripture and share communion. At 11:00 a.m., I am teaching Centering Prayer. Then at 5:00 p.m., Michael takes us through our scripture in more depth, as we dwell together in the meaning of the text. After dinner, there is a program based on a book that is chosen by the leaders each year. The rest of the time is up to the individual. Hiking, resting, reading, conversation, jig saw puzzles—or just sitting in the sunshine breathing deeply of the pine scented air.
The program this year is based on a book by Sister Joan Chittister entitled: The Gift of Years: Growing older gracefully. The title might give you a hint as to the age group of our participants. (I am one of the few folks not retired.) But it is an excellent book, that Sr. Joan wrote the year she turned 70. She realized that her life was moving into a new place, an unexplored place, and she wanted to prepare for it with grace.
In one chapter, Chittister quotes Meribel Le Sueur, who in her nineties wrote: I am luminous with age. Oh! I want to be that too!
When I was young, I sometimes visited a nursing home with an adult friend. Some of the folks were simply lovely, but others were difficult to talk to—they were downright cranky. After we had done some visitation, one of the workers at the center taught me something that I have never forgotten. She said, people don’t change who they are when they reach old age—the just become more of who they have been all along. Whoever I have practiced being for all the years of my life, is who I become when I am old. Just MORE. There are no filters. All the world can now see who it is you have spent your life practicing to be. I want to be the old lady in the nursing home (if I have to be in a nursing home) whom all the nurses and staff love. So much so, that they save me all the extra chocolate pudding! I’m not quite that adorable yet, but I’m working on it.
Now that I am a person of a certain age, I am beginning to get notices online and in the mail about Medicare and old age supplemental insurance. There is no avoiding it. I’m getting older. And I am starting to reflect about what it is that I have been becoming all these decades that are now in the past, and who I still hope to become as my life enters into unknown territory.
When an infant is born, she is born spiritually naked. Totally vulnerable. Fully knowable. Open and waiting to be shaped. Nothing is hidden. Over time, he learns how to protect himself from harm. She layers protective shields to defend heart and mind and soul. It is necessary if any of us is to survive in a rough and tumble world. In time, we become very good at hiding who we are on the inside from the dangers of the outside. We become opaque with barriers between ourselves each other, between ourselves and the world, and sometimes between ourselves and whoever it is who is hiding deep within. I wonder, if part of the process of aging, at least from the perspective of the spirit, is that we go through a kind of reversal. We strip away layer after layer after hard-won layer—to once again be a naked spiritual being. Transparent. Whole. Revealed as we truly are. Consonant. Cohesive. The inner life and the outer life are in sync. We are luminous with old age.
There is a sense where coming to the place in my life where I am becoming “more” is a relief. I can drop all my well-intentioned protections and simply be who God is calling me to be. I’ve been practicing. It isn’t always easy. But, Oh! My beloved! Just imagine—all of us together, luminous, kind, funny, forgiving, resilient, brave, compassionate—what a beautiful sight to behold.
There is nothing quite like having long conversations with someone from Deer Ridge to challenge all my judgments and assumptions. It has been almost two years since I began working in the education department at the prison up the hill. With a simple change of clothes, some of the men there would never be taken for a person who has spent most of their adolescence and adult life incarcerated. There are others, whose past no change of wardrobe could disguise.
I work one-on-one, each inmate’s need dictates what we will work on. Sometimes my job is to listen, at other times, instruct. But always, always, I am much more the learner than the teacher. The men I work with are all highly motivated. They are within months of being paroled. All of them have come through the education department with deficits of opportunity and hope. The staff, peer tutors and volunteers are dedicated folks. The work they do to create possibilities of a future on the outside is spectacular. And then we send them out.
And often, beloved, the sad truth is, that we send them out to fail. Generally, a person is paroled to the community from which they were incarcerated. They may be given the opportunity to live in a group home facility, where they can begin the process of finding work, or going to school, or going to rehab. These transitional places are many rungs lower than ideal. They are often located in neighborhoods where the incidence of homelessness, drug availability and gang activity are rampant. Upon parole, a person is suddenly dropped into a world of needing to make the kinds of decisions most of us take for granted—when to get up or go to bed, what and when to eat, what to do with my time in between job interviews, what to do with a free evening, how to manage my money, how to make a friend who won’t get me into trouble, negotiating things like laundromats, tipping in a restaurant, casual conversation.
How much help a parolee receives is dependent upon the resources of the particular community, the parole officer to whom he is assigned, and how the system relates to the history of the individual. I have noticed that someone who has been in and out of the system multiple times generally gets less help. The parolee is suddenly without community. Prison may not be the best kind of community, but at least you know the rules: show no weakness, don’t take any disrespect, don’t trust anyone but your own crew. The only community they have known on the outside, they need to avoid, or risk everything.
The odds are so stacked against them. Because of my relationship with the institution, I am not allowed to continue contact with inmates after they leave Deer Ridge. That makes total sense. But it is hard. I wish I were there on the other end, to help them find safe places, to guide them in negotiating all the strangeness they are facing, to connect them with faith communities, and people who would be able to see their strengths and not just their mistakes.
And, the more I get to know about the men with whom I am working, the more I realize how complex a problem we are facing. All of the hundreds of men up the hill will be leaving here to become our neighbors. And I want them to succeed: to have meaningful work, raise their children, have a full and interesting life. But the way our systems are set up, most of them will fail.
When I learn the stories, hear the determination in their voices to live a different kind of life, I feel like our society has failed them. What would my life have been like, if I had walked where they have had to walk. My guess is, I would not have survived as well as they have given the same options: poverty, abuse, instability, inadequate housing, neglect, hopelessness.
This year I have been working to create a cadre of folks around the state who are willing to connect with some of the men Jan and I have worked with as they are paroled–just to be a contact and possibly a mentor. It is a tiny little thing. Totally voluntary on the part of the parolee. Just someone who is willing to see them just as they are—to grab a cup of coffee, to listen to their struggles, and maybe let them know that they are not alone. One of the things I have learned from working up the hill, is the power of personal connection and story. One person at a time. It doesn’t feel like enough. But, it is a beginning.
My grandfather had a special mason jar filled he kept in the fridge. When he would come in from the fields after changing pipe or hauling hay, he would stand there right in front of the door and finish it off in one long satisfying go.
Every summer, my family spent a week or two at my grandparents’ farm. My siblings and I don’t agree on many things, but we all concur that time spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s was just the best. By modern standards, there wasn’t anything to “do.” We were expected to entertain ourselves and stay out of the adults’ way. The boys would often join dad and grandpa when he went irrigating. My sister and I most often played outdoors with the dishes and clothes that grandma had stored in a big old trunk in the old chicken coop.
Grandpa irrigated his lawn, so that the grass was like walking on a carpet. You could run in it barefoot without worry of getting a sticker in your foot from thistles or weeds. The big cottonwood tree in the back was the home of the tire swing—that could be anything from a spaceship to a bucking bronco—depending which of us was using it at the time.
There were feral cats that grandma fed table scraps to each day. We would watch her perched in the kitchen sink, because they wouldn’t come if we were outside. Every once in a while, we might catch a glimpse of a kitten in the haystack, but they were wild little things that had no difficulty escaping from our well-meaning attentions.
The only thing we didn’t like about our visits to the farm, was the water. Our grandparents were on a well. When you turned on the faucet, it smelled of minerals and whatever else might be lurking. To a bunch of city kids, this just wasn’t right. Grandma tried to make it more palatable by making pitchers of Kool-aid. They weren’t pre-sweetened back then, and the instructions suggested adding one cup of sugar. I don’t know how much sugar she used, but I always felt that if I suddenly bit down while I was drinking, my teeth would go “crunch.” It helped. And, at least, it was better than the water from the tap.
Except. The mason jar in the refrigerator. I know for a fact that my sister and brothers and I never talked about the mason jar. But there was just something alluring about seeing grandpa guzzle down that cool water that made it seem like it must have come from a special spring—reserved only for him. We had seen him fill it, so we knew it was from the tap. But, there was just something about seeing that jar on its shelf every time we looked in the fridge.
One summer day, I was by myself in the kitchen. I was thirsty, so I opened the fridge. And there it was: Grandpa’s jar. Cool. Clear. Tempting. I’m sure grandpa wouldn’t mind if I had just a little sip. So, very carefully, I took a little sip, or two. It was good. Really good. No one noticed.
The next day, I did the same. Not much, just a little. I’m sure no one would mind. Grandma always kept a store of Juicy Fruit gum in the cupboard for when we came to visit. We never had to ask to have some. We knew it was okay. This must be like that. At least that is what I tried to tell myself.
A day or so later, my sister and I were playing in the back yard and we suddenly heard grandpa’s voice. It was loud. He called us all into the kitchen. I don’t know about everyone else, but my heart was beating really fast. It beat even faster when we got into the kitchen and discovered what grandpa was upset about. He was standing at the door of the refrigerator (letting all the cool air out, as grandma would always complain). He was holding his mason jar. It had about a half inch of water in the bottom. Not nearly enough to quench a raging thirst.
The four of us stood quietly in front of him. “Who drank all my water?” We all looked at the floor. I knew with absolute certainty that Ihad not drank that whole jar of water. I only took a sip or two. Then it suddenly came to me, I wasn’t the only one! Not one of us confessed, because we were all thinking exactly the same thing, “I didn’t drink all your water.”
Grandpa didn’t stay mad long. He requested, in his gruff serious voice, that if we took a sip, we needed to refill the jar. Obviously, that had not occurred to any of us. We had, after all, just taken a sip or two.
Perception is an interesting thing. The well water was undrinkable in my mind. There was no way I would ever willingly drink anything that came out of that smelly faucet. And yet, the picture of my grandfather thoroughly enjoying draining that jar made four children decide that something magical must have happened to make that same water the best thing any of us had ever tasted.
There are lots of things that I might learn from that story: always refill the jar, for one. But I think the thing that captures me about this memory, is that the water became sweet, not because of a container, or a temperature, but because of my grandfather. He declared it wonderful. And so, it was.
God declares a lot more things to be wonderful than I do: people, situations, invitations. Oh, I usually get there with enough prodding. But I wonder what my life would be like if I simply watched God, like my siblings and I watched our grandfather, for the cues that would teach me about blessings, wonder and grace. My guess is that something magical might happen.
One day I was walking home for lunch when I noticed a woman and a young girl walking on the sidewalk opposite me. The adult monologue sounded familiar: “Come on! Hurry up!” I smiled: the way of a harried mom and her child—or at least it seems that way to me. We are in a hurry, and they are blissfully unaware of our sense of urgency. I could hear the clip clapping of the little girl’s flip flops as they snapped against her bare feet. The inevitable happened, and I heard a sudden wail. “My shoe! My shoe!” In trying to hurry, she had lost one of her shoes. Her mom went back to help her look. I offered to help. “No, we’ll find it. Oh, here it is!” They went on their way. And I continued my journey home.
As I made my tuna sandwich (to the extremely concentrated stares of two small dogs), I mused a bit on the drama of hurrying parents and dawdling children. I wish I could say that I had never said those words to my sons when they were little…but I know for certain I did. Why, I wonder, was I always in such a hurry? I remember strapping one of my sons into his car seat one afternoon. As I got into the driver’s seat, he startled me by declaring, “I never want to grow up.” I immediately asked why. And being a thought little person, he replied, “’Cause, all you ever do is work-work-work: errands-errands-errands.” Yikes. That was a hard truth to hear coming from a four year old!
On another more recent day, I was walking in the park to get some steps on my pedometer (a health and wellness goal), and noticed a mom and two young children walking in front of me on the path. They were not hurrying. (I’m pretty certain they were not wearing pedometers!) The little boy was scurrying from one side of the path to the other, like a puppy, pointing out this and that. His wise mother let him lead the way and take his time. I have to confess that I hadn’t brought my “puppies” to the park with me for my walk, because they tend to do the same thing. (There are so many exciting things to smell and see, after all.) After a bit, the mom reached down to pick up the little girl and carry her piggyback. By the time I caught up with them, they were just stopping to rest in the shade. I complemented the woman on what good walkers her children were. “They love to walk,” she replied. The little boy came up from behind his mother to let me know that there “are fire ants right over there!”
Children are such good teachers, if I will only take the time to pay attention. They know the secret of meandering, of discovering moments that I miss if I allow myself to be distracted by my busy brain, and the endless list of tasks and worries. Dogs are too.
Being away for the last three weeks has allowed me to slow down. I have had time to listen, to pray deeply, to write, to read. And notice stuff.
I sat in a beautiful garden every day. I felt the sun on my face and waited for the hummingbirds to flit among the flowers. Did you know that Anna hummingbirds make a delightful creaking sound? It reminds me of an old screen door being opened and closed. I breathed in the scent of dozens of different blooms, trying to identify each one that merged into a perfume that nothing in the world could replicate. And then I took some yoga classes and learned how to really breathe. (It’s harder than it looks.) I watched a stranded helium balloon in a tall tree in the neighborhood, feeling sad that it ruined the profile of the great tall oak–until the slanting sun turned it into a molten golden orb against the darkening sky. I rediscovered the delight in small moments. I savored. I stopped hurrying.
Now that I am home, the temptation is to go back to everything I left behind—the busyness, the eternal demands of the calendar and the never-ending lists. My head is filled with all the to-dos of fall. I look forward to what lies ahead. But I hope that I can hold onto the lessons learned from children, and from taking time away. May it be so for all of us.