I think I have written more about my father in recent years than about my mother. This is partly because, with his upbringing in Guatemala, his love of Central America, Spanish, and Costa Rica have played such a big part in my own adult life. It is also partly because his death in 2018 left a huge void in our family that all of us – led by my mother with grace, courage and humor – are still figuring out our way around.
The last reason is that my mother’s voice is so much a part of my own, in my head, that it sometimes goes unnoticed. When I say something my dad might have said, I generally ask the room, “You know what Grandpa would have said?” When I say something my mother might say, it usually just comes out of my mouth. For some three-generational bonding during the pandemic, she and I read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” together to my seven-year-old, alternating paragraphs. It reminded me once again how much I sound like her, how many of my verbal tics, little asides I make in passing, and, yes, my potty humor comes from the person who read me my nightly stories for so many years.
What an honor to have your code written in this way by a woman who, for example, delivered the invocation before President Obama strode onto a Portland stage, as pictured here. (My mother was a teacher for many years, before becoming an Episcopal priest.) What an honor to wake up at the age of 37, eyes opened by the election of forthright misogyny to the presidency, and discover that an overlooked feminism was poured right into your bones long ago by a mother who didn’t talk about it much, but just blazed the trail and Did the Thing. Poured into my bones, as well, by the flat-out awe in my father’s voice whenever he described his wife’s strength and talent.
She was my first and best writing teacher. She still is. Her own writing – or, perhaps more to the point, her own thinking – never ceases to amaze me. That is to say, it’s always quite extraordinary when this voice you think is practically your own comes out with a perspective that is startling in its depth and freshness, reminding you how much you have to learn. I am already getting glimpses of what it is like when your child plays this same trick on you. Someone who lives within your same rhythms and patterns – someone who, in this case, learned to speak from you – drops wisdom to which you are not privy. When our closest relatives school us and stun us, it’s like a door suddenly opening within your own house, exposing a space beyond that you didn’t build, didn’t paint, didn’t even know was there.
This past Sunday, I attended “Zoom church” and listened to my mother preach a sermon; she has retired, but will sometimes step up to the plate when asked. She talked about a passage (Matthew 16: 21-28) in which Jesus tells his disciples about the fate that awaits him, and Peter is none too happy about it, arguing that the flock needs a strong leader and can’t afford to lose Jesus.
My mother offered up her own take on leadership and, well, the meaning of life. I can’t help but share some of it. Here are my excerpts, with her permission:
What about us? How do we fit into this narrative? Do we, like Peter and his friends, yearn for invincible leaders who will shelter us from some of the horror around us, or at least help us get rid of uncertainty and settle us on the right track? Some of the pablum dished out in current speeches is, I think, designed to do just that, to make us feel good. To forget the hard stuff. To get us over the hump. So things can be more or less normal again, or maybe even better than whatever “normal” used to be.
But then Jesus said, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit, that is, give up, your lives?” Basically what that means is, to trade your life in for what you gain.
Gain the whole world? What do we gain? What do I gain? I was thinking about that last week. I looked around my house. I checked out my domain, my possessions, all that I have accumulated, all that I’ve managed to gain, and collect into my world. Good Lord! There’s the house I own, yay for me! Chairs, bureaus, desks, books and more books, pictures, rugs, tubs of old journals and letters, my two beloved dogs, dishes, tables, beds, on and on and on. Things I’ve acquired, things handed down through the years from one attic to another until here it all is! All here in my very own house. I live in a museum, I said to myself. What do I actually need? Have I forfeited my life for all of this? A trade-off?
And then there’s the rest of my gain: my achievements, the jobs I’ve had over the years, my status and various job titles, my privilege, my life! It’s all mine! I own it all!
Or do I?
Jesus’ orientation was not about self-preservation and hoarding. Jesus’ orientation, Jesus’ focus, was outward bound…. Right away Jesus let Peter know that Peter’s focus was all wrong. Peter, you see, like so many of us, myself included, was trying to savor what he had, his gain, and leave it at that. There was equivalency between his gain and his life.
…The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and author, has written about this possession-obsession, how even our very life is a gift, a gift to be savored but not owned and hoarded as if it’s a baby bird we’ve found so we rescue it and put it into a nice clean shoebox and store it away to be safe on a closet shelf. I’ve been thinking about that little bird and how it needs to be nurtured, but I also know that in time it must be released to fly away, or it will end up with nothing to show for its life but a pile of very still feathers.
The gift that is our lives must be let out, too, released and given away, shared. Such life-sharing is happening all over our country – people taking risks large and small, to speak up and to help one another. I suspect that each of us in church today can look at our gallery Zoom screens and see people there who have already found a way to let loose into the world at least a portion of their life.
[Here my mother paused, smiling at the Zoom screen full of faces: faces of people who sat at their computers just a few blocks away from her, faces of people tuning in from far away. People who have donated and volunteered and surely done all sorts of things, big and small, to help others during this time. She seemed to look each of us in the eye. “Take a look!” she urged us again. And we did. I still am.]
And that is Good News indeed!