It is the middle of the night and I cannot sleep, again. In the morning, I am off to another funeral. When we learned of this funeral, my wife Kim asked if we had been to a funeral every year that we’ve known each other. The thought stuck with me, and I searched online for the average number of funerals that adults in the United States go to each year. The online answer was best summarized as, adult Americans typically know about 50 people whose funeral they would go to. They typically don’t go to funerals before they are eighteen, so it averages out to around a funeral a year. Others suggested the number is between one funeral every two years and two funerals a year.
Fiona, who is almost thirteen, has been to her share of funerals already. So much so, that when she was about four and we told her we were going to a family reunion, she asked, “Who died?” In her mind, at that early age, that is what family reunions were, funerals.
So, as I tossed and turned and tried to get back to sleep, Harold and Maude met the ancient sleep aid. Instead of counting sheep, I tried counting funerals I’ve been to since I met Kim. Initially, I randomly thought of different people’s funerals. It seemed like a pretty long list, so I tried to organize it in my mind. Before I knew it, I had thought of around thirty funerals, or an average of two funerals a year since Kim and I met, and as I write this, I remember more.
There are family members, both close and more distant; mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws, and beyond. There are friends from church, work, and politics. There are cancers, car accidents, suicides, old age, and friends who have died way too young.
It is tempting to wonder when we will get a break, to talk about meeting less frequently at funerals, about trying to find time to celebrate people’s lives while they are still living. Yet as I think about it, a little bit of Harold and Maude rubs off on me.
I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals.
Yes, I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals. It sounds odd, but it is true, and something we should all think about.
When I write about funerals, I often quote John Donne,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
It is easy to think about how death diminishes us, but it is more important to think about how blessed we are to be involved in mankind. A bunch of funerals we would not have gone to if we weren’t involved in politics. Yet we’ve met many great people through our political involvement and I urge all my friends to become more politically involved. Many funerals we’ve attended were of friends we’ve made at churches we’ve attended. I urge my friends to find communities that share their beliefs. Our lives have been so much richer because these people were in our lives.
Monday was Labor Day and a great quote from the movie Norma Rae comes to mind.
On October 4, 1970, my grandfather, Isaac Abraham Warshowsky, aged eighty-seven, died in his sleep in New York City. On the following Friday morning, his funeral was held. My mother and father attended, my two uncles from Brooklyn attended, my Aunt Minnie came up from Florida. Also present were eight hundred and sixty-two members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Cloth, Hat and Cap Makers' Union. Also members of his family. In death as in life, they stood at his side. They had fought battles with him, bound the wounds of battle with him, had earned bread together and had broken it together. When they spoke, they spoke in one voice, and they were heard. They were black, they were white, they were Irish, they were Polish, they were Catholic, they were Jews, they were one. That's what a union is: one
We are one, as co-workers, as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists, as neighbors and as relatives; as Americans. It is something that we have lost in our political discourse that we need to rediscover.
Today, I will celebrate my wife’s birthday. I remember her mother on the anniversary of her mother’s death. I will attend the funeral of her grandmother.
And I will weep and hug those around me. I will remember wonderful moments of people’s lives. I will kiss my wife and tell her I love her. I will celebrate the lives of those living, those dead, and those yet to be born. If I am lucky, my words will bring comfort and joy to some of those around me and perhaps, if I am really lucky, help some of those around me rediscover the value of what we have in common.
It is 4 AM, the writing hour. This is often my best writing time, but these days, I’m usually asleep at 4 AM. Today is different. Yesterday, while out doing yard work, I got stung by yellow jackets. I took some Benadryl last night to try and keep the itching down, and it mostly worked. I slept pretty soundly until a little while ago. I woke up, put some more anti-itch cream on the stings and tried, unsuccessfully to get back to sleep.
Work has been very busy for me, these past few weeks, as has my campaign for State Representative. On the home front, I’ve been swimming, kayaking, playing Ingress, and researching various topics. We’re getting ready for Falcon Ridge, and beyond that, for Cape Cod. Much of this is fodder for several blog posts, that most of the time, I’m too tired or busy to get written. I will try to write some of these and line them up to be posted over the next several days
Saturday, The Rev. Amanda Katherine Gott posted on her Facebook page a comment about doing online research on garden weeds for Sunday’s sermon. The lesson appointed for Sunday was the Parable of the Weeds
"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
It seems like I’ve always heard this parable preached about in terms of fire and brimstone. Indeed, the following verses include, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” While it is good news that the causes of sin will be destroyed in the end times, for those of us focused on God’s forgiveness and loving kindness, it doesn’t sound so much like good news.
My relationship with weeds has always been a bit different from that of the sower in the parable. I commented, “’One man's weed is another man's wildflower’. I grew up on Euell Gibbons and we often ate many forms of weeds from Oxalis to lambsquarters”. Although I didn’t really see how it related to the Gospel.
Another person posted a link to a great article, Why We Must Learn to Love Weeds. It contained many thoughts along the same line as I was thinking. It quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson saying a weed is “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”.
This was in line with the direction Rev. Amanda took in her sermon. She talked about the weeds in her garden, which turned out to be Oxalis, the same weed I grew up eating. It is not for us to judge who the weeds are, we should leave that to God. Those people in our lives that we think of as weeds are people whom we have not yet discovered their virtues.
As she explored these sort of ideas in more depth, she said something else that particularly stuck with me. I love mixed metaphors and she mashed up the cup running over from Psalm 23 with the cup which is either half empty or half full, depending on one’s perspective. What matters, she went on to say, was not trying to pin blame on others for why the cup is only half full, but finding those whose cups are empty and sharing what we have with them. I thought about my current foray into electoral politics. I thought about friends who are going through tough times right now, through spiritual crises, people who can’t do church on Sunday morning because for them it is too cliché.
The cover of our church bulletin lists ten reasons you might like it at our church. Several of these reasons were well illustrated on Sunday
You’ll hear sermons that you can actually remember the next day.
You don’t think that religion should be based on fear and driven by rules.
You are seeking acceptance and affirmation of who you are as God’s own beloved.
You want God to be relevant to your life and you want your life to be relevant to God.
You’re looking for a community where there is diversity in the way people look, the way people talk and in what people believe.
I pray for my friends on spiritual journeys that they might find God’s love for them and how to share that love with others.
It’s been a long few months. At home, my uncle suffered organ failure and passed away a few weeks later. At work, I’ve been dealing with an ex-employee who is going through a tough time right now causing much stress to people I work with. In the news, the reports of fighting seem to have gotten worse. I try to muster energy for my writing, and for my campaign, and it just isn’t there. My birthday passed, with a celebration at work, but nothing to speak of at home. One of the things I was looking forward to, receiving lenses for Google Cardboard still hasn’t happened. I’m told they are in the mail and I have all the other pieces, but still no lenses.
Saturday, I went through the motions. I ate my morning oatmeal, mowed some of the lawn, and went to the dump. I tried to rest a little. I felt a sense of futility and ennui rising. I’ve been reading some of Chinamanda Adichie’s short stories which I find enjoyable, but also adds to the sense of futility and ennui. My eyes have been twitching, and my stomach has been uneasy.
Around lunch time, Kim came in with the local weekly newspaper. On the back was an advertisement for kayaks on sale at a local clearance store. The price seemed really good, and we checked out the details. The more we looked, the better the deal seemed and we ended up driving over to the store and buying two eight and a half foot kayaks.
These are inexpensive recreational kayaks. They are lightweight and came with all the necessary gear. We managed to get an additional, unexpected discount at the store. I put the roof rack together in the parking lot, loaded the kayaks, and off we went.
At home, I grabbed Fiona and we went to a local pond. Lake Wintergreen, in Hamden is about a mile long, and we paddled the length of the pond and back. It was a pleasant evening, and a necessary treatment for ennui.
Sunday, Kim and I went to church and afterwards, we headed off to visit Lake Wintergreen again. Now, my muscles are sore. The twitch in my eye, which had subsided is back, but now I attribute it to fatigue instead of stress.
When looking at all the suffering in the world, at times it can be challenging “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”, but a kayak can certainly help.
I remember standing in the hallway to the front door. We used that door to run outside and play. When we had guests, which wasn’t all that often, they would come in the kitchen door next to the driveway.
On one side of the hallway was the coat closet, deep and dark. Besides boots and coats, there were various important papers, a collection of B.B. guns, and other things yet to be discovered.
On the other side of the hallway was a giant built-in book case. To a four year old that could only reach the first few shelves, it seemed like a three or four story building, although growing up in Williamstown, I didn’t have much of an idea of buildings that large. I often hung around these book cases. There were stories to be found there as well as great piles of paper from my aunt who worked in the paper mill.
One day, I decided to write my first book. I folded a few pieces of paper together and wrote a simple story. I don’t recall it exactly, but the title was something like “The Great Oak” and the story was something like “An acorn fell on the ground and grew into a big oak tree.”
My mother smiled and from then on, always encouraged me to write.
There was a big oak tree behind the house. It would shower the yard and the sandbox with acorns. Up in the oak tree was a shipping pallet, nailed firmly to a couple branches. That was our tree house. Further up the hill, there was a large rope, the kind you climbed on in school, hung from another rope between two trees. This was our Tarzan swing. We would climb up the hill, firmly grab the rope and careen out over the hill and back.
One day, I didn’t have a firm enough grip, so the rope flung me out over the hill and I couldn’t hold on. I’m not sure how far I fell, twenty or thirty feet, probably, and landed on my back in the bushes. The bushes helped break the fall so nothing else got broken, but it did knock the wind out of me and scrape up my back pretty badly.
I ran down the hill, trying to cry, but no sound would come out. No air would come out. I’d breathe in refilling my lungs, try to exhale and not have enough breath. Eventually, there was enough air in my lungs to let out a giant wail and my mother came running.
She tended the scrapes on my back, and soon, I was outside playing in the sandbox again. Another time, I ran out the front door of the house, my right arm extended to push the door open. But instead, I put my hand through the glass of the front door, and my mother tended those wounds as well.
It seemed that I was always accident prone, and my mother would to tend to the injuries, the broken arm, the concussion, the time I got hit in the head with a rock, which came fractions of an inch from killing me.
Beyond the injuries, there was always work to be done. We lived on a small farm and many of my memories are of planting seeds, pulling weeds and helping my mother can the vegetables. We would all sit around the kitchen table, snapping the ends of beans and cutting them into bite sized lengths. We would shell the peas, bag after bag of peas to be frozen, or we would husk the corn.
Another memory I have of my mother was standing next to her as she hung clothes out to dry. The clothes line was a long loop run on two pulleys. One end was attached to the side of the house and the other was on a tree at the edge of the woods. My mother would clip the clothes onto the line with clothes pins and give the line a little tug to move the wet clothes closer to the tree, and repeat the process. It was a quiet meditative time when I just enjoyed being around my mother. Yet for her, it was probably tedious. The endless clothes of four growing children must have been a burden.
The house was small and with two adults, four kids, and at times, a dog and a couple cats, very crowded. It was the top floor of a Sears’s kit and less that one thousand square feet. These days, it would be a trendy ‘tiny house’.
There was also all the cooking and baking to be done. My mother would bake our bread, as well as bake bread for communion at church. On special occasions, she would get together with other women of the community for sewing circle. That’s what girls night out was for her when I was young. They would gather and talk as they worked on the sewing or knitting that needed to be done. She would make two large tea rings. One, she would bring with her to the sewing circle, and the other was left at home for the kids.
She would bake our birthday cakes. For my birthday, we would get seafood from the Boston Fish Market. Money was tight, but I remember one year, we even went out to dinner at the Captain’s Table. That was the night that my Uncle Charlie, my mother’s brother-in-law, had a heart attack coming home from dinner and then spent a couple weeks in the hospital.
Yet I don’t remember much about parties on her birthday or on Mother’s Day. Perhaps it is too long ago and I have just forgotten. Perhaps, I was so caught up in my own world, that I don’t remember much about what was going on for people around me. Perhaps, some of it, was that Mother’s Day just wasn’t the big commercial event it is today, or if it was, we missed it because of how tight our cash was.
So now, I sit in my house, a year and a half after my mother died, doing what she always encouraged me to do, write.
Happy Mother’s Day