Hetty, Here and Gone

I’m tired of talking about myself. I don’t quite have the self-absorption of many preachers and bloggers, that I think the world is waiting with awe for every sweet bon mot that drops from my pen, or scrolls across my screen, since I use a laptop. I want to write for a while about people I have encountered in my ministry. Some of them will be people who have lived good lives, others are people who were exemplary Christians and Anglicans, some will be the people who have just struggled along, being God’s children. Some may impress you as saints, others as abject, perhaps unreconstructed, sinners.

I won’t be using their real names, although it will be impossible to change the setting in which I met them, as setting influences who we are and how we relate. Those readers who live in the locations where these anecdotes take place may recognize the people. Your experience with them may be different. I will write either about people who have now left this life, or who are so far away in time that I do not know what has happened to them.

Hetty lived in the community where I was pastor. She was a recurring name on every visiting list left by my predecessors.  She was just about sixty years old. I don’t think she had ever had an income-producing job in her life. Her days had revolved around caring for her mother since she was young. She was a prolific knitter. It provided a supplement to her tiny disability pension and gave her a few treats in her quiet life.

She had never married. She had been born outside wedlock. Her mother, as far as I knew, had never married, and she was an only child. The extended family had lived on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the settlement.  They had been late immigrants, and the land they had obtained was swampy and cedar-choked. It wasn’t much of a farm to support several brothers and a sister, and then a single child. Hetty had a photo of herself as a child, sitting next to her mother. She had a pet chicken on her lap.

She was rather like a plump little hen herself. When I met her, she was trimmed down from being a very plump hen indeed. She still had the broody figure, and she habitually slumped forward in her chair and when walking, a result, I think, of a lifetime of sitting and encroaching arthritis. She would tuck her arms back along her sides, a habit from knitting, which just reinforced the hen-like appearance. Her eyes were bright, and her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, was a dark shock that usually stood up in three directions, like a hen’s comb. She was a survivor of breast cancer. The cancer diagnosis and treatment had come to define her life.

She had a hoarse, unmodulated voice. It would soar in volume as she talked, relating one of her many anecdotes. She was animated when she recounted her many doctors’ appointments, how the doctors were so nice to her, how they truly cared, how loved and supported she felt. Except for Doctor Margaret, who could do no right, being a woman doctor. I wouldn’t say Hetty was a hypochondriac. It was just that for the first time in her life, people took care of her. She loved all her (male) doctors greatly. I don’t know if they were appreciative of her love, but in her own way, it was innocent and faithful.

I called on her at least once a month. She did not drive, so she was dependent on neighbours and friends for shopping and entertainment. She wasn’t a television watcher. I suspected that she couldn’t follow the plots of soap operas or dramas, and her sense of humour was old world.  English was not her first language. She spoke Danish all her life, with enough cousins and neighbours who also spoke it that she did not lose her language skill.

Hetty lived in a house trailer, or a mini-home as they are called here, which had been purchased with insurance money after the family homestead had burned, leaving her and her mother homeless. It was circa 1976, outfitted with a complete kit of furniture. I had lived in a similar model about 1978, so I recognized it. Almost thirty years later, she still had all the original, pathetic-quality furnishings and curtains. Then she had added knick-knack shelves, whatnot tables, slim wobbly bookcases, hassocks, baskets of yarn, folding trays and the most of the contents carried by W.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime in Presque Isle. She loved a good rummage or garage sale. The little house was overheated and usually smelled of hot cooking fat. It was clean, as clean as rotating Red Cross caregivers could get it. She was a great favourite with her caregivers, as she was almost always sunny and pleasant, generous and sentimental. Only once did I ever hear her speak harshly of someone who had hurt her feelings, and it was with a great deal of sorrow as well as a bit of satisfaction in having had the last word. She cried quickly and copiously. I took care to turn the conversation away from morbid subjects, though she had a relish for the details of horrible illnesses and injuries.

Her favourite entertainment was live country music. A neighbouring church always had a music night once a week in their parish hall. She was a regular. Someone would pick her up on their way by, and she sat there, week after week, tapping her feet, enjoying the hot sweet tea and cookies that were the regular fare. I believe she used to dance; it wasn’t anything I ever witnessed. I’d say her next favourite  activity was a good funeral. My Danish congregants had a healthy and earthy attitude to death. They mourned their loss, but a history of famine, forced immigration, hardship in the new world, and the loss of children to epidemics, old people to pneumonias, and young people to accidents made them aware of death in our lives, daily. Cancers are common. Fatalities in the fields or woods and on the roads and trails were a yearly occurrence. We clergy officiated a lot of funerals. Good funeral sermons and some favourite music of both the modern gospel and antique Danish hymnal were expected. The cemetery burial ended with a traditional Danish hymn sung a capella. Our local funeral director, although not Danish, would lead it if no one else had the voice for it.

The funeral lunch was not neglected. A table of traditional foods was provided by the ladies of the parish. (We have one male cook amongst us, but he is kept in reserve for smorgasbords and fund-raisers where Danish sausage and other hearty meat specialties are required.) Hetty was a society matron at funeral lunches. She found herself a good seat, walking cane beside her, and we fetched her plates of sandwiches, delicate Danish creations of good homemade bread, sweet butter, sandwich meats and thin sliced vegetables and pickles, followed by another plate or two of the delicious and otherworldly cookies that only Scandinavians can produce. (I have acquired the knack of peparkakor, a spicy molasses biscuit.)

Hetty called me occasionally. She had need of a few groceries at the end of the month; she needed a new (to her) refrigerator, so would I contact the right people for that; she hadn’t seen me in a  while and I’d left a card in the door while she was out. She had a bitter pride when she had to ask for help. People offered and she accepted. She might ask a favour but she posed it as if she would, when possible, reciprocate. She could not reciprocate with me. Not that it mattered. I am pretty nonchalant about helping people in need. But I could see the frown, the incipient tear when she realized that she was indeed bitterly poor, and she had to go to the church for help. She had to ask me. She liked me, but I was not the same as the wonderful priests in the past, Father Such, Canon Wonderful, Mr. Greatheart. I was just little Pastor Julie. She didn’t hold it against me, but my stature did not cast the same impressive shadow.

She called me from the local hospital one day. She had been admitted for surgery. She had a terrible hernia. I don’t know what caused it. I suspect a lifetime of poor health and inadequate diet was the culprit. I went in immediately to see her before the procedure. She was a fragile patient, the body weakened by cancer and its cure. It really was the worst rupture I had seen in a few years of chaplaincy and hospital ministry. Her skin had split. She was in pain, but she joked a bit about it, poking her finger delicately around the damaged navel. She had no inhibition in sharing scars and wounds with me, nor was I ever shocked by such. Ten years of shepherding had submerged forever any remaining squeamishness that had survived motherhood.

The hernia was repaired, but her condition worsened. She was taken to the big hospital in St. John, far from home. I went down to see her in the midst of her diagnostic routine.

“They got me here in Oncology,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

“What is your doctor’s plan?”

“X-rays and tests and ultrasound. But why am I in Oncology? That means Cancer.”

“Yes, it does.”

She talked a bit randomly about her cousins coming to visit, and gifts they had brought, and what the food was like. She liked her roommate. She liked the nurses.

She got quiet. I sat in the pink visitor’s chair and waited.

“Do you think I got cancer again?” she asked.

“What does your doctor say?”

“Nothing, He said it was tests.”

She got quiet again. “I got cancer again. That’s why I’m here. The medicine stuff is chemo.”

She started to cry. I held her hand.

“Can you go ask?” she said to me.

I went to the nurses’ station. I asked if someone could explain Hetty’s medical treatment to her. They arranged for a doctor to come in later.

I told her this. She shook her head.  “It’s cancer. I know it. That’s why they got me here.”

“Yes, I think so.”

She covered her face and cried. Finally, she wiped her eyes and said. “I kept you a while. It’s a long drive home. My cousin will be in soon, really. I’ll be okay.” I said a prayer and left her.

She was transferred back to the local hospital. She slowly descended into more pain. Morphine didn’t help. The cancer was in her spine. Neighbours helped in the hospital, sitting with her, getting her comfortable, bringing her little treats as long as she could tolerate food. Her property had to be sold; she talked about the nursing home. She thought she would like it.

I sat a few spells with her. She liked to have me close when she was conscious, but that was getting rare. Her eyes would glaze as she lay half-reclining in the bed, propped with pillows. She would moan softly sometimes. She started talking to someone who wasn’t in the room. “What is she saying?” asked a caregiver who didn’t speak Danish.

“She’s talking to her mother. She’s saying, mother, help me, come get me.”

We looked at each other with troubled eyes, then back at the place by the window Hetty seemed to be addressing.

She died soon after that.

She had a good Anglican funeral, in the church.

I walked up the aisle ahead of the coffin, in my black cassock and white surplice.

“I am the resurrection and the life , saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…”

Her cousin gave a eulogy. The lessons were read, I gave a sermon. We went out to the cemetery. She was laid next to her mother. “I’ve arranged for stones,” her cousin said. “For her, her mother, and her uncles. The family could never afford them. I can do that for her now. It’s the last thing we can give her.”

And so it is. The last good words to be spoken, the last gift, the hope of the resurrection.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

 

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More Plainer

Whenever I write about being Plain outside a traditional plain community, I get a lot of comments here and on facebook about why, and how, someone tried it and left. Well, we all have our own faith-path to walk. Sometimes it was nothing but a notion, a bit of romance, and was not a vocation. Sometimes, though, someone lost their nerve, and couldn’t face a sense of criticism or rejection. But the world will always reject Christians who do not compromise with Satan. That is the way it is and always has been for more than 2000 years.

The last post on this struck a general nerve in the opening description of a young woman who suddenly rejected the Plain life in which she was raised and lived. I was not focussing on her story; it was a mere example of how sometimes people miss the point entirely of Plain life. The essay following on living as if at sea was the focus. But Plain dress makes people nervous.

If you dress Plain, fine. Do it because you are called to it, and if your community doesn’t understand, just keep doing it. You are not as conspicuous as you think. Don’t be afraid to be different. In a Plain community, Plain dress serves the same purpose as a habit does for nuns and monks. It makes people equal. Besides its practicality – and it is practical, especially if you sew, and even if you buy your Plain dress, it is cheaper overall than fashionable clothes – it is a group identifier, and a reminder to the wearer that they are separated from the world. This is the most important part of Plain. Separation. If your faith is accommodating to the world, you will not want to be Plain. Most Christians never feel the call to be separate, even as we are told by the gospels and the epistles to be so. (I recommend the Epistles attributed to Peter.) Early Christians were recognized on the street as such by their unique, old-fashioned (for the time) clothing and their gentle manners. They were also the people hauling the sick and injured and starving out of the alleys and gutters and taking them off to a hospice of some sort. In the first century, Christians were notably different.

 

Once Plain (On Avoiding Mirrors)

I do not think I will be leaving my Plain life. I am at home in Plain. I am comfortable Plain. My husband, house and way of life are Plain. There are moments of dissatisfaction. I wondered last night if I would ever consider a dishwasher, for instance. But since I had the supper dishes washed in less than ten minutes, I think I answered my own question.

But people I have known over the last three or four years as Plain have been leaving the life. Some attend traditionally Plain churches, but are shifting to a faith community where Plain is less accepted or known. They are timid of taking their Plain selves there. Sometimes the shift is because they are disenchanted with Plain.

I feel sorry for them, and sometimes a bit frustrated, especially when they sought deep advisement about being Plain. But apparently it was not a leading for many, just a notion. A reverse vanity, even a real vanity – Plain but vain.

I was surprised when one young woman dedicated to her Anabaptist way of life changed churches, dropped her prayer kapp and full aprons, and started dressing in modest but fashionable outfits, “covering” with nothing more than a folded scarf or a hairband. She started wearing make-up. She painted her walls bold colors and bought room accessories. She let all of us know about it. In effect, she left behind what her ancestors had struggled to keep. I sadly relinquished her friendship. She was too vain to be Plain. She courted having hundreds of friends and acquaintances through writing and publicizing her new-found fashionable Christian life.

As I said, I cannot imagine giving up Plain. Maybe it’s because I am so aware of how fragile life is. I want to live close to its roots. A life stripped down to essentials, a life lived under an open sky, a life full of challenge and opportunity to know God, not just know about God. I don’t think that can be found in an elegant house, with elegant friends, pre-occupied with career and the frivolities of modern distractions. It’s a way of being at sea while living ashore. I love that about life at sea. It is basic. It is all sky and water and distant land to be sought. It is birds overhead, fish flying from wave crest to wave crest, whales and seals. It is the wind for a tutor, and the sea itself as a home.

One cannot take anything extra to sea. There is no room for superfluous baggage. Before the voyage, one has to plan minutely what to take. There is no shopping mall, no easy way to refuel, restock, take on fresh water. There must be enough, and what is packed aboard must be of use. Potatoes and canned food, certainly. Repair kits for clothing and sails, medical equipment and supplies. Warm and useful clothing. Charts, sextant, radio, GPS, books of nautical and natural knowledge. Bedding, soap, dishes, pots and pans. The barest of basics, and if there is extra space left, a bit more of those basics. (I once sailed with someone who had insisted on bringing her glass coffee maker. Everytime we hit a patch of rough sea, the first thought was to go stow the coffee maker in someone’s berth. A Chemex coffee maker does not make a good bunkmate.)

And that is Plain life to me. It is carrying just what one needs for the journey. To give up on it from insecurity, vanity, or the desire to please someone else, is the same as swallowing the anchor. It means giving up the life lived as to drink it down to the lees. It is to accept the cosseting and spoiling that numbs our souls.

I worked in the marine industry for a couple of decades. I lived on the waterfront, worked on the waterfront, and traveled across the water itself almost daily. I knew many sailors who lived aboard. Some had made the great sacrifice and divested of the extraneous, the merely pleasing. They sailed. They traveled. They called from far distant ports in other countries, on other continents. And others had not divested enough. Their decks and home-wharves were cluttered with effluvia – the extra bicycle that needed a new tire, the lockers of old clothes and mouldering books, the hoses and lines and chains that never found a home. They crammed their small living spaces with shirts, jeans, running shoes, notebooks, mementoes, odd china, cookware, cookbooks, torn sails, artwork, broken computers. All of it was to be used – someday. But in the meantime, they were held back. It is impossible to really sail with loose goods on deck or below. It is dangerous. It is frustrating. One might motor on a calm day from harbour to harbour, but it is not possible to successfully set sail and heel the boat. Some vessels end up so overcrowded with the retained flotsam and jetsam of the owners’ lives that they would simply capsize.

Plain is the sailors’ life. It is the life that can travel to new spiritual ports of call. The early Quakers and Anabaptists knew this. They kept their possessions to a minimum. They might have to up anchor and away in t he night. They at least knew, deep in their bones, that any of us can be called away on a moment’s notice, leaving behind everything earthly. They did not want their souls weighed with the baggage of regret for what was lost.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Anything that is traveling with us is merely dust, no more, in even a few short years, anything more than its compounded elements.

So the mirror – liar, that it is, is our enemy. It tells us what we think we are. It is merely an image, not the woman or the man. Avoid mirrors. They will provoke discontent, insecurity and vanity. They will make a Christian envious, because the image is not that of what the mind wants to be true. The mirror can be left behind on the long voyage. How the sailor feels in the face of the wind, what the muscles of the body say, how warm and comfortable the skin is in sun and breeze and water is the real living being. The mind at rest and the soul that can answer its Maker without hesitation are the  true image.

healing at midwinter

waiting on the cusp of the night

for a moment of dawn light

a moment of healing

i would call it down myself

if i could waiting for the miracle yet to be seen

an angel walking across the snow

leaving no footprints

slowly as if to save all his strength

for the touch we need

or a shaman shaking down cures

from his reindeer bone rattle

seeing in the darker world the light

that will release us all from pain

a saint of white slim fingers

smiling faintly as the spirit

surges in his touch

and we are healed

in a final moment

a miracle

Back to Work

old Sears ad

I have taken a long hiatus from blog writing, partly to get caught up on some paid writing online, and partly because of illness. What appeared to be a year-long struggle with an allergic reaction has, perhaps, resolved as a thyroid issue, and I am just beginning Synthroid. I haven’t felt so exhausted in years, without really doing anything strenuous. Low thyroid function would certainly account for that.

Today I am optimistic. With health issues getting under control (God willing), other issues will also get resolved. Finances. Work. Scrubbing down the house, which while not terribly out of sorts, is starting to show neglect around the edges.

Nicholas has been very good at keeping the barn running without me. The hens are still laying, the goats are snug, and we have hay and grain aplenty. We are down to one silky, who is promoted to pet status. I suspect the lame one finally died one afternoon of heart failure from the stress. The last one is improving from her eye infection, and eats like a horse. Nicholas asked for a name for her, so I called her Tootie. He claims that silkies sound like they are blowing little trumpets. When spring comes, we will get a few pullets to add to the laying flock.

It is deep winter here. We haven’t a lot of snow cover, but we have had hard cold, cold enough to drive the dog inside after a few minutes. She considers it her duty to prowl the barnyard while Nicholas works, guarding against wolves and eagles. Usually this means she gives the compost pile a bit of a snuffle, runs down into the hedgerow to see if the rabbits are about, and may even venture up the dirt road to check on the last whereabouts of the neighbours’ dogs. But when it was -25C, she would make a quick patrol, and sit on the doorstoop until Nicholas came back.

The Amish-made wood-stove is keeping the house warm. We have had to go back and forth to the landlady’s yard for firewood, as I don’t have the stamina to make more than one trip a week. The wood is stacked against their workshop, and we have had some freezing rain at odd times. So the wood is frozen together, and a little saturated. To pack it into the bed of the truck we have to take a small loose branch piece, and tap along the top of the stacked cord. Sometimes we have to drop a frozen lump of cordwood to shatter the ice binding it. This is slow; it is cold. I climb into the bed and stack as tight as I can, keeping the level of the wood below the window level. I don’t like the idea of braking suddenly and having a couple of hundred pounds of cordwood coming in through the rear window. Just stacking level with the bed edges is a heavy load, and the truck bounces and wallows as we head back. It is up one hill, down a curved hill, some sharp turns, across the wooden one-lane bridge, and another curve uphill and then back down after a very tight acute angle onto our dirt road. It is a challenging drive well-burdened. And since all locals drive in the middle of the road in winter, where the sand truck has sifted its stingy load, it is also a bit of an obstacle course.

Our truck has four wheel drive and good tires, but I am still quite cautious on our icy roads, after last year’s guard-rail accident. We’ve had three incidents in a year – guard-rail close encounter, lightning strike (see my article on that at www.homestead.org) and the flue fire. I am hoping that 2012, despite the popular tabloid predictions, will be much less eventful.

chalet via All Things Xmas

Silkies Update

Of the six silkie chicks we bought back in July, only two survived. They are not doing all that well, either. One is lame; she pulls herself around with a wing, pushing with one leg. The other has eye infections. They are now living in a hay-lined dog crate in the heated shed attached to the kitchen.

Eye infections are not unusual in chickens, so I have trimmed back her feathers around her face and we are applying a triple antibiotic ointment. She has both eyes open, but the lids and skin are inflamed.

The other may have frostbitten her legs or feet. I asked my old parish warden when I saw him lately about silkies. They have raised all kinds of barnyard birds, from bantams to emus. He said that the breeds with feathered legs sometimes will get the lower feathers saturated with water from their dish or run-off, and the feathers freeze against the leg, damaging skin or muscle. This may be what happened to our little lame bird. She isn’t in pain, but sits with one leg back and one forward. She tumbled into a low place in the hay the other day, and had to be lifted out. Her dignity was badly injured. Today I held her in my hands, with her feet properly set under her, and I could feel the warmth of her legs and feet. She could balance all right; the leg muscles flexed and twitched, so I knew that she had enough blood flow and there is no sign of necrosis. I will try to give her that little exercise daily.

Both birds are eating and drinking, make happy chirpy noises when handled or when they are expecting food. Quite a few farmers would have put them down, but since they cost next to nothing to keep and are happy enough, we are letting them go on, giving them a chance.

Maybe we are too tender-hearted, but while I don’t like to see an animal suffer needlessly, they seem to enjoy their protected winter quarters. If they survive to summer, they will get an enclosed pen and little house outdoors. We are all right with having them as pets. They are bright and engaging, so the joy of holding and nursing them along is worth the trouble.

 

not one of my silkies!