E. Ethelbert Miller
on Language and Family
By Gerry Hendershot
When I began worshiping at the Church of the Pilgrims in the 1990s, it was, like many mainstream Protestant congregations, demographically skewed toward old age. That trend has been dramatically reversed—younger now people predominate. The average age of Pilgrims' Session is 30-something, and its recent Clerks have been 20-somethings.
While that change is welcome, Pilgrims' seniors continue to maintain such opportunities as the Friday Club, a monthly 2nd Monday gathering open to all, but aimed at seniors. At Friday Club, seniors share a meal prepared by members and participate in a program led by a member (travelogues are popular) or an invited guest.
Friday Club was honored to have as its guest at its March 10 meeting the DC poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, whose visit was arranged by a Friday Club regular and frequent cook, Valentine ("Peggy") Wilber. For an hour, Miller entertained the group with stories and readings from his poetry and essays. "Best Friday Club ever!" said one participant.
Before the meeting, Ethelbert asked to see the sanctuary. Upon entering, he proclaimed, "This would be a great place for poetry readings!" And that's what it will be on April 29, the 2nd day of the "Verse and Vision Poetry Festival." Moreover, Miller will be one of the featured Festival Poets. For information and tickets, go to www.verseandvision.org.
Despite his youthful appearance and vitality, Miller is nearing 70 years of age, and has written movingly about aging and family, as in this excerpt from his memoir, The Fifth Inning:
When I’m very ill or dying, I can see my daughter coming to the hospital to visit. I can see the patient in the next bed turning on his side and saying “You’re blessed to have a beautiful child who still cares about you.” I’m not sad that we all have to die one day; I’m sad that so many of us will die alone. We will depart from the earth with our children living in another city. Maybe on a small desk or table there will be a card and flowers and maybe the phone will ring once a week. Maybe the grandchildren will send pictures drawn in crayon, adding a few misspelled words. You will prop yourself up in the bed and hold either a pill or a memory in your shaking hand. You will turn to stare at the ceiling or walls.
Watch a short video clip of Ethelbert talking about his family and reading his poetry at this link.
Mysteries of the Lectionary: Why Do We Read about the Annunciation During Lent?
by Gerry Hendershot
I'm working on a series of poems for the Sundays of Lent, drawing from the Gospel lessons assigned by the Lectionary, which include, in addition to the 1st through 6th Sundays, lessons for Ash Wednesday and The Annunciation of the Lord, which this year falls on March 25.
So, I had drafted my poem for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, and then dropped down to the next Lectionary Gospel reading, assuming it was for the 4th Sunday. After drafting my poem I thought, "Wait a minute--why are we reading the Annunciation during Lent?"
Well, on one level it's obvious. Christ was born on Christmas, which is on December 25, right? And how long does it take to make a baby? Of course, Jesus must have been conceived around March 25! The Annunciation!
There is undoubtedly a large literature on the history and theology of Annunciation Sunday. But think about the poetic possibilities of its occurring during Lent. Lent, when we ponder the mystery of death, is interrupted midway by this miraculous gift.
Coincidentally, this week's assignment in Kathy Staudt's excellent course on poetry at Wesley Seminary was to post a response to any one of a list of poems based on scripture, and I chose Edwin Muir's "The Annunciation." Read it here.
Below is my post on Muir's poem. What do you think?
"Arrival" as Annunciation: Amy Grant Meets Gabriel (via Edwin Muir)
We all know what Gabriel looks like--blond, feathered, of indeterminate gender; but we know it from artists' interpretations, not Luke's account of the Annunciation, which tells us only about his/her source, mission and conversation with Mary.
What Edwin Muir's "The Annunciation" leads me to is a fresh and fruitful attention to this mysterious messenger. We learn that Gabriel is "From far beyond the farthest star," and that Gabriel "Feathered through time." Gabriel is, in short, a space traveler, a time traveler.
We also learn from Muir that Gabriel is as deeply moved by his encounter with Mary as she: "Each reflects the other's face/Till heaven in her's and earth in his shine steady;" and their meeting is "so great a wonder that it makes /each feather tremble on his wings."
So fascinated is Gabriel with Mary, and she with him, that "through the endless afternoon," they stare, entranced, into each other's eyes, neither speaking nor moving. We focus on Mary, as Luke no doubt intended we should, but in Muir's re-telling, Gabriel experiences the miracle of the incarnation as much as she.
My favorite image of the Annunciation is by Botticelli (see above). I see in Gabriel's face the rapture that Muir describes. This image, by the way, was the cover art for Mary Szybist's award-winning Incarnadine: Poems, in which she writes about the meeting of Mary and Gabriel in a variety of forms.
In the film "Arrival," Amy Grant plays a linguist assigned to communicate with newly arrived aliens whose intentions are unknown, whose "language" is like nothing known on earth. The plot depends on the linguistic hypothesis that in learning a foreign language, one begins to think in a new way, an experience that is both wonderful and ominous.
In an early scene, the linguist strips off her protective gear, steps forward, and places her hand on the transparent barrier separating her from the alien, which responds by placing its "hand" against hers. "Now that's a proper greeting," she says. From there, their relationship deepens, trance-like. Amy Grant, meet the angel Gabriel!
What I'm suggesting is that in Muir's "The Annunciation," we have a vision of a human-divine encounter in which the divine is as entranced as is the human. It's a vision of our relationship to God (or God's Messenger) in which God loves us as much we should love God--which Mary models for us. I verge on Mariolatry here!
Amy Adams was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, which she didn't get, and shouldn't have, in my opinion. But I think she'd make a pretty good Mary, conveying as she does the wonder and mystery of encountering the alien. Watch for the sequel to "Arrival" (working title--"Announcement").
"Rage, rage," or "gladly die"?
Using Poetry to Discuss Death in Lent
by Gerry Hendershot
On the first three Sundays of Lent 2017, about 20 members of Western Presbyterian Church (WPC) gathered before worship to discuss poems related to death, dying, and bereavement. I was invited by Nancy Arbuthnot, an Elder at WPC, to curate the poems and moderate the discussions. Having previously moderated such discussions at the Church of the Pilgrims, I gladly accepted.
Paul Fiddick, who coordinates the "Free Inquiry" adult class that hosted the poetry series, asked for a description to send to members. This is what went out:
Poetry, it has been said, "is the deification of reality." And nothing is more real than death--which is perhaps why poets write about it so much. In this series we will read, listen to, and discuss modern and contemporary poems about death—deaths of the beloved, our own deaths, death as fact of life, rituals of death, and more. We will consider what a poem is "about," but will focus on the emotions and memories it calls up, and their relationships to scripture. Poems will be available online, but reading before class meetings will not be assumed.
I was told several times after the first Sunday, that this was "something different" for the Free Inquirers, who usually focus on social justice issues in public policy, such as health care and immigration. With abundant expert leadership available for study of such issues (many members are DC policy wonks!), that focus is natural for WPC. Poetry was "different."
My plan was to discuss two sets of two poems on each of the three Sundays, as follows:
Ubiquity and Mystery
Death Gets Into the Suburbs, Michelle Boisseau
Bats Perish, No One Knows Why, Reeves Keyworth
Dread and Terror
Aubade, Philip Larkin
Ooo Baby Baby, T. R. Hummer
Childbirth and Children
Last Days, Elise Partridge
Upon Hearing a Two-Year-Old's First Attempts at an Elvis Impression,
I Recall the Difficulties of Her Birth, John Hodgen
Funerals and Rituals
As from a Quiver of Arrows, Carl Phillips
Funeral, Rosanna Warren
Mothers and Fathers
His Stillness, Sharon Olds
Still Life, Sharon Olds
Descending Theology: Resurrection, Mary Karr
Bright Copper Kettles, Vijay Seshadri
The procedure I envisioned was to play an audio recording of each poem read by the poet (downloaded from the internet and played with a small portable player and amplified speaker), followed by a second reading by a participant, after which I would guide a dialogic "close reading" of the poem, emphasizing feelings and memories of participants.
As the wit said, "If you want to hear God laugh, make a plan." There were equipment failures, schedule changes, and more. But mostly, plans were delightfully diverted by the Western Inquirers' insightful comments on the poems and by their willingness to share related personal experiences. I thanked them after each meeting for enriching my understanding of the poems--and my life.
Near the end of our time together, I referred to poems by Dylan Thomas ("Do Not Go Gentle into that Dark Night") and Robert Louis Stevenson ("Requiem"), lines from which are in the title to this post, pointing out the contrast between their attitudes toward death. A member of the class followed with a practical plea to all class members to complete an "Advance Directive." Does poetry matter?
Nancy and Gerry will be at the NEXTChurch National Gathering in Kansas City, March 13-15. We'll be leading a workshop on using poetry in congregational life.
Nancy will lead a hands-on poetry writing exercise using scripture related to the Gathering's theme, "Wells and Walls."
Gerry has prepared a short guide to using poetry in several corners of congregational life—stewardship (!), Advent candle lighting, services of lessons and carols, and choral speaking.
More than 30 people are signed up for the Verse and Vision workshop. If you're one of them, we look forward to meeting you in person. It's exciting for us to be among so many Presbyterians who share our love of poetry, liturgy, and spirituality.
Let's start building community now! Please enter a comment below, introducing yourself to other workshop participants and telling them about your poetic/religious interests.
See you in KC!
Exodus and Ashes:
Reflections on Dust
by Gerry Hendershot
Lee Young Li was the "Poet of the Week" in the course I'm taking at Wesley Seminary (Poetry as Spiritual Practice). Li's father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong, and was later a political refugee from Indonesia when people of Chinese ancestry were being persecuted there. The family eventually arrived in the U.S. when Lee Young Li was seven. He writes often about his relationship with his father and the immigrant experience.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Li spoke about the resonance he feels with the biblical story of the Exodus: "That struggle for belief and faith in the face of humiliation, annihilation, apostasy--all of that seems to me really what I go through and what we all go through, finally (B. Moyers, The language of life, p. 259)." That is to say, perhaps, that a human life is itself an exodus, an exile, a wandering in search of . . . of what? Belief, faith, meaning . . . something.
Lee's poem "To Hold" begins:
"So we're dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I'm lucky,
she'll remember a recent dream and tell me.
One day we'll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.
Until then we'll go on learning to recognize
what we love . . ."
On Wednesday members my faith community, the Church of the Pilgrims, anointed one another's foreheads with oil and ashes saying, "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return." Earlier, they took ashes into the street, anointing willing passers-by with the same words, or as Lee says more simply, "So we're dust."
The image of making a bed in the face of death could imply denial or diversion, but for Li it's a holy pursuit: "we raise it," "it falls into alignment," and "if I'm lucky, she'll remember a recent dream and tell me." What resurrects us in life is sharing it with others in love, in the making of a bed, the sharing of a dream, or the anointing of a stranger.
We live under threat: "One day we'll lie down and not get up. / One day, all we guard will be surrendered." But, "Until then, we'll go on learning to recognize what we love." We don't know what we love; we must learn what we love. Recently I ended a telephone conversation with a friend suffering through health and other problems by saying, for the first time, "I love you." I didn't know, but I learned. We learn to love until we die.
The dust that reminds us of our origins and our destinations, our beginnings and our endings, it is just as surely a metaphor for the lives we live along the way, making beds and phoning friends. On a recent "On Being" radio show, Krista Tippet interviewed poet Marilyn Nelson, who read her poem, "Dusting," which ends,
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
(Read the full poem here.)
When my wife died, we had her body cremated, as she had requested. I commissioned a potter-friend to make an urn glazed in my wife's favorite blue with a Japanese character in a lighter blue--she was a Japanophile. When I had selected the glazes and the shape, the potter, who had never made a funerary urn, asked, "What size?" The dust of my wife's life was reduced to ashes, whose volume must be learned. Thank you. For dust.