Monday, April 23, 2007

What a SUUSI fan cannot forget in Blacksburg

I am a SUUSI fan. In a previous post I noted that SUUSI, the second largest annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists in the world, is held at Virginia Tech. SUUSI is a big week for my family and friends. I look forward to it all year. Until now.

There were many difficult moments during my stay in Blacksburg, but one of the hardest was on the drill field. SUUSI people know that we have our wonderful multi-generational opening circle on the drill field. For me it is the moment I step from regular life into the SUUSI world. It is a happy and anticipated moment. But I was on the drill field last week, for awful reasons.

The above picture is taken on the drill field which is now covered in something that looks like snow remnants. It's candle wax and it is everywhere. I was not at the candlelight vigil, but I've seen the pictures, as I'm sure you have. Thousands of candles in paper cups. The drill field was spotlessly clean when I was there, but for the wax. Every few steps there is another pile which has soaked into the ground. If you could see sorrow in a field, it must look like spilled candle wax.

The picture below is of the tents covering the boards with the written memorials on them. There are dozens. They stand in the very spot of opening circle.

I cannot begin to imagine what life as a student is like right now. I cannot imagine trying to be a professor and teach. Most of all, I think walking around a beloved campus that has been drastically changed must be surreal. When it isn't horrifying. Or just confusing.

Virginia Tech is not my alma mater. Blacksburg is not my home. But for the past decade it has been my favorite place on earth for one week every summer. For the first time ever, going to SUUSI will be very very hard.

Candlelight Service in Blacksburg

The Fellowship in Blacksburg is particularly lovely at sunset which is when I was there two weeks ago. Just thought I'd share this photo to show a lovely side of a UU community who are kind and vibrant, even in the midst of crisis and pain.

Undertakers and Virginia Tech

Words have been failing me since my return from Blacksburg. I have several posts worth of experiences to share with you, but it's all a little too raw to write. However, I did not want to let this day pass without a few words on my friends in the funeral profession.

Those who follow this blog know that I hang out with funeral directors. A lot. We have the obvious connection that ministers and funeral directors share. Then there's my side work of offering classes to funeral directors for their state continuing education requirement. All of that professional time together, I've made some close friends. These friends I call the Undertakers. When my time comes, they're the ones I'll let take me under.

Thomas Lynch writes about the funeral profession most famously in his book The Undertaking. He is a wonderful man and one I admire most in the funeral business because he gets it. He gets the combination of responsibilities of his profession: sacred, medical, psychological, financial, civic... when done right, it's a calling. When I find other funeral directors who really "get" their calling in a Lynch way, I call them Undertakers after his book. I mean it as the highest compliment.

While in Blacksburg, I sought out one of my favorite Undertakers. He's a modest man, so while I effuse about him I'll give him a pseudonym: Allen. Allen and I know each other socially. He lives on the southwest side of the state, so we've never done a service together but we've talked plenty of shop over the years. He is one of the most daring, absurdly funny, ridiculously energetic people I have ever met. While in Blacksburg I arranged to have a beer with him. As I suspected, he had been helping out at a colleague's funeral home.

Most of us don't bother to think about the funeral home side of things after a mass fatality. Lucky for us, funeral homes think about this in depth. Keep in mind that just because our country focused on this tragedy for the better part of a week, death did not take a holiday. Also remember that a college town doesn't require the same number of funeral homes as a retirement community in Florida.

In other words, there was way too much work for just the local guys to handle.

So Allen and others drove in to help. And this is where I won't say much because the kind of help Allen can offer isn't what most people even want to think about right now. But help he did. And I got to see him at the end of a 14 hour day the likes of which few can imagine.

He was in many ways his usual darling self: sweet, thoughtful, funny. He never fails to ask about my family, my work, our mutual friends, even at a time such as this. But I did see something I've never seen. Allen was dog tired. And he was uncharacteristically still.

We only had about an hour together. He had to get up the next morning to do it all over again. But when he stood to leave I gave him what was probably an inappropriately long hug. (Then again, there's no longer such a thing in Blacksburg.) I had no words to tell him how proud I am of who he is. I am so glad he could help in a way that few understand and most overlook. I wanted to thank him, and honor him, and hug the life back into this dear friend who gives so much to others. I wanted to express all of that to him eloquently, but all I had was a hug.

This week Allen and dozens of other funeral professionals are accompanying the family, spouses, friends, and colleagues of the victims at Virginia Tech as they are taken under. Allen is absolutely the person you would want to do this for you or yours. Few know what it takes for really good people to do this very hard work. The selfless acts that help the most are usually the ones that are least visible, never compensated with money, and take them away from their families yet again.

Maybe someday you'll work with a funeral director and you'll be able to tell that they are truly an Undertaker. Thank them. In writing. Buy them a beer. Hug them too long. I've yet to meet an Undertaker who has said, "Rough day at work. Everyone was hugging me."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tuesday Vigil for Virginia Tech

Our weekly Vespers on Tuesday transformed into a vigil in response to the Virginia Tech tragedy. We have members who are alumni, parents of alumni, or relatives of students. The photo above shows the center candles which were lit in honor of those who died. The colored pieces of paper had the names of the victims as we knew them. Not all names had been released, but there were cards representing all of the victims.

We also lit a candle for the shooter acknowledging our human connection to him and in the hopes that his story will not repeat itself in someone else's life. Those in attendance then lit candles representing the outreaching connections the living have to the dead, and the power of community to offer hope and healing.

The incredibly talented guitarist Charles Arthur, a Virginia Tech graduate, played during the service. Two local acivists for non-violence also graciously participated in the service. Adria Scharf of the Richmond Peace Education Center read a selection from the Dhammapada on non-violence. Kristin Hott of Not With These Hands read a selection from a Christian prayer. In addition to my prepared comments, I read words by Gandhi. The theme of the service was from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Our congregation is partnered with Not With These Hands in their efforts to have the Richmond community consider, teach, practice, and celebrate non-violence. As part of that process Richmonders have been asked to write pledges of non-violence. There was an opportunity within the service to write a pledge, or a word of hope for peace. After the service, Kristin had prepared tables where people could draw visions of peace and reconciliation to be included in a Not With These Hands quilt.

We also encouraged our members to write words of hope and support for our Blacksburg congregation. My partner in ministry spent Monday through Wednesday at the Blacksburg fellowship to assist their leadership as their minister is on sabbatical. I carried our congregation's condolences and well-wishes when I arrived in Blacksburg Wednesday afternoon to lead their candlelight vigil.

Virginia Tech is the home of SUUSI which is our religious summer camp. Last year over 45 members of our cingregation and their families attended SUUSI, 11 of them were my family. I have been regularly attending SUUSI for over a decade. The dormitory where the first shootings were on Monday is one of the many Virginia Tech lets us use. Four generations of my family, dozens in my congregation, and my SUUSI friends all over the country have years of happy memories of Virginia Tech.

SUUSI is the second largest annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists in the world, and Virginia Tech has worked at length to make it feel like home to us. We mourn with them this horrible tragedy.

In Blacksburg Now - More to Come

I am currently in Blacksburg, Virginia assisting the Unitarian Universalist congregation here. I will be posting the details of the vigil we held here as well as the vigil at the Richmond congregation shortly.

The Blacksburg congregation has greatly appreciated the emails they have received. Please continue sending those. They do make a difference.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All the things I forgot to do (OK, not all)

It would appear that I have forgotten some follow-up on recent blogging issues. Imagine that.

The Tennebrae service was well-attended considering it was our first year trying it. This is a service about darkening: night falling, acknowledging evil, considering the darkest hours of life. We held the service in candlelight and as the service progressed candles were extinguished. The service ended in complete darkness and silence.

My partner in ministry brought this service with her. I particularly liked that the service does not attempte to resolve the issue of evil or wrap it up neatly. Evil is represented through newspaper articles from the past year. Each article is read by a different volunteer, whom we did not ask ahead of time. Articles were about local, national, and international incidents, wars, violence, abuse, and neglect. The different voices in the darkness added another dimension to the service. Response was positive in a "Wow, that was deep. And dark." sort of way.

My Daddy is out of the hospital. He is weak and has an abundance of complications, however, none are life-threatening. This made Easter particularly meaningful for me. Winter to Spring, death to life, sorrow to rejoicing. It's not my holiday, but I finally get it.

Fabulous Uncle Dan returns to FL. Booooo. The only drawback to my father's recovery is my uncle felt like he could resume his normal life at home with his family. The nerve. I miss him already.

Spring reverie halted by freak April snowstorm. This is Virginia, and Central VA at that. To have our first decent snow of the year in April... well, I had to call my sister to make sure I hadn't lost my mind. My sleepy first thought was, "Slurpees fell from the sky." I took some REALLY great photos for the blog. I have absolutely no idea where the disc is. So for you, it might snow in June.

Computer dies on Good Friday and is resurrected on the Monday after Easter. Freakish but true. That's why I've been out of touch. Good to be back. Kids are on Spring Break so I will have nothing but GoGurt, SpongeBob, and hotel pools to blog on until then. For your sake, I'll probably refrain from blogging.

Peace out, y'all.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tennebrae Service Friday at 7PM

We will have our first Tennebrae service tomorrow at 7PM. This service combines Christian history, the natural darkening of the end of day, candlelight, silent meditation,and reflection on the human capacity for evil.

My partner in ministry is leading this service and it is one she brings to our congregation for the first time. I am honored to assist her and it will be my first Tennebrae service.

This is a deeply moving service, but it is not appropriate for children.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Richmond in April - the snow is pink

This lovely photograph by E.M. Jones shows the Memorial Garden at our church. Once a year it snows pink in the Memorial Garden with blossoms from the flowering trees. Now perhaps my blogging friends across the country and in Canada see why I've been transfixed by Spring in Virginia. Our congregation is unbelievably fortunate to have this beautiful garden smack dab in the center of the city.

Monday, April 02, 2007

More Rites of Spring

Naturally, moments after I have posted my Guy Wonders inspired musings on the rites of Spring I visit the Incredulous Traveler and get a great zing on his. So if you are interested in the Passover side of things, as I am, go read his Passover/Matzoh/Industrial Revolution post.

Bring on the Sacred Spring

I have been perusing blog central for the mundane and sacred rites of Spring going on across the continent. Oddly enough, the ever droll and subtle Guy Wonders was the most inspirational to me with his quiet yarn about the men of his neighborhood heading for their first iced capuccino of the year. ("The More Things Change", March 29)

Round here we did it with Slurpees.

Dearest friend Seth came down on a break from his final semester in law school. Seth is an unfaithful but revered friend in our house. He started as my friend (let the record show!) Then my husband adopted him and made him his intern. Then our son stole him (maybe Seth isn't the unfaithful one after all...), renamed him Silly Seth, and... well, let's just say that Seth's visits have become long and complicated as he diplomatically attempts to have a grand ole' time with each of us. But I digress...

Slurpees, Seth, and Summer go together for us. It is a tradition for 7 years of my friendship with him, and my son has been part of the deal for at least two years. We don't plan it, but when the temperature gets to a certain point, we find ourselves together and on a mission.

Seth rolled up on his motorcycle this past 70+ degree Friday afternoon looking way too slick to be walking into my house. Good man that he is, he eagerly dumped the stud factor, jumped in our carseat crowded car and headed off to 7 Eleven for the world's best non-alcoholic, caffeine and nutrition-free beverage: the Slurpee.

I really love a Slurpee. When teaching Exodus in my Bible class I always describe manna as Slurpees from heaven. In my younger years, I tested the worthiness of my dates by their affection for Slurpees. I'm not sure I could have survived the final trimesters of my two children without Slurpees. (Summer babies- what was I thinking?!?!) I REALLY love a Slurpee.

I'm reading Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane at the moment which is coloring how I view many of my daily tasks, affections, and affinities, and how we practice our religion. His term "hierophany" immediately came to mind as we all had our first Slurpees of the year. Eliade uses this term to describe the moment of revelation, the transformation of a moment from profane to sacred.

There was a powerful hierophany in the car when the Slurpees arrived. Seth had the Coke version (which he will tell you is the ONLY flavor.) Little Man went for the cherry. Daughter Louie had a mini-banana, and I, of course, had a mixed banana and cherry, because deep down I am still 16. I passed out the Slurpees and Little Man gave the straws which had each been chosen with the imbiber's favorite color in mind.

As I handed Louie hers, I realized that this was her first real Slurpee and, after a brief moment of New Age mama panic at giving my beautiful tender offspring a concoction of pure chemicals, hierophany descended. Louie looked positively beatific with her apple cheeks, chubby fingers, and hot pink straw. Slurpees make a terrific texturized sound as they shimmy up the straw, and the car was reverberating with the Spring Slurpee shimmy. As we rolled off with windows and sunroof open, Lucero playing on the stereo, and each of us enjoying the full mouth experience that is a Slurpee, I thought - this is celebration.

I hollered out, "First Slurpees of the Year!"

"Woo hoo!" "Yay!!!" They hollered back.

And for the benediction, my son showed me his Slurpee dyed scarlet tongue.