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Urban Quest Field Note #174: The river as compass

The Chowan River, April 2017

Life is a ceremony within itself.                                                    Anonymous

Mom died on Tuesday morning, April 11th during Holy Week after suffering a severe stroke while taking a nap at home just two days prior.  Fortunately, Kingsley, my brother, was already on the ground in this familiar, rural community, the home place of our maternal grandparents, Lonie and Lester Harrell, and more recently, home since 1992 of our retired parents.  Kingsley spent the last two nights with Mom at her bedside in the hospital, before she died early in the morning.  She received comfort care those last two days she lived.  Only a few hours after Dad and King returned home after Mom died, the pressure to make decisions about the scheduling of the funeral was upon us.  There was little time to just be still and present with the space that had just been made in our lives by her departure.

It’s customary in this farming community to turn funerals around within a 2-4 day window.  It’s been like that since my grandparents time, even before, I’m sure.  A well-oiled communication machine is activated in this community as the news spreads through the prayer chain and the custom calls to and from the pastor and funeral director.   The home of the deceased is quickly transformed for the receiving of friends, family, and lots of potato salad…and chicken, desserts…of course.

When I arrived on Wednesday evening, the sign-in book on the small podium by the living room door clearly marked that this living space, this living place, was now being used for visits of a particular type…receiving story…reflecting aloud on memories and conversations…silences…remembrances of connections in the past…and, of course, the latest local tale.

It felt strangely comforting to arrive under the cover of darkness.  I had imagined falling into the arms of my Dad, but the driveway full of cars indicated my entrance would not be a private one.  Dad met me at the door, insisting I come in to meet all the people gathered.  It was jarring, and I felt a bit on display.  All I wanted to do was just hug my Dad.

The next morning (Maundy Thursday), I learned more detail about the ‘decorations’ that had been made to the sanctuary at Rocky Hock Baptist in preparation for the upcoming dramatic production of the life of Jesus.  This drama was scheduled to start on Good Friday eve. Kingsley had warned me that there was a life-size tomb complete with a hand-cranked door for a stone, positioned stage left.  We had decided the day before to have the service at the church instead of relocating to another space, given that most of the people who would be attending would be members from that community.  We figured they would be fine with the props in the sanctuary, tomb included, and well, we figured we could live with it, and felt like Mom could live with it too.  We also figured Mom would want the service to be there, the church she grew up in.  And so it was.

I went over to the church around lunch time to meet with the pastor in charge of the drama production as well as the organist.   I was able to see the space for myself.  Actually, I was pleasantly surprised.  I was struck by the beauty of the hand painted back drop of a river hanging over the stained glass windows behind the baptistry.

While I would have preferred the view of the windows with the beautiful light streaming through, there was the issue of the 300 gallons of warmed water in the baptistry that would have to be drained in order to remove the painted back drop.  The pastor said they could drain it, and I immediately said, “No way.  We’re not going to waste 300 gallons of water to do that.”  I felt complete peace with that call, and, the fact that the back drop was of a river…the Jordan, of course…well, it was just meant to be.

Mom often sat in a favorite chair at home by the bank of windows in the sun room looking out on the Chowan river. She was baptized in that river. She swam and fished in that river.  She had lived by that river for the last 25 years, watching it, witnessing its unfurling life.  In the last year or so before she died, she offered spontaneous reports at meal times on the conditions of the river, the birds she had seen and the weather she saw happening outside. These were always delightful moments to receive from her as she often was so quiet.  Even as the dementia progressed, I think the river played a central role in orienting her to place, to her home.  She knew where she was, that she was home when she was looking out on the river, and this was her last view.

 

“Wild Space” Wednesdays: Sojourner’s outdoor sanctum

Whilst yet a child, [Sojourner] listened to a story of a wounded soldier, left alone in the trail of a flying army, helpless and starving, who hardened the very ground about him with kneeling in his supplications to God for relief, until it arrived.  From this narrative, she was deeply impressed with the idea, that if she also were to present her petitions under the open canopy of heaven, speaking very loud, she should the more readily be heard; consequently, she sought a fitting spot for this, her rural sanctuary.  The place she selected, in which to offer up her daily orisons, was a small island in a small stream, covered with large willow shrubbery, beneath which the sheep had made their pleasant winding paths; and sheltering themselves from the scorching rays of noon-tide sun, luxuriated in the cool shadows of the graceful willows, as they listened to the tiny falls of the silver waters.  It was a lonely spot, and chosen by her for its beauty, its retirement, and because she thought that there, in the noise of those waters, she could speak louder to God, without being overheard by any who might pass that way. When she had made choice of her sanctum, at a point of the island where the stream met, after having been separated, she improved by pulling away the branches of the shrubs from the centre, and weaving them together for a wall on the outside, forming a circular arched alcove, made entirely of graceful willow.  To this place she resorted daily, and in pressing time much more frequently.

From The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850, by O. Gilbert

Excerpt in Sacred Journeys, J. Richardson, 1995