reflecting, Uncategorized

Season of Holidays

In the Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, we know the weather, the sky, the light is changing, heralding the coming holiday time. The changes are subtle here, but the leaves fall from some of the trees, and the color is changing – the color not only of the trees, but the light in the sky, the early darkness. It’s winter now. The Season of Holidays has arrived.

The Bay Area is a diverse area of the country, and here we respect many traditions and the holidays they honor. Many of them reflect this time of darkness, this season. In my own faith tradition, we enter the liturgical season of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, four Sundays filled with stories of those ancient, ancient people who longed for a Messiah – waited for the Coming of the Messiah. In the darkest time of year, we honor the Coming of the Light, the Holy One. In the darkest times of our lives, we long for someone to save us, for someone to come to us who will fulfill our longing.

I have always loved the time of Advent, those four Sundays before Christmas. As a pastor, I worked as hard as I could to have the good church folks “stay put” in the season of Advent, to have them hear the stories of the faith as if the Light had not come, to sing the songs that tell the story of the people who wait. As the autumn gives way to winter, we watch the days grow shorter. The sun falls earlier each day into the west. The last rays of each day come earlier, day by day, until we know the longest night. We are fully in the darkest time, then, we exist within it. Although we know the Light will come – as it has before – we still must live within this darkest time.

Advent is a time of darkness. In our lives, we know Advent well. A marriage ends. A depression has its hold on us – longer than we can bear, it seems. A relationship that is floundering goes on and on until its participants are exhausted with the ending. An illness has us in its grip, and though we long for it to end, it does not. The times of emptiness go on and on, without subsiding. We know so well these times of Advent, before we come to a time when we will breathe again.

And we are in that season, now. Of course the churches will begin to sing the Christmas Carols – soon. Too soon, for me. I want to honor, to respect this time of waiting, of preparation, of darkness. And there will be time for the lights to be hung on the tree, to be lit each evening as soon as the sky becomes dark. There will be a time for the Light. Are we afraid of the darkness? I want to write: of course we are. Who doesn’t want the times of sorrow, the grief, the depression, so hard to bear, to end? Who doesn’t want the light to come on so that we can see our way down the hall? But there is that moment of darkness, there is that season of darkness – when the promise is held before us – waiting in the wings – but not given.

Early Sunset, Autumn. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, November 17, 2022.

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A New Rhythm

Over the past two years, life has developed a new rhythm. I didn’t choose to move into a new rhythm – the choice was made, and given to me, as it was given to everyone else. In the first days of the COVID sheltering-in-place mandate, the streets were quiet. If I needed to drive myself, it was seldom, and for short distances. For the most part, I stayed close to home.

You have your story of COVID-time, I’m sure. This is my story.

Activities that were meaningful to me – classes at a Senior Center, or volunteering as a chaplain at a local hospital – stopped immediately. My familiar routine was erased, also. A few friends stayed in contact as they adjusted to this change in all our lives; one friend, who is the last person to call – ever – called me one evening just to chat. At Thanksgiving, we had to forgo the usual family gathering in San Francisco for a ZOOM call, listening to each person talk about what their life was like now.

Some days, my husband and I would drive a distance – 30, 40 miles – to walk. Over time, we developed favorite places, places to which we’ve returned again and again. We came to enjoy walks at the Martinez Slough, where we watched the water ebb and flow from the tide, sometimes allowing us to see a shipwreck in the Carquinez Strait, sometimes not. Often afterward, we’d drive through the neighborhoods of Martinez, sightseers with a lot of time on our hands. Or we’d walk downtown, alone on the empty streets.

We walked in downtown Oakland, too, not far from our home. In the weeks after the George Floyd protests, we took our time, looking at the graffiti that lined the buildings on Broadway. We stopped to take pictures. We discovered places in our city we had not seen before, or places that we had only driven past in our cars.

As the months passed, we became more accustomed to this new, quieting rhythm, and we added new sites to our list of walks. One day, we drove to Half Moon Bay, where we walked along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and then we walked on the high ridge that overlooks the shore. Because we live across the Bay from San Francisco, whose skyline we can see from our front window, we started to drive across the Bay Bridge – a dream to drive in pandemic days, with so little traffic! – to a different neighborhood on each visit, for a long walk on the hills, taking in the sites of the new places that we discovered.

One day in the fall of that first year, we drove to Apple Hill in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains for the yearly Apple Festival. We were grateful that the booths and stands, open-air, were open, yet were not filled with people from a long line of tour buses, which they had been in the past. The sight-seers’ loss was our gain as we enjoyed the quiet and safe surroundings.

Those early days of the pandemic are in the past, now. The busy street a block from our house is busy again. During the day and at night, I can hear the traffic passing, cars filled with folks busy in their lives. Now, although I continue to go to the grocery store early in the day – a habit I developed during the pandemic – even then, it can be busy, with lines of people waiting to check out.

Now, we are waiting – again – for another spike in COVID cases to complete its work, and, now, having learned about the ability of the virus to evolve again, and again, those early days are a long time ago. This is a new time, it seems.

Still, what will our lives be like when we are not barraged daily with new virus updates – the number of deaths, rising again, news stories of the famous who have lost their lives to COVID, COVID as the central and first news story, day after day?? We listen to the news each day, noting whether or not COVID is the first story of the newscast.

I’m in an in-between time, once again, in my life. What will interest me now? Where will I ever want to go, after this pandemic has moved into endemic mode? What will this new stage of my life, a stage I am not entering alone, but with all the other inhabitants of this world, be like? What will have changed, and what will not have changed? I guess, mostly, this is a time of questions.

Driving into Oakland from San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, March 16, 2020. The ship pictured was a cruise ship stranded in Oakland at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo credit: Mary Elyn Bahlert

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Lost and Found

Pacific, Storm, January, 2017 (meb)

3A7D9350-A86B-47E8-9C88-03FE96170983Sometimes, the path is not clear.  What will I do with my one “wild and precious life?”  I continue to ask, even this late in the journey.  The world is mine; I have my whole life of experience behind me.  Much that preoccupied me in earlier years will not arise again (thank God!).  And still, there is this yearning.

If I could do anything, what would it be?  These are the wonderings, the meanderings of a person of privilege in this world, to be sure.  Should I write?  Of course.  Should I travel?  Yes, as long as I can, and am able.  As long as I have other places to explore.  Should I sing?  Oh, yes!

How can I serve?  That has been a question I have held within myself since I was young, and that question alone has been a key that has opened a world to me, a key that broadened my world by measures I could not have imagined.  When I set out to “serve,” to help human-kind (at the time, I thought my service would “make a difference;” now, I think not), I was willing to let go of other things to do so.  Instead, I have discovered that the desire to serve, that alone,  opened the door to another life for me.

As I’ve grown older, I know that the value of service is not a value held by everyone.  I suppose for me, it has been a motivating force.  I thought it was a value of my generation; apparently not.  To serve is a value to some.

Another key to the opening of my life has been something that came with growing up in my family.  Although neither of my parents was “educated,” – my mother received her GED when I was in college, my father went through the 8th grade – both of my parents had a bright and vivid interest in the world.  Where did that come from?  I see now that having that interest in the world has been a shining star that has lit my path.  I see that others lack this quality – they will not “go beyond his father’s saying, and he likes having thought of it so well, he says again:  ‘Good fences make good neighbors (Robert Frost, “Birches”).”

I have an interest in the world that has allowed me to see that others can live differently than me, and that is good, not something that is suspect.  I have an interest in the world that has softened the edges of what I hold as right or good or holy.  My interest in the world has been a doorway – a wide, broad doorway with edges that can expand – has given me curiosity about the lives of others, about the world.  My curiosity has allowed me to question my own values and to see that they are mine, my own.  Others have their own; I may not understand, but it is good.

When my brother Ronn first married, I was still in my teens.  One day he said to me, casually, “do you know that other families are not interested in the world, like ours is?” I shook my head.  I had not thought of such a thing, and even more, I could not imagine it.  Like a child who observes the home of another family for the first time, seeing that things are different here, his question opened my world, even more.

For all of these things, I am grateful.  I am grateful for the call to service.  That call has been a well-appointed entrance into a larger world, for me.  I am grateful for the gift of interest, a simple quality, but a quality that carries within it a curiosity, about people, about life.  That curiosity also carries within it a curiosity about self, and that deeper, inside journey is itself a treasure.

“And God saw that it was good.”  – Genesis, The Bible

 

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Holy Moment

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We sat, together on the edge of your single bed,  in that narrow room.

There, you would die, within the year.

I told you that your little brother was dead:  “Uncle Pete died.”

Your green eyes filled with tears – I had seldom seen you cry –

a small sob escaped.

You were remembering, I guess,

those complicated years of disenchantment, and love.

 

In a moment your face cleared –  you smiled,

and laughed.

Gone.