By Todd Donatelli
“Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older; When did they?” Sunrise, Sunset; Fiddler on the Roof
“Signs of endings all around us; Come O Christ and dwell among us; give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.” Hymn 721, Wonder, Love and Praise.
The picture sits on a shelf in my office. It is of my oldest daughter Gina and I when she was two years old. She and I are standing on our freshly constructed backyard play set. Her eyes are ablaze with excitement. Her dad is looking pretty excited as well. The play set has traveled from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi to Asheville where it still resides in our yard. A few weeks ago Gina became engaged to be married. We love her fiancé Tom and have enjoyed getting to know his family. I am deeply moved when I see the ocean depths of excitement in their eyes. I am also deeply moved when I look in the backyard and see the play set. Our endings are our beginnings.
When talking with one of my wisdom friends recently (wisdom friend means someone with more grey hair than me) they talked about how we often don’t make room in our lives for times of transition; we don’t consciously acknowledge and attend to the emotional space of life changes, be they hopeful changes such as a new job or new opportunity or tough changes such as the loss of someone or the physical or cognitive changes in ourselves or those we love. Too often, they said, we tend to expect the same of ourselves in these moments as we do in other periods of our life. Too often we don’t find ways to mark and face openly that which our guts are registering quite clearly.
I have presided at weddings for over two decades watching fathers escort their daughters down the aisle. I confess I have watched the fathers more than the brides trying to comprehend how they do it. I know in the deepest parts of my soul this is “meet and right so to do”. I know this is what will bring her life and me as well. Yet when it comes to endings that lead to life, I can be quite a chicken.
Added to this is my mother wanting to talk about end of life plans, directives and how she wants to live in the time from here to there. I will not tell you mom’s age. I will tell you she lived through the Depression and my father fought in WWII. She still lives an independent life and she is naming to me that it is fall and we must consider the coming winter. I want to run.
As Episcopalians, we are big on death. That may seem a blunt, even crass statement. Yet at every Eucharistic liturgy we speak of Jesus dying, we hold high bread broken and speak of body offered for us. We devote a whole season to loss and brokenness and a whole week to the death of Jesus. With great regularity we proclaim in death our life is found. Even in the wedding liturgy we proclaim the way of the cross is the way of life. Yet while we name regularly these “signs all around us” there is still the urge to quickly pass by our endings.
One of the things I love about living in Asheville is the changing seasons each with a vibrancy all its own. We are entering the period of deep red Maple leaves, the reds of Dogwoods, the yellow-oranges of Poplars and the whole communion of hardwoods offering their amazing palate of color (yes, please come see the mountain leaves and support our local economy).
In time the leaves will fall and the mountains will have their stark, barren appearance. Yet even this barrenness affords views and understandings of the mountains unseen when leaves are present. The lines are a bit more harsh but no less compelling. Soon I will sit on the front porch looking at the garden that has gone underground for another season. The spent flowers, leaves and stalks will decompose offering their substance for the generation yet to emerge.
While seeing the barrenness I will remind myself of the gift of fallow time, the time when we must pause and be still with that which is changing before us. There is a quiet to the barrenness that invites a wisdom all its own. In time spring will return. The bulbs will push their shoots through the dirt still chilled by winter’s temperature. Birds will return and the warmth of the season will allow for the shedding of coverings.
Yet that is a ways away. For now it is time to watch the leaves change. For now it is time to be present to what this season wishes to say. In our endings are our beginnings.
Gina and I will soon go out for a dinner where we will talk about things like the play set, t-ball games, ice skating trips, her parts in school plays, trips we took to the Mississippi coast after Katrina and a host of other rich memories. We will talk excitedly about this new chapter of life. I will also tell her that between now and next summer’s wedding her dad may appear a bit crazy at times. I will indeed let go of her, already am, and, this will be a transition.
The Hebrews erected piles of stones they called tabernacles in places where they had encountered the Holy One. These served as reminders of engagement with the Sacred, places where they tasted that ineffable presence of life. The tabernacles were not some destination, they were points along the sojourn. Pictures of my girls are among my tabernacles. They are not moments to clutch. They are moments to remember for what they offered in that time. They are moments that have delivered us to this moment, this new chapter of life.
“Swiftly flow the days; Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze.” Sunrise, Sunset. In our endings are our beginnings.
The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C.