One Saturday morning after Linda had recovered enough from her double mastectomy surgery to try some outings, she and Matt and I happened on the Nesconset farmer’s market. We ended up in line for the cashier—Matt, me and Linda behind me—all of us holding an armful of the stuff we bought: green beans, golden cherry tomatoes, cantaloupes, a watermelon, six ears of corn, some yellow zucchini.
I turned to say something to Linda, and…well, I couldn’t help but laugh. There she was, the one with the cantaloupes, holding one in each hand right up against her chest where her breasts used to be. She saw me laughing, and then she started laughing. Then Matt turned, wondered for a moment if it was really OK to laugh (??), and he too doubled over. I got out my cell phone and Linda stepped out of line for a photo, her orange hoodie and pink Keens looking great against the background of orange winter squashes. And then all the women in the line and the folks behind the counter started laughing with us and making little comments.
It was a strange and wonderful moment in which the anxiety and pain and grief of surgery and recovery got trumped by the pure joy of being alive in the company of a small community of laughing people on a beautiful late summer day amid the fruits and vegetables. It didn’t matter that all those women were laughing about being “well-endowed.” There was something ancient and lovely about the sense of solidarity: family, women, food, bodies, laughter, loss, abundance. We laughed some more on the ride home. The whole thing felt sweet, a healing thing for all of us. Later, Linda asked me to send her the photo. I said “Really? You want to keep it?” She said, “Yes, that was an important moment.”
The changes that follow great loss are always tough to bear. The memories of how things used to be haunt us. Meanwhile, the people around you are also adjusting, feeling their way around what to say, where to look, how to help. We all have to figure out how to negotiate the taboos connected to certain losses. When your son is incarcerated, when you lose our job or file for divorce or declare bankruptcy, it is so hard to know how to address the unasked questions of people who see the loss in your face. And it’s not easy to bring up medical problems that involve parts of the human body that we don’t normally talk about openly and are so closely tied to our core identities: prostate, testicles, breast, uterus. The fact is, though, it is often a huge relief to break through the taboo into a conversation about what is really going on. This photo is a taboo-breaker. We, and you, can talk about it. It is OK.
Thank you all for supporting us through the surgery and early recovery period. Every card you wrote, every email, every vase of flowers, every meal that came ready-to-eat to our door eased our way through the upheaval. We got just enough of just the right things. It makes such a difference to be held in loving community through a hard time. This is yet another thing you know how to do, from the heart, just right. We give you thanks, from our hearts, hoping that somehow, over the years, we are able to give at least as much as we have received.
With deep gratitude from the three of us,
Each September I write a letter similar to this one. After the newsletter goes out, a small crowd of people make appointments. And when we met, each often remarks how much they appreciated the list below. They’d had no idea how useful a minister could be! Yes, folks, I do more than preach, teach, sit with you in meetings and show up at the hospital! Getting to know you is a deep delight, and if talking to me helps, the process is a treasure we open together and share forever. Getting to know who you are, what you wonder about, what you struggle with is the surest way for me to keep my ministry TO the Fellowship real, relevant, engaging and useful. At the same time, helping you get at who you are and what you love, what you need to learn or give or do next is the surest way to keep the ministry OF the Fellowship powered by leaders and do-bees who are clear about how their faith calls them to act in the world.
This letter brings you a message that bears repeating at least once a year: Reach out when you need something. We are a resourceful community and a community full of resources. Consider putting my contact information under “Minister” in your cell phone. The information below puts useful names and numbers within easy reach. Here are some reasons you might get in touch with your minister specifically:
- you need a sympathetic ear for problems or decisions you are facing regarding your job, children, marriage, relationship, or anything else;
- you are feeling confused, depressed, isolated or hopeless or have a joy to share;
- you notice that someone you know in the congregation needs support;
- you are trying to figure out how to respond to the needs of a friend or loved one who is ill or in trouble or you yourself are dealing with an illness, disability or facing surgery;
- someone you love is near death or has died or and you need help with end-of-life planning or a service;
- you’re planning to marry, struggling in a relationship or contemplating divorce;
- you’re pregnant but wish you weren’t or are thrilled you are;
- you would like to have a child dedicated;
- you are undergoing a major transition in your life and feel the need to ritually recognize, privately or publicly, the threshold you are crossing;
- you or someone you know has questions about religion or Unitarian Universalism;
- you want to build your theology, deepen your spiritual life or are in spiritual crisis;
- you’re considering membership in the congregation or have already joined and are wondering how you can participate more fully in congregational life;
- you would like to share your talents and gifts as part of one of our groups, committees, or classes, or serve as a volunteer in some other way;
- you have ideas about sermons or programs or have a project you would like to initiate;
- you want to affirm something good going on in the congregation or would like to discuss a congregational issue that is troubling you;
- you’re mad at me or someone else and want to air your feelings and work it out;
- you’d just like to come sit with me and see what may open to us.
Don’t ever hesitate to contact me.
Yours, in this faith,
A month ago, my wife, Linda, received disturbing news regarding her recent mammogram. Nearly fourteen years ago Linda was treated for a kind of precancerous breast condition called "ductile carcinoma in situ," or DCIS. She had a lumpectomy and radiation to the affected right breast and has had negative mammograms until now.
The recent mammogram showed a number of new calcifications, three of which were biopsied in July in two separate procedures. Two of the three turned out to be DCIS lesions. These new lesions, according to her doctors, are not related to her earlier cancer even though they are the same type in nearly the same location. Because Linda has a family history of breast cancer, a tissue sample was sent for genetic testing. In early July I let the Board, the Pastoral Assistants and my Minister's Advisory Committee members know what was happening so that Linda could have extra support while I was away. Now that we have more information, we want everyone in the Fellowship to know what we know.
Yesterday Linda had a decision-making visit with her breast surgery specialist, Dr. June J. Lee. Even though the genetic test was negative and the left breast shown by MRI to be disease-free, Linda, for various reasons and at the recommendation of Dr. Lee, has decided to undergo a double mastectomy with minimal breast reconstruction. That two and a half hour outpatient surgery is scheduled for September 5th. The surgeon is reserving the option to remove local lymph nodes during surgery for biopsy, but at this time we do not expect that Linda will need any follow-up radiation or chemotherapy since the cancerous cells seem to be completely contained in the milk ducts of the breast. We expect a three-week acute recovery time but, as we all know, complete return to normal functioning always takes months longer.
Linda is surprised and sad that she has to deal with this again, something she never expected after fourteen breast healthy years. The diagnosis and treatment prospects have thrown us all for a loop emotionally and have infused our summer with worry made more unbearable by the waiting. I feel terrible for Linda, of course, and will obviously need to devote plenty of time to her support this late summer into the fall. Fall is a busy time for UUFSB as well, so I will need your attentive help on the Fellowship front as we get rolling into our first year of called and settled ministry together. If you are able, please pitch in wherever you see the need for UU hands, hearts and heads in the months to come.
You have had plenty of practice, especially recently, in supporting women going through breast cancer diagnostics (positive and negative) and the chosen treatment. Here are some suggestions for how you can most helpfully show your support for Linda now and in the weeks and months to come.
Cards, emails and appropriately gentle hugs (!) are certainly welcome. Meals to warm in the days after surgery and short visits during the recovery period could help as well. We will let the PAs know what our current needs are and they will be able to coordinate the response. Please know that Linda and I are both resourceful spiritual leaders. We are, by nature and vocation, equipped to face adversity with others and in our own lives. Linda, Matt and I will get through this and back to the normal busyness of our lives in time.
In the meantime, as you minister in practical ways to us, I will still be able to be your big "M" Minister. If you need me, please do not refrain from reaching out because you worry that my plate is too full. Support is here for you no matter what else is going on.
It is my birthday, a refreshingly cool and blustery cloudy Cape Cod day. This morning at 7:00 a.m. I completed my 57th year (+ 9 months) on this earth. I am feeling very happy to be alive, grateful for everything I love and savor in life and for the energy I have to see that loving and savoring gains ascendency in the world over excluding and exploiting. Here is the house I stay in here in Brewster. Before 1960, it was a garage. It is just across the yard from “the blue cottage,” where mostly summer renters stay these days.
The work I do with you and our larger movement is a gift that dawned rather far along in my life, and is proof that good things sometimes do come in big packages. This work allows me to live very close to the bone, to muck around in the real of life with you, in the crazy beauties and the ugly torture and the tedious ruts and the overwhelming joy of our lives together. It is work that could easily occupy twenty-four/seven if I let it, but if I did I would be reduced to smoke and grease before long.
That’s why our Association encourages “letters of agreement” between congregation and minister that allow the minister plenty of time to rest and study and drink deeply from the well of Spirit that sustains good ministry. You give me four weeks of vacation every year and four weeks of study leave, a blessing I know every one of you could use as well! The least I can do for you is to make sure that I use the time you give me well. Here’s my formula: a mix of solitude and family, special places, flowers and trees, regular NPR radio, museums/shows/movies, lots of reading (especially novels and poetry), TED talks, Krista Tippett’s On Being, mining for preaching stuff everywhere, treating my body to naps and other good sleep, to swimming, biking, walking, and kayaking, just sitting and looking, eating earthy garden food and reading and listening and reading.
This is shorthand for my personal “defragging” method. By the end of June my cellular disk drive needs a little dust-up. During these weeks I reorganize the mess in my head and heart and take in new stuff that will become the classes and Sunday services and celebrations and conversations of our new year together. It takes peace and beauty and deep breaths and long days with nothing else in them in order to accomplish that. And I thank you for your gift of time away.
My challenge—and maybe yours too—is to find ways to balance work and renewal all year round. It takes discipline, self-love, forethought, creativity. But a life and a world that loves and savors more requires that kind of balance. Life is more than grease and smoke.
See you soon,
At the very end of June, through July and part of August, your hard working minister gets a little breathing time. During the summer, I take the second two weeks of vacation time (the first two weeks I schedule during the winter or spring) and four weeks of “study leave,” time for preparation and contemplation, free (except in the case of emergency pastoral care needs) from my usual duties as minister. This allows me a leisurely think about my goals for spiritual leadership in the year to come and time to lay out the worship topics and schedule, read up on topics I want to address, plan adult education classes, and tee up various projects for the fall. So study leave means work in a relaxed setting, but no less importantly, it means replenishing the well of spirit, energy and wisdom from which I minister. To that end, I find as many ways as I can to wrap that work in beauty, nature, exercise, rest, novels and poetry, art of all kinds, travel, and play. So here is what June, July and August look like for me.
6/17-6/23, General Assembly in Louisville, KY (with Linda and a cadre of UUFSB lay leaders)
6/24-7/6, study leave (2 weeks)
7/7-7/13, UUFSB work week (I preach July 7 on our “transformation” theme and lead a memorial service for Mitsi Cullver on July 13)
7/14-7/27, vacation (2 weeks)
7/28-8/11, study leave (2 weeks)
8/12-14, back to work with a three-day training for ministers at the Walker Center, Boston MA
8/15, back in the office!
8/18 and 8/25, reoccupying the pulpit starting with these two August services.
Two important messages about September services:
FIRSTLY: Wendy Engelhardt and I are organizing an intergenerational trip to the Labor Day weekend (8/30-9/2) Shinnecock Powwow out on the south fork of Long Island. We are not sure which day we will go (Fri, Sat or Mon) as the powwow schedule is not yet set. Stay tuned for more information!
SECONDLY: Sunday, September 8 is HOMECOMING SUNDAY!!! We will be celebrating a Water Communion together that morning. Please collect water from one or more of your summer adventures to bring to the service. Also, please wear clothes in colors associated with water: blue, green, teal, sparkly, wavy, iridescent hues.
Wishing all of you a safe and delightful summer season!
Here is a picture I drew when I was a hospital chaplain and was in intimate contact with the suffering of others every day. Mine was the hand reaching as far as I could across the barriers that separated the sufferer from sustenance, choice, connection, hope, from self and life. Where the fingertips of the pink hand penetrate the bricks and wire and fence pickets, they lose their color, drained by the depth of the sufferer’s despair. Suffering is like that. We’ve all been both the sufferer and the caregiver.
A recent op-ed article (Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, “How Not To Say The Wrong Thing,” LA Times, 4/7/13) suggested a “ring theory” for caregiving. The one good thing about being the sufferer in the center of the circle is that you can react in an uncensored way to any aspect of your experience. Caregivers can also freely express their reaction to the suffering, but only to people in larger rings. If you want to talk about your shock or discomfort with what you see; lament all the comparable terrible things you’ve experienced; say to the sufferer “It’s not just about you!” that's fine. Those are perfectly normal responses. Just say those things to someone in a bigger ring.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to say something, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down." Comfort IN, dump OUT.
The fact that suffering is hard to touch doesn’t mean you stop reaching in, stop bringing water and bread, wings and warmth to the starving, the thirsty, the cold and the trapped. Sufferers feel the vibration of love long before they dare to open their eyes to see the gifts love brings.
Love matters most. One day it will be you who will open your eyes after days in the dark to see a hand reaching out through the barriers that isolate you in your suffering. Sufferers: Hold on to hope, reach out, drink deep of the love that comes to you. Caregivers: Comfort IN, dump OUT, support one another in the challenge and grace of loving others well.
Loving you all (I hope well),