Discover more from Doomsday Dance Party!
Viva La Vida
We're only here for a little while
I’m in Mexico City this week! It’s such a gorgeously alive place! Couples making out on park benches. Couples young and old dancing salsa on pop-up dance floors in public squares. More queer couples holding hands than I ever see in San Francisco!
Political and poetical graffiti everywhere. Bottomless street snacks. Heartstopping murals.
Gorgeous drag queens inviting you to their show half a block away! I also got invited to something called a “Ladies’ Club.” I looked inside. It was 23 totally foxy women mostly wearing slim leathery outfits. I’m still not sure if it was a dyke bar or a room full of sex workers. Either way, I was very flattered at the invitation.
And amidst all this vivacity: the insinuation of peril everywhere, from 20-year-old cops carrying guns (I could hear their prefrontal cortexes still blinking online) to 6-year-olds clinging wildly to the back of motocicletas as their parents weave through the frantic traffic.
The peril is the point. It is a double underline in black Sharpie under the word VIDA. A reminder that life is short, and we’re only in this amazing place for a little while.
When Peter and I lived here, a long time ago, my friend Lupita said in her elegant way, “Los Estados Unidos es para trabajar. México es para vivir.” “The US is for working. México is for living.”
Ironically, peril is one of the reasons Peter and I haven’t come to Mexico in so long. There’s a stern State Department warning against going to Colima, where we used to live, because of the kidnappings for ransom, and random slaughter of tourists and residents alike by narco networks and other opportunistic criminals. Why tempt fate? Isn’t life hard enough without inviting trouble?
I’ve been feeling more reluctant to travel anywhere lately, truth be told. My old anxiety about flying, rising like a tide. Dealing with the physical discomforts of travel in an aging body: back, bladder, dry eyes, digestion. It’s so much easier to stay home, especially when home is rosemary-scented, 68 degree Northern California.
But I feel a competing interest in my soul. A part of me will die before I’m dead if I start giving in to the homebody part of me, choosing ease over adventure. Libido fades with age. So does wanderlust. Both need stoking, a little gentle self-reminding of what will make us feel fully alive and amazing if we just get ourselves going.
We’ve been planning this Mexico trip with 2 other couples for 6 months (yes I have finally entered that magnificent life stage when we travel without kids and with other couples! It’s wonderful. There is absolutely no arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes and I can eat all the cheese I want!).
Then a few weeks ago, my mentor and one of my bonus mothers, Pastor Ruth Drews, died suddenly. I had to decide if I would fly to the other coast to go the funeral, which was 2 days before our Mexico trip.
It meant doing important calculations about money, and time, and fear of flying. Was it really that important? Couldn’t I grieve from home, particularly with the wonders of Zoom?
Other deaths clustered that same week. 87-year-old John Wadman, one of the dearest souls in my church. Lewis Perry, my 100-year-old parishioner who started writing poetry at age 93 and never stopped. And my Auntie Val, one of my mom’s last surviving siblings. She was the first of the original 7 siblings to make it to 70 years old. I hadn’t seen her since my own mother’s funeral 16 years ago, my mother’s once-close family having scattered. Facebook delivered the death notice.
Death was close, flapping her skirts around me. For all my talk about being at peace with death as merely our soul’s next address, I was steeped in the pain of separation. There would be no more Ruth here, ever again. No more poems from Lewis. No more perfumed hugs and “dahlins” from Auntie Val. Even if heaven is our best hope—reunion with those we love and liberation from the suffering of earthly existence (and, hopefully, lots of cheese)—there is no denying that in the meantime, people we love die and we miss them a lot. Sometimes forever.
I was surprised how hard Pastor Ruth’s death hit me. True, she was one of my most formative mentors: a self-sacrificing and ardent urban minister who spent decades personally getting poor kids to church camp and college. I first met her working at Resurrection Lutheran Church, my field education site in seminary, in the Hill section of New Haven. Our church was 150 members, 130 of them under age 18. She taught me that ministry is 10% love and creativity and 90% paperwork, but that 90% paperwork can and does change lives. Ruth preached my ordination on a sweltering August day in suburban Connecticut, and married me and Peter on a below-zero January day in Cambridge, MA six months later.
Ruth was manic and quirky and not exactly a touchy-feely person, too driven to linger and embrace. But I knew how fiercely she loved–her child, her student ministers, the people in her congregation. She taught me about tithing, and about how to sacrifice myself for my faith, my vocation and my church without being a martyr. Sometimes I think we in the progressive mainline have lost a sense of sacrifice for the greater good. Sacrifice has become a bad word—an antonym for self-care. But it doesn’t have to be.
One of my favorite memories of Ruth is actually of her absence. As a solo pastor of a demanding church, she really relied on her student ministers to work and not just watch. We were not understudies or interns. During my field ed year she took a rare day away on Palm Sunday and left the service to me.
I thought it would be fun to do a reader’s theatre of a passion play I was enamoured of. I assigned roles to my reluctant thespians, and time dragged as we plugged our way through page after page.
I finally looked at the clock. Oh no! It was 10 past the hour! I looked around at the congregation, and broke the fourth wall asking them “can we finish the play? I know we’re 10 minutes over.” Myra, one of the few other adult leaders, levelled her gaze at me and said, “Molly, it’s an hour and ten minutes over.” Ruth trusted me to lead, even when I fucked up. She knew it was the best way to learn.
Ruth worked her ass off for her entire life. When Yale-New Haven Hospital gobbled up the land around the church, and finally swallowed the church itself (which had gradually lost its defenders and supporters higher up in the denomination), Ruth became a guidance counselor in the local public high school, continuing to send kids to college.
And then, one glorious unexpected day, she retired. She was ready to really live and enjoy life. She got divorced as part of that commitment to live more fully. Then miraculously re-met and married her seminary sweetheart three Junes ago.
In a short video from her wedding, she is dancing with her grown son Daniel, both of them loose-limbed and smiling broadly. Her hair, ironing-board straight for decades, was now wavy. She spent the next two years swimming across Lake Sunapee, and kayaking, and sailing, and learning how to bake a range of pandemic breads we got to sample on our last in-person visit. She was happy, and more relaxed than I’ve ever known her to be.
Then came the leukemia diagnosis. Followed by a lot of buttkicking chemo. And then a bone marrow transplant courtesy of a brother who matched. It took! But just as she was really healing, pneumonia took her down. She swam back to the surface. Then went under the waves again, now septic. She died in the ICU in late May.
And now I had to decide if I would go. “When in doubt, GO,” my colleague Rev. Kelly said. In our culture (that is: WASP culture), we have not really had the strongest grief rituals for a while, and they are getting even more scanty and ineffective with time. When my own mother died, I was saddened by how few people from her family turned up. How can we grieve well if we don’t remember–and how better to remember than by re-membering, literally putting the members of our family back together, if only for a few hours, to tell stories and make the deceased come alive again through our tears and laughter and recollections?
I’m so tired of the sanitized “remembrance of life,” the whitewashing of grief and death that has become a hallmark of my culture. When I was a pastor in Boston there was still a strong culture amongst our elders of death on Tuesday, open-casket wake on Friday, burial on Saturday. A respect and urgency around gathering and blessing and releasing.
When I moved to California I discovered that people would often postpone the memorial service (never a body, never a burial, never a funeral, always a memorial service) “until everyone can get together.” Sometimes for over a year. I mean, the pandemic didn’t help, but still. I couldn’t help but wonder: how can you grieve well if you are asking your heart to wait until it’s a more convenient time?
Grieving is inconvenient. Why should our grief rituals be convenient?
I used to think that when people died, their enduring, immortal self got immediately sucked up (or over? Or through?) into God’s great tractor beam. Then my mom died, and I felt her lingering for quite a while–a few months, at least. It changed my theology of the afterlife profoundly. But I don’t think everyone lingers. And it seems important to gather and grieve while there is still an afterglow of them with us, a bit we can palpably feel, if we are lucky.
If I were writing this post later, at a gentler and less grief-stricken time, I might be more circumspect, generous, and less bossily advice-giving. But coming fresh off of Pastor Ruth’s funeral a few days ago (yes, I took the 5,000 mile detour. And the turbulence sucked. But I’m very glad I went), I just want to remind you of what you already know, deep down:
Go to the funeral. Group grieving, in person, is more effective grieving.
Call it a funeral, even if you’re the only one.
If you have any influence, make sure the funeral happens soon after death.
Grieve with your whole body. Don’t be afraid to ugly-cry (but be aware of not letting your grieving pull focus from people closer to the deceased. Comfort in, dump out).
Tell the whole truth about the person, so they are recognizable. Forgive them. Ask their forgiveness. Talk about their flaws and vices and mistakes as well as their virtues.
Be mad as hell if they died young. Even if they were 68, like Ruth, that is still too young. She was extremely physically fit, so finally happy, and she deserved more time.
Even as you grieve, keep living. Don’t be afraid to get on the plane. To let life be a little more uncomfortable or inconvenient in the name of doing things that matter. To have one or 17 more adventures. Most adventures don’t happen in your living room; they require a journey.
We’re only here for a little while.
I went to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Coyoacan today, and was reminded of her last painting, which includes her last words to us, 3 days before she died: Viva La Vida.