Does Death have an infrastructure?

Into the Woods


While reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder I was struck by the phrase “death’s infrastructure.” My thoughts turned to the ongoing news and debates about health care and this short poem emerged.

Does Death have an infrastructure? Or do we
read about the end of life as we know it
in the morning newspaper, fresh as a starched
shirt until Nell in the nursing home
looking through smudged reading glasses
for the daily crossword skims one more
sensational headline that promises Truth
but whose blurring words already smell of fish?


Into the Woods

I saw Into the Woods a few days ago. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine capture something compelling and provocative with their lyrical rendering of “the woods”: life is an uncertain journey into mysterious unknowns by way of a path that twists and turns and abides by no discernible map.

No absolutes.
No one as independent as she imagines she might be.
All of our fates intertwined.
These are the most prominent signposts of the woods.

An image from the film came to my mind as I visited my mother today. She lives in a senior adult community. The name of the place where she lives includes the word “woods.”

Early in the movie, Red Riding Hood skips into the woods, her crimson shoes leading the way. She sings as she goes:

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Red Riding Hood is young. My mother and others who live in her community are not so young. But I suspect that each has carried a version of Red Riding Hood’s song along as she or he made her way into the woods–away from home and into the uncertainties of aging.

Who are we in the woods? In the film, we encounter a baker and his wife, a witch, a giant, a young boy, two princes, a poor villager, an orphan, and others. In my mother’s woods?

One of the first women to gain her credentials as a pharmacist.
A chemistry professor.
Mother of nine.
Gilbert and Sullivan vocal artist.
Manager of harness racing association.
Bank vice president.

Somehow, once in the woods, these identities fade. The commonalities of shared humanity surface, and one of those shared realities is how lost we can feel when we go into the woods, how unsure we can become of those social identifiers that for so long and with such power shape who we think we are.

Red Riding Hood continues to sing:

Into the woods
And down the dell,
The path is straight,
I know it well.
Into the woods,
And who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?

But the path is not so straight as we’d thought or hoped, not for Red Riding Hood, not for my mother and others in her community, not for any of us who travel down life’s dells. What, indeed, awaits us on the journey? Neither the wisest nor most mystical of fortune tellers can know for sure. And yet, we must journey on. This is perhaps one of the only certainties of human existence–that we must continue into the woods.

One of the messages Sondheim and Lapine offer is that though the woods may be dark and tangled, we are not alone. That, too, is part of our shared humanity, one of life’s most beautiful and lasting gifts. Listening today to older people recount their “once upon a time’s,” their eyes shining with remembered youth as they spoke, I found myself wishing as the characters do in the movie: I wish for 2015 that those in the woods know that no one is alone. Of course, that knowledge comes to embodied life only when we are willing to sit together and let the story continue in our sharing of it. . .

Into the Woods

For Everything a Season

I wrote this on August 25, one month ago. Deacon was fully his Jack Russell self for as long as he lived. We said farewell to him today. He was just too tired to go on. He was well-loved and will be missed. Later today, when darkness comes and the moon is high above the trees, I will go out to say good-bye to the night. I have no doubt Deacon’s spirit will go with me. Some things must not change…

The Deac

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . .God has made everything suitable for its time. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live.

—from Ecclesiastes

August. A transitional month. At least for me. On Monday, August 25, 44 new ministry students had their first classes at our school. They range in ages from young to middle to older adults and come from many different places. They heard God calling them and decided to embody a new life rhythm.

August is also the time when people post on Facebook photos of their children’s first days of school. Some of them look so young. “First day of kindergarten,” one friend put as the caption on a photo of her little girl. The girl was smiling–but looked nervous too. The shiny new book bag on her back was so big and made her look so small. I think her mama might have been crying…

August. A month of transitions. I felt a chill in the air for the first time on August 27 at the last home baseball game of the season. I even had to wear a jacket. Gardens are producing fewer vegetables. Squirrels will soon begin to gather winter stores of food.

Transitions. How do you do with transitions? How do any of us do with transitions? My dog Deacon defies them. With vigor. At my house, Deacon makes sure that no one strays from the set schedule. We get up on time. We go outside on time. We eat and drink and go out again on time. Yes, Deacon resists changes in life’s rhythms. He is firm about it. Determined. Let daylight savings time end. Not his problem. His clock does not change. We get up at the same time, not an hour later to save or not to save daylight time. What is amazing about Deacon is that his determination to defy change has meant that he also defies getting older. He is determined to be Deacon, to be the best Jack Russell Terrier self he can be come what may, even after his 14 years of life. That means that for the 5,110 mornings or so that he has lived, he has arisen with enthusiasm for heading out into God’s good creation to greet the day and headed out another 5,110 times or so to say good-bye to the night at bedtime. And he has insisted that I join him in this endeavor.


Ancient wisdom writings speak about this. The Hebrew name of the writer of book of Ecclesiastes was Qoheleth. The word means “preacher.” Qoholeth was not a cheery preacher. At least 35 times in Ecclesiastes, he says that life is vanity. This preacher is a realist; he doesn’t look at life through rose-colored glasses. Qoheleth had what has been called a wintry spirituality. But in the verses above, he speaks hopeful wisdom. Life has many rhythms. Many transitions. Some that we long for. Others that we dread. Some that are joyful. Others that are painful. In all of life, Qoheleth says–all of the transitions and rhythms we encounter and embody–God is God. That is what we can count on. God continues to be God, come what may.

Qoheleth’s sermon is a good one for me. I can’t control much of what happens in life. None of us can. But we can live each day with as much joy and gratitude as we can muster. We can spend however many thousands of mornings we have to greet the day and however many thousands of evenings we have to say good-bye to the night, praising a God who continues to be God through each and every moment.

August 2014 is gone now. September is here. September 2, to be exact. Deacon and I have 27 more mornings to greet and nights that await farewells. To everything, there is a season…

And here Deacon is, ready to head out into yet another night…

The Deacon Dog 3


Heritage Woods

“You can’t miss her.  She’s the white-haired one.”

Really?  Look around.

Where my mother lives,

they all have white hair.

“And she has trouble getting around.”


They need a parking attendant

for all of the metal ambulators around here.


Sylvia laughed aloud at the mother-daughter banter.

She has white hair.

And a rose-colored rolling assistive device.

Her eyes twinkle with mischief.  They are young eyes.

I would recognize her anywhere.


Mildred rolled over.

Her hair is white.

Her everyday transportation support is red.

She put drops in my mother’s eyes.

Her nurse’s eyes shine with caring.

They are wise eyes.

I would recognize her anywhere.


Eileen drove up.  She perched on the seat of her walker.

“We miss Pat, don’t we?”

Pat died last month.

Eileen’s best friend.

She had hopes unchecked on her bucket list.

But her heart was too large.  How can that be?

She is gone now.

I miss Pat too.

Eileen has white hair.

Her eyes are full of remembering.

And love.

And missing.

Mine too.

We would recognize each other anywhere.