Text: "In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver
To Live in this World
It is one of the big questions of life of what it means to live and love knowing that death will take those we love and that we ourselves will die. What does it mean to live knowing we will die? We love knowing that we will lose those we love. Yet Mary Oliver reminds that this is at the heart of living - that to live in this world we must love what is mortal.
As we celebrate marriage equality this week, it is a good time to remind ourselves of the vows of marriage. In marriage two people pledge to live and love together until separated by death. In the midst of love and the start of a life together, the couple and their witnesses are reminded of death. As we celebrate the end of Amendment 1 and the coming of marriage equality to much of the United States, we have to remember those who died before this day came, those who died waiting to have their loves and lives recognized by society. In fact, Mary Oliver lost her own partner, Molly, in 2005. As I told a group the other day, civil marriage matters most in the worst moments of our lives - when the one we love is ill, in the hospital, when the one we love dies. When we talk about marriage equality we are talking about having our wishes followed when we are least able to speak for ourselves.
Mary Oliver tells us that "everything I have ever learned leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation." Oliver tells us that salvation is found on the other side of loss. In essence, loss is essential for salvation. It is only through coming through loss, through loving and then letting go that we are saved. Saved from what? Oliver tells us that we will never know the meaning. We will never fully understand how it is through loving and losing what we love that we come to live more fully, more authentically. We become more fully human, more fully alive. She tells us we must love what is mortal knowing that our own life depends on it. We love knowing that those whom we love, and that we ourselves are mortal. We love knowing that at some point we will also have to let go.
Just like the leaves on the tree, who bud, bloom, dazzle us with brilliant green and then turn red, yellow, brown and then fall to the earth, we too must learn to let go. Most of us here have lost someone we have loved - parents, grandparents, friends, spouses - we know that it is hard to let go. It is hard to move through the grief to a time of letting go. Yet those of us who have loved and let go know that the love does not die. While we let go of the person, the love we have for them and they for us does not die. The love lives on in our memories, in our hearts, it lives on when we see a picture of the person and smile, when we share a story about them, when we use one their belongings. For me, my great-grandmother lives on every time I use her yellow mixing bowl or I watch Mollie or Donna use it. It is a great mixing bowl that went with a stand mixer. I think of her every time we use it. While she died when I was twelve, my love for her did not die. Yet at the time, her death left a huge hole in my heart and in my life. I am named after her, she was the one person in my family who stood up for me. I was her favorite and in losing her I lost the one person in my family who truly stood up for me, truly protected me. Yet I had to let her go. She was 88 years old when she died, she spent the last months of her life in a semi-comatose state unable to care in any way for herself. It was time for her to go.
Yet the desire to cling, to hold on is so strong. How can we not understand the parents of the 13 year old who was declared brain dead after what should have been a routine surgery to remove her tonsils and the parents have been caring for her at their own expense, refusing to accept the declaration? No matter how misguided we may or may not feel the family is in fighting this particular fight, as a parent, as a mother all of my sympathy and empathy are with them. How are you supposed to let go of your 13 year old daughter? How do you say goodbye?
It is not always easy to know when to let go. Sometimes we have to let go of someone we have loved, not because they have died, sometimes it is just time for a relationship to end. This can happen in families, it can happen to those who are married, to friends. Sometimes we don't really notice it happening, we move away, we stop keeping in touch and we realize that we have let go of that friendship, that relationship. Sometimes it is very intentional such as having to separate from an unhealthy relationship or in the case of divorce. We love and yet we also have to learn to let go. Often people hang on or cling on to relationships long past the time to let go. Sometimes it is only in looking back that one can see that fact.
Yet each relationship, each time we love, we learn. We learn more about how to love, to love ourselves, to love one another, to love the planet. We are not automatic lovers, we must learn to love, we must choose to love. It is not necessarily a rational choice but it is a choice. Carter Heyward says it this way " Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh."
On this weekend celebrating Coming Out and Marriage for All coming to so many places, I want to claim a personal moment and say that I am glad that I chose to embrace my queerness and to love my wife … it is important to name that today. And to also acknowledge that sometimes that choice has meant the loss of friends, the fear that comes with not having one’s relationship honored and respected and the lack of protections for those worst moments. I am a part of a community that includes both Mary Oliver and Carter Heyward that has chosen to love in spite of the dangers … I am proud to claim my place amongst that community and those ancestors. And I am incredibly happy that for the first time, I actually live in a place that recognizes my legal marriage, my choice to love in the way I have.
Just like in choosing to love, we must also choose to let go. Even when death has taken one we love, that does not mean we have truly let them go. Sometimes we hold on to the grief, we refuse to accept that the person is gone. Like the parents of the 13 year old, we just can't let go. Yet in letting go we cross that "black river of loss whose other side is salvation." We learn that life and love do go on. We learn we can love again, we can learn to hold what is mortal against our bones knowing our own life depends on it. We can once again let go when it is time. We can choose again to love, participating in the dance of life.
So let us choose to love, to love deeply and fully and hold nothing back. Let us hold those we love against our bones. Let us love abundantly knowing we will have to at some time let go. May we know when it is time to let go and to do so willingly and consciously. May we do this knowing that it is this, this loving and letting go that is required to truly live in this world.