In the Midst of Life

The Episcopal funeral liturgy reminds us that, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The reverse is also true.

by Susan Palwick

June 11, 2016, was the sixteenth anniversary of my baptism. I posted about it on Facebook, and a friend commented, “Happy rebirth!” Another friend said, “A lot of rebirthing going on,” and I answered, “Really, when you start looking for it, it’s everywhere, right next to and in the middle of all the chaos and destruction and tragedy.”

I believed that; I still believe it. But the next day, June 12, saw the massacre of 49 people and the wounding of 53 in an Orlando nightclub. The attack, the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, was unquestionably a hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community, which includes a number of my friends and family. My breezy statement about resurrection the previous day seemed facile now, even callous. The words tasted like ash in my mouth.

That evening, I went for a walk and saw, hovering among some flowers, a bee gathering nectar and pollen. Bees have been in the news a lot recently. Aside from massive bee die-offs, “zombie bees” infected by parasitic flies pose another threat to the survival of these creatures, who play such a vital role in human agriculture and are beloved creations of God in their own right. On a day of devastating news, seeing that bee felt like a tiny resurrection. It couldn’t wipe away my heartbreak and grief, much less those of the people directly affected. It couldn’t fix what had happened. But it reassured me that life continues.

The Episcopal funeral liturgy reminds us that, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The reverse is also true. In the midst of death, we are in life.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people dismissive of formal faith say, “My church is in Nature.” The cliché always makes me roll my eyes, and I don’t intend to echo it here. Nature shows us the staggering creativity and fecundity of the divine, a cornucopia that humans have been all too willing to plunder and despoil. Formal faith communities, like other communities, fulfill the human need for social connection. Both are essential. Like honeybees venturing out into gardens but returning to highly structured hives, we cannot survive without the wild, but we also cannot survive in isolation. We need all of our ecologies, the ones specific to our species and the ones we share with all other species.

I’m writing this column on July 1. This morning, my sister’s husband died in hospice a week after a sudden stroke. Our family is stricken, desolate; the shape of our universe has changed. Shortly after I got the news, I went outside to sit on our back deck, which faces a broad expanse of dirt. My husband and I aren’t gardeners. He keeps the dirt clear of cheatgrass, a deadly fire danger in the West, but otherwise we simply welcome whatever plants take root and thrive on benign neglect. Peavine grows in one corner, and a neighbor’s cottonwood tree has established a colony—amputated branches now rooted in the soil—along our fence.

Yesterday my husband said, “Hey, there are two sunflowers out there now!” This morning, I went to look at them. Another small resurrection, a spot of vitality where before there had only been dirt, they comforted me. For a few moments, I basked in their yellow cheerfulness, their promise that life persists. Then I went back into the house to connect with my human community, the family and friends mourning the loss of someone we love and see no longer.

 

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