Ann Ottesen is leaving us this coming Sunday. We will miss her and she us. The occasion prompted me to think about an important and recurring aspect of community life and life in general—the leavings we experience and the leavings we initiate.
Like all communities, a church community necessarily experiences new people joining and existing parishioners leaving. Both phenomena have their impact on those present. Once I get past the institutional imperative of “welcoming” them, how will I relate to the newcomers? Will I get to know them well? Will I like them? Not like them? And on the other side: How do I deal with the departure of a fellow parishioner—whether from death, changed circumstances or estrangement? Sadness? Indifference? Hurt or anger? These perennial comings and goings also have an incremental, if at the time usually imperceptible, effect on the nature of the community.
God knows, at St. Brendan’s we have experienced more than our share of leavings in recent years—leavings caused by death and changed circumstances, but also by alienation and conflict. I’m not sure that we have found ways to address these losses as a community. Because of the seasonal nature of our parish, we have not always been able to mark some of our losses to death with a funeral service. Irving Johnson and Jan Place come to mind. And it is difficult to directly address the conflict and estrangement within a community that drives some to leave. For my part I must confess to having had some petty and unbecoming feelings of hurt and resentment. To be sure, I have also experienced some reconciliation. For the most part this is all well behind me, but I wonder whether there is more we might do together to strengthen our community.
Other leavings too are a part of my life. Like most of us, I have not always lived on Deer Isle. When Jane and I went through the process of moving to Maine—now some nine years ago!-- we left important communities behind: Our long-time church, our Capitol Hill neighborhood, and civil rights lawyer colleagues with whom I had worked and collaborated for years. Despite, perhaps because of, the wonderfully affirming good bye gatherings, I know I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of our departure. I sort of thought those relationships would somehow remain fully intact—providing me with the same sense of friendship and belonging they had for so long. I was wrong, of course. Distance and the passage of time make past connections become attenuated. Some friends also leave for other destinations. And some friends die. I still struggle to stay in touch with these communities—my old friends. But I’ve gradually realized the obvious fact that it’s not the same. I live somewhere else now—in a different -- and no longer new -- community. As a consequence, I have changed and have new interests and priorities.
One of my favorite poets, Emmylou Harris, captured some of this in a recent song, The Road. Her close friend and collaborator, Gram Parsons, died of a drug overdose in 1973. She wrote a song, Boulder to Birmingham, shortly after his death, reflecting her grief and shock at the time. Then, nearly forty years later, she composed The Road, recalling the loss she still felt, but also offering some perspective gained from the passage of time. After recounting her deep sense of loss, she continues:
So I carried on.
You can't be haunted by the past.
People come and people go.
And nothing ever lasts.
But I still think about you
Wonder where you are
Can you see me from some place
Up there among the stars
But down here under heaven
There never was a chart
To guide our way across
This crooked highway of the heart
And if it's only all about
The journey in the end
On that road I'm glad I came to know [you]
My old friend
“People come and people go.” A bit harsh perhaps, but obviously true, and maybe a good way to hammer the point home. For me, though, the most important point is to remember that we are all on a journey that carries us over a variety of terrain, and to keep in mind that, whatever the various losses along the way and however long ago they occurred, “I’m glad I came to know you my old friend.”