Beginning again from precious scraps and pieces

By Rev. Anna Blaedel

One of the lovely happenings that has found its way into my life during these last pandemic-months-years-what-even-is-time has been a Czech cooking class that I have taken, on zoom, with my mom. Throughout my life, my mom has relished celebrating our Czech heritage, and passing it on, especially through food. My great-grandparents came here young, and my grandma was born in the house where I now live, a house her father built himself. My grandma grew up in this eastern Iowa Czech enclave, learning English only when she went to school.

During the almost 101 years of her life, my grandma shared stories and songs and recipes that became invitations: wherever you go, remember where you came from; whoever you become, remember who and what has made you. During our most recent class, we made vánočka, a twist on the braided Czech Christmas bread I grew up calling houska, and eating every year during this season. The vánočka was slightly different, but the flavor–butter and egg and lemon zest and yeast–was familiar. Deeply familiar. My great-grandmother made houska every year, eventually sending loaves to children and grandchildren as they moved further and further away. Eventually my mom became the houska maker, and while I am now technically able to make my own houska, not a year of my life has passed that I haven’t had my mama’s houska on Christmas morning. (My fingers are crossed; there have been whispers that a chunk *might* arrive in today’s mail.)

I treasure what has been passed down. And yet, over the years and generations, so much has been lost. I do not speak Czech, though I can sing a few songs, mostly lullabies, my grandma and then mom sang to me. There are so many questions I want to ask the generations who have passed. So many stories I want to hear, that are gone. Time rushes on, sweeping away so much.
Also during these months of pandemic life, my beloved and I have been enjoying art nights, where we spend an evening engaging a variety of creative processes. The results are sometimes hilariously bad (drawing each others’ portraits, for example), but sometimes they are beautiful, and always the time creating and savoring is a life re-orienting gift. Last week, they led us in making collages, beauty emerging out of torn scraps. What was, offering itself up to become something new. The process of becoming is haunted, always, by loss and remembering.

Rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel died this week, almost 50 years ago. He wrote about living–really living–in the midst of evil, bleak, and absurd times: “Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity…Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.”

Almost a month ago now, one of my favorite people in the world died from Covid. He was not scared of death, he told me a few days before his, but he didn’t want it to come so soon. Larry was gentle and wise and funny and generous. Larry lived a life, and left a legacy, of deep and expansive love, and tender, beautiful care. He made of his “one wild and precious life” a stunning work of art. My grief has been messy; with none of the collective rituals of mourning to turn to, I have struggled to hold all that is, was, lost. When I want to turn to Larry, I turn instead to what he left: tidbits of conversation shared over the years, and nuggets of wisdom, notes and quotes and articles and calls, and love spilling over it all. The beautiful stacking bookcase he refinished years ago, and gave to me. An o-ring for my stovetop espresso pot he sent a few years ago, after mine had disintegrated. Deena Metzger writes, in a poem titled “Leavings,”

I want what is left:

Give me everything mangled and bruised,
And I will make a light of it to make you weep,
And we will have rain,
And begin again.

Here we are, dear ones, beginning again from what is left, mangled and bruised, and also tending to the gorgeous scraps of life and love that makes us weep. Solstice, and the cosmic pause between inhale and exhale, as darkness deepens into such depths it cracks open.

Festivals of light from a glorious variety of traditions and cultures, each inviting reflection: wherever you go, remember where you came from; whoever you become, remember who and what has made you. As we prepare to turn our calendars from 2020 to 2021, may we be wise enough to remember that what is becoming is always shaped, though not determined, by what has been. Beginning a new calendar year will not save us from any of the evils, losses, and absurdities uncovered and unleashed this last year. We are offered, however, so many opportunities to begin again. Not ex nihilo, from nothing, but ex profundis, from the profound and messy chaos of loss and love and beauty and devastation in which we live and move and have our being.

A year ago, as 2019 turned into 2020, I set three intentions: follow joy; tend aliveness; practice healing. When naming these desires of reorientation in my relationship to the world, to myself and those around me, I had no sense of what 2020 would bring, nor the depth of the losses we would face, intimately, relationally, differently, collectively. Nor did I know the possibilities opening, within and from this year. But we do know that as time swirls on, losses will keep coming, and invitation, too, and so much is possible when we tend life with creativity and care, a wild and unfinished work of art.

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Rev. Anna Blaedel is theologian-in-residence at enfleshed. They bring an attentiveness to the intersections of academic, activist, and ecclesial engagement. Anna nourishes students through campus ministry for the University of Iowa Wesley Center and is enrolled in a PhD program in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division.

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