It’s the time of the season for loving.
That’s the key lyric from one of my favorite bands, The Zombies. Featuring Rod Argent on the Hammond B-3 organ, this mysterious, lilting tune captured me in budding adolescence and has held on through the years. “Turn it up” does not need to be said when one of the Zombie tunes comes across my Spotify mix. Volume goes to 11.
Here we are, prompted by Halloween, signaling the beginning of the holidays. A rush of family gatherings, the planning that must be done on account of dispersed members across the United States and beyond, the careful scheduling that must be tended to.
For many of my friends, the arrival of pumpkin spice is sprinkled on seemingly everything. Some wag has suggested pumpkin spice-laced communion wafers, but there’s a special ring of Dante’s Hell reserved for such folk. The introduction of this added spice seems to be getting earlier and earlier each year. Of course, Halloween punctuates this pumpkin craze, as sugar-crazed kids roam the streets looking for free candy…what a country!
All Saints Day comes on November 1st, following All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween for you pagans. Every year, it’s a pause to remember the persons who have died in the past year. In church, we name those people aloud, and find various ways to honor their lives, and the fact that we are missing them. It was always a special day for me, remembering ancestors from way back in Scottish past, specifically the McBrayers from the lowlands. But I also pause to think about my grandparents and parents, and give thanks for the blessings they gave me. I picture them in my mind, and tend to smile, remembering their quirks as well as their lovable ways. I’m betting some of you do the same.
This year is a bit different. All Saints Day was the day of the funeral of one of my closest friends, Bart Miller. I knew Bart as a member of the parish where I served in Atlanta. But he was also on the board of the school there. He was part of the team that helped us to negotiate a covenant with our neighbors for the purchase and development of additional land for use across the street from the church/school. We spent a lot of time together and developed a friendship that was remarkable. I came to know him as a loyal friend, something that seems to be rare. Bart had battled cancer over the last few years, aided by the doctors at Emory. What an optimistic attitude he maintained, which resulted in me being shocked by his seemingly sudden death. He died at the beginning of last week, and his family chose to celebrate his life at a service on All Saints Day. So appropriate, as Bart is truly one of the saints that have graced my and others’ lives. For all the saints, who from their labors rest. Indeed, my friend. Blessed be your memory.
Bart’s death reminds me of the preciousness of life, the gift of friendship, and the pain of loss in losing someone that has become dear through time. I am finding as one gets older, the deaths of friends and family come at an increasing pace. It’s a natural occurrence, but I don’t have to like it. A friend reminded me that it is the price of staying alive. Going through my contact list on my phone for a phone number, reminds me of folks that have died that I have not removed from my list. Should I clean up my list, or leave their name on it, to remind me of their being a part of my life? Hell, I probably can’t figure out how to remove them logistically but am I simply covering up by my sentimentality. At least that’s what I’m claiming.
The next day, the day after All Saints Day, is All Souls Day. In Austin, it is celebrated as the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos. It is a day of remembering the dead, especially those of one’s family. There are many folk traditions such as visiting the graves, placing the favorite food or libation on the grave, in order to prompt remembrance and symbolize the love that one feels for the dead, even though departed.
In Austin, I have experienced this tradition on occasion, which in keeping with Austin’s beloved weirdness, is over the top, and lots of fun. Not so much here in the South, though I did make a visit to Christ Church’s amazing graveyard to place an offering on the grave of one of my favorite sports journalists, Furman Bisher, in hopes of getting some mojo for the Braves sixth game in the World Series. It worked.
Having been a lifelong fan of the Braves, this whole World Series thing is much scarier than Halloween. The curse that Atlanta fans deal with connected to our sports teams is infamous, remembering a couple of blown Super Bowls, in particular, and several losses of World Series in the 90s. It has made me a superstitious freak, wondering “how” to watch the game, and not jinxing the boys of summer. I have my John Smoltz warm-up jacket, my baseball cards, my glove….all which have to be carefully arranged for full-force mojo. The win, with two massive home run shots, and shut-out pitching, made the evening less painful, though I kept waiting for the curse to strike and the bottom to fall out.. Thankfully, it did not.
Even though the game itself was in Houston, I loved seeing the Atlanta faithful fill the ball park in Atlanta, as well as The Battery that surrounds the field, offering great entertainment for the fans. It was fun to watch my nephew and my friends, especially Charlie, the son of my high school friend, Julie Stephens. Charlie is, without a doubt, the number one Braves fan on the planet. It was an emotional treat to watch the Braves look on a screen after the game and see their loyal, long-suffering Atlanta fan base going crazy in the championship’s aftermath. There will be an amazing celebration in Atlanta on Friday, as the schools have declared a holiday!
My emotions brought about a late night call to my boyhood baseball friend, Danny Hall, who now lives in California. We had our own Sandlot crew, with him cast as the phenomenal player, Benny ‘the Jet, and I played the new kid, Smalls. And we even had our own Wendy Peffercorn! It was quite a trans-America call, whooping and hollering about the Braves being World Champs. We get to do it every quarter-century.
Today, I am back in reality, as the final jury selection panel has begun in the Ahmaud Arbery trial, over at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia. By the end of today, the jury has been selected and the trial is ready to begin with opening statements.
I have been over at the courthouse square several days, sitting with the family of Ahmaud, who are hoping for justice. I have listened to many stories about him from his aunts, and friends. The chasing down and shooting of this young man has been a wake-up call in our community, resulting in the replacement of the District Attorney who bobbled the prosecution of the shooter and his accomplices. It has our community talking about race in a way that is out of the ordinary, that is, honestly. At the initiative of the Glynn County clergy, we are beginning to have dinners with one another, across racial lines, to discover concerns and common connections. The trial looms in the next few weeks, and the verdict will be telling as to the state of things here.
In the next few weeks, I am beginning a group with fellow clergy that is called Sacred Ground. It uses a design offered by the national Episcopal Church, which is promoting the formation of the Beloved Community, borrowing the term from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a community where all people count. Its specific aim is around racial reconciliation, a pressing need in our nation and in our community. It provides a fresh look at the history of race in our country, and promotes dialogue and understanding. It’s made up of ten sessions in a small group, with readings and video, followed by candid discussion. I am committing my time to this project as a way to honor the life of Ahmaud and as a prayer of action for peace and unity in my new community.
For an excellent discussion of the situation surrounding this trial, I refer you to a well-produced podcast, Buried Truths, in the third season’s production. It is led by my Pulitzer Prize friend, Hank Klibanoff, the former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal, now journalism professor at Emory. He employed his students to do investigative work over the summer here in Glynn County, in the middle of the pandemic. It’s a worthy listen that will give you a surprising, in-depth look into the community in which this terrible moment happened on February 23, 2020.
So this is my moment of pause as I begin to lean in toward the holidays. I have some expectation, some fear, some anxiety, some hope as we move into the living of these days. As I began my article, it’s the time of the season for loving. It always is. Blessings.