Grief & Gardening: 20 Years

Written spontaneously as a Twitter thread, and transcribed to this blog post.

Anti-war graffiti on base of statue, Union Square Park, September 24, 2001 

I’m avoiding the news today. As well as the retraumatizing snuff porn documentaries. I’ve written about all of it before. I don’t feel the need to day to write any more. I wrote this 15 years ago about Anniversaries, my first “Grief & Gardening” post:

The ways we observe anniversaries is arbitrary. For example, I was shocked to tears for weeks by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, which killed 100 times more people than Katrina [1st Anniversary]. The earthquake which precipitated it left the entire planet ringing like a bell. The observation of “25 Years of AIDS” at this year’s World AIDS Congress is pinned only to the first official report of a cluster of unusual deaths by the Centers for Disease Control in June of 1981. The timelines of epidemics don’t follow our categorizations of them.
Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25, 2006-09-04


At the time, I didn’t have the blog yet. I wrote a lot in my journal. I transcribed some of it to back-dated blog posts. This was the first:

Like an earthquake, the initial shocks have affected each of us differently, and to different degrees. The aftershocks will continue for months. The effects will ripple out for decades. If I believed there was anyone to listen, let alone, answer, I would pray that each of us gets whatever we need to come through healthy and whole. I would pray that, individually and collectively, we respond to this violence with compassion, wisdom, courage and strength.
This Week in History, 2001-09-14

Roadside Sentiment, Hudson, New York, September 16, 2001 

The second back-dated blog post transcribes a letter I wrote to Rev. Joanna Tipple, then pastor of the Copake, NY church, which had been my husband’s church when he was growing up:

Again, and still, horrors are committed in the name of God. A month ago, more than five thousand people lost their lives in a smoking crater, killed in the name of God. It makes no difference to me whether the banner reads “Holy War” or “God Bless America.” This crisis has brought out both the best and worst in people. Like any tool, the idea of God is used for evil as well as good. Then what good is God?
Without God

Grieving Angel I worked in downtown Manhattan for 35 years before retiring two months ago. As the 5th Anniversary approached, Ground Zero was still just that, a wound. Everywhere were commemorative signs and symbols. You could feel it just walking around.

I have been feeling this one, the 5th anniversary of 9/11. The city is feeling it, too. Peoples’ grief is closer to the surface, more accessible. Mine certainly is. I’ve also been remembering a lot of what it was like in the city right after. There are reminders of it everywhere, on the news, in the papers, special exhibits and events, and especially, at Ground Zero.
Grief & Gardening #2: Five Years After, “Ths Transetorey Life”, 2006-09-09

I moved to NYC, to the East Village, in 1979. Though I survived, many did not. It’s why grief and loss pervade my writing, including my blog. I wrote this in 2007, after learning of the death, from AIDS, of yet another of my last lovers.

Reminders of the upcoming 6th Anniversary of 9/11 are piling up. My first day back at work from my [recent] trip, I walked by the Deutsche Bank building – ruined in the attacks, condemned, and only now being dismantled – where two firefighters had lost their lives the day before. I could see the blackened scaffolding and walls of the building. I smelled the smoke, startled for a few minutes, taken back to the months after the attacks, when the fires burned for months, when we walked every day through the crematory of downtown Manhattan.
In the Shadow (How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?), 2007-08-08

Bulldog 6
On the 7th Anniversary, I wrote my name on a beam that was intended to become part of the Memorial at Ground Zero. I was briefly interviewed by a local radio reporter from 1010WINS. I met a good dog.

Flags, flags, flags … flags waving everywhere. I understand the impulse, yet I don’t feel it as a defiant gesture. It feels like a concession to me. That we have no greater symbol than our nation’s flag makes me sad. What evil has been committed in the name of that flag?
Seven years, 2008-09-10

Skytop and tower, Mohonk, New York, September 10, 2001
On the 9th Anniversary, with some perspective of years, I was able to write coherently about what our experience had been that day, that week. I worked downtown, through the months of smoke and ash that followed. And year after year in NYC.

We decided to hold to our vacation plans for the week, somber though it was. There was nothing we could do back home. My workplace downtown, blocks from Ground Zero, would not reopen for two weeks. Reminders met us everywhere we went. And everywhere we went, we were ambassadors for New York City. When we told people where we were from, as often as not, they broke down crying. We were their reminders.
Grief & Gardening: Nine Years, 2010-09-11

St. Paul's Enshrouded
I avoid “ticker tape” parades.

The gutters were thick with shreds of paper, and ash, for weeks and months after 9/11. The gray ash was the last to go. Living and working in downtown after 9/11 was being in a crematorium.
Grief and Gardening: Remains of the Day, 2019-07-11

So, I don’t feel a need to write anything new today. I’m going to spend the day away from television, and news, and commemorations. I will instead hug my husband, squish our cats, and spend time in the garden photographing bugs, observing and celebrating the diversity of life. *Agapostemon* on *Pycnanthemum muticum* in front of my garage, August 2021

Related Content

In chronological order. 2001-09-14: This Week in History
2001-10-15: Without God
2006-09-04: Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25
2006-09-09: Grief & Gardening #2: Five Years After, “Ths Transetorey Life”
2007-08-08: In the Shadow (How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?)
2008-09-10: Seven years
2010-09-11: Grief & Gardening: Nine Years
2019-07-11: Grief and Gardening: Remains of the Day

2021-09-11: Twitter thread


The Night’s Watch


While the world burns down around us, I am sitting in a darkened room, with just the sounds of a small table fan and an oxygen concentrator, watching over my mother. My only company is Raja, one of the house cats in my sister’s house, keeping watch over my left shoulder.

John and I drove down from Brooklyn to Ocean County, New Jersey on Friday, after my initial physical therapy consult, part of my ongoing recovery from hand surgery three weeks ago. I had packed the night before. I’d been in daily conversation with my sister, by phone or text for the prior week, as our mother went into a steep, rapid decline. Of greatest concern was her lack of appetite; we have to crush all her meds to administer them with her food, all of which is pureed, mashed, or otherwise pulped.

It’s the longest my sister and I have spent together under the same roof since I left college.

Dissociation is my superpower. I have dressed and undressed my mother, seen her naked, wiped her bottom. I can attend to her, asking her the same question over and over, until I get a glimmer of understanding. Or I can move on, passing over the grief I feel that she is gone, cognitively, that I’ve already had the last conversation I will ever have with her, shared the last joke, excited the last smile, or smirk, from her aged lips.

Just now, a deep, low, relaxed groan escapes her. Startled by the sound, and its possible implications, I look up at her. Yes, she is still breathing, shallow and rapid, as she has been most of today. 

I am afraid to leave her side because I don’t think she’ll last the night. I have never experienced another’s passing. Some selfish part of me wants to be here for that, for her, for me. Like maybe there really is something? That it’s not just physics and chemistry and homeostasis keeping the machinery running? 

I don’t believe that, of course. But I understand the comfort that could be found in such beliefs. Especially now, sitting here in a darkened room, kept company by the sounds of tireless machines, each to its purpose.

Oxygen Concentrator

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Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species)

Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

My alarm wakes me Saturday morning. I go downstairs to the kitchen, nuke myself a cup of coffee, and get a fresh batch going. I didn’t sleep well. Today is the Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

I start prepping my mother’s breakfast. I put some orange juice in her small cup, and add some thickener, probiotic, and her liquid medications. I start working on crushing her morning pills. Each of the half dozen takes a different approach. Some crush easily. Others need to be split first.

Their remains collect in the well of the crusher. The easier ones are reduced to dust. The harder ones leave grit, and small, sharp shards.

A black cat with one spot on her chest, like a priest’s collar, finds me in my garden. She adopts me immediately. I name her “Spot”. She dies in my arms as we try to find the veterinarian emergency room in a snowstorm.

We bring her home in a small tin. Inside the tin is a bag. We transfer it to a reliquary box, an artwork of hammered copper, beads, and glass.

She carries me through 15 years of recovery, reconnecting, and relationship. She comforts the man whom I would later marry through his mother’s dying, and death.

The bag doesn’t quite fit the box. I want to rearrange it. It’s my first time handling cremated remains. I open the bag. Its contents are not what I expect. They are not ash. They are crumbs, and grit, and shards of bone, chalky and white. It’s all that’s left of her.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. My partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors. I think of the photo one friend took of another, spreading his dead lover’s ashes from a plastic baggie – before he died – on their property in the Catskills. The images of ashes thrown over the White House fence. A sea of quilts, holding the names of my partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors, so scattered across the acres of battlefield, it takes hours to visit them all.

We are traveling upstate, our first real vacation together. Everywhere we go the mood is quiet, subdued. Whereever we go, people ask where we’re visiting from. When we tell them, their eyes well up.

I walk to and from work. The streets and gutters are filled with ash. It takes months for the rains to wash it all away.

We step out of the shop. I ask him to wait. I walk back inside. I return to where I saw the box. Its title is “Our Lady of Abundance”. I buy it for the meaning the word has for him. It goes to his apartment, then our apartment, then our home. Waiting.

I am standing in a mountain river, cold over my feet and legs. I am here for my father. I am here with my father. I take the small, ornate bronze container out of my pocket. I open it, and begin releasing its contents to the wind and water. It’s not what you expect: They are not ash. They are crumbs, grit, shards of bone. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death. It’s all that’s left of him. I am here for my father.

It is Lost Species Day. We are burning the remains of countless organisms. Even long dead, we could not let them be. We are burning the world.

In the Catskills we watched the towers fall, again, and again, a hundred miles away. Where I bought a box of hammered copper, beads, and glass to give to a man to mark a relationship that arose out of deeply shared loss, like a phoenix, from ashes.

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Standing Still in 2018


What I’m About

Notice anything different about me? Until a few minutes ago, the by-line at the header of this blog read:

Adventures in Neo-Victorian, Wild, Shade, Organic and Native Plant Gardening, Garden Design, and Garden Restoration.

It now reads:

Urban Gardening with Native Plants

This better communicates the focus of my interests and expertise than the “anything goes” byline it replaces.

How I got here

We bought our house and garden 10 years ago. I started this blog 9 years ago.

The byline I just replaced reflected the experimental approach I was taking to having so much space to play with. Heirloom plants in the front yard, which might have been available to the original gardener of our home. Shade gardening because what urban gardener doesn’t have to deal with shade somewhere? Wild, because something has to be left uncultivated. And always organic gardening.

I’ve gardened with native plants since my first garden in the East Village. Each of the 4 gardens I’ve worked on in New York City has incorporated native plants. When we bought our house 10 years ago, I had pretty much a blank slate to work with. I quickly decided that the backyard would be a woodland garden, populated with ephemerals, ferns, and others plants native to the forests of northeastern North America.

Over time, I eliminated the major invasives I had inherited, including Rosa multifloraClematis terniflora, sweet autumn clematis (SAC), and Acer platanoides, Norway maple. I succeeded in transforming the backyard from the dustbowl I started with.

I expanded the areas devoted to native plants. I took up part of the driveway so the “woodland” could expand into the “clearing” offered by the south side of the house. The front yard has enjoyed a similar transformation. I removed first one section of front lawn, then replaced most of the rest with native plants last year.

My garden has been on tour four times, three times with NYC Wildflower Week. Last month, I spoke at the Long Island Botanical Society about my gardens, and the increasing number and variety of insect visitors I’ve observed and documented.

As I’ve expanded the areas of native plants in my garden, I’ve narrowed the focus, specializing increasingly in species native to New York City. I’m growing nearly 100 NYC-native species. I’ve added another 70 species this year, and continue to expand the areas for them.

All this diversity brings in countless species of insects, including dozens of bees and wasps. I’ve identified a half dozen new species in the garden just this Spring. Summer, the peak pollinator season, is just around the corner. I look forward to what else I will find this year.

So, when people ask, I say: I specialize in urban gardening with native plants. This isn’t a limitation. I see no end to what I can discover and learn by doing so. And no end to the benefits this can bring to myself, my family, my community, and the region.

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All my Native Plants posts


April 2015: Native Plants Planting Plan

2015-04-26 Update: Finally finished planting everything.

Took me most of the day to figure out where all of the 63 plants I received this week are going. Better late then never.

Bog Planters

Plant in the bog planters. I’ve only seen Iris versicolor, but never grown it. The other species are new to me.

  • Geum rivale, water avens
  • Iris prismatica, slender blue flag
  • Iris versicolor, blue flag
  • Mimulus alatus, winged monkey-flower
  • Mimulus ringens, square-stemmed monkey-flower

“Wetland” area

Planted where they can benefit from runoff from the garage, bog planters, and other containers. I’ve seen Caltha, but never grown it. The others are new to me.

  • Argentina anserina, Silverweed
  • Caltha palustris, marsh marigold
  • Ludwigia alternifolia, bushy seedbox
  • Menispermum canadense, Canada moonseed
  • Mitella diphylla, two-leaved mitrewort
  • Penthorum sedoides, ditch stonecrop
  • Scirpus cyperinus, common wool-grass
  • Scutellaria lateriflora, mad-dog skullcap
  • Woodwardia areolata, netted chainfern

Front Yard “Meadow”

This is sunny to partly sunny, dry to moist. Except for the Allium, of which – I’d forgotten – I’m already growing a cultivar, all these species are new to me.

  • Allium cernuum, nodding onion
  • Asclepias verticillata, whorled milkweed. Part of my effort to increase the number of milkweed species in my garden.
  • Chelone glabra, white turtlehead, planted at the shadier end of the border.
  • Helianthus decapetalus, ten-petal sunflower
  • Liatris scariosa, Northern blazing-star
  • Oclemena acuminata, whorled wood aster
  • Parthenium integrifolium, wild quinine
  • Penstemon hirsutus, northeastern beard-tongue
  • Pycnanthemum incanum, hoary mountain-mint. This and the next species are relatives of the P. muticum, clustered mountain-mint, which is abundant in my garden and gets more pollinator visitors than any other plant. I’m growing P. virginianum elsewhere. I want to compare these species, both to be able to identify them, and to see if there are any differences in the number or species of pollinators they attract.
  • Pycnanthemum verticillata, whorled mountain-mint
  • Symphyotrichum pilosum pilosum, hairy white oldfield aster
  • Symphyotrichum prenanthoides, crookedstem aster
  • Viola palmata, early blue violet
  • Zizia aptera, heartleaf golden alexanders. Relative of the Z. aurea I already have, and which is seeding itself in my garden. I’ll also be transplanting some of these volunteers to the front yard. I want more plants from the Apiaceae as hosts for Eastern black swallowtails, in the hopes they’ll leave more of our parsley for us.

Backyard “Woodland”

Small things, planted by the Gardener’s Nook so I can keep a close eye on them this year. Some of these are favorites I’d planted in the native plant area of my first garden in the East Village.

  • Actaea pachypoda, white baneberry
  • Actaea rubra, red baneberry
  • Anemone acutiloba (Hepatica acutiloba)
  • Dicentra canadensis, squirrel corn
  • Dicentra cucullaria, dutchman’s breeches
  • Dodecathon meadia, shooting star, white- and pink-flowering forms
  • Hydrastis canadense, goldenleaf
  • Jeffersonia diphylla, twinleaf
  • Sanguinaria canadensis, bloodroot
  • Thalictrum dioicum, early meadow-rue
  • Viola affinis, sand violet
  • Viola labradorica, Labrador violet
  • Waldsteinia fragarioides, Appalachian barren strawberry

Planted in various other locations in the backyard.

  • Agrimonia striata, woodland agrimony
  • Anemone virginiana, Virginia anemone
  • Argentina anserina, silverweed
  • Arisaema draconitum, green dragon
  • Eurybia divaricata, white wood aster
  • Geum aleppicum, yellow avens
  • Geum canadense, white avens
  • Hydrophyllum virginianum, waterleaf. This turns out to be a duplicate. I thought I had killed the specimen I bought a few years, but it had just moved from its planted spot.
  • Osmunda claytoniana, interrupted fern. A favorite of mine from my first garden in the East Village.
  • Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’, woodland phlox
  • Rudbeckia laciniata, cut-leaved coneflower. Another accidental duplicate. I’ve got one in the front I planted last year that I’d forgotten about.
  • Symphyotrichum laeve, smooth aster
  • Symphyotrichum novi-belgii, New York aster

Planted in the backyard along the neighbor’s fence where they can fill in and provide background for other plants in the foreground.

  • Carex lupulina, hop sedge
  • Thelypteris palustris, marsh fern

I’ve also got a few more new sedges. I planted these together near the front of the north/serviceberry bed so I can observe them closely and learn how to identify them.

  • Carex appalachica, Appalachian sedge
  • Carex grayi, Gray’s sedge
  • Carex rosea, rosy sedge, curly-styled wood sedge
  • Carex squarrosa, squarrose sedge, narrow-leaved cattail sedge

Finally, two new vines.

  • Dioscorea villosa, wild yam. Planted on our neighbor’s fence along the driveway, near the Clematis virginiana.
  • Vitis aestivalis, summer grape. Planted on an arbor between the two vegetable beds along the driveway. Don’t know if we’ll get actual grapes from this or not.

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I am a pebble …

The eve of elections. I will vote tomorrow, but, as usual, I find it hard to imagine how it will affect anything. Robin Andrea, writing at Dharma Bums, inspired me with her post today:

[On smaller blogs] … holding down the fort, our earth, during these battles. For doing the work, planting the gardens, keeping our eyes on the water levels and quality, checking in on the forests and the oceans, the quality of food we eat, the economy and health care, and the animals we share the planet with.
The Big and The Small

It’s an ideal, difficult to maintain out of hope rather than cynicism.

DSC_3623Stone basin at the entrance to the Viewing Pavilion of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

It helps me to try and take a long view, eg: 7th Generation. In 175 years, it will not matter who was or was not in power. I will be dust and forgotten in that time. It is our collective response which will make that future. Yet there are still things I can do, decisions I can make, truth I can speak to power or the empty air, which I can imagine could make things slightly less worse than they will be otherwise.

I’m a pebble. I’m falling. My existence at the surface, in this life, is a brief passage. I have only a moment of opportunity during which I can act. Then I will sink to the bottom, cold and silent forever.

I cannot know where the ripples will go.

Meta-Blog Entry: A Garden Outing

meta-blog entry: a blog entry about blogging

Kati, who hails from Ontario, Canada, and writes the Realmud Garden and Spirit Doors blogs, outed me yesterday by using my real name in her blog. As much as I enjoy seeing my name in “print,” I was initially startled. I’ve intentionally not used my real name for this blog, nor in my blogger profile. Nor have I provided any reference in this blog (other than this sentence) to my personal Web site. 

 But it’s not something I expected, or needed, to keep “secret.” The links, however indirect, are available (again, intentionally) for anyone who wants to pursue them. In this instance, Kati’s curiosity was piqued by my feedback about a formatting problem on her blog which prevented me from reading her profile:

[Xris] who writes about gardening at the Flatbush Gardener blog, kindly pointed out that what I set up on my computer, may not look the same on your computer — hopefully I have fixed that problem! So I had to satisfy my curiosity as to who [Xris] was, of course, and visited his very interesting and informative blog. It seems many of his concerns are similar to mine, particularly as to how we can live (and garden) without making too much of a detrimental impact on the natural world around us. I was also very interested in [Xris’] website. …

… which led her to my real name. I’m also naturally curious about the other gardening bloggers (blogging gardeners?) I read. Especially so when non-garden interests and information “leak” into the garden space. The Web in general, and blogging in particular, has a huge capacity for supporting dissociation and fragmentation of our lives, both in viewing and publishing. I’ve noticed several people whose gardening blogs I read, such as Kati, have multiple blogs. 

I’ve been tempted to do the same. There are risks and benefits to both mono-blogging and multi-blogging. One risk of mono-blogging is turning off readers who don’t ascribe to the sentiment of some “off-topic” post. 
I recently unsubscribed to an upstate New York gardener’s blog when she posted for July 4 with, to my sensibilities, a most vile graphic which combined the images of a waving U.S. flag, two children (white, naturally) gazing vaguely heavenward (or looking up to “Big Daddy”), and the text “God Bless America” emblazoned across the bottom. I just don’t have the stomache for soft-core nationalist pornography when I just want to see pictures of pretty flowers. 
 On the other hand, a risk of multi-blogging – or of cropping the mono-blog a little too close to the stem – is missing opportunities for delineating the deep connections, subtle or glaring, among the multiple dimensions of our lives. I’ve organized my blogrolls by topic, but some blogs challenge that linear, left-brain approach. 
Looking at my own blog entries, would I categorize my blog as gardening, nature or science? The division is often artificial, and purely for my convenience. Then there are the more personal connections, the real reasons why we (I) garden, and perhaps why we (I) blog. 
I’ve written about, or hinted at, some of my reasons here, here, and here in this blog. I could list an arm’s length of descriptive attributes about myself in my profile which have little (but not nothing) to do with my gardening. 
Gardening is a source of healing for me. Does it inform the reader, or distract, to know something about the journey of recovery which comprises most of my adult life, or the lifetime of emotional darkness which preceded it? 
Gardening is a deeply spiritual act for me. Does the reader understand this, or me, better to know that I’m also an atheist? 
 For now, I’m choosing to continue to keep this blog pruned in a naturalistic style, not sheared to crispy geometry. My gardening does connect me to larger considerations, such as invasive species, biodiversity, global warming … so I will continue to write about those things here, alongside the photos of the bugs and flowers under my care. 
I believe we must all become – we already are – gardeners of the world. I will act, and write, “as if” my work and words matter. It is my hope that the seeds I plant, the weeds I take, the feelings and thoughts I express, help to heal the world.

Garden (and more) Diary, June 17, 2005: The Fourth Garden, Four Gardens

[Transcribed from note book. Written while on the R train to work]

My good deed for the day: Letting a fat man on the subway know his fly is open.

I can relate. I’ve done the same in the past week. It’s not easy for a fat man to be aware of his appearance below the chest. Easier, more comfortable, to stay in the head. There I can be as thin as I remember I was.

John and I bought a house. I’ve written nothing for so long. Major events like that can just slip by without notice. It’s a big house. So far, it’s too big for the two of us. And it needs lots of work. I’m trying to do a little each day, but it’s hard.

Got off the R at Rector Street. Now sitting on a bench in the graveyard of Trinity Church. “Here lies …” “Sacred to the memory of …” Even the bench is worn, low to the ground. To remind us, I guess.

I like to walk through here on the way to work. From our new home, my commute offers more opportunities to do so. Reminders of impermanence to help me keep work in perspective.

The gardens here – the cemetery is a garden – are simple and beautiful. Massive hostas, irises, past bloom. Daylilies, clouds of them, in fat green buds, just about to announce summer.

I’m starting my fourth garden in New York City. Some day it will be on the Victorian Flatbush House & Garden Tour, probably years before the house itself is. I can aim for 2008, the year of my 50th, three years away.

There are at least four gardens to be developed: two sides, the front, and back. All have something different to offer. Each can welcome visitors in its own way. All will relate to the house, and relate the house to the grounds. It’s already happening, as I come to understand the house and what it wants.

Well, off to work …

Without God

Posted on September 11, 2010, the 9th Anniversary of the attacks.

October 15, 2001

An open letter to Joanna Tipple, pastor of the Craryville and Copake Churches in New York State.

Dear Joanna:

Sorry I missed you when you came to the city to deliver the bears. I’ve been wanting to write you. I’ve found it hard to write at all. There are no words.

I want to thank you and the congregations of the Craryville and Copake churches for welcoming me at your services that first Sunday after September 11. While it may have helped to be the preacher’s wife, I know there was more to it than that! It was comforting to feel held there, knowing that John and I had to return to our homes in New York City that afternoon. I didn’t know what we’d be returning to. I wept during both services. I’ve wept a lot since.

I work two blocks from where the towers were. I’ve seen it from the street, from the roof of my office building, from our lunch room twenty-seven floors up. I try to approach my presence in the city at this time as a naturalist, observing and recording changes in the physical environment and the behavior of its inhabitants. I want to remain present without withdrawing, so I can bear witness.

The fires still burn. Smoke still scents the surrounding streets and buildings. While rain has rinsed most of the gutters, ash still coats statues, windows and rooftops. In low and sheltered areas, the rain and ash mixed with shredded documents from the towers to create a gray papier mache. The “Missing Person” posters – and only those closest to them held any hope they would be “found” – and sidewalk memorials of candles and the poetry of anguish, rage, and hope, are slowly eroding.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something you said during one of your sermons that Sunday. I think it was at the Copake service, while speaking to the shock and terrible loss of the preceding week, you said something like “I don’t know how someone could get through this without God.” I heard this as a question. I want to respond. I want to give something back to you and the congregations. For myself, once again I must make sense of senseless loss.

The Friday after John and I got back to the city was my first visit back to my office, and downtown. Power had been restored to our buildings and some of us went in to ready our offices and equipment for our colleagues’ return that Monday, two weeks after the attacks. My colleagues and I hugged when we saw each other. In a conversation that day with one of our vice presidents, she observed “Nothing is permanent, except God.” What struck me was that she seemed to be realizing this for the first time.

Nothing lasts. Not the smoke and ash, not the wreckage of the towers, not even our grief or the memorials we will erect. Everything that is, all we experience, survive, and celebrate, occurs without God. Nothing is always. This makes it all the more mysterious, not less, all the more wonderful, precious and beautiful.

Most of my twenty-three years in New York City I’ve been surrounded, touched, by death. Death from AIDS. Death from suicide. Death from overdose. The slow deaths of addiction, of abuse. I do not consider death a friend, but it is not my enemy. It is familiar to me. I have grieved, and grieved again, and more, and each new loss touches all the others through me. Through countless repeated uses over the years, my grief has become burnished, polished through use like a favorite tool. Comfortable to hold. Fitting my hand. Perfectly balanced for the task. I can pick it up when I need to. I can set it down when this work is done.

In the past I’ve described myself as a rabid atheist. John has known me a long time and can attest to the accuracy of this assessment. I’ve mellowed somewhat over the years, but nothing in my experience has yet to dissuade me from my fundamental disbelief. By the age of ten I realized that what was being taught to me as the Word of God was simply wrong. Not wrong as in incorrect, but immoral, unethical, unjust. The vision of heaven conveyed to me was no place I’d want to be. The God I was supposed to worship was nothing I could respect. Growing up gay in a world rife with homophobic cultures didn’t change my disbelief. If I were to believe so-called religious leaders, my love is an abomination, my kind deserving of extermination. There seems little point to believing in any of their hateful Gods.

Again, and still, horrors are committed in the name of God. A month ago, more than five thousand people lost their lives in a smoking crater, killed in the name of God. It makes no difference to me whether the banner reads “Holy War” or “God Bless America.” This crisis has brought out both the best and worst in people. Like any tool, the idea of God is used for evil as well as good. Then what good is God?

A problem with the word “atheist” is that it simply means “without god.” The word doesn’t summon anything new. It doesn’t suggest any alternatives. It doesn’t address your question. It’s as useless and inadequate as “non-white.” There are within me other beliefs, moral convictions, even something I am sometimes willing to call spirituality, which transcend God.

As I tend my garden, I recall how it was a minute, a day, a year ago. That flower was, or was not, blooming yesterday. This plant has grown over the years and now crowds its neighbors. A label in the ground shows where another plant has vanished. Should I replace it, or try something new? I weed. I plant. I water. I sit. The garden asks me to see it as it really is, not just how I remember it, or how I wish it to be. Gardening continues to teach me many lessons. Gardening is my prayer.

So I must be in the world. Remembering what was. Observing what is. Hoping for what can be. Acting to bring it into being. When we struggle to understand, we question what is. Science can ask, and eventually answer, “What?” and “How?” It cannot answer the one question that matters, the question for which Man created God: “Why?” Now, as with each new loss, I ask again: Why am I here? Why am I alive?

The only answer I’ve come across which satisfies me at all comes from Zen: The purpose of life is to relieve suffering. Not to relieve pain, or grief, or loss. These cannot be avoided. But to relieve suffering, which we ourselves bring into the world. Because death is senseless, the only sense to be found is that which we manifest in our own lives. The only meaning there can be in life is what we impart.

Or, as someone else might say, the kingdom of god is within each of us.


This Week in History

Posted on September 11, 2010, the 9th Anniversary of the attacks. This is the text of an email I sent to all my contacts the week of the attacks.

September 14, 2001

Some of you’ve I’ve already corresponded with, or spoken with, this week. Most of you I have not.

I was not in New York City at the time of the attacks. Monday, September 10, John and I went on the road for a week-long vacation we’ve been planning for months. As I write this on Friday, we’re still on the road, visiting John’s mother for two nights. On Sunday, John has two preaching gigs in the area before we return to the City.

Monday we drove to Mohonk Mountain House, a grand and rustic retreat in the Shawangunk Mountains outside of New Paltz. None of the rooms have televisions. Our room had a wood-burning fireplace. Our balcony looked over Mohonk Lake to the surrounding cliffs and mountains. Mostly I said “Wow” a lot.

Across the lake from the lodge a peak, called Sky Top, rises several hundred feet above the lake. On Sky Top is a stone observation tower which looks over the lake, the lodge, and the surrounding cliffs and mountains. Tuesday morning John and I hiked to the peak and climbed to the top of the tower. On the way to the trailhead I overheard one woman saying to another something about a plane being hijacked. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. John and I were joyful to be together in such a beautiful setting. We were at peace with each other, and surrounded by nature.

As we climbed down the stairs inside the tower I was singing, “I love to go a-wandering …” As we turned the third flight of stairs down, we met an old man climbing up. I joked to him “Don’t mind me.” He looked up at us. His eyes were welled with tears. He said to us “Did you hear what happened?” That’s how John and I first learned that both towers of the World Trade Center had been struck by hijacked planes.

By the time we got back to the lodge, the staff had setup several televisions in public rooms. None of these went unattended before we left on Wednesday. Most of the afternoon and evening activities at Mohonk were cancelled. The evening’s scheduled film, “Deep Impact,” in which the world is struck by an asteroid, destroying the eastern seaboard cities of the United States, was replaced by “City Slickers.” By sundown, the flag flying over Mohonk Mountain House’s highest tower was at half-mast.

Sometime Tuesday morning the initial denial had broken and I was able to watch one of the large-screen videos setup in one of the rooms. As I watched for the first of many times the South Tower explode and crumble. I was able to send off two e-mails Tuesday afternoon before I was no longer able to get an outside line. I sent one to my family to let them know I was okay. I sent another to my colleagues at work to let them know I was thinking of them. It was surreal to be among all that natural beauty and have the images of destruction flashing through my mind, trying to wrap my mind around two seemingly discordant realities at once.

The week has continued to unfold in slow motion. Driving along the local roads of upstate New York, the reminders are constant. U.S. flags are everywhere, on buildings, along the road, on car antennas, and at half-mast on flagpoles. In Wappingers Falls, yellow ribbons have joined the flags. The commercial street-side signs of replaceable letters have been converted to expressions of national pride and pleas for prayer. In front of firehouses, fire-fighting gear have been set out to commemorate the firefighters lost in the towers’ collapse. Churches stand with their doors wide, with signs explaining they are open for prayer.

My first waking thought each morning has been of the images of the fireballs and the progressive collapse of the towers. The buildings where I work are just two and three blocks from ground zero. Until a few hours ago, when I was able to get my e-mail and make some phone calls, I didn’t know if the people I work with were okay or not. I don’t yet know if I will be going to work on Monday morning, and if so, how I will get there. I’m concerned about the impact of the asbestos-laden fallout blowing across Brooklyn and Queens, and possibly my neighborhood, my home, my garden.

Like an earthquake, the initial shocks have affected each of us differently, and to different degrees. The aftershocks will continue for months. The effects will ripple out for decades. If I believed there was anyone to listen, let alone, answer, I would pray that each of us gets whatever we need to come through healthy and whole. I would pray that, individually and collectively, we respond to this violence with compassion, wisdom, courage and strength.