Audrey’s reflections on our 2022 Turnings service and on playing possum
“I remember as a small child seeing the geese flying south. Firefly season. A cicada that lived for a while in the cracks of the cement bricks that made up our porch wall. A flash flood sweeping cars away while we were huddled under an overhang on a picnic. Lightning felling a tree in our backyard. I guess I learned that everything will pass.
“But also, and equally true, it will all come back again.”
— Karen Joy Fowler, in adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
Just in time for our Turnings service this past Sunday, the cold snap ushered us out of a sweltering, record-breaking Gulf Coast December and into the new congregational year. As we commemorated twelve months of births, deaths, weddings, and new members, Reverend Michelle repeated the refrain from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Is there really, though? Sometimes that kind of faith feels out of reach, even with my six-foot-three wingspan. Is there even a season for winter anymore? Greenhouse gases from military smokestacks are forcing the temperatures to lie to us. These times of pandemic, climate change, and racial capitalism have challenged me to stay grounded in the turning of the wheel, in Earth’s natural cycles. Especially since here, on the Gulf Coast, we so intimately know the danger of an atmosphere and ocean thrown off their natural balance. When even the weather seems wrong, I feel disoriented myself.
But last week, the critters of Emerson offered me their own proof that life goes on, even when loss seems ever-present. The squirrels have been collecting some snacks from underneath the live oaks, and bickering with jackdaws over which branches belong to whom. I stopped to record a few seconds of one such debate last week, which is embedded in this blog post. Another animal rhythm on our church grounds comes from our canine neighbors who, like clockwork, walk their owners along our paths, parking lots, and sidewalks. Some of them stop to sniff at those plump scarlet berries we have growing on all sides of the building.
The most miraculous of these interspecies encounters, by far, was the resurrection of a certain possum, a dramatic three-day reversal of fortune. From Sunday night to Wednesday afternoon, he/she/they shivered in the rubbish bin we use for Social Hour coffee cups. When Karen and I noticed the poor thing in there on Monday morning, looking up at us suspiciously from the bottom, we assumed the little climber could get out, since they got themself there in the first place. But after three days, I looked out my window to see Karen recoil from the trashcan and hurry back into Delaney Hall. The possum had unfortunately passed away, she explained. I felt immediately responsible for leaving it there to die. More loss, even on this small scale. More ebbing in a season where I want to see flow.
So I prepared myself to memorialize a marsupial. Karen showed me where to find the shovel, and I grabbed my candle and rosemary to really honor the varmint who lost their life so close to our sanctuary. But before I even started digging, I noticed the possum’s fuzzy gut rising and falling, as they laid there under a reeking layer of doggie bags. I paused there, feeling a warm release in my shoulders. The guilt and sadness, at yet another preventable death, dissipated. Gratitude took its place. I remembered the verse we heard three days prior. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” What had seemed like a time designated for mourning became an opportunity to safeguard and preserve a little life.
The possum was playing dead. It put on a performance of hopelessness, but in reality continued to breathe, holding in its body the possibility of another chance at living. But it was also surely freezing after three nights without a place to bed down, and ready to forage and break its fast. So I lifted the trash can out of its wooden holder, placed its open end at ground level, and wiggled the whole thing until the nocturnal pretender slid out onto a bed of jasmine. Our possum opened its mouth absurdly wide, screeched at me, and waddled away into the bushes. Maybe it was irritated that the rescue took so long, but I would prefer to interpret the yell as a token of thanks.
Death and life mingle so closely in the wintertime that it can be easy to forget they are always in a dance. Global wisdom traditions and our UU principles insist that we are intimately woven into the systems of living and dying which support and include us. So this week, I am grateful to believe that winter is winter, and that Turning is Turning. The chalky sky confesses that we’ve reached the shortest days and longest nights of the year. This is the time when bear families hibernate, bats fly south, and our human relatives reach out for the warmth of communion. May we reflect all these truths in our tiny acts of daily living, the rituals and rhythms we hold steady, and the vulnerability we extend from each heart to another.
So be it! See to it.