This past Sunday, Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country celebrated Ingathering/Homecoming. It’s a old tradition from when our elite Boston forebears closed their doors for the summer in favor of cottages on the Cape. But while almost all of our congregations are year round now, we still take the time to welcome everyone back from their summer adventures and officially begin the church year.
The rituals vary (although water is an extremely common element), but there is a sense that on this first Sunday after Labor Day, we start a cycle. It’s akin to the cycle of the school year – whether classes start in August or September, there is something about that cycle – even for adults without school-aged children. And I don’t think it’s just a calendar thing either; I think that when we live our lives according to certain yearly cycles, it affects our thinking, or emotions, and our spiritual practices.
This is on my mind not because I headed to an Ingathering on Sunday, but because I did not. In Key West, many of our congregants are still away: September is generally the slowest month here despite school being in session because many of our congregants are snowbirds or simply have cooler places to go in these dog days of summer. It’s not until later in the fall that things pick up, and it’s not until January that all our snowbirds have arrived.
This is odd for me. Not only am I not starting a school year for the first time in several years, I am not attending any Ingatherings right now. My body says it’s time to start and is looking for a ritual – any ritual. My head is full of songs like Jason Shelton’s “Holy Waters” and Dvořák’s “Going Home” and I can’t help but pause at watery songs as I peruse the hymnals for next week’s singing. My heart is a little sad watching ministerial friends prepare for their Ingatherings and describe the beautiful celebrations they witnessed. And my spirit is feeling out of phase.
Sunday was still a wonderful day at One Island Family – don’t get me wrong. Randy preached a terrific sermon on personal worship and individual altars, and one of our colleagues visiting from the mainland joined us in the pews. I was engaged and enriched.
And when we sang our final hymn, “Blue Boat Home,” all of the things my body, mind, and soul were missing – which I had pushed down in order to be present to our day’s worship – came bubbling to the surface in the form of tears. I had my own private water communion as I felt a deep longing for this deeply-embedded ritual.
I first wrote these ideas down in the form of a Year of Jubilee post on Facebook, but the idea kept haunting me through the afternoon, evening, and into this morning. Why was missing this one yearly ritual so important to me? Why can’t I get it out of my mind?
And then I thought about my mother.
My mother did not want a fuss at her death. She didn’t want a memorial service, a graveside service, nothing. She wanted us to go to dinner and enjoy each other’s company. And she wanted her wedding ring looped into my father’s and buried in the spot waiting for her next to Dad. That was it. And so, when she died in the fall of 2007, that is all the marking we did. Dinner at a nice restaurant a few days after she died, then the general busyness of paperwork, clearing her things, moving on with our lives.
It wasn’t until the next spring, when the ground was soft again, that we went up to the cemetery where Dad is buried, to bury the rings. I don’t know what anyone else was thinking that day; we all trudged up the mountain and up the hill to the spot – my brother and nephew pulled out some tools to dig a hole, which proved difficult, as the soil is very rocky. There was general chatter and conversation. But I was overwhelmed with grief, realizing that Mom’s request had actually robbed us of an important moment in the cycle of life: an organized container for mourning and remembrance, a marker for our grief. I sobbed a bit, and my step-nephew held me. In the silence of my quiet tears I thought a prayer of remembrance, and I think I internally quoted the Christina Rossetti poem. The rest of my family may – or may not – have understood that moment, but it was the moment I needed in the cycle.
We live our lives in cycles – the cycle a lifetime, the cycle of a year. When we don’t mark the moments of our cycles with rituals, celebrations, and memorials, we lose track. We need these markers to help us make sense of our lives.
Now I don’t know if Randy instinctively knew at least one of us would need some connection to Ingathering yesterday, but ending with “Blue Boat Home” helped me, at least for a moment, connect to the cycle of the year that means so much to me. May we always find ways to mark our lives and feel connected to ourselves and each other and we move through our days.
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