Three days before I left for Portland, I admitted to my oldest son and his wife that living alone was mostly leaving me lonely. I needed people around me, particularly at night time. I asked if the offer to move a bed into their house was still good. “Of course” they said.
Two days later, I found out that I could not stay in my condominium. I live in a 55 and older community and I am not 55. Our request for a one year exception was denied.
One day later, I would be on a mission trip to Portland, Maine with some folks from church. One of the things we were going to do was work with refugee families. The irony was not lost on me. I would encounter people who had fled from their homes, who had been displaced from any kind of life they knew, who would eventually settle here, a foreign land. Perspective… perspective.
Two days into the trip, I made a joke about being homeless when I get back to NJ. One of my teammates quickly responded, “You are not homeless; you are house-less. They are not the same thing.” Again… Perspective.
Three days into the trip, we stole 30 minutes to check out the rocky beaches of Portland (different from the miles of sand along the Jersey shore.) One of the young adults on the trip was collecting shells and I asked her to pick me a good one. They were fully intact snail shells, still fully intact.
They reminded me of the parable of the lobster -
“Long ago, when the world was very new... there was a certain lobster who determined that the Creator had made a mistake. So he set up an appointment to discuss the matter. “With all due respect,” said the lobster, “I wish to complain about the way you designed my shell. You see, I just get used to one outer casing, when I’ve got to shed it for another; very inconvenient and rather a waste of time.” To which the Creator replied, “I see. But do you realize that it is the giving up of one shell that allows you to grow into another?”
Because lobster shell is not elastic, the lobster must shed its shell in order to grow. Shedding is called “ecdysis” and the overall process is called molting. A lobster will molt dozens of times over the course of its life. Therefore, much of a lobster’s life is spent preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
I dare say in this way, we are very much like lobsters. We spend a lot of our time preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
And if resist or refuse, our lives become uncomfortable and unmangable. Similarly to the unhappy lobster who requested to stay in its shell, I believe we too can resist change. Haven’t we all been guilty of trying to stay where we are when we really needed to move on, change, grow, mature… molt?
For sure, the molting process is gruesome; it’s vulnerable, stressful, painful and downright scary. But my shell doesn’t fit anymore; in fact, it’s for many reasons thrust on me and for reasons I control, the life I had is no longer compatible. While I will pray for patience and peace through this process, it is clear that the steps are mine to take. God will not take them for me. And so I will read, reflect, share, process, learn what I can about what I am becoming so as to find and grow into my new habitat.
Pete always wanted to tell people that we fell in love under the Kenyan skies. I told that sounds beautiful and romantic but we fell in love in Middlesex, NJ.
When Pete and I were dating, we went on a mission trip to Nairobi, Kenya. We were two people on the worship team for a pastors conference. Our team was comprised of members of Middlesex Presbyterian Church. Pete on bass guitar and I was on vocals. The guitar player, Don played for Pete's memorial. His wife, Pam came over to walk and talk just days after Pete died. The leader of the team and pianist, Ted was the best man at our wedding. Ted's wife was in my wedding party and has written a beautiful book filled with her photographs coupled with scripture called These Greatest Gifts. These folks, along with Laura (my roommate at the time), John who wrote a beautiful ode to Pete in his death, Danny (who was an 8th grader in my youth group), Al (whom Pete called "Cous" as in Cousin), Al's wife Linda and Vicki (tambourine player extraordinaire).
Pete likes to tell this story about how we were deciding whether or not we were really dating. Was this really a thing? I mean from my perspective, "who just dates a single dad?" You don't. Well, I don't. This whole "I'm falling in love with Pete Scibienski, who has a 13 year old and an 18 year old" wasn't something to be uncertain about. And so as we were headed to Kenya, we decided we would be serious about the mission trip, cool it a little on our relationship and see where we were on the other side of Kenya.
But a funny thing happened in Kenya. I fell in love. And so did he.
We drank coffee each evening on the veranda outside of the Nairobi Hotel. And we talked and talked the way you do when you're falling in love. Stories after stories of childhood and embarrassing truths you save for the one you hope will hold those stories in trust for you.
On one of our days away from the conference, we visited a giraffe respite, a hospital of sorts. Folks collect hurt giraffes and mend them back to health. And we got to see them up close and personal.
And on the last night, we stood under the Kenyan sky, he took me in his arms and kissed me. And that was when I decided I would marry him and commit to his sons, my stepsons Dan and Joe. It was in Kenya that I fell in love.
I may have killed the bleeding heart plant that a friend gave me right after Pete died. I mentioned its impending death to friends last week and they said, “It’s a shade plant.”
Well shit. It’s been hanging in the sun on my patio. It gets the morning sun and then most of the day it gets heat and partial sunlight. At the end of the day, part of it can see the sunset.
So yea... I may have killed my bleeding heart.
And here is what I’m trying to learn from it: I need shade. We all need shade. And by shade, I mean safe places where we can find rest. Not necessarily sleep. Rest.
In my pastoral work, I have often said one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is the gift of our presence and in particular, the gift of sitting together in silence. Being in silence is not comfortable for most of us. And as our world has gotten louder, our comfort level with silence has gotten worse. There are so many words, so many pictures, so many comments, so many “likes” to our posts on social media, so many friends “talking” out there in cyberspace and we don’t want to miss anything. And then add in the constant chatter of the 24 hour news cycle. Our ears are so busy; our eyes are constantly reading and watching. It’s very loud in our heads. We know little rest. We have little shade.
Perhaps that’s why the 23rd Psalm says that God “makes us to lie down in green pastures.” God has made us to lie down. Lying down is part of our nature. Lying down or rest is a natural component of being human.
To be human is to need shade. To need rest. To need quiet. And my truth: I am fighting this need for shade every day lately.
I don’t want to stop and sit still and be quiet with myself. I am grieving and it feels horrible. So, no I don't want to sit quietly with myself. I want to run away… from myself, from my surroundings, from my relationships, from my job, from my home, from my own skin. I can’t stand it in here. I miss Pete so much that my flesh starts to feel prickly; there is humming inside me and my tears have never been this close to the surface in all of my life. They overtake me. And I can't will them to stop. I don't want to sit still with myself. I want to run away.
There is quite a bit of irony in this tension too. For the past five years I have complained that I was never alone in my own house. Pete was here all the time. I would get up early to write or to read or to enjoy my house alone. And now that I have it alone, I am squandering it away by scrolling through facebook early in the am or by watching the Newsroom for the 4th time til late at night.
And then I say to myself - give yourself a break, Beth. Stop with the chastisement. You’ve just lost your best friend, your partner, your shade tree.
I’ve lost my shade tree. And my bleeding heart looks pitiful.
Pete used to tell this joke about a guy and a monkey who went to space together. They make it through take off and the monkey begins working frantically, pushing buttons, working hard. The guy just sits there. And so someone asks the guy, what do you have to do? The guy says, I feed the monkey.
In my and Pete’s world, he always said his job was to feed the monkey. I was the monkey. And I’m having to learn to feed myself.
Last week, I learned to ask for help and my sons fed me.
Last week, I learned to be more honest about my bleeding heart and my friends provided restful shade.
Last week, I told the story of Pete’s death again to a couple women at my church and it felt like I was watered.
But the honest truth is my bleeding heart still looks, and feels, pitiful.
Pete and I met at the first church I worked for. He was the bass player in the church band. I sometimes sang with the band. I was a vocalist by training and I had also picked up the guitar my last semester in college so that I could lead songs for youth group. But my guitar playing was mediocre at best. One night I approached the guitar player in the church band and asked if he had time to give me some lessons.
When Pete told this story, he said, “I looked at my friend and thought, he is working such long hours with his job. He doesn’t have time for this so he said to me, “I’ll give you guitar lessons.”
And I said, “You play the guitar too?”
And Pete said, “Yeah.” (Meaning – I have guitars that are older than you are.)
So I asked him what he would charge. And he asked, “can you make coffee?”
I said, “Buddy, I make great coffee.”
And so that began my friendship with Pete Scibienski. He came for coffee on Monday nights and taught me guitar lessons.
Coffee and guitar turned into great conversations. Great conversation leaked into going out for cheesecake at the diner. And cheesecake led to a concert in the city one August evening. And the next morning, my phone rang and he asked if I wanted to go to breakfast.
And since then he has been my first cup of coffee and my last conversation. Every part of my life misses him.
Last night I pulled his guitar off the wall, dusted it off, and tuned it up. It’s a Martin D28; he bought it somewhere between 1968 -1970. Like I said, it’s older than I am. And like any Martin, the bass notes are so full. The first strum rang within me and produced a smile.
Several years ago, I took more guitar lessons because although Pete was helpful to me not making a fool of myself during youth group, I was and still am such a hacker when it comes to playing the guitar.
I adjusted my grip just as my teacher instructed and I began practicing scales – the Ionian, the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian, the Mixolydian, the Aeolian and Locrian. By the time I got to the last two, my fingertips were aching something fierce. But I kept going because I had promised myself that if I practice my scales and run the chords up the neck, then I can play a song.
And so I kept at it, fingertips screaming and the strings buzzing from a lack of pressure because my wrist was hurting as it tried to bend into the proper position.
Start the scale, start over, come back from the bottom. Try it again.
For over two decades I have relied on Pete to help me play the guitar. We figured songs out together, him plunking it out. When I didn’t like the key, he would help me convert it – and help me find easier ways to play chords because I’m still a hacker on the guitar.
Sometimes when I’m figuring out a song for church or for chapel or if I was playing at an open mic, he would holler from the other room, try the minor 6. And he was right. I had the chords wrong.
I chose a song to play after my chords and I had forgotten how the bridge went. As I was plunking it out, I stopped to listen for the inner voice of Pete who said, try the minor 6.
So I did but it was wrong. So I stopped again and listened for the inner voice of Pete who said, yeah ok, go back to the 4 not the 1. And then we had it right.
My strumming is uneven just like most of my life right now. And I got the chord sequence wrong on the bridge that we had just worked out. But here is me singing Christine Kane's "This Is the One Thing I Know" to Pete’s beautiful guitar.
Books I'm currently reading:
The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation