Mary Beth Writes

First published: August 23, 2003

I have a lot going on lately; some professional stuff about my career, some financial things I should sit down and figure out.  My oldest child is moving away to begin college next week.  My youngest starts middle school the week after.  There are several things I should be doing towards world peace and justice, plus, I can't remember if we gave the cats their flea medicine this month.  That last thing won't be trivial if we forgot.

I decided I needed to get organized.  I made a list of things to do and people to call. 

 The list was so daunting I stuffed it in my sock drawer and went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.  Then I wandered outside with the coffee.  I told myself I'd sweep the sidewalk a few minutes to clear my mind.

Five astoundingly filthy and sweaty hours later, I had a tidy and newly designed compost pile area.  I'd dragged our decaying picnic table to the side yard where it can take up new life as an outside work table.  I cleaned, weeded, shoveled, and most amazing of all, I spent hours snapping dead branches out of old pine trees.  My arms looked as if I'd been in hand-to-hand combat with Barbed Wire Man, but the 6' by 6' pile of dead, dry pine detritus showed just who was boss around here. 

I guess.

How does this happen?  How do we organize and prioritize our lives, then suddenly find ourselves up to our eyeballs in the last thing we needed to do?  The pines have been growing for decades with no help from me.  I've personally lived next to them for eight years, and until yesterday, felt no burning need to address their scragginess.

Why do we sometimes find such passion for chores that are essentially, well, not essential?


Because my first child is moving out, my pipsqueak has become a certifiable middle schooler, and the shape of my life is changing.  Like so many of us, I need more rites of passage than our culture offers.  Baptism and confirmation, wedding and funeral aren't enough for all the places we go, the changes we make, the paths we choose, the trails life drags us down. 

Mothers about to have babies are famous for the singular burst of energy they get a few days before they give birth.  I was nine months pregnant with my second child when I suddenly became convinced the front porch floor needed to be painted.  Not a mean trick for a person who couldn't even bend over to tie her shoes.  I've never looked at a walrus the same since.

But that's when I began to get a clue.  If a good-enough ceremony doesn't exist for the ways in which our lives change, then our spirits create their own goofy and powerful rituals of transition. 

I don't think this is just about commemorating the past or celebrating the next stage of life.  Rites of passage are more than nice clothes and lovely parties. 

Rites of passage are where we let go, for a period of time, our ordinary ways of thinking and acting.  New ideas sneak into our brains; new skills trip our trite routines.  We use unfamiliar muscles battling worthy foes like cutthroat branches, unsightly compost heaps (are there any other kind?) and worn porch floors.  What we are doing, of course, is making physical and psychic space for the next thing. 

Some Native American cultures were wise enough to build rites of passage into young peoples' lives.  The youth leaves the community on a vision quest.  They search for, expect, and wait for the dream or totem that will ring true in them.  After that strong moment, the young person has a new way to organize their life.  They've internalized in image and word the direction they are going; leadership, spirituality, art, humor, hunting, defending. 

By suspending everything they knew for a few empty and powerful days, he or she has been given back a way to live in community.

The thing is - this wrestling, visioning, and regrouping keeps going all our lives.  Our children grow, our spouses change, leave us, or pass away.  Our jobs end, we retire, or we need more money to make our life work.  Our teenager goes off the deep end, a loved one becomes seriously ill, or the dog that raised us dies.

We get up in the morning and make our list of things to do that day.  Then somehow, inexplicably, we find ourselves in an improbable tango with scratchy trees. 

So be it.   It isn't easy to do all the things life expects of us.  Sometimes we need interludes of wandering or wrestling before we'll have enough clarity, courage, and humor for whatever comes next.  


Loved the article then. Find it even more meaningful now. Coffee helps still, but only before noon!

Sometimes I find myself doing a weird chore - and wonder what it portends! I just (like in the past hour) washed all my goblets and glasses, which are not behind doors so they are on display and get dusty. But I have no company coming - that I know of. Not even for Thanksgiving this year. Seemed important while I was doing it....

Loved it - all so true for every stage of life. We’re list makers from way back and oh man, the satisfaction of getting a job done.

I love how you are able to put into words what I often feel! What a gift!

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Peace Makers' Freedom Train / 1984

This is my first published writing. It appeared in 1984 in The Other Side, a social-activist evangelical publication based in Philadelphia, PA.

The Other Side was similar to and friends with Sojourners, a community of evangelical social activists based in Washington DC.  If you have ever heard Jim Wallis on NPR, or read any of his books, he is one of the founders of this small but influential slant of modern Christianity. Sojourners started in the Chicago area; I knew some of those good people decades ago.

Paul Hessert - "He taught us"

Paul Hessert died in the summer of 2001 as a result of injuries from a terrible car accident. His wonderful wife was also seriously hurt, so the memorial service for Paul was not held until September, just a few weeks after 9/11. Traveling was difficult for many of his former students; only a few of us made it to the United Methodist church in Montrose, PA. It was one of the honors of my life to be asked by his family to speak to the congregation as a representative of his many, many students over the years. 

His daughter sent the wonderful photo of Paul. Thank you!

A Memorial to Penny Penrose

Explanation: I went to Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston, IL, 1978-1980. I loved seminary and learned there what I would need to know to live my life. Paul Hessert taught dogmatics. I still use every day in my thinking, writing, and living – wisdom, perspective, and courage I learned from Hessert that year.  Several other students were as moved to be in Paul Hessert’s classes as I was. One of those students was Penny Penrose who went on to become a United Methodist minister. Years later we would actually become emailing friends until she died way too young.

17 Minutes of Joy

Written 03/15/2002  

It was late a late afternoon in March and I was sitting at my computer, quietly tapping away. My son was on the other side of the table doing his homework. For several minutes we were both silently focused on our work.

Then my son looked up. I felt his eyes on me. I tried to ignore him.


I sighed. "What?"

"When I'm done here, will you drive me to the lake so I can kayak?"


Is an adventure an accident that didn't happen?

Have you even been so close to a fiasco that three days later, you can still feel it in your knees?

Two of the corners of the Quadrilateral are Reason (the science and logic of the world around us) and Experience (our own paths through life).

This week reason and me had a "come to Jesus" moment.


Last Saturday, while Racine endured one of The Blizzards of the Century, my family managed to miss nearly the whole thing. (We did get to experience that enterprise called shoveling the driveway.)

We were lollygagging our time away with friends Dave, Mary, Colin and Michael at their cabin near Chippewa Falls. I see humor in how we "escaped" bad weather by going 300 miles further north than here. As a Chicago friend once commented to me, "You're kidding! There is something further north than Racine, Wisconsin?"

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