A bit of light

Today on Ethical ELA I encountered a poetic form new to me: the lantern. My understanding is that it is a five-line Japanese shape poem beginning with a one-syllable noun followed by successive lines of nouns containing two, three, and four syllables, ending with another one-syllable noun, all connected to and building on the first word.

I was immediately captivated and had to give it a try.

It is challenging.

In my mind the lantern image morphed into a lamppost, a symbol with much personal meaning. Like the indelible image in Narnia, a lamppost marks the way home for me: one stood in front of the house where I grew up. Whenever I was out at night and turned the last corner, I’d see the light of that lamppost.

I went with the image. I kept the syllable count but gave up on sticking with just nouns. I could write a lengthy essay about all the other meanings the lamppost holds for me, but this is poetry; interpretation belongs to the reader. 

It is dark and dreary in my neck of the woods today, pouring rain… perhaps that’s another reason the lamppost remained.

I needed a bit of light.

To the Lamppost

Your
good light
still guides me
home through darkest
night

Intimate conversation poem

with thanks to Barb Edler for the Open Write inspiration on Ethical ELA. Barb invited poets to speak directly to a subject, perhaps a person from the past or present, a beloved or loathed object, or even a dream, frustration, or desire.

Refuge

In the dead of winter
in the dark of night
in the starlit silence
you come

to sleep
in the old
twig-vine wreath
on the front door

tiny warm presence
of which I’d be unaware
if not for the pull
of the stars

the frigid bite
of the night
is worth the sight
if only for a moment

so I open
the door

soft sudden flutter
wings taking flight
in the cold cold night

oh little bird
that I cannot see
you cannot know
how your presence
comforts me

that in this barren season
before the time
of nesting
you find your place
of resting

upon my door

little winged creature
of first blessing

*******

Note: Sea creatures and birds were the first living things blessed by God, Genesis 1:22.

Said wreath. When I woke before dawn, remembering there’s a comet to be observed, I bundled up to try for a view from the front porch. The little unseen bird flew out of the wreath as I opened the door. There is no nest; I am not sure where the bird tucks in but the idea of it sleeping against the safety of my door in winter makes a metaphor of immense comfort to me. I can’t determine if it’s a house finch (they build nests in my wreaths each spring) or a Carolina wren, tiny bird with a big, gorgeous song. In the darkness I can only hear small wings beating for a split second as it takes flight. Whatever it is… it is welcome.

Skitterings

Winter morning, below freezing, ground covered with thick layer of frost like unto snow. Oyster-gray sky streaked with clouds aflame with sunrise. Breathtaking colors. I drive to work, looking for magisterial hawks perched on power lines. None to be seen. At the corner where the patch of woods has been cleared, old tobacco barns are melting into the stubble, overlaid with a thin veneer of crystal. So beautiful, I say aloud. Something pure remains in the devastation. I cannot think of what. I drive on, pondering destruction and human hunger for it.

In the new rose-light little birds skitter up from the wood-edged fields. What type of birds they are, I cannot determine, just upward movement and wings. A strange line plays in my head: This day your life will be required of you. I suppose it’s born of constant murder in the news and too much reading, this very morning the strange coincidence of Diana, Princess of Wales, attending the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash. Did the struggling Diana sense any foreshadowing?

Why am I even thinking of these things during such a glorious dawn?

A shape swoops from the right, directly in the path of my car…surely a bird. I hear no thunk. I see no skittering escape in my rearview mirror.

The bird—if in fact it was—must be caught in the grille of my car. This happened once, long ago, when I was driving a different vehicle: I discovered a dead cardinal hanging partway under the car. Why, why do they fly so low?

I will have to stop and check. There’s nowhere to pull over on these winding backroads frequented by too-fast drivers and farm equipment.

There’s a tiny church tucked in the woods up ahead, past the intersection. Steep driveway, deserted area, but I have to get out and look.

Nothing ensnared on the wide chrome grille of my old car. Beneath the grille, however, are unscreened compartments and there, on the dark, recessed shelf, is a bird.

Alive and moving around. Gray, orange, and cloud-white, like the morning.

Oh, bird.

I take off my heavy black cardigan, wrap it around my hands, and reach in.

Gently, gently… then a soft, warm weight is in my sweatered hands. I make sure to cover its wings to avoid panicked and possibly injurious flapping. Its head is gray. Small gray beak opens and closes without a sound. Its eye, turned toward me, has a faint purplish hue, slightly reminiscent of my pet parakeet when I was six. The gray back and pale-orange coloring on the breast had me thinking robin, but now I can see it’s not. I don’t know what kind of bird this is.

Oh, little bird. I am sorry. As if my speaking will help, somehow.

I cannot stand here gawking at it. The creature has survived the trauma of my car; I don’t want it to die from terror of me.

I think of being in the hands of God.

Please don’t let it die, I pray. Is this a selfish prayer? I don’t know how badly the bird is damaged.

And what am I going to do with it now.

The woods…I skim for a sheltered spot. I step in the leaves and a sudden sound startles me: a rabbit goes skittering away, its big white cottontail bobbing against the sepia scenery. I had no idea it was there. What else is here that I cannot see—? I am shivering. I find a small ridge of leaves and pine straw by a bit of barren brush and there I lay the bird.

The bird turns itself from side to breast, facedown. There’s a bit of white edging on its tail feathers. I wish for to something cover it. The morning is so cold. My sweater might entangle its legs; scraping pine straw over it might alarm it.

I will go. I will not stay to see the outcome. It will recover, or it won’t. I recall the woodpecker that flew smack into the glass wall of the school where I work; it landed on its back in the flowerbed mulch and lay so still I was sure its neck was broken. Within a moment, it managed to flip itself right side up, ruffled its feathers, and flew off—zip!—as if nothing had happened. The robin I extricated from the grille of my sister-in-law’s car, having traveled miles down the interstate at 70+ mph, hopped around my backyard for a day before it flew away. Birds are hardier than they look…at least robins and woodpeckers are.

Still.

Should this pretty little bird die or recoup…it will be in its own natural setting.

In the hands of God. Not a sparrow will fall to the ground apart from the Father...

It is hard, yes, to leave it there and walk away. But I have done so before. With people whom I loved very much.

It is Yours.

Back in the car, I circle the tiny church named for St. John, heading on toward crystal-coated fields and misty-mirror ponds and the work that lies ahead. The little bird will never know that I will remember it, that it’s now part of me, stuck to my soul as long as I live. I know it and that is enough on this cold, fiery-sky morning, orange and gray, breathtaking glory tinged with, but not diminished by, loss.

“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”Psalm 139:9-10 (my favorite of the Psalms). This is the view leaving my neighborhood.

As best I can determine: My unexpected passenger was a female eastern bluebird.

DSC_3019e eastern bluebird–female. jjjj56cpCC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Spiritual journey: A word

with thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on the first Thursday of the year

Perhaps you’re in the the habit of choosing a focus word at the outset of each year. A word like simplify or savor (these have been my “one little word” in the past). The general idea is that the word serves as a filter for viewing and processing daily life. It’s meant to enrich and inspire, to make you notice more, extract more.

A well-chosen word has power. Writers know this.

As I contemplate the power of a single word being a tool for the spiritual journey, two things come to mind: A story and a song.

Since childhood I’ve loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I reread the books every few years. In The Magician’s Nephew children from our world find their way (accidentally) into a dusky world that seems to be devoid of life. The sun, much bigger and older than ours, is weary and blood-red. Clearly there has been life, for the kids find a castle and eventually a gallery of people wearing royal finery, seated in chairs along the walls. They are like wax figures, a complete mystery to the children, who go on to have a disagreement and (unfortunately) set deep magic to work (after falling prey to a psychological enchantment. You must read the book for the full effect; in all best fantasies psychology and wisdom are more powerful than ‘magic’). The children inadvertently awaken the last figure in the great hall, who rises to meet them. Jadis (whose name appears to be a combination of long ago or there are days before and witch) is the last queen of Charn, this desolate place. She confesses to usurping the throne by overthrowing her sister at the end of a bloody civil war. Jadis didn’t win this war. Instead, she destroyed all living things in that world except herself by using the Deplorable Word, an ancient and feared secret for which she paid a “terrible price” to obtain.

One word.

Shall we move onto the song?

Martin Luther, the force behind the Reformation, composed the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” between 1527 and 1529. Consider his third verse:

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,—
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure,—
One little word shall fell him.

“One little word”… puts an end to Satan and evil. What might this all-powerful word be? Scholars say Luther’s hymn draws from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Might the one little word be Truth? As in Luther’s words, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us? As in Be still and know the truth of God in Psalm 46? As in If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, the words of Christ, John 8:31-32? Or one little word as in the Word, John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things were made through him…in him was life and the life was the light of men…the darkness has not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…?

I circle back to rest on this premise: There’s spiritual power in a single word.

The greatest battles of life are, after all, spiritual. We struggle with truth. Consider Pilate’s words to Jesus, awaiting judgment in the hall of his palace fortress: Quid est veritas…What is truth?

Truth is, evil abounds. It reigns in destruction, in violence, in hungry power-grabs (i.e., Jadis; in the end, is truth not the inherent value of fiction?). And we hardly need more proof that words matter, as we continue to witness the destructive consequences of bullying on society.

We desperately need an anti-Deplorable word, do we not. One that edifies, helps, and heals. If it is not Truth, then maybe Forgive. Or Bless. Would we be about destruction, if we are actively harnessing the power of these words?

I come at last to my one little word for the past two years, which has served me better than any other.

Awe.

It has several definitions and facets, some of which contrast. It encompasses wonder, reverence, and fear. I sense all of these in Luther’s words. In Psalm 46. Awe is rooted in the realization—the truth—that our existence is part of something far greater than ourselves. Psychologists say that sense of awe has a powerful effect on our well-being. When the idea of awe as my own “one little word” came to me in 2020, I wasn’t even looking for it. I was tired. My husband was still recovering from two heart surgeries following cardiac arrest and resuscitation; COVID-19 was spreading across the planet. I didn’t feel like playing with words.

The word came anyway.

In these two years, rolling into three, my husband lived to officiate our son’s marriage, to see the birth of our granddaughter, Micah, and to see our oldest graduate from seminary and enroll in a PhD program (our same boy who said he’d never marry, have children, or go in the ministry). The youngest has graduated, is flourishing in his funeral career of serving and comforting the bereaved (our same boy who, as a toddler, was fascinated by the wise men of the nativity narrative and especially myrrh…which is used in preparing the dead for burial). Our oldest granddaughter has skipped first grade and is thriving in second. Micah, now fifteen months old, picks up books and mimics the prosody of reading; she opens hymnals and sings in her own way. Everywhere I turn, awe abounds. It reaches out every single day from nature itself…this is why I write of birds and the stars so often.

It’s even in my dreams. Last night I dreamed of a bright-eyed bird burrowing in leaves and pine straw that had gathered at the edge of my door. While I am prone to researching such symbolism until I exhaust myself, I’d see it as awe coming to live at my portal, always waiting for me to open myself to it. This much I know: awe has been a very real entity, a Presence.

Most definitely my guide on the spiritual journey.

Goals

What shall I say of my goals, as the year comes to its close?

I had a few. Some I accomplished. Some I didn’t. A few were work-related. Most were not. These I never articulated; they were just on my heart every day, from my rising to my sleeping.

That’s the thing about goals: personal commitment-keeping. They’re desires of your own heart. Aspirations. No can set them for you. They come from within. They become your own bar to reach, for the stretching of your own wings, as far as you wish. The extent of your growth is up to you.

I learned much by watching birds this year. This was an unplanned goal. One hummingbird materializing by the pines in my backyard, hovering long enough for me to take note, led to the purchase of a hummingbird feeder (and another, as more hummers appeared) and an incessant thirst to know more about these endlessly fascinating creatures. Day by day, my sense of awe deepened.

Awe is a vital element for vibrant life in this world. I looked for it and it found me. Like that hummingbird. For two years running, awe has been my guiding idea-word and its payoff, beyond compare. I find it everywhere but not in everything. Not in material things, for they never fully satisfy and pursuit of them potentially enlarges the void. In my previous post I wrote about the universe being a dark place (check out the jellybean analogy from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). Yet there is light. I am awed by the stunning brightness of the planets each night; Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn have become like family. I’m always looking for their return. They inspire the same thirst in me as the hummingbirds: can I get closer to them, know more about them, learn from them?

In the end awe, for me, is about the divine design of things, the Creator’s reflection in the created. There are intrinsic, intricate, infinite lessons to learn and my time above the Earth’s crust grows shorter. There’s a sacred interconnectedness to it all… from a solitary hummingbird to the solar system to the scent of baking bread to the ability to love and be loved and my own DNA so evident in my baby granddaughter’s face… every particle a poem, a song, a ribbon of light.

My ultimate goal for every day is to keep myself open for awe and to be grateful.

I have done so. I am doing so.

I didn’t create an official list of resolutions or goals for 2022. I carried them in my heart and lived them, as I will for this new year on the cusp.

But I did write a few things… this is my 365th post of the year. Something I’ve never accomplished before.

Day by day, moment by moment, the story of life unfolds. Goals are attained the same way.

My wish for you: Believe. Let awe weave itself around you and through you.

And write.

See how you grow.

The unused goal page in my my plannera bit of seed, if needed

Light bucket


to the astronomer
light bucket
means a telescope
with a wide aperture
and parabolic mirrors
that collect
and reflect
great quantities of light
from objects
in deep space

for the universe
is a dark place

to the starry-eyed poet
light bucket
is a means
of picking up bits
of divine spark

for keeping
the mind’s aperture wide
the soul and spirit aligned
humanity’s parabola
so intelligently designed

for collecting
for reflecting
great buckets of light

for the universe
is a dark place

Image. Danielle Scott. CC BY-SA 2.0

Stumbling on a treasure

So it was, while I was skimming about for a photo of magical waters (never mind why), I stumbled across this illustration from a book called The Wonder Clock: Or, Four & Twenty Marvellous Tales, Being One for Each Hour of the Day.

Enchanted, I dug a little deeper and learned the tale of a wood-chopper’s son who, in spite of his father’s insistence, didn’t wish to be a wood-chopper himself and went off to school instead where he studied and studied and became the cleverest student in all the world…thumbnail version: with a bit of magic and much transformative wit involving hawks and fish and ruby rings, the Clever Student leaps into the basket of a princess who’s collecting seashells by the seashore. He ends up revealing his true self, marries her with the blessing of the King, and goes home to collect his wood-chopper father to live the rest of his days in comfort by the warmth of the stove in a fine home.

Key line: “And that is what comes of book-learning.”

—Gold.

Illustration from The Wonder Clock, Howard Pyle, 1887. Public domain.

The gift of awe

In remembering my grandmother
on her hundred-and-seventh birthday
I suspect she never thought about
her stories as gifts
in living them
then giving them

for so many are laced
with a palpable sense of awe:

witnessing the birth
of her sister’s first child
the doctor gently molding
the baby’s little head
with his hands…

the family dog that was stolen
yet found his way home again
after chewing off the chains
and wearing his teeth to the gums…

seeing a doe with white-spotted fawns
crossing the old dirt road
for occasionally a doe had twins
(and once, only once in her ninety years,
triplets)…

taking her turn sitting
with a neighbor lady
who was dying
(as farm communities did
long ago
before the advent
of nursing homes
or hospice)
when the woman
unresponsive for days
suddenly sat up
right at the last
her face aglow
crying out
Can you hear them?
Can you hear them?
(—who, Grandma?
I asked as a rapt child
noting how her own face shone
with an otherworldly light
her blue eyes far away
reliving—
then coming back again
to rest again on me
with certainty:
I am sure it was
angels—)

and snow
and icicles
as big around as her arm
hanging from the eaves
the whole fierce, sparkling beauty
of it all
(not to mention Christmas)…

oh and birds
especially cardinals
(red birds, she called them)
and hummingbirds
in fact, many ornaments
in her house
were birds:
a crystal hummingbird
hanging in the hall archway
on the shelf, an eagle
spreading its wings
on the high-back piano
robins watching over a nest
filled with babies…

and music
and flowers

every single red poinsettia…

in remembering her stories
I realize
that this constant capacity for awe
may well have been
her greatest gift
of all

The poinsettia my husband and I place in church at Christmas comes home to live between Grandma’s piano and organ. Grandma’s funeral visitation was on the bitter cold, starry night of her ninety-first birthday. At the service the following day, her tiny hometown church was still decorated with red poinsettias.

I still marvel at the perfection.