Decima poem debut

On the Ethical ELA Open Write for Educators today, Mo Daley invites poets to try the decima. Originating in Spain, the form is comprised of ten-line stanzas, eight syllables each, with the rhyme scheme ABBAACCDDC.

These poems typically go on for forty stanzas. I’ve managed only one!

Here’s my decima debut, as well as far more important debut…

First Poem for My Granddaughter, Micah (Whose Name Means “Who is Like God?”)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  —Matthew 6:33

Three things he said he’d never do:
marry, have a child, start preaching
like his dad, all the while reaching
out for what is solid and true.
God brought your mother. And now you,
Beloved One, coming this fall.
Blessing and fruition of all
my boy always longed for, despite
his fears. Now with tears of delight
he embraces his Father-call.

Franna loves you so much already, Baby Girl.

What’s in a name poem

I love the mid-monthly Ethical ELA Open Write for educators. The kickoff for July is hosted today by Mo Daley, who offers the invitation to explore your name, and who you are, through poetry.

I happened to write a post about my name in March: Frances. This morning I rework it here, with a few more layers of meaning…

Early morning
before the dawn
as first birds begin to sing

I light a candle
on my table

I sit
by its wavering halo
to write
about my name.

In the beginning
I didn’t even know
it was my name.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, 
called the roll: 
Frances?…Frances?

She finally narrowed her eyes at me: 
Aren’t you Frances?

Sitting before her at a tiny table, I blinked: 
No. I’m Fran.

An inauspicious start
to my academic career.

The first shaky foot
on the lifepath
of learning who I am.

I didn’t love it at first,
my name.

Early on
(sometime after kindergarten,
that is)
Daddy told me
it was after his mother,
Ruby Frances

Grandma

my consummate storyteller
avid letter-writer
daily diarist
devout reader
tireless defender-angel
Grandma

On the day you were born
I stood at the nursery window

and cried.

You looked
like a little angel.

Grandma

My life’s memories
begin in her arms
on her lap
being rocked
in time to the beating of her heart
and the cadence of her voice
singing
Jesus loves me, this I know
or reading reading reading
until I could recite
the rhyming stories
by heart, page by page
long before I went to school

Grandma

who read the entire Bible aloud
several times over
to Granddaddy
who could not read it 
for himself

Grandma

who was named
after her beloved Papa,
Francis

a very religious man

who nevertheless hung himself
on a tree in the woods
in front of her childhood home
when she was just sixteen

Grandma,

I asked, when I was around sixteen,

did you know
that the name Frances
means ‘free’

or ‘one who is from France?’

We talked about it in French class
today

—Does it? I didn’t know.
I loved taking French

—You took French? Really?

—Yes. Such a beautiful language

I didn’t tell her
we got to choose French names
for class
and I chose to be Renée 
without realizing 
that it means born again

or that the kids back in elementary school
could never get our name right:
Hi, France! they’d cheerfully greet me.

I’d grit my teeth:
It is Fran
or Frances.
Not ‘France’.
I am not
a country.

No one else in school
had my name.

It wasn’t cute or popular
since maybe 1886

not to mention
the spelling problem
such as on labels
from the pharmacy:
Francis

Does the world at large
not understand
or care
that the feminine spelling
is with an e?

I wanted to hurl
those little orange bottles
through the window

along with my problematic name

until the day I was teaching
a group of little Spanish-speaking girls
how to read English
and one of them grabbed my badge
to decode my name:
Fran

Very good! That’s really my nickname.
It’s short for Frances.

Ooooo, breathed my little student.
That sounds just like ‘princess’.

In all my years
I’d never thought of that

even though Princess Diana’s middle name
was Frances

and I have to laugh a little now
because Daddy always said
You ought to take Spanish instead of French,
it would be more useful.

He couldn’t have been more right, alas.
He usually was.

I wonder what he’d say now
if he knew my DNA tests
reveal a dollop of French ancestry
that he very likely
passed down…

and as I’ve been writing
the sun has risen
bright and ever-new

a red dragonfly
lands on the little statue of Saint Francis
by my front steps

never minding that I’m not Catholic

nesting birds find sanctuary here
on my porch
along with a host of small creatures
seeking a resting place
even the occasional stray cat in need
for whom I leave fresh water.

The candle’s wavering halo
is invisible now
in the sunlight spilling
through the windows

as I write about my name
this inheritance
I’ve come to treasure
at last

and it just so happens
that the candle’s fancy label says
chèvrefeuille
French for “honeysuckle”

the flower and scent
of happiness
of hardiness
of devotion
and everlasting bonds

like a legacy of love

and unseen angels

that are
always near.

Note on red dragonflies, mentioned also in my most recent post: I’ve seen them for the first time this summer. They’re stunning and in some cultures, considered a sign of the sacred.

Out of the water

Summer storm passes
leaving debris in its wake.
I open the door

to investigate
and discover a creature
there on the threshold

Dragonfly resting
weary, heavy-laden wings
—what ARE those patches?

Curiosity
drives me to investigate.
I learn that your name

comes from your luggage:
Carolina Saddlebags.
What do you carry?

Ancient traditions
abundant superstitions
folklore taking flight.

Symbol of wisdom
messenger between the worlds

born underwater

to rise new, transformed.
Your stories go on and on,
tired traveler.

My phone’s search engine
resolves one more mystery
from a day ago:


That red dragonfly
—the first one I’ve ever seen—

may have been your mate.

So otherworldly,
that darting scarlet body.
I caught just glimpses

for it never stilled.
Now I learn red dragonflies
are believed sacred.

A slight fluttering
of your strange saddlebag wings
seems to validate.

To me, you are rare.
Pleased to make your acquaintance
here on this portal

this dividing line
between shelter and tempest,
living and dying.

Take your repose, then.
I ponder birth and rebirth
as I close the door

where I discover
my husband’s baptismal robe
hanging up to dry
.

*******

My pastor husband doesn’t like to dry his robe in the dryer. After a recent baptism, he happened to hang it here on the door where the sidelight flooded it.

I’ve seen many dragonflies in my life, but this is the first Carolina Saddlebag. I hope to get a photo of the male, which has a brilliant red body and a violet head. That might be a feat; I read that they don’t land often. The female on my threshold soon regained her strength and flew away.

The sightings on each side of the portal filled me with awe—the word that chose me this year. More reminders to stay open to it every single day, not to miss it.

As a lover of symbolism…well, there’s enough here to last me pretty much forever…

The post is written in haiku, as dragonflies have spawned infinite haiku and inspiration in Japan where they are considered harbingers of life, prosperity, courage, happiness, strength. They have also represented the emperor and immortality. In Native American tradition, the dragonfly is a symbol of resurrection.

Special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers for also spawning courage, inspiration, and strength through the writing and sharing of stories. To teach young writers how to write, we must write, and by writing we discover infinitely more about the world and ourselves.

Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.