I lifted a line of Brown’s from The Tradition: “I’m the one who leaps.” My poem is based on a long-ago story told by someone who mattered to me, so much …
I’m the One Who Leaps
I’m the one who leaps not from here to there but within.
I’m the one who leaps not like the farm boy standing rooted to the old front porch listening to hounds on the hunt. Baying, fever pitch, nearing, nearing when in the clearing bursts the fawn from the brush. White spots still visible here and there on the body running, running right toward the farm boy standing rooted to the old front porch.
No time to think No turning back Hounds closing in -the fawn cries, that final sound a creature makes when it knows it’s reached the end.
The boy stands rooted. No time to think he just does it he just opens his arms.
No time to think The fawn just sees, sees and leaps …
The farm boy who caught the fawn on the old front porch became a preacher standing rooted in the Word of God.
Be the one who leaps, he told us children, into the Father’s open arms. You cannot save yourselves.
I sat rooted to the pew hearing the hounds on the hunt, seeing the fawn and those open arms.
I’m the one who leaps not from here to there but within.
Today’s poem challenge begins with the word Think, followed by a word linked to childhood associations and evocative detail. Grimes’ poem begins with Think food and leads to her grandmother’s pineapple upside-down cake and food being “so much more” than nourishment. Margaret’s poem begins with Think dirt and brings the reader into a very real moment of making mudpies (you can feel and smell it) and the deeper context within.
Memoir is probably my favorite type of writing; it is a chance to stand once more in your childhood shoes, experiencing the world just as you did, only framed by knowledge gained since. I had to think a while before an image came to mind foe this memory poem. Then I had to think a while longer about what it meant …
Think pier and danger comes to mind. Weathered gray boards armed with splinters meant for tender young feet encased in sneakers that Grandma made me wear. Sneakers stepping deliberately from slat to solid slat avoiding intervals of nothingness where water laps dark and green below, moving and moving until it seems the whole pier is floating out to sea with me. Summer sun beating down casting our squatty silhouettes on grainy gray wood-canvas. Grandma’s sunhat fluttering in the river’s breath brine in my nose, my mouth endless expanse of silver-green water glinting, beckoning, reckoning— there are no rails. There are nails. Tie the string to the raw chicken neck toss it over—plop— and wait. Let the nail-anchored string rest on your fingers until it moves with strange little jerks then pull so so slowly so carefully. Use both hands but have your net ready for the greedy green-brown crab with fierce orange ‘pinchers’ —keep your fingers away!— and legs painted bright watercolor blue soon scuttling around in Grandma’s galvanized tub. Think pier and she’s right there again between me and danger showing me how to navigate.
Photo: Pier. Richmond AACA. CC-BY. Cropped and converted to black-and-white. The pier of my long-ago childhood memory is so like this one.
Photo: Child of Vision. Baby eye in black and white. Iezalel Williams. Public domain.
I’m a hopeful person. A hopeful writer. I created this blog in hopes that whomever encountered it would come away feeling uplifted. There’s already too much in the world pulling us down, every day. Burdens can pile until one hardly feels able to move. Grief is like this. Depression is like this. Oppression is like this.
Always, I am looking for a way, or writing my way, through to the better I believe is there. That, to me, is hope. Coming through. Knowing that possibility exists, sensing it, even when I cannot see exactly what it looks like. Eventually it reveals itself. And so I hope.
Yesterday I read that hope is not enough for one of humanity’s biggest burdens. Not COVID-19, which will eventually pass, although it will destroy many more of us before it is done. But we will be fighting diseases as long as we’re alive. No—hope is not enough, in itself, to remove the unbearable burden of racism.
As hopeful as I am, I know this is true.
Yesterday evening I watched a news segment featuring families talking to their children about racism. Black families, families with brown skin. A beautiful little girl—little girl—coached by her dad on how to respond if she should be singled out by those in law enforcement. Eyes wide, brow slightly knit in concentration, the child dutifully repeated everything her dad taught her on how to move, how to hold her hands … she covered it all. Dad paused in his feedback. He nodded. Then he said, quietly: “I did all that. And they still tased me.” The little girl’s face froze, then crumpled. Weeping, she climbed into her father’s lap, into his arms.
Another parent, a mother, said that as awful as it is to burden her children with this knowledge, it’s ultimately for their protection. They need to know.
A boy and another little girl from different families said they know it’s wrong for people to treat each other this way. “We are all human,” said the boy, a young teen. “It doesn’t matter what color skin anybody has,” said the girl (is she maybe six? seven?). “We should all be good to each other and love each other.”
Love one another.
The greatest spiritual journey we can ever take.
Loving means bearing each other’s burdens; it does not mean hoping the burdens go away. It means putting love into action, working to remove the burden, the systems, the structures that oppress others. The possibility is there; our hearts just have to be burdened enough, collectively, to usher it into reality.
For what’s the alternative? Hopelessness. The deadliest thing of all.
As I tried to sleep last night, so many images flooded my mind. Mostly children. Many I’ve known over the years. Black, brown, white faces, eyes full of light, little arms open wide, always ready to give away their love. How easily laughter, wonder, song, and joy come to them … my daughter-in-law texted that my granddaughter woke up singing yesterday morning, before she got out of bed: “Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful, and everyone has to see how much I love you and how much I’ve grown.” She is four. The thought of anyone robbing the pureness of her heart is … inhuman. It should not happen to any child. Ever. But it does. It is the most terrible of dichotomies, that the big love we have for one another as children does not grow as we do. If it did, the world would be an entirely different place … and if we have any hope of it being better, it begins with acting now. Understanding now. Changing now. Breaking out of age-old racist, prejudiced molds that may have shaped us, now … or they remain intact, shaping those who follow.
I remembered a thing last night, as I finally fell asleep only to dream about children (babies, in fact, standing in a crib, laughing because they’d just learned to pull themselves up). Somewhere there is a photo of me in a crib with my doll, Suzy. So long ago. I saw her in the store while shopping with my grandmother. Beautiful doll. What was it about Suzy that I loved? Her dark eyes, like my own? Black hair and skin, not like mine? I don’t even remember the shopping trip; my Grannie told me years later how I asked for that doll. So she, a white woman from the rural South, bought it for me—in the late 1960s.
Every day, every action, great and small, every word … colors the picture of society that the children see.
That’s us, reflected in their eyes.
In kindergarten I drew a family picture that made my mother angry: “Why did you have to draw me with a cigarette?”
I blinked, and couldn’t respond: Because … I always see you smoking.
On my mind when I go to bed. On my mind when I wake. Not just my own or ones I’ve known.
So full of love. So full of song. So free with their giving in everyday living.
We hand them the crayons. Blank sheets of paper. And set little hearts so earnestly to coloring the world they see.
Is there a crayon called Hope? To color Tomorrow? And what will that picture be if they copy you and me?
My little granddaughter once explained sadness this way: “I was crying with my blue eyes.”
I know, Baby. Same as I cry with my brown ones.
Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful … let us all keep loving. And growing. And working together to help and heal. Daily finding the way.
That, I’d say, is what hope really looks like.
From my granddaughter’s heart: I love you so very much.
Special thanks to Ruth Hersey for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday, and to all my friends and sojourners. You are welcome to continue the journey by reading their thoughts on the theme of Hope here.
Sunny May afternoon. Warm, lazy. Neighborhood moderately quiet but for the occasional baby-like cry of young goats from a pen hidden in a snatch of mixed-woods across the street. They sound like little kids … which is exactly what they ARE …
Absolutely nothing is happening.
I will check the mail.
Patches of thick, furry moss nestled in the wide brick steps of the porch. Clean fragrance of mulch from the empty beds along the house. Sudden coolness on rounding the corner, where the sun casts the shadow of the house across the sidewalk—
Right in front of me, in my immediate path. If I hadn’t been looking down …
Two steps backward.
I am not a fan of snakes.
It’s little. The second of its kind I’ve seen. The first one appeared on this sidewalk months ago, belly-up, dead, when the old boxwoods were pulled out. I needed to know what kind of snake it was, so I researched it: Smooth earth snake. Lives in woodsy debris, usually underground (technical term: “fossorial”). Nonpoisonous. Very shy.
—This one isn’t moving at all. Is it dead, too?
—Do I really want to know?
Two steps forward, leaning over as far as I dare.
Almost imperceptibly, its sides rhythmically expand and contract.
It is breathing.
I have never seen a snake breathing.
But I don’t usually get close enough to determine such.
I wonder if it is scared of me.
I won’t harm it. This is a living thing, lying here on my sidewalk, breathing rather hard for a snake, I think.
It won’t harm me.
We’re just occupying the same shadow, breathing the same air.
I can see a dark lump through its translucent beige-gray skin, about halfway through its body. Is that part of the snake? Or something it ate?
I don’t expect anyone to believe this. I’m not completely sure that I do.
I hesitate to say. It sounds crazy.
A little light flickers inside the snake.
Just for a second or two.
A fluid-like glimmering, mid-snake, very near that dark lump.
—Am I dreaming?
I stare, unblinking, not sure I trust my eyes or my brain. Have I ever even heard of such a thing?
And then, one more glimmering of light, faint, in the tail region.
I did see it.
Is it just a reflective shimmer of sunlight?
But this snake lies wholly in the shadow of the house; the sun’s not shining on anything close by.
A reflection of something I am wearing, then?
But I am wearing no rings, no glittery flip flops. Only one fine, rose-gold chain on my right arm that I never remove (my son gave it to me), and it’s wholly in the shadow, too. Not catching the sunlight. Not casting it.
Furthermore, the glimmer came from inside the snake. It radiated only within the confines of its motionless body. Not on the sidewalk. Nowhere else.
—A trick of my eyes, then.
But my optometrist has never seen anything amiss with my eyes. Got a fabulous report at my last checkup in December: “No change in your vision. Everything looks great. See you next year!”
A migraine for me begins as a spot of light in my eyes; it grows until I can only see the outer edges of things.
But I don’t get migraines often, and am not getting one now.
Nor, to my knowledge, have I ever had a hallucination.
—I shall need proof, then. A picture.
My phone is in the house.
Stepping backward, I ease to the corner of the house, out of sight of the snake (well, at least until it’s out of my sight. Snakes don’t see well). I make a run for the porch steps, the front door, the bedroom where my phone is charging.
The snake has not moved by the time I return.
I wait for the longest time, phone poised, cued to video, but the glimmering doesn’t come again. I record a few seconds of the snake breathing. Zoomed, of course, from a comfortable distance.
Absolutely nothing is happening.
So I walk way around in the grass, giving the snake a wide berth. Short jaunt down the driveway to the mailbox, retrieving uninteresting, unimportant ephemera.
Back up the driveway to the sidewalk …
—The snake is gone.
—There in the mulch, just ahead of where it had been.
I try for several minutes more to capture some glowing, any glowing, on video, but the phenomenon is over. Whatever caused it has apparently conspired not to do so again, certainly not for one wishful human.
I do, however, get a bit of video of the snake’s tiny black tongue flickering — from a safe and comfortable distance.
I wonder if any neighbors have spotted me, if they’re wondering what in the heck I am doing, hunched over for so long here in my yard. But there’s nothing really stirring outside except those goats in their secluded pen, a meandering bee, birds in the distance, a random, rusty cock-a-doodle-doo from the rooster who lives up the street, as, in his mind, anything with ears to hear needs reminding he’s king of all times of day, not just the morning.
I have troubled this shy little snake enough. Time to let it be. Live and let live.
Trudging up the steps to my porch, wonder and hesitation stir my soul: I will write about this. I think. Or should I? How can one explain the inexplicable? How can one know what is really real? When “I saw it with my own eyes” isn’t exactly enough to drive away doubt? What about logic: Have earth snakes ever been known to glow? Is there a plausible scientific explanation? Bioluminescence is a real thing. In some eels, for example. Fireflies. Glow worms. Perhaps my snake ate one of these larvae—? Might that be the dark lump in its midsection? Perhaps some released phosphorescence traveled through its body, which is just transparent enough to reveal it. Or maybe this is a defense mechanism? A means of survival for a thing that usually lives underground? Did it ingest some compound in the soil that might give off a glow? Or did this snake simply, literally absorb some sunlight?
All I know is that I saw a light glimmering inside a rather translucent little earth snake. Twice. And that I am unaccustomed to seeing random light running along anything in shadows.
Not physically, anyway. Metaphorically I see light in the shadows all the time.
I sit rocking in my new porch chair. My thoughts sway back and forth, rolling over and over and over like paper in the wind … and I realize that my questioning awe is tinged, the tiniest bit, with something like sadness: I am not likely to ever see this again, let alone prove that I saw it. Some things are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, one-shot-only golden glimpses, like the eagle I saw last spring, sitting huge and majestic by the side of the road. Not that I want to encounter another snake (any more, I am sure, than one wants to encounter me). No. Still not a fan. Not aiming to be a herpetologist. Although I could contact one and ask if earth snakes ever glow … what’s the risk, other than skepticism and dismissiveness?
I just want to know why. That is all. And am having to accept that I likely never will.
That glimmering … if nothing else, it means Aliveness. The little snake is alive. I am alive. For one moment, maybe, the life force acknowledged and honored itself …
For all I know, the snake saw the same glimmer in me.
Not just the baking of them as a means of COVID-coping productivity, but as an expression of the times.
My daughter-in-law—artist, baker, craftsperson extraordinaire—created these cookies a few weeks ago. She and my son delivered them with my granddaughter via a front porch social-distance visit:
My ebullient four-year-old granddaughter belly-laughed on presenting these whimsical delights: “TOILET TISSUE COOKIES!!!!!”
“And face masks and soap!” I exclaimed.
“They’re too pretty to eat!” said my husband.
But we did. Every crumb. With joy.
I thought about the joy with which these cookies were infused, how ingesting them was an antidote to the virus zeitgeist. What you put into a thing is what you get out of it …
Yesterday my son and his family made another delivery:
“Ooooohhhhh,” my husband and I breathed in unison.
As we admired the astonishing artistry, I noted a shift in the cookie symbolism: Not just physical survival, as in the previous batch, but spiritual (coffee counts as both, right?). The fleur-de-lis, emblem of our daughter-in-law’s Louisiana roots, long associated with Christianity and the church, an icon from antiquity for royalty and protection. Choosing to believe, as the stages of isolation drag on, that the uncertain future can, and will, be beautiful. “Unbridled hope for tomorrow” … such trust. Such zest for life.
And a pencil.
Truth is, we write our tomorrows by our choices today … and nothing represents spiritual survival to me more than writing.
I call it: “The pencil is mine.”
“I want this one,” said my husband, picking up the fleur-de-lis. How he misses going to church, being with the flock he pastors. A shepherd pining for restoration, preservation.
I am from sharp pencils from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps (cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts) I am from gardenias from towering Eastern pines heavy boughs whispering waving to me like a vertical green sea I’m from storytelling and dogs from Columbus and Ruby I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music From “You’re the oldest, set the example” and “take care of your precious self” I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate I’m from the riverside and the shipyard from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog, from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin. In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras. I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary of all the stories.
My love for the sound of cicadas is a recurring motif in my writing.
It stems from childhood summers spent with my grandparents in the country, the most idyllic days of my existence.
In thinking of Earth Day, my first inclination is to write on In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
That verse, Genesis 3:19 in the King James, conjures images from At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s Bill Bryson’s observations of country churchyards in England where churches seem to be sinking into the ground: Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adults deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls who didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been here and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand … that’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.
In other words … we are the earth.
Times being the pandemic they are, death surrounds us. April 22 also marks the anniversary of the sudden passing of my husband’s father at the age of fifty-four. My husband was just twelve.
But I do not wish to turn Earth Day into a death knell.
I write about cicadas today because they lie in the earth and emerge—some after seventeen years—to sing their song of life.
In the thick woods and byways of North Carolina, from May through September, it’s a deafening cacophony; but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is beauty in the ear of the listener.
In honor of Earth Day, a “found poem,” of sorts, from a former blog post I wrote, entitled Cicada Rhythms:
The song of cicadas calls to me from long ago from sultry summers in the country where narrow dirt roads keep an ominous forest from encroaching on rustic homeplaces from tiny cemeteries where baby after baby is buried under white monuments adorned with lambs at the old church just around the bend. The song is of the ages of the rising and falling of generations all of us coming and going in our time a song reverberating from oaks, pines, cypresses across canals teeming with frogs and turtles to white-tailed deer standing along the fields at dusk. It is the bright song of the sun of hope of continuity. It is the dark song of the night oddly comforting— something out in the blackness is vibrant, alive maybe keeping watch while children drift off to sleep. It is the sound of safety of stability of belonging. Calling, calling the crescendo mirrors the rhythm of life brimming with promise echoing eternity. When I hear it I am a child again no matter how many summers have come and gone. Every spring as I mark another year of existence I listen for the first rattle. You’re back! my heart sings. Ah, but we were here all along they might say if cicadas had words. There’s a lot of living and loving yet to do. You have today. Carry on.
The cicada isn’t exactly a beetle, but a “true bug.” They symbolize renewal, rebirth, transformation, change. They can disappear for many years to return en masse. Their buzzing call is made by the males, who begin singing soon after emergence.
Heard today that a friend and former colleague passed away.
We worked together for a few short years as paraprofessionals, until I switched schools to complete student teaching, the final step in my university degree. It was an unexpected door that opened later in life for me.
My colleague encouraged me. She was an interesting, eclectic person who celebrated individuality and embraced life even as she absorbed some of its severest blows. I remember one sunny conversation we had about the word “eviscerated” — the gleam in her steely blue eyes never dimmed, whether burning with impassioned convictions or shining with compassionate discernment. She loved to laugh, to comfort, to speak of spiritual things.
One day she surprised me with a handmade card bearing a mysterious drawing on the front: “This is my prayer for you,” she said with a smile and those unwavering, bright eyes.
I kept it all these years, long after we lost touch. Long after I heard that her compromised, declining health rendered her unable to work.
I found the card again this week during my incessant pandemic purge. With the TV in the background broadcasting the rise of coronavirus deaths at a local nursing home, I reread the card, marveled anew at its artistry and sentiment, thought of her, wondered what became of her.
Today I learned she’s numbered among those dead.
—How many messages do we miss in life, because we aren’t “still” enough to receive them. How many moments do we miss because we don’t make time. How many gifts go unacknowledged because we can’t see them while looking through the lens of unfairness.
My friend didn’t miss. She understood. Far better than most.
She reminded me once, long ago.
She reminds me, still.
It’s a choice.
Just now, seize the day Offer your own gifts in return You’ll find joy for the taking
Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.
They chose the bottle.
Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.
Except for some long-buried treasures.
In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.
I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.
So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also considerthe feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.
And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):
Granddaddy is gone And I walk his old farm How he loved this place This wide-open space Nothing now to see Where barns and house used to be Just an empty field After harvest’s yield Cold breeze blows Through my heart, it goes When I spot in a bit of grass Sunlight glistening on—glass? I momentarily forget my hurt As I dig it from the dirt —a bottle, imagine that No telling how long it sat Buried deep in this ground As theas the years circled round Whose hand touched it last In that long ago past? Clear glass, heavy, yet small Cracked but unbroken, all in all What unseen secrets must it hold This bottle of stories untold
It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…
Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:
Bottle Antiquated, weather-worn Eroding, cracking, enduring Poured out for healing Elixir
Or maybe a double reversed etheree:
Empty of that for which you were fashioned vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased drawn from roots to nourish my own cold glass clasped in hands now still spooned in mouths now silent elixir fully poured out, consumed every drop gone cast off forgotten swallowed by earth kept year after year without ceremony lying silent, eroding enduring seasons, weathering cracking but enduring, determined to remain clear with your story obscured.