From ashes of auld lang syne

 

embers

New Year’s Eve. The wind gusts in the night beyond the bedroom window. I sit at my scarred old vanity, watching a tiny hand-me-down television. I am fifteen, this room is my inner sanctum, so I am surprised when Daddy brings me a slice of frozen pizza that Mom heated up for a late snack. “Something to munch on while we wait for midnight,” he says, and departs. My heart is stirred by this gesture. I don’t know why. I can’t even say if it’s a pang of happiness or sadness.  I take a tentative bite of the pizza and resume watching the movie Come Back, Little Sheba. I am safe and warm, the pizza is unexpectedly tasty, yet I shiver. The desolation of the characters and their story pierces me. How could things be so wrong? Would Sheba—a missing dog—ever come back home?

The wind moans under the eaves; I can’t stop this seeping inner chill.

Midnight arrives. I should say something to my parents.

I go down the hall to the living room, where they are turning off the big TV. “Happy New Year,” I say. 

They are stretching, yawning: “Happy New Year, Sugar. Good night.”

We head for our beds.

The ringing of the phone wakes me from a deep sleep.

I sit straight up. A phone call at this time of night—morning, rather—can’t be good news.

I wait in the dark, pulling the blankets around me, as my father’s footsteps hurry down the hardwood hallway to the kitchen. He answers the phone, hurries back down the hall to get my mother.

I hear her crying.

Heart pounding, halfway not wanting to know but also realizing I’ll have to face whatever it is sooner or later, I get up and go to the kitchen.

Mom is hanging up the phone, tears streaming.

“Grannie’s house caught fire. They all got out but the house is gone.”

I am suddenly weak. I need to sit down. I do, right there on the kitchen floor.

How did this happen? I want to know but can’t bring myself to ask.

My grandparents have been sent to the hospital for monitoring; within a couple of hours, my aunt arrives to stay with us. She is weeping, nearly incoherent, her clothes reeking of smoke. A charred, overpowering smell. 

The smoke woke me up, she sobs. Thank God for the phone in the bedroom. She tells us that when she picked it up to dial 911—the brand-new emergency number—the receiver was almost too hot to  touch. Coughing, knowing she had to get out, she opened her bedroom window and crawled through to the porch roof. There she found Grannie and Papa G. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived, ladders went up, and my family was ushered to safety. As she speaks, I see hoses dousing orange flames that illuminate the icy black night.

Jenny was still in there, sobs my aunt.

Her beloved Siamese cat, twelve years old.

Three firemen held me back, she says, choking on her words, and I envision how hard my aunt fought to go back for Jenny. She’s a sizable woman; it probably took everything those three firemen had to restrain her until the fire was out and they could search. 

My aunt, middle-aged, unmarried, never having had children, dissolves in anguish: They found her body under my bedroom window.

Jenny, she sobs over and over in my mother’s arms. I am sorry, Jenny.

I am now as cold as ice, shaking uncontrollably.

—Come back, little Sheba.

*******

The question we all had: How did the fire start?

It was an old two-story house, drafty, with a curious assortment of doors and rooms. A chimney stood in the wall between the living room and Papa G’s little dressing room on the ground floor. As that New Year’s Eve was excessively cold and windy, my grandparents burned logs in the living room fireplace. They extinguished the fire before they went to bed but the wind gusted hot embers back down the chimney with enough force to blow the old plate off the wall at its back. The embers landed on the dressing room rug, directly under the room where my grandparents lay sleeping.

On that long-ago New Year’s Day, extended family gathered to survey the damage. Wooden doors on the ground floor were burnt completely through their middles but still held onto their glass knobs, like ravaged ladies saving their diamonds at all costs. The pantry where I stood so often as a young child, opening all of Grannie’s stopper spice bottles to smell the contents—cloves were my favorite—was destroyed by soot and water. The avocado-green telephone in the kitchen had melted down the wall like something out of a Dali painting. 

That phone, more than anything, sent my fifteen-year-old mind reeling. The horror of that much heat. That much danger, the near escape. The ruin of it all, the losses. Jenny. There would be no going back. No coming back.

The old house, the old year, a portion of my childhood lay in ashes. 

But my predecessors were survivors. They left a legacy of rising above, of carrying on. They knew, well before that night, how to bring something new from the old, something beautiful out of desolation. To my astonishment, the house was restored and refurbished more elegantly than before; my grandparents and my aunt lived there for many more years. 

We don’t go back, no. We can’t.

But we go on. 

It’s a long time since I was fifteen, straddling the transition from childhood to adulthood, coping with the temporal nature of life and its losses, but I believe that New Year’s fire marked the true beginning of my resilience, faith, courage, and, when needed, my fighting spirit. My inheritance. It’s carried me through every year since, even this last, in the greatest crisis of my adult life. Once again, my family survives, only this time I’m the older generation. We recoup, we go on to whatever this new year holds for us.

Perhaps it’s overcoming that sparks the memory. 

It’s auld lang syne, my dears, auld lang syne, beyond the darkest night, the ashes of what was. And not forgotten.

I rise and walk into the new carrying you with me, always.

Photo: Embers. Brian Douglass. CC BY

Joy

Yesterday I noted this reflection on social media: “All I did in 2019 was survive it.”

Why did I think of the pool of Bethesda and the legend of the angel “troubling the waters“? Was it the sense of just enduring? The lack of hope?

The words stirred my soul on multiple levels.

I can relate to surviving. In 2019, my husband almost didn’t. There is no control in the valley of the shadow of death, only submission. Each long, dark day must be endured; my boys and I waited for the ray of hope.

And the healing came.

It was a year of survival, of change, of pain and loss, of life being altered. But then, joy: On the heels of his father’s recovery, our oldest married, went into the ministry, became a father. This Christmas, our family is bigger. This Christmas, we have so much more life to celebrate. This Christmas, inside the typical clamor, is a deep pocket of stillness. It is like the branches of our tree, frosted silver, catching the light, glimmering with tiny iridescent fire.

We survived, but more importantly, we live. We love. There’s always more love to give, another ray of light just ahead in the darkness, another healing after the troubling of the waters.

Life and hope renewed. Is that not the message of Christmas?

On that note . . . those of you who know this blog will know that 2019 was the first year we were “dogless” for a while.

That aching void is now filled.

I shall leave you with wishes for a holiday in your heart every day that you live and three pounds of sheer joy.

Merry Christmas, loves.

Welcome home, Dennis

So this is Christmas

My boy Cadillac Man and his Dennis nestled all snug in their bed

Holidays, holy days

Holidays.

Holy days.

The words roll round my mind as I drive to work, noting how the rising sun gilds the trees in all their fall colors against a deep charcoal sky. The sharp glory of it is beyond my power to describe. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Fierce. How can there be such detailed color and brilliance when the sky is so strangely dark? If a storm is brewing, why is the light so golden-bright? And where exactly is it coming from? The sun itself is hidden.

I cannot quite capture how I feel. It’s more than one thing. Awe. Reverence. Curiosity. A bit of foreboding.

Mostly gratitude for having been here to see it.

Holy day.

Holiday.

I am thinking a lot about the interplay of light and dark this holiday week.

And the fierce beauty of life.

My husband is here after a massive heart attack this summer. His surgeon said that his blockages were such that when the last artery went down that day, he had no reserve; he made a “medically inexplicable recovery.” This coming only three years after my husband lost an eye to ocular melanoma.

Light and dark, dark and light.

He lives to see our son get married the day after Thanksgiving. Not just to see it, but to officiate. After all the years of praying for the boy to go into the ministry and the boy saying, no, Dad, that’s not for me.

He ordained our son into the ministry three weeks ago.

Never say never.

Today the boy took the last of his things out of our house to finish setting up his new home. He’s gone, but not too far away.

He took his dog.

Henry.

The last dog.

In two years, we’ve lost three: Nikolaus the dachshund to old age. Banjo the yellow Lab that I raised from age seven weeks to a new home because my husband can no longer manage a 90-pound dog after bypass surgery. And now Henry, the best of the best, the rescue dog whose sole mission in life is to extract and exude as much love as possible.

I am now dogless for the first time in almost two decades. On every one of those days I could always count on a happy greeting, an ever-faithful warmth, some commiseration or comic relief. No tail thumping tonight, no snuffling, whiskered nose in my hand, no nails scrambling on the floor in exuberance for a pat, a treat.

How strange is it that my son moves out and I write about missing the dog.

And another thing: I recently wrote about the two old mules around the corner, how one of them was sick. I often saw it lying on its side in the pasture as the other mule grazed nearby. The farmer didn’t want to put his ailing mule down, knowing that the other mule would grieve, as they had never been apart. He finally had to. When I rode by the following week, I saw the remaining mule standing bereft in the pasture. My friend who lives on an adjoining farm said the mule hadn’t eaten since its sister died. I dared not drive that way for a few days afterward, fearing what I’d see, or not see. But this week I braved it. I drove past the pasture. There was the mule, grazing, which made me happy. As I watched, a big orange tabby cat came strolling across the pasture to sit by the mule. It looked right in my direction, swishing its tail.

A once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that I couldn’t stop and capture.

And then today as I went by . . . the cat was still there. In all these years of loving those old mules from afar, I have never seen any other creature in the pasture. That cat is there keeping that mule company. It was sent. I am sure of it.

What is life but a bizarre balancing act, a series of give and take, comings and goings, losses and comforts, laced with love, fierce in itself. A mosaic of light and color, a stark silhouette against a backdrop of darkest gray.

Holy days.

Holidays.

Every day is one to be celebrated.

Tonight I go to sleep in my dogless house, beside my husband who’s still here. We have one more son sleeping upstairs. Although there’s an ache, there’s not emptiness. I am grateful for that big orange cat who’s out in the pasture with the old mule left behind. I am grateful to see the glory and drama of autumn with the promise of celebrations to come. I am deeply grateful my oldest has found his calling at the same time great love has entered his life; on the day after Thanksgiving, he becomes a husband and a father all at once. It just so happens that his wedding day is the second anniversary of his grandmother’s passing; how she’d rejoice for him.

Light and dark, dark and light.

Oh, and on the wedding night, I get to bring home a little girl, officially my granddaughter; she and I will have our own celebration with Bride’s Cake ice cream and peppermint bark Oreos and probably the movie Frozen.

I put the Christmas tree up early, just for her.

Holidays.

Holy days.

How can there be so much light.

********

Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.

Waiting

We put the cookies in the oven

and we wait.

Good things take a while.

Don’t they.

Like Christmas and growing up.

Like wedding days

and having children.

Like heart-dreams coming true.

Like you.

It took a long time.

I had to wait.

My little boy had to grow up

and finally find your Mom.

It took a while

didn’t it

for you to get your dad.

Know what he told me?

“Mom, you’re getting a little girl

at last.”

So much of life is waiting, waiting,

it’s true

like my long ago-dream

of you.

So many books to read

and stories to share

and songs to sing

and places to go

and just to be

you and me.

So we put the cookies in the oven

and oh, we can hardly wait.

Muleogy

I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.

They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”

So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.

Until.

One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.

Odd.

In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.

The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.

I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.

On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.

I started to cry.

It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?

And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?

I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”

“Why?”

“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”

“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”

“Uh, no . . . .”

“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”

His nonchalance irritated me.

And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!

I drove by several times, rejoicing.

—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.

And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.

But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”

Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.

And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.

I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.

I reach the pasture. I slow down.

Annie’s lying on her side.

I come to a stop.

Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.

Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.

We watch each other for a minute.

I wonder what they think.

I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.

That was yesterday.

Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.

Sisters to the end.

I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.

More so than ever.

I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.

—My muleogy.

Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.

Maybe it’s illogical.

I only know it’s true.

For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

Why I Write 2019

The National Day on Writing invites me to examine my writing history: Why DO I write, really? And why do I love it?

I don’t know exactly when the desire began, only that it manifested itself early in life.

It had nothing to do with the hateful formation of letters on paper. My handwriting was never pretty. Even now my letters aren’t uniform; I scrawl my thoughts onto a page lightning-fast, before they escape me.

That’s what writing is. Thoughts. Ideas. The attempt to capture and convey images, emotions, sensations.

It has everything to do with words.

I fell in love with words long ago on my grandmother’s lap as she read book after book to me, the prosody of her voice like the waves of the ocean rolling on and on and on. Endless, musical, alive. Her voice buoys me to this day. I hear it still; she is never far away.

At age six I gathered paper and a pencil, sat at the coffee table in my living room, and wrote a story that I’d heard many times. No one said Do This. The compulsion came from within. The writing was for me and no one else. It simply needed to be done and I wanted to do it. So there I sat, laboriously printing my ugly letters, making words to what I believed was the most beautiful story in the world.

I wrote because, in the days before the Internet and cellphones, Grandma wrote letters (with perfect penmanship) in which she included books of stamps so that I could mail letters back to her.

In my adolescence she gave me a diary with a lock and key (two keys, actually, in case one got lost). I flooded those pages with the secrets of my young soul, such as the angry suspicion that my parents had adopted me, whereas my sister was their real child, and: One day I want to write a book. I hope it will be published!

And so I wrote.

One teacher, then another and another, strategically placed throughout my education, said Keep writing. Here’s what you do well. Here’s a thing that can make your writing even better. They asked me to read my work to my classmates, who said Keep writing. Oh, and will you help us?

Throughout my teens poetry called to me. It said: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

—That’s pretty much how I write everything now.

And the books, the books, the books . . . who and what would I be if I had not loved reading so? All genres, all my life. New words, new information, new ways of thinking, new things to explore and imagine. New motivation to write with the same power as the writers who stir something my very core, as our cores are clearly made of the same stuff.

So, to this day, I write. Because I love story, real or imagined. I write with and for children who have their own stories to tell. I write to cope with people and situations that I cannot change and to remember all that’s good in my life. I write my celebrations and my losses. I write not to wage war on the world but to find peace in myself, where finding peace with others begins. I write to forgive myself and others. Not with words that destroy, but those that build, that create, that go on in the belief that the chapter to come will be better than the one before. Even when pain is woven through it, so is joy. Because that’s life. And love. And writing. I want to store it all it before the hippocampi in my brain (I envision these as two seahorses, yes) stop recording my memories and before the ideas evaporate and the words don’t come any more.

Until then, on a sea of words, the rhythm of life rises, falls, and calls: You hear my music. Show me. Come, dance. Don’t think about perfect steps. Just listen and follow what you hear.

And so I do, with a heart full of gratitude.

That is why I write.

Mindful

Shattered

This is my phone.

Was my phone.

During a drive to school, where a thousand things awaited me, I realized I didn’t have it. Pulled over. Searched my bags.

No phone.

—Where had I last seen it?

Charging. That’s right, I remembered plugging it back up for a full charge to get through the day.

Turned around, went back home.

Nope. Not there.

I finally used the Find My Phone app on my iPad and within seconds, my phone was revealed to be about a quarter mile away, in the middle of the road.

Because — I have no recollection of this, it’s just obvious — as I loaded bags, notebooks, stacks of paper into my car that morning, my mind off and running miles ahead in a dozen directions, I made the unconscious, fateful decision to put the phone on the trunk.

I drove to said location and there it was, facedown on the pavement, shattered, tiny shards of glass pricking my fingers on retrieval.

At the moment, the greater marvel to me wasn’t the modern magic of pinpointing the exact location of my lost phone (while trying to imagine the extreme unsettledness of never finding it), or that I was so thoughtless (more than a little alarming). I marveled instead that the phone held onto the car that long before sliding off. Astonishing.

It was inoperable. Dark screen with an occasional flickering of gridded lights that grew weaker and weaker, like a monitor for a little dying creature.

So I set about the repair process — in this case, replacement — which is costly both in dollars and in time, meaning that my one second of not being mindful diverted valuable time and energy from the day and the important things I needed to do. The phone tethers me to my sons, wherever they are. To my husband, still recovering from heart surgery, in case he should need me. To my colleagues, who will text with questions or to ask me to come to their classrooms. The phone is an effective lifeline to the people who matter most to me.

It dawned on me somewhere during this ordeal that I held a metaphor in my hands: Relationships.

I thought about the cost of not being mindful in relationships. How they can get so far off track if we aren’t paying attention. How hard it is to get back to a good place when this happens, if we are not ever-mindful of words, actions, signals, choices. I thought about all the emphasis on relationships in education, usually in the context of teachers building relationships with students to help them thrive as learners. But even more important are the relationships between the adults in the building; if there isn’t collegiality, professional trust, and a true spirit of collaboration, all relationships suffer and the children pay the price.

Mindful. Such a proactive word. A few seconds of investment to avoid the time, energy, and costliness of repair, before things get off track and slide away.

Before relationships shatter.

Homecoming

I live in the country, where I hear a rooster crowing every new morning, where mists rise like swirling specters from glassy-surfaced ponds reflecting the pinkening sky. Where geese fly over my house so low sometimes that I hear the rustling of their wings as they call to one another in that rusty honk honk honk.

I think together together together. Home home home.

On Sundays I drive past fields, dilapidated tobacco barns, fences, pastures, goats, ponies, donkeys, horses, chickens, and peacocks that like to stroll along the roadside as if they own this pastoral kingdom. Around the bend are mules, cows, woods. Eventually I reach a clearing. The church, nestled between the fellowship hall and the graveyard. Gathering places. The place of worship connects the place of eating and celebrating life with the place of the dead, remembered and still very much loved.

This Sunday, the fellowship hall was crammed with tables laden with casseroles, salad, friend chicken, ham, deviled eggs, cakes, pies. This Sunday, family, friends, and former church members returned to celebrate their ties to the church. This Sunday, I rejoined the choir for the first time in many weeks, singing a song of gratitude to God.

This Sunday, my husband — the pastor — returned to church after four heart bypasses, four stents, two hospitalizations for nineteen days, two heart attacks, one cardiac arrest and one resuscitation. Thinner, slower, easily tired but gaining strength with each passing day, he came for Homecoming. To honor the life and legacy of the church. To celebrate his life being given back to him. To his ministry. To thank our oldest son, who filled the pulpit and even conducted a funeral in his father’s absence.

And to tell the church that this boy, who was seven when we came to serve here, who was baptized here, who grew up, left home, and returned to go to seminary in his father’s footsteps, has just been called as pastor of another church on the other side of the county. That this boy, now a man, is simultaneously getting married and becoming the father of three-year-old girl. She looks up at him with adoration, a big bow in her hair, so excited that they’ll all be able to live together. Their first home will be a parsonage.

Together together together. Home home home.

As his father returns, our son leaves to build his own life and legacy. To establish his own home. I think, as people cry and smile and hug, that for every homecoming is a homegoing.

Home. It is tied to place, yes, often in the context of where one grew up; but home is ultimately about love, about belonging. I heard an educator speak about his childhood. He and his brother were abandoned by their parents, spent their lives moving from one foster home to another. At seventeen, just as he was about to exit the system, his last foster parents adopted him. He went to college and one day, on coming home, realized that “success isn’t about leaving home, getting a good job, making a lot of money.” He understood, as his adoptive mother opened the door and threw her arms around him, that success is about living and loving well. It is about caring and helping and trusting and sacrificing. It is about family, about belonging. About carving out home.

I look at my son, standing tall and strong beside his worn, weeping father at the altar in the sanctuary, as an invisible torch is passed. The benediction. It pierces me, but not like an ending. It feels like a beginning.

Home. It doesn’t begin with physical place. It’s not external. It begins with finding home within yourself, with who you are, with the love you have to give as well as that you receive. It is about believing. Then it becomes the story of belonging, of rising to meet life each new day.

Together together together.

—Godspeed on your journey home, son.

On his father’s shoulders

On cicada wings

Cicada wing. Kristine Paulus. CC BY

A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.

High in the oaks

against the bluest of skies

the rattling swells

as its season dies.

An oxymoron

this buzzing call

from amid the leaves

soon to fall.

This song of my childhood

lingering still

in the last of the light

before the chill.

Full force, the cicada sings

—doesn’t it know?—

summer’s gone on the wings

of a song long ago.

***