Lines on a path in the woods

September
whispers
the first hint
of autumn
with a cool breath
caressing our faces
our bare arms
and legs
in the still-warm sun.
Whispers an invitation
to walk
woodsy trails
under trees communicating
in rustling green tongues.
One leaf
already fallen
crispy and brown
cartwheels across the path.
It is longer than we realized.
One of us would push

for a more vigorous pace
but the other of us
is tired.
A restful respite
in the almost-chilly
tree-proffered shade
just short of the bridge
we didn’t know was here.
Cicadas chorus high above
a big black ant hurries past
and somewhere a bird sings
as if it is the very heart
of all things.
We’ve come this far.
We walk a few more steps
one a little ahead
one leaning on a cane

one breath at a time.
Not until
we reach the bridge
can we hear the water
talking to itself below
in a wordless trickling flow
going on and on and on.
And so we do
even though we can’t see
how much path
is left to travel
nor what lies ahead
around the bowery bend.
The bridge cannot whisper

invitation.
It only stands
offering
silent invocation.
It is enough.
We cross over.

We go on.

*******

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday invitation to write a Slice of Life and to my Spiritual Journey Thursday friends for the writing fellowship along the way. For more spiritual offerings see Karen Eastlund’s collated posts under “Finding Direction” at Karen’s Got a Blog! (Thank you, Karen, for hosting).

The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

*******

Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

The steering wheel

This is not the post I might have written today.

Woke in the wee hours to total darkness, power loss, Hurricane Isaias smacking the house, tearing at the roof. Isaias is purely physical. He has no voice, unlike the ghost-wind that moaned and mourned for weeks under our eaves with the advent of spring and COVID-19.

Yet somewhere in the darkness, despite the raging gusts, little frogs kept up a cheery chorus.

Not much to do but stay in bed and wait it out.

And fall back asleep. And dream…

I am driving a car that belongs to my father, I think. Except that it doesn’t look like any car he ever owned. Nice little SUV, dark gray. I am coming home from visiting my grandparents in the country. I reach the quaint part of the city where they lived when I was little, before my grandfather retired. I’ve always loved this place… but I realize just now that I can’t turn the car. The steering wheel is gone. How have I managed to come so far without it? The car begins to spin and slide; I’ve lost control of it, I fear it’s going to be hit, but somehow I get it to a safe parking spot by a curb. I will have to backtrack and find that missing steering wheel—how could I have lost it? How is that even possible?

I go (on foot? in the same steerless car?) all the way back to my grandparents’ home. They’re out in the yard, very busy loading and unloading big objects (equipment? furniture?) on some kind of truck. Grandma’s face is serious. She doesn’t have time to talk to me [should have been a major clue that I was dreaming, as this never happened in reality]. When I tell her why I’m back she just says the steering wheel is over there (she points) in the road. Seems I lost it on the very start of my journey home…

I go to reclaim the steering wheel only discover two things: This is a rather large steering mechanism but the actual wheel isn’t there… and the little old road is freshly-tarred and paved. It’s never been paved. It’s supposed to be gravel. Sure, it looks nice, stretching out smooth and black, but why would anyone pave these tiny, meandering back roads where so few people live? This is a lot of work and expense that isn’t really ‘better’, I say to myself. With mounting sadness, I run a short dash on this new pavement to see that my grandmother’s home placea small, white house with a porch and a tin roof, where Grandma and her seven siblings were born over a hundred years ago—is gone. An expanse of green grass is all there is to see…

And then I wake.

Loving symbolism as I do, I know the dream connects to having little or no control in life. We’re living through a pandemic. A hurricane rages. I work in a school and the return next week will be drastically different. Life plows on despite the loss of the familiar. Nothing looks or feels or works quite like it used to. We travel a strange road interspersed with shadows of the real and surreal. The world, and our existence, have been altered in myriad ways. But… to be without power is not the same as being powerless…

As I write, Isaias has moved on. There is no damage here, no trace of him whatsoever now. I could revel in this glorious day, the azure sky with occasional cottony clouds drifting by, the unidentifiable bird with long wings soaring high, cicadas resuming their buzzing in the still-standing trees from which they were not shaken…that sound being one that connects me more than anything to safety and my grandparents’ home in the eastern North Carolina countryside. I could employ here my one word for the year, reclamation… reclaiming the day, reclaiming life, even my strange dream-attempt at reclaiming that lost steering wheel in a vehicle that wasn’t mine…

But the power came back on and the TV is full of destruction in the northeastern regions of my state. Homes destroyed by tornadoes spawned by Isaias. People dead and missing (some were children, who’ve since been accounted for).

And I think instead that the road to reclamation is so hard, so strange, so littered with precious, scattered fragments of life, obstructed by such mountains to move. We can control so little.

When we find we are unable to steer, perhaps that is when we are being driven most toward one another. Reclamation, then, lies in our responsiveness. In our willingness.

So does, perhaps, our redemption.

Photo: The road back to Stevenage. Peter O’Connor. CC BY-SA

Resurrection fern tanka

Teacher-poet Margaret Simon features a weekly writing invitation on her blog, Reflections on the Teche, in response to a photo. Today’s offering is a resurrection fern photographed by her neighbor and friend, James Edmunds.

Few things are more intriguing to me than a resurrection fern, which seems to die but can manage to live again, maybe even after a century of drought, with a little watering. Somewhere I have an unfinished short story in which this inspiring plant appears…

For today, however, a tanka seemed called for. The form consists of thirty-one syllables, lines of 5/7/5/7/7. It is meant to be song-like.

withering, drying,
fronds curled heavenward, dying,
resurrection fern’s
thermoluminescence burns
until rain regenerates.

Here’s to holding onto the life-spark, Friends, ever how long the drought … storing the inner light for strength until the healing rains finally fall.

Photo: James Edmunds

Spiritual Journey Thursday: On golf and good-bye

An elegy.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

-Ecclesiastes 9:11

He was born nearly seventy years ago.

With cerebral palsy.

He would never be able to go up a flight of stairs, for both halves of his body wouldn’t work together.

He would partake of the Lord’s Supper at church with a special goblet reserved for him; the tiny communion cups required too much finesse.

His ever-present smile, however, set his entire face alight with a magnificent inner glow that never dimmed, his piercing blue eyes as bright as the unclouded summer sky.

Perhaps it began with his father, who chose to believe.

Who loved the game of golf and decided his son would, too.

And so he taught his boy.

As if there were no handicap.

Always make a total effort, even when the odds are against you.

-Arnold Palmer

It’s a game of precision, skill, and amazing grace.

The boy loved it.

He excelled at it.

He entered tournaments, won trophies.

A whole case full of them.

I have to believe in myself. I know what I can do, what I can achieve.

-Sergio Garcia

He liked people even though many could not understand his labored speech and, in their discomfiture, avoided him.

He could drive a car and on occasion came to visit the parsonage where my husband and I lived, when our children were small.

I learned he had a mischievous sense of humor, that his brain was, in fact, brilliant.

I wonder how many people understood this.

When I told him that I had to complete a required PE credit on my path to becoming a teacher, and that the only thing currently available was golf, and that I was already in danger of failing it due to my abysmal performance, he coached me.

Brought me pages of yellow legal paper covered with handwritten notes far clearer, finer, and consistent than my own, organized under this heading: The Fundamentals of Golf. Another heading: Form. Accompanied by his sketches of how to stand, how to hold the club, body position, dotted lines for movement…

I contemplated these golden pages with absolute awe.

He brought me newspaper clippings and magazine articles on women golfers. Hoping, perhaps, I’d love the sport. His sport. That I’d maybe rise, somehow, to the glimmering, glorious heights of it…

I never did. Never learned to love golf, not even a little.

The university instructor declared, in utter exasperation, that I looked like I was chopping wood.

But I got an A in the course.

Thanks to my coach.

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play it where it lies.

-Bobby Jones

He taught me much.

He wanted to be married, to have a family.

It didn’t happen.

“People don’t understand God,” he told me during one of his last parsonage visits. “But I understand God.”

I looked at his face, bright and earnest as ever, uncharacteristically serious, eyes fierce, blazing.

And I believed him.

As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.

-Ben Hogan

He lived with his mother, who cared for him until her illness and death, after which he went to an assisted living facility.

Parents gone, driving gone, golf gone. Seasons come and gone with slow decline, languish, only memories left of moments in the sun, walking the fairway, making your best shot.

With the arrival of COVID-19, even visitors were gone.

And now so is he.

He could be considered a victim. Of the cerebral palsy that marked an existence of suffering from birth to his death by a pathogen that, in electron-microscope images, looks like a golf ball with extruding dimples.

Some might say his life wasn’t fair… what if his father thought this?

I say he was a conqueror.

More than a conqueror, never separated from the love of God.

He understood.

Only a few will be allowed at the memorial today.

Just know that I remember, old Friend. Farewell. You were, you remain, always, a gift from our Father.

Photo: Chris Urbanowicz. CC BY

*******

Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday today at Beyond Literacy Link.

I’m the one who leaps

On Ethical ELA today, Margaret Simon shared the work of fellow Louisiana native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Jericho Brown. For the Open Write challenge, Margaret encouraged writers to use an echo line, anaphora, in composing poetry, something Brown does so magnificently. You can read an excerpt of his work and many other moving poems on being “a marcher or a leaper” here.

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.

Photo: Running fawn. Cropped. USFWS Midwest Region. CC BY

Wisdom before peace

Many years ago, I attended a public event and found, right there at my destined seat, a little silver ring bearing the word SAPIENTIA.

Latin for “wisdom.”

I cannot remember the event itself, or even the location … only that, as the ring had no traceable owner, it came home with me. A bit of metaphysical metaphorica: If you find wisdom, hang onto it.

This past week I sorted through some old things in my jewelry box and rediscovered the ring.

It’s somewhat tarnished but still glinted in the light when I picked it up. Cool little circle in my hand. It seemed to say: If ever there is a time for wisdom, it’s now.

Consider this definition of wisdom (also known as sapience) from Wikipedia:

The ability to think and act using knowledge, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence, and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence.

Meditate on those words a while, in light of recent weeks—as reeling, wounded, protesting America looks inward at its egregious wrongs of police brutality and racism, as more and more voices are raised for solidarity and reform, as people weep and pray for peace. We cannot act accordingly, cannot begin to heal and repair, if we do not think. We cannot advocate for justice and make concerted change if we are not deeply aware of what we think and how it affects our relationships with each other. We cannot obtain knowledge and understanding between us without hard conversations and self-examinations to find bias we didn’t know was there, like a cancerous lump that only grows and festers until it’s removed. Else all of society suffers. We don’t often think of wisdom as a matter of the heart; we don’t typically see it as the wrapping of real compassion and benevolence… not just in our distribution of these, but in allowing ourselves to receive them. Our wellness as a whole relies on our individual willingness to be healed. It begins with listening. In desiring better ways of seeing as the road to better ways of being. Reform is a long process… but with wisdom, it is possible.

Lastly, while wisdom plays an integral part in the relatively new field of positive psychology (what makes human life meaningful and worth living, seeking individual and societal well-being), it also has ancient spiritual roots. In the many religions of the world, wisdom is tied to balance, goodness, the future, seeing things for what they are, a knowledge and fear of God. My Sapientia ring carries the image of a descending dove; in Christian iconography, that represents the Holy Spirit. Long before Christianity, a dove represented… peace.

We pray for peace, as we cry out against injustice. As we advocate for systemic reforms, as we educate ourselves about ourselves. Yes, we have a long way to go, but we have begun.

Let us first seek wisdom.

On children and hope: Spiritual Journey Thursday

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.

Children.

On my mind when I go to bed.
On my mind when I wake.
Not just my own
or ones I’ve known.

Children.

So full of love.
So full of song.
So free with their giving
in everyday living.

Children.

We hand them the crayons.
Blank sheets of paper.

And set little hearts so earnestly
to coloring the world they see.

Children.

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.

Bocelli: Amazing grace

Last night a concert by tenor Andrea Bocelli was televised. He wanted to offer a message of hope to the world; his own country has been ravaged by COVID-19. And so he was recorded with only an organist on Easter Sunday in the Duomo di Milan, resplendent and empty … when he walked outside, alone, to sing “Amazing Grace” on the cathedral porch, the screen displayed the empty streets of major cities around the world.

Listening, watching, I thought this is one of the most abiding images of our time.

A golden shovel today, in honor of Bocelli, his gift, the wounded world-in-waiting, the healing power of music, prayer, and hope:

How amazing
this lone figure of grace
standing on the church steps singing of how
prayer and hope turn bitter times sweet

while in the deserted streets his angel-voice is the
only sound.

Photo: Andrea Bocelli. laurentius87. CC BY-SA. Edited with Cartoona Sketch.

Easter morning visitor

While we couldn’t attend church yesterday, it doesn’t mean a presence wasn’t there.

A friend went to photograph the dawn and heard a song coming from the steeple.

The building, empty like the tomb, had its own winged messenger at the first light of Easter.

If you do not know: A cardinal bird can be considered a sign of the divine—I’ve written of it before (Divine appointment). The vivid red birds also represent life and blood. In Christianity, specifically, the blood of the living Christ. Thecardinalexperience.com states: “Traditionally, the cardinal is symbolic of life, hope, and restoration. These symbols connect cardinal birds to living faith, and so they come to remind us that though circumstances might look bleak, dark, and despairing, there is always hope.”

Cardinals were named for the red-robed bishops (although this one’s sitting on a Baptist church). Name associations include heart and possibly the Old Norse word for cross.

Which is, of course, atop the steeple where our visitor perched to offer his doxology.

First light of Easter morn
Found the church silent, forlorn
Empty of its life, its music, its people
And a winged messenger on the steeple
As if proclaiming the old, old story
Singing, full-voiced, Glory, glory, glory.

Photo: N. Winn. 04/12/2020.