Spiritual journey: Celebrating small things

Today’s spiritual journey theme is celebrating small things (thank you, Ramona, for hosting our group).

What’s been on my mind all week, however, is the brokenness of things.

I wrote a series of poem-posts on it.

In those posts on the brokenness of things I could have mentioned that the incalculable horror, loss, and grief in Uvalde still weigh heavy on my heart each day, that I mourn the state of humanity and the inability to spare children. I could have mentioned that this school year, another chapter in the continuing saga of COVID, has been the hardest yet on staff, students, and families. I could have mentioned my despair over diametrically opposed viewpoints about what’s best for students and how some educators cannot get beyond deficit thinking to see the wealth of creative and artistic gifts in the youngest among us…

I wrote instead about being a child. About breaking my arm on the school playground when I was nine. About fearing my father’s anger and being surprised by his gentleness. In an effort to comfort me he brought one of my dolls along to the orthopedic office. It embarrassed me. I felt too old for the doll. Maybe it was more a matter of not want anyone else to think I still played with dolls. Yet the gesture touched me, even then. To this day the memory of my father holding that doll, shouting at the orthopedist to stop when I screamed during the bone-setting, is one of the most indelible images of my life. There my father stood, unable to spare me more than a moment of the suffering I had to endure. I could see the intensity of his own suffering. It was written all over his pale, fierce-eyed face. His presence and the knowledge of his pain on my behalf somehow breathed a waft of courage into my terrified heart. This little stirring of courage would sustain me through a subsequent hospital stay when the bones in my arm slipped and had to be reset. It would prepare me to visit a five-year-old boy with a crushed foot across the hall as he screamed in pain and terror. It would beget empathy: me there in my wheelchair with a cast halfway to my shoulder and him in a hospital bed with crib rails, his poor damaged foot heavily bandaged and raised on a suspended sling. United in common suffering, we would find a glimmer of overcoming, in the very midst of our brokenness.

That is the thing about children. Before there are even words to express, there are keen understandings. Children are natural ambassadors of healing. They instinctively seek to comfort. Their native language is love.

I realize, now, what I was longing for when I went back to those childhood moments.

The spiritual journey is littered with broken things, broken people, broken self. I remember wondering how that little boy’s crushed foot would ever heal. At nine I imagined the bones in countless pieces and couldn’t conceive of how doctors could repair that much disconnectedness. I wondered if his foot would ever be okay…but I knew, somehow, he would be.

Which leads me, at last, to the Great Physician. Who, like my father, intervened on my behalf to alleviate my suffering, and who, unlike my father, is able to provide more than momentary relief.

I’m not sure yet if I’m done writing about the brokenness of things but here’s where I finally pick up the path of celebration. I celebrate the sustaining gift of faith. I celebrate the memory of my father, gone for twenty years now but so alive and active in my memory. I celebrate that the school year is now ending, that a desperately-awaited respite has arrived. I celebrate children.

It occurs to me that none of these are “small things.”

So, here is one: I celebrate the musicality of children.

For on the most hellish of days, when I hear them singing, I remember heaven.

For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… Luke 18:16.

Salvador Dalí – Los niños cantores (Children singing) 1968. Cea. CC BY 2.0

Of racehorses and old roads

As I write, the National Anthem’s being sung at Churchill Downs for the start of the Kentucky Derby.

I’ll be pulling for a horse not favored to win.

His owner grew up in eastern North Carolina on a little stretch of road in the country. It’s paved now, but people have living memory of it being dirt… and I have an affinity for old dirt roads in these far reaches.

Once upon a time, I was a child who stayed in a little house on a dirt road in the summertime. I swung from a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from the pecan tree all studded with woodpecker holes. I swung to the deafening rise-and-fall rhythms of cicada-rattles, alongside the old dirt road across from the clearing where timeworn gravestones stood over people my grandmother knew when she was a child. I swung back and forth, round and round through the dappled afternoon, singing a favorite folk song from my father’s Peter, Paul, and Mary album…

Stewball was a racehorse
and I wish he were mine
he never drank water
he always drank wine…

The song goes on to say how the speaker bet on the gray mare and the bay, when:

ahead of them all,
came a-prancin’ and a-dancin’,
my noble Stewball.
The hoot owl, she hollered…

This past week, early one morning, I recorded a hoot owl (barred owl) hollering from the pines behind my home.

Memory runs so deep, so strong.

And so I pull for the horse named Barber Road, whose odds keep going down in these remaining moments before he gets to the gate.

Here’s to my own beloved road by another name in eastern North Carolina, and childhood, and belonging, and ol’ Stewball who wasn’t favored to win, either, but did, and to the hoot owl, the stories, the songs, and overcomings.

And here’s to you, Barber Road.

Run on.

Thoroughbred racehorseMIKI Yoshihito. CC BY 2.0.

Update: Barber Road finished 6th. By now the world knows that Rich Strike, the least-favored horse (80-1,) took the Derby in the second-biggest upset in its 148-year history. Secretariat, the first racehorse I remember, and who still fills me with awe to the point of tears, holds the record.

Song structures poem

On Day 7 of National Poetry month, for VerseLove at Ethical ELA, Chris Goering invites teacher-poets to compose around song structures by borrowing syllables, meter, rhyme scheme, etc.

My youngest son came immediately to mind.

Before he was born, he would get very still when the piano was played in church; he would become active again when it stopped. I was sure he was listening to the music. At five he said he wanted to be a choir director when he grew up… he now has a degree in worship ministry. 

Here’s a scene from long ago, about his first favorite song.

Amazing Grace, Age Three

My boy hummed the song before he knew
What it meant to weep for grace
What could he know of a shattered soul
In spite of his solemn face?

At the whiteboard he stood, making marks
Counting every beat he heard:
Adders deedle-dee, adders, adders…”
-For at three, grace needs no words

In the time of broken hearts

Heard on the news this week: Broken heart syndrome is a real thing.

It happens after significant stressors. Too much adrenaline. The heart is weakened. It hurts.

There’s a scientific name for it: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It derives from the Japanese word for “octopus trap,” after the shape of the left ventricle of the heart in this condition.

It is temporary. The broken heart can heal in a short time, maybe days or weeks.

It can sometimes lead to complications. Rarely death, though.

It seems to affect mostly women 50 and older.

But I wonder.

I wonder, as I regularly step in for teachers who are out.

I wonder, as I absorb laments and frustration and anger about the depth of student struggles.

I wonder, as I listen to students reading poems about tasting the salt of their tears.

I wonder, when I wake up so tired on workdays, when I have so little left to give when I get home.

And I am usually one to see the glass half full, to find the awe in each day, like…

the blue heron standing a glassy pond on the drive to work

the whorls of white smoke floating up from the chimney of a little house in the countryside, struck by the rising sun and transformed into clouds of peach-colored light

the newest photo of my three-month-old granddaughter who’s beginning to smile more and more

hearing my boy play old hymns on the baby grand piano at church with such a multitude of notes and joyful liveliness that surely, surely the angels dance

the one little bird (a cardinal?) singing for all it is worth, from the treetops

-these things strengthen my heart.

And keep it, I think, from breaking.

It is a long season, this pandemic, with its deep layers of residue.

On this day of celebrating love and hearts…I wish you healing peace for the pieces.

Photo: Broken Heart Chalk 2Retta Stephenson.CC BY 2.0

September morningsong

-a pantoum-

Just outside my window
an unexpected song
so loud and full of joy
I want to sing along


An unexpected song
bright spirit, wild and free
I want to sing along

until you fly from me

Bright spirit, wild and free
winging your doxology
until you fly
from me
I’m clinging to your singing

Winging your doxology

so loud and full of joy
I’m clinging to your singing
just outside my window.

The Carolina wren is a little bird with a big voice. I’ve been trying for days to get a photo of this regular visitor perched on our birdhouse church. I finally managed it this morning. As wrens are a common symbol for artists, musicians, and poets, a poem seemed called for. The pantoum form beckoned, with the rhythms of its moving, repeated lines (per new line, in stanzas of four: 1234 2546 5768 7381).

The wren also represents rebirth, immortality, and protection. It is considered a guide through dark times.

Mostly I am awed by its glorious singing.

Saying something back poem

with thanks to Katie at #verselove on Ethical ELA yesterday. She inspired poets to look around the room for an object of great personal significance, followed by a brainstorming process for finding the object’s own voice and characteristics: “Now that you have stilled this object in order to distill it in a piece of art, it’s time to bring it to life. Listen to it, and once you are ready, consider: If it were a character…and say something back.”

For Day Twenty-Nine of National Poetry Month

Repository

high-backed
mahogany cracked
infinitesimal spider veins

ever musty
oh so dusty
relic of bygone days

when the harmonies rang
and people sang
songs by shape note

now more of a reliquary

with touch-memory
of her hands
on your beloved keys

they don’t forget

somewhere in that
high-backed
mahogany cracked
prized-possession frame

amid your hammers and strings
and octavian dreams

surely you must
hold her dust
alongside mine
skin cells of
the child I was

relics of bygone days
side by side
just as we used to be
on your bench, of a summer night
in pale lamplight

singing
of the sweet by and by
when we shall meet on that beautiful shore

in the meantime
despite your need for tuning
and your wonky key

her great-grandson
stirs the slumbering chords again
the dust
the strings
the house
the blood in our veins
pounding out the glory
of the old, old story

blood does not forget

she’d be overjoyed
with my boy

as you must surely be

as you whisper to me

in high-backed
mahogany cracked
corners
where silence
aches

The piano dates to pre-WWII days, possibly the 1920s. My grandfather bought it secondhand for my grandmother. I spent many hours beside her on the bench as she played and sang alto to my soprano. In her last years she moved in with my aunt and finally the nursing home. She gave the piano to me: “It’s my most-prized possession, you know.” I never learned how to play but my my youngest son grew up loving old gospel songs. He’s a magnificent pianist who graduated from college with a music ministry degree; not a day passes that I don’t think of how elated she’d be to know this.

The piano knows, and remembers all.

My grandmother at the piano, long before my time

Ode to the day: Of pets and old songs

with thanks to Scott McCloskey for the inspiration in today’s #VerseLove at Ethical ELA. Scott suggested looking through the calendar of national celebration days (you can select a country) and writing an ode to one or more of them, as to why they’re important, or finding different meanings, serious or fun, or simply create your own celebration for the day – as in, Scott says, “to that misshapen paperclip on your desk, that threadbare left sock, or that broken pair of sunglasses in your drawer.”

For Day Eleven of National Poetry Month, here’s my poem on two celebrations occurring today (I KNOW some of y’all out there are going to get the reference and connective tissue here):

Ode to the Day: Of Pets and Old Songs

Here’s to dogs, ambassadors of love
constant comforters, day by day
warming presences on the coldest night
even if they’re not pets
even if they’re wild 
as in the Australian Aboriginal legend
of sleeping in a hole, snuggled to a dingo
and should it be freezing
it might be a three-dog night
keeping warm

Here’s to singin’ joy to the world
all the boys and girls
and to all the pets that warm their hearts
and brighten their days
—of course now that song is stuck in my head
on continuous play
like an 8-track tape
which I confess to remembering, alas—
never mind, let’s just take today to celebrate
how, in the end, all things are connected

*******

April 11th is National Pet Day and National 8-Track Tape Day.
I combine them with a nod to Three Dog Night & “Joy to the World.”

Some of my pets from way back when 8-track tapes were not yet obsolete.
My black cat, Moriah, and my dog, Bagel.

Bird sanctuary poem

A Golden Shovel poem in honor of the finches nesting on my front door, the miracle of new life, and faith. Reshared as a stand-alone from my April 1st Spiritual Journey post, in recognition of National Poetry Month. A Holy Week celebratory hymn based on the words of Christ: Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:5, ESV).

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

shared for Poetry Friday, with thanks to Mary Lee for hosting the Roundup

All things new: Spiritual Journey

An offering for the Spiritual Journey group, comprised of faithful friends who gather on the first Thursday of each month. Today’s theme is “all things new.”

Spring arrives, clad in rich new vestments of green. Every day, more of the color ripples across the landscape. Here in the central part of North Carolina the Bradford pears have already exchanged their ethereal veil-clouds of wedding lace blossoms for something more matronly and verdant. A whirlwind ceremony, that five-minute flowering of pear.

The birds began preparing back in winter. Flashes of electric blue on my back deck; a brilliant bluebird, dropping by like a friendly neighbor. Darts of fiery red across the road while I’m driving; cardinals, making me stress over potentially ensnaring them in the grille (why DO they fly so low?). Today, a darling brown Carolina wren on my back deck—clearly doing Deacon of the Week rotation with the bluebird—singing its heart out, full-throated, unrestrained, magnificent. How can such a small bird have such a big voice? Bocelli can’t hold a candle to you, Little Wren. From the pines and budding hardwoods, bird choirs swell, as in the song “The King is Coming”:

Regal robes are now unfolding,
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir now assembled,
Start to sing “Amazing Grace!”

All in earthly bird language, naturally… but no less celestial.

All but the finches, that is.

For several consecutive years a finch family has built a nest on my from door wreath and raised generations of little broods. I’d find a total of three baby-blue eggs in the nest, sometimes four, laid precisely between seven and eight o’clock every morning. My family has been treated to an insider’s view of the whole process, from nest-building to egg-laying to the hatching of tiny pink things so frail and helpless that a person might think they can’t possibly manage to stay alive; yet in no time they’re fledglings working on flying lessons. We’ve even had a batch of babies in the spring and another in summer; that makes for a long time of roping off my front-door bird sanctuary.

Then, with the advent of COVID-19 last March, a curious thing occurred. As the human world reeled, and became strapped in the strange straitjacket of pandemic, as businesses shut down, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed, spring came anyway. Nature, in fact, outdid herself with resplendent finery. The finches came to build their nest as always and this little act of constancy lifted my flagging spirits: At least there will be baby birds to watch while we are all under stay-at-home orders.

But there were no eggs last spring. The nest remained empty all season. The finches… they vanished. No warning, just—poof!—gone. I didn’t see when, how, or why.

After a while, bereft, I quit looking for them.

I didn’t take the wreath down until late fall.

I saved the little unused nest.

I didn’t have the heart to throw away such a labor of love (you can say instinct all you want but the perfect craftsmanship of nests amazes me).

With the return of March, I waited for the finches to join the rest of the avian throng having revival beyond my windows. Every day I looked.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, day before yesterday…on the top of the wreath, one lone strand of grass, lying in a telltale curve…could it be, could it be…?

And yesterday…

“THEY’RE BACK! THEY’RE BACK! COME SEE!”

My family humored me with only a slight rolling of eyes…my granddaughter, at least, seemed interested. She made my son hold her up high for a better, bird’s-eye view.

I marveled at the greenness of the nest. Is it just me, or is this how they always look? This green, this fresh? I do not think so. No, they have never been so green before.

And today…

Almost complete. Look at that leafy lining, so carefully placed.

By Easter—dare I hope?—we might have an egg.

A tiny, age-old symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

I marvel at this fresh greenery, this new grass, this preparation for new life, the hope that’s in it. If not for the birds, then for me. Especially after the year that’s passed, marked by so much bleakness and loss, down to the former little nest that contained no life.

I recall the promise of Christ: one day there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5, ESV).

Every spring hints at it. My personal winged messengers, harbingers of blessed assurance.

A little foretaste of glory divine.

Hymns of the heart. I step outside, away from the constraints of the house, watching the two finches take flight, zigzagging skyward, sunlight gleaming on their sandy backs, calling, calling, calling, how sweet the sound.

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

*******

Update, Thursday evening… first egg!
Holy Week blessings to all.

*******

with thanks to Karen Eastlund for hosting today’s Spiritual Journey

and also shared with the writing community on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, in response to the open invitation to write around the many meanings of “spring.”