We can’t go back

In the 1590s, Shakespeare penned:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried

Now is 2020: The year of our discontent. Heavy clouds of pain, anger, injustice enshroud our houses, our cities, our minds, our days. COVID-19 cases still spike, yet to reach their peak. Flocking to the oceans no longer makes for a “glorious summer,” with crowded beaches described as ‘Petri dishes’. Many people are still out of work; some have lost their entire livelihood. Stress levels are so high, my dental hygienist tells me, that offices are being flooded with people whose teeth are cracking from grinding and whose joints hurt due to anxiety-induced inflammation. America is a nation, if not indivisible, then certainly fractured, almost soul-split (anyone recall Tom Riddle and his horcruxes?) over the complexities of recognizing and amending institutional racism to something as simple as wearing a mask. We ask: When and how can we go back to school, safely? No one really knows, although plans are being made, submitted, approved. A greater question: How can we go back to school, to life itself, as it was?

We can’t.

We must not.

Now is THE time to be discontent with what was. With what is. A time to break down and a time to build up, to reinvent, redefine, reunite.

In light of everything, a litany:

We can’t go back
to what what works for some but not all
to ideologies and theories
over actual ideas and self-actualization.

We can’t go back
to wearing blinders
to plowing on
in the same mentally-furloughed furrows.

We can’t go back
to resurrect what we’ve killed
on the altar of systemic oracles
on the sudden late revelation
therein lies no salvation.

We can’t go back
from ages and ages hence
to tell the children we’re sorry
and to plead for retroactive grace.

We can’t go back
to repaint our story.
We can only begin
, here and now,
creating an inviolable mosaic
from our broken pieces.

A ‘thought mosaic’ of student reading interests at a Family Literacy Lunch event. Vitally important questions for educators and systems: How are students being honored as individuals? How much learning do students get to “own” vs. what’s delivered to them? Is greater value placed on conformity or creativity? On enduring or endeavoring? On internalizing and imitating, or imagining and innovating? Are students led to believe that their thoughts, ideas, experiences, perspectives, preferences, worries, hopes, and dreams have validity? How often do they get to reflect on these, express these, vs. being confined to and assessed on rubric responses to reading and writing prompts? Now’s the time for examining—microscopically—every standard, curriculum, practice, and program for the seeds they actually are in this organic microcosm of society.

Cookie commemoration

Quarantine cookies are a real thing.

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.

We share the consumption of hope.

Every sweet crumb of it.

The rocker

First, the light.

More of it each day. Driving the darkness away with its gentle appearing, rousing bright-eyed birds earlier and earlier, which respond in uninhibited chirps, songs, chatter. New day new day new day day day …

It’s a beautiful time to be alive. To be reborn. To mark having been born.

“What do you want for your birthday?” asked my husband.

“New rocking chairs.”

I’d been thinking on it.

The old chairs on the front porch are cracked, broken, portions held in place with wood glue. Time for them to go. Time for new ones. I want to sit outside in the light, in the breeze, even though it remains oddly chilly, to hear the birds, to see Papa Finch alight on the roof. I hear him before I see him; I wonder what his loud twitter means but I always answer, “Hi Finch!” Then there he is, tiny brown creature with his chest faintly dusted red, sitting high above the garage against the cloudless blue sky, looking directly at me. The porch is part of his domain. Sometimes from inside the house I hear his loud chirp; looking through the window, I find him sitting on the white porch rail. I suspect he’s eyeing the front door wreath for his bride’s nest. Although I took the wreath down for the winter, I’d left the old nest from last year attached. With the coming of March, and with great care, I put the faded, bird-loved wreath back in hopes that the nest would be reused. It hasn’t. So I removed it to make way for new.

Like my rocking chairs.

When my granddaughter visits now, it’s only on the front steps for a while, until the coronavirus social distancing expires. She comes with eyes full of spring light, as blue as the sky above my finch, who never fails to join our gathering and to add his voice to the conversation.

“That’s a loud bird!” says my granddaughter, age four.

“He is. Look, there he is, on the roof. Hi, Finch!”

And in these bright little moments, I revel in the poetry of life, that this bird (I wonder if he was one of the previous hatchlings from my wreath? ) should be a mainstay. Especially as my granddaughter’s name is Scout. Yes, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Whose last name was … Finch.

I want sturdy chairs on the porch, for resting. As a place to quiet my mind with the greenness of the grass in the yard and over where the path leads round the pond through greener trees. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul … To share with my granddaughter as she grows, to have coffee with my husband who almost didn’t live to see another spring. To celebrate living, being, enduring. To converse with generations of finches who’ve chosen to make my home theirs. To know, as evening falls, and I must go in, that I savored the gifts of that day to their fullest, their deepest.

My husband bought the chairs.

“We’ll put the old ones on the back deck,” he told me.

I wanted to say Why, they’re held together with glue, they’ll last maybe three days out there with no shelter, let’s just throw them away. But I didn’t. He wants to keep them, for some reason …

Truth is, the old chairs look kind of nice on the back deck by the flowerpots. For ever how long they last out there.

It was the rocker nearest the kitchen that made me realize.

Thump thump. Thump thump.

Dennis the dachshund woke from his sleep in a patch of sun-stripes at the back door. Ears perked.

“What is that?” I asked him from my chair at the kitchen table, where I was typing on the laptop.

Rising, looking through the window.

The rocker, rocking all by itself.

Thump thump. Thump thump.

The other rocker opposite sat motionless.

The wind, I thought.

Second thought: Why this rocker and not the other?

Third thought: Is the windor something — IN that chair?

It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to write a collection of ghost stories. An incongruous thought on such a bright, gold-green day.

Then.

How have I missed it?

For all the weeks—months—of the wind’s extended gusting and moaning under the eaves, unlike I’ve ever heard it before, I failed to notice it had stopped. All through the COVID crisis it’s been a grieved entity, swirling around my house in desperation, haunting my spirit with its voice, agitating the tall pines.

It’s still here, as my rocking chair can attest. But subdued.

Perhaps the wind has decided to sit a spell and rest. Perhaps the rocker was an invitation.

I am not sure we are friendly, yet, the wind and I, but I will offer it hospitality as long as it’s a benevolent guest. Is it taking up residence here, like the finches?

Perhaps I will take my coffee out there one afternoon and ask—begging the wind’s pardon, of course—why it cried so long and so hard.

But as I have no wish to stir anything up, maybe I’ll just let the wind rock to its heart’s content, in peace.

Ode to the wind

It’s an ill wind that blows no good.

Those words have been lurking, brooding, around the perimeter of my mind this long, strange, separated spring.

Even on the brightest days, the wind remains a peculiar Presence in my otherwise quiet corner of the world. This is not normal behavior. I cannot decide if its constant moaning represents mourning for the dead and those yet to die of COVID-19, grief for the state of the world at large, or if it’s a harbinger of bleak times ahead for human existence. The earth lives on, arrayed in spring splendor, while the life and livelihood of people has frozen. Time stands still. For how long, we don’t really know: what time frame is there for outlasting a deadly microorganism? Seems the wind knows … on and on it blows, perhaps not ill in itself, but certainly as a soundscape to a ravaging illness. Somewhere in the sound is a sense of statues, cracking, crumbling, turning to dust, being swept clean away.

So it seems to me, anyway. Sometimes.

Haunting, daunting, taunting, flaunting … I cannot decide which. Perhaps all.

Then, the trees.

Last week, while composing my “I Am From” poem, I decided to choose a representative tree. I meant to write of bald cypress, for I love them, I identify with them, they are a symbol of my southern heritage. I even love the sound of the name. Cypress. But almost instantaneously a vision crowded out any other tree: the little pine sapling that grew to a towering height in the backyard of my childhood home. When I left at twenty, it was a majestic presence, a sole monarch holding dominion over the ditch-adjoined, chain-link backyards of the neighborhood. Hardly an enchanted kingdom, but don’t try to convince my pine of that. It would be my representative tree. Reaching ever-skyward, grown wide with long, heavy, green-needled boughs undulating like ocean waves. Whispering, whispering, always whispering …

Today I read this tweet by Robert Macfarlane:

Word of the day: “susurrate”—to whisper, murmur, esp. of noise produced by numerous individual sources of sound (bees humming, leaves rustling, etc.) Compare to “psithurism,” its similarly sibilant sense-sibling, meaning the whispering of wind in trees (from Ancient Greek).

—That’s how the universe works. Messages of perception. Then sometimes supplying the exact right word (the universe is a writer).

Pining
Sighing
Inner crying
Truths revealing
Hidden healing
Unknown to me
Regal tree
I listen listen to your whisper whisper
Susurrus secrets, ceaseless, swirling
Mystery messages written by the wind

There’s something being said, for sure. If only I spoke pine. Or wind.

Pines, by the way, represent survival, longevity, protection (think “shelter”). Sometimes the pine is called the tree of life. Perhaps there’s a promise in this psithurism.

But you, Wind, remember—you’re ill if you don’t bring something good.

The whispering pines in my backyard now.

Shamrock haiku

solitary sprig
determined to survive, blooms
reaching for the light

without eyes to see
knowing without sapience
light is existence

reach, little shamrock
through darkest of days, sparking
my own hope-flower

I, too, keep reaching
for the light I know is there
even when unseen

A passing prayer

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

Seize Heaven now, joyful old friend.

Rest in sweet peace.

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.

Redemption nonet

One of my favorite themes in literature—in life—is redemption.

Life’s a complicated adventure. Things happen. We respond to them. Each of us is an individual, complex universe of tangled history, experience, emotion, psyche, and DNA. We make choices and our choices make us … and our story. As Shakespeare would say, “Thereby hangs a tale.”

Since I read The Goldfinch in February, while homebound with snow and a broken foot (which seems an eon ago, now) I’ve thought about how certain choices reveal true character more than others. For all the breathtaking artistry of the author’s craftsmanship, in all the moments I paused to reread passages to absorb more of their glory as the story swept me away, one little, shining nugget wedged itself in my heart deeper than anything else. Perhaps it is strange, I don’t know, and I will try not to be a spoiler here … suffice it to say that the main character, suffering from trauma, descends into self-destructive behavior as a means of coping. As he attempts to escape his circumstances, he takes a little dog with him rather than see it neglected. It’s not his dog and he’s actually embarrassed by its “girlishness” (it’s a Maltese) but his appalled distaste over the treatment of the animal and the conditions in which he first found it motivate him to make a rescue at risk to himself. This I found strikingly heroic. A revelation of the character’s inner wiring working at its best. Redeeming.

Then of course there’s the loving character of the little dog itself and I am quite, quite sure that I would have found that just as poignant if I had not had a little dog curled up in my lap as I read the novel.

I have been wanting to capture these sensations, somehow, ever since. Suddenly, today, it gels. Maybe it’s because the sun dawned so bright this morning on our troubled, changed world as it wobbles on. Maybe because this brightness mingles with a searing sense of grief and apprehension about the days to come. About how much of life as we know it will be lost. Destroyed. I’ve been writing an abnormal amount of poetry so maybe images are standing out with sharper edges and taking clearer form than usual.

At any rate, this is my first attempt at a nonet, inspired by that act of rescue in The Goldfinch. Maybe it’s about wishing for rescue. Or redefining it. Sometimes, in saving another, one is often saving oneself …

Redemption may be life’s greatest theme
a sign that all hope is not lost
overcoming brokenness
in the effort to save
another creature
not capable
of saving
itself.
=Love.

Frozen acrostics

Once upon a time, a terrible enchantment swept across the land like a howling, raging wind. It forced people into their homes so lives could be spared. It kept children from being with their friends and grandparents so the evil sickness would not spread. Many heroes waged a mighty battle with a tiny germ at great cost to the whole kingdom. Meanwhile, the people waited … and waited … and waited … and longed, with all their hearts, to be together again. They missed each other fiercely but they knew the waiting was an act of true love, and that love, eventually, conquers all

I would love to hold you close
Sometime soon
Only when it’s safe again
Let this virus go, let it go
All will be well in
Time
It is so long, so hard
On the heart, being apart
Now

Soon the spell will be
Over and we
Can be
In the same bright kingdom together
Again
Let this virus go, let it go
Don’t come back any more
It’s funny how
Some distance makes everything seem like
Time is frozen
Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day
Nearer to overthrowing this
Corona-nation separation to resume our happily
Ever after

Original photo with text: L. Haley. Edited with Cartoona Watercolor.

Blitz poem: Track the love

So far I’ve managed to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, a feat I’ve never attempted before. All my life I’ve loved rhythm, rhyme, and free verse, but the great fun has been experimenting with form. This is my second completed blitz … how apropos is that name for the times …

Stay at home
Stay on track
Track the days
Track your steps
Steps in faith
Steps to a better you
You should know
You aren’t alone
Alone in all the world
Alone at last
Last night
Last time
Time stands still
Time on our hands
Hands sanitized
Hands not held
Held a puppy
Held in the heart
Heart grows fonder
Heart of the matter
Matter of fact
Matter constitutes the universe
Universe pay
s attention
Universe giving gifts
Gifts to guide you along the way
Gifts of words
Words are power
Words are magic
Magic portals
Magic moments
Moments too few
Moments too short
Short on time
Short of breath
Breath of fresh air
Breath on the mirror

Mirror image
Mirror glass
Glass half empty
Glass half full
Full of sound and fury
Full of hope
Hope against hope
Hope springs eternal
Eternal God
Eternal love
Love like there’s no tomorrow
Love your neighbor
Neighbor

Tomorrow

In case you’re curious: Here’s my first blitz, Signs of Sun.