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).
In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…
Until all of a sudden, it is.
For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.
For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.
One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.
One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…
One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.
One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…
One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.
One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.
One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.
One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.
Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.
But it did, and it has, and it is.
Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…
My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbagand the belt?
He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heardand can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?
One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”
“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”
He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.
And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.
Here’s to today. And the tortoise.
–Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.
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.
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.
Today I write with a group of friends for Spiritual Journey Thursday.
The word restore has been on my mind these days. More or less as a question: When will society, the economy, the country, the health of the globe be restored to pre-COVID-19 conditions? And what will that restoration look like? How changed or different will everything be?
I think on this a lot, as is there is a lot of time to think.
Naturally a well-known line from the Psalms also comes to mind: He restores my soul. It speaks of peace and confidence, of a daily trust. I watch the news, the frenzy of those in the medical profession, pleading on behalf of us all; the government having to count the cost of a shut-down economy as weighed against the life and well-being of its citizens; and everyone worried about having enough resources for coping. They’re all waging a mighty battle against an insatiable, tenacious, invisible pathogen.
While the rest of us watch from a distance, sheltered. Protected. Trusting that the decisions made for us will preserve us, restore us.
We wait in the stillness.
It brings the preceding line of Psalm 23 to mind: He leads me beside still waters.
I could make an analogy of a stormy, violent sea for the government, the medical field, and the stock market, in contrast to the majority of us waiting at home, by the still waters … but a story resurfaced in my memory instead.
Long ago, when I was about seven, I attended a church service where an older girl was baptized. She was perhaps twelve or so, a sweet and affectionate girl well-known and loved by the congregation. It was an exciting morning for the church … except that as this girl entered the baptistry, she was sobbing.
“I can’t do it,” she bawled. ” I can’t …”
Even as a seven-year-old, I knew she’d chosen to be baptized. She’d walked the aisle some weeks before and professed her faith. I knew the pastor made new members, including children, attend a series of classes to understand the tenets of the faith and the ordnance of baptism. I didn’t understand it all myself, not yet, but I knew this girl, garbed in a white robe, hovering at the steps leading down into the water, crying, wanted to act on her faith. I’d never seen anyone react this way to being baptized: Why’s she so scared?
I look back now and wonder: Was she simply afraid of water? Had she never gone swimming in a pool, as I had?
The water wasn’t deep. It wasn’t cold; it was heated to be comfortably warm. It wasn’t waves crashing on the shore, no dangerous undertow, just clear, still water.
Our pastor, a humble, middle-aged man, a former Navy pilot in WWII and a Bible scholar, stood in his own robe of white at the center of the baptistry. He reached out his hand: “It’s all right, Dear Heart. See, I’m here. It’s safe. You know I’m going to hold onto you.” When she stayed rooted to the steps, clinging to the hidden rail, our pastor waded over, put his arm around her, and led her into the pool.
He held her for a moment. We heard him whisper: “Are you ready?”
Loud sobs, but a nod of her little head.
He raised his hand heavenward:
“I baptize you, little sister, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit …”
She went under and just as quickly, he raised her back up.
“I DID IT!” she shouted, hair plastered to her head, wet face shining. “I DID IT!”
If ever there was a vision of radiant joy, that’s it.
The entire congregation wept, even seven-year-old me.
The tears return even now, remembering.
He leads me beside still waters. Sometimes through still waters. When we cannot see the bottom. When we’d really rather not descend into them, when we don’t want to get wet at all, when we fear not so much immersion but submersion: How long will we be under? Can we last?
He restores my soul. It is a matter of trust that, somehow, all will be well, that we will be raised back up, we will be led safely through.
For now, we wait in the stillness like water lilies … which, in the Tamil poetic tradition, happens to symbolize the grief of separation.
On the placid surface
rest the blooms
in waters still.
Their unseen roots
to the earth
And so we float
this strange baptism
to one another
by unseen roots
while time stands still.
Today, in my mind, in my heart, the word restore echoes over and over and over like a prayer.
Psalm 46:10 is one of my life’s verses: Be still and know that I am God.
It’s appeared, and re-appeared, at various junctures of my life. When I was a teenager, my youth minister presented me with a little plaque bearing this verse. It hung on my bedroom wall until I married and left home.
In recent years, a church member gave my family a stepping stone with Be still and know that I am God etched on it. That stone hangs on my bedroom wall now.
Imagine my delight— awe, rather — on researching quotes by Saint Patrick and discovering Psalm 46:10 and how it’s reduced, a line at a time, to one word:
Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be.
I can’t verify that Patrick actually deconstructed the verse this way, but it’s widely attributed to him. If so, what was he getting at?
My first thought: It’s an admonishment to be still. How fitting for the present time. With a pandemic on the rise, when we are at the mercy of a new ultramicroscopic virus with the power to deconstruct society, we must pull in and be still. Fear not. And wait.
It is not what we do best. We are not patient. We “do” fear and anger far better. We are accustomed to go go go and hurry hurry hurry and get get get. We have to-do lists that are never complete, that only grow longer.
And when do we ever just be?
Maybe right about now.
Oh, and by the way, here’s the whole of Psalm 46:10:
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
I shall leave you with the words of Saint Patrick — but not the one you know. This day cannot pass without mention of my grandfather, born in 1906 with the given name Columbus and the middle name St. Patrick (yes, for real). In one of our last phone conversations (his love for me evident in that he would talk to me on the phone, for he hated it; he was hard of hearing), I said, tears streaming, which he couldn’t see, thankfully: “I love you, Granddaddy. You’re safe in God’s hands.”
To which he replied, in his raspy, precious voice: “There’s no better place to be.”
Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be.