Periwinkle

Last week of February.

Winter wears on.

Trees hold up their naked, skeletal branches, exposing clumps of old birds’ nests. The world is colorless, like a vintage film, a study of grayscale contrasts. Only the pines, bent by a recent glazing of ice, remain green. My backyard is littered with their brokenness. Tufts of needles and a couple of large boughs are strewn across the dead, mud-puddled grass.

It is a time of enduring.

Little things go a long way.

I’ve written of the stab of joy on seeing a bluebird, that brilliant dash of color against this dreary backdrop, as something to treasure each day. Now, despite the cold, an unseen bird nearby sings a bright song to usher in the dawn while it is still dark: cheer cheer cheer… a cardinal. Another favorite bird. I long for its vivid red. Just this week I also heard the first metallic honk, honk of Canada geese, returning to nest.

Spring is afoot, aflight, audible, if not yet visible.

And then there is the flower.

I thought it was my eyes playing tricks.

In the old weathered pots on the back deck, amid the ruins of my geraniums, the trailing Vinca still lives. Pale, leafy strands spill across the boards like errant strands of hair. And in one pot… a spot of… what is that color? Lavender?

A closer examination: Two little periwinkle blooms. Five-petaled. Most unexpected. The vines weren’t blooming when I planted them in early summer. I honestly didn’t know they would. This necessitates research: Vinca blooms in “late spring through summer.”

Mine is blooming while it is yet winter. Surely a there’s metaphor in it. As in the cardinal’s bright song in the dark, just before light. Like the bluebird’s welcome spot of color, popping against the blah. More research, because for me symbolism has an irresistible allure: The color periwinkle represents serenity, calmness, winter, and ice. The flower itself, sentimental memories, nostalgia, new beginnings. I read that it can also represent mental acuity. That’s certainly welcome. In the Middle Ages periwinkle was associated with the Virgin Mary; look for these little blooms beside her in old stained-glass windows. The vine’s very name, Vinca, comes from the Roman word for “binding.” Garlands were made of it, for dead children as well as for criminals on their way to execution—good heavens. This pierces me; I shudder. More shades of Mary’s own story, that…we are, after, all barely a week into Lent.

I shall think of this as winter’s funerary flower, then. A little blue-violet garland on the season’s icy brow, bidding adieu.

In place of a eulogy for winter…note Wordsworth’s inclusion of the periwinkle in “Lines Written in Early Spring” (read the whole poem to see what it is really about):

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes. 

The birds around me hopped and played, 
Their thoughts I cannot measure:— 
But the least motion which they made 
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

All I know with certainty is that this little bloom, accompanied by increasingly-present birds, brings a thrill of promise.

*******

-with gratitude to the weekly Slice of Life storytellers at Two Writing Teachers, a bright spot in every week.
Here’s to the upcoming daily writing challenge in March!

First bluebird

Today
when I rose
it was
not dark

Windows backlit
winter-pale, eggshell
embryonic
but light

Still cold
beyond the blankets
when I open
the blinds


To find
a bluebird
resting on
old deck railing

Plump and poised
for one long minute
his feathers painted
with sky and rust of earth


Little harbinger
on weatherworn wood
-while it is yet winter
spring is yawning

I hold my breath
in shell-light, shivering
as the promise
takes wing, and flies

*******

A bit of rough-draft offering for Poetry Friday.
Thanks to Jone Rush McCulloch for hosting.

Photo: Bluebird. Rick from Alabama. CC BY.because I couldn’t get to my camera in time. The poem is my snapshot.

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

What’s in a word

Perhaps you have taken part in the “one little word” tradition for the New Year as a means of living more intentionally and reflectively, maybe letting it guide your writing. At the beginning of 2020, I had a word in mind for the year.

Reclamation.

Here’s what I wrote, ten weeks before COVID-19 shut us down:

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

At the end of 2020, I have to reflect on what my original vision of reclamation was, and what it became.

Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control. At the time, those words were mirroring 2019, when my husband was recovering from cardiac arrest and two heart surgeries. We spent weeks at the hospital in late summer. I never imagined the pandemic lying just ahead…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Caring for my husband took precedence over returning to work when school resumed that fall. When I did return, I fought a daily battle to catch up, to hit any kind of stride, as 2020 dawned. In February I broke my foot. In mid-March, the governor closed our schools due to COVID. In May, George Floyd was killed. America erupted. COVID continued erupting across the world. The election…really, one runs out of words. Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to to what you can, what’s most important, for that given day.

Reclamation, I wrote, involves choices. Both large and small. Every day.

One of my original intents for the year resembled a true environmental reclamation project: repairs and improvements around the house. Did I succeed? As I was home a lot more than ever before, thanks to the pandemic, yes, I accomplished a good bit. There’s just always more to do. One thing (don’t we know) often leads to another.

In 2020 I meant to write more. Did I? Most definitely. It wasn’t the type of writing I envisioned. I thought I would finally complete some things I started in years past. My blog post productivity increased. I ended up writing a lot more poetry than I have in decades. What does that say about the power of poetry in coping with powerlessness, inertia, darkness, even despair? Psychologists avow its therapeutic benefits. Poetry-writing invokes calmness, healing, strength. It calls to the spirit in a unique way. There’s something about the rhythms and breaks, something in the metaphor and imagery, in the cadence, the musicality, that soothes the soul and brings release. Not to mention the good old-fashioned value of hard work in trying to hammer a thing out, especially if there’s a desire to create something beautiful, meaningful.

Perhaps the most interesting take I had on “reclamation” in January 2020 had to do with teaching—before the scramble of completely reinventing it:

I write this not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny, but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories.

—I bolded the part I find most haunting, in retrospect. When I wrote those words I had no clue that children would be learning from home for months, that families would be scrambling to manage it, that devices and hotspots would have to be distributed on a massive scale, that people would lose jobs and loved ones to COVID, that food insecurity would become so widespread, that crisis and survival would keep some students from their learning, let alone a love of it.

What remains true, more so than ever, is that data can’t capture it all. We do need to know families and their stories. We need to know each other’s. From what else are compassion and empathy born? How else will we move forward, together? Reclamation in this sense involves pushing away whatever encroaches and consumes. It involves building something new, taking back what is being lost, reasserting rights…I am thinking of teachers now as much as of students, submerged by systems, structures, checklists, machinery. Of reclaiming a sense of humanity from processes, protocols, and programming which are, in the end punitive. When, if not now? Was a time ever “riper”? I wrote: It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time. The point being, start.

I also wrote: We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

I have never been more grateful for the outlet of writing and the writing communities that feel like home to me. Writing taps an inner strength we may not realize is there; sharing the stories knits us to one another by our heartstrings. In a time of distance, isolation, stress and anxiety, with spiking mental health issues, connection is ever more vital. Therapists say that one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress is to write or journal (writing therapy and poetry therapy are real things). In the action of framing thoughts, or facing fears, we collect emotional resources, resilience, and creativity lying dormant or hidden as we wormhole our way through. One more line from my pre-COVID January 2020 vision of reclamation: In this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more? Here’s a point to ponder: a study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK (June 2020) says that children are turning to imaginative writing more than ever as an outlet for self-expression, creativity, and well-being, now that they have time and freedom to do so…

Life is, after all, writing us. In the words of Albert S. Rossi, clinical psychologist and Christian educator, which I’ve read before and rediscovered this week: We don’t live life. Life lives us.

As the page turns from 2020 to 2021, we’ll see where life leads. It may be in charge of the story, but we are in charge of the craftsmanship.

On that note, I am thinking twice about choosing a word for the new year. Maybe I’ll just see what it wants to say for itself.

In the meantime, resting more, reading more, singing more, praying more absolutely helps. Seek more help when needed. Be more gentle with yourself (a lesson I am still trying to learn).

Keep on writing alongside life.

*******

with a debt of gratitude to Two Writing Teachers and the ongoing Slice of Life Story Challenge which is, above all, a joy

and to the gathering at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, a divining rod of inspiration

Old red barn

Old red barn
testament to ingenuity
the rust in your coat
counterintuitively
preserving against decay

Still standing today
on your windswept plain
amid long amber grasses
continually bowing
their homage

Like sun-cast gold at your feet
despite encroaching shadows
ever-shifting with clouds
under the benevolent blue
striated sky

A skeleton tree
veils your face
attempting to conceal
the emptiness behind
your window-eyes

You’ve no weathervane
pointing heavenward
with its rooster of betrayal
—can you hear geese calling
fly on fly on fly on

Old red barn
vignette of yesterday
rustic testimony never reduced
—I will not think of you
as desolate

*******

With special thanks to Margaret Simon for the prompt in “This Photo Wants to be a Poem,” her journalist friend Jan Risher for sharing the photo of the old barn, and to Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference for hosting today’s Poetry Friday Round-Up.

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).

To today and the tortoise

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 bookbag and the belt?

He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heard and 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.”

“What?”

“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.

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.

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