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

Still waters

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 …”

Abject terror.

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 …”

Whoosh.

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

anchor them

to the earth

far below.

And so we float

suspended

separate

waiting

enduring

this strange baptism

yet anchored

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.

Photo: Water lilies on a pond at Powhatan State Park. Virginia State Parks. CC BY

*******

Thank you, Donna for hosting April’s Spiritual Journey Thursday.

Finding the fortune

Can’t recall when my family last had Chinese take-out. Don’t remember ever seeing this “fortune,” much less saving it.

Found it while doing extensive spring cleaning, otherwise known as pandemic purge. A bit of ephemeral prophecy, biding its time, waiting for the right moment to resurface:

We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.

That is all for today.

Be still

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.

—St. Patrick’s Day blessings, dear hearts.

Mending

I had my first check-up for my broken foot.

“Ah,” said the orthopedist, displaying the X-rays, “this is excellent progress.”

I breathed a little more freely.

I knew it was better. I’d walked on it a little at home—just a little—without the boot, without pain, even though I wasn’t supposed to.

What concerned me most was … well … I am growing older. All I did was fall off of three garage steps and the bone just snapped.

Are my bones becoming fragile?

“It’s a common break,” said the tech. “What’s not common is the complete break. Usually it’s a fracture. Yours is a hurty one.”

“Yeah, it hurt plenty in the beginning,” I replied, “but not now. This progress means my bones are good and healthy, right?” Translation: I’m not decrepit, yet?

“They’re very good,” smiled the orthopedist. Who looks about fifteen.

He graduated me to an orthopedic shoe. But still no driving for four more weeks. State law says not while I require “medical equipment” on my gas foot.

<sigh>

But, I have good bones.

I examined them up on the screen. Marveled at how much the broken one had already knitted itself back together in just three weeks. Amazing how bones can even do that.

“That’s the best part of this particular field,” said the orthopedist. “Getting to watch people heal. Oh, and you can walk some in the house without the shoe. Movement stimulates bone growth.”

He looked at me knowingly.

I just smiled.

Walk to knit, knit to walk …

Rather meta of us, don’t you think, my little metatarsal.

Twist of fate

For all the clear memories I have of moments and conversations in years past, I cannot quite recall how this happened two days ago…

Early Sunday morning. Tote bag with Bible and Sunday School lesson, studied and ready to teach. Annotated cantata book for Easter drama practice, ready for first rehearsal and casting. So much to do. So much to think about. Mind full of minutiae to remember. Let me put all this in the car, lest I forget something… wait, the sweet pickles for lunch. I forgot to take them to church with the sandwich stuff for rehearsal. Let me put the jar in my bag. There. Ready…

Opening door. Garage steps, red brick. Car is right there, I will put everything in the backseat floor…

—Falling. Fast.

Everything in my hands scatters across the cement floor; I watch the music book and all my papers sliding away with remarkable speed.

I cry out. I don’t know if it’s during that split-second fall, or on impact.

A snap.

Sharp pain in my right foot… I am only wearing socks, no shoes.

My son, Cadillac Man, is there in an instant. He heard me fall.

I am clutching my foot. It’s bad.

—Mom, is that blood dripping down your bag?

No. Pickle juiceget my Bible out of there.

And get your father.

His father tries to help me up but I can’t stand and he can’t be pulling on me; he is still healing from bypass surgery.

Don’t touch me, I tell them. I don’t know how to move. I have to figure it out.

I crawl back in the house. I take off my sock.

My foot looks intact.

I will try to stand…

Knife-like stab.

No.

My husband and son do not know what to do. It is Sunday morning; one is a pastor, the other, a music director. They each have church services waiting,

Go, I say. I have to figure this out. Maybe it will be better by the time you get back. If not, you can take me to an urgent care. Just go.

They go.

I wait until they’re gone to crawl down the hall and, sitting in the floor, change from pajamas to street clothes, for I know I’ll be going somewhere about this foot.

Suddenly everything is exponentially harder than it was.

That’s when I cry.

*******

X-rays reveal that I broke the fifth metatarsal on my right foot. The tech tells me I snapped it and I say yeah, I heard it. Now I am in a boot for six, eight, ten weeks; who knows? These things are slow to heal, says the orthopedist.

And no driving with the boot, she adds.

So now my husband and son must take me to and from work, every day for weeks on end.

I cannot do this, I say to myself.

But I walk, lopsided, imperfect, maddeningly slow in my Frankenstein boot, out of the office. My husband takes me home.

I watch the countryside whizzing past the passenger window. I know what this is shaping up to be. A hard lesson in dependence, at the least. It’s not like I haven’t lived this before. Seventeen years ago, just after my father died, I broke my foot—the same foot, different bone—while preparing to direct a church play. This second time occurs just after my husband’s brother died. Déjà vu. A curious twist of fate. None curious-er. I am seventeen years older; this is going to be harder.

—Well. It’s just going to have to be one deliberate step at a time.

Oh, how much I take for granted.

Today, back to work.

Just a good bit slower than before.

From ashes of auld lang syne

 

embers

New Year’s Eve. The wind gusts in the night beyond the bedroom window. I sit at my scarred old vanity, watching a tiny hand-me-down television. I am fifteen, this room is my inner sanctum, so I am surprised when Daddy brings me a slice of frozen pizza that Mom heated up for a late snack. “Something to munch on while we wait for midnight,” he says, and departs. My heart is stirred by this gesture. I don’t know why. I can’t even say if it’s a pang of happiness or sadness.  I take a tentative bite of the pizza and resume watching the movie Come Back, Little Sheba. I am safe and warm, the pizza is unexpectedly tasty, yet I shiver. The desolation of the characters and their story pierces me. How could things be so wrong? Would Sheba—a missing dog—ever come back home?

The wind moans under the eaves; I can’t stop this seeping inner chill.

Midnight arrives. I should say something to my parents.

I go down the hall to the living room, where they are turning off the big TV. “Happy New Year,” I say. 

They are stretching, yawning: “Happy New Year, Sugar. Good night.”

We head for our beds.

The ringing of the phone wakes me from a deep sleep.

I sit straight up. A phone call at this time of night—morning, rather—can’t be good news.

I wait in the dark, pulling the blankets around me, as my father’s footsteps hurry down the hardwood hallway to the kitchen. He answers the phone, hurries back down the hall to get my mother.

I hear her crying.

Heart pounding, halfway not wanting to know but also realizing I’ll have to face whatever it is sooner or later, I get up and go to the kitchen.

Mom is hanging up the phone, tears streaming.

“Grannie’s house caught fire. They all got out but the house is gone.”

I am suddenly weak. I need to sit down. I do, right there on the kitchen floor.

How did this happen? I want to know but can’t bring myself to ask.

My grandparents have been sent to the hospital for monitoring; within a couple of hours, my aunt arrives to stay with us. She is weeping, nearly incoherent, her clothes reeking of smoke. A charred, overpowering smell. 

The smoke woke me up, she sobs. Thank God for the phone in the bedroom. She tells us that when she picked it up to dial 911—the brand-new emergency number—the receiver was almost too hot to  touch. Coughing, knowing she had to get out, she opened her bedroom window and crawled through to the porch roof. There she found Grannie and Papa G. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived, ladders went up, and my family was ushered to safety. As she speaks, I see hoses dousing orange flames that illuminate the icy black night.

Jenny was still in there, sobs my aunt.

Her beloved Siamese cat, twelve years old.

Three firemen held me back, she says, choking on her words, and I envision how hard my aunt fought to go back for Jenny. She’s a sizable woman; it probably took everything those three firemen had to restrain her until the fire was out and they could search. 

My aunt, middle-aged, unmarried, never having had children, dissolves in anguish: They found her body under my bedroom window.

Jenny, she sobs over and over in my mother’s arms. I am sorry, Jenny.

I am now as cold as ice, shaking uncontrollably.

—Come back, little Sheba.

*******

The question we all had: How did the fire start?

It was an old two-story house, drafty, with a curious assortment of doors and rooms. A chimney stood in the wall between the living room and Papa G’s little dressing room on the ground floor. As that New Year’s Eve was excessively cold and windy, my grandparents burned logs in the living room fireplace. They extinguished the fire before they went to bed but the wind gusted hot embers back down the chimney with enough force to blow the old plate off the wall at its back. The embers landed on the dressing room rug, directly under the room where my grandparents lay sleeping.

On that long-ago New Year’s Day, extended family gathered to survey the damage. Wooden doors on the ground floor were burnt completely through their middles but still held onto their glass knobs, like ravaged ladies saving their diamonds at all costs. The pantry where I stood so often as a young child, opening all of Grannie’s stopper spice bottles to smell the contents—cloves were my favorite—was destroyed by soot and water. The avocado-green telephone in the kitchen had melted down the wall like something out of a Dali painting. 

That phone, more than anything, sent my fifteen-year-old mind reeling. The horror of that much heat. That much danger, the near escape. The ruin of it all, the losses. Jenny. There would be no going back. No coming back.

The old house, the old year, a portion of my childhood lay in ashes. 

But my predecessors were survivors. They left a legacy of rising above, of carrying on. They knew, well before that night, how to bring something new from the old, something beautiful out of desolation. To my astonishment, the house was restored and refurbished more elegantly than before; my grandparents and my aunt lived there for many more years. 

We don’t go back, no. We can’t.

But we go on. 

It’s a long time since I was fifteen, straddling the transition from childhood to adulthood, coping with the temporal nature of life and its losses, but I believe that New Year’s fire marked the true beginning of my resilience, faith, courage, and, when needed, my fighting spirit. My inheritance. It’s carried me through every year since, even this last, in the greatest crisis of my adult life. Once again, my family survives, only this time I’m the older generation. We recoup, we go on to whatever this new year holds for us.

Perhaps it’s overcoming that sparks the memory. 

It’s auld lang syne, my dears, auld lang syne, beyond the darkest night, the ashes of what was. And not forgotten.

I rise and walk into the new carrying you with me, always.

Photo: Embers. Brian Douglass. CC BY