Sand dollar etheree

Inspired by and dedicated to Margaret Simon, who shared the photo and who’s mourning the loss of her father.

Photo: Kim Douillard

Half
remains
afterward
it is enough
tangible beauty
even in mourning throes
to sense the infinite flows
of life undulating beyond
what the eye can see or hand can hold
where the spirit abides whole, unbroken

It’s all about the journey

Flipping through my planner today, scheduling even more things to be done before school is out in June, I discover this quote…

We go through things we never imagined but it may lead us to places we never dreamed.

For just a fraction, a breath, the brokenness of things diminishes…

I could write of this school year’s hardships on colleagues, with colleagues, on families, and on children most of all…

of COVID still rearing its tiny invisible head in the community…

of young and beautiful creatures that have died…

of incomprehensible suffering and loss…

but I will write instead of lush green moments, the “birdiest” spring I’ve ever known, an abundance of wings and chatter and song each day, so many things I’ve never seen before, like a pair of great blue herons flying low over the road from pond to brush…

my son arriving at home, placing his baby daughter in my arms, her tiny sweet hand reaching to pat my face as she drinks from her bottle…

a newness that is more than seasonal, invoking the eternal like shafts of sunlight in shadowed places…

for just a fraction, a breath, I have a sense of undoing, of forests, animals, people restored, rejoicing, the Earth itself laughing, the whole atmosphere charged with absolution, pure, deep, and complete…a bright glimmering, a pulled curtain quickly falling back into place.

It is enough.

I turn the pages and keep writing on my tomorrows.

Easter exultation

In honor of the day, an excerpt of “Jesus Makes Sin Forgivable” by Anne Graham Lotz in Just Give Me Jesus (2000):

The Pharisees couldn’t stand Him
but found they couldn’t stop Him
Satan tried to tempt Him
but found he couldn’t trip Him
Pilate examined Him on trial
but found he couldn’t fault Him
The Romans crucified Him
but found they couldn’t take His life
Death couldn’t handle Him
and the grave couldn’t hold Him.

*******

And a happy Easter haiku for you:

I have no more eggs.
As of this morning, new life.
Dawn exultation.

Tell me without telling me poem

Yesterday on Ethical ELA’s VerseLove, Scott McCloskey invited teacher-poets to compose around “tell me without telling me,” the popular social media meme from a few years ago: “Tell us (through vivid sensory details and whatnot) that you are __________ without telling us you are __________. ” In his model, Scott masterfully incorporated many fragments of famous poems that have inspired him to write, followed by this reveal: “Tell me you’re a poet without telling me you’re a poet.”

So for Day 9 of National Poetry Month, here’s mine… it incorporates bits I’ve written before… and there’s SO much more to write…

It all began, I suppose,
in a darkened room
when Grandma plugged
this thing called a color wheel…

it sat on the floor, rotating, illuminating
the all-foil Christmas tree.
There in the dark
the sparkling silver tree
transitioned to red, blue, gold…

a stillness, a riveting

There was a girl
in my childhood church
who played the piano
accompanying the sanctuary choir.
Once, she stood alone
in front of the handbell table
reaching, grasping,
her white-gloved hands
a blur of choreography
playing those bells solo
never missing a note.
She was sixteen.

a stillness, a holding of breath

I don’t remember
learning how to read.
It was just a thing I could do.
But in fourth grade, the teacher
(built like a mountain, with a face
and heart of carved stone)
read to us every day.
An intelligent, artistic spider
who saved a less-than-radiant pig.
A boy who didn’t want that annoying,
subversive, endearing, ol’ yeller dog
that ended up saving his life, 
before picking up the shotgun…

My God. My God.
I almost died with that dog

and there have been books
in my hands,

in stacks by my bed,
ever since.

a stillness, an absorbing

There’s more, so much more.

At nineteen, 
walking into the community theater audition
where the handsomest man I ever saw
sat with a script…

we were married in less than six months.

Thirty-seven years this summer.

Two years in, when he said he was called 
to preach, I said
Well, you’ll be miserable 
unless you do.

a stillness, an abiding

Our oldest son saying
over and over
I’ll never go in the ministry.
It’s too hard a life.
Not getting married or
having any kids, either.

Just after he enrolled
in seminary,
he met a lovely young lady
with a little daughter
named for the title character
of his favorite book.
In the fullness of time
and in the span of a month
he became a husband, father, 
and pastor.

It was ordained. Jehovah jireh.
God provides.

Last fall, he named his newborn daughter
Micah. Which means
Who is like God?

Indeed, who?

I am still, and know.

*******

(Tell me you are awed without telling me you are awed)

(likely to be continued…)

Until we meet again

Today I write in memory of my grandfather.

His name was Columbus St. Patrick Brantley.

He was born in 1906 “up the swamp” in coastal North Carolina. Farming was in his blood. He married my grandmother during the Depression and worked as a sharecropper. My father was born in a tenant house. Just before WWII, Granddaddy went to Virginia to work as shipwright. He tried farming and house painting after the war but “couldn’t make a go of it,” so he went back to the shipyard, where he was still working when I came along. For the record: the whole family said I looked exactly like him when I was born.

He didn’t work on Sundays; that became our day together when I was small.

He retired when I was six. He and my grandmother moved back home and thus began my many journeys to the little white house nestled in the bend of an old dirt road, where the woods had grown up all around, taking back house after house where people lived no more.

In his later years Granddaddy recorded stories of his life on audiocassette to give to his family. He could remember seeing his first Model T at age three or four. He said that mail was delivered by horse and buggy; farmers ordered chickens that were delivered in cages. He had a whole string of pins awarded him for perfect Sunday School attendance at the little Methodist church. He loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He spoke of his nine siblings, including a sister, Peaney (Penelope), who died of diphtheria at age four. He outlived them all. He lived to see both of my children. He could remember an ancestor speaking of Dublin.

Near the end of his life, I gave him a framed print of an Irish blessing. It hangs by my front door now:

The last time I saw him, he was dying of lung cancer at ninety-two. It was springtime. He’d grown weak but was fully dressed, sitting in his recliner by the door; he tried to coax my two-year-old to sit in his lap, like I did when I was little. I sat by his chair on a stool and held his old, wrinkled, work-worn hand.

Do you remember how we used to go to the park on Sundays?

I do, Granddaddy. We took bread to feed the ducks.

And the old locomotive?

I can just remember climbing in it together…

He was tired, always a man of few words. We sat for a long time together, not speaking at all.

When it was time to go, I kissed him on his forehead.

I love you, Granddaddy. God’s got you safe in His hands.

That’s the best place to be. And I love you.

He held tight to my hand.

It’s been twenty-three years. You can’t imagine all I have to tell you, Granddaddy. There’s been another pandemic. Wars and rumors of wars. Your great-grandsons are grown. The little two-year-old you tried to coax into sitting with you at that last visit plays piano and guitar; he loves singing the old-time songs that you loved. His brother’s a pastor with a baby girl; he tells me almost daily that something about your great-great-granddaughter reminds him of you. God remains faithful from one generation to the next. It’s almost springtime again, the fields are so green…

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick.

I love you.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.





Rambling autobiography

I was born in a state named for a queen, by a river named for a king, and in a hospital named for the river. I adore books, words, wind chimes, church bells, birdsong, the crying of gulls at the shore, ocean waves crashing, the utterance of my newest name, Franna, in my granddaughter’s voice, the aliveness in my son’s fingers dancing over the keys of my grandmother’s piano until the house and my soul burst with his music, and silences. I bought a white flannel nightgown and sheets with bright red cardinals on them at Christmastime because Grandma loved cardinals and Christmas, it is the season of her birth and her death, she is nearest then, so now I lay me down to sleep in heavenly peace. I have her wedding band; I wear it every day. I never dreamed of being a teacher. One of my sons became a teacher, too, then a preacher, like his father. When I was eight or nine, I had an imaginary black cat; one time after climbing from the backseat of Grannie’s car, I flung my hand out to keep the imaginary cat from escaping and Grannie slammed the door on my fingers (no one ever knew about the cat…sorry, Grannie, it wasn’t your fault). My favorite place is out in the middle of nowhere along an old dirt road where my grandmother then my father then I played as children, where cicadas in the woods sing as loud as Heaven’s choir about being born, living, dying, and the Resurrection. I can still smell Old Spice in the cool of those evenings when Granddaddy leaned down to offer me his clean-shaven cheek to kiss, Good night, I love you, see you in the morning. I dated the handsomest black-haired man I’ve ever seen for just three months when we decided to get married, thirty-seven years ago. I fainted at a funeral one summer afternoon but not from grief. I gave my real black cat to Daddy when I got married because I couldn’t take her to the tiny apartment that would be my new home. I once had a yellow parakeet; Daddy got it for my sixth birthday and it lived until I was twelve, dying one summer when I was at Grandma’s playing on the old dirt road — such a mysterious balance, the giving of things and the living of them. I am a grandmother now. I want to have a good dog as long as I am alive and to see my granddaughters grown into all their beautiful becomings before the cicadas sing me away to the riverside where I shall meet the King, at last.

If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.

Psalm 139:9-10

*******

with many thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration. Here are Denise’s starters (borrowed from Linda Rief) for a rambling autobiography:

I was born…
I adore…
I bought…
I have…
I never…
One of my…
When I was (age)…
My favorite place…
I can still (sense)…
I dated…
I fainted…
I gave…
I once had…
I am…
I want to…

and thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Sunday song

Early Sunday morning, on my way to church, the sky’s overcast but sun rays are peeking through, all set to teach the lesson on what constitutes a “hero” and while the best-known characteristic may be courage (which is not the absence of fear but acting bravely in spite of it), not to mention self-sacrifice, then perhaps the least recognized is humility, throwing off the mantle of leadership to be a servant, it’s all a matter of the spirit, service… and as I drive past barns, fields, pastures, the green, green grass hints of imminent spring, making my heart rejoice, as do the horses tossing their manes when I pass, surely shaking off sleep and the night, greeting the day as if to say Good morning, good morning, not to mention that I have just enough time to make choir practice before I teach, for we are finally singing as a choir again after two long years, and look at all these robins flocking by the roadside, taking flight as I round the bend, maybe straightening a curve or two, until I remember something my childhood preacher said: Don’t have a Jesus bumper sticker on your car if you drive like the devil… good thing I have no such sticker, but I’ll slow down a bit just the same…in my bag is a list of prayer requests and petitions to make, knowing the Lord already knows, for He knows all, sees all, is over all, and while there is so much I cannot understand, I am learning, I am always learning, and although words are forever scrolling through my brain, today, my heart needs no words; it just sings, like the birds.

A photo from last summer. In recent weeks a little Carolina wren has been perching on the tip of the cross of one of our two “bird churches,” singing its heart out to the sky. I haven’t been successful in recording this glorious solo… yet.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.

Ashes

a combination Slice of Life & Spiritual Journey offering

I grew up hating ashes.

They were a part of my everyday life.

My parents were smokers. Salem menthols. When their friends came over or when some of my mother’s family gathered at our house, smoke hung in the air, thicker than fog, like some conjured ghost constantly materializing, encompassing, lingering…

Sometimes I was given the chore of cleaning out the ashtrays. A debasing job. Dirty. Ashes are pervasive. Everywhere and never really gone, no matter how hard you try. Even now, remembering, the stench is my nose, the metallic taste on my tongue…

It would be a long time before I’d learn the seeming incongruity of ashes as the main ingredient of an age-old cleansing agent. Lye. Which was also used to make hominy and that Southern staple, grits. In spite of my heritage, I never learned to like them.

It took me longer still to understand ashes as symbolizing something holy. Ash Wednesday and Lent weren’t part of my Protestant church or family tradition.

I got the humility part early on, however. From stories. First there was Cinderella, named for the soot that clung to her skin and her clothes from ashes that she (too!) was relegated to cleaning. Ashes are pervasive… then the Bible. Job, stricken with boils, scraping himself with broken pottery, sitting in the ashes. The repentant king of Nineveh mandating sackcloth and ashes after revival preached by the pouting prophet Jonah. Eventually, the vivid image of Tamar placing ashes on her head, sobbing, in utter humiliation and grief after the assault by her half-brother. Priests were commanded to change out of their sacred garments before disposing of burnt offering ashes.

Ashes are pervasive…

At fifteen I stood outside watching flakes falling from the sky in late May. Not snow at that time of year, in the southeastern United States. Ash. From the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s on the other side of the country. The volcano’s side exploded with such force that plumes of ash rocketed skyward for miles. The snowlike flakes settled across the nation and parts of Canada. I caught these curiosities in my hands. They didn’t melt. They looked to me like flakes of human skin.

I thought of war.

I think of war now. As I write, scenes are all over the TV. Bombs. Destruction. Death. What once was, now in ashes.

I think of the gorgeous churches of Kyiv.

I think of the dead.

My second son is a recently-certified crematory operator. Traditional burials are steadily giving way to cremations now. One day I went with him and watched while he placed someone’s ashes in an engraved box urn. These ashes are different from other kinds. Pale powder, fine as talcum. One of the most reverent acts I’ve ever witnessed, my boy tenderly packing that human dust.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Memento mori. Remember that you die. It is the same idea behind Ash Wednesday rites: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, after the Fall.

I’ve never had a cross of ashes placed on my head by a priest, but I understand the call to repentance. It echoes deep in my bones. I know the desperate desire for holiness in the face of raging unholiness. The need for wholeness. I believe in repent and believe. I do. I repent. I believe.

I believe there’s an eventual reckoning.

Ashes are pervasive.

Volcano ash man. @Doug88888.CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Thanks also to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Ruth Hersey in Paraguay for hosting on the first Thursday in March. Ruth chose the theme “ashes” in connection with Ash Wednesday (which is why my post is going up a day early this month).

Heart healing

“Heart” is the Spiritual Journey prompt for this first Thursday in February.
Thanks to Linda Mitchell for hosting our group of writers.

On a Sunday afternoon at the end of July, 2019, my husband had a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated by EMTs and went straight into surgery after arriving at the hospital. He got four stents and spent several days in induced hypothermia to reduce trauma to his brain, which can happen when blood flow has ceased and is suddenly restored. He recuperated slowly, painfully; his sternum had been broken by the CPR which saved his life. He came home. One morning in September he woke to jolts in his chest and tingling down his arm. I took him back to the hospital. More heart attacks. This time he had four bypasses. The surgeon mended his sternum with a little metal plate.

He is doing well now. In fact, up until winter settled in, he was doing eight-mile hikes in the park a couple of times a week and feeling as good as he ever has.

As this first Thursday in February drew near with Valentine’s Day and “heart” as the Spiritual Journey prompt for the month, I thought of a couple of things I might like to explore. I had chosen one, in fact, when I saw the heart-shaped hospital pillow that remains in our bedroom. This pillow was given to my husband after the bypass surgery. His attending nurse wrote on it with a Sharpie: “Keep hugging your heart!”

I thought, this is it. This is what I need to write about.

These pillows are given to all patients recuperating from open-heart surgery. The patients hug them when they have to cough or sneeze, lessening the severity of the jolt. The pillow protects the incision site whenever the patients move and when they practice the necessary deep-breathing exercises for their lungs.

It just so happens that the hospital where my husband’s surgery and recuperation has the lowest mortality rate in the country for heart bypass patients (according to reports from 2017-2019). It also just so happens that the county’s resuscitation rate is the highest in the nation. So, if you’re going to have cardiac arrest and need cardiac surgery, it’s the best place to be.

My husband is evidence of this.

I think about the surgeon who held my husband’s heart in his hands, who grafted those bypasses. He told us that as soon as the first graft was done, my husband’s heart immediately began beating stronger; it was hungry for the blood. It wanted to live.

Now. Where’s the spiritual element in all this, you ask?

Beyond the miracle that one human can cut open another and repair his heart, and that this repaired person can heal and live life awhile longer, is the Great Physician who is able to transform hearts and lives. When I was young, I attended a Bible study group in which a couple of guys could play guitars and we’d often sing this version of Psalm 51:10-12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

And cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord,
take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation
and renew a right spirit in me.

Godly heart-grafting, I would say. Cleansing, taking away the bad parts, restoring. The heart must be transformed before the spirit can be renewed. Sometimes a great deal of work must be done…but the Lord is able. If we let Him work. If we are hungry for it. We often think of letting Him into our hearts but it’s really more a matter of offering our hearts—battered, damaged, tangled, sick as they may be—to Him. He knows exactly what is needed. Psalm 51 is the cry of David’s heart after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his adultery and murder. It can be the cry of any of our hearts as we place them in the healing hands of Almighty God, craving His mercy.

I rejoice that my husband lives, that he was made well, that the hospital and the EMTs are the best around.

I rejoice more that the Lord forgives and heals hearts and spirits. He works on my own, daily. He is the physician and the pillow, the healer and the comforter. The ultimate heart-hugger. He is the best place to be.

Not to mention that His own mortality record is unsurpassable.

Sunday is a stillness

Sunday is a stillness
in my week
not restful
for a pastor’s family
but restorative
and right
the church standing tall
like a father
doors like open arms
welcoming the penitent child
wrapping me
in belonging

Sunday is a stillness
in my spirit
ever how fierce or frayed
ever how dismayed
like a calming infusion
like a healing balm
the stillness seeps
so deep, so deep
for in all the unholiness
the holy remains

Sunday is a stillness
in my life
for the living
for the forgiving
for the remembering
for the mattering
for my walking in the footsteps
of those who walked before me
in the rhythms of grace
singing old songs of belief
through all our yesterdays
until our eternal Sunday
comes at last.