Horses on the fly

Sunny summer morning
driving home with groceries
along the winding backroads
past forests, clearings,
smatterings of houses

at the crossroads
where the tobacco field
gives way to pastures and pond
two horses, trotting
side-by-side

not uncommon, horses
being ridden
along these
country byways

except that these
are unsaddled
unbridled

riderless

in the left lane
headed toward us

moving in sync
at a lively pace
tossing their manes

faces covered
with fly masks

Look! cries my husband
who’s driving
immediately
slowing down
to a near stop

— no one’s with those horses!
And their eyes are covered
—they can’t see!

They can see,
I tell him
even though I know
next to nothing
about fly masks
and equine husbandry

I just know
by the certainty
of their movements
and their canter
that they can see

they are not blindfolded
to be led out of
a burning barn

but they’re here
on the road,
unattended

and drivers
who might be coming
from either direction
are unaware

and people drive
too fast
on these
winding backroads

how, how,
I wonder,
did they get loose

these magnificent beasts
that someone
surely values
and loves

—should we call 911?
—what can they do?
—remember, we did that once

when we saw the mule
strolling up the street
in our neighborhood
—yeah but the farmer
figured it out and got to it
before it got to the highway
—should we get out and…
—and what? Try to hold ’em?
They don’t know us.
We don’t know them.

We don’t know
how to handle horses…

by now, the carefree pair
on its merry jaunt
has passed us

and I can only hope
the owners have realized
and are on the way
or that someone who lives
in the nearby houses
knows to whom they belong

or that these creatures
will use their intuitive
horse sense
to go home

I cannot think
the thousand terrible things
crowding my brain

images of beautiful beings
taking newfound liberty
headlong, headstrong
toward what they cannot know
and others
who do not see

Photo: IMG_2703. thatsavagegirl. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

We didn’t hear any news of something terrible happening to the horses; living in a small community, we would have. I am pretty sure that, a few days later, I saw these same two horses, still fly-masked, safe in the fenced pasture beside that same tobacco field where we saw them on the loose. The initial feeling of awe mixed with horror is hard to shake, however. The image of these two riderless, fly-masked horses is now an indelible one in my mind for potential harm, needless loss and destruction, and feeling utterly helpless in the face of it.

The brokenness of things: 4

part of a story-poem memoir, when I was nine

The pediatric wing
of the hospital
is quiet
in the gray-blueness
of a June afternoon
easing into dusk

muffled sounds and voices
from the nurse’s station
down the hall

alone in my room
my newly-casted arm
is heavy
and awkward
bent in a Z-shape
so the bones
will knot back together
nicely

on the bedside table
two dozen handmade cards
crayon-decorated
by my fourth-grade classmates
brighten the sterile room
Hope you are feeling better SOON!
I’m sorry about your arm
We miss you

I am feeling
surprisingly loved
in these
long and lonely
moments
of nothingness

until a scream
shatters the
gray-blue stillness

a jolt
of electricity
shoots through
my heart

another child
nearby

the scream rises
and falls
into loud sobbing

it goes on
and on

when the nurse comes
to take my vitals
I ask
Who‘s that, screaming

she replies
while taking my pulse
Another patient
across the hall
he’s five

What’s the matter with him
Why is he screaming
like that

she looks at me
I can see
she’s thinking

His foot was crushed
by a lawnmower
He is frightened
and he has a rough road
ahead of him

would you like
to go see him

it might help him
to not be so
afraid

I’m imagining
a little foot
full of crushed bones
how can doctors
ever put all the pieces
back together

it frightens me

I don’t want
to see

but his screams
are terrible
to hear

Okay
I say
I will go

although my heart
is beating
no
no
no

Pediatrics exam roomStanford Medical History Center. CC BY-NC-S

Facing fears poem

National Poetry Month has ended, and I miss it. While I may not be posting every day for a while, I continue to write.

The last prompt on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove was on fear. Articulating it, facing it…perhaps conquering it.

This got me thinking how facing a thing for what it really is = the first step in conquering. There’s a lot of extreme anxiety in the world today. A lot of hatred. Sometimes we just don’t see things for what they are…including our own thoughts.

And so this poem was born.

Courage, peace, and wellness to you, Friends. Whatever it is…you can overcome.

My Fear Haiku

I once read a book
where people’s eyes turned inward.
They died from seeing

what’s inside their minds.
I trembled to take a look
at what lurks in mine.

Now I remember
what Granddaddy once told me
regarding black snakes:

don’t ever kill them.
See, black snakes eat rats and mice;
they’re good. We need them.

I think fear’s like that
snaking along, with purpose
something quite useful

so I never try
to kill it. Let it consume
the uglier parts

of my thoughts, and go its way
leaving me with a clean peace
and a better mind

so that all I fear,
in the end, is forgetting
memories of love.

Path of peace. The view after turning off the highway to visit my grandparents. The house is my grandmother’s homeplace, where she and her eight siblings were born in the early 1900s. Just ahead, around the bend on the left, stood my grandparents’ home where my dad and his sisters grew up in the 1940s-50s, and where I spent many childhood summers.

My safest haven on Earth. Snakes and all.

Love, life lessons, legacy, and memories live on.

Masked

This week, Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog invites writing about masks we’ve encountered or worn, literal or figurative, maybe one from long ago…

Winter morning. In my pajamas on the cold kitchen floor, Onyx and Bagel jumping on me with joy. Half-dachshunds, brothers who look nothing alike. Onyx, black and tan (muddled markings; his whole head is tan) is the stronger of the two. A combination of rubber ball and coiled spring, he can jump high enough to give me a kiss even when I’m standing—if I lean over just a little. It’s a feat; at thirteen I’m growing tall. Bagel, long-haired, red piebald, snowy white chest, coloring that reminds me of Lassie, is the happiest dog on Earth except for when it thunders and he runs to hide behind the commode. My sister sits by the wall on top of the vent, her skinny eleven-year-old body drawn into a tight ball, pajama bottoms ballooning and fluttering in the rush of heated air. She doesn’t want to be up, doesn’t want to go to school, is too grumpy for more than a furtive dog-greeting. She’ll play when she’s ready. I embrace the wriggling, wagging, warm bodies, giggling, when I hear footsteps in the hall…Daddy’s familiar stride on the hardwood, in shoes that he polishes every night with a tin and stained cloth until the glossy surfaces reflect like black mirrors…

Suddenly the dogs shoot to the gate (or what we call the gate: a gray particleboard once used under a twin bed mattress when Mama was recovering from back surgery, we slide it back and forth) in the wide kitchen doorway. Barking, ferocious; I have never heard them—or any dog—make such violent noise. They charge the gate, lunging, sounding ready to attack…

There stands Daddy. His face is gone. Instead, there’s huge, opaque goggle-eyes, a distorted nose, pulled and hanging, elephant-like, no sign of human skin or hair; olive-gray visage, that of an ominous specter…

He’s wearing a gas mask.

I had never heard of a strike, picket lines, or unions before. I couldn’t understand why someone would be called a scab for going to work but it did make sense that people who protect said scabs would be scathingly called “Band-Aids”… I knew police were involved, somehow, but the picture in my mind was as muddled as Onyx’s markings, without defining details.

My father wore the same uniform as police but he wasn’t an officer. He was a company security guard. A protector of the gates. Duty-minded. Responsible. The parent who got up with me at night when I had asthma attacks, who would later co-sign my first college loan with the stern admonishment that I’d better pay it back because he couldn’t (I did).

He would die in uniform, but not for many more years, in an attack waged by his own heart, myocardial infarction, three days before retiring, while on his way to work.

The dogs are going crazy. I stare at the mask and the only word that comes to mind is ‘monster’it isn’t right, it isn’t right, that such things should have to exist because of what people do to each other, that Daddy should need this macabre (newly-learned word) apparatus for his own protection—he removes it. He doesn’t mean to scare. “Gracious,” he says to Onyx and Bagel, chuckling, “what fierce watchdogs.” They cease barking and resume wagging the second his human face is restored. They return, pressing their little bodies against me. I can feel them trembling.

Or maybe that’s me, as Daddy goes about preparing for another day.

Lead photo: Insights Unspoken. CC BY-SA

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History, as we know, repeats itself in infinite ways. I inadvertently stumbled into this historical gas mask hall of horrors…or maybe it’s a hall of mirrors…

Checking rubber faces for gas masks. State Library of Victoria Collection, circa 1941. CC BY

Soldier and horse. Reeve17408. CC BY

I’ve joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us.

Wolf at the door

A friend sent me this photo after my recent pareidolia poem to a face in a cloud – pareidolia being the misperception of a stimulus as some familiar object, pattern, or meaning. It’s a normal phenomenon. The human brain’s visual system has a specialized mechanism for face recognition: the fusiform face area. We see, we interpret, we strive to make meaning, in more ways than we ever realize…

So: Do you see the wolf in this wood panel?

Imagine, then, seeing it in your house as a small child, every time you enter your bedroom… seems there could be a lesson here about our worst monsters existing only in our minds, but today the wolf has demanded a poem.

Far be it from me to argue…

Don’t really feel like playing
Not sure I should be saying
In case it hears me
Because it skeers me
That wolf beside my door.
Don’t want to go to bed
If a hundred times it’s said
It’s waiting in the dark there
To snarl and bite and bark there
That wolf beside my door.
What will it do as I go past?
Even if I try it super fast?
No one else knows why
I sit in the floor and cry
Except the wolf beside my door.
Please, I want to say,
Won’t you just go away?
If you will let me rest
I’ll do my very best
Oh Wolf—give me my door!
I hear his wild laughter
Ringing ever after
“Tell me, then, what for?
You’re not a child any more,”
Said the wolf who’s at my door.

With thanks to my friend for the photo and the idea, and to Two Writing Teachers for providing a word-playground for a Slice of Life to run and be free.

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

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

Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.

Stayin’ alive

The master says it’s glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.

—Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

A friends tells me she can’t turn on the news at home anymore because her first-grader is terrified of catching “the cronavirus.”

I remember that terror …

It began with nosebleeds. I had so many as a child that the pediatrician told my father the vessels in my nose might need to be cauterized.

“Carterized? What is that?”

“Burned.” Said my father, before thinking better of it.

Burned?

BURNED?

I lived in mortal terror of having another nosebleed, of having the inside of my nose burned.

I told my Sunday School teacher about it: “My nose might have to be carterized if I don’t stop having nosebleeds.”

“Well, it’s better to have a vessel burst in your nose than one in your head.”

A vessel can burst in my HEAD? What does that mean? What happens to you if a vessel bursts in your HEAD? Do you die?

My head felt weak. I tried not to move it very much.

“Why are you walking so stiff and hunched up?” snapped Mom.

And then there was the sign in the church stairwell:

FALLOUT SHELTER

“What’s a fallout shelter?” I wanted to know one evening after supper when our neighbor walked across the street to play Yahtzee.

“Oh, a place where people can go if there’s a nuclear bomb, to be safe from the radiation,” said Mom, taking a drag of her Salem.

“Yeah, and this is the first place that would be attacked,” said our neighbor, shaking the dice, “with all our military bases and being so near D.C.” The dice rolled across the table. “Damn! Nothin’! I guess I’ll have to take it on Chance.”

How will we get to the fallout shelter to be safe, if it’s blown apart?

Why do we live here?

Nuclear bombs… the vessels in my nose, the ones in my head … what’s gonna blow first? What will happen to me? How’m I gonna stay alive?

—Yes, I remember the terror. To this day.

—Remember the children.

Photo: Fallout. m anima. CC BY

Equinox

Today’s post serves a dual purpose: My daily Slice of Life Story Challenge and Spiritual Journey Thursday, organized by my friend Margaret Simon on the first Thursday of the month. Thank you, Margaret, for the invitation to host.

I chose to write around the theme of “balance.”

Not necessarily what you may think…

*******

It’s almost here.

Spring. The equinox.

A balance of light and dark in the world, or “equal night.”

My thinking radiates in a number of metaphorical directions here but I’ll begin with the moment I was at school grappling with a new data reporting system that I have to teach to colleagues. I logged in and discovered this message: Alternate Data Entry for Dark Period.

Dark Period?

It has the sound of a span in history, like it belongs in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period, the current one in which we live, geologically speaking (“current” meaning over 11, 000 years old, for the record). As if it can be marked in time like the Ice Age or at least the Dark Ages.

Dark Period.

All it means, apparently, is the time when the data reporting system is shut down to be updated. It’s tech housecleaning. During the Dark Period, no additional data entry can occur, until everything is verified and balanced.

The words stuck with me, though.

Many would say we are living in a Dark Period now. It’s an era of strife, vitriol, backlash. An age of ever-increasing concerns over mental health. Over health in general—the coronavirus.

And at the heart of the darkness is fear.

A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past: “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror. Amid the gathering darkness and cold, our prehistoric forebears must have felt profound fear … that one morning the sun might fail to return.” He goes on to say that many psychologists believe that our early ancestors feared not the dark itself but harm befalling them in the dark (for it was an unlit world at night) and over time night became synonymous with danger.

Fear leads to anger and anxiety. In the dark, things don’t look as they should; they’re distorted.

What’s the balance?

Now we’re back to the equinox, metaphorically.

Light. Day. The assurance that there’s still good working in the world, undoing harm. Think of the destruction of Australia and the human involvement in deliberately setting bushfires. Then think of soldiers in the Australian army, lined up in rows, cuddling and nursing koalas when off duty. Then apply it to people suffering around our globe …

We are our own greatest enemy and helpmeet. We all hang in the balance of these: despair and hope, destruction and edification, hurt and healing.

In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip describes a monstrous creature like “a dark mist” who embodies “the fear men die of.” The novel is about learning how to live and love in a different world.

That would mean overcoming the dark, the fear.

Incidentally, in a strange balance, the current virus causing so much alarm shares its name with the crown of the sun.

And, speaking of the sun, here’s the secret of the equinox, why it’s not really equal: There’s actually more day than night.

More light. Literally.

And figuratively, it has nothing to do with moving around the sun and everything to do with moving the human heart.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY

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Dear fellow Spiritual Journey Thursday sojourners: Please click the link to add your post to the “party”:

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