‘Succinct truth’ poem

Today on Ethical ELA, Maureen Young Ingram invites teacher-poets to compose “succinct truth” poems for VerseLove. The idea is to write about a difficult subject with a message of hope in 10-20 short lines, playing with lack of punctuation and capitals.

Mine’s twenty-two lines but I’m letting it be.

Dichotomies

humans
are a dichotomous race
desperately desiring
dutifully demanding
historically unable
to extend grace
at least
each other-ward

the tome of our existence
a work in progress
pages of pain
penned in blood

some say that babies are a sign
that the world should go on

forgetting that worlds go on
without humans at all

although my dog doesn’t think so

there’s hope
isn’t there
as long as dogs
haven’t given up
on us

My son with his dog, Henry, who surely has a soul
and who loves with his whole dog heart

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).

Unforced rhythms of grace

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
– Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

Pay attention to the intricate patterns of your existence that you take for granted.
-Doug Dillon

It may feel like a wasteland
some days
nothing like you imagined
it would be

you might be challenged
to see
that anything of value
anything beautiful
lies within

but it does
it does
it always has

it dances, it sings

reveals hidden things

grace has a pulse
and beating wings

it believes

Girl in the Mirror. Gallery wrapped canvas, hanging in a hotel, Asheville, NC.

She reminds me of me, long ago.

*******

with thanks to Ruth Ayres, who posted this unusual version of the Matthew verse on SOS-Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. I suspect I will write again on learning the unforced rhythms of grace.

Fatherlight

For Micah

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. —James 1:17 (KJV)

The LORD your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing. —Zephaniah 3:17 (NKJV)

He carries you close
to his heart, walking you through
every brand-new day


Young theologian
experiencing
, with tears,
depths of fatherlove

Fierce. Sacrificial.
Sustaining. Protective. Sweet.
Miraculous. Yes

He would give himself
to keep you safe from all harm
his love is that great


I understand this
I carried him just like this
when he was newborn


Precious tiny girl
gift from the Father above
gloriously loved

There’s always a light
in the longest, darkest night

for God is at work.

How I love you both – Franna

Try

inspired by Ruth Ayres on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
Ruth quotes Elon Musk:
“If something is important enough, you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure.

Begs the question: What is ‘failure’? Who gets the final say? Surely not the inner critic…

I shall try…

to believe, during the darkest night
to seek the infinite ribbons of light

to love more, to judge less
to concentrate on words that bless

to remember my job is a livelihood, not my life
to free myself of unnecessary strife

to not crumble under self-defined defeat
to keep trying, and trying, again to complete

daily acts of grace, others and self forgiving,
thereby seizing the joy of living

trusting the sense of second sight
urging me always to write, to write.





Reflections of gratitude: Spiritual journey

For my newborn granddaughter, Micah

What shall I tell you about the day you were born?

Your Grandpa and I were waiting in the carpool line to pick your big sister up from kindergarten when your dad texted: Micah is here! 9 lbs!

Gratitude flooded our hearts as photos flooded our phones.

We wept at sight of you. Your sister would say “happy cried.”

Looking at your beautiful rosy face, a thousand thoughts fluttered in my mind, like birds descending from the azure sky, landing one by one on soft, moss-covered branches…

I remembered it was supposed to storm that day, and it didn’t; the late October sun shone for all it was worth, illuminating the countryside with brilliant gold, orange, yellow, and scarlet.

I forgot the shadows, worries, and grind of daily life.

I remembered the story of my own birth, told over and over to me by my grandmother: She, Daddy, Granddaddy, and Grannie stood looking at me through the nursery window, Grandma “happy cried,” Daddy said I looked just like Granddaddy.

I forgot to be sad about not going to the hospital to see you on the day you were born due to limited visitors in COVID protocols.

I remembered that I’d be able to come the next day, and that it would suffice.

I forgot there was even a pandemic.

I remembered the joy of your father’s birth, the fierce motherlove which surged in my veins, which surges still, and exponentially now, for you.

I forgot about fearing my own inadequacies.

I remembered to wear Grandma’s locket.

I forgot, until your curious big sister opened it, that your father’s newborn picture was nestled inside.

I remembered the promises of God, that blessings fall on the generations of those who love Him, my precious, precious baby Micah, daughter and granddaughter of pastors: Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments (Deuteronomy 7:9, ESV).

I have never forgotten that.

Thankful for the infinite grace of God. Love you always, Micah. – Franna

********

with thanks to Denise Krebs for hosting November’s Spiritual Journey Thursday group, with a focus on gratitude.

and also to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

I am deeply grateful for you all.

Alight with expectancy

The following is an invented form of poetry called “Spirit’s Vessel(see shadowpoetry.com). It’s three stanzas of six lines, each line containing six syllables. Rhyming is “a plus.” It’s also an acrostic designed to convey faith: VESSEL OF YOUR… with a final six-letter word chosen by the poet. My final word: SPIRIT. I have entitled this piece “Alight with Expectancy” for two reasons: the title is a nod to “Awe(another acrostic). If you know about the One Little Word tradition, you know about choosing a guiding word for the new year. After the year that was 2020, I hadn’t planned on choosing a word for 2021…more on that later. Just know that “awe” chose me as soon as the calendar turned. Who doesn’t need awe? Reason #2 for the title : This photo. It sparked my desire to try the Spirit’s Vessel for the first time. Those candles, at a church Christmas Eve service, in the time of COVID… thank you to photographer Ann Sutton and to Margaret Simon for sharing it on “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem” at Reflections on the Teche.

Thanks also to the Poetry Friday gathering and to Ruth in Haiti for hosting the Round Up.

My first post of 2021: Alight with Expectancy

Votives cast haloed light
Eclipsing dark of night
Shadows flicker and play
Stained-glass luminants pray
Expectant, glistening
Lord, we are listening

Offering petition
From hearts of contrition
Your conduits, help us be
Of Your all-healing sea
Undulating with grace

Rippling out from this place

Salvation receiving
Penumbral believing
Illumination starts

Restoration of hearts
In holy candleglow
Touched by the Spirit—know

The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing, a young mom who loves the same book, and in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.