Spiritual journey: Celebrating small things

Today’s spiritual journey theme is celebrating small things (thank you, Ramona, for hosting our group).

What’s been on my mind all week, however, is the brokenness of things.

I wrote a series of poem-posts on it.

In those posts on the brokenness of things I could have mentioned that the incalculable horror, loss, and grief in Uvalde still weigh heavy on my heart each day, that I mourn the state of humanity and the inability to spare children. I could have mentioned that this school year, another chapter in the continuing saga of COVID, has been the hardest yet on staff, students, and families. I could have mentioned my despair over diametrically opposed viewpoints about what’s best for students and how some educators cannot get beyond deficit thinking to see the wealth of creative and artistic gifts in the youngest among us…

I wrote instead about being a child. About breaking my arm on the school playground when I was nine. About fearing my father’s anger and being surprised by his gentleness. In an effort to comfort me he brought one of my dolls along to the orthopedic office. It embarrassed me. I felt too old for the doll. Maybe it was more a matter of not want anyone else to think I still played with dolls. Yet the gesture touched me, even then. To this day the memory of my father holding that doll, shouting at the orthopedist to stop when I screamed during the bone-setting, is one of the most indelible images of my life. There my father stood, unable to spare me more than a moment of the suffering I had to endure. I could see the intensity of his own suffering. It was written all over his pale, fierce-eyed face. His presence and the knowledge of his pain on my behalf somehow breathed a waft of courage into my terrified heart. This little stirring of courage would sustain me through a subsequent hospital stay when the bones in my arm slipped and had to be reset. It would prepare me to visit a five-year-old boy with a crushed foot across the hall as he screamed in pain and terror. It would beget empathy: me there in my wheelchair with a cast halfway to my shoulder and him in a hospital bed with crib rails, his poor damaged foot heavily bandaged and raised on a suspended sling. United in common suffering, we would find a glimmer of overcoming, in the very midst of our brokenness.

That is the thing about children. Before there are even words to express, there are keen understandings. Children are natural ambassadors of healing. They instinctively seek to comfort. Their native language is love.

I realize, now, what I was longing for when I went back to those childhood moments.

The spiritual journey is littered with broken things, broken people, broken self. I remember wondering how that little boy’s crushed foot would ever heal. At nine I imagined the bones in countless pieces and couldn’t conceive of how doctors could repair that much disconnectedness. I wondered if his foot would ever be okay…but I knew, somehow, he would be.

Which leads me, at last, to the Great Physician. Who, like my father, intervened on my behalf to alleviate my suffering, and who, unlike my father, is able to provide more than momentary relief.

I’m not sure yet if I’m done writing about the brokenness of things but here’s where I finally pick up the path of celebration. I celebrate the sustaining gift of faith. I celebrate the memory of my father, gone for twenty years now but so alive and active in my memory. I celebrate that the school year is now ending, that a desperately-awaited respite has arrived. I celebrate children.

It occurs to me that none of these are “small things.”

So, here is one: I celebrate the musicality of children.

For on the most hellish of days, when I hear them singing, I remember heaven.

For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… Luke 18:16.

Salvador Dalí – Los niños cantores (Children singing) 1968. Cea. CC BY 2.0

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

Collaboration poem

Day 3 of National Poetry Month: for VerseLove at Ethical ELA, Gae Polisner and Lori Landau share poetry they composed via collaboration in a Google Doc as a means of inspiring one another and keeping the poetry flowing. The invitation today is to lift a line, a few words, or theme from a fellow VerseLove poet to create something new.

I lifted the line “Creaking of floor, house settling” from my kindred-spirit-writer-friend, Kim Johnson. She wrote of morning sounds, which include the “tick tick tick” of dog nails on the floor… see how “tick” made its way into my title, not even a conscious connection on my part. I noticed it when I reread her poem.

Time Ticks On

Creaking of floor
house settling
sighing at the close
of another day
shaft of sunlight
on the oak floor
glimmers brightest
just before fading
away

Beyond the window
tree shadows lengthen
across green green grass

I think about walking there
in the cool of the day
pretending 
the shadows
are portals 
where I might fall through

to find you

Tree shadows over green lawn. Horia Varlan.  CC BY 2.0.

*******

I’ve also borrowed a line from Lori, “to find you” – I think the point of inspiration between Lori and Gae, “gone,” has fused to my own Muse this morning. The line intentionally borrowed from Genesis 3:8 is one of my favorites… only now, post-poem, am I realizing how it, too, is connected to “gone.”

Take heart

Written while waiting for word from the governor about schools re-opening.

Suspended animation

upended education

sense of desolation

facing the fall.

What school should be

we cannot see.

Ill winds still blowing

so much not-knowing.

Separate, there’s a cost.

So much is lost.

But not all

in one fall.

Until the surging tide

should subside

virtuality

may be reality.

Enduring

assuring

we will outlast

passing shadows cast

in empty halls

on empty walls.

By decrees

or degrees

a calling

for not falling

is conversely

full of mercy.

Choosing heartache

over heartbreak

choosing to be stronger

being a little longer

apart.

By whatever decrees

by whatever degrees

however they fall

however we start

dear ones, above all

—take heart.

Photo: Heart. Glenn Lascuna. CC BY

Repurposed

“Speak Up” mixed media collage. Jordan Kim, 2019.

A friend who knows of my strange love for the loud, jarring buzz of cicadas presented me with this card for my birthday. Fashioned from repurposed material, these snippets, chosen with artistic precision and care, strike deep…

Sing loud & proud

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

positive

The world’s loudest cicada is the Brevisana brevis,
a cicada found in Africa that reaches 106.7 decibels

Earth itself has a sound, an incessant hum
caused by pounding ocean waves
measured at a frequency 10,000 times lower
than what humans can hear

Speak up
out

For now is the time of cicadas; some of them, sleeping underground for seventeen years, are due to rise.

And sing.

Yesterday, when the sun was brightest, I walked and walked the path around the graveyard of a country church, listening for the first strains.

—Silence.

No cicadas.

Seems they are late. I wonder why.

I thought about their wings, how the sectional lines running through the lower portion of these long, diaphanous structures form the letter W or P. It is said that these are omens for War or Peace.

—Folklore.

Unless Nature is a prophet.

Whatever pattern lies in the veins of their wings, or however it’s perceived, the cicada’s song is always one of life. Of survival. It is individual. It is collective. It is precious.

Most people call it cacophony, a harsh, deafening, discordant noise … not hearing the song for what it is. Not recognizing it the way cicadas do. We are not cicadas.

Yet there’s something of us, of all living things, in the sound. A song not heard with ears but with the heart, that ceaseless hum of our own brief journey from the womb to the ground. A song of earth, ocean, dust of the stars, for we are repurposed atoms of these; we carry them all, and each other, within us. Can we even hear our own song, any more than we can know our own heart, for what it really is? How can we even think we know someone else’s?

Until it becomes a collective cry of the heart.

In words

Speak up
out

in musicality

your soul
is joyful
loving and
wants to sing

even in sorrow, loss, grief, despair

even in fear, rage, hurt

especially in overcoming, healing,

rising, at long last

to greet the season of change.

Today, Two Writing Teachers shared words from Toni Morrison: This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore the pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledgeeven wisdom. Like art.

Like that of Jordan Kim, who created this cicada collage. Her mission: To inspire others to honor our connection to the natural world and to each other.

Let it be our repurposed song, fashioned from the fragments of our hearts. Let it be positive. Let the Earth ring with it.

Sing loud & proud.

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Almost

It’s always there,

the ghost of Almost.

What might have been

but was not.

What should be

and isn’t.

Almost – ever how illusory, how ethereal

all but ephemeral –

is a penumbra bleeding from yesterday

into today,

a pulsing presence,

a ponderous weight,

despite its nonexistence.

A walking shadow,

the thief of Now

and its fullness,

the vacuum of Tomorrow

and all its possibility.

Inversion,

implosion.

Just images

without substance,

yet the mass of the universe

compacted

into one knot of aching.

That is the price

of living

with the pretty picture, 

the insatiably hungry, ever-gnawing

all-consuming 

ghost of Almost.

When the notion of Almost first came to me recently, it was about romantic relationships that didn’t work out.  Witnessing the death of the dream, how it takes its toll on the ones who wanted, and tried, to make it work. Broken promises, shattered hopes. It’s easy to cling to the idea of What Might Have Been, when it has been yanked away, leaving a gaping hole in a painful reality.

Then Almost beckoned me with its wispy finger: “Come in — come in, and get to know me better!”

(Before I go any further: Yes, I am borrowing that quote – thank you, Charles Dickens and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and yes, I borrowed “walking shadow.” Honestly, Mr. Shakespeare, it walked in of its own accord).

The ghost of Almost encompasses dysfunction, too. It’s the emissary of unraveling families, friendships. Within Almost are many shades of loss, of varying depths and proportions, all of which can overshadow daily life.

The game almost won.

The job almost attained.

The money almost saved.

The addict almost cured.

The temper almost controlled.

Almosts can go on and on.

Inevitably followed by “I should have … I should have …”

We have some choice, some power in some of those Almosts; in others, none at all. We cannot think for others,  cannot control their actions, decisions, feelings – only our own. Whether the ghost of Almost materializes because we throw the door wide open for it, or it arrives, unbidden, unwelcome, unwanted, through the choices of others, it wants to destroy What Can Still Be.

If we let it.

The only exorcism: See your Almost for what it really is. And release it, for it stays only if you keep hanging on to it. Decide that it will not devour your now, or your tomorrow, any longer. Seek the healing path over the haunted one.

A priceless quote from a friend of mine: “Don’t should on yourself.” No more dwelling on on what you should have done or what should have been. Move forward, one deliberate step at a time, one moment at a time, in wisdom  – for beyond Almost’s shadow, the sun still shines.

Be ready to walk in it.