we are still here
despite our scars and stripes
every day another opportunity
to help and to heal
On the second day of the August Open Write at Ethical ELA, Margaret Simon shared “a photo that wants to be a poem.”
in its returning
again and again
to a scarred surface.
I savor its growing
here in tangled profusion
with yellow foxtails
beckoning in the breeze
in the knowing
that when there comes
the inner balm
across the brokenness
releasing its sweetness
in the air.
What I savor
most of all
the fragrance of grass
Photo: Margaret Simon
A friend who knows my affinity for the natural world gave me The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. It’s written as a conversation between Jane Goodall and her interviewer, Douglas Abrams. When I say it’s part of my current “light reading” I don’t mean easy (although it is) or frivolous (for it is not).
I mean light as in candleglow dancing on the walls of a dark room.
I’ve not gotten far yet but here are some lines that draw me in the first couple of chapters—flickerings of my own credo:
Hope is a survival trait.
The naturalist looks for the wonder of nature – she listens to the voice of nature and learns from it as she tries to understand it.
Hope does not deny all the difficulty and all the danger that exists, but is not stopped by them. There’s a lot of darkness, but our actions create the light.
And this from an Inuit elder, on confronting and healing our grief, which can manifest itself in the body as physical pain: Make space for grief…find awe and joy in every day.
—these, I believe. They are often the very reason why I write.
Recipe for Survival
Hold onto hope, and it will hold you
Open the ears, eyes, arms of your spirit
Perceive the call of awe, all around
Embrace it. Let the healing begin.
Heard on the news this week: Broken heart syndrome is a real thing.
It happens after significant stressors. Too much adrenaline. The heart is weakened. It hurts.
There’s a scientific name for it: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It derives from the Japanese word for “octopus trap,” after the shape of the left ventricle of the heart in this condition.
It is temporary. The broken heart can heal in a short time, maybe days or weeks.
It can sometimes lead to complications. Rarely death, though.
It seems to affect mostly women 50 and older.
But I wonder.
I wonder, as I regularly step in for teachers who are out.
I wonder, as I absorb laments and frustration and anger about the depth of student struggles.
I wonder, as I listen to students reading poems about tasting the salt of their tears.
I wonder, when I wake up so tired on workdays, when I have so little left to give when I get home.
And I am usually one to see the glass half full, to find the awe in each day, like…
the blue heron standing a glassy pond on the drive to work
the whorls of white smoke floating up from the chimney of a little house in the countryside, struck by the rising sun and transformed into clouds of peach-colored light
the newest photo of my three-month-old granddaughter who’s beginning to smile more and more
hearing my boy play old hymns on the baby grand piano at church with such a multitude of notes and joyful liveliness that surely, surely the angels dance
the one little bird (a cardinal?) singing for all it is worth, from the treetops
-these things strengthen my heart.
And keep it, I think, from breaking.
It is a long season, this pandemic, with its deep layers of residue.
On this day of celebrating love and hearts…I wish you healing peace for the pieces.
“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.
with thanks to Stacey Joy, who shared the monotetra form this morning on Ethical ELA’s Open Write: quatrains ending in monorhyme, lines of eight syllables.
On this dark morning, falling snow
fills the spirit with candleglow
the bliss-blessed silence, calling so:
Hush. Take it slow. Hush. Take it slow.
Claim the quiet for your healing
be free as the hawk, a-wheeling
your crystal-scoured heart revealing
wounds are sealing, wounds are sealing.
For now, nature’s red tooth and claw
newly blanketed, without flaw
is still, peace-covered, filled with awe.
Time to withdraw, time to withdraw.
Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.
Summer itself is about journeys, is it not…
In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…
Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.
It dominated the wall—the whole room.
“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”
I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”
I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…
Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.
*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.
Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.
For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month
I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days
more than half
yet still refining
let them be
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding
let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
forming in the geode void
of hollow places
let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
cure for bruises and
what ails you
let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
yet flowing on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
a testament of love
for the new life
with thanks to Dr. Padma Venkatraman and the Ethical ELA #VerseLove invitation to write a quatrain today on hope, especially, hope overcoming hate: What does hope mean to me? How do I see it? She suggested using a metaphor.
I see hope is as vital to our existence as humans. When I started this blog, I wanted it it to be uplifting and hopeful. The world already has far too much anger and hatred. I struggled with condensing a metaphor for hope that would fit in four lines! I finally settled on a sunflower. It’s too big for all I would say here in regard to hope overcoming hate. Maybe I will try it in another form later. Part of my inspiration comes from sunflowers being planted to absorb radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Technically lines one and three should rhyme but I claim poetic license.
For Day Fourteen of National Poetry Month
Hope turns its face to the sun
Warming its myriad seeds
Hope’s roots absorb toxins
Cleansing each soul that it feeds.
Sunflower. metin.gul. CC BY
On the last Sunday in July, 2019, my husband went to the gym after church. He had a great workout on the stationary bike (always proud of accomplishing five miles in fifteen minutes).
He got in his truck to come home.
That is the last thing he remembered for a long time.
At the house, our dog went crazy, barking. Someone in the driveway. Police officer: Your husband’s had an accident. Do you have a way to the hospital… truck ran off the road into the woods…appears to have been a medical event…sorry, I don’t know how bad it is. EMS was working on him when I left…
Both of our grown boys happened to be home that afternoon. We rode together to the ER, not knowing what we’d find.
My reeling mind wondered if their black suits were clean…in case…
At the hospital, a nurse was waiting for us. She ushered us into a side room.
Massive heart attack, said the ER doctor, but he’s alive. He wasn’t when EMS got to him. He was in cardiac arrest. They did CPR, defib…they are heroes…heroes…
Heart attacks killed his father and grandfather in their fifties.
After emergency surgery, he underwent induced hypothermia to allow his brain time to rest from the trauma. No one knew how long he’d gone without oxygen. EMS had arrived on the scene quickly, as the station is just up the street from where the truck ran off. My boys and I learned that their dad endured forty-five minutes of CPR and ten – TEN – shocks from the paddles. We would learn that his sternum was broken. Attending CICU physicians warned: After hypothermia, we’ll do a waking test. There’s no guarantee he’ll wake, or how extensive the damage will be to his brain…
As we endured those long hours, we learned that his truck was barely dented as it ran off the road, that it stopped just short of a deep ravine in the woods. We were told that he swerved into oncoming traffic and back into his lane before running off on the right. He never struck another vehicle. People behind him called 911. One thing different, and all would be different…
As one doctor said: Everything aligned for him. Everything.
He did awaken. He knew us. He was soon able to ask, in a raspy voice after coming off the ventilator: What happened?
It would be a long recovery involving another hospital stay and more surgery…but he recovered.
He could remember leaving the gym, but he could not recall anything from earlier that month, or from many months before. All of his long-term memory remained intact; all his stories, all his sports trivia and stats. There was just a period completely erased, leading up to the heart attack. He could not recall a thing from our family vacation to the beach earlier in July, the glorious time we had.
The brain’s way of protecting itself from pain, our oldest son said. I had a professor who told us about this in class. It’s not good to try to make a person remember…
He didn’t recognize the scenery on the way home from the hospital: Why are we turning here? Everything looks so new…have I seen this before?
The doctors said, Some memories may return as he heals. Some may not. It’s hard to say; everyone is different.
After a couple of months, he returned to his work at the church. He’s a minister. The number one question people had after he began regaining strength: Did he see anything? when he was… you know… ‘gone’? I mean, he IS a pastor… such curiosity tinged with hope, in that questioning.
All he could remember, much to people’s disappointment: It was just like going to sleep. No pain, just fading into sleep. So peaceful.
Then one day he saw pictures of our family vacation and recognized the giant tortoise we chanced upon at a roadside display: I remember that!
Random bits returned to his mind, here and there.
Then on another day, much later, he told me: I heard voices.
What do you mean, you ‘heard voices’?
When my truck ran off the road. When everything was going dark.
What did they say?
They said, “He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road.”
Did you…did you recognize the voices? Do you think that maybe…well, it could have been just the EMTs…
He shook his head. All I know is, I heard them when I was driving and I thought, if I can just get over there to the grass, to that little hill… where that sunset is…everything will be okay.
He left me staring after him as he headed out to the park for the eight-mile hike he makes now, several times a week.
He’s in trouble. We have to get him off the road…
Everything aligned for him. Everything.
I ponder the mystery of memory, and the miraculous…in ceaseless awe that he is returned to us, restored, rejuvenated, whole.
In his own words, with his characteristic wit and big, contagious laughter, as “a member of the Lazarus Club.”
Photo is entitled “The Day Black with Night” and is in the public domain on Creative Commons with this verse: “Go for help to Him who makes Orion and the Pleiades, by whom the deep dark is turned into morning, who makes the day black with night; whose voice goes out to the waters of the sea, sending them out over the face of the earth: the Lord is His name.” —Amos 5:8.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 22, I am writing around a word beginning with letter v.