Apothecary of the soul

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:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

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.

A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
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
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
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
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Hope quatrain

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 Perpetuates

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

Voices

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 maybewell, 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.

Awe: The blue hour

In continuation of a series of posts on my guiding word for 2021, awe, I am celebrating the power of poetry.

For who among us was not filled with awe, listening to Amanda Gorman reading her inaugural poem?

Once again, we experience what words can do to inspire, unite, and heal.

Poems also paint a vision. Of things remembered, things hoped for things, things imagined…

Much as artists do on canvas.

Last year Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” took on a special significance for me. I wrote about it in The portal. For me, “The Starry Night” has become a symbol of looking beyond.

Van Gogh painted it while in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. He didn’t paint what he saw from his windows, but what he imagined, maybe what he dreamed for, hoped for, in the innermost part of his suffering heart. Perhaps it was an act of faith.

All those blues and the night remind me of “the blue hour,” loosely defined as the time when blue wavelengths of the subhorizon sun paint the landscape at dawn or dusk.

Perhaps this had a hand in my recent spontaneous sketch of my word for 2021, awe. I depicted it as a sunrise, or maybe a sunset.

So now I ask myself: How is it that I imagine a rising or setting sun as “awe” in a metaphorical way? I think of van Gogh’s starry night, the blue hour, and the imaginings, the hopes, of my heart…which have turned into a prayer for the repairing of relationships. Does love not conquer all? What inspires more awe than that?

And so I wrote a poem.

I wove some of van Gogh’s quotes into it:

A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke

There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in the blue, then you must put in the yellow and orange too, mustn’t you?

Awe (The Blue Hour)

awe


on the blue hour
at the falling away of day
and the coming of the night


with hope of stars

givers of dreams

singers of songs

awe

that there is no blue
without yellow and orange

like the crackling fire
in our souls
beckoning one another
to stop, come and be warm

instead of passing by

in wisps of smoke

tendrils of wrongs

awe

in electric-blue currents of memory
love survives
by anchoring itself
to the last blade 
of living grass

awe

the color of forgiveness
in the blue hour

-F. Haley, 1/18/2021

-Walk in wellness, friends. Live and love deeply. Forgive. Keep your heart open for awe.

One of my masks

My original sketch of “Awe,” where the landscape spells it. Look for awe, and it will reveal itself.

The Starry Night version. The blue hour. How it all connects.

*******

-shared in the Poetry Friday Roundup. Thank you, dear Laura Shovan, for hosting.

and with the Two Writing Teachers’ weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Thank you all for continually illustrating the power of words, ideas, and shared stories.

When

“Crippling grief

Note: Roses are the National Flower of the United States

words
wielded
wound

when
will
we
stop

what
have
we
wrought

with
word
warfare

who
will
remain
whole

in
the
unholiness

who
will
wise
up

in
the
wreckage

to
work
toward
well-being
for
all

for
we
are
not
you
and
me

we
are
we

us

without
unity
peace
healing

we
will
cease
to
be

where
are
the
words
of
mending
not
rending

where
is
the
ending

words
create
worlds

and
destroy
them

within
and
without

where
are
the
words

who
will
speak
them

who
will
live
them

and
when


when
when
when

*******

written for
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog

all are welcome here
to write
and to be

where words
are not
wielded
to wound

Spiritual Word Journey

As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I thought about words.

Particularly the word “weary.” It had seeped into my bones.

And I wondered if maybe, maybe…as much as I love them…I was tired of words.

Tired of the way they are wielded to wound.

Tired of the clamor.

One word with appeal: hibernation. Yes. Give me that word. It is, after all, winter.

I’ve just begun reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Early in the book, May speaks of how plants and animals don’t fight winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening or carry on living the same as they would in summer: They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It is winter. My country is in a metaphorical winter. A bitter one. Certainly a crucible. What is being forged, I cannot say; the combination of a pandemic, many types of loss, from jobs to loved ones, to food insecurity, to strife and political unrest, seems almost more crucible than can be withstood. It takes its toll. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Withdrawing, at least from social media where vitriol is most rampant and draining, has great appeal. In the name of preservation, if not of one’s sanity, then certainly of one’s spirit.

Vanishing from sight. Alluring.

Makes me think of little bats I read about recently, how they survive the winter by making tiny dens in the snow. Took scientists years to figure out how they survived—only polar bears were known to make snow caves.

Ussurian tube-nosed bat, hibernating in Japan. Photo: Hirofumi Hirakawa. Science Magazine.

I am not a fan of bats, long before COVID-19. But that this tiny creature weighing less than a quarter ounce can endure, knows to endure, such harsh conditions in this way fills me with awe.

And that is the word I am clinging to in 2021.

Not hibernation. Awe.

I didn’t feel like choosing a word as a focus for the year. Remember, I was weary beyond words. Yet when I flipped my planner to January 1, I found this quote: Experiencing awe, the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you, can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

So that is how awe chose me as a guiding word for the year, extracting an unwritten promise from me that I would look for it each day. I started capturing an “awe of the day” in a notebook…for three whole days. Then I started back to remote teaching with sketchy Internet and a plethora of other school-related issues that weighed heavy enough to bring tears, a rare thing for me. All which were obscured today by the long shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Tonight another word from my planner’s awe-quote, altruistic, rises to the surface: having a genuine and selfless concern for others.

Where is it?

Like awe from which it is born, it must be looked for.

When I see it happening, I take heart. I am awed by others who, in the darkest of times, are the light-bearers. The healing-bringers. In these moments I know I am in the presence of something greater than myself.

I also happened to read this quote from Albert S. Rossi in Becoming a Healing Presence:

We need to push “pause” often and avoid reacting to the latest and loudest…The Lord expects us to live a life of love for Him and for others.

We have all the time we need to do all the things God has us here to do, in a peaceful way…We revere time as a way to remain peaceful, no matter what, to please God who gave us time. We have time to be come more of a healing presence during our remaining time on Earth.

We don’t live life. Life lives us.

Those words and that wisdom fill me with awe, like the little bats which know to burrow in the snow. Like the stars, like the ocean that I haven’t seen in eighteen months and am longing to see again, for the healing it offers my soul, for the taste of salt and infinity on its breeze. Like the children at school (on the screen) who are so buoyant. Like my son’s music—I can hear the keyboard upstairs, as I write—and his beautiful voice when he sings. Like his older brother’s way with words and his deepening altruistic nature. Like my daughter-in-law, a gift straight from God to our family, and her artwork in both painting and baking. Awe. Like my granddaughter’s face, lit with joy, every time she comes to see us. She has changed our world.

Just one more reminder that I’m in the presence of something far, far greater than me.

What the world needs now might not be as much love, sweet love, as awe, healing awe.

Did you see the two widowed penguins with their wings around each other in an award-winning photo, touted one of the best of 2020? Animals know. Let us humans likewise be a healing presence to one another, moving forward.

Two penguins look into the distance in Melbourne

Tobias Baumgaertner. Ocean Photography Awards. BBC News

Here’s to claiming your awe. Or letting it claim you.

Just little more of mine:

Unicorn cake my daughter-in-law made for my granddaughter’s birthday…
unicorns, by the way, are a symbol of healing.

My granddaughter’s portrait, painted by her mom, as a Christmas gift to my husband and me.

*******

With much gratitude to my Spiritual Journey Thursday group. You all are another source of awe. Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting at Beyond Literacy Link. Per Carol’s suggestion, I am including a link to a prayer-poem here that I wrote earlier, tying “awe” (note the beginning letters in the title) to being a vessel of the Spirit: Alight with Expectancy.

To today and the tortoise

In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…

Until all of a sudden, it is.

For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.

For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.

One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.

One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…

One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.

One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…

One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.

One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.

One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.

One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.

Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.

But it did, and it has, and it is.

Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…

My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbag and the belt?

He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heard and can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?

One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”

“What?”

“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”

He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.

And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.

Here’s to today. And the tortoise.

Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.

Poetry Friday: The web

Photo: Morning Web by Jen Gray on “This Photo Wants to Be Poem,” Reflections on the Teche, Margaret Simon.

Teacher-poet-friend Margaret Simon posts a weekly image on her blog along with an invitation to write: “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem.”

Yesterday’s photo, shot by Margaret’s friend Jen, featured a dew-studded spiderweb framing the sun. A compelling call to compose … leading to my first attempt at a non-rhyming loop poem:

Sunrise feels like hope
Hope for a new day
Day of repairing damage done
Done to one another
Another day to try
Try starting afresh
Afresh with distilling dew
Dew droplets, sacred diamonds
Diamonds glittering in the light
Light illuminating the torn web

Web of our intricate interconnectedness.

May we all be found working on our corner of the web—and in the corners of our own hearts.

Thank you, Margaret and Jen, for inspiration to weave.

Check out other offerings at the Poetry Friday Roundup – thank you, Tricia, for hosting today.

Poetry Friday: Soul shine

I’m a relative newcomer to Poetry Friday. First let me thank Irene Latham for hosting today’s Roundup and Carol Varsalona for extending the invitation on social media to come and honor author Nikki Grimes.

Carol created a lovely rose-adorned Buncee card which reads: “Nikki Grimes—Do more of what makes your soul shine, because you inspire others to write.”

Those words, soul shine, beckoned me to ask … what makes one’s soul shine?

Nikki’s soul certainly shines through her poetry as well as through her faith and her literary contribution to children. I’ve read that her favorite color is purple and it got me thinking that our souls shine with all that we love, all that is most precious to us. I still consider myself mostly a storyteller with poetic leanings, but I thought I’d try capturing this idea of “soul shine” by exploring what our favorite colors might represent in a form that Nikki uses, tanka:

Your soul shines purple
with creative energy

imparting faith, calm,
stability and passion
for people, stories, and words.

My soul shines rose-gold,
a fusion of alloyed strength:
Copper for healing
in gold of faith, hope, and love
for people, stories, and words.

I often think about writing as a means of healing. Today I contemplate writing poetry as a striving to grasp what is just beyond our reach—whether the parameters and inner workings of nature, the universe, or own souls. Sometimes it comes as an anguished cry, other times quiet awe or wonder, a celebratory outpouring of joy, always an embrace of the nearly-inexpressible, real and ethereal, images of life and the living of it. What does the soul crave most? Beauty? Truth? Understanding? Freedom? Peace? It may change as we change.

Whatever the answer … poetry beckons the soul to shine.

Peace is the lofty landing place
Of our souls’ storm-torn flight.
Exhausted, expended
Transcending
Rising still to shin
e—
Your soul and mine.

Thank you, all Poetry Friday Friends, for being the wellspring of inspiration that you are.

Lead photo: Shine. Rodnei Reis. CC-BY