Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

Just a little spirit poem

inspired by Denise Krebs on today’s Ethical ELA Open Write, after teacher-poet Stacey L. Joy. Stacey’s original simile poem centered on the word love. Denise’s, on the word alcohol.

Mine, on the word spirit.

Perhaps you know someone with this kind of everlasting joie de vivre…

Spirit…
Your spirit is bright
radiating like a summer campfire
popping, sparking, illuminating the night
Exhilarating spirit infused with silver starlight
Effervescent spirit of a child’s Christmas morning delight
Freewheeling spirit like an eagle in flight
An encompassing kind of spirit.

King’s Highway, Kissimmee. R9 Studios FL. CC BY

I dream a world

after Denise Krebs on the Ethical ELA Open Write today. Denise wrote after Langston Hughes’s poem “I Dream A World.”

—What world do YOU dream?

I dream a world

where Wisdom walks the thoroughfares

holding her lantern high

where Mercy kneels in lamplit paths

unfastening her cloak to enshroud

the transgressed

and the transgressor

where Comfort seeks out the lonely, the broken

to offer a cup of cheer, leaning in

with her elbows on the table

and her palm outstretched

where Truth looks up from the old rocker

in the corner by the bookcase

pushing his spectacles back up on his nose

as he turns the page of an ancient volume

but not before smiling at the twins

Mystery and Miracles

playing at his feet

in the flickering circle of lamplight

while Love closes the curtains

humming, always humming

her beautiful song

tears glistening like diamonds

on her cheeks

and where Judgment pauses at the door

listening, one skeletal hand raised to knock

but reconsiders 

and chooses to leave

giving a curt nod to Wisdom and Mercy

and stepping aside as they pass by

—I dream a world.

Photo: “Do not be afraid…” Fan D. CC BY

Indelible (a tritina poem)

Finished a poetry course this afternoon, with the writing of my first tritina.

The form: ten lines comprised of three tercets and a final line. The tercet lines end with three different words, in this pattern: 123, 312, 231, with the final line containing all three words, usually in 123 order.

The image of an old table finally came to mind, along with the three end words. As I started writing, I noted that my first couple of lines happened to have eight syllables. It then became a “thing” for me to keep eight syllables in EVERY line…so here you have it:

Indelible

Heirloom table, cross-hatched with scars
I would refinish your surface
if not for erasing stories

family-gathering stories
traded while the bread knife yet scars
daily life, beneath the surface.

-Oh, how the memories surface
as I stroke these silent stories
told by generational scars.

Our scars surface in our stories.

1880s heart of pine table. Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge. CC-BY

Prosody of life: Revisiting awe

A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself. Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…

Where am I now in relation to awe?

Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…

Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…

Reading the old, old story

Sustaining words

As I turned the pages of my academic planner from April to May, I discovered a quote from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön…

You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.

The implication is to just be. To remain. To not worry about things beyond your control. The storms of life may rage and wreak havoc, but not indefinitely. They pass. And they’re interspersed with moments of incredible beauty. The sky exists above clouds. It is the sphere through which the sun, moon, and stars pass…what would it mean, then, to “be the sky”? I feel more posts coming on this later…

Meanwhile, more Chödrön:

Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

On Mother’s Day my family gathered for lunch. Sunday afternoons have an ethereal quality; they are not your ordinary afternoons. They beckon sleep, or reading, or other quiet pleasures; they also offer an outlet for expending physical energy and embracing joie de vivre, joy of living. After lunch my granddaughter, age five, needed to “run and get her wiggles out.” Her mother and I watched her running through a sea of white clover in my backyard. I’d been irritated that our lawn service hadn’t yet cut the grass but as I breathed the sweet, clover-perfumed air, I thought How perfect is the fragrance of this day. My daughter-in-law and I began identifying all the different types of plants growing with the grass in my yard with the “Picture This” app on our phones: Tall goldenrod. Spreading hedgeparsley. Ryegrass. Bluegrass (who knew?). Posion ivy on the far corner of the fence under the pines (lawn crew must be notified). Woodsorrel. Wild geranium. And wild mock strawberries, which enchanted my granddaughter. She picked them and carried them around, tiny red fruit in a tiny pink hand… my son said, “I never knew those grew here!”

There are a lot of things we never realize. Such as the value of simple moments, in the living of them. We cannot imagine how the memory of these will remain with us, like the sky, for our lifetime.

One more quote…

Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.

One of the thick, spiky weeds we identified on our backyard exploration is a species of “Everlasting.”

I said to my daughter-in-law: “I had no idea so much poetry lived in the grass.”

I think about all that would have been lost in these dappled Sunday afternoon moments, if the grass had been cut like I’d wanted. My granddaughter didn’t complain. She savored it all, blue eyes as brilliant as the sky above.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. For now I only know we stand as we are, in our shared sky and story, moments in the making, entering the warrior’s world, a family of everlastings like those growing in the universe beneath our feet.

Where nothing is ever really ordinary.

The light

Every morning
at about this time
if I’m not yet out of bed
a curious, pulsating light
enters the room

I would like to think
it’s a Muse, arriving
from celestial regions
bearing new and fragile ideas
for the taking and keeping

or that it’s some other
ethereal visitor
out there beyond
my window
illuminating
the darkness
and if so,
I want to know
why

but no,
it’s only a neighbor
on his morning jog
right on time,
between four and five o’clock
wearing a mining hat
that casts a bright beam
before him as he runs

I think, there’s a metaphor in that
a meditation, a prayer
before I rise
to face the day
in this present darkness:
Let there be a light
on my head
a means of truly seeing
all that I will encounter

not in the inadequacy of
my own shadow, falling before me
no, let it fall behind me
indiscernible in the dark

and so I watch this soft light
bobbing along my walls
permeating my closed blinds
painting pictures real and imagined
in my mind
while the Muse
(who never really leaves)
prods with a finger
or maybe it’s more of a pulling
or a whispering
or all of these

and I sigh,
throwing back the warm covers
rising to write
while it is yet night

a light
to set the day
off
and running

Statue, “Quest for Knowledge,” Washington & Jefferson College, depicting a coal miner on lunch break. Photo by “Kathy,” CC-BY.
My neighbor wears a hat akin to this on his predawn jogs.



Title poem

with thanks to Dr. Stefani Boutelier on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove today. She writes of the way a title can change the interpretation of a poem, or how it might add layers of metaphor: “I invite you to write a poem where the title helps identify its content, theme, or purpose. The topic and form are up to you–the focus today is on the title.”

I will share my poem’s title at the end.

For Day Fifteen of National Poetry Month

The stories
of time before my time
I lived them
through your telling
felt them through
your pounding heart
breathed them
with your young lungs
until I wanted to run
coughing from
the reek of smoke
the acrid taste of ash
and I think of
how you spent your years
giving yourself
to others
despite the ghosts
that surely clung
as smoke clings to clothing
and as I enter the doorway
I can hardly breathe
for the cloying scent of flowers
and there you are on the table
ready and waiting
in your little box
conveniently resting
in a little white tote
I dare not trust the handles
I just wrap my arms around you
and carry you against my heart
like I did my babies
only there’s no car seat needed now

still, I must keep you safe
in your new lightness
so I strap the seatbelt across us both
pondering the measure of a man
larger than life
so reduced

but I’ve got you, I’ve got you
cradled close
see now, I’m driving you home
sun and shadows flickering
over us like old newsreels
of liberation

******

Title: What Remains

Dedicated to my father-in-law, a World War II veteran.

His birthday is next week.

Mirror poem: A small cup of light

Yesterday on Ethical ELA, host Kim Johnson invited poets to write mirror poems: “Find a poet whose work inspires you and write a mirror poem of your own by taking a root from a poet’s work and allowing it to breathe life into your own inspired creation.  This may be in the form of a borrowed line, a repeating line, a section or stanza, or an entire poem…”

There are a couple of breathtaking lines I love at the end of Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991” – he is writing about dawn coming and “offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

For Day Eight of National Poetry Month, here’s my mirror of those last five words, in the form of a pantoum:

To My Granddaughter, Age 5
(with love from Franna)

a small cup of light
scooped from ocean waves
my sparkling little love
dancing through my days

scooped from ocean waves
my giggling water sprite
dancing though my days
now such a sleepy sight

my giggling water sprite
goodnight, goodnight
now such a sleepy sight
to me you are, you are

goodnight, goodnight
my sparkling little love
to me you are, you are
a small cup of light

*******

Special thanks to Kim for sharing my poem “Listen,” which she mirrored so beautifully. See both poems and the process here: Ethical ELA VerseLove 7/30: Mirror Poems.

Magnolia

Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.

I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.

My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.

He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.

“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.

Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.

“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.

My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”

He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:

Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming

Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.

I think how, less than two years ago, my husband was dead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…

What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.

Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats

When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”

“Certainly.”

She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.

She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.

She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light

Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.

The finches.

I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.

The magnolia wreath.

Front door wreath and nest-in-progress

Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…

They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.

It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.

It is the end of March.

We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.

We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.

My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.

My husband has endured. He is alive.

My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.

The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.

This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.

I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.

One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:

I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.

“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.

She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“What is that sound?”

Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”

She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.

“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.

And I am no longer scared, because now I know.

What does this have to do with magnolias?

Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.

Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her

“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.

It’s a different park. A different tree.

But still, and always, a magnolia.

Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.

*******

With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voices for many days to come.