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.



Fancy

She is sitting on my lap, scrolling on my phone.

—Franna, I want these.

—Ooooo, so pretty! I love those gloves.

—(nodding) Yes, and the crown. If I have them I will be SO fancy.

—(chuckling) Hmmm…I’ll see what I can do.

She adores being “fancy.” She’s adopted the word all on her own. I suspect Fancy Nancy books may have influenced this. Elsa in Frozen certainly has, hence the request for these particular ice-blue gloves and tiara—sorry, “crown,” my granddaughter declares. At four years of age, she can slink around the house like any haute couture fashion model, pausing with her face turned to one hiked little shoulder, eyes half-lidded…she can’t hold the pose for long, as the rest of us, her loyal subjects, dissolve with laughter.

Oh my, you are so fancy, we tell her.

Of course, she replies in her “fancy” voice, blinking slowly, before erupting in giggles and breaking her own spell.

The little package is waiting for her the next time she arrives.

No words for the magic on her face when she opens it, for the way she gingerly caresses the plastic pendant, as if it were the Hope Diamond. Within seconds she’s all decked out in her fancy finery. For the remainder of her visit, she walks with a regal air and won’t remove those gloves for anything except her breakfast of French toast.

I suspect she knows she’s the queen of our hearts.

One must be fancy even while helping to set up Christmas decorations.

In my humble opinion, the rest of the ensemble was necessary.

*******

Inspired by SOS — Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. This week’s prompt was “fancy,” with this quote from Donald Miller: “Everybody wants to be someone fancy. Even if they’re just shy.” If you write or want to write just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Wolf at the door

A friend sent me this photo after my recent pareidolia poem to a face in a cloud – pareidolia being the misperception of a stimulus as some familiar object, pattern, or meaning. It’s a normal phenomenon. The human brain’s visual system has a specialized mechanism for face recognition: the fusiform face area. We see, we interpret, we strive to make meaning, in more ways than we ever realize…

So: Do you see the wolf in this wood panel?

Imagine, then, seeing it in your house as a small child, every time you enter your bedroom… seems there could be a lesson here about our worst monsters existing only in our minds, but today the wolf has demanded a poem.

Far be it from me to argue…

Don’t really feel like playing
Not sure I should be saying
In case it hears me
Because it skeers me
That wolf beside my door.
Don’t want to go to bed
If a hundred times it’s said
It’s waiting in the dark there
To snarl and bite and bark there
That wolf beside my door.
What will it do as I go past?
Even if I try it super fast?
No one else knows why
I sit in the floor and cry
Except the wolf beside my door.
Please, I want to say,
Won’t you just go away?
If you will let me rest
I’ll do my very best
Oh Wolf—give me my door!
I hear his wild laughter
Ringing ever after
“Tell me, then, what for?
You’re not a child any more,”
Said the wolf who’s at my door.

With thanks to my friend for the photo and the idea, and to Two Writing Teachers for providing a word-playground for a Slice of Life to run and be free.

Pareidolia poem

From Greek para “beside, alongside” and eidolon, “image, form, shape,” pareidolia is the misperception of a stimulus as something familiar to the observer. The brain is, after all, a pattern-seeking device… surely that is why poetry speaks to us so…

Riding in the car, zipping past
Sunlit dappling shadows cast
Through trees, racing, racing fast
A speeding journey to the last.

Above in the sky I see
That you are following after me
Swiftly sailing your airy sea
Marking my passage, tree to tree.

There in your ethereal shroud
Where silence reigns so blue, so loud
Fleeting as life, warning the proud
Face of mourning in the cloud.

*******

In celebration of Poetry Friday … for more offerings visit Whispers on the Ridge – thanks for hosting, Kiesha.

The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

*******

Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

For the love of reading

When our second grade team had quarterly planning, one of the subs didn’t show and I was summoned to cover the class for a while. I knew there would be sub plans.

But I brought three books with me anyway.

I gave a quick book talk and let the class choose which one to hear. The high vote-getter was A Deal’s a Deal, the story of two little rabbits swindling each other while trading toy cars. There’s a (delightfully disgusting) surprise ending, which is why I brought this book; it never fails to elicit big belly laughs and loud cries of EEEWWWWWW!

I wanted, in my few moments with these kids, for them to experience the joy of reading. I love to watch children’s faces while I read aloud; it is my favorite thing to do, next to writing with them.

A read-aloud, done well, is a theatrical performance. The kids hung on every word, they could feel the action building, they covered their faces, they howled and hollered EEEWWWWWWW!

—Perfect.

Then they went to work on the activities left for them.

I walked the room, well-aware that teachers are trying their best to adhere to a new curriculum that offer less individual reading and writing choices. I watched the children at their tasks. I watched the clock … and decided to set my timer.

“All right, you have a few minutes left to finish this work before my time with you is up. Let’s get it done, and I will read you the book that got the second-highest vote.”

In short order, the work was done, desks cleared, random things on the floor picked up. They gathered at my feet to hear The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend.

I first encountered this book in a summer writing institute for teachers. Our guest author, Matt de la Peña, used it as an example of perspective, asking what’s the story really about, who’s it really about. There was a good bit of debate, as I recall …

But I didn’t set it up this way with the kids.

I just read, letting the words and the illustrations work their magic.

Turned a page, heard the collective Oooohhhh.

Saw light playing on their faces, wonder in their eyes.

I savored them as they savored this book on friendship and imagination.

Whispering in my mind: You were my first friend, too. My oldest and my dearest, even now.

All too soon we reached the end of the book, if not the end of Beekle’s and his friend’s adventures. And here’s the interesting thing: the kids knew who the story was really about, what it was really about, something I’d watched grown-ups—teachers—struggle with.

As I prepared to leave, the children gravitated to the stuffed Beekle who’d been sitting off to the side by himself. He usually sits on my bookcase in my room, an outlier amid all my Harry Potter memorabilia. At the last minute I’d grabbed him and brought him along.

Seems he was here by design, waiting for every child in turn to embrace him, in the way that only children can.

Tale of two chocolates

Last night I was privileged to have guests, one of whom is a three-year-old girl.

While seated at the dinner table, my son’s Valentine stash on the counter caught her eye.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a giant Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in red foil.

“Chocolate,” we told her.

“I want it!” she said.

“No, that’s too much chocolate,” said her mom.

Our little visitor looked at my husband (for support? For overruling authority?). She maintained solemn poise for a few seconds: “Mom says no.”

Then her mouth quivered and her blue eyes went watery.

Poor brave baby, I thought. Trying to accept ‘no’ is so hard.

Her mom got up and reached into the candy basket. “Wait, here’s a little one. You can have this little chocolate, okay?”

The watery eyes brightened: “A tiny one? I can have a tiny one?”

“Sure,” smiled her mom, handing over the regular-sized Kiss.

Small, chubby fingers nimbly divested this Kiss of its pink foil. But the child didn’t eat it. She studied it, then observed: “It’s a baby.”

The rest of us chuckled.

Our small visitor pointed back to the big Kiss and told my son: “I want to see it!”

“Okay,” he obliged. He got up from the table and fetched the giant chocolate.

“Open it! Open it!” demanded the girl, bouncing up and down in her chair.

Her mother looked hesitant as my son unwrapped it: “Just look—you’re not going to eat it, okay?”

As soon as the foil fell away, our little visitor’s face glowed. “It’s the mama!” She held the little Kiss up to the big Kiss: “Here’s your baby.” Wiggling the little Kiss, she said: “Hi, Mama! I missed you.”

As the rest of us dissolved in laughter, a grin spread across the child’s winsome face. She promptly ate the “baby” Kiss and went back to eating her dinner while my own thoughts enveloped me, momentarily drowning out the grown-up conversation.

The beauty, the lightning-quickness of a very small child’s mind, stirring, brimming, spilling over into a narrative with which she identifies, a defining of her world—a child, in fact, who hasn’t been verbal for very long. Easy to dismiss as a simple spur-of-the-moment burst of imagination, but in reality, it’s so much more. This is understanding at its finest, coming naturally through play, through story.

Oh, to bottle it . . . no. Never that. Oh, to open it, let it breathe, let it steep, becoming ever more potent each day, invincible against time and factors that will systematically dilute and evaporate it. Imagination, play, story, the core of who we are from our very beginning . . . the Mama Kiss.

—How we miss you.

Secret rendezvous

One morning, as I brush my teeth, out from behind the mirror comes a little spider.

It sits there on the wall as if watching me.

I am not a spider fan, generally.  But I don’t kill these little wanderers (sudden inspired quote: Not all those who wander are lost. Hmmm. Interesting point, Tolkien).

No, usually I capture the creatures and put them outside. If they’re small. I am getting someone else to deal with them if they’re large.

This spider is tiny.

And  . . . I don’t know . . . friendly. I  know exactly what my husband would say: What, you think it’s Charlotte, right? 

I just don’t have the heart to bother it. It’s not bothering me, so I let it be. Right there on the wall by the mirror. I finish getting ready for work, turn the bathroom light off, and call, “Bye, Spider. Have a good day.”

I think no more of it until the next morning when I am brushing my teeth, and out from behind the mirror comes my new friend.

We begin meeting this way every morning.

“There you are!” I say as my spider emerges later than normal one day. “Sleeping in? Have a late night?”

I swear if I can find a cup tiny enough, my spider would have coffee with me. I imagine it holding a miniscule newspaper. What our conversations would be:

What are you going to do today?

Oh, just stalk some prey. The usual.

Great. Get the gnats, will you? They’re on my last nerve. I don’t know where those things come from.

Sure thing.

Then comes the day the spider doesn’t show.

And the next.

And the one after that.

I begin to be sad. Seriously. Surely no one in my family has . . . no. I won’t think like that. I haven’t told any of them about my daily morning rendezvous. They can’t know, then, that I have a relationship with this spider, so. . . .

But no one has mentioned seeing a spider, so I don’t, either.

After another week, as I am dressing in the morning—lo and behold!—what should I see but my tiny friend there on the floor by the garden tub!

“Where have you BEEN?” I cry.

“What?” calls my husband from down the hall.

“Uh . . . never mind!” I call back.

I grab my phone and take a picture, because, well, that’s what you do with friends. You take pictures to remember them by.

I bend close. My spider comes nearer to me.

“Listen,” I say. “I missed you. I’m happy to see you’re well and all, but when I’m not here you really need to stay out of sight, okay? Other people just won’t understand.”

My spider takes this in. I can tell. I’ve looked him up and I know he’s a jumping spider and that they are very intelligent. They have cognitive abilities. They can be trained . . . after all, doesn’t he know where to find me each morning?

In other parts of the house, I hear my family bustling about, getting ready for school, for work.

“It’s not safe at the moment,” I tell my spider. “When everyone’s gone, you can come back out and do whatever it is you do during the day, but for now. . . .”

I slide a bit of paper towel under my spider.

He hangs on. Doesn’t protest.

I tuck him gently behind my fuzzy gray bedroom shoes.

“There,” I whisper. “That’ll do. Until later.”

I turn out the light.

“Bye, Spider. See you in the morning.”

I feel certain, from his sanctuary behind my bedroom shoe, that he’s waving a tiny leg.